About Varda Burstyn

“One of Canada’s foremost left feminist theoreticians and eco-organizers.”
- Peter Graham and Ian McKay, Radical Ambition: The New Left in Toronto.  2019

Varda Burstyn was born in Israel, and raised in Israel and Canada. Her early  forays  into politics and 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 the campaign to stop the war in Vietnam. She was also learning more about pollution and ecology and in 1969, back in Toronto, joined the founding staff of the newly established Pollution Probe at the University of Toronto. As well as loving, and eventually writing about, literature, fine art and popular culture and becoming active in Canadian politics, in the NDP and the independent left, and subsequently producing a body of work on governmental and state politics, she has remained an environmentalist activist and writer ever since. Through the 1970s, in Toronto and Montreal, she earned her living as a youth and family worker while studying and being active in a number of social change organizations.

She began teaching part-time (film studies, Atkinson College, York University, Toronto) and writing professionally in 1980. That decade saw the beginnings of a mobilization of the women’s movement on the subjects of pornography and censorship and, as a board member of the Canadian Images Film Festival, which came under fire for showing a feminist film with explicit imagery, she was asked to defend the festival in the arts community and women’s movement (1981). From then until 1987, Varda produced a body of work on many aspects of the politics of sexual representation and the realities of increasing sexual commodification. 

In 1987, Varda, who had always remained engaged in peace and two-state solution efforts related to Israel,  traveled for an extended stay in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank . She interviewed key players in all those sites in order to move beyond the often superficial reportage of the day and present an in-depth look at the politics of this region. What she found was presented in a 3-hour CBC Radio Ideas series - Israel at the Crossroads.

From 1987 to 1998 Varda’s work passionately engaged the debates and dangers of the then  “new” reproductive and genetic technologies. She worked in multiple media, in both scholarly and popular arenas, producing multiple articles and consulting on a multi-award winning National Film Board of Canada/Cinéfort series, On the Eighth Day (1988), as well as a radio documentary series, Technologizing Procreation. (1992). As co-chair of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women’s reproductive rights committee, in 1991 she was the lead author of its brief - A Technological Handmaid’s Tale - from that organization to the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies. And in 1998, she was the series consultant and English-language interviewer for the multiple-award winning French language Office Nationale du Film two part documentary series, Main basse sur les genes and Clonage, a series that broadened concerns from human reproduction to genetic engineering in plants and animals.

Also in the mid- 1980s Varda began her work on the politics of sport culture - which she continued to write about until 2000. Her body of work over those years comprised many magazine and scholarly articles, scholarly conference papers and a 3-hour radio documentary series, again for CBC’s Ideas, called  Play, Power and Politics (1986). Eventually she wrote The Rites of Men: Manhood Politics and the Culture of Sport (University of Toronto Press, 1999), which won the 2000 Book of the Year Award from the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport.

“With great intelligence and insight it underlines the central role sport plays in the ‘making of men’ in modern Western culture. It should be required reading for anyone seriously interested in the pervasive influence of sport today.”  

- David Meggyesy, Western Director, National Football League Players Association

When the New Democratic Party, Canada’s social democratic party, came to power in Ontario in late 1990, Varda was asked to join the health reform team in the new minister’s office as the major (new) policy speech writer. In a year and a half of whirlwind work, she became familiar with every aspect of Ontario’s health care system, and also worked hard to bring about the first (and still only) environmental health clinic in the public health care system, in Toronto - whose doors opened in 1996. Until 1998, Varda took on more  consulting work in the health care sector, at the federal, provincial and regional levels, in the context of multiple initiatives – too many rolled back or undone by subsequent governments, unfortunately.

During the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, while living in Montreal and Cincinnati, she continued to work in sports studies and  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 (1988).

From the mid-1990s to the mid 2000s, while her volunteer work saw her as Vice-Chair of Greenpeace Canada, Varda also researched and wrote a 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.

In 2005 and 2006, Varda took on emerging issues in the emerging knowledge about the widespread adverse effects of environmental, especially chemical, agents on children’s health. She  wrote a loose series of three articles on different aspects of this subject, two anthologized in Praeger Press’s cross-over series, Childhood in America , the third in the acclaimed anthology, Child Honouring.

Since the mid 2000s, Varda 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 multi-stage, multi-component effort to bring about health care services for people who suffer from a number of chronic, environmentally- linked illnesses that have become epidemic, but for which Canada’s health care systems provide no care.

Misdiagnosed, she had suffered (misdiagnosed) from one such disease process  - Multiple chemical sensitivity, also known as ES (Environmental Sensitivities) or TILT (toxicant induced loss of tolerance) - at mild to moderate levels most of her life. But in 2000, thanks to an intense, prolonged chemical exposure, she radically deteriorated only to discover anew there was no clinical capacity to treat this condition in Canada’s famously “universal” health care system.

And so, from 2008 to 2017, with a number of other senior colleagues in and around Ontario’s health care system and in advocacy organizations, she was the initiator, then eventually the lead overall project consultant of what turned into a multi-year, multi-stakeholder study process to establish a network of environmental health clinics and centre of excellence, called the Ontario Centre of Excellence in Environmental Health (OCEEH) – learn more about this  project and the reports it produced.

This process eventually resulted in the establishment of an Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care’s Task Force on Environmental Health 2016 to December 2018, which produced two reports, in 2017 and 2018. Varda was instrumental in writing the first in 2017, but resigned after this because of major differences she had regarding the government’s limits and distortions of the mandate of the task force. Her history and evaluation of the task force’s Phase 1 report (2017) are available here, from her informational website, Dispatches from the Chemical Edge. Click here for her 2019 in-depth critique, with extensive research support, of the invalid definition of MCS appended by health ministry officials without task force approval, to the final report (2018), along with an constructive discussion about the lack of awareness of MCS in the medical profession in Canada, and what is needed to repair this.  

Varda continued to organize and write, particularly about MCS. In 2022, her article for Herizons Magazine, a popular explanation and discussion of the politics of MCS, appeared in the March/Spring issue. As well, for her collaborative, the Ontario Environmental Health Advocates Group, as lead author she wrote a major report aggregating, analyzing and translating the most recent research on MCS, addressing the contested nature of the disease process, codifying key lessons from the clinical record and making a set of policy recommendations for both provincial and federal levels of government. Book length and comprehensive, it is the only such report on MCS that exists at this time.

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. From 2016 to 2023, Varda served as a member of the board of the Chemical Sensitivity Foundation (USA).

Varda Burstyn 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 frequent collaborator, David S. Fenton.