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Arts and Science

How Cuba is getting so much right on COVID-19

Cuba's access to internationally-produced vaccines was nearly impossible due to the U.S. blockade. Its decision to make its own vaccines stands to pay off handsomely.

A technician works with the Soberana 02 COVID-19 vaccine
A technician works with the Soberana 02 COVID-19 vaccine at the packaging processing plant of the Finlay Vaccine Institute in Havana, Cuba, in January 2021. (Yamil Lage)

As the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately harms underprivileged people globally, Cuba’s “people over profit” approach has been saving many lives — both on the island and abroad. From the onset, Cuba’s approach has been holistic and integrated.

Its response is among the most respected in the world. Widespread confidence in the Cuban government’s science-based policies, public service media messaging and volunteerism are key reasons as to why Cuba has been able to control the viral reproduction rate until mass vaccination begins.

The cash-strapped Caribbean island risked opening to holiday visitors at the end of 2020 and is currently managing higher COVID-19 caseloads than ever before. Its health experts are combining international clinical trials of its vaccine candidates with mass production. Cuba is the only Latin American country with the capacity to manufacture a vaccine domestically other than Brazil, which is not doing so. Cuba aims to protect its populace, then give away or sell its vaccines abroad.

Before the virus’s arrival in Cuba, the country prepared for mitigation based on best practices from Asia and its own expertise with contagious disease.

Beyond Cuba’s borders, its medical diplomacy took over. Cuba’s Henry Reeve Medical Brigade has been fighting the pandemic in at least 37 countries and has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. When COVID-19 stranded the cruise ship MS Braemar, only Cuba allowed it to dock.

In contrast, many countries’ pandemic responses have been haphazard, with well-funded lobby groups representing restaurants and pharmaceutical companies, to name just two sectors, wielding excessive influence. Oscillating virus reproduction rates have required disruptive and costly mitigation measures and resulted in illness and death. The media, academics who include Helen Yaffe, Emily Morris and John Kirk and non-governmental organizations like Havana and Oakland-based Medicc have long documented Cuba’s emulation-worthy health system.

A group of people wearing masks wave the Cuban flag in downtown Havana (Ricardo IV Tamayo / Unsplash)

Hard work, hard science

Care in Cuba is universal, research and training is robust and disease and disaster mitigation is well-organized. The public health-care system is co-ordinated across research institutes and centres of disease control, through to dispersed local neighbourhood clinics. Cuba also has a near 100 per cent literacy rate, with much attention paid to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

Cuba’s achievements are the result of hard work and hard science in a not-for-profit system. The populace’s confidence has been earned through science-based campaigns against the likes of HIV, Ebola, dengue fever and the Zika virus.

Nations that have responded well to the pandemic have communicated clearly and factually with their people. Cuba has a tradition of multi-pronged public-service messaging.

The country’s epidemiology director has become a trusted household expert through his daily news reports. Every day at 9 a.m., a seated and masked Dr. Francisco Durán speaks directly to the public, noting and lamenting every fatality, detailing disease spread and treatments, answering viewer questions and sternly advising continued adherence to preventative measures.

The well-known psychologist Manuel Calviño discusses topics such as self-discipline and positive thinking. Cheerier spots feature famous actors urging fortitude and depict groups of people following health protocols.

In cartoons, angry “red meanie” viruses are drowned by hand-washing and blocked by face masks, animation heroes celebrate International Workers’ Day from their balconies, youngsters stay home to protect their grandparents and families play inside together. The socially distanced 42nd International Festival of New Latin American Cinema featured animated doctor’s orders in its promotional video. Ubiquitously stated, sung and danced slogans include “Cuba for life, with a new (masked) smile.”

Mask-wearing is popular

I surveyed residents of Havana online and later in-person while in Cuba in December and January. Most reported wearing masks to “protect others and myself.”

While masking has been broadly politicized elsewhere, Cuba mandated masks in March 2020, immediately sharing instructions on how to make them at home.

While in many countries volunteers struggled to find ways to help, in Cuba, existing organizations such as neighbourhood watches and universities quickly moved into action.

Medical students have gone door-to-door checking for symptoms. Computer science students have developed helpful apps and supported medical staff in their dorms-turned-quarantine centres. Necessary work got done while public buy-in solidified the mitigation efforts. The initial growth curve was inverted early on.

Banking on individual responsibility among its well-educated citizens, Cuba shifted to a “new normal” at the year-end holiday season. Tourists headed to isolated beach resorts and expats to their relatives’ homes. The hotels follow health protocols meticulously — speedy PCR testing, masking, sanitation and social distancing.

But family visits led to outbreaks, as they have globally. Some visitors, many of them arriving from areas with high rates of infection and science denial such as Miami, breached the requisite protocols: one PCR test with a negative result upon arrival, a five-day home quarantine and another negative PCR test before mingling.

Pandemic has been costly

All indicators show Cuba has put its limited resources to efficient use for the public good. But especially coupled with former U.S. president Donald Trump’s tightening of the American blockade against Cuba, the pandemic and the resulting plunge in tourism are costly. Scarcity of affordable food and consumer goods, along with an increased cost of living accelerated by a long-overdue monetary unification, have increased stress levels.

Sensing an opportunity, foreign interest groups are supporting small, lively social media and in-person protests, most characterized by vociferous yet vague demands for artistic freedom.

Daily cases are also now hovering around 850 compared to 42 on Nov. 15, 2020 — just before Havana’s airport reopened. Although the curve is again flat — exponential growth has been halted for the second time — medical personnel and supplies are strained. Against this backdrop, however, there are Cuba’s advances on the vaccination front.

In this breakneck race, Cuba is simultaneously running Phase 3 international clinical trials of Soberana (Sovereignty) 2 and, planned for late March, Abdala, with robust production of these vaccine candidates. Work is also continuing on Soberana 1 and Mambisa.

Looking ahead to COVID-19 variants and reinfections, a booster Soberana Plus is now being developed.

If Cuba’s vaccination program is successful, the country will have once again provided for its people against enormous odds as it produces and distributes a vaccine domestically, then shares it with the world.

Many market-driven, rich nations of the Global North, including Canada, are not so well-positioned. Cuba’s access to internationally produced vaccines was highly improbable due to the U.S. blockade. Its ensuing decision to make its own vaccines stands to pay off handsomely.The Conversation


Jennifer Ruth Hosek, Associate Professor, Transnational Studies, Queen's University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

COVID-19 has decimated water systems globally, but privatization is not the answer

Water privatization is often seen as a solution to municipal budget shortfalls and aging water systems.

A drawing of houses in a city with water pipes and sewers underground
Millions of households and businesses have not been able to pay their water bills due to lost income during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Shutterstock)

The financial impact of COVID-19 has been devastating for public water operators around the world. Millions of households and businesses have not been able to pay their water bills due to lost income, while operating expenses have risen sharply.

Data collected in June 2020 found that revenues had fallen by up to 40 per cent for some water operators. In the United States alone the financial impact on water utilities is expected to exceed $27 billion as a result of COVID-19.

This temporary financial crisis is made worse by long-term budget deficits, with at least $150 billion a year required to meet global backlogs for water and sanitation. As much as one might like to think that COVID-19 will be the contagion that finally wakes the world up to the need for adequate funding for these basic public services, there is no indication that the required public money will be forthcoming.

COVID-19 and privatization

Alarmingly, one possible consequence of COVID-19 may be an increase in privatization in the water sector. Our recent book, co-edited with Daniel Chavez, a fellow at the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, demonstrates how many governments are using the crisis to promote private sector participation in water and sanitation.

This pressure to privatize is particularly notable in places where there was already a push to do so, such as Brazil. In other cases, fiscal strains are pushing authorities to consider privatization, such as in Philadelphia. In Jakarta, COVID-19 has emboldened the state to retract its promise to reverse water privatization.

Some multilateral organizations are also using COVID-19 to promote water privatization. The World Bank has created a “blended financing” program that requires private sector participation before public water operators can receive financial support. UN-Habitat and UNICEF are promoting public-private-partnerships to “engage and empower” small private water vendors.

Ironically, these calls for privatization contradict the warnings of a large group of UN Special Rapporteurs who recently published an op-ed outlining how “COVID-19 has exposed the catastrophic impact of privatizing vital services” like water and sanitation, with private water companies putting profit ahead of basic needs and public health.

Nevertheless, private water companies are also on the offensive. As the CEO of one private equity water company noted in May 2020: “We believe water utilities are amongst the most resilient sectors to an epidemic.… Water consumption is rigid by nature and we think the sector will actually become even more attractive to investors.”

COVID-19 appears to be contributing to a rash of mergers and acquisitions in the sector, further concentrating the power of big multinational water firms. Some analysts are predicting a “complete restructuring of the water industry,” exemplified by one of the most dramatic potential takeovers of the past 50 years: a hostile takeover bid by French water multinational Veolia for rival company Suez.

Another concern is that COVID-19 will deepen the trend towards commercializing public water services, with budget cuts and neoliberal doctrine (such as small government, low corporate tax and deregulation) forcing public water agencies to act like private companies, charging market prices even when households cannot afford to pay. Many public water operators have relaxed these policies during COVID-19, but some have made it clear that market-based pricing will return once the health crisis is over.

In Colombia Empresas Públicas de Medellín introduced emergency measures to make water affordable for the poor during COVID-19, but these are temporary reprieves from market-oriented policies. In Uruguay, reforms introduced during the pandemic have intensified the trend towards the commercialization of their national water utility.

Reclaiming public water

Is this disaster capitalism at work with private business and their state backers pushing aggressively to normalize neoliberal relations and expand profitability in the wake of a crisis? There are certainly signs of it, but it is not a foregone conclusion. With progressive governments, unions, NGOs and community organizations continuing to fight against privatization while at the same time advocating for more progressive forms of public water services.

Our book provides a critical but optimistic overview of these “pro-public” forces, illustrating how public water operators have responded effectively to COVID-19 in the short-term while working towards improved democratic engagement and accountability in the long run.

Examples include free water services for marginalized communities, moratoria on cutoffs, emergency services for vulnerable groups, remote technical support for households, finding ways for low-income communities to participate in decision-making, public education campaigns to assure residents their water and sanitation systems are secure, and child care for front-line workers.

To make this happen, hundreds of thousands of public water employees around the world have worked long hours to keep their systems running, with little in the way of public recognition. Many also engaged in peer-to-peer learning and knowledge sharing, deepening their sense of public purpose and expanding their networks of solidarity.

Hopefully, these examples of positive performance by public water operators will curtail pressures for privatization. They may even contribute to an acceleration of demands for remunicipalization, as cholera outbreaks did during the initial waves of making water services public in the 19th century.

Despite the challenges they continue to face, many public water operators around the world have demonstrated not just the significance of public ownership in times of crisis but the value of public services that are transparent, democratic and oriented towards equity and sustainability. It is essential that we use this opportunity to reclaim and remake public water in the post-pandemic period.The Conversation


David McDonald, Professor, Global Development, Queen's University and Susan Spronk, Associate Professor of International Development and Global Studies, L’Université d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

How to build support for ambitious climate action in four steps

Governments must expand the number of people who see themselves as ‘winners’ in the transition to a low-carbon society.


Wildfire in Portugal threatens a town
A wildfire in Portugal nears a number of homes. (Photo by Michael Held / Unsplash.com) 

Canada and the United States are suddenly steeped in policy proposals to aggressively cut carbon emissions. In the face of a climate emergency and on the heels of numerous climate disasters, this is welcome news indeed.

In the U.S., the newly minted Biden administration has unleashed a series of executive orders to tackle the climate crisis. Canada recently pledged to transition its economy to net-zero by 2050 and released an updated national climate plan. Announcements are easy — now comes the hard work.

The recipe for making headway on this new climate agenda has two key ingredients. Defuse political opposition. Build political support. But it’s not so simple.

The Conversation CanadaUnfortunately, some still believe they can gain politically by opposing climate action with misinformation. Take Texas, for example. The recent climate-related winter storm left millions without power and killed dozens.

Right-wing politicians falsely blamed renewable energy and the Green New Deal. Here’s a fact-check: The Green New Deal hasn’t been passed and freezing natural gas lines contributed most to the collapse of the electricity system.

As politics researchers, we are deeply concerned with the scale of action required to avoid climate collapse. A vital piece of a just transition to a low-carbon society will be to expand the number of people and sectors that see themselves as “winners” in this transition.

A just and socially accepted transition must protect society’s most vulnerable from climate change impacts while simultaneously shielding those whose livelihoods will be disrupted by transformation. A just transition must also diffuse rather than consolidate economic power in the midst of climate action.

Four guiding principles can help build the political support needed to meet North America’s new-found climate ambition.

1. Policy integration

Political opposition to climate action often pits economics against the environment. This false dichotomy ignores how our economic future fundamentally depends on the health of our environment.

But proponents of climate action too often feed into this narrative, engaging in what Jennie C. Stephens, a sustainability science and policy researcher at Northeastern University, calls climate isolationism. They rely on overly narrow, technology-centric solutions.

These approaches often fail to resonate. They don’t connect climate action with the issues that matter the most in peoples’ day-to-day lives: socio-economic well-being, equitable employment opportunities, racial justice, access to safe and secure shelter, child care, improved health, food systems, and transportation.

Enduring, transformative climate action requires integrating social, economic and environmental policies holistically, so that institutions can better serve their citizens. Copenhagen, Denmark, is a model city with a climate plan that integrates climate action, urban investment and job growth to create a liveable sustainable city. This model views climate transformation as a necessary opportunity to improve the lives of Copenhagen residents in multiple ways.

2. Institutional integration

Policy integration means thinking differently about how governments are structured. The Biden administration is starting to orient the U.S. federal government cohesively around climate action. The U.S. now has both domestic and international climate “czars” and is integrating climate change across departments.

Given the scale of transformation necessary to meet the Paris agreement’s goals and commitments, climate action is inherently implicated across government files. It may be better to mainstream climate action throughout the government.

Canada’s recent ministerial mandate letters are an improvement. But furthering comprehensive action means orienting more, if not all, ministries to a just transition. Crucially, the ministries of Indigenous Services, Middle Class and Prosperity and Diversity and Inclusion and Youth lack clear mandates around climate action. Provincial and municipal governments must also adapt to this new policy-making environment.

All policy is climate policy in our climate-constrained world.

3. Beyond technology

Technology and technological innovation will certainly play a sizeable role in the unfolding transformation. But technologies, like carbon capture, biofuels, renewable energy, electric vehicles and smart neighbourhoods are not silver bullets.

Technological innovation must be pursued in ways that engage communities and are geared towards social goals. This can enhance the support necessary for sustaining climate action beyond the introduction of a technology.

One only has to look as far as the Sidewalk Labs debacle in Toronto to see the pitfalls of a strategy that put technology ahead of community needs. This project failed to prioritize community well-being and civic engagement. Instead, Sidewalk Labs proposed corporate control over 190 acres of Toronto’s waterfront and did not plan to adequately protect personal data.

Effectively implementing the new aggressive climate agendas in North America means integrating technological innovation with democratic, inclusive social engagement.

4. Centre justice and equity

Durable climate action fosters comprehensive security and equity for citizens. It allows people to embrace changing and sometimes unpredictable conditions.

COVID-19 has exacerbated socio-economic disparities according to income, gender, race and geography. Canada has joined a number of countries in pledging to “build back better” and support marginalized and underrepresented groups in the context of COVID-19.

This pledge needs to go beyond rhetoric. Policy-makers should acknowledge and address anxieties towards change transparently. The communities that will be most severely affected by climate impacts or from climate action must be supported with concrete resources.

This includes stimulus for low-income families, anti-racism measures, investment in public projects and decent work for those whose livelihoods are most threatened by climate change or transition policies.

Climate ambition in North America is long overdue and welcome. Now, let’s turn that ambition into transformative action. These guidelines can help build the broad-based political support necessary in a climate emergency. That support will flow from individuals and communities imagining and experiencing improved lives through this transition to a low-carbon world.The Conversation


Sarah Sharma is a Vanier Scholar and PhD Candidate in International Relations at the Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, and Matthew Hoffmann is Professor of Political Science and Co-Director Environmental Governance Lab, University of Toronto

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

Polar bears: A sentinel of Arctic environmental change

Queen’s researchers and partners are developing an innovative approach to studying the impact of climate change by monitoring the health and movements of polar bears.

[Photo of polar bears]
Polar bears are the Arctic's apex predators. (Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager / Unsplash)

Queen’s researchers and partners are monitoring the health and movements of polar bears in an innovative approach to studying climate change in the Arctic.

The polar bear is an apex predator whose distribution encompasses a vast area of diverse habitats, spanning land and sea ice. Changes in its lifecycle and population declines are often seen to reflect environmental changes stimulated by shifts in global climate in the Arctic. Monitoring of polar bear activity and health in near-real time is not only necessary to ensure their persistence globally, but it also provides important insights into the state of Arctic ecosystems.

Monitoring and tracking

In 2016, Queen’s researchers Stephen Lougheed (Biology), Peter Van Coeverden de Groot (Biology), and Graham Whitelaw (Environmental Studies), and a host of community, governmental, and university collaborators, received funding from Genome Canada’s Large-Scale Applied Research Project competition and the Ontario Genomics Institute to develop a non-invasive method for tracking polar bear health in the Canadian Arctic. The project, BEARWATCH, uses a combination cutting-edge genomics and Inuit polar bear traditional ecological knowledge (TEK).

Traditionally, monitoring of polar bears has been completed through an aerial censusing of populations at 10- to 15-year intervals. For the past five years, the BEARWATCH team has been investigating a different and complementary approach, where bears can be identified individually using an innovative fecal-based molecular toolkit. A critical piece of the toolkit depends on gut-origin epithelial cells that are shed during defecation and the use of genomics to identify individual bears. Bear scat is then analyzed to obtain information about a bear’s sex, recent diet, chemical exposure, and overall health and wellbeing. This method will enable flexible and verified collection of data in near real-time, allowing for establishment of a clear baseline of Canadian polar bear health and genetic diversity against which future climate change impacts can be measured.

Partnerships for impact

The project originated from long-standing relationships between Queen’s researchers, the community of Gjoa Haven, and the Government of Nunavut. The success of BEARWATCH has built on these relationships with contributions from a more diverse set of stakeholders that span northern communities across the Arctic, Inuit organizations, the governments of Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, and researchers from Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States. 

Given the degree to which Arctic Indigenous peoples are affected by climate change, and the importance of the polar bear in Inuit culture, Dr. Lougheed and his team depend on TEK and insights of local experts for wildlife conservation.

“What has struck me most is the depth and richness of traditional knowledge,” Dr. Lougheed says. “I am in awe of how attuned Northern peoples are to other species and how capable they are at persisting in these challenging environments.”

The project team also works closely with members of the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group (1 CRPG) for navigating the vast Canadian Arctic. 1 CRPG is tasked with maintaining a Canadian Armed Forces' presence in the remote communities of the north. The intimate knowledge of oft-unknown surroundings of the Rangers enables them to provide insights and samples from regions that are distant from northern communities. 1 CRPG previously helped to build research cabins in the environs of Gjoa Haven and has been instrumental in facilitating northern research for BEARWATCH and other important northern scientific work.

“1 CRPG was happy to assist in this research project. Canadian Rangers are members of their local communities and supporting this study will serve to ensure better long-term stewardship of the lands they live in,” says Capt. Chris Newman, 1 CRPG Unit Public Affairs Representative. “As experts of their local areas, being able to impart local knowledge is one of the cornerstones of the Canadian Ranger mandate.”

[Photo on location supplied by Stephen Lougheed]
One of the research cabins built by 1 CRPG in the environs of Gjoa Haven to support northern research for BEARWATCH and other projects. (Photo supplied by Peter van Coeverden de Groot)

Establishing Canadian Leadership in Polar Bear Conservation

BEARWATCH is now in its fifth year and the project toolkit is in its end stages of development and testing. The final version will include a genomics approach called genotyping-in-thousands for identifying individual polar bears from scat alone, as well as DNA metabarcoding for assessing bear diet and methods for gauging contaminant exposure. Preliminary results have indicated that scat-based tracking is effective at distinguishing individual bears from each other and understanding plants and animals consumed by bears and other indicators of health. The next step involves presenting the toolkit to northern communities and governments for feedback and eventual implementation.

This work shows immense promise for establishing Canada as a global leader in polar bear conservation and wildlife management. 

“Canada has about two-thirds of the global polar bear population and is one of only five nations with this iconic species,” Dr. Lougheed points out. "From this vantage alone, Canada is compelled to lead in polar bear protections.”

The success of this toolkit and its implementation may serve as a model for conservation efforts for other wildlife species worldwide.

The researchers are hopeful that polar bear management will become an area of true partnership and shared decision-making with Indigenous peoples, drawing on the strengths and values of both TEK and western science and perhaps taking one small step closer to reconciliation.

The Canadian Senate briefly reached gender parity – here’s why it matters

In December 2020, the Senate became gender-equal, offering up the promise that women's interests will be represented in the upper chamber.

Senate gender parity suggests women are beginning to break through the glass ceiling in Canadian politics. Canada’s Senate chamber is seen in this photo. (Flickr)

At the end of 2020, Canada quietly reached a milestone: our first-ever gender-equal house of Parliament, the Senate.

Sen. Frances Lankin noted in December that there were 47 women and 47 men in the Senate.

The balance shifted back in favour of men following the retirement of Lynn Beyak and the death of Elaine McCoy.

But given the Senate’s institutional structure, the high number of women legislators generally allows for a strong representation of women’s interests in the upper house — which is why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should make strides to return it to gender parity with his next Senate appointments.

In December 2020, Canada was tied with Australia for the second-highest percentage of women legislators in the upper house (with the Caribbean’s Antigua and Barbuda taking the top spot).

In 2019, women made up only 24 per cent of legislators globally. Recently, the Canadian House of Commons reached 100 women MPs for the first time, amounting to 30 per cent female representation.

Prime ministers have long used Senate appointments to make up for the lack of diversity in the House of Commons. The Senate was initially created, in fact, to protect the interests of minority regions. More recently, though, it’s become a chamber where the interests of marginalized groups are protected.

Senators generally speak up for marginalized groups by introducing legislation that protects their interests, and by scrutinizing and amending government legislation. That certainly isn’t always the case — Beyak retired from the Senate earlier this year amid a controversy over her remarks about Indigenous people and residential schools. But it was other senators, including Murray Sinclair and Mary Jane McCallum, who pushed for the departure of the Stephen Harper appointee.

Since the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was introduced in 1982, Canadians have come to see themselves as belonging to groups that stretch across provincial borders. We tend to identify with each other based on our gender, ethnicity and language, and there have been growing calls for our politicians to better represent us in that regard.

The significance of women in the Senate

But why should we care about the gender of our legislators? Don’t we need people best equipped to do the job?

In 1995, political theorist Anne Phillips wrote about “the politics of presence.” She maintains that there is a difference in the lived experiences of men and women, and the representation provided by individuals is influenced by their experiences.

In studies of representation, diversity is increasingly seen as beneficial for the policy-making process. Women senators bring unique viewpoints to the table that will shape legislation and policy in Canada. Gender cannot be the only reason a woman is chosen, but being a woman should not be a barrier due to outdated masculine selection criteria.

Researchers continue to investigate whether women legislators truly represent and look out for women in politics. There is mounting evidence suggesting that the representation of women’s interests is not only about the number of women in a legislature, but also about the presence of legislators who will work to represent women’s policy preferences.

Female politicians are more likely to be the legislators who act on behalf of women, which makes it all the more important that the Senate reaches gender parity again soon.

Men can certainly represent women’s interests, but empirical evidence shows that they usually don’t take up women’s causes on their own initiative. However, research has shown that male legislators’ advocacy of women’s issues increases as the number of women in legislatures grows.

That means that as more women join the Canadian Senate, there will be more opportunities for them to work together as well as collaborating with like-minded male colleagues to advance women’s interests.

Senators have defied government wishes

There’s also hope that senators are in a better position to represent women’s interests than elected legislators in the House of Commons. Evidence from around the world supports the theory that party discipline hinders the promotion and representation of women’s interests.

But party discipline is relatively weak in the Canadian Senate. Senators are appointed, and they don’t have to toe the party line to ensure re-election.

More than half of Canadian senators don’t belong to a national party caucus. That means that in most cases, senators are not subject to party discipline at all. Therefore, they have the freedom to act for other groups seeking representation, including women, and in a non-partisan manner.

We’ve already seen examples of senators thwarting the government’s wishes to protect women’s interests. Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government’s Bill C-43 advanced anti-choice abortion policy in Canada. Famously, the bill died in the Senate after a tie vote in 1991, when multiple Progressive Conservative senators, including three women, voted against the bill.

More recently, in 2017, senators pushed to eliminate sex discrimination in the Indian Act, amending Bill S-3 to do so. While the initial amendment was rejected by the government, senators’ efforts led it to reconsider its policy and ultimately include their changes.

There is already some evidence of heightened feminist activity in the Canadian Senate as the number of women senators rises. Through interviews with senators in 2019, I unearthed a network of feminist legislators forming among newly appointed women senators.

Given the important role played by women senators, it’s imperative that gender parity in the Senate is restored. Trudeau’s next Senate appointments will be ones to watch. It will be increasingly important to look for indicators that our senators are representing otherwise marginalized groups.The Conversation


Elizabeth McCallion, PhD Candidate, Political Studies, Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

Canada Foundation for Innovation funds Queen’s researchers in their pursuits of exploration and discovery

More than $10 million has been secured by Queen’s researchers for infrastructure that will help to combat climate change, treat cancer, and understand the fabric of the universe.

The federal government is continuing its investment in Canada’s research infrastructure with the announcement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of $518 million in support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) Innovation Fund. Two projects led by Queen’s researchers have received close to $10 million to significantly advance their research. Queen’s is also a collaborator on a third project, led by Carleton University.

CFI’s Innovation Fund 2020 competition was designed to provide strategic investments in research infrastructure, from supporting fundamental research to technology development. With a look towards a post-pandemic future, the federal government through the CFI was focused on supporting research that would build a healthier, greener, and more economically robust society while continuing to pursue exploration and discovery.

“This support will allow Queen’s to build on exceptional international strengths and have a direct impact on how we live and understand the world around us," says Kimberly Woodhouse, Vice Principal (Research). “Thank you to the Government of Canada for investing in the tools that advance research.”

ExCELLirate Canada

The Canadian Cancer Trials Group (CCTG) and Queen’s researcher Annette Hay (Medicine) and Jonathan Bramson, of McMaster University, have received CFI support of more than $5 million for their project to develop a national cellular therapy translational research platform, the first of its kind globally. ExCELLirate Canada: Expanding CELL-based Immunotherapy Research Acceleration for Translation and Evaluation is a collaboration between Queen’s, McMaster University, University of Calgary, University of Ottawa, Université de Montréal, and Canadian Blood Services. CFI funds will support research activities from novel cell therapy development to point-of-care cell manufacturing and multi-centre clinical trial testing for cancer treatment. This project aims to develop cell therapies as safe and viable treatment options through identifying biological mechanisms affecting safety and designing cost-effective methods for the harvest, expansion, manipulation, purification, and delivery of the cells.

[Photo of an immunofluorescence stain]
Art of Research PhotoImmunofluorescence Stain by Shakeel Virk and Lee Boudreau, CCTG Tissue Bank


Queen’s civil engineering researchers Andy Take, Canada Research Chair in Geotechnical Engineering, and Ian Moore, Canada Research Chair in Infrastructure Engineering, are aiming to improve the future resiliency of Canada’s civil engineering infrastructure in the face of climate change with their project CASTLE. The Climate Adaptive infraStructure Testing and Longevity Evaluation (CASTLE) Innovation Cluster is a collaboration between Queen’s and the Royal Military College of Canada, which received close to $4.5 million in funding from CFI. As Canada’s landmass spans diverse geographic regions, current and future infrastructure must be made resilient against the unique impacts of climate change affecting remote northern regions to southern urban centres. The objectives for CASTLE are to improve storage of mine waste, ensure safety and improve resilience of transportation infrastructure, such as roads, railways, and pipes, and coastal defense structures, as well as ports and harbours, against the direct and triggered geotechnical hazards of climate change.

[Photo of a light tunnel]
Art of Research PhotoA New Light by Robert Cichocki, GeoEngineering Lab

Dark Matter Detector

In furthering Canada’s leadership in the field of dark matter, Queen’s is a collaborator on a project to develop the next generation liquid argon dark matter detector and an underground argon storage facility at SNOLAB. Understanding the nature of dark matter, which makes up 85 per cent of the universe, is one of science’s unsolved mysteries. This project will include upgrades to the DEAP-3600 experiment, contributions to the Darkside-20k experiment, and the development of the ultimate ARGO detector at SNOLAB. By enabling further scientific discovery at SNOLAB, the location where Queen’s researcher Arthur McDonald conducted his Nobel Prize winning research, this project has the potential to develop technical and commercial innovations in digital light sensors and offer training opportunities to junior researchers and students.

For more information on projects funded through the Innovation Fund 2020, visit the CFI website

The art of dark matter

A new exhibition and residency project, generated by Agnes Etherington Art Centre, the McDonald Institute, and SNOLAB, brings together artists and scientists in the quest to understand dark matter.

In the 1930s, researchers first proposed the seemingly impossible concept of dark matter, the “glue” that holds the universe together. Dark matter is made up of material that does not emit light or energy, making it invisible. Even though about 80 per cent of the matter in the universe is composed of this indiscernible substance, we barely understand how it behaves or influences other entities.

The mysteries of dark matter are being unlocked by scientists and engineers at the Arthur B. McDonald Canadian Astroparticle Physics Research Institute at Queen’s University and SNOLAB, located in an active nickel mine two kilometres below the surface, near Sudbury. This work has inspired a new collaboration with Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

  • Artist Nadia Lichtig photographing the drift entrance to SNOLAB. Photo: Zac Kenny
    Artist Nadia Lichtig photographing the drift entrance to SNOLAB. Photo: Zac Kenny
  • Artist Jol Thomson documents researchers working on CUTE (a Cryogenic Underground Test Facility) at SNOLAB. Photo: Gerry Kingsley
    Artist Jol Thomson documents researchers working on CUTE (a Cryogenic Underground Test Facility) at SNOLAB. Photo: Gerry Kingsley
  • Artist Josèfa Ntjam and SNOLAB staff scientist Dimpal Chauhan discuss ancient water. Photo: Zac Kenny
    Artist Josèfa Ntjam and SNOLAB staff scientist Dimpal Chauhan discuss ancient water. Photo: Zac Kenny

To explore the “known unknown” from different angles and demonstrate the interrelatedness of science and art, McDonald Institute, SNOLAB, and Agnes launched a residency and exhibition project, called Drift: Art and Dark Matter. Drift, an ode to the mining term for a horizontal tunnel, collaborated with four nationally- and internationally-acclaimed artists, Nadia Lichtig, Josèfa Ntjam, Anne Riley, and Jol Thoms, to partner with Queen’s and SNOLAB researchers searching for dark matter and create unique pieces inspired by these exchanges.

The first stage of the residency took place in July and October 2019. It involved two extended site visits, at Queen’s and at SNOLAB, during which the artists, scientists, and staff participated in presentations, hands-on research experiments, and field trips. The visits provided ample opportunity for Lichtig, Ntjam, Riley, and Thoms to connect with world-renowned physicists, chemists, engineers, and other scholars, including Dr. Arthur B. McDonald, co-recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics. Discussions ranged from the basics of dark matter and neutrino physics to articulations of racialized, Indigenous, and entangled identity, prioritizing mutual exchange of knowledge and insights. The subsequent months of the residency were focused on digital discussion among collaborators and home studio production for artists.   

Josèfa Ntjam, Luciferin Drop, 2020, glass, metal, ABS filament and luminescent liquid and Myceaqua Vitae, 2020, video with sound. Collection of the artist. Installation view from Drift: Art and Dark Matter. Photo: Tim Forbes
Josèfa Ntjam, Luciferin Drop, 2020, glass, metal, ABS filament and luminescent liquid and Myceaqua Vitae, 2020, video with sound. Collection of the artist. Installation view from Drift: Art and Dark Matter. Photo: Tim Forbes

“The experience was unique for several reasons. Firstly, I was able to travel to Canada and then go two kilometres underground, together with the miners. Then the fact I was able to visit the research facilities and speak with the researchers, and later able to deepen the discussions with the researchers invited in the context of the residency,” says Nadia Lichtig, one of Drifts artists-in-residence. “The whole experience was very inspiring.” 

Drift successfully opened dialogue between artists and physicists, revealing shared values, goals, and habits and highlighting new perspectives and comprehensions of advanced scientific theories being explored and developed nationwide. The residency culminated in several artworks – installation, sculpture, textile, and video – that offer a multisensory experience of dark matter science and the “how” and “why” of that which cannot be sensed directly.

Jol Thoms, Orthomorph (Tunneling), 2020, digital print. Courtesy of the artist.
Jol Thoms, Orthomorph (Tunneling), 2020, digital print. Courtesy of the artist.

“From a curator’s perspective, I believe we have reached a historical moment when the modes and motivations of producing culture need to be reconsidered, and with this project, we’re participating in a broader movement of artists and institutions making forays to explore much wider contexts and different constructions of knowledge,” says Sunny Kerr, Curator of Drift and Contemporary Art at Agnes. “This exhibition is a crucial step at the beginning of longer conversations between art and science.”

For those interested in experiencing the exhibition in person, it is on view at the Agnes until May 30, 2021. It will then tour across Canada to galleries with McDonald Institute and SNOLAB affiliations in Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, and Sudbury. 

Nadia Lichtig, Blank Spots, 2021–ongoing, frottage on canvas, theatre lights, sound. Collection of the artist. Installation view from Drift: Art and Dark Matter. Photo: Tim Forbes
Nadia Lichtig, Blank Spots, 2021–ongoing, frottage on canvas, theatre lights, sound. Collection of the artist. Installation view from Drift: Art and Dark Matter. Photo: Tim Forbes

Drift: Art and Dark Matter also takes the form of an online exhibition that can be found on Digital AGNES. The digital exhibition showcases the meeting of theories and voices that informed this exciting transdisciplinary residency and features behind-the-scenes videos, interviews, and interactive activities.

Agnes is open: Agnes reopened its doors to the public on Feb. 20. In addition to Drift, visitors can experience two other exhibitions, From the vibe out: Neven Lochhead and Radicals and Revolutionaries: Artists of Atelier 17, 1960s as part of the Agnes’ current season offerings.

Josèfa Ntjam, Organic Nebula (detail), 2019, carpet, photomontage. Collection of the artist.
Josèfa Ntjam, Organic Nebula (detail), 2019, carpet, photomontage. Collection of the artist.


IGnite Virtual set for March 4

The IGnite series, hosted by the McDonald Institute and Queen’s University Relations, is returning virtually for 2021. The free online forum showcases stories of discovery from researchers at Queen’s University. Speaker presentations are engaging and geared toward a wide variety of audiences, making IGnite accessible for anyone who is interested in attending.  

The next installment, IGnite Virtual, will be held on Thursday, March 4, 7-8:45 pm on YouTube. Panelists include astroparticle physicist Nahee Park (Physics, Engineering Physics, and Astronomy) and her former student, Emma Ellingwood, who will discuss their work on high energy cosmic accelerators. Biomechanical engineers Kevin Deluzio (also Dean of the Engineering and Applied Science) and Elise Laende, postdoctoral fellow with Mechanical and Materials Engineering, will share their research on motion capture and understanding how people move through time and space. The event will feature behind-the-scenes science tours and an audience question and answer period.

IGnite Virtual is open to all and no registration is required to view the YouTube livestream

To learn more, visit the McDonald Institute website.

[Promotional Graphic: IGnite Virtual - March 4 7 - 8:45 PM EST Streamed on YouTube]


COVID-19 leaves youth forced out of foster care even more vulnerable

The Conversation: The Ontario provincial government announced a moratorium on ending foster care at age 18 during the coronavirus pandemic, but this is due to end on March 31.

A homeless youth holds their head while sitting on the ground.
Once they turn 18, youth in foster care are required to fend for themselves. This includes finding shelter and services. (Shutterstock)

During the pandemic, Canadians have been asked to stay home to stay safe, yet thousands of youth are facing homelessness. Each year in Ontario, 800-1,000 youth age out of the child welfare system.

For most of these young people, turning 18 coincides with an abrupt withdrawal of their social supports as they simultaneously have to secure affordable housing, manage finances and finish high school.

Youth exiting the child welfare system are significantly less prepared to face these challenges than their peers, and many fare poorly. In Ontario, 58 per cent of these youth experience homelessness, 46 per cent report coming into conflict with the law and only 44 per cent of youth exiting the system graduate from high school.

In the early months of the pandemic, the Ontario Children’s Advancement Coalition (OCAC) and allied partners lobbied the Ontario government to stop the practice requiring youth to leave their care placements when they turn 18. In June 2020, the Ontario government placed a moratorium on this policy until March 31, 2021. Yet the pandemic continues and the clock is running out.

We research policy and work with youth and adults who are ensnared in the Canadian criminal justice system — many of whom have had contact with the child welfare system.

Challenging conditions in state care

Children who are deemed by child protective services (CPS) as experiencing abuse or neglect may be removed from their caregivers and placed under the guardianship of the state. Based on 2011 census data, there are 11,375 children in the child welfare system in Ontario. Black and Indigenous children are highly represented, with Indigenous children comprising 30 per cent of kids in care in Ontario.

Many children and youth under state guardianship report moving among multiple homes and sometimes cities. Youth reported to us that they can count on having at least one move for every year that they’re in the child welfare system, and some move multiple times in a year. Frequent moves can disrupt education, resulting in low rates of high school completion. Youth who don’t complete high school face challenges and are more likely to experience poverty and rely on government assistance.

This instability can create low levels of attachment, trust and relationship-building. Many youth contend with mental-health challenges, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, that have an impact on their mental, emotional, social, spiritual, physical and occupational wellness and development. It’s unsurprising that many youth describe feeling vulnerable and angry in these circumstances. Often youth are labelled oppositional and criminalized due to the way they behave, but this is in response to trauma and their circumstances.

From a youth we interviewed:

“[Being in the child welfare system] really changed my character. It really just changed who I was as a person.… I’ve been in [at least] 20 different places and you know, it’s just so much [stuff]. And that’s the thing. Like all this stuff, people don’t realize … for somebody like me, I’ve been so thrown around, like [basically] tossed around, like here, there, everywhere.”

Emerging adulthood

When youth under guardianship of the state turn 18, they are required to leave their foster care or group home placements. Some young people may continue to receive financial support after they turn 18 through the Continued Care and Support for Youth (CCYS) program. This financial support stops abruptly when they turn 21.

Psychologist Jeffrey Arnette’s theory of emerging adulthood recognizes a period of prolonged transition between late adolescence and fully independent adulthood. Emerging adulthood helps to explain shifting societal trends in recent decades.

Many emerging adults rely on their families for financial, housing and social support longer than in the past, often well into their 20s. More young people seek post-secondary education, face higher rates of unemployment and rising housing costs, and marry and have children at a later age, on average.

Despite these broader societal trends, currently youth in the child welfare system are required to leave their placements when they turn 18. While other young adults are able to gradually transition to independent adulthood, young people leaving care are abruptly forced into adulthood.

When asked how prepared they were for “independence,” one young person shared: “We all got like a Tupperware container, or a tub full of pots and pans and dishes and stuff like that. But yeah, there wasn’t really any preparation.”

Another added: “I just had to learn how to be a human on my own. Like, I had to learn everything that like a mom or like a parent or guardian is supposed to teach a kid from young.”

After the moratorium

Once the moratorium lifts on March 31, 2021, there will be a flood of young people leaving their homes and heading into a decimated housing and employment market.

Heather O'Keefe, executive director at StepStones for Youth, says:

“The devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have created further vulnerability for youth from the child welfare system with the lack of safe housing options, the loss of jobs, the inability to make rental payments and purchase essential items, and increased isolation and seclusion. The toll on the mental health of these youth has been exacerbated with the closure of libraries and schools, reduced services for people living in poverty, fewer opportunities to meet with counsellors and psychotherapists in person, and increased anxiety and suicide ideation.”

Our work with these young people underscores that the moratorium should be extended indefinitely. Rather than maintaining arbitrary age cut-offs for support, the provincial government should implement a readiness model.

This approach would work with every young person from the minute they enter the child welfare system to encourage better outcomes once they decide they are ready to be fully independent rather than being forced to leave care once they turn 18.

Youth leaving state guardianship have always been vulnerable. And with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, youth aging out of care will be in a much more vulnerable position, with potentially more severe impacts.

Cheyanne Ratnam co-authored this article. Cheyanne is the co-founder and executive lead of the OCAC, and an expert in the area of child welfare, homelessness and interconnected systems. Cheyanne also grew up in the child welfare system, experienced youth homelessness and was briefly engaged with the youth justice system.The Conversation


Marsha Rampersaud, PhD Candidate, Sociology, Queen's University and Linda Mussell, PhD Candidate, Political Studies, Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

Exploring the future of Blackness

CBC's 21 Black Futures features film by Queen’s assistant professor that imagines a future in which calling the police is not the only option in an emergency.

The Witness Shift film team: Actor Uche Ama, playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, and director Sarah Waisvisz
Queen's assistant professor Sarah Waisvisz directs actor Uche Ama in film adaptation of Donna-Michelle St. Bernard's play Witness Shift for CBC and Obsidian Theatre's 21 Black Futures. (Supplied photo).

Over the past year, shocking killings by law enforcement and waves of activism sparked a mainstream discussion about ‘defunding the police’. At its core, the concept asks us to imagine if calling the police weren’t the only option during a crisis – an idea explored in a new short film called Witness Shift, directed by Queen’s assistant professor Sarah Waisvisz for Obsidian Theatre and CBC’s 21 Black Futures.

The 21 Black Futures is a theatre-film anthology project that united 21 Black directors with 21 Black playwrights, and 21 Black actors to create 21 monodramas exploring the question: What is the future of Blackness?

“This project was so life-giving,” says Dr. Waisvisz, whose scholarly work has explored Afro-Caribbean traditions, community, ritual, and storytelling. “I can’t tell you how amazing it was to work on something in the company of so many Black and BIPOC creators all committed to the same vision of honouring and uplifting the Black-Canadian experience.”

Her film, written by acclaimed Canadian playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, stars Uche Ama as a senior emergency services dispatcher – called a Witness – as they train a new recruit on how to respond to emergency calls. Ama’s character fields calls from people experiencing a range of problems – anything from a request for protection to a lost dog or mental health distress – dispatching social workers, therapists, activists, or community supports as each situation demands.

“Isn’t there another way to serve and protect our communities so we can meet the needs of the most vulnerable?” reads Dr. Waisvisz’s director’s note on the CBC website. “This play offers us a model to explore the steps we need to take to transform our society so each of us can truly be seen in our full humanity.”

Dr. Waisvisz also directed the entire film via video call – an experience akin to her new role as a faculty member of the Dan School of Drama and Music.

“I am thrilled to be part of a dynamic department and to teach inspiring students, but of course being a pandemic-year new faculty member means my life is all Zoom, all the time,” says Dr. Waisvisz, who joined Queen’s in July 2020. “I am amazed though by how much intimacy is nevertheless possible through video call if trust is built and nurtured – whether it be with actors or students. It’s not simple, but I’m so glad to be able to create meaningful work and engage meaningfully with my students even from afar.”

In addition to her position at Queen’s, Dr. Waisvisz is an accomplished playwright and performer. She continues to tour her solo show Monstrous about mixed-race identity, and her play Heartlines, about fighting white-supremacy and fascism, opened at Ottawa’s Undercurrents Festival to sold-out audiences.

You can view Dr. Waisvisz’s film Witness Shift on CBC Gem as well as the entire 21 Black Futures project.


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