Foundation CEO Peter Robinson on life after David Suzuki

The CEO of Canada’s preeminent environmental group on transit, the power of politics and life after David Suzuki

As the last of the Lower Mainlanders mail in their ballots for the transit referendum this month, an environmental organization with roots protecting wetlands and policing salmon farming will be rallying them to vote Yes. That campaign—to convince Vancouverites that what’s good for commute times is also good for the planet—is one that Peter Robinson, CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation, approaches with verve and wide-eyed idealism. In eight years as the foundation’s CEO, Robinson—a former civil servant and CEO of Mountain Equipment Co-op—has seen his organization denounced by the federal government, crunched for funding post-recession and, now, planning for a future without its charismatic founder, David Suzuki.

The foundation has thrown its lot in with the Yes side of the transit referendum. Why is an environmental organization so invested in a municipal issue?
Transit is the single most effective investment we can make in this region to deal with climate change because about a third of all of the emissions that contribute come from transportation. If we can do this, we’ll do more than anything else—and frankly this has the quickest payback: if you try to change the built form with structures, it takes a lot longer than the replacement of a vehicle or bus.

How do you choose which environmental issues merit the attention of the foundation and which don’t?
When I started in January 2008, I suggested to the board that we look out a decade and say what should be the issues we will focus on and what would be the results we’d have. From that came a set of guiding principles that we focused on: diverse and resilient ecosystems, livable communities, conservation work, climate and clean energy, and environmental rights. Our goal is to build a community of one per cent of Canadians who are involved with our foundation—either because they read our material or donate or volunteer with us.

DSF sources of funding*
50%: individual donors
30%: foundations
20%: businesses/private sector
*20% foreign donors, primarily U.S.

In your time with DSF, have you witnessed a change in how Canadians view environmental issues?
Overall, Canadians are concerned about the environment. They want to live in a clean environment and they want to be outdoors—it’s a quintessential Canadian value, the wilderness, so Canadians have never really lost that. But after the recession of 2008-09, as people lost their jobs, they ended up worrying more about jobs and the economy than the environment.

That recession hit the foundation rather hard, didn’t it?
When I started in early ’08, I thought, “Great, everything’s settled down, we have a secure donor base, I can just work on the outcomes with the teams.” Within eight months, we had the market collapse, and although it didn’t affect the bulk of our donor base—half of donations come from individuals—30 per cent comes from other foundations and 20 per cent from businesses, both of which declined fairly precipitously. So I had to deal with the sudden loss of that and then to refocus donor programs.

And then, as you were coming out of the recession, DSF was slapped with an audit by the Canada Revenue Agency and thrust into a highly charged political debate.
I used to have a very good rapport with the federal government. I’m apolitical—I believe you work with governments to get the best policy outcomes you can for the areas of interest that you have. Although we’ve always had a Conservative government as long as I’ve been at DSF, I had a great rapport with Jim Prentice when he was minister of environment; we would have frank conversations. When he left you could see something was going on. My guess is that because the government was interested in promoting growth through the extractive sector, they looked at areas that could be an impediment to achieving their vision, and someone must have said, “The environmental sector is one of the areas, so we should look at ways that we can deal with that voice.”

And this even though your founder, who’s known to be quite politically outspoken, had stepped away from the foundation.
I talked to David and I said one of the best things that could happen, if you want to continue to speak out, is to step off the board and remove yourself from the governance structure of the foundation. David, who is brilliant, said yes. He always felt that the charitable status of the DSF was something he couldn’t jeopardize, so he stepped off in September 2010. But then 2012 comes around and everyone knows the story after that: you’ve got the infamous letter from the natural resources minister saying that environmental groups are radical and foreign-funded, and the environment minister saying some are money-laundering maybe terrorists. And in 2013 we were selected for an audit, which we’ve just come out of.

What is the David Suzuki Foundation after David Suzuki?
David no longer holds a formal function. He’s not a director of the board, or a member, but he’s one of our biggest donors and biggest volunteers and we chat regularly. David is going to be 80 next year, and he’s got a wealth of knowledge about communications and the environment and people he’s met. He’s been very influential on how I think—and if nothing else, that relationship alone has been worth the time I’ve spent at DSF to tap into his thinking.