Retired, Not Tired 424

David Suzuki with elder Patricia Grinsteed at a Chinese New Year’s Day parade in Vancouver. In the background there are children dressed up as animals, an homage to the David Suzuki Foundation’s commitment to saving the diversity of nature.

What do you do when you get old? Play golf and lie in the sun? For about 100 Suzuki Elders, the answer has been to spend their later years involved with environmental issues – although some also, at times, do play golf and lie in the sun.

But why do more? Many get involved because they want to leave a healthier world for their grandchildren and for generations to come. Others just feel their generation hasn’t taken great care of the natural world, and want to work to alleviate the damage before they leave it. It’s the future that these people care about, not just the past and present.

Suzuki Elders, part of the David Suzuki Foundation based in Vancouver, was established 20 years ago by environmentalist and television personality David Suzuki. He wanted to share their wisdom with the younger people who work for The Suzuki Foundation.

For a dozen years, these early Suzuki Elders were listened to, politely. But they didn’t really have much influence. The mostly young staff of the foundation didn’t really need a lot of advice – they just wanted to get on with their jobs working to preserve wilderness, animals, fish, the atmosphere, and many other concerns.

The elders, too, realized they were being too passive. Seven years ago, encouraged by those heading the foundation including Suzuki himself, the Suzuki Elders decided rather than doling out advice they would reach out to the growing numbers of “Boomers” like themselves, and encourage them to lend their hands, heads and hearts to help the next generations and stewards for our planet.

Baby boomers form a large portion of today’s Canadian population: three out of every 10 persons. They are the people born during the 20-year period after the Second World War, from 1946 till 1965. Today, the average family has one or two kids, but back then, families averaged three to four children each. Boomers born before 1950 are now 66 years or older – about a fifth of Canada’s boomer generation. So there are a lot more boomers coming down the demographic pipeline.

We learned that, yes, Aboriginal Elders gave out advice, but at crucial times they also took action – even putting their bodies on the line to prevent the clear-cut logging on Haida Gwaii in the 1990s."

During the next five years, people reaching the age of 65 will be slightly more than 400,000 every year. From 2021 to 2025, the number of 65 year olds will increase by 500,000 annually. And from 2026 till 2031, that rate will increase to 550,000 each year.

The first thing the revised Suzuki Elders group did was organize a forum in Vancouver on Elders and the Environment in the fall of 2009. The response was encouraging. Nearly 200 people attended. Speakers spoke about the urgency of meaningful action to save our environment.

We heard from First Nations speakers about elders taking on their centuries-old role in Aboriginal communities. We learned that, yes, Aboriginal elders gave out advice, but at crucial times they also took action – even putting their bodies on the line to prevent the clear cut logging on Haida Gwaii in the 1980s and 90s.

As a direct result of the forum, membership was increased, and we created a formal Association of Suzuki Elders with the enthusiastic assistance of the David Suzuki Foundation.

So what has the Association of Suzuki Elders done? We’ve set up numerous working groups, where any elder can be involved. There is no specific age requirement – anyone who considers her or himself an “elder” can join the group. Most members, though, are in their 60s or older.

The Elders’ education and community engagement working group created banners and pamphlets for use at booths and events to urge other people to get involved. There’s lots of interaction, for instance, at Seniors Day at the Vancouver Public Library.

An educational group also sponsors many public lectures and round tables to increase environmental awareness.

Suzuki Elders supported and promoted nature walks and related informational talks around the Vancouver area. Elders who walk in the woods and along the beaches are motivated to preserve our natural environment, we’ve found.

We held several sessions on how we can build psychological resilience in order to deal with such frightening topics as wholesale environmental disruption. In the face of the real possibility of dramatic and harmful climate change, Suzuki Elders, assisted by psychologists and counsellors, have organized group sessions to help us and others keep our spirits up and stay positive and active. We must believe that people can make a difference.

One of the many other sessions was on the pros and cons of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and the big companies that are promoting them. Another was on whether we are prepared for food security in the 21st century. Yet another on the mechanics of climate change. All these sessions have been open to the public (as space allows). Twice the Suzuki Elders have worked with the local North Shore Elder College to bring information to a larger audience.

The Suzuki Elders have also been involved in advocacy – advising governmental bodies as to what we feel should be done. While maintaining a non-partisan stance, we have forcefully pointed out to governments the danger that will be brought by various proposals to increase the extraction of fossil fuels and shipping it via pipelines and tankers. 

Indeed, members of the group have gone further than writing letters and petitioning the politicians. Acting as individuals, many Suzuki Elders attended demonstrations in Burnaby against the twinning of the TransMountain pipeline at its Kinder Morgan facility – and one was even arrested for civil disobedience. (Charges were later dropped.)

Perhaps the most encouraging activity of the Suzuki Elders has been working with young people. Today’s youth, we find, often are just as informed and concerned about environmental issues as we are. The work with high school and university students to produce a video has already been mentioned. The Elders have also been invited into schools to read stories about nature and animals.

In our public events, an effort is always made to include young people, especially those of high school age. At our Elders, Environment and Youth Forum in 2013, we explored the many ways young and old can work together, be it on Earth Day or with groups such as Catching the Spirit Youth Society, or the Metro Vancouver Youth Summit Network.

Over the years, a group of about a dozen Suzuki Elder advisors has grown to an organization of over 100 people located throughout British Columbia (most in the Vancouver area) with a scattering of members in other Canadian provinces. Elders in a handful of other countries have joined us.

Encouragement and support from the David Suzuki Foundation has been important – David Suzuki, who at age 80 is happy to call himself a Suzuki Elder too, has inspired people of all ages.

Suzuki Elders are one source of society’s collective memory, and they share it by telling their stories.

What the experience of the Suzuki Elders has shown is that lots of older people do care about our natural world and are willing to cut into their golf and beach time to be engaged in doing something to care for it. As the boomer generation expands, we expect to keep busy for many years.

Neale Adams is a retired newspaper and television journalist, and communications officer for a religious organization. He is vice president of the Suzuki Elders.

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