Joan Baxter is a Canadian journalist, award-winning author, development consultant, researcher and writer, and anthropologist. Since 1982, she has lived, raised two children and worked in seven countries in Africa – Niger, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Mali and Sierra Leone – and made working trips to many others. She has written, reported and spoken widely on issues such as foreign direct investment in Africa, extractive industries, regulatory capture, environmental rights and justice, food sovereignty and sustainable farming and food systems. Now back in Canada, she has turned her attention to many of the same issues in her own country, both writing and speaking publicly about them.
Her seventh and most recent book, The Mill – Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest, was published in 2017 by Pottersfield Press. It traces the history of a controversial pulp mill in Nova Scotia, and garnered a great deal of publicity after the mill orchestrated a letter-writing campaign threatening to boycott Coles and Chapters bookstores, which led to the cancellation of a book signing in one Coles bookstore [you can read about that here]. For four months, The Mill was the best-selling book at Coles and Chapters / Indigo in Nova Scotia and it was shortlisted for four Atlantic Book awards in 2018, including the Robbie Robertson Dartmouth Book Award, the Democracy 250 Atlantic Book Award for Historical Writing, the Evelyn Richardson Non-Fiction Award, and the Atlantic Book Award for Scholarly Writing,which she won.
In 2018, the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) presented her with its Environmental Stewardship Award for “outstanding community contribution to a greener world.”
Joan grew up in Nova Scotia on Canada’s east coast, but then moved to Edmonton to complete her B.A. Honours and M.A. degrees in Anthropology at the University of Alberta. She undertook her Masters research in Tikal, Guatemala, in 1978 and 1979. The following year she returned to Latin America, this time to Mexico, where she worked as a research assistant collecting ecological data the at “Los Tuxtlas” Tropical Biology Station on the Gulf Coast. In 1981, she headed back to Canada to study journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Canada, graduating with her B.J. Journalism with First Class Standing.
After a stint of working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Halifax on the daily radio programs, Information Morning and Mainstreet, she headed to Niger in West Africa. There she began her freelance journalism career, contributing in the next few years to the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, The Chronicle Herald before moving to Burkina Faso in 1986, where she worked as the correspondent for the BBC World Service and also Reuters. She filed many reports on the Burkinabe revolution under President Thomas Sankara, and also on the coup d’état in which he was killed in 1987.
After Joan and her family moved to Tamale in northern Ghana in 1989, she continued to report for BBC and Canadian media, and also wrote her first two books, the non-fiction work Graveyard for Dreamers – one woman’s odyssey in Africa (Pottersfield 1994) and the short fiction collection, Strangers are like children (Pottersfield 1996). She also helped co-found two schools in Tamale, one the Tamale International School and the other Dahin Sheli, both of which are still flourishing today.
From 1993 until 1997, Joan worked as Senior Science Writer in charge of Public Awareness at ICRAF, now the World Agroforestry Centre, in Nairobi, Kenya. She edited the quarterly publication Agroforestry Today, and also produced the documentary film Farming with trees, looking at agroforestry in Zambia, Uganda, Peru and Indonesia.
In mid-1997, Joan and her family moved back to West Africa, this time to Mali where she was the correspondent for the BBC World Service for the next six years. During that time she also contributed to AP, various CBC radio programs, the Toronto Star and other media, travelling to Burkina Faso and Cameroon to report from there as well. In 2002 and 2003, Joan also covered the conflict in Côte d’Ivoire.
Her second non-fiction work, A Serious Pair of Shoes – an African journal, published in 2000, won the Evelyn Richardson award for the best non-fiction work published in Atlantic Canada.
Between 2003 and 2007, Joan worked as a consultant researcher, writer, editor and translator in Africa for a variety of international organizations. This included editing manuscripts for and writing reports about climate change projects of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC, Canada), examining mining law reform in Sierra Leone for Partnership Africa Canada, projects and developments in agroforestry in Mali and Cameroon for the World Agroforestry Centre, translating booklets on peace-building in Africa from French into English for the German agency, Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst (Church Development Service), developing manuals and public awareness materials and strategies for Germany’s official international development agency, GIZ. She also wrote the landmark reports on large-scale foreign investment in farmland in Sierra Leone and Mali for the Oakland Institute, where she is a Senior Fellow.
In 2006 and 2007, she was Executive Director of the international NGO, the Nova Scotia – Gambia Association, which worked in both Sierra Leone and The Gambia, promoting health education among youth through peer health education. During that time, she secured funding for three major projects with the Canadian International Development Agency. In 2009, she joined the Board of USC Canada.
In 2009, her non-fiction work, Dust from our eyes – an unblinkered look at Africa (Wolsak & Wynn), was short-listed for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in the United States. In 2006, another of her books, The Hermit of Gully Lake: the life and times of Willard Kitchener MacDonald, topped best-seller lists in Nova Scotia for nearly a year.
In 2017, in addition to The Mill, Pottersfield Press also publisher her book on African food, farms and food cultures, “Seven Grains of Paradise: A Culinary Journey in Africa.”
Joan’s work has appeared in a range of media, including Le Monde Diplomatique, Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, BBC Focus on Africa Magazine, Pambazuka News, Al Jazeera (English), CBC radio, the National Observer, and The Chronicle Herald, The Coast, The Halifax Examiner and The Cape Breton Spectator in her home province of Nova Scotia.
In addition to English, Joan speaks French, German and a rusty Spanish, as well as some very basic phrases in Krio and Bambara.