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Trevor Hancock: Physician group fighting for health and planet marks 30 years

Those of us who founded the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment in 1994 were ‘a bunch of environmentalists who just happened to be physicians’
A hiking trail in Alberta’s Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park. Some of CAPE’s highlights in the 2020s include becoming a founding partner in PaRx, Canada’s first national nature prescription program. Colette Derworiz, THE CANADIAN PRESS

In my time, I have co-founded a number of ­organizations, but I am particularly proud to have helped start CAPE — the Canadian Association of ­Physicians for the Environment — 30 years ago.

Three of us, independently, had started to develop the idea of some sort of doctors’ organization focused on the health of the planet in the early 1990s.

Warren Bell was — and still is — a family ­physician in Salmon Arm, while Tee Guidotti was a ­professor of occupational and environmental health at the ­University of Alberta (although he subsequently moved to Washington, D.C.), and I was an independent public health physician in Toronto.

We were, said Warren, a bunch of environmentalists who just happened to be physicians.

I had been calling for the creation of an organization of Physicians for the Environment in my work in the early 1990s, as had Warren, and I had served with Tee on a Task Force on Human and Ecosystem Health for the Canadian Public Health Association in 1992.

So we all got together in mid-1994 and by the end of that year had incorporated CAPE and become the Canadian affiliate of the International Society of Doctors for the Environment.

We started small, and all our work was voluntary, but we spoke out and had an important impact.

In a 1996 brief to the National Forum on Health on the importance of ecosystem health as a determinant of human health, we noted: “As physicians, we are ­concerned both professionally and personally about how the health of our patients may be affected by enviro­nmental degradation.”

But we also spelled out the wider aims of CAPE: “Our objectives as an organization are to better ­understand the health implications of environmental problems and global change, to educate physicians and the public on these health implications … and to encourage effective change in the way Canadians deal with environmental problems and global change so as to protect the health of the population.”

Today, having become a well-established ­organization with 18 staff and 10 regional committees, CAPE continues to pursue its vision that “the health of people and the planet are prioritized in society and policy in Canada.”

It does so by “mobilizing the credible voice of health professionals, health science, and evidence;” over the past 30 years, CAPE has “engaged over 25,000­ ­supporters … with close to 16,000 having taken action on a campaign!”

CAPE is an effective and powerful voice on a range of environmental issues, which in its latest strategic plan includes the three elements of the UN’s “triple planetary crisis” (climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution), as well as the broader policy framing of social justice and equity and the need to create a ­wellbeing economy and society.

Some of CAPE’s highlights in the 2020s include becoming a founding partner in PaRx, Canada’s first national nature prescription program; advocating for successful passage of federal climate accountability legislation and convincing the province of Québec to reject a new LNG project. CAPE also advocated with others to strengthen the Canadian ­Environmental ­Protection Act. The revised act now includes the ­recognition, for the first time, of the right to a healthy environment.

The act also updates the framework for toxic substances, another CAPE priority campaign, requiring the federal government to consider the cumulative impacts of toxins, and their effects on vulnerable populations.

In 2022, CAPE launched a campaign to ban fossil-fuel ads, a call that was joined earlier this month by UN ­Secretary General António Guterres, who called on countries to ban advertising from fossil-fuel companies.

Additionally, CAPE filed a complaint with the ­Competition Bureau to investigate green-washing by the fossil-fuel industry and joined a complaint to Advertising Standards Canada about misleading pro-LNG adverts.

The latter led to a recent ruling that the ads “paid for by Canada Action, are inaccurate, misleading, and ­distort the true meaning of statements by scientists.”

Many Canadians, and others around the world, have benefited from CAPE’s work over the past 30 years to better human health by protecting the planet.

It is hard to think of a more important task today, so it is vital that CAPE continue this important work in the years ahead.

Note to readers: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect name for Advertising Standards Canada.

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Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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