Canadian youth rise above dirty domestic policies and push for climate action

By Tierney Smith

The Canadian Government may not be enjoying the best of reputations in climate circles these days, but some of its residents are ignoring its inaction and pushing for change.

The country withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol during last year’s climate change negotiations and continued investments in carbon-heavy tar sands extraction has made it deeply unpopular with environmentalists at home and abroad.

If the Sierra Youth Coalition (SYC), the youth branch of the country’s chapter of the Sierra Club, get its way, the situation can only improve.

Gabriela Rappell from the SYC told RTCC why she still sees cause for optimism in Canada.

What are your group doing and what areas of work do you focus on?

SYC is the youth branch of Sierra Club Canada. We mostly work with youth working to change the institutions in their lives. We work a lot with universities, colleges and high schools and try to make them more sustainable generally, which involves working on climate change issues and reducing greenhouse gas emissions at schools.

We have a couple of major programmes, Sustainable Campuses works with universities and colleges across the country; Sustainable High Schools, which works with high schools in the Ottawa area and on Vancouver Island and occasionally on the lower mainland in British Columbia (BC).

Then we have programmes called Youth Action gatherings that are essentially week-long summer camps, which happen every year and which are sort of an introduction for youth who are high school aged to environmental issues and sustainability.

We also have a new project, which started last October, which is associated with Sustainable Campuses but is also its own unique thing. It is called the Campus Food Systems Project (CFSP) and it is working to help connect campuses to local food and improve university and college food security.

What results have you seen from your work so far?

We started in 1996, so we are coming up on our 16th birthday this year and in that time Sustainable Campuses has kind of been our huge success.

It started off as just a group of university students who wanted to improve the sustainability of their campus. We were lucky enough to get students really involved in the programme enough to a point where one of them developed an actual sustainability assessment framework.

It was one of the first of its kind. We got that out to universities across Canada and through working with the Sustainable Campuses programme they were able to bring sustainability coordinators to their universities.

It was a really pioneering project and it was incredibly successful. That is probably one of the biggest successes in our history.

What are the challenges you have faced in your work?

It is always a challenge working with existing power structures. Because of our focus being really grassroots and student and youth based our focus tends to be on working with students and helping them work with their administration.

We spend a lot of time doing multi-stakeholder work and that is always a challenge. It can be a really emotionally draining experience when you are working with people who just aren’t receptive to your ideas, especially when you have so much energy on your side.

You can see that a project is going to be really interesting and you just cant get the administration on board at your school for whatever reason. We have had a lot of trouble with that over the years.

As long as you keep everybody motivated and try and work with all of the parties then we usually come out successful in the end.

What support have you seen for your activities?

One of the good things about working with a broad group of stakeholders is you get a lot of partners on your side. We spend a lot of time working with the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition (CYCC); we are working with them and all of the other partners on Powershift.

We have a wide list of partners, we work a lot with an organisation called the Meal Exchange on our Campus Food Systems project and they’re also a group which works with youth but they traditionally work from a hunger focus whereas we work on the climate and sustainability focus.

Those are our two biggest partners right now. We have also worked with Earth Day Canada, we work with different chapters of Sierra Club – the Sustainable High Schools project that I mentioned is co-authored with Sierra Club BC.

SYC members at a Sustainable Campuses conference in British Columbia. (Credit: SYC)

SYC members at a Sustainable Campuses Now conference in British Columbia. (Credit: SYC)

We work with a lot of different groups from the environmental movement in Canada. But our biggest partner is probably other chapters from within Sierra Club and Sierra Club Canada, Meal Exchange and the CYCC.

We recently incorporated a campaign called Lack of Speak Out in Canada which was a reaction to the changes in the budget which eliminated environmental assessment as it was in Canada and replaced it with a new system which we feel really is not up to scratch and altered the Fisheries Act so that it removed protection for certain species.

Basically it changed it so things had to be of commercial value to be protected, that we really disagree with.

All of the major opposition parties were supportive of that campaign. We don’t actively work with politicians but essentially all of the opposition parties tend to be fairly supportive of the type of work that we have been doing and are much more supportive of the environmental movement in general.

There has been a lot of hostility in Canada recently on the part of the governing party towards environmentalists. They have a very business-focused perspective and fail to see the inherent value of nature and fail to account for the economic impacts of climate change.

Certain members of the governing party have indicated at times that they do not believe that climate change is actually happening, that is a little frustrating.

We don’t tend to focus on political work too much in what we do. Not that working with politicians isn’t solutions-based but we tend to focus on really solutions-based work with institutions. Sometimes we are a little less active on the political front but when we are, we tend to work in cooperation with the CYCC.

What are the impacts you are seeing in your country and local area from climate change?

It is hard to pin down specifically what is happening on a local level where we are in Ottawa. This summer we had a class two drought, which had never happened as early as it did this year in a summer in anyone’s memory. From that perspective locally we have had some brushfires; there have been certain crops that are failing too.

It was really crazy back in March there was a heatwave and a lot of things started flowering that were not supposed to flower until May or June.

Some of the fruit crops have either been coming earlier or are, like the Apple crop this year, not great quality.

On a local level for us those are some of the things that have been happening.

But in Canada there are a lot of challenges that we are facing, especially up north. As a northern country climate change is a bit of a double-edged sword.

Certain areas of Canada are going to be experiencing improved crop yields; others are going to be essentially a dustbowl. The prairies are projected to lose 30% of their output. They are really considered the breadbasket of Canada so that is going to be a big challenge.

Up north is really going to be where the biggest impacts are going to be and where the most negative impacts are going to be.

Huge areas of the north are permafrost and that has started to melt. A lot of glaciers have experienced dramatic loses. The sea ice is never really reforming in a proper way. We have a lot of open areas that have never been open before in the Arctic Ocean and that are making the problem worse in two ways.

First, it is opening up shipping lanes and potential oil and gas developments that are going to make things worse from our perspective in the long-term.

Secondly, it is causing a lot of challenges for local populations. There are entire towns that are probably going to have to move because they are situated on permafrost. As it melts it becomes really sponge-like and very difficult to build on. Accessibility is expected to decrease because a lot of the roads are on permafrost and you can’t really drive on it once it is melted.

Canada is going to see a lot of changes, some of them have already started but it is still at the point where a lot of people are saying that this could still be a coincidence. But it is also at the point where there are so many coincidences that you can’t call it a coincidence anymore.

What would be your vision for 2050?

That is something for me changes depending on my mood. Sometimes I am really positive and I think ‘yes we can all get onto green energy and we can all realise the effects that we are having on the environment and pull together and really get our CO2 emissions down and prevent catastrophic climate change’.

And there are other days when I am a little less optimistic and think there is no way we are going to get our act together in time.

A brainstorming session at the Sustainable Campuses Now conference in British Columbia. The campus-focussed project has been one of SYC’s most successful. (Credit: SYC)

Depending on the day I either think we will pull together and we will make a shift to green energy and will catastrophic climate change and realise the value of the environment in this country and really fix a lot of the damage that has been done legislatively.

It switches between that and well we are going to keep using fossil fuels and temperatures are going to change and the projections, which I spoke about, are going to happen.

Today I think I am having an optimistic day and I think we can pull together. I think a lot of the work that we have been doing has been really successful and they are making a lot of progress with campus food security and I feel that if we can do this with universities, we can do it as a country.

And if we can do it as a country, Canada has really been a laggard internationally on action on climate change, but if Canada can get its act together then we as a world can get our act together and really move towards a more sustainable future.

What would help your group to move forward in its work?

I think one of the biggest challenges in Canada right now is the funding situation. A lot of the traditional funding for environmental organisations has really dried up so a lot of us want to be working together but are in a sense forced to compete for shrinking pots of funding. That would be one of the biggest things that could happen, more funding to actually get the work that needs to be done, done.

We are really working a lot on improving communications within the movement in Canada. There are great organisations out there. We are lucky enough to work with an organisation called the McConnell Foundation on our CFSP project and they’re really working to ensure that everyone working on food issues – at least that they are working with – are trying to work with broader groups as well and are really communicating and ensuring everyone is working cooperatively where possible in order to support the greater movement.

Applying ideas like that to broader areas beyond just food security would be a great advantage.

It is starting to work. There has been a lot of progress on this one project and I think we can bring it to others as well.

Why did you get involved in the group? What do think young people bring to the debate?

I have been involved in environmental stuff for as long as I can remember. I grew up next to a park in Toronto called the High Park so nature has always been really important to me. It has just been a natural progression from caring about nature to getting involved locally in environmental issues, getting involved in my high school eco club. From there I got involved in a wider network within the city of Toronto of eco clubs and that introduced me to the Sierra Youth Coalition. I have been involved in the SYC in one way or another since 1999, back when I was a young high school student.

It has really just been a natural progression. Really in the environmental movement everything is linked and the environment is linked to climate change, climate change is linked to social justice and so for me it is just a natural progression to be involved in all of those issues. They have always been linked for me because from a time when I was in high school our environmental group at our school was called ‘Students Concerned About Oppressed People and the Environment’ so it always had a social justice focus to its environmental actions.

I think young people add valuable energy. We haven’t lost that little bit of idealism that I feel a lot of older people have. We can still choose to be optimistic. And it is really our future and I feel that makes us more willing to fight for the necessary changes. It is a lot easier when you are not going to have to see the outcomes of catastrophic climate change. You can just think I can live my life the way I am living it and I don’t have to worry. Whereas we as a generation, it really is a legitimate concern for us, we are going to have to live through this, we are going to have to deal with the consequences. So I think it is a lot more real to us.

And while we can balance the fact that it is real to us with our youthful optimism and that makes us really motivated to work on the issues and actually get things done.

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