The mysterious Beothuk of Newfoundland

Recent DNA tests have only deepened the mystery the Beothuk people of Newfoundland.

   Beothuk. Image from Mysteries of Canada

The Beothuk were reclusive compared to other Indigenous Newfoundland people like the Mi’kmaq. Their solitary nature may have contributed to their extinction.

Like all Indigenous people, the Beothuk had good reasons to avoid the settlers. The last Beothuk, Shanawdithit, died on June 6, 1829. Shanawdithit’s aunt died in captivity nine years earlier. Her aunt was captured by settlers in a raid on a Beothuk camp in which the aunt’s husband and infant child were killed.

The Beothuk thrived on marine mammals and other coastal resources but they were driven inland when the coast was occupied by Europeans. One thing that the DNA record reveals is the relatively poor land-based diet that resulted compared to the nutritional coastal marine food.

I first wrote of the Beothuk in 2014. After I wrote my column, I received an email from a man I’ll call George. He had lived in Newfoundland and thought that I might be interested in some things he had learned while living there. I was. We exchanged a number of emails and we had lengthy phone conversations.

George moved to Fogo Island years ago -it’s a small island off the coast of Newfoundland.  He got to talking with the great grandson of John Soper Holmes, a settler on Fogo Island at the time of the Beothuk. The great grandson told George that Holmes had killed and buried twelve Indians. As the story went, the Beothuk had stolen gear from his ocean-side camp. Holmes buried behind Indians behind his house. The mayor of Fogo told George that, as a child, he was told not to play up in the hills behind Homes house because Indians were buried there. George thought that these allegations should be investigated, and if true would contribute to the account of the Beothuk.

I thought so, too. I wrote up the story and sent it to George to look over before it was published. To my dismay, he recanted the story completely and I never published it. I suspect that George feared retributions from the close-knit Fogo community. I’m revealing details of the story for the first time but changed his name.

DNA analysis of the three distinct Indigenous groups of Newfoundland people deepens the mystery. Here’s what we know so far:

The last common ancestor of the three groups lived 10,000 years ago. The first group, the Maritime Archaic people, moved into Labrador and Newfoundland about 8,000 years ago and lived there until 3,200 years ago. Researchers speculate that a cooling climate made Newfoundland less hospitable to the Maritime Archaic people who were living off marine resources.

For the next 2,000 years, Paleo-Eskimo groups moved southward from the Arctic. They may have been the “skraelings” described by Norse explorers who tried to settle on the northwestern tip of Newfoundland around 1,000 A.D.

Then came the Beothuk. But from where they came is not clear. They are not related to any of the others. “I didn’t expect that,” said Vaughan Grimes, an archaeologist at Memorial University and a team member on the study. “I thought there would be more biological relationship between the groups (Globe and Mail, October 12, 2017)”

I have a feeling that there are many more stories of the Beothuk to be told. Maybe Beothuk are not extinct but survive in the lineages of Newfoundland people walking around today? Stay tuned.

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My beef with Canada’s new food guide

Canada’s new food guide is being influenced by agencies whose chief focus is the consumption of their products, not our health. Food industries and a branch of government, Agri-food Canada, are resisting proposed changes by Health Canada.

     Proposed food label. Image : Globe and Mail

Health Canada wants the new food guide to “shift towards more plant-based foods,” less red meats, and to limit “some meats and many cheeses” high in saturated fats.

These are sensible recommendations but not what Agri-food Canada wants. They are in the business of promoting the sale of red meat and dairy industries. AAFC officials wrote a memo marked “secret” in which they worried:

“Messages that encourage a shift toward plant-based sources of protein would have negative implications for the meat and dairy industries (Globe and Mail).”

Yes they would have negative implications but the health of Canadians trumps the meat and dairy industries.

Canada’s food guide is widely respected. Seventy-five years after its first launch, it’s the second most requested government document after income-tax forms. It’s distributed to dieticians and doctors for patient advice, and to schools and hospitals for creating meal plans. The new guide will be around for a long time, so it’s important to get it right.

The current guide, revised in 2007, had a number of flaws. It recommends juice as a serving of vegetables and fruit. It recommends two servings of “milk and alternatives” and two servings of “meat and alternative.” Juice is not a substitute for whole fruit and vegetables. Too much red meat and saturated fats are unhealthy.

There are problems with the “Nutrition Facts” label as well. The serving size is not standard so that breakfast cereals, for example, may appear to have similar calorie content but, in fact, differ because the serving sizes vary.

Health advocates recommend that the new Nutrition facts label be moved from the back to the front of the package, and that foods which are high in salt, sugar, or saturated fats have a “stop” or “yield” sign. At a meeting with Health Canada in September, food and beverage industry reps were furious. They called the warning a “big, scary stop sign,” and that the signs were overly simplistic. They prefer detailed labels on the back rather than blunt symbols on the front. A lawyer for the food industry argued that Health Canada was not giving Canadians the respect they deserve: “They’re not idiots.”

Canadians are not idiots but they’re not nutrition specialists either. The food industry would rather have detailed specifications on the back because many shoppers find them hard to interpret.

The food industry complains that plain symbols like stop and yield signs would make consumers think they are “like a chemical warning sign.”

But warning symbols are appropriate because some foods are unhealthy. More than one-fifth of Canadians are obese. Diet-related chronic illness costs our health care system $7 billion a year. Heart disease and stroke are the leading cause of death.

Under the Harper government, the AAFC held sway. When Health Canada wanted to revise the guide back then to “choose local or regional foods when available,” the AAFC vetoed it. We’ll see how determined the Trudeau government is in shaping a healthy food guide. Will the government defend the health of Canadians or the food industry?

Facebook tests honest ads in Canada

Facebook hasn’t been completely honest. They haven’t made it clear how we pay for the service.

Facebook is the world’s largest social network with 2 billion active users –I’m one of them. What I get from Facebook is the opportunity to connect with friends and family. What Facebook gets is $52 billion a year in advertising, an average of $80 per North American user annually. I get a valuable service and Facebook gets $80. But what’s troubling me is: just who is trying to influence me? Who have I sold myself to?

The answer hasn’t been clear because the true source of postings isn’t always obvious.  An investigation by the U.S. Senate revealed that Russians anonymously influenced the outcome of the last presidential election. Facebook told the Senate that Russian agents placed 80,000 posts that were seen by 150 million Americans.

Earlier this year, Facebook’s Chief Security Officer, Alex Stamos said that Russians bought 3,000 ads amounting to $100,000 between June 2015 and May of 2017. In violation to Facebook’s policy, 470 were connected to inauthentic accounts. Not all the ads were overtly political.

“Rather,” says Stamos, “the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

Such propaganda sneaks by our defences unnoticed because of the homey feel of Facebook; you don’t expect disinformation to be bundled with posts from friends.

Other Russian accounts weren’t subtle at all. One Facebook posting was from a fake group called “United Muslims of America.” It targeted actual Muslims. The group claimed that Hillary Clinton admitted that the U.S. “created, funded and armed” al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Another Russian Facebook group, “Army of Jesus,” featured Jesus arm-wrestling Satan in which Clinton is Satan. Trump is “an honest man who cares deeply for his country,” the group added.

Facebook knows you well. They know where you live, what you like and what you share, where you travel, what you do for a living, when you are online and for how long. Facebook knows you in unimaginable detail. There are more than 52,000 Facebook categories used to microtarget ads to your interests and desires according ProPublica: subtleties of your character that that even you may not even be aware of.

In an attempt to clear the fog of deception, Facebook Canada has announced that they are going to pull the curtain back and reveal more about advertisers. Ads will now have to be associated with a Facebook page –that’s already standard with brand-name products. And ads will reveal how you have been targeted.

The U.S. Senate wants Facebook to go further with their proposed Honest Ads Act. The act would require disclosure of the rate charged for the ad, the name of candidates in the case of political ads, and contact information of the purchaser.

In the past CEO Mark Zuckerberg has resisted, claiming that Facebook is just a technology company. Now it’s becoming abundantly clear that Facebook is not just a sharing platform but a publisher, and as such must be responsible for its content.

B.C. Government offers help to opposition in drafting bills

There’s more than practicality and clever politics behind the government’s offer to help the opposition to draft winning bills.

B.C. Attorney General David Eby (right). Photo: CBC

As a practical matter, it’s inevitable that opposition parties will get together and propose legislation that the government disagrees with. Since the Green and BC Liberal members outnumber the NDP, the proposed legislation would pass.

If they’re going to pass, the bills should be well-written. Attorney-General David Eby says:

“It’s an art to draft effective legislation, and we want to make sure the other parties have access to the professionals, if they are putting forward amendments that might actually pass (Globe and Mail, Oct. 18, 2017).”

The offer is politically clever because even well-drafted bills may never make it because the government has the power to call the bill to be debated or not. It could simply expire at the end of the current sitting. In fact, that’s what happens to most private-members bills –the government ignores them and they go away.

If the bill passes, it’s because the government wants, or will allow, it to pass. BC Green Leader Andrew Weaver’s private-member bill is a good example. It would allow ride-hailing companies such as Lyft and Uber into the provincial market. The BC Liberals are in favour of Weaver’s private-member bill. The NDP want to “study” it further because some supporters are not in favour of the gig economy.

If Weaver’s bill is allowed to pass, the NDP can have it both ways: constituents who like Lyft and Uber will be pleased, and to those who are opposed the NDP can say “the opposition made us do it.”

Andrew Wilkinson, the BC Liberal critic for the Attorney-General, is suspicious:

“It’s a trap,” he said. “It’s designed to make the Greens feel they are involved in the legislative process. BC Liberals recognize this as a false promise.”

Beyond practicality and clever politics, there is electoral reform to consider. The NDP and Greens are committed to electoral reform through proportional representation (PR).

The advantage to Greens is obvious.  They won only three per cent of the seats with 17 per cent of the popular vote. They could have won 15 seats based on PR (the actual number dependent on the model of PR.)

The existing system of voting hasn’t worked that well for the BC NDP, either. Since its founding in 1933, the NDP has only formed government for 13 out of 84 years. Their chances are greater under PR. In the last election, 57 per cent of British Columbians voted Green or NDP. Proportional representation often results in minority governments and that would put the NDP in power.

The BC Liberals oppose PR because division of the progressive vote puts them in power.

Electoral reform is more likely to pass in the next referendum with support of the NDP government in educating the public –support that the BC Liberals didn’t provide in the first two referenda.

The offer of help to opposition parties demonstrates that minority governments can work. Sonia Furstenau, Green’s spokeswoman for electoral reform, is enthused:

“This is great. This is a step toward having a legislature where all 87 members have the capacity to contribute to policy making. This is what democracy should look like.”

How to reduce drug overdose deaths

There is no easy way to reduce drug overdose deaths but a simple first step is to provide users with safe opioids. The hard part will take time.

 North Vancouver couple die of fentanyl-linked overdose. Image:Vancouver Sun

The grim toll of deaths –of community leaders and ordinary citizens -marches on relentlessly. In just eight months of 2017, more British Columbians died of drug overdoses than the whole year before.

Lots of things don’t work. Still, politicians persist in the tried and unproven. B.C. Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth echoed concerns that rose in meetings with federal and provincial public safety ministers:

“We strongly believe that if you’re dealing fentanyl, you’re dealing death, and you should be facing much more severe penalties such as manslaughter charges,” Farnworth said (Globe and Mail, October 19, 2017.)

Tough talk has failed in the past. The divide between pushers and users is not as clear as Farnworth might think. Provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall says there is a risk that “the policy implementation will not be able to distinguish between importers or non-user, large-scale dealers and the easier-to-apprehend street-level user/dealer.”

“Our attempts to destigmatize,” adds Kendall, “through decriminalizing the user and treating him or her as a person with an illness rather than a criminal, could be jeopardized.”

Restrictions on importation will fail as well. LifeLabs in B.C. has been testing urine samples of patients screened for fentanyl and found that these patients also tested positive for the even more powerful carfentanil. Now another synthetic opioid, U-47700, has been detected. More synthetic opioids could be on the way. Garth Graham, director for LifeLabs says:

“Are we two steps ahead? No, we’re not. In my opinion, there’s more of this coming … I think it is difficult. We’re working with provincial stakeholders . . . They mentioned another fentanyl analogue, and we are now trying to work that up so we can look for that.”

It’s a cat-and-mouse game. As soon as one variety of fentanyl is identified, another is cooked up. Testing equipment for the new analogue has to be built and laws restricting it enacted.

Naloxone kits save lives but only if someone nearby is lucid enough to administer them. Bob Hughes, Executive Director of ASK Wellness, suggests an alternative:

“We’re not going to fix this with one approach, such as providing Naloxone. That they’ve got some other option like basically pharmaceutical-grade heroin for some of those folks who just can’t seem to shake it,” Hughes told Radio NL.

Providing heroin to drug addicts may seem like a bad idea because it enables an addiction. But if we’re concerned about saving lives rather than making moral judgements on users, then legal heroin or other opioids like hydromorphone is a good first step.

However, the hard part is not the supply of safe opioids. The hard part is the destigmatization of drug users. Deaths due to drug overdose are still seen as a moral failing rather than a disease or “a person with an illness” as Dr. Kendall put it.

Open discussions about mental illness have helped destigmatize what was once thought of as lunacy or possession by evil spirits. Now the conversation needs to start around addiction; not as a weakness of character; not an embarrassment to be hidden from public view by friends and family.

Indigenous labour is an untapped resource

Canadians opened their hearts and homes to Syrian refugees last year. It was a warm humanitarian gesture as well as an economic imperative: Canada relies on immigrants to sustain our work force.

    image: Government of Canada

Treatment of our Indigenous people is puzzling in both regards. Refugees from Indian Reserves do not receive a warm welcome. Communities don’t sponsor Indigenous families and put them up in homes. They are not being bombed but they are fleeing abominable conditions: mouldy housing, undrinkable water, poor education, appalling health care and little hope for employment. Instead of being helped, First Nations refugees often end up on city streets with few options for integration into society.

Not only are Indigenous Canadians uninvited in cities but the labour resource they represent is wasted.

The Centre for the Study of Living Standards released a report earlier this month entitled “The Contribution of Aboriginal People to Future Labour Force Growth in Canada.” The 36 page report outlines the wasted labour resource of Indigenous Canadians.

Indigenous citizens are the youngest, fastest growing demographic in Canada.

To start with, all Indigenous people are underemployed. More critically, participation of the 15-24 age group is 12 per cent lower than average. Only one-half of Indigenous youth are employed. That untapped resource could contribute to future labour force growth. It’s worse in the North where participation in the labour force is one-fifth the average.

If Canada’s Indigenous work force were developed, they would contribute to one-fifth of the future national labour growth. That contribution could be in the North, where they are most needed. As the global climate change warms and the climate of the North warms disproportionately, opportunities will open for jobs in resource extraction, infrastructure, housing and tourism. The expansion of the Indigenous work force In the North could comprise 83 per cent of total northern growth.

What would it take? The report states rather dryly:

“Indigenous people also face deficiencies in hours worked, employment, income by level of education and health among others. Progress must be based on Indigenous autonomy and this in turn will require strengthening administrative and managerial capacities, most likely under new institutional arrangements.”

In more vital words, it will take a reversal of our colonial past which was designed to dominate and assimilate Indigenous peoples. The Trudeau government made a good start when it divided the Indigenous portfolio in two with Jane Philpott becoming minister of Indigenous services and Carolyn Bennett becoming minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and Northern Affairs.

Some criticise the move as increased bureaucracy but the split was recommended in 1996 by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Both ministers are capable I can only hope they will succeed in ending the anachronistic Indian Act.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations is optimistic:

“First Nations are working to move beyond the Indian Act and re-asserting our jurisdiction and sovereignty over our own lands, title and rights.”

Let’s bring our Indigenous brothers and sisters in from the cold. And if compassion doesn’t motivate Canadians, maybe a bleak economic future without them will.

Let’s talk about doctor’s pay

Doctors have been given benefits under incorporation in lieu of receiving wage hikes and that’s not right. Doctors are on both sides of the issue. The Canadian Medical Association has come out against any changes to these benefits while 450 doctors signed an open letter to Finance Minister Morneau in favour of tax reform.

  Dr. Rita McCracken supports tax reform. Photo: Huffington Post

The existing tax system allows for the questionable practice of “income sprinkling” where family members are paid even when they don’t contribute to the doctor’s business. In Ontario, children and spouses are allowed to be paid as members of doctor’s corporate boards.

Doctor practices are unlike other small business. They operate private businesses while being paid through the public healthcare system.

Some doctors are uncomfortable the existing breaks. Dr. Hasan Sheikh says:

“There is nothing unique about a physician’s work that makes income sprinkling okay for them and not for others (Globe and Mail Sept. 22, 2017.)”

As usual, proposed tax changes are political fodder. Some premiers have condemned them, even though the details have yet to be released. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister calls them “class warfare.” Nova Scotia Premier Stephan McNeil worries about the ability to attract doctors and small business to the province. B.C. Finance Minister Carole James concerns are more nuanced:

“I certainly believe in closing tax loopholes, I believe that’s important, but I also don’t believe there was good consultation done.”

That’s Morneau’s failing. He announced the changes in the downtime of summer and faces a storm brewing in the fall. Only now is he consulting provinces.

One of the doctors in favour of tax reforms is Dr. Ritika Goel. The existing system doesn’t even benefit all doctors fairly:

“So, for example, if you have a single mother who is a physician she would be paying higher tax rate than a mother with a spouse that she’s able to income sprinkle and we don’t believe that’s fair (CBC’s The Current, Sept. 19, 2017).”

Another doctor is opposed to the changes. While acknowledging the issue of tax-fairness, she is bitter about existing compensation. Dr. Brenna Velker told The Current:

“I think that as physicians, you know, we all understand that those who make more money need to pay more tax, that’s how society works. The problem that I think a lot of us are running into is that we’re feeling really beat down. So, any of the forms that I fill out and of the phone calls that I make, or you know, e-mails, or anything like that, any other communication with my patients is unpaid. You know, it really leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”

Doctors deserve fair wages. They are dedicated and hard working. They incur more student debt and they start earning money later in their career.

“Let’s stop talking about propping up a broken tax system that benefits some Canadians and not others based on the title of their profession and not the nature of it,” adds Dr. Sheikh.

Instead of granting doctors dubious tax breaks, they should be given appropriate pay and benefits that dignify their profession.