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How I spent my summer: David Suzuki

The Globe & Mail / July 2023

The famous environmentalist reflects on his summers picking produce

Canadian superstar scientist David Suzuki has been the face of environmental activism in this country for five decades (and counting). But long before the former host of The Nature of Things appeared on TV screens in homes across Canada, Dr. Suzuki spent his summers picking produce at farms across rural Ontario. Here’s what starting work at the tender age of 10 – yes, 10 – taught the environmental activist about success.

I started high school in 1949, and I remember in my Grade 10 civics class, I was shocked to discover that I was the only kid in the class who worked. Nobody else in the class worked. Nobody’s mother worked. A mother was expected to care for her family, and a working mom was a sign of poverty. I never thought of myself as poor, but I see now that we were impoverished after the war.

Even though my parents were born and raised in Canada, like all Japanese in British Columbia, we were told to get a one-way ticket to Japan or go east of the Rockies, but we weren’t allowed to stay. We were expelled from B.C. and landed in Ontario. I was the oldest sibling of the family, so at 10, I started to work.

My dad’s first job in Ontario was on a peach farm, so at first I’d go with him. Sometimes I’d get to drive the tractor and pick up the peaches. My sisters, mom and I would pick berries at farms all over the place for something like five cents a basket. We’d rotate through the farms, picking berries, potatoes and tomatoes, which were then usually shipped to Windsor, Ont., or sold to the Heinz factory in Leamington, Ont.

As I got a bit older, I’d work with the potato digger, which was a big machine that took three of us to operate. There was an assembly belt in the middle, and we’d stand on the sides shaking the dirt away to grab the potatoes. They might have been the most work, but the worst was celery. Nowadays, workers wear gloves that go up to their elbows, but we worked with bare hands. We’d take a curved knife, cut and trim the root, then put it aside for someone else to come and pick up. We all developed celery rash, which were terrible purple rashes that lasted for months. But it was an occupational hazard and no one made a big deal about it.

In Ontario at the time, because the province was still so agricultural, you were allowed to leave school at the end of May – if you had good grades. I always did, so I never went to school in June, and I looked forward to working every summer. We’d start work at 7 a.m., get a half-hour lunch at noon and then work through until 6 p.m. We’d do this six days a week. I think I was paid like 50 cents an hour, for the potatoes at least, and we’d otherwise be paid by the basket. All the money was put into the family, but my mother would give me money if I asked. If I needed a dollar to go to the movies, fine.

My parents said, “You have to work hard to buy the necessities in life, but don’t run after money.” As if making more money makes you a better or more important person. My dad told me that if I wanted to succeed in Canada, I was going to have to work 10 times harder than white people. I took that to heart and I tried to do the best I could all the time. My sisters and I were always competing to see who could pick the fastest box of raspberries. We tried so hard to catch up to Mom, but she was so fast that we never did.

I wasn’t thinking about environmentalism at the time, but I gained an appreciation for food and the food chain that I have to this day. When was the last time you looked at a banana and thought about where it came from? If you’re in Canada in February eating fresh strawberries, how’d that happen? Every time I grind my coffee in the morning, I think that some guy out there picked those beans for practically nothing. Thanks to those summers on the farms, I really appreciate him.