‘It’s The Fault Of Our Generation’: Meet The Grandmothers Taking Action On Climate Change

A growing number of seniors are worried about the world they’re leaving to future generations, so they’re taking action to change their legacy. 

A group of activists holding signs reading "Grandmothers act to save the planet"

Some members of GASP at a protest last fall. “We continue to always try to work with young people as part of anything we’re doing at any rallies, any events, because it’s their future. We’re working for them now,” says Lorraine Green, who co-founded the network for climate education and action for seniors.

“A grandma’s job is to bring balance. We look to Grandmother Moon for guidance, because she wants to prepare us, get us ready spiritually. That’s what we need to bring back.” Renee Thomas-Hill, or Grandmother Renee as she is often called, is a Haudenosaunee elder. She’s one of several grandmothers who talked with me about their work on climate and environmental justice. The conversations were as varied as the grandmothers themselves, but it’s clear that there is a growing movement across Canada of grandparents worried about the world they may be leaving to their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, and seeking to do what they can to make a difference.

Organizations like For Our Kids, For Our Grandchildren, GASP, Seniors for Climate Action Now, Eco-Elders, and many others are emerging across the country, and more and more seniors are getting active on climate. They have helped influence policy decisions and stop coal mines. And climate grandparents are not only to be found in seniors-focussed groups, but in wider activist groups like ClimateFast and Citizens Climate Lobby, and also in mosques, churches and faith centres, in gardens and community centres and at rallies around the country. Here are a few of their stories.

Mary Ndlovu with her daughter and three of her grandchildren at her oldest grandson's recent MSc graduation.

Mary Ndlovu with her daughter and three of her grandchildren at her oldest grandson’s recent graduation. “There’s enough other anxieties when you’re growing up, without having to worry about what the world’s going to be like,” Ndlovu says.

Mary Ndlovu, Eco-Elders for Climate Action

Ndlovu, 80, joined Eco-Elders, a climate action group based in Calgary, a few years ago. Having grown up in Toronto, she worked and lived in Zimbabwe for many years. When she moved to Calgary to live with her daughter in 2016, she was looking for ways to connect with others and get involved with civic action, and she initially became part of a group called the Calgary Association of Lifelong Learners. It was out of this group that Eco-Elders emerged, and it was a perfect fit for Ndlovu. She has been struck by the pace of environmental destruction, and moved to be involved in fighting it. Ndlovu recalls how pristine the ocean was when she crossed it as a young person, and now—because her children are spread out around the globe—she has had the chance to observe the garbage floating off the coasts of Barbados and Tanzania. “To see those changes in my lifetime, it’s really very distressing,” she says. “Now I’m learning much more about climate and getting more scared, actually.”

Ndlovu has six grandchildren, aged seven to 24. Her younger two grandchildren, seven and nine, live in Barbados, and the nine-year-old has been experiencing eco-anxiety. “There’s enough other anxieties when you’re growing up, without having to worry about what the world’s going to be like.”

While she is concerned for her grandchildren, Ndlovu is also driven by a sense of responsibility as a citizen. “I get very angry about the influence of large corporations, and their monopolizing the public space and the profits from our economy,” she says. “I feel that if we, as citizens, don’t organize and do something, they run away with it, and we end up losing what we have of democracy.”

Ndlovu lived and worked in Zimbabwe for years, and by the time she left in 2016, the effects of climate change were undeniable. “It was getting hotter and drier where I lived,” she says. But she wasn’t yet a climate activist. “I was more on the democracy and human rights side,” she says, and then adds, “but obviously they’re totally connected.”

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Ndlovu recalls joining with a coalition of environmental organizations to stop Grassy Mountain coal mine, a proposed open-pit coal mine near Crowsnest Pass in southwestern Alberta, back in 2021. Organizations from across Alberta came together at a rally and concert that summer, and Eco-Elders also made a deputation to the federal-provincial review tribunal considering the coal mine, and ultimately it was turned down.

Members of Eco-Elders participate in climate action in a variety of ways. A big way that Ndlovu is active is in writing letters to the editor in local newspapers, and to local politicians. “It’s the fault of our generation, all over the world, we’re the ones who have messed it up,” Ndlovu says. “And of course, here, a lot of the seniors are ex-oil and gas people, and they don’t want to accept that anything is their fault.” Ndlovu has also spent a lot of time thinking about her identity as a white settler: “We have been extremely arrogant. We have failed to recognize other cultures, and that they have a much better relationship with the earth and the environment and the climate than we do.”

Renee Thomas-Hill

Renee Thomas-Hill. “I can only do what I can. I just continue being me, and just keep talking about the land, the air, and the water,” she says.

Grandmother Renee Thomas-Hill, Grandmother’s Voice

For Renee Thomas-Hill, 74, a Cayuga nation grandmother and healer, climate change isn’t a discrete problem, but a symptom of a much bigger disconnection. Thomas-Hill lives on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ont. She has been providing mental health workshops to social work students, based on building their connection to the land. She is also Elder-in-Residence at McMaster University. A few years ago, Thomas-Hill co-created an organization called Grandmother’s Voice. Initially, the focus of the organization was on supporting teachers in schools in southwestern Ontario’s Halton region to integrate Indigenous principles into their classrooms; it has now grown to support staff who work with urban Indigenous people. “We want to help urban Indigenous people to remember their instructions, but also to remind all of the people” she says.

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Thomas-Hill’s worldview includes having a sense of gratitude for all creation. Trees are our helpers; birds and squirrels and all creation are family. She reflects on the importance of protecting our local areas, and for her that includes the Greenbelt—two million acres of protected land in southwestern Ontario that is home to many species at risk. It encompasses farmland, Indigenous territories, forests, wetlands, rivers and lakes. Until recently, much of the Greenbelt has been legally protected against urban sprawl and development. However, the recent passage of Bill 23 in Ontario has put this at risk. “So many people come into this part, and they’re building houses, and they’re cutting down trees. They don’t realize the trees play a very important part [in protecting us from] big winds,” says Thomas-Hill. “The universe is showing us that if we don’t do something now, we don’t have much time to make change.”

Returning to the teachings that are held in the wampum belts is essential for Thomas-Hilll. “All our belts are a reminder of self care,” she says, referring to the Kaswentha Two-Row Wampum belt that represents the promise between Haudenosaunee people and other peoples, including settlers, to live together on this land. Protecting the land is part of protecting our own wellbeing and that of future generations.

Of the animals, plants and water, Thomas-Hill says:“We give greetings and gratitude that they are still existing, and that they may continue. They know a lot. We give greetings and gratitude that they are still existing. This is why we have ceremony, so that they can continue to exist.” She describes ceremony as just saying thank you, and explains that throughout her day, she is constantly in ceremony in those silent moments of acknowledgement before drinking water, eating and whenever she is outside. But, she says, ceremony is also getting together as people and bringing attention to lands and waters that are at risk from development or from oil and gas pipelines. “Because we’re doing these ceremonies, the Indigenous people speaking up for the land, people call it protesting.”

“We should be called heroes because we’re taking an opportunity and we’re inviting you to stand with us to protect your children’s children—because they are going to be affected just as much as our children,” she adds. Locally, protecting the Greenbelt has been an increasingly important issue for Thomas-Hill and Grandmother’s Voice. While it is a women-led organization, Thomas-Hill says that it has been connecting more with Indigenous men in ceremony, to build attention around protecting the Greenbelt. The organization is also connected with non-Indigenous likeminded people.

Thomas-Hill worries that politicians and decision-makers are not thinking of the impacts of their decisions on future generations. “They think in short terms, when we always had to think of our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren. It’s very hard for me today, because my own grandchildren look at me and they’re so influenced by the Western world,” she says.“I can only do what I can. I just continue being me, and just keep talking about the land, the air, and the water.” Creating a healing garden at Country Heritage Park in Milton, Ont. is one way that Grandmother Renee and Grandmothers’ Voice have made their connection to the land and the air and the water visible and accessible to everyone.

Lorraine Green and Carole Holmes

Lorraine Green (right) and Carole Holmes (left). “It really struck us that we’re part of the problem, and that we better get on to being part of the solution,” Holmes says.

Lorraine Green and Carole Holmes, GASP

Lorraine Green, 75. recalls the moment she saw her grandson holding his newborn son; she was struck with fear over the world he was coming into. “Leaving the world the way it is today to my grandchildren and great grandchildren just—it brings me to tears,” Green says. “It makes me so anxious for the future that they have in front of them if we don’t do everything we can.”

Green and Carole Holmes, 76, were both members of a group of seniors in Oakville, Ont. who were educating themselves on feminism and anti-racism. In 2019, when Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg was starting to make her voice heard with a movement of school strikes for climate action, they decided it was time for them to take action on climate too. People in the group made individual commitments—Holmes stopped eating meat—but they wanted to do more. Together they started a network for climate education and action for seniors, and they chose a powerful name: GASP, which stands for Grand(m)others Act to Save the Planet.

As part of GASP, Green and Holmes have helped mobilize support to protect the Greenbelt from development. They have created videos to educate Ontarians, especially seniors, on issues like Highway 413, a proposed highway that would accelerate urban sprawl, while damaging the habitats of species at risk and cutting through many rivers and streams

An ongoing highlight for Green and Holmes has been attending local Fridays for Future rallies with young people. While they initially feared that the young people would blame them for the climate crisis, they experienced a surprising connection. “They welcomed us with open arms,” says Green, “and so we continue to always try to work with young people as part of anything we’re doing at any rallies, any events, because it’s their future. We’re working for them now.”

One of GASP’s big areas of focus has been on banks and pension plans. The Big Five Canadian banks (RBC, CIBC, TD, ScotiaBank, and BMO) collectively have provided $862 billion in funding for fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement in 2015. “We’re working our butts off to stop climate change, and our money is fuel for it,” says Holmes. A few years ago, they led a campaign in which GASP members sent postcards to all of the Big Five Canadian banks, and Carole and Lorraine and other GASPs met with some RBC executives to share their desire for the bank to stop funding fossil fuels—but they are worried that this meeting might just have been an act of greenwashing. This concern has spurred them to work on banks in different ways. They are supporting the Climate Aligned Finance Act (CAFA), Bill S-243, that was moved by Senator Rosa Galvez, by reaching out to Ontario senators and to MPs in support of CAFA. “The banks would have to be aligned with Canada’s climate action targets. It’s a fabulous plan,” says Green.

Seeing their own responsibility in the climate crisis was a turning point for both women. “We had not realized how complicit we were in the climate crisis,” says Holmes. “It really struck us that we’re part of the problem, and that we better get on to being part of the solution.”

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