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Saturday, May 06
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Sheila Copps's vision: natural cures for all


Saturday, May 6, 2000

Sheila Copps, the Heritage Minister, is talking to me on the phone from her car somewhere in southern Ontario. "I do use natural echinacea," she says. "I've also tried zinc when I start to come down with a cold." She hasn't tried evening primrose oil yet.

I have. It's very beneficial for women of a certain age, if you get my drift. My doctor, who is Finnish, believes in garlic pills. My dear friend Wanda is a big fan of yam cream and reiki, and another friend swears by St. John's wort and acupuncture.

The world has embraced alternative medicine, and so has Ms. Copps. She aims to build the world's leading centre of alternative, homeopathic, and natural healing, right in her home base of Hamilton. It will be called the Institute of Comprehensive Medicine. At a cost of only $100-million in tax dollars, it promises to be the best health-care investment of the century. Hey! If we don't get sick in the first place, think how much money we'll save!

"It's important," she says, "that we look at the concept of wellness."

Ms. Copps's vision, unveiled this week, has not got quite the press attention it deserves. And that's too bad, because it's grand. The naturopaths and homeopaths will take over the old Hamilton courthouse. The Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton's pride and joy, will build a vast dome downtown and fill it with traditional roots and herbs. "They'll be growing St. John's wort and valerium," says Ms. Copps, "and aboriginal botanicals." The nearby Six Nations reserve will contribute insight into its ancient healing methods. All will be blessed by the distinguished imprimatur of McMaster University. And in less time than it takes for a good colonic irrigation, Hamilton will be the holistic capital of the universe.

There's an acute doctor shortage in Hamilton right now. The hospitals are running huge deficits. They're stacking sick people in the corridors. But all that will soon be but a bad dream. Once those acupuncturists and native healers get to town, wellness will prevail.

Ms. Copps has been brainstorming this scheme for the past 16 months with her old friend, Toronto MP Dennis Mills. It all started because they were determined to find some way to gas up Hamilton's desolate downtown. I asked Ms. Copps how they hit upon alternative healing. "It was Dennis's idea," she said.

Mr. Mills can personally attest to the rejuvenating power of traditional Chinese medicine, also known as TCM. His Toronto riding has 13,000 Chinese people in it. "Twelve years ago, during my campaign, I knocked on the door of a shiatsu therapist. He said to me, 'Mr. Mills, you look so stressed out.' He gave me a treatment. I must tell you it gave me a stillness, a calmness, an energy that carried me right through the campaign." A few years later, Mr. Mills tried acupuncture. "He put four needles in the back of my head. Ping, ping, ping, ping. It just totally took the stress out of my body." He was sold. "The Chinese community said it's very important for you and for us to push our type of therapy and healing."

I visited the website of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, which has responded to Ms. Copps's invitation with gratifying enthusiasm. (As have the herbal product manufacturers that help to fund it.) The College trains naturopathic practitioners in an astonishing array of techniques, which include detoxification, lymphatic cleansing, moxibustion, Qi Gong, tongue and pulse analysis, aromatherapy, dream exploration, channeling magnetic energy through the laying on of hands, Bach Flower Remedies, and something called absent healing, which sounds extremely useful in these days of rural doctor shortages. There are naturopaths who do iridology, which is looking in your eyeballs to figure out what's wrong with you, and some who have PhDs from Sri Lanka, and some who'll sell you essiac for cancer, and others who advise you to wrap your sick kid's head in cabbage leaves, and some who think that vaccinations are a vast, evil conspiracy.

"A number of us have strong passionate views that this is an area where Canada can lead as we redesign our health-care system," Mr. Mills told me. "And as you know, Allan Rock is totally on side."

Is he ever. Mr. Rock, our Health Minister, said the other day: "Whether it's the Chinese community, our native population or other ethnic groups, a growing number of people want to get access to things they know can help, but aren't provided for at the moment. There's a gap for now, and it's a fantastic chance for Ottawa to make a positive contribution to health care." He said that the Heritage Minister's vision is "eminently do-able."

So much for that whiny Mike Harris.

One doctor who had heard of the government's plan phoned me to rant and rave. "If traditional Chinese medicine is so great," he said, "then why are a billion Chinese trying to get Western medicine? If people in this country followed traditional Chinese medicine we wouldn't have any bears or elk left!" Then he ranted that in spite of traditional aboriginal healing methods, Canada's native people are the sickest in the country.

But that was just sour grapes. Who knows? Without sweetgrass and sweat lodges, maybe they'd be sicker.

Ms. Copps tells me that she is trying to pay much more attention these days to her own diet and nutrition. "I have a juicer," she confides. I confide back that evening primrose oil really seems to work.

"When people are sick, they want the national government to take charge," declares Mr. Mills.

"This will be Sheila's legacy."

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