‘Use your voice’: A teen climate activist on fighting for change

TVO.org speaks with 14-year-old Sophia Mathur about the federal election, her lawsuit against the province, and what you can do to help the planet
By Sarah Trick - Published on Sep 02, 2021
Sophia Mathur began organizing climate protests in Sudbury in 2018. (Jason Leduc)

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When she was 11, Sophia Mathur became Canada’s first climate striker. Inspired by Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement, in which students go on strike from school to protest what they see as insufficient climate targets, she decided to bring the protests to her hometown of Sudbury in 2018 — and hundreds ultimately joined her. 

Along with several other young activists, she is suing the Ontario government, alleging that its climate plan infringes on the Charter rights of youth and of future generations. Although the lawsuit is ongoing, she and her co-plaintiffs won a victory in 2020 when a judge ruled that they could proceed with their case (the provincial government had moved to have it struck on the grounds that it had “no reasonable prospect of success”).

Now 14, Mathur says she hopes to see a day when such activism is no longer necessary, because adults and governments have taken effective action. TVO.org speaks with Mathur about what kids and adults can do to stop the crisis — and why it’s important to “vote for the climate” in the upcoming federal election.

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TVO.org: You are widely credited as being Canada’s first climate striker. Could you tell me what inspired you to start climate striking?

Sophia Mathur:  I’ve been a climate activist for almost all my life, I grew up in a family that always took small actions in our house. But then when I got older, when I was, like, 11 years old, I heard about Greta Thunberg and her activism and what she was doing to protect the climate. And I had the realization that kids need to do more and that there are not enough kids and activists speaking out for our future. So I started Fridays for Future strikes here in Sudbury, and I contacted the local media and told them that I wanted them to spread the word. And, eventually, we started having bigger strikes and getting schools involved.

girls stands in front of a smokestack holding a sign reading "we are in the 6th mass extinction"
Sophia Mathur is widely credited as being Canada’s first climate striker. (Jason Leduc)

TVO.org: And what was it like having more people join you?

Mathur: It only started off with me, my mom, and a couple of her friends. But then, eventually, I got all my friends to join in, who really cared about the climate crisis. And then when it got bigger and Fridays for Future was becoming a popular movement, in September 2019 we had, like, 1,000 people show up to one of our rallies; we invited them from multiple schools. It was honestly amazing to see how much the movement had grown and how much youth, especially, really cared about the climate crisis and really wanted climate action.

TVO.org: You and several other plaintiffs are now suing the Ontario government. Could you tell me a bit about what that process has been like?

Mathur: I’m a part of a lawsuit in which we’re suing the Ontario government for not taking enough action on the climate crisis. And if we win the lawsuit, then, under law, they’ll have to take more action. If they win, obviously they won’t have to. But if we do win, other cases will be able to refer to us and say that they also want their province or their city or wherever they are to take more action in the climate crisis. 

TVO.org: What’s your activism focused most on now?

Mathur: I’m mostly trying to focus on educating and getting my voice out. We still have events, but I’m trying to focus on doing as many interviews as possible and trying to get more people to listen to my voice and make sure that people understand that we’re still in a climate crisis; even though we are going through an election right now, we are going through a global pandemic — climate crisis still exists. We still want people to think about the climate crisis while voting. 

TVO.org: Have you had a chance to look at any of the federal parties’ positions on climate?

Mathur: I think all the parties have acknowledged the climate crisis. But I definitely think that people who are concerned about the climate crisis, which should be everyone, should look into the parties’ thoughts on the climate crisis and really think about which one is supported by the science the most. And, definitely, I think all the parties have considered the climate crisis in their policies, but they aren’t doing enough: Something that will create big action. Something that is followed by the scientists.

TVO.org: What do you think is good about these policy proposals? And what isn’t being considered so far?

Mathur: I think most parties have acknowledged the fact that we need to reduce carbon emissions, but maybe we should consider setting the dates a little more forward. Instead of reducing our carbon emissions by 2050, maybe we should do it by 2030 — or just do more to reduce emissions and make our targets more aggressive.

TVO.org: You said earlier that you thought kids needed to do more. What do you think kids can do to help?

Mathur: Since kids can’t vote, we don’t get to make decisions like adults do. But it’s important that we share our voices about the climate crisis and talk to parents and people that can make those decisions. When I was younger, I even went lobbying and talked to politicians. But it’s as simple as talking to your parents, telling them to consider the climate when they vote.

TVO.org: And what do you think adults need to do?

Mathur: Adults need to vote for the climate. They need to start considering reducing emissions and considering the fact this is something that might not affect them, but it’s going to affect the next generations. It’s most important that they vote and that they use their power as an adult to make decisions by voting. 

Agenda segment, January 15, 2020: The political price of climate inaction?

TVO.org: If I’m an adult and I don’t know much about the climate, but it’s really important to me to vote for a party that I think would be good for the climate, how would you suggest I start doing research on that?

Mathur: Well, I would say look online for reliable sources about the election and look at what they’re saying on the climate crisis. But also do research into more experts on the climate crisis, like the IPCC reports.

TVO.org: What else do you think individual people need to do right now for the climate?

Mathur: Use your voice. It’s important that people use their voices about this. And — especially while most people may be at home — speaking out on social media, sharing reliable sources on social media, talking to people, and educating people online is also great.

TVO.org: What would you say to somebody who is overwhelmed by the crisis?

Mathur: Yeah, the climate crisis is a very scary thing when you think really deeply into it and how it’s going to affect our future. But I think our main goal is reducing emissions. And our main goal is listening to the experts that know all about it and who probably know more than someone who’s doing their research online — and obviously more than me, a 14-year-old girl. But I think it’s important that we try to keep our mind on the solutions and not on the problem as much.

TVO.org: Other than the lawsuit, what are you hoping to do as far as activism in the next couple of years? 

Mathur: Well, I’m really hoping that the provincial government and the federal government take action. Here in my local government, they’ve already declared a climate emergency. So we’re making sure that they follow up on that, but they’re doing a great job here. But I really hope that in, like, five years, I won’t have to still do this and that it’s something that governments will have actually taken action on. 

TVO.org: What’s your favourite part of the work you’re doing?

Mathur: My favourite part is the result. To plan an event is very stressful; the event itself is very empowering, but the result — and seeing what actually comes out of it — is probably the most empowering thing. What you want to see as a climate activist is, you want to see action come after all your hard work.

TVO.org: Could you give me an example of a time that happened?

Mathur: So we worked for months to sign petitions to get the City of Greater Sudbury to declare a climate emergency. And then, eventually, one night, they unanimously declared it. And that was a very exciting day for all of us that worked really hard on trying to get them to do that. And it was just a great day.

two girls standing in front of a banner reading "Amnesty International"
Sophia Mathur (left) with Greta Thunberg at the 2019 Amnesty International awards. (Courtesy of Sophia Mathur)

TVO.org: How did it make you feel to have that victory? 

Mathur: It made me feel like we could do anything. I think it’s the best feeling you could probably have as an activist because it feels very empowering, especially if you’re really worried about the climate crisis. We had a full audience of people watching. And outside, there were people holding signs. Everyone was smiling by the end of the event and all hyped up.

TVO.org: What are the next steps for your lawsuit?

Mathur: So this lawsuit may last many years, so it’s really hard to tell what’s going to come next. It’s still more like we’re waiting and waiting for the next thing that’s going to happen in court. [The Ontario government] put a motion to strike our case, saying that we couldn’t go forward because we couldn’t speak up for future generations because we can’t use their voices. But we won that motion to strike. So we’re still continuing with the case. And it might go on for years. But, hopefully, we’ll win eventually. 

TVO.org: My last question: When you think about the climate crisis, what gives you hope? 

Mathur: One of the main things that gives me hope is just the result of all the hard work. It’s really empowering to see governments actually start to take action or politicians speak out about the climate crisis. And it gives me hope that there’ll be bigger action federally — and that, eventually, we’ll get what we’ve been working hard for.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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