Biting the hand: Cowan-Dewar and Nova Scotia’s culture of resentment

Inverness Coal Mine

In 2012, Ben Cowan-Dewar opened North America’s first true links-style golf course on a coal mine waste dump wedged between the downtrodden village of Inverness and its spectacular beach. Cabot Links soon became one of the most talked about new golf destinations in the world. This year, Cowan-Dewar is adding a second 18-hole course, Cabot Cliffs, and expanding the resort’s luxury hotel.

Cabot Links will employ 200 Invernessers this summer, a number the owners hope will rise to 450 once Cabot Cliffs is in full operation. It’s not an exaggeration to call it the most successful tourist development in Nova Scotia since the advent of Celtic Colours in 1997. It has reversed a half century of economic decline in Inverness, offering a level of hope townspeople have not known for generations.

Premier Stephen McNeil must have been delighted when Cowan-Dewar agreed to chair the board of the province’s newly created Tourism Agency. A young man with ambition, drive, and a proven track record drawing new tourists to the province would help guide government tourism policy.

Now comes word that after seven years in Inverness, Cowan-Dewar and his family are moving back to Toronto. They will still spend summers here, overseeing their resort, but for the rest of the year, Cowan-Dewar plans to fly in for monthly Tourism Agency board meetings, paying for the travel himself. (Ironically, flying in to Halifax from Toronto will probably take less time than driving in from Inverness.)

Predictably, this has caused an uproar. The interim leader of the New Democratic Party, flying on auto-pilot, demanded Cowan-Dewer’s resignation. Conservative leader Jamie Baillie, who knows better, fell dutifully in line.

In the online Halifax Examiner, publisher Tim Bousquet listed all the (secured, interest-bearing) loans Cabot Links received from federal and provincial agencies, before shifting to personal attack mode. Riffing on a joke Cowan-Dewar’s wife, Allie Barclay, once made about the remoteness of Inverness (“I felt like I was in the witness protection program.”), Bousquet wrote:

I guess the mob boss has been murdered, and the family can move back to the city without fearing for their safety. The kids can go to a nice school, not those hellhole schools they’ve got in Cape Breton. Barclay can sit on a board of a museum or charity, and drink wine with other sophisticates after an afternoon shopping in boutiques. Cowan-Dewer can own a table at the local country club, regaling his exploits of getting rich on the backs of the hicks out east.

Ah, now we’re getting to the nub. Cowan-Dewar may have brought jobs and hope to a town that had known only grinding despair for generations—but the bastard’s rich. He’s a businessman. He’s from Toronto. Oh, how we despise success!

“Shitty news about Nova Scotian taxpayers getting hosed once again,” howled Trevor Parsons in the Examiner’s comment section. Not great news about a hopeless town finding hope again. Shitty news. We’d rather stuff camels through the eye of a needle than allow a wealthy Toronto businessman any role in our redemption.

Parsons warmed to his resentment-fueled theme:con

As for Mr. Cowan-Dewar: Well played, sir. You are following a time honoured tradition of leveraging taxpayer money to enrich yourself and leave buckets of booty to your offspring. Enjoy.

On Facebook, Nick Panagopoulos declared:

It’s a tax dodge! Compare personal income tax rates in NS as opposed to Ontario and you’ll see NS’s are higher so when you combine provincial with federal this dude can save more in income tax by living in Ontario.

From all across social media came angry denunciations of Cowan-Dewar, and demands for his dismissal.

Fire him? Wouldn’t that be smart of us? However Cowan-Dewar splits his time between Toronto and Inverness, he still operates a major business here. He will spend a great deal of time in Nova Scotia. He will remain fully up to speed on developments in the tourism industry. Is anyone—literally anyone—better equipped to provide board-level guidance to a tourism agency in Nova Scotia?

Cowan-Dewar isn’t deputy minister of tourism, or a manager responsible for the agency’s day-to-day operations. Chairing the board involves monthly meetings and some prep time. It’s more in the realm of community service than a job.

But we are nothing if not insular. Sensing a chance to label MP Megan Leslie as a come-from-away, her Liberal opponent Andy Fillmore has been emphasizing his native Haligonian bona fides. Why? Because xenophobia is an honoured belief system in Nova Scotia, a proven vote-mover.

We are lucky to have someone of Dewar’s talent and experience to chair this board. Premier McNeil was wise to rebuff demands for his sacking. Good for him. It’s a start.