A rare—and welcome—case of real government communications

I have vented previously, here and here, about the quiet acquiescence of municipal and provincial leaders to the destruction of Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation. Why haven’t the Premier, the Minister of Economic Development, the Leader of the Opposition, and other provincial leaders spoken out against the elimination of an institution, enshrined in an Act of Parliament, whose dismantling will cost Cape Breton tens of millions of dollars a year for the foreseeable future? Cape Breton is still part of Nova Scotia, after all.

Marlene UsherMy purpose in this post is not to belabour the point, but to direct readers’ attention to a striking and courageous counterpoint to the unbecoming silence of  leaders who ought to have spoken out. It came from an unlikely source: the acting CEO of the soon-to-be-dissolved agency, Marlene Usher, in an interview with CBC Cape Breton’s able Information Morning host, Steve Sutherland, Friday.

You can find it here.

So much about this interview is remarkable: the tone of regret; the avoidance of forced cheeriness; the absence of scripted talking points; the unmistakable ring of candour. At one point, two or three questions in, you can almost hear Sutherland pull himself up short, as if to say, “My gosh, she’s actually going to answer these questions!”

Referring to Industry Minister Rob Moore’s false claim that all would be “business as usual” after he rolls ECBC into ACOA’s deathly grip, Sutherland said, “It kinda sounds like you don’t really think it’s business as usual.” Usher demurred, but went on to detail the kinds of offerings that ECBC could make as a locally based Crown corporation that will no longer be possible under ACOA’s aegis.

There was nothing insubordinate about Usher’s response, just plainspoken, truthful answers to probing questions—which is to say, a style of communication you almost never hear in today’s hyper-messaged nexus of media and politics. My immediate thought, given the Putinesque style of the Harper administration, was that the interview might put Usher’s employment at risk.

I don’t know Usher, but in conversations around Sydney in the days since the axe fell, I’ve been struck by the reservoir of affection for her and her staff.

“I get to work with some incredibly dedicated folks from ECBC on a regular basis,” wrote musician and music promoter Albert Lionais on Facebook. “They’re really set on helping to develop the cultural industries here and to help folks make a living at what they love and from here at home.”

Usher’s two predecessors, the mercurial Rick Beaton and the ethically controversial John Lynn, caused the corporation, and the island, no end of bad press. An unassuming professional, who does her job quietly in a way that earns the affection of those she is mandated to serve, gets no press at all. Give the interview a listen.

ECBC: Gone like snow on the water

A lot of people who ought to know better have been whistling past the graveyard in response to the Harper government’s plan to scrap Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation and assign responsibility for federal development assistance to the remote and largely indifferent Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

Make no mistake: this marks the end of a direct federal pipeline Cape Breton has enjoyed since the Donald Commission Report in the Pearson Administration. Anyone who claims it’s not grim news for the island is either naive or disingenuous.

Rob MooreACOA minister Rob Moore managed the spin with adroitness we have rarely seen from the Harper government. He swathed his devastating announcement in treacle. Everything will be “business as usual.” No office will close. No civil servant will lose her job, or see pay reduced, or lose seniority or benefits. It’s merely a cosmetic change, intended only to bring greater accountability and a more congenial administrative model to the operation. Federal money will continue to flow.


This is the first step in the elimination of directed assistance to Cape Breton. Future federal budgets will have no line item for the island. Reducing or eliminating economic aid here will be child’s play. No future journalist, academic, or politician will enjoy the access to information or forensic skills needed to figure out how much of ACOA’s money is spent here versus the South Shore, the Miramichi, or the Northern Peninsula.

Without a separate line item for Cape Breton Island, the money will evaporate faster than shine on a hot August evening in N-Dub.

After the billions spent nursing Cape Breton’s moribund steel and coal industries, you may well think that’s a good thing. Fine. But any honest accounting of federal spending in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, and B.C. would show a fiscal playing field tipped sharply westward from the Maritimes.

The sad thing was to see the the parade of whipsawed Cape Bretoners who rushed to reassure the populace that all was well. The Mayors of CBRM and Port Hawkesbury, pundits from Cape Breton University, and a former head of ECBC may all have had plausible strategic reasons for not railing against the inevitable. But couldn’t they have held their tongues instead of lending Harper’s loathsome spin doctors a helping hand?