Global Warming Impacts Health

Climate change threatens to trigger a widespread and devastating health crisis in Canada. Why are medical professionals and policy-makers slow off the mark?

by Alex Roslin
Canadian Geographic
October 2010
[This article won a gold prize from the National Magazine Awards in the Editorial Package category and was a finalist for a second National Magazine Award in the Health & Medicine category.]

Monday, July 5, 2010, was the kind of sticky, pavement-shimmering Montréal day that only kids at a water park could appreciate. And that is just where 14-year-old Mathieu Thibodeau-Ross found himself, heading for the whitewater rafting ride at the Mont Saint-Sauveur Water Park, 75 kilometres northwest of Montréal.

The humidex was approaching 40°C a little after 11 a.m. when Mathieu started up the stairs to access the ride. He never made it to the top. Witnesses would later report that the teen started to wheeze and then collapsed. He was pronounced dead at the hospital, a victim of cardiac arrest.

It will likely take several months for the Quebec coroner’s office to determine what role the high heat and humidity may have played in Mathieu’s fate. But it is already clear that the number of deaths spiked to unusually high levels during the hot spell which began on that blazing July day. By Thursday, Environment Canada was calling it the most intense heat wave on record in Montréal. With thick smog blanketing the city all week, 80 people died in Montréal from various causes on that Thursday alone — double the typical daily total. ...

[Read the rest of this story here.]

Who Dares to Speak...

Saturday, August 28, 2010
[See story at Gazette site here and sidebar here.]

Dr. Shiv Chopra still remembers the words his friend spoke a few days before he died. "Every time I come here, I vomit," Dr. Chris Basudde, a fellow Health Canada doctor, had said. "I feel sick. I can't take this."
Chopra told his friend to see a doctor and take some time off work. Days later, he was stunned to learn that Basudde had died of a suspected heart attack.
Chopra said he, Basudde and two other Health Canada doctors were living under enormous stress and had seen their careers and lives turned upside down after they had protested against plans to approve bovine growth hormone -which was eventually banned from dairy production in 1999 -and other drugs they considered to be unsafe.
The four doctors were subjected to harassment and isolated from each other in different buildings, Chopra said. He got shingles that he attributes to the stress and went on sick leave. Health Canada fired Chopra and the two other surviving doctors in 2004, citing insubordination.
They have been fighting ever since to overturn their firings before a labour tribunal.
Chopra's story shows the intense personal and professional stress whistleblowers frequently face when they expose wrongdoing. Critics say it also shows how the Harper government, which was first elected promising openness and transparency, has failed to protect whistleblowers and, instead, has become obsessed with stamping out criticism.
So what is a lone whistle-blower to do in times of ever-greater government secrecy? Why, harness the magic of the Internet, of course.
As official channels of complaint fail, some whistleblowers in other countries are exposing wrongdoing by turning to websites like WikiLeaks, which has published leaked U.S. military footage of a massacre of Iraqi civilians and thousands of pages of classified U.S. military reports.
And whistle-blower advocates warn that Canadian government and corporate secrets may also start turning up on such websites if Canada doesn't do more to protect whistle-blowers.
We've come a long way since 1969 when Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg painstakingly photocopied 7,000 pages of a classified U.S. military study on the Vietnam War and smuggled them out in his briefcase -only to spend more than a year trying to find a way to make the damning information public.
Nowadays, the Pentagon Papers could have gone viral minutes after Ellsberg hit "send."

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper created an independent Public Sector Integrity Commissioner to protect whistleblowers in 2007, Chopra was cautiously optimistic. Here finally was someone who might investigate the doctors' claim that Health Canada managers had pressured them to approve questionable drugs.
Three years later, however, integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet's office is getting a failing grade from whistleblowers.
"None feel they have actually had satisfaction from the system. They're told to go away and that their case won't be dealt with," said David Hutton, the executive director of the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform, an Ottawa-based advocacy group that says it is in contact with about 90 Canadian whistle-blowers.
Hutton is calling on Harper to overhaul Canada's "fatally flawed" whistle-blower protection system and to replace Ouimet, a career federal civil servant, with someone more independently minded, noting that she has dismissed almost every complaint she's got.
Hutton said his group has heard from 15 federal government whistle-blowers who have dealt with the integrity commissioner's office. "What we hear from whistle-blowers is that her office is like a black hole. They feed all this information, and they never hear back," he said.
It's part of a broader dysfunction in Canadian governments of stamping out internal criticism and jealously guarding government secrets -a culture that has only accelerated under Harper, Hutton said.
Harper is under fire over silencing a long list of high-profile critics. They include veterans ombudsman Pat Strogan and crime-victims ombudsman Steve Sullivan (whose terms weren't renewed after they criticized the government), Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission president Linda Keen (who was fired after she shut down the Chalk River reactor due to safety concerns) and Statistics Canada boss Munir Sheikh (who resigned recently after clashing with the government over changes to the census).
The integrity commissioner's office acknowledges it's launched few investigations. Out of 156 complaints about wrongdoing or reprisals from potential whistle-blowers reviewed in its first two years of operations, her office decided only five of the cases warranted an investigation.
Ouimet didn't find any wrongdoing or reprisal in a single case, according to her office's first two annual reports.
Brian Radford, senior counsel in Ouimet's office, defended the commissioner's record. "I don't think we are surprised by the numbers ... when you look at the complexity of the act and its precise jurisdiction."
But Hutton is flabbergasted at the lack of results. "It's hard to believe there has been no wrongdoing whatsoever, and that no one's suffered any reprisals for reporting it, when her jurisdiction is 400,000 federal employees."
Three whistle-blowers told The Gazette they were disillusioned by how the integrity commissioner's office handled their complaints of misconduct and punishment for speaking out.
One manager said he experienced severe reprisals after reporting fraud involving several million dollars in his department. Speaking on condition of anonymity because an internal departmental investigation is still ongoing, he said he was demoted, harassed, relocated to an isolated area and told not to speak to his own supervisor.
He said extreme stress from the situation led to heart palpitations and memory loss, forcing him to take an unpaid leave of absence.
When he informed the integrity commissioner's office, he said, he was told it sounded "like a textbook case" of reprisal, but that his case wouldn't be accepted because he had already filed an ongoing union grievance.
"There was a brick wall dealing with her office. They refused to communicate. I have no confidence that she is there to do anything for me. Accountability just doesn't exist," he said.
A now-retired regional director in another federal department said he, too, is disillusioned with the integrity commissioner. Speaking anonymously because his wife still works for the government, he said he faced reprisals after he reported to superiors that department officials weren't following ministerial policies.
He said he filed complaints about the wrongdoing and reprisals to the integrity commissioner. After several months without results and suffering from depression, he said, he withdrew his complaints and took early retirement.
"They were not helpful in anything," he said of the commissioner's office.

Chopra said he has also gotten nowhere fast with the integrity commissioner.
At his five-acre spread in Manotick, 30 kilo-metres south of Ottawa, Chopra, 76, bides his time tending to a large organic garden with his five grandchildren and speaking out about food safety.
He chronicled his battle with Health Canada in a 2008 book titled Corrupt to the Core: Memoirs of a Health Canada Whistle-blower.
In it, Chopra tells a cautionary tale of how a whistle-blower can get bogged down in years of grinding legal and bureaucratic wrangling.
Chopra and his colleagues first filed complaints in 2002 about the wrongdoing and reprisals they say they witnessed at Health Canada. The complaints went to the Public Service Integrity Officer, a predecessor to the current integrity commissioner who was widely seen as too cozy with the government because he worked at the Treasury Board.
The integrity officer agreed that one of the doctors had experienced a reprisal but rejected their complaints about wrongdoing. The doctors appealed to the Federal Court of Canada.
In 2005, the court sided with the doctors, saying the integrity officer's bureau had erred in law and "failed to conduct the investigation in accordance with its mandate."
The court ordered the integrity officer to reexamine the complaints. The new integrity commissioner took over the case in 2007.
Her office dismissed the reprisal complaint last year, Chopra said.
The integrity commissioner's Radford said he can't comment on specific cases, citing confidentiality concerns. But his office's annual report last year mentions a reprisal complaint known simply as "Case 4" that was rejected and involves the same details as that of Chopra and his colleagues.
"It was not in the public interest for the tribunal to hear this reprisal complaint," the report said. "There was a need for finality in this matter."
"That's complete nonsense," Chopra says of the decision. "We're talking about pressure to pass questionable drugs. How can that not be in the public interest? Our lawyers sent them tons of stuff that was in the public interest."
The integrity commissioner is dealing separately with the doctors' complaint of wrongdoing at Health Canada. Its decision could come in its third annual report due after Parliament resumes sitting in September.
Radford refused to reveal the commissioner's decision, but he hinted that his office feels Case 4 is really about a public-policy issue rather than misconduct. "We felt the subject matter of the disclosure really concerns an issue of public policy. Our office cannot substitute itself for a political decision-maker."
Chopra is reserving comment until he sees the commissioner's report, but he was unhappy about Radford's take. "If they say it's public policy, that's just kicking the ball back and forth. Our complaint is we were being pressured not to apply the law. Someone's going to have to be responsible to the public."
Even starting an investigation at the commissioner's office seems at times to be a major ordeal. Its annual report last year gives one especially telling example.
Three different complaints surfaced at the same time "alleging gross mismanagement in the form of widespread and recurring contracting irregularities. Given the responsibilities of the organization, the allegations raised serious concerns about potential danger to public health and safety."
The allegations were further "supplemented by corroborating information from other sources, and it strongly suggested the possibility of wrongdoing."
At some point, however, the three complainants got cold feet and didn't want to help the commissioner's office any further. The commissioner, despite having all the powers to subpoena witnesses of a full royal commission of inquiry, decided not to investigate.
"It did not cross the threshold of evidence in law to require a formal investigation," Radford said of the case.
"The disclosers never disclosed to us precise facts. Based on that, we did not see anything irregular that would justify further investigation. ... We didn't identify any deficiencies."
Radford said his office prepared a list of best practices it submitted to the organization, but it didn't bother to follow up to see if anything changed. "I don't think they adopted our best practices," he said.
"We did not request that they follow up with us. We do not know if they amended their policies."

Other countries have taken far bolder steps to protect whistle-blowers and ferret out wrongdoing.
Sweden has some of the best legal protection for those who leak stories to the media. Its constitution says authorities can't investigate a journalist's sources, except in exceptional cases of national security. A confidential source can even seek criminal charges against a journalist who reveals his or her identity without consent.
Britain has a whistle-blower-protection law covering virtually the entire workforce (not just federal civil servants, like Canada's law). Whistle-blowers there filed 1,761 complaints last year. Of those that went to a public hearing, the whistle-blower won 22 per cent of the time.
Hutton said that's far better than in Canada, where the rate is zero per cent.
The U.S. is in some ways seen as a mecca for whistle-blowers because of a culture of celebrating the little guy who stands up to wrongdoing. Some whistle-blowers have got Hollywood treatment, like New York cop Frank Serpico, who exposed police corruption, and Erin Brockovich, who exposed industrial pollution.
The U.S. pioneered some of the world's first whistle-blower-protection laws in the 1970s and 1980s, but one of its strongest tools dates back to the Civil War. Under the False Claims Act, created after the Union Army was sold faulty rifles and ailing donkeys, a whistle-blower can sue a federal contractor believed to be defrauding the U.S. government and pocket part of any court-awarded payout.
Such cases have become a major tool for fighting fraud in the pharmaceutical industry. False Claims Act suits led to $6.3 billion (U. S.) in settlement payments to the U.S. government related to fraudulent marketing of drugs between 2001 and 2009, according to a New England Journal of Medicine study in May.
Whistle-blowers received an average $3 million in each case.
"The U.S. is so different from us in terms of the openness in government. There is all kinds of stuff our government hides from us that you'll actually find on websites in the U.S.," Hutton said.
But even the U.S. is far from perfect. Most whistle-blowers say that even the money from the False Claims cases was not worth the personal cost of coming forward, including divorce, ruined careers and stress-related health problems, the New England journal study found.
In July, Congress boosted the protection of corporate whistle-blowers as part of its Wall Street Reform Law.
But the measures don't protect government employees, and critics say the Obama administration has actually retreated on helping them.
The Obama justice department has vowed to aggressively pursue unauthorized leaks, and according to a Newsweek report, even boasts of being more zealous than it was under George W. Bush. It prosecuted three leaks in its first 17 months in office. Previously, such prosecutions were rare.
Back in Ottawa, Hutton said the clampdowns and failed protections are not in the public's interest. "Most whistle-blowers get into this situation because they're simply trying to do their job honestly."
Chopra, for his part, said he wouldn't hesitate to do it all over again despite the hardships. "It was my duty to do so under Canadian law. One cannot think of hardships when it is part of one's duty."
His advice to other whistle-blowers: "Never do it for glory. Once you do it, you will be riding a tiger. It will be him or you."

Wikileaks: Hitting "send" to expose a dirty secret
Faced with mounting secrecy and the failure of official channels of complaint, whistle-blowers seem to be turning increasingly to the Internet and websites pledged to expose government and corporate secrets, in the public interest.
For whistle-blowers, the sites allow them to expose secrets as fast as they can hit "send." Critics argue the sites may endanger lives by posting national security information.
The best known is WikiLeaks, a nonprofit site run by Julian Assange, an Australian-born former teen hacker.
WikiLeaks shot to prominence in April when it posted classified military footage of a U.S. Apache gunship killing 12 Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters journalists, and wounding two children.
In Ottawa, whistle-blower advocate David Hutton is watching WikiLeaks with growing fascination.
Hutton, the executive director of the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform, said sites like WikiLeaks could be a powerful new tool for whistle-blowers as they face growing government secrecy, while official channels for complaints seem to be failing.
"WikiLeaks could turn out to be the norm in the future. It may make it harder for governments and corporations to keep dirty secrets," he said.
WikiLeaks caused more sensation in July when it published 77,000 classified U.S. military documents painting a dismal picture of the war in Afghanistan. The reports revealed details of U.S. commando units assigned to kill or capture insurgents, secret Pakistani support for the Taliban and abusive and corrupt Afghan authorities. The site promises to release another 15,000 Afghan-related files in coming weeks along with a video showing a U.S. airstrike on Afghan civilians.
The Pentagon has reacted with fury, demanding the return of the documents. In July, U.S. army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning was charged with leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. The FBI is still exploring charges against WikiLeaks itself.
Nonetheless, the site could herald a new culture of whistle-blowing on steroids, free of dependence on journalists or integrity commissioners to right wrongs.
At the same time, WikiLeaks could create a new model for gumshoe investigative reporters who collaborate with websites to reveal whistle-blower information. WikiLeaks gave early access to its Afghan files to the New York Times, the Guardian of London and Germany's Der Spiegel, which analyzed the documents and published lengthy reports.
The models are still experiencing growing pains. Human-rights groups slammed WikiLeaks for not deleting the names of Afghan civilians who helped Western forces. Assange seems to have taken the criticism to heart, pledging to remove civilian names from his next release.
Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, for his part, has called Assange his "hero" and praised his work as "exemplary."
"For 40 years I've hoped that someone would put out information on the scale that I did, but in a more timely way than I did," he said in a PBS interview.
Hutton notes, "People are concerned about WikiLeaks, but what level of concern should we have that access to information is just a joke in this country?"

Plenty to Carp About

Trying to hold the line against a big, hungry fish that would thrive in our ever-warmer waters

By Alex Roslin
May/June 2010

A highly invasive fish that could devastate the Great Lakes ecosystem has penetrated into Lake Michigan for the first time, and fish biologists say climate change will likely exacerbate its onslaught.
“It’s a potential knockout blow for the Great Lakes,” says Scott Parker, a Parks Canada biologist who monitors invasive species at the Fathom Five National Marine Park in Georgian Bay. “They’ll dominate (native species) and have a huge impact.”
The notorious Asian carp, a voracious plankton-eater sometimes called the aquatic vacuum cleaner, grows to 45 kilograms and consumes up to 40 per cent of its weight daily. It has already decimated the ecosystems of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and their once-diverse fisheries. Carp, which are virtually worthless commercially, now make up 90 per cent of the fish caught in those rivers.
While a live Asian carp has yet to be found in Lake Michigan, a test used to detect the species’ DNA in water indicates a live fish was very likely present in the immediate area, says Jennifer Nalbone, an invasive species specialist at Great Lakes United, a joint Canada-U.S. environmental group. This despite the fact that American authorities put up an underwater electric barrier in April 2009 in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, the only link between the carp-infested Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, to prevent the species from reaching the Great Lakes.
Carp DNA was first detected beyond the barrier in August. In subsequent months, more of it was found further down the canal and in two rivers that drain into Lake Michigan. This past January, the DNA was detected in Chicago’s Calumet Harbor in the lake itself. [See the carp's progress on this map.]
The discoveries have set off panic among Canadian and U.S. fish scientists, environmentalists and the $7-billion Great Lakes fishery. In mid-February, the White House hosted a summit on ways to stop the carp invasion. And Michigan and Ontario authorities have gone to court to get the state of Illinois to block the canal. Illinois opposes the idea, saying it would hurt the state’s economy.
“The DNA evidence has certainly raised the sense of urgency,” says Nalbone, who faults authorities for not moving quickly enough and calls for a “very aggressive monitoring and eradication plan.”
Asian carp—a term that encompasses several invasive species of the fish such as bighead and silver carp—were imported to control nuisance algae in the southern states, but escaped into the Mississippi River during floods.
Apart from displacing native fish, silver carp are infamous for jumping out of the water when startled by watercraft [see video], something Becky Cudmore, a biologist and invasive species expert with the Fisheries and Oceans Canada, experienced first-hand when she and other carp scientists headed out on the Illinois River. Carp started flying out of water all around, some soaring as high as three metres and many landing in the boat.
One five-kilogram specimen smashed into Cudmore’s calf. “It left a good mark and numbed my leg for four hours,” she says. “It was very sobering. We really wouldn’t want them in Canada.”
Asian carp are a temperate-water fish, well suited to existing climactic conditions in the Great Lakes, even without global warming. But climate change will likely make the lakes even more susceptible to a carp invasion, says Bryan Neff, a biologist at the University of Western Ontario.
“Climate change can destabilize the natural ecosystem in the lakes and make it more susceptible to invaders,” he says. “The ability of a native ecosystem to repel invaders would diminish.”
With climate change, for example, Great Lakes water levels will likely fall, which could in turn “cause native species to become more sensitive and susceptible to invasive species,” Neff says.
Cudmore agrees. “Climate change will certainly help—not hinder—invasive species like the Asian carp.”
Alex Roslin is an award-winning journalist in Lac Brome, Qc., and writes a blog on investigative reporting at

Invasive species of wildlife and plants, which already cost $120 billion annually in the United States alone, are far more able to adapt to climate change than native species, a new study in the journal PLoS One says.
Two Harvard scientists studied plant-flowering data going back 150 years in Massachusetts, including information collected by conservationist Henry David Thoreau around the famed Walden Pond.
As the average temperature increased 2.4 degrees Celsius over this period, invasive plant species were able to advance their flowering time to be 11 days earlier than native species.
As a result, invasive species have significantly increased their population significantly more than native plants like lilies and orchids, with nearly two-thirds of the species Thoreau documented seeing sharp declines or disappeared.
“These results demonstrate for the first time that climate change likely plays a direct role in promoting non-native species success,” co-author and Harvard biologist Charles Davis told

The New Home-schooling

It's twice as common today as it was a decade ago. But can "regular" families do it?

Alex Roslin
Today’s Parent, May 2010

It had been snowing for a week straight in Mansonville, a mountain village nestled in the Appalachians, 150 kilometres east of Montreal. But there was no hope of a snow day for 10-year-old Kira Nichols — she’s home-schooled. So she doesn’t even need to get out of her PJs to hit the books.
Besides, Kira doesn’t need cajoling to start school. Before breakfast, she’s already spent an hour engrossed in Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls. After reading for a while in French, Kira turns her attention to math, practising fractions on some worksheets that her mom, Kim, printed from an educational website. Then she works on a short story that she’s writing about mythical creatures, plays Scrabble with Mom (building Kira’s vocabulary) and plays outside.
School’s done for the day and it isn’t even time for lunch; Kira virtually never needs to spend more than two hours a day on academics to stay ahead of the school curriculum for her grade.
Kira and Kim are part of a fast-growing movement: In Canada, the number of home-schooled kids has doubled in a decade to an estimated 60,000 to 80,000, or two percent of this country’s school-aged population. In the US, 1½ to 2 million kids are home-schooled — about 3½ percent of all school-agers — and that number is growing seven percent a year.

What is home-schooling?

Home-schooling — once considered fringe or “granola” — has come of age. Many universities are now courting home-schoolers and designing special admissions rules to allow them to enter without a high school diploma. And home-schooled kids are showing they can compete with their more traditionally educated peers on the academic playing field. Studies of Canadian and US home-schoolers found they outperform their public-school counterparts by solid margins in math, language ability, reading, social sciences and science. They even tend to beat private-schoolers, whose scores average in the 65th to 75th percentile in these areas, versus the 75th to 85th percentile showings of home-schoolers.
Still not impressed? A study of more than 20,000 home-schoolers found that in grade four they are, on average, a grade ahead academically of their public and private school peers. By grade eight, they’re almost four grades ahead, even though the average home-schooler spends only three hours a day on academic learning, compared to the typical six-hour school day.
Presented with statistics like these, and the idyllic impression made by Kira and Kim, few would argue home-schooling is intriguing. But how doable is it really? And how can you tell if it’s a good fit for your family?
Home-schooling parents and even some education professionals say the first question is easy to answer. “It’s less daunting for parents than they might think,” Kim says assuredly. You don’t need to know how to develop a lesson plan or have any teaching experience. Parents can get all the curriculum materials they need from the Internet, by mail order or through swaps with other home-schooling families. (See Resources for a list of helpful home-schooling websites.)
You can choose an existing teaching philosophy that reflects your family’s values and goals, or develop your own by combining teaching materials from several different sources. Approaches range widely, from the so-called traditional or school-at-home method, using the same textbooks and tests as your child would see in a public school setting, to “unit studies,” which encompass self-directed learning through books, worksheets, online resources and field trips, all the way to “unschooling,” where the idea is that learning opportunities are everywhere; a walk in the woods can turn into biology class and an evening walk, an astronomy lesson.
Abbi Miller’s parents were early proponents of unschooling, visiting places like the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota to teach their children geography and history. “The world is your school” is how Abbi, now 25, sums up the approach. Looking back on her experience, she believes the more freedom kids are given to learn what interests them, the more likely they’ll be to retain their love of learning. A self-proclaimed “math geek,” Abbi was allowed to teach that subject to herself — something she did with great enthusiasm. “I would be like ‘Mom, I want more workbooks!’” she recalls.

Home-schooling successes

That kind of motivation and energy are a big part of home-schooling success. “The kid has to be not just willing, but highly motivated to do this,” says Gary Knowles, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education who’s worked as a school principal and a teacher of teachers for 30 years. He notes that chances of home-schooling success are better when families draw strongly on learning opportunities in the community — libraries, art galleries, museums, farms — and are open-minded and curious about the world.
Kim Nichols’ approach is to let her daughter, Kira, take the lead regarding what she wants to study. Mom helps set goals of how many hours should be devoted to various subjects each week, and answers questions when Kira gets stuck. Otherwise, she says, “Her schedule is pretty much her own.”
That kind of flexibility can be a boon to kids who like to dig deep into topics that interest them; a class doesn’t have to stop after the usual 45 or 60 minutes if a child is enthralled. And parents can custom-fit learning to nurture a young person’s interests and adapt to special needs, whether a child is gifted or having difficulties. Interestingly, a 2003 study of Canadian home-schoolers with cognitive limitations found they were performing at the same academic level as the average public-schooled kid.

What the critics say

Still, home-schooling isn’t for everyone. Knowles has been keeping tabs on several dozen home-schoolers for nearly three decades, as research for a book. He’s seen that home-schooling does not often work well when parents have major personality conflicts with their kids, or if a child isn’t fully on board for the experience. Cloistered environments in which children are taught intolerance or don’t get to meet a lot of other kids are also problematic.
Even two children from the same family may be differently suited. Kim Nichols’ son, Jordan, 12, wanted to stop home-schooling last fall. Part of the reason for the switch was wanting to spend more time with male pals his age, of which there are few among home-schoolers in their remote area. Now, despite a two-hour round-trip commute by school bus to the regional high school he now attends, Kim says Jordan looks forward to school all weekend, has quickly made new friends there, and is doing “very well” academically. Meanwhile, Kira is still happy to learn at home with their mom, and she hooks up with a group of home-schooling buddies for regular educational and social get-togethers.
Some critics say that this is where home-schooling falls down — in offering fewer opportunities for children to be with other children. “The best place for socialization and education is a public school,” insists Réjean Parent, president of Centrale des syndicats du Québec, the province’s largest teachers’ union.
Education professor Knowles disagrees. Socialization, he says, can be learned and not all school contexts are ideal for gaining these skills. “If you are a 13-year-old, who is to say that 1,300 other 13-year-olds are the best people to be responsible for socializing you?”
Home-schooling parents must work to ensure their kids are in contact with peers, but it can be done. Hamilton mom Kristy Crawford, who home-schooled three of her five children, connected with other families through a local home-schooling association that organized “really cool” outings almost every day of the week — bowling, rock climbing, French lessons, visits to orchards, museums, libraries, historic villages. Similar groups exist in cities across Canada, and they are easy to find online.
Because children’s social — and academic — successes aren’t expressed in regular report cards, parents who home-school also need to take a different perspective on their children’s progress. “Don’t expect linear development,” Knowles advises. “Kids might go a long time without seeming to make progress. Parents who home-school have to take a more fluid or open view of kids’ learning.”
If that thought fills you with parental panic, perhaps home-schooling isn’t for you. But for parents like Kim Nichols, the rewards are numerous. “Being there when they learn something new — it’s like a miracle,” she says. “I want to be there for those times.”

Home-schooled kids, happy adults?

What are home-schooled kids like once they’ve grown up? According to a study by the US National Home Education Research Institute, three-quarters of them will have at least some post-secondary education, compared to half the general population. That’s thanks, in part, to a fast-growing number of universities that accept home-schooled applicants, including Harvard, MIT and the West Point military academy in the United States, and the University of Toronto, York and McGill in Canada.
The study also found that those who were home-schooled are nearly twice as likely to volunteer as others their age.
And a Canadian study found home-schoolers scored an average of 4.9 out of six on a life satisfaction test (with six being the best), compared to 4.2 for public-schoolers.

Home-schooling and the law

Across Canada, it’s perfectly legal to pull your child out of the public school system and teach her at home. However, provincial regulations (and individual school boards) impose varying conditions on home-schooling families.
British Columbia is seen as a home-schooling mecca because its School Act gives parents the right to educate children at home in any way they choose, so long as they follow some kind of “educational plan.” Parents do need to register with a public or independent school, or a distance-learning institution. The province provides funds to the schools for each registered home-schooler, creating incentive for schools to work together with home-schooling families. Home-schoolers can even borrow computer equipment and textbooks from the schools. Policies are also quite liberal in Ontario and Alberta.
At the other end of the spectrum is Quebec, whose provincial Education Act allows home-schooling, but says parents must provide education “equivalent to what is provided in school” and gives school boards power to scrutinize home-schoolers’ progress.
The remaining provinces and territories mostly fall somewhere in between.


Click on these websites for home-schooling tools and info: Excellent Canadian home-schooling resource info and articles from Life Learning magazine, started by Canadian home-schooling pioneer Wendy Priesnitz. The Canadian Home Based Learning Resource Page lists hundreds of links for learning resources, home-schooling support groups, as well as province-by-province info on legal issues. Home Education Magazine’s website has hundreds of free articles about home education, several blogs and a nice links library. Access nearly 36,000 pages of educational textbooks for free. Click on Wikijunior for books about math, science, social studies and more for babies to preteens. Quebec mom Kim Nichols blogs about her home education adventures and offers a great set of links to resources.