Student Life

The issue of over-diagnosing in psychiatry

McGill’s Dr. Joel Paris discussed the line between pathology and normalcy

While the leaves fell and the seasonal blues kicked in, Dr. Joel Paris, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University, gave a lecture on Oct. 30 about the dangers and consequences of over-diagnosing in psychiatry.

According to Paris, there is no rule of thumb when it comes to differentiating between being sad and experiencing depression. “What is the difference between being unhappy and having a mental disorder? This is not so easy,” he said to those gathered at McGill’s Robert Palmer Howard Amphitheatre. “It is difficult to establish any clear boundary between pathology and normality.”

Over-diagnosis is when an illness or disorder is diagnosed more often than is actually present in patients, Paris explained. Along with under-diagnosis, it is the biggest issue in psychiatry at the moment, according to Paris. “Either you miss something or claim that something is there when it isn’t there,” he said.

Paris told lecture attendees that most psychiatrists tend to favour over-diagnosis when in doubt. Disorders such as schizophrenia are easier to diagnose due to specific symptoms that arise in those affected with the illness, he explained. However, symptoms for disorders such as classical bipolar disorder can be similar to other illnesses, increasing the likelihood of misdiagnosis or over-diagnosis.

“Over-diagnosis leads to overtreatment,” Paris said. “Antibiotics are the classic example, where people with colds get antibiotics. This creates an antibiotic resistance in the population.”

According to Paris, about 11 per cent of Canadians are currently on antidepressants. He said this number demonstrates that antidepressants are being over-prescribed, which is a consequence of over-diagnosis. “People in my field are handing out prescriptions like it’s nobody’s business when it comes to antidepressants, and antipsychotics too,” he said.

According to Paris, over-diagnosis and over-prescribing in psychology and psychiatry has affected the way society views diagnoses of mental illness. He called it a diagnostic epidemic. As he explained, the problem lies in people discussing symptoms as if they were professionally-made diagnoses. “The media picks this up and feeds these epidemics. People talk about these things, even socialize it,” Paris said. The fact that it is common for people to declare, “I think I have ADHD” or “my father is bipolar” without a diagnosis exemplifies this, he added.

In looking at mental disorders and the degree to which they are over-diagnosed, Paris said he has found some common mistakes in the diagnosis of everything from depression and bipolar disorder to post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and personality disorders. For example, some professionals are likely to diagnose a highly introverted person with Asperger’s syndrome, Paris explained. “People who are highly-introverted just like to be alone,” he said, adding that this does not necessarily mean they fit the diagnostic criteria of the autism spectrum.

According to Paris there needs to be change in the field of psychiatry and in the way our healthcare system addresses mental health. “If everyone in the population received 20 sessions of psychotherapy, the government health system would save a lot of money,” he said as an example.

Mental health services, such as psychotherapy, also receive less funding compared to treatments for physical conditions because of the stigma around mental illness and a common fear in society of being diagnosed with a mental disorder, Paris explained. “I think people hate people with mental disorders because they are afraid to have one themselves,” he said.

Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth


Understanding the historical background of Israel

Two professors discuss their new book Politics in Israel: Governing a Complex Society

Speakers Harold Waller and Brent Sasley discussed the historical and sociological developments in Israel in a lecture last week. The major ideas presented during the event came from their book, Politics in Israel: Governing a Complex Society, which was released on Feb. 3.

Professors Harold Waller (left) and Brent Sasley (right). Photo by Alex Hutchins.

Waller, a political science professor at McGill University, said he had the idea to write the book in his early years of teaching in the political science department. Waller said the books he used to teach with were focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israel-Palestinian issues, but lacked context of zionism. Zionism is a national revival movement which focuses on the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel (area).

“I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the books that I had used,” said Waller. “They didn’t have all of the material that needed to be in a book like this, and they had excess material that detracted from the main points of my teaching.”

Waller contacted Sasley, an associate professor at University of Texas at Arlington, since they both taught similar classes and both wanted to address issues surrounding zionism. This encouraged them to write their own book, said Waller.

“What we really are trying to achieve is to enable readers to comprehend Israel on its own, and not simply as a major actor in the conflict of the Middle East,” Waller said.

He also debunked some common myths about Israel during his talk. Waller said many of his former students often categorized Israel as a state about the Jewish religion, when in fact “Israel forces a Jewish state, but it is not a state about the Jewish religion—[it’s about] Jewish peoplehood.”

Sasley said Israel has never been a liberal democracy the way Canada is. “That liberal democracy never really took place in Israel—it’s still heavily collectivist,” Sasley said.

Sasley emphasized that, in English-speaking countries, an important problem Israeli students face is trying to explain what it means to be Jewish and democratic at the same time. “Most students grew up in a democracy where you give your loyalty to a set of institutions, ideas and to a sense of citizenship,” he said. Sasley said their book elaborates on the difference between the religious meaning and ethno-meaning of what it means to be Jewish.

Both Sasley and Waller hope their book will be useful for courses taught outside of North America, in order to provide a different perspective on the politics in Israel. “I believe that any person who wants to be well-informed should understand how the politics operate and how decisions are made in the Israeli government,” Waller said.

Student Life

Discussing death in a positive way

University of the Streets Café hosts a discussion on embracing death

Attendees and speakers discussed embracing and accepting death through rituals at the University of the Streets Café event held on Nov. 4.

The conversation was held in honour of the Latin American holiday Dia de los Muertos, which translates to “day of the dead.”  The public holiday is mostly associated with Mexico, where it originated, but is also celebrated in the rest of Latin America. This holiday, which was celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2, unfolds as a festival, with lots of face painting, dancing, music and remembering.

The discussion featured speakers Kit Racette, who runs regular Death Cafés that allow people to speak openly and freely about death in a non-judgmental environment, and Lilia Luna Gonzalez, who grew up in Mexico and, as such, offered a different cultural perspective on the subject of death and insight on Mexican rituals surrounding it.

About 20 people gathered at the Ruche d’Art St-Henri, a small art studio filled with artwork and candles, to discuss death and its many different aspects. The discussion explored the cultural norms surrounding death, dealing with both grieving and accepting one’s own death, different methods of burial and other similar topics. Anyone present at the discussion was encouraged to take part in the discourse. The conversation was moderated by Genevieve Brown, a Concordia student.

Racette voiced her beliefs regarding the way modern Western societies handle death. “For me, the question of death is really important,” she said. “When was the last time you actually had a conversation about death? There’s a modern-day absence of the relationship with death, that people have had for thousands of years… There is an absence of ritual.”

She spoke about how death is often perceived negatively in modern Western culture, rather than as something that’s an unavoidable part of life. “The idea that death is a failure is deeply ingrained in our culture,” she said. She believes that embracing death is an important part of life. “When we realize that our days are limited, we give ourselves the chance to value every day, every encounter, every moment,” she said.

The Death Café project was started in 2010 by a British man named Jon Underwood. Now, people host Death Cafés in their homes and public venues in over 30 countries. Racette has hosted numerous Death Cafés, including this event, in the greater Montreal region.

Gonzalez, who grew up in Mexico, shared her experiences with death from a different cultural point of view. She went over many key differences between how death is looked at in Mexico versus how it is handled in Canada and the US.

For example, she said, “Here, we’re obsessed with control, both in how we die and what happens after.” She spoke about how, in Mexico, death is seen as much less taboo and negative. She shared anecdotes about how, throughout her childhood, the annual Dia de los Muertos celebrations were focused on remembering those who were lost in a positive way, with brightly coloured artwork and flowers in abundance. She mentioned that, in Mexico, death isn’t usually seen as something to be feared—it’s simply a part of life.

Many of the meeting’s attendees shared stories and personal experiences with death, which fit with both Racette’s goal of encouraging discourse about death and Gonzalez’s personal recollections of how Mexican culture treats it.


Mellissa Fung on challenges and hope for Afghanistan

Journalist minimizes 28-day kidnapping ordeal to focus on status of citizens

On Tuesday Nov. 18, journalist Mellissa Fung came to Concordia to give a talk about her experience reporting in Afghanistan. The independent journalist, writer, and former reporter with CBC was captured and held for 28 days by an Islamist group in 2008. This happened while she was reporting for the CBC on Canada’s military intervention in the country. Despite this experience, she chose to go back later to keep reporting on the fragile state.

A few years after, she wrote a book about her story, entitled Under an Afghan Sky. This talk was part of a series of discussions held in seven journalism schools across Canada to share her experience.

The event, titled “Inside Afghanistan,” was organized by the Aga Khan Foundation, a non-profit organization which works towards social growth in the developing world.

André Roy, the Dean of Arts and Science, introduced Fung as being an inspirational example of journalism representing the “conviction, courage, passion, and commitment” necessary for success.

“Just because we have been at war in this country for the past 12 years doesn’t mean that things were going to turn around quickly,” said Fung. “We have to have patience.”

In her talk, Fung chose to focus on why she kept coming back to the country over the last seven years despite everything she’d been through. Even though she made headlines because of her kidnapping, she didn’t talk in detail about this experience. Fung explained that while the press tends to highlight the individual, she did not want to become the story. Instead,  she hopes people will focus on talking about the lives of refugees and women overseas.

It is for this specific reason that she feels committed to the stories she collected, to put the spotlight back on those who are struggling every day. She also spoke about how much Afghanistan has changed and gained since 2001, coverage that traditional media tend to ignore in favour of more negative coverage like instances of suicide bombing.

“We have the responsibility as journalists to tell the other side of the story as well to get a complete picture of what really is going on in the country,” she said.

Fung explained that she had to argue with CBC in order for them to allow her to return to Afghanistan in 2011. They feared for her safety, but this was preventing her from covering the stories she believed in. Fung finally went back with an NGO working in Afghanistan.

According to her, 80 per cent of women in Afghanistan are still illiterate but the number of girls in school keeps increasing. “Development is a process, it is generational,” she said. In addition, new initiatives exist in the population. One of the stories she shared was about a school where boys and girls were learning side by side for a few years, before the government intervened.

Outside of education, she also looked at the healthcare system and talked about new initiatives increasing widespread healthcare access. The Afghan government for instance partnered with a French NGO to create the French Medical Institute for Children in Kabul. Twelve years ago, such a facility didn’t exist, and it is now expanding.

Fung’s lecture concentrated on the difficult situation of women, but she addressed it with positivity. She said that around 90 per cent of women have experienced some kind of sexual assault. However, increasingly women are able to speak up about it.

“Today they have control, they can have a choice. And that’s what makes the whole difference,” she said. “Women all have a sense of cautious optimism about the future, they know they made incredible progress over the last 12 years and they see a lot of hope that this will continue.”
Thanks to the lessons learned from working in “one of the world’s most fragile states,” Fung shared the challenges, risks and importance of treating all sides of a story. Through powerful stories about education, health and women, it is a sorely-needed bit of optimism in the challenging future that lies ahead for this country.


Adrienne Clarkson talks about belonging

Renowned Governor General delivers opening 2014 Massey Lectures at Concordia

Journalist, author, and former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson delivered a poignant and complex analysis of what it means to belong on the opening night of the 2014 Massey Lectures.

Her talk, entitled Belonging:The Paradox of Citizenship, provided a careful synthesis of ideas ranging from the personal to the antiquated.

Drawing on knowledge from a lifetime of curiosity and research, the larger part of her lecture was an in-depth analysis of literary and historical instances of belonging and citizenship.

Perhaps a deliberate nod to Quebec’s roots, France’s literary tradition and the evolution of one particular French town throughout the ages, from brute feudalism between secular and religious lords to enlightened democracy, was the main focus, with other examples pulled from domains like biology and philosophy.

For Clarkson, citizenship is an enduring web of connections, simultaneously an obligation stemming from the responsibility owed to others and a deep well to draw upon for strength. It is a peek into the persistent need, even of societies like our own, which concern themselves primarily with individualism, for “stabilization and confirmation outside ourselves.”

Clarkson’s debut also explored the mutability of these identities, showing that nothing is written in stone and the majority have final say about who is one of us and who isn’t. For all the talk of origins and common experience, outsiders are joined by threads above culture and approaching the fundamental human experience.

In a nutshell, “If we remove our sense of belonging to each other, no matter what our material and social conditions are, survival, acquisition, and selfish triumphalism will endure at the cost of our humanity,” she said, quoting historian Alan Turnbull.

While her speech was intellectual in nature and required a prior grounding for best effect, it was her personal history and opinion unlocked during the question and answer period which created the strongest emotional resonance with the crowd.

When asked about the limits of citizenship and integration, Clarkson dug into her own memories and experiences as a young girl in an immigrant family coming to a country still plagued by racialism and discrimination. By drawing the connections from state-sponsored exclusion, such as the head tax, to the Japanese labour camps of WWII, and finally to Quebec’s current battle over identity politics and accommodation, the lecture came full circle by reminding us of the very pressing and present Canadian evolution of belonging.

The Massey Lectures continue with dates in Halifax, Saskatoon Vancouver, and finally in Toronto. Recording will be featured on CBC’s Ideas in November.

Student Life

More than just the ‘chimp lady’

Famous for her work with chimpanzees, Dr. Goodall came to Concordia to spread a message of hope

“Oooo whoooo oo who oo who oo who oo who oo who oooo whooo oo who oo who oo 

Photo by Keith Race


“That’s me, Jane, in chimpanzee,” explained Dr. Jane Goodall.

Slight of stature but bright of countenance, all eyes were on Dr. Goodall as she made her way to the stage accompanied by raucous applause and an audience that stood up from their seats to honour the world renowned primatologist and environmentalist.

Dr. Goodall brought a stuffed cow and monkey with her to the stage, which she placed on the table next to the podium before launching into her introduction which included a greeting in chimpanzee-speak.

Dr. Goodall had been invited to speak by Concordia University, the Concordia Alumni Association and the CSU. Her lecture, entitled “Sowing the Seeds of Hope,” was part of her current 8-week tour which will next take her to the United States and then on to Europe.

There are a lot of accomplishments under Dr. Goodall’s belt. She pioneered the study of chimpanzee behaviour,  has written over 25 books, received numerous awards, started the Jane Goodall Institute, the Roots & Shoots program, and spearheaded a multitude of conservation and environmental campaigns. Her success is acclaimed worldwide and she is highly respected as an expert in the field of primatology, anthropology and ethology. Furthermore, she is a UN Messenger of Peace and was made a Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2004.

How does she account for all this achievement? She credits her mother:

“I put a great deal of credit [to] my mother because she was an extraordinary mother. When I was born I seemed to have an innate love of animals. I don’t know where it came from, I just had it. And she always supported this.”

As proof of her mother’s hand in her accomplishments, Dr. Goodall captivated the audience with stories of her mother’s acceptance of Dr. Goodall’s curiosity and desire for knowledge.

“I was 18 months — I don’t remember this of course — but I was 18 months when she came to my room and found that I’d taken a whole handful of wriggling earthworms to bed with me. She said ‘Jane it looked like you were trying to work out how they walked without legs.’ And instead of getting mad at me, you know, ‘throw these dirty things out the window’ she said, ‘Jane they need the earth they’ll die here. And together we took them back into the garden.’ ”

Her mother also accompanied her during her first six month sojourn in Tanzania where she made the discovery that would launch her career and change the way scientists thought about animals.

But Dr. Goodall didn’t come all the way to Montreal to talk about her mother or give a biography of her life. She had come to talk about the fate of our planet: why we should be concerned and why we should also be hopeful.

Dr. Goodall is not a preacher. Although she advocates fiercely for animal rights, conservation, vegetarianism and environmental consideration, she does not stand on a soapbox and exhort. Rather, Dr. Goodall uses calm logic, reasoning and emotional sensibility to demonstrate the reasons for why we need to take an active stance in rehabilitating the earth, in stopping deforestation, the spreading of the desert, the rising levels of C02 in the atmosphere, the shrinking water supplies, the loss of biodiversity and species extinction.

“We’re destroying the planet. Fewer people understand the tremendous harm that’s being done as the middle classes grow around the world, in the developing countries, which of course is a good thing, less poverty, but it turns out very often as people get more money they feel the need to eat more meat and to eat more meat amongst all these billions of people means raising billions and billions of animals to feed them. And people want cheap meat. So the conditions in these intensive farms are truly horrendous but even if you don’t care about animal suffering, and some people apparently don’t, but even if you don’t care, huge areas of forest are cut down every year to grow the grain and graze the cattle for all these billions of different kinds of animals that we’re eating. As the animals are fed slightly richer food than they normally would have to make them grow quicker the process of digestion is producing more and more methane gas. That’s what you get from the process of digestion in people, I don’t know a polite way of saying it but you all know exactly what I mean.”

And thus we came to what Dr. Goodall described as her “greatest reason for hope,” the Roots & Shoots program.

The Roots & Shoots program is a youth-oriented initiative that began with 12 students on the verandah of Dr. Goodall’s house in Tanzania. The students were concerned with the problems they saw in the world around them and wanted Dr. Goodall to fix them. Instead, Dr. Goodall suggested that they get together the other students who felt as they did and work as a group to improve things on an environmental, human, and animal level.

Dr. Goodall expressed that she believes the damage to the earth can be reversed but it’s up to the people of this world to make that happen, specifically youth. That’s why the Roots & Shoots program is her “greatest reason for hope,” she sees the youth of this earth as the answer to preserving our planet.

“It’s my greatest reason for hope I think, Roots & Shoots, because everywhere I go on this endless circuit around the planet there are young people with shining eyes wanting to tell Dr. Jane what they’ve been doing to make this a better world. And its a group of young people around the world that share our philosophy, a group of young people that understand yes we need money to live but when we start living for money in and of itself that’s when it goes wrong. To make a lot of money, there’s nothing wrong with that if you use it for the right purpose, to make the world a better place.”

The Roots & Shoots program is now in 136 countries, including Canada. In fact, representatives from the Vanguard Intercultural High School Roots & Shoots group, were at the lecture and presented Dr. Goodall with a booklet that cited all the ways she had inspired them.

They were not the only youth in the audience. During the Q&A, bright-eyed children as young as eight stood in line to speak to Dr. Goodall. They were inquisitive and eager and Dr. Goodall clearly meant a lot to them as a role model, and if any proof is needed to show Dr. Goodall’s message is getting through to the younger generations, this was it.


Audience at Concordia enthralled by Chomsky

Noam Chomsky came to Concordia on Sat, Oct. 26 as part of the Concordia Student Union’s ongoing speaker series, delivering an oration to an enthralled audience on the topic of his choosing; the neo-liberal assault on the population.

Photo Keith Race

Concordia students were so eager to hear Noam Chomsky speak that the event sold out in under an hour.

On Facebook alone there were 1,190 people confirmed as going, and considering the D.B. Clarke Theater seats a maximum of 387, it’s no surprise the seminar was a quick sell. There was so much disappointment about the limited seating that the CSU set up a live video feed to accommodate both an overflow room on campus and live streaming at home.

Those in attendance, in person or as part of a digital audience, listened as Noam Chomsky advanced his theory that the canons of contemporary politics are in dangerous disharmony with the general population and pose an existential threat to the entire world. He proposed that the high-minded rhetoric of our western democratic institutions is merely a veil that shrouds the plutocratic manipulations of our system.

He terms  the factual state of our political system as “Really Existing Capitalist Democracy,” or RECD —pronounced “wrecked”— for short. The audience was enthralled. Several times during the speech bursts of laughter rolled through the auditorium. One instance came at the off-hand comment that western democracy is more aptly defined as a kleptocracy.

The crowd was absorbed by Chomsky. After its end, and after a standing ovation, students filed through the auditorium foyer, buzzing and star-struck.

Kristifer Szabo, a geography major at Concordia, has been reading Chomsky since he was fifteen. It was his first time seeing Chomsky in person and he felt the seminar was a worthwhile endeavor, calling it, “Probably the single best use of Concordia’s resources in recent memory.”

“I know you shouldn’t be so concerned with the personality of the person, it’s the ideas that matter, but I’m just struck by his breadth of knowledge and the way he can relate contemporary problems to things that were happening hundreds of years ago, because its all the same themes,” said Szabo.

His description of the status-quo is antithetical to the conventional narrative and his often adversarial tone has been known to deflate passions more often than it inspires. Often, Chomsky’s detractors describe him along the lines of a delusional academic who offers only criticisms without hope or solutions. This was not the case on Saturday.

“He was more optimistic than I thought he would be when he was answering the questions, and very down to earth as well,” UdeM student, Emilie Rochon-Gruselle said, “Some people think that his theories are kind of out there, that you can’t really implement them in real life and I thought that he really had that kind of optimism and that fundamental belief in human nature; that we’re capable of change all while being realistic.”

Another UdeM student, Olivier Jacques, shared the same sentiment, saying, “I prefer when he speaks about incremental change than revolutionary change. I think it’s more realistic, and I was surprised and happy that that was what he said.”

An online video of the seminar will be made available soon on CSU’s youtube at


Noam Chomsky sells out D.B. Clarke Theatre in less than an hour

Tickets for Noam Chomsky’s lecture, “The Neo-liberal Assault on the Population,” went on sale at 1 p.m. on Oct. 17 and sold out all 400 seats that were on sale, at both the Sir George Williams and Loyola campuses, in under an hour.

Credit Catherine Anne Lafontaine

The Concordia Student Union (CSU) has been trying to get Noam Chomsky to come and speak at Concordia for many years. Former CSU executive Adrien Severyns put Concordia

on a waiting list three years ago and reminded CSU’s current VP External, Caroline Bourbonniere to get in touch with Chomsky’s people. In July, Bourbonniere enthusiastically called Chomsky’s assistant on behalf of Concordia.

“I was persistent for a month and insisted that Concordia was an especially relevant community for him to visit and that we had been waiting for years. Chomsky finally wrote me back a personal e-mail from Geneva saying he would be in Montreal at the end of October and that we would touch base soon,” said Bourbonniere.

After a month with no word from Chomsky, CSU’s hopes began to dwindle but Bourbonniere pleaded to Chomsky’s team with one last e-mail, and finally got confirmation in early October.

The topic of neo-liberal assault was chosen by Chomsky with regards to what themes Concordia wanted him to touch upon. Chomsky’s traditional work revolves around linguistics, philosophy, and critiquing U.S. foreign policy, state capitalism and mainstream news media.  Bourbonniere told Chomsky’s team about the campaigns currently being worked on by Concordia students, such as the fossil fuel divestment campaign, the Anti-P6 campaign, the NSA and surveillance issues in addition to some more timely themes such as deregulation and the commodification of education.

Bourbonniere explained that, “given that all these themes are linked to neo-liberalism, Chomsky chose that title. The word choice of ‘assault’ was especially relevant, Chomsky will explain why.”

Having Noam Chomsky come to Concordia is especially exciting given the university’s strong activist culture and history. Bourbonniere told The Concordian that the CSU team is thrilled and that it is a milestone for both the CSU and the university.

“With many accomplishments, Chomsky is one of the most prominent intellectuals of our time, he has vastly contributed to the fields on linguistics, philosophy, cognitive science, logic, activism and politics and has also written over 100 books,” said Bourbonniere.

There will be a 45-minute question period at the end of Chomsky’s speech. The busy activist has another talk at the Université de Montréal that same night, so he will be in a rush to get some rest. Because of this, students will not have the opportunity to speak with him or to get a photo or autograph.

Since the event sold out so fast, the CSU is in the process of trying to book the BMO auditorium for the overflow of students. The auditorium would be set up with a large screen where the talk would be live streamed.

Student Life

This year’s Massey Lecture gets bloody

Diabetes, blood poisoning, blood cells, mosquitoes, blood doping, menstruation, bloodletting, blood transfusions, and Rh disease, were just some of the topics brought up by renown Canadian author Lawrence Hill, the bestselling author of The Book of Negroes, at this year’s Massey Lectures, which debuted in Concordia’s D.B. Clarke Theatre last Tuesday.

Lawrence Hill mentioned many personal anecdotes, including his family’s struggle with diabetes, his personal experience with malaria, his parents’ history, and many stories about his youth. Photo by Nathalie Laflamme

The lecture, entitled Blood: The Stuff of Life, studies the effect blood has on people’s lives.

“Notions of blood seem to run through all of my books, so the time seemed right to pull it all together and examine some of the many ways that blood influences the ways we see ourselves, individually and collectively,” Hill said.

The first chapter of the lecture, entitled “Go Careful with That Blood of Mine: Blood Counts,” concentrated on the history of people’s knowledge of blood, the science behind it, and how it can bring people together, and also be their shortcoming. Hill interspersed originally presented facts with personal anecdotes and jokes. The lecture was followed by a short Q&A period, as well as a book signing.

Hill spoke of fascinating and curious historic events. For example, he spoke of the fact that George Washington died after doctors had performed bloodletting, meaning removing large amounts of blood to help cure diseases, in order to help him get over a cold. He spoke of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis who, in the 1800s, was thought to be insane for believing that filthy medical equipment was the reason why many women were dying when giving birth (it was later discovered that they had indeed died from blood poisoning caused by soiled instruments).

Hill also made complicated topics easy to understand by making great comparisons. In order to explain the way blood works, for example, he compared blood cell types to types of people: the white blood cell was said to be like a soldier at war, ready to fight whatever infection attacked. The red blood cell is like a bedmate, someone who is all giving, as it “kisses your cells with the gift of oxygen,” Hill explained.

The next chapter of the lecture will take place in Halifax on Oct. 17, then move to Vancouver, Edmonton, and finally conclude in Toronto on Nov. 1. Photo by Nathalie Laflamme

Many diseases that can be shared between people were also discussed. This included diabetes, which can be hereditary, and malaria, which is spread by the blood mosquitoes bring from person to person. Hill also spoke of Rh disease, a disease where when a women’s blood type is negative while the baby’s is positive, the mother’s antibodies attack the baby’s blood. This can lead to many complications, including the death of the fetus. Thanks to Rh immune serum, which was licensed for use in 1968, and made in part from women plasma donations, this disease rarely affects people anymore.

Hill mentioned many personal anecdotes, including his family’s struggle with diabetes, his personal experience with malaria, his parents’ history, and many stories about his youth.

“I have always been interested in social histories. A social history of coffee or sugar, for example, will reveal much about history, commerce, social inequity, transatlantic trading relations, and politics. So why not a social history of blood? I find it a fascinating lens through which to contemplate who we are, and how we act. That, in a nutshell, is why I chose the topic,” Hill said

The Massey Lectures, which were named in honour of the late Governor-General of Canada, Vincent Massey, have been commissioned annually by CBC since 1961. The aim of the lectures is to provide a radio forum where major contemporary thinkers could address important issues. Some past lecturers include Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967), Noam Chomsky (1988) and Michael Ignatieff (2000).

The next chapter of the lecture will take place in Halifax on Oct. 17, then move to Vancouver, Edmonton, and finally conclude in Toronto on Nov. 1. The book Blood: the Stuff of Life, published by House of Anansi Press, is now available in bookstores. The 2013 Massey Lectures will be broadcast on CBC Radio One IDEAS from Nov. 11 to 15. The show plays weekdays at 9 p.m..

For more information visit


Canadian legend discusses environmentalism

Photo of David Suzuki via Flickr.

David Suzuki presented a lecture in front of more than a thousand students at John Abbott College in honour of the official inauguration of the new science building Wednesday.

The college cancelled classes to allow students to watch the speech, entitled The Challenge of the 21st Century: Setting the Real Bottom Line. The lecture was also available through a live webcast to more than 13,000 high school students as far away as Gaspé.

Throughout the lecture, Suzuki imparted his wisdom to the attendees.

“The planet is not in trouble,” he said. “The planet will be just fine, with or without us. We’re the ones who are in trouble.”

Suzuki said he often gets asked how the planet can be saved but expressed it was not the planet that needed saving, but the people inhabiting it.

“Environmentalism is not a speciality, it’s not a discipline,” he explained. “Environmentalism is a way of seeing our place on the planet.”

Suzuki referred to himself as an “elder” and shared his belief that it is up to elders to pass wisdom onto the next generation but that it is up to the youth to take action.

Suzuki told the students the most important difference they can make is to see the world through an environmentalist’s eyes.

Suzuki emphasized that wealth was not defined by money, but, as his father said, relationships are what constitute prosperity. He went onto explain that the last weeks of his father’s life were some of the happiest they shared.

John Abbott student Jeremy Pizzi said that while he didn’t learn anything new, the lecture was still enlightening. Pizzi found the most effective part of Suzuki’s lecture was when he held up the 1992 document World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity in which leading scientists warned against the impact of environmental destruction and global warming.

“If not checked, current practices put at serious risk the future we wish for a human society,” read Suzuki. “No more than one or a few decades remain.”

John Abbott College inaugurated their new science and technology building after the presentation. The building is heated with geothermal technology and the college is hoping it will be certified gold in the Leadership in Environment and Energy Design, a ranking system for eco-friendly buildings.

Suzuki finished by speaking about the economic market as a major factor in the environmental debate today. “If it’s not working we can change the market, we can’t change the laws of nature but we can sure as hell change the things that we invent.”


Using science to feed a nation

Scientist Matthew Harsh explored the human side of agricultural engineering on Tuesday in the first Engineering and Computer Science lecture of the year entitled “Biotechnology in Africa: surveying systems of innovation for development.”

An expert in the field of innovation and governance of biotechnology and biosafety, Harsh spoke to a small audience in the EV building about his time spent in Kenya working as part of a research team trying to create a tissue culture banana that would spur the growth of bananas for farmers in Kenya.

The goal was to use technology as a solution to the insecure food situation in Kenya. However, some problems did arise during their research.

“We hadn’t really thought about what we were going to do with this excess amount of bananas,” said Harsh, explaining that the Kenyan markets in proximity to these banana farmers are too small to deal with extra crops. “And it wasn’t easy to convince the farmers because they also didn’t want this many bananas.”

Eschewing the more technical scientific aspects, Harsh focused instead on the innovation of his research in Kenya and the sociology revolving around it. The process of securing funding for projects like this and getting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved are all critical steps when conducting research of this nature, according to Harsh.

In his case, it was the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) that played an important role in making Harsh’s team’s project possible.

Banana surpluses aside, Harsh said that the real success of their research was the links he and his team managed to make within the Kenyan society.

“This project was a success in linkage, meaning we got a lot of people to work together to make something happen,” said Harsh. “It’s hard work to get everyone to agree to interact and also agree on a project.”


Triage system can harm access to AIDS drugs: specialist

In 1982, an 18 year-old student attended a seminar about HIV/AIDS at Concordia, which inspired him to fight the once highly stigmatized disease.

Nearly 30 years later, this student, now an associate professor in the department of social and preventive medicine at Université de Montréal and a specialist in AIDS research, led a seminar of his own at Concordia on Nov. 10.

Dr. Vinh-Kim Nguyen spoke to students, professors, and AIDS activists from Montreal in French about his time researching the effects of AIDS in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.

As part of Concordia’s ongoing HIV/AIDS community lecture series, the presentation drew awareness to the consequences of HIV treatments in Africa, which are largely unknown.

Nguyen focused on the period following the beginning of widespread use of antiretroviral drugs in the 1990s, which lead to a significant drop in HIV/AIDS-related deaths. For many African countries, these life-saving drugs were scarce and the virus was considered an “invisible disease because it was not seen as a problem,” according to Nguyen.

A native-born Ivorian who attended the seminar noted that when he was growing up, his father had told him that “HIV does not exist because gays do not exist.”

With this kind of mindset, the disease continued to spread, and it became increasingly important to get tested, and to talk about the disease. Awareness campaigns were introduced, using such messages such as, “I want to live happily for a long time, so I am adopting a responsible sex life.”

Because of the scarcity and price of drugs, health organizations relied on triage where only certain people would receive the lifesaving drugs, Nguyen said. People were selected based on their ability to communicate and be suitable AIDS activists.

Speaking from an anthropological perspective, Nguyen did not offer solutions. Instead, he criticized the triage system and noted that it was difficult for Africans to talk about themselves. In North America, he explained how “we are swimming in a confessional culture.” For Africans, it is not as easy to confess, Nguyen explained.

A consequence of triage, Nguyen argued, was that it could lead to “therapeutic sovereignty,” or a fight over who should have access to treatment.

Nguyen has observed how communities are now forming with infected people who have access to drugs which have fragmented society, which he said has led to these people living longer and taxing the fragile health care system.

The associate professor wrote about the “therapeutic sovereignty” phenomenon in The Republic of Therapy: Triage and Sovereignty in West Africa’s Time of AIDS, published in 2010.

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