Valley Lives - Dr. Nicole Bruinsma

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the February 08, 2012 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Environmentalist pioneered Chelsea's healthy shade of green

by Deirdre Jackson

Chelsea today bills itself as the 'Environment Friendly Community.' But it wasn't always so. Much of the credit for this claim to a brighter shade of green belongs to Dr. Nicole Bruinsma, who died 10 years ago this Feb. 27. For it was due largely to Nicole, and a motley crew of supporters, that Chelsea became one of Canada's first municipalities to ban the cosmetic use of pesticides.Twenty years ago, in Chelsea and Wakefield, Nicole was a popular local physician, well loved for her down-to-earth compassion. She was also an advocate and exemplar of a healthy lifestyle. So her diagnosis of breast cancer at age 37 shocked the community

Valley Lives
Nicole Bruinsma, with daughter Saraya in 1995.

Nicole's response was to look for answers. In 1997, she saw the documentary Exposure: Environmental Links to Breast Cancer, and, in her words, "the penny dropped." Her search intensified. She reviewed medical literature, consulted experts and her alarm grew. The evidence linking pesticide use to cancer and other illnesses, the heightened risk to women and children, gave the issue a global urgency and importance. And the idea that the pursuit of a golf-green lawn trumped human health concerns seemed increasingly bizarre. In a paper on the subject, Nicole quoted Abraham Lincoln: "To sin by silence when they should protest, makes cowards out of men." And Nicole was no coward. Nicole believed that "change is only going to come from the grassroots." In April 1998 at Camp Fortune, she gave the first of many public talks on the evidence for a pesticide-cancer link. The organizers hoped for 60 attendees. More than 200 showed up and ACRE, Chelsea's environmental action group, was born. ACRE's first priority was to convince Council to legislate a ban on lawn-care pesticides.

Just a few years earlier, Council had rejected a proposal to restrict pesticide use and they didn't immediately cozy up to the idea. However, the motley crew of supporters included scientists, lawyers and physicians - formidable environmentalists all. The force of their collective wisdom had a memorable effect at one particular meeting, during which a few Council members seemed to attain a rapid and startled enlightenment. To Council's credit, the bylaw passed in December 1998, making Chelsea a pioneer in putting the health of its inhabitants above lawn-care convenience and aesthetics.

Nicole continued to work for the well-being of others even with the heartbreaking return of her cancer in 2000. Sadly, there isn't room here to catalogue her contributions at the local and national level or the recognition she received in her lifetime and posthumously. Just three weeks before she died, Nicole went cross-country skiing in Chelsea's backwoods. Hobbled with pain, she still took joy and found great solace in the winter beauty of the hills. This 10-year anniversary of her death is a good time to remember Nicole's concern for these woods, the surrounding land, and the community whose life depends on our environment. It is a good time to reflect on our current direction, to ask ourselves whether Chelsea is still as "environmentally friendly" as we all would wish.When she died in 2002 at age 42, Nicole left behind her best friend and closest collaborator, husband Dr. Scott Findlay; her most impressive legacy of three remarkable daughters, Anneke, Aiden, and Saraya; and countless friends and admirers.

Meanwhile, the Coalition for a Healthy Ottawa reports that as of Dec. 31, 2010 the aggregate number of municipal bylaws in Canada dealing with the cosmetic use of pesticides stood at 171.

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