We need an auditor general who understands democracy

After months of counting tiny beans, Nova Scotia’s politician-despising, publicity-loving, limelight-hogging Auditor General has grudgingly conceded what everyone knows: MLA Michel Sampson Samson lives in Arichat and fully qualifies for reimbursement of necessary Halifax expenses. [See: news release. Full report (pdf)]

LapointeThen, predictably, Lapointe found a mean-spirited technicality on which he could deny Samson those legitimate expenses. Samson’s Halifax residence doesn’t qualify because it’s a “house” not an “apartment.” What tendentious pettifoggery!

The campaign to deprive this elected MLA of the tools needed to do his job effectively was cooked up by a not very discerning CBC reporter, who couldn’t distinguish legitimate living expenses from a Mike Duffy-style scandal, then seized upon by hyper-partisans in the premier’s office who sought to turn it to their advantage. Caucus-attending Speaker Gordie Gosse and AG Lapointe should have given this nonsense short shrift, as Conflict of Interest Commissioner (and retired Supreme Court Justice) Merlin Nunn did, when Samson brought the issue to him six months ago.

An untold aspect of this story is the rank sexism that pervades the whole affair. The Speaker and the AG judged Samson almost entirely on his wife’s employment and whereabouts. One can scarcely imagine the hellfire that would rain down on anyone who applied that standard to the entitlements of a female NDP member—and rightly so.

Samson’s wife, the lawyer Claudine Bardsley-Samson, works as manager of industrial relations for Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax. There aren’t a lot of positions for someone of her professional stature in Richmond County. The NDP has campaigned ad nauseam on its claim to represent “today’s families,” a group that presumably includes couples, from construction workers to high-end professionals, whose employment opportunities complicate their living arrangements.

samson2The end result is an invidious, sexist, hypocritical assault on an elected MLA that deprives the people of Richmond of their rights as electors—while showing reckless disregard for the reputation of elected men and women. An unelected accountant who has built his career by exploiting public hostility to politicians has hamstrung the elected MLA for Richmond, and if his literal interpretation is applied retroactively, imposed a significant fine on him for doing his job.

Here’s an important distinction. Jacques Lapointe has never faced voters, and never been elected to any position in Nova Scotia. MLA Michel Samson has faced Nova Scotia voters five times, and won each election by a wide margin. When he faces them again this fall, he will trounce his NDP opponent.

Anyone who follows public affairs in a serious way understands that rising public scorn for politicians poses a threat to the commonweal. When legitimate abuses occur, as with those Nova Scotia MLAs who falsely claimed expenses, they need to be exposed, corrected, and where appropriate, punished. But to apply the same rigour to meaningless technical violations is short-sighted and destructive. Mr. Justice Nunn took pains to recognize this reality in his decision; as is his wont, Lapointe ran roughshod over it.

Lapointe’s term expires in 2016. When the legislature convenes after the fall election, it should restore what are now officially acknowledged to be Samson’s legitimate living allowance, and begin planning for a replacement Auditor General with more respect for democracy.

The CBC’s lingering Boudreau problem

One month after the apparent death of chronic lobster poacher and trap vandal Philip Boudreau, the CBC continues to falsely identify him as a fisherman.

CBC Boudreau=F1-600


CBC Boudreau-F2-600


[Click images for full-sized image.]

This is perplexing  The CBC’s very capable reporters and editors know full well that Boudreau held no commercial or sport fishing license of any kind. They know his status as a non-fisherman is both a key fact, and a probable factor, in the events leading to his disappearance.

Never discount the role of haste in deadline journalism. Toronto web editors who are not the primary reporters covering this story may have simply assumed that a man pulling lobster traps on a boat in Nova Scotia must be a fisherman. If so, then presumably the network will promptly correct the two stories here and here (although one of them has already been online almost a week).

If, however, the CBC has made a considered editorial decision to describe Boudreau a fisherman, that would be a further sign the network is allowing itself to slip into a pro-prosecution mindset. Misidentifying Boudreau as a fisherman is essential to portraying the events as a “dispute” over fishing “territory,” which is a but prosecution-friendly frame for the case.

Already contributing to an apprehension of bias on the part of the CBC are the network’s emotive and credulous account of the family dynamics in the case, and its continued failure to look into allegations, widespread in the community, that little or nothing was done in response to many complaints against Boudreau lodged with the RCMP and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Many in the community want a formal inquiry into that aspect of the case, but CBC listeners and viewers remain in the dark on this score.

The CBC’s coverage of this story ought to concern the network’s journalists and managers.

Jessome for the prosecution

Phonse-Jessome-150x150On Wednesday, I questioned CBC reporter Phonse Jessome’s reporting on the Philip Boudreau killing, and the broader media failure to probe allegations the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the RCMP received many complaints about Boudreau’s chronic lobster thievery and trap vandalism over the years, but did little or nothing.

In an essay on the CBC’s website, Jessome elaborates on his approach to the story (though he makes no overt reference to my criticism). Unfortunately, he sheds no light on why the CBC continues to skirt the DFO-RCMP angle.

The dead man was a notorious bully who continually threatened others

On Monday, CBC reporter Phonse Jessome recounted sensational excerpts from what purported to be a confession by one of the fishermen accused of killing Philip Boudreau June 1. He supplemented his reporting with editorial comments that portrayed the killing as an unfathomable escalation of a feud over “fishing territory.”

Based on widely known but lightly reported facts, the escalation is not unfathomable. To portray it as arising out of a “feud” over “territory” is to adopt one side in highly contentious matter.

Tuesday, while reporting a brief court appearance by the accused men, Jessome added more editorial commentary, stressing the trauma experienced by the Boudreau’s family, portraying defense lawyer Joel Pink as “crafty,” and accusing defense lawyer Nash Brogan of “blaming the victim” for comments that, in my view, gave a more accurate account of the backstory than the CBC’s.

Boudreau copy

There’s an odd uncertainty about exactly what documents the CBC possesses or has seen. At various points, CBC newscasters, program hosts, and Jessome himself described the reporter as having “obtained the police file,” “obtained parts of the police file,” “read the police file,” “read parts of the police file,” and even, in one statement by Jessome, as having “read the file several times.”

Throughout his reports, Jessome appears to be describing the statement, not quoting from it, and quotation marks are conspicuously absent from the CBC’s written version of the story.

These discrepancies may amount to nothing more than sloppiness, but the CBC ought to clear them up. Knowing first hand how thoroughly CBC producers and lawyers vet stories like this, I find the circumlocution unusual. There is a big difference between having obtained (and retained a copy of) an entire police file, and having been shown parts of a file selected by someone with an interest in the case.

There’s another problem. Where do you get access to a police file in a murder prosecution? Almost certainly from the police or the prosecutors. Given that the death appears to have grown out of an altercation, police and prosecutors may have trouble getting a second degree murder conviction against any one of the accused, let alone all three*. Whether selected by police, prosecutors, or Jessome, the précis Jessome presented served to buttress a charge of murder, rather than manslaughter, against the man who pulled the trigger, and to implicate the two other crewmen in the most serious elements of the crime.

Any reporter given access to the electrifying documents Jessome saw or obtained would have reported their contents. Still, I wish the CBC had gone beyond its rote caution that the information “has not been admitted into evidence, or tested in court,” and examined the reasons why someone on one side of the case may have wanted this part of the police file to come out now, months before trial.

Throughout his reporting, Jessome adopts the line of the dead man’s family and supporters to misrepresent the killing as a feud arising out of a dispute over “fishing territory.” There is no territory in the lobster fishery. Any fisherman licensed to catch lobster in District 26 District 29 is legally entitled to set traps anywhere around Isle Madame. Informal traditional family fishing berths may be deeply felt, but they have no legal standing.

In any case, Boudreau was not a fisherman, a fact the news media still fails to grasp more than three weeks after the incident. Here’s an online headline from today’s Cape Breton Post:


And from the Halifax Chronicle-Herald:

Chronicle-Herald fisherman

(To their credit, Herald editors apparently caught the error. Later online versions of the story omit the fisherman reference.)

Even if Jessome accepts the local tradition of family-based lobster berths, Boudreau, as a non-fisherman, had no territory to defend by cutting traps. What he did have was a long criminal record for property crimes. The community knew him as a bully who, among other things, frequently threatened to burn down the homes of anyone who crossed him.

For years, Boudreau used a small motorboat to steal lobster from the traps of licensed fishermen, then brazenly sold them by the side of the road in Isle Madame. He took sport in speeding past working fishermen, taunting them by waving lobsters he had just removed from their traps.

This spring, Boudreau escalated his vandalism by cutting the buoy lines from traps of fishermen who allegedly encroached on an area where his brother liked to fish.

In a local store on the night before his death, Boudreau encountered one of the men who would be accused of killing him the next day. He brandished a knife at the fisherman, and used it to demonstrate how he had cut the lobsterman’s traps.

Let me pause here in anticipation of those who may accuse me of justifying the taking of human life. Murder and manslaughter are never justified. The people of Isle Madame are rightly horrified at the events of June 1. I share their horror and dismay, but sugar-coating the events leading up to the crime serves no useful purpose.

Today’s media have a growing appetite for glorifying victims of crime that I find distasteful—and sometimes suspect. Maudlin, one-sided portrayals of the family dynamics in this case do nothing to illuminate the events.

This leads me to my greatest objection to news coverage of the Boudreau murder. Fishermen and others have complained to authorities about Boudreau’s flagrant violations of fisheries law for years. One official told me he believed more than 20 complaints had been lodged with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

In one case, Boudreau reportedly told a local fisheries officer he would burn down his house “with you inside,” a threat that goes far beyond fisheries law to violate Criminal Code prohibitions on death threats.

There is a widespread impression on Isle Madame that little, if anything, was done in response to these complaints. At a minimum, the RCMP and DFO owe the public a full account of how they responded. Some residents I’ve spoken with believe an inquiry is in order. Barring an early and satisfactory explanation from the two agencies, I am inclined to agree.

This long history of complaints to law enforcement agencies is unquestionably a story worthy of Phonse Jessome’s investigative talents—a story every news organization in the province has ignored.

* In principle, police and especially prosecutors are supposed to avoid approaching criminal cases with a mindset that equates getting a conviction with winning. They should certainly avoid selective leaks to build public support for their case before trial. The Public Prosecution Service owes Nova Scotians an explanation of this leak.

A license to swat them away

In the closing moments of an excellent At Issues panel on CBC’s The National last night, National Post columnist Andrew Coyne explained why traditional Question Period theatrics are so feckless when a real scandal envelopes government.

[If the Opposition] would slow down and ask short simple questions, rather these kind of multiple-part grandstanding theatrics, but they don’t seem to be capable of that.

What sort of short questions, host Peter Mansbridge asked.

[S]imple questions of fact that put ministers on the record, where you can then compare what they say on the record with what they say later. It’s more in the nature of the way a lawyer asks questions in court.

It’s hard for them to resist, unfortunately, going for the big windup, you know, the big preamble beforehand, the big stream of accusations. And as we saw with John Baird, anybody who’s got any experience with those is very adept at just swatting them away. It gives him license, frankly, to give non-answers when you don’t ask real questions.

This is obvious to anyone who watches any question period in any Canadian legislature. Why don’t opposition MPs get it, and change their tactics? Perhaps because short, simple, lawyerly questions that build an embarrassing step-by-step case against a government policy or practice do not make onto the nightly television news.

Paris mans up


What exactly happened between Percy Paris and Keith Colwell outside the MLAs’ washroom in Province House last Thursday night? Was it a “scuffle” (CBC, Global), an “alleged scuffle” (Metro, Globe and Mail), an “altercation” (Chronicle-Herald), an “incident” (CTV, Yarmouth Vanguard), a “bizarre incident” (CBC), a “fight” (Yahoo), a “kerfuffle” (also Yahoo), or even a “brawl” (SunNews).

“Brawl” seems way over the top, and to my ear, a term tinged with racism in this context. “Scuffle” and “altercation” seem about right.

“I guess there would be some physical contact,” said Inverness Conservative MLA Allan MacMaster, the one uninvolved eye-witness who has spoken about what took place. “I encouraged them to relax. I know things have been getting heated.”

Angry over criticism that his government was not doing enough to atone for past abuse at the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children, Paris apparently grabbed Colwell by the lapels and perhaps shoved him against a wall. Colwell admits he was unhurt, but said “I felt I was assaulted.” He also alleged Paris threatened him.

Colwell complained to the HRM Police, and the following day he told the House of Assembly, “I was assaulted and threatened by the minister of economic and rural development and tourism. This improper behaviour by the minister was quite clearly an execution of a threat and intimidation, an attempt to prevent me from performing my function as a legislator, elected representative for my constituents and member of this assembly.”

For his part, Paris told reporters he had briefly “lost his cool,” and the two men had “an animated exchange outside of the House.”

“I think most people that know me would say that Percy Paris is pretty cool most of the time,” he said “I regret that I lost my cool for a few seconds.”

Upon learning that Colwell called the police, Paris voluntarily went to the station and made a statement, after which he was charged with simple assault and uttering threats. By telephone from police headquarters, he resigned his cabinet posts.

We may learn a few more details once this gets to court, but it seems safe to reach a few conclusions:

  • A minor but unbecoming altercation occurred between the two MLAs in which Paris got physical with Colwell for a few seconds. As assaults go, it was at the extreme low end of the spectrum.
  • Colwell called the police and, the following day in the House, called the incident an act of “intimidation” and “an attempt to prevent me from performing my function as a legislator.” As reactions go, it was at the high end of the spectrum.

Others will disagree, but I would put Colwell’s behaviour somewhere between “overreaction” and “milking it.” In contrast, Paris manned up by, one, expressing regret for losing his cool, two, voluntarily giving police a statement that led them to lay minor charges against him; and three, resigning his cabinet posts.

Legislative debates should never get physical. But let’s keep this in perspective.



A thumb on the weather scale — reaction

Most of the listeners who responded to my debate with CBC manager Andrew Cochran about the network’s (in my view) inflated coverage of weather are just fine with the CBC’s weather treatment.

Highway conditions at 3:30 pm, February 20, when Cape Breton schools closed early due to forecasts of possible freezing rain that evening.
Highway conditions at 3:30 pm, February 20, when Cape Breton schools closed early due to forecasts of possible freezing rain that evening: Pavement dry; precipitation nil.

This doesn’t surprise me. Some people like being frightened about weather, just as others like being frightened about crime. Lurid coverage of crime by some media has led to a sharp increase in the public perception of personal risk from crime even as crime rates have plummeted. I see a parallel with public perception of weather risk.

Two listeners added interesting points to the debate.

Geoffrey May of Margaree said forecasts have become more extreme because weather has become more extreme—a result of climate change. Maybe Geoff can supply confirming data, but my subjective impression supports his view. Let me be clear, however: It’s not detailed reporting of occasional serious storms that I object to; It’s inflated reporting of routine storms, as if they were serious. What Oran sports reporter Bill Dunphy deliciously termed, “radio storms.”

Rosemary Algar of Cape North, a listener who shares my annoyance at weather hyperbole, pointed out a subtle result of our current timorous approach. We are teaching our children, she said, that at the first sign of inconvenience, it’s OK to stay home and disregard our responsibilities to work and school.

Worse still, it’s school officials who are delivering that message.

Putting a thumb on the weather scale

Kudos to Andrew Cochran, Maritimes Regional Director of the CBC, for agreeing to debate the network’s hyperventilated coverage of routine weather events. We hashed it out in an extended session this morning on CBC Cape Breton’s Information Morning program.

Longtime Contrarian readers know I think Nova Scotia has lost all perspective about weather, working ourselves into a lather over events we would have taken in stride 30 years ago.

The CBC is one link in this chain of timorousness. Environment Canada, which issues daily “statements,”  “advisories,” and “warnings” about routine weather inconveniences, is another.

School officials arbitrarily grant paid holidays to hundreds of public employees on grounds of child safety, with no data to show that school closures make anyone safer, and no consequences for the significant costs their needless caution imposes on society.

That’s my perspective. You can hear Andrew Cochran’s rebuttal in the debate below.

Welcome Mayor Savage — The Coast deals Kelly a fatal blow

[See update/correction below] The Coast, a Halifax weekly paper, has produced a devastating account of Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly’s mishandling of the estate of  a family friend who had named him as executor and sole trustee of her modest fortune.

In a prodigious piece of reporting, News Editor Tim Bousquet lays out the complex story in relentless detail, layering  fact upon devastating fact through 5,000 words, illustrated with cancelled cheques and sketchy legal and financial filings. It’s too complicated to summarize here, but please read it yourself, especially if you are a resident or voter in HRM.

Bousquet’s work sometimes suffers from his habit of wearing his heart on his sleeve, but this time he wisely eschews umbrage and lets the facts of the late Mary Thibeault’s seven-year probate debacle speak for themselves. The accumulated evidence, Kelly’s refusal to comment, and his apparent effort to enlist wronged benefactors in a secrecy pact add up to an indictment of the scandal-plagued mayor. It’s impossible to imagine Kelly surviving an election in light of The Coast’s revelations.

Politically, His Worship is a dead duck.

It will take a lot of work for other Metro news organizations to catch up with Bousquet’s reportage, but I was surprised to see most of them ignore the story in their Friday editions. The ethical thing would have been to run a short creditor piece — “The Coast weekly reported Thursday that…” with comment from the Mayor and Savage — and the get their top reporters on the job in earnest Friday.

They chose instead to pretend Bousquet’s shocking revelations did not exist. The free tabloid Metro was an exception, as was were the Rick Howe Show and CTV-Atlantic, both of which interviewed Bousquet.

No doubt these news organizations are embarrassed that The Coast, known mainly as a free circulation entertainment paper and a vehicle for syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage, scooped them so badly on a story that was already in the public domain. But ignoring their competitor’s accomplishment, and their mayor’s shenanigans, only makes them look small. (Yes Caroline, Andrew, Sarah, and Steve, I’m looking at you.)

[Update/Correction] Contrary to my initial post, CTV-Atlantic did cover the story by running an interview with Bousquet. Apologies for the mistake, and thanks to Greg Beaulieu for the correction.

Hold the canonization – updated

DavidFrum-225Arch-conservative David Frum stiffed CBC Radio’s flagship The Current this morning [see update below], failing at the last minute to show up for a heavily promoted interview on his reincarnation as a thoughtful moderate. The program was forced to recycle a dumpster diving documentary in place of what I fear would have been the latest in a series of fawning interviews.

Let’s hope this will, in Canada at least, slow the media juggernaut bent on canonizing Frum as discerning paragon of moderation.

Frum, as the saying goes, was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. His father was a wealthy dentist turned wealthier real estate developer; his mother was, well, you know who is mother was. At a time when right wing media barons were ascendant in Canada, young Frum fashioned a public career rooted in contempt for people (and regions) who don’t measure up to his own social Darwinist attainments.

Frum CBC no showOf late, he has bravely shown distaste for those who paint rifle targets on images of America’s first black president. He evokes mild embarrassment at keeping intellectual company with the likes of talk show bully Rush Limbaugh. He blows hot and cold on ditzy Sarah Palin. This makes him moderate only to those whose political spectrum equates birther whack jobs with such leftist radicals as Barack Obama.

Check the record: Frum staunchly opposes public health care. If it were up to him, wealthy people would buy their own care, middle class people would be OK until their insurance ran out or was canceled due to illness, and the poor and those with pre-existing conditions could rely on charity, thank you very much. He fought to preserve a system that produces the worst health outcomes in the industrialized world (and a pretty good swath of the developing world).

He opposed Supreme Court nominee Harriet Meirs because she was insufficiently pro life.

In justifying his vote to put Palin an old man’s heartbeat away from the oval office,  he wrote: “It says something important that so many millions of people respond to her as somebody who incarnates their beliefs and values. At a time when the great American middle often seems to be falling further and further behind, there may be a special need for a national leader who represents and symbolizes that middle.” Oh my.

Saint David? Hold the holy water, please.

[UPDATE:  Frum apparently made it in time for the Eastern Time Zone and later editions of the show.]