Fear of retribution north of Smokey

A fleeting moment on CBC radio this morning pointed to a disintegration of the social fabric in rural Nova Scotia that ought to be more clearly on our collective radar.

Jim Morrow, proprietor of Victoria County’s only newspaper and CBC Cape Breton’s volunteer “party line” correspondent at municipal council, declined to name the public members of the newly created Victoria County Police Advisory Board.

Justice Minister Ross Landry created the board to serve as liaison between the RCMP and the County Council. Host Steve Sutherland asked who was on it.

Morrow: I don’t know if I should really say that, because some of the issues they are dealing with are… the issues north of Smokey, with the arsonist and that kind of thing, and there’s a lot of fear and trepedation out there are we don’t want to pinpoint one individual over another.

Sutherland: Hmmph. So the members of the police advisory board are not going to be made public?

Morrow: I would imagine they would be, but I’m not going to be the one that’s going to do it.

Sutherland: What’s your concern, Jim?

Morrow: I’m afraid of some retribution. There’s a lot of retributive justice North of Smokey and people are very frightened down there to step forward or to point fingers because the retibution can be quite desperate. Right now you cannot get insurance on a house – new house – north of Dingwall, there is no building starts. the real estate is dead north of dingwall becasue of the types of actions that are taking place down there.

Maybe what’s needed is not police advice but policing. Arson has been a problem for two decades in northern Victoria County. Is there another part of Canada where a law enforcement failure of that longevity would be tolerated?

The purpose of country music, explained

Cape Bretoner Gordie Sampson now lives in Nashville, where he produces about 75 song demos a year, mostly in the country-pop vein. In a CBC Radio interview this morning, he reflected on what makes country music different:

I write country song for the most part… The lyric is more important in this genre than really any genre I think. The lyric and the melody together really has to move the listener. In R&B or other types of modern music, the idea is to make people dance. In country music it’s, often times, its to hurt people’s feelings. To make them re-think that relationship that they just ended last week. It’s a bit more visceral.

The full interview, part of the Information Morning Cape Breton’s excellent Leaders in their Field series, is we well worth a listen. Gordie will be back in Cape Breton Sunday for the Cape Breton Island Film Series annual benefit for l’Arche Cape Breton.

What no one dares say about Sydney’s harbor dredging project

In a call to CBC-Cape Breton last week, North Shore resident David Papazian spoke a widely held but rarely voiced opinion about the $38 million project to dredge Sydney Harbor in hopes that someone will build container terminal here:

The money could be much better spent fostering small business here in Cape Breton which is a much better engine of growth than these sort of mega-projects that require huge amounts of capital at the taxpayers’ expense, with a whole lot of expectations and dreams and hopes that — maybe not, but very likely — will become another chapter in the probably fairly long history of frustrated economic development here in Cape Breton.

Here’s the whole call:


Papazian mixes up his geography a bit — the alternative terminal is at Melford, not Guysborough Town — but his broad strokes echo private assessments I’ve heard in Halifax and Ottawa: The Halifax terminals are loping along well below capacity, and the proposed Melford terminal is well ahead of Sydney’s in the planning pipeline.

But support from CBRM Mayor John Morgan, CPC candidate Cecil Clarke, and various business and community development interests gave the project sacred cow status that no one wants to buck.

Can we talk about education funding, or only fear-monger?

Speaking on CBC Cape Breton last week, former Conservative Education Minister Jane Purves offered a rare, even-handed take on Nova Scotia’s education funding debate:

The government is genuinely looking for savings in education. I think it has been very good at promoting the truth that the syste has cost way more over the last 10 years but there are far fewer students. However, I’m wondering if in retrospect it was wise to floaat this 22 percent because they should have known what was going to happen: And what’s going to happen is that every board is going to come up with every sacred cow they can find to burn, sory for mixing metya[hors, and the government is beginning to face a tsumani of criticsm from parents, teacers, other unionized employees, and generally althought the public may be somewhat sympathetic about the need fors curs, the public doesn’t like a huge amount of noise coming when a government is trying to just do its job.

The full interview, with host Steve Sutherland, rewards close listening:

The rote response of school boards and the teacher’s union has been what we might call a confidence-draining exercise. Are we really entrusting our children’s education to a group of professionals unwilling or unable to contemplate new ideas for coping with an untenable financial situation?

The school system has been losing almost three percent of its enrollment per year for ten years, while education budgets have increased two to three points faster than inflation. Anyone can see that’s not sustainable. Surely boards, administrators, and union lobbyists can do better than to insist any change to the status quo will bring ruin to the system. Where do they expect the money to come? Health care? Highways? Increasing our already onerous debt?

Can’t we hear some new, creative ideas for how a Nova Scotia school system with fewer students might operate—on less money?

I have a few I’ll be posting in the days ahead, and I invite suggestions from readers. Surely on a topic this important, Nova Scotia can do better than obdurate resistance to change of any kind.

How not to do an interview

Mount St. Vincent PR students looking for a case study on how not to do an interview may want to file away this CBC-Cape Breton year-end interview with John Lynn, CEO of Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation.

Interviewer Steve Sutherland comes off as polite, patient, and persistent. Lynn’s obvious beefs with local media coverage may or may not be valid, but he undercuts his message by appearing peevish and evasive.

Anger rarely works on radio or TV. This guy needs to dial it back.

A veteran speaks out against grief porn – (ctd.)

Contrarian reader RM thinks our post crossed the line:

[T]his commentary was in poor taste. Yes, this veteran has every right to comment, but I think it is more important to respect the views of the the family of the fallen soldier. Let us make our comments without seeming to criticize the wishes of the family.
Thanks to the many readers who pointed out that our link to CBC-Cape Breton reporter Bobby Nock’s interview was broken, and thanks to website wizard Mike Targett for fixing it while Contrarian was helplessly sans Internet over the far Northern Atlantic.

A veteran speaks out against grief porn

One particularly noisome aspect of modern journalism is its fixation with grief porn: those maudlin public displays of grief over tragic events by people otherwise uninvolved in the lives of those actually afflicted. Grief porn is wholly a product of media pandering. it’s a way for people to feel good about themselves — and just incidentally show the world how good they are — by displaying, often in bizarre or saccharin fashion, how badly they feel about the misfortunes of strangers – especially spectacular or notorious misfortunes besetting newsworthy or celebrity strangers.

Well, here’s a rare exception: a gutsy interview by CBC Cape Breton reporter Bobby Nock with a World War II veteran who dares speak out against these unseemly displays.

Deficits, lies, and audio tape

CBC Cape Breton’s Information Morning host Steve Sutherland did a deft job Tuesday Morning holding Finance Minister Graham Steele’s feet to the fire on the NDP’s no-deficit, no-tax-hikes, no-program-cuts campaign pledge.

Steele had a well-rehearsed answer, including a far-fetched analogy about a family doctor whose honest diagnosis gets overruled by four specialists, but Sutherland was politely persistent. He pressed Steele twice more to explain the glib falsehoods at the core of the NDP’s spring election platform.

“The fact is that we were acting on the best information we had at the time,” Steele said. “The fact is that now we are in government, we have access to more information, better information, and that’s the basis on which we have to move forward.”

dexter and steeleThis explanation doesn’t hold water. Everyone knew last spring that the province was facing a huge budget shortfall, but Dexter and Steele promised to cure it without running a deficit, without raising taxes, and without cutting programs. They didn’t need better information to know this was impossible; The promise was untenable on its face. To claim now that it was offered in good faith is an untruth as shamefaced as the original promise. It diminishes both men, and the offices they hold.

The sad part of this is that the road map offered by the advisory panel is a good one, but it is overshadowed by the cloud of deceit that now follows the men who must carry it out.

Colin May said earlier that political promises are for fools. On Twitter, Carman Pirie of Halifax reacted to news of political untruths with cynical resignation. “It’s what they know how to do,” he tweeted. “Like getting mad at a dog for barking.”

Attitudes like this are poisonous to the body politic. Twenty years ago, Contrarian would have delighted to catch a premier and a finance minister in an obvious lie. Today, it just feels disheartening—especially from these two, especially when it seems to come so effortlessly.

New York Times corrects Marshall obituary

The New York Times has corrected its obituary of Donald Marshall, Jr., following remonstrations from Contrarian and from one of the lawyers who represented Marshall before the celebrated inquiry that bears his name.

The original Times obit, published in its August 7 edition, two days after Marshall’s death, contained the following paragraph:

Late on the night of May 28, 1971, Mr. Marshall and a friend, Sandy Seale, went walking in a Sydney park and tried to rob an older man, Roy Ebsary, who drew a knife and killed Mr. Seale.

As Contrarian wrote to the obituary’s author, William Grimes:

The Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall Jr. Prosecution, composed of three senior and distinguished jurists from other Canadian provinces, spent more than a year investigating Mr. Marshall’s wrongful conviction. Its report, the findings of which are available online, completely exonerated Marshall of any alleged robbery attempt on the night of Sandy Seale’s death.

Their report said, in part: “The Commissioners have found that Seale was not killed during the course of a robbery or attempted robbery.”

The fable that Marshall was trying to rob Ebsary became a convenient canard for officials hoping to evade responsibility the whole travesty. In the years since the Marshall Commission cleared Marshall and condemned nearly everyone involved in the case, it has become a refuge for racists who believe too much was made of the Marshall case. It is really disheartening to see it repeated in the Times obituary…

It would be a terrible thing to have this calumny permanently enshrined in the Times obituary. I hope you can arrange to have a correction published as soon as possible.

This produced a most interesting reply:

I have been discussing this point with Anne Derrick, who takes your view, and with Michael Harris who does not, for reasons I can go into. The “canard” you refer to came directly from Marshall’s mouth into Harris’s ear, and if you can explain why that should be discounted, I am willing to listen.

Contrarian responded with a 2200-word brief setting forth the commission’s findings on the reasons why, for a brief period immediately preceeding and following his release from wrongful imprisonment, Marshall indicated that he and  Seale had been trying to roll Ebsary when the murder took place, a false admission Marshall later recanted. This led to the Times’ correction, published September 3.

Correction: An obituary on Aug. 7 about Donald Marshall, Jr., whose wrongful conviction for the 1971 murder of a friend and exoneration 11 years later led to a re-examination of Nova Scotia’s legal system and changes in Canadian rules of evidence, misstated the circumstances that led to the friend’s killing, which had actually been committed by an elderly man they had encountered in a park. While Mr. Marshall admitted he was with his friend during that encounter, he withdrew an earlier admission that they were trying to rob the elderly man; Mr. Marshall was never charged with robbery. The obituary also misstated a change in rules of evidence resulting from the case. The prosecution must now fully disclose to the defense any evidence it has; the defense must ensure that full disclosure from the prosecution takes place, and must fully disclose its own evidence only in establishing alibis. The rule change does not mean that both “the prosecution and the defense must now share evidence fully.”

One of the features that marks the New York Times as a great newspaper is the integrity it shows by running frequent corrections. Newspapers publish tens of thousands of facts a day about contentious issues under pressure of deadline. Mistakes are inevitable. Commitment to their diligent correction is unfortunately rare.

One final footnote about this saga:

The Times’ initial mistake is entirely understandable. It was based on an erroneous account in Justice Denied, a book by Michael Harris, published before the Royal Commission examined the facts and cleared Marshall. What’s astonishing, in Contrarian‘s opinion, is that Harris, now a right-wing radio talk show host in Toronto Ottawa, would stick to his mistaken guns, and, apparently, lobby the Times in private to do so as well.

On the morning of Donald Marshall’s funeral, Harris, who did not attend the Marshall Commission’s 89 days of public hearings, gave CBC-Cape Breton an interview. While purporting to discuss Marshall and the impact of his case, Harris kept returning, in unctuous tones, to his own role in the case. He portrayed himself as a trusted confidant of Marshall’s, as the person to whom Marshall turned for help again and again, “whenever he was in trouble”—a phrase he repeated.

Suffice to say that those to whom Marshall actually turned for help, and from whom he actually received it, take a different view of Harris’s role.

Not quite fisticuffs as youth and veteran clash


A spirited CBC Radio forum for candidates in Cape Breton South last Thursday degenerated into a shouting match in the back parking lot of CBC  Sydney after the show.

Feisty Liberal veteran Manning MacDonald and earnest NDP up-and-comer Wayne MacKay nearly came to blows after MacDonald took umbrage at suggestions he was an absentee MP.

The debate itself, on CBC-Cape Breton’s Information Morning, featured a generational clash as MacDonald, 66, defended attacks from MacKay, 34, and Tory Stephen Tobin, 25, both teachers (sort of). Cathy Theriault of the Greens, a one-time Marijuana Party candidate, also took part. Continue reading Not quite fisticuffs as youth and veteran clash