Stephen Cornish knows he has his work cut out for him.
Just over a month into his job as the newly-minted chief executive officer of the David Suzuki Foundation, he admits it’s been “long enough to know that I need to know a lot more than I know now.” He says it with a slight grin at the start of a wide-ranging interview with National Observer in Ottawa on Monday.
But Cornish already has some clear and direct messages for governments and for Canadians in the early days of his position at the helm of the Vancouver-based environmental group. He sees serious challenges ahead for both the government and population, but also some solutions at hand.
Cornish spent years doing humanitarian work, most recently as executive director of Doctors Without Borders in Canada. It was a job that took him to places in crisis such as Chechnya, Sierra Leone and European Georgia.
On the ground, he saw the destructive impacts of climate change in regions pounded by extreme conditions.
If all Canadians could see that too, he added, they might see addressing climate change as a more urgent need.
'It will require some suffering'
Now leading one of Canada’s best-known conservation groups — founded and named after Suzuki, the award-winning scientist and broadcaster — Cornish is urging Canadians to prepare for some “suffering” if they truly want to tackle the problems at hand.
“We have to link what we know intellectually with what we feel in our hearts and we need to really understand the severity of this,” Cornish said. “We have to move beyond the arguments over the science, over the causality.”
We know climate change is real and accelerating in the Canadian Arctic, causing shifting weather and migration patterns, he explained, but we’re also tuning out the reality of what’s happening.
“Around the world, I’ve seen firsthand, the horrible destruction,” he said. “Here, I think people sometimes think, 'Climate change, oh look we have a warmer winter, or we have more rain.’ And we’re kind of seeing the lower part of it. And we have little jokes: ‘Oh that’s climate change.’
"It’s so complicated. It’s so big that either we turn off, we turn away, or we joke about it. But it’s time, really, that we roll up our sleeves, that we collectively start to make the real change that's required. And that will require some adaptation of the way we live, and it will require some suffering, but nothing compared to the suffering that we will endure if we fail to act and act together.”
Cornish dropped by National Observer’s Ottawa office on Monday for the interview during a short trip to the nation's capital this week to make the rounds with media and government.
One of his main messages is aimed at the federal government. It’s a call for Canada to join more than 100 other countries around the world — and more than 100 Canadian municipalities — that have enshrined the right to a clean environment into law.
This is something that would finally give citizens and governments recourse against companies that poison the land, air and water in their everyday operations, he explained.
“What we’d like to see is a bill of rights for the environment… We make decisions incrementally on different battles and some feel that we’re losing the overall war. So in this sense, it would be about making an umbrella protection that everything else then cascades down from,” said Cornish, who was scheduled to meet with federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor on Monday evening.
“We’ve tallied over 110 countries that have the environment listed within their constitutions, for example. It would be a lovely thing here, but you know the wranglings we’ve had around constitutional reform in Canada so that may be a bridge too far, for now.”
A recent investigation called The Price of Oil by National Observer, in partnership with the Toronto Star, Global News, four journalism schools, The Michener Foundation and the Corporate Mapping Project, examined a number of cases of toxic releases that were linked to health problems in southeastern Saskatchewan and the Sarnia region of Ontario.
Cornish said Canadians already have the right to work in a healthy environment, so changes to Canadian law should also extend that protection for people to live in a healthy environment.
A campaign launched by the Suzuki Foundation in 2014 has already rallied more than 100,000 Canadians across the country to support these efforts. The government can now tackle these issues as part of its ongoing review of Canadian environmental laws such as the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), he added.
“That (law) is where we do see toxins and pollution regulated. It’s where we could end up with real standards for air and water quality. And if we can make real progress on those areas, then we might be able to start to giving Canadians what they deserve, which is that right. Even if we don’t have it in the overall constitution, it would at least allow Canadians and municipalities and cities to have recourse. Because right now, the recourse is what’s missing.”
He gave credit to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government and others around the world for showing leadership and putting a plan in place to tackle climate change through the Paris Agreement, despite the recent reluctance to move forward from the United States.
Cornish also delivered a spirited defence of frequent criticism from far-right groups and conservative-leaning commentators from other publications that frequently criticize the Suzuki Foundation and its famous founder.
Suzuki has previously stirred up controversy for fierce criticism of politicians and industry, including suggestions that politicians who don’t take climate change seriously, should be jailed. He has also called Trudeau a 'twit' and described the state of Canada's action to address global warming as "disgusting."
In terms of the organization, Cornish noted that all of its work is grounded in scientific evidence. When it comes to the foundation's co-founder, he said that the scientist has stepped away from the governing board to give himself more freedom to express his views as a citizen, as a grandfather and as an elder.
But Cornish also said that Suzuki continues to play an important role in Canadian society.
“Dr. Suzuki is one of the most popular Canadians,” he told National Observer. “Canadians listen, even when he agitates or rings the bell. Sometimes in society, you need someone that can go against the grain and that can ring the bell.
"So in my mind, although that can be seen as a risk, I think it’s a great strength and it’s our absolute privilege to work alongside him and to work in an organization that bears his name.”
Canadians need that push, Cornish added, to accept the challenge posed by issues like climate change, consumerism and mounting levels of toxins spewing into the environment.
“I think we understand it logically, but are we doing enough? The answer on that, everyone says is ‘no.’ So collectively, why is that? And that’s because we’re still trying to have it all," he said.
That means Canadians need to lower expectations of having an economy that grows exponentially, when it's going beyond the planet's means. Right now, he said that there's a reluctance for Canadians to challenge their own lifestyles.
"Consumerism is one thing, but we’re getting into a throwaway society where the by-products that we throw away are poisoning the land and the air that we breathe," he added.
"And because it’s so complex, and because it seems to be tomorrow’s problem and we don’t see the cause to effect in real time, our brains don’t rationalize that into the degree of crisis that we’re in and the type of real strong, hard change that we’re going to have to make.
"We’re still trying to have it all. We’re trying to care for the environment and still have, not just to have a healthy economy, but an exponentially growing one. And we can’t have an exponentially growing economy all around this world. We have to learn to live in a new way. And that has yet to register.”
- with files from Elizabeth McSheffrey