How the University of Alberta’s sustainability initiative took flight

Looking back on a crucial time in the University of Alberta’s sustainability and climate commitments

By Trevor Chow-Fraser

Michael Rawson Clark addresses the audience at a Sustainability Awareness Week 2008 concert.

A bright light

Michael Rawson Clark always loved being out in nature. In 2004, he left Saskatchewan to study biology at the University of Alberta. He completed his BSc and immediately started a master’s degree in plant ecology. He wanted to know how native prairie grassland might benefit from grazing by native animals such as bison and elk.

Posters from the Campus Sustainability Coalition.

The Campus Sustainability Coalition

So with the goal of fixing the University of Alberta, Clark founded the Campus Sustainability Coalition. This APIRG working group was a way to raise awareness and also for Clark to connect with like-minded people. “It was open to anyone, so students, staff, faculty… I think we even got my mom involved. She just liked Michael so much!” said Leblanc.

“I think Michael, sort of, intuitively, knew it was all about getting the right people around the table,” said Leblanc.

Most importantly, Clark moved with incredible speed to engage stakeholders across the university. In its first year, he had relationships in place with the Students’ Union, Graduate Students Association, Residence Services, South Campus, Facilities and Operations, Campus Saint-Jean, School of Public Health, School of Business… and that’s just what’s on paper.

Len Sereda is interviewed at the launch of Sustainability Awareness Week 2008.

Green Behind The Scenes

Through Clark’s tireless networking, the Campus Sustainability Coalition’s reputation grew and soon he was put in touch with a crucial figure in the Office of Sustainability’s future: Len Sereda, director of facilities management.

Establishing a Shared Vision

In fall 2007, with Vice-President Don Hickey’s support, Facilities and Operations formed a Sustainability Committee. Their first order of business was to move forward the proposal for a university-wide sustainability initiative and an Office of Sustainability. With nearly daily meetings and interviews throughout 2007–08, Sereda led consultations with stakeholders, deans and governance committees.

Laying the Foundation

With the board’s commitment, this core group could now move forward with building the Office of Sustainability. From July 2008 to August 2009, Sereda, Soskolne, Marshall and others figured out the staffing, budget and organizational structure.

Slide from a PowerPoint presentation introducing the Office of Sustainability.

“Those were the foundational years, that’s when it was all put together,” said Soskolne.

It is perhaps a reflection of the value that these particular faculty place on teaching that the committee quickly made student learning their priority. Many students come to sustainability with the realization that human problems like poverty are tied to the environment, and environmental problems like climate change are inextricably political and economic. Sustainability education, therefore, requires interdisciplinary thinking. But how could this work in a university with 18 faculties and schools?

Grace Lam, an outreach and engagement intern with the Office of Sustainability in 2014.

Getting the Word Out

To maintain the momentum that would allow something like an interdisciplinary certificate to succeed, the Office of Sustainability required a third pillar, one focused on outreach and engagement.

Lisa Dockman (left) was director of ECOS when Shannon Leblanc was a member of the Campus Sustainability Coalition. They would later work together in the Office of Sustainability and EMSO, respectively.

Finding Direction

All of this happened after September 2009, when the office found its director in Trina Innes, then serving as senior manager of Alberta Environment’s award-winning public education team. As director, and later Chief Sustainability Officer, she would unite facilities, operations, teaching, research and campus life together under the university’s first sustainability plan.

Trina Innes (second from left), Lisa Dockman (second from right) and Shannon Leblanc (right) accept an Emerald Award for the Office of Sustainability.

Academic Sustainability 15 Years Later

Then came a period of years when there was no dedicated lead on academic sustainability. Finally, in 2018 the university gave preference to academic sustainability by giving it the full-time staff and the institutional home it needed to thrive. The Office of Sustainability was closed in order to launch the Sustainability Council, an academic leadership unit that works across faculties to spark learning, discovery and citizenship for sustainability.

A snapshot of academic sustainability initiatives at the University of Alberta.

Meet the students and academics who are discovering solutions to our climate and sustainability challenges. Writing from Edmonton-Amiskwacîwâskahikan, Canada.