The Power List: Sophia Mathur

Governments are dragging their heels on emissions cuts. In Ontario, this 17-year-old activist is suing over it. She’s our No. 1 climate crusader.


April 1, 2024

Sophia Mathur has been showing up for the environment since she was quite literally in the womb—her mother, Cathy Orlando, was pregnant when she was protesting Big Fossil Fuel in the 2000s. Mathur grew up in Sudbury, Ontario. At seven years old, she was tagging along with her mother to MPs’ offices and Parliament and, at age nine, to Capitol Hill, politely refusing diversionary trips to local zoos with her dad. “At the time, I was obsessed with big cats, and I thought, If we were more on track to solve the climate crisis, these animals would be saved!” Mathur remembers.

Mathur’s advocacy picked up speed in 2018 when, at age 10, she successfully lobbied several Sudbury restaurant owners to cut down their plastic straw use. Then she saw a Twitter video by one of her contemporaries in Sweden: Greta Thunberg. That November, Mathur became the first Canadian student to cut class as part of Thunberg’s soon-to-be-global Fridays for Future strike movement. Only her mom and some friends joined her at first, but soon, more kids showed up. In May of 2019, hundreds of locals persuaded the city of Sudbury to declare a climate emergency. And, later that fall, Mathur sat on a panel alongside Thunberg for the Amnesty International Ambassador Awards, when Fridays for Future received the award in Washington, D.C.

Less than a week into her Fridays for Future strikes, Mathur received a Twitter message from Ecojustice, a Canadian environmental law charity formed in the ’90s, after the Exxon Valdez disaster. The group had previously brought cases against Enbridge and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Their latest target was the Ontario government—specifically over its unambitious emissions targets. “I was hesitant at first,” Mathur says. “But while politicians can ignore protests, they can’t ignore lawsuits. They have to hire lawyers and acknowledge it in the media—they have to answer to us.” 

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In November of 2019, backed by Ecojustice and lawyers from Stockwoods LLP in Toronto—and years before she could legally vote—Mathur became the first of seven plaintiffs in Mathur et al., Canada’s first youth-led climate lawsuit. When Doug Ford took office in 2018, his government passed the Cap and Trade Cancellation Act, which swapped the outgoing Liberal government’s emissions-reduction target (37 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030) with a significantly weaker one: a 30 per cent reduction in emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. The lawsuit, filed at Ontario’s Superior Court, alleges that Ford’s climate plan violates the Charter rights of current and future generations of Canadian children, chief of which is their right to life, liberty and security. They asked the court to declare the targets unconstitutional and the province to produce a cleaner, science-backed emissions target. The Ford government filed a motion to strike against Mathur et al., saying it had “no reasonable prospect of success”; it lost.

Last April, Ontario Superior Court Justice Marie-Andrée Vermette ultimately dismissed Mathur’s legal challenge—which appears to be a devastating blow, until you read her ruling. Ontario’s target doesn’t violate the Charter, Vermette said, but it does fall dangerously short of the scientific consensus on what’s needed to tackle climate change, which she agreed disproportionately affects Canadian youth and Indigenous peoples. Mathur and the other plaintiffs have since filed to appeal Vermette’s decision, but they’ve already achieved the win they really wanted: to set a precedent. Before this, no similar climate case had ever reached a full hearing. Mathur et al. will serve as a highly publicized standard for other kids (and adults) brave enough to take governments to task over their climate inaction. “Now, people can say, ‘Well, they did this in Ontario—why can’t you do it in this province or this country?’ ” Mathur says.

Her message has gone global. She’s joined world leaders and other climate luminaries at COP26 (in Scotland) and COP27 (in Egypt), and spent a week training with Al Gore’s climate activism think tank, Climate Reality. (Mathur’s teachers sometimes don’t mark her “absent” when she’s on the road, due to the educational value of her trips.) She’s got more petitions, protests and bigger projects in the works—like On Roads, a new online simulator that shows the real-life impacts of flimsy climate policies, which she recently demonstrated in her biology class. But Mathur also has plenty of regular teenager stuff on the go: trips to the movies, meeting her Twitter friends IRL and figuring out what to do after she wraps up her International Baccalaureate diploma. She’s considering a career in environmental law, but she won’t have to cement that decision until roughly 2030, the point at which Canadians will find out whether we’ve collectively done enough to stave off catastrophic warming. By then, Mathur will still have everything to look forward to; she’ll only be 23.

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This story appears in the May issue of Maclean’s. You can buy the issue here or subscribe to the magazine here.

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