Sunday August 28, 2016

David Suzuki's world view profoundly influenced by Haida ties

David Suzuki remains a powerful ally to indigenous communities around the world.

David Suzuki remains a powerful ally to indigenous communities around the world.

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David Suzuki will never forget the day, 30 years ago, when he interviewed Haida activist and artist Guujaaw about his fight against logging operations on Haida Gwaii, known at the time as the Queen Charlotte Islands. 

"I said to him, 'You know, Guujaaw, your people are desperate for jobs … why are you fighting against logging?' And he said, 'because when the trees are gone, we'll just be like everybody else.'"

For Suzuki, this was a radically different way of looking at the world. 

Guujaaw tells Suzuki why the Haida are opposed to logging.1:13

"What that simple statement was saying is that to be Haida means to be connected to the land in a profound way," said Suzuki.

"We don't end at our skin or finger tips, it's the trees, and the fish, and the air, and the birds  all of that is what makes the Haida who they are."

Guujaaw's world view resonated with Suzuki — it put  words to his own deep connection to nature he developed as a child living in Slocan, B.C.

Always connected to the land

It was Suzuki's time living in a Second World War Japanese internment camp that really fostered his love for being on the land.

"Even though we were Canadians by birth, with the War Measures Act we were deprived of all rights of citizenship, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, our bank accounts were frozen, our property confiscated," said Suzuki.

His family was sent to a camp in Slocan, B.C., where he felt rejected for a second time — this time by his peers. While most of the kids in the camp were bilingual, Suzuki couldn't speak Japanese and was often teased about it.

"Because the kids picked on me, I didn't want to hang out with [them], and I ended up in the woods," said Suzuki.

He spent his days in the forest, where he fished, hiked, and gained a deeper understanding of nature.

"I met bears, I met wolves, I met moose, I mean these were life-altering experiences for me."

Standing alongside Indigenous people

It has been over 30 years since Suzuki met Guujaaw, and he remains a powerful ally to Indigenous environmental movements across the country.

David Suzuki at Site C protest camp

David Suzuki, third from the right, and Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, centre, joined protesters at the Site C protest camp at Rocky Mountain Fort. (Yvonne Tupper/Facebook)

Recently he joined the protest against the Site C Dam in northeastern B.C., which is on Treaty 8 territory. Suzuki gave his voice to the movement because he felt that the federal government hasn't lived up to the treaty promises.

"[Indigenous people] were guaranteed in the treaties that they would be able to live the way they want to live as long as the sun shines, the wind blows and the rivers flow," said Suzuki.

"They trusted us and believed us, and to this day this is all Indigenous leaders tell me, we just want Canada to live up to what they say."

But Suzuki isn't merely using his celebrity to draw attention to causes that are dear to him. He also continues to learn from his Indigenous environmental allies.

"We need something that [First Nations people] have held onto despite everything we've done to them, and that is the sense of connection they have taught me — the Earth literally is our mother."

Beyond his passion for nature, Suzuki now has one more reason to ally with First Nation environmentalists — his two Haida grandsons connect his bloodline to the community of Haida Gwaii. 

"Having grandchildren who are living on reserve in Haida Gwaii, believe me, gives me a hell of a lot of commitment and passion," said Suzuki. 

"It's their future I'm talking about now."