From boycotting Nike to planting garlic, Quigley is changing the face of activism

Ellen Winter Biking Saskatoon, Saskatchewan // Age: 26

Ellen Quigley was 12 years old when she told her parents she was boycotting Nike for its association with sweatshop labour—her first kick at social activism. In 2008, she founded We Are Many, a youth-run arts and environmental collective that launched with an eco-festival attended by 15,000 people. Now, Quigley’s award-winning organization has its sights set on a surprising goal: to make Saskatoon self-sufficient in garlic, with a target of one million locally harvested bulbs each year. We caught up with Quigley as she prepared for fall planting.

Why garlic?

In Canada we get most of our garlic from China. It’s absurd to ship garlic 7,000 kilometres, and that gets people’s attention. Self-sufficiency sounds big, but it’s definable and doable because we use reasonable amounts of garlic.

Last fall we planted garlic in 16 yards in eight neighbourhoods. This year, a local land developer is lending us seven acres of land. In the fall we’ll plant as much as we can, and we should be self-sufficient by next summer.

Today, garlic, tomorrow—potatoes?

We’ll probably go with onions. Fruit is also a big one, and we have a good horticultural department [at the University of Saskatchewan] that’s developed cherries, plums and pears that can be grown at this latitude. We’ve already replanted Saskatoon berries in 23 schoolyards.

What does “think globally, act locally” mean 
to you?

If we can show these ideas work in Saskatoon then they’ll work anywhere, chiefly because of our challenging climate, conservative government, low housing density and relatively small amount of greenspace. We make all of our material available online so it can be tried elsewhere. It’s a model-based concept.

Are fun, approachable campaigns enough? Don’t people need to be pushed to make bigger changes?

People can’t be motivated to work on nebulous goals that aren’t specific or measurable. The results have to be visible—and when you see the signs for local garlic in supermarkets, everyone will know that we were successful.

This interview is part of our Top 30 under 30 feature.