A conversation with Chris Hadfield

By Grant LaFleche, The Standard

Standard reporter Grant LaFleche interviews Chris Hadfield at Club Roma in St. Catharines on Sept. 13, 2017. Photo by Julie Jocsak.

Standard reporter Grant LaFleche interviews Chris Hadfield at Club Roma in St. Catharines on Sept. 13, 2017. Photo by Julie Jocsak.

On Sept. 13 reporter Grant LaFleche sat down with Canadian astronaut, fighter pilot, musician and author Chris Hadfield before he took the stage at the annual Grape Growers of Ontario celebrity luncheon. During the 40 minute interview, Hadfield talked about climate change, racism, science, his Canada 150 tour and what makes Canada, in his view, the greatest liberal democracy on Earth.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Grant LaFleche: Tell me about the Canada 150 tour? What is it and what view of the country does your experience as a pilot and astronaut give you that can share with Canadians?

 Chris Hadfield: Being in space gives you a different insight, but I also lived outside Canada for 26 years, and that lets you see Canada in another alternate perspective. Then, of course, I crossed it thousands of times, a few times on the ground, a few times in airplanes, and thousands of times on spaceships. That whole combination, I think, gives me a feel and a perspective and a look at Canada that is different than most, or at least, an alternate point of view than most people.

 Often I speak on different themes. I mean, space exploration is fine, but what does it mean? How does it matter? How is it relevant? What does it do for people? And so the Canada 150 tour is kind of tying all that together. The fact that it's been 150 years since they signed all the papers in Charlottetown, it provides just a good moment to look back, and it's quite a different talk than I would normally choose to speak about.

It's a chance to really do my best to try and explain how I see Canada, and what I've seen, starting four billion years ago, where the earliest life on Earth is here on the shores of Hudson Bay.

GL: Older than the Burgess Shale (a site in British Columbia where some of the oldest fossils on Earth have been found.)?

CH: No, way older than that. Burgess Shale is a flash in the pan. No, four billion-year-old life. There was life on Earth when it was only half a billion years old, and that was found up on the shores within the last year and a half, up on the shores of Hudson Bay. Start there and then come back of course to the things that formed the country and then the first peoples here are probably about 18,000 years ago, and right through to Cabot and all the people that sailed up to St. Lawrence and right through to the Confederation and where we are today, because I think a birthday is really all about looking how you got to where you are, where you are now, and where you're going next.

That's the only real reason to celebrate a birthday, and so I use the artifice of "150 years since Confederation" to talk about all of that because I think Canada has a really important role to play right now.

 We are the most visible successful liberal democracy in the world, and that brings in 300,000 immigrants a year. People who arrive here thinking this is where they have a chance. Which is two people a minute. Canada brings in two new people a minute. Eight hours a day, five days a week, and that is important. We need it of course just for the continued growth of Canada, but I think it's also important that that's ... If you're a kid in Syria, or a kid in Ghana, or a kid in wherever around the world, to see this as a model and to have a country that has a capacity to take that many people every year and integrate them into an existing society and still maintain the values that have allowed us to get to where we are, I think that's really important.

GL: On that vein, there was the story that, the Globe broke it last week and then it also ran in the New York Times, where Canada has been quietly getting homosexual citizens out of Chechnya and bring them into Canada ...

CH: Oh, I didn't read that article...

GL: ... as a means to protect them. It's in that same vein, of what you are talking about.

CH: Humanity is nothing but subsets of humanity, right? There is no majority. You can just ... Whatever. People with brown hair, people with six fingers, people with whatever, hook noses. You can do whatever you want. We're all just subsets, and for whatever reason, some subsets are accepted, and some are not, and it can be based on something completely arbitrary. I think, having spent 26 years outside of Canada, it gave me a chance to come back and almost see Canada like a new immigrant.

GL: What did that look like?

CH: It looked delightfully, reassuringly the same. Although, you can see the change in immigration policy in the last 25 years, just by the ethnicity of the young faces, because I speak in schools all around, and suddenly I walk into a Canadian classroom in rural Canada, and it's kids from all around the world. Which is great, and they're kids who like Nazem Kadri, because he's a great Canadian hockey player, and that's exactly how it ought to be, and all of us came from somewhere else. I mean, some of us, of course, have been here since before written history and longer than anybody can imagine. Eight thousand years - that's 10,000 years older than the Sphinx, I think. So that is almost time immemorial. But the oldest of us is born in 1905, so our memory is short by definition and so I think the fact that we now are a country that has both the morality and the capacity to try and ignore, as best we can, some of those artificial fears and divisions in order to be as welcoming and still manage to maintain the set of values that makes Canada successful.

It's a difficult tightrope to walk, but I think we do it better than any other place on Earth, and so I think that's an important thing to continue, and the problems are not going to get easier ... it requires a lot of leadership.

GL: You've said the 150 tour, is your opportunity to talk about the things Canada does really well - some of which you just talked about - but also some of the things that maybe we could be doing better. And you've talked about how we how we approach issues like climate change, which is sort of top of mind for a lot of people now in the wake of Irma and Harvey...

CH: I think its necessary to understand the world's climate and what is really important is to measure change, because unless you can understand it and measure change, then you don't have any possible way, apart from luck, of making a good decision, especially at the policy level. That's why the gathering information is so important, and it's why Canada's been in the space business since 1962 with Alouette, which was to look at the upper atmosphere, and what lies beyond and to try and understand how our atmosphere and our climate and our country are all related.

NASA has hundreds of satellites that are measuring the height of the ocean, the temperature of the ocean, the volume of the glaciers, the changes in the atmosphere, the pollution levels in the atmosphere. Without that data, you cannot make an informed decision, because all you're doing is just sort of stating whatever you believe, which is kind of irrelevant. We are completely imperfect, I admit, but we have a minister of not just environment, but "climate" is in the title I think.

GL: Yes, we do.

CH: And that's a little bit political to do that, but it's okay I think because it accentuates at least the government's agenda that is different from a lot of other governments' agendas and previous governments' agendas, to show that this is something that has a priority, at least in name. Whether we can back it up with policy changes is a different question, but to me that's not necessarily the most important, or thing that we've done the worst.

GL: Which is?

CH: Obviously the maltreatment we've had of subsets of our population in history, out of fear or ignorance or good intentions or a combination of all three. Obviously some of the worst is British imperialism around the world, French imperialism, and how the two of them interacted with the original peoples of Canada since 1497 or really since the Vikings were here in 1000, and how we chose to do all those things and how the treaties and whether they've been honored or ignored. It's not a problem that is at all simple to solve.

We have approximately 640 First Nations, so how do you provide what we would all agree is a basic level of services for a Canadian citizen, to each of those First Nations, when they live in parts of the country that are very difficult to geographically access?

How do you do it? ... Right now if a Native woman on a remote First Nations reserve is pregnant, how do we guarantee that she has good healthcare for the final trimester in her delivery and for the start of the baby's life? What do you do? We can't provide full medical care to 640 different remote locations 24/7, and so instead we tend to bring those people to large population centres for the final term of their pregnancy, which is so disruptive.

GL: Explain what that looks like for someone who isn't connected to those communities.

CH: Imagine if everybody in southern Canada who said, "Okay, gonna have a baby," was told "Okay, we're gonna take you away from your home a month before birth, put you in a Motel 6, and you can't be anywhere near your family and you gotta wait until you give birth and then wait until the doctor says "Go" and then you can go home again." It's obviously not the way we would like to do business, but no one's come up with a solution. So it's by no means a simple problem to solve, but I think technology is the answer to almost everything I've just spoken about. We can distribute education in a way we never have before. There's a product called Rumie that (Canadian entrepreneur) Tariq Fancy has started ... it provides an easily-transportable, not internet-dependent way to get full access to education to Canadians in all parts of the country, and people around the world.

All of that is worth discussing, and when we're talking about Canada after 150 years, I mean I obviously don't have all the answers, but we're gonna be in a room with thousands of people and everyone's got a different perspective, and I think the important message that I would like to discuss with everybody is, "What are you gonna do about it?" You as a Canadian, how are you going to be involved in dealing with these issues that we face as a country? Are you gonna absolve yourself of all responsibility and say, "Well, that's Chrétien's problem," or "That's some previous president's, or the current president or the last prime minister or the current one's problems." You know, you can just say, "It's all their fault." But the problems are real, and need solutions.

Look at Jim Estill in Guelph, a reasonably successful businessman, and he said, "We have a Syrian refugee problem. I am a man of some success. I'm gonna try in bring in, I don't know, 100 Syrian refugees and give them all jobs and housing. That's what I'm gonna do. No one telling me I have to. It's not gonna make me wealthy, but it's not gonna break my bank either. I'm gonna do that."

And my daughter in Halifax, she's just a professor at Dalhousie, but she's like, "Okay, I'm gonna find a Syrian family, and I'm gonna help them out here in Halifax." And she's helping them learn English and get them established, because those people are so motivated to be good Canadians, and so a large part of the Canada 150 talk is letting people see that it's not somebody else who's responsible for our future. It's each one of us, and you don't have to solve all the problems. If you can just help solve one of the problems, then you're being a good Canadian, and I think that is a little bit of what I'll talk about, but mostly it's a celebration. Playing music and showing images and talking about all the great stuff we've done.

GL: Do we do that well enough as Canadians? Do we celebrate our accomplishments as a nation well enough?

CH: No, we don't. There's that standard joke of a big bucket of lobsters sitting on the dock in Dartmouth and somebody says, "Aren't you worried all the lobsters are gonna crawl out of there?" And they go, "No no, they're Canadian lobster." "Well, what do you mean?" He says, "Oh, if one starts climbing to the top, the other ones will pull him back down. We'll be okay." Which is kind of funny but it's also kind of Canadian, you know?

GL: [Laughing] Yeah, absolutely.

CH: [Laughing] Whereas in the States, all those lobsters would be out of there. [Laughing] But it's to our advantage. A little bit of humility and a lack of hubris and pretence serves us well, I think, as a people. We hold the door for each other. We're a little bit more considerate of each other. We have as many guns per capita in Canada, I think, as they do in the US, and yet our violent gun rate is a tiny fraction of their's, and that's not a reflection of access to guns or weaponry or even policy. That's a reflection of our particular version of civilization, and that is the reason why it's okay that all the lobsters stayed in the bucket, I think.

GL: Last question on this vein and we can move onto some of the other things that you're doing, but just earlier, you had said, "There is no majority. We're all just subsets of the same species."

CH: Yeah.

GL: How important is it, do you think, that Canadians come to terms with that kind of perspective when it comes to dealing with our First Nations, or when comes to dealing with somebody of a different faith or different skin colour or different nationality?

CH: Well, there are some people that sort of build their whole lives around hatred of other people, and they're raised that way, which is historic. It's nothing new. There's a great book by Adam Rutherford, it came out a couple of years ago, called A Brief History of Everybody Who Ever Lived, and it's really worth reading, because he's used the latest of our ability to analyze the human genome in order to truly look where we all came from, and you only have to go back a very short period to see how we're all related. Like much shorter than you think.

GL: Just for perspective, what kind of time frame are we talking about?

CH: Like just a few hundred years. Our particular species subset is 300,000 years old, homo sapiens for a few million. But what you really come away from with that book is that there is no such thing as race, and that's an important thing to realize. That's a fearful, arbitrary, and uninformed cultural norm, and it's not backed up by the reality of our own genetics, so to build your belief system and your hatreds around something that is fundamentally arbitrary and false, is obviously gonna lead to bad decision-making.

SoI think understanding it is important, but it's theoretical. The real question is, "What do you next?" Always, and I think trying to treat every single person as if they are your relative is not a bad way to start. It's really hard to hate someone when you've spent time with them. It's really easy to hate somebody you've never met. It's much simpler.

What I want is for people to feel a personal sense of responsibility. If everybody in the country looked around like my daughter did and said, "Okay, I have no means, but how can I help one other Canadian? And I can choose whatever category I want, a homeless person, a new Canadian, a student, someone from some particular arbitrary subset." How do you want to do it? And just be a good Canadian. Be a good citizen, and I think that would go as far as anything else that we choose to do. Just sort of reset your own base.

Here's a funny experiment. There's a friend of mine named Destin Sandlin who runs a great website called Smarter Every Day, and he took a bicycle, and he put a little bit of gearing in the handlebars so that when you turn to the right, the front wheel turns left. It's like a circus trick, right? But suddenly that simple idea, so simple you think, "Well, I can figure that out." You are completely incapable of riding that bicycle. You cannot get on a bicycle where you turn the handlebars to the right, and the wheel goes left, you cannot ride that bike.

GL: I tried something like that at Brock University at while back. It was a nightmare.

CH: Yeah. He took about three months, and after about three months he could ride it, but then he couldn't ride a normal bicycle. His son, who was still in an early plastic brain stage, learned to do it in a week or two. It seems like a funny thing, but the reason that I think it's important is, how many other assumptions in your life are you incapable of changing? Where when you turn the handlebars to the right, you absolutely know and instinctively assume that the wheel is gonna turn to the right. It's worth sometimes looking at yourself and going, "What are my unspoken biases and assumptions?" Especially the ones that have to do with other people. "How am I just turning the wheels to the right and expecting everybody to go the way of my intent?" It's not something I'll mention on-stage, but that idea helps me think about my own particular actions and my own particular biases, and we're all a work in progress. So I think it's good to recognize that your education didn't stop in 8th grade or grade 12 or something, that information has never been easier to access than it is right now.

Education has never been more ubiquitous. The world [00:21:30] has never been more literate than it is. We went from 50% to 80% literacy as a species in the last 25 years, and that is an unprecedented opportunity. We eliminated childhood diseases, and Canada's been a big part of that. The standard of living, on average for our species, has never been higher in history. Average lifespan has never been higher. It's still unequal (around the world), but the solution to that is not divisiveness. The solution to that is improved application of our best inventions and psychology to make as much of that accessible to everybody as possible, and to me, that's worth discussing, and what our role in that ought to be.

GL: Beyond Canada 150...

CH: I feel like I'm lecturing you.

GL: [Laughing] No, no...

CH: We should be talking about the weather. [Laughing]

GL: We did a little bit. Hurricanes...

CH: [Laughing] It's a fun show, really.

GL: So it's not all this heavy?

CH: People laugh, they have a good time. I do a Q&A with the audience twice. I play several songs, some that I have written, some that other people have written. Canadian songs. There's all sorts of imagery. It's a real loving look at Canada in my eyes.

GL: We've talked about some heavy stuff, but when you're in front of an audience, because people pay attention to you, because they listen to what you say, do you feel a responsibility when you do something like Canada 150 that you need to be able to strike a balance so that the audience walks away feeling inspired and to take some personal responsibility for solving problems?

CH: Every action you take and every word you form, you should consider that you have some level of responsibility. A lot of us don't, but you are a role model to other people whether you want to be or not. If you have any sort of public voice - if you're a journalist, or a weatherperson or a pundit or whatever - people aren't just looking at you to be entertained. They're looking at you for information and education, and with my background, of course, I take my responsibility very seriously.

I was very heavily invested-in by this country. I've been a student my whole life so I that I could be one of our fighter pilots defending our country, and then one of our test pilots. Canada only trains two test pilots a year, maximum in the whole country, and I was one of those, and then of course as one of our astronauts, which is one of the most rare of all professions I think.

So with that background, I very much recognize that as any sort of public figure, I'm a voice that other people might listen to, especially young Canadians. I definitely have to think about why and what I'm saying. I spoke in Vancouver last night, and I speak all around the world, and I've written three books. This isn't just for fun. This is honestly my best ideas on how you can lead a good and productive life. That's why I wrote this book (An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth), and it's in 25 languages, and it's used by universities. Sam Houston State University used this as the main book of the year for the university. Every student had to read it. They built their entire school curriculum around it that year. All of their projects, their science projects, their writing, their leadership, their art projects, the whole thing was based around the ideas of this book. There are preachers that use it for whole sermon series and things like that, which is kind of amazing.

But that just constantly reinforces to me the necessity to do my homework, to think in advance, to make sure I understand what I'm talking about, to try and not just be on a bandwagon banging on a drum, but actually try and give an idea of what we should do next.

What should we all do next? That's always the only really valid question. What you did in the past is done. What we're doing right now, okay, it has an effect, but what are we gonna do next? That's the question everybody needs to ask themselves, and how is that going take you in the direction that you really actually want to go?

GL: Is part of your focus then, when you do something like your ongoing show with the BBC (Astronauts: Do you have what it takes?)

CH: It is.

GL: You're helping select, if I'm correct, the next generation of Chris Hadfields.

CH: Well, I've done that in reality. I've helped with a couple of NASA selections, and I've helped with two Canadian space agency selections, and I helped choose our two new ones, Josh Kutryk and Jenny Sidey. Out of 8000-some odd that originally applied and about 3800 that were fully valid applications, we chose two. There's always been a huge curiosity as to, "Could I be an astronaut? What are they actually looking for? What does the selection really look like?"

A lot of people think it's like, just a physical thing. "Could I stand 9G?" That has nothing to do with it. A lump of potatoes can stand 9G, so when I talked with the BBC, I helped make up the show with them a few years ago, I wanted people to have insight into what it is that we actually demand of our space explorers. Who are we going give that trust and responsibility to, and what innate abilities and demonstrated skill sets do we expect them to have? They were extremely honourable in not just making some sort of other trivial reality show, you know? It's very much astronaut selection, and a lot of the tests are exactly the same as what space agencies.

GL: Where do the candidates come from?

CH: Well, this is in BBC, so they're all U.K. We had thousands of people apply. I went through a whole bunch and we eventually whittled it down to 12 that got brought onto the show, and they were all very credible astronaut candidates. Most of them have at least a master's if not a PhD. There's triathletes, there's people who have been to the top of Everest, there's people who have summited all the big peaks in South America, there's inventors. Really interesting, multi-faceted, capable people, and so that's just the same as any astronaut selection, but then you go through all the more subtle things.

GL: Can people still catch it, can they still see it on the BBC?

CH: Yeah, I think we still have three episodes to air, and it's on Sunday nights I think at 8:00 on London time. But that's only on BBC Two. You have to have BBC Two, but we're taking it to con, the MIPCON, the big world marketing and awards festival in October, and from there it'll get onto BBC worldwide, and maybe even eventually other countries will do a version of the show as well, like Canada's Top Chef, you know. [Laughing]

GL: We've only got a few minutes left, so tell me about Rare Earth.

CH: Yeah, so one of the things that we really want to do is to let people see the world for themselves. If I say to you someplace around the world. If I say, I don't know, Bali. You've probably never been to Bali, right?

GL: Never been to Bali.

CH: You don't have a deep understanding of it, but you probably have some sort of impression of it, and it's probably dead wrong, because you got it from a travel brochure or something. Or Vietnam. You probably have an image of a war from 55 years ago, which is, in the thousand-year history of Vietnam was one little thing.

So the idea of Rare Earth was to go to places and to find interesting, revealing stories of people and place that allow you, in about eight minutes, to have an insight that you wouldn't have gotten otherwise. Something that makes the place real to you. Sort of like I did from orbit, where I could say, "Hey, this is what this place actually looks like." If you look in this book (You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes) that's what the world really looks like. Don't let anybody filter it for you. Don't take someone else's word for it. Do your own research and understand it. That's very much the genesis for Rare Earth. I'm producing it and a couple of folks who have worked for me, including my son, are doing the on-site work. One of the episodes just went viral, which is great.

GL: Where can people see it?

CH: Just on my website. But it's going very well, and it's an interesting look at the world. Then I'm doing this 10-part series for National Geographic as I mentioned, called One Strange Rock, with Darren Aronofsky, who's such a brilliant cinematographer, and it's ... God, it's beautiful. It's using the latest technology of lenses and lighting and super slow speed video capture in order to show things, with sort of a constancy of style that is very much Aronofsky.

GL: When's that due out?

CH: About the March break time. It's a 10-part series. I'm hosting that as well.

GL: So, you just have a few things going on, basically.

CH: [Laughing] Yeah. Then this album with Danny Michel. He and I led an expedition to the high Arctic a year ago on an old Soviet icebreaker called the Khlebnikov, and we went up to 82 degrees north inside the Canadian Arctic, in Ellesmere Island, right up on the big the fjords, Tanquary Fjord, which is as far north as you can get, north of Eureka. The only thing north of us was Alert, and that's just a handful of folks. I brought along people that could share it for exactly the same reason that we're doing Rare Earth.

There were already scientists on board. There were already tourists on board who were paying the bills. What I wanted to bring is people who use social media effectively, so that the world could see part of itself, because if you don't know it exists, then you don't care about it, by definition. If you don't care about it, then there's no way you're gonna make a good decision about it.

So I also brought Danny Michel, good Canadian musician, and he wrote and recorded a whole album on the ship, with the same Canadian guitar that I had up on the space station. Not the same actual guitar, because that one's still up there.

GL: Same model.

CH: Same model, a Larrivée parlour guitar. And so Danny wrote the album, he called it Khlebnikov, the name of the ship, and we did a little debut of it at harbor front a few months ago, but this is the full symphonic with the Vancouver Symphony next to it, which is really lovely, and we're gonna show the images of the north, images from space, ideas of Canada, all in an evening's presentation ...

GL: Similar to 150?

CH: Yes. To me the whole purpose of the Canada 150, or talking to you or whomever, there's no point to me talking if it's just me listening. I may as well just shut my mouth.

Hopefully, people will change their behaviour slightly. You have not communicated effectively if the other person doesn't change their behaviour slightly as a result of having listened to your ideas. Otherwise, you didn't say anything worthwhile.

So hopefully through the Canada 150, these talks and the books and all the other things, it gives people enough of an increased breadth and depth of perspective that they will make slightly different decisions with their lives, and the more informed we can be, especially parochially within Canada about our own north. I mean, cruise ships are going through the northwest passage, and what would Franklin have thought of that? That's only gonna get more and more as the climate warms up. The northwest passage is now open, at least reasonably open. We don't even know what we're gonna do about that. One last thing.

GL: Sure, absolutely.

 CH: There's a company I work with in the United States called Planet, that I just took to the government last year. As of two months ago, for the very first time, they've mapped all of the landmasses of the world live every day, down to three-meter resolution.

GL: The whole planet?

CH: The whole planet. Not just the populated areas, but every bit of dirt that sticks up above the water, plus 100 miles off-shore. Every day, they get a new, refreshed, live image. They have the biggest fleet of satellites of any organization in the world. They launched 130 satellites. They're just little. They're like that big [holding his hands about two feet apart] with cameras. 130 of them within the last six months, and so as of two months ago, we can now as a species, see our entire planet from the tip of Ellesmere Island or Lake Ontario or whatever, to Pelee Island, every single day.

GL: What do we do with that?

CH: What do you do with that sudden awareness of yourself? How do you not just make it a pretty picture, but actually make that information part of your decision-making?

We can now track the caribou. We can now track the puffin nesting that's so hard to get to. If there's a lost ship, if there's search and rescue, if we're trying to keep track of rogue ships in the north. It's a million pictures a day, but they're all digital, so it's actually just a huge dataset, and with artificial intelligence, of course, you can build algorithms to search it for certain types of things, and so that type of new human technology giving us an insight into ourself which then allows us to make better-informed decisions collectively, that's really important. And that's what Canada's involved in and we need to be even more so.



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