Sierra Club's Past
The Sierra Club story begins in San Francisco in 1892 when the naturalist John Muir co-founded a hiking club for mountain lovers. Muir believed that a spiritual link existed between people and nature. He brought a profound knowledge of North America’s natural spaces to the Sierra Club, which he imparted during his extensive travels throughout North America. The Club quickly became a leader in America’s movement to preserve natural spaces.
Over the next six decades, the Sierra Club became the largest, most effective environmental organisation in North America with Chapters and local Groups in every U.S. state. In 1969, a handful of British Columbians decided to adapt and apply the model to fight clear-cut logging in the Nitinat Triangle and West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. The BC Club became the first Canadian chapter of the U.S. Sierra Club and continues their work as an independent organisation. Over the next several decades, new chapters grew across the rest of Canada into the independent Sierra Club Canada Foundation that we have now.
Past Harms and Just Ways Forward
Muir’s philosophy has had a powerful impact on the conservation movement in the United States and Canada. However, it is important to recognize that Muir is a complicated figure, an issue that has been extensively discussed by the U.S. Sierra Club. His work excluded people of colour and denied the importance of Indigenous people in managing and conserving the lands that Muir and his contemporaries later sought to protect. Consequently, many Indigenous people were forced from their territories during the early conservation movement. In some instances, they were forced to take on colonial controlled work-roles within conserved areas as a condition of remaining there.
In fact, Muir’s view of wild nature as an uninhabited space – rather than a lived landscape representing deep cultural ties to place – undergirds the very claims that many environmentalists have fought to challenge. Namely, it suggests that seemingly undeveloped land can be freely appropriated for public or private projects. This idea gets resurrected every time governments and their private partners look to install new landfills, pipelines, and other polluting infrastructure. These developments not only harm the land but also perpetuate the culture of colonial erasure present in Muir’s writing and activism.
The task of the people who make up Sierra Club Canada Foundation today is to critically examine how colonial domination, racism, exclusion, and dispossession have shaped the conservation movement. In tandem, we must work towards building a better, more just, and inclusive future.
What we take from John Muir's legacy, as well as his contemporaries, is an orientation to local landscapes, an interconnection between humans and nature, and our emotional ties with our lived spaces, which many of us inhabit as settlers on unceded lands. However, the history of the organisation (Sierra Club), which the Sierra Club Canada Foundation is based on and from which we originally emerged, as well as systemic issues pertaining to the history of conservation in Canada, have played a role in perpetuating discrimination and colonial violence to Indigenous Peoples (1).
We are committed to the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion journey. Today, the SCCF seeks to amplify the voices of communities on the ground. We endeavour to work against historical wrongs and to continue as an inclusive organisation and participant in conservation activism. We seek to uplift local and Indigenous voices for environmental justice, which includes respect for and accountability to treaty rights. We seek to use our experience, resources, and internationally recognized name to amplify local movements. We see collaborative, inclusive conservation as the most effective and just path to a sustainable future.
If you want to know more about our ongoing work on Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, or have more questions about how we recognize the complexity of John Muir’s legacy, please seek out our national JEDI Committee here: firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) Our sister organisation, Sierra Club BC, has similarly reflected on and taken accountability for its role in harming Indigenous peoples in its Balancing the Canoe statement: https://sierraclub.bc.ca/balancing-the-canoe/