Celebrating Aboriginal Day: A Letter to Tiisaan



The following is David Suzuki’s letter to his grandchild, Tiisaan, who lives on Haida Gwaii with his older brother, Ganhlaans, and mother, Severn. The letter is taken from David’s latest book Letters to My Grandchildren, where he discusses the importance of self-identity and racism.

HELLO MY SWEET TIISAAN,

Like Midori, you have an older brother to live up to, but you are a joy and delight in your own right. How wonderful it was when you came into this world with a full head of curly hair! And how I regret that when it was cut short, it never grew back with the curls again.

You and your brother are such stunners, and I try to imagine you together when you are older and just knocking people out with your good looks. And you’ve got those unusual blue eyes, because as you know, Asians and Haida have brown eyes, and it’s genes from Europe that result in blue ones. The combination of Haida, Japanese, and English genes has produced a wonderful result! But just because you are good-looking and people ogle you, don’t let it go to your head and start thinking you’re hot stuff.

The acquisition of language is a fascinating process to watch. Your brother is quite proficient, and although you understand both English and Haida, you haven’t yet come out with the proficiency with words that your brother has. I can see that you understand us completely and have a clear idea of what you want to say, but a lot is still Tiisaan language. But I know you will become as fluent as your brother, and I can’t wait to hear you jabbering in Haida.

The challenge for you will be to carve out your own interests and desires. You have always wanted to copy whatever Ganhlaans does. I hated one of the earliest words you began to use: “mine.” I can’t tell you how many fights I had to intervene in because you were clinging to a toy or a bit of wood or even a piece of junk and yelling “mine.” Of course, Ganhi always wanted something simply because you had it first. I kept trying to inculcate the notions of “ours” and “share,” which I hope will kick in at some point.

You have always responded very strongly to music, especially music with a good beat. You get up and start dancing to Haida drumming and you love to beat the drum, so I have great hopes that you will learn traditional drumming and dancing, which is so important to Haida culture. Ganhi is quite shy in public, but you are a real show-off. I know you will take the lead at feasts and celebrations.

You and your brother are so loved by your parents, your grandparents, and your Haida community, and you are fortunate to be growing up in the confidence of that love and support. There will be times when you are sad, lonely, or upset, when you will be able to draw on that love.

My dear, sweet Tiisaan, how Nana and I wish we could shield you and your brother, Ganhlaans, from hurt that will come during your lives. I’ve emphasized the love that you are enveloped in from family because that is your shield, your armour against ignorance and bigotry. It pains me to tell you that despite the enormous increase in appreciation of and respect for First Nations in Canada, there is still a great deal of prejudice that will be directed at you. Some people resent what they feel is undeserved support from their tax dollars on reserves, in paying less taxation, in unwarranted claims to land, and so on. Others point to alcoholism, disproportionate numbers in prison, or welfare costs without regard to the historical and social causes of many of these problems and as if the accusations apply to all First Nations people.

Your family will buffer you against the pain of any encounters you will have with people who are ignorant and don’t know what they are talking about. Know that you are a fine human being who has the love and support of the people who matter. Much of bigotry is based on sheer ignorance. Because we look different from Caucasians (a difference that has a genetic basis), people make a leap to assuming that differences in ability, intelligence, and behaviour are similarly determined by genes. That’s why, when Canada went to war with Japan in 1942, many Canadians feared people like me and my parents because we looked like the enemy—we were Japanese.

The first time I went to Japan, in 1969, I suddenly felt as if I’d disappeared when I looked at the reflections in a window on the street. Everyone around looked just like me and I had a hard time finding me in the crowd. That’s when I realized a lot of my sense of identity was based on looking different in a white society. We may look alike, but the minute I have a conversation with a Japanese person from Japan, a yawning gulf opens up between us because my history is Canadian and British, my music is Beethoven and Gordon Lightfoot, my literature is Shakespeare and Margaret Atwood. That’s why some of us refer to ourselves as “bananas”—we’re yellow on the outside but white inside.

Your mother had a friend she’d known from primary through high school. Years later, after getting married, your parents met her at a party. At some point, everyone was sitting around chatting and this friend casually mentioned “lazy Indians who are always drunk,” but then realized your father is Haida. She tried vainly to apologize to Jud for what she had said, but the words had slipped easily and thoughtlessly from her mouth and illustrated both insensitivity and prejudice. You will have such experiences, but don’t let them in any way shake your sense of self-worth.

But Tiis, you are so fortunate in having such a strong supportive family, and that gives you a responsibility to look out for others who might not be so lucky. Bigots who make judgments of others on the basis of religious, ethnic, or gender differences must be confronted. People may no longer express prejudice against you or other indigenous people but focus instead on Muslims or transgendered people—those bigots must be exposed for what they are because they can turn on you in a second.

Whatever you ultimately decide to do, do it with the gusto I’ve seen in you as a boy. Go for it, and don’t worry about whether you’ll succeed. Just do it to the best of your ability.


You can purchase Letters to My Grandchildren from:
Amazon / Chapters-Indigo / Direct from Publisher / Find a Local Bookstore

Ebook also available:

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Check out these additional excerpts from the book:


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