Sierra’s Graham May Wins Top Environmentalist Under 25

By Deirdre King, Board Member, SCCF

Sierra board member Graham May has been named Canada’s Top Environmentalist Under 25 by Starfish Canada, an organization that supports environmental, solutions-based stories across the nation, with a focus on youth-based initiatives.

His work as a co-founder of the Youth Arctic Coalition, his travels by bike across Canada and north to Inuvik in the Canadian Arctic, giving workshops on climate change, his involvement as secretary on the board of the Sierra Club of Canada and as Chair of the Mount Allison University Environmental Issues Committee, are among the reasons he placed first in a list of 25 young people The Starfish singled out for this award in 2015.

“If you want to help the environment, get outside, get to know the environment, “ says Graham, whose environmentalism is inspired by his connection with and appreciation for nature. “The more opportunities we can create for Canadians to go outdoors, the better.”

At age 16, he won a scholarship to travel to the Arctic with the Students on Ice Foundation, which educates youth about the importance of the polar regions and supports initiatives that contribute to global sustainability: “On expedition, I was hiking with a botanist who was talking about the changes he’d seen during his time in the Arctic,” Graham recalls. “Suddenly, he plucked a flower, then pressed it into a book. That flower had never been seen that far north before. More than any report ever could, that experience drove home the fact that climate change is real.” The trip inspired Graham’s love of the North. 

“The beauty of the place, the connection between the people and the land” inspired him, he says. In June 2013, Graham went on to co-found and to serve as director of the Youth Arctic Coalition, a circumpolar forum for youth to “make collaborative declarations, lead cooperative projects, and influence Arctic governance.” It is now a thriving organization working with youth from other Arctic countries and with native peoples to promote sustainable development.

As a university student at Mount Allison, Graham’s passion for the environment led to three bike-powered workshop tours. His first, in 2012, was with a team of six young people. They biked across Canada, leading 22 workshops on environmental activism for more than 680 youth, raising $7,600 to support youth-led environmental initiatives.

Then, in 2013, he biked from Vancouver to Inuvik as part of a team of six youth, leading workshops on climate change and filming a short documentary. "The young northeners were so much more aware" he noted. "They were able to chart the seasons by what insects were there."

In 2014, as a student researcher, he went to Nunavut and Greenland aboard the Arctic Tern 1, a high-latitude sailboat. The focus was on resource development and climate change and the impact of both on Aboriginal communities.

In Graham’s view, “there needs to be more investment and agency given to Northerners.” He was struck by the contrast between Nunavut, where there was very little environmental or social support for the people living there, and Greenland, where the support was better.

Grassroots organizing is one of the things that drew Graham to the Sierra Club. “Anyone can get involved. We have citizens working with us on everything from climate change negotiations to bee populations. It’s inspiring to know that ordinary citizens can use the Sierra Club as a path to the world stage.” As secretary of the board, he has found it interesting to help plan for the future of one of Canada’s major environmental organizations.

Graham’s passion is sustainable development. His views were shaped by his childhood in Powell River, on the upper Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. Known for its scenic green mountains and sheltered seacoast, Powell River was also a lumber community that in the past supplied much of the paper for newspapers in North America. Graham says that in communities like his, resource development was  “not always done in a sustainable way. In the North, we have an opportunity to develop sustainably. It’s about balance and thinking ahead.”

Since this fall Graham has been living and studying at a university in southwestern China. In his view, cooperation with China is “crucial for the future, for building a consensus on global issues like climate change.”Next, Graham plans to attend law school and focus on sustainable development law. “I would love to work in the area of sustainable resource management, ideally in Western Canada.”

Graham plans to keep contributing to the Sierra Club Foundation.  He feels public support for environmental issues is growing, that we are all rooting for the same thing: “That Spaceship Earth keeps on flying in the way that it has always done.”