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Support for climate corps mobilizes B.C. youth in fight for the environment

$3M infused in B.C. initiative paying youth living wage to help communities battle climate change

Faced with constant news of how climate change will leave their future less secure, the disillusionment among youth is being compounded by those in power not doing enough to address the warming world, the high cost-of-living and bleak housing prospects.

It’s a state of mind Ben Simoni found himself in at one point, but one that helped inspire a mobilization that puts youth front and centre in the fight against climate change – while putting money in their pockets and lifting up communities.

He’s the executive director of Youth Climate Corps BC, a group that’s been deploying 17 to 30-year-olds into environmental ventures in B.C. communities since 2020, and paying them a living wage while doing so.

As it inserts youth into six-month job contracts in fields like clean-energy retrofitting, ecological restoration or responding to climate disasters, the program aims to fulfill the needs of labour-starved communities and lend agency to young people who want to create a better future in their own hometown.

“It can be easy to find yourself kind of disillusioned with the lack of action (on climate change),” Simoni said.

But involving youth at this time presents an opportunity to bring climate resilience, economic equity and Indigenous reconciliation to communities, he said.

“There is so much appetite for movement and change right now that there’s some very big opportunities for making our communities a much better place.”

The B.C. climate corps has already been making a difference as just a few or its projects include restoring Vancouver wetlands, revitalizing a Ma’amtagila First Nation village on Vancouver Island and showing residents in various communities how to make their homes more efficient.

But as a non-profit with a mandate to provide living wages, the group faced tight margins and had to put a lot of time towards fundraising through its first four years. That’s about to change as the organization is poised to scale up its programming in more corners of the province after the B.C. government infused it with $3 million in funding.

The support comes as environment minister George Heyman said young people concerned for their future want to make a practical difference. The funding will help the group reduce the risk of wildfires, bolster local food security and more.

“Building a workforce of young people eager to act for positive change in British Columbia is key to our work to build a clean and sustainable future for people in our province,” Heyman said in a statement. “This is part of our work to transition to cleaner energy, address the effects of climate change that we see today, and provide a more secure future for our kids and grandkids.”

During talks with the province, the climate corps emphasized its intersectional approach to climate action as they create jobs, develop a skilled workforce and alleviate youth mental health struggles.

A Lancet study (medical journal) of 10,000 people aged 16-to-25 found the cohort is vulnerable to anxiety, with 60 per cent saying they’re “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change. That same proportion holds the view that governments are not protecting young people, the planet or future generations. The majority of those surveyed said governments are failing and betraying youth.

Those who have taken part in the B.C. climate corps found it made them feel more connected to their community and most were able to transition into climate-related jobs.

“Among young people, there’s this sense of helplessness and we’ve seen that being able to have tangible impacts in their community has really helped with that mental health piece,” Simoni said.

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Youth Climate Corps BC members in Vancouver partnering with Ducks Unlimited to do a wetland conservation technique that involves planting willow branches. (Courtesy of Sam Kutyauripo/Youth Climate Corps BC)

B.C. isn’t alone as U.S. President Joe Biden has formed an American Climate Corps to train young people and plant them in clean energy, conservation and climate resilience fields.

“This is a case where conscience and convenience cross paths, where dealing with this existential threat to the planet and increasing our economic growth and prosperity are one in the same,” Biden said while announcing the program.

The federal budget stated Canada intends to launch consultations on developing a climate corps program that will equip young people with jobs that address climate change.

Creating a nationwide program is something Victoria MP Laurel Collins has been calling on the feds to do for years. Seeing the wildfire season starting in the middle of winter, B.C. residents fleeing flood waters headed toward their homes and multi-year droughts is taking its toll on youth, Collins said.

“The climate crisis is here now and young people in particular are worried and they’re also worried about their future in an uncertain economy,” she said. “Being able to tangibly engage in climate action is a remedy for that, it gives us hope, it gives us a path forward and this is what young people need right now.”

A national climate corps would galvanize a “mass mobilization” of youth that could provide emergency response during extreme weather events and build emission-reducing infrastructure, Collins said.

A 2023 Abacus poll found about 1.3 million people aged 18-to-35 would “definitely” enroll in a national climate corps, and 65 per cent from that age group would consider joining. Collins, the NDP’s environment critic, said young people want to serve when it comes to climate change, but they’re also interested in a corps’ paid, hands-on work and training that would allow them to embark on the sustainable careers of the future.

“That’s good for the Canadian economy, it’s also good for our communities that need skilled labour in these areas,” she said.

The Victoria MP said the idea only made it into the budget after youth mobilized across the country, sent mock climate corps cover letters to cabinet ministers and after MPs from various parties listened to hundreds of youth during town halls about the proposal.

“(The feds) know this kinds of program would be a benefit to young people, it would be a benefit to Canadians, to communities, to the transition to a green economy. It’s unfortunate that they want to delay but I’m encouraged that at least they’re finally looking at this.”

A national climate corps would mean that instead of being disillusioned, upset and angry, youth can be part of the solution, Simoni said.

“That’s our invitation for these young people: join us, make some money, build your career, be a part of the solution, support your community. I think it’s a really exciting proposition.”

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Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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