Wildlands League (Ontario)

Future stewards of the land: connecting new Canadian youth with nature


Eugenia Kwok, Science Horizons intern. Photo credit: Eugenia Kwok.

Eugenia Kwok was thrilled to see the joy in the eyes of children when they first dipped kayak paddles into the placid waters of the Rouge River just east of Toronto. In 2019, the “Paddle the Rouge” event attracted hundreds of people. It was the culmination of months of promotion and volunteer co-ordination by the ECO Canada Science Horizons intern employed by the Wildlands League.

Kwok is now fully employed as campaign engagement manager at the conservation organization and calls the Rouge event one of her favourite memories. Its goal was to raise awareness of Canada’s first “national urban park” which links the Great Lakes with an important watershed to the north of Toronto. It is home to 2,000 species of plants and animals, including 30 species at risk. Remarkably, almost one in five Canadians lives within an hour of the 80 square-kilometre Rouge National Urban Park.

Most of the young paddlers at the free one-day event were new Canadians and for many this was their first opportunity to engage with Canadian wildlife and nature.

“Eugenia did a brilliant job,” says Janet Sumner, executive director of the Wildlands League, a Toronto-based organization that has led campaigns to protect and expand protected natural areas for more than 50 years. “Connecting kids with nature will build the very stewards of the land that we will pass onto them,” she says.

Eugenia with Niamh and Anna outside of Queen’s Park in Toronto.

Science Horizons intern Eugenia Kwok (left) outside of Queen’s Park, Toronto, with Niamh Wall and Anna Baggio. Photo credit: Eugenia Kwok.

Wildlands is known for its policy expertise on public land and water conservation in Canada, and has been working in the public interest since 1968, starting with a campaign to eliminate logging from parks, especially Ontario’s Algonquin Park. Currently they are supporting the discussions involving the Mushkegowuk Council and Parks Canada on the proposed creation of a massive national marine conservation area in the Hudson Bay and James Bay region.

Kwok is a first-generation Canadian so she well understands the wonders of learning about nature and wildlife in Canada. When she was two years old her parents emigrated from Hong Kong to Vancouver and her first exposure to Canadian wilderness was through school field trips to parks and salmon-spawning grounds.

Her family’s scientific bent (her parents and grandfather were all medical professionals) instilled in her a love of science and critical thinking. She graduated with a BSc in applied animal biology at the University of British Columbia and a Master’s in Geography from University of Guelph in Ontario.

Her undergraduate degree included a stint in Brazil researching the welfare of community stray dogs in Curitiba, Brazil. Her graduate thesis focussed on Cambodian communities whose livelihoods depended on the sustainability of the Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia that is experiencing impacts from climate change.  

Eugenia walks with Maureen in a flooded parking lot during the “Pagayer sur la Rouge” event.

Science Horizons intern Eugenia Kwok (right) is walking through a flooded parking lot at Paddle the Rouge, with Maureen Doolan. Photo credit: Paulette Collins.

The COVID-19 pandemic transformed her work life at the Wildlands League. “While the pandemic raged on I had to adapt to more digital ways of engaging with audiences, really creating more structure to our campaign outreach,” she says. “Now I manage a team of three and we design these engagement strategies. It’s a very fun challenge.”

Wildlands needed to change outreach methods overnight. Kwok and her team, other young people hired through government-funded internship programs, had the right technical and communications tools. “On a dime, these inventive young people said we are going online,” says Sumner. “It helped us pivot to a very robust online ability.”

Funded by Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Science Horizons program and other internship opportunities have allowed Wildlands to build its demographic. “We could not have done it without those resources,” says Sumner. “It keeps us fresh.”

Kwok says she has learned a great deal from Sumner about being a team player and a leader. “It’s been a real blast working here,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to meet so many groups and leaders without having the internship. So it’s really changed my life.”

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