Alistair MacLeod, OC (1936 – 2014)

Alistair MacLeod - cropped 2

“I turned and he was not there.”

News of Alistair MacLeod’s death left me disoriented, the way you might feel after a sudden hard blow to the stomach. It’s how I felt when Pete Seeger died.

If the sensation is familiar, it might be because Alistair wrote about it, perfectly, in “The Boat,” a story from his collection, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood.

The narrator is a son who has abandoned his schooling to fish lobster and groundfish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with his aging father. Together they have pushed the season far into a frigid November.

And I stood at the tiller now, on these homeward lunges, stood in the place and in the manner of my uncle, turning to look at my father and to shout over the roar of the engine and the slop of the sea to where he stood in the stern, drenched and dripping with the snow and the salt and the spray and his bushy eyebrows caked in ice. But on November twenty-first, when it seemed we might be making the final run of the season, I turned and he was not there and I knew even in that instant that he would never be again.

On November twenty-first the waves of the grey Atlantic are very high and the waters are very cold and there are no signposts on the surface of the sea. You cannot tell where you have been five minutes before and in the squalls of snow you cannot see. And it takes longer than you would believe to check a boat that has been running before a gale and turn her ever so carefully in a wide and stupid circle, with timbers creaking and straining, back into the face of the storm. And you know that it is useless and that your voice does not carry the length of the boat and that even if you knew the original spot, the relentless waves would carry such a burden perhaps a mile or so by the time you could return. And you know also, the final irony, that your father like your uncles and all the men that form your past, cannot swim a stroke.

My condolences to Anita MacLeod, their six children and eight grandchildren. I know the family slightly from occasions when I presumptuously dropped in on their hillside farmhouse at Dunvegan, Inverness Co., where music and stories and tea and Scotch warmed the welcome. What a lovely man.

Now we turn in wide and stupid circles and contemplate this irrevocable loss, for Cape Breton, for Canada, and for the world of letters.

["The Boat" first appeared in in the Massachusetts Review in 1968. Alistair's landmark collection of stories, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, is available at your library, at many independent bookstores, and online in print and Kindle formats.]

Update: Katie Beaton, another great Inverness Co. talent, points out that you can read “The Boat” online. You really should own it, though.

I lived in a yellow house

River Bennet photographer Leebly Brown made this moving short about his grandmother, Ellen Greta Brown, who died in January.


Short memories

Nun's Habits in Lisbon

A friend who is visiting Lisbon, writes:

[W]e came upon this rare site, which in itself speaks volumes. I couldn’t help remembering a time not so long ago when such a site would have been common.  And when I hear the outrage about Muslim head dress I marvel at the shortness of human memory.

Sister on the left doesn’t seem all that thrilled to have her picture taken.

Nurses, N-Dips, & humble pie — readers react

On Monday, I suggested that, having had their hats handed to them by voters in the last election, surviving New Democratic MLAs would do well to show a tad more humility than they evinced in the the dustup over essential services legislation. Many readers reacted.

An Ontario lawyer took issue with my describing the nurses’ one-day strike as “unnecessary.”

I’d say that the workers in question are the ones best able to determine whether or not a strike is necessary or not, no?

I could have phrased this better. The strike was unnecessary—and pointless—in the sense that legislation to force the nurses back to work was 24 hours away. A health care worker put it more forcefully.

The nastiest move in the nurses strike was actually the walkout on Thursday. The point of a legitimate strike is to compel the employer to negotiate and make concessions. Walking out on patients last Thursday was never going to have this effect. The legislation was going to pass and whatever tools the union would have after that would not be influenced by walking out Thursday. The ONLY effect that had was to make the lives of patients even more miserable. Thanks, Joan.

[T]here is a competition between Jessome and Hazelton over who is going to represent the nurses in the newly squished together Everywhere-but-Halifax Health Authority. Jessome – as she so often does – greatly overestimated the power of the hand she held and has pretty effectively ended her chances of collecting dues from the rural nurses. I am sure McNeil’s guys will see to it that the legislation creating the new district gives Hazelton successor rights. Rick Clarke and co can’t be too happy with the black eye Jessome and her lack of PR skills has given unions.

A retired medical professional doesn’t believe the NDP got quite as bad a drubbing as I indicated:

The NDP indeed went from 31 seats to 7, but their popular vote was 111,000 to the Liberal’s 190,000, about an 18% swing of those who voted. Basically 80,000 people switched their votes from NDP to Liberal; there was virtually no change in Conservative popular vote [except that it was more effectively concentrated in winnable ridings. - PD]; 275,000 of the electorate didn’t vote.

The Liberals were supported by 45% of the vote and won 60% of the seats; in the last election it was the NDP that did more or less that.

You make it sound like the NDP should have their tails between their legs, should sit in their corner and shut up on issues that matter to them, even though they won the support of 26.84% of the voters.

Why should 18% of the 60% who voted, 11.45% of the electorate, decide that someone has a majority in the Legislature, when 60% of the electorate couldn’t? How is that representative of the will of the people, and how does that generate anything but division and endless positioning, instead of proper governing?

The story here is not that the NDP lost massively, but that our electoral system massively fails to represent the will of the people in the Legislature. And it is all in an effort to create a false majority, when there is clearly no such thing as a majority opinion in the Province – probably never has been.

Haven’t we had enough senseless division as a result of parties seeking the brass ring of false majorities based on a 10% swing in the electorate, especially when 40% of the electorate doesn’t even vote?…. {W]e need to concentrate on proper representation before we are ever going to be able to address the problems we face.

We also need pundits to stop chewing on the one side of the story that supports the inflated egos of a sad group of people who claim to lead us, don’t fairly represent us, and can’t balance a budget.

The reason they can’t balance a budget or stimulate the economy is because they base their decisions on gaining the approval of 11% of the electorate, instead of seeking engagement of all of the electorate in achieving consensus and compromise through proper representation. 45% approval is not a 60% majority in any sane system of representation.

Well, sure, we could have a great discussion about proportional representation (a system I used to favor, although now I lean more toward run-off elections until one candidate secures 50 percent of the vote). But first-past-the-post is the system we’ve got, and those are the rules all three parties play by. A swing by 18 percent of voters from one party to another may not seem huge, but in the Canadian political context, it is an extreme outcome, one that ought to chasten the losers.

I don’t want NDP MLAs to sit in the corner and shut up, but they ought to consider the recent verdict of the electorate before using unusual, anti-democratic tactics to thwart the will of the majority.

A reader old enough to remember Harry and Parker fondly [thank you] peers into the internal dynamics of the third party:

[P]erhaps most of the defeated NDP MLAs were of Darrell Dexter’s more centrist bent, while the surviving MLAs are more members of the NDP’s left-wing, pro-union roots, who were, by and large, silent when Dexter was in charge. Viewed in this light, perhaps the NDP’s stance on the legislation isn’t so much a lack of being humble as a return to their roots.

As well, it’s always easier to criticize than be the one making the decisions. Perhaps a little less ego and a lot more working together might be in everyone’s best interests.

Ahem. On a similar theme, a Halifax journalist friend writes:

You neglected to mention that the Liberal party led by Stephen McNeil is also guilty of a flip-flop on the issue of health-care workers and their “right to strike.”

Although it is a tad dated, please read this op-ed submitted under the name of Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil when the Rodney MacDonald government was considering legislation similar to the kind just passed by McNeil’s Liberal government. (Link: )

Times change, opinions change, but one thing that never seems to change is the partisan noise that drowns out what we need in politics: a reasoned debate of the issues based on facts, not the colour of someone’s stripe. Good ideas and bad ideas have one thing in common: they can come from anywhere on the political spectrum.

I am no fan of outlandish union demands and hyperbole, nor do I condone intransigent governments or bureaucrats who keep their heads the sand, but I think that collective bargaining (when done in good faith) is the best way to protect the interest of patients. This legislation might force nurses to stay on the job, but it will not force the government to address the many problems that exist.

A former Conservative cabinet minister writes:

Apparently humility and reflection are not part of the NDP philosophy. A mind greater than mine once said if you don’t reflect on the past, you cannot have a future. I recommend that thought to any NDPers who reject the notion that reinvention is in order.

From another Ontario an Annapolis Valley reader:

[D]oes one have to be a follower? Humility often gets walked on , mistaken for weakness and fear, or interpreted as chameleon and opportunistic. Maybe it was respect for the old party line, not Frank personally. I am no fan of Frank. Darrell left a lot of good people outside the fold. Darn hard to get it right. Whatever ones does, like a Richler novel, the readers will tell you what it really means. Maybe someday we’ll mature sufficiently to see issues not personalities challenged. Essential services should have been described long ago and relieved them from the option to strike. Something needs to happen to shore up medical outcomes.

That’s it for now. And, no, I haven’t forgotten my promise to compile the comments of readers who think the [mostly imaginary] wind chill should lead every newscast from October to May.

They don’t call it the deeps for nothing

If the deep ocean pings reported by search vessels turn out to be coming from missing Malaysian airliner MH370, the wreckage is in very deep water indeed. How deep?  Check out this amazing graphic from the Washington Post. Be prepared to scroll down. And down. And down.

Here’s a preview from two-thirds of the way to the bottom:

cuviers beaked whale

A different take on Fort Mac

I learned this week that Mabou-reared cartoonist Kate Beaton, whose wonderful work we have featured before, has another very Cape Bretonish entry on her resume: she once worked at a mine site in Fort McMurray, Alberta. I learned this because Beaton has just produced a five-part graphic novella about her Tar Sands experience. Ducks centres on an incident in 2008 when 500 waterfowl touched down on a Syncrude tailing pond, killing all but five of them.

Greenpeace responded four months later by blocking, or attempting to block, a discharge pipe that flowed into the tailing pond. Syncrude was eventually later fined $3 million for the wildlife kill.

I’ve had hundreds of conversations about Fort Mac, but these pieces helped me to understand the place in a way I had not before. Beaton has a knack for recounting everyday occurrences that punch above their weight in their ability to convey complicated, nuanced truths. She writes:

It is a complicated place, it is not the same for all, and these are only my own experiences there…. Ducks is about a lot of things, and among these, it is about environmental destruction in an environment that includes humans.

Here’s a brief excerpt, but do yourself a favour and read all five in order.

Ducks 1 Ducks 2 Ducks 3 Ducks 4

Beaton describes these five stories as “a sketch… to test how I would tell these stories, and how I feel about sharing them.” She is considering “a larger work” on the subject, to which we can only say, duckspeed. You can follow Beaton’s work and musings on her Tumblr blog.

Rx for a defeated party: a dose of humility

On October 8, 2013, the New Democratic Party of Nova Scotia suffered a humiliating defeat. Barely one Nova Scotian in four voted NDP, marking the first time in 131 years that Nova Scotia voters failed to give a government a second term. Instead, they reduced the NDP from 31 seats to 7—and to within 4,000 votes of having no seats in the house at all. Premier Darrell Dexter lost his seat to an unknown. Deputy Premier Frank Corbett came within 158 votes of losing the seat that has, for the last half century, voted NDP more than any other riding.

It was an epic electoral disaster.

Frank-CorbettWhy am I rehashing this? Because it behoves a party that has suffered such profound rejection to show a touch of humility. To accept the verdict with a period of respectful quiet, as a chance to listen, to reflect, and to consider what role a party so rebuffed might carve out for itself in the future.

What a humiliated party should not do is use childish legislative tactics to force a strike in the province’s largest health district against the will of two parties that won 44 of the legislature’s 51 seats. What such a party should not do is line up behind the most strident labour leader in the province, in support of a strike over demands for staffing guarantees that do not exist in any other province.

Just nine months ago, Labour Minister Frank Corbett pushed through legislation to prevent a strike by paramedics, saying, “What I really have to think of here is the health and safety of Nova Scotians.”

The health and safety of Nova Scotians was far from his mind last week when, as third party house leader, Corbett blocked similar legislation long enough to enable a dangerous strike, then forced an unseemly, midnight-to-8 am sitting of the legislature to end the unnecessary strike after one day.

A salient feature of the last election was the nearly complete turnover of the NDP’s longtime Metro bastion to the Liberals. Thousands of provincial civil servants who had voted NDP for years switched to the Liberals after seeing how miserable the NDP was to work for once it finally gained power.

The party’s surviving MLAs, motley cast that they are, should play the hand they’ve been dealt, and not try to live out some class struggle fantasy from the early 20th Century. New Democrat MLAs should endure a period of living with tails between their legs, while they begin the decade- or decades-long task of rebuilding trust, and persuading Nova Scotians they still have something to offer.

Billy Joe’s foolish causeway fix

The Chronicle-Herald quotes Port Hawkesbury Mayor Billy Joe MacLean as saying tolls should be restored to the Canso Causeway, as part of an apparently forthcoming federal-provincial deal to improve maintenance on the 59-year-old structure.

This is a bad idea. Until they were abolished by Donald Cameron’s Progressive Conservative government in 1991, the Canso Causeway tolls ranked as one of the least efficient taxes in Nova Scotia history. I don’t recall the precise numbers, but the cost of operating toll booths around the clock swallowed up more than half the revenue they generated. It was a thinly disguised make-work project, and a poor one at that.

Contrarian has no problem with users paying for highways, but the way to achieve that is with motor fuel taxes, not with wasteful revenue schemes.

Robbing students to pay… other students… less money

A smart Nova Scotia native who turned down professional opportunities elsewhere to make her career here, and who recently returned to university to take an advanced scientific degree, writes:

Last Friday, the Liberal government announced they were eliminating interest on the provincial portion of student loans. Education Minister Kelly Regan said:

Kelly Regan

Paying Paul

We know that every dollar counts when graduates are beginning their careers, and we hope this provides some relief to young people as they build their lives in Nova Scotia.

Today, the other shoe dropped. In her 2014-2015 budget, Finance Minister Diana Whelan eliminated the Nova Scotia Graduate Retention Rebate, retroactive to January 1, 2014.

Implemented by the NDP in 2009, the program provided a $15,000 tax credit over six years for people who graduated with a degree and continued to work in the province for those six years. The tax credit was $7,500 for people who graduated with a diploma or certificate. The rebate attempted to compensate for lower wages and higher income tax in Nova Scotia, to make the province a more attractive place to work. 

Whelan Robbing Peter

Robbing Peter

There are various arguments for whether the program was good policy. It was expensive; the Chronicle Herald quoted an estimate of $49.5 million per year. The issue in Nova Scotia tends to be a shortage of jobs rather than a shortage of people willing to work here. But when you want to retain the best and the brightest, it’s less relevant that there are people in line willing to take the job if they don’t.

I benefitted from the rebate for the past five years. It factored into my decision to stay here on two occasions when considering job offers in another province.

I expect the Liberal government conducted a thorough evaluation of the benefits and costs of this program, rather than simply turfing a program that was a legacy of the NDP. But it was dishonest and un-transparent to make a display of handing students what amounts to hundreds of dollars over the lifetime of a loan (according to CBC) on Friday, knowing they would be taking away $7,500-$15,000 per student less than a week later.

Making the change retroactive to January 1 shows no consideration for the people who are affected by their decision. When I filled out tax forms with my employer for 2014, I requested that less tax be deducted, knowing I was eligible for a $2,500 rebate. Now I am retroactively ineligible for it—a quarter of the way through the tax year.

All in all, it seems an odd way to “provide some relief to young people as they build their lives in Nova Scotia.”

Weather notes from The Rock: “Mudder, I’m stuck!”

Jumpin’ Jesus, look what he got done!

[Video link]

H/T: Jenn Power

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