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Environmental justice

Many of us recognize how important and precious the Earth is. But maybe not how fragile it is or how limited its resources really are.

Too many human decisions and behaviours have put the health of our planet in serious jeopardy. Lots of experts are sounding the alarm about the damage that’s been done and how urgently we need to address it. As a result, people everywhere have become increasingly concerned about environmental issues such as climate change, pollution, water quality, biodiversity, resource development, endangered species, and waste management, to name a few.

From green space to green power and recycling to resource protection, young people across Canada are tackling environmental issues in exciting, powerful ways. So can you.

Did you know?

  • One-quarter of the planet’s wild forests, 24% of its wetlands, and 20% of the its fresh water are in Canada, and they’re all under threat from both poor protection by us and climate change.*
  • Climate change has made Canada’s Arctic one of the fastest-warming regions on Earth — shrinking (melting) of both the Arctic tundra and Arctic sea ice puts a huge array of species at risk, including walruses, seals, and polar bears.*
  • The tar sands (large deposits of heavy crude oil) in Alberta could destroy over 149,000 square kilometres of Boreal forest — an area the size of Florida — and they are expected to emit more than 141 million tons of greenhouse gases (GHG) by the year 2020 (that’s more than double what all the cars and trucks in Canada produce).*
  • Canada is one of the world’s worst emitters of GHG, ranked 15th out of 17 member countries of the Organization for Economic Development and Co-operation (OECD) on GHG emissions per capita.*
  • In 2009, the Conference Board of Canada ranked Canada 15th out of 17 wealthy industrialized nations on environmental performance.*
  • Around the world, it’s poor people (a majority of whom are people of colour) who are most negatively affected by the degradation of our planet. For one thing, they often live in areas where companies export hazardous, polluting waste cheaply, such as developing countries.
  • Around the world, women and girls are among those most negatively affected by the degradation of our planet, often resideing in areas where compaines exploit land or dump toxins. Poverty and lack of access to education and resources make it difficult to challenge such complex issues.

The Stomp-Out Smoke Initiative

The Stomp Out Smoke (S.O.S.) initiative was born in 2005 when Ontario’s YWCA St. Thomas-Elgin was approached by Youth Action Alliance because of its long history of engaging youth in positive ways.

In partnership with Elgin St. Thomas Public Health, S.O.S. began with a few people wanting to increase awareness about tobacco products, encourage youth to be smoke-free, and influence policy changes around the use and placement of tobacco products.

More and more youth became involved with S.O.S., gaining valuable leadership, organizing, teamwork, and advocacy skills, as well as learning how to run effective meetings.

It wasn’t long before a core group of young women peer leaders decided to focus on making parks and recreation facilities tobacco-free.

Michelle Olivier (then 16) and Taylor Longfield (then 17) spearheaded the My Park, My Game, My Air campaign. They researched, consulted, recruited support, wrote to decision-makers, booked delegations, and developed presentations. Along with fellow S.O.S. members Hayley Gustin (17), Rylie Hunt (16), Carrie McEown (17), and Shelby Champion (14), as well as many volunteers, My Park, My Game, My Air created and used visual aids and social media to drum up public support.

What did the campaign achieve?

In October 2009, St. Thomas City Council implemented a Tobacco-Free Parks bylaw which prohibits the use of tobacco within 30 metres of a playground, splash pad, or sports field. Not only was this a monumental success for S.O.S., it deeply impacted each of the peer leaders and volunteers as proof that a desire to make change and collective efforts can lead to victory.

Roots and Solutions

Most experts agree that our industrialized culture is to blame for current environmental crises. Certain values behind modern society shape the behaviour that damages our natural environment: consumption, consumerism, and capitalism (our economic system), to name a few.

We are exploiting the Earth by rapidly using up both renewable and non-renewable resources. And the by-products of our production processes (often toxic) and consumer lifestyles are not only increasing, they are increasingly damaging to the environment. No ecosystem on the planet is free from the consequences of human activity — that’s how pervasive our impact is.

Canada has some environmental laws, but they are weak and not very enforceable. We need to persuade governments to invest in renewable energy and green technology. Governments should reward programs that strive to protect the environment and stop supporting initiatives that pollute (like the oil extraction in Alberta that creates those tar sands), worsen climate change, or threaten precious ecosystems.

In December 2011, the Canadian government pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, a global international agreement that sets targets for countries to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. By doing this, Canada is far less accountable for doing its part to help the planet’s environment crisis. We need to push the federal government to sign back onto this agreement that millions of people around the world strongly endorse.


In 2010, YWCA Muskoka (Ontario) teamed up with FemmeToxic as part of a regional project called Women and the Environment. They hosted lively conversations about health, the environment, and cosmetics with the participants of the Girlz Unplugged summer program.

FemmeToxic was formed in 2009 in Montréal by young women who were seriously concerned about the amount of toxins in personal care products. They set out to advocate for stronger regulations for the cosmetics industry and change the ways in which Health Canada (a federal government department) labels and monitors cosmetics and personal care products. Another major goal for FemmeToxic is to empower women and girls to know more about the health impacts of toxins in our products, and to raise awareness regarding safer alternatives.

If you’re curious, the project blog is still up at, along with tons of great resources!

Exercise: Your Story

Have you ever witnessed first-hand any threat or destruction to our environment? Maybe you found garbage littered in a park, or saw trees cut down to make way for a new housing development, or smog hanging over the downtown of a city. Even if you’ve only seen environmental crises on the news (like the oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for three months in 2010 when an oil well exploded), contemplating your own experiences with how the environment gets treated is an important step to becoming more engaged with the effort to protect it.

3 Things You Can Do

Act online. Many pro-environment initiatives offer ways for people to take action on the Internet. From to, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society to Canadian Wildlife Federation, there are countless campaigns to choose from that could really use your engagement and support. Think about the environmental issues you are most passionate about, then get clicking.

Make good in your neighbourhood. Check out what’s going on in your area to help support the environment. There might be a community clean-up crew, a campaign to persuade your municipal council to implement composting, or an educational program to get kids interested in wildlife protection and helping endangered species. See if a nearby Indigenous community is engaged in resistance to environmenal degradation, then follow their lead. The actions you most want to take may already be in play. And if not, start something!

Write to power. Most provincial or territorial governments have a Minister of the Environment. This position exists at the federal level, too. Your expression of concern over an environmental issue along with an appeal for her or him to take legislative action on it is a great way to “start small” on your journey to save the planet.