At a glance: Canada

A young environmental activist fights on, 16 years after her Earth Summit speech

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Severn Cullis-Suzuki, then 12, speaking at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

NEW YORK, USA, 10 July 2008 – Just over 16 years ago, a 12-year-old Canadian girl named Severn Cullis-Suzuki took the stage at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and gave a speech that silenced the room full of diplomats.

“At school, even in kindergarten, you teach us how to behave in the world,” she said with a poise and force that belied her youth. “You teach us not to fight with others; to work things out; to respect others; to clean up our mess; not to hurt other creatures; to share, not be greedy.

“Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do?”

Inspiring other young activists
The speech changed Ms. Cullis-Suzuki’s life. After the conference, she began travelling the world giving speeches about environmental justice. She continues to do so today.

The video of her speech has long been a source of encouragement for young activists. Since it was first posted on the Internet, millions of people have been inspired – or chastised – by the young girl’s words.

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© Strongman/2008
The 28-year-old activist Severn Cullis-Suzuki today, still fighting for environmental justice.

“It is amazing to see how far that speech has gone,” says Ms. Cullis-Suzuki, now 28. “And to me as an adult, looking at it now, I really see it as almost separate from myself. I see it as the power that youth have and the importance of a young voice, and what can happen if a young person is supported by their community.”

Ms. Cullis-Suzuki is still a prominent activist in Canada and around the world. She recently finished a Master’s degree in ethno-biology and is living with an indigenous community in British Columbia, merging her scientific knowledge with traditional understanding of environmental management. She has also co-edited a book about Canada’s young activists.

‘The power of children’
“There are very few things that were said in 1992 that aren’t exactly true today,” says Ms. Cullis-Suzuki, referring to a long list of environmental afflictions perpetrated by human beings. “And I think that, again, points to the power of children.

“Children can speak that kind of a truth,” she continues. “Without any kind of ulterior motives or any kind of complex understandings that tie our tongues when we’re older, children can ask adults: ‘Why are you destroying the planet? Why are you compromising my future?’ As an adult, I can’t ask those question in the same kind of way.

“We need children to be able to cut through all of these kinds of life complications that we get as we grow older – to actually remind us of what is really important.”


 

 

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Severn Cullis-Suzuki reflects on her 1992 speech at the Rio Earth Summit, which has inspired millions, and offers advice to today’s young activists.
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