“Come in!” Though I’ve never met David Suzuki before, his voice rings through the open door, sounding as familiar as my late grandfather’s. My guess is that many other 20- to 30-year-old Canadians would feel the same way. We grew up on Suzuki’s The Nature of Things. His voice and perspective have influenced the way Canadians see and interact with the environment. Meeting Suzuki is like meeting a long-lost family member for the first time, and I’m nervous. “Man, you’re so young!” he says, and I laugh. Perhaps it’s a fitting dynamic for this particular interview. After all, Suzuki was in Edmonton promoting his book,Letters to My Grandchildren, a collection of letters addressed to his six grandchildren where he writes from the perspective of an elder to explore today’s most vital social and environmental issues.
Vue Weekly: Why did you want to share these letters with the public?
David Suzuki: I’m hoping what I write will stimulate elders. Our problem today is that our elders have been marginalized so much. We want them to get the hell out of the way. But if you look in a First Nations community, an elder is like a rock star. They embody the living memory and the living culture they’ve accumulated over time, and they’re valued for that. I thought if I could put this book out there it would become a challenge to other elders to share what they think. My whole life has been an open book—it’s why I never worry about Harper getting some goods on me. My life is out there.
VW: Your family’s stories have also been shared widely—most recently when your grandson, Tamo Campos, was arrested for protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline.
DS: Tamo was living with the Tahltans and was involved in many protests, but no one even knew that he was my grandson. It only came out when he was arrested over the Kinder Morgan pipeline. I was ready to get arrested alongside him, but the problem was that CBC just went nuts when they heard that I went to [Kinder Morgan]. They said they’d have to pull me off The Nature of Things,which I would be happy to do, but I was so closely identified with the series that they might have to cancel it. The show is too important to me, so I felt very frustrated. But Tamo’s mom—my daughter—and his sister—my granddaughter—they all got arrested. Of course, all the 60 [arrest] cases were eventually thrown out because it was proven that Kinder Morgan drew their line in the wrong place, and no one had been trespassing after all. But I was very proud of Tamo and his sister, Midori.
VW: As an environmental activist, you’ve seen many political changes in Canada over the years. How is it different for your grandson and other activists today?
DS: The Harper government is the first government where he’s been very tight on allowing access. I’ve asked three times to see Harper and every time he’s [deferred] me to speak with Environmental Ministers Jim Prentice, Rona Ambrose, John Baird. [It seems] he’s not interested in meeting me. The ministers are all mouthpieces for Harper. When we had Mulroney, Clark and Trudeau, I’ve always been able to have access to them. This is a very different kind of government. It’s a very anti-democratic government that is actively trying to suppress environmentalists. I think the next election is a critical: one, because we have to ask, ‘Do we want a real democracy or not?’ But I feel really heartened by what’s happened in Alberta.
VW: What environmental changes do you think we’ll see under the NDP government?
DS: I think the interesting thing is that the oil-and-gas industry [in Alberta] already knows that they’ve got to change. Suncor is saying that they support the idea of putting a price on carbon. That was huge. Virtually every CEO has admitted that there’s got to be a pricing change. Rachel Notley coming in [to office] isn’t revolutionary. It’s going to be about how she walks that line and how strong. This is Alberta’s moment. It’s in times in crisis that you can get something revolutionary done. It’s like the Shock Doctrine that Naomi Klein talks about, [crisis] has always been used to reinforce a right-wing agenda, but I think this is Alberta’s moment.
VW: Let’s talk about women. In Letters, you dedicate a chapter to your only granddaughter, Midori, about gender equality in Canada.
DS: The shift in [gender equality] is gigantic. For example, I’ve had a lot of experiences seeing it in the forestry sector. We’ve had a long history of fighting against the forestry industry. But now a third of forestry graduates are women, and the changes are immense because women tend to look in a bigger way, in the way they tend to think of family and long-term foresters. Males tend to think more short-term, like, ‘How do you maximize a yield?’ I know they talk about the glass ceiling, and there is a glass ceiling, but you can’t have so many women coming into these sectors and not breaking these ceilings.They’re just too talented.
VW: In Letters, you emphasize to your grandchildren the importance of listening and learning from First Nations’ perspectives to protect the environment.
DS: The need that we have today is the shift in perspective that First Nations have because their roots are in place. It’s about place and our relationship with place. I think what’s happening now is that we’re honouring that much more. If you look at the contentious issues that are happening across the country—water [issues] in New Brunswick, the Boreal Forest across the north or pipelines—it’s First Nations that are leading the battles, and it’s because they have a different sense of commitment to place.
After Jim Prentice left federal politics, he was appointed to negotiate on the pipelines with First Nations, and I said to him, “Jim, these First Nations are desperate for jobs and economic development. The federal government and Enbridge have offered them millions of dollars to let that pipeline through their territory. And yet they’re saying no. What is that telling you? That there are things more important than money. You guys think it’s a matter of giving them a bigger share. That’s not what they’re saying. They’re saying they don’t want to run the risk of losing their culture and territory.”
That’s what the issue is. And that’s why environmentalists are realizing they need to work closer with First Nations and indigenous communities.