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 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.

Summertime, and the blogging is slower

Yes, the blog posts have been slower this July. On those rare Nova Scotia weeks, when the sun blasts down and the temperature tops 25° for days on end, there are better things to do in than sit at a keyboard and grouse about the state of the world.

In the backlog of posts I mean to get to: big developments in the Dexter Government’s demolition of Talbot House (including five pending Contrarian FOIPOP requests looking for the motives behind this hatchet job); feedback from defenders of Neal Livingston and admirers of Cabot Links; and he next instalment of the Contrarian Election Donation Interactive Mapping Project.

While you wait, Maggie and I recommend raspberry or blueberry sorbet.

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.

A brazenly self-serving exercise of bureaucratic power

Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse will finally sit down with the Talbot House board of directors Tuesday, but only after her department’s shrewd mandarins have pre-empted any actual purpose the meeting might serve.

The Talbot board asked for the session months ago, seeking a peaceful resolution to her department’s reckless assaults on the half-century-old, community-built addiction recovery center. Peterson-Rafuse readily agreed to the meeting in principle, then bobbed, weaved, and stalled until her officials rendered it meaningless.

First she couldn’t meet because the legislature was sitting. Then she postponed again, just long enough for the department to announce the RFP* it hopes will kill any chance of Talbot House reopening.

DCS announced the RFP to replace the services Talbot provided on the very day its bureaucrats gave the legislature’s Community Services Committee a selective and distorted account of events leading to Talbot’s closure, an account that depicted department functionaries as blameless for and even shocked at the sordid sequence of events.

When George Savoury, Executive Director of Family and Community Supports, emerged from that hearing, a reporter asked whether DCS had any mea culpa to offer.

“No,” he replied.

Another reporter asked what lessons the department had learned from the Talbot imbroglio.

“We will be, as a result of this experience, doing more frequent reviews,” Savoury said.

It was a brazenly self-serving conclusion. The DCS review of Talbot House is hardly a template anyone would want to replicate.

  • It led to the closure of a valued community institution that had served some of Nova Scotia’s most tormented citizens.
  • It promoted false allegations of sexual impropriety against an innocent man, the organization’s executive director, Fr. Paul Abbass.
  • It based these allegations on vague hearsay from anonymous third parties—allegations for which police could find no basis in fact.

Even after an eight-week police review cleared Abbass, DCS saw fit to publish a report that repeated the sinister-sounding innuendo—still anonymous, and described in a manner so vague it would be impossible to refute, no matter how innocent the target.

Compounding the slander directed at Abbass, the DCS report contained additional inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and outright falsehoods. To cite but a few:

  • It said the recovery house had no budget, when in fact, a budget was attached to its annual application for funding.
  • It said the annual financial statements submitted by Talbot’s accounting firm were unsigned; in fact, they were signed.
  • It criticized aspects of Talbot’s financial management in a manner so uncomprehending as to betray broad ignorance of not-for-profit accounting practices
  • It complained that Talbot House had no formal orientation for new staff, when Talbot had not hired a new employee for six years.

Stripped of bias and errors, the report boiled down to a complaint that Talbot had been slow to implement personnel procedures such as job descriptions and performance reviews.

In short, DCS carried out a review and released a report that was slanderous, error-filled, and biased, yet the man in charge offered no apology, and proclaimed the only take-home to be that more frequent reviews are needed.

Meanwhile the minister responsible dithered and stonewalled long enough for her officials to render today’s meeting meaningless.

What a disgrace.

– – –

* An RFP is a request for proposals, the first step in a tendering process. DCS will request proposals to provide recovery center services in Cape Breton. The RFP will set forth the criteria the winning bidder must meet.  The department  will evaluate submissions and select a winner, who will then get government money to provide the very services Talbot House pioneered in Cape Breton on a volunteer basis 53 years ago. DCS has said Talbot House is free to compete for this tender, but I will be surprised if the criteria do not include features tacitly intended to exclude Talbot—such as a willingness to accept clients on Methadone, use of which is contrary to Talbot’s philosophy. If effect, the Talbot House Society is being forced to compete for the right to supply the service it pioneered.

Another Talbot House test for the NDP

On Tuesday, members of the Nova Scotia Legislature’s Community Services Committee will get a chance to question the bureaucrat who promoted what turned out to be false allegations of sexual misconduct against an innocent priest, and to ask her superiors why they still haven’t withdrawn a report containing slanderous innuendo against him.

The department’s actions led to the closure of Talbot House, which had for 53 years provided safe lodging, meaningful work, and successful treatment for some of Nova Scotia’s most troubled citizens.

Marika Lathem, Director of Family and Youth Services and the principal author of the error-filled report, will testify. The Talbot House Society Board said her review of the organization, “was fundamentally flawed in process and analysis, procedurally inadequate, lacked balance, and contributed to a report that contained numerous inaccuracies and misrepresentations that, by their nature, are prejudicial, biased and misrepresent the history, governance, and operation of Talbot House.”

George Savoury, Executive Director of Family and Community Supports, and Associate Deputy Minister David Ryan will also appear. As Lathem’s superiors, they either failed to vet her report prior to publication, or failed to notice its obvious errors, inconsistencies, and casual calumny.


Chairing the committee is Kings North MLA Jim Morton who, coincidentally, served as the Annapolis Valley District Health Authority’s Manager of Addiction Services before becoming an MLA. With that background, Morton will have first-hand experience with Fortress DCS.

Last week, another coincidence: DCS gave itself a 30-day extension to the statutory deadline for responding to four freedom-of-information requests about Talbot. This had the effect of guaranteeing the requested material will not be available for Tuesday’s hearing. The department said meeting the initial time limit for the large number of records requested could unreasonably interfere with its operations. In one of the requests at issue, the “large number of records requested” was one: a single, easily located document.

Last time a house committee got the opportunity to consider the Talbot House scandal, DCS Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse conducted a one-woman filibuster in response to the first question asked of her. She spoke for nearly an hour, running out the clock before opposition MLAs could get in a second question.

Legislature committee rules do not facilitate effective cross-examination of evasive or hostile witnesses. It will be interesting to see whether Morton allows prolix opening statements and time-wasting by  government members to frustrate meaningful exploration of the Talbot mess Tuesday.

For decades, concern about how DCS treated Nova Scotia’s down-and-out lay close to the heart of the New Democratic Party. Tuesday’s hearing will offer another measure of how much the long road to power has changed the party.

A minister in deep denial of departmental bias and incompetence

At the legislature Thursday, two key developments in the scandal enveloping the Department of Community Services and its minister, Denise Peterson-Rafuse.

  • The Progressive Conservatives demanded the minister’s resignation, arguing she had breached Nova Scotia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPOP) Act by allowing the department to publish a report that violated Fr. Paul Abbass’s privacy by repeating false innuendo against him even after the CBRM police looked into allegations advanced by DCS and found no grounds to open a criminal investigation.
  • In a scrum with reporters from the Cape Breton Post and Halifax Metro, Peterson-Rafuse made a string of statements about the department’s actions that — how to put this politely? — were starkly at odds with the known and verifiable facts of the case.

The Tories contend that by releasing the report of its review of Talbot House, Peterson-Rafuse’s ministry violated a section of the act that bars “disclosure harmful to personal privacy.” It reads in part:

20 (1) The head of a public body shall refuse to disclose personal information to an applicant if the disclosure would be an unreasonable invasion of a third party’s personal privacy.

(2) In determining pursuant to subsection (1) or (3) whether a disclosure of personal information constitutes an unreasonable invasion of a third party’s personal privacy, the head of a public body shall consider all the relevant circumstances, including whether…

(g) the personal information is likely to be inaccurate or unreliable;

(h) the disclosure may unfairly damage the reputation of any person referred to in the record requested by the applicant.

In a scrum with reporters from the Cape Breton Post and Halifax Metro, Peterson-Rafuse flatly denied the report contained anything that impugned Abbass’s reputation:

Well, there was no accusations published. If you read the review, it’s organizational review. It talks about, it’s asking about policies, it’s asking about staffing policies, it’s asking about when they were doing day trips, or overnight trips, it was asking about professional development, this is just a fabrication from the Tories.

In fact, the report contains lengthy sections about the Executive Director, who was Fr. Abbass, and recounts complaints made about him by “stakeholders,” the report’s peculiar term for staff members of three government-run addiction and detox services. The section reads, in part:

  • Eight stakeholders had received complaints from clients regarding the behavior of the ED [Fr. Abbass]. Some of these complaints were as recent as 2011. Although stakeholders indicated that they had encouraged these clients to come forward and make a formal complaint, it appears that no complaints were made to the TH Board.
  • Stakeholders who received complaints from residents felt compelled to keep the information confidential given their therapeutic relationship with clients….
  • As a result of these complaints, stakeholders either refused to make referrals to TH, or they had clients call TH on their own for self-referral. Some stakeholders will assess a client’s vulnerability and only refer those who ‘could take care of themselves’ to TH.

I think any fair-minded reader would rate this a perfect fit for the definition of innuendo: “an oblique remark or hint, typically a suggestive or disparaging one.” Bear in mind the widespread publicity given to the fact that police had looked into allegations of sexual abuse by Fr. Abbass.

For Rafuse to contend that the report contained “no accusations” does not reflect well on her personal honesty, integrity, or judgment. For the department to publish this thinly veiled defamation, after the police rejected its “evidence” of sexual abuse, amounts to a degree of official character assassination I cannot recall seeing in 40 years of following Nova Scotia politics.

I reproduce the brief extract from the DCS report with misgivings, because, if taken literally and believed, it will further damage Fr. Abbass’s already unfairly besmirched reputation. I do so solely to demonstrate the falsehood of Peterson-Rafuse’s comments yesterday.

Readers should most certainly not take that passage at face value. First, the so-called evidence was rejected by police. Second, the report is riddled with factual errors (as this detailed rebuttal shows). The errors all tend to show Talbot House and Fr. Abbass in an unjustly negative light. Its review of the centre’s financial records is incompetent on its face.

The Minister and the department remain in such deep denial about the incompetence and bias that permeated the review of Talbot House, they appear willing to perpetuate discredited and slanderous allegations rather than admit error.

That a report this grossly flawed was produced and approved warrants a thorough independent investigation of the department’s standards and practices. That it was released after police rejected the cruel falsehood at its core is ample grounds for the minister’s removal.

Bomber LeBlanc’s last act of defiance


Mary Cecilia “Bomber” LeBlanc, shown above with L’Arche assistant Mavis at the 2007 Cape Breton Island Film Series party for l’Arche Cape Breton, died peacefully Thursday morning in her home at The Vineyard, a L’Arche residence in Orangedale, surrounded by friends and caregivers.

Death came six days before her 60th birthday, and, incredibly, hours before a provincial health bureaucrats were to meet to begin planning her involuntary removal from l’Arche, over protests of family, friends, and caregivers.

Mary was a small woman with a steely will and an outsized capacity for getting her own way—and then leading a chorus of laughter about the outcome. Deaf from birth and without speech, she was orphaned at age three and spent 30 years in institutional care before finding a new life at l’Arche, where she lived for the last 27 years.

In her eulogy at Sunday’s funeral, l’Arche Community Leader Jenn Power* described Mary as “a silent woman who spoke volumes.”

[C]learly, somewhere along the line, she made a decision: that she would not let the circumstances of her life define or limit her; that she would stand up to those who tried to keep her down and say, albeit without words, “You’re not the boss of me.” In the disability world today, there is so much emphasis on self-advocacy. Truly, Bomber was a self-advocate before her time….

Mary’s death was her final act of defiance. For some months now, we have been in discussions with the Department of Community Services about whether Mary’s needs would be better met in a nursing home. Her family and her community were strong advocates for supporting Mary in her home at The Vineyard. And yet, the process was moving forward. On Thursday, November 4th, Mary’s case was being heard, and it seemed obvious that she would be placed on a waiting list for nursing home care. Instead, on Thursday, Mary died — the first thing in her life she ever did in a hurry. A pretty powerful act of self-determination.

To the officials involved, this is, I am sure, a complex issue, replete with rules, protocols, standards, evaluations, criteria, and, no doubt, budgetary considerations. Yet the meeting that would decide Mary’s fate allowed for no participation by her family, her guardian, her community, or her friends—let alone by Mary herself.

Here is an issue where Health Minister Maureen MacDonald could show leadership by deliberating on some fundamental questions: Must every death be medicalized? Do Nova Scotians have the right to choose to die at home among those who love and care for them—even, and perhaps especially, Nova Scotians with disabilities?

* Disclosure: As regular readers know, Jenn Power is my daughter-in-law; my son Silas, Jenn’s husband, also works at l’Arche Cape Breton.