Mother-daughter team are Canada’s dynamic duo on climate activism

Mother-daughter team are Canada’s dynamic duo on climate activism

By Steve Valk

At age seven, Sophia Mathur attended her first lobby meeting on climate change. “I wanted to tag along with my mom and see what her job was with lobbying and all that.” During meetings, she would draw pictures of animals she was concerned about — cats are her favorite — and leave them for the politicians they met with.

Ten years later, Sophia has become the voice of her generation on the climate issue in Canada, acknowledged as such by being named to Maclean’s Magazine’s Power List of 100 Canadians “shaping the country in 2024.” Since 2019, she’s been the lead plaintiff in Canada’s first youth-led climate lawsuit, Mathur v. Ontario. The suit maintains that the provincial government of Ontario is falling short on its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, endangering the future of young Canadians. Though the suit was dismissed in Ontario Superior Court last year, it managed to get further than similar lawsuits and has set a precedent for other legal challenges. The case is now under appeal.

So, how did Sophia get to be Maclean’s’ “No. 1 climate crusader”? You might say it’s in her genes. She’s the daughter of Cathy Orlando, Program Director for Citizens’ Climate International, who launched Citizens’ Climate Lobby Canada in 2010 after meeting CCL founder Marshall Saunders at a Climate Reality event with Al Gore. She is also the granddaughter of Dr. Sukhdev Mathur, a scientist with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who worked on the IPCC’s first climate report in 1990. 

In 2019, Canada became the first country to implement a federal price on carbon with revenues given to households, a policy CCL Canada spent years lobbying for. Canada’s carbon price is currently set at $80 per tonne, making it one of the strongest in the world. Cathy played a critical role in the passage of Canada’s carbon rebate program. There was no other group that was lobbying for a price on pollution with the fees back to the people. CCL Canada went to Parliament Hill 13 times to lobby for the policy, and she coordinated all of those events.

CCL Canada’s success required tremendous patience, persistence and focus. “A lot of people wanted to run other national campaigns or wanted us to do other things, and I just said, politely, no.”

With a role model like Cathy, it was easy to see how Sophia developed the knowledge and passion to become an effective climate advocate, but her mom was not the only source of inspiration. In the summer of 2018, young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, 15 years old at the time, initiated her Friday School Strike for Climate.

“A lot of my early time in activism was spent around adults — cool adults — and I didn’t feel like I had a place in a lot of those rooms. I didn’t understand all the discussions… When I saw what Greta was doing, I was like ‘Wow, this girl is out here doing exactly what I felt like I needed to do for all this time.’ She was reaching out to so many youth on social media. I’ve been concerned about climate change, but I’ve never known what to do. I got friends engaged, and I got schools engaged to join her Fridays for Future-type events.

Sophia with Greta Thunberg in 2019.

“I really think at that time there was a lot of concern within my generation and not a lot of action, and she really helped push that, and really helped [provide] a voice for all the concerned youth out there that didn’t feel heard in lobbying meetings, and didn’t feel heard in speeches by politicians, the UN and COP and all that.”

By fall of 2018, 11-year-old Sophia Mathur was staging her own school strikes, the first to do it on this side of the Atlantic. The initial event in Sudbury was a small affair. 

“It was at our City Hall, and it’s just like me, my sign, my mother, and a couple of her friends.”

She held strikes on the first Friday of every month. Friends started joining, and the strikes picked up traction. By the spring of 2019, they had an event with 400 participants.

Meanwhile, Greta was well-established as the voice of youth on climate change and was invited to speak at the September session of the United Nations in New York. Rather than fly from Europe with all the carbon emissions that would entail, she famously crossed the Atlantic in a sailboat, taking two weeks for the transit. At this point, the number of climate strikers had reached 3.6 million people in 169 countries. Months later, she would be named TIME’s Person of the Year.

While in the U.S., Greta and the Friday for Future movement was honored by Amnesty International at an event in Maryland. Because she had organized some of the first climate strikes in North America, Sophia was invited to be on stage with Greta and others.

Following the award ceremony on stage, Greta and the young activists went to a room where they all had a chance to talk. Greta told Sophia she had seen her tweets, “And she’s like, right, you’re from Canada, like Sudbury, right? And I remember just being so starstruck.”

“She’s iconic but also very humble and very sweet. Obviously, she’d seen the impact that she had had, and she’d taken the time to learn who she was speaking to and really stay engaged with all the youth that she had empowered across the world and figuring out their successes. I was really happy.” Sophia said she stays in touch with Greta through social media.

Sophia’s biggest mentor and influence, though, has been her mom.

“She is how I learned basically everything I know. And if I hadn’t been able to tag along with her, and all the opportunities I have had, I would have never been engaged in my lawsuit, would have never had the chance to meet Greta, and I acknowledge that I’m extremely privileged in that matter.”

One of the big opportunities she’s experienced through her mom is the annual UN climate conference of the parties (COP) where heads of state and representatives from nations throughout the world gather to hammer out agreements to keep the climate from spinning out of control.

She attended her first conference in 2021, COP26 in Scotland, and then COP27 in Egypt the following year. A documentary, “COP26: In Your Hands,” was filmed featuring young people from six continents asking world leaders to take climate action. Sophia was selected to represent youth from North America.

In her segment of the documentary, Sophia talks about Canada’s oil sands and its impact on the land: “My beloved boreal forest is being destroyed by the world’s largest industrial project. In Alberta I see images of oil production sites larger than England. Oil sands are a mixture of sand, water, clay and a type of oil called bitumen that lies deep beneath the forest. It is mined in open pits leaving massive scars across the landscape.”

She concludes her segment saying, “I think it’s important that politicians and world leaders listen to scientists that have studied this. Stop putting money and industry before our lives.”

Cathy protesting at an “Axe the tax” event in Sudbury. Photo Credits John Lappa at the Sudbury Star

Sophia and Cathy are now engaged in efforts to defend Canada’s carbon rebate program, which is under attack from deep-pocketed fossil fuel interests. Its fate may well be determined in next year’s federal election.

When a politician recently spoke at an “Axe the Tax” event in Sudbury, Cathy photo-bombed the proceedings with the sign that read, “Carbon pricing makes my life more affordable.”

To combat misinformation surrounding carbon pricing, Cathy and Sophia say educating the public will be key in the coming year. To that end, Sophia is leading school presentations with the EN-ROADs simulator, an interactive tool that allows users to select a combination of climate solutions to achieve the best outcome. Many people are surprised to find that a price on carbon has the greatest impact on limiting global warming. After evaluating a pilot project, the two hope to take these presentations nationwide.

Together, Cathy and Sophia have become the mother-daughter dynamic duo on climate change that inspires others and gives hope to climate advocates in the fight to preserve a livable world.

Sophia Mathur at COP27 in Egypt with her mom, Cathy Orlando and her dad, Sanjiv Mathur.