Tara Cullis was anxious to finish packing for the family’s annual fall move from Vancouver to Toronto, so when her husband suggested they take in the second annual Stein Valley “Voices for the Wilderness” Festival on Labour Day Weekend, she very nearly declined. She was a busy woman: she ran a thriving business, taught at Harvard, was the mother of two little girls, and was head-over-heels in love with her very public husband, David Suzuki. Living in Toronto for the school year made Cullis’s weekly commute to Harvard bearable. And it meant Suzuki, a UBC prof, could spend part of the year close to CBC headquarters for his TV and radio work.
Designed to draw attention to the logging that threatened the Stein Valley, the festival that year was held on a stunning site, near where the Stein River and the Thompson flow into the Fraser. The Stein Valley encompasses 107,000 hectares of spectacular forests, glaciers, lowlands, rivers, and tundra. In 1986, this complex and irreplaceable biodiversity – sacred to First Nations people for eons – was at imminent risk of being logged into oblivion.
When Cullis and Suzuki arrived that late-August afternoon with their toddler, Sarika, and six-year-old Severn, the place was swarming with festival-goers and throbbing with feasting, music, storytelling and speeches. Tepees, and tents of all shapes and sizes, dotted the landscape.
The family was hosted in a neat-looking tepee that was open at the bottom to help keep it cooler. Clouds of dust wafted in, covering their belongings including the milk in Sarika’s cup. The bugs were getting in, too, and were biting. That night, when it came time for the little girls to sleep, a musician named Seeker sat down by the campfire just outside the entrance to their tepee and started drumming loudly, and singing in a high-pitched voice. It was so loud it sounded as though he was right there, inside the tepee. Surely the children won’t sleep through this, Cullis worried. It’s going to be dreadful tomorrow. They’ll be exhausted and whiney and crying all day. And this drumming! Will it happen like this every night? What have I got myself into! But the children slept, and the next day they were happy and well rested.
And somehow, too, the next day a switch flipped for Cullis. She felt something different was going on, beyond her previous understanding. “The drum especially, it gets to you,” she says. “I think it’s a real shortcut to finding out what’s important.” The drumming magnified the crowd’s desperate passion to preserve the Stein Valley, and it moved Cullis to a whole new level of consciousness. She felt “that frisson of excitement” that comes from sensing something really significant lurking just beneath the surface. “I love it when one gets that sense that this is the end of a string and, if you pull on it, it’s connected to ‘unseen high events’ as Malcolm Lowry writes.”
It wasn’t the first time Cullis had experienced a catalyzing event. In December of 1972, she was a 22-year-old graduate student enrolled in comparative literature at Carleton when David Suzuki was invited to give a speech there. “I saw her in an audience of 400 people,” Suzuki says. “She was sensationally beautiful. I have a picture of her that I love, where she looks like Rita Hayworth.” The attraction was mutual; within weeks they were engaged, and a year later they were married.
Although Cullis had emigrated from England to Canada as a five year old, she had never applied for a Canadian passport; nor had her brother. When she married she kept her maiden name, no ordinary choice in 1973. When she and her brother applied for Canadian passports – she wanted one so she could travel in Europe on her honeymoon – her brother was given the “welcome to Canada” speech while she was unceremoniously refused. Apparently, it was unacceptable to have retained her maiden name! Cullis used a British passport to tide her over, but en route to Europe they stopped in Ottawa, where she pled her case that “Canada should come into the 20th century.” The officials agreed and gave her a passport. In this first activist cause that she and Suzuki shared, Cullis became the first married woman in Canada to become a Canadian citizen under her maiden name.
“When we started sharing fun times with First Nations people, it felt like peeling Saran Wrap off British Columbia, and then there was a whole other British Columbia underneath.”
Now, 14 years after meeting Suzuki, Cullis was again entering a whole new world. She signed on to help coordinate future Stein festivals, inviting such personages as Buffy Ste. Marie, John Denver, and Gordon Lightfoot, to boost attendance. Strong public support led to the area being preserved for posterity as the Stein Valley Nlaka’pamux Heritage Park. At the same time, Cullis also became involved in the fight to save Gwaii Haanas, (then South Moresby.) She and Canada’s Green Party leader Elizabeth May worked together on this project. “She has a natural instinct for campaigning for a cause,” May notes. One of Cullis’s ideas was to hire a plane with a banner, spreading the word to literally thousands of people as they lay tanning on the beaches of Vancouver. “She thinks of the best and smartest things to do,” says May. And she has fun in the process.
“I don’t know anyone who has as much fun as Tara Cullis,” says her daughter Sarika. “I think that that’s what allows her to do the heavy things she does in life. She’s friends with everybody who comes into her house, or works on her house, or drops things off, like the milkman – those are her people, and she’s one of them.”
Cullis began getting to know people from many BC First Nations, including a young Coast Salish woman, Patricia Kelly, whom she’d met at the Stein. Soon she was counting them among her closest friends. “When we started sharing fun times with First Nations people, it felt like peeling Saran Wrap off British Columbia, and then there was a whole other British Columbia underneath,” she says, joyfully.
Finding environmental needs more urgent than her teaching work, Cullis resigned her coveted position at Harvard and immersed herself in environmentalism. It was a drastic shift that meant stepping completely out of her comfort zone.
When, in 1989, Suzuki did a five-part radio show, It’s a Matter of Survival, about global warming and the future of the planet, the response was mind‑boggling – 17,000 people sent letters to the CBC asking what they could do to make a difference. Suzuki acquired a nickname: Dr. Doom and Gloom. “You’ve got to start giving people hope. We’ve got to start offering solutions,” Cullis insisted. “And that,” says Sarika, “was the genesis of the David Suzuki Foundation.”
With the help of friends, Cullis mailed a letter to each of those 17,000 supporters, asking: “If we create an organization designed to find solutions, would you be willing to support it?”
They hadn’t reckoned at all on the response. When the first bag of mail arrived at their tiny office above a fume-filled autobody shop on West 12th Avenue in Kitsilano, Cullis and Patricia Kelly sat down to open the envelopes and see what people were saying, and they were shocked. In one was a $10 bill; in another, 30 dollars. One woman sent a cheque for a thousand dollars. It was Christmastime, and each day the mailman trudged Santa-like up their stairs with another bulging sack. They had their answer, and Cullis knew there was no turning back. After a few months, people started calling: “I sent you $20. Can you tell me what you did with my money? Is it helping?” Those were heady days, but Cullis was also terrified; she had no idea how to track the mail and the funds, organize a database, balance books, or manage the inquiries. She had to learn it all from scratch, fast.
Each day when school was out, Sarika would walk to their office a block away, and play among the boxes on the floor while Cullis and Kelly did the deskwork. After, once they got home and had dinner and put the girls in bed, the two would work until the small hours. Kelly lived with Cullis’s family in those days. For about 18 months it went on like this. Cullis began to have nightmares. She dreamt that she was far out on the limb of a tree, sawing off the limb. She had the dream night after night. Always she would awaken before she could complete it.
As Kelly says, “Tara was a feminist in the sandwich generation.” She managed her household and helped look after her parents and Suzuki’s parents while taking on the almost overwhelming work of starting the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) and serving as its volunteer president. She edited Suzuki’s written work. She did the paperwork for their other business and, through all this, she was a fiercely loyal and deeply devoted wife and mother.
“She’s always said that she wanted to raise her kids without baggage,” Sarika says. “And people would actively emulate her, because they could see what a great mom she was – I found that fascinating, that other people recognized that as well.”
“There are constantly forces trying to destroy and break us apart; I choose to be part of the forces that bring us together.”
Michele Souda, a friend from student days and former Harvard colleague, says Cullis was a great inspiration to her as a mother. “When I would be with my daughter I was completely with my daughter, because Tara had helped me understand the importance of this. I could get other things done, but not while I was being with my daughter.”
Cullis managed all these things superbly well, but she was out of balance and she knew it. In fact, balance was something she’d spent years thinking about, at least in a theoretical way. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the rupture of science and literature in the 20th century, which she saw as a reflection of an emerging tendency to think in left-brained ways, substituting the increasing convenience of technology for the beauty of the arts, instead of holding the two in balance. “Back in the 1800s in English literature,” she says, “Swift and Pope and others were saying that ‘the educated man’ or ‘the rational man’ – it was always a man – has a balance of reason and imagination.” But we lost that balance when the rise of technology enabled us to effectively “move mountains with the left side of the brain.”
Cullis calls herself a synthesist – one who looks at the big picture. “It’s a wish to construct and to build, to bring together, because there are constantly forces trying to destroy and break us apart; I choose to be part of the forces that bring us together.”
And she does this without fanfare. The backbone of the Suzuki Foundation from its inception, and the heart of her family, Cullis has always done things quietly, never seeking the spotlight. But this year, the spotlight finally found her, with alumni UBC awarding her its prestigious Global Citizenship Award. Suzuki is thrilled. “Without Tara, “ he says, “the Suzuki Foundation would not have been possible; who I am in the public’s eye would not have been possible. She made me who I am.”
As the DSF was getting off the ground in the early ’90s, they became aware that one of the last surviving temperate rainforests on the planet was on coastal British Columbia and Haida Gwaii, and it was at risk. It was decided Cullis should focus on this project.
For two years she travelled up and down the coast on behalf of the DSF, visiting communities of the 11 coastal First Nations, observing their needs, listening to their concerns, helping dissolve differences. At the outset, many of these groups were not even speaking to one another, but Cullis would find their commonalities and share them: “Oh, by the way,” she’d say, “I was here,” and “Oh, by the way, I was there. And you guys are talking about the same things.” She became a unifying force. “From the visits she would make with them, with the Haidas, with the Bella Bella, the Bella Coola, the Haisla…” says Patricia Kelly, “all of the people ended up knowing one another. Tara was that slender thread tying people and their ideas together.”
“After Tara did her outreach and built positive relations,” says former Haida Council president, Miles Richardson Jr, “the David Suzuki Foundation brought the people together in a conference and, out of this, the Turning Point Initiative was born.” This evolved into Coastal First Nations, the powerful, cohesive alliance that negotiated the preservation of what is now known as the Great Bear Rainforest, comprised of 6.4 million hectares along the BC coast.
The key to this success was recognizing that these First Nations had managed the area sustainably for millennia, and acknowledging that they should therefore be relied on to continue managing the area sustainably. It was Cullis’s diplomacy in the first place that helped broker an alliance that remains strong today.
“All of the big environmental battles I’ve ever been involved in were led by First Nations,” says Cullis. “It’s natural, when you’re trying to re-find the balance, to appreciate the leadership of First Nations in helping show the way. They’re very sophisticated, 21st-century people, but they live more in the right brain than does our own current culture, and I think they’ve got more of a balance than we’ve come to.”
Launching the Suzuki Foundation, moving it forward, and enabling this unprecedented alliance among the coastal First Nations was immensely fulfilling for Cullis, but it was also enormously challenging and stressful. Many times along the way family and friends urged her to give up, but she felt the cause was too important. “We had so many brick walls, but I learned something about myself through it all: I never give up. But I felt I was doing myself an injury – I could feel the strain, though I didn’t know what it was going to result in.”
“She’s of that generation of feminists that says, ‘You can do it all, but you do have to do it all.’ It’s kind of a reverse sexism.”
The physical damage lay dormant for years but on a hot July day in 2013, while swimming off Kitsilano beach, Cullis suffered acute heart failure. Realizing her survival depended on remaining calm, she swam gently back to shore, where a woman called 911 and then called Suzuki. He raced down from their nearby home, barefoot and buck naked beneath his Yukata (a Japanese housecoat). He went to grab her, to hug her, but she told him softly that she needed to just focus on breathing. The ambulance came, took her to hospital. “I cannot think the unthinkable, which is life without Tara,” says Suzuki. “Without Tara, I’m nothing – I am nothing as a human being without Tara. We are truly joined at the hip.”
Wired to work hard and solve problems, Cullis had taken on too much. As her daughter Severn says, “She’s of that generation of feminists that says, ‘You can do it all, but you do have to do it all.’ It’s kind of a reverse sexism. Having to look after herself has been a huge take-home lesson. And it is indicative to me that it was heart failure, because her heart is so big.”
On any given day, Cullis may be seen wearing a wide gold bracelet embossed with a raven, the handiwork of Haida artist Jessie Brillon. Twenty years ago Chief Chee Xial, Miles Richardson Sr, adopted Cullis and her daughters into his Haida Raven clan, naming her Jaad Gaa Skuudagaas, Woman of Knowledge. The families had grown close over the years, and as Miles Richardson Jr. points out, “The really important thing that they’ve achieved is that they see us as we see ourselves, and they respect us on that basis.”
It is a great honour and privilege to be adopted and named in a First Nation tribe, and Cullis has since been adopted and named in three more coastal tribes, at Hartley Bay, Bella Bella, and Alert Bay. She has also worked tirelessly for other groups, most notably the Kayapo in Brazil and the Ainu in Japan.
“She’s totally guileless – her heart is 100 per cent in the right place, and that’s why she has such a loving family and why all those adoptive moments have happened,” says UBC anthropology professor Wade Davis. “But because she moves so gently through the world, it’s often forgotten how strong and important her presence has been.”
Patricia Kelly concurs. “The fluidity of her language is like a refreshing drink of water, the way she can communicate and impact people. And she’s not telling people to change. She’s simply saying, ‘Look what I’ve found!’”
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About the banner image
Realm of the Supernatural
by April SGaana Jaad White, BSc’82
To touch the realm of the supernatural, where travel in water is as in air, one must first achieve pureness of body and mind through fasting, drinking salt water and bathing in the sea. The most powerful underwater Supernatural Being, a being with both human spirit and form, wears the cloak of Killer Whale — SGaan. This lone matriarch’s dorsal fin breaks the barrier between two worlds. Our challenge is to protect the magic of Myth Time by treading lightly on the natural world, the plane that connects us to the spirit of our ancestors — to maintain balance on the edge of the earth.
In 2012, UBC alumna April White of the Haida Nation donated this artwork to the Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s Art for an Oil-Free Coast, a sale to raise money for a campaign against Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project, which would see an increase in oil-tanker traffic on BC’s ecologically diverse coast.
Tara Cullis (see article above) is a long-time environmental activist whose work with First Nations communities on the BC coast during the 1990s was an important part of their efforts to preserve what is now known as the Great Bear Rainforest.