He’s been an activist prodigy for more than 15 years. Now, he’s a straight-up trailblazerVancouver, B.C. // Age: 29
Call him the Kid Who Saved The Bears. Except he’s not a kid anymore, and the bears—the famed white kermode or “spirit” bears of northwestern B.C., along with their temperate rainforest habitat—aren’t quite yet saved. We caught up with the founder and chairman of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition as he prepares to turn 30 next year. Farewell, wunderkind; hello, mentor.
Hey, where’s the 13-year-old running a lemonade stand to raise money to save the bears?
I’m still him. In some ways I haven’t changed. Maybe I was a hopeless idealist before and a pragmatic idealist now. I’ve definitely learned a lot about how long it takes.
You didn’t intend this to be a life mission?
No, I thought I’d get involved, schoolkids would write letters, everyone’d wake up to this incredible treasure, we’d save it, and I’d go on to the next issue. I was shocked when we got back a dismissive form letter from the premier. I thought, okay, one more week of this. Then one more month. And now I’m on to—what is it, year 16?
How do you measure the success of the project?
Partly, success is numbers. Number of people: We now have a network of more than six million in 76 countries around the world. Number of bears: We think there are between 200 and 400 kermode bears left alive. They can survive in low numbers but you can’t reproduce them in zoos or put them in new habitat.
But definitely the measuring stick for me is land protected. Right now we have two-thirds of the land protected [from logging and other development] in order to ensure survival of the gene pool. One third to go.
When you were 17, Time magazine honoured you as one of the 60 “heroes of the planet.” It must be different going out to thump the tub now as a 29-year-old guy.
Being a kid opens up a lot of doors you otherwise couldn’t. If an adult treats you poorly it looks bad, so they kind of have to listen to you. Now they can tell me to shut up with no fear of blowback—and they do! [Laughs] But I’m still young enough that kids can relate to me. The story has changed from a kid trying to save an endangered bear to a group of concerned citizens who have grown up with this issue.
You’ve been working on a movie. Is it The Simon Jackson Story?
No, an animated feature: kind of The Lion King meets The Ugly Duckling. No preaching. International distribution and big-name voices behind it. People will know it’s a real bear in a real part of the world, and a portion of the ticket invests in the communities along the coast.
What about your own evolution? Has this been a project for you personally?
I’m still a shy kid underneath—people find that hard to believe! [Note: Jackson is talking, as always, at warp speed.] In the beginning I had two options: I could go inward, or get over my fear of talking in public and get done what I wanted for the bears. I tell kids, “Find that thing that you’re passionate about, and that will help you forget your fear.”
This interview is part of our Top 30 under 30 feature.