The Green Party of Canada is set to replace Elizabeth May with a new leader this October. NNSL has reached out to all nine candidates to hear more about their platforms, especially as it pertains to residents North of 60.
Green Party of Canada members can cast their ballots for the next leadership of the Green Party of Canada from Sept. 26 to Oct. 3, 2020.
*All interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Courtney Howard is an emergency physician in Yellowknife, and an associate professor at the University of Calgary. While Howard is an expert on the impacts of climate change on health, her push into politics was unplanned. It is the result of wanting to be at the forefront of change and always trying to “do the thing, at a given moment that felt like it would have the most impact.”
She says that, in the same way public health has had a defined role in government to address the pandemic, scientists and doctors should be more involved in decision making when it comes to climate change.
With the World Health Organization calling the climate crisis the biggest health threat of the 21st century, she says we need to get more doctors and scientists into parliament “to make sure that evidence based policy is implemented.”
Yellowknifer: I wanted to ask you about something it says on your website, which is that “the pandemic has made it clear that politics are a determinant of health,” can you tell me a little bit about what you mean by that.
Courtney Howard: A lot of the work that I’ve done outside of the emergency department over the last decade has been around either generating evidence – doing a study to figure out where we’re at on a given issue – or taking evidence from a study and using it to help inform a policy recommendation that I could put in a brief and give to a minister. And then you kind of leave that information and that recommendation in the hands of that decision maker, and hope that they follow your recommendation.
What we’ve seen over the course of the pandemic is that in the jurisdictions where the decision maker has followed those, things have gone well – like here, I would say, whereas if we for instance look south of the United States-Canada border, or even to the UK, there’s no shortage of smart doctors or researchers in either one of those countries and they just haven’t had outcomes that they look upon as successful. When you’re really looking at the whole picture and you’re thinking about ‘OK well where did things go wrong here’ it was really at the political level.
Really the stark differences in outcome in different countries that we’ve seen during Covid has just laid bare the fact that really, we need political actors who understand evidence and are willing to put it into policy if we want to have a healthy future.
In thinking about all the things we need to do in the next few years, we need to get ourselves through the pandemic itself, and the economic fallout from it, and this just happens to be the same time window that is a super key one from a climate perspective.
We were at this moment of incredible vulnerability before, from a planet perspective. We were already asking people to undo what they were doing before and now we’ve had our entire lives thrown up in the air, scattered around the room like a Lego structure that was run into by a toddler, so we’re going to have to put that back together somehow and we’re going to be spending a lot of money to do it, one way or the other, and so we’ve ended up with this moment of epic opportunity to either get our response to climate change right and set our kids up for a healthy future, or miss the best opportunity that we’re ever going to have.
So the recognition of that time window, plus the fact that politics has really been so key to a healthy or unhealthy response to Covid, just led me to say look, you know this is a key moment in human history I want to be as close to the leaders as possible, I think I need to go into politics.
YKr: What would be some examples, from a political perspective, of ways that we can take advantage of this epic opportunity, as you said?
CH: I think every step forward needs to be helping us with the low carbon transition. Unfortunately we haven’t seen that happen yet. None of this money should have gone to subsidizing fossil fuels. We need to take those fossil fuel subsidies that we’ve been allocating to various levels of the industry and instead use those to fund electric vehicle infrastructure, to put trees into our city centers so that we are prepared for the increasingly warm summers of the future and people have a leafy refuge that will help keep them cool and stop them from having a heat stroke, and we need to make sure that we take our ability to generate electricity and make it as clean as possible.
So using some of that money to fund east-west transition lines to connect the places in Canada that are producing a lot of clean power or have the ability to store power in a clean way.
We need to be envisioning ways that we can use this money that we’re spending anyway to put people back to work, building the future that we need to keep us safe and healthy and preventing the next crisis.
YKr: How would you address high costs of food and difficulty in accessing healthy food?
I think there have been a few things that have happened in the past few years that have really made clear to us that we need to produce more food locally. I’m still finishing up this study into the summer of smoke in 2014 when the highway was closed so many times that we pretty much ran out of fresh food here because it just wasn’t able to get through. I think that was a moment when a lot of us thought to ourselves, that’s not safe.
That made us really think about logistical supply chains, and Covid is doing same thing, so speaking with people like France Benoit (of Le Refuge Farm), or people that have been really involved with the Northern Farm Training Institute, we need to do research and figure out what grows fast in the North and what systems, in terms of regenerative agriculture work best up here.
We need to educate people on how that works best in their climate, we need to provide the funds for community gardens, and the support people need in terms of tools and gardening implements in the community that they live in so that they can grow the things they want to grow, something that we discuss a lot is – how can we grow lettuce in the middle of winter.
And the people that I know who have spent the most time thinking about this are like look, lettuce does not sustain populations, we need potatoes. We need low tech solutions, and those are what’s going to keep us safe.
Some of the supports for harvesters to be able to maintain hunting and fishing in a changing climate are really important, we need to make sure people have those tools so that they can as best as possible maintain traditional harvesting. I think there is also real potential for a fishery here on Great Slave Lake.
Apparently what happened in the past was that there were several fish processing plants all around the big lake so that no one area got over fished, and likely a solution that could work now would be to just have a barge that is a fish processing plant that could move around a lake so that you could be harvesting from a different place sequentially and not over fish any one area.
YKr: Let’s talk about infrastructure and the availability of internet and connectivity in the North – what would you say needs to be done there?
Internet has really emerged as one of the major facilitators of life in the Covid world. It was a facilitator prior, but now so much is virtual that it’s even more important and meanwhile, the urban rural divide has really gone up over the course of the pandemic. The UN looks at availability as a human right, and there are papers in the public health that talk about it not only as a determinant of health but actually as a super determinant of health because it’s what helps you access other things like income or medical care.
Internet is also increasingly going to be a modality required to help people access healthcare. So it’s incredibly important and it’s been really interesting to look into in the North. They just put this big Mackenzie Valley fiber cable up through the valley, Hay River has really fast internet now and the next place for it to go is going to be Inuvik but there’s all of these other places up and down the river and we need now to make the investment to connect those other communities along the river to that line as well.
Imagine, they could go from really slow internet to incredible speed, really contemporary urban levels of accessibility and think about what that could do in terms of allowing people to grow up in their community, get education in their community, and participate in the digital economy if they want to, from their community, without having to go down south for school and deal with everything that entails, especially in the middle of Covid when everyone’s university is shutting down.
YKr: Another thing that has really come to the forefront, is suspicions of racist behaviours from the RCMP. How would you address that?
I think it was good when the RCMP commissioner finally came out and said yes there is systemic racism within the RCMP. I think there is systemic racism within most structures in Canada. Certainly it is recognized that that’s a current reality of the healthcare system broadly in Canada and we’ve spent a lot of time since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came out doing cultural safety training. I think we’ve made some progress but we’re probably not where we need to be and the RCMP is another structure that has colonial origins.
I think it’s important that they – and this is from having spoken to members of the RCMP who believe that this is a priority – take a look at their training regimen and really ask are we bringing cultural safety in right from the getgo.
I think ‘on the land’ types of initiatives within the justice system are really important and have been shown to work really well.
When we look at what’s working around the country, there’s a squad, I think it’s in Surrey, B.C., where whenever an RCMP is asked to go to a mental health crisis call there is a mental health nurse on call with them at the same time.
I think we can anticipate that this is going to be a difficult period for our country from a mental health standpoint, so it would be good to assign mental health nurses to our RCMP squads in as many jurisdictions as we can in Canada.
I think we want to see these multidisciplinary teams because I think that’s what’s safe for everybody. I’ve seen some things where they would suggest that a nurse would go by themselves on that kind of call, but as someone who works in the emergency department and deals on a relatively daily basis with people who have reached the end of their ability to cope in a calm way with their illness, the rate of physical trauma for healthcare providers is actually really high. I think the way to go is really a multidisciplinary team, I think that’s something we should really focus on in the next few years.
YKr: I read that you’re creating a dance video, could you tell me more about that?
CH: Covid totally interrupted that. We did all the filming the last year that the snow castle made it through the whole season and the images are gorgeous. So we have members of the Yellowknife Dance Collective, and other local people, I asked them to dance how climate change made them feel. And then we filmed them. We have some gorgeous aerial shots and we did it over the course of the spring as the snow castle melted so some of the landscapes are just absolutely stunning.
I’ve done a lot of work on eco-anxiety and ecological grief and recognizing that there are things that words don’t communicate as well as art and realizing, I think, that a lot of people have inarticulated grief and sadness around climate change.
It’s been slightly on the back burner but really these images are gorgeous so yes, I will commit to finishing that because I would be really sad if they didn’t get seen. A lot of northerners showed up on quite cold days in order to make that happen.
YKr: In even this short conversation we’ve covered a range of topics, how do you respond to people who say that the Green Party only has one platform and could never actually win as a result?
CH: My proposal for the Green Party is that it transition from being a party of climate change to a party of planetary health. What I am seeing from Canadians right now is that there is a recognition that we’re at a moment of incredible instability. We just want to feel safe, and we want to know that our kids are going to have a healthy future.
We’ve sort of sleepily been trying to maximize GDP as our nation’s goal, when really – why? It’s not been shown to be a good marker of well being. And I think if we asked anyone on the street ‘ what do you want Canada to focus on’ they would say ‘I want a safe and healthy future’. If we change our goal, and we talk about it and we explicitly focus on a well being based economy, that has a really clear vision of where we’re headed.
To look at a system kind of like what they have in New Zealand where there is a GDP plus a well being dashboard and they make their budgetary decisions based on how they impact national capital and human capital and social capital as well as financial capital. They track different indicators, including mental health, including length of life as a way of showing them if they’re on the right track or not.
If we want to make sure we have adequate social capital, then we have to invest in each other. And things like a wealth tax, which will reduce inequality, can help the funding of universal basic income, which can keep people safer at this moment of instability, keep people in their house – we know that housing is a determinant of health, make sure they have food on the table – food is a determinant of health, make sure that they have access to education – again another determinant of health, eliminate tuition fees, we’re going to have so many transitions to make in the next couple of years.
The parliamentary budget officer costed all of those out, they estimated 15 billion dollars in the first year, when you look at how much we’re spending subsidizing fossil fuels, that’s not that much to enable that much of our population to find the next job that they need.
If we also fund pharma care, early childhood care, and day care, again, the investments we’re making in child care are minuscule compared to universal low cost, you know $10 a day type daycare like what they have in Quebec, could help in bringing women into the workforce and generating economic activity that way are huge. So we need to invest in one another, and we need to stabilize our foundation.
There is evidence that people respond best to climate related health when it’s framed in terms of health because that makes it much more real to people in terms of its impact on their life and their kids lives and I think that Covid has really shown us that we don’t have a lot of buffer. If we want to be healthy, we need to focus on health, and we need to build our society in a way that facilitates health now and into the future.