Category: That’s life

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.

Blimps from the underside in North End Halifax

Cliff White copy

Last week, I featured Ask-a-Pilot Patrick Smith’s reminiscence of pubescent adventures sneaking into the cockpits of planes waiting at Boston’s Logan Airport. I mentioned my own tired and emotional encounter with a Goodyear Blimp and its generously tolerant night watchman.

“It was a little  different in Nova Scotia, at least where I grew up,” writes Cliff White:

Once in junior high, just as lunch break was ending, several blimps appeared. The bell rang, but some of us ignored it, just so we could watch this rare sight a bit longer. Amazingly for that time and that place, we weren’t strapped. But were all given detentions.

We were, of course, all lower class kids being taught to obey authority.

Fortunately, in Cliff’s case, the lesson never took.


Is whiteness the problem?


In response to Gus Reed’s droll dissection of management practices at the Waterfront Develop Corporation, an analysis that rested heavily on the WCL’s blue-blood sameness, Peter Kavanagh writes:

I loved the post and the strength of the critique, but I am confused about the whiteness claim. Without doubt, the corp is remarkably uniform, but it is the link between whiteness and ableism that escapes me.

Are you and Gus really trying to suggest that if they were less white this wouldn’t have happened? To me it is the lack of a disabled voice or perspective that is the key issue. Surely neither you nor Gus want to suggest that an indifference to disability is a white problem… or are you?

Contrarian riposte:

Great question. The problems with the WDCL are much, much broader than accessibility cluelessness. It has always been a law unto itself. In communications practice, it is aloof and unresponsive. In community engagement, it is developer friendly and citizen hostile. Its failure to include accessible washrooms required by the building code is simply one illustration of its refusal to abide by the building code in any way.

ccaTurns out the municipality, as a lower order of government, cannot enforce its will on a provincial (or for that matter, federal) entity. But most provincial and federal organizations simply pretend it can. So the airport authority, for example, which operates on federal land, could exempt itself from the building code, but instead it chooses to enforce the code 100%. All its own construction activities, and all contractors, are required to apply for municipal building permits, submit to municipal inspections, and abide by municipal building inspector orders.

The WDCL (and the federal Ports Corp) simply thumb their nose at the municipality. We know this led to the lack of an accessible washroom. How do we know it did not lead to floor joists that are too small to support the required loads?

So, no, whiteness does not have a straight-line connection to inaccessibility. But pervasive whiteness reflects a throwback to the stodgy, aloof, British, arrogant, establishment Old Halifax. The kind that erects statues to genocidal military heroes and evicts black folks from urban renewal sites in the backs of garbage trucks. As [name of wretched flak redacted] wrote me in response to the same post, it “says everything anyone needs to know about Halifax.”

Peter again:

All fair comments. I will simply note that Britain had no monopoly on being stodgy, aloof, or a law unto itself. The same might be said about the Aztecs, the Chinese, the Mongols, and a host of other peoples.

I think it is too easy to slap the label of whiteness as some defining characteristic of evil or wrong thinking. It is lazy, if you will, and tends to create the impression that whiteness is responsible for all evil in the world.

Final word to the man who owns this printing press:

Oh I completely agree. I hope I will have something to say when an important provincial Crown corporation is discovered to have a board of directors, management, and staff composed entirely of Mi’kmaq. It’s not the whiteness. It’s the sameness, in this case, a sameness that perfectly corresponds to the crowd that has always run the place.

[Peter Kavanagh is a retired CBC journalist and — what’s that phrase everyone’s using these days? — public intellectual. He spent much of his career in Nova Scotia, exposing the sins of stodgy, aloof, British, arrogant, Old Halifax establishment.]

The unbearable whiteness of the Waterfront Development Corp.


Gus Reed, the eagle-eyed wheelchair rights advocate, has trained his gaze on the Waterfront Development Corporation, and turned up facts so startling, he was moved to write commission chair Dale Godsoe. As usual, Gus is as entertaining as he is perspicacious.

Dear Ms. Godsoe,

I am Gus Reed, one of the people on a tear about the Stubborn Goat, your contractor, and the unequal protection afforded people with disabilities by the public health authorities. I realize there is confusion in government about jurisdiction and the building code, but that doesn’t excuse the haphazard approach or the jury-rigged result.

From your website, I learn your mission:

Well-designed cities or towns are attractive, safe, inclusive, and invigorating. They are places that attract people to live, create diversity, and spur entrepreneurial activity. They become magnets for growth in our population and our economy. Waterfront Development strives to create the optimal mix of private sector businesses, public infrastructure, and community partners to flourish.

WDCL BoardDoes Waterfront Development meet those lofty goals?

I learn by visual inspection (I take responsibility if I have guessed wrong) that the board of directors is eight people of white, western European descent (a majority women – good!). The management team of three is white, western European (2 women!). 13 staff members are white, Western European (4 women). A total of 24, 11 women. So where’s the native Nova Scotian, whose land it was first? The African Nova Scotian, whose family was evicted from the waterfront? The new Nova Scotians who are changing our city so dramatically? Someone from the large community of disabled Nova Scotians?

From your website and a field trip, I also learn that your office is in a second story walk up. Is it a surprise that no wheelchair users work for you? That no one on your staff has any notion about disabilities? I suspect that any wheelchair-using job applicant would easily win a Human Rights claim of discrimination. This is inexcusable in 2016. A corporation owned by taxpayers that discriminates against some of the people who pay the bills, including generous compensation? A wheelchair user can’t even visit? Outrageous.

WDCL ManagementOn the subject of tourism, I wonder if you have a useful grasp of your customer base. Well-heeled and aging tourists don’t expect porta-potties. Shipsful of norovirused visitors need to wash their hands, for their sakes and ours. Americans, on ADA-compliant* cruises set high standards. Finding a washroom should be effortless. The answer has to be “Over there, to the left of the bar” not “See that building across the way? Well, it’s around back. Let me get the key.” You’ve done a good job on some things, but a simple thing that turns complicated colors a whole experience.

To illustrate how it works, here’s a perfectly reasonable comment from TripAdvisor about Le Coq (not on the waterfront, but a useful lesson):

Wheelchair users, those with vision or hearing problems, indeed anyone with modest mobility issues, should avoid this restaurant. The restaurant is dark, and has different levels separated by short flights of stairs. The layout is very hard to negotiate. And the restrooms are down a set of stairs in the basement. In this day and age this is totally unacceptable.

Finally, I remind you that most of your $8 million revenue comes from taxpayers. Not some taxpayers; all taxpayers. Those of us who consider paying taxes a privilege want good value.

At the moment, we’re not getting it. You can do better.

Canadians with disabilities face discrimination, isolation, poverty and neglect. This won’t end until organizations like yours are held accountable. I’d like to learn how you intend to remedy this problem. If you would like to meet in person, I would be happy to do so.

Gus Reed

This illustrates the crucial value of diversity to an organization like the WDC. Many people were shocked that the commission would permit construction of a new business on its premises without an accessible washroom. But when you look at the white bread uniformity of the commission’s able-bodied board of directors, management, and staff, the shock fades. Had there been even one wheelchair user among them, this blunder would have been much less likely.

What else is the WDC missing because no Mi’kmaq or African Nova Scotian graces the commission’s personnel?

Note: The WDC has responded to Gus’s letter, and to Contrarian’s report on the failure to provide an accessible washroom at the Stubborn Goat Waterfront Gastropub. I’ll include those responses in a future post.

[Spoiler: There’s a temporary, unequal fix in the works at the gastropub, but no change in the WDC’s refusal to abide by the Nova Scotia Building Code, and no end to the Minister of Environment’s continuing discrimination against people with disabilities.]

* ADA = American’s with Disabilities Act


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