More than just counselling, Okanagan Charter guides U of G to create healthy campus

The University of Guelph was one of 10 universities in Canada to sign up for the Okanagan Charter, which focuses on the health and wellness of students, staff and faculty. University of Waterloo is considering adopting the charter.

Success of charter too early to tell, but university seeing more work-life balance in staff

The Okanagan Charter was the outcome of a conference in 2015 at University of Briths Columbia Okanagan in Kelowna. The charter was approved by the World Health Organization, Pan American Health Organization and UNESCO.

The University of Guelph is aiming to create a healthy campus where students, staff and faculty can look after their well-being outside of their daily lectures, assignments and exams.

Aside from deciding how many labs are needed when a new student centre is built, the school is now also considering having benches to converse and open spaces to make human connections.

This new thought process came after the university adopted the Okanagan Charter, which was the outcome of the 2015 conference at University of British Columbia Okanagan in Kelowna. It has recommendations for creating a healthy campus environment in universities and colleges.

The charter was given the thumbs up by the World Health Organization, Pan American Health Organization and UNESCO.

Six Canadian universities first adopted the charter a year after it was established, while the University of Guelph, McMaster University in Hamilton and King's University College at Western signed on in 2017.

Adopting the charter is one of 36 recommendations made in a University of Waterloo mental health report.

Health and wellness framework

Brenda Whiteside, associate vice president of student affairs at the University of Guelph told The Morning Edition that the charter focuses on a health and wellness framework.

"A health and wellness lens is on everything you do [on campus]," said Whiteside.

"It's not just about creating mental health and counselling and support. It's about how is everything in an institution related to the health and wellness of its faculty, staff and students."

Whiteside said the Okanagan Charter also focuses on personal development issues and campus services such as counselling.

"You can get into a trap when you talk about mental health, only focusing on counselling services," said Whiteside, "And lose the whole piece about the importance of a healthy community."

Charter prompts on campus discussion

The charter as prompted different discussions around mental health, beyond suggestions to seek help from counselling, which wouldn't have happened several years ago, said Whiteside.

Those discussions include policies and procedures around how students are assessed and whether they contribute to their anxiety. There are now also resources for faculty, positive messaging before classes or before handing back exams and looking at how exam schedules can be improved.

Whiteside said while it is too early to assess the success of the charter, there has been subtle changes everywhere, from increased gym memberships sign-ups among faculty and staff to individual departments also implementing charter strategies.

"You used to have a lot of pride in 'well I worked straight through from 7 a.m until 7 p.m, that's what makes me good,'" said Whiteside.

"But now you're starting to hear people say 'why are we not taking a break?' It's everywhere, you see these little pieces."

About the Author

Joe Pavia


Joe Pavia is a Reporter/Editor with CBC K-W 89.1 FM. He's normally heard weekdays on The Morning Edition but also covers a wide range of news and feature stories for both radio and web. If you have a story idea, email Joe at Follow him on twitter @PaviaJoe1964