Yesterday I decried the decision to close most mainland Nova Scotia schools, all mainland universities, and as of 1 pm, when nary a flake was yet falling in Halifax, all Nova Scotia Government offices. The post touched a nerve, and I’ll be discussing the issue tonight at 6:30 with Steve Murphy on CTV-Atlantic.
I was critical of school boards, Environment Canada, and the media, because all three bear responsibility for our over-reaction to routine storms—or in yesterday’s case, storms that have not yet happened. The problem is much broader than storm days however, and the fault goes well beyond those three culprits.
We are terrible at making personal decisions about safety and security. We take crazy precautions to avoid trivial risks, and show foolhardy indifference to clear and present dangers. We stay home when there’s an inch of snow (despite $1000 worth of snow tires on our cars), but we text madly as we fly down a 100-series highway.
It’s not just personal decisions. As a society, we structure decision-making around safety and security in ways that encourage decision-makers to look at only one side of what are actually complex and subtle equations. As a result, we don’t get balanced decisions.
This is why it has proven almost impossible to roll back the crazy precautions that were put in place after 9/11 to protect commercial airplanes, even though they cost our economy billions, and no serious security expert believes they make flying safer.
No politician dares stare down the security-industrial complex, because the next time something bad happens on an airplane, as it inevitably will, the politician will be crucified. It’s so much easier to just go along with bad policy than make oneself a target for the next incident.
Consider the hapless transportation managers who made yesterday’s decision to call off school the day before the storm. They had no mandate to weigh the cost their decision would impose on society. No one asked them to think about the terrible subliminal message it sends students to give up in the face of challenges. They thought only about how grass their ass would be in the unlikely event a bus slid off a road.
They didn’t even stop to ask how safe the children would be at home for the day, in ad hoc care arrangements, at a friend’s house, a movie theatre, or a ski hill. Decisions about school bus safety are judged against a non-existent perfect world in which children face zero risk as long as they don’t set foot aboard a school bus.
In far too many cases, we abdicate decision-making to insurance companies. They have literally no interest in weighing social factors to reach balanced decisions. Their only interest is to limit corporate risk. The kids could be playing Russian roulette in a crack house for all they care, as long as they are not on a bus insured by the company.
Society ends up shouldering the tangible and intangible costs of not having considered other factors. Think how many soccer/hockey/little league programs have been complicated or prevented by witless insurance requirements.
This is a social problem. Parents no longer let their children out of their sight, because of mostly imaginary fears about bad things that might happen but probably won’t. As a result, children arrive at university, community college, or the world of work without ever having made a decision about their personal safety.
Here is the map meteorologist Kalin Mitchell used to tell CBC viewers how much wind they could expect during last night’s storm:
It’s full or angry reds, purples, and scary numbers. Wow! The wind’s going to be 100 kph in Cape Breton.
But Mitchell isn’t actually discussing wind speeds, or even maximum wind speeds. His maps shows “maximum wind gusts,” the biggest, scariest number he could cite and still claim to be basing his forecast on something real.
In a storm, maximum gusts are often 2 to 3 times higher than the actual wind speed.
So what actually happened in Nova Scotia at the height of yesterday’s storm? Here’s the weather recorded at Stanfield International Airport courtesy of the Weather Underground’s weather history section:
Here’s the weather recorded in Sydney, also from the Weather Underground.
So CBC’s Halifax viewers were told to expect winds of 70 kph, but got 24 kph, with one gust that reached 57 kph. Sydney viewers were told to expect 100 kph, but got 25 kph, with a single gust t0 78.
I’ll leave it to readers to decide exactly where this falls on a scale between misleading and irresponsible. It’s part of a deliberate strategy by the CBC (and other media outlets) to frighten you, so you will tune in longer and more often.
Here is a screenshot of all 51 Nova Scotia highway cams as of 2:50 p.m., Monday, February 8, a day on which every school on mainland Nova Scotia west of Antigonish was cancelled:
Only four of the 51 cams show any snow cover on the roads they monitor. Three are at the extreme southwest end of the province, where the storm was just getting underway by mid-afternoon; the fourth is in the Cape Breton Highlands. Forty-seven roads were clear; the four with light snow cover posed no problem to professional drivers of vehicles equipped with snow tires.
Yet the Annapolis Valley,
Chignecto-Central, Halifax, South Shore, and Tri-County regional school boards closed all schools, all day. Chignecto-Central Regional School Board cancelled all schools in Hants County. The Acadian School Board cancelled its mainland schools. Université Sainte-Anne, Acadia, Dalhousie, Mount St. Vincent, NSCAD, and Saint Mary’s Universities all shut down.
Nova Scotia schools no longer have zero tolerance of snow. They have zero tolerance of the possibility of future snow.
Let’s tally up the financial cost to the province of this one day of weather paranoia:
Approximately 102,000Upwards of 100,000 school children lost a day in school unnecessarily.
- Thousands of teachers and school board staff got a paid day off. [Update: a reader tells me HRSB staff worked a half day.]
- Roughly 68,000 households had to scramble to make last minute child care arrangements (based on an estimated 1.5 students per family).
- Some of those parents lost a day of work.
- Thousands of employers endured absenteeism and paid work time diverted to managing the school boards’ indifference to community needs.
- [Update: The province sent provincial employees home at 1 p.m., although the storm did not hit Halifax until much later.]
Every student in these school districts was subtly reinforced in what has become a core lesson of Nova Scotia’s school curriculum: If things get tough, or even if you’re a little bit worried they might get tough later on, the right response is to give up and stay home. School doesn’t matter. Work doesn’t matter. Avoiding hard things is all that matters.
The problem begins with Environment Canada, which has built institutionalized exaggerations into its forecasts in the form of weather advisories, alerts, bulletins, and warnings covering mostly routine weather events. It compounds these with fake measurements for “wind chill” and “humidex” that substitute notional exaggerations for actual, observable measurements.
The news media torques reality further by focusing its reports on the (improbable) extreme in a range of probabilities. Thus, a storm Environment Canada expects to drop 10 to 20 cm of snow in various parts of the province, with a possible 25 cm in certain areas due to local conditions, is reported as “DUMPING” (scare word) “UP TO” (salesman’s weasel phrase) 25 CENTIMETRES (misrepresenting the extreme as the mean) ON NOVA SCOTIA (journalistic synecdoche substituting the whole for some of its parts).
This forces school boards to prepare for a major storm when a routine snowfall more accurately reflects the forecast.
The media also habitually blurs storm timelines. CBC reported this morning that tonight’s storm would be “moving east through the day,” when it didn’t even hit the extreme western end of the province until after 2 p.m. It found an Environment Canada meteorologist to predict poor visibility in blowing snow, then illustrated the point with a photo showing a different storm, somewhere, sometime in the past:
Here the public broadcaster ignored journalistic norms for truth in photography. No caption alerted readers that the photo depicted a different event, or labeled it, “file photo,” “artist’s conception,” “not exactly as illustrated,” or “fear-monger’s fantasy.”
I’m picking on the CBC here, but everybody does it. They misrepresented tonight’s storm as today’s. They mislabeled a significant winter storm as a blizzard (a word that once had real heft and meaning). They portrayed the unlikely as the probable. And then they led every newscast of the day with their layered falsehoods so that everyone in the province cowered indoors until the first flakes of light snow reached Halifax about five p.m.
Tuesday might well prove to be a reasonable snow day. Monday was not.
Someday, future Nova Scotians will look back on this time with bemusement.
“What was wrong with those people,” they will ask.
But today, in a province struggling to keep up with a world leaving us in its wake, fearful disengagement from challenges is exactly the wrong path.
PS to those readers composing emails that begin, “If only one child is saved…”: Consider that no society has ever enhanced its safety by exaggerating risks. Routine exaggeration of risk, and failure to weigh risk against other social values, makes society more dangerous, not less.
Jeepers, it’s breezy in here.
A yellow-breasted chat that somehow lost its beatings has been feeding on seeds, nuts, and jam set out by birders at Pleasant Hill Cemetery in Lower Sackville. (Photo: Joshua Barss Donham. Click to view a larger image.)
The chat is North America’s largest woods warbler, normally a rare summer visitor to Nova Scotia. Its usual summer range extends only as far north as southern New York state. This time of year, it should be 4,000 kms. to the southwest of Halifax, in Mexico or Central America.
Wikipedia describes the chat as “a shy, skulking… bird” that likes “dense, brushy areas and hedgerows.” A robust singer, it is more often seen than heard.
Attempting to winter over in HRM has proven a rough go for this female. For the last week or two, she has been favouring one leg that appears to have been touched by frostbite. After the photo above was taken January 28, she lost most of her tail feathers, possibly because they froze to the ground on a cold night.
In an effort to nurse the chat through ’til warmer weather, Clarence “Birdman” Stevens set up a feeding station that visiting birders keep stocked with warbler-friendly food.
Pleasant Hill Cemetery has been birding hotspot this winter. In addition to the chat, birders have spotted at least 11 cardinals and a redwing (a european thrush-like bird not to be confused with the unrelated Red-winged blackbird that is ubiquitous in North America). An adjacent mall has been hosting another European visitor, a mew gull.
If you are anywhere near Sydney this weekend, don’t forget the harbour waterfowl tour which meets at the Walmart parking lot at 1 p.m. Sunday.
One of the many counterintuitive facts about Sydney’s notorious Tar Ponds is that, in their final years, the ponds were a haven for wildlife, especially shore birds and waterfowl. Several factors made this possible.
- The ponds were fenced to keep people out, and keeping people out is a boon to wildlife.
- Until the
mid-oughtsmid-aughts, the ponds served as dumping ground for much of Sydney’s sanitary sewage. A profusion of lush shrubs, marsh plants, and wild flowers around the ponds’ edges attested to the copious influx of nutrients.
- While the pond sediments contained a huge volume of moderately contaminated industrial waste, the toxins they contained were mostly not water soluble.
Today, the Tar Ponds have been filled in. Parkland and a playground have replaced the eyesore that once scarred the community. The only remaining watercourse is a channelized drainage canal, albeit one that follows an attractive meandering course through the park.
So what has happened to all the birds that once made the Tar Ponds their permanent or seasonal home?
This Sunday, retired Lands and Forests wildlife biologist Dave Harris and Cape Breton University biology professor Dave McCorquodale, two of Nova Scotia’s pre-eminent birders, will lead a two-and-a-half-hour convoy to birding hotspots around Sydney Harbour. The Harbour Hop is a chance to see how aquatic birds have adapted to a habitat changed by industrial cleanup and the advent of sewage treatment. According to the organizers:
We can expect to see Barrow’s goldeneyes, red breasted mergansers, maybe some buffleheads, and more. Plus, there’s always the chance to see the unexpected. Dave and Dave will show us how to differentiate among gulls, and we’ll talk about why wastewater outfalls are so popular amongst the feathered. CBRM Wastewater Operations staff will be there to tell us about where outfalls were, are, and will be, so we can compare bird behaviour over time with our own.
Co-sponsored by ACAP Cape Breton and CBRM’s Wastewater Management Dept., the tour is the brainchild of ACAP project coordinator Jen Cooper, who studied fish in the Tar Ponds a decade ago as a biology student at CBU. Participants should pre-register by calling 902-567-1628, and meet the two Daves at the Walmart parking lot, Sydney River, at 1 p.m., Sunday, February 8. Dress for the weather and bring binoculars if you have them.
This is a photo of the al-Kindi hospital in Aleppo, Syria, taken in 2012:
Here is the same hospital photographed in 2013:
The Guardian has published a series of before-and-after photos showing the toll war has taken on the old cities of Syria. Go have a look.
Here is the Old Souk market in Aleppo, which Wikipedia describes as, “the largest covered historic market in the world, with an approximate length of 13 kilometres,” photographed in 2007.
Here’s the Old Souk in 2013:
We need to keep these photos in mind as we consider Canada’s and Nova Scotia’s role in responding to the Syrian refugee crisis.
There’s more. Here’s a drone video showing what war has done to the Syrian city of Homs, once a major industrial centre with about half again the population of Halifax:
According to the Guardian, the War in Syria has killed more than 130,000 people, and displaced four million more. Half are refugees within Syria’s borders; half have fled to neighbouring countries. Across the world today, 60 million people have been forcibly displaced, compared to only 40 million in all of World War II.
Immigrants from Syria and elsewhere hold tremendous potential to help Nova Scotia face the demographic calamity that is steamrollering over our province. We need people, our schools need children, our economy needs entrepreneurs. Displaced people can help us fill all these needs.
If I were Stephen McNeil, I would entreat Justin Trudeau to let Nova Scotia take in all the 25,000 of the war refugees Canada has pledged to accept.
But even if welcoming immigrants were not in our obvious self-interest, the scale of the horror faced by displaced people would demand our help and generosity.
There are days it’s hard to remember Justin Trudeau and Stephen McNeil belong to the same political party. Justin is so sunny, sunny ways; McNeil can be so Harperesque.
Trudeau had not been prime minister three days when his Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development assured government scientists they were free to communicate with the media and the public—thus putting paid to the previous government’s muzzling.
Last Thursday, the bureaucrat in charge of the McNeil government’s communications agency warned the province’s civil servants to be circumspect on social media.
“Some types of personal use [of social media],” wrote Tracey Taweel, “can result in discipline, up to and including dismissal, if they are damaging to the Government’s reputation.”
Here’s the full text of her memo:
From: Communications NS
Sent: Thursday, January 28, 2016 4:59 PM
Subject: [NSG Broadcast] Government Social Media Policy
This email is a reminder that Government has a social media policy that applies to personal use of social media channels. I urge you to periodically revisit this document here:
Please take note of Appendix 6-B, Guidelines for Employees’ Use of Social Media.
Key points of these guidelines include:
- Recognize that anything posted on the Internet is there indefinitely and available to a wide audience, including your colleagues and managers. Even if you attempt to delete the post, photo, comment, etc., it is likely that it has been stored in any number of other places. Content posted to the Internet should be thought of as permanent.
- Never make partisan, political comments while speaking as a government employee. Comments must be objective in nature. Do not refer or link to the websites or social media accounts of politicians or political parties.
- By virtue of your position, you should consider whether personal thoughts you publish may be misunderstood as expressing the positions or opinions of the Government of Nova Scotia.
Therefore, caution is advisable.
Some types of personal use can result in discipline, up to and including dismissal, if they are damaging to the Government’s reputation or inconsistent with your work obligations. This is true, even when done on your personal time, on your own computer, and on websites that are unrelated to your workplace. Further, please use common sense and exercise good judgment in the use of social media during your working hours.
If you have any questions about Government’s social media policy, please contact Communications Nova Scotia.
Associate Deputy Minister
Communications Nova Scotia
In the interests of disclosure, I should point out Taweel is a friend I regard as very capable at public communications. Thus my surprise she would write such a heavy-handed memo, and circulate it so widely it was certain to find its way to the media.
A colleague with deep experience in both news-gathering and government communications, called the memo, “a masterpiece of ambiguity, beginning with reasonable advice about what you should say when identified as a government employee, then slip-sliding into a warning about the consequences of speaking your mind about anything, anywhere, while employed by government.”
By telephone, Taweel insisted the memo was not intended to muzzle civil servants using social media. She also said she sent it on her own initiative, not on instructions from Zack Churchill, Minister responsible for Communications Nova Scotia, or anyone else.
“Across government, a lot of government people aren’t comfortable with the digital world,” Taweel said. “The more we become involved wth social media as a way to communicate with the public, the greater the need to educate people on how to use it.”
“Our policy is meant to encourage use of social media. I don’t want to stop that in any way,” she added.
In fact, the social media policy Taweel linked to does emphasize the importance of government using social media to communicate. But Taweel’s memo focuses on admonitions contained in an appendix to the policy warning employees of severe employment consequences if their use of social media embarrasses the government.
Another friend, also with deep experience in journalism and corporate communications, finds Taweel’s memo unsurprising. It’s naive, he thinks, to ignore the potential for private behaviour to embarrass an employer.
“Employers are increasingly intrusive regarding the lives of their employees, under the premise that an employee’s actions 24/7 can reflect on the employer’s public reputation,” my friend said.
Trouble is, Taweel’s artfully ambiguous memo seems likely to deter a lot more than sexist slurs. It will make civil servants think three or four times before making any comment on any public issue, even on their own time, their own computer, their own Facebook account.
And I can’t help suspecting that’s exactly what Stephen McNeil hopes Taweel’s memo will accomplish.
There’s a simple way to resolve the manufactured controversy about travel and entertainment expenses in Richmond County: Put every expense claim by every councillor and senior staff member for the last five years online for every citizen to see—together with receipts, Visa statements, and explanatory notes.
That’s what the four reform councillors, Alvin Martell, Steve Sampson, Rod Samson, and Steve MacNeil, supported by Acting Warden Malcolm Beaton, have been trying to do for the last two weeks, only to be blocked by procedural maneuvers from their opponents on council. The delay insures the destructive debate about financial accountability will continue at least until the next council meeting February 22.
That seems to suit Councillors Brian Marchand and Gilbert Boucher, who would rather pander to the rabble than take concrete action toward transparency. From the safety of the council chamber, where they cannot be sued for defamation, they lob slanderous attacks on staff and fellow councillors.
That’s the striking thing about the mess in Richmond County: The councillors who have been most shrill in their accusations of financial mismanagement are the very ones blocking greater accountability. In this they are supported by anonymous online trolls using fake names and newly created Facebook accounts to lay down volley after volley of personal attacks and false allegations. Bullies are so often cowards at heart.
Marchand and Boucher, together with the disappointed office-seekers who make up their online Greek chorus, demand a “forensic audit.” It’s a word they’ve heard—scary-sounding and dramatic, with hints of criminal overtones. Trouble is, they don’t seem to know what a forensic audit is, or what circumstances might justify one.
There has been exactly one recent forensic audit of a Nova Scotia municipality. It happened in Bridgetown when the local ScotiaBank branch alerted the mayor to discrepancies in the town’s bank deposits. Cheques deposited at the bank did not match amounts entered on deposit slips.
The town called in its independent financial consultant, who quickly discovered the problem. Accounts receivable clerk Melissa Jane Young had been diverting taxpayers’ cheques to her own use and falsifying entries to cover the theft. Altogether she stole $113,195.96, although $33,676.60 was later recovered. Young pled guilty to a charge of fraud over $5,000 and served 18 months’ house arrest plus 18 months’ probation.
The discovery of missing funds took place before the forensic audit. No forensic audit was needed to uncover them. That took only a quick check by the town’s outside financial consultant. The forensic audit was only needed afterwards—to establish the chain of evidence required for a criminal conviction.
The main purpose of a forensic audit is not to find a problem, but to establish the chain of evidence required by a court once a routine audit has uncovered criminal activity.
Richmond County has already been audited, as it is every year, by the respected chartered accounting firm Grant Thornton.* As often happens in such audits, the accountants recommended procedural changes to ensure the county’s formal written policies for travel and entertainment expenses are reflected in practice. Such recommendations are a routine feature of public audits.
For example: County policy doesn’t allow payment for upgrades from economy to business class on airplane flights. The audit flagged two charges of $17.88 each for roomier seats within economy class.
Did this violate county policy? Possibly. The policy isn’t clear. Is it evidence of fraud or wrongdoing? Don’t be so foolish.
In fact, the Richmond audit found no evidence of wrongdoing, let alone criminal activity. There is no fraud. No money is missing. In accountant-speak, “Grant Thornton found no material misrepresentation.”
Grant Thornton confirmed this at a meeting with Warden Victor David and other county officials. The Department of Municipal Affairs reconfirmed it at a subsequent meeting with the same officials, including David. The province confirmed it again last week in a letter to CAO Warren Olsen.
When he began pressing for a forensic audit, David was facing all but certain defeat in his year-long campaign to retain 10 council seats in a county with just 9,000 residents. He may have expected criticism for squandering more than $50,000 in county funds on that hopeless crusade. Perhaps he thought demanding a forensic audit would divert attention from his own wasteful spending on seat preservation.
But an unnecessary, uncalled for forensic audit would be the Mother of All Wasteful Spending. Forensic audits require senior chartered accountants with specialized legal training, who charge upwards of $400 an hour. They are extremely expensive. The audit in tiny Bridgetown, with one-tenth Richmond’s population and a fraction of its budget, cost $350,000. A forensic audit in Richmond, especially a wild-goose-chase audit with no actual wrongdoing in sight, could cost $500,000 or more.**
The easy course for the reform councillors would have been to accept demands for a forensic audit, and waste a half million tax dollars proving nothing was amiss. Instead, supported by Acting Warden Beaton, they took the courageous path and opposed further squandering of public money in pursuit of political mischief. Predictably, this led to charges of a coverup, when in fact they were acting to protect the taxpayer.
Over the last 18 months, I followed events in Richmond County closely. I read the independent Stantec Report recommending a smaller council. I read every submission to the UARB, pro and con, and listened to a recording of the board’s lengthy hearing. I read the UARB decision. I read all the submissions to the Court of Appeal, and I watched that court dismiss the county’s feeble petition in a heartbeat. I read Grant Thornton’s “management letter” to the county, and CAO Warren Olsen’s response. To my distaste, I have even read the loathsome anonymous personal attacks on Facebook.
Here is what I have seen:
- One group of councillors has conscientiously pursued a smaller, more effective government for Richmond County—a council less concerned with culverts and potholes and more focused on the big-picture threats bearing down on rural Nova Scotia.
- A second group spent tax dollars waging all-out war to preserve 10 council seats with half the territory and barely half the population of an average rural Nova Scotia council district.
When it became clear they would lose that battle, a few members of the second group resorted to reckless vilification of the reform councillors, whipping up public fury over false allegations and imaginary misappropriations. Careless journalists lent them a bullhorn.
At last night’s council meeting, a crowd of residents cheered on the vilifiers and showered abuse on those councillors who have pursued better, more accountable government for Richmond County.
Such are the perverse outcomes of a public square deliberately made toxic.
* Ironically, GT is the same firm that carried out the forensic audit of Bridgetown’s books.
** One of Richmond County’s anonymous online trolls claims the Bridgetown audit didn’t really cost $350,000, because the town recovered $200,000 in insurance under a policy carried by all Nova Scotia municipalities, including Richmond. That’s true. But Bridgetown was able to collect only because it was the victim of a criminal fraud. In Richmond, an audit has already found there was no fraud, and confirmed there was “no material misrepresentation.”
You couldn’t soft-boil an egg in the time it took three senior judges of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal to dismiss Richmond County’s appeal of the UARB decision trimming its council from 10 seats to five. (See previous posts here, here, and here.)
So the UARB decision stands and Richmond County Council will have only five members after the October 15 election.
Or will it have six?
The Municipal Government Act gives the UARB final say on the number of councillors in each municipality. But an odd wrinkle in the act empowers the council itself to decide if it will have a warden elected from among its members, or a mayor elected at large. If Richmond Council chooses the mayoral option, council will have six members in total.
That’s the system favoured by the Gang of Four—the four councillors, led by ousted warden Steve Sampson, who petitioned the UARB to set council size at five, and successfully opposed the county’s appeal of that decision.
It may also be the option favoured by some of the other six councillors. After all, they wanted a larger council, and while six is far smaller than the 10 they hoped for, it’s definitely larger than five. Logically, it would seem to be the best option available from their point of view.
One argument in favour of the mayoral system is that it would give each resident two representatives they could turn to on municipal matters: their councillor and the mayor.
Political considerations may also play a role. Some of the councillors who fought to retain 10 seats may be concerned they could lose in an election with only five districts. A simultaneous campaign for mayor could ease that risk.
Of the 10 people now sitting on council, two or three are not expected to re-offer. Two more—Warden Victor David and former Warden Sampson—would be likely candidates for mayor, in which case, they cannot run for council. So it’s possible the five remaining councillors will be the only incumbents in their respective districts.
Much of what happens over the next 24 hours will depend on the leadership of Malcolm Beaton, acting as warden while Victor David is ill. He favoured a 10-person council, but later joined with the Gang of Four to defeat the invidious motion for a forensic audit (about which I’ll have more to say soon).
Beaton struck a conciliatory note after Thursday’s Court of Appeal decision.
“We had to go through this process because a majority of councillors wanted to appeal,” he said. “Now we have the result, it’s time to move on.”
The Municipal Government Act requires that a decision to change from a warden to a mayor must be taken at least nine months before the next election, or before February 15. Because several councillors were ill, the meeting scheduled for last Monday night was rescheduled for February 1, and the mayor vs. warden question will be on the agenda.
It’s the last council meeting before February 15, so one way or another, the final shape of the next municipal government should be known by Monday night.