Thursday, March 31, 2011

Connecting Youth with Jobs in the Good Food Movement

I'm delighted to announce two exciting events that will help young people who advocate for a better food system find with meaningful work!

Youth Food Fair

The Toronto Youth Food Policy Council (TYFPC) will be hosting its second annual Youth Food Fair to help "the food leaders of tomorrow meet the food leaders of today". At last year's event, nearly 300 youth and 30 food organizations came together to network the evening away. I'm betting the event will be even bigger this year! Just take a look at some of the participating organizations:

I've heard that this year, the structure will be similar to a speed-dating session where youth participants will have a chance to pitch their ideas (and themselves as job candidates!) to the organizations they're interested in. The pessimist in me is expecting chaos while the optimist in me is really excited! The foodie in me is looking forward to the light snacks provided by the Hot Yam!

Date: Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Time: 6:00 - 9:00 pm

Location: Wilson Lounge, New College, University of Toronto

Cost: free.

Registration: none required, just show up!

Pushing Further

Right on the heels of the Youth Food Fair, Food Forward will be hosting a mini-conference for those interested in starting a career in the food sector while making a difference in society - hey, that sounds like me! Similar to last year's Pushing Forward event, this session will feature both educational and interactive sessions to help participants discover new opportunities, learn about social entrepreneurship, get advice from business owners, and share strategies for new initiatives. Take a look at the line-up of speakers:

At the last event, I found the networking opportunities to be the most useful, though I learned a lot from the speakers, too. You never know what kinds of conversations you're going to have in a room full of good food movement supporters!

Date: Saturday, April 9th, 2011

Time: 11:30 am - 5:00 pm

Location: Room 5260, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

Cost: $45 for Food Forward members, $50 for non-members, $5 for Food Forward supporting members

Registration: head over to the Get Involved page; e-mail questions to darcy (at)


Wow, April is shaping up to be an exciting month!

Photo credits: carrots; tomatoes.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Maple in the County

I know what you're thinking: what does a sweet substance have to do with health and the environment? Easy!

  • Maple syrup is a local food in Ontario - sometimes as local as your neighbour's back yard.
  • It's much healthier than refined sugar when used as a sweetener.
  • It is 100% pure and contains no synthetic additives such as preservatives or colour.
  • Growing sugar maple trees is typically an organic process, with no dependence on fertilizers or pesticides, and it doesn't deplete the quality of the soil or reduce biodiversity.

I'm sure there are other pro-health, environmentally-friendly arguments that could be made, but this is meant to be a pretty short post. I organized a little road trip to Prince Edward County over the weekend to partake in maple products of all kinds. After eating maple-smoked pulled pork sandwiches with cornbread and homemade waffles with maple syrup and berries, we found the pièce de résistance: maple taffy!

For those who don't know, you take maple syrup, which has already been boiled down from maple sap at a ratio of 20:1 (if you're lucky), then boil it down some more to make it more candy-like. Pour some onto snow (in this case "old" snow that was "harvested" back when we still had some, then stored in a freezer until now) in a line pattern with a popsicle stick firmly embedded on one end, wait until it hardens, roll up the taffy with the stick, and consume. Repeat. Repeat again. Repeat one more time for good measure. Smile. No, laugh. Laugh giddily like you're five years old again. Savour the moment, because you won't be experiencing it again until this time next year. Sigh.

If that wasn't enough, what made our trip to Vader's Maple Syrup (no Star Wars jokes please) even more memorable was the maple kettle corn! I've never seen so many kernels popping at once, and it never occurred to me to season popcorn with maple syrup and salt! The result wasn't a sticky, gooey mess, thanks to the professional stirring skills you can see in the image above. The maple flavour permeated every popped kernel without being overwhelming, and I can't wait to try this at home.

With some luck, I'll find time in the near future to bake a loaf of bread using a couple tablespoons of the maple syrup I bought. The recipe will remain a secret for now!

What are some uncommon applications of maple syrup you've experimented with?

Thanks to Diana for snapping these pictures while I was too busy drooling.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Tuesday Toxin Talk

I'm currently reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, by Rick Smith (Executive Director of Environmental Defence) and Bruce Lourie (President of the Ivey Foundation). The book examines the toxins that leach out of commonplace items in our homes and workplaces and wind up in our bodies. Smith and Lourie experiment on themselves, purposely exposing themselves to everyday products over a four-day period, and use the results to raise awareness about the dangers that surround us. I'd like to use this space every few Tuesdays to share some of this vital information with you. For more in-depth coverage, please buy the book!


Let's talk about Teflon.

We're all familiar with Teflon and other PFCs (perfluorinated compounds) due to their popularity in the kitchen: they keep food from sticking to frying pans. I suspect many of you know that we spray these chemicals onto rugs, sofas, and clothing as a stain repellent. But did you know they also coat pizza boxes, popcorn bags, and dental floss? Were you aware that PFCs are used to make bullets and computer mice? Raise your hand if you knew these compounds are put into cosmetics! We use this stuff in so many different applications that 98% of Americans carry PFCs in their blood. Scary stuff.

What makes Teflon so bad? Its main ingredient, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), is a toxin thought to cause birth defects, developmental problems, hormone disruption, and high cholesterol. Ironically, Teflon's durability, slipperiness, and resistance to breakdown make it simultaneously commercially desirable and environmentally disastrous, not to mention damaging to human health. We can't get rid of it - neither inside nor outside of our bodies - and it can take centuries for the molecules to break down on their own. In other words, even if we stopped using PFOAs today, our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc., would still suffer the associated health effects. But we don't need to look to the future to see problems: in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where DuPont manufactures Teflon, residents have nearly six times as much PFOA in their blood as the average American.

Ready to ditch your Teflon pan? Bruce Lourie has some tips:

  • Invest in a good frying pan with a solid base so it can heat quickly and evenly and retain heat at a constant temperature. The three basic categories are cast iron, stainless steel, and enamel-coated cast iron (my personal favourite).
  • Heat the pan to the correct temperature before placing any food into it.
  • Coat the entire surface of the pan with oil.
  • Use a metal spatula. Plastic ones tend to shovel, whereas metal ones actually lift food off of the pan's surface.

There is some good news: DuPont will be phasing out the manufacturing, use, and purchasing of PFOA by 2015, and 3M, the maker of Scotchguard, has already voluntarily removed PFOS (perfluorooctane sulphonate) - another persistent, bioaccumulating toxin - from its products.

Over the past year, I've noticed some scratches in my non-stick pan but have been ignoring them because the skillet is still doing its job well. But now I'm not so sure I can keep using it. What about you? Will you make the switch to a healthier, environmentally-friendlier pan, or is this not that big of a deal?

Photo credits: chemical structure of PFOA; non-stick pan.

Friday, March 25, 2011

March Foodie Drinks

Announcing the March edition of Foodie Drinks! Next week Food Forward is hosting its fourth monthly networking and social event around the good food movement.

We have a special guest coming to speak: Thu Nguyen is preparing to travel to Vietnam, where she will be cooking with chefs in their homes and restaurants, as well as with KOTO, a non-profit restaurant and vocational training program designed for street and disadvantaged youth. On her trip, Thu will be working on a recipe book on this topic called My Quest.

As usual, we will be featuring one business and one non-profit working to better the food system. This month, we will be hearing from Second Harvest, a registered charity that picks up and prepares excess fresh food that would otherwise go to waste and delivers it daily to around 250 social service agencies such as shelters, community centres, and breakfast programs in the Greater Toronto Area. Our business guest will be Culinarium, a gourmet food store that features a range of organic, natural, artisanal, and/or sustainably produced products from Ontario. Besides offering produce, meats, and dairy, this store also carries unexpected items like peanuts from Vittoria, birch syrup from Thunder Bay, and saskatoon berry pie from Stratford.

Date: Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Time: 7:30 - 10:00 pm

Location: Stella - 1261 Bloor St W at Lansdowne. This cafe/bar will have light snacks from neighbourhood stores for purchase along with Steamwhistle on tap and other local brews by the bottle.

Cover: This month we're asking for a $5 donation cover; we also have memberships available for $10. As always, Food Forward buttons will be available, and we're also offering free sprouting seeds for anyone interested in growing some greens in their kitchen.

So whether you're planning out your vegetable garden and looking to share growing tips... or you've come up with an idea for making healthy, local food more accessible and would like to brainstorm ways to turn your idea into reality... or you keep hearing stories of farmers having to sell their land to developers because they can no longer sustain their activities and you want to get involved to prevent further farmland loss... then come out and mingle!

If you've never attended Foodie Drinks before and don't know where to start, come find Darcy or me - we'll be wearing funny hats, you won't be able to miss us!

For more information, visit Food Forward's website, and you can RSVP on the Facebook event page.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

World Water Day

In honour of World Water Day today, let's watch Annie Leonard's Story of Bottled Water.

Next time you feel tempted to buy a bottle of water, think about the oil and energy that goes into making the plastic bottle, the downcycling that occurs once you toss the bottle into your blue bin, the fact that the water itself isn't from some pristine spring but rather a municipal source - which is already clean enough to drink from and much, much cheaper than the bottled version!

Looking for water-saving tips? Here are 100 ways to conserve. Can you add any more ideas to the list?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Happy Spring

In honour of the first full day of spring, please enjoy these bright and sunny pictures I took on Saturday while planting basil and tomato seeds with Young Urban Farmers CSA.

making teensy holes

We are lucky to have access to some space in a greenhouse on a farm in Mount Albert. It was a strange feeling to walk around in a t-shirt on an otherwise chilly and windy day.

prepping tomato seeds

It's incredible to consider that so much can come from so little: minuscule seeds grow into huge plants that produce lots of food, and all we humans have to do is pull a few weeds and ensure the soil stays moist.

seed surgery

I got to take home a some Globe Basil seeds that had been saved from last year's harvest. I will be starting my windowsill garden soon.

Check out what else is already growing in the greenhouses!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Mark Your Calendars: BIXI Comes to Toronto on May 3rd!

Today I'm very happy to announce that BIXI will be up and running in Toronto in just over a month!

BIXI bikes in Montreal

I first told you about this public bike sharing system - already wildly popular in Montreal, London, Washington DC, Minneapolis, and Melbourne (and coming to Canada's Capital Region this year) - back in September, when BIXI needed 1,000 people to sign up for 12-month memberships by the end of November 2010 in order to ensure the system would be installed this year.

Well, the target was met and exceeded before that deadline, and then we heard nothing from the bike sharing folks over the winter until they recently announced that all is well, and the launch date is May 3rd. There will be 1,000 bikes available to be picked up at 80 BIXI stations. A whopping 1,500 docking points will be spread around Toronto's downtown core, making virtually any short ride in the area (Spadina Ave to Jarvis St, from Bloor St down to the lake) very convenient.

Once the network is set up, I'll be taking some pictures and posting them here. Meanwhile, if you'd like more information, check out my blog post, the main BIXI website, Toronto's BIXI site, and the press release.

Photo credit.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Green Habits

What makes us conserve water and energy, divert waste from landfills, and choose alternatives over the car? How does Canada stack up to other countries? The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) took a stab at answering these questions with a survey in 2008. 10,000 people were polled in Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. The results are in, and The Globe and Mail designed some colourful graphics to help explain it all. I thought it might be neat to get your comments on some of the interesting points in the report.


  • Canadians and Mexicans use about twice as much water per person as residents of France and the Czech Republic.
I'm assuming this has something to do with our water-intensive industries like agriculture, coal and nuclear power plants, manufacturing, and my favourite: the tar sands. These industries grow disproportionately quickly as compared to our population size because we export so much food, energy, and oil.

  • The most common household water-saving device in Canada is the low-flow shower head, compared with water-efficient washing machines, showers, and toilets in Australia and Korea.
Shower heads are cheaper and easier to install. I wonder if that's the reason for this discrepancy? Or does this have more to do with the fact that Canadians are delusional about how much water we have? Just because the Great Lakes are, well, great, doesn't justify wasting water.

  • When people have to pay for household water use, consumption drops by 20%.
I know that those who are charged for water tend to conserve it, but I didn't realize the margin was so great. With that in mind, why aren't we charging for it if everyone already has to pay for power? This is probably why people are more likely to save energy than water - I bet there are more compact fluorescent bulbs than low-flow shower heads in Canada!


  • In Canada, only half as many people use thermal insulation compared to efficient light bulbs, and even fewer have installed efficient furnaces.
This is a sad statistic, since the biggest proportion of household electricity use in Canada goes towards heating. I wish more people knew that you don't have to commit to a complex renovation project to better insulate your home - just buy a winter weatherizing kit for your windows!

  • Hydro bill = conservation of electricity.
I look forward to the day when tenants in multi-unit buildings pay for the power they use. I can't stand hearing people boast that they waste electricity because they don't have to pay for it.

  • Most homeowners aren't willing to pay much more for renewable energy.
And they shouldn't have to! I've said this many times before: if the things we consume were priced according to their full life cycle cost, from resource depletion, to energy and water use during manufacturing, to the disposal of toxic substances, then conventional energy sources such as coal would be expensive, while wind power would be affordable.


  • Canada, Australia, and Sweden recycle twice as many products as the Czech Republic and Mexico.
As a Toronto resident, I'm very thankful for the City's hard work in this area. The number of things I can recycle is astounding, and while this doesn't make up for consuming too much, it's a good start.

  • Young people produce 10% more garbage than their parents.
Why? They don't have to pay for the trash they produce? They look cool with a branded, single-use paper coffee cup in their hand? The media bombards them with messages that associate consumption with sexiness/happiness?

  • Canadians are better at properly disposing of used batteries than expired medication.
 I hope events like the City of Toronto's Community Environment Days will help balance out those numbers. Improperly discarded prescription medication finds its way into our drinking water!


  • When commuting, the proportion of Koreans using public transportation is almost as large as the proportion of Canadians driving cars (around 50%).
I think we can all agree that most transit systems in this country need some work. I don't get why provincial and federal levels of government aren't helping out more.

  • People state they would use public transportation if it were faster and cheaper, and they want transit stops no farther than 15 minutes from their homes.
Sounds reasonable. We need better infrastructure in suburban areas, or better yet, we need to stop developing the sprawl!

  • On average, a 20% spike in gas prices would prompt motorists to cut back on their driving by 8%.
This is funny, because driving 120 km/h on the highway instead of 100 km/h represents a 20% increase in fuel consumption. Just saying...

You might be interested in reading the full article or the OECD report. The graphics are quite useful. Make sure to come back to this post afterwards - please help me make sense of some of these stats!

Photo credits: water droplet; wind turbine; landfill; traffic.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Tuesday Toxin Talk

I'm currently reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, by Rick Smith (Executive Director of Environmental Defence) and Bruce Lourie (President of the Ivey Foundation). The book examines the toxins that leach out of commonplace items in our homes and workplaces and wind up in our bodies. Smith and Lourie experiment on themselves, purposely exposing themselves to everyday products over a four-day period, and use the results to raise awareness about the dangers that surround us. I'd like to use this space every few Tuesdays to share some of this vital information with you. For more in-depth coverage, please buy the book!


Let's talk about phthalates.

dibutyl phthalate (DBP)

In children, they are associated with impaired testicular function due to "demasculinization": smaller penis size, incomplete testicular descent, and scrotums that are small and not distinct from surrounding tissue. Phthalates are commonly used as plasticizers to keep hard and brittle substances like vinyl soft and rubbery - hence the rubber duck in the title of the book. A subtype of this toxin, diethyl phthalate, is added as a lubricant to personal care products so that moisturizers can easily penetrate and soften the skin and fragrances last longer.

Phthalates are found in everything from toys, shower curtains, and skin care lotions, to building materials, blood and IV fluid bags, and the interiors of new cars. Because they leach out of these products and contaminate everything they come in contact with - including dust - young children face a greater risk of exposure because they physically interact more intimately with their environment, touching everything and then putting their fingers in their mouths.

The good news? Unlike many other chemicals, phthalates break down quickly in the body and in the environment. In other words, if we remove the offending toxin from our homes and workplaces, our bodies will flush them out, and our level of contamination will go down.

So replace those vinyl shower curtains, and stop using personal care products containing "fragrance" or "parfum" (code words indicating some phthalate content). Reduce your intake of fish, meat, and oils because phthalates are fat soluble and get into food because they are present in the general environment. Consume dairy products less frequently, because the tubing used to drain milk from the milking machines to the collection vessels is made of vinyl. Processed foods contain phthalates, too, because food handlers wear vinyl gloves.

When it comes to toys, where you live makes all the difference. The European Union has banned the use of all phthalates in toys and child care articles, while the US has only prohibited the sale of these items when they contain more than 0.1% of three of the phthalate types (DEHP, DBP, and BBP). Canada is finally following suit with a new regulation that meets the American standard I just mentioned. Better late than never!

As for personal care products, we're out of luck. Only the EU has completely banned DEHP, DBP, and BBP; most Canadians and Americans continue to apply a dozen phthalate-containing products on their skin every day. Because there is no legal requirement that this toxin appear on labels, the average consumer can't make smart decisions in the pharmacy. I urge you therefore to consult the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database to find out which products to avoid. Then head over to the David Suzuki Foundation website and sign a letter to the Health Minister that asks for clear labelling of the substances in the "fragrance/parfum" of personal care products.

These days I shop at health food stores and seek out products that specifically state that they are phthalate-free. What will you do to avoid this nasty toxin? 

Photo credits: DBP; shower curtain; hair care products.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sugaring Off

While it won't be held in an authentic Québecois cabane à sucre, I'm still excited: Not Far From The Tree is planning a sugaring off party right here in the city this weekend!

I hope somebody brings maple taffy!

Unfamiliar with NFFTT? It's a non-profit organization dedicated to harvesting fruit from trees growing in Toronto's front and back yards. When homeowners lack the time, tools, and/or physical ability to harvest their own fruit (which often amounts to way more than the homeowners could consume on their own), NFFTT shows up with a bunch of volunteers and gets to work. The bounty is split three ways: one third to the homeowners, one third to the volunteers, and the remaining third to local food banks and community kitchens. It's win-win-win! Last year, NFFTT picked nearly 20,000 lbs of cherries, mulberries, plums, apples, pears, grapes, elderberries, ginkgo, and quince!

In the late winter, NFFTT gets busy tapping maple trees. This is where their lovely "I'd tap that" t-shirt slogan comes from, which makes me chuckle every time I think about it. Homeowners can buy kits to help them make maple syrup from their own trees. Care is taken to avoid tapping the same tree two years in a row; this allows maple trees a full year to recover and heal their wounds - think of it like humans donating blood!

To celebrate the sap harvest, NFFTT is hosting their first ever sugaring off party! In addition to live music and activities for the whole family, there will of course be pancakes and an urban vs. rural maple syrup tasting!

Date: Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Time: 1:00 - 4:00 pm

Location: Dufferin Grove Park (875 Dufferin St)

Mmm... can't wait. For more details, check out the event listing.

Photo credit.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Look Before You Leap: Quebec Government to Study Environmental Impact of Shale Gas Drilling

Good news! The Québec government will be restricting the controversial shale gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", after a report strongly recommended that environmental and health risk assessments be carried out.

This is a refreshing change from the norm; I've gotten used to hearing about research reports that issue very clear warnings only to have politicians disparage or ignore them. These findings were released by the Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement (BAPE), an independent agency that reports to the Québec Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment, and Parks. The BAPE provides information, conducts inquiries, and consults the public on projects related to the quality of the environment. In other words, they do good work that results in advisory reports for the QC government to consider.

Back to the issue at hand: natural gas is sometimes found in underground deposits that are so challenging to reach that the "best" solution seems to be hydraulic fracturing. A very deep hole is drilled in order to pump a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into the gas formation. The liquids are propelled at such a high pressure that the rock fractures, allowing the oil and gas to flow to the production well. The fracturing fluids are pumped back out and into surface pits. If we momentarily ignore the fact that natural gas is a non-renewable resource and emits pollutants when burned for energy, then this seems like a pretty straightforward procedure to get at a useful resource.

But the real picture isn't so neat and tidy. Consider the vast amount of clean water irreversibly soiled with chemicals. Think about how toxic (and in some cases carcinogenic) these substances are: diesel fuel and its associated volatile organic compounds, methanol, formaldehyde, hydrochloric acid, and sodium hydroxide, to name a few. Ask yourself whether every last drop of fracturing fluid is extracted after use, or whether some stays behind to leach into groundwater? Reflect on the surface pits that hold used fluid: if they're lined, how likely is it that the lining will tear, causing further drinking water contamination? What if the pits aren't even lined at all?

In the US, people living in the vicinity of shall gas drilling sites have become sick after drinking their well water. Gasland, the documentary Josh Fox filmed to investigate the issues around hydraulic fracturing, shows scenes of tap water catching fire due to the high level of contaminants it contains. That's right: drinking water on fire. Scary.

In light of all of this, I'm giving the QC government a round of applause for exercising caution. Hopefully this sets a good example, and others will follow suit.

For more information on the report and the QC government's decision, read this article. If you'd like to learn more about the hydraulic fracturing procedure, check out this website.

Photo credits: drilling tower; burning tap water.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dig In! ShinDIG this Friday

If you live in Toronto and are interested in urban agriculture, come out on Friday to the Dig In! Campus Agriculture Project Spring ShinDIG. With milder weather on our doorstep, now is the time to find out about U of T's community gardens, rooftop apiaries, mushroom logs, and composters. Attend the ShinDIG to get involved with these and other urban campus agriculture projects, discover job and volunteer opportunities in the food and farm sector, pitch your ideas for events and new initiatives for 2011, and network with people who are passionate about food and where it comes from!

Oh, and come for the free food. That never fails to draw out the masses.

Date: Friday, March 11th, 2011

Time: 4:00 - 6:00 pm

Location: East Common Room at Hart House, University of Toronto

For more information, please visit the Dig In! website. Feel free to RSVP on the Spring ShinDIG Facebook event page.

Photo credit.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Interview with Kathleen Mullen

On March 3rd, I sat down with Kathleen Mullen, Director of Breathtaking, to ask her a few questions about the film. (Please see my previous post for details about the documentary.)

Photo credit: Kathleen Mullen

A:        Tell me a bit about what it was like to create the film.

K:        It was a long process. I don’t know if the film actually started when my dad was dying, but I started conceptualizing the idea that I wanted to do something. I was taking some photographs and Super 8. So I knew that I wanted to do something, but the real film came afterwards, and how I wanted to put it together came afterwards. Definitely with a lot of the photography and the Super 8, I was thinking that I wanted to document my father and do something around him and my family. So it was my family that was the inspiration, but it was also the issue, to be honest. How can somebody die of something that’s preventable? How can safety measures be taken to protect people? And why are we exposing people to things that are deadly? That was also the inspiration, too, those questions. My dad died of this disease, but it’s also a global issue.

A:        And I’m assuming, before your father became sick, that you probably had no awareness around this issue? It must have taken a lot of time just to do the research.

K:        Yeah, exactly, I didn’t really have any awareness, none at all.

A:        Well most of us don’t. I’m sure many who were watching the screening were introduced to this topic through your film.

K:        Well, and many have brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers who have died, right?

A:        Definitely. I’m wondering if making the film took you on a different path than the one you anticipated. You know, they say that authors often find that their stories take them in unexpected directions.

K:        I think I had it pictured as a much longer film, maybe more of a feature length film, just on a larger scale. I think it ended up being much more intimate, and shorter, and more focused on just my family and the issue in Canada. I wasn’t able to make it bigger. And also I didn’t want to, in the end. I wanted to keep it small, intimate, and focused.

A:        And so are you happy with the way it turned out?

K:        Yes. I mean I would have loved to have had a bigger budget and a little more help with it and all of that kind of thing, but I can do that in my next film.

A:        I believe this was your first investigate documentary?

K:        Yeah, it was my first documentary of that kind, completely. I did a personal experimental narrative documentary around my mother and my relationship with her, so I have done that kind of thing. But to do it more outside of that scope… my film is still a personal narrative, but to expand it to more of a documentary investigation is different. I had never done that before. It’s a lot more work, and a lot more research to get the facts. I had to ask myself often if I had all the facts.

A:        Did your trips to Quebec and abroad answer all of the questions you had when you first set out to make the film? Did you get all of the facts you needed?

K:        Yeah, and I got far more facts than what I put in the film, as well. I wish I could have expanded it a bit more, too. But I guess it was a question of, how do you tell a personal story, and how do you talk about a social issue or a global story? So it was this constant balance of keeping with the personal and also giving facts and information. That was a constant balancing act, of trying to tell that kind of story. I did learn more than I probably put in the film.

A:        I think you did a good of weaving in and out of the two without making it seem too jarring; the flow was good.

K:        I wish I could have given more information. In retrospect I wish I had given more information of why we are still mining it and what the arguments are. I did try to show that and explain that, but it could have been pushed a little further. That’s what the critics say! [laughs]

A:        Something to think about for next time, I guess. Was there a point when you were doing this investigation when it got so emotionally heavy that it would have been hard for you to continue? This is a terrible story, and the more you learn about it, the harder it becomes. Did it ever get so hard that you worried you wouldn’t be able to continue?

K:        It was hard to do, and it was very hard emotionally, and I feel like I worked through my grief. I had to sort of distance myself to some degree, like when I was in the asbestos mine in Quebec. I was going into an asbestos mine, and my dad died from exposure to asbestos. It was sort of unreal. I think the filmmaking process caused me a lot of anxiety in how to get this story told and how to tell it. But I never felt like it was too hard, because my dad went through so much. He did that deposition, and he was dying during the deposition, so what I was doing was never that hard in that sense. I wanted to tell his story.

A:        So your motivation was there, and you were always very well connected to why you wanted to do this. 

K:        Yeah.

A:        And in terms of getting your desired message across, are you satisfied with what is presented in the film, or would you do something differently if you had the chance?

K:        That’s what I was referring to before. Somehow I would have liked to have given a larger explanation around the safe use, and why I don’t think that works. I talked about it and showed it in pictures, but what is the reason why Quebec is still mining it? And it is about the fact that this is Quebec, and the government still gives money to Quebec, and the industry has a long history there, and the mining had a long history. So that is part of the reason, but I think there’s more to it than that. I would have been nice to have the time to do that. In retrospect I wanted to keep it tight. In some ways, there are explanations, and in other ways, there are no explanations. In some ways it just doesn’t make sense, even if people explain it. Like at the screening, when the asbestos lobby guy was there and he was trying to explain it. He was trying to make sense of it, and he thought it made sense, but I was trying to listen to him and thinking it didn’t make any sense to me. It doesn’t make sense. 

A:        That’s actually one of the things that I wanted to bring up. This asbestos industry representative you speak of was asking the audience to consider whether it’s possible that countries like India keep buying asbestos because their needs and economy necessitate such a product. If you could have responded to him, what do you think you would have said to him?

K:        Some people tried to respond by saying that they felt divided, because the people need the roads and rooftops, and what would they do without it? But so did we! And we got asbestos rooftops, and people started dying, so it’s no longer used in Canada. We’re saying the same things about the third world. We’re saying they need it, and that it’s low-cost, but that’s what we said 50 years ago, and we stopped using it. We’re shipping it there because we say it’s a good product, and it’s the only thing we can sell to these poor people – which is a very condescending thing to say, when you think about it – it’s the only thing they can afford to use. But in 40 years, they’re going to be dying, and they already are, and they’re going to have to stop using it, just like we did. So it’s not a logical argument. It doesn’t make any sense.

A:        It’s tricky to think about what would happen if Canada stopped producing the asbestos. And it’s true that there are probably other countries that would mine it and sell it anyway. What are your thoughts on what Canada’s role should be in terms of trying to get these countries to use different products?

K:        I think, finding alternatives that are affordable. In the Quebec mining regions, moving people into other kinds of jobs, developing other industries, something safe for them and for their families, that kind of thing. You know, looking for alternatives. We use alternatives because we don’t use asbestos anymore. What are the alternatives? If we can manage to live without asbestos, there must be alternatives.

A:        You mentioned that there will be other screenings around the country.

K:        Yes, in Ottawa, Vancouver, Hamilton, Sarnia, Windsor, and Montreal are happening, and San Francisco is probably happening. There is a lot of interest. I can’t keep up. I need help, somehow. But it’s good. It’s really good. I want it to get out there.

A:        Considering the wide audience that you will be exposing this information to, what actions are you hoping people will take as a result of watching this film?

K:        Well, to write letters and sign letters, and to take those types of political and social actions. The more people sign the letters and fight for this, the better. The fact that the asbestos lobby came [to the Toronto screening], I mean it’s probably because they’re a little nervous, right? They’re paying attention, so we have to work on that.

A:        When I was in primary school in Montreal, there was asbestos that had been sprayed onto the ceiling, I’m assuming as a fire retardant. There was a big fuss, and the ceilings were replaced. Has asbestos been used so widely that this film will resonate with people all across the country?

K:        Oh, absolutely, it’s all across the country. Your pipes are wrapped in it, sometimes it’s on ceilings… right now in the First Nations communities, it’s a huge problem because the houses were made with asbestos, and there’s been a huge exposure. There’s been a huge First Nations outcry about it because the houses were built with asbestos after people knew it was deadly. So across the country, there is resonance. One of my friends, her mother died in the same year of the same disease as my dad. So they know she was exposed, but they don’t know where or when or how. They just don’t know.

A:        Well I think this film will help to raise awareness and inspire action. Do you think you will be involved in any campaigns or other political pressure?

K:        Definitely. I think that I’ll be a part of it. I’m going to travel with the film whenever I can, and I’ll write letters or whatever I need to do. Absolutely. I don’t mind being a spokesperson for this. It’s important to me. It’s close to my heart.

A:        What advice can you give to those who have an important environmental or social justice message that they would like to convey using film?

K:        Well I think that when making this kind of film, you know, films with a message or films about taking action, then my advice would be to try not to be too thumping on the table with your message. I think it’s important to bring in a personal story, or bring in the heart up to the issue. I love activists and respect activists but a lot of them can be very intense, and it’s important to have them in your film, but it’s also important to have people who speak from their own personal experience. Many activists do speak from their own personal experience, and that’s where the activism comes from. A point of view is important, but also give a well-rounded picture of the situation. You look at the angles and try to understand “why”. Why is asbestos being mined? I tried to look up why. Have I answered it? I don’t really know. I have definitely posed some questions.

For more information and to organize a screening in your community, please contact breathtakingfilm (at) or visit Kathleen Mullen's website.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Breathtaking, but not Silencing

Asbestos is a carcinogen. The Canadian government has banned its use in construction materials for homes and is spending millions to remove it from the Parliament buildings. Then why are we exporting it to developing countries? This is the question Kathleen Mullen sought to answer in her investigative documentary about the historical and present-day use of asbestos in Canada and abroad. After losing her father, Richard Mullen, to mesothelioma (a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos), Mullen travelled to Quebec, India, and Detroit to tell the story of this powerful carcinogen and the people it harms.

Photo credit: P. Madhavan

On February 24th, I was lucky enough to attend the Toronto premiere of Breathtaking, co-presented by Planet in Focus (I was volunteering as box office staff on the night of the screening). At the beginning of the evening, I was excited to watch a documentary about a substance that I first heard about as a child when it had to be removed from the ceiling of my primary school; by the end of the night, I was deeply saddened by the number of lives affected by asbestos and outraged by the part we as Canadians play in this avoidable suffering.

The film opens with reflections on Richard Mullen's work and family life set to still images and Super 8 video of the Mullen family. His wife Sheila explains that he worked for some years in Aruba as an engineer for an oil company. As part of his job, he would inspect pipes that could only be accessed by opening the surrounding insulation which contained asbestos. Decades later, the fibres that had come to settle into the lining of his lungs as a result of this exposure ultimately caused his mesothelioma.

Inspired to learn all that she can about what ended her father's life, Kathleen Mullen begins her investigations in Quebec, where the only remaining Canadian asbestos mines are still in operation. It is due to these mines that Canada is one of the world's biggest producers of asbestos, specifically the chrysotile type. When health concerns grew and Canada began to restrict the use of asbestos, the industry saved itself by exporting its products to developing countries in which the substance has not been banned. Meanwhile, those living near the mines question whether they will get sick from inhaling airborne fibres as they blow off of nearby mine tailings. They are outnumbered, however, by those who believe chrysotile to be the safest type of asbestos that, when mined properly, is said to pose no risk to workers or the community. I believe that history, pride, and propaganda play no small role in the beliefs held by residents of small industrial towns.

Mullen also travels with her sister Anne-Mary to India, one of the countries that buys Canadian asbestos. In New Delhi, they speak with activists trying to lobby the government to ban its use in piping (for sanitary drains, irrigation, and even the water supply) and for low-cost housing. Then, in the industrial city of Ahmedabad, they meet sick factory workers fighting for compensation from companies who refuse to admit that the employees' exposure to asbestos is in any way unsafe. Many of those who develop asbestos-related cancers in India are too poor to be able to afford treatment and die without medical follow-up in their homes.

In Detroit, Mullen attends an Asbestos Awareness Conference. One of the speakers explains that he lost both of his parents to asbestos-related cancers and that he and his four brothers carry asbestos fibres in the linings of their lungs. When entire families can get sick despite only one family member working in a factory that manufactures products using asbestos, we have to ask ourselves whether there is such a thing as a safe level of exposure.

The documentary ends with three disheartening facts: more than 40 countries have banned asbestos, including the entire European Union - but not Canada or the United States. The Canadian and Quebec governments spend half a million (of our) dollars per year funding the Chrysotile Institute, a registered asbestos lobby group. And the World Health Organization estimates that over 90,000 people die every year of asbestos-related cancers.

By interspersing scenes of her journey with images and home movies of her family, footage of her father providing testimony of his work and illness for a lawsuit against his former employers, and facts about asbestos and its use, Mullen has created a film that is simultaneously a personal story, an investigative documentary, and a political statement. She weaves these elements together as though they are inseparable; and in a way, we can't get the whole picture without taking each perspective. Breathtaking moved my heart, informed my brain, and provoked the activist in me.

A panel discussion followed the screening. Moderator Alec Farquhar, Managing Director of the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), introduced the panelists:
  • Kathleen Mullen
  • Sheila Mullen
  • Anne-Mary Mullen
  • Dr. Pravesh Jugnundan: occupational health physician, consultant to OHCOW, and member of the Occupational and Environmental Medical Association of Canada (OEMAC) Board of Directors
  • Lyle Hargrove: Director of the Canadian Auto Workers Health and Safety Training Fund and member of the OHCOW Board of Directors
  • Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg: researcher and producer of the documentary film Toxic Trespass, Environmental Health professor at the University of Toronto, and affiliate of the Women's Healthy Environments Network and the Toronto Cancer Prevention Coalition.

Many interesting points were raised both during the panel discussion and later, when audience members were invited to share their comments. I will not repeat them here, as this post is already very long, but you can imagine that many agreed that the asbestos industry is unethical and adds more stains to Canada's somewhat tarnished environmental reputation (tar sands, anyone?). Tensions ran particularly high when an asbestos industry representative went up to the microphone to say a few words. To his credit, his statement was well-written and delivered with sensitivity. Besides acknowledging that the deaths caused by exposure to asbestos are tragic and that unsafe handling of the substance must come to an end, the industry representative invited the audience to consider whether developing countries continue to buy asbestos because it meets the needs of their economy, and that this could explain why the Supreme Court of India refused to ban asbestos. What do you think?

This is a challenging issue with no simple solutions. Nevertheless, I, for one, would prefer for my tax dollars to support research into safe and affordable alternatives to asbestos and the re-education of Canadian asbestos miners to start new careers - not subsidies for the asbestos industry.

Stay tuned for my next blog post: an interview with Director Kathleen Mullen. For more information and to organize a screening in your community, please contact breathtakingfilm (at) or visit Kathleen Mullen's website.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Story of Citizens United

Annie Leonard, one of my eco-heroes due to her public education work with The Story of Stuff project, just released another film: The Story of Citizens United vs. F.E.C.: Why Democracy Only Works When People are in Charge! (video embedded below)

In the film, she explores the history of corporations. In the beginning, they were used as a sort of short-term contractor for building things like bridges and railroads. After these projects were complete, the corporations were disbanded. Not so today, where corporations exist indefinitely with the purpose of maximizing profits, often at the expense of people and the planet.

Fast forward to 2010, when corporations fought to be granted the US First Amendment right to free speech, as though they were people. By winning this Supreme Court case, they were given a green light to spend as much as they wanted to influence elections, including intimidating and crushing candidates running on a platform against their interests. In other words, since 2010, corporations have played a big part in getting policymakers elected who give them what they want: being subjected to as few government regulations as they can get away with.

Outraged by this decision, the public is asking for a constitutional amendment that would exclude for-profit corporations from the protection of First Amendment rights, and a bill is in the works to allow for public financing of campaigns so that candidates without corporate backing stand an equal chance at getting elected. Don't lose hope, take action!

Please watch the film and spread the word, then leave comments below.