Patterson dons his mukluks for a stroll on the ice
Photo courtesy Dr Kevin
Kevin Patterson's writing is vivid,
emotionally acute and bracingly smart. His first work,
the sailing memoir The Water in Between, was
a New York Times "notable book," and his short-story
collection, Country of Cold, won the Rogers Writers'
Trust Fiction Prize. But it's not just his literary
craftsmanship that stokes the envy of his fellow writers.
More maddening is that he is this good and he has a
Dr Patterson, who lives on Saltspring
Island, is an internal medicine specialist at Nanaimo
General Hospital. He put himself through medical school
by joining the Canadian Army. He's currently doing a
tour of duty as a civilian physician in
Afghanistan treating civilians at a hospital in Kandahar
to provide relief to overstretched Canadian Forces healthcare
personnel. Before he left, he managed to persuade 11
of his physician and nursing colleagues to pitch in
His latest book, Consumption, was inspired by
his experiences as a doctor in the Arctic, where he's
spent part of every year since 1994. Consumption
began as a non-fiction account of the abrupt transformation
of Inuit communities. In a short period of time, the
Inuit have changed from suffering the diseases of deprivation
particularly starvation to the diseases
of affluence, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease
and diabetes. But as Dr Patterson wrote about the medical
and psychological impact of acculturation, he kept returning
to the underlying issues of loneliness, fear and social
dislocation. These, he realized, would be better probed
using fictional characters, and so Consumption
became his first novel (click
here to read an excerpt).
Consumption begins in 1962,
when Victoria, an Inuit girl, is diagnosed with tuberculosis
and evacuated to the south. When she rejoins her family
six years later, she is healthy but culturally estranged.
In her new home of Rankin Inlet no one really fits in,
however. The community is in the midst of wrenching
change as the latest technologies, diamond fever and
new patterns of consumption all arrive from the south.
"This novel is not about the problems
of the Inuit, it's about our problems examined partly
through the lens of the Inuit," Dr Patterson told me
when we met for breakfast at the Sylvia Hotel. He's
a trim man in his 40s but looks younger except
for the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, a consequence
of weeks spent squinting into the distance at the helm
of his ketch.
Here's what else Dr Patterson had
On the North:
"The closest thing I've ever encountered
to the tundra is the open ocean 1,000 miles offshore,
on a particularly bad day. Part of what stirs me about
the Inuit and the north is the sense of wonder I feel
that people survived there, in that climate and with
Think about the bowhead whale hunt,
for example. It's just amazing. I mean, you are in a
kayak made from sealskin, and you have a piece of driftwood
with a sharpened rock tied to it, and you are hunting
these 50-tonne animals!
But when you pulled the whale ashore
your whole band ate well for weeks. You just set up
a camp beside the carcass. Each morning you got up and
chopped off another square foot of frozen blubber and
skin and took it into the igloo. Your biggest job then
was to fend off the dogs and polar bears."
On why narwhale blubber is better
than Cheez Doodles:
"When I first went up north in
1994 there was no diabetes. As late as the 1960s, people
were travelling to Cree villages in the northern boreal
forests to find out why they are immune to diabetes.
Now, in a place like Norway House (a Cree community
in northern Manitoba), the prevalence of diabetes in
adults is 40%. That's just amazing! Diabetes is at eight
to 10% in southern Canada, and it's a disaster down
While I'm working up north, most
of what I do is see diabetics. I give them their pills,
and talk about how much better it is to eat char and
seal and narwhale blubber than to eat Cheez Doodles.
Dr Kevin Patterson, author
In the south when we talk to people
about diet we say, "Avoid animal fat." But in 1994,
when I went up to the Arctic, there was no coronary
artery disease, no diabetes. Because in order to get
narwhale blubber, you had to spend days in your boat
on the ocean, then shoot one and put a harpoon in it
and pull it ashore. Or to get caribou you walked the
land for hours and shot one and gutted it, and then
walked back with the meat. The whole lifestyle kept
people thin and stopped them from having vascular disease."
On why Cheez Doodles would be
far less destructive if they weighed 50 tonnes and swam
in the Arctic Ocean and we chased them with harpoons:
"People can eat almost whatever
they want, and their bodies will deal with it. The key
is that we keep moving. We were meant to move. When
we withdraw into our little caves to watch a glowing
screen, we become sick and dying mammals. Because only
sick and dying mammals withdraw into their caves."
On the big dieting lie:
"The emphasis in the south is on
what we eat, and that's goofy. People have no capacity
to deny themselves things they want. We're just not
wired for it. All diets fail. If you measure them at
five years, people who try a diet are at pre-dieting
weight or higher.
One thing that works is exercise,
because people can become fond of exercise. People cannot
become fond of dieting. If you want a food, you will
seek it out. Statistically insignificant numbers of
people can achieve long-term weight loss through diet
On the seductive life of the
"Obesity and diabetes in the north
are partly a result of the life of the mind. That leads
to a difficult problem, because much of what we value
in our culture is this life of the mind. People who
write books or make films or reflect upon the way we
live, these are people who embrace the life of the mind,
and I'm all about that.
And that's what we've exported
to the north. The traditional life in the Arctic is
really pretty brutal. Men were valued for distance vision
and being a good shot. Nothing else mattered. If you
were a tender husband or good storyteller or effective
father, it hardly mattered.
Making the life of mind available
to people through the export of western culture, obviously
it has tremendous appeal for them. But it has also led
to acculturation at an incredible pace, which has been
On globesity and the murderous
influence of Van Halen:
"The prevalence of obesity was
stable between World War II and 1980, despite the car
culture and the McDonald's golden arches everywhere.
At about 1980 there was an abrupt uptick in obesity.
My theory is that it was caused by hair metal bands
replacing disco. Since then it has been increasing at
50% per decade. If we were still wearing sequins and
shaking our booty on the disco floor, we'd be thin.
But seriously, all over the world
this is happening. In Malaysia, childhood obesity is
up 1,000% in 20 years. Some people call this the globesity
The New England Journal of Medicine
published a piece last year that proposed that for the
first time in history, politically stable and prosperous
nations are looking at a sustained drop in life expectancy.
And this is a consequence of the explosion of diabetes
On why so-called "fat taxes"
are doomed to fail:
"For starters, paradoxically, the
obese are the poor. Because the poor are the sickest
in every society.
And do you think that taxes are
going to work, when the most profound motivation
to be sexy isn't enough!? Seventeen-year-olds
only want one thing in this world, which is to be sexy.
And obesity is up 400% in teenagers.
I think what we need to do is re-engineer
our cities. It's not about more gyms, because there
are lots of gyms. We have to walk to work. We have to
live in cities that require us to move to get through
our days. There should be as many square feet of bicycle
lanes in Vancouver as car lanes. It should just be such
a pain in the ass to drive a car that most people don't.
We need oil to cost $200 a barrel, for health reasons."
A version of this article originally
appeared in The Tyee. Reproduced by permission.