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While it’s no surprise that youth have led, and continue to lead, the environmental movement in Canada, the various approaches they take show the grand scale of climate-related issues present in the country. As youth push these movements ahead with the sense of urgency that guides them for a better future, they bring creative solutions through the immediate need for change.
Sophia Mathur, at just 11-years-old, joined Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement and brought it to Canada — applying pressure on policy makers to focus their attention on climate action. At the end of 2021, the federal government announced they will ban six types of single-use plastic, and raise the carbon tax to $10 to $50 per tonne of emissions. Stella Bowles in Nova Scotia raised $15.7 million to clean the river by her house after discovering 600 sewage pipes were illegally dumping waste in the water. Autumn Peltier has led protests and spoken in front of the United Nations about the lack of safe drinking water for Indigenous communities.
Young people are not only leading the climate justice movement, they are redesigning the movement.
“Youth are the best agents of change, and not just when it comes to climate,” Kat Cadungog, executive director of the Foundation for Environmental Stewardship told Future of Good last year. “We’ve seen an increased amount of [youth] civic and political engagement, whether it’s climate strikes, divestment campaigns, community-based solutions, youth are really at the forefront.”
“Youth know what youth need — so it’s much easier for youth to address things like mental health and eco-anxiety, because youth do tend to center different values than older generations,” says Cadungog.
Aside from the numerous youth-led environmental non-profits and charities in Canada doing inspiring work, Future of Good set out to find some of the perhaps lesser known youth-led organizations and grassroots groups from across the country. There’s much to learn from the kinds of approaches these grassroots groups take to this difficult work.
Break the Divide
Climate anxiety is rapidly climbing for young people who are constantly surrounded by doomsday rhetoric about our environment and the impact of climate change. For Abhayjeet Singh Sachal, co-founder of Break the Divide, creating an empathy-centred environmental awareness is crucial. Break the Divide connects youth through video calls and online sessions to allow young people to learn about environmental issues in different communities.
Through workshops and online educational programs, Break the Divide works to create a network of youth who engage in conversations about environmental racism, environmental injustice, and the mental health impacts of climate change.
The initiative was founded in 2016, after Sachal went to Northern Canada through the Students on Ice Foundation and realized his lack of knowledge around issues that impact that region including coastal erosion, rising sea levels, and food insecurity. What started as a group within Sachal’s high school grew into schools across British Columbia as well as a school in Taiwan, and South Africa.
“Our approach tries to center empathy, hope, and solutions so that young people, when they’re talking about the impacts of climate change, they’re not burdened and so anxious that they can’t take action. But rather, they feel empowered through conversations to take action,” says Sachal.
While the rhetoric around climate change in mainstream media tends to have a doomsday narrative, Sachal says that Break the Divide aims to inspire empathy by teaching young people about the local impacts of climate change through the personal perspectives of other youth.
During their online sessions, Sachal says they focus on local climate issues rather than big, general topics like decarbonization of energy systems, and mass extinction which can be overwhelming. Instead Break the Divide will share, for example, how youth from Toronto are impacted by a heatwave, and ground conversations in personal perspective, which can motivate youth to empathize.
More than plastic straws and water bottles, discarded fishing gear, also known as ghost nets, contribute massively to polluting the ocean and harming underwater ecosystems. Around 46 percent of the 79,000 tons of ocean plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of fishing nets.
While working on a school project, Natalie McIntosh, who has always been passionate about marine life, came across the impacts of ghost nets. She started to learn more about the devastating impacts these nets have on marine life, killing thousands of turtles, seals, sea lions and whales annually. Determined to avoid more damage to the oceans and save marine lives, she created Nautical Waters.
Though she lives in London, Ontario, McIntosh connects with organizations on both the east and west coasts of Canada that locate fishing gear, like Emerald Sea Protection Society in British Columbia and Coastal Action in Nova Scotia. With the donation of ghost nets from these charities, McIntosh upcycles the material into products like baskets, vases, and mats.
When Nautical Waters first started, McIntosh primarily used Instagram to find organizations taking ghost nets out of the waters and reached out to them to see if they were interested in sending her the ghost nets. Connecting with organizations through Instagram eventually turned into partnerships through which McIntosh gets regular ghost net donations.
Through her dedication, she found organizations through the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) and expanded her network of partnerships through which she could collect ghost nets. McIntosh has cultivated a well-oiled system where she can utilize and support the efforts of organizations like Coastal Action while redirecting ghost nets out of landfills.
Moreover, McIntosh’s advocacy about protecting marine life and raising awareness about ghost nets (through social media) has mobilized everyday folks to also join the environmental effort.
“After nautical water started to grow a bit more, we’ve actually had people who just go for walks on the beach, message us saying that they picked up all this rope and that they would like to send it to us to repurpose it,” says McIntosh.
Through strikes, blockades, and meetings with officials, the youth behind Sustainabiliteens in the Metro Vancouver area have a mission to stop climate change and reclaim democracy.
Over the last three years since the group began to take action, Sustainabiliteens have held annual climate strikes, and took part in the 2019 lawsuit against the federal government for their contributions to climate change. The case argues that the federal government is violating Canadians youth’s rights to life, liberty and security of the person under section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and for failing to protect essential natural resources.
Unfortunately, their lawsuit was dismissed in court for being “too broad” to proceed to trial. Yet, the group continues to hold demonstrations and meet with provincial and municipal government officials to develop and implement a thorough climate action plan.
The group also educates people in the Vancouver area about environment and climate change issues through their social media pages.
Last year, Sustainabiliteens demanded a stop to the Trans Mountain expansion (TMX) pipeline, held a blockade, and painted a mural in front of an insurance company that supported the TMX pipeline. They are currently mobilizing their organizers to push banks to divest away from fossil fuel infrastructure by holding rallies in downtown Vancouver.
Be The Change Earth Alliance
Noticing the gaps in the school system’s climate change education offerings, Be The Change Earth Alliance (BTCEA) works with secondary schools throughout B.C. to provide holistic educational resources about climate change and the environment that includes information on eco-anxiety and environmental racism.
“Climate change on average gets under 10 hours of class time per year, per teacher in Canada. This is the major human rights and existential issue of our time — all youth need to be prepared for the climate emergency,” says George Radner, executive director of Be The Change Earth Alliance.
One of the main initiatives of BTCEA is the Student Leadership for Change, which has education resources on topics like climate justice and Indigenous perspectives on sustainability. This program (free for all BC educators and students) had more than 1,400 teacher registrations in the last decade and has been used by more than 30,000 students.
The curriculum not only includes modules on general topics like deforestation, and the need for natural resources, but each module also has a ‘student action pack’ which outlines specific ways in which students can shift their behaviours for a sustainable future. One of the modules around justice also delves into how environmental issues impact other gaps in society like food insecurity and gender inequality.
“Environmental education often fails to be intersectional, or highlight/focus on social justice and Indigenous rights issues,” says Radner who adds that traditional classrooms often stick to “building knowledge, rather than helping students clarify their values and take meaningful action.”
Youth Climate Corps
The Youth Climate Corps (YCC) started in 2020 through a regional non-profit group called Wildsight, and focuses on engaging youth directly in climate mitigation projects. With two locations in B.C. (one in the West Kootenay region and one in near Kimberley/Cranbrook), YYC has done projects like wildfire risk reduction, ecosystem restoration, and building local food security.
To tackle wildfire mitigation, the youth crew surveys the region in Nelson, B.C. to measure regenerative growth and get rid of excessive forest growth that may be fuel to fires in the future. They also perform controlled burns in these areas as well to get rid of the potential fire risk.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of YCC is that youth actually get paid a living wage to do this work. Ben Simoni, executive director at YCC, explains that there’s an assumption that young people will do environmental work as volunteers, for free. But if youth are to continue doing the vast range of work to tackle the climate crisis, paying them a living wage is crucial, says Simoni.
“If we want to make something that’s going to work for everybody, we need to have everybody involved. And by paying youth and having that as a focus, we’re ensuring that this is something that’s accessible to folks who are low income and from a variety of backgrounds who are unable to volunteer, but want one to be a part of the solution,” says Simoni.
YCC also aims to be a gateway for youth to forge their way into the environmental sector, which can be difficult to break into, according to Simoni. Many of the youth who were part of YCC, have gone on to work in different environments nonprofits, and become active members of climate action groups.
Sustainable Youth Canada Montreal
Sustainable Youth Canada in Montreal consists of dedicated youth in Montreal from high school CEGEP and universities, who focus on leading a wide range of local sustainability initiatives through events, policy advocacy, community gatherings, and workshops. They also partner with local organizations to bridge the gap between institutions seeking assistance and youth seeking opportunities to get involved with sustainability.
“The Montreal branch has had a special focus on creating a circular and synergistic supply chain recently,” explains Shir Gruber, national co-director of SYC. “We have made youth workshops in partnership with local schools, youth organizations, and municipal government organizations.”
The group also hosts youth day camps to help implement composting initiatives and discuss barriers to implementation. In the past they’ve collected clothing donations for local shelters during an open mic event where we discussed consumerism in the context of the holidays.
They’ve also organized events called ‘BioBlitzes’ to create an inventory of species in a green space to help advocate for its preservation, and trash cleanups accompanied by trash audits and soil sample collection.
Within the current reality of environmental work, Gruber says that there is urban-rural divide where youth in more rural areas don’t have the same opportunities. Much of their work at SYC Montreal approaches their initiatives and projects they set up to create a network of youth that aren’t just from the city.
“There is certainly work needed to bring diverse youth from different fields and backgrounds into environmental work in Canada. Not just from rural areas, but from different disciplines and identities,” says Gruber.
On policy advocacy, SYC Montreal has worked with other branches of SYC in Canada to advocate for the protection of biodiversity through open letters to Canada’s minister of environment and climate change. They are currently creating a podcast for youth to explain sustainability-related topics like how to create grassroots environmentalism in your school and fast fashion’s impacts on BIPOC communities.
SK Eco Solutions
Sophia Lacroix and Kai Chen started the non-profit SK Eco Solutions to take action on the plastic waste problem in Saskatoon. Their organization started in 2020 when the two high school students were in quarantine and decided to collect plastic water bottles to turn them into filament used in 3D printers.
“The main reason why we decided to create SK Eco is because there are very few local recycling initiatives in our city. Oftentimes, bottles that are meant to be recycled have to be taken across Canada or across borders in order to be processed, so we wanted to create a more efficient way to recycle bottles,” says Chen.
Through grants from EcoFriendly Sask and the Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools Foundation, the group was able to purchase a machine which turns plastic bottles into ribbons and then into 3D printer filament.
The teens were among the first people in North America to use this process, and we have since helped other groups get started. They are currently working with the machine’s manufacturer to promote local plastic recycling around the world as well.
“Our process gives back to our own communities. Instead of sending our recycled plastic resources elsewhere, they can stay in our own city. We’ve been donating all our filament to our school division for use in art and design classes, which we think is a lot better than sending useful materials elsewhere, or worse leaving them to pollute our natural environment,” says Chen.
The group is also educating other youth about their initiative through presentations at school, and encouraging classmates and friends to get involved with their local environmental work like small cleanups in close-by areas. In the next few months, Lacroix and Chen will be handing over the at-school project to their high school’s “Green Team,” who will continue their work of educating youth after the two graduate this summer.