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.

Picking the low point in Peter MacKay’s career


Peter MacKay holds his son Kian in Halifax
Family man Peter MacKay holds son Kian. Wait! What’s that tartan?

In this morning’s Halifax Examiner, Tim Bousquet celebrated Peter MacKay’s decision not to run for the Conservative Party leadership by recalling the day MacKay breezed into Halifax to announce funding for the new convention centre. The then-Defence Minister said the Nova Centre would “take the ‘no’ out of Nova Scotia.”

Bousquet calls this “MacKay’s greatest legacy,” but surely that’s a hasty judgment. Picking the low point in Peter MacKay’s public career—by “greatest legacy,” Bousquet meant “low point”—is admittedly a challenge, given the rich trove of disgraceful material to choose from:

My money, however, is on MacKay’s character assassination of Richard Colvin, the diplomat who risked his career to speak up against the Canadian Forces’ illegal practice of turning prisoners of war and innocent Afghan civilians over to the Afghan Army to be tortured.

Channeling Joseph McCarthy, and speaking in the protected confines of the House of Commons where he could not be sued for slander, MacKay falsely savaged Colvin as a patsy for the Taliban.

Twenty-three former Canadian ambassadors wrote a letter condemning the Harper Government’s treatment of Colvin, singling out MacKay, who accused Colvin of accepting the word of “people who throw acid in the faces of schoolchildren.”

“[MacKay] savaged [Colvin] in public, and ridiculed him, and that’s not the way to treat a guy who’s doing his job,” Paul Durand, a former Canadian ambassador to the Organization of American States, to Chile and to Costa Rica, told the Globe. “He is not a whistleblower. He was hauled before a parliamentary committee and had to state the truth.”

When he declined to run for re-election last year, MacKay said, “the time has come for me to step back from public life and to concentrate on my young and growing family.”

The Occam’s razor explanation is that MacKay knew Harper’s government was headed for defeat. At best, he would return to opposition, at worst, lose his own seat.

Again yesterday, when he begged off the current Conservative Party leadership contest, MacKay cited family reasons. I suspect MacKay thinks his party will endure a long sojourn in opposition, and that while he could probably win the leadership, that victory would never lead to 24 Sussex Drive.

A better bet is that the next provincial election will end Jamie Baillie’s leadership of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party, but leave a diminished Liberal majority ripe for defeat by a new Tory leader four years hence. MacKay can take a few years to make money at the US-based global law firm Baker & McKenzie where he is now a partner, then win the premiership in 2021.

After that, who knows?


Love, promise-keeping, story-telling, democracy. And baseball.



I have mentioned before that I grew up in a New York City suburb listening to then-twenty-something Vin Scully call Brooklyn Dodger baseball games on a tube radio.

Now 88, Scully is still at it—in his 67th season calling the play-by-play for Dodger home games, these days performed in Los Angeles. In a tribute published in today’s Washington Post, columnist George Will calls Scully, “the most famous and beloved person in Southern California.”

[He] is not a movie star but has the at-ease, old-shoe persona of Jimmy Stewart. With his shock of red hair and maple syrup voice, Scully seems half his 88 years.

More than the maple syrup voice, it was the rivulet of Scullian similies that captured my enduring affection. As I wrote back in 2009:

He said Bob Gibson “pitches as though he’s double-parked.” He said, “Losing feels worse than winning feels good.” He said, “Sometimes it seems like [Bobby Bonilla’s] playing underwater.” He said, “Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support, not illumination.” He said, “When [Maury Wills] runs, it’s all downhill.”

While calling 1987 All-Star Game, Scully saw the Toronto Blue Jay’s uber-smooth shortstop Tony Fernandez for the first time. “He’s like a bolt of silk,” Scully said.

Later this month, or possibly in October, Scully will call his last game. He is retiring at last. Even if you don’t give a fig about baseball, as too many Nova Scotians do not, you should give Will’s loving encomium a read:

Aristotle defined human beings as language-using creatures. They are not always as well-behaved as wolves, but everything humane depends on words — love, promise-keeping, story-telling, democracy. And baseball.

A game of episodes, not of flow, it leaves time for, and invites, conversation, rumination and speculation. And storytelling, by which Scully immerses his audience in baseball’s rich history, and stories that remind fans that players “are not wind-up dolls.”

In recent years, Scully has not accompanied the Dodgers on the road. Hence this recent tweet quoting an 8-year-old Dodgers fan, Zoe: “I hate when the Dodgers have away games. They don’t tell stories.”

Find Will’s whole piece here. Thank you to Stacey May Fowles, whose weekly feminist “Baseball Life Advice” newsletter opens a whole new window on baseball and feelings, and is my most reliable source of news and perspective on the One True Sport, for pointing me to it.

The confounding power of simple signage


It’s just 19 characters (22 if you count the spaces) in all-caps Helvetica, painted Highway Yellow against an industrial green girder. Yet, somehow, the “Welcome to Cape Breton” sign on the Canso Causeway swing bridge maintains a deep iconic grip on Cape Bretoners.

Just this morning, it showed up in my Facebook feed when Megan MacDonald, a CB ex-pat home from Toronto for a few days’ R&R, re-posted this meme from the “Meanwhile in Cape Breton” group:


Turn Signals


Years ago, riding a bus from Halifax to Cape Breton, I compared notes with the woman in the next seat about the point in the journey when it finally feels like we’re home.

I said, “When I get to the Bras d’Or look-off, and see Boularderie Island splayed out below.”

She said, “When I see the sign at the Causeway.”

No need to ask what sign she meant. Do an image search for “Welcome to Cape Breton,” and photos of the girder take up 11 of the first dozen frames.


Welcome to Cape Breton


See that fancy billboard at the bottom right? Municipalities, tourist agencies, service clubs, industry associations, and Gaelic societies have spent untold tens of thousands commissioning graphics design firms and sign manufacturers to welcome visitors to our island in beautifully inventive ways. Not one has the power of those four unadorned words, unassumingly wrought on a plain steel beam.

Just the right words. In just the right place.


We are not screwing around, Philly.


The following is a statement from Karen Guss, communications director for the City of Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections:

In view of the City’s commitment to public health, safety and basic common sense, we will not issue permits for block party dumpster pools. And while you would think this decision would not require an explanation, three days of press requests have proven otherwise. So, Philly, here’s why you shouldn’t swim in a receptacle most often used for waste:

  • First and foremost, this could reduce the amount of water available should a fire break out in that neighborhood. So if you would like to have water available should a fire break out in your home, don’t illegally tap a hydrant
  • There is also the potential loss of life by injury due to the hydrant water pushing a small child or even an adult into oncoming traffic.
  • Finally, remember that the pressure of the water coming out of the hydrant is so strong, and so powerful, that if opened too quickly or closed too quickly, it could deliver a jolt to the main of sufficient force that could break the main … and many blocks could lose water service until it is repaired.

We are not screwing around, Philly. The Streets Department will not issue any future block party permits to the 2400 block of Cedar, and officials have contacted the dumpster rental company regarding its failures to obtain the proper closure permits and to take mandatory measures to protect the street during placement of the dumpster.

In short, the City strongly recommends that residents opt for recreational options that are safer, more sanitary, and less likely to deplete the resources firefighters need in an emergency.

Guss issued the statement—which, if I may say so, is a rare model of simple, direct, government prose—in response to media requests about a block party on Cedar Street in which revellers rented a dumpster, filled it with water from a fire hydrant, and used it as a temporary swimming pool. Their fatal flaw may have been posting photos on Instagram:

Cedar Street Block Party

Just for the record, Pabst is really crappy beer.

H/T NextDraft and NPR.