The Sierra Youth Coalition and the Sustainable Campuses Project

The Declaration, Volume 6, Number 1: December 2002  [Partnerships]

By Nicola Scahill

“More than any other institution in modern society, colleges and universities have a moral stake in the health, beauty, and integrity of the world their students will inherit” (David Orr, 1998).

Students are the heart of a university campus. They are the primary reason why post-secondary institutions exist. For this reason, their ideas and initiatives are invaluable to campus sustainability efforts. The Sierra Youth Coalition (SYC) recognizes that student initiatives often need support in the form of resources and models, as well as a national and international voice. Thus, through the Sustainable Campuses Project, SYC aims to support and document the efforts of post-secondary students at creating and implementing sustainability initiatives at their educational institutions. The goal of the Sustainable Campuses Project is to promote student awareness and action on university and college campuses across Canada in order to encourage and implement environmentally sustainable practices and policies. A campus provides an arena for students to address ecological and social problems on a scale at which concrete action can be achieved. Through this direct experience, meaningful involvement, and positive reinforcement, youth gain the confidence and will to influence decision making beyond their campus, for example in municipal, provincial or federal government policy.

The Sierra Youth Coalition is the youth-run branch of the Sierra Club of Canada and connects young activists to the greater environmental community working towards ecological preservation and awareness, education for sustainability, bioregionalism, and sustainable communities. The Coalition is made up of members from all regions of Canada, with local groups operating out of schools, universities and communities across the country. SYC is one of Canada’s only national youth environmental organizations that fosters a voice for youth in policy making for social justice and environmental issues. SYC first introduced the Sustainable Campuses project in 1999, after two students attended an international conference on campus sustainability issues and found that Canada was lagging far behind the rest of the attending nations.

The Sustainable Campuses Project is the first Canadian attempt to network post-secondary students from across the country in their collective efforts at “campus greening.” To date, the Sustainable Campuses project has reached over 50 campuses across Canada, and has just recently begun to reach schools in the United States as well. Through this project, SYC seeks to move beyond double-sided photocopying and recycling pop cans to consider the ecological impacts of all aspects of post-secondary school life. The Sustainable Campuses Project calls for a paradigm shift to integrate sustainable practices into the core of educational institutions. SYC provides resources for those students working towards campus sustainability in the form of financial support from the national office and a national network of student and academic environmental leaders collaborating and working together. Past areas of focus for the project have included campus auditing, sustainable transportation, energy and water efficiency practices, waste management, ethical investment practices, and corporate influence on campus.

The Sustainable Campuses Conference
For the past four years, SYC has hosted an annual conference involving students and academics from across the country and beyond. The events feature panels, keynote speeches and practical training and hands-on workshops. Discussions emphasize sharing success stories and challenges as well as creating plans of action for implementing sustainable practices on individual school campuses. Each year we invite motivational experts on campus sustainability from both Canada and the United States to share their expertise with participants. Over the years this conference has gained momentum, involving more schools and students, and empowering participants to begin new projects and initiatives at their institutions.

The first conference, held in Ottawa, Ontario (1999), brought together 15 universities from across Canada for the first time. Represented at the Ottawa conference was Mount Allison University, where student efforts led to the adoption of an environmental policy by the university. An environmental audit of Mount Allison served as a framework on which many other schools modeled their own form of environmental/sustainability projects. Students at Mount Allison University completed their third environmental audit of the campus in the summer of 2002. The University of Victoria Sustainability Project (UVSP), which became Canada’s largest and most comprehensive university sustainability audit, also resulted from the 1999 conference. In a period of one year, the UVSP completed thirteen audits of the school, helped establish a full time Sustainability Officer position, and formed an advisory committee to the Vice-President of Finance.

Given the success of the UVSP, the second conference was held in Victoria, British Columbia (2000), co-hosted by the University of Victoria and Royal Roads University. Many new schools were in attendance from the historically under-represented regions such as the Yukon Territory, Newfoundland and Central Prairies. The conference focused on skills building workshops in the areas of environmental auditing, political strategies and policy formation. The establishment of the University of Waterloo Sustainability Project (UWSP) the following year was an indirect outcome of this conference.

The third conference, held in Halifax, Nova Scotia (2001), was co-hosted by Dalhousie University, King’s College and St. Mary’s University. It brought together a total of 23 schools, including 65 student participants. This year marked the first high school student participation, with three high school representatives in attendance. Discussion topics included ecovillages, environmental management systems, politics of the university campus, social marketing, fundraising and outreach, and the UPASS (universal bus pass).

This year’s conference (2002) was held at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and was the largest and most successful conference to date. With 100 participants and over 31 schools represented (25 Canadian, 6 American) it is the first time the conference has expanded internationally. This year’s participants included faculty and staff from various university campuses as well as representatives from five national environmental organizations. Topics included education for sustainability, sustainability indicators, corporate influence on campus, network building with faculty, staff and administration, housing co-operatives, campus auditing, and many others.

It has been exciting to see how the Sustainable Campuses Project, especially through the annual conference, which is its main outreach vehicle, has expanded across Canadian campuses. Various project accomplishments include:

  • The University of Waterloo Sustainability Project (UWSP): The UWSP was launched in January 2002 and is currently working on various issues related to sustainable transportation, eco-residences, EMS/ISO 14001, and native species on campus. They also hosted the fourth annual Sustainable Campuses Conference (September 2002).
  • Greening McGill: The Greening McGill group managed to have the University Senate adopt an Environmental Policy Statement in 2001. Through this statement, the group was able to conduct a university-wide environmental assessment that summer, hiring students to conduct the research. Greening McGill continues its campaign to have the official Environmental Policy passed, which resulted in a rally and 4-day camp-out on McGill campus (Feb. 2002).
  • Mount Allison Blue Green Society: This Mount Allison campus environmental group has been involved with the Sustainable Campuses project since its inception. In fact, SYC was founded by a former Blue Green member. Determined efforts of members of Blue Green resulted in the creation and formal adoption of a comprehensive, university-wide environmental policy in 1999. As a direct result of the policy, the Mount Allison Environmental Committee was formed, composed of students, faculty, and staff representatives. Students have been hired during summer months to perform comprehensive, biannual environmental audits of the university’s operations. Students at Mount Allison are now working to build a Sustainable Residence on campus, gaining both community and university support for this initiative.
  • SYC Dalhousie: Dalhousie University has also been involved with the Sustainable Campuses Project since its beginning. They work collectively with their neighboring campuses (King’s College and St. Mary’s University), resulting in many accomplishments. Currently they are addressing issues such as green investments, composting and overall campus waste reduction. All three schools have banded together to have a referendum on the adoption of the UPASS (Universal Bus Pass), which would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions on campus and promote sustainable transportation. In November 2001, SYC Dalhousie successfully banned corporate advertising in their student union building.

Throughout the four years that the Sustainable Campuses Project has been in existence, the schools, faculty and students involved have set new standards for other schools across both Canada and the United States. Each year more students and schools are joining this growing campus sustainability movement, indicating the unique value of a youth-led project such as this.

For more information about either the Sustainable Campuses Project or the Sierra Youth Coalition, please contact us at 1-888-790-7393 or We encourage everyone to get involved in this growing sustainability movement across Canada and the United States.

Nicola Scahill has worked for the Sierra Youth Coalition, acting as the Sustainable Campuses Project Coordinator from 2001-2002. She is a graduate of Carleton University, with a degree in Environmental Studies.

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