• Terra Observer

Young Ontario activist spotlight: Aidan Brushett

From helping build bee cities to fighting for university divestment, meet the young activist that wants to build a more eco-friendly Ontario.

Sarah Sequeira, Contributor

Second-year University of Guelph student Aidan Brushett is fighting for a greener Ontario.

University of Guelph student Aidan Brushett developed his keen fascination with the environment as a child while exploring the backcountry of Algonquin and Killarney Provincial Parks. But it was during his freshman year when he was sitting in on a vetoed divestment proposal for Guelph that he saw first-hand the role universities play in compromising Canada’s natural resources.

“[Especially] for a school with a green image, [not divesting is] something you see as hypocritical, or at least out of alignment with our values,” Brushett, a second-year Wildlife Biology and Conservation student, says. “Both on the basis of climate justice and social injuries like issues with Indigenous groups, solidarity and reconciliation.”

One year later, the institution has changed its tone. On April 22, the University of Guelph’s Board of Governors voted to officially begin a five-year process of divesting from the fossil fuel industry. With the university reportedly owning fossil fuel holdings valued around $32 million, this decision marks a leap in its effort to become a more sustainable institution.

The student advocacy group that played a central role in the institution’s decision to divest is Fossil Free Guelph, of which Brushett is a member.

After attending the first meeting, Brushett knew he wanted to use his voice to encourage systematic change by identifying the complexity of the fossil fuel divestment issue and creating a more sustainable future for his school.

For more than six years, Fossil Free Guelph had challenged the university’s board of governors to vote in favour of divestment with little success, though their work finally paid off this year.

“I had a lot of experiences growing up that kind of shaped my values in that sense,” Brushett says. “Because of the opportunity to be out in these wild spaces, once I hit about high school age, I realized that all of these places are at risk, and became aware of all of the issues facing them. I wanted to do something about it.”

Before studying at Guelph, Brushett’s passion for climate action as a teenager motivated him to join the Ontario Nature Youth Council, where his activist work officially began. Run by Ontario Nature, a non-profit organization, the Youth Council encourages young environmentalists to do their part in taking a stand against climate change.

“It’s a network of young adults from across Ontario dedicated to protecting wild species and wild spaces,” Brushett says.

One of the ways Brushett’s council did this was by partnering with Bee City Canada, a non-profit that works to protect pollinators by eliminating the use of harmful chemicals, restoring habitats with native plants and encouraging bees to flock to the area. At age 16, Brushett worked alongside Bee City Canada and Ontario Nature to certify his hometown of Whitby as a “Bee City”.

Brushett, centre, played a key role in the 2018 designation of Whitby, Ont. as a Bee City. (Metroland)

“I reached out to local conservation authorities within the community, even just different businesses and things, got support, then approached the city,” he says. “From there, our sustainability committee was able to start working on an action plan.”

In January 2018, Whitby became one of 28 Bee Cities in Ontario. The experience gave Brushett an appreciation for pollinators—and Brushett’s advocacy work with them didn’t end with Bee City Canada.

“At Guelph, we have this really cool sustainability office, and one of our projects was rehabilitating an old, 50-acre meadow behind one of our residences into a big pollinator garden,” Brushett says. “It was a big partnership between the Horticultural Society, Physical Resources, Grounds Staff [and] even the Greenhouses and Plant Sciences, where we were going to grow things.”

Unfortunately, the project has been postponed because of COVID-19. Brushett is hoping they can still implement it next year.

In the meantime, he hopes to inspire the younger generation through climate advocacy. To do so, Brushett is working to build an eco summit that will educate high school students on the climate crisis and sustainability issues.

He thinks the climate crisis is the most pressing issue facing younger generations, and wants to continue inspiring campus activists and high school students with his passion projects.

“The scary thing is our institutions and leaders and governments aren’t really recognizing the severity of that [climate crisis],” Brushett says. “While there’s a lot of other huge, and important, issues, that’s one that’s always in the background.”