Twinning past the graveyard


I attended the highway twinning discussion in Sydney Tuesday night, one of a dozen sessions the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal is holding around the province to gauge support for highway tolls as a way to speed up seven highway twinning projects on the department’s wish list.

The core question: should we finance these highway projects in the normal way, out of gasoline taxes, in which case they will take decades, or by implementing tolls on our 100-series highways to generate revenue that would support much faster construction through public-private partnerships.

The department came armed with a detailed feasibility study from the engineering firm CBCL. It evaluates the seven sections of highway based on cost—a total of 2.4 billion—and potential reductions in collisions and travel times. A power point presentation summarized the results and posed questions for the public.

I make 20-25 round trips a year from Cape Breton to Halifax, another 100 or more trips to Sydney from my Victoria County abode. I much prefer driving on divided highways. I still don’t think we should do any more twinning, any time soon.

Nova Scotia has neglected highway and bridge maintenance for decades. Successive governments found it politically more palatable to rein in the province’s third-largest budget item, Transportation, than numbers. 1 & 2, Health and Education. Over the last half century, inadequate transportation budgets have produced a growing backlog of deferred maintenance and construction.

In 2001, the department carried out a study to gauge the size of this infrastructure deficit. It found the province needed to spend $3.4 billion in highway and bridge repairs and construction over the ensuing 10 years. Budgets increased slightly, but not enough to eat away at the shortfall. When the department took a second look at the infrastructure deficit in 2008, it found the total had grown to $4.38 billion.

Nine years have passed since that report, and we continue to spend at about half the rate required to reduce the maintenance and construction backlog. How big is the shortfall today: $5 billion? $6 billion? Who knows?

Faced with this ever-growing deficit, why would we suddenly go another $2.4 billion into hock to build new roads when we can’t adequately maintain the ones we have?

Been to Europe lately? By comparison, Nova Scotia roads are an embarrassment of ragged asphalt and crumbling curbs. Many, especially those used by heavy coal-hauling trucks, are badly rutted. Personally, I would rather drive in a snowstorm than in heavy rain on a rutted highway. In a snowy skid, I know how to regain control of a vehicle, but when a car hydroplanes, it’s strictly Jesus Take the Wheel.

My logic holds no appeal to politicians. Tell constituents you’re going to spend $1 billion to twin a nearby highway, and they’ll elect you again and again. Tell them you’re going to spend $1 billion patching potholes, and watch them yawn.

We are a large province with a small population. Our roads are lightly travelled by 21st century standards. They are much safer than they were 20 years ago. Traffic deaths have fallen sharply over that period. There are a multitude of steps we can take to make them even safer, such as rumble strips, reflective line markings, and prompt attention to the worst of the truck-induced rutting.

A $2.4 billion spending spree may or may not make us safer; it will surely make us poorer.

Ignorant, incompetent, impulsive, and dictatorial, but not crazy


Until this morning, I was inclined to agree with those, like Andrew Sullivan, who think Trump is a narcissist whose psychiatric competence to lead the western world is a legitimate matter for journalistic inquiry. A distinguished psychiatrist’s letter to the New York Times persuades me this is wrong.

Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.

Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy. It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither).

Not crazy. Just evil.

Allen Frances is an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Duke University’s medical school. He chaired the task force that wrote the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (D.S.M.-IV). Read his full letter here.

How bureaucratic arrogance doomed a Ministerial ruling


The Sipekne’katik Band has won its appeal against the Nova Scotia Environment Minister Margaret Miller’s approval of the Alton Gas Storage Project, not on any substantive objection to the project, but due to arrogant behaviour that increasingly characterizes the provincial government’s interactions with the public and the media.

Frankly, the band’s objections to the project are flimsy, but the government deserved what it got.

The initial concerns of the band and local residents were understandable. The Shubenacadie River has been a central feature of the band’s history and culture for millennia. It’s an important resource for all area residents. But the scientific evidence is clear the gas storage project poses no discernible threat to the river or its environment.

Alton’s plan is to buy natural gas at times of year when it’s cheap, and store it in underground salt caverns for use when prices rise.  The caverns would be hollowed out by a process known as solution mining, with the dissolved salt discharged into the Shubenacadie.

Sounds scary until you learn the maximum daily discharge of salt would be less than 1/1200th of the salt that enters the river on the daily influx of the tides. Moreover, discharge would only be permitted when it would not take the river’s salt content outside its natural range.

The protests persisted mainly because they got tangled up in band politics, with rival factions vying to outdo one another in the fervour of their objections. News coverage in local online media mainly took the form: Natives good; government and industry bad. There was little or no reporting of the scientific evidence or the band politics.

So if the minister’s decision to approve the project was correct, why was it overturned?

As she was considering her decision, the minister received a staff report recommending the project’s approval. That report was informed, in part, by a memo from the Office of Aboriginal Affairs. Band lawyers repeatedly asked to for a chance to review and comment on both documents. The department refused.

Madam Justice Suzanne M. Hood ruled Friday that by refusing to let the band respond to information she considered in reaching her decision, Minster Miller denied it “procedural fairness.”

In addition to being arrogant, this was just dumb. What possible reason was there—apart from knee-jerk secretiveness—to deny an appellant access to all the information the minister considered when making her quasi-judicial decision?

I’ve encountered more and more of this knee-jerk secretiveness from provincial officials lately. Recently I’ve asked communications officers in two departments about an investigation carried out almost a decade ago into an intriguing problem with potential public safety implications. I don’t suspect anything nefarious. I’m just genuinely curious, and I think readers would be too. The responses to my inquiries have been curt to the point of rudeness, and non-responsive to a degree I have not encountered since the Gerald Regan administration.

More on this in the weeks to come.

Time is not on the teachers’ side


Based mainly on responses to his down-the-middle Facebook posts on the tentative teachers’ agreement, Graham Steele predicts its probable defeat by union members. Social media tends to encourage the most extreme and aggrieved voices, but he may be right.

Here’s the thing: Everyone values good teachers. Good teachers are priceless.*  In reality, though, teaching is like most occupations: a few gems, many duds, most in between. As the conflict drags on, I wonder how the public will react to overwrought voices of grievance from a group of public employees whose compensation and terms of work look pretty good from the outside.

Prolonged disruption that continues to shortchange children will erode public support for teachers in their fight with the McNeil government.

* Too bad unions and school boards cling to an antiquated hiring system—years of torture on the supply list—that drives away the best candidates.

Union, Liberals to decide fate of disabled kids — without the kids, or their parents


The battle to preserve the rights of all Nova Scotia children to an inclusive education is joined. The opening of hostilities came in the tentative agreement on a new teachers’ contract, and its concession to whispered demands for a retreat from inclusive education:

This tentative agreement creates an independent Commission to study and make recommendations on inclusive education. This Commission, which is funded by the Department and the NSTU, will study how inclusion has been implemented in Nova Scotia, review best practices throughout the world, and provide recommendations related to funding, resources and resource allocation and accountability, professional development, alignment of initiatives, and such other matters as the Commission deems appropriate. Further, the Commission will make recommendations regarding a mechanism for future regular reviews of inclusive education.

The commission will include one person appointed by government, one appointed by the union, and a chair jointly agreed upon. Affected children will be excluded, along with their parents and organizational advocates. It’s the education system’s equivalent of letting building inspectors make final decisions about the accessibility of public places.

Be Kind Like meThe peculiar evil of segregated schools is that they rob all children—the able bodied and nimble witted as much as those facing physical and intellectual obstacles—of the lessons of humility, empathy, and discernment that come from close experience with the full range of human abilities. Inclusion is the best way for classrooms to instil the grace required for a compassionate citizenry. The meek may not inherit the earth, but they have much to teach us, and we are all the better for absorbing those lessons.

Of course the union and the government will insist they are “fully committed” to inclusion and want only to improve it. Those who would take away the rights of society’s weakest members will always do so in the name of improving their lot. The exclusion of children and their guardians and advocates from the process  puts the lie to these cheery words.

If the governing Liberals and NSTU leaders imagine they can tinker with the fundamental human rights of children they should reconsider. The equality rights of children with disabilities are enshrined in Canada’s Constitution. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. requires Canada to ensure that children with disabilities can access an inclusive, quality, and free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live.

Equality, once attained, is never readily surrendered. “Creative and sustainable solutions” devised without the knowledge and consent of those whose rights are deemed a “problem” are likely to be regressive, divisive, and cruel. The ancient principle is expressed in Latin as, Nihil de nobis, sine nobis.

In English: Nothing about us without us.

Toronto Film Critics’ Association honours Ndub’s Ashley McKenzie


At a celebration in Toronto Tuesday night, New Waterford filmmaker Ashley McKenzie took the Toronto Film Critics’ prestigious Jay Scott Award for an emerging artist. The critics honoured McKenzie for her first feature-length movie, WEREWOLF, a gritty portrayal of a New Waterford couple dependent on methadone.

Here’s the Trailer]:

The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, which named it one of Canada’s Top 10 films for 2016. It has also screened (or soon will) at festivals in Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax, and Berlin.

screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-1-17-43-amThis is a remarkable feat when you consider that McKenzie shot WEREWOLF entirely in Cape Breton, with an all-Cape Breton cast and crew (a fact that put a few noses out of joint at ACTRA Halifax, where a misguided minority aspire to monopoly control of visual storytelling in our province).

McKenzie is a both gifted writer and an increasingly sure-footed director with a special knack for coaxing stellar performances out of inexperienced authors. The result is an important Cape Breton story told not just sympathetically, but with unrivalled authenticity. There has never been a movie like this about Cape Breton.

If you want to learn more about WEREWOLF and the people who made it,  here are some interviews: FERN-TV, Telefilm Canada, TIFF news conference, and Face2Face with David Peck Live.

(In the interests of disclosure, McKenzie and her producer Nelson MacDonald are friends of mine. I’m thrilled at what they’ve accomplished, and can’t wait to see what comes next.)

Top 5 Money-Saving Sites for a New Sydney Library


CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke wants to build the new Sydney library in Centre 200 as a way to save money. It seems the hockey rink came with an extra big heating system, built to accommodate the adjacent Casino. After construction, the casino operator bailed on the deal, and the heating plant has been running at half capacity ever since. Bingo: Cheap library!

Other advantages: Centre 200 is on a bus route. There’s lots of free parking (except when there’s a hockey game). It’s handy to the casino, giving borrowers the chance to double their money before paying off their library fines. It’s a visionary scheme, but before embracing it, let’s consider other ways the municipality could save money by combining the new library with existing municipal facilities.

In this spirit, Contrarian offers our Top 5 Money-Saving Locations for a New Sydney Library:

#5 — Archibald’s Wharf

By putting the new library on Archibald’s Wharf in North Sydney, CBRM would achieve the waterfront location so devoutly coveted by many library patrons. Oh… wait, the municipality doesn’t own Archibald’s Wharf anymore. It’s been turned into a massive new shipyard. Oh, well.

#4 — Battery Point Sewage Treatment Plant

This solid brick structure at the tip of Sydney’s North End could easily accommodate a second and third storey. It would fulfill the goal of a spectacular harbour front location, and perhaps spur completion of the long-delayed boardwalk extension from downtown to Open Hearth Park. Possible downside: odour issues.

#3 — Welton Street Bus Garage

This fully-staffed facility, located on a busy central thoroughfare, has plenty of on-site parking. It’s perfect for servicing Bookmobles, and it’s the most convenient spot in all of CRMB for public transportation. It’s a natural.


#2 — The CBRM Landfill

Our penultimate choice is the Sydney landfill site, conveniently located on the redundantly named SPAR Road. There’s copious room for parking and potential for endless expansion. It would be a popular location for birders, too, with its prolific population of gulls.


#1 — Contrarian’s No. 1 Money-Saving Site for a New Sydney Library

Fuzzy’s Fries and Book-Lending Service. Think about it. It’s fully staffed. It has a magnificent waterfront location. It’s convenient to CBRM’s newly locked-down civic centre. There will be no danger of ketchup stains on books. And with the money he’ll save, just think how much Cecil can squander on the Evergreen Promise of a Container Pier.


Citizen Steele’s factual guides to #NSpoli

If you’re interested in Nova Scotia civic affairs, you should be following NDP cabinet minister turned law prof and CBC commentator Graham Steele on Facebook, and checking in regularly with his blog, a Citizen’s Guide to the Nova Scotia Legislature.

Laws are like sausages — best not to see them being made. (Usually, but perhaps incorrectly attributed to Otto von Bismarck.)

Graham Steele does not believe “Laws are like sausages — best not to see them being made.” (Usually, but perhaps incorrectly attributed to Otto von Bismarck.)

Steele, who’s a friend, is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some fellow MLAs, including members of his own caucus, thought him too much above the partisan fray of the house. This is precisely the quality that makes his advice to citizens so useful. He is experienced enough to know the rules and procedures, but independent enough to explain how things really work.

Frankly, he’s rocking it, with even-handed explanations (on Facebook) of MLAs’ pay, the recent fiscal update, and the vanishing principle of ministerial responsibility. and on the Citizen’s Guide, with sage advice about how to communicate effectively with your MLA and how to present to the Law Amendments Committee.

The Citizens Guide already has 36 entries on a multitude of topics, and the Facebook feed brings a constant stream of level-headed commentary on political events of the day. His play-by-play of the McNeil Liberals’ Fiasco Weekend earlier this month was riveting. (I can’t find the specific post, but he was, I think, the first to point out the premier’s dreadful mistake, mostly overlooked by Province House reporters, of making himself the face of government’s tough approach to the teachers. Better let the Education Minister be the bad gal, then come in to celebrate the resolution when it finally happens.)

And don’t forget Steele’s CBC columns, which often bring fresh perspective to the political fracas of the day. See for example this rare dissent from the unwarranted reverence political reporters display for every cockamamie recommendation from the Auditor General.

Steele is producing the sort of explainers political reporters could write, but mostly don’t for fear of boring readers. It’s what civics classes used to cover before teachers got too weighed down by, you know, all that photocopying. It’s a wonderful resource for political spectators, one I suspect may become his next book.

School closure follies — Bhangra style


Tuesday’s post about the absurdity of closing schools during minor snowstorms provoked comments pro and con. I’ll try to get to a sampling over the next few days.

Tellingly, none of the closure defenders could explain why Nova Scotia’s snow days have exploded in recent years, nor why they are so frequent in the Atlantic Provinces, but so rare in other parts of Canada and the northern US.

Obviously, the gents in this video couldn’t possibly be from the Maritimes. Oh, wait…

[Video link]

I’ll be on the Rick Howe Show (95.7 FM) Friday morning at 9:40 talking about one-sided risk management by school officials.

Our one-sided approach to snow danger

Nova Scotia school boards justify the 21st century epidemic of snow days on grounds of safety. It’s too dangerous, they argue, to put children in buses (even though buses are designed for safe transport and piloted by professional, specially licensed drivers). What if there’s an accident? What if even one child is injured? Since no one advocates dead or injured children, these emotional pleas tend to be argument stoppers.

The trouble with snow day logic is the fallacious assumption that school closures entail zero risk. A proper risk assessment would weigh the small risk of injury during transport to school — a process in which injuries are exceptionally rare — against the risks of setting 48,000 children (in the case of the Halifax Regional School Board) loose on short notice.*


The (Shelburne) Coast Guard used this photo of a year old storm to illustrate its preview of yesterday’s snowfall. Nova Scotia media often hype forthcoming weather with stock photos of events that happened long ago or elsewhere.

The failure to weigh both sides of the risk equation was glaringly obvious in yesterday’s decision by the Halifax board to send kids home at 11 am with barely an hour’s notice to parents.

Some families have a stay-at-home parent or caregiver. Some parents have employment flexible enough for them to scramble home in time to meet their kids. Some are lucky enough to make emergency backup plans on the fly. But in the name of safety, based on on the vanishingly small incremental risk of a 3 pm bus run over an 11 am bus run, the Halifax board sent hundreds, possibly thousands, of children home to empty or locked houses and apartments, with no apparent concern for the risks that created.

Also missing from the board’s calculation, as always, was the cost to parents and society of unnecessary or imprudent school closures. Either parents who rushed home due to the board’s recklessness will lose pay, or employers will absorb the lost productivity. Children get a subliminal message that it’s ok to abandon school and work when the going gets a wee bit tough.

Advocates of rampant snow days take umbrage at the suggestion financial and social costs can be weighed against even a tiny risk of injury to a child. But of course, parents and school officials take tiny risks every day of a child’s life. There are tiny risks involved in every ride to school, every gym class, every school outing, every recess.

No one in any school board has shown objective evidence that keeping schools open and buses running in normal winter weather poses greater risk than cancelling. They can’t show such evidence because it doesn’t exist.

* Another possibility is that such decisions are mandated by insurance policies, in which case only the insured risk is taken into consideration, while corresponding risks not covered by the policy are ignored.

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