Environment

Sophia Mathur is one of Canada's most high-profile climate activists. She's also 14.

The teenager has trained with Gore, marched with Greta and won a few battles on behalf of the planet

Sophia Mathur was just nine years old when she made her first lobbying trip to Parliament Hill, in 2016. Technically speaking, it was her mother, Cathy Orlando, who was the lobbyist, in her role as the head of Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) Canada, but Mathur was a surprisingly engaged deputy. Mother and daughter went from office to office, politician to politician, and as the adults talked, Mathur would draw small pictures that she would usually then leave with the politicians. One of Mathur’s first drawings, which she made while in a meeting with Liberal MP Paul Lefebvre, still sits on the living room mantle of her house in Sudbury, Ont. It depicts a small cat, with the caption “A carbon tax is a purr-fect solution.”

Mathur is currently 14 years old, still a young person, of course, but also now one of the country’s most high-profile and effective climate activists. In November 2018, she became the first student outside Europe to join Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement, refusing to attend classes on Fridays as a protest against global climate action. A year later, she met Thunberg in New York City, where they appeared together on an Amnesty International climate activism panel and marched in the Global Climate Strike. Last year, she starred in the documentary CitizenKid: Earth Comes First and this past March appeared in yet another film, The Fight for Tomorrow. As for the carbon tax that Mathur’s been fighting for over the past five years? In March, despite the opposition of several Conservative premiers, the Supreme Court ruled that Ottawa, which implemented a revenue-neutral carbon tax in 2019, has the constitutional power to impose that price across the country. The Trudeau government plans to raise the floor of the price from the current $30 per ton to $170 per ton by 2030. Purr-fect.

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Mathur was born in Sudbury in 2007 to Orlando and Sanjiv Mathur, an anesthesiologist. She is the youngest of three girls (both her older sisters are in their early 20s, one a nurse and the other studying occupational therapy). Orlando, a former high school teacher who ran a science outreach program at Laurentian University, was seven months pregnant with Sophia when, sitting in her living room, she heard the conclusions from the fourth report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “It said if we keep doing what we’re doing,” Orlando recalls, “the planet won’t be livable in 40 years. I lost the feeling in my legs. I got so scared and I just said, ‘Not on my watch.’ ” Four years later, she quit her job to volunteer full-time with the Canadian chapter of CCL and joined Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps, where she was trained in climate science and activism.

A self-described “attachment parent,” Orlando brought all her kids along with her as she did this work. When Sophia was six years old, she accompanied her mother to CCL’s first national conference in Ottawa-Gatineau. After an overwhelmed, stressed Orlando retreated to a cloakroom to catch her breath, Sophia ran in after her, climbed into her lap and took her mother’s face in her hands. “You’re doing this for me, aren’t you?” she said.

Mathur pinky swearing to tackle climate change with then Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna, in 2017 (Courtesy of Sophia Mathur)

Mathur pinky swearing to tackle climate change with then Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna, in 2017 (Courtesy of Sophia Mathur)

Soon after, though, Sophia began doing the work for herself. She had grown up in a family of scientists, and scientists had repeatedly, gravely, said that climate change was a serious problem. “Science is truth,” she says, “and we need to follow the truth and take action.” She was also an extrovert and, in Orlando’s words, “fearless.” Having already spent so much time in the offices of public servants, she took access to her MPs and mayor for granted, and expected them to listen when she spoke. In 2017, she met Catherine McKenna, then the federal minister of the environment and climate change, at a Toronto screening of An Inconvenient Truth. The two made a pinky promise to together tackle climate change. That same year, Mathur participated in the Last Straw project, where she persuaded local restaurants and bars to reduce their use of plastic straws. Thanks in part to Mathur’s pressure, in May 2019, Sudbury city council unanimously declared a climate emergency (about five months before Toronto did) and, more recently, revised its climate plan so as to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. “It’s amazing how much she’s done,” says Sudbury MPP Jamie West, whom Mathur has enlisted in various demonstrations, including one last year where he joined her for a few minutes of Bollywood dancing. “You forget how young she is.”

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The Global Climate Strike where Mathur met Thunberg—whom she calls “very kind, very humble”—brought together a reported four million people around the world in 163 countries. It was arguably the largest climate protest in history and a stark illustration of how young people have galvanized the climate movement. But it was also a reminder—as if we need another one—of what’s at stake for this generation of teenage activists. Climate change is not a theoretical question, it’s an existential one. It’s a matter of life and death. One sign at the strike, aimed squarely at government and corporate leaders, put it with precise tartness: “You’ll die of old age, your kids will die of climate change.”

But how do you save the world—your world—just as you are learning to inhabit it? How do you grapple with such awesome responsibility when you’re still a teenager, grappling with all the familiar anxieties of adolescence? How do these burdens shape you? There are a number of well-known teen climate activists now—Jamie Margolin in Seattle, Parachutes for the Planet’s Kallan Benson—but Mathur is still one of the youngest. Eighteen-year-old Thunberg famously moves through the world in a state of controlled fury. Mathur, on the other hand, is more approachable and sunny, with a disarmingly playful charm. She seems able to tamp down the fear that motivates her, or at least transform it into something else. “Greta’s really good at using that feeling of being scared about this and turning that into action,” Mathur says. “But you don’t want to constantly be telling people there’s no hope for the future, that there’s nothing we can do. I myself like to keep positive, because if I’m positive, people around me will be positive.”

***

Mathur and I spoke virtually for the first time last November, and I sat in on her Fridays for Future group meetings multiple times online over the months after that. The pandemic had rerouted the normal avenues of her activism but she had, for the most part, improvised nimbly. Actions that were planned for Sudbury’s public spaces—in the past, most often at the corner of Paris and Brady streets—migrated to Zoom. Mathur continued to lobby politicians, including MP and environment critic Laurel Collins and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, from the comfort of her living room. While we had planned to meet in person, COVID got in the way again and again; in late February, there was a case in her class at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School and, though Mathur tested negative, she was in quarantine for two weeks. We kept talking online.

Mathur was trained by Al Gore, too, and since then has participated in over 70 separate environmental actions. The Fridays for Future meetings were largely devoted to the planning of more. In mid-January, the group organized a “Welcome Back USA, to the Paris Agreement” event to celebrate Joe Biden bringing the country back into the Paris climate accord. Mathur persuaded almost every one of her local representatives, including Sen. Josée Forest-Niesing and Nickel Belt MP Marc Serré, to join a Zoom “party,” hold up signs and join her in singing the Welcome Back, Kotter theme song. A couple months later, the group recorded a video that they circulated on regular and social media, demanding that politicians, corporations and individuals divest from fossil fuels, make ecocide a crime at the International Criminal Court and establish binding carbon budgets, among other things. Mathur kicked off the video with a grim statistic: “It has been exactly 124 weeks since we began striking with Fridays for Future in Greater Sudbury. We see no end in sight.”

On the Fridays for Future calls I attended, a core group of four or five other students joined Mathur from their respective homes. The youngest was Arik Kabaroff-Scott, an articulate, wry 11-year-old who occasionally caressed his pet bearded dragon as he talked. Betraying her own age somewhat, a sometimes-distracted Mathur joked around with the Zoom filters, giving herself a moustache or hat, or scooped up her aged cat, Isabella, and held her up to say hello. She moved through a wide range of emotions: goofy, tentative, resolute, restless. As a leader, she was relaxed and collaborative, less top-down than bottom-up. Like all of us, she had adapted, more or less, to a life lived mainly on screen, but it was clear she would have been happier on a stage or in front of a live audience. When she was restricted to home because of her COVID quarantine, she ran a meeting from her bedroom, every now and then disappearing from the screen as she somersaulted off her bed.

Orlando helps her daughter decorate their living room ahead of the Earth Day event (Photograph by Vanessa Tignanelli)

Orlando helps her daughter decorate their living room ahead of the Earth Day event (Photograph by Vanessa Tignanelli)

On most of these calls, a couple other adults were present, advisers who largely kept their microphones off. Orlando was a constant presence, too, coaching and guiding (occasionally chiding) and doing her best to keep the kids on track while giving them as much autonomy as possible. “This is planning in a pandemic,” she said cheerfully to the group. “You’ll be ready for anything life throws at you.” Sometimes Orlando was visible and at other times she sat off-camera, doing her own work. Mathur frequently checked in with her, usually for support, but occasionally to express mild exasperation with her mom’s interference. At one point, she said bluntly to Orlando, “We should stop making this a mother-daughter conversation.”

Orlando has been careful to protect Mathur as she’s evolved into an environmental celebrity. She makes sure that her activism occupies only a certain number of hours per week (it varies widely, but is usually at least six), that she has time for her other interests (piano, improv, tennis, musical theatre) and that she keeps the right kind of company. “You’ve got to surround yourself with people who aren’t cynical,” Orlando says. Those “who are action-oriented, who celebrate each milestone. That’s how you survive this.”

But her coaching and oversight raise a somewhat thorny question—where does Mathur end and her mother begin? Other youth activists, including Thunberg, have been accused of being the puppets of adults, merely serving the agendas of parents, politicians and teachers. But if Orlando could fairly be called a kind of stage mother, she absolutely refutes the idea that she controls her child. “Anybody who thinks I’m puppeteering my daughter has never had a 13-year-old daughter,” she says. “These kids are so smart. They know themselves, and they know it’s their future. Joan of Arc, Alexander the Great—they were leading armies at age 13. Kids can do this.”

***

Long before the pandemic, Mathur entered into her biggest environmental battle to date. In the fall of 2019, she joined six other plaintiffs suing the Ontario government for weakening its climate targets. All of the plaintiffs were young people, ranging in age from 12 (Mathur’s age at the time) to 24. Their argument was that the Ford government, by passing the Cap and Trade Cancellation Act in 2018, allowed more greenhouse gases to be emitted, leading to more climate change-related fires, floods and poor air quality, in turn leading to more illness and death. In short, Ford had violated Ontarians’ Charter-protected rights to life, liberty and security of the person. The Ford government has tried twice to have the case thrown out of court, but both times, its motions were denied.

The plaintiffs are represented by Ecojustice, the country’s largest environmental law charity, and Stockwoods LLP. Mathur was the first plaintiff Ecojustice approached. “We got in touch with her because of how impressed we were by her,” says Ecojustice lawyer Danielle Gallant. “I distinctly remember the first time I met Sophia at the end of a long day. Everyone was really exhausted after all the hard work we had done. But Sophia wasn’t tired, she was still dancing and singing.” Mathur, who aspires to be a lawyer herself, was thrilled to join the lawsuit and also eager just to take on the Ford government. “It’s crazy how they’re getting away with what they’re doing to our climate,” she says.

Mathur practices ballet in her room (Photograph by Vanessa Tignanelli)

Mathur practices ballet in her room (Photograph by Vanessa Tignanelli)

A date for the full hearing has yet to be set, but it is the first case of its kind to make it this far in Canada. Since 2013, starting in the Netherlands, such litigation has become increasingly common, with many of these cases spearheaded by young people. Gallant won’t speculate on how long it will take to resolve, but is keenly aware of the urgency. “We’ve done everything in our power to move the case forward as quickly as possible,” she says. “We know we only have so many years ahead of us in which climate action can be meaningful.”

Mathur only has so many years ahead of her, too. She often talks about her own retirement from climate activism, about the day she won’t have to do this work because it won’t need to be done anymore. That day is far off, of course, but she’s already started preparing an exit strategy: lobbying the city of Sudbury to form a youth climate council that can take over the organizing work of Fridays for Future, and reducing her own strikes to once a month. She’s focusing energy on the lawsuit and also other possible post-pandemic TV opportunities. “Sophia’s goal was to get her community to act,” Orlando says, “not to be an activist forever.”

Can she ever stop, though? I asked her on one Zoom call if she felt that her childhood had been overwhelmed by, or even sacrificed, to this cause. “This is my childhood,” she said. “I’m growing up in the climate crisis, with scientists saying we’re on track for an unlivable future. But if I just lived my childhood and stopped caring about this, then future generations won’t have any childhood.” A few minutes later, she returned to this idea and tried to add a lighthearted gloss. “We still want to be able to live, happy and not too scared for our future. There’s still hope. We still have time.” She smiled nervously. “But not too much time.”


This article appears in print in the June 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “‘This is my childhood.’” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.