"IT WAS A BAD YEAR," David Donnelly, Earth Day Canada’s Hometown Hero for 2008, tells me. We’re sitting at a long table beside the open-concept kitchen in the common room at 215 Spadina Avenue in downtown Toronto. It’s the official hangout for socially conscious non-profit groups in Canada’s largest city. Though he’s a lawyer, Donnelly is clearly at home in this space. He introduces me to the receptionist and nods to colleagues as they pass by.

Earth Day Canada (EDC) has been handing out Hometown Heroes Awards since 2004. Winners are individuals or groups who “demonstrate outstanding environmental leadership, commitment and achievements in their communities” and do it for or through a non-profit agency anywhere in Canada.

The five winners are not household names, which, according to EDC president Jed Goldberg, is part of the reason his organization created the award. It recognizes unsung heroes. Goldberg says, “[Donnelly] has been at the forefront for 15 years, but other than in environmental circles, no one knows what he’s done.”

Donnelly has done lots and he’s executed it with enthusiasm and creativity. Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence Canada, describes Donnelly as “one of the most skilful, dedicated and tenacious environmentalists he has ever met.” His passion for land-use planning, Donnelly tells me, stems from his parents, who were part outdoor enthusiasts and part civil-rights activists. “The flavour of our household,” he says, “was that you had to make a difference in the world.” When his mother received an inheritance, she packed up the family and took them travelling.

By the time Donnelly was ready for the working world in the 1980s, the civil-rights movement had died. So he signed up as a door-to-door canvasser for Pollution Probe, a job that led the young up-and-comer – he was 24 years old – to apply for the role of executive director of the Canadian Environmental Defence Fund (now Environmental Defence Canada). Donnelly not only got the job, he also convinced David Suzuki and Farley Mowat to lend him a hand. With this kind of support, he breathed life into the nearly bankrupt organization, while simultaneously being enrolled in the master’s program in environmental studies at York University.

Spurred on by his experience with Environmental Defence and at York, Donnelly decided he needed a law degree to realize his goal of reforming environmental law to serve the public interest. He wrote his LSATs, but failed them “miserably.” Undeterred – an approach that repeats itself in Donnelly’s career – he applied to the University of Windsor law school since it was known to accept students with poor LSAT results but good references. After graduating in 1999, he hoped to article with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, but CELA turned him down. Never one to do things in a conventional way, Donnelly elected to write his bar exams immediately rather than article and wait the traditional year. After passing, he took on the role of legal advisor to Environmental Defence, convincing the law society to recognize his work with this NGO as public interest articling, a precedent that endures today. He was finally called to the bar in 2002. “The system can be made to work,” says Donnelly. It’s this attitude that has resulted in his becoming one of Canada’s leading environmental lawyers.

With full cheeks and a round face, Donnelly has a boyish appearance despite 44 years of often swimming against the current. Dressed in an open-collared shirt and with crumpled hair, he pauses from his account to invite me to finish up the interview over lunch. I turn him down, but he asks that I mention the offer so that people will know he’s not as much of a cheapskate as everyone thinks he is.

Part of that reputation comes about, presumably, because Donnelly does much of his work pro bono. Earlier in the year, he lost his job when the law firm where he was employed closed down his area of practice. This was one of three reasons why Donnelly described the last year as a bad one. Now he receives a salary as counsel for Environmental Defence, which allows him to hand out much of his legal expertise for free.

It’s Donnelly’s work on land-use issues that makes his already alert eyes do a dance. The Lake Simcoe protection act, the first draft of which Donnelly helped write, is currently going through provincial government channels. This citizen-led piece of legislation will protect the entire watershed of one of Southern Ontario’s largest lakes. Donnelly explains that it will shield the area from urban sprawl. “When you look at a map of Ontario 50 years from now, you’ll still see my work on the landscape,” he says proudly. But when he notices that I’m copying down this self-congratulatory remark, he asks me not to print it. (I had trouble convincing him otherwise.)

Donnelly is also proud of the work he does with First Nations. He’s indignant at how indigenous people have been effectively wiped off the Canadian map. Luc Lainé, a member of the Huron-Wendat Nation, which was forced out of Ontario over 350 years ago, explains how Donnelly woke up the Huron-Wendat to what was happening to the sacred sites they left behind in Ontario. Lainé tells me, “I like to describe David as our ononthio. In our language it means the mountain, the power.”

Donnelly considers his involvement in stopping low-level flying over Goose Bay, Labrador, for the Friends of the Innu his greatest victory. On the losing side, he mentions the battle over the bridge that now joins PEI to mainland Canada: “I felt that it was just such an outrageous travesty of justice. Dirty politics. So hard on the locals.”

It’s his work on the Big Bay Point megamarina on Lake Simcoe that landed him in especially hot water. It’s also the second and third reason for his complaint about a bad year. The project proponent, Geranium Corporation, got tough. It hit the Innisfil District Association, Donnelly and others with what Donnelly describes as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP suit) consisting of a de facto libel notice and costs claim. Moreover, at $3.2-million, the size of the claim dwarfs what is the norm. The lawsuit was on top of Geranium’s formal complaint to the law society that Donnelly breached professional conduct – the year’s third downer – an accusation that was, however, quickly dismissed.

So with three strikes against him, word that he’d been selected as the EDC’s 2008 Hometown Hero was especially welcome. “I feel like I’m making a contribution, and I feel like this award acknowledged it,” he explains. “It was very important.” So Donnelly was all smiles at the EDC’s annual gala dinner last June where he received his award and was congratulated by lawyer Clayton Ruby, Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller and singer/songwriter Sarah Harmer – who Donnelly actually out-competed for the award.

Although his recent brushes on the other side of the law have caused a few grey hairs and forced him to think twice before speaking out against a project proponent, Donnelly still exhibits the raw enthusiasm of a kid. His current passion involves the Green Gravel Coalition and its efforts to get Ontario’s mighty aggregate industry to change its wasteful practices. At the time of writing, he was also anticipating his successful bid to have Métis architect Douglas Cardinal come to Ontario to share his ideas with land-use planners.

Donnelly says, “I had this rough year and then hearing Rick [Smith] say those things and having Sarah [Harmer] play at the gala event was very special.” 

Nicola Ross is the former Editor of Alternatives Journal, and is a member of the editorial board.

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