Biting the hand: Cowan-Dewar and Nova Scotia’s culture of resentment

Inverness Coal Mine

In 2012, Ben Cowan-Dewar opened North America’s first true links-style golf course on a coal mine waste dump wedged between the downtrodden village of Inverness and its spectacular beach. Cabot Links soon became one of the most talked about new golf destinations in the world. This year, Cowan-Dewar is adding a second 18-hole course, Cabot Cliffs, and expanding the resort’s luxury hotel.

Cabot Links will employ 200 Invernessers this summer, a number the owners hope will rise to 450 once Cabot Cliffs is in full operation. It’s not an exaggeration to call it the most successful tourist development in Nova Scotia since the advent of Celtic Colours in 1997. It has reversed a half century of economic decline in Inverness, offering a level of hope townspeople have not known for generations.

Premier Stephen McNeil must have been delighted when Cowan-Dewar agreed to chair the board of the province’s newly created Tourism Agency. A young man with ambition, drive, and a proven track record drawing new tourists to the province would help guide government tourism policy.

Now comes word that after seven years in Inverness, Cowan-Dewar and his family are moving back to Toronto. They will still spend summers here, overseeing their resort, but for the rest of the year, Cowan-Dewar plans to fly in for monthly Tourism Agency board meetings, paying for the travel himself. (Ironically, flying in to Halifax from Toronto will probably take less time than driving in from Inverness.)

Predictably, this has caused an uproar. The interim leader of the New Democratic Party, flying on auto-pilot, demanded Cowan-Dewer’s resignation. Conservative leader Jamie Baillie, who knows better, fell dutifully in line.

In the online Halifax Examiner, publisher Tim Bousquet listed all the (secured, interest-bearing) loans Cabot Links received from federal and provincial agencies, before shifting to personal attack mode. Riffing on a joke Cowan-Dewar’s wife, Allie Barclay, once made about the remoteness of Inverness (“I felt like I was in the witness protection program.”), Bousquet wrote:

I guess the mob boss has been murdered, and the family can move back to the city without fearing for their safety. The kids can go to a nice school, not those hellhole schools they’ve got in Cape Breton. Barclay can sit on a board of a museum or charity, and drink wine with other sophisticates after an afternoon shopping in boutiques. Cowan-Dewer can own a table at the local country club, regaling his exploits of getting rich on the backs of the hicks out east.

Ah, now we’re getting to the nub. Cowan-Dewar may have brought jobs and hope to a town that had known only grinding despair for generations—but the bastard’s rich. He’s a businessman. He’s from Toronto. Oh, how we despise success!

“Shitty news about Nova Scotian taxpayers getting hosed once again,” howled Trevor Parsons in the Examiner’s comment section. Not great news about a hopeless town finding hope again. Shitty news. We’d rather stuff camels through the eye of a needle than allow a wealthy Toronto businessman any role in our redemption.

Parsons warmed to his resentment-fueled theme:con

As for Mr. Cowan-Dewar: Well played, sir. You are following a time honoured tradition of leveraging taxpayer money to enrich yourself and leave buckets of booty to your offspring. Enjoy.

On Facebook, Nick Panagopoulos declared:

It’s a tax dodge! Compare personal income tax rates in NS as opposed to Ontario and you’ll see NS’s are higher so when you combine provincial with federal this dude can save more in income tax by living in Ontario.

From all across social media came angry denunciations of Cowan-Dewar, and demands for his dismissal.

Fire him? Wouldn’t that be smart of us? However Cowan-Dewar splits his time between Toronto and Inverness, he still operates a major business here. He will spend a great deal of time in Nova Scotia. He will remain fully up to speed on developments in the tourism industry. Is anyone—literally anyone—better equipped to provide board-level guidance to a tourism agency in Nova Scotia?

Cowan-Dewar isn’t deputy minister of tourism, or a manager responsible for the agency’s day-to-day operations. Chairing the board involves monthly meetings and some prep time. It’s more in the realm of community service than a job.

But we are nothing if not insular. Sensing a chance to label MP Megan Leslie as a come-from-away, her Liberal opponent Andy Fillmore has been emphasizing his native Haligonian bona fides. Why? Because xenophobia is an honoured belief system in Nova Scotia, a proven vote-mover.

We are lucky to have someone of Dewar’s talent and experience to chair this board. Premier McNeil was wise to rebuff demands for his sacking. Good for him. It’s a start.


Liberal phone worker: “I’ve spoken to a lot of very upset people today”

Phone just rang. A 613 number. Man said he was calling from the Liberal Party of Canada.

“Good. I want to talk to you.”

For the next three minutes, I berated the poor chap, decrying Justin Trudeau’s craven support for Bill C-51; his betrayal of his father’s greatest political achievement, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; his pathetic excuse that if he didn’t support C-51, Harper would label him “soft on terrorism.”

“If Justin doesn’t have the leadership skills and communications chops to explain to Canadians why opposing a grossly unconstitutional intrusion on fundamental freedoms has nothing to do with being ‘soft on terrorists,’ then he’s unfit to be Prime Minister,” I said, before adding I would not be contributing, and without a speedy about-face, wouldn’t be voting Liberal either.

The fundraiser listened politely.

“I understand completely,” he said at last. “A lot of people I’ve spoken to have been very upset about this today.”

No surprise there. For the last four days, enraged Liberal supporters have been carpet bombing Trudeau’s Facebook page with angry denunciations of the party’s support for C-51. It will be interesting to see how this affects the Liberals’ second quarter fundraising totals.

When Trudeau welcomed calamity-prone Conservative Party MP Eve Adams to the Liberal caucus last February, the real prize was said to be Adams’s boyfriend, Dimitri Soudas, a former top-CPC strategist until Harper fired him for trying to influence a nomination battle in Adams’s favour. Soudas’s intimate knowledge of the CPC election playbook was said to be a major strategic coup for the Liberals.

Well, if cringing in anticipation of terrorist-baiting by the PM is the kind of strategic advice Soudas has given Trudeau, then the Adams floor-crossing had no upside whatsoever.

Eve & Justin

Those Gaelic road signs: an interactive map, and a few questions

Gaelic Map copy

Comhairle na Gáidhlig, a.k.a. The Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia, has teamed up with Heather Smith of the Centre of Geographic Sciences in Lawrencetown to produce an interactive map of Gaelic place names in eastern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton.

Clicking on the image above will take you to the interactive version. There you can hover your cursor over the tear-shaped place-markers to call up the Gaelic name of each location. Clicking the place-markers brings up the Gaelic name, the English name, the county, and a tiny sound file of the Gaelic pronunciation. Nice use of mapping.*

gaelic-road-signInlineI confess to both skepticism and ambivalence about these Gaelic road signs: Skepticism about their authenticity—are these really the names Gaelic-speaking settlers used two centuries ago, or are they merely Gaelic translations of 20th Century English place names? (To judge from the map, they’re about half and half.)—and ambivalence about the fraudulent conceit that Nova Scotia is, in any meaningful sense, “New Scotland.”

That issue has been most authoritatively plumbed by Queens University folklorist Ian McKay, first in a paper published in the journal Acadiensis, and later fleshed out in a brilliant book, The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotiawhich ought to be on every Nova Scotian’s reading list. In Acadiensis, McKay wrote:

A great number, although by no means all, of the Scots who came to Nova Scotia between 1770 and 1840 were Highlanders. Many settled in the province’s northern counties, particularly in Pictou and Antigonish counties on the mainland, and on Cape Breton Island…. The Gaelic language was imported by the Scots and spoken in many parts of the northern counties, particularly in rural Cape Breton. Sermons were commonly preached, and numerous books and periodicals published, in that language. Spoken by at least 24,303 Nova Scotians, according to the 1931 census, Gaelic was an important language in the province….

However, none of this evidence of Scottish settlement made Nova Scotia a “Scotland of the New World.” According to the 1921 census, the 148,000 Nova Scotians of “Scottish origin” represented just over 28 per cent of the provincial population of 523,837. They were outnumbered by 202,106 Nova Scotians of “English origin,” representing about 39 per cent of the total population. The remaining 173,731 Nova Scotians were assigned a wide range of “principal origins” by the census: Irish, French (i.e. Acadian), German, Black, “Indians,” and others. Not only was Nova Scotia not predominantly Scottish, but it was also not the most Scottish of Canadian provinces: Prince Edward Islanders of Scottish origin accounted for a larger percentage of their province’s population; 465,400 Ontarians of Scottish origin were about three times more numerous than those of Nova Scotia….

Nova Scotia “became Scottish” in the second quarter of the 20th century. Before then, no single vocabulary of “Nova Scotianness” was in use. Somehow, in little over three decades, a collection of hazy generalizations and ethnic stereotypes about Nova Scotians was transformed into a natural and obvious “commonsense” about Nova Scotia’s identity. Why was tartanism triumphant? The broad answer is that it was part of an international anti-modernist wave, a local version of a general middle-class search for something outside and better than the crisis-ridden modern world it inhabited. The narrow answer is that tartanism was triumphant because Premier Angus L. Macdonald, convinced of certain self-evident truths—the truths of his own particularly romantic and essentialist reading of the Scottish tradition, and of the redemptive role of tourism—used the state’s cultural power to fuse these two truths into one commanding commonsense.

I have fond memories of the Gaelic-reared elders who enriched and guided my first years in Cape Breton, but we risk selling short the rich mix of cultures—Yiddish, Caribbean, Eastern European, Newfoundlander, South Asian, Yankee, African-American, Mi’kmaq, Acadian, English, and Hessian—who contributed to modern Nova Scotia. To say nothing of the Farsi, Mandarin, and Tagalog speakers we fervently hope will contribute to our 21st Century.

– –

* For mapping nerds, Heather Smith built her web map of Gaelic place names using using Leaflet, CartoDB, jQuery, QGIS, and Inkscape.

Wandering Ibis

Glossy Ibis

A rare bird just doesn’t stand much of a chance in Nova Scotia these days. Too many capable birders are out scouring fields and shorelines, Pentaxes and Nikons in hand, for a Crested Caracara, Eurasian Kestrel, or Eastern Towhee to escape notice for long.

At 8:30 Sunday morning, Peggy Scanlan spotted a Glossy Ibis feeding at Waterside Beach Provincial Park. Normally resident in Florida and the Caribbean, the bird has vagrant status in Nova Scotia—meaning it’s a very occasional summer visitor.

Peggy’s Ibis was soon joined by eight others. When she posted photos on the Nova Scotia Bird Society’s Facebook page and the Nova Scotia Rare Bird Alert Yahoo group shortly after 1 p.m., fellow birder Eric Mills pointed out that one of these Ibises is not like the others. You can spot the different bird front and centre in the photo above. Here’s a better look:

White-Faced Ibis

The white fringe surrounding this bird’s face, together with the grey bill and reddish legs, marked it as a closely related White-Faced Ibis, a much rarer visitor to Nova Scotia, normally resident in the southwestern US, Mexico, and South America.


This is a great time of year to keep an eye out for birds in Nova Scotia, as so many species are making their annual summer trek to the province. And a bird needn’t be rare to cast its spell.


Far Eastern Towhee

On distribution maps for the Eastern Towhee, the summer range runs out about halfway up the Maine Coast. But for the last few days, a rare spring visitor has been hanging around Point Pleasant Park in Halifax. My man Joshua sent me this image.

A furtive bird of the undergrowth, the towhee [pronounced: TOE-hee] has been scrounging for sunflower seeds under a feeder in the park. It’s best found in the early morning, just past the grassy knoll.

Fittingly for a Nova Scotia visit, the towhee’s call is often onomatopoeically transcribed as “Drink your teeeea!” or simply, “Drink!

Summer will come.

Michael Geist is wrong about the NS film credit

University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist is Canada’s best-informed commentator on communications and technology law, but in his Toronto Star column yesterday, he stepped outside this field to opine on Nova Scotia’s Film Tax Credit fiasco.

Citing an unreleased Ministry of Finance study that delivered, “a sharply negative verdict” on Ontario’s film tax credit, Geist argued Nova Scotia is doing the right thing by scuppering its credit—a move that will gut filmmaking in our province.

Geist2Geist is a brilliant guy, and his surveillance of internet law does the country a great service. But he’s been snookered on this issue.

Discovering that finance bureaucrats oppose film tax credits is like discovering codfish oppose factory freezer trawlers. These credits cost far more than they produce in direct corporate income taxes, so they are natural targets for beancounters who spend their careers fighting off demands on the public purse.

Geist didn’t actually see the “study” he cites; he saw a slide deck bureaucrats prepared in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Ontario cabinet to ditch its credit. I  wouldn’t call it a study, so much as an all-out screed against the program.

The slide deck makes a few points that are obvious to everyone. Film production in Canada goes up when our dollar is low—as do automobile, lumber, and canola production. Much film employment is project-based, and therefore temporary—as is employment in construction, consulting, and the entire arts sector.

Of course the deck highlights what everyone acknowledges: that only a small portion of the money paid out under the credit is recouped in direct corporate income taxes paid by the recipient companies.

The deck falsely condemns the tax credit as an inefficient way of supporting film production, on grounds its certification process is somehow “burdensome.” Most economists praise the efficiency of using taxes to encourage beneficial activities (by lowering them), and discourage harmful activities (by raising them).

What’s missing from the Ontario Finance Ministry’s analysis is any effort to quantify—or even analyze—the broader benefits of the film and television industry, and the impact the tax credit has on it. It leaves basic questions unasked:

  • What is the value of sales taxes production companies pay the on the Ontario goods and services they purchase?
  • What is the value of sales and personal income taxes paid by film industry workers?
  • What is the value of sales, personal, and corporate income taxes paid by suppliers on goods and services they sell to production companies?
  • What is the value of tourism generated by fans drawn to locations featured in favourite movies and TV shows? (This may not be a big deal in Ontario, but ask that question in Chester, NS.)

Then there are the intangibles:

  • How different would Ontario and Toronto be without film production?
  • What value has the Toronto International Film Festival added to Toronto’s reputation over the 39 years of its existence?
  • What is the Floridian value to a city of being known as a centre for arts and culture?
  • Would the Ontario cabinet consider closing the Royal Ontario Museum or the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on grounds memberships pay only a fraction of actual costs?

The film and television production industry is highly mobile. It can and does follow currency fluctuations and favourable tax regimes. As Geist correctly points out, this risks pitting rival jurisdictions against one another on a race to the bottom. But it is disingenuous to suggest little old Nova Scotia abandon subsidies on principle, while provinces with larger populations and stronger economies continue to pass them out.

Jurisdictions constantly compete for economic activities—with grants, training allowances, payroll rebates, land giveaways, low-interest loans, and favourable regulations. If Finance Ministry officials can find a way to stop these this, they will deserve the Nobel Prize in Economics. They’d better implement it worldwide, though, because if the ban applies only in Canada, footloose industries will simply shift elsewhere.

Nova Scotia is a small province with a large debt on the cusp of a demographic disaster. We have a cadre of well educated young people, thanks to excellent universities that lure students from places like Ontario. Film and television production is one of the few ways we’ve found to retain some of our most interesting and creative young people as they enter the workforce.

It will be a tragedy if the blinkered advice of beancounters persuades us to toss the industry aside.

Do we sell filmmaking short by calling it an “industry?”


Last week I drafted a speech Stephen McNeil might use to extract his government from its unnecessary and destructive film tax crisis. Labour lawyer and New Democrat Ron Stockton took issue with my offering, and in the process made a point that deserves more consideration:

The arts industry—it somehow seems wrong to call it an industry, because it reduces it to economics—is different than manufacturing airplane parts or providing call centre services.

Civilizations have existed and thrived without manufacturing industries and service centres, but as best we can tell, humankind probably started making art as soon as our ancestors stood up. We need the arts as much as we need air, water, food, and companionship. Therefore, it should be considered in a different light, even if it costs us to have it…

[Your proposed speech] is what Darrell Dexter should have made after summarily announcing the end of funding for the Yarmouth ferry, but the film industry is a different kettle of fish.

I’d support it if McNeil made the speech you proposed, but included in it that the government would look at all the contributions the film industry makes to citizens, rather than just the economics, and if he would enter into those discussions with an open mind, rather than having already concluded the film tax credit is not affordable.

I’ve criticized McNeil and his Finance Minister, Diana Whalen, for not recognizing the role filmmaking plays attracting and retaining dedicated, creative young people to Nova Scotia. But that, too, is at least partly an economic argument.

Stockton is making a broader and more important point. We remember great civilizations of the past more for the art works they produced—the paintings, architecture, sculpture, myths, and literature—than for their economic prowess.

In a future centuries, present day Nova Scotia is far more likely to be remembered for Trailer Park Boys, “The Boat,” Marion Bridge, and “Peter’s Dream,” than it is for Michelin Tire, Port Hawkesbury Paper, and ships that did or did not eventually start here.

If we reduce every government program to its monetary return, we lose something more important than tax revenue and jobs: We lose pieces of our heart and soul.

– –

(I cannot resist pointing out that the five Nova Scotia movies pictured above were all written about, and filmed in, Cape Breton, the province’s notorious economic basket case. I didn’t do that deliberately; that’s just how it worked out. Cape Breton is Nova Scotia’s cultural engine.)

Observing the Bavarian Purity Law in Cape Breton

I can’t resist posting this video, which brings together two of my favourite Cape Bretoners: videographer Jason LaFrense of Seaside Communications (where I often work), and hop-farmer-turned-craft-brewer Jeremy White of Big Bruce Brewery in Nyanza—in my untutored opinion, the best of Nova Scotia’s fabulous new boutique breweries.

The Big Spruce Brewery sits just off the TransCanada 105 on the Yankee Line Road, 15 km. south of Baddeck. If you visit in growing season, the organic hop farm, just up the hill from the brewery, is a wonder to behold.

The flagship brew is Kitchen Party Pale Ale, which conforms to the Bavarian Purity Law.  Proclaimed by Albert IV, Duke of Bavarian, in 1497, it allows only four ingredients: water, barley, hops, and yeast.

This is one of a series of Exploring Cape Breton videos LaFrense has produced for Seaside’s cable system in Glace Bay, New Waterford, Louisbourg, St. Peter’s, and Baddeck. The interviewer is Dana MacSween.

Time to admit the mistake

This is the speech Stephen McNeil should give at his earliest opportunity:

Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak about the budget provisions affecting the Nova Scotia Film Tax Credit.

As both the One Nova Scotia Commission and the Broten Report have warned in the clearest of terms, Nova Scotia is on an unsustainable economic path. Our accumulated provincial debt and the relentless impact of demographics will render us incapable of providing the health, education, transportation, and human services our citizens expect and deserve unless we change course.

Premier Stephen McNeil answers questions at One Government Place.As we prepared the 2015-2016 budget, we were focused on this challenge. We were determined to make the tough decisions needed to get us back on a sustainable track. We were elected to make tough decisions, and we are not afraid of them.

It should surprise no one that the Film Tax Credit drew our attention. It is extremely generous—in our view, too generous.

We expected opposition. Every single expenditure in every Nova Scotia budget has a constituency that can be counted upon to fight for its continuation. There is no way to return Nova Scotia to a sustainable path without the courage to face and withstand criticism.

Nevertheless, we have been impressed by the passion so many young Nova Scotians feel for our creative industries, including film and digital media. We certainly share the belief that attracting and retaining creative young people is critical to the province’s future.

We have listened to the people affected by the proposed changes, and to their many supporters throughout the province.

We have listened to warnings from film industry executives about the disproportionate impact abrupt change could have on the complicated financial arrangements that enable filmmaking in Canada.

We have also listened to those who support the proposed changes and want us to stay the course.

We have listened, and we have heard.

I have personally come to the conclusion that the changes we proposed are too sudden and too severe.

In short, we made a mistake. And as governments should always be in such circumstances, we are prepared to make adjustments.

I still believe the credit is too generous. We need to find ways to support this vital industry that are not wildly out of sync with government support for other sectors. But we can do that more gradually.

At my direction, the government will introduce amendments to the budget that postpone changes to the film tax credit for one year. We will use that year to consult with industry, and find ways to scale back the cost of this program to taxpayers, without placing an untoward burden on the future of an industry whose importance we all agree on. This will still be a tough process. It will require best efforts—and sacrifices—on all sides.

Over the last week, thousands of Nova Scotians have raised their voices and asked us to reconsider a measure we thought appropriate. As befits this province’s wonderful creative community, they have done so in a spirited and colourful manner. I thank them for that.

We have listened, and we have responded. That is democracy at work.

Risley’s lament


John Risley, the 55th richest person in Canada with net assets of $1,388,872,703, thinks the part time gaffers, grips, extras, and assistant directors who labour in Nova Scotia’s film industry are getting too sweet a deal from the provincial government.

Billionaire Risley has been telling everyone who will listen that Premier Stephen McNeil, who campaigned on a promise to maintain the Nova Scotia Film Tax Credit until 2020, should break that promise, even though it will kill an industry that has attracted hundreds of creative young entrepreneurs to our province.

He made the statement six days after Ottawa gave the Nova Scotia Community College $1 million to help his company, Clearwater Seafoods, develop new mapping techniques that will better enable his scallop draggers to scour the ocean bottom for lucrative shellfish.

That’s how Risley made his $1.38 billion: By acquiring, from government, preferred access to massive public shellfish resources (along with sundry federal and provincial handouts). Clearwater is the largest holder of rights to fish Canadian scallops, lobster, clams, coldwater shrimp, and crab. The company owns exclusive rights to  all offshore lobster fished on the Atlantic coast, and to all Arctic surf clams. These are public resources that you and I can’t fish. But Risley’s bottom-destroying draggers can.

In return, Clearwater provides dead-end, low-wage, seasonal employment in fish plants that have come to rely on special immigration exemptions, issued by government, to import temporary third world workers willing to carry out the bone-chilling, soul-deadening labour that make them profitable.

Perhaps speaking from his $20 million Chester mansion, Risley urged McNeil to kill the province’s $130 million film industry, just as Saskatchewan did two years ago. Let the creative jobs go to Ontario, BC, and back to the USA. After all, he’s got fish plants begging for people to shell crab legs at $10.40 an hour.

On Tuesday, the CBC sat down with a group of accountants to get  an understanding of how film industry economics actually work, something Finance bureaucrats have been unable to explain.

Thank you for that, CBC. Now here’s another challenge for you: put some reporters to work compiling a comprehensive list of all the loans, grants, research funding, payroll rebates, and resource giveaways Risley and his companies received en route to making $1.38 billion.

Then let’s hear that lecture about rugged individualism one more time.



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