2020 Top 25 winners – Teen Environmentalists


 |  The Starfish

The environment has lost its hold as the number one issue to be discussed in the legislature. Government priorities have changed from the environment to the safety of the Canadian population, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, due to the tireless contributions of teen environmentalists in Canada, the fight for the environment perseveres. Among these next generation of changemakers are Kate O’Connor, Sophia Mathur, Kalia Kathan McFadyen Graham, and Callah MacGillivray, who were all named to The Starfish Canada’s Top 25 in 2020. Read on to learn more about their past, present, and future advocating for environmental change.

Kate O’Connor

Hometown: Victoria, British Columbia

Traditional Territory: Unceded Territory of the Lekwungen Speaking Peoples

“I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision.” – Maya Angelou 

Kate O’Connor is a constituency assistant for MLA Adam Olsen of the Green Party, representing British Columbia’s Saanich North and the Islands constituency. Before her full-time posting, she was the Green Party’s candidate in the 2020 provincial election, running in the Saanich South constituency to the south of Vancouver Island. At the age of 18, she became the youngest candidate to run for provincial office in Canadian history.

“I learned that the youngest MLA is 35 and that was absolutely ridiculous to me,” she says. “It is outrageous that as crucial decisions were being made about the future of the province, there were no young voices in the legislature.”

Her primary campaign priorities were climate change, local renewable energy solutions, indigenous rights, increasing job opportunities, and intergenerational leadership. Though she placed third behind more experienced candidates, she is fulfilled with her run and is happy to have made a lasting impact.

“[Climate change] is a message that appeals to everyone and it’s a message everyone can understand. Grandparents are worried about their grandchildren, parents are worried about their kids, and youth are worried about their future.”

Kate O’Connor was first acquainted with the climate crisis after attending a nature camp on Pender Island at age 10. 

“Camp counsellors taught us about how the climate is changing, how salmon and orca populations are decreasing, how old-growth trees are being cut down every single day, and how we all needed to do our part to protect it.” 

Years later, her passion for political activism was sparked by the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when former president, Donald Trump, and a plurality of Americans declared that climate change was a hoax. She remembers how the radio blared about record-breaking heat 1, 2, 3 times a year, but progress towards a sustainable system remained leisurely. 

During the pandemic, she continues to lead small-scale protests outside of the Victoria courthouse to protect old growth forests and has turned to social media to encourage youth to attend online climate forums and panels to keep the conversation surrounding national sustainability alive.

“We need a just, fair transition to a green economy. The Canadian government may be using the pandemic to make excuses, but that does not let them off the hook. If climate was treated as an emergency and crisis, equally as is the pandemic, our current reality is proof of how much can be accomplished.”

She is a member of Young BC Green’s Council that empowers youth to become involved in sustainability politics and is running to be on the board of Fair Vote Canada that promotes proportional representation and a minority government. She will be attending Mcgill University in September to study political and environmental theory to learn more about how to encourage intergenerational leadership and taking political action for climate change.

Sophia Mathur

Hometown: Sudbury, Ontario

Traditional Territory: Robinson-Huron Treaty Territory and the Lands of the Anishinaabe People

“We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not.” – Greta Thunberg

Sophia Mathur is a 14-year-old climate activist from Sudbury, Ontario. Backed by the law firm, Ecojustice, she is among the 8 students actively suing the Doug Ford administration for weakening Ontario’s 2030 climate targets and violating Sections 7 and 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, particularly “the right to a stable climate system, capable of providing youth and future generations with a sustainable future.” They have been granted motion to strike, regardless of the provincial government opposition that children are not eligible to speak on behalf of future generations. Their case marks the first time a Canadian court has ruled that climate change may threaten the fundamental rights outlined in the Charter. 

Sophia says, “If we win, that’s great. But if we don’t, we’ve set an example that can inspire other young Canadians to fight to change the current legislation—fight for their future.”

As the first youth outside of Europe to lead a Fridays for Future demonstration for climate change, Sophia is known as the ‘Greta Thunberg of Canada.’ She has striked every Friday to support the Fridays for Future movement, an international movement founded by Greta Thunberg in 2018. Students skip Fridays classes to participate in rallies to demand political leaders to take action against climate change and a transition to renewable energy. Sophia routinely engages in discussions with local politicians from all three levels of government, notably NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Sudbury MPP Jamie West, and organizes in-person and virtual strikes with the First Nations.

“When they [indigenous people] drum for us at our rallies, it is like we’re a part of time, a more impactful version of our hearts beating in unison for our lives.”

However, Sophia was destined to change the face of environmental advocacy long before she was born. Her mother, whom she considers her first inspiration, lobbied at Parliament Hill and Capitol Hill even while she pregnant and as a young child, Sophia expressed her concerns for the climate through drawings that she would wave around at rallies. At age 10, she helped convince the restaurants in Greater Sudbury to stop handing out straws with their drinks to conserve valuable resources and save money. She also convinced the regional hospital to adopt health and climate change recommendations; and the City of Greater Sudbury to declare a climate emergency by lobbying and gathering hundreds of signatures from adults.

“Regardless of all I do, people still think of me as a kid and are quick to judge that I don’t know what I’m talking about. It is so much harder to get adults to listen to you when you’re young. It’s about time that they recognize that we have a right over our future.”

Behind the activist, Sophia is a down-to-earth girl who loves math and all forms of art, particularly dancing, acting, and the visual arts. She aspires to be a lawyer and is considering entering politics as well. 

Callah MacGillivray

Hometown: Whitehorse, Yukon

Traditional Territory: Kwanlin Dun First Nation and Ta’an Kwach’an Council

“I have learned you are never too small to make a difference.” – Greta Thunberg

Callah MacGillivray is a 13-year-old Anishinaabe and environmental advocate from Whitehorse, Yukon. As a member of the Wikwemikong First Nation, she recognizes that the cultural values and traditions she grew up made protecting our climate, lands, and waterways her number one priority.

“We all depend on our planet and it is our gift to live on Earth. As a result, our cultures are very intertwined with the First Nations,” she says. “They are aso self-governing and have an immense influence on the government’s decisions regarding the climate crisis.”

Along with Kalia Kathan McFadyen Graham, her friend and another one of The Starfish Canada’s Top 25, she spoke as a panel member to the Whitehorse City Council in May of 2019 in favour of the city declaring a state of emergency for climate change and ban single use plastics. 

“Kalia and I have known each other for a long time. We first met in Grade 1, when we participated in the same ski and fiddle program. The first environmental initiative we worked on together was planning the Fridays for Future strikes, along with the climate group she co-founded.”

As a result of her work and other environmentalists in Yukon, in October 2019, the provincial government declared a state of emergency and are in the process of implementing a legislation to ban single used bags. She was additionally invited to speak to the Yukon Minister of Energy, Mines, and Resources and the CEO of Yukon Energy regarding Yukon’s transition to renewable energy.

Her next course of action is to introduce free public transit, retrofit public buildings and buses to harness renewable energy (solar panels), and improve road and trail infrastructure to encourage walking, biking, and other sustainable means of transportation.

She is also involved with her local climate group, Climate Youth Yukon, who organize Fridays for Future rallies with average turnouts of over 200 people. During the lockdown, her team decided against hosting strikes for safety reasons, rather resorting to social media to organize simple, but impactful challenges (e.g. no plastic bags for groceries, biking to work) on a weekly basis. 

“I try and lead a zero-waste lifestyle. I bike or carpool with friends to and from school whenever possible. I am fortunate to be surrounded by nature and enjoy hiking, biking, and paddling in my downtime. I know that I admire anyone who steps up to make a difference when no one else has the courage to do so. I want to lead by example.”

Kalia Kathan McFadyen Graham

Hometown: Whitehorse, Yukon

Traditional Territory: Kwanlin Dun First Nation and Ta’an Kwach’an Council

“I want to honour the health of the earth, so that upcoming generations have a bright future to look forward to. I will continue to do my best to create such a world.” – Kalia Kathan McFadyen Graham

Kalia Kathan McFadyen Graham is a 14-year-old student who co-founded the youth climate group, Climate Youth Yukon, where she works with like-minded peers to change the perspectives of local leaders in Whitehorse, Yukon by organizing events and initiatives, notably Fridays for Future strikes. 

Since the start of the pandemic, she has helped launch social media campaigns on behalf of her climate group to encourage her community to participate in virtual strikes and weekly waste reduction challenges (e.g. no plastic bags for groceries, biking to work). She also actively participates in her school’s Social Justice Club.

A source close to Kalia confirms, “Kalia makes sure to lead by example by getting to school, extra-curricular activities, and protests on bike—even when the snow is flying—, living a zero-waste lifestyle, eating a plant-based diet, and encouraging her community to follow suit.”

Along with Callah MacGillivray, her friend and another one of The Starfish Canada’s Top 25, she spoke as a panel member to the Whitehorse City Council in May of 2019 in favour of the city declaring a state of emergency for climate change and ban single use plastics. 

As a result of her work and other environmentalists in Yukon, in October 2019, the provincial government declared a state of emergency and are in the process of implementing a legislation to ban single-use bags. Her next course of action is to help introduce free public transit, retrofit public buildings to harness renewable energy (solar panels), and improve bike paths to promote sustainable transportation.