Oh Kanata: Time for a new flag and a new name?

28 June 2021

 Dr. Trevor Hancock

701 words

Last week the Times Colonist announced that for Canada Day it would be running a full-page pull-out of the Canadian Indigenous Flag. Designed by the late Curtis Wilson (Malizdas) of the Wei Wai Kum First Nation near Campbell River, it is a revised Maple Leaf Flag with swimming salmon in the side-bars and orca in the maple leaf.

Dave Obee, Times Colonist’s Editor and publisher, commented that this flag “reflects the times we are in”, adding “Canada, as we know it, could not exist without the Indigenous presence.” While recognising that this is not the official flag, he said, “this year it seems like the right one.”

I agree. But why only this year, I thought. Why not adopt it as Canada’s flag? And while we are at it, why not change the name of this land we call Canada to Kanata? After all, the Government of Canada website tells us that “the name Canada likely comes from the Huron-Iroquois word “kanata,” meaning “village” or “settlement””, so it is an Indigenous name already.

Such an idea is not without precedent. Increasingly, the country we used to call New Zealand is re-naming itself Aotearoa New Zealand, Aotearoa being the original Maori name for the land, often translated as “the land of the long white cloud”.

Go to the government’s website and you will find it is headlined Government of New Zealand/ Te Kawanatanga o Aotearoa, and you are greeted with ‘Kia ora’, which means ‘hello’ and has come to be the common greeting in Aotearoa New Zealand these days.

The Maori arrived in Aotearoa around the 13th century, populating the country – until then free of humans – only 500 years before the first Europeans arrived. As a result, and because they all came from various eastern Polynesian islands with related languages and cultures, there is only one Maori language across the entire country, although with many local dialects, as is true of English.

In 1985 Maori was recognised as “a taonga (treasure) that the Crown (government) was obliged to protect under the Treaty of Waitangi” and in 1987 became one of the three official languages of Aotearoa New Zealand, alongside English and New Zealand Sign Language.

So it was wonderful, when I attended a large global health promotion conference in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2019 to hear the Maori elders greet delegates from around the world in Maori, with no English translation available. They were in effect proclaiming with pride ‘this is our language, this is our culture, this is our land’ – and so they should.

Here of course, things are more complex. There are three main groups of Indigenous people in Canada. The First Nations (often still called “Indians”) were the first to arrive, starting some 20,000 years ago and now comprise more than 50 Indigenous Nations and languages and over 600 communities.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia (CE) the Inuit arrived about 1,000 years ago – well before the first Europeans arrived 500 years ago – moving east across what is now their homeland in the Arctic from the Bering Strait all the way to Labrador (and beyond, to Greenland). There are eight main Inuit ethnic groups and five main dialects in Inuktitut, the Inuit language.

Finally, the CE states the “Métis are people of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry” and possess “a singular cultural heritage of dual origins” that first emerged in the 18th century, west of Sault Ste Marie (although much of this is still much debated).

So as far as I know there is no single agreed upon Indigenous term for the land we today call Canada. But the term Kanata has an historic relationship to the modern word for the country and is an Eastern Canada Indigenous term, nicely balancing the western Canada imagery on the Canadian Indigenous Flag.

I put this idea forward not as a definitive answer – for one thing, it has not had any input from Indigenous people themselves, who would be key to any such change – but in the spirit of reconciliation. So why not start the discussion here: How should the name and flag of the country we call Canada be changed to reflect and honour the Indigenous people of this land?

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy


Stop subsidies to ‘corporate welfare bums’ that harm our health

22 June 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

697 words

One of the frequent complaints by the proponents of neoliberal economics and small government and their corporate supporters is that there is a lot of waste in government. All manner of things get described as a waste of taxpayers’ money (and they are always called taxpayers, not citizens), but the focus is usually on various forms of social support, especially welfare programs that are said to be abused.

Yet the public largesse devoted to what federal NDP leader David Lewis, in 1972, memorably called “corporate welfare bums” vastly exceeds the amount ‘wasted’ in welfare fraud and similar issues. Particularly problematic is what has to be the greatest waste of all; government subsidies and support for businesses whose activities and products actually harm our environments and our health.

This happens because there is a narrow and short-term understanding of societal benefit that gives credit for investments made and incomes generated here and now, while discounting or even completely ignoring the harm done to the environment, to people elsewhere and to future generations. Clearly, this has to stop.

It is worth understanding the many ways in which subsidies and other forms of support are provided. According to Vanessa Corkal, a policy advisor with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), writing recently in the National Observer, “a subsidy is a financial benefit given by a government to a specific industry or sector”. Those subsidies come in the form of grants, tax or royalty breaks (foregoing revenue intended to support Canadians) and less obvious forms such as loan guarantees.

But it doesn’t stop there. Beyond subsidies lie ‘supports’ (such as wage subsidies) and ‘externalities’ – the cost of all the damage caused by the industry and its products (such as health impacts or pollution) that the industry does not have to pay for.

The list of unworthy corporate recipients of government (read tax-paying citizens) support is long, but surely right at the top must be the fossil fuel industry, followed by industries such as mining, forestry, agriculture and fisheries (of which more next week).

So in the midst of an accelerating climate crisis, why is a single penny of public funds going to the fossil fuel industry? And yet billions of dollars are being spent, both here and around the world, to expand and support the production and consumption of fossil fuels. It is sheer madness, suicidal, in fact.

A report this month from the IISD looked at international public financing for natural gas expansion in the Global South. The authors found that this amounted to nearly USD 16 billion per year from 2017 to 2019, four times as much as was invested in wind or solar. The problem is that this risks locking “countries into a high-carbon pathway, imperilling their economic future and the global climate.”

Also this month a report from the Tear Fund, a Christian charity devoted to tackling poverty, found that “between January 2020 and March 2021, G7 nations committed more than US$189 billion to support coal, oil and gas, while clean forms of energy received only $147 billion. In other words, fossil fuels received more than half of the total support to energy-intensive sectors”.

In Canada, a recent report from the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University pegged the cost of federal subsidies alone to the fossil fuel sector at $1.9 billion in 2020, with ‘support’ adding another $18 billion, while the cost of externalities was estimated to be $63 billion.

Here in BC, according to STAND.earth’s May 2021 report on the issue, in 2020/21 the NDP government “spent $1.3 billion on fossil fuel subsidies — 8.3 percent more than the previous year”. Of this, $421 million was for the Deep Well Royalty Program, a tax loophole for fracking operators. Shockingly, STAND.earth reports that in 2020/21 “the NDP government gave the oil and gas industry almost five times as much money in subsidies as it earned in oil and gas royalties”.

In its 2020 Manifesto for a Healthy and Green Covid-19 Recovery, the World Health Organisation said it well: “Stop using taxpayers money to fund pollution.”. Governments must listen, stop pandering to the large corporate welfare bums and actually do something to protect citizens from corporate-created harms.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Who has the right to cut old growth?

15 June 2021

Dr Trevor Hancock

700 words

The new ‘War in the Woods’ to protect old growth forest in Fairy Creek and far beyond raises an important issue that has been neglected. By what right are those trees being cut? Who gets to decide?

In some ways the easiest answer is ‘not us’, meaning not the settlers who came to this land within the past 200 years or so. We came to a land that was already occupied by a population of Indigenous people estimated to have been in the range of 200,000 to 1 million people, according to the First Nations Health Authority, although the population had been massively reduced by a smallpox epidemic that arrived in BC around 1780.

Yet the European-style state that was created here claims state ownership of 94 percent of BC as ‘Crown land’, with 5 percent in private hands and 1 percent federally owned, according to the Land Title and Survey Authority of British Columbia. Meanwhile, the BC Treaty Commission notes “Indian reserves cover just 0.4 per cent of the BC land base”.

This of course conveniently ignores the fact that with few exceptions none of this land was legally purchased from, or ceded by, the hundreds of Indigenous bands and tribes that actually lived on and drew sustenance from the land. In fact, 95 percent of BC is unceded, according to ‘Pulling Together’, a guide for Indigenization of post-secondary institutions from BCCampus.

Indeed, in 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada found that aboriginal title still exists in BC and that “aboriginal title is a right to the land itself—not just the right to hunt, fish and gather”. Unsurprisingly, overlapping Indigenous land claims cover more than 100 percent of BC, notes the Canadian Encyclopedia.

In an interview with CTV News in February 2020 Kim Stanton, a lawyer at Goldblatt Partners LLP who specializes in Aboriginal law, noted that because so much of BC was never ceded, the imposition of the Indian Act was illegitimate and thus while “Canada and B.C. assume that they have jurisdiction . . .  they never legally got it.”

So by what right is the BC government granting any kind of logging, mining or other rights to private companies for lands that the BC government does not legally own? And if the BC government does not legally own the land, then what right do these companies have to log or mine or otherwise use the land, unless they have agreements with the First Nations that hold Aboriginal title. But then, who should they have an agreement with?

In both the Fairy Creek and the earlier Wet’suwet’en case (a dispute over the Coastal GasLink pipeline), hereditary leaders and elected leaders have been in disagreement. Stanton notes the law of the hereditary chiefs “is the law that pre-exists colonization in the territory,” and their “authority is with respect to all of their ancestral lands”.

Meanwhile, the elected Band Council is a colonial imposition under the Indian Act, not part of the traditional governing mechanism of First Nations. According to Pam Palmater, an Indigenous lawyer and the chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, in an interview with CTV’s Power Play in February 2020, the elected councils “don’t have the authority under the Indian Act to make decisions on traditional territory”, only on the reserve lands. And anyway, Stanton suggests the Indian Act is illegitimate in BC.

Missing in all this, of course, are the rights of the rest of humanity, of future generations and of nature itself. Does not the rest of humanity have an interest in the forests here, just as – many would argue – people outside Brazil have an interest in not seeing the Amazon destroyed? Do people in BC, and humanity as a whole, not have the right to a healthy environment, which must surely include intact and healthy ecosystems?

Finally, what about the rights of nature, which we are slowly beginning to recognise. Given the growing recognition of the benefits of stewardship of traditional lands by Indigenous people, guided by traditional values, would we all be better off if we gave the land and waters personhood, represented and safeguarded by traditional indigenous leadership, as is beginning to happen in Aotearoa New Zealand?

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar

at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

What happened in Kamloops was part of a national crime

9 June 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

Some may find this column disturbing, as it is about the deaths of Indigenous people a century or more ago. Moreover, in quoting from a 1922 report, some of the words used then (e.g. Indians) are not acceptable today. But it is important to quote verbatim. I am grateful to Andrew Nikiforuk, by the way, whose June 2 article in The Tyee reminded me of this story.


I cannot imagine what Indigenous people may have felt if they read a recent letter in the Times Colonist about the discovery of the unmarked graves of Indigenous children in Kamloops. As part of what seems to be an attempt to downplay the significance of the deaths, the writer stated “without knowing what killed the Aboriginal children in Kamloops, there is no reason to suspect there was criminal activity.” He is wrong, very wrong, as are others who may think like him.

There was a crime, indeed “a national crime”, and it was called that 99 years ago. In a 1922 booklet, ‘The Story of a National Crime’, Dr. Peter Bryce, Chief Medical Officer of the Immigration and Indian Department (as it was then called) from 1904 to 1921, described what had happened to the health of Indigenous people, including in the residential schools, as a “criminal disregard for the treaty pledges to guard the welfare” of Indigenous people. (His report is available online.)

But his reports were largely ignored by the government and he was compelled by his oath of office to not disclose what he knew. So not only was there a crime, it was covered up until Dr. Bryce retired in 1921 and felt free to speak out.

Each year from 1904 to 1914, Dr. Bryce states in his 1922 booklet, he“wrote an annual report on the health of the Indians, published in the Departmental report”. And with specific reference to the residential schools he noted “The annual medical reports from year to year made reference to the unsatisfactory health of the pupils”.

In 1907 he also made a “special inspection of thirty-five Indian schools in the three prairie provinces”. The report on this, he wrote, “was published separately (and) the recommendations contained in the report were never published and the public knows nothing of them”. This 1907 report found that in the 15 years of their existence “24 per cent of all the pupils which had been in the schools were known to be dead” (so probably an under-estimate), while in “one school on the File Hills reserve, which gave a complete return to date, 75 percent were dead at the end of the 16 years since the school opened”.

Then in 1909 he undertook a special investigation of 8 schools in the Calgary area, finding very high levels of TB in the schools and in the Indigenous population.  But, reports Dr. Bryce, “no action was taken by the Department to give effect to the recommendations made” by the 1909 and 1907 reports, and a letter he wrote to the Minister in 1911 complained that “I have not received a single communication with reference to carrying out the Suggestions of our [1909] report”.

Instead, in 1913 Duncan Scott, whom Dr. Bryce – in a 1911 letter to the Minister – had already accused of actively opposing any action on his reports, was made Deputy Minister of the Department, with predictable results. In June 1914 he wrote to Dr. Bryce putting a stop to his annual reports.

In fact, Dr. Bryce wrote in 1922, “from 1913 up to the time when Dr. W. A. Roche [who had been appointed Minister in 1913] was eliminated from the government in 1917 . . . the activities of the Chief Medical Inspector of the Indian Department, had in practice ceased”.

So yes, there was a crime, both in the “criminal disregard” of the obligations of the government to protect the health of Indigenous people, perhaps especially in the residential schools, but more generally. And part of that criminal disregard was the ignoring of Dr. Bryce’s reports and recommendations and the suppression both of the reports and the work of Dr. Bryce.

Facing this truth is one step in the process of reconciliation.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Climate change, young people and the courts

(Published as ‘On climate, it’s short-term pain for long-term gain, backed by courts’)

Dr Trevor Hancock

1 June 2021

699 words

One of the biggest challenges in addressing climate change is that it’s a very slow-moving crisis. We need to take action now in order to avert problems many years, even decades into the future, but our system is biased against such action. Short-term pain for long-term gain has never been a popular message, and is not likely to get you re-elected, while the business cycle is too focused on the short-term bottom line. 

In the case of climate change, moreover, we are asking older adults in positions of power to make decisions that not only may adversely affect their situation here and now, but where the benefits will likely come after they are dead and will largely benefit people on the other side of the world.

However, this message resonates with younger people, since they will be alive when the adverse impacts on society of climate change, loss of biodiversity and other massive human-created ecological changes are felt. Which is why young people and NGOs around the world are taking their governments  – and in some cases, corporations – to court, where they are winning significant victories.

The situation was summarised by Chris Tollefson, a law professor at UVic and Executive Director of the Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation, speaking at the opening plenary of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics in late May (you can also find much of this on the website of the US Climate Change Litigation database).

In 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court, in a case brought by the Urgenda Foundation and 900 Dutch citizens, upheld an earlier court ruling that the European Convention on Human Rights applied to the government’s actions on climate chgange. It found the government had a duty of care to protect the right to life and a responsibility to reduce emissions based on the science; specifically, a 25 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020.

More recently, reported Bill McKibben in The New Yorker,a Dutch court has ruled that Shell must markedly increase its planned cuts to emissions. Noting that “severe climate change has consequences for human rights, including the right to life”, a spokesperson for the court stated: “the court thinks that companies, among them Shell, have to respect those human rights” and that “the consequences of severe climate change are more important than Shell’s interests”. Powerful findings indeed!

In France, a case brought by four NGOs resulted in a ruling in 2021 that “France’s inaction has caused ecological damage from climate change” and that “France could be held responsible for failing to meet its own climate and carbon budget goals under EU and national law”.

In Germany, a case brought by youth argued that the reduction targets in the Federal Climate Protection Act were insufficient to protect their human rights. In April 2021 the federal Constitutional Court ruled in their favour, striking down parts of the Act. Of particular importance, the court found “one generation must not be allowed to consume large parts of the CO2 budget . . .  if this would at the same time leave future generations with a radical reduction burden”. In other words, future generations have rights today.

In Australia, a case brought by 8 school children argued that the Environment Minister had a “duty of care” and was legally obliged to consider potential harm to them in the future in deciding whether to allow a coal mining project to proceed. Australia’s ABC reported the Federal Court judge found climate change would have “catastrophic” and “startling” impacts on Australia’s children, the mine would increase that risk and a duty of care does exist.

Tollefson, who is counsel for the plaintiffs in the La Rose case here in Canada, summarised the reasons for these cases as “a response to democratic failure, an invitation for judicial oversight and an invitation to enhance the role of best available science in political discourse” – quite an indictment of our current system.

Even though the cases in Canada and the USA are hitting snags, these rulings hold out hope that young people, NGOs and the courts are able to hold governments and corporations responsible for the harms caused by their actions, or their failure to act.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar

at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

BC flunks international biodiversity targets

26 May 2021

Dr Trevor Hancock

702 words

Since last week’s column about BC’s sad new reputation as a hotspot for biodiversity loss, a troubling report – The BC Biodiversity Report Card – was released by the Wilderness Committee and Ecojustice.

For those unfamiliar with these organisations, Ecojustice is Canada’s largest environmental law charity, taking on public interest cases to defend nature, combat climate change, and fight for a healthy environment for all, while the Wilderness Committee works to preserve wilderness, protect wildlife, defend parks, safeguard public resources and fight for a healthy climate. The report was also reviewed by Professor Sarah Otto, a distinguished zoologist and former Director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia, and Justina Ray of the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada

All of which is to say, I trust this report, which is a review of the extent to which the Aichi Targets have been met in BC. The Targets are a key part of the 2011-2020 Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, established under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) by the nations of the world in 2010. Not only is Canada a signatory, we host the CBD Secretariat in Montreal.

The Plan “required all governments to make measurable progress in conserving the planet’s wildlife and natural systems by the end of 2020”, notes the BC Report Card. It laid out 20 goals in five strategic areas, including mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society, reducing the direct pressures on biodiversity and promoting sustainable use, safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity, and enhancing the benefits to all from biodiversity and ecosystem services.

So how are we doing? The UN Environment Program’s 2020 report “Making Peace with Nature” is blunt: “None of the global goals for the protection of life on Earth have been fully met, including those in the strategic plan for biodiversity 2011–2020 and its Aichi biodiversity targets.” None, not one! Globally, only 6 of the 20 targets have been even partially met.

Here in BC, where we have “the richest biodiversity in Canada, but also the highest number of species at risk”, things are not any better. “Under Canada’s laws”, the BC Report Card notes, “British Columbia has primary responsibility for protecting biodiversity within the province, including most species, natural habitats, and landscapes”.

Sadly, Ecojustice and the Wilderness Committee gave BC a failing grade in 4 of the 5 areas they considered: Protection and recovery of both species at risk and ecosystems, the protection of natural habitats of all species and ecosystems and other laws to protect biodiversity. Only one area got better than an ‘F’, with BC attaining a ‘C-‘ by protecting 15.5 per cent of its land base (the Aichi target was 17 percent).

Among the major failures noted is the absence of a Species at Risk Act, making BC – with its rich but at-risk biodiversity  – “one of the few remaining provinces without a stand-alone law” to do this. Other failures include not protecting enough land to save most of B.C.’s wildlife and not reducing “the loss of all natural habitats by 50 per cent from 2010 levels”.

The failure to meet the 2017 commitment by John Horgan to enact a Species at Risk law is one of the outstanding betrayals of the BC environment by this government, along with their continued support for LNG fracking and their failure to protect old-growth forest. 

Indeed, the Fairy Creek blockade epitomizes the NDP’s failure. Right in the Premier’s own constituency, the RCMP are hauling people away for doing what the NDP is not doing; protecting old growth forests and the biodiversity they contain in the face of the determination by the forest-destruction industry to log as much old growth as they can, as quickly as they can.

In fact, the Wilderness Committee reported earlier this month, based on government data, that there had been a 43 per cent increase in approved old-growth cutblocks in the twelve months from April 30th 2020.

The BC Report Card states “we are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis on par with the climate crisis”. When will the government wake up to this crisis, stop the assault on BC’s biodiversity and introduce the strong, innovative biodiversity law recommended by the  Old-growth Strategic Review Panel?

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar

at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Once-proud BC is now a biodiversity loss hotspot

18 May 2021

Dr Trevor Hancock

701 words

There was a time when BC was “a global leader in fish, wildlife and habitat conservation”, stated Jesse Zeman of the BC Wildlife Federation in a May 10th press. But now it is “a landscape which can be characterized as at risk, endangered and extirpated”, he continued. (‘Extirpated’ refers to local extinction; a species may not be extinct overall, but has become extinct in a particular region where once it was found.) Moreover, this has happened in just one generation.

The press release announced the creation of the BC Fish, Wildlife, and Habitat Coalition, which brings together 25 organisations from widely differing sectors: Environmental and conservation organizations, hunting and angling guides, wildlife viewing, ecotourism, naturalists, hunters, anglers, and trappers.

What unites this somewhat disparate group is “the growing concern over the province’s failure – over successive governments – to adequately deal with a mounting crisis of biodiversity loss and cumulative impacts on ecosystem health”, stated Tim Burkhart of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.

It is nothing short of a tragedy that it has come to this. And how has this come to pass? Because successive governments have valued the economy over nature, and thus over the wellbeing of future generations, not to mention all the species with whom we share this still beautiful but scarred land. The examples are all around us and are coming thick and fast.

For example, a May 2021 study looked at the decline of caribou across Canada and found that it is “habitat alteration from forest cutting” that is at the root of this decline. The research shows the complexity of the ecological processes at play, a complexity that is too often ignored in the more simplistic decision-making used to justify economic benefit.

In this case, cutting down the forest leads to an increase in sunlight and a flourishing of deciduous understorey. That in turn favours moose and deer that do well on this food, which in turn leads to an increase in predators such as wolves – and the caribou suffer.

Its not just forestry that is to blame. A December 2020 report from the Corporate Mapping Project, jointly led by the University of Victoria, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Parkland Institute, notes “scientists have identified coal mining as a key driver of caribou extirpation” – specifically the Mountain caribou in northeastern BC. But the focus of this study is the absurd and false economic justification for the mining; the authors found that “approval of these mines was based on unreasonable benefit expectations . . .  little of the economic gain promised actually materializes, and the scant benefit that is generated arrives years later than promised.”

So not only are the caribou becoming locally extinct, but the supposed economic and social benefits that might – in some people’s minds – justify this ecological abuse, are missing. In the end it’s all for nothing; indeed “not only do the costs of mining activity in northeastern BC outweigh the benefits, but the public helped to fund extinction of caribou by subsidizing exploration and development.”

A third recent example comes from the BC Forest Practices Board, which  has just released its report of a three-year long investigation into forest management in the Nahmint Valley, near Port Alberni. This area was designated as “a special management zone in a high biodiversity landscape unit”, but the Board found that the responsible government agencies failed in their duty to protect biodiversity and old growth forest. Moreover, it found the legislation did not give the Compliance and Enforcement Branch the authority needed to investigate and take corrective action.

Tragically, these are just a microscossm of the appalling record of successive BC governments that have ignored the ethical and legal obligations to protect ‘super natural BC’ in order to extract maximum short term financial and political gain.

We all need to get behind the new BC Fish, Wildlife, and Habitat Coalition in their demand for “a commitment from the province to invest in healthy landscapes, waters, and fish and wildlife stewardship, in partnership with First Nations and communities”. And we must insist the government put a stop to inflated estimates of short-term economic gain that sacrifice the wellbeing of future generations and other species.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

We need a vaccine against Olympic and fossil fuel insanity

11 May 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

699 words

Two broad themes this week, both from recent headlines. The first is the insanity of the plans for the Olympic Games, and especially the unethical prioritization for Covid immunization of elite Olympic athletes over vulnerable people and essential workers in low income countries. The second is a couple of astonishing ideas from the fossil fuel industry and its political supporters in the USA.

What unites them is they both fit into the shake-your-head category of ‘they are doing what?’. Both reflect an inability or unwillingness to accept the new realities of – on the one hand – a pandemic and on the other hand, a climate crisis.

Let’s start with the Olympics. What is wrong with this sentence, from an article in the Times Colonist on Friday May 7th? “Pfizer and BioNTech are donating Covid-19 vaccine doses to inoculate athletes and officials preparing for the Tokyo Games.”  Well, where does one begin?

First – Games, what Games? They are holding the Olympic Games a couple of months from now, in the midst of a global pandemic? In a country with a vaccination rate of around 1 percent, according to another Times Colonist story the next day? A country that has just expanded its state of emergency to cover other regions and extended it until May 31st?

When the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had to cancel his trip to Japan on Monday because of the surge in cases? When places such as India, Brazil and who knows where else are essentially out of control? Hello, IOC – wake up and face reality!

Second, they are donating these vaccines to the IOC. Donating? Why the heck should vaccines be donated? Does anyone know how rich the IOC is? Its own website says the revenue for the 4 year cycle of the last Olympiad from 2013 to 2016 (the Sochi Winter Games and the Rio games), was $5.7 billion. So they can afford to buy their own vaccines.

Anyway, if there are enough vaccines that Pfizer and BioNTech can donate them, I can think of a very long list of way more deserving recipients than a lot of fit young elite athletes. For starters, front line and essential workers in low income countries. Whatever else Olympic athletes may be, they are not essential workers. Where is the slightest scintilla of morality in all this?

Moreover, why is the Canadian Olympic Committee accepting this donation?  They may try to dress it up as not jumping the queue, not getting the vaccine ahead of vulnerable and essential workers, because they are donated vaccines, but that is tosh. My local supermarket staff – who are essential – were not getting the vaccine, so I resent Olympic athletes, and for that matter, all professional athletes, getting it before they do. What the COC should do is re-donate all its donated vaccines to essential workers and vulnerable people and cancel its participation in the Games.

Turning to my second theme, here are a couple of recent jaw-dropping headlines from The Guardian. “Wyoming stands up for coal with threat to sue states that refuse to buy it” (May 7th) and “Bill seeks to make Louisiana ‘fossil fuel sanctuary’ in bid against Biden’s climate plans” (May 9th)

Let’s think about that for a moment. In Wyoming, the state hopes to take “legal action against other states that opt to power themselves with clean energy such as solar and wind, in order to meet targets to tackle the climate crisis, rather than burn Wyoming’s coal”, while the Louisiana proposal would “ban local and state employees from enforcing federal laws and regulations that negatively impact petrochemical companies” – such as limits on air pollution.

I see endless possibilities here. Perhaps we could sue places that refused to take our old growth lumber or the last of our dwindlng salmon stocks. Maybe tobacco states could sue people who give up smoking, thus depriving them of revenue. Or we could establish a whaling sanctuary so we can get rid of those pesky salmon-eating orca.

Oh, and please don’t tell Alberta about Wyoming and Louisiana’s plans, we don’t need the insanity to spread up here. What we really need is a vaccine against such insanity.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at                                                                    the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Active transportation is good for mental health

5 May 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

702 words

The physical health benefits of active transportation (walking, biking, public transit) are well known. Compared to cars, there are fewer emissions of carbon dioxide and various air pollutants per passenger mile, fewer accidents and more physical activity – I often joke that includes running for the bus. But less attention has been paid to the mental health impacts of transportation and the benefits of active transportation for mental and social wellbeing.

Some 35 years ago, when leading the Healthy City initiative for the City of Toronto, I gained a fascinating insight into the social role of public transportation. Former Mayor John Sewell, in discussing the TTC (Toronto’s public transit system), described it as “the great democratizer”.

His point was that because it was a well-run, extensive system, everyone used it: Young and old, rich and poor, black and white, male and female. And so you had to literally rub shoulders with ‘the other’ all the time. And he felt that helped people learn tolerance, learn how to get on with each other.

Ever since, I have always had an interest in the social implications of transportation. But two recent reports have re-awakened my interest in the mental health implications.

The first is a March 2021 report on the relationship between transport and mental health prepared for the NZ Transport Agency by a University of Auckland research team. The second – a March 2021 report on Urban Sanity – is from Todd Litman, a local expert who runs the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, although he seems to be far better known internationally than he is locally.

The findings are perhaps not too surprising. The NZ report finds that factors leading to increasing psychological distress in cities include “increased noise pollution and neighbourhood severance, and declining levels of active transport use resulting from a rise in private car use”. The term ‘neighbourhood severance’ refers to “a decline in social connection and social capital (feelings of trust and belonging within neighbourhoods) due to rising traffic volumes”.

The researchers also found that longer commutes, whether by private car or bus, especially in congested conditions, lead to increased commuter stress. Moreover “transport poverty and inaccessible environments” are likely to cause “psychological distress for low-income households and people living with disability”.

On the other hand, the transport system conditions that are essential for mental health are “Low-cost and accessible . . . systems that enable people to access essentials such as employment, medical care, food, and social support”. In addition, “high-quality walking (or wheeling) environments that provide opportunities for gentle exercise as well as social interaction in low-stress traffic conditions” are also good for mental health.

Key ways to improve urban mental health through transport policy, the researchers suggest, include “improving neighbourhood walkability, reducing long commutes, increasing active commuting, and reducing the cost and improving the comfort of public transport”.

Todd Litman’s report is on urban mental wellbeing in general, with only one small part of his report focused on transportation. The intent, he writes, is to help us understand how to create saner and happier cities. But he readily acknowledges it is not easy to understand this complex issue.

In part, that is because our understanding of what mental wellbeing is and how to measure it is less than perfect. It is also a challenging area of research, in part because mental and social wellbeing is largely subjective, and varies a great deal. What makes one person happy or stresses them out may not have much effect at all on someone else.

Nonetheless, when it comes to transportation, he concurs with the NZ report, adding that more walking in the neighbourhood adds to community safety because there are more ‘eyes on the street’, as Jane Jacobs put it. He also notes that a British study found “psychological wellbeing was significantly higher for active mode commuters than car or public transport users, and for longer duration commutes, particularly driving.”

Litman concludes: “Cities can increase mental health and happiness by improving walking and cycling conditions, and enhancing public transit services, particularly reducing the most uncomfortable conditions such as excessive crowding, heat, and harassment.”

Local politicians, transport systems designers, mental health professionals and the public should pay attention to these important ideas.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Creating wellbeing: From the personal to the planetary

28 April 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

In 1948 the World Health Organisation defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing”; I find it a good and simple definition. One of its strengths is that it fully recognises both mental and social wellbeing, with the latter inevitably bringing in our relationships with others – our families, communities and society as a whole. However, I would make an important change by adding ‘environmental wellbeing’. 

One aspect of environmental wellbeing is having a healthy local environment – clean air, water and soil and a healthy built environment. The other aspect is ‘ecological wellbeing’, something that was not so apparent 70 years ago. But today, we recognise that our health is dependent ultimately on the well-functioning of the Earth’s natural systems: No health without planetary health, we might say.

And yet, that simple concept seems to elude most of our political and corporate elite, and millions of our fellow citizens. We act as if we can continue to exploit and pollute the Earth beyond its ability to withstand such harm, without consequence for us.

But I have been heartened in recent weeks by a number of examples showing a strong interest in health and wellbeing as a motivating and driving force for positive change. For example, I sit on the Planning Committee for the Atlantic Summer Institute, an annual summer school on PEI focused on the mental wellbeing of infants, children and youth. This year’s theme is ‘The Great Reconnect’, and is focused on how we help young people form strong connections with their families, each other, their schools and communities, and with nature.

I have also been involved in discussions about a number of local activities that all, at their roots, are about improving human and planetary wellbeing. One local group, brought together by Steve Woolrich of Rethink Urban (and an occasional fellow columnist) is discussing how to address community safety and wellbeing in an humane and compassionate way. Another group is looking at how to create more livable, sustainable and healthy urban environments through creating ‘gentle density’.

This concept, championed by Vancouver-based urban planner Brent Toderian, is about “density done well”. In a 2013 article he noted “Density isn’t just a downtown thing”, but that it includes “artfully adding to the inner city beyond the downtown, and building smarter suburbs that are more mixed, compact, walkable, and transit friendly”. His long list of benefits ends with “Improving public health, diversity, creativity, safety and vibrancy”.

Finally, this past week I was also able to participate in the online annual conference of the Planetary Health Alliance in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The Alliance grew out of the 2015 report of the Lancet-Rockefeller Commission on Planetary Health, which established this new field of work. Planetary health is understood by the Alliance as focused on characterizing the human health impacts of human-caused disruptions of Earth’s natural systems.” Given that, you might have expected a strong focus on science and data about health and ecology.

So you would perhaps have been surprised by the focus of the opening session, which was all about the values needed to take us to and through the Great Transition to a world “where all people thrive by protecting and regenerating Earth’s natural systems for generations to come”.

The keynote speaker was Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York and an Indigenous woman. She talked movingly about the wisdom of both Indigenous and scientific knowledge for achieving our shared goals, stressing that “sustainability is not about looking for ways to go on taking”, but that we need to listen to what the Earth asks of us.

She was followed by speakers on Indigenous values, Earth ethics, religion and the Buddhist-rooted Bhutanese concept of measuring and being guided by Gross National Happiness. Embedded in many of their presentations was the need for a value shift that leads us to reject the current economic system and move to a new wellbeing economy.

Ultimately, societies, governments, businesses and communities have to focus on wellbeing – why else would they exist? Happily, in many ways and places, the conversation is starting, the move to a focus on creating wellbeing is underway.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy