Losers & winners

Nova Scotians tune in on election night to learn two things: Who won, and who are the sore losers. Darrell Dexter was a smart loser, delivering the best speech of the night, a gracious amalgam of congratulations to the winners, and thanks and condolences for his followers, upbeat but laced with sadness he could not hide.

Perhaps the worst thing about the crushing defeat meted out to the NDP is the suboptimal quality of the survivors.

  • I heard both both N-Dips and Tories Tuesday night predict Sterling Belliveau will bolt to the Liberals who, if they are smart, will not take him.
  • DPR, the minister who stood by while her department nearly destroyed Cape Breton’s venerable Talbot House Recovery Centre, snuck through in a three-way race with just 35.3 percent of the vote, two percent more than the theoretical minimum. As the member who needed more babysitting than any other cabinet minister, mark her down as a liability for probable interim leader Maureen MacDonald.
  • By standing the gaff, Gordie Gosse and Lenore Zann (that’s Zann, Paul, not Zahn) win fresh respect as gifted politicians. Still, they might not be your first choice as  lieutenants to rebuild a party.
  • Frank Corbett, having maxed out his pensions, will lose money for every day he hangs in the back benches, a location that will hold little charm for him. Under pressure to stay until the Liberal honeymoon eases, Nanky will be eyeing the exits. Cape Breton Centre will be a hard seat for the NDP to hold in a by-election.

Jamie Baillie succeeded in restoring the party base, enabling him to address the province last night as a winner, albeit one with only 11 seats. He carried out this role with appropriate enthusiasm, but spoke far too long. Viewers want a spirited but quick thank-you wave from the second-place finisher, not a detailed policy address.

Still, it was tacky for Premier-designate Stephen McNeil to start his victory lap while the Opposition Leader was still speaking — a possible sign that for all his promises of a respectful demeanour, the new premier won’t be gentle in the corners.

McNeil has a tough job ahead, not least because of populist policy positions that will serve the province and his government poorly should he have the ill-judgment to implement them. He would do well to cast a backward eye at the lessons of humility so harshly meted out to his predecessor tonight.

Six things the NDP did wrong – part 2

Further evidence, if more were needed, that God is a New Democrat: No sooner did I put up the first part of my Things the NDP Did Wrong post than I was laid low by a chest cold that obliterated deep thought.* Here, finally, is Part Two of What the Dippers Did Wrong, to be followed, more swiftly I hope, by a two-part Things They Did Right.

4.  Tone deaf to rural NS

Four years ago, Nova Scotia’s New Democratic Party formed its first ever provincial government by adding an historic sweep of the rural mainland to its traditional Metro stranglehold. From the Canso Causeway to Lower East Pubnico, Dexter’s troops painted the entire Atlantic coastline orange.

Were it not for Tory Angus Tando MacIsaac hanging onto Antigonish, and the thin strip of coastline that belongs to Colchester North, the party would have registered another clean sweep along the Northumberland coast, from the Causeway to the Tantramar Marsh. Antigonish joined the orange tide a year later in a byelection.

NDP Mainland Seats 2009-600

Credit for engineering this triumph goes to the party’s cucumber-cool leader, whose stolid personality calmed fears of barbarians at the gate, and the small group of smart political operatives who surrounded him. Like the leader, and all but a handful of the party’s longstanding MLAs, the apparatchiks were firmly rooted in Halifax. None had neighbours who made their living with Stihl 041s, Ford 2Ns, or Ace Pot-Pullers. None lived 25 km from the nearest post office or NSLC outlet. None commuted to and from work over kilometres of unpaved road. None lived on their grandfather’s farm. None had used dialup in more than a decade.**

They were, however, thoroughly familiar with fashionable economic theories about the the inexorable urbanization of Canada, and the foolhardiness of propping up dying regions and economies. They knew governments are supposed to get unpleasant tasks—breaking promises, raising taxes, and killing popular programs—out of the way early in the mandate.

CatSo when Bay Ferries Ltd. asked for another in a long and growing string of annual subsidies to keep the Yarmouth Ferry running, Dexter’s boys abruptly shut off the tap. For the first time in decades, there would be no ferry connection between Yarmouth and Maine. The announcement came a week before Christmas.

There was no consultation—not with the town, the county, or the surrounding municipalities; not with the 120 ferry workers who would lose their jobs; not with the hoteliers who feared the ferry shutdown would render their businesses unviable. Dexter and Fisheries Minister Sterling Belliveau, the political minister for Southwest Nova, were both out of the country. It may just have been, as Dexter said in a television appearance last week, the biggest mistake of his first term.

It wasn’t simply a failure to calculate the massive collateral damage removal of the ferry would cause, it was a general cluelessness about the nuts and bolts of rural life. The NS NDP brain trust doesn’t get rural Nova Scotia, and rural Nova Scotia knows it.

5.  Maladroit on big negotiations

Whether chastened by the Yarmouth fiasco or hip to the hundreds of union jobs at stake, Dexter’s boys moved aggressively to shore up two venerable industrial behemoths—the paper mills at Brooklyn and Point Tupper—and to invest in two potential industrial employers—Daewoo’s wind turbine fabrication plant at the old Trenton Rail Yard, and Irving’s bid for a massive federal shipbuilding contract.

  •  In December 2011, the province gave Bowater Mersey a $50 million rescue package aimed at saving 320 jobs, only to see the plant shut down permanently six months later. About half the money went to purchase woodlands owned by the newsprint company; the other half took the form of grants that were mostly unspent when the owners pulled the plug. In December 2012, the province took over most of the company’s assets and liabilities, including a $20 million debt to one of the two owners, $120 million in pension liabilities, and environmental liabilities of unknown dimensions.
  • port-hawkesbury-paperIn September, 2012, the province paid the venture capital firm Stern Partners $124.5 million to take over the idle Pt. Tupper super-calendar paper mill. It had already spent $36.8 million keeping the mill in restartable condition. As the deal-making dragged on, Stern continually upped its demands, and the province repeatedly met them. Only after tiny Richmond County balked at Stern’s ultimatum for extreme property tax abatement, and Stern backed down, did the province finally draw a line in the sand, at which point Stern quickly agreed to the too-rich aid package.***
  • In June 2012 2011, the province put a total of $60 million—$40 million in grants and $20 million for a 49% equity stake—into a subsidiary of Korea’s troubled Daewoo Group that would manufacture wind turbine components at the old Trenton Rail Car plant. Daewoo put up just $30 million. The operation was supposed to create 500 jobs, but by the fall of 2011, employment had peaked at just 70, and the province acknowledged the plant was struggling with slack demand.
  • In 2012, the Dexter government staged a smart, successful communications and lobbying campaign to help Irving Shipbuilding land a purported $25 billion shipbuilding contract that could produce up to 11,500 direct and indirect jobs, according to the Conference Board of Canada. The jobs were supposed to begin as early as December 2012, but instead, Irving laid off 70 workers that month, as the start-up date for steel-cutting drifted off to 2015 at the earliest. At the same time, it emerged that the province had agreed to “loan” Irving $304 million (though only $44 million of the amount was repayable, a quality normally intrinsic to the concept of a loan). Then Dexter rejected Freedom of Information requests for details of the loan, but offered selected leaks to favoured reporters.

No one outside government knows the ins and outs of these deals, but on the results, it’s hard to avoid suspicion the New Democrats repeatedly got hosed when they went up against experienced corporate negotiators.

6.  Failure at Community Services

It was inevitable that a New Democratic Party government would look more like previous governments than its most ardent supporters might have hoped. No aspect of the Dexter-guided drift to the centre will have disappointed the party’s base more than its failure to reform the imperious bureaucracy of Nova Scotia’s Department of Community Services.

Dexter-RafuseWhen senior officials of the department, eager to win control of addiction treatment centres over which they had no statutory authority, promoted vague—and, as it turned out, false—allegations of managerial and sexual misconduct against the respected Roman Catholic priest who ran Talbot House in Frenchvale, Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse vigorously championed the character assassination for seven months. She also pilloried Talbot’s volunteer board of directors, despite ample evidence the allegations were the empty ravings of an aggrieved crackpot. As political minister for Cape Breton, Deputy Premier Frank Corbett deserves special mention for his failure to step in.

Throughout its history, the NDP had defended the rights of income assistance recipients, but once in power, it turned its back on these citizens, clawing back benefits, and then defending the meanspirited changes with a despicable PR campaign that played to the nastiest stereotypes about welfare recipients. So much for today’s families.

Of all my complaints about Nova Scotia’s first social democratic government, this is the saddest.

Next: Six things the NDP did right. I encourage readers to submit comments and reflections on the NDP’s first term, and my evaluation of it. I will print a selection of the most thought-provoking, least partisan.

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* Before swamping me with email, please check the batteries in your irony detectors. I am an atheist, and while I believe the province would be best served by returning an NDP government, despite first-term ineptitude I describe here, I will vote for the Tory in my riding, a decent man with decades of community service facing a cynical challenge from a Liberal whose sole qualification for office is her status as wife of a currently serving Member of Parliament.

** The same can be said most of Nova Scotia’s political reporters, who rarely venture past the Armdale Rotary.

*** Disclosure: I played a small role helping Richmond County prepare for these negotiations.

Stealing off into the night

The Nova Scotia Department of Community Services, which was unceremoniously stripped of responsibility for addiction recovery centres earlier this month, has quietly removed from its website its much criticized review of Cape Breton’s Talbot House Recovery Centre.

An electronic search failed to turn up a copy of the “report” — hatchet job would be a more accurate descriptor — anywhere on the gov.ns.ca website. Removal of the error-riddled document, and publication of the Talbot Board’s point-by-point refutation, had been persistently sought by the beleaguered recovery center.

As recently as July, Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse insisted she stood by the review, saying it  it “followed the standard and appropriate processes.”

Talbot has been closed since last March, after Peterson-Rafuse’s officials began furtively promoting false allegations of sexual misconduct against the centre’s executive director. Police found no evidence to support the rumors—nothing that would even warrant opening a formal investigation.

The Department of Health and Wellness, which became the new government home for recovery centres following the Community Services misadventure, is currently evaluating Talbot’s response to a request for proposals (RFP) for the very services it had provided to widespread acclaim for 53 years. The are no other bidders vying to help Cape Breton addicts seeking a residential recovery program.

That this vindictive RFP should never have been issued is by now obvious to everyone. As a face-saving exercise, the current evaluation is an ill-fitting fig leaf. The sooner it’s completed, and Talbot House refunded and reopened, the better.

Community Services stripped of recovery centre oversight

In a tacit acknowledgement that Community Services bolloxed the crisis it brought on at Cape Breton’s Talbot House Recovery Centre, the province has stripped the department of responsibility for all five addiction recovery centres in Nova Scotia. From now on, provincial funding, service agreements, and oversight will fall under the Department of Health and Wellness.


The decision comes just in time for Health to assume responsibility for evaluating a proposal from Talbot House to restore provincial funding it received as Cape Breton’s only addiction recovery centre. That avoids the sticky problem of having Community Services officials, with their demonstrated bias against Talbot, evaluate responses to the Request for Proposals Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse ordered last June in a spiteful escalation of her department’s battle with the respected, 53-year-old treatment centre.

That’s all well and good. There is no reason to believe Health and Wellness can’t manage provincial funding of recovery centres professionally and fairly. But there remains the glaring need for a top-to-bottom investigation of the Department of Community Services. Its assault on Talbot was simply too reckless and too vindictive to let pass unexamined. There is ample evidence from other cases that imperious bullying of clients and client organizations has become standard operating procedure at Community Services.

If a government led by the New Democratic Party, which has criticized Community Services for decades, won’t undertake this long overdue review, who will?

Talbot House grad

Former Talbot House resident Greg Carter writes:

I’m writing in response to the department of community services’ refusal to meet with the board and at least let them reopen. After all, the allegations against Fr. Paul Abbass were unfounded and in my opinion malicious. I spent 18 months at talbot house and never once felt or saw any inappropriate behaivior on any of the staff’s part. The staff and Fr. Paul always acted with professionalism and care for the residents. Once my stay was over, I was able to come out to the house for a little work during the back shift, which was very beneficial to my recovery. The closing of the house should have never happened, and so it should be reopened immediately.

Scorched earth for Cape Breton addicts

On Wednesday, the Department of Community Services made good on Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse’s vindictive plan to issue a request for proposals (RFP) to replace the residential addiction treatment services so ably provided by the Talbot House Recovery Centre for the last half century.

Those services came screeching to a halt last February, after a biased and incompetent “organizational review” by the department’s  director of family and youth services, Marika Lathem, lent temporary credence to what turned out to be false charges of sexual misconduct against the home’s executive director.

Peterson-Rafuse and her officials are variously quoted as saying the Talbot House Society is welcome to respond to the RFP, or she has not ruled out allowing them to apply.

You can download the RFP here. My very quick read this evening suggests it contains poisoned pills that may make it incompatible with the Talbot Society’s philosophical approach to recovery, and easy for a hostile departmental review team to rationalize rejecting any Talbot bid.

The person in charge of that team? None other than Marika Lathem, principal author of the incompetent and biased review that brought on this debacle. This brazen conflict of interest compromises the hard-won integrity of Nova Scotia’s procurement system, and ought to concern those in charge of that system.

It’s hard to imagine who else might bid on this RFP. No existing Cape Breton organization seems likely, but the canny strategists at DCS are not likely to have issued the tender call without assurances someone other than Talbot would apply. The smart money is that Lathem has cajoled one of the four existing recovery centres on the mainland into opening a branch plant in Cape Breton.

That’ll go over well in Scotchtown and Florence.

Prominent New Democrat denounces Peterson-Rafuse

Sydney Mines native John Hugh Edwards is a life-long New Democrat, the kind of party stalwart who mans phones during election campaigns, works polls on voting day, and faithfully attends NDP rallies and conventions. Twice, the longtime St. Francis Xavier extension worker ran as the party’s federal candidate in Cape Breton – The Sydneys, mounting a respectable challenge to Liberal MP Mark Eyking.

Don’t miss his letter to the Cape Breton Post about Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse’s treatment of Talbot House:

For decades, the staff and volunteers at Talbot House have provided Cape Breton with incredible service to those among us who have suffered from the ravages of addiction. Now it appears that the good work of these dedicated people, and the legacy of many years of service to our community, are to be thrown aside because of little more than false allegations, innuendo, and a tissue of technical and picayune complaints by nameless bureaucrats.

Before leaving home for work opportunities in Ottawa five years ago, I had the privilege to assist, in a small way, with Talbot House’s work. Through this direct experience, I can attest to the dedication and commitment of the executive director, the staff, the residents and the volunteers.

During more than 30 years of working with non-profit and community service organizations, I have rarely seen the level of commitment to service and recovery I found at Talbot House.

For the staff and board members of Talbot House to be subjected to the assault and vilification they have suffered at the hands of the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services is a travesty of the first order.

To add insult to injury, the behaviour of the current minister of community services in supporting the unsupportable organizational review is incomprehensible.

I have read the review, and my years of professional experience in organizational development tell me that aside from allegations that have since been proven false, it contains no substantial issues that could not be resolved by simple and direct communication between the board and the department.

We have not been able to read the board’s response* to the review since the Department of Community Services has refused to post it. More shameful behaviour. Further to the minister’s discredit, she appears to have reneged on commitments she made to the board in June.

I suggest the only fair resolution to this sad affair would include restoration of the mandate and funding for Talbot House; publication on the government website of Talbot House’s response to the organizational review; a public apology from the minister of community services to the executive director, staff, board, and residents of Talbot House; and a full and open inquiry into the behaviour of the Department of Community Services throughout this shameful episode.

Those steps would not only satisfy the injustice to Talbot House, but also assure other community-based organizations in Cape Breton and throughout Nova Scotia they will not be subjected to the same kind of treatment from the Department of Community Services.

I agree that the only fair resolution to this disgraceful episode is a thorough, scrupulously independent investigation of this department. Peterson-Rafuse has lately been crowing about how many volunteer boards and charitable community groups her department has subjected to “organizational reviews.” Well, if it’s sauce for all those goslings, how about some sauce for this smug, complacent goose?

Where are the other New Democrats who campaigned for decades to hold the Department of Community Services to account? How can they remain silent in the face of this behavior? Are they really satisfied to see such cruel, senseless treatment of a valued community organization by the first New Democratic government in Nova Scotia?

* Peterson-Rafuse’s department hasn’t have the integrity to publish the Talbot Board’s devastating response, which exposes the false allegations, factual errors, and bias that pervade her department’s own report on this issue, but you can download it from Contrarian [pdf].

[Disclosure: John Hugh is a longtime neighbour and valued friend. We were briefly business partners a decade ago. He now lives most of the year in Ottawa, and to the best of my recollection, we have n deveriscussed this issue.]

Save Talbot House, a Facebook page started by distraught former residents of Talbot House, has attracted 2,000 members in less that a week. There is also an online petition.

Talbot House responds to Peterson-Rafuse’s about-face

The background:

  • On June 11, Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse agreed to suspend her department’s tender call to replace the addiction services formerly provided by Cape Breton’s Talbot House Recovery Centre, and pledged to personally lead direct negotiations with Talbot’s board for a new contract to deliver those services.
  • Just 25 days later, without holding a single meeting with the board, Peterson-Rafuse told Talbot House she would not meet with them after all, and would instead proceed with the tender call.

Talbot’s board chair, Sydney psychologist John Gainer, issued the following statement Wednesday:

The Board of Directors of Talbot House was informed in a letter dated July 6, 2012, that the Minister of Community Services has withdrawn from further independent discussion with the Board and will issue a general request for proposals for an addiction recovery house in Cape Breton.


Following what seemed to be a productive meeting in early June, the Board of Director’s was optimistic and eager to continue discussion with the Minister regarding the re-establishment of a service agreement between the Department of Community Services and the Talbot House Board.

The Minister agreed to review the report of the organizational review of Talbot House and the Board’s detailed and critical response. The Minister also agreed to meet regularly and directly with the Board to continue discussion. The Board agreed to provide additional documentation to the Minister in advance of subsequent meetings.

A follow-up meeting was never scheduled, due to the Minister’s and the Board members’ respective work and travel schedules in June and early July. On June 21, 2012 the Board requested available meeting dates from the Minister and informed her that she would be provided with all relevant information well in advance of the next meeting, including a detailed outline of the Board’s plans to establish compliance with Department of Community Services standards.

In the July 6, 2012 letter to the Board and in subsequent email correspondence, the Minister indicated that the Board had “failed” to “immediately” send her requested information, despite there being no agreed upon or specific deadline for the submission of documents.

The Board had also requested that the Minister send policy and governance documents from the other recovery houses in the province for the Board’s review. The Department of Community Services had indicated that the other facilities met or exceeded all government standards and the Board hoped to use the documents as government-approved templates. To date, the Board has received neither documents nor response on this matter from the Department of Community Services.

The Minister has indicated that she “stand(s) by” the organizational review and believes it “followed the standard and appropriate processes.” The Board of Directors of Talbot House maintains that both the review process and report remain fundamentally flawed. The Board has requested that the Minister publish the Board’s written response on our government’s website. There has been no response.

Peterson-Rafuse reneges

For four months this spring, Community Services Minister Denise-Peterson Rafuse blindly defended her department’s slandering of an innocent priest, and its incompetent intervention into the operation of Talbot House, a much-admired, 53-year-old community-built addiction recovery center forced to close after the department engineered the removal of its executive director on specious grounds.

Then in June, when she finally deigned to meet with the Cape Breton institution’s board of directors, she had a momentary and welcome change of heart. As I wrote then:

Contrary to expectations expressed here Monday, today’s meeting between Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse and the Directors of Talbot House brought the two sides closer together, and may lead to the reopening of Talbot House under the leadership of a vindicated Fr. Paul Abbass.

Peterson-Rafuse, persistently criticized here over the last two months, took a crucial step back from the brink. For now at least, she has cancelled her department’s plan to issue a tender for the addiction recovery services formerly provided by Talbot House. The two sides will negotiate terms for Talbot’s reopening with government funding. The Cape Breton Post’s Julie Collins has the optimistic details.

It didn’t take long for the department’s bureaucrats to whip this weak minister back into line. Contrary to her promise, she held no further meetings with the Talbot Board. As further proof that her word counts for nothing, the department today told the Cape Breton Post it would proceed with the RFP Petereson-Rafuse had promised to put on hold.

According to George Savoury, the department’s executive director for family and community support, there have been no further meetings with the Talbot House board, but the minister has looked into several of the issues raised in the report.

“That has been completed and we decided we will be proceeding with the RFP as was announced earlier,” he said. “We did send a letter to Talbot House advising them of our decision. Talbot House is very aware that they can apply, if interested.”…

“And we felt that a RFP would be an opportunity for an enhanced and improved service for individuals who needed this service in Cape Breton.”

As always, the department insists the Talbot House Society is “free to apply,” an empty bit of sanctimonious twaddle if ever there was one. Talbot House is history.

It will be interesting to see the if the department-imposed terms of reference make the use of methadone a mandatory part of the new addiction center’s treatment program. Deposed Executive Director Paul Abbass’s refusal to accept clients on methadone was a bone of contention for the methadone-pushing addiction professionals who anonymously defamed him in the department’s notoriously incompetent review.

This issue needs a thorough review by someone independent of the department. I am currently appealing to the NS Supreme Court over the department’s refusal to release documents that might shed light on the motives behind the department’s clumsy assault on Talbot House. Stay tuned.

Minister Peterson-Rafuse presses pause

Contrary to expectations expressed here Monday, today’s meeting between Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse and the Directors of Talbot House brought the two sides closer together, and may lead to the reopening of Talbot House under the leadership of a vindicated Fr. Paul Abbass.

Peterson-Rafuse, persistently criticized here over the last two months, took a crucial step back from the brink. For now at least, she has cancelled her department’s plan to issue a tender for the addiction recovery services formerly provided by Talbot House. The two sides will negotiate terms for Talbot’s reopening with government funding. The Cape Breton Post’s Julie Collins has the optimistic details.

Full credit to Peterson-Rafuse for directing the department’s about-face.

The meeting was closed to the media, and I don’t know what happened there. It seems reasonable to speculate that when the minister finally got in a room with someone other than her department’s senior officials, she discovered there was much she had not been told, and much of what she had been told was less than forthright. This likely extended beyond the complicated facts of the case to the calibre and heft of the Talbot directors her officials had treated with such disdain.

It’s not the first time. A year ago, the minister cancelled the department’s plans to implement a series of devastating cuts to medical benefits for Nova Scotians with disabilities. DCS officials planned to impose the cuts on the Friday before Canada Day weekend, without having consulted caregivers, operators of special needs homes, or the disabled residents themselves.

A media call alerted Peterson-Rafuse, who halted the cuts 24 hours before they were to take place. She later apologized to stakeholders and ordered two months of consultations before implementing a revised set of guidelines.

The Talbot affair could be a teaching moment for the NDP Government. Why was the minister not accurately briefed on both these operations? What does this say about the culture of the Department of Community Services? About its relationship to the clients it is ultimately supposed to serve, a group of Nova Scotians the NDP has long championed? What does it say about this department’s exercise of the deference civil servants are supposed to show ministers of government?