A teen activist breaks her silence on why she's suing the government over climate change

Sadie Vipond, a 14-year-old climate activist from Calgary, is one of 15 young people suing the federal government for failing to protect their future.

Inspired by Greta Thunberg, 14-year-old Sadie Vipond is taking Ottawa to court

Sadie Vipond, left, her mother Erin Grier, and her sister Willa, stand next to Greta Thunberg and her father Svante Thunberg in Calgary in October 2019. (Joe Vipond)

Sadie Vipond has tried to keep a pretty low profile to this point, keeping her name out of the press, fearing the onslaught of attacks that would inevitably find their way into the 14-year-old's social media channels once she was labelled as a climate change activist.

Yes, she's spoken before Calgary city council. Yes, she's regularly participated in the Fridays for Future climate strikes. And yes, she and her family happen to have hosted international climate youth activist Greta Thunberg when she visited Alberta. But she's been tight lipped about it — until today, that is. 

Vipond is breaking her silence, hoping that people in Alberta might heed the concern she has for her future and that of her entire generation; the fear, anger and sadness she carries with her as she watches the first substantial impacts of climate change materializing around the world.

She's not only taking her plea to the people, though. She's also one of 15 young people suing the federal government for failing to protect their future. Vipond is the sole representative from Alberta.

"As a youth, I can't vote or make a huge (political) difference," Vipond told CBC Calgary. "I don't get to tell our leaders what I think. So, a lawsuit seemed like a good way to get my opinion out there."

The case against Ottawa

The lawsuit was filed to the federal court in Vancouver on Oct. 25, 2019, with the statement of claim accusing the federal government of failing to protect the plaintiffs' rights to life, liberty, safety and equality. 

An excerpt from the statement of claim reads, "Canada is one of (the) 10 highest (greenhouse gas) emitters in the world in terms of total national emissions. Despite knowing for decades that GHG emissions cause climate change and disproportionately harm children, the defendants continue to cause, contribute to and allow GHG emissions that are incompatible with a stable climate capable of sustaining human life and liberties."

CBC News has previously reported that the federal government urged a judge to throw out the case, but to no avail. The hearings are scheduled to take place this week, beginning Wednesday, in Vancouver.

In its statement of defence, the federal government acknowledged the real and urgent threat climate change poses to Canadians. But also insisted that the federal government shouldn't be singled out in the placing of blame, stating, "Addressing climate change is the shared responsibility of a multitude of different actors."

The statement of defence goes on to state that it is not the court's role to make judgments on policies passed.

"Only the executive and legislative branches of government may make policy, pass laws and authorize the allocation of public funds."

For Vipond, the government's logic doesn't hold up. 

"Canada does have a plan for the climate, it's just not sufficient to actually reach the Paris Agreement (emissions-reduction targets). So, I think they need to have a better plan. That's what the lawsuit is asking for — a science-based climate recovery plan," she said over video chat from her home in Calgary.

Sadie Vipond and her family hosted international climate youth activist Greta Thunberg when she visited Alberta to take part in a climate protest at the provincial legislature in October 2019. (Peggy Lam/CBC)

Vipond is far from being a stranger to climate change activism. Her father, Joe Vipond, is the president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment as well as a co-founder of the Calgary Climate Hub. He was one of the key campaigners behind the push for Canada to outlaw the use of coal-fired electricity, which is being phased out now by 2030.

Since Sadie is still underage, Joe had to endorse his daughter's participation in the federal court proceedings, which he did proudly. But the fear of his child becoming a public face of the fight certainly gave him pause.

"There's 15 kids in the litigation, and all of the other kids have done media (interviews) to this point, and when we went into this in October, we requested that Sadie not do any media, and that was because we were cognisant of the bullying that goes along with climate denial. Especially for women. I think it's quite obvious even with our female politicians that they've been receiving the majority of the comments.

"And then as things rolled out, we heard stories that the Saskatchewan litigants — who had been doing quite a bit of media — were quite impacted by some of the comments they would see (in comment sections)," Joe said.

"But Sadie kept asking to do this. So she's ready to be brave and she says she's ready to take on whatever the world can throw at her, and we hope we can support her and protect her through that."

Sadie was inspired like many teens around the world to take more action on climate change after watching Greta Thunberg's first viral speech before the United Nations climate change conference in 2018. That admiration for a fellow teenager being able to make waves that way entrenched her motivation to have tough conversations about the impacts of climate change, and actions that can be taken here in Alberta to mitigate the effects.

Meeting Greta

That resolve was only deepened when Sadie got the chance to meet Thunberg last October, just days before their court case was filed.

Joe, through his connections with Montreal's Climate Reality Project, had been calling about an unrelated issue just before Thunberg was set to land in Alberta. Through the grapevine, he was then connected with other climate activists in Belgium who were looking for a place for the Swedish activist to stay while she was in Calgary. No plans were cemented until the day of her arrival.

"We basically had about two hours' notice to prep for this celebrity," Joe recalls.

Riding up to her house on her bike after school, Sadie didn't know she would be walking in to find one of her own personal heroes.

"It was quite a surprise when I came home to basically this celebrity in my house," Sadie said. "Just seeing her made me even more inspired to get on with the lawsuit and try to make a difference in our country."

The encounter was surreal for the Calgary teen, as Thunberg congratulated Sadie for engaging with city council on climate issues, and for being willing to put her name forward as one of the defendants in the case against the federal government.

"She said anyone who was doing anything, she thought was really cool. And I was just like, 'But you got the whole globe caring about this problem.' But it felt pretty good," Sadie said.

When Swedish activist Greta Thunberg spoke to hundreds of climate change activists at a rally outside the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton, she wore Sadie Vipond's bright blue coat. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC)

Thunberg, wanting to see more of Calgary than just the Viponds' living room, asked them to show her around and they took her to the Eau Claire area and strolled down the banks of the Bow River. The next morning she rode the CTrain and got a tour around the new public library.

The bright blue coat Thunberg donned on the steps of the Alberta legislature just days later was Sadie's. The whole experience was otherworldly for the family.

Even before Sadie met Thunberg, or before Thunberg's speech to the UN went viral, Sadie was working to inspire Calgarians to act on climate change.

At 12, she stood before Calgary city council and told the politicians how denial of climate change was no different from the scenario presented in the Harry Potter series, where the magical government refused to acknowledge the darkest wizard had returned to power after being thought to have died. 

"Just shoving it away and pretending it doesn't exist doesn't make the whole idea just disappear," she told council.

Sadie doesn't come at her mission from a place of anger or desperation — though she knows policy action on climate change is desperately needed. She comes at it from a place of hope, hoping that governments of all levels are paying attention and are prepared to make policy decisions that take her generation's future, and the next, into consideration.

If not, governments, beginning with the federal government, are being put on notice: inaction will not be taken lying down.

"I am hopeful that we will make a difference," Sadie said. "Of course I hope we win, because that would make a change on a legal scale. But if we don't win, (maybe) we'll make enough noise to have more people aware of the climate crisis."


Sarah Lawrynuik is a freelance journalist who reports on climate change and conflict and is currently based in London, UK. She's covered news stories across Canada and from a dozen countries around the world, including Ukraine, Hungary, France and Iraq. She has also worked for CBC News in Halifax, Winnipeg and Calgary.


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