VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – Birds wearing backpacks trace a path to conservation

Samantha Knight, University of Guelph and Ryan Norris, University of Guelph

With the arrival of spring, we look forward to the return of hundreds of species of migratory songbirds from their wintering grounds.

Sparrows, swallows, warblers and thrushes, among other songbirds, will be returning from their wintering sites anywhere between the southern United States and distant South America.

Some of these birds will return with a small “backpack” that has recorded their entire migration from their North American breeding grounds to their wintering grounds and back.

Birds provide important ecosystem services, such as preying on insects, dispersing seeds, scavenging carcasses and pollinating plants. Unfortunately, there have been dramatic declines in many migratory songbirds over the past few decades, with some of these populations dropping by more than 80 per cent.

If we are to find ways to slow or reverse these declines, we must first figure out what’s causing them. Climate change, habitat loss and predation by cats are among the leading causes of bird declines.

But with the vast distances these birds move over the course of the year, it can be difficult to pinpoint the main cause for a given species — and where it’s occurring.

Migratory connections

To answer this question, we need to know where individual birds spend their time throughout the year.

We have a good idea of the range — or the total area — the birds occupy during the breeding and wintering periods. But ranges are composed of many populations, and we still have a very poor understanding of how individuals within each of these populations are connected between seasons.

Individuals from different breeding populations may remain segregated during the winter. For example, some ovenbirds winter in the Caribbean whereas others spend their winters in Mexico and Central America.

Or a bird may mix with individuals that originate from other breeding populations, such as bobolinks that mix in South America during the winter.

These patterns of migratory connectivity have critical implications for predicting how migratory songbirds will respond to environmental change.

Habitat loss — deforestation, for example — in one place can have different effects. If habitat loss occurs in a wintering area where breeding populations mix, it may have wide-ranging, yet diffuse, effects on the breeding populations. But if the habitat loss occurs in a wintering area that is occupied by a single breeding population, the effect may be more focused.

For example, habitat loss in South America will likely have range-wide effects on bobolinks, while habitat loss in the Caribbean may only influence a portion of the breeding populations of ovenbirds.

Backpacks for birds

We know that the breeding and wintering populations of most species mix to some extent, but we don’t know by how much or where in the range that occurs. By understanding the migratory network, we can predict how populations across the range will respond to future changes in the environment.

How do we determine where particular individuals go? This is where the tracking “backpacks” come in handy.

These devices, known as “archival light-level geolocators,” weigh less than one gram and are small enough to be carried by songbirds.

A geolocator fitted onto the back of a tree swallow, using a harness that loops around the bird’s legs.
Dayna LeClair

Geolocators record ambient light levels every few minutes while in use. We can then use the geographic variation in sunrise and sunset times as well as day length to locate the individual bird.

We can figure out the bird’s longitude — its east-west position — by comparing solar noon, the midway point between sunrise and sunset, with the time of day (using Greenwich Mean Time). We calculate its latitude — its north-south position — from day length.

Each backpack provides a year’s worth of daily light levels, and a glimpse into one bird’s annual journey.

Tracking tree swallows

In 2011, we began deploying geolocators on tree swallows at 12 sites across their breeding range, from Alaska to Nova Scotia and North Carolina.

These iridescent blue birds with bright white bellies can be seen foraging for flying insects in marshes and fields across Canada and the United States in the spring and early summer. Like many migratory songbirds, tree swallows are experiencing population declines in parts of their breeding range. It is unclear what is driving these declines, however they coincide with declines in several species of birds that also feed on aerial insects.

By 2015, our team, comprising 27 collaborators, had retrieved more than 140 of these devices. We tracked these birds from the breeding sites to their wintering grounds in Mexico, Central America, Florida and the Caribbean.

With this information, we developed the most comprehensive songbird migration map to date. We found evidence for a high degree of mixing within three distinct migratory flyways between the breeding and wintering grounds of tree swallows.

The tree swallow migratory network.
Norris Lab

The tree swallow network

When we analyzed the network, we discovered that tree swallows migrated between their breeding and wintering grounds using three distinct migratory flyways: West of the Rocky Mountains, down the Mississippi River valley and along the Atlantic coast. Breeding populations within these flyways mixed extensively with one another at migration stopover and wintering regions.

We identified important regions within these flyways, such as areas in Florida, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Dakota and the U.S. Midwest, where tree swallows from many different breeding populations congregate. Such areas appear as critical connections within the whole network.

Now that we know more about the connections between breeding and wintering tree swallow populations, we can use this information to investigate threats to declining populations across their range. For example, using chemical markers, range-wide connectivity has been described in eastern North American monarch butterflies and then used to identify the primary threats in this declining population.

The ConversationThis spring, as the migratory songbirds return, take a moment to think about the amazing journey these birds have taken since last autumn — while wearing their backpacks.

Samantha Knight, Lab manager and researcher, University of Guelph and Ryan Norris, Associate Professor, Member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists, University of Guelph

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.

VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – How the hard work of wild animals benefits us too

Kendra Coulter, Brock University

Like other nature lovers and rural residents, I have been marvelling at the many animal courtships and other mating preparations that accompany the arrival of spring in the Northern Hemisphere.

The brilliant-red male cardinals who seek out the best seeds and then tenderly feed their female mates, beak-to-beak. The robins who dutifully solicit and assess building supplies as they carefully construct their nests. The squirrels who remember which nuts have been buried where — and whose organizational skills rival the best administrative assistants.

A red squirrel is seen in this photo nibbling on a nut. With spring upon us in the Northern Hemisphere, watching wild animals hard at work is a reminder of how we benefit from their labour.
(Shutterstock)

Along with my endless delight in watching chipmunks stuffing their cheeks to refill their networks of food burrows, as a labour studies scholar, I also recognize that these dynamics are examples of work.

Wild animals work. They work hard.

The idea of work still tends to evoke particular images of manual and blue-collar jobs, but the realities of people’s livelihoods have always been and continue to be much more diverse. This is true for people and animals alike.

Daily life for wild animals involves an elaborate and constant series of tasks and challenges.

Subsistence work

Finding food and water. Locating appropriate shelter and protection from the elements, in all seasons. Trying to avoid predators, including humans, our vehicles and our weapons. Navigating landscapes that change dramatically and become even more dangerous with every new road, building and pipeline, not to mention the droughts, floods and other weather events that result from climate change.

Raccoons and other animals have to negotiate a number of man-made issues as they seek out food and shelter.
Erwan Hesr/Unsplash

This is subsistence work. This is the work wild animals do to survive.

The dynamics become even more challenging when you add reproduction to the mix. Whether guarding a nest of chicks or a den of cubs, animal parents must be vigilant and highly attuned to myriad sights and sounds. The young must be guarded, fed, comforted and taught.

Young animals are not only taught to survive, they are also taught how to thrive and negotiate the social realities of their species, and often their particular community. This includes the need to understand relationships, social expectations, hierarchies and ways of communicating. This is care work.

Every animal mother is a working mother

The slogan “every mother is a working mother” was coined by feminists who wanted to draw attention to essential, and often overlooked and devalued, unpaid domestic labour.

Feminist political economists now use the term social reproduction to highlight the countless daily tasks carried out in homes and families, predominantly by women. These tasks ensure the maintenance of whole generations of people — and subsidize every society and economy.

I argue that animals also engage in social reproduction.

Biological reproduction is just the beginning. The effect of animals’ subsistence and care work is the social reproduction of their young, their group and their species.

In fact, I suggest we recognize that wild animals are also integral to what I call eco-social reproduction: The subsistence and care work they do contributes to the maintenance of ecosystems.

For example, the World Wildlife Fund points out:

In tropical forests, elephants create clearings and gaps in the canopy that encourage tree regeneration. In the savannas, they reduce bush cover to create an environment favourable to a mix of browsing and grazing animals. The seeds of many plant species are dependent on passing through an elephant’s digestive tract before they can germinate. It is calculated that at least a third of tree species in central African forests rely on elephants in this way for distribution of seeds.

In other words, the subsistence and care work elephants do daily in order to survive and raise their young also benefits other species and their ecosystem: It’s a process of eco-social reproduction.

A least a third of tree species in Africa are thought to rely on elephants for distributing seeds.
Harshil Gudka/Unsplash

Creatures great and small contribute to eco-social reproduction through their daily labour. Those chubby-cheeked squirrels and chipmunks? They are also invaluable seed-dispersers.

And humans are directly affected, most obviously by bees and other pollinators whose daily subsistence labour pollinates about a third of our food crops.

Thinking about wild animals and their actions in this way offers a different perspective on our multi-species communities. If a raccoon leaves a messy mural of orange peels and tea bags on your driveway, you could pause and recognize that she or he is, like you, working to survive and care for loved ones, and perhaps feel some empathy alongside the irritation.

Start seeing animals differently

Animals’ dietary choices also result from need rather than greed and, unlike ours, are not fuelling climate change.

Recognizing the complexity of the lives of the other species with whom we share this planet can also be part of expanding our webs of compassion and solidarity.

We should broaden our intellectual horizons by integrating Indigenous ways of knowing, the social sciences and scientific approaches, as we pursue deeper knowledge, and, most importantly, more ethical action, including in political and economic arenas.

We have many opportunities to see animals differently and more carefully.

There is an axiom that often circulates about the behaviour of Homo Sapiens: “Humans: We’re not the only species, we just act like it.” Let’s not.The Conversation

Kendra Coulter, Associate Professor in Labour Studies and Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence; Member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists, Brock University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.

VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – Ego is the Enemy, especially for Academics

by Madhukar Pai

To accomplish the world-changing work we set out to achieve as academics, we need to get our egos under control

“Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, your worst enemy already lives inside you: your ego” – Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” is an old saying attributed to Buddha. I just finished reading a book, Ego is the Enemy, that I wish I had read at the start of my academic career. But, it is still not too late for me, as I still have a fair bit of my academic career ahead of me. I can change and get better.

As I read the book, authored by Ryan Holiday, I could not help but reflect on the critical importance of the subject for academics like me. Let’s face it. Academics, like all people, have egos. While I have no data to prove this, I suspect egos of academics are probably bigger than folks in other professions! We die to see our names in print, we fight for credit, awards and funding, we like being called ‘experts’, we ‘profess’ whenever we get an audience, we brag about our H-index and the size of our research labs, we feel validated when others cite or use our research work, and we are gutted when our research is scooped.

These traits, I guess, are ‘naturally selected’ to help us get into and thrive in the competitive academic world we live in. But there comes a time in an academic’s life when the ego might threaten to get out of control. The runaway ego can then become an impediment to the academic’s continued growth and impact. Ego becomes the enemy of success. Holiday’s book provides a stunning array of examples, from all walks of life. Holiday himself is a case study in his book.

 

Everyone has seen the destructive power of monstrous academic egos – every department in every university can recount tales of legendary ego battles between academics. In fact, departments have been fractured into warring ‘clans’ because of such ego battles! Promising academic careers have ended because of ego clashes. Students’ lives have been devastated by the inability of academics to work together. Outstanding science has never seen the light of the day, because researchers could not agree on authorship, or put science higher than their quest for glory and credit.

Given the importance of this topic, you would think that universities would routinely offer workshops to their faculty on “how to conquer their egos.” Holiday’s book, in fact, could form the core of such a course. Sadly, I have not heard of any such offerings in academic circles.

All of us need to learn strategies and tactics that help us conquer our egos. A good place to begin is with a screening test. Can we use warning signs to detect an over-inflated ego? A positive screening test might help in designing strategies to conquer the ‘enemy within.’ So, here is my initial stab at a list of 12 important warning signs.

Our academic egos are probably spiralling out of control, when we:

  1. stop reading and learning from other’s research
  2. stop seeking input from colleagues and students
  3. can’t tolerate criticism of our research, or take scientific criticism as personal attacks
  4. stop citing others and make our papers mostly about our own work
  5. no longer take the time to meet students and junior colleagues who want advice
  6. attend conferences only when we have a speaking role; or sulk when a meeting is held in our area of expertise and we are not invited
  7. write a negative peer review or tend to reject manuscripts as editor, when our work is not cited
  8. expect all our grants to get funded and all our manuscripts to get accepted; if they don’t, we tend to appeal reject decisions
  9. expect to be a first or senior author on all papers
  10. sulk when we are overlooked for awards and prizes
  11. offer expert opinions on all topics, even topics we have little expertise in
  12. are unable to retire from academia at the appropriate time (i.e. cannot quit when we are ahead); and/or not able to recruit and mentor junior colleagues to take over after us (i.e. no succession planning)

So, what can we do, if the above screening test suggests a problem? I am positive on some of the indicators on this test, and I suppose that is what made me read the book in the first place (I was ‘ready for it’!). Self awareness, by itself, is a step in the right direction, says Holiday. Sobriety, open-mindedness, organization, and purpose – these are other stabilizers that can counter the ego. The long-term goal, Holiday adds, is to become humble in our aspirations; gracious in our success and resilient in our failures.

There are many tactics in his book that we can deploy against the darkness of ego:

  1. Find a way to always stay a student
  2. Find a larger purpose and work towards that
  3. Build and work in a larger team where collaboration, not competition, is the culture
  4. Find mentors and colleagues who can critique our work and keep us grounded and sober
  5. Look for role models that we can observe and learn from

Stay a student: In academia, we constantly seek to become ‘experts’ in our narrow field (and we get promoted precisely for this reason). This can, over time, make us resistant to learning, especially if we stick within our narrow field where everyone is aware of our work and our colleagues expect us to come up with good ideas all the time. The more we think we know, the less open we become to learning.

Recently, I attended a conference that was not in my area of research. I was not an ‘expert’ and hardly knew anyone at the meeting. I was an anonymous student again and found myself enjoying all the workshops and sessions. Each of us needs to find a way to ‘retool’ and learn new things during our academic career (this may well be the original rationale for sabbatical leave).

New research collaborations and interdisciplinary projects might be another great strategy for staying a student. Over the past 3 years, I am working closely with a large, interdisciplinary team that includes economists, anthropologists, and researchers who are not in my field. I am learning so much from all of them, and thoroughly enjoying myself at the same time. Further, this collaboration has resulted in several publications, and opened a whole new stream of research activity.

Find a larger purpose: If publishing more and more papers, and bringing in more and more research dollars is our raison d’etre for being in academia, then our egos have plenty to gorge on. What if we had a bigger purpose? When we have a bigger vision, then it should matter less if we are first or second authors, or that our colleagues won the grant that we hoped to get.

In my field, we are hoping to end tuberculosis by 2035. I am naturally drawn toward this larger goal. At the very least, I want to see a visible improvement in the TB problem in India, the country where I do most of my TB work. This bigger purpose of bending the arc of the TB epidemic now permeates my research team, and I can see it have a positive impact on all my staff and students. Yes, we want to do good science, publish papers, and win awards, but beyond all that, we know we have a bigger mission to serve.

We are also aware that we are cogs in a much bigger wheel, and that real reduction in the TB epidemic will require us to be aligned with thousands of others working in TB. So, we collaborate with a number of people, agencies, and TB groups.

Seek/build a culture of collaboration, not competition: Competition can be healthy, but also destructive. In particular, competition within a department or research unit can be really bad for creating a culture of learning, sharing, and caring.

I am fortunate to work in a TB Centre that is collegial, helpful, and humble (which comes naturally to Canadians!). There is little competition within the Centre, and resources are freely shared. In fact, this is one of the main reasons for me taking up a faculty position at my university. Having seen the benefits of this, I reinforce the same values within my own research lab – everyone is encouraged to collaborate, but not compete. In this environment, it is not easy for the ego to run wild. My students and research staff often tell me that they love the culture of collaboration. Liberated from the stress of competition, they can focus on research and be more productive. And by helping each other, I think they are publishing more than they would, if they worked alone.

Learn from mentors and role models: We can learn a lot by observing role models – academics who achieve greatness, and yet remain grounded and humble, and from researchers who can put their higher goals above their desire for recognition and praise. Undeniably, every school has such academics, and I have been lucky to observe and learn from a few myself. I have also worked with some impressive colleagues who gladly take themselves away from the limelight, to make sure the bigger goal is achieved.

The battle against ego must be fought on many fronts, and daily. All of us need to work towards a place where, to paraphrase Holiday, we think less of ourselves, and be less invested in the story we like to tell about our own specialness. As a result, Holiday says, we will be liberated to accomplish the world-changing work we set out to achieve (as academics).

This article was originally published by Nature Research Microbiology Community.


“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.

VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – Hope and mourning in the Anthropocene: Understanding ecological grief

Neville Ellis, University of Western Australia and Ashlee Cunsolo, Memorial University of Newfoundland

We are living in a time of extraordinary ecological loss. Not only are human actions destabilising the very conditions that sustain life, but it is also increasingly clear that we are pushing the Earth into an entirely new geological era, often described as the Anthropocene.

Research shows that people increasingly feel the effects of these planetary changes and associated ecological losses in their daily lives, and that these changes present significant direct and indirect threats to mental health and well-being. Climate change, and the associated impacts to land and environment, for example, have recently been linked to a range of negative mental health impacts, including depression, suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress, as well as feelings of anger, hopelessness, distress, and despair.

Not well represented in the literature, however, is an emotional response we term ‘ecological grief,’ which we have defined in a recent Nature Climate Change article: “The grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change.”

We believe ecological grief is a natural, though overlooked, response to ecological loss, and one that is likely to affect more of us into the future.

Understanding ecological grief

Grief takes many forms and differs greatly between individuals and cultures. Although grief is well understood in relation to human losses, ‘to grieve’ is rarely considered something that we do in relation to losses in the natural world.

The eminent American naturalist Aldo Leopold was among the first to describe the emotional toll of ecological loss in his 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac: “One of the penalties of an ecological education,” he wrote, “is to live alone in a world of wounds.”

More recently, many respected ecologists and climate scientists have expressed their feelings of grief and distress in response to climate change and the environmental destruction it entails in places like: “Climate scientists feel weight of the world on their shoulders” and “Is this how you feel?”

Ecological grief is also a significant theme in our own work. In different research projects working with Inuit in Inuit Nunangat in Arctic Canada and farmers in the Western Australian Wheatbelt, both of us have spent a combined total of almost 20 years working with people living in areas experiencing significant climatic changes and environmental shifts.

Despite very different geographical and cultural contexts, our research revealed a surprising degree of commonality between Inuit and family farming communities as they struggled to cope, both emotionally and psychologically, with mounting ecological losses and the prospect of an uncertain future.

Voices of ecological grief

Our research shows that climate-related ecological losses can trigger grief experiences in several ways. Foremost, people grieve for lost landscapes, ecosystems, species, or places that carry personal or collective meaning.

For Inuit communities in the Inuit Land Claim Settlement Area of Nunatsiavut, Labrador, Canada, the land is foundational to mental health. In recent years, melting sea ice prevented travel to significant cultural sites and engagement in traditional cultural activities, such as hunting and fishing. These disruptions to an Inuit sense of place was accompanied by strong emotional reactions, including grief, anger, sadness, frustration and despair.

One male who grew up hunting and trapping on the land in the community of Rigolet, Nunatsiavut explained:

“People are not who they are. They’re not comfortable and can’t do the same things. If something is taken away from you, you don’t have it. If a way of life is taken away because of circumstances you have no control over, you lose control over your life.”

Chronic drought conditions in the Western Australian Wheatbelt elicited similar emotional reactions for some family farmers. As one long-time farmer described:

“There’s probably nothing worse than seeing your farm go in a dust storm. I reckon it’s probably one of the worst feelings […] I find that one of the most depressing things of the lot, seeing the farm blow away in a dust storm. That really gets up my nose, and a long way up too. If its blowing dust I come inside – I just come inside here. I can’t stand to watch it.”

Sweeping away the dust in the central Western Australian Wheatbelt Feb. 2013.
Neville Ellis

In both cases, such experiences resonate strongly with the concept of ‘solastagia,’, described both as a form of homesickness while still in place, and as a type of grief over the loss of a healthy place or a thriving ecosystem.

People also grieve for lost environmental knowledge and associated identities. In these cases, people mourn the part of self-identity that is lost when the land upon which it is based changes or disappears.

For Australian family farmers, the inability to maintain a healthy landscape in the context of worsening seasonal variability and chronic dryness often elicited feelings of self-blame and shame:

“Farmers just hate seeing their farm lift; it somehow says to them ‘I’m a bad farmer’. And I think all farmers are good farmers. They all try their hardest to be. They all love their land.”

For older Inuit in Nunatsiavut, changes to weather and landscape are invalidating long-standing and multi-generational ecological knowledge, and with it, a coherent sense of culture and self. As one well-respected hunter shared:

“It’s hurting in a way. It’s hurting in a lot of ways. Because I kinda thinks I’m not going to show my grandkids the way we used to do it. It’s hurting me. It’s hurting me big time. And I just keep that to myself.”

Many Inuit and family farmers also worry about their futures, and express grief in anticipation of worsening ecological losses. As one woman explained from Rigolet, Nunatsiavut:

“I think that [the changes] will have an impact maybe on mental health, because it’s a depressing feeling when you’re stuck. I mean for us to go off [on the land] is just a part of life. If you don’t have it, then that part of your life is gone, and I think that’s very depressing.”

Similarly, a farmer in Australia worried about the future shared their thoughts on the possibility of losing their family farm:

“[It] would be like a death. Yeah, there would be a grieving process because the farm embodies everything that the family farm is … And I think if we were to lose it, it would be like losing a person … but it would be sadder than losing a person … I don’t know, it would be hard definitely.”

Ecological grief in a climate-changed future

Ecological grief reminds us that climate change is not just some abstract scientific concept or a distant environmental problem. Rather, it draws our attention to the personally experienced emotional and psychological losses suffered when there are changes or deaths in the natural world. In doing so, ecological grief also illuminates the ways in which more-than-humans are integral to our mental wellness, our communities, our cultures, and for our ability to thrive in a human-dominated world.

From what we have seen in our own research, although this type of grief is already being experienced, it often lacks an appropriate avenue for expression or for healing. Indeed, not only do we lack the rituals and practices to help address feelings of ecological grief, until recently we did not even have the language to give such feelings voice. And it is for these reasons that grief over losses in the natural world can feel, as American ecologist Phyllis Windle put it, ‘irrational, inappropriate, anthropomorphic.’

We argue that recognising ecological grief as a legitimate response to ecological loss is an important first step for humanising climate change and its related impacts, and for expanding our understanding of what it means to be human in the Anthropocene. How to grieve ecological losses well — particularly when they are ambiguous, cumulative and ongoing — is a question currently without answer. However, it is a question that we expect will become more pressing as further impacts from climate change, including loss, are experienced.

The ConversationWe do not see ecological grief as submitting to despair, and neither does it justify ‘switching off’ from the many environmental problems that confront humanity. Instead, we find great hope in the responses ecological grief is likely to invoke. Just as grief over the loss of a loved person puts into perspective what matters in our lives, collective experiences of ecological grief may coalesce into a strengthened sense of love and commitment to the places, ecosystems and species that inspire, nurture and sustain us. There is much grief work to be done, and much of it will be hard. However, being open to the pain of ecological loss may be what is needed to prevent such losses from occurring in the first place.

Moonrise near Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Canada.
Ashlee Cunsolo

Neville Ellis, Research fellow, University of Western Australia and Ashlee Cunsolo, Director, Labrador Institute, Memorial University of Newfoundland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.

VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – Hope rises for a world free of TB

Madhukar Pai, McGill University

World TB Day 2018 is turning out to be special — never in the history of tuberculosis (TB) control has there been greater political attention and commitment to tackling the infectious disease that causes nearly two million deaths a year.

I was recently fortunate to be in New Delhi, where I witnessed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launch the TB Free India campaign at the Delhi End TB Summit.

In his opening speech, he declared that “India is determined to address the challenge of TB in mission mode. I am confident that India can be free of TB by 2025.” He made the remarks in the presence of Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), and several other international global health leaders and ministers.

This follows two major TB commitments in 2017. First, in July, the G20 leaders’ declaration from Hamburg included TB in a plan to respond to the antimicrobial resistance threat. Second, in November, a WHO Global Ministerial Conference on TB was held in Moscow, Russia, for the first time — culminating with the Moscow Declaration to End TB and the agreement of 75 ministers to take urgent action to end TB by 2030.

To cap off this crescendo, later this year, in September, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) will hold the first-ever high-level meeting on the fight against TB. This will be the third time the UN has called for such a meeting on a health issue.

Ending TB finally looks like a goal that could be met — if, and only if, political leaders globally can step up with investments and actions to match their political declarations.

The global TB burden

Tuberculosis as a disease has always suffered from neglect and lack of urgency. This is reflected in the chronic under-investment in TB care and control in most high-burden countries.

Not surprisingly, the TB epidemic has raged on in many low- and middle-income countries.

In 2016, there were an estimated 10.4 million new TB cases worldwide. TB continues to rank as the leading infectious killer, and 1.7 million people died from this curable, bacterial infection during 2016.

Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation, spoke at the opening of the first WHO Global Ministerial Conference titled Ending Tuberculosis in the Sustainable Development Era: A Multisectoral Response in November in Moscow.

Recently, the Global TB Caucus released “The Price of a Pandemic 2017,” a new report that estimates that deaths from TB will cost the global economy nearly US$1 trillion over the next 15 years.

So unless there is serious political commitment, funding and execution, it will be impossible to meet the global End TB targets.

This is why the G20, Moscow, Delhi and UNGA meetings are so critical — to convince our political leaders that they need to wake up to the realities of the TB epidemic, and step up with clear actions and commitments.

India’s leadership challenge

Will our leaders deliver? Following the Delhi End TB Summit, I am feeling optimistic they will, because they’ve seen the impressive progress made in global HIV and malaria control, and have understood the human and societal benefits to tackling killer diseases such as AIDS and malaria.

India’s leadership, in particular, is absolutely fundamental to meeting global End TB goals.

India accounts for a quarter of the global TB cases, and nearly a third of all TB deaths. TB is a huge drain on India’s economy. So without progress in India, there is no hope for ending the TB epidemic.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurates the End TB Summit in Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi.

While everyone has welcomed India’s ambitious plan of TB elimination by 2025, the world is watching whether India will follow up on the prime minister’s commitment with the substantially increased budget that is required, and rapidly execute the ambitious TB Free India campaign. 2025 is just seven years away and the clock is ticking!

The 2025 target is audacious. Anyone who understands TB knows the 2025 goal is not realistic. But the international TB community appreciates the ambition displayed by India. It is great to aim high, and even if India doesn’t reach that goal, it would still represent progress if the TB Free India campaign is implemented.

A big question for the TB community now is this: How do we hold our leaders accountable for their big declarations and commitments? What kind of sustained effort would be required to convert the political aspirations into tangible progress on the ground?

BRICS countries can lead the charge

Thinking beyond India, I am convinced other high-TB countries also have a key leadership role to play.

Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) together
account for 46 per cent of all incident cases of TB and 40 per cent of all TB-related mortality.

With strong economic growth in BRICS, and their growing stature and leadership in the political as well as scientific arena, these countries are well-placed to lead the charge against a disease that is a leading killer of their citizens and a huge drain on their economies.

The U.S. government, the largest donor in the fight against TB, is rapidly scaling back on overseas aid, slashing billions from global health and humanitarian aid.

As wealthy donor countries focus their priorities on populist and nationalist demands, it is unclear whether any other rich country will pick up the slack.

It is therefore critical for countries most affected by TB to step up, show leadership and invest in TB control. The world simply cannot depend on a few wealthy countries with very low TB incidence to support all the effort that is required to tackle TB.

Lastly, investments in TB must occur as part of overall health systems investments required to realize the goal of Universal Health Coverage (UHC).

UHC is a human right, and all countries have agreed to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals with the following target by 2030: Achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines for all.

The ConversationIf countries achieve UHC, the battle against TB can be won.

Madhukar Pai, Director of Global Health & Professor, McGill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.

VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – Beyond beasts of burden: How to reward our animals for their work

Kendra Coulter, Brock University

Animals do a lot for us. So what should we do for them?

Dexter, an emotional support peacock, made global headlines recently when United Airlines refused to allow him on a flight.

His story is the latest to reanimate the public discussion about the certification and regulation of service animals, and the rights of people with disabilities. But this unusual situation is also an opportunity to reflect on the work we give animals, which species we employ and what our responsibilities are to them.

We have long used the labour of animals — few communities in Canada would have been built without horses’ strength, power and co-operation.

Much like people, today’s animals are less likely to be used for manual labour, and are more often employed in service work. They assist with law enforcement, and even sniff out endangered species, smuggled goods and insect infestations.

Service animals are typically paired with humans and engaged in full-time, round-the-clock labour. They may physically guide someone, assist with daily tasks or monitor the person’s physical and emotional state, then respond with a warning, an intervention or calming touch.

Therapy animals usually work part-time, and either are visited at care farms or are transported to long-term care homes, schools, libraries and detention centres to participate in a range of programs and interactions.

A U.S. Army veteran simulates having a panic attack as he works with Jersey, his new support dog, as part of a training session together in October 2017 in Collinsville, Ill.
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

In Canada, we also now have institutional or facility dogs that comfort and support child witnesses as they participate in court cases.

Animals — whether they are dogs, horses, chickens or rats —are using an intricate combination of their physical, intellectual and emotional abilities in their work for us.

Rats, for example, are now employed in a range of ways, including for detecting land mines and forewarning people of seizures.

Academic research is beginning to reveal the depth and breadth of the cognitive skills, emotional lives and cultural practices of animals of all sizes. When working for us, many animals engage in nuanced communication, they control or suppress their feelings to behave appropriately, and actively assess people and complex environments.

In most cases, particularly when we entrust animals to care for us, we have evolved beyond seeing them simply as beasts of burden. We are more likely to recognize the active roles animals play and the choices they make and see them as subjects, not simply objects.

Yet most animals are still legally positioned as property, and their work lives are ultimately governed by humans. As a result, we have significant responsibilities.

The largest group of domesticated vertebrate animals in Canada — the 700 million farmed creatures who live short, difficult lives, and then are killed to be consumed as food — is an elephant in the room, so to speak.

Pigs are seen at the Mober SENC farm in Saint Hughes, Que., south of Montreal in 2009.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

We could view the required and repeated physical production of babies, milk and eggs as a kind of bodily work.

Whether we see farmed animals as working or not, there are crucial discussions about their living conditions taking place, and whether we should be using animals in this way at all, especially given the expansion of plant-based foods and drinks, and lab-grown “clean meat.”

As a labour studies scholar who has been studying work involving animals for a number of years, I have seen the good, the bad, the ugly and the more complicated. A few things are clear, however.

Not all species or individual animals want to work for us, and we ought to recognize this fact. Work should be about collaboration, not coercion.

If some animals are going to work with and for us, we should only offer them humane jobs and pay careful attention to their work lives in a full sense. This includes their hours of work, their leisure and social opportunities and their lives after their formal jobs have ended. We must prioritize not only animals’ physical health, but also their psychological well-being.

Clearly the world of work is changing for people and animals alike, and it is challenging our conventional ideas and approaches. As a result, we ought to harness the potential of solidarity and reciprocity in our relationships, as well as in our political arenas.

As a start, we should strengthen and expand our antiquated animal cruelty laws, and properly fund their enforcement.

The ConversationBut we also need to create new policies and programs that reflect and genuinely respect the diverse realities of animals’ labour, interests and lives. In other words, it’s time we do more political work for the animals who do so much for us.

Kendra Coulter, Associate Professor in Labour Studies and Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence; Member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists, Brock University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.

VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – Social media full of vitriolic myths in the aftermath of the Stanley trial

Keith Thor Carlson, University of Saskatchewan

Social media posts on Facebook and Twitter, and online comments in the days since Gerald Stanley’s acquittal have been saturated with disturbing rants. Many of them are written by Canadians who — from my perspective as a researcher of Indigenous and settler history — are expressing anxiety that the privilege and comfort afforded them through our system of settler colonialism might be slipping away.

Rather than exploring the structures that have provided privileges to some while denying them to others, or finding ways to express empathy for those who are hurting, some Canadians are seeking solace in tired, hurtful and long discredited settler colonial myths.

These myths generally fall into two categories: Those we tell about ourselves, and those we tell about Indigenous people. Together they serve corrosive purposes that risk driving Indigenous and settler Canadians farther apart and making reconciliation ever more elusive.

Myth: Colonial discovery and settler destiny

Starting with the myth of the Doctrine of Discovery in the 15th century, settlers have rationalized that we could claim North American lands because Indigenous peoples somehow didn’t really own them.

This concept is principally based on the ethnocentric prejudice that Indigenous people did not look and act like Europeans. The British legal concept of Terra Nullius, which incorrectly defined tracts of North America as empty lands, reinforced the idea that Indigenous people had no right to the land.

In the United States, settlers invented the myth of Manifest Destiny: A God-given “obligation” to expand from the Atlantic coast to occupy and control the entire continent. As settlers transformed forests and plains into agricultural lands and won several strategic battles against both European and Indigenous peoples, they reasoned their success was proof of America’s right to displace Indigenous people.

In the late 19th century Social Darwinism helped to give such myths a degree of quasi-academic credibility. Scholars began describing the successful American expansion across western frontiers as a product of Anglo-American racial superiority.

In Canada, the mythology was similar. The biblically inspired name, “Dominion” of Canada, literally embodies the idea of settler Canada assuming God’s “dominion from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth” (Psalms 72:28).

Thus, Canada assumed sovereignty over vast territories by positioning Indigenous peoples as mere occupants of lands within their Dominion.

Meanwhile academic historians like Harold Innis and Donald Creighton provided an interpretive framework that explained how the pursuit of natural resources by British capitalists and French fur traders had facilitated Canada’s east-west, coast-to-coast orientation. In this narrative Canada exists not because of the continent’s natural north-south system of mountains and rivers, but despite it.

Myth: Good and bad Indians

If our national story was one of transcending nature, the Indigenous peoples’ narrative, according to settler beliefs, was one where they had allowed themselves to become prisoners of nature. Settlers believed Western history and belief systems explained all humanity. Within this framework, Indigenous people were treated as having not yet acquired all of the rights and privileges associated with modern civilized society.

Therefore, settler policies and actions aimed at acquiring Indigenous lands did not take into account the multiplicity or sophistication of Indigenous cultures, politics and economics. Rather, Dominion settlers defined all Indigenous people monolithically as “Indians.”

Over time, settlers began dividing Indigenous people into groups according to how they responded to us and our agendas.

In the 18th century, settlers regarded Indigenous people who sided with them in conflicts as “noble” Indians; those who sided against were “savage” Indians.

By the mid-19th century, such labels and belief systems increasingly served the settler colonial agenda — to displace Indigenous peoples from their lands and resources. “Noble Indians,” were the “wise” ones who accepted the inevitability of settler colonialism; they recognized that resistance was futile. “Savage Indians,” conversely, were considered “savage” precisely because they rejected American Manifest Destiny or Canadian Dominion. Their resistance justified state violence to remove them from their lands.

Myth: The vanishing Indian

After witnessing the effects of rounds of devastating diseases (smallpox, influenza and measles) to which Indigenous people had no immunity, settlers additionally developed the myth of the “vanishing Indian.”

In the 19th century it would have been accurate to describe the number of Indigenous peoples as “diminishing” — their population had been steadily, and sometimes rapidly, declining ever since first contact with Europeans. But by assuming that “diminishing” would necessarily result in extinction, settlers conveniently absolved themselves of having to account for Indigenous peoples’ futures.

So long as Indigenous peoples were destined to die out, there was little need to prioritize compensating them for their lands (as in British Columbia), honouring treaty agreements (as in the Prairies) or in working with them to envision a future where they might exist as distinct peoples with their Indigenous rights and cultures intact.

Myth: The generous settler

The myth of the “vanishing Indian” also allowed settlers to create a sub-myth. If Indigenous peoples were destined to disappear and if Indigenous cultures were incompatible with the Western industrial society (as the myth maintained), then according to settlers, the only thing to do was to invite (and later to compel) Indigenous people to assimilate.

Residential schools were, as the founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School explained, designed to “kill the Indian and save the Man.”

Once these programs were established, settlers congratulated themselves for their generosity, and boasted how the creation and funding of the residential schools took place despite Indigenous people not contributing directly to the government’s tax revenues.

The myth of the benevolent settler: Carlisle Indian School Students.
Children and Youth in History, Item #291

Settlers believed themselves benevolent as they reserved specific tracts of lands for Indigenous peoples’ exclusive use, even though their quality and quantity were well below what was offered settler families and communities.

They thought themselves altruistic as they provided welfare relief to Indigenous peoples who remained on reserves where there were few economic opportunities. This spawned yet another myth, that of the “lazy Indian.”

Time to put these myths to rest

Indigenous resistance to these policies simultaneously reinforced in settler minds the myths of the “ungrateful Indian” and of Indigenous peoples as “tax burdens.”

Efforts to explain how these systems created not only trauma for those directly affected, but also inter-generational injuries for their descendants has served to reinforce for some settlers the myth of Indigenous peoples who can’t “get over” the past.

To the extent that isolated reserve life highlighted territorial displacement and social marginalization, some Indigenous people fell victim to chronic unemployment and binge drinking; laws preventing them from purchasing or consuming alcohol meant that social drinking was not an option. Thus emerged the myth that Indigenous peoples were genetically predisposed to alcoholism.

Too often young Indigenous people fall victim to predators who steer them into tragic situations. The need for the current national inquiry into the fate of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls speaks to the power of the myth that paints Indigenous people as victims of their race and culture, rather than as victims of colonial attitudes and circumstances.

In the wake of the Stanley trial, a large number of non-Indigenous Canadians have shown that they have no qualms about using the most vitriolic and hurtful of these long-discredited colonial myths to protect their own privilege and comfort.

We can do better.

If reconciliation is to ever be more than an aspiration the onus must be on us to abandon the myths that blind us to our culpability for the historical systems of oppression that continue to marginalize Indigenous people.

The ConversationKeith Carlson is currently working on a book tentatively titled Myths and Legends of the Xwelitem (i.e. Settler Colonial) Tribe.

Keith Thor Carlson, Professor of History, Research Chair in Indigenous & Community-engaged History, University of Saskatchewan

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.

VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – Women’s NGOs are changing the world—and not getting credit for it

Dr. Bipasha Baruah, Western University and Dr. Kate Grantham, McGill University

In contemporary global development circles, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are now performing many more roles and activities than they did a few decades ago.

NGOs work with governments, community groups and the private sector — to develop and implement programs, monitor and evaluate their progress and help train people working on those projects.

They’re considered more nimble than other institutions in accomplishing development goals, because they can reach the most vulnerable or disaffected people in a community and find innovative solutions to problems.

Although their funding streams and institutional decision-making structures are typically multinational, NGOs’ legitimacy, indeed, often rests on perceptions of them being “local” and “close to the people.”

NGOs are increasingly taking on the responsibility of implementing the gender equality and women’s empowerment agendas of the global development sector.

But very rarely have researchers tried to understand or document the specific challenges and opportunities that NGOs working on gender equality, or those that define themselves as feminist NGOs or women’s NGOs, face — when participating in multiple-stakeholder projects like Canada’s new feminist international assistance policy.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015, and the Canadian initiative that includes $150 million in funding for advancing the rights of women and girls, will undoubtedly increase the engagement of women’s NGOs in a variety of activities.

That means understanding the opportunities and constraints faced by women’s NGOs in multiple-stakeholder projects is increasingly important.

Women’s NGOs in India and Tanzania

We’re basing our observations upon research conducted over the past decade in India, where women’s NGOs were involved in delivering urban basic services like water, sanitation and electricity, and in Tanzania, where women’s NGOs helped deliver community health and microenterprise development services.

In both contexts, we found that women’s NGOs played crucial roles in development projects, often mobilizing, organizing and building projects that otherwise would never have launched.

In India, for example, women’s NGOs in the state of Gujarat mobilized local communities to participate in urban development projects. They helped form community-based organizations to represent local interests and implemented community development projects — such as health services, adult literacy and child care.

A mother and child in a rural area in the Indian state of Gujarat in October 2015.
(Shutterstock)

Women’s NGOs also conducted research to determine whether local communities could afford to pay for basic urban services.

They negotiated subsidies, fair pricing and flexible terms of payment with utilities on behalf of marginalized people. They arranged access to loans from microfinance institutions for households that could not cover the cost of water or electricity connections.

And by insisting that water and electricity bills be issued in the names of female heads of households, women’s NGOs strengthened women’s access to property and housing.

The NGOs also educated stakeholders about the realities of life for the urban poor, and shared lessons learned in one urban area with NGOs in other cities in India.

In Tanzania, we studied the community partner role played by a women’s NGO in a project delivering health and microenterprise services across East Africa.

The project, which brought together the Tanzanian government, public research and medical institutions, international charitable organizations, community-based organizations and beneficiaries, envisioned the establishment of community kitchens across East Africa to produce probiotic yogurt.

The yogurt would be sold for profit and distributed for free to certain vulnerable groups, including children with nutritional deficiencies and people living with HIV/AIDS.

Women operated the yogurt kitchens

Local entrepreneurs were offered loans, technical assistance and other training to start up the businesses. A women’s NGO that had previously worked to reduce gender-based violence in Tanzania helped local communities establish, operate and maintain the kitchens.

Before the idea of community kitchens was taken up by more financially and politically powerful project partners, it was in fact the women’s NGO that had proposed the idea of establishing yogurt kitchens that could be run by local women in keeping with Tanzanian dietary, cultural and consumer norms.

The four earliest community kitchens were run entirely by women. The economic empowerment of poor women in Tanzania was identified as one of the founding goals of the project because of the advocacy work done by the women’s NGO.

In later years, the pilot project was expanded to include kitchens run by men.

The women’s NGO provided training on probiotic yogurt production, the health benefits of probiotics, financial accounting, entrepreneurship and the importance of combatting HIV/AIDS transmission and stigma.

Until 2012, when the women’s NGO withdrew from the project, community kitchen groups also received training on gender equality, the rights of women and girls and the links between violence against women and HIV.

Women’s NGOs easily marginalized

Common findings emerge from our research in India and Tanzania.

In both contexts, we found that women’s NGOs had made vital contributions to the success of development projects, but they were easily marginalized and trivialized once those projects got off the ground.

In India, after the success of the pilot projects, the other partners declared that they would “go it alone” and no longer involve the NGO partner in delivering basic urban services.

A similar pattern emerged in Tanzania. Once the project was well-established, it started to expand to include community yogurt kitchens run by men, as well as kitchens in other parts of Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya. The women’s NGO was forced out.

What’s more, the gender equality training, identified initially as a key project priority in Tanzania, was discontinued entirely.

Although the contributions made by the women’s NGOs were critical to the existence and success of the initiatives, they were often dismissed as supplementary and dispensable by the other partners.

Because the NGOs’ role of organizing, mobilizing and helping local communities participate in development initiatives was seen as a “natural” extension of women’s care-giving work, it was easy for other partners to diminish and dismiss their contributions.

And because the other partners did not fully appreciate the contributions of the women’s NGOs, they were unwilling to share credit for the success of the project.

How to bolster the role of women’s NGOs

We recommend several strategies to strengthen and validate the role of women’s NGOs in development partnership projects.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) that defines the specific roles and responsibilities of each partner should be an essential requirement for multiple-stakeholder projects.

The lack of such formal agreements entrenches the perception that the role NGOs play is not particularly valuable. But the involvement of partners with a wide range of views, sizes, structures and experiences underscores the importance of formalizing the role of women’s NGOs.

When the relationship among the different parties is formalized, constructive debate can be encouraged among all partners.

The lack of a memorandum of understanding causes overlaps in function, weakens accountability and exacerbates conflict among partners. While it’s possible for diverse institutions with different philosophies to work in an integrated way, it doesn’t happen automatically or easily.

At a deeper structural level, advocacy work — whether it’s gender equality or community mobilization — must be treated as a non-negotiable priority in global development partnership projects, instead of as a value-added or supplementary task.

Women’s NGOs deserve recognition

Our research has shown that women’s NGOs play integral roles in the projects they participate in.

It’s unfortunate they must “justify” their long-term involvement in such initiatives, but it may be incumbent upon them to make their contributions to the project more visible to the different partners and to the development community at large.

Collecting, maintaining and analyzing data on a regular basis about key project impacts and outcomes will be crucial for making NGO contributions more visible and less dismissible.

The ConversationCollaborating with academics and other development professionals to publish and disseminate findings from such projects will also strengthen and validate NGO efforts. This article is one small contribution toward ensuring women’s NGOs get the credit and support they so richly deserve.

Dr. Bipasha Baruah, Professor & Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues , Western University and Dr. Kate Grantham, Research Associate, International Development, McGill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.

VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – How artificial intelligence will be used for social control

Mass surveillance and manipulation by powerful AI algorithms represent a much more imminent and tangible threat to our democratic values than killer robots.

The scientific breakthroughs of pioneer artificial intelligence researchers in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton are fuelling record public and private investments seeking to turn Canada into a global AI powerhouse.

Federal and provincial governments awarded more than $400 million to various R&D initiatives in this field over the past two years alone, while companies such as Microsoft, Google, or Facebook are establishing their own dedicated labs in Canada to make sure they’re not left behind in the AI arms race.

This technology will disrupt every aspect of our economy, and the hope is that Canada will yield the rewards of its scientific foresight by developing a thriving innovation ecosystem. But the disruption will also be social and political.

Beyond the waves of job destruction that AI will precipitate in many industries, the main concern regarding the darker side of this technology has focused on the development of killer robots. Elon Musk and hundreds of high profile AI researchers have voiced their alarm and called politicians to action.

The fear of AI-enabled armed robots resonates particularly well with Western audiences that have been fed a rich cultural diet of malicious machines threatening to exterminate humanity by the Hollywood film industry.

But instead of worrying about what AI and the robots it controls will do to us, we should be more concerned about what it will know about us and what it will make us do. In other words, mass surveillance and manipulation by powerful AIs represent a much more imminent and tangible threat to our democratic values than killer robots.

The disruptive potential of AI has a strategic dimension that has not escaped authoritarian regimes. Vladimir Putin framed it with his legendary sense of nuance when he said “whoever will become the leader in this field will become the ruler of the world.”

With much less fanfare, the Chinese government has come to the same conclusions. It has set aside $150 billion USD for AI in its most recent five-year plan to become the world leader in this field by 2030, with massive additional investments by local governments and private companies.

Not all this money will be used to bolster eCommerce through more effective purchase recommendations and personable chatbots. The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab has, for example, examined how algorithms embedded in popular Chinese social media apps perform censorship and surveillance functions.

Indeed, one of the main security applications of AI in authoritarian regimes involves the mass surveillance of populations that threaten the stability of the political system and its institutions. China seems the most advanced in this respect with a plan to develop a social credit scoring system to be rolled out by 2020.

This social control tool is already being tested by several municipalities and internet companies. It will assess people based on a pool of online, administrative and banking records. Powerful AI algorithms will be used to assign them a unique trustworthiness rating that will influence what kind of government services (housing, education, health, employment, etc.) and commercial services (bank loans, insurance premiums, travel abroad, etc.) they will be able to access.

The AIs that will parse this ocean of data (opting out, by the way, is not an option) will become all-seeing gods extracting compliance by their capacity to classify behaviours and sort people that diverge from the politically acceptable norm.

Western democracies are not immune from this disturbing trend. In the U.S., the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently asked technology firms to develop algorithms that could assess the risks posed by visa holders through the continuous analysis of their social media activities during their stay in the country.

Canada is playing an instrumental role in bringing the power of AI to every corner of human life. Instead of limiting its leadership to the research and innovation fields, it should also extend it to the regulatory and diplomatic arenas, to ensure that AI applications are not used for anti-democratic purposes but serve the public good instead.

That would imply preventing Canadian AI technology from being exported to authoritarian states, but also thinking about how Canadian citizens can be protected from the surveillance of companies that operate from undemocratic states and therefore share data with their own government.

On the international stage, Canada should play a more active role in shaping international conventions that would restrain the weaponization of AI and encourage applications that enhance human well-being. Our country’s moral imperative is to guarantee that AI technologies will not erode the privacy ideals and principles that define our democracy.

Benoît Dupont is a professor of criminology and Canada Research Chair in Cybersecurity at Université de Montréal.

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star.


“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.

VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – The Ongoing Muskrat Falls Debacle: How not to Develop the North

On the 22nd and 23rd of Feburary 2018, the College of New Scholars of the Royal Society of Canada, in collaboration with Memorial’s Department of Philosophy and the Labrador Institute, will host a public symposium dedicated to an interdisciplinary discussion of the scientific, cultural, and social-political dimensions of the controversial Muskrat Falls hydro-electrical project on the lower Churchill River in Labrador. Our proximate objective is to offer a venue for all of the voices and to give as generous a hearing to the various positions on the issue as possible. The intention is not protest but knowledge dissemination. We are proposing to bring together an interdisciplinary team of researchers, some of whom have dedicated their careers to studying Muskrat, to tell the story in all of its scientific, economic, social and political-ecological complexity. The following op ed is written by one of the organizers and does not necessarily represent the views of the RSC, Memorial University, the organizing committee or anyone else involved in this event.

Sean McGrath, Department of Philosophy, Memorial University of Newfoundland

The massive hydro-electric project on the lower Churchill River in Labrador is expected to go online in 2019. Described as a “boondoggle” by policy makers and at 12.7 billion dollars–over double the anticipated budget–the Muskrat Falls project emerged into international attention in the fall of 2016 when protesters occupied the Labrador premises of the Newfoundland and Labrador energy corporation, Nalcor. The protesters demanded that the company and the government of Newfoundland heed a joint MUN/Harvard study that proved that if the flood basin was not cleaned of vegetation prior to flooding, the surrounding lands would be poisoned with methylmercury for years to come, endangering the lives of Innu and Inuit who depended upon the fish and game to survive. At the zero hour, and with an unprecedented hunger strike threatening the lives of protesters, the government relented and agreed to clear the basin. But problems continue to this day, with Nalcor refusing to produce documentation to satisfy local concerns that the builders of the dam have reckoned with the seasonal instability of the river bank (particularly the north spur), and also denying, against local knowledge, that spawning salmon populations are at risk due to low water levels. The protest has never in fact stopped, as this writer learned recently on a visit to the site.

Economically, no one denies that Muskrat is a fiscal disaster. Nalcor CEO, Stan Marshall, sees little prospects for the province to recoup its losses. “I think this project is a hell of a lot worse … deal than the Upper Churchill,” Marshall said in recent interview. Memorial University of Newfoundland economist Dr. James Feehan has proven that it is virtually impossible for the project to break even. Moreover, by flooding the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador with hydro-electric energy for generations, Muskrat Falls has doomed the development of other sustainable energy in the province, such as wind and solar. The project is called “green” but when one considers the transformation of the Churchill river, the flooding of indigenous ancestral lands, and the adverse effect on human and non-human communities, the descriptor is dubious at best.

Historian Dr. Jerry Bannister at Dalhousie University has argued that the 20th century political history of Newfoundland is key to understanding why the project goes ahead, despite its unprofitability. In the early 2000, former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams promised to make right the infamous bad deal signed by Premier Joey Smallwood in the late 1960s to export hydro-electric power through Quebec from the dam on the upper Churchill River in Labrador. The Churchill Falls dam is an infamous economic failure for the province. According to the original deal, Newfoundland and Labrador must sell the power to Quebec at 1969 rates, while Quebec resells the energy at current rates. According to conservative estimates, Newfoundland and Labrador has lost billions of dollars on Churchill Falls. Muskrat Falls, according to Bannister, is driven not so much by neo-Liberal economic as by Newfoundland nationalism.


“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.