'It was here that I began': David Suzuki receives honorary U of A degree

David Suzuki received an honorary degree from the University of Alberta Thursday as protesters rallied outside Edmonton's Jubilee Auditorium.

The science broadcaster and environmentalist received the honour during a convocation ceremony

David Suzuki addresses a University of Alberta convocation ceremony Thursday after receiving an honorary degree. (CBC)

David Suzuki received an honorary degree from the University of Alberta Thursday after protesters voiced opposition to the recognition for the 82-year-old environmental activist and science broadcaster.

Addressing faculty of science graduates from the podium at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, Suzuki spoke about why he believes conflicts occur over issues affecting the environment.

"We haven't started from a position of agreement on what we all need and must protect," Suzuki said.

"Our numbers, our technology, our consumption and our global economy have exploded to such an extent that we are now the main factor shaping and altering the physical chemical and biological properties of the planet on a geological scale," he said.

"We have to find ways of living that do not undermine the very things that keep us alive."

Suzuki said his first real job was at the University of Alberta, in the genetics department in 1962, and that it set him on his career path. 

That year he became interested in environmental protection after learning about the publication of a study on the unintentional harm caused by pesticides. He also realized he had a knack for television broadcasting while working on a university show called Your University Speaks.

"It was here that I began my scientific career in genetics, began my concern about environmental consequences of the way we live, began my realization that television is a very powerful means of communication," Suzuki said, the audience quiet as he spoke.

The university's decision to confer the honorary doctorate of science on Suzuki has sparked controversy since it was announced in April.

The group Rally 4 Resources, which organized Thursday's protest, called Suzuki's recognition an "insult" to the school, its alumni, and the "province's most important industry."

Robbie Picard, founder of the industry booster group Oilsands Strong, travelled from Fort McMurray for the event.

"I think David Suzuki's done a lot of harm to Alberta," Picard said in the auditorium parking lot.

"He's one of the reasons that there's such a campaign against the oilsands, and I think he should be ashamed of himself, and I'm not happy about him getting the honorary degree today."

Protesters gather outside the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton ahead of a University of Alberta ceremony to grant David Suzuki an honorary degree. (Andrea Huncar/CBC)

He described the degree as "a disgrace" and criticized the university for being out of step with the times.

"I think it's awful timing on their part, particularly with what we've gone through. We're just getting out of our economic crisis, we finally have some certainty that the pipeline's going to be built."

He should have stuck with bugs.- Cecil Chabot, protester

Protester Cecil Chabot, from St. Albert, said Suzuki should stay out of Alberta politics.

"David Suzuki's great as a geneticist. He should have stuck with bugs," Chabot said. "But when he starts getting political, he doesn't understand how to run our province."

Instant backlash

The backlash against Suzuki has included an array of critics — from fellow academics who noted Suzuki's dismissive comments about other disciplines, to oil and gas industry proponents who disagree with Suzuki's opposition to the fossil fuel industry.

Fraser Forbes, dean of the faculty of engineering, called the honorary degree the "worst crisis" the university has faced in over 30 years. As well, an Alberta law firm withdrew its commitment to fund $100,000 over five years to the school's faculty of law.

The announcement came amid tensions between B.C. and Alberta over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and the Official Opposition United Conservative Party had said they disagree with the conferral.

Thursday, UCP House leader Jason Nixon reiterated the stance.

"We're disappointed to see Mr. Suzuki get this degree," Nixon said. "This is an individual who has spent considerable time attacking our largest industry and attacking by default the people that work in it, and people in Alberta are frustrated by that."

'Constrained by laws of nature'

In his remarks, Suzuki told a story about meeting with the CEO of a large Alberta oilsands company four years ago at the CEO's request.

"We live in a world that is shaped and constrained by laws of nature," he said he told the CEO. "They're fixed. We can't change them, so we have to live within them."

He and the CEO weren't in agreement but were respectful of one another, Suzuki said.

"Here is the dilemma," he told his U of A audience. "We have created concepts and structures of government and business that we then try to force nature to conform to, rather than shaping our creations to fit the needs of nature on which we are utterly dependent," he said.

Support for Suzuki

About a dozen Suzuki supporters also rallied outside the auditorium.

Taz Bouchier, of Edmonton, is aligned with the Indigenous People of the Land.

"[Suzuki] deserves to be honoured in this way," Bouchier said. "And for a pipeline industry to come in and then say he doesn't deserve it because he's against the pipeline industry — he's made remarks in that regard — that's just totally unfair and uncalled for."

The university has stood by its decision to honour Suzuki. It says an honorary degree doesn't necessarily mean the institution agrees with the person, but rather recognizes his or her contributions and full body of work.

University chancellor Doug Stollery presented Suzuki with the degree.

"We shall continue to be enriched by your wise counsel for many years to come," Stollery said.

Suzuki, who was applauded by the U of A audience, has received 29 other honorary degrees, including one from the University of Calgary in 1986.