Category: Canadian Politics

A rare—and welcome—case of real government communications

I have vented previously, here and here, about the quiet acquiescence of municipal and provincial leaders to the destruction of Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation. Why haven’t the Premier, the Minister of Economic Development, the Leader of the Opposition, and other provincial leaders spoken out against the elimination of an institution, enshrined in an Act of Parliament, whose dismantling will cost Cape Breton tens of millions of dollars a year for the foreseeable future? Cape Breton is still part of Nova Scotia, after all.

Marlene UsherMy purpose in this post is not to belabour the point, but to direct readers’ attention to a striking and courageous counterpoint to the unbecoming silence of  leaders who ought to have spoken out. It came from an unlikely source: the acting CEO of the soon-to-be-dissolved agency, Marlene Usher, in an interview with CBC Cape Breton’s able Information Morning host, Steve Sutherland, Friday.

You can find it here.

So much about this interview is remarkable: the tone of regret; the avoidance of forced cheeriness; the absence of scripted talking points; the unmistakable ring of candour. At one point, two or three questions in, you can almost hear Sutherland pull himself up short, as if to say, “My gosh, she’s actually going to answer these questions!”

Referring to Industry Minister Rob Moore’s false claim that all would be “business as usual” after he rolls ECBC into ACOA’s deathly grip, Sutherland said, “It kinda sounds like you don’t really think it’s business as usual.” Usher demurred, but went on to detail the kinds of offerings that ECBC could make as a locally based Crown corporation that will no longer be possible under ACOA’s aegis.

There was nothing insubordinate about Usher’s response, just plainspoken, truthful answers to probing questions—which is to say, a style of communication you almost never hear in today’s hyper-messaged nexus of media and politics. My immediate thought, given the Putinesque style of the Harper administration, was that the interview might put Usher’s employment at risk.

I don’t know Usher, but in conversations around Sydney in the days since the axe fell, I’ve been struck by the reservoir of affection for her and her staff.

“I get to work with some incredibly dedicated folks from ECBC on a regular basis,” wrote musician and music promoter Albert Lionais on Facebook. “They’re really set on helping to develop the cultural industries here and to help folks make a living at what they love and from here at home.”

Usher’s two predecessors, the mercurial Rick Beaton and the ethically controversial John Lynn, caused the corporation, and the island, no end of bad press. An unassuming professional, who does her job quietly in a way that earns the affection of those she is mandated to serve, gets no press at all. Give the interview a listen.

ECBC: Gone like snow on the water

A lot of people who ought to know better have been whistling past the graveyard in response to the Harper government’s plan to scrap Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation and assign responsibility for federal development assistance to the remote and largely indifferent Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

Make no mistake: this marks the end of a direct federal pipeline Cape Breton has enjoyed since the Donald Commission Report in the Pearson Administration. Anyone who claims it’s not grim news for the island is either naive or disingenuous.

Rob MooreACOA minister Rob Moore managed the spin with adroitness we have rarely seen from the Harper government. He swathed his devastating announcement in treacle. Everything will be “business as usual.” No office will close. No civil servant will lose her job, or see pay reduced, or lose seniority or benefits. It’s merely a cosmetic change, intended only to bring greater accountability and a more congenial administrative model to the operation. Federal money will continue to flow.


This is the first step in the elimination of directed assistance to Cape Breton. Future federal budgets will have no line item for the island. Reducing or eliminating economic aid here will be child’s play. No future journalist, academic, or politician will enjoy the access to information or forensic skills needed to figure out how much of ACOA’s money is spent here versus the South Shore, the Miramichi, or the Northern Peninsula.

Without a separate line item for Cape Breton Island, the money will evaporate faster than shine on a hot August evening in N-Dub.

After the billions spent nursing Cape Breton’s moribund steel and coal industries, you may well think that’s a good thing. Fine. But any honest accounting of federal spending in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, and B.C. would show a fiscal playing field tipped sharply westward from the Maritimes.

The sad thing was to see the the parade of whipsawed Cape Bretoners who rushed to reassure the populace that all was well. The Mayors of CBRM and Port Hawkesbury, pundits from Cape Breton University, and a former head of ECBC may all have had plausible strategic reasons for not railing against the inevitable. But couldn’t they have held their tongues instead of lending Harper’s loathsome spin doctors a helping hand?

2014 Halifax version of the colored entrance

Colored Entrance

A childhood friend found this disturbing 1956 photograph by the late Life Magazine photographer Gordon Parks on the Facebook page of the African-American history group She reposted it on her own Facebook page, and I reposted to to mine, adding, “It’s worth remembering that this was less than 60 years ago.”

Epicurious Morsels

It didn’t take long for Gus Reed to post this photo of the posh Hydrostone restaurant Epicurious Morsels, adding:

60 years ago there was a separate entrance for African Americans at the Birmingham bus station. 60 seconds ago, this was the wheelchair entrance at a restaurant in Halifax. One of hundreds of retail establishments like this, by the way. Can you explain the difference?

It’s not the difference that should bother us, but the similarity. White southerners didn’t bat an eye at segregationist signs in the 1950s. Mobile Canadians don’t bat an eye at respectable establishments that exclude users of wheelchairs in the 20-teens.

Can I explain the difference? Yes. Canada lacks the public and political will to extend to people in wheel chairs the same civil rights we would be appalled to deny African Americans or Jews. After repeated protestations from Gus and others, HRM’s all-powerful building code enforcers have begun insisting new businesses include wheelchair accessibility, but heaven forfend a ramp should intrude on a square inch of the city’s notoriously wheelchair unfriendly sidewalks.

By the way, Epicurious Morsels and a lot of other Halifax establishments could solve this problem for less than $100 with a portable threshold ramp.

Eight years of Harper: by the dismal numbers

On the eve of Stephen Harper’s eighth anniversary in office, writer and statistics buff Alex Roberts has a must-read piece in the Ottawa Citizen, cleverly tagged, “Harper’s Economic Index.*” It casts a jaundiced numerical eye at how well he has managed the economy, the thing pundits constantly tell us he’s so good at.

A few samples:

  • Prime Minister Stephen Harper today presented the Public Service of Canada's Outstanding Achievement Award to Susan M. W. Cartwright. The ceremony at Rideau Hall, hosted by His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, honoured Ms. Cartwright for her sustained commitment to excellence, leadership and innovationEstimated amount spent on taxpayer-funded advertisements since 2009 touting the “Economic Action Plan” and the government’s economic record : $113,000,000
  • National unemployment rate in January, 2006: 6.6
  • National unemployment rate in December, 2013: 7.2
  • Number of consecutive annual federal budget deficits: 6
  • Number of consecutive annual federal budget surpluses under the previous Liberal (Chrétien/Martin) governments: 9
  • Number of budget deficit targets hit by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty: 0
  • Amount added to the federal national debt since Conservatives took power in 2006: $123,500,000,000

On the bright side, the dollar’s up, and the TSX rose 16.1% (compared to 55.1% for the Dow).

Seriously, the whole piece is worth a read.

* Not to be confused with the Harpers Index.

MLA Eyking, in office 64 days, takes 28-day vacay – updated

[See Update in second to last paragraph.]

Just 64 days after taking her seat in the Nova Scotia Legislature, newly elected Liberal MLA Pam Eyking left Canada for a 28-day family trip to Australia and Taiwan.

Eyking and her husband Mark, MP for Sydney-Victoria, left Canada on Boxing Day. Her office said she is expected back in Nova Scotia Thursday, the 23rd. Contrarian learned about the trip from a prominent Cape Breton Liberal who asked not to be identified, but said party members are annoyed at her taking a long foreign vacation so early in her term as MLA. Elected October 8, Eyking was sworn in as MLA October 22.

Longtime Liberal MLA Manning MacDonald resigned his seat last May after his decision to take a month-long Florida vacation while the house was sitting came under fire. The house has not been in session during Eyking’s absence.

Eykings and McNeilLaurel Munroe, communications advisor to Premier Stephen McNeil, said the Eykings spent two weeks in Australia visiting “their son, who lives there,” then continued on to Taiwan where Mark Eyking is on “a Parliamentary trip.” She said did not have details on any Parliamentary business he was conducting, but said such trips are common for MPs.

Asked if McNeil had approved Eyking’s trip in advance, Munroe said, “she made him aware of it before leaving, but MLAs don’t require approval unless house is in session.”

Munroe said the premier, “told her to make sure her constituency office is ready to handle any constituent inquiries that come up while she is away.”

A staff member in Mark Eyking’s Ottawa office who did not know the nature of the MP’s business in Taiwan offered to have a staff member who did return Contrarian’s call, but the other staffer did not call back.

Facebook pages of Eykings’ two sons list both men as Ottawa residents, but photos show one of them at an Australian surf camp in late October.

In an email to Contrarian, Pam Eyking said she was, “currently in Taiwan doing business trade for the riding and area. Over the next several days I have meetings lined up for CBU, Cape Breton fishers, and the Cape Breton tourist association.”

She did not respond to questions in a follow-up email seeking details about the meetings and comment on the propriety of leaving the country for an extended trip so soon after her election. She did offer to meet after she returns to Cape Breton.

Cape Breton University President David Wheeler did not respond to emails seeking details on any meetings Eyking is attending for the university in Taiwan. confirmed Monday that university officials “did speak to Ms. Eyking about making links for CBU in Taiwan before her departure.” The Cape Breton Tourist Association ceased to exist in 2007. The island’s tourism industry has been represented since 2003 by Destination Cape Breton.

[Disclosure: I have been friendly with the Eykings for many years, but I have also been vocal in criticizing Pam Eyking’s decision to run for the provincial legislature.]

Why is Canada naming warships after humiliating US naval defeats?

Foreign Policy magazine is wondering why Canada—sweet, cuddly Canada—has taken to naming warships after battles in which it humiliated US forces.

The supply ships HMCS Queenston and HMCS Chateauguay (pictured above as conceived by a Canadian naval artist) will be built by Vancouver Shipyards Co. Ltd. In the prestigious foreign policy journal, author Michael Peck notes:

America’s good-natured neighbor to the north is naming its newest naval vessels after battles where Canadians trounced U.S. invaders in the War of 1812. The Battle of Queenston Heights, on Oct. 13, 1812, saw an outnumbered force of 1,300 British regulars, Canadian militiamen, and Mohawk irregulars repel a poorly organized attempt by 3,500 U.S. regulars and militiamen to cross the Niagara River. The Battle of Chateauguay, on Oct. 26, 1813*, was another embarrassing U.S. defeat, when a 1,600-strong British and Canadian force defeated 2,600 Americans who were attempting to capture Montreal….

It’s almost as if Japan named an air craft carrier Pearl Harbour. Does Prime Minister Harper know about this? Apparently so.

[T]he naming of the two ships comes after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government sought last year to heavily commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. However, polls suggest that the festivities did not exactly stoke patriotic fires.

H/T: Gus Reid

2013 Sable Update: a peaceable kingdom

SableUpdate The three Parks Canada bureaucrats who tag-teamed an illustrated talk at tonight’s ninth annual Sable Island Update faced a skeptical, though not overtly hostile, audience.

The first time Canadians heard about plans to turn Sable Island into a National Park, Jim Prentice, environment minister at the time, launched into an addle-pated discourse on how great a park would be for private businesses that could could ferry boatloads of tourists out to Sable and put them up for the night in hotels.

You want to hope this was a spontaneous outburst by a know-nothing minister, but with Harper’s crew, who can be sure? Parks Canada bureaucrats have struggled ever since to convince Sable’s large, passionate constituency that they are not the advance guard for a mob of gun-toting Reform Party vandals bent on paving Sable and putting up Ferris wheels.

In the process, they appear to have persuaded the naturalist and longtime Sable champion Zoe Lucas. (Disclosure: Zoe and I have been friends for years.)

zoe_lucas copyIn her talk last night, Zoe, who is principal organizer of the meeting, gave her usual fascinating and witty précis of events on Sable over the last 18 months—a spell-binding catalog of weather highlights, scientific discoveries, critter strandings, beach debris, and whatnot. She followed this with a useful history of tourism to the island, gently driving home the point that people have always visited Sable (albeit in small numbers) and properly managed, such visits cause little damage while helping build the passionate constituency for conservation that is Sable’s best protection from Cretins like Prentice.

Zoe and I have not spoken about this, but it appeared to me that she and the Parks Canada officials charged with setting up the new park have established a productive and mutually respectful relationship. This has not always been the case. Zoe is a woman of strong views and a willingness to express them. She has not always enjoyed a blissful rapport with Sable’s federal overseers.

In their presentation, the Parks Canada officials made the obligatory gestures you would expect toward Zoe’s revered role as unofficial steward of the island, including the invaluable scientific work she has carried out over nearly four decades. Beyond that, they peppered their inventory of preparations for park status with signals they have been listening, and thinking about imaginative ways to fulfill Parks Canada’s mandate to provide visitor opportunities without wrecking the place.

Two small examples: They hope to get Google to carry out Street View mapping of the island, so Sable buffs can treat themselves to virtual tours from the comfort of their living rooms. When challenged about regulations that ban petroleum drilling on the island, but permit seismic testing, they agreed with a marine geologist in the audience that sufficient seismic testing has already been carried out, and it’s unlikely future tests would be permitted.

I don’t want to go overboard here. The trio of officials did sometimes lapse into practiced talking points whose purpose was to mollify, rather than inform. They professed not to remember what the park’s annual budget was, but when pressed (by me) they agreed to give Zoe this information for publication on her Green Horse Society website (specifically, the park’s 2013-2014 annual budget, and the annual operating budget they expect once startup costs are behind them).

I’m no @Tim_Bousquet, but I did my best to live-tweet the event. With occasional help from seat-mate Alan Ruffman, I think I did capture the gist of most, if not all, the questions. You can find these tweets by searching for my Twitter handle (@kempthead) or the hashtag #Sable. Those outside the Twitter realm can view the live-tweets in bullet form after the jump. If you are unfamiliar with Twitter, reading from the bottom up will give you my account in chronological order. Errors and omissions are mine.

Read more »

Tuesday in Halifax: a Sable Island update


If you are near Halifax Tuesday night, you can get the latest information about Sable Island’s transformation into a National Park at what promises to be a fascinating meeting.

The 9th annual Sable Island Update, latest in a series of meetings oganized by naturalist and longtime Sable resident Zoe Lucas, will see illustrated talks about scientific and organizational developments on the island. This year’s session will also feature an an extended opportunity to question Parks Canada officials about their new role as federal stewards of the island.

Lucas began the updates a decade ago, when Environment Canada announced plans to abandon the island as a cost-cutting measure, putting its fragile environment, and the valuable but little known scientific work that takes place there, at risk. The annual updates usually take place in the spring, but since April 1 marked the island’s handoff to Parks Canada, Lucas and Mark Butler, Policy Director for the Ecology Action Centre, decided to delay this year’s session in hopes of getting “solid and detailed info from Parks Canada—nuts & bolts, management policy, programs, staffing, etc.”

The Parks takeover got off to a bad start before it began when Environment Minister Jim Prentice speculated about opening the island to private boat tours and hotel accommodations, sparking an angry public backlash from supporters of Sable, including Contrarian. Lucas supports the Parks Canada takeover, and believes a zero-tourism policy is unrealistic. Her talk will include a review of the history of tourism on the island.

No one has done more than Lucas to preserve Sable’s ecological integrity, and no one is better qualified to make recommendations about it’s future. Still, I continue to worry that any significant increase in tourist visitors to the Island will de detrimental to the qualities that make it unique. Tourism floodgates are easy to open, and will be all but impossible to close, so this policy demands extreme caution.

Lucas has four decades’ experience monitoring and studying Sable Island horses, birds, invertebrates, grasses, lichens, mosses, fungi, and fresh water ponds. She conducts regular surveys of beach litter and  cetacean strandings. Her talk will include a brief update on recent goings-on on the island. 

Saint Mary’s biology professor Tim Frasier, a specialist in marine mammals, has a research interest in the use of genetics to better understand, and assist the conservation of, small wild animal populations. His talk will focus on the application of this work to Sable Island horses.

The 9th Annual Sable Island Update takes place 7 p.m., Tuesday, at the McNally Building, Saint Mary’s University, 923 Robie St., Halifax. There is much more information at Lucas’s Green Horse Society website.

Sponsors of the meeting include the Friends of the Green Horse Society, the Ecology Action Centre, Saint Mary’s University, the World Wildlife Fund, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and the Nova Scotian Institute of Science. The photo above was copied from the poster for the event, and I presume it was taken by Zoe Lucas.


Senate reform made possible—and useful

The Senate expense scandal, and the government’s malodorous handling of it, has given new life to shopworn nostrums for reforming or eliminating Canada’s maligned upper chamber. All have flaws ranging from severe to fatal.

Eliminating the Senate would eliminate sober second thought, that useful brake on the unfettered power of a majority government in the “dictatorship between elections” that is Canadian democracy.

Electing the Senate would imbue the upper chamber with legitimacy, empowering it to act much as the U.S. Senate acts, with all the attendant complications for passing legislation.

Creating an Equal Senate, with the same number of members from every province, cannot achieve the level of provincial agreement required to amend the Constitution.

Into this hopeless policy morass comes my friend Bill Turpin, bearing a novel proposal that seems (a) capable of implementation, and (b) respectful of the valuable sober-second-thought function. Here’s Bill:

Among other things, the Senate is supposed to be a brake when the Commons is acting precipitously. The more it is politicized, the less effective and legitimate it becomes.

Desiderantes meliorem patriam They desire a better country

Desiderantes meliorem patriam
They desire a better country

The GG appoints senators on the recommendation of the prime minister. The office of prime minister exists solely by convention. Therefore, the current Senate appointments are made by convention.

Convention can be changed. All it would need is a well-intentioned PM.

A new convention could be for the PM to appoint senators from a list submitted by the Companions of the Order of Canada. This would be less arbitrary than the status quo, and it would eliminate partisanship from the Senate. Alternatively, the CC [as the Companions are designated] could make their recommendations directly to the GG.

Electing Senators is a bad idea. Currently, the Senate can delay House bills, but not kill them. An elected Senate could make a strong argument for that power, creating the potential for the gridlock we see in the US.

The CC could also appoint the GG directly, for that matter.

OK, let’s hear it. What’s wrong with this scheme?

(By way of background, Companions hold the highest rank in the Order of Canada. Membership is limited to 165 plus a small number of honorary members. Companions are appointed by the GG on recommendation of an Advisory Council consisting of the Chief Justice of Canada, the Clerk of the Queen’s Privy Council, the Deputy Minister of Canadian Heritage, the Chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, the President of the Royal Society of Canada, the Chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, and five members of the Order of Canada who sit on the council for a three-year period. This is about as insulated from day-to-day politics as such a body can be.)

Why I should never say “…gets the last word”

No sooner did I write that two veterans would get the last word on the Remembrance Day poppies discussion, than a Facebook message arrived from my friend Walter Van Veen, whose teenage father spent the war hiding in a secret compartment in an Amsterdam flat.

A Jewish family shared the compartment. Facing starvation, they gave themselves up a few weeks before the end of the war—and were killed. Walter’s father held out and survived.

Walter writes:

You know my take on this [the media firestorm over white poppies being handed out at the National War Memorial]. This is one fairly cynical narrow view based on how some people and agencies manipulate Remembrance Day.

War stinks and we all know it, so Remembrance Day is not to glorify war, but to remember those who stood and counted themselves in when they had to be.

There is no doubt that I would not be alive today except for Canadian soldiers. My mother continues to say, at 88, that the day the Canadian soldiers entered Amsterdam in 1945 was the best day in her life.

Why anyone would sail across the ocean, land on the beaches of Normandy in a hail of bullets, walk halfway across Europe in the heat and the cold to save a nation of people that they didn’t even know is beyond the imagination of most Dutch people.

So let’s remember the sacrifices of those young Canadians and thank them. We don’t have to like war to do that.”

Who can argue with that?

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