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September 28, 2022

PaRx People: A Conversation with Stephen Cornish

Stephen Cornish is the Director General of Médecins Sans Frontières Operational Center in Geneva, Switzerland. The MSF Operational Center in Geneva provides medical humanitarian assistance to save lives and ease the suffering of people in crisis situations in more than 30 countries.

Stephen was the former David Suzuki Foundation Executive Director and General Director of MSF Canada. During more than ten years of field experience, he managed several major MSF humanitarian interventions in contexts such as Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Georgia and Peru. He has successfully negotiated humanitarian access to vulnerable populations in conflict settings across the globe.

Stephen Cornish sat on MSF Canada’s board of directors (2008-2012) before serving as Executive Director (2012 to 2017). He also worked with the Canadian Red Cross as manager of programs for countries in armed conflict, and for CARE Canada as a policy and advocacy advisor. He sits on the board of CANADEM and was a past Board Member of the Youth Challenge International (2008-2018), is an honorary board director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, and was a member of the steering committee for Pathways to Peace, an international peace-building initiative in Afghanistan.

Stephen holds a master’s degree in global risk and crisis management from the Université Panthéon Sorbonne in Paris, and a post-graduate diploma in conflict resolution from the University of Bradford.

PaRx Director Dr. Melissa Lem sat down with Stephen to learn about how his early experiences with nature shaped his life’s work, his varied career in the fields of humanitarianism and the environment, how nature can heal in times of conflict and war, his strategies for fitting nature time into his busy life, and more.

You've had an incredibly varied and interesting career. How has nature influenced your life from childhood to your education and work?

I grew up in the Ottawa Valley in a little farming community where nature was our playground, it was our teacher, it was everything. From a young age we were fully immersed in nature. On weekends and holidays, we would go out after breakfast and stay outside all day—only coming home for dinner. Whether you were falling in a creek, building a fort, running down trails, fishing or camping—being outside in nature was everything.

To top it all off, we had a small hobby farm, for gardening, raising rabbits and chickens and riding horses. It was a great teacher and developer of empathy and respect for other forms of life.

When I was 12 I was fortunate to spend a year in Mexico as an exchange student, and the family that I lived with was part of a mountain climbing group. And so then I was introduced to mountain climbing, which would never have happened to a kid from the Ottawa Valley. My family were involved in scouting and that kind of thing, learning the basic camping skills, but they were not at all Great Outdoors people. We weren’t very adventurous. We were a big family in a small town. The adventure came later when I was grown up enough to do it on my own.

Stephen on an early trek atop Mount Toubkal in Morocco. Photo supplied.

And the awe and the wonder of the mountains, which you know very well being in Vancouver, was just something that really took it to a whole other level, and became quite important. For a number of years in my life both professional travel and personal trekking centered around going into the mountains.

I spent six weeks in the high Himalayas when I was graduating from university; rather than finding a job I found my vocation. My first overseas mission was with an environmental organization called ‘Youth to Everest’. We went into the Khumbus in the Everest region bringing solar panels and waste management systems to start to filter out the negative effects of deforestation and pollution caused by heightened tourism. They needed tourism for their livelihoods, but it was starting to take a toll, not only on the natural world, but leading to water-borne diseases and impacting people’s health.

The conception of disease was to be out of balance or not at ease. To be well was to be at ease with nature, at ease with spirit, and at ease with family.

To see nature destroyed was something that spiritually was very difficult for the people. I mean, it's one of the most rugged, beautiful and difficult places on the Earth to survive, and yet these people have done so with dignity, and with an interaction between spirit, nature and each other that I think we all have a lot to learn from. I certainly learned a lot from them very early on.

In Canada my big awakening was working with an organization called Frontiers Foundation, which brought together international and Canadian volunteers to work alongside Indigenous communities. I spent six months in Northern Ontario working on education projects, and you’d be taken hunting and fishing and into nature. And then I spent six months in the Arctic with the Inuit on Baffin Island where we lived in a residence with teenagers who were billeted for the school year, and volunteered in the schools during the day. The Inuit elders ran a back-to-the-land program as part of the high school curriculum, where they took teenage cohorts on expeditions across the sea ice and out on the tundra imparting hunting, fishing and Arctic survival skills.

An Arctic seal. Photo credit DSD on Pexels.

As volunteers we were often invited along, and were thus able to go out on the land trekking, dogsledding, seal hunting and fishing for Arctic char. It was amazing to see how ingenious the Inuit were on the land. We also witnessed how nature restored what at the time was, and still is in many cases, a very troubled community. The scars of having been forced into sedentary cities, surviving residential schools and going from trap line to airlines in a generation were evident—and in addition to the coming-of-age issue, the teenagers were straddling their traditional culture and the Southern world. They had one foot in the old world, one foot in the new, and one foot somewhere in between. As soon as the Inuit went on the land together, all of the resiliency, skills, social cohesion and wonder returned—and all the hard sides and the social issues and addictions just seemed to disappear. You saw folks working out collective solutions to seemingly impossible challenges together. Often in storms, or when we appeared lost, the elders could see the landscape and landmarks in three dimensions, where we see it only in two or not at all. It was absolutely magical. I've been very fortunate to have been brought into nature and into different cultures through my travels, learning and work.

And it seems to be something that just keeps coming back, reminding me of my deep need for it. Even though most times in our busy lives it's hard to string together the big expeditions or multi-day treks, you find ways to knit nature into your daily life.

Most recently you’ve spent time in Ukraine doing humanitarian work. You’ve also witnessed war and conflict elsewhere in the world. How can nature help people and communities heal and stay resilient during times of trauma?

Well, at first I think sometimes it's just too overwhelming. Maybe that's a step beyond for people in the heat of crisis. Because often when communities are enveloped in conflict for the first time they can't even believe that this could have happened to them. They were leading normal lives, and whether they were different ethnicities or religions or whatever was at the base of it, no one could imagine falling into such a chaotic form of inter-communal violence.

Stephen crossing the border into Ukraine with MSF in April 2022. Photo supplied.

The average conflict lasts for around 10 years, so it can be very difficult for a community or individuals to be able to see past their current situation, and how there could be a life after, and what that life could look like, especially when so much destruction and devastation is happening.

But at the same time, in Ukraine, one of the things that struck me really deeply was the care and energy that many of the elderly and vulnerable who stayed behind were putting into their kitchen gardens, flower beds and fruit orchards. You could well imagine that in addition to resilience and vital sustenance how tending the gardens—whether planting, weeding or watering, was giving them the first glimmers of hope and glimpses of possible bountiful harvests at the end of a long season.

Tending a flower garden in the middle of war really does show that even if we're just going through the motions, and we may not be conscious of why we're doing things, bringing the beauty of nature and hope together are definitely things which can help give resiliency and help people cope in devastating times.

Post natural disaster, in Honduras and Nicaragua, I saw families come together to build communal agroforestry projects between them, which not only gave them a livelihood, but  built resiliency against future storms and other types of crises. Where you had a collective action which helped them preserve water and the soil from erosion, and also helped protect the crops to withstand harsh winds and future storms. In the process of working together, they gained more resilient and diversified livelihoods, with the benefit of natural beauty all around. It's something that we need to see more of—especially in the face of climate change where communities will need to become more resilient to cope with greater natural uncertainties.

This past year I was in Sudan. We were trying to find land to establish more refugee camps for the Tigrean refugees and Ethiopians who were fleeing conflict and crossing into Sudan. And one of the biggest challenges was to secure the land. The elders recalled an earlier conflict, about 30 years before, when tens of thousands of these people's relatives had come across, and deforested all the hillsides. So they were reluctant to give the land up because they didn’t want to see deforestation occur again.

Stephen on an MSF mission in Sudan in 2021. Photo supplied.

This really pointed out, I think, a big gap in the whole system, because often people aren’t provided with materials to cook the food they're given. If you're having fled with no means you're going to of course do whatever you can to survive. And as a result, we really need to look at how can we use forestry regeneration in real time, not only to help with that tension, but even to bring trees nature and community gardens into refugee camps themselves to provide shade, to provide a pastime, to provide a little bit of care and participation in in feeding your family and bringing some of the tastes that you're used to. That mix is something that we need a lot more of, and certainly is going to be part of where we're going in the future.

What impact have you seen war have on the natural world?

It’s sometimes quite devastating as you can well imagine, and not just from shelling or unintentional wildfires. The type of destruction which I already spoke of, huge deforestation, often happens in conflict. There are big changes in fauna, where you'll see a rise in poaching and subsistence hunting, which can often have huge impacts on the natural world. I saw firsthand in Virunga National Park between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda after the genocide, how the mountain gorilla population was severely affected. The effect can really be quite, quite significant. I think it's high time we start to take that into consideration in the organizations we partner with, and in the way that we expend international humanitarian and development assistance.

How did you end up doing humanitarian work with Médecins Sans Frontières to working with the David Suzuki Foundation, and then back again?

I'd actually been fairly aware of climate change impacts for a number of years in our MSF field missions and in humanitarian settings, where you could see populations dealing with the effects of climate change already. Where you'd have multi-year droughts creating tension leading to conflict, displacement and incidences of high malnutrition, and flash flooding or repeated cyclones. And the science has been forecasting for years that all of this was only going to get worse. Our organization, and many others, weren’t doing a lot about it. We were putting motions to our board and doing small pilots of using solar oxygen, and solar generators, and little things—but not scaling them or changing fundamentally how we work.

Stephen speaking at the Global Climate Strike in Vancouver in 2019. Photo supplied.

Knowing that the greatest humanitarian disaster ever is the one that's yet to come, and the centrality of the climate crisis in that suffering, I was intent on getting a foothold in the environmental world. I was looking for an organization where I could I exchange my management skills for a deep immersion in all things green.

The magical opportunity of working with David, Tara and the Foundation family—I couldn't even have dreamed of until it actually happened. For the three years that I ran the Foundation I was at the University of biodiversity-protection, environmental communication, reconciliation and apprenticing with the Master himself.

Coming back to MSF or Doctors Without Borders was also not planned, but the organization I'm now leading, MSF Geneva, has planetary health as one of its pillars—we’re the lead for all of MSF on the climate and the planetary health side. And so basically, I had the credentials now, and some of the legitimacy to push the buttons and push the envelope. In the short time I've been here we’ve launched several Planetary Health projects, participated in COP26 and signed up for the Paris Agreement targets; now the whole organization within a year has signed up to the Paris targets.

It's really humbling to be in a position where you can make change. Sometimes we don't know the path in advance, but the steps we take help give us the skill sets and the legitimacy and the courage to take those next ones.

Stephen at COP26 in Glasgow, 2021. Photo supplied.

As the former CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation, you led the organization in its mission to protect nature's diversity and the well-being of all life, now and for the future. Why is it so important for us as humans to protect the more-than-human world?

I'm going to have to go back to my teacher, David, or the Doc as we know him. He has certainly been a teacher, and so has his partner, Tara Cullis-Suzuki. When the David Suzuki Foundation was founded, together with Indigenous leaders they penned the Declaration of Interdependence. David has been teaching that every microorganism, every insect, every amphibian and every plant has its special purpose and is woven into the tapestry of nature. And even one of those pieces missing creates a hole that we don't even fully understand what it could do. In the time we're in now, we have the power and unfortunately seem to be hell-bent on trying to take out as much as we can. We don't call it the Anthropocene for nothing. We are in a period where many life forms are under threat of extinction and we have the power to change that if only we can act courageously together.

Medical personnel certainly know the social and ecological determinants of health. David always said that if the water or the soil or the air were polluted or unwell, then we would be sick too. I hope we will collectively move beyond just an instrumental approach to moral action.

But the instrumental approach makes it clear that that we should care for all things. And I think the more we care for things, the more we have awe for nature, the more we have interaction with animals, the more we will develop empathy, connection and a real desire to use our talents to try to protect this beautiful planet we call home. It will certainly out-survive us but, but it would be a horrible tragedy to have sat by and watched so much of it be impacted perhaps beyond restoration.

Stephen and Dr. David Suzuki on a fishing trip. Photo supplied.

There’s research behind that, showing that when people are more connected to nature they tend to engage in more pro-environmental behaviours in general—not just conservation, but also other forms of climate action.

I’ve seen your nature prescriptions as a doctor, Melissa. So I fully believe it. The other learning from my own life and also from the David Suzuki Foundation is really mixing in the knowledge of Indigenous peoples. And that I've seen time and time again. We have in some senses lost a bit of our connection to yesterday, to our present and perhaps some of our longer-term vision of tomorrow, given that many of us are displaced from wherever our heritage is from, and in some cases are very, very mobile. But I think rediscovering that connection to nature, reconnecting to place—you could call it spirit, you could call it wisdom, you could call it by many names, I guess—but finding that piece is inherently a piece of what makes us human. Perhaps we have undervalued it and let it get dusty, and so shining it up, I think, will be to the benefit of all.

Among many other roles, you're a father. What role does nature play in your family's life?

For me, one of the greatest things with my son was going on long nature walks. That was at a time when he didn't have very much patience or ability to concentrate on any one sport or any one thing for more than 15 or 20 minutes. But we could go for a walk in nature for three hours. And just be in awe, and together without an agenda, without a plan, without a conflict. It just became a really wonderful place of bonding when he was young. Now that he's a teenager he's not quite as into it, but he will still always go for nature walks, despite spending most of his time now playing computer games and doing things that teenagers do. That for me is special, and will remain so.

Sunrise on English Bay in Vancouver, BC. Photo credit Stephen Cornish.

We first met in Vancouver but you’ve lived elsewhere in the country as well. Where do you like to spend time in nature when you're in Canada?

Well, I love to spend time in the Great, Great Outdoors but the reality is most of my time is spent quite busy and in cities. I tried to find little respite places in Toronto when I was there for six years. The Leslie Street Spit was amazing especially, because it was built on reclaimed rubble, but is now home to migratory species, nesting species, foxes and all kinds of things. High Park was another one. In Ottawa there was a man-made forest just east of the city, and I grew up hiking and camping there, and in Algonquin Park.

So often it's not the Whistler, or the Haida Gwaii, or the places I love to be, but it's the places that you could build into your routine more often. And you find your own little special niches within them.

Your work has taken you around the world. Where's your favourite place to spend time outside anywhere on the planet?

I talked about Everest already. I’ve been there once, but it marks you. I was on a mission with MSF also in Peru where we have missions with Indigenous peoples in in the Peruvian jungle and tributaries of the Amazon. We'd spend weeks in dugout canoes, just surrounded by the most amazing nature.

I worked in Costa Rica also doing some nature conservation and had the chance to discover Corcovado National Park. That just blows your mind—the flowers, the different flora and fauna are just amazing. But the reality is you don't get there every day. Here in Geneva I’m lucky enough to be close to two mountain chains, both the Jura and the Alps. And so we do have the ability to get out sometimes for the weekend.

Lac Léman in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by k_michels on Pixabay.

You have a very busy schedule. What are your strategies for fitting outdoor time into your own life?

Running shoes are strategy number one, because they're portable and you can go anywhere. Not only do you discover the communities, but you often then find a way to get into the countryside or into a forest. Here I run along the Rhône River, and suddenly you’re five minutes from home, yet you're under a tree canopy and listening to the river and watching the birds, and you might as well be in Heaven for a little blissful while.

We also have the stunning Lac Léman in Geneva. So just to go down there, take a quick swim, and watch the sunset over the mountains, you're already in awe. As soon as you hit the water, all the stress of your day is gone. So it's more building in those little moments in nature, rather than the big outings, to tell you the truth. I mean my job is quite all encompassing. We're responding as we chat to I think about 14 emergencies.

Right now I’m the general director of an operational section of Doctors Without Borders, the section based out of Geneva. We run about $350 million Swiss francs in operations and humanitarian programming a year across 31 countries, and that ranges from responding to conflict in Ukraine, to displaced people in South Sudan, to the malnutrition crisis in Somalia and Sahel too. We're dealing with several outbreaks right now: dengue, malaria, measles and checking the latest Marburg virus outbreak in Ghana.

It's a little bit hectic. I don't plan multi-day stuff very often or very well. It’s a little too full on at times. I have of course to find a better work-life balance. Maybe I’ll emulate you—I have to wrap nature back into my life somehow.

You’ve also worked with the Canadian Red Cross, CARE Canada and sit on the honorary board of CAPE, so you have a lot of experience working alongside health professionals. What role do you think health professionals have to play in inspiring people to protect nature and the planet?

Health professionals are amongst the most trusted. And they also fully understand not only our interdependence with nature and our reliance on it, but also the social and ecological determinants of health. So, if not them, who?

Stephen with MSF volunteers in Al Shahaba, United Arab Emirates, in 2021. Photo supplied.

For health professionals to be able to skill not only people to heal, but the planet to heal, to me—I'm not a health professional, I wish I was some days—but I just think that's a privilege, a legacy and a responsibility that is very distinct, very special, and so needed.

And it's really wonderful to see so many health professionals taking that on board. I was at the Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, where between the World Health Organization, Healthy Hospitals, the Red Cross and ourselves—together we all put climate change and health on the agenda, and tried to broaden the understanding of the climate crisis to a health crisis, because it is a health crisis for species and for us, as, as we well know. And if we can do that, then I think we'll have done something very special.

Are there any final words of wisdom you’d like to share?

There’s a really nice quote by an American author, Clarissa Pinkola Estés. She said:

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.”

And I find having a little touchstone like that can help bring us back when we have our busy lives, or when we become overwhelmed. It’s important for everyone to have a little personal touchstone so we all have a way of going back to our own resiliency, to nature's resiliency, or to whatever is going to feed us and keep us whole, so that we're able to continue trying to do the best we can for everything and everyone else around us.

Follow Stephen on Twitter to learn more about his work here.

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