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At Issue: Severn Cullis-Suzuki Is Back and Ready to Fight

Severn Cullis-Suzuki saw her bat signal in the air and knew it was time to come home. 

The former Vancouverite and her husband, Haida member Judson Brown, had spent 14 years raising their two children on the remote archipelago that is Haida Gwaii when she saw smoke from the California and Alaska wildfires billowing through the air in the summer of 2020. Some signs are just too literal to ignore, it seems.

She decided then that, after working for nearly a decade and a half to help restore the Haida language, she had to return to the city and make her mark in the fight against climate change. 

“It was kind of like a wakeup call, a reminder,” Cullis-Suzuki remembers. “I hadn’t forgotten, but it was a real slap in the face that climate change is coming and that it’s going to affect everywhere on this planet. So I had this real feeling of, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to get back in the fight.’” 

Not long after the smoke appeared on the island, Stephen Cornish, then CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation, stepped down to take the position of general director of the Doctors Without Borders operational centre in Geneva, Switzerland. Cullis-Suzuki, daughter of the eponymous David and a graduate of both Yale (bachelor of science and evolutionary biology) and the University of Victoria (ethnoecology), emerged as a natural frontrunner for the same position with a new title—executive director. 

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To avoid any charges of nepotism, her parents were recused from the process. (Suzuki’s mother, renowned author Tara Cullis, is a board member and co-founder of  the foundation and her father is still very involved.) Cullis-Suzuki herself rejects the idea that the organization lured her from the island with the position, and insists that she feels grateful and lucky to have been appointed. But in talking with board chair Margot Young, another narrative emerges. 

“She’s just an amazingly inspiring person—so talented,” says Young, who serves as a professor in the Allard School of Law at UBC. “The whole board feels fortunate to have been able to persuade her to take up the executive directorship. It’s a very exciting era with her at the helm.”

Not exactly Succession. But whenever you share a last name with the organization you work for, it’s easy to question the validity of such a high-profile appointment. Young is steadfast in her belief that Cullis-Suzuki, even after taking 14 years away from the environmental justice beat, was and is the right choice to lead the DSF into the future. 

“She brings a long history of activism on environmental justice,” says Young. “And a clear track record of commitment and impressive insight into what the issues are, and how we can work collectively toward solutions to the issues around environmental degradation, environmental justice and the other aspects that put us at this critical moment of climate crisis.” 

In some ways, the designation has been a long time coming. It was 30 years ago that a 12-year-old Cullis-Suzuki stepped onto the stage at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and delivered a speech that became a viral hit before viral hits existed. Earlier this year, Only a Child, a short film directed by Simone Giampaolo based on the speech, was shortlisted for an Academy Award. Among that speech’s many memorable lines is this doozy: “If you don’t know how to fix it, please, stop breaking it.”

About 10 years after that speech, Cullis-Suzuki met Ginger Gosnell-Myers at an Action Canada Fellowship public policy program for emerging young leaders. They became lifelong friends. “Sev is really curious about how you’re doing, both personally and with managing the stresses of work and family. It’s a really holistic friendship, for lack of a better word,” says Gosnell-Myers, a fellow at SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. 

“I find that our conversations and time together are always about striking that balance and having fun. Fun for us is talking about what you learned, talking about your perspectives on the issues. We’ll talk about politics and things that are working and aren’t working. For us, that’s like a Friday night out.”

These days, Cullis-Suzuki is doing far more than talk. She’s the executive director of an 86-person organization that has three offices across the country and a strong voice to the powers that be. “A big part of what DSF does is analysis and figuring out what the policies are that would be effective in making a dent in pollution in Canada,” she says. “What are those systemic changes we need to see? And then lobbying for those changes to be seen through our representatives in office.” 

But there’s also the grassroots battle, and she hasn’t turned her back to that either. “We need the mobilization and public engagement—getting people to feel like they have tools to organize,” she says, referencing the foundation’s Future Ground Network project, which acts as a hub for those who are interested in organizing something in their community but don’t necessarily know how. “We can’t just focus on politicians. We need the public in the streets to back up the arguments and push political leaders to actually do something.”

Asked how the average Canadian can contribute right now, Cullis-Suzuki gives an answer that a lot of people might not want to hear: “One really easy thing we can do is we can cut down on our meat consumption. North Americans eat a lot more meat per capita than pretty much anywhere else on the planet.” Fair enough—scientists have estimated that the livestock sector is responsible for about 18 percent of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. 

But she also acknowledges that expecting everyone to focus on the long-term is a pipe dream. “We need systems to change, because we can’t wait for all the individuals to change their habits,” she says—and if she feels any frustration over that barrier, it is belied by the warmth that wafts out through the Zoom screen, and by her smile, which, when it appears, seems wider than False Creek. “It’s so hard in so many cases. Right now, the paths of least resistance are the destructive options. When I had children, I realized that I had to take care of them, deal with diapers, food, everything, and if you shop like a responsible consumer, things are more expensive. It’s so hard for an individual to make all those decisions all the time.”

But in case you thought you were off the hook, not so fast. Cullis-Suzuki argues that everyone has to consider how they can make an impact. “We all have to think about our positionality. How can we affect change? Are there others that think like me? Can I organize with my workmates to de-carbonize the office? These are the kinds of things we have to start doing if we’re going to have a chance of hitting the de-carbonizing numbers we need to.”

One gets the sense that she’s not blowing smoke.

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