A Vancouver-based non-profit organization has named Powell River’s Graham May as its top Canadian environmentalist under 25 years old for 2015.
The Starfish is a website and youth-focused non-profit which promotes positive solutions to environmental problems. Each year the organization honours 25 young Canadians for their advocacy.
“It was a complete shock to hear that I’d been honoured this way,” May said, in an interview with the Peak, while sitting at table at School District 47’s Powell Lake Outdoor Learning Centre. Since graduating from Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick this spring with a double major in environmental studies and international relations, May has returned home to the West Coast to help mentor students in the school district’s Outdoor and Ecological Learning program.
The 23-year-old was already in Vancouver on May 19 completing a wilderness first aid course when he was notified that he would be honoured by the organization.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to get up on stage and speak to all the young people,” he said.
May spoke about how his experience as a high school student in Powell River, particularly his last year in Coast Mountain Academy (CMA), helped ignite his passion for environmental advocacy work. Before that, May participated as a student in the district’s Leadership Ecology Adventure Program (LEAP).
“I actually remember the very first lunch hour, when I was attending Oceanview [Middle School], they called [for] any student interested in the LEAP program to learn more about it,” May said. “I remember thinking, ‘That sounds extraordinary.’”
May said that it was after that presentation from Ryan Barfoot, coordinator for Outdoor and Ecological Learning for the school district, that he decided he wanted to learn more about ecology. “It was my first step toward an environmental career.” The next year, May helped found the Students for Environmental Action club at Brooks Secondary School. “It does feel very full circle to contribute to the community that nurtured me as an environmentalist,” he added.
While many students look to start their careers once they finish university, May has not let a little thing like graduation get in the way. Since last year, May has interned with the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, DC, continued his work with the Youth Arctic Coalition (YAC), an environmental organization he helped found and direct in 2013 and 2014, joined the board of directors for the Sierra Club of Canada, become chair of the Mount Allison Environmental Issues Committee and worked on the steering committee for the New Brunswick Environmental Network. He also volunteered last year to help New Democratic Party MP Nathan Cullen, Skeena-Bulkley Valley, in his work to oppose the Northern Gateway Pipeline project.
As part of his advocacy work, May rode his bicycle with friends from Powell River to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, on a trip called the “Journey to the Midnight Sun,” organized under the auspices of GrassRoutes. GrassRoutes is a group May co-founded that holds biking as a means of social change. Along the way his group stopped to speak with youth in remote communities and hosted climate change workshops. And that was in addition to riding across Canada the year before to raise awareness on the acute impacts of climate change are being felt in places which have not added substantially to the problem.
“Climate change is not some abstract notion,” May said, explaining that he was once trekking across the tundra with a botanist who stopped abruptly. He reached down and picked a flower growing to the side of the trail. “Later I found out that the flower had never been found growing so far north,” he said.
He further explained that many of his Inuit friends have told him about the retreating polar ice and how land once covered by snow and ice is now bare. He heard countless stories of the loss of traditional hunting grounds and declining caribou populations. “It gives you a sense of perspective,” May said. “It’s a problem that was started elsewhere, but its effects are being felt in places that don’t have the resources to deal with it.”
Last year May helped create and organize a circumpolar forum for young people to engage in cooperative projects to oppose unsustainable resource development and influence Arctic governance.
May also spent two months sailing between Nunavut and Greenland interviewing community leaders about the barriers and opportunities to sustainable development that exist in the region, as part of a research project for his undergraduate degree.
May said he is home for the summer and is thankful for the opportunity to provide mentoring for students. Many of the CMA students he is working with this summer were in grade seven when he was in CMA. “It’s all cycling back on itself and is becoming a self-perpetuating system of Powell Riverites who think that ecology is one of the most important things in the world, something that needs to be respected, celebrated and taught.”
May is planning to take some time for travel and language learning before heading back to university to study environmental law. He is happy to correspond with any youth interested in finding out more about ecological learning. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two giant leaps for youth summer program
Spots for Powell River students are still open for this summer’s youth Leadership Ecology Adventure Programs [LEAP] and organizers are encouraging more to enrol.
This July, Powell River Outdoor and Ecological Learning, a program sponsored by School District 47, will be offering LEAP Dreamcatcher in addition to LEAP Journeys.
LEAP is a transformative passage where learners develop a deeper understanding of themselves and the greater cultural and biological ecology of the region, said Ryan Barfoot, coordinator for Outdoor and Ecological Learning for the school district.
The nine-day project-based, field-course program, which runs from July 6 to 14, is available to all BC students, but Barfoot said coordinators like to see about three-quarters of participants from Powell River. Currently there are about 100 out-of-town applicants on the wait-list, and local youth are being given priority registration, he added.
“Unless you have the opportunity to rub shoulders with people from different places, sometimes you just don’t understand the value of your place or the value of theirs,” said Barfoot. “When we support local students to interact and engage broadly, whether it’s them going other places or bringing other people here, it’s a win-win for this place and its people.”
LEAP Dreamcatcher, which is being supported by a $20,000 Inspirit Foundation Pluralism grant, has been added to the mix this summer. Because many of the youth taking LEAP are also enrolled in The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, working together is a natural fit, Barfoot said.
Dreamcatcher is open to aboriginal and non-aboriginal youth aged 16 to 20. Those completing the six-day camp, from July 20 to 25, will qualify for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Residential Project. The camp will give youth the chance to explore holistic leadership, pluralism and cross-cultural understanding, ecological world views from diverse cultures, and place-based learning through a range of activities, including paddling, kayaking, hiking, swimming, music, workshops, storytelling and others.
“Students could take both LEAP Journeys and Dreamcatcher if they wanted to,” Barfoot added. “They are both pretty amazing opportunities.”
For more information about the LEAP options and others being offered this summer including Sustainability Toolbox, readers can visit online or call 604.414.4734.