10 Inspiring Canadian Women Who Are Saving The Environment

They’re fighting forest fires, converting communities to solar power, reinventing how we grow crops and cramming their annual waste into just three Mason jars. Meet the women at the forefront of the climate change battle

by
Courtney Howard in red parka against snow covered background — Courtney Howard climate change mental health
Photo, Pat Kane.

This Yellowknife ER doctor is raising the alarm about the mental health impact of climate change

While large parts of southern Canada are feeling the effects of climate change—unchecked forest fires, once-in-a-century storms that now happen once a year—people living in the North have been on the front lines for a long time. There, rising temperatures have meant, among other things, thawing permafrost, dramatically unstable weather and dwindling caribou populations.

But for Courtney Howard, an indefatigable emergency room doctor in Yellowknife and the president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, the physical changes wrought by a warming planet are just, well, the tip of the iceberg. She argues that climate change is also, not surprisingly, very bad for your health; it’s the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.

Some of the illnesses caused or exacerbated by climate change are obvious (heatstroke induced by longer, more severe heatwaves, for example), but Howard highlights less apparent psychological conditions: post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by forest fire survivors or the increasingly common anxiety and depression felt by people freaked out by the imminent apocalypse.

Howard is one of the lead authors of the Canadian policy makers’ brief, produced in conjunction with the 2018 Lancet Countdown—the medical journal’s comprehensive analysis of the health issues associated with climate change—and she and her co-authors have several policy recommendations. It’s an ambitious list, including phasing out coal, introducing global carbon pricing and rapidly integrating climate change and health in all medical and health sciences facilities. With the International Federation of Medical Students, she’s trying to introduce climate change and health in the curriculum of every medical school in the world by next year. Howard currently spends 30 to 40 hours a week on her climate health work, most of it as a volunteer, while still working eight shifts a month in the ER. That balance may have to change soon, though, she says: “The timelines of climate change are just so urgent.”

Headshot of Catherine Gauthier of ENJEU, who is suing the federal government
Photo, Julie Durocher

This millennial is suing the federal government for environmental negligence

Last November, the Montreal-based environmental non-profit Environnement Jeunesse (ENJEU) sued the federal government for failing to do enough for climate change. Their legal argument was devastatingly simple: By not reducing carbon emissions enough to avoid dangerous climate change, the government was violating the charter rights of Quebeckers, who are guaranteed the right to live in a “healthful environment.”

Catherine Gauthier, ENJEU’s executive director, initiated the class action lawsuit on behalf of nearly 3.5 million Quebeckers who are age 35 or younger—each one seeking $100 in damages. It was the first such litigation in Canada, but it was certainly not the first time Gauthier has taken on such a formidable challenge. At an age when other kids are learning to drive, Gauthier was mastering the eco-activist ropes: In short order, at 16, she went from launching a composting program at her high school in Mont-Saint-Hilaire to addressing 10,000 delegates at the UN Climate Change Conference in Montreal as a youth representative of the Canadian delegation. ENJEU selected her for the role, and she has been with the organization ever since.

The non-profit is all about educating and empowering youth around environmental issues, but Gauthier’s work doesn’t stop there—since 2014, she has also been a lecturer at the Université de Sherbrooke, teaching courses on climate change negotiations and eco-politics. While the lawsuit likely won’t be resolved for a few years, she is optimistic: A comparable suit in the Netherlands forced the Dutch government to cut its emissions levels by at least 25 percent by 2020. ENJEU hopes for a similar outcome, holding the government financially accountable for the past 25 years of inaction and making it legally responsible for future climate measures. Gauthier describes her own attitude toward climate change as a bit of a “roller coaster”—inspired one day, pessimistic the next—but she is confident that the lawsuit provides young people with a certain hope. “It’s given us more ammunition,” she says, “and it shows that young people really want to tackle climate change.”

No waste family: Jinny Yun with her husband and two daughters
Photo, Courtesy Jinny Yun

This family of four reduced its annual garbage output to three one-quart jars

Jinny Yun was once a self-described shopaholic. “I was the opposite of green,” she says. She grew up in Seoul, South Korea, in the Gangnam neighbourhood and would go browsing in its designer boutiques whenever she could, filling her closet with status items. In 2005, she moved to Vancouver and, a few years later, married her home-builder husband, Joel. He had grown up in a hippie haven and tried to convince her to reduce her consumption, but her work as a college recruiter required travelling to Asia two or three times a year, where she resumed her shopping habits.

But in 2016, after the birth of their second daughter, she started to feel overwhelmed by stories of polluted oceans and environmental catastrophe and was inspired to make a real change. Yun had collected reusable shopping bags, coffee cups and water bottles for years; now, she was finally using them. She switched from disposable to cloth diapers. “Even with the extra laundry and water usage, the cloth ones are more sustainable when you factor in manufacturing, shipping and disposal,” she says.

Yun dispensed with single-use baby wipes, using her own eco- and bum-friendly cleaning solutions, and brewed an ancient apothecary’s worth of natural toiletries: deodorant (made from shea butter and essential oils), body scrub (leftover coffee grinds), conditioner (she uses an apple cider vinegar rinse) and toothpaste (clay, baking soda and stevia). Kitchen towels get upcycled into reusable lunch bags or donated to a company that uses them to stuff car seats. The only things she and her husband buy new are socks and underwear.

The family subscribes to a mostly vegetarian diet, eating preserves and fresh produce from her in-laws’ garden and growing their own peas, carrots, lettuce, onions and beets in their backyard vegetable patch. The rest of their food comes from places like the Soap Dispensary and Nada Grocery, a zero-waste market where customers fill their own containers with bulk items. “We save so much more money,” Yun says. “But the main thing we spend it on is food. We try to waste nothing. I want to teach my kids that food is precious.”

Other parents often ask for advice about how to recycle difficult items or throw a less-wasteful birthday party for their kids. After three years of zero-waste living, Yun and her family have reached the point where their yearly garbage fills just three one-quart Mason jars—and the bragging rights are almost as satisfying as the waste reduction.

Julie Stankevicius stands in field in firefighting gear as smoke goes up behind her
Photo, Courtesy Julie Stankevicius

This firefighter is leading the battle against wildfires

Last year, there were some 6,800 forest fires in Canada. Most were in British Columbia and Northern Ontario, and collectively the fires burned through more than 2.2 million hectares of Canadian wilderness. In B.C., it was the worst season on record, with 5,000 people displaced from their homes. This woodland inferno is the direct result of climate change, sparked by an excess of fuel (dead trees from droughts), more frequent lightning strikes and a spike in dry, windy weather that keeps the flames alive.

Julie Stankevicius, a fire operations technician with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry in Sudbury, Ont., is a hero straight out of Backdraft. She started fighting fires on a summer contract in 2005. “I was looking for adventure and honest, meaningful work,” she says. Since then, she has snuffed out fires across the country, working for the Ministry of Environment in Saskatchewan, the B.C. Wildfire Service and the Jasper FireSmart crew. By the record-breaking summer of 2018, she was in her current role with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, where she manages several teams of dozens of firefighters.

In July, Stankevicius was stationed in Sudbury as an incident commander: She flew helicopters over the fire to coordinate response efforts, deployed crews and provided food and equipment to firefighters on the ground. Later that month, she was sent to Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Provincial Park in northeastern Ontario, where she led a team using bulldozers, skidders and other heavy machinery to strategically build a line of flames to direct the rampaging wildfire. At the end of August, Stankevicius was back in B.C., fighting the Shovel Lake fire, which annihilated almost 100,000 hectares of forest. She worked alongside about 80 people from across the continent, including teams from Quebec and Mexico. By the first week of September, the fire was contained.

In her 15  years of fighting fires, she says last summer’s were among the worst, yet she knows the job is just going to get harder. “Fires are becoming more challenging to manage,” Stankevicius says, “and we need creative solutions.”

Ana Gonzalez Guerrero and Dominique Souris stand with Youth Climate Lab members in front of #COP24 sign
Photo, Bar Perry and Benjamin Luk Photography

These two university friends help youth have real influence on climate policy

Ana Gonzalez Guerrero and Dominique Souris met as students at the University of Waterloo and became energized by grassroots environmental projects and UN climate meetings with student delegations. Together, they launched Youth Climate Lab, an organization that helps young people around the world pilot environmental projects with governments and businesses and brokers relationships between the boomers and Gen-Xers who are often directing climate policy and the millennials who will be affected by it.

So far, they’ve tested 10 projects and joined two court cases in Saskatchewan and Ontario that argued for the constitutional right to price carbon. “We want to prepare young people for a future where work will be impacted by climate and business models,” Guerrero says. “We need to create the jobs and the economy that will engage with climate realities.” The Climate Lab has consulted on youth environmental projects in the Seychelles and recently worked with the United Arab Emirates to host a dialogue series between young activists and government ministers. In Canada, it partnered with Student Energy and the Global Green Growth Institute on Greenpreneurs, a 10-week accelerator program for early-stage green start-ups. Their goal isn’t to engage young people in climate change—millennials are already involved—but to empower them to do something about it. “There’s a huge sense of urgency,” Souris says. “We need ambitious targets, and government can’t do it alone.”

Tammara Soma holds up Food Systems Lab design brief, yellow background
Photo, Jonathan Sabeniano

This urban planning prof has solutions to cut back on food waste

More than half of the food produced in Canada is thrown away. Over a year, that’s enough to feed every Canadian for five months. The cost to the environment is even more pernicious—avoidable food waste in Canada produces the equivalent of 56 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

These glum statistics come from a recent report produced by Second Harvest and Value Chain Management International, but they’re old news to Tammara Soma, a resource and environmental management professor at Simon Fraser University. Soma is one of the country’s foremost experts on food waste and the complicated, surprising and often dispiriting ways it intersects with income inequality, urbanization, land use and climate change. Soma co-founded the Food Systems Lab—charged with proposing a food system that’s more equitable, greener and less wasteful. (Some ideas: more community food hubs, more diverse farms, more and better cooking and nutrition education in schools.) One of the lab’s early projects was to analyze the efficacy of food waste awareness campaigns by creating a fun, educational pamphlet and fridge magnet with the University of Toronto; the results of that study will be released late this spring.

Soma has recently moved to Burnaby, B.C., and is now focusing her efforts more specifically on food system resiliency projects in the province, as well as on food-based biodegradable packaging. She’s also in the final stages of editing a new book for Routledge called The Handbook on Food Waste, a guide, really, for anyone who eats. “Food is critical for survival,” Soma says, “and yet in a world of 24/7 food availability and abundance—we produce enough food to feed close to 10 billion people—close to a billion people globally are still malnourished. As a scholar and, most importantly, as a human, I care deeply about environmental and social justice and strongly believe these problems can be solved.”

Chemist Annett Rozek stands by plants in indoor farm
Photo, Courtesy of Annett Rozek

This chemist is helping farmers replace synthetic pesticides with natural products

Annett Rozek started out as a green-industry skeptic. Ten years ago, the Berlin-born chemist was working in the pharmaceutical industry in British Columbia, enamoured with the purity and simplicity of working with synthetic compounds. “I had a skepticism about plant extracts, because you never really know what you have in there,” she says. Over and over again in her work, however, Rozek kept encountering plant-based health remedies and traditional medicine. She couldn’t help but wonder: “What if we applied the rigour, techniques and massive funding of the pharmaceutical industry to analyzing what we found in nature? What might we discover?”

Upon joining Terramera in 2011 (and becoming chief scientific officer a year later), she began to do exactly that. The Vancouver-based company is working to replace synthetic pesticides with natural products from plants like rosemary, wintergreen and neem trees. Terramera’s mission is lofty: to increase global agricultural yields by 20 percent while reducing the synthetic chemical load by 80 percent. It’s a goal Rozek has come to see as urgent. The way we grow our food today is unsustainable and, as we learn more about the toxicity of the pesticides that have boosted global food production for decades, we’re in desperate need of replacements.

After much careful testing and research, Rozek has reached the point where Terramera’s organic pesticides match or even outperform traditional chemical competitors. A few years ago, on a trip to California to see the results of one of Terramera’s trials on red table grapes, she discovered the fruit wasn’t just thriving and free of mildew; it was redder and juicier than the untreated grapes or those being sprayed with chemicals. “We discovered that the product we were using wasn’t just able to control the disease; it was able to accelerate the ripening process,” says Rozek.

Today, she walks through her big-box grocery store in Vancouver and notes the growing size of the organics section with excitement and pride. “I now think that the power really is in nature,” she says. “Nature has all the solutions for the problems we are experiencing. All we need to do is understand it.”

Entrepreneur Melina Laboucan-Massimo stands in front of outdoor solar panels
Photo, Greg Miller.

This entrepreneur is installing solar power projects in oil country

From Standing Rock to Trans Mountain, it is now, sadly, an all-too-familiar image: large groups of outraged, despondent Indigenous protestors united against yet another pipeline that threatens their land and water. But a story that gets a lot less exposure—and one that offers a lot more hope—is that of the dozens of Indigenous communities building alternatives to those pipelines.

In 2017, about one-fifth of the renewable energy projects in Canada were owned and operated by Indigenous communities, generating both clean power and jobs. This September, many of those projects will be the subject of a new 13-part documentary series called Power to the People, airing on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. The host of the series is Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation, a former Greenpeace Canada climate campaigner and, most recently, a Climate Change Fellow at the David Suzuki Foundation.

If Laboucan-Massimo wasn’t hosting the show, she might well have been one of its stars. In 2011, her home community of Little Buffalo, Alta., already devastated by decades of resource extraction, was the site of a pipeline rupture and one of the largest oil spills in the province’s history. Four years later, as part of a master’s degree project in Indigenous governance at the University of Victoria, Laboucan-Massimo helped Little Buffalo build a 20.8-kilowatt solar installation to power the local health centre. Not only did it demonstrate to the community that renewable energy was accessible and could create employment but it was also both a way toward a sustainable future and a link to the past.

Lubicon Solar, the firm she formed to implement the project, has since solarized houses for the Tiny House Warriors, a group of activists who have built homes on the path of the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. “The way Indigenous people live in connection with Mother Earth is through reciprocity,” Laboucan-Massimo says. “Giving and taking, honour and respect. You don’t take more than you need. Renewables are a rejuvenative energy; they’re about respect and love for the land and ensuring that it’s passed on to future generations.”