David Suzuki shares life lessons as a proud elder

David Suzuki hosted The Nature of Things for 44 years, and taught all of us about the beauty of the natural world, about joy and curiosity, and above all, about the moral responsibility that comes with being alive. The award-winning scientist and environmentalist shares his life lessons.

'I call on all elders to get off the couch or the golf course and get up and do the speaking.'

Environmental activist David Suzuki speaks during a rally, in Vancouver, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.
David Suzuki hosted CBC's The Nature of Things for 44 years, exploring the beauty of the natural world, while underlining the moral responsibility that comes with being alive. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

A couple of generations of Canadians grew up with The Nature of Things, and with David Suzuki. Between the two of them, they set a standard for how we should take care of the world we live in.

He once said: "The future doesn't exist. The only thing that exists is now, and our memory of what happened in the past. But because we invented the idea of a future, we're the only animal that realized we can affect the future by what we do today."

At the age of 87, the award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster has stepped down as host of The Nature of Things.

In May, the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto hosted an evening with David Suzuki called Reflections of an Elder.

Here is an excerpt from David Suzuki's talk about his life:

I'm in the last phase of my life. And when I say this, people go 'Don't say that.' Listen, when you're my age, it's not morbid. It's just reality. This is the last part of my life. And I am very proud to say that I've reached it and I've become an elder — the most important time of my life. We elders have lived an entire life, and we've learned a lot. I mean, I've made mistakes. I've had failures, and a few successes. Those have all been lessons that I think are worth thinking about and passing on to the coming generation.

As an elder, I don't have to kiss anybody's you-know-what in order to get a job or raise or a promotion. As an elder, we don't run after fame or money or power. We're free to speak the truth from our hearts. And if that offends people, it's not my problem. It's theirs.

So I call on all elders to get off the couch or the golf course and get up and do the speaking. Think through your life and the important lessons that you've learned to pass on so that the coming generations don't make the same mistakes. And so at the risk of boring you and it's a bit self-indulgent, I'd like to troll through my life and share a few lessons that I hope are worth considering.

David Suzuki on The Nature of Things: 44 years in 44 seconds

6 months ago
Duration 0:47
The Nature of Things is TV’s longest-running science series. Suzuki started hosting on October 24, 1979 and his final episode will air on April 7, 2023. Watch Suzuki Signs Off on CBC and CBC Gem.

I was born in Vancouver in 1936 and my first memories of life were camping and fishing with my father. Dad was the eldest of seven in the family, and as the eldest, he was always expected to be a role model for his siblings. He disappointed his mum and dad because... he worked hard but he in fact loved hiking and camping and fishing and gardening with plants he would bring in from the wild.

On Sundays the whole family would gather with the grandparents and I just remember my grandparents giving my dad hell. 'Why did you take David and go fishing on Saturday? You could have been working!' I always thank my dad for being a disappointment to his parents. It was through him that he gave me my earliest memories of fishing and camping. 

Of course, the evacuation was a devastating experience for my parents. I was six. I didn't know what the hell was going on. Suddenly my dad wasn't home anymore. I keep trying to imagine my mother in her early 30s having to deal with three children — and without her husband — having to pack up. I have no idea what happened to everything because we only had a limited amount of stuff we could take with us. What did she think we were going to do? I have no idea. For me, it was just an adventure. And I didn't even realize that the train that we were on going to Slocan, [B.C.] which is where we were dumped off, was full of Japanese kids. 

Slocan City, British Columbia; 1942--Internment Camps --Japanese-Canadians being relocated to camps in the interior of British Columbia, at train station.(CP PHOTO) 1999 (Tak Toyota National Archives of Canada)C-046356
Japanese Canadians were forced by the federal government to relocate to internment camps in British Columbia’s interior. This train arrived in Slocan in 1942. (The Canadian Press)

We ended up staying in one of the old hotels in Slocan City. Slocan City had grown up in the 1890s during a silver rush. And then as the silver was exhausted, the town became derelict. We were put into these old hotels and buildings. There was no school for a year and for me — a six-year-old — that was great. So I was off running around as a wild kid. And when school did start, almost all of the other kids that I knew spoke Japanese. They were nisei [children of Japanese immigrants] and I was a sansei [grandchild]. They would go between Japanese and English.

I do remember that I felt isolated because the kids picked on me. There was a girl there my age, Daisy, whose father was white. Her father was in the army and was away. Daisy and her mother were in Slocan. And the kids picked on her. They used to call her ainoko. To me ainoko means 'love child,' but it was a slur. And Daisy would end up crying every time. And when we're victims of prejudice and we become bigots ourselves, then bigotry wins. That was a really hard lesson to see, the way they treated someone like that who was in the camp along with everybody else.

But because of that, I spent almost all of my time in the woods. And that, of course, was where I bonded with nature. Dad always said,' Look, if you run into a bear or a wolf, don't yell or scream. Don't look it in the eye. Just stand still and then quietly back away if it will allow you.' I never had to do that but I did run into bears and wolves. They were just a part of my experience. And they were very, very generous to me. Usually, they ran away when they saw me. But that was a very defining time in my life because of the bonding with nature and the encounter of discrimination and the pain that it caused. 

'Thank you for all of the time you spent with me:' David Suzuki | The Nature of Things

6 months ago
Duration 1:22
David Suzuki is retiring from The Nature of Things in 2023. He has a few people to thank before he goes.

Now, I don't know how many of you remember that as the war was coming to an end. British Columbia wanted to get rid of all Asians — and the Japanese were one group they didn't want any more of. So we were confronted with a choice: renounce Canada, give up citizenship, and get a one-way ticket to Japan, which to both of my parents was a foreign country – they'd never been there. Or get out of B.C., and go east of the Rockies.

Of course, there was such anger at the government for the way they'd been treated. Everybody signed up to get the hell out of Canada. And if you decided to stay in Canada, there was huge pressure within the community. My mother used to go once a week… there was a group of women who would gossip and talk. When we said we were staying in Canada, they treated her so bad. She never talked about it. She would never tell me what happened but she never went back to that group again.

We were basically ostracized because we didn't make that step of signing up to go to Japan. And this is something that was very painful for my father because after the war and people started to go back, the word came back, 'Don't come. The place is flat. It's terrible.' And the people that were still in the camps waiting to go to Japan said, 'No, no, no, no, we don't want to go.' I don't know all the details but my father always was very bitter that the people had treated him and my mother so badly because they decided to stay in Canada. 

*Excerpt of David Suzuki's talk has been edited for clarity and length. This episode was produced by Philip Coulter.


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