Video – Alnwick/Haldimand Township Resident Will Be Inducted Into The Order of Canada

In Editor Choice, Local

By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
Colborne resident Michael Perley got the news June 27 – he has been chosen for induction into the Order of Canada for work that has made a difference (both visible and invisible) to several generations of Canadians.

Cited for 40 years of “addressing serious environmental and health challenges,” Perley is recognized on the website as “a vital and effective leader” who “spearheaded coalitions on acid rain and air pollution that led to significant legislative changes in Canada and the United States.”

While this is true, his career in public policy advocacy took another turn in 1992, when he was approached by the head of the Nonsmokers Rights Association.

This group had teamed up with the Canadian Cancer Society, the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Ontario Medical Association to form the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco, which would push for a comprehensive tobacco-control law in Ontario that would, among other things, make public venues (including bars and restaurants) smoke-free and encourage municipalities to enact their own smoke-free bylaws. The legislation of the time, Ontario’s Tobacco Control Act, was deficient for these purposes.

That was the vision as he set to work on behalf of the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco, and a key priority was smoke-free bar and restaurant by-laws. While many people thought smoke-free public spaces were a good idea, they could not see that working for bars and restaurants – especially in bars, he said, because people kind of assumed smoking and drinking go hand-in-hand.

“We didn’t agree with that. We knew it would be hard work,” Perley recalled.

At one time, Toronto had indeed tried to establish a smoke-free bylaw for restaurants and bars, but it didn’t work out.

“What then happened – other municipalities were beginning to think about it, and they said, ‘If Toronto can’t do it, we can’t do it.’”

With the notable exception of the Regional Municipality of Waterloo.

“They decided, ‘we are going to do it,’ and they did it – a smoke-free bar and restaurant bylaw which, I am sure, included bingo halls (which were very big at the time). There was quite an uproar.”

Ken Seiling, the Waterloo Regional Chair who was a key player, even got a medal from the World Health Organization for his work.

“He and his fellow councillors took an incredible amount of abuse and disruption from the bar-and-restaurant community. They came to council meetings and caused a lot of disruption, yelled insults at the councillors. It was really quite an unsettling environment. But they stood firm and they passed it.”

The bar and restaurant people’s arguments had all come back to the same point – how much it would hurt business if their establishments were forced to go smoke-free. When the bylaw came into effect, this was closely monitored.

“The threats and predictions of economic doom and gloom never came to pass,” Perley reported.

“It was a big, big step forward. Other municipalities looked at this.”

Over time, they took that big step forward themselves, nudged along by tireless lobbying from Perley and his colleagues from the OCAT member agencies in the different municipalities, along with local Cancer Society volunteers, respiratory specialists, health-unit staffers and – on several occasions – parents of children with asthma. These were the most touching arguments. No one could ignore mothers who couldn’t take their children to a hockey game at the local arena because of the devastating effect of the smokers who were also in attendance.

“That’s an example of the kind of testimony many municipal councillors heard from their constituents,” he recalled.

They even heard from musicians who performed in these bars and developed scratchy throats from the smoky atmosphere.

With very, very strong arguments bolstered by very, very strong evidence, they made progress as they travelled to municipalities throughout the province as far north as Cochrane and beyond. And in time, provincial legislation to make bars and restaurants smoke-free came about in the Smoke Free Ontario Act – “but it all started at the municipal level.”

The effect was brought home to Perley recently in a conversation with a health-unit staffer discussing a young member of their tobacco team. The young woman, in her mid-twenties, did not personally recall a time when people smoked in a commercial indoor space in her own lifetime.

“That is how far we have come – that stays with me,” he said.

Perley was also gratified that the new Smoke Free Ontario Act banned the displays of tobacco for sale that used to be behind the counter at every convenience store.

He recalls conversations with an MPP who wondered why this was even necessary when the displays were so ubiquitous that one almost didn’t notice them any more. That MPP was convinced by testimony from kids who saw nothing wrong with displays of tobacco products jumbled in with the pop, candy and chips so that – to their eyes – it seemed like cigarettes were nothing special.

And, of course, it was made illegal for merchants to sell tobacco to minors.

Challenges kept popping up in this area, of course, like the mushrooming popularity of vaping and contraband tobacco products (largely in the form of cigarettes sold without proper documentation). The provincial Ministry of Finance is at work on that one because, of course, these sales rob the province of badly needed revenue.

If you could sum up his work with a phrase, it would be denormalizing tobacco. And while the Cancer Society, Heart and Stroke Foundation, local health units and many other agencies have wonderful smoking-cessation programs available, it’s more than just getting people to kick the habit.

“That was not really our focus,” he explained – “it was get control of the production and its use as opposed to just emphasizing stopping smoking.

“We always worked at cutting it off at the source, whether by sale or where it is used or raising the prices through taxation – but the overall thrust of the whole campaign was what we call denormalizing tobacco.”

Everyone of a certain age grew up in a milieu where smoking was a rite of growing up, with the risk of being considered an oddball otherwise.

“When we started in the early ’90s, smoking was considered a ‘normal’ activity that happened indoors everywhere,” Perley recalls of an earlier time.

“Many non-hospitality workplaces had banned it, but at commercial establishments which depended on the sale of alcohol and food and goods you get at a convenience store, it was all relatively unregulated.

“We were pretty successful.”

The Order of Canada is given at four levels, and Perley is a Member of the Order of Canada, entitled to the designation MC after his name. Investiture will take place at a date to be announced.

“It’s a great honour. I am still slightly recovering from the announcement – it’s really a wonderful honour,” he said in a telephone interview.

In this, case however, the award is only part of the gratification. Wherever he goes, he can see that his efforts helped make a difference that is evident everywhere, from the decreased number of people taking up the habit to the smoke-free restaurants he enters.

A Toronto resident most of his life, Perley moved to Wicklow in 2019 when he found that growing metropolis becoming more and more difficult to deal with. Feeling very fortunate to have found a beautiful community to call home, he has become involved in a new public-policy issue – farmland preservation.

Cecilia Nasmith
Author: Cecilia Nasmith

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