Time is not on the teachers’ side


Based mainly on responses to his down-the-middle Facebook posts on the tentative teachers’ agreement, Graham Steele predicts its probable defeat by union members. Social media tends to encourage the most extreme and aggrieved voices, but he may be right.

Here’s the thing: Everyone values good teachers. Good teachers are priceless.*  In reality, though, teaching is like most occupations: a few gems, many duds, most in between. As the conflict drags on, I wonder how the public will react to overwrought voices of grievance from a group of public employees whose compensation and terms of work look pretty good from the outside.

Prolonged disruption that continues to shortchange children will erode public support for teachers in their fight with the McNeil government.

* Too bad unions and school boards cling to an antiquated hiring system—years of torture on the supply list—that drives away the best candidates.

Union, Liberals to decide fate of disabled kids — without the kids, or their parents


The battle to preserve the rights of all Nova Scotia children to an inclusive education is joined. The opening of hostilities came in the tentative agreement on a new teachers’ contract, and its concession to whispered demands for a retreat from inclusive education:

This tentative agreement creates an independent Commission to study and make recommendations on inclusive education. This Commission, which is funded by the Department and the NSTU, will study how inclusion has been implemented in Nova Scotia, review best practices throughout the world, and provide recommendations related to funding, resources and resource allocation and accountability, professional development, alignment of initiatives, and such other matters as the Commission deems appropriate. Further, the Commission will make recommendations regarding a mechanism for future regular reviews of inclusive education.

The commission will include one person appointed by government, one appointed by the union, and a chair jointly agreed upon. Affected children will be excluded, along with their parents and organizational advocates. It’s the education system’s equivalent of letting building inspectors make final decisions about the accessibility of public places.

Be Kind Like meThe peculiar evil of segregated schools is that they rob all children—the able bodied and nimble witted as much as those facing physical and intellectual obstacles—of the lessons of humility, empathy, and discernment that come from close experience with the full range of human abilities. Inclusion is the best way for classrooms to instil the grace required for a compassionate citizenry. The meek may not inherit the earth, but they have much to teach us, and we are all the better for absorbing those lessons.

Of course the union and the government will insist they are “fully committed” to inclusion and want only to improve it. Those who would take away the rights of society’s weakest members will always do so in the name of improving their lot. The exclusion of children and their guardians and advocates from the process  puts the lie to these cheery words.

If the governing Liberals and NSTU leaders imagine they can tinker with the fundamental human rights of children they should reconsider. The equality rights of children with disabilities are enshrined in Canada’s Constitution. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. requires Canada to ensure that children 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.

Equality, once attained, is never readily surrendered. “Creative and sustainable solutions” devised without the knowledge and consent of those whose rights are deemed a “problem” are likely to be regressive, divisive, and cruel. The ancient principle is expressed in Latin as, Nihil de nobis, sine nobis.

In English: Nothing about us without us.

Toronto Film Critics’ Association honours Ndub’s Ashley McKenzie


At a celebration in Toronto Tuesday night, New Waterford filmmaker Ashley McKenzie took the Toronto Film Critics’ prestigious Jay Scott Award for an emerging artist. The critics honoured McKenzie for her first feature-length movie, WEREWOLF, a gritty portrayal of a New Waterford couple dependent on methadone.

Here’s the Trailer]:

The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, which named it one of Canada’s Top 10 films for 2016. It has also screened (or soon will) at festivals in Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax, and Berlin.

screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-1-17-43-amThis is a remarkable feat when you consider that McKenzie shot WEREWOLF entirely in Cape Breton, with an all-Cape Breton cast and crew (a fact that put a few noses out of joint at ACTRA Halifax, where a misguided minority aspire to monopoly control of visual storytelling in our province).

McKenzie is a both gifted writer and an increasingly sure-footed director with a special knack for coaxing stellar performances out of inexperienced authors. The result is an important Cape Breton story told not just sympathetically, but with unrivalled authenticity. There has never been a movie like this about Cape Breton.

If you want to learn more about WEREWOLF and the people who made it,  here are some interviews: FERN-TV, Telefilm Canada, TIFF news conference, and Face2Face with David Peck Live.

(In the interests of disclosure, McKenzie and her producer Nelson MacDonald are friends of mine. I’m thrilled at what they’ve accomplished, and can’t wait to see what comes next.)

Top 5 Money-Saving Sites for a New Sydney Library


CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke wants to build the new Sydney library in Centre 200 as a way to save money. It seems the hockey rink came with an extra big heating system, built to accommodate the adjacent Casino. After construction, the casino operator bailed on the deal, and the heating plant has been running at half capacity ever since. Bingo: Cheap library!

Other advantages: Centre 200 is on a bus route. There’s lots of free parking (except when there’s a hockey game). It’s handy to the casino, giving borrowers the chance to double their money before paying off their library fines. It’s a visionary scheme, but before embracing it, let’s consider other ways the municipality could save money by combining the new library with existing municipal facilities.

In this spirit, Contrarian offers our Top 5 Money-Saving Locations for a New Sydney Library:

#5 — Archibald’s Wharf

By putting the new library on Archibald’s Wharf in North Sydney, CBRM would achieve the waterfront location so devoutly coveted by many library patrons. Oh… wait, the municipality doesn’t own Archibald’s Wharf anymore. It’s been turned into a massive new shipyard. Oh, well.

#4 — Battery Point Sewage Treatment Plant

This solid brick structure at the tip of Sydney’s North End could easily accommodate a second and third storey. It would fulfill the goal of a spectacular harbour front location, and perhaps spur completion of the long-delayed boardwalk extension from downtown to Open Hearth Park. Possible downside: odour issues.

#3 — Welton Street Bus Garage

This fully-staffed facility, located on a busy central thoroughfare, has plenty of on-site parking. It’s perfect for servicing Bookmobles, and it’s the most convenient spot in all of CRMB for public transportation. It’s a natural.


#2 — The CBRM Landfill

Our penultimate choice is the Sydney landfill site, conveniently located on the redundantly named SPAR Road. There’s copious room for parking and potential for endless expansion. It would be a popular location for birders, too, with its prolific population of gulls.


#1 — Contrarian’s No. 1 Money-Saving Site for a New Sydney Library

Fuzzy’s Fries and Book-Lending Service. Think about it. It’s fully staffed. It has a magnificent waterfront location. It’s convenient to CBRM’s newly locked-down civic centre. There will be no danger of ketchup stains on books. And with the money he’ll save, just think how much Cecil can squander on the Evergreen Promise of a Container Pier.


Citizen Steele’s factual guides to #NSpoli

If you’re interested in Nova Scotia civic affairs, you should be following NDP cabinet minister turned law prof and CBC commentator Graham Steele on Facebook, and checking in regularly with his blog, a Citizen’s Guide to the Nova Scotia Legislature.

Laws are like sausages — best not to see them being made. (Usually, but perhaps incorrectly attributed to Otto von Bismarck.)
Graham Steele does not believe “Laws are like sausages — best not to see them being made.” (Usually, but perhaps incorrectly attributed to Otto von Bismarck.)

Steele, who’s a friend, is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some fellow MLAs, including members of his own caucus, thought him too much above the partisan fray of the house. This is precisely the quality that makes his advice to citizens so useful. He is experienced enough to know the rules and procedures, but independent enough to explain how things really work.

Frankly, he’s rocking it, with even-handed explanations (on Facebook) of MLAs’ pay, the recent fiscal update, and the vanishing principle of ministerial responsibility. and on the Citizen’s Guide, with sage advice about how to communicate effectively with your MLA and how to present to the Law Amendments Committee.

The Citizens Guide already has 36 entries on a multitude of topics, and the Facebook feed brings a constant stream of level-headed commentary on political events of the day. His play-by-play of the McNeil Liberals’ Fiasco Weekend earlier this month was riveting. (I can’t find the specific post, but he was, I think, the first to point out the premier’s dreadful mistake, mostly overlooked by Province House reporters, of making himself the face of government’s tough approach to the teachers. Better let the Education Minister be the bad gal, then come in to celebrate the resolution when it finally happens.)

And don’t forget Steele’s CBC columns, which often bring fresh perspective to the political fracas of the day. See for example this rare dissent from the unwarranted reverence political reporters display for every cockamamie recommendation from the Auditor General.

Steele is producing the sort of explainers political reporters could write, but mostly don’t for fear of boring readers. It’s what civics classes used to cover before teachers got too weighed down by, you know, all that photocopying. It’s a wonderful resource for political spectators, one I suspect may become his next book.

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.