Category: That’s life

Picking the low point in Peter MacKay’s career


Peter MacKay holds his son Kian in Halifax

Family man Peter MacKay holds son Kian. Wait! What’s that tartan?

In this morning’s Halifax Examiner, Tim Bousquet celebrated Peter MacKay’s decision not to run for the Conservative Party leadership by recalling the day MacKay breezed into Halifax to announce funding for the new convention centre. The then-Defence Minister said the Nova Centre would “take the ‘no’ out of Nova Scotia.”

Bousquet calls this “MacKay’s greatest legacy,” but surely that’s a hasty judgment. Picking the low point in Peter MacKay’s public career—by “greatest legacy,” Bousquet meant “low point”—is admittedly a challenge, given the rich trove of disgraceful material to choose from:

My money, however, is on MacKay’s character assassination of Richard Colvin, the diplomat who risked his career to speak up against the Canadian Forces’ illegal practice of turning prisoners of war and innocent Afghan civilians over to the Afghan Army to be tortured.

Channeling Joseph McCarthy, and speaking in the protected confines of the House of Commons where he could not be sued for slander, MacKay falsely savaged Colvin as a patsy for the Taliban.

Twenty-three former Canadian ambassadors wrote a letter condemning the Harper Government’s treatment of Colvin, singling out MacKay, who accused Colvin of accepting the word of “people who throw acid in the faces of schoolchildren.”

“[MacKay] savaged [Colvin] in public, and ridiculed him, and that’s not the way to treat a guy who’s doing his job,” Paul Durand, a former Canadian ambassador to the Organization of American States, to Chile and to Costa Rica, told the Globe. “He is not a whistleblower. He was hauled before a parliamentary committee and had to state the truth.”

When he declined to run for re-election last year, MacKay said, “the time has come for me to step back from public life and to concentrate on my young and growing family.”

The Occam’s razor explanation is that MacKay knew Harper’s government was headed for defeat. At best, he would return to opposition, at worst, lose his own seat.

Again yesterday, when he begged off the current Conservative Party leadership contest, MacKay cited family reasons. I suspect MacKay thinks his party will endure a long sojourn in opposition, and that while he could probably win the leadership, that victory would never lead to 24 Sussex Drive.

A better bet is that the next provincial election will end Jamie Baillie’s leadership of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party, but leave a diminished Liberal majority ripe for defeat by a new Tory leader four years hence. MacKay can take a few years to make money at the US-based global law firm Baker & McKenzie where he is now a partner, then win the premiership in 2021.

After that, who knows?


Love, promise-keeping, story-telling, democracy. And baseball.



I have mentioned before that I grew up in a New York City suburb listening to then-twenty-something Vin Scully call Brooklyn Dodger baseball games on a tube radio.

Now 88, Scully is still at it—in his 67th season calling the play-by-play for Dodger home games, these days performed in Los Angeles. In a tribute published in today’s Washington Post, columnist George Will calls Scully, “the most famous and beloved person in Southern California.”

[He] is not a movie star but has the at-ease, old-shoe persona of Jimmy Stewart. With his shock of red hair and maple syrup voice, Scully seems half his 88 years.

More than the maple syrup voice, it was the rivulet of Scullian similies that captured my enduring affection. As I wrote back in 2009:

He said Bob Gibson “pitches as though he’s double-parked.” He said, “Losing feels worse than winning feels good.” He said, “Sometimes it seems like [Bobby Bonilla’s] playing underwater.” He said, “Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support, not illumination.” He said, “When [Maury Wills] runs, it’s all downhill.”

While calling 1987 All-Star Game, Scully saw the Toronto Blue Jay’s uber-smooth shortstop Tony Fernandez for the first time. “He’s like a bolt of silk,” Scully said.

Later this month, or possibly in October, Scully will call his last game. He is retiring at last. Even if you don’t give a fig about baseball, as too many Nova Scotians do not, you should give Will’s loving encomium a read:

Aristotle defined human beings as language-using creatures. They are not always as well-behaved as wolves, but everything humane depends on words — love, promise-keeping, story-telling, democracy. And baseball.

A game of episodes, not of flow, it leaves time for, and invites, conversation, rumination and speculation. And storytelling, by which Scully immerses his audience in baseball’s rich history, and stories that remind fans that players “are not wind-up dolls.”

In recent years, Scully has not accompanied the Dodgers on the road. Hence this recent tweet quoting an 8-year-old Dodgers fan, Zoe: “I hate when the Dodgers have away games. They don’t tell stories.”

Find Will’s whole piece here. Thank you to Stacey May Fowles, whose weekly feminist “Baseball Life Advice” newsletter opens a whole new window on baseball and feelings, and is my most reliable source of news and perspective on the One True Sport, for pointing me to it.

Pictou County hot tub


The things a person stumbles upon vacationing in Nova Scotia.

Pictou County Hot Tub copy


We are not screwing around, Philly.


The following is a statement from Karen Guss, communications director for the City of Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections:

In view of the City’s commitment to public health, safety and basic common sense, we will not issue permits for block party dumpster pools. And while you would think this decision would not require an explanation, three days of press requests have proven otherwise. So, Philly, here’s why you shouldn’t swim in a receptacle most often used for waste:

  • First and foremost, this could reduce the amount of water available should a fire break out in that neighborhood. So if you would like to have water available should a fire break out in your home, don’t illegally tap a hydrant
  • There is also the potential loss of life by injury due to the hydrant water pushing a small child or even an adult into oncoming traffic.
  • Finally, remember that the pressure of the water coming out of the hydrant is so strong, and so powerful, that if opened too quickly or closed too quickly, it could deliver a jolt to the main of sufficient force that could break the main … and many blocks could lose water service until it is repaired.

We are not screwing around, Philly. The Streets Department will not issue any future block party permits to the 2400 block of Cedar, and officials have contacted the dumpster rental company regarding its failures to obtain the proper closure permits and to take mandatory measures to protect the street during placement of the dumpster.

In short, the City strongly recommends that residents opt for recreational options that are safer, more sanitary, and less likely to deplete the resources firefighters need in an emergency.

Guss issued the statement—which, if I may say so, is a rare model of simple, direct, government prose—in response to media requests about a block party on Cedar Street in which revellers rented a dumpster, filled it with water from a fire hydrant, and used it as a temporary swimming pool. Their fatal flaw may have been posting photos on Instagram:

Cedar Street Block Party

Just for the record, Pabst is really crappy beer.

H/T NextDraft and NPR.


McNeil backslides on clean government hiring


Boss Tweed caricatured in Harper's Weekly

Four months ago, I leapt to the defence of former CTV Ottawa Bureau Chief Laurie Graham, whose appointment as principal secretary to Premier Stephen McNeil came under attack from anti-government scolds.

Today there’s a fresh kerfuffle about former Chronicle-Herald columnist Marilla Stephenson’s promotion to a newly created civil service position as liaison between the Executive Council office and government departments. Since October 2014, Stephenson had been working on contract doing outreach for the One Nova Scotia Commission.

The two hirings seem superficially similar, but they differ in one crucial respect.

Graham received a discretionary political appointment. When Stephen McNeil’s term as premier ends, so will her employment.

Stephenson received a civil service appointment. She has a job for life, and will continue to draw a salary long after McNeil leaves 1 Government Place.

To function in our system, every government needs a small number of purely political positions. An MLA’s constituency assistant. A cabinet minister’s executive assistant. A handful of trusted confidential employees in the premier’s office. No serious student of government disputes this.

As former Deputy Attorney General Doug Keefe wrote to Contrarian last March, “[O]ur system tries to keep a bright line between the politically neutral civil service, which has a duty to serve whomever the voters send, and the very small number of people who are partisan supporters of the party or office holder.”

The McNeil Government failed to keep that line bright when it custom-crafted a civil service position for one pre-selected confidant.

Records the Government Employees’ Union obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show the government initially hoped to hire Stephenson without a competition, but received advice it had to hold one.

So the senior bureaucrats charged with creating the position designed a “competition” so narrow as to remove all doubt about the outcome. They limited applicants to the handful of people working in the Office of the Executive Council. They invited Stephenson to personally vet the job description—an opportunity afforded no other candidate.

To no one’s surprise, Stephenson was the only applicant. The bespoke job won her a 27 percent raise, from $83,259 to $106,000.

Like any other premier, McNeil is entitled to create whatever political positions he thinks he needs. But he is not entitled to create permanent civil service positions and stock them with cronies.

Doing so harkens back to the corrupt practices of the Buchanan Government, one of the most wasteful and destructive periods in modern Nova Scotia history.

Contrary to whatever communications advice McNeil may have received, the flimsy contrivance that handed Stephenson an un-tendered job wasn’t helped by his brazen denial of favouritism obvious to all. This, too, calls to mind the facile dissembling of John Buchanan.

Getting politics out of civil service hiring took decades of struggle. Backsliding will not end well—for government or citizens.

A Nova Scotia election this fall? I don’t think so


Call me contrarian, but I don’t believe Nova Scotia will have an election this fall.

Speculation about a fall vote has been rampant since Province House reporters and opposition MLAs raised the alarm back in May.

The government’s five-year mandate doesn’t expire until October, 2018, and the usual four-year benchmark between elections is still a year off. But the latest Corporate Research Associates poll shows McNeil’s Liberals with a commanding 59 percent to the PC’s 21 percent and the NDP’s 18. So the temptation to go early exists.

Pretending to call an early election might be a smart strategy. It forces opposition parties into panicked preparations where methodical planning would be more to their advantage. It persuades the seatless third party leader to pass up a risky byelection, reinforcing an image of weakness.

Actually calling an election, two years before the government must, poses unnecessary risk of voter rebellion.

As Graham Steele has pointed out, Premier John Buchanan twice went to the polls after just three years, in 1981 and 1984, winning his second and third majority governments. (As his popularity faded toward the end of the decade, Buchanan waited four years, and barely eked out his last majority in 1988.) But there is no shortage of contrary examples:

  • In April, 2014, the Parti Quebecois’s 19-month-old minority government held a slight lead in the polls when Premier Pauline Marois called an election, hoping the PQ’s nativist Charter of Values would propel her to victory. Instead, she lost her own seat, and the PQ won the smallest vote percentage in its history as the Liberals cruised to victory in 70 of the National Assembly’s 125 seats.
  • Alberta’s Conservatives topped the polls in April 2015, when Premier Jim Prentice called an election two years before he had to. A month later, Prentice lost his seat and 44 years of Conservative rule came to an abrupt end with the election of a previously unthinkable NDP majority.
  • Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were running neck-and-neck with the NDP, and the Liberals trailed, when Harper called an unusually long 11-week election campaign last August. By early October, anti-Harper voters began to coalesce around Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who went on to win a majority with 184 of Parliament’s 338 seats.
  • At the start of the 2013 British Columbia election, the NDP led the Liberals almost two-to-one. They topped every poll during the campaign–20 in all–only to lose by 4-1/2 points as Liberal Premier Christy Clarke‘s government won an increased majority with 49 of the legislature’s 85 seats.
  • For most of the 2014 Ontario Election, PC leader Tim Hudak was running neck-and-neck with Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, but on election day, the Liberals won by 7 percentage points, capturing 58 of the legislature’s 107 seats.
  • It’s not recent history, but the most notorious example of early election hubris occurred in 1976, when Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s Liberals held 102 of 110 National Assembly seats, the Party Quebecois just six. Bourassa called an election three years into his mandate, hoping to capitalize on the success of the Montreal Olympics. Rene Levesque’s separatist Party Quebecois scrambled to an upset victory with 70 seats, in a vote that would roil Quebec and Canada for decades to come.

I think McNeil will win the next election, even if he calls it this fall. I don’t sense any great mood to throw the bastards out, as I did in 2013, 2009, and 1999. But Nova Scotia voters are volatile. The last time we elected back-to-back majorities, Ronald Regan was President of the United States, and the Soviet Army was fighting US-backed Mujahideen guerrillas in Afghanistan.

If they get the feeling Premier McNeil is manipulating the election process, voters could turn quickly.

If McNeil waits until next fall—or even spring, after tabling a solidly balanced budget—the issue of manipulating voters with an untimely election will be off the table.

That’s what he should do, and my guess is, that’s what he will do.

But I’ll have my camera phone ready, just in case.

Google Street View comes to Sable Island

Sable Horses distant

At first glance, it looks like one of those iconic shots of Sable Island horses, but it’s actually a scene from Google Street View. This week, Street View added Sable to its Trekker program, which features virtual off-road tours of spectacular sights around the world.

Danielle Hickey, Parks Canada Acting External Relations Manager for Mainland Nova Scotia, lugged Trekker’s portable, backpack version of the Street View car camera around a central section of Sable last September, collecting a connected series of 360° images. The thick blue lines in the image below give a rough idea of the paths she followed.

Bigger key

[UPDATE] Since posting this, I’ve learned the blue lines follow the primary walking route Parks has designated for escorted visits by expedition vessel tourists. For the last three years, in partial fulfillment of Harper-era parks minister Jim Prentice’s much-criticized vision for developing Sable’s tourism potential, Parks Canada has allowed adventure tourism companies to bring visitors to the island. The vessels anchor offshore. Staff and passengers come ashore, where they are met by Parks Canada staff, who escort them on these trails.

Some links:

  • Here’s where Hickey encountered the grazing horses pictured above.
  • Here she came upon a herd of seals basking on the island’s northern shoreline.
  • Here’s a moving image of a shallow, freshwater pond she hiked past.

There’s a bit of a knack to navigating Google Street through, even more so with Trekker, which lacks the implicit guidance you get by following a street. If you run your cursor around the screen, a ghostly white X will appear—sometimes accompanied by an arrow in a circle showing the direction of travel.

Cursor and X on Sable

Clicking on the arrow (or if there is no arrow, clicking anywhere near the X) repositions your virtual vantage point on the X. By repeating this process, you can mimic a walk along the beach. Deft use of cursor can sometimes can cause an X to appear further along the path, allowing a faster virtual journey. You can also drag any of the images around through 360°, creating the sensation of turning left and right, or looking up and down.

The whole process has a haphazard feel, like a drunken game of capture-the-flag. It’s nowhere near as good as going to Sable Island, but it’s not a bad way to pass time surfing the net.

Map KeyIf you follow Hickey’s hike through the scene with the basking seals, you’ll see the seals disperse into the water upon her approach. (The seals’ ID tags have been blurred out in accordance with Canadian privacy laws.)

Placing your cursor inside the small blue and yellow box at the lower left corner of the screen brings up a resizable key, with blue lines showing a rough approximation of Hickey’s course. (It’s quite rough, given it shows her to be in the water much of the time, which she was not).

The little yellow figure, known officially as Pegman, shows the approximate location of the current images. Dragging Pegman to a new point along the blue lines will load imagery from that spot.

The Street View images from Sable are not perfect. Some appear partly or totally out of focus, and disembodied parts of the camera and its operator, normally obscured on Street View, occasionally show up. But on the whole, it’s a welcome interactive addition to catalog of Sable still and video imagery.

Portions of five other Canadian National Parks have been recorded on Street View Trekker. Find information on how to borrow the Street View Trekker camera backpack here; fill out an application to borrow it here. (Note, you have to represent a nonprofit organization, government agency, university, or research group, but otherwise, the process is not arduous.)

MacNab’s Island is untrekked, an oversight some Contrarian reader should be well positioned to overcome. Let me know.

Washing all our clothes to clean a single dirty sock

How storm water complicates municipal sewage treatment by frequently overwhelming treatment plants, why this is such a hard problem to fix in older cities like Sydney and Halifax, and what property owners can do to help, all in one cute video courtesy of Halifax Diverse, the Sierra Club, Halifax Water, and (Bousquet-bait warning) TD Green Streets:

For more information on the exponential cost of designs that anticipate rare environmental events, see the 100-year flood. For a real life example, Coke Ovens Brook in Sydney, Nova Scotia, has vast sloped sides, lined with heavy plastic and armoured with stone, all to convey what is usually a tiny trickle of water at the very bottom of its comically deep stream bed. But the brook always ready to handle the runoff from a one-in-100-year rainfall, and keep it from soaking into the capped and contained industrial waste below the land surrounding the brook.

[Hat tip: Richard Stephenson.]

Kentville townies v. Medford farm girls

Medford Beach

Contrarian reader Bill Fry’s grandparents had a farm in Medford, less than three kilometres from Kingsport, whose bustling, early 20th Century train station Dan Conlin cataloged here last week. Bill writes:

Back in 1930, my mother would walk over a mile to Kingsport, get on the morning train to attend the Kings Academy in Kentville, then take the afternoon train back to Kingsport. So the train was actually the school bus for all the students from Kingsport.

My mother says the older boys use to bully them on the train—take their lunch boxes and eat the good stuff every morning.

The students from Kentville didn’t like the kids from Kingsport because they would never have to do detention after school. They had to run to catch the train home.

They use to call the train the Blueberry Express because you could jump off, pick a handful of berries and then jump back on.

Back about 1955, my grandfather would take me over to Kingsport to watch the train pull into the station. The conductor would toss out bags of potato chips for all the kids from the factory in New Minas.

Kingport Train Station - ca early 1940s

The Yarmouth History blog reports that Locomotive No. 470, pictured above at the Kingsport Station of the Dominion Atlantic Railway sometime in the early ’40s, made two round-trips a day ferrying scholars between Kingsport and Kentville. Train No. 12 left Kingsport in the early morning; Train 11 returned to Kingsport at noon. Train No. 14, left Kingsport at 1:25 p.m.; Train No. 13 left from Kentville at 3:30 p.m., arriving in Kingsport at 4:10 p.m.

Train on Kingsport Whart 1911

Pictured above, in a 1911 photo, is the other locomotive serving Kingsport, meeting the steamer “Prince Albert,” which travelled daily among Wolfville, Kingsport, and Parrsboro in the Minas Basin. (The working schooner is a bonus.) [Photo credit: Yarmouth History blog]

[UPDATE: Find more information about Kingsport, together with historic photographs, at the Dominion Atlantic Railway Digital Preservation Initiative Wiki’s Kingsport page.]

When eight trains and two steamships served tiny Kingsport, NS

On Monday, Pier 21 curator Dan Conlin, whom Contrarian readers know from his annual tally of Halloween revellers on Duncan St. in Halifax, carried out a curious experiment. Using a 24-page railway timetable from July 4, 1914, which the Nova Scotia Archives has made available online, he tabulated the trains and steamships arriving and departing the village of Kingsport, in the Annapolis Valley.

Timetable 600

As Dan explains:

I used a replica station board, the kind stations used to post on their platforms, to recreate a day in the life of a long-gone station 102 years ago.  (Rail service ended there in 1962.)

It is interesting that Kingsport in the Annapolis Valley (population about 500) had this level of public transport – eight trains a day plus a couple of steamship calls! Two connections from this small station would put you in Boston or Montreal the next morning.

There is probably no community in Nova Scotia, outside of Halifax or Sydney, with this level of public transport today.

And Halifax and Sydney only manage it by virtue of airports.

I recently spent some time in Parrsboro, where a profusion of large, stately homes bespeak a bygone era of prosperity, the source of which is no longer evident. Like Kingsport, Parrsboro was an important shipbuilding centre in the late 19th Century. It was also a major port for shipments of coal and timber, and a stopover point for passengers travelling by rail and steamer between Halifax and Upper Canada, via one of the routes outlined by Dan Conlin.

Timetable Dominion

Timetable Evangeline

I have published a followup post about rail service in Kingsport here.

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