Category: That’s life

Halifax imposes a tax on wheelchair ramps. Or is it a fine?

Woozles Ramp

Halifax Mayor Ron Wallace Edmund Morris Mike Savage was on CBC Radio Wednesday, taking calls about small business property taxes when Liz Crocker, owner of Woozles Childrens Bookstore, the yellow building pictured above, rang up with a complaint.

Like Savage, Crocker is a life-long Liberal, and she’s strategic enough to be polite when lobbying a politician. But you could tell she was annoyed at various burdens the city places on small business.

“When I got my tax bill this year, I was surprised to see an ‘encroachment fee’ for the wheelchair ramp I installed.”

Believe it or not, this is standard operating procedure in HRM. The same building and bylaw inspectors who seem congenitally incapable of enforcing building code accessibility standards nevertheless pounce with alacrity whenever a small business owner takes the initiative to outfit their property with equipment that welcomes people in wheelchairs.

Mobility rights activist Gus Reed has the whole story, amusingly told, on the James McGregor Stewart Society blog. He points out how HRM’s official hostility to accessibility rights limits the employment opportunities available to people who use wheelchairs, thus driving up welfare costs—and the taxes that support them.

Back in the CBC studio, the mayor bobbed, the mayor weaved. He boasted of a “a partnership” between the city and the Parker Street Skills Development Centre to provide businesses with portable ramps. (In fact, that project is entirely paid for by a generous donation from Reed, who has been unable to get any accounting of how many ramps have been deployed, or where.)

His worship spoke feelingly the hardship wheelchair ramps impose on wheelchair-users trying to pass by on the sidewalk. (I am not making this up, as Dave Barry might say.)

Savage’s approach to disability rights is an amalgam of happy talk, failure to enforce existing rules, excuses for not passing tougher ones, and punitive action against businesses that try to do the right thing. He could solve Liz Crocker’s problem in three minutes by going down the hall to the CEO’s Richard Butts’s office (on a day when Butts happened to be visiting from his home in Toronto) and ordering the inspection department to start enforcing the building code and stop fining wheel chair ramps.

Recycling update—not Gaza or Turkey, but Brazil

Thanks to two Contrarian readers called Richard for pointing out that, while that the words corda de varal may mean “let’s reach into the core” in Turkish, they mean “clothesline rope” in Portuguese.

From there it took but a few Google searches to locate the workshop that produced ingenious contraptions for recycling plastic soda bottles into twine and brooms featured here yesterday in Jaru, Brazil, a small city in the western Amazon state of Rondônia.

The maker is Alceu Rocha, better known to his Jaru neighbours as “Gyro Gearloose.” From the Hackaday website:

Not a word of English is spoken in the video, and our Portuguese stops at obrigado, but you don’t really need to understand what’s being said to know what’s going on. Built from what looks to be the running gear of several bicycles and motors from various cast-off appliances, our nameless genius’ machines slit the PET bottles into fine threads, winds the thread onto spools, and braids the threads into heavier cords. We love the whole home-brew vibe of the machines; especially clever is the hacked desk calculator wired to a microswitch to count revolutions, and the salvaged auto jack used to build a press for forming the broom heads. All in all it’s a pretty amazing little factory cranking out useful products from zero-cost raw material.

A Hackaday reader elaborates on the technical obstacles to recycling plastic bottles.:

A major problem with recycling beverage bottles is most of them, except those super thin water ones, are actually made of at least three layers. The inside is always virgin/new PET – to satisfy health and safety. Then there’s a middle layer that’s an oxygen barrier to help the contents stay fresh. The outside usually is partially recycled PET and may contain other plastics.

The bottles start as injection molded preforms with very thick walls and the neck and threads molded. The preforms get clamped into heated molds then air or CO2 or nitrogen is blown in to force the plastic out against the inside of the mold. In that process, the thick preform stretches and thins.

Ah, the internet: a clever video from Brazil, via Turkey, the Gaza Strip, and the nice outreach officer at ACAP Cape Breton, whose FB feed brought it to my attention.

Necessity is the mother of recycling

A bit of clever, grass-roots engineering borne of necessity:

The source of this video, which is getting lots of traction on Facebook, is unclear. Posted on YouTube by Moez Hassen, it was re-posted to Facebook by Radio Gaza, although it’s not clear the makeshift recycling facility is located in the Palestinian exclave.

Toward the end, it bears the stamp of Yok Böyle Birsey, a whimsical Turkish website which translates as “no such thing.” The package of twine shown at the end bears the label corda de varal, which is Turkish for something akin to, “Let’s reach into the core.” Portuguese for “clothesline rope.”

My hunch is all of these are re-postings. Perhaps Contrarian readers will have better luck tracking down its origins and confirming the location of the ingenious cordage plant. Meanwhile, enjoy!

[Update: That was my original hunch. My new one is that the recycling facility is in Brazil, and in that amazing way the internet has, word of it reached us via Turkey, the Gaza Strip, and the nice outreach officer at ACAP Cape Breton, whose FB feed brought it to my attention. Thanks to the two Richards who wrote to point out that corda de varal is a Portuguese phrase.]

(H/T: JEC.)



A wise friend wondered on Facebook whether it was prudent for President François Hollande to visit the Bataclan concert hall so soon after the shooting stopped. It’s good he went. The sooner people behave normally after an attack like this, the better.

The threat was almost certainly over once the shooting stopped. Usually, in the hours, days, and weeks afterwards, we pretend we are in much greater danger than we are. The strange modern compulsion to form an empathetic connection with ghastly news events swings into action. We wring our hands and declare, “Everything has changed.” We cede yet more power to every police force everywhere.

HRM police officials will now consider themselves vindicated in their decision to deploy snipers and military-clad officers toting battlefield weapons at Remembrance Day services. They are not vindicated. It was a repulsive way for a civic police force to behave.

Such reactions to violence do not make us stronger. They make us weaker. They are what terrorists hope for.

Time was democrats knew a better way to respond to organized violence:

The premier’s role in the Andrew Younger mess


As I argued last week, the Andrew Younger mess points to the unintended consequences that arise when legislators and policy makers rush to solve real social problems by means of sweeping, arbitrary rules. Murky as the details of this case are, it serves as a useful thought experiment, since the gender stereotypes that gave rise to the iron-clad rules are reversed, making their application problematic, if not perverse.

Had events followed the course demanded by media scolds, the probable outcome would have seen a promising young woman’s career destroyed on an alleged point of “principle,” over a private matter neither party was inclined to pursue.

The deeper policy questions have been largely brushed aside in the media- and opposition-fueled uproar that followed Younger’s invocation of parliamentary privilege to avoid testifying in the ill-conceived prosecution of Tara Gault, and his apparent misrepresentation—intentional or otherwise—of the precise timeline around that decision.

This final, arcane detail is where the premier decided to hang his hat when media furor became too much to endure. Younger had to go, and the timeline confusion provided the pretext.

Late yesterday, Younger and his wife Katia sent the media a statement challenging the premier’s account of events. Perhaps because it was late arriving on a holiday when newsrooms operated with skeleton staffs, or perhaps because editors felt the Youngers had already made these points, no one used the statement. I include it here, for the record.

Contributed Editorial from Andrew & Katia Younger
November 12, 2015

Since we learned from Kirby McVicar, the Premier’s Chief of Staff, that Andrew was being removed from cabinet and caucus, we have been troubled that constituents and Nova Scotians have not been provided the full truth about this situation. We don’t feel it’s important for people to know each detail of our marriage. We have not felt comfortable being told by Premier’s Office to stay silent since December. We placed our trust in the Premier and his office. We allowed them to insert themselves in the conduct of our personal lives and how we managed public interest in it, despite our view all along it had nothing to do with Andrew’s ability to do his job.

It’s been suggested Andrew refused to testify outright and that we did not provide accurate information to the Premier’s Office. Neither of these is true.

In December the Premier did not make himself available to talk to either of us. Andrew was told to speak to Mr. McVicar and Katia’s contact to the premier with information and questions was not acknowledged. Even before charges were even laid or an arrest made, Mr. McVicar had detailed information about the assault and the investigation, including the long term health impacts Andrew has faced as a result. We were both there when Andrew offered by phone to step aside in December, only to be refused. Days later Andrew was told by Mr. McVicar to take a voluntary or forced leave of absence with explicit instructions to not talk publicly about the reasons.

We did not ask for charges to be laid. Andrew never once refused to testify. The subpoenas dated in March were delivered to us in July. We immediately inquired and were informed there would be no trial. The Thursday before trial, Andrew spoke to the new prosecutor. Even leaving that meeting it was expected the matter would conclude without trial. Katia was never once contacted prior to trial.

Hindsight is easy. We have much more information today than we did last week. On the Monday before trial, Andrew’s lawyer reviewed past court rulings, and advised the Crown it did not seem Andrew could appear in court. The Crown also reviewed this information and agreed. On Tuesday, they indicated they would seek an adjournment of the trial so the matter could be resolved.

Andrew called Mr. McVicar and gave him this information. Andrew raised with him that this issue would result in media interest. Mr. McVicar expressed no concerns. The next day the judge refused to grant the adjournment.

Andrew was not trying to avoid talking about personal issues or testifying.

Following the dismissal of charges, Mr. McVicar texted Andrew saying “Good news today.” This was followed by the Premier publicly indicating his trust in Andrew, reaffirming our faith in the Premier and his office, and the trust we had placed in him since December. It was a complete shock then, to receive the phone call hours later from Mr. McVicar to say Andrew was being removed from Cabinet and Caucus.

Our family did not begin the political journey for anything more than to help our community. Together we will continue on.

Andrew & Katia Younger

McNeil insisted Younger deal with McVicar on the Gault matter, not with himself. This was an apparent effort to give the premier cover—what communications advisers call “plausible deniability”—although only the credulous will fall for the denial.

I’m inclined to accept that the premier’s office—read, “the premier”—dictated Younger’s response to the Gault prosecution throughout the events of the last year, and McNeil’s last minute decision to cut Younger loose reflected a political calculation that the heat had become too much to bear, rather than any point of principle about alleged misrepresentations.

If so, it’s yet another depressing illustration of the way parliamentary traditions are debased by the iron grip first ministers have come to exercise over cabinet, caucus, and the civil service. This problem lay at the heart of much that was wrong with the Harper administration; it was a root cause of the Dexter Government’s downfall; it may eventually prove to be McNeil’s undoing. Canadian parliaments need to fix this.

Younger will return to the legislature later today to sit as an independent member—a role he professes to prefer over that of government backbencher. In a phone conversation with Contrarian, he said he is looking forward to Question Period, where the rules allow independent members to ask up to one question per day. He said his tentative plan is to serve out the existing term, then consider his options. He will not run for the vacant Dartmouth seat on council, having already promised to support another candidate for that position—support, he wryly acknowledged, that may not be worth much today.

Two charts that drive home Atlantic Canada’s existential problem

Sydney resident Rory Andrews posted these charts to the community website GoCape Breton, but something very similar could be drawn for each of the four Atlantic provinces.


And to make the point even clearer:


Short of taking a reverso-page from China’s book and implementing a Ten-Child Policy, the only solution is immigration. Ad hoc, community-based efforts to encourage foreign students attending Nova Scotia universities to settle here should be rolled into a major provincial government effort with appropriate resources. And beyond welcoming university students, Stephen MacNeil should put himself at the head of the queue for accepting the Middle Eastern refugees Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to admit.

The usual response to that last suggestion is that any refugees who settle in Nova Scotia will move away first chance they get to larger centres where they can find people of their own nationality and culture. To which I say, not if we welcome enough of them. If we settled 10,000 or 20,000 Syrians over the next few years, we’d probably have the largest Syrian community in Canada.

Most of all, we need to get over ourselves, and drive a stake through the heart of that narrow minded attitude toward come-from-aways that has kept us comfortable and insular for far too long. If someone wants to build a golf course on an abandoned coal dump in Inverness, don’t shun their children or drive them away with petty insults and vandalism. Worry a little less about about Gaelic and a lot more about Mandarin, Tagalog, Arabic, and Farsi.



Film Series reprise (sort of)


I no longer subscribe to the mass email service that let me contact the 1,800 people on the old Cape Breton Island Film Series mailing list, and sending an email message to 1,800 recipients is a good way to get yourself banned as a spammer. So I’ll count on Sydney area readers to pass this information along:

On Wednesday, Nelson MacDonald and the Atlantic Filmmakers’ Coop present an evening of short films produced in Atlantic Canada—including two made in Cape Breton. As the poster says, the screenings take place 7 p.m. Wednesday at Sydney’s Highland Arts Theatre.

The movies include:

  • 4 Quarters – Ashley McKenzie (13 min., Drama)
  • Higgy Wants In – Winston DeGiobbi (13 min., Experimental)
  • Urban Renewal Initiative – David Stewart (13 min., Experimental)
  • Masculins – Stephanie Young (13 min., Documentary)
  • Four New Messages – Tori Fleming (13 min., Animation)
  • I Am Syd Stone – Denis Theriault (13 min., Drama)
  • HiFi Normal – Amanda Dawn Christie (13 min., Experimental)

It’s a rare opportunity to see shorts produced at our end of Canada. Some are experimental, some more established. Ashley McKenzie’s 4 Quarters, starring Toronto-based Newfoundlander Sofia Banzhaf and Cape Bretoners Andrew Gillis and Melissa Kearney, has been playing festivals across North America and Europe. The others, I for one will be seeing for the first time.

Next time we see a McKenzie movie, it’ll be her first feature, Train Whistle Does Not Blow, shot this fall in locations around the industrial area.

Y’all come.

Mother Canada update: NS Liberals hear the other side of the story


Joliene Stockley’s Ingonish great-grandparents: Thomas Doucette and his war bride, Agnes “Lucy” Devenish

Last Thursday, Friends of Green Cove met with Nova Scotia’s Liberal caucus to outline something that ought to be obvious to them already: the case against giving Toronto businessman Tony Trigiani a priceless piece of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park—land Canada promised to protect in perpetuity—to a erect kitchy, highly commercialized, eight-storey statue in memory of soldiers killed overseas.

It would be great to see the province officially speak out about this ill-conceived, dishonestly executed scheme, but since the park lies entirely in federal jurisdiction, and since taking any position is certain to anger some constituents, discretion will probably get the better of Stephen McNeil’s valor.

Nevertheless, Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, chief spokesman for the project, met privately with the provincial Liberal caucus in late September, so the Friends of Green Cove thought it prudent to request a chance to present the other side.

Leading the group was Ingonish native Joliene Stockley, a provincial government policy analyst whose great-grandfather Tom Doucette, after being gassed at Ypres, endured a long fight for disability benefits but nevertheless supported establishment of the park even though his land was taken for it. Another of Stockley’s ancestors, paternal great grandmother Margaret Dupe, pictured below, was born at Green Cove. Also present were former park superintendent Carol Whitfield, Acadia geology professor Sandra Barr, and 93-year-old World War II veteran Valerie Bird.

The group focused on six reasons for rejecting the Mother Canada colossus. (I have edited their news release slightly for space and clarity.):

The Integrity of National Parks
Parks Canada’s mandate is, “to maintain the ecological integrity of the lands in its care and to provide opportunities for the people of Canada to understand, appreciate, and enjoy the natural heritage that is theirs.” By law, national parks are protected for public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment, while being maintained in an unimpaired state for future generations. Allowing this development is precedent setting and would allow the whittling away of our National Parks System. It would destroy the ecological integrity of Green Cove and the institutional integrity of Parks Canada.

Green Cove is part of the National Park because of its geology and other natural attributes. It is the second most popular trail in the park because of its short distance, fantastic ocean view, and its unique geological features that date back 400 million years. It is the best place to view the Black Brook Granitic Suite, a rock formation used by geology professors to teach students about geological processes. Although this suite of rocks underlies the eastern section of the CBHNP, Green Cove is its most accessible and visually stimulating outcrop.

margaret_dupe 2

Joliene Stockley’s paternal great-grandmother Margaret Dupe was born at Green Cove, slated for construction of a massive, privately owned statue.

Feedback from Canadians
Thousands of comments from coast to coast have conveyed their belief that most Canadians are opposed to the project as proposed. Dozens of letters, articles, and other feedback showed opposition to the proposed plan. Concerns have been raised by the Vimy Memorial Foundation, American tourists, parks enthusiasts, geologists, experts, scientists, academics, and former Parks Canada senior staff. [Contrarian here: Backers of the scheme claim local residents strongly support the monument, but the only independent public opinion survey on the topic showed Canadians oppose it, Atlantic Canadians most strongly. A non-scientific reader survey by the Cape Breton Post likewise turned thumbs down on the scheme.]

Lack of Consultation
It’s a national monument being proposed within a National Park, yet there has been no national consultation or dialogue, only one meeting in Ingonish. The detailed impact assessment process was severely flawed because there was no expert review of the proposal nor any public meetings held to review the detailed assessment. Some believe there is a conflict of interest as Stantec, the company that prepared the impact assessment, was thanked as a key contributor to the project’s design.

Some contend the project will bring employment opportunities and economic spin-offs, yet there has been no estimate of its true economic impact. The projected jobs may or may not exist. There is no proper business plan—cost projections have ranged from $20 million to $60million. We have not seen any marketing study, nor the methodology used for visitor projections. The project may deter more visitors than it attracts.

Mockery of Remembrance
When the Vimy Memorial Foundation raised concerns about the project’s use of the name Mother Canada, long been associated with the Canada Bereft statue at Vimy, a project lawyer responded that the Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation had trademarked the name—along with hundreds of potential souvenir items. Marketing opportunities on site are not in keeping with remembering and honoring our fallen.

The scale of the proposed memorial is so large, people may focus on Mother Canada’s size rather than remembrance of our fallen soldiers. A very tasteful memorial already exists in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Its inscription reads:

“They will never know the beauty of this place, see the seasons change, enjoy nature’s chorus.
All we enjoy we owe to them, men and women who lie buried in the earth of foreign lands and in the seven seas. Dedicated to the memory of Canadians who died overseas in the service of their country and so preserved our heritage.”

Public Funding
The Never Forgotten National Memorial Foundation said the memorial would built entirely with private funds, yet they’ve already received about $100,000 in public funding, and they plan to apply for more through the Canada 150 Fund. A Parks Canada employee is the project manager. All the time Parks Canada staff work on this project should be considered a use of public funds. It has not been made clear whether foundation will be required to secure the funding for all phases before construction begins.

The big question now is how the new federal government will respond to the project.

The mindless wrecking ball that is zero tolerance

He was a married, 40-something opposition MLA, a large man with ambitions of becoming premier someday. She was a popular, 20-something party staffer, a small woman with plans to study law. They began what would be a four-year “personal relationship,” details of which have not been disclosed, but one gathers it’s the sort of friendship the MLA would prefer his wife did not discover.

In the fall of 2013, the MLA’s party won a landslide victory in the general election, and on October 22 of that year, he was sworn in as Minister of Energy—a giant step toward his ultimate political ambitions. The ceremony took place in Annapolis Royal. Later that evening, at The Dingle tower in Sir Sandford Fleming Park, the newly minted minister and the now former staffer—she had by this time left the party office to study law at Dal—had some sort of altercation. Police would later say she bit him.

Was she distraught because the minister broke off their relationship? We don’t know. In fact, none of the events I’m describing here have been tested in court. I have pieced them together from various public statements and media accounts of preliminary court proceedings.

Fast forward to November 2014. The Minister is embroiled in the controversy over whether to permit hydraulic fracking in Nova Scotia. He receives a death threat from a fracking opponent. Police investigate, and perhaps ask the minister if he knows of anyone who might bear him ill will. For whatever the reason, he discloses the incident that took place a year earlier at The Dingle.

As a matter of policy, police and prosecutors in Nova Scotia exercise zero tolerance in cases of domestic violence. So they laid a charge of common assault against the former staffer, who was by then an articling clerk preparing for exams that would lead to her admission to the bar.

Whenever you hear the words, “zero tolerance,” dear reader, the hairs on the back of your neck should rise to attention. Zero tolerance is the abdication of judgment, a refusal to draw distinctions or exercise common sense.

In this case, there was no weapon. There is no accusation of bodily harm. There were no apparent lasting effects. There is not even a complaint or a complainant. Just an unhappy, private, year-old encounter in which a slight woman briefly got physical with a much larger man, a big guy who was never seriously in harm’s way. But because police and prosecutors have too often turned a blind eye in cases that are superficially similar but actually very different—large men beating the crap out of small women—we have stripped them of the power to make reasonable distinctions.

The consequences of this policy-driven decision to lay an overwrought charge were many. The fallout would strain the minister’s marriage and—ultimately—hobble his career. The unfolding scandal would publicly humiliate his wife and children child. The law student stood to lose her career, since an assault conviction would likely preclude her admission to the bar.

To avoid the worst of these consequences, the minister took refuge in the technicality of parliamentary privilege and refused to appear at her trial. As a result, a charge that should never have been laid was dismissed, and a young woman with promise will be able to pursue her chosen profession. That’s a good thing. For his part, the minister was spared the ordeal of testifying about facts that would further humiliate his innocent family to no higher purpose. That’s not a bad thing.

In the media feeding frenzy that followed, the minister told what appears to have been a fib—although this interpretation is not quite as clear-cut as media accounts have implied. The premier had his fill of the scandal, and sacked him. [UPDATE: Late last night, the minister issued a statement acknowledging that his disputed comment to the media, which reporters and the premier have taken as a lie, was a mistake, albeit an unintentional one, he says.]

Twitter came alive with sanctimonious parsings of the precise measure of shame to be accorded each participant. The Chronicle-Herald’s editorial board reached exactly the wrong conclusion:

The minister’s failure to appear in court, and to act on his own initiative to waive legislative privilege, clearly undermined an important government policy on domestic violence.

Only Tim Bousquet at Halifax Examiner put the outcome in reasonable perspective:

In the end what matters is: Has justice been served? Should a promising young woman’s legal career be derailed before it begins because of an alleged assault that neither she nor Younger want detailed in public?

In reality, a policy devoid of scope for reasoned judgment caused harm out of all proportion to the actual facts or any conceivable public purpose.

UPDATE: Tim Bousquet has a further thoughtful discussion of this episode here.

Contrarian’s tenuous connection to pop culture

The frailty of my connection to pop culture exposed at Sobey’s:

Checkout Person:  Are you collecting Jamie Oliver stamps?

Me:  Someone asked me the same thing yesterday. [Leaning in, sotto voce] WTF are Jamie Oliver stamps?

CP:  For every $10 you get a stamp, and when you get enough stamps, you can get some… [with this she made a vague hand gesture] …knives.

Me:  So…. Jamie Oliver is some sort of… chef?

CP:  [smiling benignly]  Yes.

Me:  You have a great weekend.

This conversation caused a stir when I posted it on Facebook, as a result of which, I now know Oliver is a UK television chef with a cute accent and a studied, informal air who uses his celebrity to promote better nutrition, especially in schools. Several commenters recommended his TED talk, which I watched to the 7:30 mark, when he began fat-shaming a tearful homemaker and I had to avert my eyes.

I hadn’t meant to make fun of Oliver, but rather to lampoon my own cluelessness on matters pop cultural. Female commenters generally knew who Oliver is; many male commenters did not.

The stamps turn out to be a Sobey’s promotion involving a knife set (although the company’s subpar website makes no mention of it). Many commenters entreated me to collect the stamps on their behalf, even hinted I was selfish when I demurred. A continuous avalanche of paper slips already strains my mental health; no room remains for tiny, self-adhesive stamps and fussy little books in which to affix them.

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