BY Jim Harding
I moved back to Saskatchewan in 1977 to become research director of the Saskatchewan Alcoholism Commission (SAC). An arm’s length Commission within Sask Health, SAC was grappling with a growing list of abusive substances: alcohol for sure, but also cigarettes and a whole rash of medical and non-medical drugs. Health bureaucrats and the medical profession were still mostly believers in the miraculous medical industry and there was still a big gap of denial between what people considered the drugs of “addicts” and the growing risks from proliferating pharmaceutical products. The shift was just starting to occur from a disease model to a consumption (epidemiological) model, which assessed pharmacological doses and responses as well as benefits and risks of substances.
I was often caught between the traditionalists who ran rehabilitation programs and those who took seriously the results of consumption-oriented research on drug dependencies and disabilities. I had to remain committed to methods accepted by research peers and the challenges facing those in the trenches. While the healthcare bureaucrats paid lip service to objective policy-related research, they became quite timid when facing the Saskatchewan Medical Association over fee-scale negotiations. Things heated up when our research discovered major over and inappropriate prescribing of drugs such as valium (diazepam) and many other central nervous system drugs.
There was pressure to downplay our research. Luckily I learned about the brave band of pioneers who started Healthy Horizons, for this group provided one forum where the broader discussion of drug dependency could be aired in the context of promoting natural health. Soon I was invited to present our research findings and discuss the growing risks of the pharmaceutics being prescribed to the public in increasing volumes.
Healthy Horizons started in 1975 when Ron Schroeder of Old Fashioned Foods invited Walter Hodson, now known as father of the U.S. health food industry, to come to Saskatchewan after hearing him speak at a conference. He was so convincing that a group of volunteers agreed to found a Consumers Health Association of Saskatchewan. Later renamed Healthy Horizons, it was launched at the Echo Valley Conference Centre near Fort Qu’Appelle on the 1976 Thanksgiving weekend.
From the start Healthy Horizons worked for more personal choice and responsibility, while always advocating a healthier society. The banner under its magazine reads “Work For a Healthy Society – It’s Worth It!” Health promotion can slip into blaming the victims of disease for bad choices, sometimes called “sickness as sin”, as well as an unquestioning obedience to “experts” who are supposed to know what’s best for us. The wisdom of Healthy Horizons was advocating both personal and social responsibility; this is probably why the organization lasted nearly 40 years. The highly educational Healthy Horizons magazine became a mainstay at health food outlets; a whole generation grew up with it in their kitchens.
I had the opportunity to speak at three fall conferences over its history and in the early years there were many hundreds in attendance. The organization was clearly playing a vital role in bringing practitioners of natural health, alternative and complementary therapies and critics of industrial medicine together with the broader public.
The originators probably never expected to last 25 years, but in 2000 the organization was alive and well as it held its anniversary conference at the same place it was founded. The first president, Wylie Simmonds and three of the speakers from the founding conference were in attendance. After years of service then-President Ethel Morden retired from the board. In 2013, at 95, still living in Fort Qu’Appelle, she remains the only living member of the original founding group.
I last spoke to Healthy Horizons in 2006, about water and health. The turnout was a mere shadow of earlier decades and you could sense that the organization was waning. The magazine was discontinued in 2010 and then a quasi-commercial newspaper-format venture started to drain the organization of its savings. The 2012 AGM with Sister Theresa Feist becoming President started the difficult discussion about how best to pass on Healthy Horizons’ important legacy.
PRESERVING THE LEGACY
The 2013 annual meeting of Healthy Horizons heard from speakers from organizations being considered as recipients of Healthy Horizons’ assets. Duane Guina spoke from Farmland Legacies formerly associated with Earthcare. Earthcare is the group that takes a huge “balloon” of the Earth around to Saskatchewan schools; a whole class can sit inside and vividly imagine the interconnectedness of land, ocean and people on the planet.
Guina noted how the growing size of farms and the increasing role of the food, chemical and biotech corporations were unraveling the vital connections between healthy land and healthy humans. Since 1996 Farmland Legacies has accumulated 3,000 acres of land which it holds in trust. It plans to turn the Gillis farm near Wynyard, a pioneer farm in organic agriculture, into the Home Quarter to act as a “model for sustainable land use and agriculture”.
Michael Volker spoke from the Vancouver-based Health Action Network Society or HANS. He acknowledged that Saskatchewan’s Healthy Horizons was a national pioneer in the consumer health movement. HANS formed in 1984, eight years after Healthy Horizons with a very similar purpose, “helping people be well…naturally”. HANS has a nation-wide membership including 200 professional practitioner members and its own magazine, Health Action. It has lobbied hard to ensure that our choices are not prescribed by the powerful medical-pharmaceutical lobby.
All Farmland Legacies holdings are in Saskatchewan and Alberta but Guina indicated that the project was hoping for a nation-wide mandate. Volker reported that it also wanted to increase its cross-Canada presence and was open to setting up a Saskatchewan chapter if there was grass-roots support. HANS already has an important link with Saskatchewan with University of Saskatchewan’s mega-vitamin advocate Dr. Abraham Hoffer becoming a strong supporter of HANS after retiring in B.C. Hoffer’s book Adventures in Psychiatry was reviewed in the Fall 2006 issue of the Healthy Horizons’ magazine.
Healthy Horizons has also been discussing the links between farm practices and healthy food for years; the 25th anniversary meeting in 2000 heard from pioneer organic farmer Elmer Laird from Davidson. The convergence was obvious and a motion recommending splitting the assets of Healthy Horizons to HANS and Farmland Legacies passed this past September without opposition. The board will soon take this proposal to the members for a mail-in vote.
Healthy Horizons initially meant keeping a broad, natural perspective on health, not being narrowed by today’s industrial model. Healthy life styles are now a part of mainstream society. Healthy Horizons was ahead of its time on a whole range of scientific issues. Early on its magazine emphasized the dangers of the accepted low doses of Vit D as well as the dangers from the growing consumption of sugar in fast and convenience foods. Recent research confirms that low Vit D indeed does increase the risks of several serious illnesses and ongoing research is beginning to link sugar consumption not only to diabetes but to heart disease and some cancer. Early on Healthy Horizons warned of the dangers of the medical and agricultural overuse (abuse) of antibiotics.
Healthy Horizons was an early warning system about the dangers of industrializing food and drugs. It reminded us that while illnesses can sometimes be managed by drugs, health can be restored with the help of foods that haven’t had their nutrients depleted in the food market. In its “afterlife”, Healthy Horizons can also have a more literal meaning, working for a day when as you look across the stunning prairie horizon you can be rest assured that the land is being cared for as part of creating a healthy, sustainable society.