Canadian Armed Forces members placing sand bags to stop flood waters.
Canadian Armed Forces members placing sand bags to stop flood waters in Constance Bay, Ontario in April of 2019. Credit: Department of National Defense Credit: Department of National Defense

Right before our son was born, my partner and I sat in our living room and weighed our options for a future that could provide safety and security for our child. We were broke, living in a run-down apartment we shared with squirrels that were squatting in our walls. I was no stranger to this type of poverty, having grown up without a secure family home and often going without food in our cupboards. I knew I wanted more for my son.

“What about the military?” I asked my partner. It felt like the only real, low-barrier option available. Thankfully, he called my bluff. At the time, neither of us were university graduates. We could barely afford our rent as it was, so taking months or years off work to get a certificate was not a viable option. It was either join the military or each juggle multiple jobs in an attempt to save up enough money to find safe housing that was suitable for a baby. We decided on the latter.

Our situation was not unique. It’s one that many young people face as they look to a future that feels impossibly bleak with increasing climate disasters and soaring unaffordability. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

In September, Joe Biden announced the creation of the American Climate Corps—a new take on the 1930s Civilian Climate Corps that will provide 20,000 climate jobs to meet the needs of the climate emergency. This was a huge win to the youth-led Sunrise Movement who took action for years, occupying Nancy Pelosi’s office and marching in the streets. The climate corps that Sunrise advocated for united young people to fight for a better future.

In Canada, I have been advocating for a Youth Climate Corps alongside young people all across the country. The program we envision would be a two-year apprenticeship with paid education and placement in climate jobs like forest management, habitat restoration, community care work, and emergency response. Despite the proven success of smaller-scale, non-profit programs like Youth Climate Corps BC and Wildsight Youth Climate Corps, some are still skeptical about if a corps is the right model.

The term “corps” can evoke a sense of military nostalgia that comes with a lot of baggage—the glorification of war and violence, the military industrial complex, and the echoes of white supremacy and discrimination that run rampant in the army. But a climate corps and a military corps are fundamentally different in culture and philosophy, and by supporting a climate corps, we could actually rely less on military intervention.

Why the military is not the alternative

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has been embroiled in controversy since stories of sexual assault and white supremacy within the institution made mainstream news. In 2022, a report about systemic sexual abuse problems in the CAF called it “an archaic and deeply damaging organizational culture.” Another report on systemic racism and discrimination in the CAF from 2022 states that “[s]exual violence, including rape, is a reality” in the military, and it “continues to create harm for serving members, employees and their families.” The CAF has since been working to implement changes, listing “inclusion” and respecting “dignity of all persons” as its values and principles on its website. Still, the historic culture of discrimination and abuse in the military is antithetical to what a climate corps would be.

Despite the exposés of deep systemic issues, the government has repeatedly leaned on the military to respond to climate disasters with no alternative plan in sight. In 2016, the CAF were deployed to provide aid when a devastating fire burned through Fort McMurray, AB. In the years that followed, climate disasters became more frequent and severe, increasing Canada’s reliance on the military for disaster response. In 2017, over 2,000 CAF members were deployed to Gatineau, QC, to assist with mass flooding. In 2021, the military was again deployed to help with the catastrophic atmospheric flooding in BC.

One way to fix the gap in emergency response, a former army commander suggested, could be to create a new dedicated arm of the military. This seems counterintuitive while national security operations are responsible for a large portion of emissions that feed the climate crisis—45 per cent of the federal government’s total emissions, according to a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Others have advocated for a “resilience corps” of volunteers as a means to respond to climate disasters and to pursue adaptation and mitigation projects. Reducing emissions, responding to disasters, and adapting to the climate crisis are integral to the survival of our communities; we should not have to rely on volunteers to take on lifesaving missions and resilience work that could be done through a national job program.

Sustainably support those fighting for a sustainable future

Responding to climate disasters is a role that should be filled by people who specifically enlist in climate jobs, are paid fairly for their labour, and are trained in justice and human rights. As climate chaos swells with each passing year, the consequences of not funding programs dedicated to climate solutions would be far-reaching and devastating, and have the potential to actually remove more jobs and more opportunities from young people.

In 2022, the Canadian Climate Institute published the report Damage Control: Reducing the costs of climate impacts in Canada, analyzing the ways in which the climate crisis impacts the economy. Among many worrisome findings, the report states that the fallout from climate disasters will cause 2.87 million job losses by the end of the century if we don’t massively rein in emissions.

We know that if the government decided to fund a Youth Climate Corps now, so long as they allocated enough funds to make it the robust job program that it needs to be (with thriving wages, paid education, and enough jobs for everyone who wants one), many young people would enlist. Recent polling of 2,200 Canadians by Abacus Data shows that 84 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 35 say they support or can accept the creation of a Youth Climate Corps.

With a commitment of funding from the federal government, a climate corps program would boost prosperity and hope for young people across the nation.

Erin Blondeau

Erin Blondeau (she/her) is a Métis mom living on the west coast of so-called British Columbia on unceded Quw’utsun territory. Her paternal family comes from the Red River Settlements and the Qu’Appelle...