by Phillip Hewett


The concept of a council of elders was David Suzuki’s brain-child. Recalling his original thinking on this subject during an interview published in the March 2011 issue of Common Ground, he said: “as an elder, we’re at the most important phase of our lives. We’re no longer driven by a need for fame or money or power or sex. We’re relieved of those things as elders. Our job, our responsibility now, is to look back on a lifetime of experience, of thought, and to distill from that some lessons we can pass on. That’s our job as elders, dammit, because we can speak directly from the heart. There are no hidden agendas and we can tell the truth. One of the most powerful groups in the peace movement were retired admirals and generals against nuclear war because they’ve gone through the whole system, but once they’re free of that, they’re retired, they can speak the truth. That, I believe is the role that elders have today. We’ve been very marginalized. When we started the David Suzuki Foundation one of the first things we did was to ask a group of elders to come and be a council of elders for the foundation. My idea was that it would be like the role of elders in indigenous communities. You know, they’re like rock stars in their communities. I thought, well, maybe if we had elders sitting here, as people go about their jobs here, they might sit down and have tea with Mary or Bob and talk about their experiences as elders.”

However, the inauguration of a council of elders was not in fact quite one of the first things that followed the starting of the David Suzuki Foundation, which was incorporated in 1990 and began to operate at the beginning of the following year, though it was certainly a project very much on David Suzuki’s mind. In 1992 he co-authored a book, The Wisdom of the Elders, in which he described the impact upon him of his immersion in aboriginal cultures where respect for elders was a traditional feature of life. But it was not until 1996 that he found someone prepared to take a lead in implementing his vision. This was Bill Paterson.

Bill, already a strong supporter of the Foundation, was a retired dentist then living in a high-rise on the UBC campus, though he had for some years lived on Galiano Island, where he had been much involved in work to save Bodega Ridge and other features of the natural environment. He had also had practical experience in the peace movement. Bill convened a small meeting in his apartment on October 31, 1996. Present were his wife Joan, whose long experience of the outdoor world had included years of skiing and mountain-climbing; Merv and Ann Wilkinson, whose woodlot on Vancouver Island was a demonstration project in how selective logging could be profitably carried on in a sustainable manner rather than by clear-cutting; Bert Brink, former chair of UBC’s Department of Plant Science and well-known in BC for his work on projects which respected the natural environment; and myself, retired Unitarian minister whose credentials in this field were a love of the natural world of which we humans are an organic part and a long-standing concern about the way our modern society has been treating it.

At that first meeting we shared our feelings about current conditions and endorsed David Suzuki’s call for a new approach, including our becoming the nucleus for a Council of Elders. But we did not ask whether we had a mandate from the Foundation, which at that point had been operating for almost six years and had therefore established it own identity and procedures. Its staff consisted largely of persons with scientific credentials working in specialized areas of research. Where would we fit into this picture? What were our credentials? In the precedents cited by David, the retired admirals and generals spoke with some authority out of their long first-hand knowledge of what war was really like. The elders in aboriginal society were given respect because of their deep understanding of the traditions of thought and practice that had ensured the tribe’s survival over the centuries. Simply being an elder did not in our form of society necessarily confer status as a wise adviser; in fact, being ‘elderly’ often meant that you were shunted into a retirement home and expected to have a predominantly passive rather than active role in relation to the wider society.

In an article published in the December 1998 issue of Finding Solutions, the Foundation’s newsletter, a new Council member, Norm Hoye, gave an outline of what the Elders were hoping to do: “Elders have lived through much of the social and technical evolution of Western culture in this century. They have survived depression, war, and natural disasters. Their memories of the simpler life and personal experience of the destruction of ecosystems since then, raises deep concern for the world their children and grandchildren will inherit. This concern motivates our Elders to offer their life experiences, professional talents, time and skills, as representatives of an underutilized resource: our senior citizens…. One way to do this is in dialogue, particularly with young people, to develop methods of jointly fostering the aims of the David Suzuki Foundation.”

This was an echo of David Suzuki’s hope expressed in the interview with which I began. But in that same interview David continued: “Well, it turned out it never worked. We were so busy trying to save the world that we didn’t have time for our elders. After 10 years, they’re finally getting some traction now I think. But we need to rediscover our elders and reintegrate them into society.”

It was true. In those early days of the Council we struggled to find its place in the picture. We did have some credentials to offer in terms of being old enough to have had first-hand experience of living within limits – those set by the Great Depression of the thirties and the War of the forties. We could testify that a good life was possible under such limitations and could be now under an awareness of the overall limits to growth demonstrated by ecological research. In words from a book read by most of us at the time and enthusiastically reviewed by Bill Paterson, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s From Age-ing to Sage-ing, elders are “wisdomkeepers who have an ongoing responsibility for maintaining society’s well-being and safeguarding the health of our ailing planet Earth…. Serving as mentors, they pass on the distilled essence of their life-experience to others.” But by whom were such credentials going to be recognized? We did have one meeting to share our experience of living within limitations with the Foundation’s staff. Those few who came said it was enlightening, but the response was not sufficient for us to repeat the experiment. We continued to discuss whether our relationship was as advisers to the Foundation’s board or staff, to young people, to holders of political power, to other elders, or to the public at large.

One thing we needed was a larger membership. We aimed to have twelve or so. We were soon joined, through Bill’s invitation, by Elaine Clemons, Norm Hoye and Amy Eustergerling. Amy provided a link with aboriginal concepts of eldership, as a Cree from Saskatchewan and co-ordinator at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Society. By 1999 we had added further members: Eve Erickson, Bill McQueen and Louis Nuernberger. Several others “tried us out” for one or two meetings but did not stay, in some cases saying that they could not see that we were doing anything effective. In the summer of that year the Foundation had a student intern, Margo Pearson from the University of Toronto, who made a study of the Elders including personal interviews. In her report, she said frankly: “A critical sense of futility and frustration is being experienced among each of the Elders across the board. Since this has not been expressed or addressed in any manner, it therefore has reached a crisis for each on an individual level. Frustration has escalated to such a degree that several valued members are considering resignation.”

Margo made a number of suggestions. We could begin each meeting with a time of silence, reverence, prayer or meditation to draw facilitator on “The Council of Elders and the David Suzuki Foundation: Finding a Fit”. Larry identified, in particular, two challenges. Firstly, “while there is philosophical agreement about the mission and vision of the Council, there are different ideas on how to energize together and focus the group. Fears, joys, challenges, etc, could be shared in an atmosphere of trust and respect. A mission statement should be adopted to define our overall purpose. There should be a clear agenda. As in aboriginal circles, the use of a feather or talking stick could avoid the chaos of everyone wanting to talk at once, or people feeling shut out.

For a while the introductory meditative period and use of the feather were implemented. We continued the practice of rotating the chairmanship, but this, however democratic, meant that there was a lack of ongoing continuity, particularly in our relationships outside the Council. We now asked Conrad Guelke to a meeting to advise on strategic planning, and a fortunate by-product was that Conrad became a permanent member of the Council, eventually its continuing president. Marks McAvity also became a member at this time. But our relationship to the Foundation remained a matter of concern, and in February 2001 a special session was called with Larry Butler as facilitator on “The Council of Elders and the David Suzuki Foundation: Finding a Fit”. Larry identified, in particular, two challenges. Firstly, “while there is philosophical agreement about the mission and vision of the Council, there are different ideas on how to implement it in concrete ways”. Secondly, “there is confusion about what the mandate of the Council is. This needs to be clarified. It is my observation that the Council needs to be proactive in defining their view of their mandate and present that to the Board for discussion.” Various procedures were discussed for building closer relationship and trust with the Board, with the staff as a whole and with individuals. We were encouraged by occasional visits to our meetings by David, Tara and successive Executive Directors.

A number of motions were presented to the Board during this period, most of them relating to organization and governance. All received sympathetic consideration, and the outcome was summarized in a communication from the Board as follows:

1. The Board designates the Council of Elders as a standing committee of the Board of Directors of the David Suzuki Foundation.

2. The Council of Elders reports in writing to the Board of the David Suzuki Foundation three times a year and attends portions of Board meetings as requested.

3. The Board accepts in principle the guiding principles of the Council of Elders as amended.

4. An annual work plan by the Council of Elders to be presented to and approved by the Executive Director.

5. The Executive Director will be responsible for approving any external communications of the Council of Elders.

This remained our mandate at that phase in our evolution, though later superseded. Another motion we forwarded in the same period embodied a rising emphasis upon the theme of spirituality and its role in building the inner resources to meet the environmental challenges with which we have to deal. Here was an area in which we could supplement the scientific work of the Foundation. Amy and I were asked to draw up a proposal to be submitted to the Board approving a project to (a) expand an awareness of spiritual and ethical motivations and their impact upon the work of the Foundation, and (b) connect the Foundation with others working in this field, with the aim of opening channels for such motivations to find practical expression in involving those sharing them in projects of the Foundation. This proposal built upon David Suzuki’s statement in The Sacred Balance that “Spirituality may be our chiefest local adaptation – the means by which we touch the sacred, hold together against disintegration.” We added: “Awareness of what is known through scientific research, and political action to implement remedial measures, are obvious needs, but there is also a need to cultivate the basic ethical, philosophical and spiritual values that motivate the will to act on what is known. It is true that we humans stand to gain by a better way of being in the world, but an appeal to what we stand to gain, if it stands alone, can be self-defeating, because it is essentially an appeal to the self-centered consumerism and greed that are the cause of most of our problems…. Ethical concerns and spiritual insights … can also sustain practical endeavours when other motivations cannot stand up to the disappointments and frustrations inseparable from work to restore ecological integrity. ‘Burnout’ is a perennial problem that can only be avoided by this deeply rooted spiritual awareness.” Our motion was presented to the Board, approved, but never adequately followed up. It remains unfinished business.

A continuing problem was that of finding suitable new members for the Council, though Ed Fidler joined in 2002. Exploration of linkages and alliances with individuals and groups with similar or complementary objectives began, but had very limited results. In the meantime, the procedure of adopting a workplan as mandated by the Board was implemented. It consisted largely in inviting a wide range of speakers to the monthly Council meetings, including DSF staff members. From an internal standpoint, this provided a rich experience in educating Council members on many topics, but in terms of impact outside the Council it brought only limited results. In July 2005 we enjoyed a full-day meeting to build community as well as do business at Norm Hoye’s cottage on Gambier Island, and the following summer in the same way at Rivendell on Bowen Island, hosted by Marks McAvity. Penny Wilson joined the Council in 2005, followed subsequently by Archana Datta, offsetting the gender imbalance that had been recognized as a problem for a long time. At the same time Amy Eustergerling withdrew, as did Ed Fidler later. We also suffered the attrition through death that is inevitable in an organization of elders, losing Elaine Clemons, Eve Erickson, Bert Brink, Louis Nuernberger, Norm Hoye and most recently Bill Paterson.


But now a change began within the Foundation itself following the appointment of Peter Robinson as Executive Director at the beginning of 2008. Beyond being primarily an organization for careful research into environmental issues, it began to place a greater emphasis on its role as an advocacy body directing itself to the general public on such critical matters as climate change. Peter quickly built a very positive relationship with the Council of Elders, which felt very much in tune with the new emphasis and asked for the Foundation’s support in organizing a Forum on such themes, directed specifically to elders in the general public.


That Forum was staged successfully in November 2009, with nearly 200 people in attendance. A substantial number of these, with much to contribute, expressed an interest in becoming members. This led to a complete reorganization of the Council. A larger organization called Suzuki Elders came into being, which was to have an elected Council as its executive. In the meantime the existing Council, as an interim body, was expanded to include some of the newcomers who had identified themselves at the Forum, A strategic plan was developed, with sub-groupings focusing upon education, communications, and advocacy. Such radical changes marked the end of one era in the evolution of the Council, which entered a period of transition holding the promise of moving forward in a way that may deal more effectively with some of the past problems about its role. The current mood is one of hope renewed and based upon a firmer foundation than before.

About the author and long-time Suzuki Elder:  Phillip Hewett is minister emeritus of the Unitarian Church of Vancouver where he served for 35 years. He has written several books introducing Unitarianism, including An Unfettered Faith: the Religion of a Unitarian (1956), On Being a Unitarian (1968), and The Unitarian Way (1985). His principal historical work is Unitarians in Canada (1978, 2nd edition 1995). He is a contributor to the Canadian Encyclopedia and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. He has been president of both the British and Canadian Unitarian Historical Societies and vice president of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. He has also served three terms on the board of the Canadian Unitarian Council. He is a strong advocate for the environment, family planning, disarmament, and peace. Since 1952 Hewett has been active in the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF). In 1983 the American chapter of IARF presented Phillip and Margaret Hewett a joint award for Outstanding Service to International Liberal Religion. In 1992 he was given the Unitarian Universalist Association annual award for distinguished service. 

[On Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, Phillip Hewett died at the age of 93. Although he had stepped down from Council a few years earlier, he remained an active member of the Suzuki Elders. A month earlier, he attended the Suzuki Elder’s Winter Social. Phillip was a wonderful mentor and friend to us all, and he will be sorely missed.]