Knickers in a twist over David Suzuki’s University of Alberta honorary degree

Photo: Environmentalist, scientist, author, and broadcaster David Suzuki (credit: David Climenhaga)

The decision by the University of Alberta‘s volunteer Senate to present an honorary degree to high profile environmentalist, scientist, author, broadcaster and Order of Canada recipient Dr. David Suzuki has aroused much outrage from conservative partisans, Postmedia columnists, donors and U of A staff. It even earned an embarassingly entitled response from the Dean of Engineering Fraser Forbes, who said he was “deeply sorry” and “ashamed” of the decision.

Good grief.

Whether or not you agree or disagree with Suzuki’s political positions (most notably his controversial comments about Canada’s oil sands) or have had poor personal experiences with him (which many people seem to have had), it is impossible to deny the huge contributions he has made to the popularization of sciences in Canadian culture.

As host of the Nature of Things and Quirks and Quarks, a generation of Canadians were introduced to the sciences through Suzuki’s broadcasts.

The U of A responded with it own statement in defence of Suzuki’s honourary degree, but it appears one statement may not have been enough to appease angry critics. Suzuki has been demonized by the political right for years, including a recent attack from United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney.

Politically manufactured outrage toward Suzuki, who already has an honorary degree from the University of Calgary and nearly 30 other universities, could also be pointed at previous honourary degree recipients.

Albertans outraged about Suzuki’s honorary degree might be surprised to discover that a U of A honorary degree was given to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1968. The U of A also bestowed an honorary degree to Maurice Strong in 1973, three years before Trudeau appointed him as head of Petro-Canada, the now privatized crown-corporation decried by Conservatives of the day. Unthinkable!

Only five short years after he was in charge of enforcing the much-derided National Energy Program as federal minister of energy, Jean Chretien was given a U of A honourary degree in Spring 1987. Blasphemy!

And Mel Hurtig, who later became the country’s loudest crusader against free trade with the United States in the early 1990s, was given an honorary degree in Fall 1986. Unbelievable!

As a U of A alumnus and former member of the U of A Senate, Suzuki’s honourary degree does not particularly bother me more than some previous choices.

Back in 2012, I was not pleased to learn that the U of A Senate had granted an honorary degree to Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the Chair of Nestlé, the largest multinational food and water corporation in the world.

As Scott Harris wrote in back in 2012, Nestle had been the “target of international boycotts stretching back decades for its marketing of breast milk substitutes … in violation of international standards, widespread labour violations and links to slave labour in its chocolate production, and its environmental impact and strong-arm tactics with communities opposed to Nestlé’s exploitation of groundwater for its bottled water division.”

That is offensive.

At least the U of A administration cannot be accused of not being consistent in their defence of the Senate’s choices for honorary degree recipients.

It will be interesting to see what kind of reaction Suzuki’s opinions will generate from the audience of U of A Science graduates and their families. Will he insult them by criticizing the oil and gas industry and calling to stop climate change? Will he call for an end to or insult our oil pipelines? Should the U of A give a platform to someone who will likely voice opinions that those sitting in the Jubilee Auditorium might find offensive?

It would not be the first time.

I am told that some parents of graduates refused to applaud former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations Stephen Lewis when he delivered a call to action against climate change as he accepted his U of A honourary degree a few years ago.

Albertans are free to criticize the U of A Senate’s choices of honourary degree recipients, and we should probably even criticize the sometimes silly exercise of granting honorary degrees.

But the U of A should not shy away from controversial choices.

The University should resist pressure from external donors and internal voices like Forbes to withdraw Suzuki’s honorary degree. As my colleague David Climenhaga writes, doing so would “be a black mark on the intellectual reputation of the U of A, a great university, and it will be a great victory for those who would, “without fairness or justification,” turn all Albertans into climate-change pariahs.”


Luckily for U of A grads in 2018, along with Suzuki the honourary degree recipients speaking at their convocation ceremonies will include farmers’ union activist Nettie Wiebe, CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada Louise Bradley, historian, playwright and composer France Levasseur-Ouimet, particle physicist Brian Cox, human rights scholar David Matas, former Alberta MLA Raj Pannu, former premier of the North West Territories Stephen Kakfwi, former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, and respected foreign correspondent Nahlah Ayed.

Suzuki will receive an honourary doctor of science degree from the university on June 7 at 10 a.m.

8 thoughts on “Knickers in a twist over David Suzuki’s University of Alberta honorary degree

  1. durn2000

    I don’t think it is just conservatives that are opposed to Dr. Suzuki’s honorary degree. As a Albertan lefty and scientist I appreciate Dr. Suzuki’s contributions to science literacy, but in recent years his has started to put his beliefs above science. His anti-GMO stance flies in the face of all scientific evidence. His dismissive thoughts on economics (as pointed out by Andrew Leach) are also concerning.

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  2. Ellen Ogilvy

    This is a very intelligent post. As you point out, one of the major contributions that Dr. Suzuki has made is to make science accessible to ordinary people. The U of A is recognizing this contribution, the sharing of knowledge. Surely this should be the point of an honorary degree. I don’t agree with many of his activities, especially his criticism of the oil sands, but I am better educated because of his work.

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  3. David

    I personally don’t have a problem with Suzuki being recognized by the U of A. He is a good scientist and his TV shows are excellent. However, when he veers too far into political issues, that is not his strength.

    Somewhat ironically, the more environmentalists oppose the BC pipeline and the BC government fights it, support for pipelines goes up across Canada and even in BC. I wonder if being too strident or zealous, they are about to win a moral victory, but lose the political battle.

    I suspect privately Kenney is laughing about the Suzuki situation and he would probably even send some money to the Alberta Green party now to help them out politically if he could get away with it. Suzuki may understand science, but he is sure not an expert in politics.

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  4. Andrew

    Mr. Klimenhaga writes that to deny Suzuki this honourary doctorate would “be a black mark on the intellectual reputation of the U of A”. The counter argument is quite simple: what does it say about the intellectual reputation of the U of A to bestow such an honour on a man who denies the legitimacy of an entire field of study (economics) and who claims that the majority of the scientific community, in drawing consensus that GMOs are safe, are either “stupid or lying”? We should be as embarrassed at this honour as we would if the U of A were giving it to Vani Hari, Dr. Oz or David Avocado Wolf.

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      1. FCS

        Oh yeah, donors and staffs were outraged for valid reasons and your responses were “good grief” and “politically manufactured outrage”. So what if Pierre Trudeau were given an honorary degree in the past? Doesn’t change the facts that many of Suzuki’s science and opinions are junks. I wonder how you’d sing if a similar award were given to a Creationism ‘science’ or an alt-right activist?

        This blog has gone from reasonably informative to downright retarded ever since the Left won power in AB.

        Reply

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