David Suzuki forced to resign from board of foundation by "vicious" media attacks
BC environmentalist David Suzuki says he stepped down due to media and political attacks threatening the foundation bearing his name. But staff say it’s not a ‘divorce’—he’ll continue to work as a volunteer.
Vancouver environmentalist and Canadian icon David Suzuki cited attacks from opponents and threats to the group’s charitable status as the reason why he left the foundation bearing his name. What some media reports fail to mention is that the press itself was often one of those opponents.
“In the last year, it’s clear that we have been subject to increasingly vicious attacks from our opponents in the media, most notably Postmedia and Sun Media, and we have seen a growing number of what I would describe as sort of ‘smear tactics’ by our opponents in various governments,” said David Suzuki Foundation communications director Jim Boothroyd.
“Those have often been very ad hominem and pointed at David Suzuki. So he felt that it would be best for him and best for the Foundation if he stepped down from our board, while continuing to do a whole lot of volunteering work for us.”
In an open letter released on Friday, the 76-year-old Suzuki describes feeling compelled to speak out against the type of “bullying” faced by charitable organizations across the country. In addition to targeted attacks by Conservative senators investigating environmental groups, the federal government has now committed $8 million in the budget to crack down on charities engaging in political activity.
“I want to speak freely without fear that my words will be deemed too political, and harm the organization of which I am so proud,” Suzuki wrote.
“I am keenly aware that some governments, industries and special interest groups are working hard to silence us. They use threats to the Foundation's charitable status in attempts to mute its powerful voice on issues that matter deeply to you and many other Canadians.”
In a CTV interview, Suzuki pointed a finger at Sun Media for calling his work and his foundation “too political”, and Sun Media’s Ezra Levant responded with a segment on his show The Source backing up their claims about his “uncharitable behaviour”.
Levant and Sun Media editor Lorrie Goldstein said many of Suzuki’s actions could be considered overtly partisan, citing a Liberal party video featuring the famous environmental advocate. As the “public face” of the Suzuki Foundation, opponents say these types of actions are outside of the limits for political activity by charities, set by the Canada Revenue Agency.
But Boothroyd says it’s important to separate Suzuki’s personal statements and appearances from the work of the Foundation.
“In the last few years, in particular in the last year, his comments have attracted more intense criticism. And when they do, that criticism has been leveled at the Foundation,” he said.
“People do not see often a separation between the man and the foundation that he helped create.”
The Foundation moving forward
Though he actually left the board last year, Suzuki’s recent letter has sparked a flurry of media attention around the Foundation. But Boothroyd explained that it hasn’t been as dramatic a departure as some may think.
“We’re not separated from David. We still see him,” he said.
“So people don’t feel like we’re being divorced from David Suzuki. Specifically, we’re losing him as a board member and we have a very talented board.”
Boothroyd said Suzuki will continue to act as the organization’s “number one volunteer”, spending a good deal of his time doing unpaid work for the Foundation. And as for the staff and board members, there’s a sense of understanding and respect for Suzuki’s decision.
“Most of the people who work here came here because they were inspired by what he represents, in terms of his curiosity and his interest in finding solutions to serious environmental problems, and building healthier communities and a more prosperous, enduring economy. We all want him to do that to the best of his ability. And if he’s going to be hamstrung by laws that aim to limit his ability to speak, then I think people are happier to see him sort of let loose,” he said.
For many in BC—and across Canada—the David Suzuki Foundation has become a cornerstone in the environmental community. Of course, being linked to Canada’s most well-known environmentalist doesn’t hurt. But to attribute the organization’s work to Suzuki alone would be a disservice to the rest of the staff, board members and volunteers.
“In terms of what [his resignation] means for the David Suzuki Foundation, I don’t think you’re going to see any significant changes. We have always done science-based advocacy work, together with public education, that is aimed at finding solutions to the most serious environmental challenges that we share as Canadians. And we’re going to continue to do that,” said Boothroyd.
“We’re not going to be bullied into remaining quiet on key issues, we’re going to continue doing what we do, and we’re going to do it within the CRA guidelines, which we’ve always done,” he said.
Suzuki: the man and the foundation
The David Suzuki Foundation was incorporated in September 1990, after Suzuki issued a warning about the impending environmental catastrophe on his hit CBC radio program, It’s a Matter of Survival.
He and his wife, writer and former Harvard faculty member Dr. Tara Cullis, met with a group of activists in BC, who convinced them to start a new organization focused on finding solutions. By that time, Cullis had already co-founded nine different organizations, and she now remains on the Suzuki Foundation’s Board of Directors as president and co-founder.
The goal of the David Suzuki Foundation has always been to “protect the diversity of nature and our quality of life, now and for the future.” Their earliest projects took them overseas to do work in places like Japan, South America and Australia. Then, in advance of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, they penned a thought-provoking mantra called the Declaration of Interdependence—illustrating the connection between the earth and the humans, plants, and animals that inhabit it.
As the threat of catastrophic climate change crept further into the public discourse, it soon became the organization’s primary focus. With an extensive countrywide network of staff, researchers, donors and volunteers, they have worked hard to push sustainability into the mainstream, advocating for greener policies and working with governments to develop solutions.
Operating a well-established home base in Vancouver, the now national Foundation has another office in Montreal, and additional staff in Toronto and Ottawa.
On its website, the David Suzuki Foundation boasts numerous environmental successes since its inception 22 years ago. Along with publishing extensive reports on salmon farming and fisheries, they have been credited with helping convince the government to sign the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, along with blocking industrial logging in certain areas of the Great Bear Rainforest, and helping to pressure the BC government to implement climate action initiatives like the carbon tax.
Since it was established, the Suzuki Foundation has also co-published forty different books on a variety of environmental issues, by renowned experts and authors including Terry Glavin, David R. Boyd, Wade Davis and Suzuki himself.