Sustainable Sparks: Katia Forgues on leading youth activism in the sustainable movement

Hear from environmental youth activist and researcher Katia Forgues on McGill’s offsetting initiatives and the future of youth in the fight for our climate
Katia ForguesSiddhi Aubeeluck

The climate movement at home and abroad is being shaped by youth voices, now more than ever before. One of those voices is Co-Director of the Montreal chapter of Sustainable Youth Canada and McGill student Katia Forgues.

Forgues completed her undergraduate studies in environmental sciences and geography at McGill before embarking on a unique Master’s degree. Her research involves community-led reforestation projects with Indigenous Emberá communities in eastern Panama, as a part of McGill’s efforts to offset unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions in order to meet the university-wide commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. It also involves developing community-centered initiatives to fight climate change that benefit both the environment and people. This unique project lies at the intersection of youth activism, institutional progress, and community development.

In a sit-down with the Office of Sustainability, Forgues offers insight into the future of youth in the fight for our climate.

Tell me a bit about your research and what drew you to this field of study.

I’ve always liked going outdoors and learning about plants and animals. When I was in CEGEP and started studying environment, I thought, “Wow, this is something that’s happening right now that we need people to act on.” Even though I was interested in a bunch of topics to study, the urgency related to climate change and the potential to act drew me to continue.

I completed my undergrad at McGill, and during my second year I did a Panama Field Study Semester. I loved it so much that I did an honors thesis in Panama, and when the [Bayano-McGill Reforestation] Project was starting up, I was invited to do my graduate research there.

Now I’m working with two Indigenous communities in Panama to help offset the carbon emissions at McGill by [planting trees]. Some of the groundwork so far has involved analyzing carbon uptake of different native species and creating a project evaluation framework that encompasses both McGill and the communities’ goals and interests.

What has your experience been so far as you work on your Master’s project?

I think my Master’s gives me an interesting opportunity to push for change, because it’s about collaboration between [McGill] and local communities on carbon offsetting. Part of what I’m working on is understanding the motivators for different parties involved through interviews, because it’s such an intercultural initiative.

One on hand, there are the interests of McGill, which are about the carbon accounting of the institution. Because of McGill’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2040, leaders are [interested in] on finding ways to offset emissions, as well as providing intercultural education [and research] opportunities [for McGill students]. On the other hand, the Indigenous leaders in Panama emphasize the importance of community development, and a principle that translates as “to give life to the forest.”

Forests have a lot to do with their identity and sense of place. Having more opportunities for their youth to stay in the community through this project is a motivating factor. Aligning [the local communities’ and McGill’s] priorities to action is what makes a successful project.

You are one of the co-directors of the Montreal chapter of Sustainable Youth Canada. How did you get involved with this organization and what does it mean to you?

Sustainable Youth Canada is a national student-led organization with the mission to advocate for sustainability and the environment. We believe youth are important actors of change in the fight against climate change and that we can make a tangible difference by fostering sustainability through leadership and forming community projects. A few years ago, my close friend and co-director Shir [Gruber] invited me to join, and together we built the Montreal chapter. We now have a team of 11 amazing people. It’s been a very rewarding experience.

Why do you think including student voices in the sustainable movement is important at the university level? What can younger voices bring to the table?

To me, the obvious answer is that youth will have to live the consequences of climate change the most directly, but I think it’s more than that. As people grow older, they can lose the freedom to rethink the system they exist in. I think this is why universities are unique because they are a place where it’s encouraged to reinvent. The change that we need right now is transformational in the fundamental ways we are living. I think youth have a really cool perspective because they don’t necessarily accept the status-quo as it is.

Youth also tend to have more urgency, which is, in my opinion, pushing for a timescale that’s more adjusted with the reality of the situation. These are things that need to happen now, and I think university is a great place to push for change because it’s kind of a micro-society with a lot of youth.

There has been a growing demand for youth voices in the future of our planet. What do you think initiated this shift?

I think we’re the reason that we’re there. I don’t think anyone gave youth the spot at the table – we took it. Young people are looking at this state of the world, decided that it is not a satisfactory, and decided demand better as loudly as we can.

Youth are responsible for having their own voices brought forward, and I think that it’s an interesting lesson that if you want to be heard, you have to speak up. You can’t wait for and hope for someone to come along and want to listen. Having more diverse voices at the table always creates better solutions.

If you had one message to share with the student body about student activism and sustainability, what would it be?

My message would be more or less aligned Sustainable Youth Canada’s. I believe that each person has both the responsibility and the opportunity to create change, and whatever scale that looks like for you, whether it’s action in your household or at an international summit, it’s needed.

The climate movement – and sustainability in general – is such a multidisciplinary topic that there is something to interest everyone, and if you’re asking yourself, “Where should I start?” I think the answer is it doesn’t really matter as long as you start somewhere. There is no hierarchy of climate solutions. We need every solution we can find, happening right now at every scale. And if that has to start somewhere, why not start with you?

To learn more about the project Katia is working on, visit this Bayano-McGill Reforestation webpage. Visit the Sustainable Youth Canada website for more information and regular calls for community participation in a variety of projects.