Halifax City Hall in August 2020. — Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

Dear Mayor Savage and Halifax Regional Municipality Councillors,

Welcome to Council! To the new members: welcome; to the incumbents: welcome back. It’s your first week, it’s 2020, and we’re in the midst of a generation-defining pandemic. Thank you for your service.

We’re counting on you.

Councillors, we are a group of Dalhousie University researchers who advocate for strong health promotion policy in government. Through our research, we believe that Halifax Regional Council can implement effective policy that can ensure the health of our communities today, and in the post-pandemic recovery to come. You can create what we call a supportive environment for chronic disease prevention.

The idea of a supportive environment for health comes from the 1986 Ottawa Charter, when Canada hosted a global conversation on the fundamental priorities to ensure access to good health for all.

The Ottawa Charter said something remarkable that you can use in your new term.

The Charter said: health is a resource for everyday life, not the objective of living. The Charter reminds us that keeping citizens healthy is not an end-goal for policy, but the starting point for a flourishing society, for all of the things we want to achieve individually and together.

Our prerequisites for health are the fundamental conditions and resources, like access to affordable, good quality food, stable shelter, income, social justice and equity.

Communities are faced with the challenge of COVID-19, and protecting lives and livelihoods seems a rather substantial health goal already. But health is the starting point. The Atlantic Bubble has helped us to limit transmission of disease, which means you have the chance to put health first. You can place prevention of chronic diseases, like heart disease or cancer, at the heart of a progressive municipal agenda. You can ensure that the health of our community stays as a resource for all residents.

How? Here are four steps you can take right away to continue to build a supportive environment for chronic disease prevention for the HRM. They may seem familiar.

First, representation. Congratulations to your constituents—HRM voters have elected you, a Council that has reached gender parity for the first time. In doing so, you have achieved an essential democratic benchmark that many governments, of any order, have failed to deliver. But you’re not done. Regional Council with gender parity among those who identify as women is a healthy starting point for equitable representation. Please use this momentum to support representation from all equity deserving groups.

Next, housing. Halifax is in the midst of a housing crisis that has gained the attention of the federal government. As of September, the previous council endorsed a plan to regulate short- term rentals. There is a need to prioritize existing municipal land and public funding to create affordable and accessible housing in perpetuity. Safe and affordable housing are key and necessary determinants of health.

Third, good food access. A healthy food environment is a supportive environment. Equitable municipal planning can lead to better access to food stores. Also, you can call on the provincial and federal governments to support policies like a universal school food program, or a universal basic income that can help cover the skyrocketing costs of living. By prioritizing access to affordable, safe, and nutritious foods, you afford residents of HRM the opportunity to make healthier choices.

And fourth, public transportation. Increasing access to active transportation modes like public transit is important. Continue to focus your efforts on the HRM’s Rapid Transit strategy to create a more reliable, accessible, and sustainable transit network across urban, suburban and rural parts of our municipality. Support for public transit will ensure residents have equitable, reliable access to the places and spaces they live, work and play. Taking public transit is healthier than driving a car, encourages physical activity and can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, health, you might say, is a provincial responsibility. It is. But with health as a resource, our municipality can flourish. Without social and structural environments that support good health, it is very hard for residents to make healthy decisions like purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables or to be active enough for health benefits. Please remember that you are in a position to make the right decisions to continue to support healthy environments. You have already taken amazing and tangible steps toward this goal.

As we navigate this pandemic and plan for recovery, Council has an opportunity to create a progressive, compassionate and equitable legacy that prioritizes the long-term health and well-being for the residents of the Halifax Regional Municipality. The work must continue. Remember the issues that you fought for as you settle down to work. The health and well-
being of your constituents depends on the choices you will make.

Please choose wisely. For all of us.

Noel Guscott is a Master of Arts student in Political Science at Dalhousie University.
Hilary Caldwell, PhD is a Post-Doctoral Fellow with the Healthy Populations Institute at Dalhousie University.
Emily Jago is Research Manager with the Food Policy Lab at Dalhousie University.
Joshua Yusuf is a Bachelor of Science student in Health Promotion at Dalhousie University.
Catherine Mah, PhD is Canada Research Chair in Promoting Healthy Populations and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Health at Dalhousie University
Sara Kirk, PhD is a Professor of Health Promotion in the Faculty of Health and Scientific Director of the Healthy Populations Institute at Dalhousie University.

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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