Opinion By Michelle Stirling © 2018
Like most Canadians, I grew up with Dr. Suzuki and The Nature of Things as an integral part of my life. In the 1960’s and 70’s, television access was limited. Most Canadians had ‘farmer TV’ – meaning access to only one or two of the national channels, unlike today’s many digital information sources and channels. CBC was the lens through which most Canadians encountered the larger world.
My late mother was a CBC Radio junkie and had always enjoyed Quirks and Quarks with Dr. Suzuki. I grew up trusting in CBC and Dr. Suzuki. I loved “The Nature of Things.” Thus, it was many decades later in 2011 that I ended up watching a CBC co-production on The Nature of Things entitled “The Tipping Point: Age of the Oil Sands,” hosted by Dr. Suzuki. There had been growing controversy about the oil sands, and I expected this trusted thought leader to set things straight. After all, the Royal Society of Canada had just issued a comprehensive report on the oil sands and its environmental impact, but the report was long and complex for ordinary people.
By curious coincidence, I was rather well informed about the oil sands, having recently worked at Alberta Environment. I was an information officer there. My job was to receive questions from the public, then contact relevant field staff or experts on the issue and gather up the information for reporting back to the citizens. We had whole libraries of information for the public, some on web-sites, some in printed publications or fact sheets.
So, I was alarmed, then horrified at the significant omission of fact in “The Tipping Point: Age of the Oil Sands.” I felt betrayed that the science thought leader of Canada – Dr. David Suzuki – was misinformed and misinforming the public. I thought surely there must be a mistake. Maybe they produced the film before the Royal Society report came out. Thus, it would be possible to recut the show, add in more info.
I began calling and writing the CBC to suggest that.
I had also worked in film and television for much of my life. I saw the damage that “The Tipping Point” could do to public perception of the oil sands by ‘sins of omission.’ I spent 9 months writing CBC, faxing, phoning, emailing them information. I had no vested interest other than facts…and Canada, our international reputation. At the time I worked at Alberta Environment, we had estimated that the oil sands drove about a third of the Canadian economy. CBC/Suzuki’s bad rap on the oil sands as ‘dirty oil’ could easily mislead the public on such a complex topic. I knew the challenges of informing the public on such a complex topic, because I had already fielded many public questions in my previous job.
Canadians and all the scientific and engineering communities involved in the oil sands were betrayed by the production of “The Tipping Point: Age of the Oil Sands.” My trust in Dr. Suzuki as a source of reliable information was completely shattered.
The furor over the University of Alberta granting an honorary degree to Dr. Suzuki stems from the fact that graduates of the sciences, engineering, and management must meet stringent scientific standards in their professional lives. They must abide by complex regulations. They can’t have ‘sins of omission’ – they must consider all the evidence and impacts in designing and implementing mega-projects like the oil sands. An army of such experts have made Canada strong – but it only takes one misinformed, influential person like Dr. Suzuki, on the tax-paid platform of CBC to lead the ‘madness of crowds’ and tear it all apart.
Thus, the University of Alberta that demanded science and engineering students acquire skills of excellence, now gives them a slap in the face by honouring a man who makes the headlines with incendiary rhetoric, who incites others to civil disobedience, who insults but refuses to debate, who became famous thanks to taxpayers and now puts taxpayers out of work with his misinformed views.
Dr. Suzuki is a geneticist by training. A responsible scientist would respectfully engage with other experts; would not denigrate professionals whose disciplines he knows nothing about.
This is why honouring Dr. Suzuki is the wrong choice for the University of Alberta.
Read the historic account of early travels in the Athabasca region. Chapter 9 of “Though the Mackenzie Basin” by Charles Mair, written in 189. Chapter 9 is a well-written account of what the oil sands looked like then and how even early explorers saw the vast economic potential of the region. (Note: the book can be read online or downloaded thanks to The Gutenberg Project.)
Michelle Stirling is the Communications Manager for Friends of Science Society. She is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and she has several popular papers posted on SSRN. Her compilation of correspondence to CBC about “The Tipping Point…” can be found on Amazon: “My Tar Sands Tipping Point with CBC”
If you would like to hear about climate change from a real climate scientist, come to our May 15th event in Calgary and hear Dr. Madhav Khandekar. Buy your tickets by May 7th.
Dr. Khandekar on Danielle Smith’s show QR770: