How the youth in Mississauga are turning green.
Words by Chris Carriere
Our green world is unique in the known universe for precisely the same reason that the human brain and human society are. All three are the result of an extremely dense web of interconnection—even the smallest crane fly is an irreplaceable instrument in the ecosystem’s biological orchestra and the endpoint of a complex evolutionary chain. And while we usually think of evolution as competitive, as Darwin’s survival of the fittest, species also strive for, and benefit from, cooperative synergy. The Solanum lycopersicum buds and produces the tomato; the Homo sapiens enjoy the delicious red fruit, and so helps the plant to proliferate across the world.
For this month’s green issue I decided to speak to four young people from Mississauga (two environmentalists and two vegans) who are working to make society more sustainable. What all of these stories have in common is that they aren’t just about volunteerism or commitment; they’re about personal growth, and the undeniable connection between helping others and helping yourself. These four young people have found purpose, direction, companionship and passion by committing to the environmental cause.
FINDING YOUR VOICE
Eighteen-year-old University of Toronto Mississauga student Darius was never the shyest kid, but you wouldn’t have called him an extrovert. The turning point came when Darius saw Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth—a documentary that set a fire under the collective posterior of a generation. It certainly did set one under young Darius, then in high school. He couldn’t buy things anymore—every time he walked into a store, neural alarm bells blared. Do you really need to buy this? Are you sure you can’t just do without?
Darius expected the feeling to go away. It didn’t. He ended up joining his high school’s environmental group, and then PEYA, the Peel Environmental Youth Alliance. There, he found something he’d been missing: a voice, and a place where it would be listened to.
“Really, the opportunities that are available to develop yourself while making a difference in groups like PEYA are unbelievable,” Darius says. “It changed my whole perspective; the way that I interact with people… suddenly I was in a position where my ideas were actually being incorporated.”
Today, Darius occupies the only paid position at PEYA, working three days a week to coordinate its activities. And his ideas haven’t just been incorporated: they’ve actually changed the face of the organization. “Originally PEYA began as a networking group. But as it grew I saw an opportunity to take action, so that’s what we’re moving the group towards.”
This year’s project is the Kill Your Bill program; PEYA is working with representatives from high schools throughout the Peel region to educate students and teachers about the importance of energy conservation (and how easily it can be accomplished). The result, they hope, will be a measurable decrease in energy bills at the schools they’ve targeted.
When it comes to Mississauga’s youth environmentalism movement Rohit is the go-to guy. This 21 year old already thinks big picture. As a teenager, he helped to start PEYA, which he’s subsequently stepped back from so as to play a broader role in the community. Right now he’s working with the City on its Living Green Master Plan, a comprehensive assessment of how Mississauga can change its practices to reduce emissions and enhance its sustainability. He also acts as a go-between for the multitude of youth-oriented environmental organizations in Mississauga—of which there are eight at University of Toronto (UTM) alone—coordinating, networking, and making sure that overlaps result in collaboration rather than interference or waste.
While Darius found a new ability to communicate through his environmental activities, Rohit is more of a natural networker whose work helped him develop his skills and find a sense of purpose. “The more I got involved, the more I saw just how big the movement was and the networking just happened naturally,” Rohit says. Every new connection he made enhanced his own understanding of the issues; and the more he learned about problems like bottled water consumption, food systems and conservation, the more opportunities presented themselves to change things for the better.
It was a domino effect.
“Once you start taking a leadership role, people will just keep asking you to take on other leadership roles, so it really sucks you in that way. I burned out a few times in high school, because I just wasn’t managing my time properly, but I’ve learned how to do that.”
Rohit’s now in his fourth year of a B.A. focusing on environmental management at UTM. “I’m really interested in the policy side of things,” he says. “My degree isn’t about environmental science so much as it’s about affecting change.”
Rohit also started an organization called Volunteering Peel, which connects high school kids with nonprofits (environmental and others) to help them get their curriculum-mandated 40 hours of community service. This highlighted the connective tissues that bind together different social justice issues. Poverty, food systems and the environment, we note, are intimately linked because lower-income families are statistically more likely to purchase inexpensive food products containing large amounts of corn, thereby contributing directly to the perpetuation of an unnatural factory farming system based on corn that disrupts local ecosystems.
Desmond and Clara aren’t activists. They don’t preach: actually, that’s one of their cardinal rules. An ethos as extreme as veganism spreads through quiet persuasion, not through brute force: no meat, no animal fats, no dairy, no eggs, no animal byproducts of any kind. To you, it might sound a little bit like hell. To them, it’s a honeymoon.
The couple met two years ago and were married two months ago. Clara’s been a vegetarian since she was 12 years old and became vegan five years ago after researching the social and moral repercussions of eating animal products, i.e. the mortifying cruelties involved in factory farming. Desmond became vegan three months after meeting Clara.
“We originally connected through books and visual art,” Clara says, “but it wasn’t long before I sold him on the vegan lifestyle. It wasn’t really a hard sell; he was receptive to it.”
This is a pattern for both of them. Desmond became a vegetarian for about three months while dating one in high school. Clara just tends to influence the people around her. Her parents were her first victims, so to speak; at twelve years young her dietary strictures quietly persuaded them to change their own habits and even to begin purchasing green power.
Sharing a lifestyle has helped them to share their lives. Desmond and Clara work together to create dishes that are flavorful, healthy, and green. For them, it’s as much a hobby as a cause. Desmond is a professional photographer, Clara writes poetry and paints—and food is where they come together. It’s not always easy though, particularly in Mississauga, where locating the ingredients can be tougher than comparatively vegan friendly downtown Toronto. If there’s one thing they do want to preach about, it’s the untapped vegan market in this city.
“Port Credit has Planet Organic [an organic food market] and one organic restaurant [Raw Aura Organic Cuisine]; other than that there’s a Zen Garden [a vegetarian restaurant]. They just opened a Whole Foods at Square One, but that’s about it. Unless you live close to one of them it can be pretty inconvenient.”
For both Desmond and Clara, the social, political and moral aspects of veganism came first. But the health benefits have, in a way, helped them to connect with a deeper sense of self. There’s actually a physiological and psychological upshot to avoiding animal products— a feeling both describe as “pure” and “clean”. As John Lennon said, instant karma.