School closure follies — Bhangra style


Tuesday’s post about the absurdity of closing schools during minor snowstorms provoked comments pro and con. I’ll try to get to a sampling over the next few days.

Tellingly, none of the closure defenders could explain why Nova Scotia’s snow days have exploded in recent years, nor why they are so frequent in the Atlantic Provinces, but so rare in other parts of Canada and the northern US.

Obviously, the gents in this video couldn’t possibly be from the Maritimes. Oh, wait…

[Video link]

I’ll be on the Rick Howe Show (95.7 FM) Friday morning at 9:40 talking about one-sided risk management by school officials.

Our one-sided approach to snow danger

Nova Scotia school boards justify the 21st century epidemic of snow days on grounds of safety. It’s too dangerous, they argue, to put children in buses (even though buses are designed for safe transport and piloted by professional, specially licensed drivers). What if there’s an accident? What if even one child is injured? Since no one advocates dead or injured children, these emotional pleas tend to be argument stoppers.

The trouble with snow day logic is the fallacious assumption that school closures entail zero risk. A proper risk assessment would weigh the small risk of injury during transport to school — a process in which injuries are exceptionally rare — against the risks of setting 48,000 children (in the case of the Halifax Regional School Board) loose on short notice.*


The (Shelburne) Coast Guard used this photo of a year old storm to illustrate its preview of yesterday’s snowfall. Nova Scotia media often hype forthcoming weather with stock photos of events that happened long ago or elsewhere.

The failure to weigh both sides of the risk equation was glaringly obvious in yesterday’s decision by the Halifax board to send kids home at 11 am with barely an hour’s notice to parents.

Some families have a stay-at-home parent or caregiver. Some parents have employment flexible enough for them to scramble home in time to meet their kids. Some are lucky enough to make emergency backup plans on the fly. But in the name of safety, based on on the vanishingly small incremental risk of a 3 pm bus run over an 11 am bus run, the Halifax board sent hundreds, possibly thousands, of children home to empty or locked houses and apartments, with no apparent concern for the risks that created.

Also missing from the board’s calculation, as always, was the cost to parents and society of unnecessary or imprudent school closures. Either parents who rushed home due to the board’s recklessness will lose pay, or employers will absorb the lost productivity. Children get a subliminal message that it’s ok to abandon school and work when the going gets a wee bit tough.

Advocates of rampant snow days take umbrage at the suggestion financial and social costs can be weighed against even a tiny risk of injury to a child. But of course, parents and school officials take tiny risks every day of a child’s life. There are tiny risks involved in every ride to school, every gym class, every school outing, every recess.

No one in any school board has shown objective evidence that keeping schools open and buses running in normal winter weather poses greater risk than cancelling. They can’t show such evidence because it doesn’t exist.

* Another possibility is that such decisions are mandated by insurance policies, in which case only the insured risk is taken into consideration, while corresponding risks not covered by the policy are ignored.

Expect even more extreme rains in Nova Scotia — US study


The torrential rains that hit Sydney in October—eight inches in one day—are but a precursor of what’s to come, according to a study by US climate scientists published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Warmer air holds more water. As global temperatures rise due to increases in atmospheric carbon, parts of North America can expect fourfold increases in the frequency of extreme rainfall events by the end of this century, coupled with a 70 percent increase in the severity of those events, the study predicts.

rainA map published by the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, which carried out the research, indicates that Eastern Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, and PEI will be among the areas hardest hit by torrential downpours.

The scientists used an extensive storm dataset and a year of supercomputer time to model the rainfall predictions. The models assumed on a five degree Celsius increase in temperature, the increase expected by 2100 if carbon emissions continue unabated.

“These are huge increases,” NCAR scientist Andreas Prein, lead author of the study, said in a news release. “Imagine the most intense thunderstorm you typically experience in a single season. Our study finds that, in the future, parts of the U.S. could expect to experience five of those storms in a season, each with an intensity as strong or stronger than current storms.”

October’s storm completely overwhelmed Sydney’s infrastructure for handling surface water drainage. Anjuli Bamzai, program director in the US National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Geosciences, which funded the research, noted that, “Extreme precipitation events affect our infrastructure through flooding, landslides and debris flows.”

From the release:

Prein cautioned that this approach is a simplified way of comparing present and future climate. It doesn’t reflect possible changes to storm tracks or weather systems associated with climate change. The advantage, however, is that scientists can more easily isolate the impact of additional heat and associated moisture on future storm formation.

“The ability to simulate realistic downpours is a quantum leap in climate modeling. This enables us to investigate changes in hourly rainfall extremes that are related to flash flooding for the very first time,” Prein said. “To do this took a tremendous amount of computational resources.”

Yet more evidence why industrialists, who insist we forge ahead with new fossil fuel developments, and environmentalists who obsess over trifling objections to necessary green energy developments, need to focus on the impending global calamity posed by climate change.

The ugly underbelly of the teachers’ contract dispute

This morning, a 60-year-old teacher stopped into the CBC’s Sydney studio with a donation for the station’s Christmas campaign in support of Nova Scotia food banks.

Information Morning host Steve Sutherland took the occasion to quiz her about the teacher’s pending job action. In the banter that followed, the teacher made several veiled references to “working conditions.” Sutherland, who has a gift for drawing people out, pressed for details: What exactly is it about the working conditions, he asked. The teacher hemmed and hawed before blurting out, “It’s accessibility!”

She went on to complain about the inclusion of children with disabilities in regular classrooms, calling them “violent” and “disruptive.” She portrayed their presence in the classroom as a burden.

This is one teacher. Our schools have many educators who welcome all children to their classrooms, and work beautifully with everyone. But there is an ugly underbelly to the teachers’ dispute, a persistent whisper campaign against the inclusion of children with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, attention deficit disorder, and other circumstances that set them apart from so-called normal classmates.

Some teachers want a return to the days when students with special needs were delivered to school in shortbuses and segregated in isolated classrooms with nothing to inspire or challenge them. Out of sight, out of mind, hope, potential, friendship, and love.

A few weeks ago, CTV-Atlantic hinted at this undercurrent with one of those witless online polls that superficially resemble legitimate surveys but actually serve as platforms for extreme views. The poll’s short list of ways to solve “problems in the classroom,” included a “return to the model of special classes for students with special needs.”

Jenn Power, regional leader of L’Arche Canada (and, disclosure, my daughter-in-law), responded in a Facebook post that, “students with disabilities are not ‘problems in the classroom’ and segregating them at the end of the corridor will NOT fix anything.”

Diversity, when properly supported, enhances learning for ALL students. Inclusion works for students with and without disabilities.

My boys – and all folks with disabilities – have human rights, and these include the right to an education with their peers. Aside from our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees protection from discrimination based on (among other things) disability, Canada has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

This document (which y’all should read) requires Canada to ensure that:

  • Persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability, and that children with disabilities are not excluded from free and compulsory primary education, or from secondary education, on the basis of disability;
  • Persons with disabilities can access an inclusive, quality and free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live;
  • Reasonable accommodation of the individual’s requirements is provided;
  • Persons with disabilities receive the support required, within the general education system, to facilitate their effective education;
  • Effective individualized support measures are provided in environments that maximize academic and social development, consistent with the goal of full inclusion.

josh-jacob-off-to-schoolIf you know someone with a developmental handicap who attended Nova Scotia schools in the 1950s or ’60s, ask them what that experience was like. Chances are they hated school. They hated being treated as different and less valued. They hated being segregated into separate rooms with little to do and no chance to form friendships with their schoolmates.

Not so Power’s twin boys (who are also my grandsons), pictured at right waiting for the bus on the first day of school this fall. They love school, and they’re always delighted when school days return after a break.

Josh and Jacob live with Down syndrome and autism. This present challenges in the classroom, but also gifts for all concerned. When their shared birthday rolls around, a dozen classmates show up to join the party. Josh and Jacob gain the camaraderie of shared experiences and friendships; their classmates gain a lifelong lesson in diversity and human value.

A return to the antediluvian practices of the ’50s and ’60s would be a monstrous step backwards. It would also be a unconstitutional violation of the human rights of children.

The Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union must clearly and firmly disavow the whisper campaign and affirm its commitment to the equal educational rights of all Nova Scotia children. Anything less, and the union forfeits any rightful claim to public support.

Deja video


Remind you of anyone you’ve heard speak recently?

[Video link via James Fallows and John Kenney.]

Toronto reporter upset to see CBU attract Int’l students



Toronto reporter and sometime journalism teacher Ira Basen is upset to discover that Cape Breton University has made itself Canada’s most successful recruiter of foreign students. He vented his disdain in a 45-minute takedown on the national broadcaster this morning.

How dare we? Cape Bretoners are supposed to content ourselves with fishing lobster and mining the few scraps of coal we have left. What business have we in any sort of academic venture, let alone one that has out-recruited far more prestigious Ontario schools?

Basen reports that some foreign student arrive in Cape Breton with insufficient language skills for university study (but glosses over the fact we’ve created a separate school to upgrade those skills).

To illustrate the point, he airs clips of a student struggling in a pre-enrollment language class, as if struggling wasn’t an inevitable part of immersion in a foreign language, a process familiar to any Canadian who ever ventured abroad to study.

Basen even finds a disgruntled CBU professor whose field does not attract foreign students to denigrate the program, as if internecine jealousies were not a universal feature of post-secondary faculties.

Had Basen looked a little further down his Upper Canadian nose, he might have discovered the pioneering role CBU carved out for itself providing post-secondary educational opportunities to Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq. That project, begun in the early 1980s, took decades of careful planning and determined execution. It helped lead the Membertou First Nation to its current status as a world leader in aboriginal development.

Had he been around then, Basen no doubt would have scorned that effort too.

What are the chances CBC Sunday Edition would have seen fit to produce this critique if the University of Toronto, York, or even Guelph were Canada’s most successful magnet for foreign students?

The recruitment of international students to Cape Breton is an unalloyed good. The biggest problem with the program is the failure of Cape Breton civic leaders, like CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke and the island’s business community, to embrace the visitors and seek avenues for them to settle here.

CBU administrators and students should welcome these Upper Canadian sour grapes as a the perverse compliment they are.



Pedestrian follies—feedback

After yesterday’s post endorsing shared responsibility for crosswalk safety. I expected an inbox full of passionate screeds from car culture critics. Instead, I heard from people who share my view.

From a reader in extreme rural Cape Breton:

I wholeheartedly agree that roadway and crosswalk safety is a shared responsibility, but I’d emphasize that this is an inclusive responsibility and include cyclists in the discussion.

Too often when in Halifax, I’ve been forced to re-brake at intersections due to a thoughtless pedestrian sauntering after-the-fact into the shared space without looking up from his/her phone. Further, though, the number of cyclists who switch lanes without warning, travel from roadway to sidewalk and back again, ride first against traffic and then with traffic is appalling.

I suggest that a suitable penalty upon conviction of the misdemeanor of “Distracted Walking” or “Senseless Use Of A Bicycle” is compulsory signing of an organ donor card.

A point I’ve not heard raised in this issue is the fact that HRM is the provincial magnet for health care, legislative action and sprawling holiday “celebration” (usually shopping). In its role of Maritime Magnet, HRM draws in drivers who possess a varying amount of experience with urban driving, particularly with regards to crosswalks and other “share-the-road” skills. Admittedly it’s the drivers’ responsibility to possess such skills, but I wonder just how many frequent pedestrians ever stop to considerthe urban-driving experience levels of the operators of the vehicles into whose potential path they’re about to venture.

A Halifax engineer writes:

I will observe that the existing provisions in the MVA, if enforced (always a big if) would suffice. Pedestrians are already obligated under the Act to take certain precautions that a walking-texting person is not.

Any new law would also require the same enforcement. And of course the problem with that is that there really is only selective enforcement. In my personal observation—and I stress that it is just my impression after 30 years in this city—enforcement tends to be focussed on youth, specifically those of colour or with skateboards.

For the record, I do not advocate new law, and I think the recently enacted $697.50 fine for jaywalking is grossly excessive. Also, Contrarian is pro-skateboard, and wishes we had the coordination to ride one.

A senior provincial official writes:

To your point, last night’s weather made it particularly difficult to pick out pedestrians. It was dark and rainy, the roads wet and shiny. The combination of these factors and oncoming vehicle headlights made it difficult to pick out the road line markings let alone pedestrians.

Twice, turning onto Main Street at Gordon in Dartmouth heading toward the circ, and later entering the Armdale Roundabout, I encountered pedestrians dressed completely in black, heads down, crossing the road oblivious to oncoming traffic. Both these intersections, particularly the roundabout, are dangerous and unpredictable at the best of times. Despite the fact that they were crossing the road properly, there were motorists that didn’t see them causing near misses.

But for chance, both could have been dead right last night.

A denizen of suburban Halifax recalled a familiar limerick:

Here lies the body of Henry Gray.
He died defending his right of way.
His way was right, his will was strong,
But he’s just as dead as if he was wrong.

Finally, disability rights Gus Reed activist picks up on my suggestion that improved crosswalk design could make a difference:

As you hint but do not say, crosswalk safety is a three-way bargain that includes motorists, pedestrians, and the Public Works Departments. “Heads Up” is no excuse for the lack of standards for intersections. Lighting, signals, markings, curb cuts, and other more subtle considerations go a long way to enhance safety.

There is actually a science to this, but it is largely ignored in Nova Scotia in favour of dangerous home-grown ideas

Take those highly touted but largely discredited fan-shaped corners so fashionable in Halifax. They provide no clue as to the intention of pedestrians, drivers easily go on them, they are diabolically difficult for wheelchairs.

Like so many aspects of the built environment, fan-shaped curb cuts seem like a wonderful concession to wheelchair users, except when viewed from the chair-users vantage. I asked Gus to explain why they don’t work:

Physics 1A: Casters always run at right angles to the slope. So the natural direction is into the middle of the intersection.

In Nova Scotia urban design has Darwinist roots.

The inattentive pedestrian—righteous, or foolhardy?


Yesterday was Crosswalk Safety Awareness Day. Halifax marked the occasion with a campaign called Heads Up Halifax, urging motorists and pedestrians to stop and lock eyes with each other before proceeding.

Predictably, this produced a column* by Halifax Examiner transportation critic Erica Butler decrying the proposition that motorists and pedestrians share responsibility for crosswalk safety.

The crusade among young Halifax pedestrians and cyclists to persuade each other they bear little or no responsibility for their own safety when crossing a street is murderously reckless. Butler, who continually encourages this utopian fantasy, ought to knock it off before she gets someone killed.

The typical passenger vehicle weighs between 1,000 and 2,000 kg, a typical street-crosser less than 100. It’s a matter of simple physics that the pedestrian will fare worse in a collision between the two. As an engineer friend puts it, “‘She had the right-of-way’ will make a sad epitaph.

Motorists and pedestrians do share responsibility for avoiding collisions, but pedestrians bear the overwhelming burden of their consequences. This doesn’t make them morally superior; it makes them injured or dead. Intersections are dangerous. Everyone should approach them with caution, not least those at greatest risk. Outcomes matter. Moralizing gets in the way.

I suspect the greatest impact on crosswalk safety will be found in design improvements. Butler links to a Weburbanist piece about some interesting trompe l’oeil crosswalks like the one in Philadelphia pictured below.


* Butler’s article is behind the Examiner’s paywall. If you live in Nova Scotia, you really should subscribe. I disagree with the Examiner at least as often as I agree with it, but doing journalism costs money. Editor-publisher Tim Bousquet covers a huge range of issues and stories other local media miss, and stimulates discussions that need to be had.


McNeil government punts on accessibility


Nova Scotia Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard today proposed an Accessibility Act that was supposed to fulfil a Liberal campaign promise to “appoint an Accessibility Advisory Committee with a mandate and a strict timeline to develop accessibility legislation for NS.”

In reality, the committee thus established spent two years consulting with stakeholders and came back with… legislation proposing yet more consultation with stakeholders. Only this time, the plan includes an elaborate map with built-in roadblocks to implementation of improved accessibility.

The legislation establishes an Accessibility Advisory Board that will:

(a) suggest measures, policies, practices, and requirements that may be implemented by the Government to improve accessibility;
(b) assess whether existing measures, policies, practices, and requirements are consistent with the purpose of this Act;
(c) set priorities for the establishment and content of accessibility standards and the timelines for their implementation;
(d) set long-term accessibility objectives for furthering the purpose of this Act; and
(e) respond to requests for accessibility advice from the Minister. [Contrarian emphasis.]

This isn’t complicated. The rights of persons with disabilities are fundamental human rights guaranteed by Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and spelled out in much greater detail in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Canada ratified in 2010. The UN convention obliges Canada “to promote and ensure the full enjoyment of human rights of persons with disabilities including full equality under the law.”

The last thing Nova Scotia needs is more consultation, suggestions, opinions, advice, or setting of priorities and objectives about accessibility. These are human rights. We need clear, enforceable standards coupled with an effective mechanism for their enforcement. Indeed, they are long overdue.

In place of standards and enforcement, the McNeil government has given us a bill requiring an economic impact study of every proposed accessibility standard. No other basic human right is subject to such equivocation. We don’t ponder the economic impact of right to vote, to express a political opinion, or to worship as we choose. We enforce rights—unless the rights holder has a disability.

Not one of the three people quoted in the government’s news release about today’s bill has a disability. Former Canadian Alliance Party advisor and candidate Jordi Morgan is quoted. He’s now the Atlantic vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, an organization whose members have a vested interest in limiting accessibility. Says Morgan:

CFIB is pleased Minister Bernard has asked us to be at the table to ensure we recognize the rights of all Nova Scotians, while at the same time holding government to its commitment to avoid unnecessary or costly red tape for small business owners.

This is equivalent to asking the head of the Montgomery Bus Commission to devise a seating chart for Rosa Parks. Heaven forfend treating people as equals should come with any cost to anyone.

Nova Scotia is the Alabama of accessibility rights in the twenty-first century. Nothing in Bernard’s bill will change that.

How Nova Scotia’s Human Rights Commission impedes disability rights

Human rights lawyer David Fraser has filed an action in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia seeking a review of the NS Human Rights Commission’s refusal to accept a complaint against the province by five prominent disability rights activists.

The complaint is a tad complex, but it aptly illustrates Nova Scotia’s stonewalling of people with disabilities: the failure of municipal building inspectors to enforce barrier-free requirements of the building code; the political failure of provincial and federal governments to give those regulations teeth; and the inexplicable failure of the Human Rights Commission to show leadership in this area—or even accept complaints about it.

washroom-downstairsIn brief, the Food Safety Regulations under s. 105 of the Health Protection Act require restaurants to have a conveniently located washroom for customers, one that meets the building code. Many restaurants are exempt from the barrier-free requirements of the building code because they are “grandfathered” as pre-existing, non-conforming uses. However, when restaurants add seasonal sidewalk patios, a bylaw requires the patios to be barrier free in compliance with the Canada Building Code. This leads to a profusion of Halifax restaurants that admit people using wheelchairs, but do not provide them with conveniently located, barrier-free washrooms.

The health authorities insist this is a building code issue. The complainants contend its a human rights and a health protection issue.

Being able to wash one’s hands before eating is a well-established health priority. A few summers ago, two posh Halifax restaurants were shut down when staff and customers contracted Norovirus. Handwashing was the remedy our health authorities prescribed.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the opportunity to wash one’s hands before eating especially important for people who use wheelchairs. Many people with disabilities are unusually susceptible to infections. Moreover, their hands come into contact with the wheels of their chairs, which in turn come into contact with whatever doggie residues inhabit the mean streets of Halifax. But, really, don’t we all want everyone to wash their hands, not just ourselves?

The complainants deliberately declined to complain against the individual noncomplying restaurants (Effendy, The Wooden Monkey, Le Coq, and The Five Fishermen) but rather complained against the Chief Medical Office of Health and the Minister of Environment (who is responsible for food safety inspections) for failing to enforce the regulations. The Human Rights Commission twice rejected the complaint on grounds that complaints about administration of government programs should go to the Ombudsman. The complainants replied that they were complaining about discriminatory administration of government programs, an issue over which the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act has jurisdiction.

Depart copulating, said the HR Commission. So with lawyer Fraser’s help, the complainants are suing.

Complainer-in-Chief Gus Reed has been my friend for three decades. You can’t be Gus’s friend without getting drawn into his tenacious demands for equal treatment of wheelchair users. Gus lives half the year in Halifax and half in North Carolina, where the Americans with Disabilities Act gives him easy access to speedy official enforcement of accessibility rules. Here in Nova Scotia, he faces lip service to disabilities rights undergirded by non-enforcement of the wishy-washy rules we have. Building inspectors won’t enforce barrier-free regs because, when they do, the business people complain to their councillors, and the inspector soon has an annoyed politician on his case.

Sailor Bup's: No wheelchair users need apply.

   Sailor Bup’s: No wheelchair users need apply

Non-enforcement is half the problem. The other half is the building code’s grandfather provision, which applies to so many buildings in Halifax because it’s such an old city. Because the grandfather clause has no sunset provision, exemption from barrier-free requirements becomes a permanent asset that enhances a building’s real estate value. It gets passed from owner to owner in perpetuity—as long as the building remains some sort of retail establishment. When the inaccessible surf shop at Queen and Morris became a candy shop, officials deemed it not to be a change of use. When three different Halifax building inspectors found three different sets of violations at Sailor Bup’s Dartmouth barbershop, not one cited its glaring lack of a ramp, even though there is plenty of room for a ramp and modest ramp is all that’s needed. If the rumoured settlement of Bup’s feud with the city comes to fruition, I’ll bet dollars to Timbits the solution won’t include a ramp.

Quite apart from the human rights and health issues here, consider the lost strategic opportunity. As long as it is grandfathered, an inaccessible restaurant has a financial incentive to retain barriers to wheelchairs. But if provincial inspectors took the logical step of insisting restaurants with accessible patios must have accessible washrooms, accessibility would have a powerful financial incentive on its side. The city and the province could say to restaurateurs, “Sidewalk patios are lucrative; if you want one, invest in an accessible washroom.”

One final word about the Human Rights Commission. Its two decisions refusing to accept a complaint from the disability rights activists in this case are so convoluted, illogical, and twisted as to betray a determination to let provincial government obstructors slip the hook. One hopes the Supreme Court will make short work of this dereliction, but whatever the outcome, it remains troubling behaviour by a body charged with sticking up for the rights of those least able to speak up for themselves.

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