Exploring Your Own Community

By Ian (Team Deep Earth)

Earlier this year I went up the CN Tower for the first time. Despite that fact that I’ve grown up my entire life in Pickering and Waterloo, just a short commute from downtown Toronto, I had never even considered going up the tower. I’ve traveled across Canada and to places in Europe and Africa before going to an international tourist landmark in my own backyard.

Exploring Sudbury this past week I was amazed by the incredible experiences and connections we were able to make it just such a short period of time. Simply by coming into the city with the intention of meeting new people and exploring, we were able to gain insights into many different aspects of the city. Our two teams met with representatives from municipal and federal governments, health centres, community NGOs, Science North, Laurentian University and the regional innovation centre. We got to do everything from going into the NORCAT underground training mine to sitting down with the Sudbury mayor.

Meeting with Sudbury Mayor Brian Bigger
Meeting with Sudbury Mayor Brian Bigger

We talked to students, doctors, government officials, at-risk youth, community leaders, researchers and more. My team got to learn about the history of environmental degradation and regreening in Sudbury, Green Economy North, the Sudbury Protocol, NORCATs innovations in training as well as many other projects, programs and insights. In one week, we met with parts of the city that I bet many people from Sudbury have never even heard of.


Visit with team from Science North
Visit with team from Science North

Now this was only a sample of Sudbury and there were some giant holes in our learnings. Much of our insights are only surface level as we had little time to build strong connections with those we met due to our limited time in the city. And yet I am still struck by how much we were able to learn about and from Sudbury in such a short period of time. Having the MaRS name behind us certainly opened a number of doors, but often people did not recognize the name and simply were willing to meet because we were a group who were interested in their work and the issues they face.

It took me 23 years of living in and around the GTA before checking out something that is often the first stop for tourists from around the world when they come to Toronto. Precisely because it was in my backyard I never felt the urge to explore or learn about it. There is something about travelling to a new place that forces you out of any routine and encourages you to learn and explore in a way that we don’t often do in our own communities.

After Sudbury, I realize that someone could come to Toronto for a week with the intention of exploring and potentially meet more people and learn about more projects than I have in my past couple months working in the city. I am stuck thinking about how many things I have missed out on in Toronto and Waterloo just because I got into a routine and did not venture out to explore my community.

Heading back home, I find myself wondering if I can do the same thing we did in Sudbury back in Toronto (and wherever I end up next). By taking a step back from the hustle and bustle of work and daily life, can I set out to explore the city I live and work in everyday?


Urban centres, public art

Photo and piece by Rebecca Tan. Mural above is from a Downtown Thunder Bay parking lot. 

Urban centres across the world have incorporated outdoor art into the character of public spaces as a way of creating more interesting and safer neighbourhoods. When it came time to pick a destination for Quest, Thunder Bay was a no-brainer, given its budding reputation as a leader amongst municipalities in city building through arts and culture planning. It was a priority of mine to touch base with Lora Northway from Die Active, a youth graffiti and urban street art collective, of Definitely Superior Art Studio.

A major issue in Thunder Bay is crime. Crime is a complex issue, representing the convergence of numerous systematic and structural problems. Simply put, there are a lot of reasons why crime happens and understanding how to effectively address it proactively is a broad, systems-changing, and multi-level ordeal. One way that urban planners try to contribute to this process is through designing spaces that will rally communities around a common interest and foster a sense of collective pride. Public art is a fantastic way to do this, and what Die Active does perfectly captures what urban planners* mean when they talk about animating streets, revitalizing communities and designing vibrant, user-friendly spaces.

In particular, there are a couple of convenience stores that are targeted frequently by looters. In collaboration with property managers, the city, community organizations, and the collective, Die Active has completely changed not just the look, but also the feel of a couple of Mac’s locations around town. By engaging different stakeholder groups and nurturing collaborative partnerships, Die Active’s murals have become more than just decorative installations on sides of buildings—they have become visible statements of community values, centerpieces that define the personalities and unique charm of their neighbourhoods and prompt individuals to consider, reflect and engage in conversations about space (real and/or imagined), and whom, if anyone at all, can and should take ownership over them. Over the past few years, in addition to supporting built environment interventions, the city has simultaneously invested in education and community level programing as parts of its reduction strategy, with the hope that altogether, interventions at in multiple systems will contribute to less crime overall.

It truly was a wonderful opportunity to see these phenomenal art pieces in person and to chat with Lora, whose remarkable work is transforming her community. If you’ve ever wondered how they’re done, check this out: https://www.facebook.com/MacsCrimeBusters/videos/408545445927015/

*Urban planners plan, city councils make decisions; a worthy distinction that I’d like to mention


Food Systems Learnings from Thunder Bay

Written by Jessica Nicksy; Photos by Rebecca Wolff

For a small northern city, Thunder Bay’s local food scene is surprisingly active. Locals proudly proclaim that their local market is the third-largest in Ontario (despite the city being the 19th most populous), that their veggies have a higher protein and nutrition content than those of their neighbors down south (due to cooler growing temperatures), and that work tackling complex food issues is on the rise. The city itself has jumped on board the food wagon, not just endorsing the area’s food charter and food strategy documents, but turning themselves into a blueprint for increased institutional procurement of local food.

All this is not to say that Thunder Bay doesn’t have a long way to go. It is estimated that about 1 in 10 people in Thunder Bay are moderately or severely food insecure*, and almost ⅔ of people report not eating at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. The majority of the region’s food is shipped in from distribution centres in Western Canada, with most of the remaining from Toronto and the USA; food produced in Northwestern Ontario is not the norm. There are no abattoirs in the region that will process poultry, a severe limitation for farmers who would otherwise produce more local poultry products. All that said, Thunder Bay seems to be on a fast track to increasing the viability of local food production while improving access to healthy and affordable foods for all residents.

During quest I was excited to explore lessons and initiatives in Thunder Bay that could inform the Parry Sound area’s food strategy. While Thunder Bay has a significantly larger population and is in fact a few hardiness zones cooler than Parry Sound, they have similarities in geography (diverse soils, Canadian shield rock, on the shores of the Great Lakes), history and culture (both were centres of forestry which have subsequently declined), and governance structures (independent single tier municipalities). Some learnings I gleaned in speaking with a people involved in the Thunder Bay food movement:

  1. Celebrate the spectrum
    • Thunder Bay’s Food Strategy doesn’t focus on a single area, but rather 7 interconnected pillars (food access, food production, forest and freshwater foods, etc). Diverse groups are working across all of these areas on different aspects of the food system, and together creating a  movement that is greater than the sum of its parts. The Food Strategy aims to be the convener that helps to connect them around a larger strategy, offering support where it’s most needed.
  2. People make all the difference
    • Over and over I heard that none of the great work that’s been done in Thunder Bay would have been possible without the right people, whether that be a well placed champion or a gung-ho volunteer. Having teams that are able to both strategize and get things done was another teaching
  3. The supply and demand balancing act
    • In Thunder Bay demand for local food had sky-rocketed, with both local people and institutions getting on board to change purchasing patterns. However, this is an area where farming was on the decline for a long time, and much of the farming that was left shipped produce elsewhere. Increasing local demand is not enough without also re-building local distribution networks and getting new farmers into the market. Thunder Bay has seen some movement in this area, with the number of farmers actually increasing between 2001 and 2006, and alternative distribution hubs like the Cloverbelt Local Food Co-op reconnecting farmers with local markets, but there remains significant work to be done.
  4. Funding is key
    • Across the board funding came up as a barrier, from farmers’ access to capital and business know-how, to financial insecurity for non-profits due to short-term grants. Luckily more grants are becoming available for food and community building projects since the official development plan for Northern Ontario included food production as a priority area. Grants for various food projects in Thunder Bay come from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation, the Greenbelt Foundation, FedNor, the Ontario Trillium Fund, OMAFRA, among others.
  5. Build on existing strengths
    • The Thunder Bay Food Strategy has found it most useful to build on what already exists in the community, and supplement those projects with energy and resources strategically to fill in gaps.
  6. Engage at the community level
    • It’s all well and good to have municipal support for a food charter or strategy, but making it a focus and sense of pride within the community is another story. A lot of outreach is required to make this happen.

Every community is different, and lessons never transfer uniformly from one town to the next in the real world, so it’s no sure bet that these ones will apply to Parry Sound. We’ll have to pick and choose what will apply to our town, but at least we’ll be better informed.

* Moderate food insecurity indicates that the quantity/quality of food is inadequate. Severe food insecurity indicates that eating patterns are disrupted and/or meals are regularly skipped


Snapshots from Team Sleeping Giant

The last few days have been packed with interviews, meetings and exploring the incredible landscapes of Thunder Bay. Here are only some (of many) shots from our week:


Photos by Rebecca Wolff

A life of many places

If you’ve heard my personal story you’ll know that my life is like a patchwork quilt of living in different places. A childhood spent moving, teenage years spent wandering and finally dividing my time between Peru and Ontario.

Moving permanently to Toronto after school was not an easy decision, at the time it felt like I had to choose: Peru or Canada. I could not continue my work in both.

I care deeply about the work I am doing in Toronto, looking at how to integrate Indigenous health into medical education. I had chosen to be in Canada to give myself no other choice but to be immersed in the issues facing my own nation, and to recognize the role I play in perpetuating broken systems. I wanted to be fully present in my learning, and project. To do this I thought I needed to distance myself from wanting to act, engage or respond to events in Peru. But ever since deciding to look at culturally-focused health equity in Ontario, I’ve struggled to be so far from Peru and wondered about my decision.

Well over the last few weeks it’s become impossible to separate my Peru life from my Canadian life. In the Amazon there have been 3 major oil spills , the most recent of which occurred last week. I wake up to see more news about oil pouring into the rivers, not being cleaned up and I am consumed with thinking about the consequences of this…what it means for individuals, communities, the environment. (BBC article on oil spills)

It always felt like I was in a personal conflict of what place I was allowed to resonate and empathize with. Until today….

I got up early this morning, sipped some coffee to keep warm while I prepped for interviews about medical education at Canadian medical schools. How can we teach students about Indigenous health, giving them skills to be culturally safe practitioners who don’t perpetuate stereotyping, systemic racism or cultural bias?

I had a meeting with the local coordinators of Elder Sessions at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. We discussed strategies for collaborating with community Elders to engage students in Anishnawbe teachings and prepare them for working in communities as bio-medically trained doctors.

After we had finished our interview, I stayed to chat. I explained a bit about myself, in particular my background working in Peru, which led to my focus in Indigenous health.

Suddenly, without my prompting, we began engaging in a dialogue about the current oil spill crisis in Peru. It turned out I was sitting a table with an Anishnawbe attendee to a UN event, where other Indigenous representatives from the Peruvian Sierra and Amazon had been in attendance. Even in Thunder Bay I had found persons with whom I shared mutual feelings of concern, fear, and empathy for the issues being faced by communities in the Amazon.

With three months left of Studio Y I don’t think I’ll ever stop questioning where I am and where I should be, but I do see that I should never have tried to push myself away from continuing to engage and care about people in both the places I live and work.

I cannot be one without the other, and today showed me I don’t have to choose.

Looking through the trees at Mission Marsh Conservation Area you can see a factory right across the water. Nature vs. “Development” is a conflict that exists everywhere.

What Happens When Being Good to the Planet Isn’t Profitable?

By Team Deep Earth

Part I (by Stephen)

I’m thinking a lot about the dangers of just making a business case for sustainability. Businesses can save on electricity bills by replacing lightbulbs and appliances, reduce waste disposal costs, cut supply chain costs by being more efficient or recycling. But what happens when the return on investment doesn’t make sense on purely economic grounds? Then, by framing sustainability as a good business decision, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner. It’s even harder to effect real change.

At our meetings today we learned that some local mining companies have made the emissions they’re sending up the smokestack less hazardous by filtering out some sulphur dioxide, converting it to sulphuric acid, and selling it to companies in other industries. But if they were still able to just send it up the stack unrefined they’d probably do so. Recycling the sulphur is a way to mitigate the cost of scrubbing the gaseous by-product, not a genius way to increase profit.

I know that the Centre for Impact Investing at MaRS tries to get investors to devote 10 percent of their portfolio to stocks which will provide lower financial returns but some good social benefits. There’s no equivocating about the economic cost. If you want to do good, provide social or environmental benefits, the market will not reward you. Your bottom-line will take a hit.

Maybe we need to just steel our resolve and be real about what it means to be sustainable, even in Sudbury. Internalizing the costs we’ve been externalizing to the environment for hundreds of years is going to suck. It’s going to be expensive. It’s not going to be a way to make more money (at least not in the short-term). Until we’re willing to have that conversation, and until we’re willing to force companies to pay those costs through legislation such as a carbon price or bans on certain practices, we’re doomed to fail. More missed targets, forgotten action plans, and lost decades. Let’s get real.


Part II (by Ian)

Working with B Lab Canada, I have come to strongly believe that the private sector must be involved in the fight against the complex social and environmental issues facing our communities. Our meetings on Tuesday in Sudbury with EarthCare and reThink Green highlighted the important role businesses can and need to play in addressing environmental issues. Both initiatives, EarthCare through the city and reThink Green as a non-profit, have key elements that focus on getting local businesses involved in sustainability work.

In our meeting at reThink Green it was exciting to learn about how Sustainable Waterloo Region, part of the Sustainability CoLab Network, is working with B Lab to expand their Regional Carbon Initiative. The program was originally focused on getting companies in Waterloo to reduce their CO2 emissions but is now expanding into a holistic Regional Sustainability Initiative that helps businesses look at a range of environmental factors. reThink Green will be launching its own program focused on businesses called Green Economy North. If the Regional Sustainability Initiative is successful in Waterloo, there is potential for it to spread to Sudbury and other cities in the province through the Sustainability CoLab.

It is really encouraging to see such interest from companies in Greater Sudbury to get involved in these initiatives but I still left with some reservations. The current paradigm around corporate social responsibility (CSR) is based on the idea that changes to help the environment will also always have a positive impact on a company’s economic bottom line. The argument is that companies need to make these environmental changes to increase their profits and maximize their competitiveness, with the benefit to the environment being an important but secondary selling factor. While I understand that this has been the only way to get many companies to even consider environmental policies and programs, I worry that it is not enough. While for a majority of situations I think there can be a win-win scenario between the economy and the environment, I don’t think it will always be the case. This argument continues to place corporate profit above both people and the environment, meaning that in the case of a trade-off, profits come first. It does not touch on the moral, ethical and very real issue that our current economy is operating beyond the limits of what our planet can sustain. At what point do we recognize that we do not need to be making environmentally focused changes in businesses to increase economic profitability, but because it is necessary if we want our economy to stop eroding the planet we all depend on?

Quick wins such as getting companies to recycle or use energy efficient appliances are an important first step, but I want to continue pushing further. I want to support companies that are willing to look beyond their bottom line and find ways of using their business model to a positive net impact on their community and the environment. I want to be working to build an economy with companies that use business as a force for social good, not CSR initiatives as a way to mask the harm the inflict. The B Corp certified companies and the business leaders I have met through B Lab prove that taking this next step towards true social and environmental responsibility is possible. I look forward to seeing the impact that EarthCare, reThink Green and the Green Economy North program have in Sudbury, and I hope that the B Corp movement can follow right behind to take companies to the next level.

Wide Open Spaces

By Stephen (Team Deep Earth)

Lacloche sunset
Sunset, La Cloche Lake Provincial Park. Photo: David Lawless

Before diving into research in Sudbury proper, Team Deep Earth has holed up for the weekend in a cozy cabin on the shores of La Cloche Lake, about an hour and a half west of Sudbury. Part of a beautiful little fishing retreat overseen by site supervisors/gracious hosts John and Anne (La Cloche Lake Camp), it’s the sort of place that seems to exist outside of time. The guest registry in our cabin goes back almost two decades. “Our first week here was spent as our honeymoon,” reads one entry from 2002. “Rick’s parents honeymooned 26 years ago here in this very camp.”

Another entry, somewhat less adorable, documents the local wildlife. There were sightings of beavers, loons, snakes, a fox, and a turtle. Regarding the turtle, the journaler, to Dave’s horror, writes “We watched as they cleaned him and we plan to cook the meat tomorrow.”

After six months in downtown Toronto, I find the white and empty frozen lake breathtaking. The first thing I saw as I came into the kitchen this morning was a pair of deer trotting out of the forest and onto the ice. They seemed unconcerned by evidence of human life, namely the half dozen ice fishing huts that dot the lake, as they made their way to the opposite shore.

After a magnificent pancake breakfast we, too, made our way onto the lake. Although the thickness of the ice was earlier demonstrated by the fishermen driving on it in pickup trucks, our first steps were trepidatious, and made more tentative still when we felt the snow give way and saw water bubbling up in our tracks. The days preceding our arrival had been above 0 Celsius, i.e. unseasonably warm – Sudbury’s all-time record February high is 9.6 degrees. I suspect this melted a few centimeters of ice on top of the lake, not all of which refroze overnight, leaving puddles of water all over the lake hidden by a thin layer of ice and snow.

In the city I never, in my day-to-day life, experience space like that desert of ice. I felt smaller and smaller as we walked further out to the lake’s center. Even my senses were reduced; sounds were muted by distance and I had to squint into the glare of the sun. Only random gusts of wind evidenced time passing.

We followed a trail off the lake and into the forest where snowmobiles had cut a slippery scar of ice into the crunchy white snow. Here I paused a moment and looked into the woods. The uncountable tree trunks made a messy tapestry before my eyes.I noticed in the chaos of so much crowded life how the hemlock trees, in their competition for sunlight and water, neatly spaced themselves a few feet from each neighbor. Each tree had claimed a few square feet to call home, in which to stretch out and drink in sunlight and water. Each tree standing in that spot for years, decades. Existing here before my time and after it. I felt the life around and within me and I realized that it would go on, silent and unseen, long after I left this place and returned to Toronto.

Dave scratched off a sliver of bark from one of the trees and let the sticky resin within ooze out. He scooped the glistening amber bead up with a twig and made us smell it. It was sharp and fresh and enlivening. It smelled like nourishing air; it smelled like long walks on twisting forest paths; it smelled like life itself.

I wanted to spend some time during our Quest at a place like this to remember smells like the hemlock resin. The passion that drives my environmental work was ignited during a childhood spent outdoors climbing trees, skipping stones, and chasing squirrels. I remember feeling the trees as a kid. I remember my hands sticky with hemlock sap. I remember wide open spaces. It’s when I forget those things that I struggle to get up in the morning and go to work, and instead lie in bed wondering what this is all about.

Another thing I remember: that our environmental crisis is fundamentally a matter of change. Human society is too frantic, dynamic, and is disrupting the natural world at rates it’s not equipped to handle. We’re too quickly burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests, and dumping garbage in the ocean. We’re too quickly changing the world in which we live. And as quiet and eternal as the frozen lake I’m look at appears, the changes are all too real here.

In truth, this place doesn’t exist outside of time. Last week La Cloche was unseasonably warm, approaching record temperatures. Warm enough to melt parts of a lake that should stay frozen all through the winter. Now consider climate change: in ten or twenty years will there be ice fishing in February on Lacloche Lake? Will deer be walking out at dawn in search of food for the winter? What new species will migrate north with warmer temperatures, and how will they alter the delicate ecosystem processes that have led to the hemlock trees’ neighborly spacing?

I honestly don’t know, but I’d rather not have to find out. La Cloche, like so many sacred and important places around the world, is melting away before us. I guess that’s what this is all about.

Questing and Studio [Y]

As part of our 8 month adventure with Studio [Y] (to learn more about what Studio [Y] is please see the About page) groups of fellows will be going on ‘Quest’ to visit an area of the province of Ontario that is not within the Greater Toronto Area.

Quest is not only an opportunity to travel to new regions, but also allows us to meet others in our field, learn and get an in-depth look at the types of community leadership and systems change that is occurring across Ontario.

We’ve already reached the halfway mark of our time at Studio [Y]. Quest is also a chance to get a ‘change of pace’, reflect on our experience thus far, where we’re going and where we hope to be come May.

We want to share our experiences and take-away with you. Different fellows will post to this site during the months of February and March.

Questions/comments? Are you’re based in any of the places teams are are traveling to? Please connect with us!

Photo credit: Rebecca Wolff