International Doctoring and Entertaining: Samantha Nutt and Eric Hoskins

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 2002-04-01 12:00:00

Dr. Samantha Nutt and Dr. Eric Hoskins are the driving force behind War Child Canada, an organization through which Canada's leading rock bands perform benefit concerts attracting hundreds of thousands of youth, who also learn there about threats to peace, such as the trade in small arms and conflict diamonds. Within a year Sam and Eric had also persuaded 100,000 youthful Canadians to participate in high school clubs or hold their own benefit concerts, contributing the money to War Child Canada's projects overseas. Today the organization is sponsoring eight projects - in Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Thailand, Colombia, Uganda, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. As a result, many thousands of Canadian and American youth have become empowered peace activists, along with a number of socially committed musicians who would not otherwise have an NGO vehicle for expressing their concern.

What sort of person would invent such a project? Answer: maybe an imaginative, attractive couple - each with more experience overseas in conflict zones than many senior diplomats.

Having known Sam and Eric for several years, I was delighted to learn that they now make Toronto their base, so I invited them to dinner, then turned on my tape recorder and listened as they sat on the sofa, teasing each other playfully, as the told their stories.


They have been together eight years but before they met and married they already were global citizens. Eric, 41, was brought up as a rural Ontario boy "without access to cultures," according to his joking wife Samantha, 32, whose first six years had been spent in Africa, followed by a later period in Brazil, where her father was an artist and designer.

But the "country boy" was destined to see the world. At 17 Eric entered McMaster University to study chemistry. However, witnessing a terrible highway crash in the fog made him reconsider his priorities. He entered medical school at 20 - too young, he soon realized. He decided to take a year off before proceeding, so he went to the Dominican Republic, working on primary health care programs such as vaccinations. He had already traveled around Ecuador and Peru with a malaria eradication team and was convinced that he wanted to work on international issues. Upon finishing medical school he won a Rhodes scholarship and went to Oxford to work as a social anthropologist with refugees, then to pursue a D. Phil. in public health. He spent several years in Sudan, working with street kids and with Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees.

There the second turning point in his life occurred when the current government came to power through a military coup in 1988. Eric was the only Westerner at the University of Khartoum, in the medicine faculty, which strongly opposed the coup. His office mate died as a result of being tortured, and Eric witnessed numerous brutal human rights violations.

At the beginning of the Gulf War, he left Sudan for Toronto, interrupting his studies in public health. Joining the Gulf Peace Team that interposed itself in the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, he went to Jordan as part of the evacuation team when the invasion began and became responsible for getting people out of Iraq and launching humanitarian efforts. Even as the cease-fire agreement was being signed, Eric was being allowed back into Iraq, where, as one of only three foreigners, he produced videotapes depicting the emergency.

Upon learning that the Iraqi government had $2 million frozen in Canadian banks, Eric asked the Iraqi ministry of health whether they would let him turn it over to a Canadian charity to purchase food and medicines if he could get it released. They agreed readily, and Eric got busy negotiating. Nobody thought he would succeed, but he went to Lloyd Axworthy, David McDonald, and Svend Robinson, who all approved. He approached Barbara McDougall in Foreign Affairs and managed to get the money released. The food and medicine quickly reached Iraq, and Eric won the Pearson Peace Medal for his efforts. He was the youngest-ever recipient.

With two others who had been shooting videotape in Iraq, he formed the Harvard Study Team, which went into Iraq in the late summer of 1991 to conduct a huge study of the impact of the war and sanctions on Iraqi children. A team of about 90 different professionals visited about 300 locations around the country, such as schools and hospitals. Eric did nutrition surveys and mortality surveys. All the power plants had been blown up. This was the third pivotal moment in Eric's life - the documenting of the war's terrible impact on the civilian population, particularly children. It made him realize that one person could do extraordinary things, and he became a committed optimist, an idealist.

In 1993, he returned to Canada to finish his public health degree. That was when he met Sam.


After graduating from the Toronto French School, Sam had studied drama in England and finished an undergraduate program at McMaster, focusing on international issues, culture, politics, and economics. She loved the program and supposed that the best way to continue international work would be in medicine. But when she entered McMaster Medical School, she found it to be static, and undertook an international elective in the Middle East, where she worked on women's health issues.

Because women don't have pap smears done there, the rate of cervical cancer death is very high. Unfortunately, she was not allowed to pursue research on that topic, so she studied childhood vaccination instead. This enabled her to visit women in their homes. She found that many women lived in purdah and could not take their children to be vaccinated because they were not allowed to leave their homes or drive cars.

Sam applied for a Rhodes scholarship and, during her interviews for it, people kept telling her that she should meet Dr. Eric Hoskins because they had so much in common. After hearing this several times, she got upset. She was being told that she was "the female version of Eric," whom she had never met, but whom she was beginning to resent. "How could I do something different, if this guy had already done it all?"

But later on Eric gave a slideshow talk, and upon seeing him she changed her mind. She went up to talk to him and he invited her for a coffee, which later became a game of squash, dinner, and a movie. "I went home and found the shortest shorts I had, and then beat him 6 games to 0," she said.

"It was hard to keep my eye on the ball," Eric laughed.

Sam was runner-up for the Rhodes scholarship, but later was awarded the highly respected Chevening Scholarship by the British Council.

It was 1994 and Sam went to London to pursue a postgraduate degree in community health and tropical medicine. Eric went with her. They lived in Oxford and he taught some and wrote a lot. For an elective course, they went to Somalia as consultants for UNICEF. Sam would turn her research into a thesis on the impact of war on the health of women in Somalia.

The war was still going on. They got off the plane and climbed into a land cruiser. As they turned a corner, a bag of grenades fell off the seat onto the floor. On the car roof were guys with AK-47s. They rode to the UNICEF head office, where they could hear gunfire on the walkie-talkies. The people at another NGO office were surrounded and being held hostage, so they had to cancel the meeting. "Welcome to Somalia," said the UNICEF man.

Their next lengthy stop was Toronto, where Sam also pursued a fellowship in public health and Eric began clinical work with refugees from Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia. He said, "Recent immigrants often have complicated problems - tropical diseases, parasites, tuberculosis - you name it. But also you spend a lot of time being a social worker. They have difficulty integrating into the Canadian system, or they are screwed by the system because they don't understand it. So I've continued to do that sort of private practice."


They spent a couple of months in Iraq, and in Burundi they studied the effect of regional sanctions. Then Eric joined Lloyd Axworthy's staff, moving to Ottawa, while Sam went off to post-war Liberia to work on women's health with UNICEF. The health infrastructure was destroyed so she traveled around the country assessing the situation and devising a three-year plan - a document that could be leveraged in New York to secure more funding for Liberia. It took about six months to do the whole thing, with statistics and recommendations.

When Axworthy became Foreign Minister, Eric went to talk with him about volunteering once a week from home. Instead, Axworthy invited him to join his staff full time, as one of his four policy advisers. After about a year he became the senior policy adviser, advising on human rights, Africa, peace-building, and anything to do with conflict or humanitarian affairs. He was to work with the minister to develop initiatives and get them to happen.

Eric said, "Axworthy was driven by his humanitarian principles. I have never had to question his motivation. He had to make some uncomfortable decisions, but he came from an ethical place. On the Security Council there were lots we weren't able to do, but we were really able to push the envelope on the protection of civilians, on children in armed conflict, and on the human security idea. This was Lloyd's thing from the beginning, which led to the idea that, whatever you're doing, think through a lens where the impact on the individual is central. How can you act in such a way as to protect individuals throughout the world? That principle is established in the international domain now. And you have debates now in the Security Council that went nowhere before Canada introduced them: such as the protection of civilians and kids. We had a real impact with landmines. And in getting the Optional Protocol on banning the use of child soldiers. And some of the work with conflict diamonds. We took a big role in East Timor in peacekeeping.

"Canada is a middle power with a strong voice," Eric continued. "Even in the most remote areas we are held in high regard. Much of it is earned, some of it by chance, and we don't use it nearly enough, which is a great tragedy. Other countries see us as being able to influence the United States positively, and by working with them, to have a positive influence on the world. We haven't taken this seriously enough. Under Axworthy and others, we had an impact on other countries. When we do something, they believe we are doing it for the right reason."

After her Liberian project, Sam launched a one-year training program in international health for young health professionals in Toronto, coming up from Ottawa one day a week to teach. And then she started War Child Canada.

In 1995 they first heard about the War Child offices in Britain and the Netherlands. Each country's War Child operation is completely independent of the others.

Sam said, "In the field, you begin to think that change has to happen on both levels. You have to promote democracy there, and we need to make people here realize that we can all be involved. We would come back from having these profound experiences where we saw great human tragedy and also met local people doing wonderful things for humanity. We would come back and talk to people about it, and they would say, 'Well, that has nothing to do with me.'

"You say, 'What do you mean, war has nothing to do with me?' Nobody here knows, nobody cares, nobody is paying attention. And there is a perception that anything to do with peace, conflict, or human rights is a fringe movement. There must be a way to mainstream it, so that people don't say that it doesn't matter. I thought it would be wonderful to create something that is accessible to new sectors of the population, to encourage people to think differently. In fact, many young people really are interested in international human rights issues and are looking for a vehicle.


"I love music," Sam continued. "In late 1998, I was still a resident in public health. I was in Ottawa working with War Child Canada. Then the war in Kosovo happened. The issue of war went from being obscure to being in the front of people's minds. We had conversations with Denise Donlon, vice-president and general manager of MuchMusic. We walked in to see her when War Child Canada was just my cell phone in my back pack. She arranged for our first public service announcement on MuchMusic. We got thousands of e-mails and phone calls from people who wanted to do something. So we started to build a youth program called "Generation Peace" for high school and university students. It is self-directed. We work with teachers and they form clubs. Then we did a big launch concert on Millennium New Years Eve with MuchMusic and the City of Toronto."

Eric added, "Most charities are programming charities, but Amnesty International does advocacy work. The difference with War Child Canada is that we do both. We have projects overseas, but an important part of what we do is the domestic programming advocacy, awareness-building, getting people involved. We decided to make our target audience youth. It was great to be able to integrate our compassion for civilians with our love for music, and to provide young people with opportunities to become global citizens."

Sam said, "In the first year of the Generation Peace project we had indirectly about 100,000 Canadian youth participate. Some were doing campaigns on conflict diamonds."

"In Sioux Lookout," Eric said, "aboriginal kids wrote a play about war-affected children. It was a fund-raiser. In Winnipeg there was a high school band called Tequila Mockingbird that did a tour of six or seven high schools; they could also talk about war-affected kids and raise money for them."

When Lloyd Axworthy stepped down from his role as foreign minister, Eric also left, joining Sam in War Child Canada. They moved to Toronto in November, where both are also actively practicing clinical medicine part-time. However, there is still a small War Child Canada office open in Ottawa.

War Child Canada never uses publicly-generated funds for media campaigns. Instead, they find sponsors for concerts and documentaries, using the donations entirely for overseas programming. Also, it is important to them that their campaigns be respectful and not demean the people who need assistance overseas. They never try to make Canadians feel guilty either, or show pathetic scenes of African families.


Eric insists, "Africans live in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, but that is not what defines them. We work with Africans to help them help themselves. We work with local organizations so we don't impose ourselves or import foreigners to do the work. The capacity is there. And we are respectful of young Canadians. We reach out to them through music, because it is such a central part of how they identify themselves."

"We went to the Thai-Burmese border with a leading Canadian artist, David Usher, and made a documentary about Burmese refugees in Thailand. We went to Ghana and Sierra Leone with a Vancouver hip-hop group, the Rascalz, and spent a week in Sierra Leone, drawing attention to the problems people were facing in that part of the world, largely due to diamonds."

Sam said, "They got to experience war. The day after we arrived, 500 UN Peacekeepers were taken hostage."

Eric said, "We went with Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maida, the lead singer of Our Lady Peace, to Iraq, where the young people told them how they were affected by war. It was put into a documentary that was the most successful social program that MuchMusic has ever done. Half a million people watched it. MuchMusic broadcasts nationally in Canada and to 30 million homes in the United States through MuchUSA."

Sam added, "The artists like knowing that they can do a benefit for us and six months later, they can call us and ask how the project is going with the money they raised. And they can say, 'By the way, I may be in Thailand next month, and I think I might pop up to the Thai-Burmese border and visit with some of the kids in this project.' That's important to us because it gives people a stake in the organization."

Eric said, "We are starting a program in Uganda. The Lords Resistance Army, the rebel army in the North, abducted more than 10,000 kids, many of them girls, and some of them are escaping or being released and coming back into Uganda. But because they were soldiers or sex slaves, they are being jailed by the Ugandan military. We are starting a legal aid and child rights initiative for at-risk and imprisoned youth. In Iraq we support a hospital. And we work with local NGOs to support our programs. But we also believe that it's important to work in Canada. The problem is here as well as there."

I asked about their sources of funding in the private sector. One is a furniture manufacturing company in Winnipeg called Palliser, which gives more than ten percent of its pre-tax profits to charity. Palliser sponsored two concerts in Winnipeg.


In October the Music Without Borders concert was held at the Air Canada Centre, raising a million dollars for Afghanistan. Alanis Morrisette, the Tragically Hip, Our Lady Peace, the Barenaked Ladies, and Bruce Cockburn performed; CBC and MuchMusic were involved. The United Nations got 80 percent and War Child Canada 20 percent of the proceeds. Within ten days of the concert, Eric was on his way with a Canadian doctor from Afghanistan, Seddiq Weera. Civilians could not yet go into Afghanistan, but they took the money to Pakistan to buy food and blankets for refugees - some of them in Pakistan, but most of the money going into Afghanistan. Money goes a long way there; it is possible to hire a teacher for $30 a month.

Eric spent the first week in Islamabad with Lloyd Axworthy, meeting government officials, United Nations officials, and getting a sense of the humanitarian emergency. Axworthy was trying to shine a spotlight on the human condition, which was already grave before the war on terrorism, but got worse after October 6, when the war started.


Then Eric went to Peshawar to join Dr. Weera, who speaks the language. There they identified two or three NGOs with whom to work as partners. One was the Afghanistan Women's Council, which provides food rations to newly arrived refugee households headed by women. They also have a medical clinic which helps to assure women's rights. War Child Canada provided a three-month supply of medicines for their clinic. The other organization is Coordination for Afghan Relief. They are supporting the Esmet Girls School, primarily for Afghan refugee girls, on the border of Pakistan.

Sam said, "People talk about whether war is justified in Afghanistan, but the issue is, is it right that we spend up to $5 billions on the war and don't see any kind of effort on the humanitarian side that will produce change or protect the civilian populations? Two years from now when there is a lot of cholera and measles, kids are not vaccinated, and schools are still not open, what will the international community be doing?"

Eric said, "The international community invests overwhelmingly more money in violence, as opposed to rehabilitation and development. It is easier to go to war against Iraq, Kosovo, or Afghanistan than to invest in nonviolent means of addressing the root causes. In Iraq we have created an entire young generation that abhors the Western world. Those of us in the free world - all of us who enjoy more human rights than the rest of the world's population - we have a great responsibility. Sam and I take that responsibility seriously."

Metta Spencer is the editor of Peace .

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2002

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2002, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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