Politics: Britain Votes and Canada Celebrates 150 Years

On the 8th of June Britain went to the polls. Theresa May called an early election in the expectation that she would strengthen her hand ahead of the Brexit negotiations. In her mind she would be returned to power with an increased majority. Two months ahead of the election the press was united in the view that this would happen, and the Labour Party, under the leadership of the demonised Jeremy Corbyn, would be crushed. Well that did not materialise. The Tories (Conservatives) won just 317 seats, and as there are 650 seats in the House of Commons this is not a majority. Labour gained 30 seats, giving them 262. It is now generally felt the winners lost and the losers won.

This election saw a numbers of firsts for me. I felt really strongly the Tories should be voted out of power after the appalling outcome of the referendum, and the almost certainty that the UK will leave the European Union. I entered the discussion as something other than just an observer and voter. I posted on my Facebook page urging people to engage and vote strategically.

The biggest change though was that in this election I voted Labour for the first time in my life. At least I believe I did because Ailsa had my proxy vote. It was clear that the election needed strategic voting, effectively whoever was the most likely opposition candidate needed the vote. That meant although I would normally support the Liberal Democrats, there was no way they would win in our constituency, Norwich North. We have had a conservative MP since 2009. In the 2015 General Election she held the seat with a majority of about 5000, in 2017 this was reduced to just over 500. I felt my vote really mattered and counted.

Because May is governing through a coalition the general consensus is that there will be, at some point soon, a vote of confidence which she will lose and there will have to be another election. I am quite uncertain as to what will happen, but I hope that now Labour have a sense that they could win, and with any luck we will see a change in government. In my view that would mean a move towards significantly more social spending and higher taxes. Both would be good thing. Of course Britain’s departure from the EU is going to hit the economy hard, the value of the pound has already fallen significantly.

I travelled to England on the 30th of June, thereby missing a big celebration in Canada. The country celebrated 150 years as a Confederation. The provinces that formed the confederation in 1867 were the colonies of Canada (this province then divided into Ontario and Quebec); Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The current structure has ten provinces and three territories, Newfoundland only joined in 1949, before this it was a crown colony ruled by a British governor.

I have to admit to not fully understanding the system of governance in Canada. It is fully independent and a member of the British Commonwealth. According to Wikipedia – that font of all knowledge: “Canada has a parliamentary system within the context of a constitutional monarchy, the monarchy of Canada being the foundation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The sovereign is Queen Elizabeth II … the Queen’s representative, the Governor General of Canada … carries out most of the federal royal duties”. Each province has a Lieutenant Governor and the $20 Canadian banknote has a picture of the Queen. It is all strange for an independent nation. Australia and New Zealand are similar.

If I were to become a Canadian citizen, there is a test and these are things one would have to know. Indeed, as part of becoming a citizen, one has to swear the Oath of Citizenship, the first part of which is an Oath of Allegiance, ‘a promise or declaration of fealty to the Canadian monarch’. I have asked many of my Canadian friends how they feel about this close link with the UK. The consensus seems to be that it is ok; a sense of ‘if it is not broken don’t fix it’. I am not sure how this will pan out when Charles and Camilla become King and Queen respectively. However they went to Canada to mark the 150 years and presumably this was also to place themselves for their future roles.

The students from the Balsillie School had a trip to Ottawa in June. Our Masters’ of Public Policy (MIPP) group went up for a week and had a chance to see how the government works. Many of the rest: the Masters’ of Global Governance (MAGG) and PhD students travelled up on Thursday and gave presentations of their policy briefs to the Department of Global Affairs Canada (GAC). I went with this group. They mostly worked in teams and in total there were 15 presentations, which took all day. I was exhausted by the end of the day. The GAC people invited other civil servants, so there were always people interested in the students and what they had to say.

The team I mentored talked about currency fluctuations and the impact they have on international development assistance. It sounds dry, but I think it is fascinating and it has real and detrimental effects on the funding for health and HIV. This is something I have been thinking about for a long time and have been working on for about a year with the support on UNAIDS and DFID. The most recent report had been posted by DFID and is available on the UK government website. Nick Zebryk, who has worked with me for a couple of years, co-authored the report and did much of the research. We sent it out to everyone we talked to, and many others besides. Interestingly there has been little reaction to the final report, although there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the research.

The journey to Ottawa seemed endless. We went up by train: about 90 minutes from Kitchener to Toronto and then over four and a half hours from Toronto to Ottawa. The trains are comfortable and there is a more than adequate trolley service, but it is long journey. The students and most of the staff stayed in the residences at Carleton University. Having joined them there in 2016 I decided a hotel room in the city was worth splashing out on. The hotel I use is the one where I spent a month in 2007 when I was a Visiting Fellow at Carleton. I think the curtains and carpet are exactly the same, although I am sure they have been cleaned frequently. It is a ‘suites’ hotel which means there is a living area and small kitchen, rather wasted on such a short trip.

Travelling to back to Norwich actually took only a little longer than the journey to Ottawa, and was much less pleasant. I had an economy comfort seat in the first row, which meant there was leg room, but the seats are small. The plane was completely packed, schools in Canada broke-up on the 29th, and while there were not many young people on the plane, I think it was full of escaping teachers. This may make sense as the 150th Anniversary was worth being in Canada for, especially if there is a chance an individual would see the 200th, and anyone under 30 has a good chance of being alive for that. I personally regret that I did not delay my travel for a few days.

At least, though, I have a few weeks in Norwich before travelling to Southern Africa for a Waterford Board meeting in Swaziland and a quick stop in Durban. I am not looking forward to the long plane journeys of the next month or so, perhaps one upgrade will be warranted. It is also with reminding myself that, as a KLM elite card holder, I at least get access to the lounges and all the perks that go with this status. It would be hard to contemplate travelling without these benefits.

Don’t pick your nose and other salutary tales!

I began writing this posting on a holiday weekend in Canada. It turned out to be rather traumatic and it was entirely my own fault. On Friday, before going to work, I shoved an exploratory finger up my, nose. This was a really bad idea. Blood started to pour out in an impressive and steady stream. After an hour and a half of pinching my nose, icing it (the most effective form of ice I had was a bottle of vodka from the freezer, which worked surprisingly well in terms of providing the maximum coverage), and trying other remedies, (including) those I found with a quick Google search, I knew I needed help. As Tony Hancock put it in “The Blood Donor”:

‘I had lost close to an arm full’.

It was a prolific nose bleed.

I caught a taxi and headed for the Grand River Hospital, which is actually within walking distance of the apartment. It did not make sense to walk with a stream of crimson coming from my nose. Fortunately, the majority of the towels I have in the house are red; in fact blood red. This meant I was able to carry something with me to absorb the gore. When I got to the hospital I was checked in with the triage nurse, details were taken and I was labelled. Mine said: “Stupid older white male who does not know how to pick his nose – no rush”.

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Lost Moleskins and much entertainment

The beginning of April saw the winter term drawing to a close. My last day of teaching was Monday 10th, which as it turned out was also the last day of term. I had not realised that. A pity, because I had a panel of colleagues from the community to talk about wellbeing. The class was not all there, some having started travelling on their spring breaks. Indeed not all those that attended were mentally there either – they were thinking about deadlines, assignments and perhaps even holidays. When, the previous week, the second course I taught ended, and the class went to the pub, I was very touched that they invited me to join them. I should have gone.

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Spring is here and the snow is almost gone

The weather has finally begun warming up here in Waterloo. It is now possible to walk around without a winter coat on, although a jersey is still necessary. The squirrels are increasingly active and migratory birds are returning. We are all looking forward to spring and summer, and it really does feel as though it is imminent. What happens is that the temperature fluctuates widely. It has been as high as 18ᵒc one day and as low as -10ᵒ the next night. I wonder how the animals cope; the trees on the other hand, seem, rightly, rather reticent to bud.

I have had a very busy few weeks. On 7 March we had Stephen Lewis come and sit on a panel with a number of students and faculty members. He is extremely well known in Canada, and more broadly as an exceptional humanitarian. The auditorium was packed and a number of organisations placed tables outside to advertise their activities to the assembled company. It is good to be able to facilitate these events; it is part of building a community here in Waterloo.

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Economic Policy in an Interdependent World – “A Brave New World: Genetics, Insurance, and Policy Options in Evolving Times”

The following post was written by Kerry Solomon.

Kerry Solomon is a Graduate Research Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a Master of International Public Policy Candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs 2016-2017. Her research interests include equity and global health.


Canada has protection from discrimination based on one’s race, religion, and sexual orientation; however, it may come as a surprise to some that genetics is not one of those grounds. In fact, Canada is the only G7 country that does not already have laws in place to protect its inhabitants from genetic discrimination. On a personal note, as someone of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, I am at increased risk compared to the general population to have an inherited mutation in the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. This means that that if I carry this mutation, I am at a much greater likelihood of developing breast or ovarian cancer. Does this leave me vulnerable to discrimination based on my genetics?

New DNA sequencing technologies mean that we can now test if a person carries a genetic risk of developing a particular disorder. These tests are more widely available and at a less prohibitive cost than even a few years ago. Genetic testing has many important benefits for health care, including improving diagnosis and therefore treatment of diseases, especially inherited diseases like Parkinson’s or Huntington’s. There is great potential for this technology, but if there is not proper protection around genetic data, people will be wary about seeking potentially life-saving information. A recent story emerged of where a 24-year-old Canadian man received confirmation that he carried the gene for Huntington’s disease, and upon notifying his employer, was fired. Further, if a person obtains a genetic test and withholds knowledge of their genetic history, their insurance company may cancel their coverage upon learning this.

European countries and the United States are already using genome sequencing as part of their medical care, but these countries also have anti-discrimination laws in place to protect patients from discrimination based on genetic heritage. So what is Canada doing to catch up with other countries on this issue?

Bill S-201, the Genetic Discrimination Act: An Act to prohibit and prevent genetic discrimination was passed on October 26, 2016. This Act will prohibit insurance companies from requiring an individual to undergo a genetic test or from forcing an individual to disclose the results of a genetic test as one of the conditions for receiving insurance coverage. The Canadian Coalition for Genetic Fairness has advocated for Bill S-201 to go even further.

In order for protection from genetic discrimination to be implemented in Canada, not only will the Canadian Human Rights Act need to be updated to include genetic discrimination, but also the Personal Information Protection Act and the Canadian Labour Code will need to be modernized to address genetic characteristics. Though this Bill received unanimous support from the Senate, it is not without its critics in the insurance industry.

Insurance companies are opposed to the Bill, claiming that requiring genetic testing is akin to asking for family history. Based on this information, insurance providers can either refuse coverage based on a specific genetic test, or charge much higher rates. The Canadian Institute for Actuaries, arguing on behalf of the insurance companies, believes that this Act gives an unfair advantage to those who have a genetic predisposition for a certain disease. They argue that someone who tests positive for a certain gene would purchase more insurance, knowing they are at greater risk, at premiums that would be below cost. The argument then follows that this would raise everyone’s insurance premiums, to the detriment of all Canadians.

In an attempt to self-regulate and pre-empt the changes required once Bill S-201 is passed, the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association indicated that they will soon prevent insurers from requiring genetic tests results for policies that are $250,000 or less. This internal policy will go into effect in 2018 but does not fully address the discriminatory element of this issue, as discrimination is still allowed in policies above this cut-off. This does not (and should not) act a substitution for industry changes that will be required by the final legislation.

This has ramifications that go beyond insurance; without protection from genetic discrimination, we could see this affecting employee rights as an employer may choose to not hire a candidate based on their genetic information. There are other spill-over effects for scientific research because if people are confident their results could not be used against them, they may be more inclined to have genetic testing – an outcome with unequivocal benefits to public health. Finding out that you are genetically disposed to a condition that decreases life expectancy is bad enough without having to worry about whether you can afford, or even get, life insurance.

Given the current environment, I have not participated in genetic testing for mutations in BRCA1/2. Without the knowledge of my mutation status, I do not know whether I need to make any lifestyle changes or other preventive steps such as a mastectomy.

Genetic discrimination could affect all Canadians, and we need to be more progressive and keep up with the evolving technology if we want to encourage genetic testing to improve long-term health. As we enter this brave new world of genetic knowledge, we want to avoid a dystopia where our genes determine our future.

Sources

Bill S-201 “Genetic Non-Discrimination Act: An Act to prohibit and prevent genetic discrimination”

Brandt-Rauf, Sherry I. Victoria H. Raveis et al. “Ashkenazi Jews and Breast Cancer: The Consequences of Linking Ethnic Identity to Genetic Disease.” American Journal of Public Health 2006 November Vol. 96(11): 1979-1988.

Canadian Coalition for Genetic Fairness

Canadian Institute of Actuaries “Canadian Institute of Actuaries’ Proposed Amendment to Bill S-201, An Act to prohibit and prevent genetic discrimination.” November 21, 2016

Gold, Kerry “How genetic testing can be used against you – and how Bill S-201 could change that.” The Globe and Mail. April 3, 2016

Mcquigge, Michelle. “Insurers trying to self-regulate on genetic testing.” Chronicle – Herald; Halifax, N.S. January 12, 2017

Walker, Julian “Genetic Discrimination and Canadian Law” Library of Parliament September 16, 2014

Economic Policy in an Interdependent World – Let’s Talk About It: Men and Mental Health

The following post was written by Jeremy Wagner.

Jeremy is a Graduate Research Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a Master of International Public Policy Candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. His research interests are in food security and public health.


Openly discussing depression and anxiety can be difficult for anyone who struggles with their mental health — but for men, the cultural baggage of traditional masculinity bears with it unique challenges.

There’s an obvious stigma when it comes to men and anxiety. Research suggests many men find it difficult to disclose anxiety and depression symptoms. In a society where “being a man” is conflated with being stoic, it’s hard for men to come forward and reveal they struggle with their mental health. As a result, it goes unheard; it hides in the shadows.

Yet, it’s a chronic public health issue. Anxiety is systemic in men and women alike; an estimated 11.6% of Canadians aged 18 years or older have a depression or anxiety disorder. Gendered social constructions ensure that mental health experiences can vary between men and woman.

Depression is characterized by the lowering or elevation of a person’s mood and aversion to activity that can affect a person’s thoughts, behaviour, and sense of well-being. On the other hand, anxiety is more so an excessive and persistent feeling of nervousness, fear, and guilt. Both disorders, often comorbid diagnoses, interfere with an individual’s everyday life.

The symptoms of anxiety and depression are challenging to deal with, but for different reasons. It’s easier to cope with symptoms of depression at school or work. After all, just getting dressed and showing up means you’re fighting back. It’s when you’re alone that’s the hardest. Anxiety can be a bit trickier because of the social triggers (large crowds, public speaking etc.) and physical symptoms that come with being anxious such as difficulty breathing and becoming overheated.

Men with anxiety and depression often feel something additional – shame. If you’re male and have been socialized to be in control of your emotions, struggling with mental health is perceived as a sign of weakness. “I’m vulnerable, and I’m failing” may be the common narrative. It’s a vicious cycle; when you’re suffering from it, one bad interaction or over-analysis is enough to send you into a destructive spiral of thought. Embarrassment can prevent men from acknowledging their struggle publicly.

Instead of seeking help, 30% of men with anxiety turn to substances such as drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with their symptoms. Men can be more impulsive, and this partially accounts for their higher reliance on substances to cope with feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.

Self-medicating substances override the brain’s natural reward system, which is usually activated by pleasurable stimuli, such as sex, and produces a rush of feel-good chemicals. The ingestion of substances including alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine produces identical pleasure effects. When endorphins, the same chemicals responsible for the “runner’s high”, are released naturally or by substances, they bind to receptors that dull emotional pain and calm the nerves. Feelings of calm and relaxation are what people with anxiety are seeking when they self-medicate.

If men struggle to talk about their depression and anxiety in fear of seeming weak or vulnerable, then perhaps there’s other ways to cope. After all, going for a run and having a glass of wine (or two) have similar effects on mood. If you find it difficult to talk about and professional care isn’t a viable option for you, then engagement in self-management strategies can at least manage, if not improve, your well-being.

I recently had the privilege of sharing dinner with Clara Hughes. She’s a Canadian cyclist and speed skater. She is tied as the Canadian with the most Olympic medals, she’s the only person ever to have won multiple medals in both the Winter and Summer Olympics, and she’s been an unwavering advocate for mental health awareness and the National Spokesperson for the Bell Let’s Talk Mental Health initiative. I could go on…

In her humility and kindness, she shared with me her own struggles with mental health. And while I paraphrase, she explained to me that “for so many people, mental health and addiction is a daily battle. It doesn’t go away, it’s always there, but it can be managed. For me, movement is my medicine.”

Maybe you can’t seek help, but an active lifestyle can at least be a first step to ultimately enabling you to lead a full and productive life. Men also struggle with anxiety and depression, and it’s a public health issue we can’t afford to hide in the shadows — so let’s bring it into the light. Movement is my medicine too, and tonight I’m going for a run.

False Spring? I hope not!

In the middle of February I greatly enjoyed sitting in my office or my apartment and watching the snow fall. It was quite magical. In total we probably had about 10 cm, enough to cover the ground and make everything into a winter wonderland. Normally here there is a period when the ground is covered by grey snow as it slowly melts. In the corner of the parking lots there are piles of the white stuff, bulldozed there by the clearance teams. This year it warmed up from about the 18th of February and most of the snow disappeared very rapidly. I woke one morning to see a digger loading the snow into large trucks in our apartment parking lot. It is taken away and dumped somewhere. There must have been at least six or seven loads. It was probably necessary to do this, because the piles take a very long time to melt, and the snow was heaped in the guest parking. It provided an insight into the workings of Canada in the winter, and perhaps even into the cost, as I’m sure this service will appear on the bill.

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Understanding AIDS

I’ve written a guest blog post on Oxford University Press’s blog titled Understanding AIDS:

In 1981, the first cases of patients with the disease that was to become known as AIDS, were identified in hospitals in New York and San Francisco. By late 1983, the cause of AIDS — the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) had been identified. Significant numbers of cases had been reported from central Africa. In southern Africa, where I lived and worked, we had seen only sporadic occurrences — mainly among gay white men. However by 1987, HIV-infected men were identified in the workforce serving the mines industries and farms of South Africa. Armed with knowledge of labour migration and the potential for the spread of this disease, I wrote and presented my first (highly speculative) paper on AIDS at the first ‘Global Impact of AIDS’ conference held in the Barbican Centre in London.

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‘January brings the snow, makes your feet and fingers glow’.

It is most unusual for the first of the month of the year to have come and gone without my having prepared a new blog. I’m not quite certain what happened. I can only think it was a combination of the pressure of teaching and preparation which distracted me. There is quite a lot to report, both events of the past month and ones for the next few months. I have been, and will continue to be, busy.

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Returning to Canada, not as easy as I hoped

Christmas day in Norwich was abnormally warm. The temperature rose to 14° C and it was possible to walk around without even a coat on. It then turned very cold, with a layer of ice on the car in the morning, and much scraping before we could go anywhere. I was quite pleased with this. I had cut up a lot of wood for our wood burner in the lounge, so I was able to use some of it. In addition to this, one of my Christmas presents, which I must stress I actually asked for, was a couple of sacks of coal. I had such fun building and tending the fire.

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