Canada’s universities and colleges are failing science

Amir Attaran and Jacob Shelley: By not requiring COVID-19 vaccination like the world’s top institutions, Canada’s universities are making themselves the dunces of COVID-19 The post Canada’s universities and colleges are failing science appeared first on

Canada’s universities and colleges are failing science

Amir Attaran and Jacob Shelley are professors who specialize in health law, at the University of Ottawa and Western University, respectively

Their names are famous: Berkeley.  Caltech.  Harvard.  MIT.  Princeton.  Stanford.  Yale.  Nobody doubts their excellence. And lately they are joined by an excellent Canadian institution, Seneca College.

What does it take to join this exalted company? All the institutions we just named have strict policies that students, staff and faculty must be vaccinated for COVID-19 to come on campus this coming academic year. Those who do not vaccinate, without a very good reason for exempting themselves, simply must stay away. By ejecting the unvaccinated, there will be no superspreading in crowded dorms, classrooms, dining halls, gyms and parties.  

Over 400 American have now chosen mandatory vaccination for the new academic year. The inevitable legal challenge has happened, and won the right to require vaccination on campus. Naturally the usual cultural fault lines persist, so conservative institutions, particularly , refuse to make vaccines mandatory.  

But there is no disagreement among the very best, and of the top 10 American universities, all 10 require everyone be fully vaccinated.  

Which makes it very disappointing that in Canada, no institutions have done likewise, except for plucky Seneca College. Not the Universities of Alberta, British Columbia, Calgary, Manitoba, Montreal, Ottawa, Saskatchewan, Victoria or Toronto.  Not Dalhousie, Guelph, Laval, McGill, McMaster, Memorial, Waterloo or Western.  

All these Canadian colleges and universities, plus those we have not named, are acting as if there is not a pandemic happening, and vaccines are not the way out of it. Their stance is, to put it politely, anti-scientific for institutions of higher learning, palpably inferior to the world’s best, and fatal to the feel-good bromide that “good” Canadians care more for the health of their neighbours or community than “selfish” Americans.  

Canada’s universities and colleges must know they are in the wrong, but lack the courage to behave differently, and instead offer spurious excuses for not making vaccination mandatory.  

Western University President Alan Shepard is more vocal than most about why his institution refuses to implement a campus-wide vaccine mandate (despite the half-step of requiring students in residences to be vaccinated). He that Western is “very comfortable” encouraging but not requiring vaccination, because it has “gone as far as [it] can go legally.”  

But as law professors, we see no truth in that. Every college and university already has a host of health and safety rules which employees and students must follow. A new rule requiring vaccination is perfectly legal, provided that limited exceptions are made to accommodate those having demonstrable, sound medical or religious objections. 

In Ontario, where Western University is located, schools already for some diseases, so higher education obviously can too. Many campuses, including Western, already have policies in place to limit the spread of aerosols—namely, smoking bans—as if the virus does not present a far more pervasive airborne threat. Nor is there is a credible argument that campuses open themselves to liability by requiring vaccination, not when they serve alcohol, have rugby teams, and skydiving clubs, which are far more dangerous. The liability excuse is a comically weak bogeyman for inaction, because there has never been a successful lawsuit for vaccine injuries in Canada.

Deep down, the universities and colleges must know that their legal excuses are false pretexts. So they are gamely practicing talking points for when things turn sour. Defending Western’s opposition to mandatory vaccination, Dr. Shepard exuded profundity and answered that, “The future is never as clear as the past is.”  

Okay, sure. But for universities that teach, you know, science, it should not be so terribly difficult to forecast that future for a viral pathogen that we now understand very well.

Currently in Canada, the vaccination rate for college- and university-aged adults (18 to 29) is awful.  are fully vaccinated, which makes them ripe to drive the fourth wave. Since it is now the end of July, and it takes two weeks after the second dose to become maximally immunized, there is hardly any time left to reach these incoming students before classes begin. Unless universities and colleges turn instantly to require full vaccination, it seems likely that half or more of students will be arriving on campus unimmunized, or at best with a single dose that is scantly protective against the aggressive Delta variant.  

But rather than plan in a timely way as American institutions did—the University of California system, which is the world’s largest, launched its mandatory vaccine policy —our backwards Canadian institutions are fudging science and pretending half-measures will protect students.

Take the University of Ottawa. It and many other universities have gone partway to require some vaccination—just one dose!—but only for students living in university residences. (Western students can move in to residence with once dose, but are required to get fully vaccinated within two weeks of their arrival.)  

The trouble is, one dose does not make for immunization; absolutely no health authority in the world says that it does.  

We asked the University of Ottawa why, instead of this unscientific half-measure, it is not doing like the Berkeleys, Caltechs, Harvards and Stanfords of the world and requiring full vaccination for all on campus. The university answered that it is still “exploring all angles regarding this question”—a rather backwards place to be in late July—but declined to provide a reason for rejecting the example of the world’s best. We got a similar answer from Universities Canada, the umbrella group of higher education. It says that Canadian universities “are monitoring the trajectory of the pandemic and vaccinations with great interest so they can adapt policies”—which is just a fancy way of saying that the plan is to kick the can down the road.

This sort of dodging is immoral. If a doctor urged patients into society with just one dose of a two-dose vaccine, obviously that would be called medical malpractice—so how is it okay for institutions like the University of Ottawa with a medical school to do likewise? When their half-vaccinated students land in co-op placements or internships in the community, including potentially where they meet vulnerable seniors or unvaccinated children, is that okay too? All the Canadian institutions that are requiring no vaccination, or half-vaccination, are so scientifically lost at sea that they cannot teach health promotion or medical ethics without farcically conceding their own misconduct.

If Canada’s colleges and universities do not act, the communities where they sit should force them. Indeed, administrators seem eager to pass the buck to local health authorities, and for their own safety, the local authorities ought to oblige. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control  that last year, before vaccination was possible, colleges that diminished their student impact by remote instruction brought about an 18 per cent decline in COVID-19 disease in their surrounding community, while those that did not brought about a 56 per cent increase. The difference would be greater now, with Delta circulating. Not vaccinating campuses fully is guaranteed to spread a fourth wave to the communities which host them.

As professors, these concerns weigh heavily on us, and colleagues we know say it weighs on them too, even though most will not volunteer their names to say so.  Nobody wants to be part of a college or university that is scientifically and morally backwards, which is why student unions and faculty associations across the country have called for vaccinations to be mandated. Nobody wants to lead students, families and their own community into avoidable, but ignored, danger.  

When full vaccination and immunity is presently the exception rather than the rule, we cannot recommend that students return for in-person classes, because they can be among the unlucky few who get seriously ill or they can pick up an infection that they bring home to someone more vulnerable.  That is hard to say, because we miss being on campus as much as anyone. But when the universities and colleges act negligently, they endanger the young adults in their care and fail in their duty to act in loco parentis.

The risks would be much reduced if Canadian colleges and universities aspired to be the best in the world. Indeed they should all desperately want to be more like Berkeley, Caltech, Harvard, MIT, Stanford or the rest of the top tier. But aspiring to anything beyond mediocrity is not very Canadian, and come to vaccination, there are two possible explanations why:

(1) Canada’s institutions of higher learning do not really believe that it is important to be driven by science, so they are comfortable turning their backs on vaccination, or;

(2) Canada’s leaders, both in higher learning and in government, lack the courage to make difficult and controversial decisions during a pandemic, even if it puts lives at stake.

Which of these explanations do you prefer? The first has dreadful implications for Canada’s ability to make itself a science-led, high-tech, prosperous society when our global competitors are doing exactly this. The second shreds our national mythologies of being well governed and being humane. Either way, our colleges and universities are guilty of advertising to the world that Canada is not a serious place. 

Only mandatory vaccination gives Canada a rightful claim to excellence. We agree with Seneca College President David Agnew “if we’re serious about protecting the health and safety of all of our community then it’s the right thing and the logical thing to do.”

But right now the colleges and universities are doing the wrong thing, for the country surely, but especially for the young adults in their care. They have lost their way and must mandate vaccinations in very few days that remain before campuses fill up. If they do not, they are betraying their students and the communities where they are situated—and they will deserve the blame and condemnation when infections burn bright on campus this fall.  

CORRECTION, July 29, 2021: An earlier version of this story indicated that Western will only require students in residences to have one COVID-19 vaccination. In fact, it will require students to get second shots within two weeks of moving in to residences.

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The Inuk woman using TikTok to expose high food prices in the North

'Food insecurity is not just about food insecurity,' says Kyra Flaherty. 'It ties into so many other societal problems.' The post The Inuk woman using TikTok to expose high food prices in the North appeared first on

The Inuk woman using TikTok to expose high food prices in the North

Kyra Flaherty’s TikTok videos are a stark—and often staggering—look at the high costs of living in Canada’s North, even with more than $100 million committed in 2021 to subsidize food and essential items through Ottawa’s Nutrition North program. 

In May, the 24-year-old mother of three—who in her day job is a tourism development coordinator with the Nunavut government—posted a video on her TikTok account, , displaying the prices of food and essential items during one of her weekly grocery shopping trips to the NorthMart in Iqaluit. She awoke the next morning to thousands of comments from people shocked to see a 200-metre roll of aluminum foil priced at $69.99 (the same roll sells for $25.99 ), and a 40-pound bag of dog food being sold for $162.99 (typical price: $44.99).

In addition to her mini-exposés on grocery prices, Flaherty has on TikTok through videos in which she prepares Inuit country food like pitsik (smoked arctic char), and through educational videos about life in Nunavut. 

Flaherty spoke to Maclean’s about the impact of her TikTok videos, why she considers access to affordable food in Canada’s North “suicide prevention” and what systemic change she hopes to see at the federal level to adequately address food insecurity in Nunavut.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. A fuller look at grocery prices that Flaherty has captured on camera appears at the bottom of the post.

Q: What led you to post your TikTok showing the prices of food and other items sold at the NorthMart in Iqaluit? 

A: I was posting time-lapse videos of the North on my TikTok, and somebody had commented back saying that they’ve heard the prices up here are outrageous. They didn’t know if it was true or not, and they thought who they heard this information from was exaggerating. So on my next grocery shopping trip, I decided to take some photos of the prices.. 

Q: The caption on your first one was “affordable food is suicide prevention.” Can you explain that?

A: That caption is the reality we face in Nunavut. There’s no possible way for anyone to thrive in life when they can’t even get their next meal. Food is a basic necessity and if you can’t get that, there’s no way for you to truly be okay. Thankfully, we have an amazing city and many have relied on someone as a friend or neighbour. But when housing prices are too high and food is priced for the higher class, that’s where there are significant problems within our society. Our soup kitchen is often full, so where do those who are turned away go for their next meal? Their mental health would not be okay. That is our reality, and it’s extremely heartbreaking, because we all know way too many friends and family members who have died by suicide here.

Q: You have tagged NDP party leader Jagmeet Singh in some of your videos on food prices. Now that these videos have been seen by hundreds of thousands, have you been contacted by him, or the North West Company, which owns the NorthMarts whose prices you show? What about other political figures? 

A: No, I have not. I do work in tourism though, and in one of our last meetings I brought up how [TikTok] could be a really good platform for us to use in our media division. So they invited me to help guide them through that process. Before I even started making these videos I’ve always had faith not only in [the NDP] party, but [Singh], especially when his campaign was running. I see great change in him, and him having TikTok connects him to someone like me who makes videos. I really hope that he sees my videos.

@arcticmakeupReply to @barbiesizzle ##greenscreen @thejagmeetsingh ##inuit ##poverty ##nunavut ##groceryprices ##nativetiktok ##arcticmakeup♬ Running Away – VANO 3000 & BADBADNOTGOOD & Samuel T. Herring

Q: Other than spreading awareness, what impact have your videos had?

A: I’ve done two virtual classroom visits after teachers came across my videos. One was in Connecticut, and the other was in Canada. During the visit, I spent about an hour with each class and talked about the North. The students had all watched my videos, so they were just asking me about misconceptions of the North, about the food prices, what life is like up here, and about our culture. They were blown away and shocked about the food prices, for sure. There’s also been so much love in response to my videos. People have sent so many [food items] to my mailbox, I keep my mailing address in my bio, and I distribute the items to families who need them. 

Q: I’ve seen some of your videos where you unbox the packages mailed to you. What items have you received from people, and how do you distribute them to those in need? 

A: The first package I gave to our neighbour, who lives on welfare, because it contained a couple of items that are mostly essentials like some noodles and crackers. I think there was some aluminum foil as well because one of my videos displayed the outrageous price that the North West Company was charging for it, so they sent some of that. I’ve given some items to daycares because people have sent baby clothing or Pampers and other baby items. But because we know everyone here, you just kind of know who needs it so we often bring it to their front door. I think I’ve gotten about 15 to 20 packages. 

Q: As someone who has lived in Nunavut for your entire life, when were you aware of the disparities your territory faces when it comes to the prices of food and essential items? 

A: More so when I was in high school. I did a project on food insecurity in the North, I wish I remembered more about that. When I was a young kid, my best friend’s household was not doing well financially, so she would come over to spend time with me a lot and we’d give her extra snacks. When my parents would order sea lift items, they would always give some to them as well. I remember noticing that as a kid.

Q: Your friend’s experience is not unique. Inuit in Canada face the of any Indigenous population in an industrialized nation. What do you make of that statistic? 

A: It’s really sad and heartbreaking because food insecurity is not just about food insecurity. It ties into so many other societal problems. When I think about food insecurity, I think about no money, and that means no jobs, and maybe [these people] are not educated enough, and maybe there’s substance abuse. It intersects with so many other things, and it is really painful to think about. Nunavut also has, I believe, the , and food poverty ties into that for sure.

Q: How much do the prices of food fluctuate throughout the year?

A: A lot can change within a couple of weeks. Usually, on our government paydays, which is every two weeks on a Friday, you can tell that the prices have gone up. Items like fresh fruit and vegetables, especially in the winter, are not very fresh and don’t last as long, and they are also much more expensive. Fresh produce sometimes doubles or more in price. Grise Fiord, where my father’s family is from, has one local Co-op which is their only grocery store. They were having trouble with how to lower prices for residents there, and Grise Fiord is probably one of the worst places in Nunavut for food costs.

Q: Other than from one of the grocery stores in Nunavut, where else can you buy food and essential items? 

A: A lot of people eat , so that’s probably the most sustainable and fresh meat that you can get from here. It is also local; it doesn’t need to be flown in. But if you were to buy things like non-perishables, the biggest place I would say would be Amazon. A lot of people resort to buying their groceries from there.

Q: Amazon has been offering free shipping year-round to Nunavut with a Prime membership, which is a pretty big deal. How has this changed how people shop? 

A: It’s both good and bad. A lot of people don’t have the spare savings to spend on cereal and other non-perishables to come in a few weeks from now. Often they need their food right now, and [through Amazon] it can take a couple of weeks to get here. So even though they have access to somewhere that’s cheaper and that is delivered for free, sometimes they don’t have any choice but to buy from the store if they don’t have any food in their cupboards. But it definitely is a game-changer and saves people a lot of money. 

Q: Nutrition North launched in 2011, and today you are reminded of the subsidy amount on the receipt whenever you purchase something—what are your thoughts on the program?

A: I honestly think [the federal government] can do more. I’m glad the program is there, but I definitely think more can be done—especially if they see the statistics that show our people are going hungry and the kids are going hungry to school. That should be raising so many red flags, and they should be putting more funding and more effort into that.

(Courtesy of Kyra Flaherty)

(Courtesy of Kyra Flaherty)

Q: Today, what role do food banks and financial aid have in ensuring the needs of the people in Nunavut are met?

A: If there was no food bank or financial aid, I can’t even imagine how our people would be surviving. Like, that’s just a scary thought. It helps so many families. [The food bank] is full all the time. Every time I drive by, there is a lineup of people outside waiting for their meal to be served. They are probably serving more people than what they can handle. I know that they run out of food sometimes, so not everyone can even access food through their food bank if they’ve run out. 

Q: With everything going on in your community, and with all of this information publicly available, what do you want, not only politicians but Canadians in general to know about this crisis in Nunavut?

A: I think that’s a really good question and a really big question. Before anything actually can be done, people should not just be more aware, but more sympathetic to us. Because there are too many who say that we live in that wasteland, or that frozen area, and that we get what we deserve for living here, and if we don’t like it then we should just move to the other parts of Canada. But you don’t just give up on things you love. This is our home. We’re not just going to give up and give in.

Nathan Sing writes about food security and hunger issues in Canada. His one-year position at Maclean’s is funded by the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security, in partnership with Community Food Centres Canada.

Note: After speaking with Flaherty, we contacted the North West Company, which owns the NorthMart stores that many Nunavut residents rely upon for groceries. Spokesperson Ellen Curtis said in an email that the company advocates for its customers on the issues of food insecurity and high prices.

“We support and invest in programs and infrastructure that lead to lower costs including more efficient supply chains and expanded sealift and winter-road warehouses,” she said. The company’s stores, she added, “operate in the same high-cost environment as our customers, where everything is more expensive, including electricity, rent, transportation and construction.”  

Regarding Flaherty’s observation that prices seem to rise every second Friday, Curtis said: “We do not raise prices to coincide with community paydays.”  — NS


A look at food prices in Nunavut

The images below were captured by Kyra Flaherty during her shopping trips in June


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