Tagged: Talbot House

Six things the NDP did wrong – part 2

Further evidence, if more were needed, that God is a New Democrat: No sooner did I put up the first part of my Things the NDP Did Wrong post than I was laid low by a chest cold that obliterated deep thought.* Here, finally, is Part Two of What the Dippers Did Wrong, to be followed, more swiftly I hope, by a two-part Things They Did Right.

4.  Tone deaf to rural NS

Four years ago, Nova Scotia’s New Democratic Party formed its first ever provincial government by adding an historic sweep of the rural mainland to its traditional Metro stranglehold. From the Canso Causeway to Lower East Pubnico, Dexter’s troops painted the entire Atlantic coastline orange.

Were it not for Tory Angus Tando MacIsaac hanging onto Antigonish, and the thin strip of coastline that belongs to Colchester North, the party would have registered another clean sweep along the Northumberland coast, from the Causeway to the Tantramar Marsh. Antigonish joined the orange tide a year later in a byelection.

NDP Mainland Seats 2009-600

Credit for engineering this triumph goes to the party’s cucumber-cool leader, whose stolid personality calmed fears of barbarians at the gate, and the small group of smart political operatives who surrounded him. Like the leader, and all but a handful of the party’s longstanding MLAs, the apparatchiks were firmly rooted in Halifax. None had neighbours who made their living with Stihl 041s, Ford 2Ns, or Ace Pot-Pullers. None lived 25 km from the nearest post office or NSLC outlet. None commuted to and from work over kilometres of unpaved road. None lived on their grandfather’s farm. None had used dialup in more than a decade.**

They were, however, thoroughly familiar with fashionable economic theories about the the inexorable urbanization of Canada, and the foolhardiness of propping up dying regions and economies. They knew governments are supposed to get unpleasant tasks—breaking promises, raising taxes, and killing popular programs—out of the way early in the mandate.

CatSo when Bay Ferries Ltd. asked for another in a long and growing string of annual subsidies to keep the Yarmouth Ferry running, Dexter’s boys abruptly shut off the tap. For the first time in decades, there would be no ferry connection between Yarmouth and Maine. The announcement came a week before Christmas.

There was no consultation—not with the town, the county, or the surrounding municipalities; not with the 120 ferry workers who would lose their jobs; not with the hoteliers who feared the ferry shutdown would render their businesses unviable. Dexter and Fisheries Minister Sterling Belliveau, the political minister for Southwest Nova, were both out of the country. It may just have been, as Dexter said in a television appearance last week, the biggest mistake of his first term.

It wasn’t simply a failure to calculate the massive collateral damage removal of the ferry would cause, it was a general cluelessness about the nuts and bolts of rural life. The NS NDP brain trust doesn’t get rural Nova Scotia, and rural Nova Scotia knows it.

5.  Maladroit on big negotiations

Whether chastened by the Yarmouth fiasco or hip to the hundreds of union jobs at stake, Dexter’s boys moved aggressively to shore up two venerable industrial behemoths—the paper mills at Brooklyn and Point Tupper—and to invest in two potential industrial employers—Daewoo’s wind turbine fabrication plant at the old Trenton Rail Yard, and Irving’s bid for a massive federal shipbuilding contract.

  •  In December 2011, the province gave Bowater Mersey a $50 million rescue package aimed at saving 320 jobs, only to see the plant shut down permanently six months later. About half the money went to purchase woodlands owned by the newsprint company; the other half took the form of grants that were mostly unspent when the owners pulled the plug. In December 2012, the province took over most of the company’s assets and liabilities, including a $20 million debt to one of the two owners, $120 million in pension liabilities, and environmental liabilities of unknown dimensions.
  • port-hawkesbury-paperIn September, 2012, the province paid the venture capital firm Stern Partners $124.5 million to take over the idle Pt. Tupper super-calendar paper mill. It had already spent $36.8 million keeping the mill in restartable condition. As the deal-making dragged on, Stern continually upped its demands, and the province repeatedly met them. Only after tiny Richmond County balked at Stern’s ultimatum for extreme property tax abatement, and Stern backed down, did the province finally draw a line in the sand, at which point Stern quickly agreed to the too-rich aid package.***
  • In June 2012 2011, the province put a total of $60 million—$40 million in grants and $20 million for a 49% equity stake—into a subsidiary of Korea’s troubled Daewoo Group that would manufacture wind turbine components at the old Trenton Rail Car plant. Daewoo put up just $30 million. The operation was supposed to create 500 jobs, but by the fall of 2011, employment had peaked at just 70, and the province acknowledged the plant was struggling with slack demand.
  • In 2012, the Dexter government staged a smart, successful communications and lobbying campaign to help Irving Shipbuilding land a purported $25 billion shipbuilding contract that could produce up to 11,500 direct and indirect jobs, according to the Conference Board of Canada. The jobs were supposed to begin as early as December 2012, but instead, Irving laid off 70 workers that month, as the start-up date for steel-cutting drifted off to 2015 at the earliest. At the same time, it emerged that the province had agreed to “loan” Irving $304 million (though only $44 million of the amount was repayable, a quality normally intrinsic to the concept of a loan). Then Dexter rejected Freedom of Information requests for details of the loan, but offered selected leaks to favoured reporters.

No one outside government knows the ins and outs of these deals, but on the results, it’s hard to avoid suspicion the New Democrats repeatedly got hosed when they went up against experienced corporate negotiators.

6.  Failure at Community Services

It was inevitable that a New Democratic Party government would look more like previous governments than its most ardent supporters might have hoped. No aspect of the Dexter-guided drift to the centre will have disappointed the party’s base more than its failure to reform the imperious bureaucracy of Nova Scotia’s Department of Community Services.

Dexter-RafuseWhen senior officials of the department, eager to win control of addiction treatment centres over which they had no statutory authority, promoted vague—and, as it turned out, false—allegations of managerial and sexual misconduct against the respected Roman Catholic priest who ran Talbot House in Frenchvale, Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse vigorously championed the character assassination for seven months. She also pilloried Talbot’s volunteer board of directors, despite ample evidence the allegations were the empty ravings of an aggrieved crackpot. As political minister for Cape Breton, Deputy Premier Frank Corbett deserves special mention for his failure to step in.

Throughout its history, the NDP had defended the rights of income assistance recipients, but once in power, it turned its back on these citizens, clawing back benefits, and then defending the meanspirited changes with a despicable PR campaign that played to the nastiest stereotypes about welfare recipients. So much for today’s families.

Of all my complaints about Nova Scotia’s first social democratic government, this is the saddest.

Next: Six things the NDP did right. I encourage readers to submit comments and reflections on the NDP’s first term, and my evaluation of it. I will print a selection of the most thought-provoking, least partisan.

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* Before swamping me with email, please check the batteries in your irony detectors. I am an atheist, and while I believe the province would be best served by returning an NDP government, despite first-term ineptitude I describe here, I will vote for the Tory in my riding, a decent man with decades of community service facing a cynical challenge from a Liberal whose sole qualification for office is her status as wife of a currently serving Member of Parliament.

** The same can be said most of Nova Scotia’s political reporters, who rarely venture past the Armdale Rotary.

*** Disclosure: I played a small role helping Richmond County prepare for these negotiations.

After wasting a year, province will restore Talbot House funding

Almost exactly a year after precipitous–and as it turned out, groundless–complaints by the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services forced the closure of Cape Breton’s only residential addiction recovery centre, Talbot House will get its funding back this week.

Health and Wellness Minister David Wilson will deliver the news in Cape Breton Friday, a weekday traditionally chosen for announcements governments would prefer to inter quietly. Wilson became the minister responsible for recovery centres last September, when Premier Darrell Dexter, fed up with the continual barrage of negative stories about DCS mistreatment of Talbot, stripped that department of the file and handed it to Health and Wellness.

[Background to this long unsavoury saga hereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here. Or just type “Talbot House” into the search box at right.]

The re-funding decision comes after a conspicuously slow Health Dept. review of an RFP for which Talbot House was the only respondent. A government source familiar with the review acknowledged Monday that Talbot’s Board of Directors did “a good job” on the RFP, but previous government mishandling had led to excessive diligence on the part of cautious bureaucrats.

It’s also the case that Health and Wellness had no warning it was to be handed  responsibility for the problem file, and no doubt needed time to ramp up its own resources.

Friday’s announcement will include funding for staff training at Talbot, some renovations at the half-century-old, community-built centre, and an annual budget that compares favourably with its pre-shutdown funding. After a few weeks to ramp up staffing, the recovery centre is expected to resume operations April 1. Fr. Paul Abbass will stay on as Executive Director at least through the hiring and start-up, possibly longer.

It was DCS’s furtive promotion of vague charges of sexual impropriety by Abbass that led to the centre’s shutdown. Cape Breton Regional Police spent eight weeks looking into the shadowy complaints, but found no basis for launching a formal investigation. A Contrarian freedom of information appeal to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia likewise turned up no evidence of wrongdoing. No actual complainant ever came forward.

Missing from Friday’s announcement will be any plan to investigate or even review Community Services’ handling of the travesty.  That’s a big missed opportunity. The landscape is littered with tales of abusive behaviour by DCS. To be sure, the department’s usually savvy bureaucrats suffered a humiliating defeat in this case, but there is no reason to expect any systemic change in their entrenched habit of bullying the poor and the non-profits who assist them.

If a New Democratic Party Government won’t clean up this department, who will?

Stealing off into the night

The Nova Scotia Department of Community Services, which was unceremoniously stripped of responsibility for addiction recovery centres earlier this month, has quietly removed from its website its much criticized review of Cape Breton’s Talbot House Recovery Centre.

An electronic search failed to turn up a copy of the “report” — hatchet job would be a more accurate descriptor — anywhere on the gov.ns.ca website. Removal of the error-riddled document, and publication of the Talbot Board’s point-by-point refutation, had been persistently sought by the beleaguered recovery center.

As recently as July, Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse insisted she stood by the review, saying it  it “followed the standard and appropriate processes.”

Talbot has been closed since last March, after Peterson-Rafuse’s officials began furtively promoting false allegations of sexual misconduct against the centre’s executive director. Police found no evidence to support the rumors—nothing that would even warrant opening a formal investigation.

The Department of Health and Wellness, which became the new government home for recovery centres following the Community Services misadventure, is currently evaluating Talbot’s response to a request for proposals (RFP) for the very services it had provided to widespread acclaim for 53 years. The are no other bidders vying to help Cape Breton addicts seeking a residential recovery program.

That this vindictive RFP should never have been issued is by now obvious to everyone. As a face-saving exercise, the current evaluation is an ill-fitting fig leaf. The sooner it’s completed, and Talbot House refunded and reopened, the better.

An abuse of government procurement standards

“One of this government’s least admirable traits,” said a friend who admires much the Dexter Government has done, “is its refusal to ever admit it made a mistake.”

The impulse to stay an obviously incorrect course is common enough in government, and it commonly leads to even greater error.

This month, the Dexter Government’s refusal to admit mistakes in its reprehensible treatment of a Cape Breton addiction recovery centre led to further error in the form of a dishonest procurement process.

On Friday, the Board of Directors of Talbot House announced it would not submit a tender to supply the addiction recovery services it had provided in Cape Breton for the last 53 years until a series of indefensible actions by the Department of Community Services (DCS) forced it to shut down six months ago.

It was the right decision. The DCS request for proposals (RFP) was manifestly stacked against Talbot. Officials responsible for Nova Scotia’s procurement process should never have allowed it to go forward. That they did not intervene marks a significant backward step in ethical government purchasing.

No one in government or politics believes DCS would have issued the RFP if it did not have a candidate lined up to respond. Rumor has it the likely upstart bidder is Crosbie House, a recovery centre in New Minas that has presumably been enticed to open a branch plant in Cape Breton, possibly with support from the Membertou First Nation.

The RFP issued August 1 was unusually complex. It ran to more than 50 pages, and contained a highly prescriptive outline of how such a treatment centre would run (surprising in light of the fact DCS has no statutory authority over addiction treatment centres). There were many trip-wires in the form of detailed requirements that, if not precisely met, could disqualify a bidder. In addition to the RFP’s unusual length and complexity, it came with an unusually short return time. Bidders had until August 28 to complete and submit their detailed responses.

It is no exaggeration to say Talbot’s 10-member volunteer board—almost all of whom are busy professionals—would have had to commit several hundred person-hours to meet its terms.

That burden, while onerous, would not have proven insurmountable had there been reason to believe a Talbot submission would be evaluated honestly and fairly. Unfortunately, there was compelling reason to conclude the opposite: it would be evaluated with extreme prejudice.

Tender evaluation teams traditionally have three or more members: a representative from the procurement office to advise on procedures, and two or more people knowledgeable in the subject area, in this case, addiction recovery services. Unusually, the DCS RFP had only two members: the traditional representative from procurement services, and Marika Lathem of DCS.

For anyone who has not been following the Talbot debacle, Lathem is the official who wrote the error-riddled report of her own biased “organizational review” of Talbot House, who laced that report with slanderous innuendo against Fr. Paul Abbass, and who then published the malicious report even though police had already cleared Abbass of the false charges she so enthusiastically promoted.

That an official with a track record this odious would be the only one to supply substantive evaluation of the proposals for addiction recovery is, on its face, an abuse of the tendering process.

Some of us are old enough to remember the days when Nova Scotia governments routinely corrupted the tendering process to reward friends and punish enemies. The development of rigorous, impartial tendering standards marks a signal achievement in the last generation of Nova Scotia government.

That the Dexter Government would be prepared to sweep those standards aside simply to avoid facing up to what DCS has done in this case is disheartening. That procurement officials would not stand up for the integrity of their system is dismaying.

Fr. Paul Abbass: How Talbot House changed men

Most Contrarian readers don’t know Fr. Paul Abbass. This moving video will give you a sense of the man whose life and reputation has been so damaged by the reckless behavior of the Department of Community Services and the Dexter Government. He talks about what happened to men during their stays at Talbot House

Board members and former residents of Talbot have made their own videos here. The Dexter Government assumes cynically that it can tough this situation out and it will go away. We’ll see about that.

Talbot House grad

Former Talbot House resident Greg Carter writes:

I’m writing in response to the department of community services’ refusal to meet with the board and at least let them reopen. After all, the allegations against Fr. Paul Abbass were unfounded and in my opinion malicious. I spent 18 months at talbot house and never once felt or saw any inappropriate behaivior on any of the staff’s part. The staff and Fr. Paul always acted with professionalism and care for the residents. Once my stay was over, I was able to come out to the house for a little work during the back shift, which was very beneficial to my recovery. The closing of the house should have never happened, and so it should be reopened immediately.

Prominent New Democrat denounces Peterson-Rafuse

Sydney Mines native John Hugh Edwards is a life-long New Democrat, the kind of party stalwart who mans phones during election campaigns, works polls on voting day, and faithfully attends NDP rallies and conventions. Twice, the longtime St. Francis Xavier extension worker ran as the party’s federal candidate in Cape Breton – The Sydneys, mounting a respectable challenge to Liberal MP Mark Eyking.

Don’t miss his letter to the Cape Breton Post about Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse’s treatment of Talbot House:

For decades, the staff and volunteers at Talbot House have provided Cape Breton with incredible service to those among us who have suffered from the ravages of addiction. Now it appears that the good work of these dedicated people, and the legacy of many years of service to our community, are to be thrown aside because of little more than false allegations, innuendo, and a tissue of technical and picayune complaints by nameless bureaucrats.

Before leaving home for work opportunities in Ottawa five years ago, I had the privilege to assist, in a small way, with Talbot House’s work. Through this direct experience, I can attest to the dedication and commitment of the executive director, the staff, the residents and the volunteers.

During more than 30 years of working with non-profit and community service organizations, I have rarely seen the level of commitment to service and recovery I found at Talbot House.

For the staff and board members of Talbot House to be subjected to the assault and vilification they have suffered at the hands of the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services is a travesty of the first order.

To add insult to injury, the behaviour of the current minister of community services in supporting the unsupportable organizational review is incomprehensible.

I have read the review, and my years of professional experience in organizational development tell me that aside from allegations that have since been proven false, it contains no substantial issues that could not be resolved by simple and direct communication between the board and the department.

We have not been able to read the board’s response* to the review since the Department of Community Services has refused to post it. More shameful behaviour. Further to the minister’s discredit, she appears to have reneged on commitments she made to the board in June.

I suggest the only fair resolution to this sad affair would include restoration of the mandate and funding for Talbot House; publication on the government website of Talbot House’s response to the organizational review; a public apology from the minister of community services to the executive director, staff, board, and residents of Talbot House; and a full and open inquiry into the behaviour of the Department of Community Services throughout this shameful episode.

Those steps would not only satisfy the injustice to Talbot House, but also assure other community-based organizations in Cape Breton and throughout Nova Scotia they will not be subjected to the same kind of treatment from the Department of Community Services.

I agree that the only fair resolution to this disgraceful episode is a thorough, scrupulously independent investigation of this department. Peterson-Rafuse has lately been crowing about how many volunteer boards and charitable community groups her department has subjected to “organizational reviews.” Well, if it’s sauce for all those goslings, how about some sauce for this smug, complacent goose?

Where are the other New Democrats who campaigned for decades to hold the Department of Community Services to account? How can they remain silent in the face of this behavior? Are they really satisfied to see such cruel, senseless treatment of a valued community organization by the first New Democratic government in Nova Scotia?

* Peterson-Rafuse’s department hasn’t have the integrity to publish the Talbot Board’s devastating response, which exposes the false allegations, factual errors, and bias that pervade her department’s own report on this issue, but you can download it from Contrarian [pdf].

[Disclosure: John Hugh is a longtime neighbour and valued friend. We were briefly business partners a decade ago. He now lives most of the year in Ottawa, and to the best of my recollection, we have n deveriscussed this issue.]

Save Talbot House, a Facebook page started by distraught former residents of Talbot House, has attracted 2,000 members in less that a week. There is also an online petition.

Talbot House responds to Peterson-Rafuse’s about-face

The background:

  • On June 11, Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse agreed to suspend her department’s tender call to replace the addiction services formerly provided by Cape Breton’s Talbot House Recovery Centre, and pledged to personally lead direct negotiations with Talbot’s board for a new contract to deliver those services.
  • Just 25 days later, without holding a single meeting with the board, Peterson-Rafuse told Talbot House she would not meet with them after all, and would instead proceed with the tender call.

Talbot’s board chair, Sydney psychologist John Gainer, issued the following statement Wednesday:

The Board of Directors of Talbot House was informed in a letter dated July 6, 2012, that the Minister of Community Services has withdrawn from further independent discussion with the Board and will issue a general request for proposals for an addiction recovery house in Cape Breton.


Following what seemed to be a productive meeting in early June, the Board of Director’s was optimistic and eager to continue discussion with the Minister regarding the re-establishment of a service agreement between the Department of Community Services and the Talbot House Board.

The Minister agreed to review the report of the organizational review of Talbot House and the Board’s detailed and critical response. The Minister also agreed to meet regularly and directly with the Board to continue discussion. The Board agreed to provide additional documentation to the Minister in advance of subsequent meetings.

A follow-up meeting was never scheduled, due to the Minister’s and the Board members’ respective work and travel schedules in June and early July. On June 21, 2012 the Board requested available meeting dates from the Minister and informed her that she would be provided with all relevant information well in advance of the next meeting, including a detailed outline of the Board’s plans to establish compliance with Department of Community Services standards.

In the July 6, 2012 letter to the Board and in subsequent email correspondence, the Minister indicated that the Board had “failed” to “immediately” send her requested information, despite there being no agreed upon or specific deadline for the submission of documents.

The Board had also requested that the Minister send policy and governance documents from the other recovery houses in the province for the Board’s review. The Department of Community Services had indicated that the other facilities met or exceeded all government standards and the Board hoped to use the documents as government-approved templates. To date, the Board has received neither documents nor response on this matter from the Department of Community Services.

The Minister has indicated that she “stand(s) by” the organizational review and believes it “followed the standard and appropriate processes.” The Board of Directors of Talbot House maintains that both the review process and report remain fundamentally flawed. The Board has requested that the Minister publish the Board’s written response on our government’s website. There has been no response.

Minister Peterson-Rafuse presses pause

Contrary to expectations expressed here Monday, today’s meeting between Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse and the Directors of Talbot House brought the two sides closer together, and may lead to the reopening of Talbot House under the leadership of a vindicated Fr. Paul Abbass.

Peterson-Rafuse, persistently criticized here over the last two months, took a crucial step back from the brink. For now at least, she has cancelled her department’s plan to issue a tender for the addiction recovery services formerly provided by Talbot House. The two sides will negotiate terms for Talbot’s reopening with government funding. The Cape Breton Post’s Julie Collins has the optimistic details.

Full credit to Peterson-Rafuse for directing the department’s about-face.

The meeting was closed to the media, and I don’t know what happened there. It seems reasonable to speculate that when the minister finally got in a room with someone other than her department’s senior officials, she discovered there was much she had not been told, and much of what she had been told was less than forthright. This likely extended beyond the complicated facts of the case to the calibre and heft of the Talbot directors her officials had treated with such disdain.

It’s not the first time. A year ago, the minister cancelled the department’s plans to implement a series of devastating cuts to medical benefits for Nova Scotians with disabilities. DCS officials planned to impose the cuts on the Friday before Canada Day weekend, without having consulted caregivers, operators of special needs homes, or the disabled residents themselves.

A media call alerted Peterson-Rafuse, who halted the cuts 24 hours before they were to take place. She later apologized to stakeholders and ordered two months of consultations before implementing a revised set of guidelines.

The Talbot affair could be a teaching moment for the NDP Government. Why was the minister not accurately briefed on both these operations? What does this say about the culture of the Department of Community Services? About its relationship to the clients it is ultimately supposed to serve, a group of Nova Scotians the NDP has long championed? What does it say about this department’s exercise of the deference civil servants are supposed to show ministers of government?



Another Talbot House test for the NDP

On Tuesday, members of the Nova Scotia Legislature’s Community Services Committee will get a chance to question the bureaucrat who promoted what turned out to be false allegations of sexual misconduct against an innocent priest, and to ask her superiors why they still haven’t withdrawn a report containing slanderous innuendo against him.

The department’s actions led to the closure of Talbot House, which had for 53 years provided safe lodging, meaningful work, and successful treatment for some of Nova Scotia’s most troubled citizens.

Marika Lathem, Director of Family and Youth Services and the principal author of the error-filled report, will testify. The Talbot House Society Board said her review of the organization, “was fundamentally flawed in process and analysis, procedurally inadequate, lacked balance, and contributed to a report that contained numerous inaccuracies and misrepresentations that, by their nature, are prejudicial, biased and misrepresent the history, governance, and operation of Talbot House.”

George Savoury, Executive Director of Family and Community Supports, and Associate Deputy Minister David Ryan will also appear. As Lathem’s superiors, they either failed to vet her report prior to publication, or failed to notice its obvious errors, inconsistencies, and casual calumny.


Chairing the committee is Kings North MLA Jim Morton who, coincidentally, served as the Annapolis Valley District Health Authority’s Manager of Addiction Services before becoming an MLA. With that background, Morton will have first-hand experience with Fortress DCS.

Last week, another coincidence: DCS gave itself a 30-day extension to the statutory deadline for responding to four freedom-of-information requests about Talbot. This had the effect of guaranteeing the requested material will not be available for Tuesday’s hearing. The department said meeting the initial time limit for the large number of records requested could unreasonably interfere with its operations. In one of the requests at issue, the “large number of records requested” was one: a single, easily located document.

Last time a house committee got the opportunity to consider the Talbot House scandal, DCS Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse conducted a one-woman filibuster in response to the first question asked of her. She spoke for nearly an hour, running out the clock before opposition MLAs could get in a second question.

Legislature committee rules do not facilitate effective cross-examination of evasive or hostile witnesses. It will be interesting to see whether Morton allows prolix opening statements and time-wasting by  government members to frustrate meaningful exploration of the Talbot mess Tuesday.

For decades, concern about how DCS treated Nova Scotia’s down-and-out lay close to the heart of the New Democratic Party. Tuesday’s hearing will offer another measure of how much the long road to power has changed the party.

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