WATCH ABOVE: During his speech at the University of Alberta spring convocation, David Suzuki shared the story of an oilsands CEO seeking his thoughts and insight during a meeting four years ago.
After months of criticism, controversial figure David Suzuki received an honorary doctor of science degree Thursday morning from the University of Alberta at spring convocation.
Suzuki — a longtime environmentalist and oilsands critic — also spoke at the event, where he was met with both applause and jeers.
Protesters gathered early outside the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, where the ceremony was held.
During his speech, Suzuki said he got his first “grown-up job” in 1962 at the University of Alberta’s genetics department and was glad to be back in Edmonton.
Suzuki says humans have become a “tectonic force” altering the planet because of their sheer numbers, advanced technology and consumption. He told science students that they must find a way to keep the Earth alive and healthy.
During his speech, Suzuki shared the story of meeting with a top oilsands CEO, who sought his thoughts and insight during a meeting four years ago. Suzuki said the most important thing on earth is protecting the air we breathe and the water we need to survive.
WATCH: David Suzuki’s entire 13-minute address spoke at the University of Alberta spring convocation.
He said the oilsands CEO could not agree to work with Suzuki on making industry more environmentally friendly because shareholders would never go for it.
“So here is the dilemma: we have created concepts and structures of government and business that we then try to force nature to conform to — rather than shaping our creations to fix the needs of nature on which we are utterly dependent. That’s why we have disputes over many things,” Suzuki told the crowd near the end of his 13-minute long speech.
Suzuki did not say which oilsands CEO he met with.
(The entire story can be listened to in the video player above.)
Suzuki said humanity’s success has been largely due to people being able to look to the problems of the future and address them now. “Foresight is our great gift. And you are a part of society’s foresight today,” he said to the graduating students of the Faculty of Science.
“You are trained in science to assess the best information we have available, about what the state of the planet is, and to look ahead with your supercomputers and see where we are going.”
Suzuki received a standing ovation afterwards.
The Edmonton university announced in April that Suzuki was one of 13 people who would receive the honour this spring.
It prompted a flood of complaints, along with critical public letters from the university’s deans of business and engineering.
Donors and alumni, particularly those in the oil and gas industry, also said they would withdraw donations and partnerships. One Calgary law firm said it was cancelling its annual $100,000 funding commitment to the university’s law school.
Suzuki, who’s also host of “The Nature of Things” television show, has not spoken publicly about the controversy and did not directly address it on Thursday either.
He did say everyone should be “scientifically literate” and universities are the place to debate ideas that often threaten the status quo.
But in an op-ed posted on his foundation’s website, he said that universities — “especially one in the heart of oil country” — should be the place “to air a range of ideas about the geophysical, social and economic consequences of fossil fuel use.”
“After all, what I say about economics, planetary boundaries and the need to shift priorities is no different from what economists, scientists, philosophers and numerous other experts around the world have been saying for years,” Suzuki wrote.
University president David Turpin said the school stands by its controversial decision, noting that knowledge and progress are built on the free exchange of ideas.
WATCH: University of Alberta President David Turpin said having our beliefs and assumptions challenged by the truth is how we grow as people.
This year’s other recipients included agriculture advocate Nettie Wiebe, physicist and science educator Brian Cox, former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, francophone culture expert France Levasseur-Ouimet, and journalist and CBC foreign correspondent Nahlah Ayed.
— With files from Emily Mertz, Global News, and The Canadian Press