Category: That’s life

Will Newfoundland kill Nova Scotia’s 50-year energy plan?

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The Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador is the mainstay, keystone, and linchpin of Nova Scotia’s energy plan for the next half century. It promises enormous benefits for us—and for Newfoundland—in a setting where no practical alternative exists. Without it, the mainmast snaps, the arch collapses, and the wheels come off.

That’s why last week’s reckless blustering by Stan Marshall, newly appointed CEO of Nalcor, Newfoundland’s troubled government-owned energy corporation, about possible cancelation of the half-built project, ought to alarm Premier Stephen McNeil.

[Disclosure: In 2011 and 2012, I carried out writing projects for Emera Inc., involving the Maritime Link, the undersea cable that will deliver Muskrat Falls power to Nova Scotia and beyond.]

Muskrat Falls is an 824 megawatt generating station on the Lower Churchill River in Labrador. New transmission lines, including two undersea links, will connect it to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and thence to New Brunswick and New England. An additional line will connect Muskrat Falls to Labrador’s Churchill Falls generating station, and from there to Quebec and the rest of North America.

This new power loop will, for the first time, give Newfoundland and Nova Scotia a robust connection to the North American power grid. With that will come access to market-priced electricity when local sources are unavailable or overly expensive (as they have been for much of our recent history).

This represents a huge change in our energy regime. Newfoundland currently enjoys no electrical connection to the rest of the world. Nova Scotia has only a slender connection to New Brunswick along a power corridor so congested with electricity bound for Moncton and PEI as to be all but unavailable for delivering electricity to Nova Scotia.

In return for building the 124 km Maritime Link under the Cabot Strait, Emera will get enough power to close most of Nova Scotia’s remaining coal-fired plants, an eventuality Ottawa forced us to plan for even under the climate-change-skeptical Harper government.

Getting off coal means Nova Scotia power consumers will no longer be sending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to sketchy mine operators in countries with dubious labor laws and human rights records.

Replacing coal with hydro will increase the amount of fuel-free wind power we can add to our system. Wind turbines require backup power for times when the wind isn’t blowing. Coal plants can’t provide that backup because they turn on and off too slowly, but hydro makes an ideal backup supply.

Newfoundland’s new connection to the North American grid will enable it to close the decrepit, 45-year-old, oil-fired plant at Holyrood, which is long past its best-before date. It opens the way to continued development of Newfoundland and Labrador’s vast, untapped wind and hydro power potential.

Ultimately, power from Muskrat Falls will help us bridge to the day, decades from now, when tidal power becomes an economical source of electricity. When that happens, Nova Scotia, as custodian of the largest tidal power supply in the world, will become a green energy behemoth.

Unfortunately, the new Liberal governments in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland have both focused on the short-term political goal of finding fault with their predecessors. In Nova Scotia, this meant pre-election pandering to public hatred of Nova Scotia Power with invidious criticism of everything from Muskrat Falls and the Maritime Link to energy conservation programs and rate increases caused by greening the grid.

In Newfoundland, lower oil prices have slammed the economy twice: decimating offshore oil revenues and curbing remittances from oil-industry workers who travel back and forth to Alberta. That led to a fiscal meltdown, and a provincial budget filled with tax increases and service cuts. Premier Dwight Ball thought it clever to blame the mess on cost overruns at Muskrat Falls.

To reign in those cost overruns, Ball brought in Marshall, who, as CEO of a rival energy company, Fortis Inc., had publicly opposed Muskrat Falls. Within minutes of his appointment, and before studying any of the the complex, multi-party contracts governing the Muskrat Falls and the Maritime Link, Marshall was musing about killing the half-built project.

Next: How serious is Marshall?

Behold, the mighty hummingbird returns

Male ruby-throated Hummingbirds began appearing on mainland Nova Scotia last week, according to the first arrival map at Hummingbird.net. It’s only a matter of days before we get word of a Caper hummer.

2016 Hummer Map April 27

Males, which are easily distinguished by their iridescent red throats, arrive ahead of the females. Nova Scotia’s first hummer of the year appeared on April 19, and half a dozen more have been reported since. Each early report is recorded with a dot, colour-coded in half-month increments, so its easy to track the northward progress.

The hummers that entertain us at feeders for the next five months likely spent the winter in Mexico, in Central America, or on Caribbean islands. For most, the migration included an astounding, non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico, which ornithologists believe they complete in 18-20 hours. (The widespread yarn about hitchhiking on larger birds is, apparently, a myth.)

The little birds that make this twice-a-year, 5,000 kilometre trek, weigh a shade over three grams. If you could fit them into an envelope, you could mail eight of them with a first-class stamp.

Hummingbird.net has been tracking the northern hummer migration for 20 years, so the site has a somewhat dated look and feel. It contains links to all the previous maps, so you can look for trends—although it may be hard to tell which changes are real, and which are merely the result of better reporting.

One interesting development is the appearance of Ruby-throated hummingbirds in Newfoundland and Labrador, previously thought to be outside their range. The first Newfoundland hummer appeared on the 2004 map, eight years into the project. Another showed up in 2006, and then 2011. Last year there were reports throughout the island of Newfoundland, and one in southern Labrador.

Lanny Chambers, the St. Louis man who maintains the site, believes window feeders serve a useful purpose:

Ruby-throats are intensely inquisitive and thus easily attracted to feeders, where males in particular typically display aggressive territoriality toward rival hummers, other birds, and even insects such as bees, butterflies, and sphinx moths.

They quickly become accustomed to human presence, and will swoop down to investigate red articles of clothing, possibly as potential food sources. Feeders hung at windows attract as many visitors as ones farther from structures, and the bird that claims a feeder as its territory may spend much of the day perched nearby, guarding the food source against intruders.

Many hummingbird watchers find “Hummer Warz” endlessly entertaining, although the chases are obviously serious business to the hungry birds. For a short period immediately after fledging, a female will tolerate the presence of her own young at the feeder, but they are soon treated the same as other adult birds – as rivals in pursuit of the food necessary to prepare for the fall migration.

If you spot a male hummer in Cape Breton over the next few days, Chambers invites reports using this form.

Reader views on Chase-the-Ace: Part 2

Ace of Hearts 600

Saturday I happened upon a huge lineup for Sydney’s latest Chase-the-Ace spectacle and came away with mixed feelings. Cape Breton readers were sharply divided. Earlier I published some thoughts from participants who think it’s all good fun. Today, the dark side, starting with a resident of far northern Cape Breton:

I’ve heard about all the fun to be had, from friends, relatives and acquaintances who regularly drove the two hours from here to Inverness, but these Chases seem to me to be business as usual. Money isn’t trickling down from the 1%, so the lower-earning half of the 99% (wild guess) circulate what they have among themselves.

Lots of gas gets burned getting there, winners win more money than they need while the losers get nothing, half the money goes toward causes that shouldn’t have to count on gambling for survival, while dozens of small non-profits that aren’t sexy struggle to carry on. Hearts are warmed, the status quo is maintained. Reminds me of those desperate little villages in the Hunger Games.

A retired United Church Minister responds:

Hunger Games is a good reference here. These lotteries are the latest canary in the coal mine sign of how wretched things really are in Cape Breton.

What it leads to is a reliance on magical thinking with regard to personal and wider community problems. Is is possible that too many people have just given up on believing there can be truly innovative solutions to economic conditions here and are saying “What the hell? Maybe the lottery will pay off?”

I really wish people—including the organizers of Chase the Ace lotteries—would refrain from holding up the “donation to charity” point as if it’s some justification for the blatant exploitation of peoples’ greed. If you want to give to a charity, give 100% of your donation. If you want to throw your money away, leave charities out of it.

Along the same lines, how about putting aside the sentiment “at least the money is staying here” when a local person wins. Who knows if it’s staying here when one person has it?

The far northern Cape Bretoner:

I see people’s participation more as hunger for community than as greed for money. Unfortunately what they’re getting out of it is a series of parties rather than building a more sustainable community.

The retired minister:

But what has any of this genuine fun to do with a lottery? Surely there can be events that brings folks together without requiring them to throw away money with virtually no chance of a return?

Last word to an activist Cape Breton physician:

You didn’t meet the lady I did who was on welfare and spent $200 on Chase-the-Ace tickets (her kids’ lunch money for a few weeks). Any gambling has this side effect. Gambling moves money around but doesn’t produce any. And the people who are the most desperate, poorly educated/cognizant, and the worst at math, end up spending the highest percentage of their income on tickets.

1) Standing in a line isn’t “social” any more than going for groceries is. There are far better things to do if someone wants to be “social.”

2) It’s not “to support charity” (an excuse many people use for buying tickets). If you want to support the charity, give the $20 to the charity, and they get $20, instead of $10 if you buy a chase-the-ace ticket (the other half going to the winners) If one wants to support charity, why can’t one just go ahead and do it without the promise of a big payoff for oneself.

3) The basic premise of wanting something for nothing is a sad part of CB and Nfld culture (maybe why these things are so successful here?).

4) The thought that more money = more happiness has been debunked long ago. If someone is dirt poor and living in an alley, it’s true. Beyond the basics, it isn’t. In fact, study after study says most lottery jackpot winners end up less happy (interesting reading).

OK, one more. The whole discussion reminds one Cape Breton musician of this beautiful chestnut:

[Video link: https://youtu.be/3Xg2v_T2XH8]

That’s all for now. Thanks to everyone who weighed in.

Reader views on Chase-the-Ace: Part 1

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After watching an astonishingly long lineup for Chase-the-Ace at a Sydney mall Saturday, I offered the following conclusion.

Unlike Atlantic Lotto’s slot machines, Chase-the-Ace won’t drive anyone to addiction, financial ruin, or suicide.

Still, it was sobering to see so many of my fellow Capers willing to endure such a humiliating lineup for such an extreme long shot chance at instant wealth. I don’t want to be a spoilsport, but the whole thing felt sad.

Contrarian’s Cape Breton readers are sharply divided on both points: whether it’s harmful, and whether it’s sad. Today, we’ll hear from readers think it’s mostly harmless fun.

Several commenters noted that lineups at the other eight ticket outlets were much shorter, but many people apparently prefer the allegedly festive atmosphere of the mall’s Brobdingnagian queue.

[T]his, whatever it is, has turned into a social outing. The lines aren’t so much a waste of time as something else—meeting people, talking, dreaming about what you’d do if you won, people watching, etc.

It was actually kind of fun. I hadn’t gone to the mall before because of the crowds, but a friend convinced me to go and have a bite to eat afterwards. So we chatted all the way along the line, I think the main discussion was about fashion memories of the 70s and 80s. Time flew by.

A Sydney lawyer who took in Chase-the-Ace at the Horizon Achievment Centre, one of the lottery’s beneficiaries, wrote:

I sat with two of my sisters and with several friends, played card games, had my fortune read, ate delicious food prepared by the staff of the Horizon Achievement Centre, had a beer, and generally was not bored. I spent money at at least four retail establishments en route and generally felt as though I contributed to a good cause…

Friends who lined up at the Mall reported having a great time talking to complete strangers and carrying on. I also noted that the folks at the Legion were singing along to The Island, etc., square dancing, and also having fun.

Tomorrow: the dark side.

Advice for Gary Burrill from one who’s been there

Earlier this month, I criticized former Health Minister and interim NDP leader Maureen MacDonald for her deliberate snub of incoming leader Gary Burrill as she made her abrupt departure from the legislature. This drew an indignant response from a longtime backer of the party’s demoralized Dexter faction.

Nevertheless, NDP insiders know the snub was real, deliberate, and gratuitous. For his part, Burrill hasn’t exactly embraced the Dexter supporters he so soundly defeated.

Now comes an interesting footnote from Dartmouth Halifax resident Allison Brewer, who served as leader of the New Brunswick New Democratic Party for an unhappy year in 2006-2007 2005-2006. In a letter to Contrarian, Brewer writes that she, too, was the victim of door-slamming as the leader she replaced took her leave:

No one wanted to take over the reins of the party after [outgoing leader] Elizabeth Weir announced she would be stepping down as leader, while keeping her lone NDP seat in the legislature.

There were a lot of good reasons for me not to run—reasons I outlined for Elizabeth during an early morning meeting I was summoned to so she could discuss with me the issue of leadership. When I argued I didn’t have the kind of political experience needed to take it on, she assured me she would be at my side as my personal mentor.

Brewer posterI jumped in and the party found two people to volunteer to run against me so it would look like a real race. I was elated the night I won, and dumbfounded three weeks later when Elizabeth announced she was resigning her seat immediately to take a government appointment. Like Gary, I had almost no notice and little time to prepare for a significant gap in leadership.

Even before Elizabeth settled into her new position, she abandoned her mentorship role and never returned my calls.

I was never able to secure a seat and managed to lead my party to historic lows. My lack of experience, inability to speak French in an officially bilingual province, and my public role in the abortion and LGBT rights movements, all played out the way I had predicted during that early morning conversation with Elizabeth.

Following Weir’s departure, the NDP has never won a provincial seat in New Brunswick.

Brewer thinks her biggest mistake was not to run in the byelection to fill Weir’s Saint John Harbour seat, which Weir had won four times. She urges Burrill to seek MacDonald’s vacated  Halifax Needham seat when Premier Stephen McNeil calls a byelection.

There are likely a lot of NDP leaning voters in Halifax Needham ready to right the wrong from the last federal election when they turned their backs on Megan Leslie in an attempt to oust Harper. The riding woke up that post-election morning realizing it had made a colossal mistake in voting strategically and losing arguably one of the best politicians in the country.

Meanwhile, back in the caucus office, Gary has a lot of work to do. Whether Maureen will be able to bury the hatchet remains to be seen. It’s not looking good on that front so far with her abrupt and rather classless departure. And make no mistake. If she were giving up the seat to make way for the new leader, she would have given him more than a day’s notice. That’s the way it’s done.

Let’s hope that here in Nova Scotia, the caucus and party members who didn’t support Gary for the leadership are able to put that behind them and make way for the new guy. He may lack experience but seems to have a whole lot of class.

Running in Halifax would be a risky move for Burrill. While it should be hospitable territory for the NDP, it is clear Burrill can’t count on help from MacDonald. Running and losing in Needham would be an inauspicious start to his leadership, less than a year before an expected general election. Consider the fate of former NDP leader Helen MacDonald, forced out after she lost a Cape Breton North byelection to then political novice Cecil Clarke.

Avoiding such internecine wrangling is why it is the winner’s job to reach out to the losers after battle. Burrill hasn’t done that so far, and he may pay the price as the Dexter debacle continues to take its toll.

UPDATE & CORRECTION: The original version of this post misstated Allison Brewer’s city of residence and the year she spent as leader of the New Brunswick NDP. Apologies for the errors.

Nova Scotia—a real white man’s country

A friend of a friend was trawling through back issues of Punch on when he stumbled upon this gem in the March 13, 1929 edition of the venerable British humour magazine:

Nova Scotia Agent General advertisement in Punch March 13th 1929 page xii small

Newcomers to Nova Scotia are often surprised at what a white bread place we are. It didn’t happen by accident. We could still do with a little less Gaelic on our roadsigns and a little more oomph in our quest for immigrants of all shapes and sizes.

What chasing the ace entails

Mayflower-Mall-Map

LineupSaturday afternoon I made the mistake of popping into the Mayflower Mall, Nova Scotia’s largest shopping centre outside Halifax and one of nine places Cape Bretoners could buy tickets for yesterday’s Chase-the-Ace lottery.

The point of sale was just past Best Buy at the extreme western edge of the mall.

The lineup stretched three and four abreast for the entire length of the mall—past Best Buy, Winners, Sport Chek, Laura Fashion, Staples, and 40-odd smaller stores, to the mall entrance of The Bay store, then past various food booths to the shopping centre’s eastern entrance.

The stores were mostly empty. At Best Buy and Staples, clerks stood around in small groups, chatting.

Outside, the spring sun was shining and the temperature edged up toward 17 degrees.

I have mixed feelings about Chase-the-Ace. I’m glad someone’s found a way to keep gambling revenue in Cape Breton, where it supports local charities, instead of sending it off to Halifax and Moncton. I hope Cape Breton MLAs will fight off any Lottery Commission attempt to cap Chase-the-Ace, a threat understood here as a thinly disguised move to protect Atlantic Lottery Corporation revenues from inroads by a more popular local gambling product.

Unlike Atlantic Lotto’s slot machines, Chase-the-Ace won’t drive anyone to addiction, financial ruin, or suicide.

Still, it was sobering to see so many of my fellow Capers willing to endure such a humiliating lineup for such an extreme long shot chance at instant wealth. I don’t want to be a spoilsport, but the whole thing felt sad.

Sweet victory for Citizen Ouellette

The case for compensating residents of Sydney for injuries caused by the Sydney Steel plant and coke ovens has always been weak.

  • The steel plant itself produced little in the way of harmful emissions; any harm to public health came mainly from the associated coke ovens, which produced large amounts of potentially harmful airborne emissions and runoff in the process of baking coal into coke.
  • The health of coke ovens workers, who were surrounded by fumes from the coking process, certainly suffered from their exposure, but they were covered by Worker’s Compensation, the Faustian bargain by which workers surrender their right to sue for damages in return for modest but supposedly reliable compensation.
  • Health effects from environmental exposure depend on the dose of that exposure, and dose received from airborne emissions declines sharply with distance from the source. So any putative damage to public health in the community surrounding the plant would be much less severe than that experienced by coke ovens workers.
  • The largest chronic health risk assessment ever carried out in Canada determined that industrial residues the neighbourhood immediately downwind from the coke ovens were typical of those found in any community with a history of heavy industry—say, New Glasgow or North End Halifax—and posed little if any risk to public health.
  • The public’s almost unshakable belief that the Sydney Tar Ponds, a tidal lagoon polluted with municipal sewage and coal tar, posed a public health risk is a dystopian fantasy. Once the Tar Ponds were fenced off to exclude trespassers, there was no credible pathway by which the public could be exposed to the contaminants they contained.
  • Even if emissions and runoff from the coke ovens did play some small role in public health outcomes in Sydney, their impact would be impossible to prove, and impossible to sort out from confounding factors that almost certainly played a much bigger role: diet, smoking, exposure to second-hand smoke, income inequality, and cancer-causing viruses such as HPV.

Despite all this, I feel grudging admiration to Debbie Oullette, the former resident of Frederick Street, adjacent to the coke ovens site, who this week received confidential cash settlements from two companies—Domtar Inc. and Ispat Sidbec Inc.—predecessors of which held ownership stakes in the steel plant prior to the government takeover in 1967.

debbie-ouelletteOuellette was, to put it mildly, a figure familiar to anyone involved in the long, destructive debate about how to clean up the Tar Ponds. She attended every meeting, scoured every report, and could often be sighted, video camera in hand, monitoring cleanup activities from the perimeter fence.

Ouellette sued Domtar and Sidbec, along with the federal and provincial governments, on her own, without a lawyer. Unschooled in the law, she had to learn the byzantine labyrinth of technical rules, procedures, forms, and customs required to bring suit against governments and large corporations.

I have acted as a self-litigant myself, in a much simpler proceeding, and I found it an unpleasant experience. The cost of legal representation has grown so exorbitant that most people can’t afford lawyers, so our courts are overrun with self-litigants who have but a tenuous grasp on the courts’ many excessively fussy rules. The resulting delays try judicial patience, and too many judges take out their frustration on the self-represented parties.

I’m guessing the compensation Ouellette received was modest—a few thousand dollars in “please go away” money to save her corporate adversaries the much greater cost of hiring blue chip lawyers to fend off her claims. Nevertheless, my hat is off to her. Her pluck and perseverance succeeded where topnotch tort litigator Ray Wagner’s attempt at class action suit based on essentially identical facts failed spectacularly.

Plucky Chinese toddler defends gramma from police

This video of an irate toddler brandishing a steel pipe to defend his street-vending grandmother from Chinese bylaw enforcers went so massively viral, Chinese censors ordered the country’s news media to stop displaying it.

“Child Grasps Steel Pipe to Resist Chengguan” video, pictures, and news reports must all be removed from main news sections. News that unfavourably portrays the law enforcement community must be released with caution.

As the Chinese Digital Times explains, the Chengguan function as a junior varsity police force. They are widely dispised for heavy-handed enforcement of petty rules.

Despite its popularity on Chinese social media, I haven’t seen much reference to to the irate toddler video in North America—except on James Fallows’s blog at The Atlantic. The video, writes Fallows,

illustrates a side of Chinese life familiar to anyone who has lived there but often left out of foreign imagery. Namely: the fierce individualism of a lot of Chinese people, who don’t like to be pushed around.

Or, to paraphrase a button the mother of my children liked to wear, “Question authority, not your grandmother.”

Annals of Orwellianism—forestry division

Here’s the text of  a news release about an interactive map the province just released showing every block of forest land proposed or approved for cutting in Nova Scotia. Except, as Bill Turpin pointed out, the news release completely avoids use of the words, “forest” and “tree.” It’s as if we were we’re talking about the annual hemp harvest, Turpin said. (Now there would be a useful map.)

Harvest Plan Map Viewer Launched

Department of Natural Resources


A new interactive map viewer is helping to improve public engagement on planned fibre harvests in Nova Scotia woodlands.

The Harvest Plan Map Viewer provides better access for Nova Scotians to view and comment on harvest plans for all Crown lands.

For each harvest plan on the viewer, the public will be provided 20 days for commenting after the harvest site is first posted. If the planned harvest method is changed to clearcut, that map will be updated and an additional ten days for public commenting will be provided.

“Nova Scotians want and expect an open and transparent process when it comes to the management of Crown lands,” said Natural Resources Minister Lloyd Hines. “This map viewer is part of our commitment to enhance public consultation, which will help to provide that transparency.”

The map viewer will replace the pdf-based harvest operation maps that the Department of Natural Resources launched in 2014. The pdf maps will be archived.

Users are able to send comments or a request for a harvest plan pre-treatment assessment directly to the licensee responsible for harvesting.

New maps and updates will be posted frequently over the coming months, so those interested should check the site often.

The Harvest Plan Map Viewer is available at https://nsgi.novascotia.ca/hpmv/.

Based on a cursory check of a couple dozen blocks, it appears about half are slated for clearcutting.

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