Born In Israel, and raised in Israel and Canada, Varda Burstyn’s first extended forays into social activism took place in Chicago in 1967 and 1968, where she joined that city’s first feminist group, became an active participant in Rev. Jesse Jackson’s economic justice campaign Operation Breadbasket, and in various efforts to stop the war in Vietnam. She was also learning more about pollution and ecology and in 1969, back in Toronto, Varda joined the founding staff of the newly established Pollution Probe at the University of Toronto. She has remained an active environmentalist ever since. Through the 1970s, in Toronto and Montreal, she worked in a number of social change organizations and as a youth and family worker. She began teaching (film studies, Atkinson College, York University, Toronto) and writing professionally in 1979.
During the 1980s, in addition to teaching, Varda wrote and spoke about governance and state formation, women’s health and environmental health and, toward the end of that decade, began to write about the controversies emerging around 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 1992, 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 in the health care sector, at the federal, provincial and regional levels 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 into the health care system.
During the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, 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, The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics and the Culture of Sport, which was published in 1999 by the University of Toronto Press to critical acclaim and won the Book of the Year Award from the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport.
During those years, while her volunteer work saw her as Vice-Chair of Greenpeace Canada, Varda also researched and wrote her first fictional work – a prophetic, fact-based novel of environmental and political suspense, Water Inc., which has 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.) In 2005 and 2006 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.
Since that time, 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 effort to bring about health care services for victims of toxic injury who suffer from chronic, environmentally-linked illnesses in the province of Ontario, particularly from pathological chemical sensitivity (best known as MCS – Multiple Chemical Sensitivities – or ES – Environmental Sensitivity). From 2008 to 2017, with several 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) – learn more about this project and the reports it produced. This process eventually resulted in the establishment of the current Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care’s Task Force on Environmental Health in June 2016. She was a member of the task force until February 2017, when she resigned. Her history and evaluation of the task force’s Phase 1 report are available on her Dispatches from the Chemical Edge site.
At present, she is working on a new series for CBC’s IDEAS, on today’s toxic chemicals and issues in environmental health, for Fall, 2018.
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 U.S. 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. Today she is a member of the board of the Chemical Sensitivity Foundation in the U.S.