David Suzuki talks about aging, racism and family

David Suzuki’s work as a scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster has made him one of Canada’s most recognized–and at times controversial– people. Trained as a geneticist, Suzuki found a niche early in his career in making science compelling, and understandable, to everyday people. He has published more than 50 books, including 19 for children. His 30-year career in broadcasting includes developing and hosting CBC’s long running science program Quirks and Quarks and numerous award-winning documentaries. David Suzuki spoke to Stephanie Harrington about his latest, most personal book, Letters to My Grandchildren, for The Coastal Spectator. What follows is is an edited excerpt from their interview.

In the foreword to Letters to My Grandchildren, you write that you’ve been introducing yourself as an elder for the past several years. Yet accepting that you are in the last part of your life, what you call the “death zone,” has been difficult. What does it mean to you to be an elder, and why did you decide to take on that role?

In our society, where youth and being young is so important, I was very reluctant to take on the role of elder. But the reality is, when you get to a certain age, you can’t deny it any longer. I’ve watched the elders in First Nations communities. They are regarded really as the most important group in the community and often you talk to some of the young political activists and … the elders are a constant reference point to them. As I reflected on that, I realized [that] to be an elder is something you earn by living an entire life and in fact you now owe it to society to share your knowledge. You are the living history of the community. I urge my fellow elders to stop avoiding the word elder and realize it not only confers respect but obligation. I think we’re in a unique position, we’ve lived an entire life, we’re free to speak as we wish. We can draw on our experience to provide lessons to the coming generation.

Also, my (maternal) grandparents came to Canada in 1904 and left in 1946 after they were interned in camps during the Second World War.  My grandparents never spoke English, I never spoke Japanese. We never ever had a conversation. When they left, really important questions I felt were part of my roots were gone. I feel now that I’m an elder, I don’t want to kick the bucket and to have my grandchildren say,  “I wanted to talk to my grandpa about this or that.”

You’ve written more than 50 books, but this has been called your most personal. Each chapter is written as a letter to your six grandchildren, addressing a range of topics from racism to fame to aging. The voice is intimate and conversational; the letters feel as if they should be read aloud. Was this intentional? Who do you hope the book reaches, in terms of audience?

It is a very personal letter to my grandchildren, and I wrote it that way, but it is a book that is for sale, and I hope people, old and young, buy it. I hope it triggers a response in readers to make it a personal thing and an inspection of their own priorities and experiences. It’s up to them to get out of it what they want. I didn’t think of it [as being read aloud], although it is written as if I was talking to my grandchildren. What’s interesting to me is this was a piece of cake to write because it was a like a conversation. In the reading though, it has become a very personal thing.  [In] one segment I was so emotional I couldn’t read it; it was a passage to my mother. Another couple of sections I’ve written to my grandchildren, I choked up in the reading.

It wasn’t challenging to write something personal because my whole life has been an open book. [With] most of my books, the reception is mixed: there are people who hate my guts and they’re going to tear down anything you find, but this one I was really surprised. I gave the June Callwood lecture recently (in Toronto), and people were coming up crying because they were so touched. I have been struck and moved by that response.

One of the most moving aspects of the book for me was reading about your family’s internment during the Second World War in the Slocan Valley, in what is now Valhalla Provincial Park. You’ve described this experience in another interview as bittersweet. It had a devastating effect on your family. Your maternal grandparents decided to leave Canada and return to Japan after the war ended, and your parents, born Canadians, were stripped of their rights, possessions and livelihood. But living in the Slocan Valley allowed you to experience the natural world in a way you hadn’t before. Can you tell us more about how you feel about this period in your life?

As a kid, your parents shield you from what’s going on. It only occurred to me when I was on the train [to the internment camp] that everybody on the train was Japanese. When we got to the camps, I was one of the few kids who couldn’t speak Japanese. I was in one of the oldest Canadian Japanese families at that time. The Japanese kids beat me up all the time because I couldn’t speak Japanese. The result of that is I tried to avoid being around them. I was this loner who spent all this time outside by myself in what is now a magnificent provincial park.

Yeah, I have mixed feelings. My parents were just in their early 30s. It was shattering to them. They were Canadians. As an adult, I feel angry for my parents, but as a kid [I] was torn between my experience with other kids and spending time in this magnificent park. I don’t dwell on the war in this book, but I am very concerned about the issue of racism. When people asked me what shaped my life, I say Pearl Harbour. Up to Pearl Harbour I was just a Canadian kid. Pearl Harbour changed that. I have a knee-jerk response to racism. Two of my grandchildren are Haida, and the most recent one, their grandfather is Metis. They’re going to be hurt by many bigots. I tell them it is the love of family and community that is their shield. Don’t let someone who is ignorant attack you or criticize you or hurt you because they don’t know you. They’re just speaking out of ignorance. I’m trying to get them strong enough so it won’t hurt them. A bigot who hurts you, a person who hates a gay person or woman or Muslim, those people are your enemy. Your role in life is to protest and speak against any example of someone being picked on. They might be the victims now, but you may be the victim in the future.

Your father emerges as an intriguing character in this book. Can you talk more about the influence he had on your life, specifically your love of nature?

My father, he was my hero, he was my mentor. He made me feel I was a pretty important guy. He loved me. But he was very demanding. My dad beat me physically: he spanked me, kicked me. He was a tough guy, but my love for my father overrode everything. The biggest hurt was by words, not by actions. When he was mad at me, he’d threaten to pull me out of school — that was my biggest fear, having my education interrupted. The hard part for me was worshiping my father and realizing he was a human being with all the frailties that come with that. He loved the outdoors. As the eldest son in a family of seven kids, of the eldest son in an immigrant family, he was expected to set an example. For his mother and father, that meant, you’ve got to make money. Dad worked hard his whole life, he loved camping, he loved gardening. He was a real biologist in a way that was far more profound than my biology. He loved fishing but he was constantly being berated by his parents. They’d say, “Why did you go camping with David this weekend? You could have been working.”  That only endeared him to me more. He didn’t care about money. He taught us, just because you have a big house or fancy cars doesn’t mean you’re more important. My earliest memory of fishing was at four years old. He just took me camping. Even in the camps during the war, we weren’t supposed to be fishing, but we’d go off and fish like mad and go camping in the mountains. Thanks to dad, I have a real love for nature. It was just part of who he was.

In this book I talk about my mother. She was a rock in our family. She did it without fanfare. Mum was keeping the family together . . . I say in the book, the most selfless, kindest human being I’ve ever met was my mother. But when she died,  I realized when my sister and my children die, no one will ever know who she was, and she will disappear from human memory. We hear of all these famous people but what about all the millions of people who all they did was struggle to survive? They lived, worked, suffered. I always have to struggle to live up to being like my mother, I have to try to fill her shoes, I have to do it all the time. The kids seem so impressed when someone’s on TV and they become a celebrity but they shouldn’t be. They should put it in its place. Fame of that kind doesn’t interest me at all; it’s what I’m doing now that matters.

In Letters to My Grandchildren, you write: “Acceptance of aging is part of getting older; some call it wisdom. And when we accept what we are, then we define ourselves and no longer care how others see us. Believe me, that is totally liberating and gives power to an elder who is speaking.” Do you feel free of all constraints now?

For me, one of the greatest gifts I received when I still a young man was tenure at UBC. I’d just turned 30 and I got tenure. What that meant was I couldn’t get fired because they didn’t like me. There were people on the board that constantly wanted to fire me, but because I got tenure I didn’t have to worry about it. Way back in the early 80s, the Haida were going and getting arrested. I’d done a film about it and I said to the CBC I’m going to go out there and support them. I was told the CBC will yank you off air. My grandson (Tamo) recently got arrested on Burnaby Mountain but I’m still held back because of the threat of The Nature of Things getting cancelled…

I want people to understand age brings this tremendous freedom from worrying about other people’s influence on you . . . if you say the truth and speak it from your heart and someone is offended that’s their problem, not yours. I don’t worry about pissing someone off; most people still hesitate and worry. You shouldn’t–we’re free from that.

The main thing now is my health. I know I’m in the death zone. I can drop dead any time. As long as I’m healthy, I’m going to be in there and doing what I can. It’s about my grandchildren and what their future is going to be … I can’t imagine a bigger cause than taking to task a prime minister who has wilfully ignored an issue that threatens the survival of Canada, just because he’s got an agenda based on petroleum… To this day he has deliberately ignored the climate and environment in his last budget. It’s absolutely outrageous.