Dr. Samantha Nutt, humanitarian-author-mother-medical doctor-War Child Canada founder

“We really do need to think about what we as Canadians represent and what we want our aid to do for us.”

Samantha Nutt

Quite simply, Dr. Samantha Nutt is extraordinary. She’s the epitome of a Kickass Canadian: true to herself (and unafraid to speak the truth); endlessly strong; and both inspiring and inspired. She’s also generous, brilliant and a key instigator of positive change—for Canada and the world.

When my friend, Ottawa, Ontario teacher Justine Price, nominated Samantha (Sam) as a Kickass Canadian in 2011, not long after I launched this website, I was very keen to get Sam on board. Scheduling and other obstacles put it off until now, but it was well worth the wait.

If you know of Sam—of Dr. Nutt, War Child Canada Founder—you likely share the same awe and admiration I have for her dedication, intelligence, initiative, passion and compassion. If you don’t know of her, here are some highlights from her résumé:

In addition to regular speaking and writing engagements, Sam is also a staff physician at Women’s College Hospital (WCH) in Toronto, Ontario, and an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto. On top of all that, she has travelled to the frontlines of many of the world’s major crises, creating programs and carrying out comprehensive assessments on the impact of war on children and their families in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Darfur, South Sudan, Burundi, Uganda and Ethiopia.

Simply reading about Sam’s accomplishments is staggering; I can only imagine what it must be like to live them. It’s clear from my conversation with Sam, and any other interview of hers I’ve seen or read, that she feels the great weight of the horrors of war and conflict. But it’s also clear that she remains positive and hopeful, determined to strive for a better, more peaceful world, no matter the obstacles. It makes one wonder (well, it makes me wonder!) how such an impressive woman came to be.

A good education

Dr. Samantha Nutt was born Samantha Joan Nutt, at Toronto’s Scarborough Hospital in October 1969 to proud parents Phillip and Joan. A few short months later, her father’s work in the shoe business took the family to South Africa, where they spent the next five years.

“I was really young, so I don’t want to overstate it; we came back (to Toronto) when I turned six, so it was very, very early,” says Sam. “But I do remember bits and pieces of my childhood years in Africa. I can remember I had a little friend by the name of Nora, who was black, and we were together at a park, I was about five, and I can remember the police coming up to us and saying it was a ‘whites only’ park and that we weren’t allowed to play together, and the two of us stood there and held hands, crying. It was the first time that I’d been exposed to cruelty and discrimination and, even then, I had a strong sense of how unjust the world can be. A decade later, I would march against apartheid.”

Back home in Toronto, before the marching and amid less obvious forms of segregation, Sam studied at the Toronto French School (TFS). But the family, which had grown to include Sam’s younger sister, Pippa, continued to travel a bit for Phillip’s job, most notably spending six months living in Sao Paulo, Brazil when Sam was a teen. “I think that international exposure certainly left me feeling as if there was a broader world and I wanted to engage with it,” she says.

That feeling prompted her, after graduating from TFS in 1986, to accept a one-year scholarship to Giggleswick Senior School in North Yorkshire, UK, where she studied drama and 19th century romantic literature, and completed her A-levels. And then it was on to McMaster University’s special Arts & Science Program, and then its Medical School, “and then on and on,” she says with a laugh.

It is a lengthy list, Sam’s academic résumé. After completing med school in 1994, there was an MSc in Public Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (completed in 1995, with distinction), a Fellowship in Community Medicine (FRCPC) from Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, certification by the College of Family Practice and a sub-specialization in women’s health through University of Toronto as a Women’s Health Scholar. (Not to mention the many honorary doctorates she’s received from various Canadian and American universities.)

Such a strong academic focus kind of begs the question: What drove a self-described “bookish” humanities student to pursue medicine in the first place? “I was really interested in the human condition, I was really interested in people,” says Sam. “People think it’s a bit of a deviation to go from drama to medicine, for example, but I think drama is fundamentally about empathy and understanding another person’s life experience and how that manifests itself, and this applies to medicine as well.”

While studying Arts & Science at McMaster, Sam became involved in the campus’ anti-apartheid movement, among other human rights groups, and was becoming increasingly interested in international development and international human rights. “I went to med school because I was really, really interested in that bridge between health and human rights and people’s experience of illness, and the broader social determinants of health. Was it a logical choice for me as someone who was passionate about writing and literature and social justice issues? Maybe not. But I’m certainly glad I went that way.”

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo: War Child Canada

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo: War Child Canada

War Child Canada

After several other experiences working in international women’s health, in 1995—at just 25 and fresh out of med school—Sam travelled with UNICEF to Baidoa, Somalia as part of an evaluation team tasked with making recommendations to the United Nations Security Council concerning the agency’s maternal and child health strategy. It was a transformative experience that exposed her to rampant violence, death and despair, and the profound struggle of trying to remedy those horrors with an underfunded humanitarian response. Forever changed, Sam committed her life to trying to make a difference in the field of international humanitarian aid.

In 1999, after having worked in some of the world’s toughest war zones, she started War Child Canada to offer a more grassroots approach to humanitarian work. She was joined two years later by her now-husband, Dr. Eric Hoskins (MPP for St. Paul’s in Toronto), and together they set about building the organization. Their vision, as stated on War Child’s website, was to create “a charity that empowers local people and organizations to be the architects of their own recovery from the devastation of war.” The organization grew from a volunteer base of one (Sam) working with a cell phone and a one-room office, into an award-winning international charity with a 20-member head office team based out of Toronto, and more than 200 staff members employed overseas (95% of whom are local).

Much of War Child’s fundraising initiatives have grown from Sam’s arts and humanities background. The organization has had great success with two TV documentaries: Musicians in the War Zone, which featured David Usher, the Rascalz, Raine Maida and Chantal Kreviazuk, and Rocked, which featured Sum 41 and went on to be nominated for a Gemini Award.

War Child also hosted a benefit concert in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 2000 that featured The Tragically Hip (including Kickass Canadian Rob Baker) and Chantal Kreviazuk, attracting 80,000 people and raising more than $300,000. In 2003, in support of rebuilding efforts in the Iraqi education sector, War Child released a double album called Peace Songs; featuring exclusive recordings by Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Moby, Avril Lavigne and many more, the album went gold in Canada. In 2009, the organization released the record Heroes, which featured songs of artists such as Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen and U2.

This autumn, War Child will hold an art auction at Bonhams in New York City (with a preview likely in Toronto), at which they’ll sell guitars transformed into art by the likes of Iggy Pop, Michael Stipe, Shepard Fairey and others.

“The arts are a big part of (War Child) and I’ve been very pleased with how it’s turned out,” says Sam. “We really look at art as an expression of activism and protest and mutual understanding. If you look anywhere in the world, whether it’s music or art or dance, the arts in general are a very powerful way in which people come together and understand their experiences with conflict, but also a way in which we talk about life and recover.”

Throughout her travels, Sam says, there are countless instances of people turning to art and making time to express themselves creatively, even in the most poverty stricken, conflict-ridden places. “Art becomes a very powerful vehicle for people in terms of their trauma and their healing and their self-expression.”

Rising to the challenge

That resilience—that ability to seek out ways to heal and to insist on creating, no matter what—is a good sign for humanity. And it isn’t the only reason to hope.

Citing examples like the embargo on land mines and the optional protocol on child soldiers, Sam says, “If you look at what’s happened since WWII, there have been some extraordinary gains in terms of our collective understanding and recognition of the importance of social, political and human rights in ending violence.”

And yet.

As Canadians, Sam says, “Our humanitarian aid has a very long way to go.” It’s far too big a conversation to have during the length of our interview, but Sam manages to hone in on some key areas that are in dire need of improvement. For example, the decision to fold the Canadian International Development Agency [now the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development] under our country’s trade agenda.

“I think that our aid agenda needs to stand alone,” says Sam. “It should focus on the most vulnerable, the most impoverished, where it can actually make the greatest impact, and often those aren’t the countries that have higher levels of GDP and will facilitate our trade interests. But we really do need to think about what we as Canadians represent and what we want our aid to do for us.”

Sam is also critical of “some very specific policies related to the bridging of Canada’s mining interests and our aid agenda,” because they compromise international aid agencies’ ability to bear witness and report on labour and human rights violations associated with Canada’s extractive industries.

And she firmly believes we should be aspiring to achieve 0.7% of our Gross National Product (GNP) as a contribution to foreign aid—the recommended minimum commitment from wealthy nations, as per a 1969 commission chaired by former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. “We’re nowhere close to that,” says Sam. “And with the government cutbacks that have taken place and will take place over the next few years, we’ll see that percentage drop back down to 1990s levels, which is really quite unfortunate because it obviously decreases our impact (in developing countries) and it has an impact on our reputation.”

Then there’s the inarguable fact that we are all consumers of war. In Damned Nations, Sam points out that Canada’s provincial teachers’ funds and the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) we’re obligated to pay into are heavily invested in arms manufacturers. The coltan used in our cell phones and video games is potentially mined in war-torn countries. Not to mention oil, gas and conflict diamonds.

A big part of the problem is that even if people are willing to change their ways and end their investment in war, there isn’t enough transparency for consumers to know where and how products are made. “It’s much harder than it ought to be,” says Sam. “The lack of transparency frustrates the process of people making informed choices.”

On the bright side, she does see important measures coming up to change that, particularly in Europe, and believes that it’s only a matter of time before the trickle-down effect forces Canadian businesses to be more transparent and accountable.

In the shorter term, Sam points to a very easy measure Canada could take to help break the cycle of war: Sign the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). “Even the United States has (signed) it,” she says. “Canada hasn’t signed it, and we were one of the original architects of it. It’s shameful, it’s embarrassing.”

To hear Sam tell it, it sounds so simple, so obvious and clear. Yet she’s one of the few to address these issues in such a straightforward manner, setting aside convenience in order to get at a real solution. So why aren’t others—other thought leaders and political figures—taking a similar stand?

“I think that it doesn’t serve their interests and I think they also can get bogged down in the diversity of competing interests,” says Sam. “Doing the right thing can become extremely complicated if there are all kinds of other vested interests. For example, if (contributing) 0.7% (of GNP to foreign aid) means you have to make an argument in favour of a slight uptake in taxes, politicians get paralyzed by that… Or if suddenly introducing legislation that governs the behaviour of our multinational enterprises operating in unstable parts of the world is seen as being anti-business or restricting the access of Canadian business to foreign markets, then they feel paralyzed by that as well. So the fact that one action begets another or that any of these actions can sometimes follow the laws of unintended consequences, that then becomes the excuse to do nothing at all.

“I think that we fall short in many, many, many areas and I think that it is incumbent upon all of us as Canadians to engage in this debate and discussion.”

In Gewane, Afar, Ethiopia. Photo: War Child Canada

In Gewane, Afar, Ethiopia. Photo: War Child Canada

Violence against Mother Earth

It’s hard not to see the parallels in exploiting people—women and children in particular—and exploiting our shared nurturer, Mother Earth. It seems that the humanitarian and environmental crises are coming to a head in tandem, with industry and war creating havoc for our people as well as our planet; we’re all sickened by the short-sighted, quick-fix culture of consumption that plagues us.

So which one takes priority, climate or conflict?

“It’s not either/or,” says Sam, who is proud of her involvement with the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) as well as her work with War Child. “In fact, several arguments have been made that some of the wars we’re seeing, whether you’re talking about Darfur or South Sudan or Eastern Congo, that these are in many ways environmental wars as well. It’s about the control over resources. So I don’t see those as distinct pursuits… We actually need to be doing some of everything if we really want to improve upon our global reputation, and if we want to have the right kind of legacy and leave the right kind of Canada behind for our children.”

Violence against women and children

Of course we want to create a safe environment for Canadian children. But our children extend beyond borders; we all share one world, and we can’t expect to abandon the youth outside our country indefinitely, without consequences to the ones we raise directly.

One of the greatest threats to our collective well-being—and, as described in Damned Nations, the “greatest impediment to peace”—is the fact that girls, and women, around the world continue to be marginalized and subject to extreme violence. Yet it has been widely reported that women and girls hold the key to a better world; as Sam writes in her debut book, “for every year of education of women in underdeveloped nations, child mortality comes down by 10%.”

So why the ferocious violence against women and girls?

“I think that, since the dawn of time, people have wanted to abuse and suppress and oppress those who they thought were weaker or more vulnerable than they were,” says Sam. In conflict-ridden countries in particular, “it’s about anger and it’s about power and it’s about opportunity, all in a climate of impunity.”

Case in point: The current horrific situation in Nigeria, with the terrorist group Boko Haram’s abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls and the slaughtering of hundreds more boys, a proclaimed attempt to hamper the spread of western education and democracy. (An attempt to keep the “weak” from rising.)

“There are some people who will inevitably believe that when others advance, it is at their expense,” says Sam. “They don’t fully understand that when others advance, we advance and improve together. They see that as a threat, to their own opportunities and their ability to control the outcome.”

Sam points out the sad truth that organizations like Boko Haram aren’t the only ones to take that stance. But she makes it clear that their example shouldn’t be taken as the norm.

“Somebody asked me a couple days ago whether educating and empowering (girls) is actually is putting them at greater risk, and they used the Nigerian girls as an example,” says Sam. “I don’t think you can make sweeping generalizations. Boko Haram is a notoriously violent and brutal terrorist organization with very, very extremist, fringe views, and I think that there are always going to be people like that who want to make a statement, and who will go to horrific lengths to draw attention to themselves and their perverse political point of view…

“I think that the way forward is to continue to make sure that, by promoting girls’ education in this fashion and raising women up, (educated, empowered females) become not the exception but the norm. And it becomes that much harder to rail against what is prevailing and accepted. And we’ve seen this with gay marriage, too; we’ve seen this massive tide of people who now understand that this is how it ought to be. And those voices that are on the margins, that are still complaining and (protesting), they’re being squeezed out in that process, and that’s how it should be.”

In Gewane, Afar, Ethiopia. Photo: War Child Canada

In Gewane, Afar, Ethiopia. Photo: War Child Canada

The women’s movement is unfinished everywhere

Sexism, sadly, is a pervasive thing. Even in countries that are blessedly free of the horrors faced by the millions around the world who live with civil wars and religious strife, the toxic resentment of women and girls still bleeds through.

“There is this evolving new current, and we see this especially with social media, that allows people who harbour antisocial, anti-female views to coalesce and to come together, and they reinforce one another’s rage and resentment,” says Sam. “In the same way that some people then channel that into rabid, horrific racism, other people channel that into rabid, horrific misogyny. I won’t even pretend to understand it, but it is something that every culture possesses and every culture harbours and every culture manifests in its own way.”

Sam talks about the objectification and sexualization of girls, which she calls “dumbfounding.” She touches on the massive rise in boob jobs and other forms of plastic surgery, on botox and even more absurd practices: “When I was seven, they didn’t have padded bikini tops for girls, but they do now… How did we get to this, really?”

She recalls a speech she gave in Toronto last month, after which somebody asked how we can provide a strong enough competing narrative for girls when they’re bombarded with kinder-bikinis and other atrocities on a daily basis—a valid, pressing question. “And it’s not just (that we need a competing narrative) for girls, but for boys, too,” says Sam. “Boys (absorb the mainstream messages) and think that girls are supposed to be a certain way, and they sexualize them instead of understanding who and what they are, and why feminism is both a male and a female pursuit. It’s a human pursuit; it’s about people, it’s about equality and it’s about respect for one another.”

Indeed, Sam takes issue with the fact that we still define “women’s issues” in general as something only females should concern themselves with. For example, the question of women’s role in the workplace, an issue she rightly calls a parental concern rather than a women’s concern. Sam has been married to Eric Hoskins for 13 years, and they have a nine-year-old son named Rhys. She says the pressure to juggle work and family is something she and her husband both wrestle with all the time.

“There’s this sense that it just can’t be done,” says Sam. “You have to be at work for 8:30am and you have to work for (a set number of) hours, and it’s really too bad because it’s just not as family-friendly as many of us would hope.”

Again, consumerism, and the “profit at any cost” mentality, rears its ugly head. “There are some regrets you can manage,” says Sam. “‘I wish I made more money’ or ‘I wish I’d taken that promotion.’ But you don’t want to get to the end of your life and say, ‘Wow, I missed my child growing up and I’m still trying to rebuild that relationship’ or ‘I missed being there for my parents when they were in their last decade.’ Those are the regrets that you don’t want to end with.”

The future (love’s the only engine of survival)

So, with an eye on avoiding those painful regrets, Sam is intent on making the most of her life, starting with family. Given where her work takes her, and the kinds of waking nightmares she’s witnessed firsthand, I ask why she chose to bring a child into our complicated world.

“Because there is so much conflict and violence in the world,” says Sam. “I think that when you can help to bring a human being along, or nurture a human being who already exists, to be active and engaged and concerned, I think that is a wonderful thing and it’s really part of the human experience.”

Now that she has a son, Sam doesn’t travel as frequently. And when she does, she takes her security as seriously as she always has (“very, very seriously”). But she can’t imagine life without those trips to countries and regions full of people who can benefit from her knowledge and experience. “I think that for me to not feel connected to these issues would be like waking up every day and not breathing,” says Sam. “It’s a part of who I am every day; there’s no distinction for me between what I do for work and what I do for intellectual pleasure. It’s all part of a continuum.”

Looking at her efforts from a wider, less personal perspective, Sam wants to keep up her work to help ensure that War Child continues to expand, innovating their programming and reaching as many communities as possible. In the last few years, she says, the demand for the organization’s assistance has only increased. “We currently help about 400,000 people every year, but I can tell you that we can easily quadruple that and we would still only be skimming the surface of what needs to get done.”

As always, a big part of Sam’s efforts include increasing global awareness of international issues. She’s currently developing two book concepts for McClelland & Stewart. Whichever one gets picked up first will be released in late 2015 (or possibly 2016); both are sure to be enlightening. For now, though, Sam offers a few “simple” words the global community can (and should) embrace to start righting some of our wrongs.

For starters, she says we need to take a longer-term approach to development. As individuals, we tend to offer short-term or single cause aid, such as supporting a specific child or responding to a natural disaster. These kinds of emotionally driven contributions, though commendable in spirit, are often ineffective and sometimes counterproductive. We’d do better to donate to organizations like War Child, Oxfam, the Stephen Lewis Foundation, or CARE Canada (with whom Kickass Canadians is very proud to partner), all of which support and implement ongoing initiatives that empower communities and focus on sustainability.

To our governments and funding agencies, Sam suggests reducing the number of short-term cycles in intervention. “It takes a generation to see the effects of well-managed aid,” says Sam. “Yet most grants are for six months, one year, up to three years, for humanitarian assistance. Frankly, when you’re talking about the initiatives that provide the biggest bang for your buck globally, it’s the ones that focus on education and economic development, on really investing in local communities and local community partners, and you can’t do that in six months to a year. We all know how long it takes to complete school, and that cycle can’t happen in the short period of time in which we’re providing funding.”

Then there’s the basic lesson many of us may remember from childhood: Listen to others.

“We need to revive diplomacy and dialogue and conversation,” says Sam. “When you look at what’s happened in the Ukraine and Nigeria and post-Arab spring, I would say that the (deterioration) of political discourse in North America, but more generally globally, and the polarization of opinions and the way that we tend to be shouting at one another instead of talking with one another, all of these things undermine and erode our ability to resolve conflicts and to ultimately make the right kinds of investments on a global level.

“We seem to be becoming more and more impatient, and as we become more and more impatient, we tend to lose our ability to listen to one another and seek constructive dialogue and come up with meaningful solutions.”

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo: War Child Canada

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo: War Child Canada

For the children

Sam founded War Child largely to protect children. But in protecting them, in returning to the basic lessons of childhood as we attempt to pass them on to our youth, we may just be reminded of what we need to save ourselves—and why we should bother to try.

In a beautifully written article for Trust Law, Sam talks about the legacy of empowerment her mother created for her and her sister, Pippa—one that valued intellect over attractiveness, opinion over deference, autonomy over feminine sacrifice. So I ask Sam what legacy she wants to create for her child.

“If I can leave (Rhys) a legacy of compassion and engagement and awareness, and a view that values intellect over opportunism and self-interest, then I’ll feel like I’ve done my job as a parent,” she says. “But I also want to try to make sure that he lives with great joy and humour as well. I try to really make sure that I have a lot of that in my own life, because you can get really bogged down by the seriousness of it all, and that can leave you feeling a bit cynical and a bit unwilling to engage in the world, and to do right by it. So I’m hoping there will also be great levity and great joy and great humour in his life.

“I think for me, and I know this is true for Eric as well, I think for anyone who has come (as close as we have) to having your life snuffed out, you really quickly begin to realize just exactly… what matters and what’s fundamental. And it always comes down to family and to friendship and to love, and to the time that we spend here, because it is remarkably short and you can get so caught up in the pursuit of it all that you really just forget—you forget to experience it.”

And with that, Sam reminds us why life is worth protecting: because it’s worth living.

*            *            *

For more on Sam and her work, visit warchild.ca or samanthanutt.com, and follow @SamanthaNutt on Twitter. You can donate to War Child here.

Thank you to Fiona Hack of War Child Canada for making this interview possible.


11 Comments

  1. Justine Price says:

    As always, I’m in awe of Dr. Nutt. Kickass human being!

  2. kickasscanadians says:

    Thank you again for the nomination, Justine!

  3. CanadianJane says:

    Samantha Nutt is amazing. So great to read all of this – thank you!

  4. kickasscanadians says:

    CanadianJane: Agreed! Glad you found the article. 🙂

  5. Jan Ypma says:

    What energy, and what wonderful use of that energy! I was skeptical watching her on CBC TV on the National quite often, thinking: “Too young to speak to the nation.” So this evening I decided to get the scoop on her background and accomplishments, and that cured my skepticism. A mensch! Hats off to you, Samantha!

  6. kickasscanadians says:

    Jan, really glad you took the time to find out how amazing Dr. Nutt is (and happy you found this site)! She’s a wonderful resource and has a great well of wisdom to draw from.

  7. Tony Wong says:

    Dr. Samantha Nutt is a gift from God to humanity. May the Almighty bless her always!

  8. Hannah Binns says:

    This article gave me so much (almost all of my) information I needed for a speech I needed to write about Dr. Nutt! She truly is a glorious human, and definitely a Kickass Canadian! 😀

  9. kickasscanadians says:

    Hannah, thanks for your comment! I’m thrilled you found the article and that it was a good resource for you. And I couldn’t agree more about Dr. Nutt! Good luck with your speech.

  10. Alex Taylor says:

    My civics teacher gave me an “inspiring Canadians” assignment where we were assigned a Canadian and we have to research the person and talk to the class about them. This website helped me out so much with my research and will definitely get me an A+. Thank you so much!

  11. kickasscanadians says:

    You’re very welcome, Alex! Happy you found it useful. And you definitely made a great choice in Dr. Nutt!


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