Novelist, scholar, writer, activist, public policy consultant. Challenger of conventional wisdom on the environment, health, culture and politics.
Born In Israel, and raised in Israel and Canada, in 1969 Varda Burstyn joined the founding staff of the newly established Pollution Probe at the University of Toronto and she has remained an active environmentalist ever since. Through the 1970s, in Toronto and Montreal, she worked in a number of social change organizations. She began teaching (film studies, Atkinson College, York University, Toronto) and writing professionally in 1979.
During the 1980s, in addition to teaching, Varda wrote about governance and state formation, about women’s health and environmental health and, toward the end of that decade, began to write about new reproductive and genetic technologies. In counterpoint to this work, she also wrote and consulted on many projects related to the politics of sexual representation (fine art, pornography, film, censorship) and the popular culture of Olympic and professional sport. From 1982 to 1987, she wrote, researched and presented five multi-hour series for the CBC‘s award-winning national radio documentary program, Ideas, on many of these themes, as well as on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. During these years she also began to consult, particularly to scholars, filmmakers and non-governmental organizations.
During the early and mid-1990s, while resident in Toronto, Varda continued to write, make radio programs and work in documentary films dealing with new reproductive and genetic technologies. But for these years the bulk of her work shifted to consulting inside Ontario’s health care sector, first as a major policy speech writer and then as a policy and change consultant – both at the ministerial level and in regional and community change projects involving multiple initiatives for health reform. In this context, she continued to pursue her personal interests in environmental health, women’s health, equity and access issues, working conditions for nurses and other health providers, and the inclusion of allied health professions in the health care system.
During the late 1990s, while living in Montreal and Cincinnati, she continued to work in the area of reproductive and genetic technologies, including on an award-winning series produced by the National Film Board of Canada, Main basse sur les genes and Clonage. She also completed her major scholarly work, published in 1999 by the University of Toronto Press, The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics and the Culture of Sport. She remained an active environmentalist, continuing to write about environmental and political themes.
From 1996 to 2004 Varda was Vice-Chair of Greenpeace Canada.
During the early and mid-2000s, Varda researched and wrote her first fictional work – a prophetic, fact-based novel of environmental and political suspense, Water Inc., which has now been translated into French, German, and Korean. (‘A smart, sexy, witty, and hard-hitting ecothriller.’ Donna Seaman, Booklist. ‘A rip-snorting contemporary eco-thriller.’ W.P. Kinsella, Books in Canada.) She also wrote several articles about key aspects of children’s health under threat from environmental hazards, anthologized in Praeger Press’s ‘Childhood in America’ series.
In the last decade, she has worked with a variety of allies and clients – patients’ organizations, health care providers, government health officials, physicians and others, in voluntary and consultative capacities, on an extended project to bring about health care services for victims of toxic injury who suffer from chronic, environmentally-linked illnesses in the province of Ontario, particularly chemical sensitivity. From 2008 to 2017, with a couple of other senior colleagues, she was the initiator, then eventually the lead overall project consultant of what turned into a multi-year, multi-stakeholder study process to establish an Ontario Centre of Exellence in Environmental Health (OCEEH). To learn more about this project, please visit http://recognitioninclusionandequity.org/). This process eventually resulted in the establishment of the current Task Force on Environmental Health in June 2016. She was a member of the task force until February 2017, when she resigned. Her evaluation of the task force’s Phase 1 report is available on this site.
At present, she is working on her second novel of fact-based fiction, working title Upstream. Through the eyes of characters who are enmeshed in a variety of different ways in or with the petrochemical world, this book will paint a portrait of the forces that drive the petrochemical economy – who wins, who loses, and who fights back against the ravages of chemical injury.
For many years, Varda spoke widely about her areas of interest as a featured speaker at universities, conferences and colloquia and social/political events including, multiple times, in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, London (ON), Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver in Canada; in London and Manchester in the UK; and in Madison, Detroit, New York City, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Boston and Pittsburgh in the United States. She has also been called on for commentary by CBC and CTV national public affairs programs (as well as consulting to some of these on occasion); and has been featured on many other regional and local television and radio broadcasts over the years, including Democracy Now and other US radio outlets. In addition to serving on the board of Greenpeace, she has also served on a number of other boards, including film festivals, national women’s organizations and environmental health organizations.
Varda has lived and worked for extended periods in Toronto, Tel Aviv, Chicago, Vancouver, Montreal and Cincinnati, and spent considerable time in the southwest of France. She now lives northeast of Toronto with her husband and collaborator, David S. Fenton.