VANCOUVER — The bearded Garlic Guy at Granville Island Market looks as if he’s been standing here since the 1970s pitching his organic garlic. The name of his one-man enterprise is Oddball Organics. He grows 19 kinds of garlic and mixes the cloves into sauces ("Nuclear Nectar," for example) that he sells on Granville Island, a peninsula south of downtown Vancouver.
A few meters away, Jérôme is displaying organic specialties. "We have everything here," he says pointing his finger across the selection. "Lamb and date, beef teriyaki, duck à l’orange sausages. Or would you like to try the smoked bison meat sausage?" Salamis as long as your arm hang over his head. The selection at the Oyama Sausage Company is overwhelming, delicious — and, Jérôme guarantees, everything is made from local ingredients.
The market is part of a foodie tour organized by Edible Canada in Vancouver, a local outfit that binds sustainability, nature-consciousness and pleasure in a fun way — a strategic orientation relatively uncommon in fast-food-crazy North America. Then again, Vancouver is not typical: The city has been green for a long time and intends to get greener. In fact, its goal is to become the most environmentally friendly city on the planet by 2020.
Vancouver's Greenville Island Market — Photo: Alan Turkus
Green before it was cool
The city of some 600,000 people on Canada’s Pacific coast has been successfully forging green ideas for decades. In 1971 a small group of peace activists left Vancouver in an old fishing boat and headed for the Aleutian Islands. They intended to stop a planned American atomic test explosion off the coast of Alaska. They named their expedition Greenpeace. They didn’t make it to their destination, but their unusual action made the protectionists famous.
Four decades later, Greenpeace is one of the world’s most influential environmental protection organizations. David Suzuki, Canada’s best-known environmental activist, taught at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver for nearly 40 years. And Sea Shepherd — the organization that stages spectacular actions to draw attention to the plight of whales and other ocean creatures — also calls Vancouver home.
The Ocean Wise program devised by Vancouver Aquarium demonstrates that less aggressive actions can also be successful. It’s been up and running for nine years, and it certifies suppliers and restaurants that buy from sustainable fisheries. Started as a local project, nearly 500 companies in Canada today proudly feature the program’s laughing fish seal on their products and menus.
Take, for example, Vij's, one of the finest Indian restaurants in North America. On a delicate mound of wheat pilaf sit pink shrimp covered with coconut and fenugreek masala. The dish smells fantastic, but the taste surpasses all expectations. "It’s hard to believe that most of the ingredients don’t come from Bombay, but from local organic producers, isn’t it?" asks Meeru Dhalwala, restaurant co-owner.
Dhalwala has been committed to sustainable gastronomy for years. The shrimp can only be fished from the Pacific off the coast of Vancouver at specific times, and supply is carefully monitored. The wheat? From Canada, of course. The fenugreek is grown in Vancouver.
Dhalwala has been running Vij with her husband since 1994. "When we started out, we focused on how our food tasted," she recalls. "Where the ingredients came from didn’t really interest us."
Save the perch
The change came two years later when a guest pointed out that deep-sea perch, a menu item, were threatened with extinction. "That was the first time I heard the words sustainability and fish in the same sentence," Meeru Dhalwala says. After that, the couple paid close attention to the provenance of the fish, meat and vegetables used in their dishes and adjusted the menu to accommodate local, seasonal ingredients.
Vij’s supported the Ocean Wise program from the start. And when Vancouver food critic André LaRivière in 2007 created the Green Table Network — which helps restaurants organize themselves in an ecologically sensible way — Vij's was the pilot restaurant. "Whether or not an establishment meets Green Table Network criteria is something that is controlled by an independent provider," LaRivière says. "That’s important in terms of credibility with guests so that they know that every Green Table-certified restaurant fulfills the same environmentally friendly measures."
Julien Fruchier is also pursuing a green idea. From his office high over the historic Gastown neighborhood, he can see the whole harbor. Vancouver’s Grouse and Cypress Mountains rise up on the other side of the bay. "I believe that life here on the West Coast teaches one to value and protect the environment," Fruchier says. "The original inhabitants of British Columbia strove to live in harmony with nature, and I think that inspired our understanding of environmental protection."
Vancouver harbor by night — Photo: colink.
With his three-day beard and tousled hair, the 42-year-old looks more like an activist than an entrepreneur. In 2011, he bought the rights to the Green Zebra Guide, a coupon booklet that makes it possible for Vancouver residents to save money when they buy ecological products.
The lifestyle booklet has since been renamed Life: Vancouver. "We want for everybody to be able to live here sustainably, both locals and tourists," Fruchier says. "So we make it cool and easy to live a healthier, happier and greener life on less money."
He also suggests visiting Stanley Park, a green 400-hectare (988 acres) oasis only 20 minutes on foot from his office. For those who prefer to cycle, there are numerous bike-loan stations. The 22-kilometer (13.6 miles) promenade along the shoreline has a cycling path that leads all the way around the park.
Vancouver continues — again, atypically for North America — to be massively committed to green. Mayor Gregor Robertson’s "Greenest City 2020" campaign aims to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020, with carbon dioxide emissions and water use reduced by a third, and garbage by one-half.
The traffic system is being changed to encourage both residents and visitors to use public transportation, walk or cycle as much as possible. "It’s up to each individual to do his or her bit, to give this some thought and come up with new ideas about how we want to live our lives in the future," says Robertson.
On the market tour, we bought some garlic products, and now it’s time to take the aquabus that connects Granville Island with the mainland and downtown Vancouver. The ferry is electric-powered, of course. What else?
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
- In Northern Colombia, LGBT Rights Meet Indigenous Prejudice ... ›
- LGBTQ+ In Morocco: A New Video Series To Open Minds ... ›
- Why Italy Is So Slow In Protecting LGBTQ From Violence ... ›