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David Suzuki 
Photo: Al Harvey
David Suzuki

Citation of Lifetime Achievement, 2005

Beneficiary: David Suzuki Foundation , $5,000 award

"If we take the position that humans are part of a much greater whole, then we recognize that whatever we do to our surroundings, we do to ourselves, because there is no separation from it."

A highlight of the academic year at Leamington's secondary school in the 1940s was the annual oratorical contest. In 1949, one contestant was a relatively new kid to town named David Suzuki. The Japanese-Canadian Suzuki family David, his three sisters and parents had arrived four years earlier after being released at the end of the Second World War from an internment facility in Slocan City, B.C. Stripped of their possessions, rights and privileges and exiled east of the Rocky Mountains, the Suzukis had chosen the southwestern Ontario farming community as their new home.

For the off-the-cuff requirement of the competition, Suzuki drew the topic "If I Were Three Inches Tall." The subject might have paralyzed a lesser speaker, but the grade-nine student was bright, imaginative and articulate. As a child, he had spent hours in the B.C. wilderness camping, hiking and fishing and had a highly developed general knowledge of the world, the result of a childhood habit of hounding his father with questions about the content of the family's set of The Book of Knowledge encyclopedia.

Suzuki embarked on an imaginary three-inch-tall romp, in which he tumbles out of a fishing boat and is immediately devoured by a bass. After a slippery ride down the predator's digestive tract, the boy frees his penknife and slices into the fish's air bladder. There, he safely hides until his father hooks the fish and frees his captive son in the course of cleaning it for dinner. "My father was always a great believer that I should be able to speak extemporaneously," Suzuki says today. "He thought it was a disadvantage when Japanese Canadians could not express themselves well, and he felt it was important that I should be able to do that." Needless to say, the tiny tale was a crowd-pleaser, and Suzuki won first prize.

More than 50 years later, David Takayoshi Suzuki continues to wow audiences in homes and auditoriums across the country on issues that matter from the environment and civil rights to the future of science and technology. A progressive thinker and a persuasive grassroots activist, Suzuki is Canada's leading spokesperson for sustainable development. He possesses a staggering list of credentials and accolades: awardwinning scientist, author of more than 30 books, celebrated (and decorated) broadcaster and host of the country's longest-running science and nature television series and its specialty-themed spinoffs, radio personality, recipient of 16 honorary doctorates and several First Nations honours, Officer of the Order of Canada and founder and current chair of the board at the David Suzuki Foundation.

The common threads that connect the prizewinning speaker of 1949 with the environmental champion today are an uncompromising pursuit of excellence and the ability to tell a story that people want to hear. "My father expected that I would always do my best," he says. "When some high school friends wanted me to run for school president, he was furious when I said I wouldn't because I knew I'd lose. He told me there would always be someone better than me, but that is no reason not to try." Suzuki ultimately ran and won.

After graduating from high school in London, Ont., in 1954, Suzuki left for Amherst College in Massachusetts on a scholarship. By 1961, he had completed a Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Chicago. A research geneticist who spent his early career searching for a genetic mutation in Drosophila fruit flies, Suzuki served as a research associate for one year at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee before landing a faculty position at the University of Alberta (U of A), in Edmonton, in 1962. One year later, he was on his way home to his birthplace, Vancouver, and the University of British Columbia (UBC), where he remained a faculty member for 38 years, a tenure punctuated by a handful of visiting professorships across the United States and Canada and by his emerging broadcast career.

Suzuki's obvious gift for connecting with an audience had made him a familiar name on U of A community television and campus radio at UBC. He was already a hot quote for impromptu reports and interviews when he launched "Suzuki on Science" in 1971 from CBC Television in Vancouver. His collaboration with television producer Jim Murray, however, catapulted him onto the national stage when Suzuki moved from the guest to host chair with "Science Magazine" in 1974. Five years later, Suzuki's half-hour program of science-in-brief was reborn as "The Nature of Things with David Suzuki."


From the beginning, Suzuki distinguished himself as the thinking person's television host. Through skilled storytelling, he made information accessible without dumbing it down, entertaining and challenging his audience by appealing to their highest ideals. "I've always thought of myself as a simplifier," he says. "When I was young, my father used to make me practise my lessons and speeches. He would always tell me, 'If you can't make me understand it, how will you explain it to others?'"

His encounter with John Livingston, a former executive producer of "The Nature of Things," signalled a turning point in Suzuki's take on science. Livingston, a professor of environmental studies at York University, opened the broadcaster's eyes to the imbalance of human impacts on Earth, and it resulted in the eight-part "A Planet for the Taking" in 1985. "Till then, I had always taken the position that humans were at the centre of everything and that we had to constrain our interaction with the environment," he explains. "'A Planet for the Taking' made me realize that we are deeply embedded in a far more complex world than we understand. If we take the position that humans are part of a much greater whole, then we recognize that whatever we do to our surroundings, we do to ourselves, because there is no separation from it."

The almost two million loyal viewers of "A Planet for the Taking" embraced Suzuki's message. Under his watch, CBC's science and nature programming on television and radio since the late 1970s has been phenomenally successful. "The Nature of Things" has a devoted weekly following and is broadcast in more than 50 countries. "When 'It's a Matter of Survival' aired in 1989," he says of his five-part radio special, "the CBC received 17,000 letters from viewers. They've never had anything like that."

Suzuki had always imagined that popularizing science would empower individual Canadians. But he discovered early on that it offered him a platform, and that ignited his activism. Beyond the walls of the studio, Suzuki was a relentless advocate for oldgrowth forests and First Nations land claims and a fearless critic of a host of environmental threats, including James Bay hydroelectric projects, offshore oil drilling, unsustainable forestry, B.C. aquaculture, genetically modified foods and the country's official policy on climate change. "As a young man, I was taught that I had no choice but to stand up for what I thought was right," says Suzuki, who's been run off the road on South Moresby and had his living room window shattered by gunshots.

Suzuki's determination to mobilize Canadians eventually led to the establishment of the David Suzuki Foundation. "My wife Tara helped me understand that people are frightened. You can't just give them half the story and not offer help or an option for something they can do," Suzuki says. "TV is ephemeral and also a passive medium for the viewer. The foundation grew out of a need to give people a sense of power." Launched in 1990 as a science-based, actionoriented centre, the Vancouver not-for-profit focuses on four key areas: oceans and sustainable fishing; forests and wild lands; climate change and clean energy; and sustainable living. The foundation's staff and consultants are among the best in their fields and work tirelessly to collaborate with academics, government and business to develop solutions for the future.

While the foundation offers practical advice for the Canadian public, it has also provided Suzuki with a vehicle for social change. Last year, he and his team created a dynamic blueprint for the future. "We got together and asked ourselves, Where do we want to be in 25 years?" Suzuki explains. "There was a long list of things about which we all agreed. We want clean air, clean water, wildlife, wilderness; we want to be able to eat the fish that come out of our lakes and rivers." The result, Sustainability within a Generation: A New Vision for Canada (SWAG), is a how-to guide for a thriving and competitive country that functions well within its natural limits. "It was a matter of lifting our sights ahead," he says. "When we identified our goals, we then had to ask, How do we get there and what do we need to do?"

SWAG concentrates on nine critical challenges among them, generating genuine wealth, improving efficiency, shifting to clean energy, protecting and conserving water and reducing waste. It maps out goals and solutions for protecting Canada's natural heritage for future generations while ending reckless consumption, pollution and ecosystem destruction.

"We sent the document to all senior officials in Ottawa, and they were blown away," Suzuki says. Today, SWAG's author, environmental lawyer David R. Boyd, is midway through a oneyear appointment with the Privy Council of Canada to assist Ottawa in achieving the goal.

SWAG has undoubtedly accelerated the sustainability agenda. It is mature, comprehensive and, as such, the culmination of Suzuki's lifelong commitment to rigorous thinking and critical analysis fuelled by his belief that it is always possible to do better. Its wisdom reflects the evolution of the environmental movement itself resolved, creative, solution-oriented and collaborative. Possibly for the first time, it gives grassroots activists, government and industry a common goal.

As always, it is classic David Suzuki raising the bar for all.


Last updated: 2005

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