Young, northern, and asked to come up with climate change advice

Speakers address the global climate strike crowd at Yellowknife's Somba K'e Park

Governments and organizations throughout the North have been forming youth panels on climate change. We asked young northerners how they feel about it.

When Pretty Ngo, 18, heard that the Government of the Northwest Territories was putting together a climate youth advisory group, she was first intrigued and then doubtful.

“I thought it was interesting that the GNWT was trying to get youth on board,” she said. Having been involved in climate advocacy during high school, it was something she felt the government should have been doing for a while.

But later, reflecting on the youth advisory group in an interview with Cabin Radio, Ngo wondered whether the group would be doing meaningful work or if it was “just for show.” Sometimes, she said, governments and organizations will put together youth advisory boards just to make themselves look good.



The Northwest Territories’ government is not the first to try to include youth voices in conversations about climate change.

In the past few years, young climate activists have captured media attention. Climate-focused youth panels, councils and boards have cropped up across the globe, including in northern Canada. In Yukon, the territorial government and Indigenous organizations have launched initiatives to get youth talking about climate change and involved in policy conversations. The Government of Nunavut, too, has turned to youth for guidance on how to handle the climate crisis.

As Ngo’s reaction highlights, the increasing demand to hear from youth comes with both promises and pitfalls.

Giving youth a seat at the table can make them feel valued and provide an avenue to contribute, which might otherwise be lacking, said James Diffey, a researcher with Imperial College London’s Climate Cares Team, who co-authored a paper on young people’s feelings in response to climate change. At the same time, young people are often involved in climate discussions in a merely tokenistic way, he and his colleagues wrote.



Although people might be familiar with greenwashing, another term making the rounds of late is “youthwashing,” Diffey said, which is when governments, companies or organizations claim to work in the interest of young people or involve them in projects but, ultimately, their involvement doesn’t mean anything.

At COP26, for example, many young people felt they were only brought along to make companies or governments look good. Youth were brought into discussion rooms but not allowed to speak, Diffey said. Youthwashing isn’t always so obvious, though. “It’s very difficult to identify when it has been done,” he said.

In light of the NWT government creating its first climate youth advisory group, Cabin Radio asked young northerners to share their thoughts on efforts to include youth perspectives in climate discussions. (Definitions of who counts as youth vary, with 25 to 35 years generally being the upper threshold).

Here’s a snapshot of what they said. Use the audio players to hear short extracts from our interviews with the pictured contributors.

Space to speak up, learn and connect

“I love the commitment to involving youth voices,” said Monique Chapman, 26, who grew up in Yellowknife and now works as a waste reduction analyst with the GNWT. “I find that we represent a voice in society that isn’t always heard, but our opinions can be so different.”

To find climate solutions, everyone needs to be at the table, she said, and youth have a perspective no one else can convey.

Monique Chapman, an Indigenous youth representative attending COP27. Photo: Shaugn Coggins
Monique Chapman, an Indigenous youth representative attending COP27. Photo: Shaugn Coggins

The distinctiveness of young people’s perspectives struck Chapman last year, when she attended COP27 as an Indigenous youth representative for the GNWT. Many experts in the field, often people slightly older than her, talked about climate change as if no one knew what it was.

“They spent so much time talking about the impacts,” she said. She wondered when they would get to the next part. “For all of us, as youth, the next part is the solutions,” she said.



“Honestly, I could probably count on one hand the amount of times solutions were really being discussed.”

Clarence Mackenzie, 27, from Behchokǫ̀, was an advocate with the Dene Nation Youth Council from 2017 to 2019. He said he loved every moment of it.

“We think more out of the box,” Mackenzie said. Young people also tend to be more direct in their message than adults, as Nature reported. They aren’t trying to be offensive, Mackenzie said, they’re just trying to state facts.

Photo courtesy of Clarence Mackenzie.

Mataya Gillis, 19, a youth leader from Inuvik and co-founder of Nipatur̂uq magazine, said that having governments launch youth panels and committees is particularly empowering and legitimizes what young people have to say.

“It just makes our words stronger,” she said. “We’re powerful no matter what, but this gives us extra backup power.”  

Others said that climate-oriented youth panels were beneficial because they provided young people with opportunities to learn, space to talk about their concerns, and the chance to connect with other climate-oriented youth.

Preet Dhillon, 21, who grew up in Whitehorse, said she joined the second cohort of the Yukon Youth Panel on Climate Change because she wanted space to talk about some of the environmental changes she had noticed and make sure that young people’s concerns aren’t disregarded.

“Ultimately, we will all grow up, we will have jobs and we will be the people making decisions,” she said. “Talking about what we want to prioritize or what we deem valuable moving in the future is really important.”



Photo courtesy of Preet Dhillon.

Dhillon said youth panels tell young people that it’s OK to talk about their worries. For some, it can help quell climate anxiety.

Jennifer Kilabuk, 30, said climate change makes her worry about her daughter’s future. The thought of her living in a world different from mine, worse than mine, is heart-wrenching,” she said by email.

As a member of the Government of Nunavut’s Climate Change Youth Advisory Committee, working on climate change helps ease that anxiety, she said. “Working with others towards this shared goal has given me hope and constantly inspires me to do better for the cause and our people.”

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Kilabuk.

Disappointment, pressure and burnout

Although panels, boards and committees offer youth the opportunity to speak, not all of the young people Cabin Radio interviewed felt heard.

Sruthee Govindaraj, 27, was optimistic when she started out as co-chair of the first cohort of the Yukon Youth Panel on Climate Change. Over the course of about a year, she and other panel members developed 27 recommendations on climate action, which they presented to the territory’s government in 2021.

So far, Govindaraj says, very little has come of the recommendations. In 2022, the government provided a formal response. Although many of the recommendations were doable, according to Govindaraj, the government has only implemented one of them.

“It was definitely disappointing,” she said. “I don’t think any of the first cohort has really recovered from that.”

Sruthee Govindaraj. Photo: Joefin Peter

Sasha Emery, 20, was part of the panel’s second cohort and said the experience wasn’t what she expected.



At the first meeting, panel members were told they would not be providing recommendations to the government, Emery said. “It kind-of felt a little bit controlling.”

Instead, Emery said, the group tried to find ways to implement the previous cohort’s recommendations, had conversations with other youth, led workshops and created a documentary.

Rebecca Turpin, director of the Yukon government’s Climate Change Secretariat, said the second cohort was asked to focus on capacity building, leadership skills and educational opportunities because the territory was still trying to address the first set of recommendations.

Turpin said the government continues to work to implement – and explore how to advance – the youth panel’s recommendations where possible.

“Some of the recommendations are systemic and broad-reaching, which takes time to adjust,” Turpin said, adding that the territory is committed to ensuring youth voices are part of climate action.

‘Hero narrative’

Although the focus on youth voices can be beneficial, it can also put a lot of pressure on young people.

Ella Kokelj, 20, who led climate protests as a high school student in Yellowknife, said that trying to navigate climate policies can be overwhelming.

It’s important to respect young people when they say they don’t have the answers, she said.



Ella Kokelj at a September 27, 2019 climate strike and march through Yellowknife's streets
Ella Kokelj at a September 27, 2019 climate strike and march through Yellowknife’s streets. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio

Some adults may expect too much from youth. Often, the media depicts young people as saviours or heroes, according to Diffey. It’s one of three dominant media narratives about youth.

One narrative paints youth as helpless victims, for example, which robs them of their agency. Young people are also often portrayed as overly emotional and political, which undercuts their intellectual credibility.

The issue with the hero narrative, Diffey said, is that it can make other youth feel like they aren’t doing enough when, in reality, systems are often not set up to support young people’s success in climate-oriented work. 

All of this can lead to burnout.

When Gillis was in leadership roles, she said she travelled for meetings, worked two jobs and ran a magazine, all while trying to finish high school.

“I had so many responsibilities, no money, no time and really bad depression,” she said. Recently, she has been taking a break from her leadership work, although she hopes to return to it in the future.

Photo courtesy of Mataya Gillis.

Burnout was among the reasons Ngo, the climate advocate from Yellowknife, ultimately decided not to apply to the NWT government’s climate youth advisory group. When she worked with Our Time, an advocacy group, she said “it was the same people doing the same thing over and over, and we weren’t getting any results.”

“Environmental work hasn’t really been my focus right now, which is really unfortunate, because I think I want it to be,” she said. “But it’s really hard when you feel like you’re not being heard.”



Image courtesy of Pretty Ngo.

The northern experience

The northern context adds its own advantages and complications to the experience of climate-concerned youth.

Several people Cabin Radio interviewed said they thought it was easier to access opportunities in the North than in southern parts of Canada. Some said it’s also easier to access certain people in the North, such as politicians.

Although that access can be a blessing, it can also add pressure to perform and increase young people’s expectations, some said. In addition, there are fewer young people in smaller communities to do the work, according to Mackenzie.

Many young northerners said they wanted more opportunities to connect with other northern youth, especially those outside their community or territory. If they stick together, they said, their message may be stronger. They could also validate and encourage each other.

“Youth, I feel, do listen to each other,” Emery said.

Image courtesy of Sasha Emery.

While young northerners from different areas have much in common, they also bring a diverse knowledge and lived experiences, many said.

According to Kokelj, assembling youth from across the NWT to be part of the government’s advisory group has a lot of potential.

If done well, she said, the group could be influential.

This article is produced under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 licence through the Wilfrid Laurier University Climate Change Journalism Fellowship.