An unnecessary epidemic fueled by delusional, self-indulgent thinking

As North Americans watch West Africa’s Ebola epidemic with rising fascination and fear, an entirely preventable epidemic is tearing through the second largest US city, attracting little notice.

whooping cough 1So far, three children have died—all in their first two months of life. Of 8,000 reported cases in California, mostly affecting children, 267 have required treatment in hospital, 58 in intensive care. The illness is highly contagious, and antibiotics have little impact.

“A number of them have been… very, very sick,” says Dr. Jeffrey Bender, an infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. “They cough so hard, it turns into vomiting and broken ribs; they end up intubated, to ventilate their lungs.”

The disease? Whooping cough, an illness that once caused more than a thousand child deaths a year in the US, but was nearly wiped out by vaccination programs.

Whooping Cough2Cause of the upsurge? Upscale parents in West Los Angeles, enamoured of magical thinking promoted by Hollywood starlets like Jenny McCarthy and Ione Skye, are refusing to get their children vaccinated in such large numbers immunization rates have fallen below the levels needed to confer what physicians call “herd immunity.”

Immunization rates in some schools are as low as those seen in impoverished developing countries like Chad and South Sudan. But it’s not happening in poor neighbourhoods. The outbreaks are centred in upscale schools and child care centres of posh neighbourhoods stretching from Malibu south to Marina del Rey.

The Hollywood Reporter has the sorry details.

Childhood vaccinations are free in Nova Scotia (schedules here and here). There’s is a recommended schedule for adults, too. Here’s the scoop on other provinces. Don’t be taken in by quacks. Get your child immunized.

What a committed mayor could do to end HRM’s discrimination

My friend and former Halifax Daily News colleague Shaune MacKinlay, now principal advisor to HRM Mayor John Mike Savage, thought my report of a newly opened Queen St. candy shop that bars entry to people in wheelchairs and discriminates against them in hiring gave short shrift to HRM’s recent efforts on accessibility.

She pointed to two measures recommended by the Mayor’s Conversation on Healthy, Liveable Communities” (an October 2013 meeting attended by 80 people), and adopted by unanimous vote of council. Along with establishing an orchard and fixing the bike lane at the Halifax end of the MacDonald Bridge, the meeting urged HRM to:

  • Work with Business Improvement Districts to determine what opportunities exist to improve accessibility in HRM, including consideration of the use of portable accessible ramps for entries that are not already accessible and cannot be made accessible through other means.
  • Direct staff to include the statement “HRM is a leader in building an inclusive and accessible community for everyone, including persons with disabilities and seniors” within the Healthy Communities Priority Outcomes, along with a Business Plan to support this Outcome, for consideration by Council in preparation for the 2015/16 planning cycle.

MacKinlay added:

I can assure you this office is committed to improving accessibility but as you may also know we do not direct staff, except through Council motion, which has been provided.

To summarize, almost two years into Michael Savage’s term as mayor, HRM has:

  • “committed” to work, not with the affected citizens, but with the retail business sector that discriminates against them, not to end that discrimination against people with disabilities, but to “determine what opportunities might exist to improve accessibility in HRM” [my emphasis], and
  • endorsed a flowery statement falsely portraying the city as “a leader in building an inclusive and accessible community for… people with disabilities.”

HRM is not a leader in anything connected with access for people with disabilities. It is quite possibly the least accessible capital city in North America. (Federal law forbids US cities from discriminating as Halifax routinely does, and most if not all Canadian provincial capitals are more accessible than HRM.)

Here’s what hasn’t changed in the two years since the Chicken Burger fiasco:

  • People in wheelchairs still can’t shop in, let alone seek employment with, many city businesses;
  • HRM continues to grant occupancy permits to new businesses that bar the disabled and refuse to employ them.

Meanwhile, Savage’s policy advisor portrays the mayor as a quivering lump of Jell-o, helpless to exercise authority over city staff or influence policy in any way beyond vacuous happy-talk.

While it may be true in political science theory that the mayor doesn’t direct city staff, there is much a committed mayor could be doing to halt the municipality’s rampant discrimination against wheelchair users.

  • The mayor has a bully pulpit. He could use it to advance this issue instead of dispatching spokespeople to rationalize the city’s inaction.
  • The mayor meets regularly with the CAO. He could make progress toward non-discrimination against people in wheelchairs a regular agenda item for those meetings.
  • The mayor could ask the CAO for monthly reports to council detailing ongoing staff efforts to end discrimination against people in wheelchairs.
  • The mayor could urge council to amend the city’s non-encroachment bylaw so planning staff could no longer use this little known law to prevent businesses from installing wheelchair ramps. (More in a future post on how HRM staff actually prevent businesses that want to install ramps from doing so.)
  • The mayor could ask the chair and the CEO of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to appear before council and discuss their efforts to bring Nova Scotia out of its dark age of inaccessibility.
  • The mayor could refuse to hold any city function in, or approve any expense claim for services provided by, any business that bars people in wheelchairs.
  • The mayor could publicly lobby his Liberal colleagues in the provincial government to amend the building code so discrimination could no longer be grandfathered when businesses change hands.

For a city that wants to think of itself as progressive, HRM’s failure to accommodate citizens with disabilities is a continuing scandal. Our mayor could do much more to fix this.

A funny thing happened on the way to a federal open government seminar

The Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy held a seminar Thursday, billed as an “open discussion” with federal Treasury Board employees where participants could “talk about problems with the current open government processes and how they can be fixed.” When Tim Bousquet of the Halifax Examiner showed up, well, that was the end of the seminar. Bousquet describes astounding (but sadly, unsurprising) incident in today’s Morning File:

[We] went around the table introducing ourselves…. [W]hen we got around to a woman—and I’m sorry, I didn’t catch her name—who worked at the Treasury Board, she asked who I worked for and left the room to make a phone call.

When she came back, she said that with a journalist in the room, the Treasury Board employees were not authorized to speak without a government media professional in the room.

Read the whole thing here.

How Big Oil lost Nova Scotia’s fracking debate

If you work in business, government, politics, communications, journalism, or marketing, and you’d like a five minute primer on how not to botch a public policy issue, read CCL Group chairman Steve Parker’s column in Thursday’s Halifax Chronicle-Herald.

I’ve been critical of the histrionics, self-righteousness, and personal attacks deployed by fracking opponents (see posts here, herehere, and here), but the truth is, Big Oil’s behaviour in the fracking debate has been equally reprehensible, as Parker cogently explains:

The seeds of the fracking ban here lay in the attitude and actions of industry who failed on two fronts: for years positioning fracking as essentially harmless and failing to respect and respond to the small but growing voices who expressed concerns and anecdotal instances of problems….

Steve Parker

Steve Parker

For years, the industry offered two messages: fracking is safe and many other places are doing it successfully. This is akin to asking your parents for permission to do something because your friends are doing it.

What the industry should have been doing during these key years, is joining the conversation—engaging with opponents, affected parties, scientists, academics and government in a variety of ways. This is what the maligned term “issues management,” is really about and how positive change happens….

Issues are won in the middle, by appealing to the common sense and experience of most people. In my view, average people may not be knowledgeable, but in large terms, they are wise, and in a democracy, they are right.

Governments will not be moved by extremist views from any source, but they are driven by the middle. On fracking, the government of Nova Scotia clearly believes the middle ground has been lost. The silence of opposition parties indicates they agree.

Industry tried to win the debate by withdrawing from it, refusing to acknowledge any problems with fracking technology when evidence of at least sporadic problems abounds, and by insisting it could inject chemicals into our shared environment without telling us what they are. The unspoken assumption behind this imperiousness was that government would cleave to industry’s loins, no matter how much the rabble protested.

Industry didn’t count on the fair-mindedness of David Wheeler, who conducted a rational, evidence-based inquiry into the risks and found most overblown, but called for a cautious approach and community buy-in.

Industry didn’t count on the craven pandering of Energy Minister Andrew Younger, who should have accepted Wheeler’s moderate approach and punted the issue for a calmer day. Instead, Younger opted for short-term political points at the expense of longterm policy prudence (a tactic honed by ceaseless demagoguery directed at the province’s regulated electric utility).

While I’m passing out brickbats, let’s mention the toadying posture of the provincial media. Until Parker’s column yesterday, the Herald’s response to the fracking ban had been a unified chorus of handwringing by columnists Black, Leger, Lethbridge, Stephenson, and Taylor, none of whom could summon even passing mention of the existential crisis bearing down on Planet Earth: climate change. It was no different at, where a fevered echo chamber of tendentious editorials and letters to the editor foresaw doom for the province and its children.

Last word to Steve Parker, whose whole column is worth a read:

[C]onvincing the public to accept needed change is about dialogue, organization, hard work, and respect for the concerns and issues raised by others. Industry and government must take their medicine and learn lessons from this failure to communicate on a fairly simple and straightforward issue.

What the Chinaman knows, and the Pictonian should

Dr. Dan Reid is a graduate of Dalhousie Medical School, a medical doctor, a general practitioner in both Pictou and Dartmouth, a former chief of staff at the Sutherland Harris Memorial Hospital, a former member of the Nova Scotia Legislature for Pictou West, a former Minister of Fisheries in the Gerald Regan government, a Liberal partisan, and a longstanding critic of the Northern Pulp Mill in Abercrombie.

At a free concert Tuesday night to raise awareness about the emissions from the mill, Reid saw fit to attack former premier John Hamm for sitting on the board of Northern Pulp. He went so far as to accuse Hamm of violating the Canadian Medical Association’s ethics code, article seven of which says, “Resist any influence or interference that could undermine your professional integrity.”

The CBC quotes Reid as saying, “Shame on Dr. Hamm for defending the pulp mill. He should resign and he should resign tomorrow.”

I will let others judge the political motives underlying these comments: “a former Liberal politician take a cheap shot at a retired Tory” (PC leader Jamie Baillie) or “a valid point…. [about] a political and corporate culture of mutual back-scratching” (Halifax Examiner).

Let’s focus instead on Reid’s comment about the ethnic Chinese, Indonesian-based owner of the pulp mill:

“I doubt that the Chinaman knows where Pictou is,” he told the Pictou rally.

The Chinaman? Seriously?

Merriam-Webster calls “Chinaman,” “often offensive,”, “usually offensive.” Wikipedia says the term:

is noted as offensive by modern dictionaries. Its derogatory connotations evolved from its use in pejorative contexts regarding the Chinese and other Asians.

In 1994, under pressure from Alberta’s Chinese community, that province’s government renamed the 2,408-metre-high “Chinaman’s Peak” in the Rocky Mountains to “Ha Ling Peak,” in honour of a 19th-Century railroad labourer. Wikipedia recounts numerous other apologies, retractions, and controversies arising from the use of the term.

Can a person of Reid’s background and stature really need schooling as to the offensiveness of this ethnic slur? Casual bigotry ill-serves the worthy cause of cleaning up Northern Pulp.

Starving slaves out on Scatarie

Scatarie Map 2

Over at the Halifax Examiner, Tim Bousquet has a brief discussion on the history and extent of slavery in Nova Scotia, with links to an interesting monograph, images of ads from Halifax newspapers seeking the return of slaves who escaped from their Nova Scotia owners, and a book that touches on the subject.

Runaway Slave Ad - small

(Click image for larger version)

When I first came to Nova Scotia, I spent time with older neighbours on Boularderie Island, many of whom were great storytellers and singers. One man, Donald MacDonald, known as Donald Bugle, a native Gaelic speaker, sang a song with a verse that went something like this:

Alex Angus* and Roddie Hector*
The cutest shavers you e’er did see
Spearing eels in the month of April
And starving slaves out on Scatarie

(* I have made up the names of the two “cutest shavers,” because I can’t recall them, but I am certain they took the familiar double-barrelled Cape Breton format: child’s first name followed by father’s first name.)

As a Yankee newcomer to Cape Breton, I knew my homeland had a history of slaveholding. But I wondered what the heck slaves might have been doing on Scatarie Island, a patch of scrub off Main-A-Dieu inhabited by lighthouse keepers and few others. No one I talked to had any idea. The puzzle has lodged in my mind ever since.

About 10 years after I heard Donald Bugle sing that verse, the Cape Breton singer-songwriter Ronnie MacEachern recorded Amby Thomas of Deep Cove (a hamlet between Main-A-Dieu and Port Morien) singing a nearly identical verse as part of a mining song called, “When I First Went to Caledonia.” Listen to the third verse.

It was I and my brother Charlie 
The biggest shavers you ever did see 
Were spearing eels in the month of April 
And starving slaves out on Scaterie.

The rest of the song is not the one I heard Donald Bugle sing in the late 1960s, but then, clever lyrics often migrate from song to song in the folk tradition.

The English folksinger Norma Waterson discovered “When I First Went To Caledonia” in Songs and Stories from Deep Cove, Cape Breton, a book MacEachern and Thomas published in 1979. She recorded it on her 1994 album, Waterson:Carthy. In her hands, the simple air, apparently borrowed from a Gaelic song, “Mo Ruin Gael Dileas,” takes on what one writer called, “a hymn-like quality… washed through with something more intimate, reminiscent of the bittersweet love songs [of] Kate and Anna McGarrigle.”

(For non-Cape Bretoners, “Caledonia” is a neighbourhood in Glace Bay, and “No. 3″ was a pit—a coal mine—in that town.)

There are so many interesting nuggets in this song:

  • There’s the reference to Boularderie Island, Donald Bugle’s home, which Thomas pronounces Bowlandarry, a common variant at the time, and which Waterson can’t pronounce at all.
  • There’s Thomas’s correct use of the subjunctive voice (“I wish I were but I wish in vain / I wish I were a young maid again”).
  • There’s the unexplained change from an old woman singing in first person, to a young coal miner singing in first person (probably the result of verses borrowed from other songs).
  • There’s Donald Norman’s daughter, “who could make good tea.”
  • There’s the uncannily accurate social history inherent in “coming to Caledonia and getting a loading at No. 3.”

Before the Steel plant opened in 1901, and the coal mines ramped up to supply it, the four counties of Cape Breton had roughly equal populations. The plant and the mines sucked young men off the farms of Inverness, Victoria, and Richmond. The story of coming to Caledonia (or somewhere like it) and getting on at No. 3 (or No. 12, or No. 26, or Princess) was repeated hundreds of times at a dozen pits. Cape Breton soon ran out of farm boys. By 1921, the British Empire Steel Company, which controlled the entire Sydney coal field, was recruiting all over the world, which is how Whitney Pier came to be one of the most multi-cultural communities in Canada.

This still leaves the perplexing business of the starving slaves out on Scatarie. Was the singer bemoaning the impoverished circumstances he and and his brother found themselves in, “like starving slaves out on Scatarie,” with “like” having somehow morphed to “and?” That’s not how I hear it, but if this was the singer’s intent, how on earth would he come up with a phrase like, “starving slaves out on Scatarie?” It seems exceedingly unlikely that a lightkeeper’s family would have kept slaves on the island. Had slaves perhaps been shipwrecked on Scatarie at some point during the Middle Passage?

I offer this thesis topic to history grad students among Contrarian’s readers. You can find several variants of the song on line.  Here are the lyrics as Amby Thomas sang them.


I wish I were but I wish in vain
I wish I were a young maid again.
A young maid again I will never be
‘Til an orange grows on an apple tree.

When I first went to Caledonia
I got loading at No. 3
And I got boarding at Donald Norman’s
He had a daughter could make good tea.

It was I and my brother Charlie
The biggest shavers you ever did see
Were spearing eels in the month of April
And starving slaves out on Scaterie.

I went to Norman’s for a pair of brochans
A cake of soap and a pound of tea
But Norman told me he wouldn’t give them
Till fish got plenty in Scaterie.

I went over to their Big Harbour
Just on purpose to see the spray
I spied a maiden from Boularderie over
I surely thought her the Queen of May.

I wish I were on the deepest ocean
As far from land that once I could see
A-sailing over the deepest ocean
Where woman’s love would not trouble me.

I’d lay my head on a cask of brandy
And it’s dandy I do declare
For when I’m drinking I’m always thinking
How can I gain that young lady fair.

If I had pen from Pennsylvania
If I had paper of truly white
If I had ink of the rosy morning
A true love’s promise to you I’d write.


Exactly how big was that Dreadnoughtus schrani, the titanosaurian sauropod dinosaur discovered recently in the Argentinian portion of Patagonia? The BBC offers this handy chart:


The BBC story is here. The first scientific paper documenting the massive discovery is in the journal Nature’s Scientific Reports.

H/T: Flowing data.

Sable Horse Removal Society – part 2

Ian Jones, the MUN professor urging removal of horses from Sable Island, offers a rebuttal to the skepticism I voiced in a post this morning:

You need to correct some parts of your blog post… I am a biology professor and seabird scientist specializing in research on the biology, conservation and restoration of remote islands. I am not a member of any environmental advocacy group.

The section in your post [quoting Dalhousie ecologist Bill Freedman] about consensus is very misleading. Sure, the horse people at Sable Island all want the horses to stay. This says nothing about the global consensus that exotic fauna (such as horses) are universally harmful and need to be controlled and/or removed. There is no ‘statute of limitations’ on exotic fauna—many of the worst cases of damage are from animals introduced during the 17th-18th-19th centuries.

I never suggested that Sable Island be made into a National Park – I am only suggesting that Parks Canada follow its own rules and guidelines—to not do so at one park threatens the integrity of management of all Canadian National Parks.

This might be of interest to you. [The link is to the very interesting website of Island Conservation, an organization devoted to "prevent(ing) extinctions by removing invasive species from islands," which, come to think of it, does sound a lot like an "environmental advocacy group."]

I agree with Zoe Lucas, who told Information Morning (Halifax) this morning it’s “a really interesting and worthwhile question… and worth looking into.“ It goes to the heart of what we intend “conservation” to accomplish. But as Freedman implied, for the foreseeable future, it’s an academic discussion. Nothing remotely like what Jones is proposing will occur for decades at the earliest.

Parks Canada eventually plans to undertake public consultation on a management plan for the island.

One final note: My initial post referred to Dr. Jones, facetiously, as an ‘eco-provocateur.’ In response, Jones points out that, “CBC called me up out of the blue and asked for my scientific opinion on management of Sable Island. I answered their questions to the best of my knowledge. This is part of my job as a professor. I hope this doesn’t make me an ‘eco-provocateur,’ whatever that is.

Sable Horse Removal Society – updated

Eco-provocateur* Ian Jones, a seabird biologist at Memorial University in St. John’s NL, is demanding Parks Canada remove the fabled feral horses of Sable Island on the factually correct grounds they are an exotic, invasive species that has seriously altered the island’s ecology.

The CBC quotes Jones as saying Parks Canada is obliged to remove them because of a stipulation in part 3.2, section 11 of the Canada National Parks Act:

All practical efforts will be made to prevent the introduction of exotic plants and animals into national parks and to eliminate or contain them where they already exist.


Biologist Ian Jones

If making Sable Island a national park forces the Government of Canada to remove its beloved horses, that would certainly rank as the first big unintended consequence of park status. (The first big intended consequence has been the institutionalization of tourism by the wealthy and well-connected, another development fraught with ecological consequences.)

Park status may not require exotic horse removal, however, since the act appears to contain no “part 3.2, section 11,” and a text search of the legislation failed to turn up any passage resembling the words Jones quoted. (I have emailed him for a clarification, and will post an update when I hear back.)

[UPDATE] The passage Jones refers to is not in the Canada National Parks Act, but in a statement of “Parks Canada Guiding Principles and Operational Policies,” that was tabled in the House of Commons 20 years ago by then Heritage Minister Michel Dupuy. The specific section cited by Jones can be found here, at 3.2.11. The Canada National Parks Act, an act of Parliament, can only be changed by another act of Parliament. An operational policy can be changed by fiat of the Minister of Environment. Big difference.

Meanwhile, in email messages to Contrarian and the National Post Sunday afternoon, Prof. Bill Freedman, a Dalhousie University ecologist with extensive experience on Sable and a keener appreciation than Jones of the politics of Sable horse removal, brought the hyperventilated discussion back to earth:

There is no consensus among ecologists and others working on Sable Island about the desirability of removing the horses. The scientists that I know, who are working with the horses on the island, have never told me that they would like to see the animals removed.

The horses have been on the island for centuries, and I believe the ecosystem in now in a steady-state condition with respect to their ecological effects.

There are more than 500 horses on the island. It is unlikely they would all be adopted if taken off the island, so the most likely outcome would be a lethal cull. Bot no one in a position of responsibility or authority is talking about doing that.

At the present time, and into the foreseeable future (several decades, anyway), I do not think that any significant action will be taken to greatly reduce the population of horses on Sable Island. However, if responsible authorities were to try to do anything, it would likely be non-lethal means such as birth control.

In pure ecological terms, Jones may be correct: the horses of Sable have undoubtedly altered the island from its pristine, pre-contact state in the 16th Century. However, Sable horse lovers are legion, and there is not a Canadian politician of any stripe who cares enough about pure ecology to risk their wrath.

Parks Canada eventually plans to undertake public consultation on management plan for the island.

* See a further rebuttal from Jones here., including his demurral regarding the ‘eco-provocateur’ appellation.

Breeding contempt for HRM police

Tim Bousquet on the joint Halifax Regional Police-RCMP raid of a compassionate use marijuana club that operates openly in Halifax:

Continuing to arrest people for pot is ridiculous and counter-productive: arresting backyard gardeners puts the entire trade in the hands of organized crime.

We all know that use of marijuana will be legal or decriminalized in a few years, and yet we continue to ruin people’s lives for a victimless crime. I will continue to ridicule the police for making pot arrests because they deserve ridicule. This is an evil—yes, evil—use of police powers, the very antithesis of serving and protecting. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Arresting people for pot breeds contempt for the law and for the police, and deservedly so.

I can’t say it better.

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