Asian Heritage Month: An interview with David Suzuki
David Suzuki is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist, writer and broadcaster, known across Canada and the world for his radio and television programs about science and nature. Countless Canadians – including myself – grew up watching his shows and reading his books and can trace their own love for the natural world to the easy and accessible way Dr. Suzuki presented science. In more recent years, he has been a passionate defender of the environment and a proponent of sustainability.1
What is less well-known about Dr. Suzuki is that as a young boy, during the Second World War, he and his family were detained in Canada’s Japanese internment camps – an experience that profoundly shaped both his love of nature and his feelings about racsim and bigotry. I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Suzuki about these experiences, and to gather his thoughts on the connections between the environment and human rights.
During the Second World War, you and your family were forced into Japanese-Canadian internment camps in British Columbia. Can you tell us a little about how this experience affected you and your views on human rights?
Well, the irony of that experience is that my first awareness of prejudice happened in the camp itself. My parents protected me from all of the stuff going on – I didn’t know there was a war going on and I always thought of myself as a Canadian kid. But in the camps, most of the other kids were fluently bilingual because their parents came from Japan. My mom and dad were born and raised in Canada and they spoke English at home. I couldn’t speak Japanese. So the Japanese kids in the camp picked on me because I didn’t speak Japanese. I didn’t like the kids then, because they were picking on me and so I spent a tremendous amount of time by myself in the wilderness. For me, it was a great gift – in being this kind of solitary guy, I spent my time in what is now Valhalla Provincial Park, this wonderful area, this forest. I spent a lot of time fishing, gathering mushrooms – just outdoors – and so I really fixated on nature as an important part of my life.
I was also very aware – there was one girl who I used to pal around with who was half-white. And the kids would tease her and torment her terribly. They called her “ainoko,”2 which I guess – the way they said it – was an insult. It was terrible what they did to her. Discrimination is a terrible thing and it hurts me even today to think of what that girl went through. Her father was white and he was off fighting with the Canadian Forces.
So she was in the internment camps while her father was fighting for Canada?
Yes – well, her mother was Japanese, so she was shipped off. I met her years later when she was grown up in Ontario and she was a beautiful woman who was just so bitter and angry at the way she had been treated – and she had every right to be that way. When victims of racism themselves become bigots, bigotry wins. It’s a terrible thing.
In your work as a scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster, have you faced challenges as a Canadian of Japanese descent?
The challenges that I faced have been primarily in my own head. You have to remember that even in the camps, during the war, we were subject to the kind of propaganda that depicted the Japanese as these slant-eyed, bucktoothed people prepared to kill Yankees and when I looked in the mirror – that was me. So I had an excruciating sense – when we moved to Ontario3 – of being different and feeling that people were judging me by my looks. That was all my own problem that I had to work out over a long period of time. So the psychic damage, or challenge, I think was the big product of the war years for me. I certainly was not aware of barriers because I was Asian. After the war, we were absolutely impoverished; we had nothing. Because we decided to stay in Canada, we were shipped out of British Columbia. My dad said: “To succeed now, you need a good education, and you have to work your ass off. You have to work ten times as hard as a white person.” Fortunately, that wasn’t difficult – the working hard part. But my father – if he was mad at me, he would always threaten to pull me out of school, which for me was far more terrifying than him beating me. He never beat me, of course, but I was terrified of just being made to quit school, because education was everything. Fortunately, school was very easy for me and I did very well, although the three years in camps really had me very, very poorly trained or educated – I skipped through three grades in one year and was passed into grade four – but I didn’t really know what the hell multiplication and division was. I had to kind of pick that up on my own. But there are still holes in my education that I see many, many years later as a result of the years in the camps.
I didn’t have a life of great difficulty because I was an Asian, but I felt a very strong sense of outrage at evidence of bigotry. So while I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago, I joined the American equivalent of the National Association of Japanese Canadians. But I was really more interested in discrimination against anybody – whether they were gays or Blacks or Jews – it was the issue of discrimination I felt very strongly about because of what we experienced during the war.
I was always worried whether China was going to loom as the replacement for Russia as a bête noire in politics. I believed the bigotry we once felt for Japanese Canadians could just as easily turn to Chinese Canadians, or Muslims, or Jews, it doesn’t matter. It flips over, but it’s just basically bigotry. And I’m glad to see that there are minority groups standing up and saying: “Look, pay attention to us, we’re human beings and we demand respect and consideration.”
You have been a strong advocate for protecting the environment for most of your life. Do you feel there are connections between the environment and human rights? Can you share some examples?
Well, I mean, to me you can’t have a sustainable society if you don’t also have a socially just society. When you have tremendous inequities… when we have societies in which there are vast economic disparities between people there’s always going to be resentment, jealousy, a sense of superiority – all of these things come into play that act against a truly sustainable society. So I believe that issues of social justice, hunger and poverty – these are environmental issues. I’ve always said if someone is starving and they come across an edible plant or animal, they’re not going to say: “Oh I wonder if this is endangered.” They’re going to kill it and eat it – I would! So if you don’t deal with hunger and poverty, forget about the environment. If you live under conditions of terror or genocide or war, you’re more concerned with survival than you are with how well ecosystems are. This is why you see gorillas and chimpanzees endangered now, because they’re being used as bushmeat when you have civil wars in parts of Africa. So these issues are all interconnected. For me, one of the remarkable events of the last year was the publication of Laudato si,4 the Pope’s encyclical, in which he raises issues of social justice, of hunger and poverty, of environmental problems – and he doesn’t split them. We tend to say, oh, well, social justice – that’s Amnesty International. Hunger and poverty – that’s Oxfam, environment – that’s the Suzuki Foundation. We tend to put these areas into silos. But what the Pope has done is to weave them together and show that they’re all a part of the similar challenge of how we can live together in a peaceful sustainable way. It is a brilliant document that should be read over and over again. I’m not a Christian, but I read that, and I thought: “My God, he’s really done something very, very important.” Social justice is absolutely critical for how we live on the planet.
Do you see a connection between climate change and human rights?
Well, climate change has resulted from the rapid industrial growth based on fossil fuels in the developped world. We are the ones – in Canada, the United States, Europe, Japan – who benefitted from the massive escalation in the use of fossil fuels. We’ve created the problem. The irony, or the tragedy, is that the nations which did not generate the problem – that is, nations in Africa, the island states in the Pacific, in Southeast Asia – the poorest nations – and because they’re poor they are fossil-fuel dependent – those are the countries that are going to be the most heavily impacted by the immediate consequences. I’ve been to Africa, and the Africans know very well they’re being hammered by the changes that are coming about through climate change. In South America it’s the same. So the tragedy is that the rich countries got rich by exploitation of fossil fuels and yet now are unwilling to help the poorer countries raise their economies without depending on fossil fuels, while reducing their fossil fuel use. Especially countries like Canada and the United States, which have been really intransigent on the reduction. So again, it’s an issue of social justice. We who have created the problem have a huge obligation to demonstrate that we are reducing radically our use of fossil fuels. This inequity is very great and we have a responsibility for what has happened.
You can learn more about the Internment of Japanese Canadians by visiting the Canadian Journeys gallery at the Museum.
2 The word refers to someone who is half-Japanese. In the past it was often used as a negative and derogatory term.
3 After the Second World War, many Japanese Canadians were forced by the government to relocate east of the Rockies. The Suzuki family moved to Ontario.