The Stories of Our Elders: An Evening With David Suzuki

David Suzuki Speaking at Centretown United Church

Photo Credit: Joseph Hutt

 

Originally posted by saturdaynightreader.com on July 2, 2015.

 

by Joseph Hutt

There was a time when the minds of the oldest generations were considered to hold the wisdom of the ages — the stories and worldly explanations that the following generations needed to know if they were to make their way in the world. Now, one senses a great deal of skepticism towards this idea, towards the accepting of advice that finds its roots in a world that seems so very different from the one we live in now.

David Suzuki calls this skepticism into question in the last of a series of events hosted by Octopus Books, one of Ottawa’s independent bookstores, on June 19th. As part of a launch for his most recent book, Letters to my Grandchildren, he takes the time to remind us, with superb eloquence, that the history of our elders isn’t irrelevant, that the troubles of yesterday are eerily similar to the troubles of today, and that it is an elder’s duty to share the stories they have, because tomorrow is well on its way.

“This book,” Mr. Suzuki explains, “was written largely from my perspective as an elder, and I think elders play a very special role in society… Elders have something that no other group in society has. We’ve lived an entire life. We’ve made mistakes, we’ve had failures, we’ve suffered a few successes. We’ve learned a lot. Those are hard-won life lessons. And now our job is to trawl through that life, to look for the nuggets of experience that are worth passing on to the next generation.”

I am always fascinated by storytellers who know their craft; Mr. Suzuki is just such a person. His words imply the hope of being able to offer future generations a kind of shortcut, a way to skip some of the nastiness that precedes the learning of lessons, a way to explain why the world is the way that it is. This desire to communicate is the driving force behind the most effective storytelling, but it isn’t the only reason why Mr. Suzuki has written these letters.

“My grandparents emigrated to Canada from Japan between 1902 and 1906,” he tells us. “They never learned to speak English… I never learned to speak Japanese. The result is that when my grandparents died, I had all these questions that I never asked them, because we never had a conversation… The roots of who I am, I never got to ask questions or get answers to.”

These words struck a chord with me. My family isn’t the most vocal about its past, and by the time I’d had the opportunity to meet my biological father in person, I’d already lost my biological grandfather to cancer. While he’s survived by my grandmother, there’s still a lifetime of experience that’s forever closed to me.

This is what Mr. Suzuki hopes to prevent, this irrevocable loss of personal history, which leaves us detached from the historical and cultural background from which we stem.

Written as a conversation between Mr. Suzuki and his grandchildren, these letters offer up his life’s experience, a firsthand account of the events that made him into the man that he is, and a peephole into the lives that surrounded him. Mr. Suzuki has seen the world change in many amazing and horrifying ways. The world in which he grew up is quite different from the one we find ourselves living in today, but it would be absolutely incorrect to say that his experiences are irrelevant in this day and age, to his grandchildren, or even to us.

As humans and Canadians, some of Mr. Suzuki’s history belongs to us as well, even if we belong to another side of it. The fact that, after Pearl Harbor was bombed, thousands of Japanese-Canadians, Mr. Suzuki and his family included, were denied their rights and placed into internment camps on Canadian soil is not a fact that solely affects the Suzuki bloodline, or those of Japanese descent. That is a piece of Canadian history that we are all connected to and, as Mr. Suzuki affirms, is especially relevant in these years after 9/11.

We, the generations of today and tomorrow, cannot afford to lose this precious knowledge and experience. The life lessons of our elders are the key that will guide us towards a more knowledgeable and benevolent world.

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