Remembrance Day reflections – with updates

Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in the United States, where right-wing scoundrels turned patriotic symbols into political cudgels, left me with a lifelong aversion to flags, ribbons, lapel pins, and other obligatory trappings of national fealty. When I moved to Canada, this aversion morphed into a disinclination to wear poppies.

As best I can tell, most Canadians see the poppy as a neutral symbol of respect for veterans. Social pressure to wear it is strong. Acquaintances and strangers alike view my failure to fall in step as inexplicable, disrespectful, and distasteful. I regret this. After years of attempts to explain my position, I mostly avoid the conversation today, and I regret that, too. I can only offer the hope that the occasional outlier’s refusal to adopt mandatory, state-sanctioned idolatry is healthy for democracy.

poppy (1) In a Facebook post this morning, Coast journalist Tim Bousquet, who also grew up in the US, offered a succinct expression of one of my reasons for eschewing the opium flower:

  1. Kill 10 million boys pointlessly.
  2. Honour pointlessly killed boys with anti-war Remembrance Day ceremonies.
  3. Morph “honouring pointlessly killed boys” into “honouring veterans.”
  4. Militarize Remembrance Day ceremonies.
  5. Label those opposed to war as anti-veteran.
  6. Anti-veteran = anti-troop = unpatriotic.
  7. More war.


(For the record, Bousquet included an eighth point:  8. Profit! I don’t know that he’s wrong about that, but it’s not central to my own allergic reaction to tendentious heraldry.)

[UPDATE] Scott Taylor has a gutsy column on bullying around the poppy in today’s Herald

[UPDATE 2] Contrarian reader Greg Marshall writes:

I wear a poppy religiously, to the point that, thanks to the crappy pins they use on them, I think I have bought half-a-dozen this year. It is not because of social pressure, but because I grew up doing it, and it feels right. My family was a veteran’s family, and most of my parents’ friends were vets as well. They were lucky, since few of them had been at the “sharp end,” and did not have to wear the emotional effects of combat. That was for my high-school physics teacher, who did a tour on Halifaxes with 6 Group, and was a shadow of a man.

I don’t share all your views on this issue, but I certainly understand and sympathize with them, and Bousquet’s points are not without merit. I wish they were not. I can’t put on the poppy without thinking of the waste of life these wars have caused, and the utter pointlessness of it.

[UPDATE 3] My old Daily News colleague Ryan Van Horne writes:

In attempting to explain why he doesn’t wear a poppy, Tim Bousquet takes the worst possible reasons one could have for wearing one and assumes that everybody wears them only for those reasons.

World War 1 was a colossal waste of life and a pointless war. World War 2, while also a colossal waste of life, at least served a purpose for fighting back against tyranny. War is not a glorious endeavour, but a sometimes necessary evil.

One of the things that soldiers fought and died for was the freedom that you, Tim, and I enjoy to choose to wear a poppy and to write columns and blog posts without fear of retribution. If you eschew the poppy because it is against your principles, I hope that you and Tim at least recognize that young men died in a war to preserve that freedom.

I’ve never fought in a war and I don’t know any veterans, but I have three sons who are the same age as many of the young men who went off to fight in World War 2. I know that a generation made a huge sacrifice and I appreciate that. That is why I wear a poppy and always will.

[UPDATE 4] Debra Forsyth-Smith writes:

As someone who lived in the U.S. for some years, I certainly applaud your point of view on many symbolic gestures which in reality are confusing at best and meaningless at worst.

But jingoism is not the same as respect and remembrance of sacrifice.  It is in this spirit I wear the poppy.  In the very same spirit, I respect your decision not to.

[UPDATE 5] Robert Collins writes:

I respect your opinion on wearing, or not wearing, the poppy, as I am sure many veterans do as well.  I try to wear one but often lose it or don’t have money with me when I see them available, or I hand mine to someone else who “needs” it for a particular situation.

Regardless, it is a personal decision and a personal choice. The problem that I have with your position (and Tim’s) is that it is as political as the very reason you state for not wearing it. It is the Yin to the Yang in the argument. The poppy is not political. It is very simple. It is to remind us of individuals who died, often in tragic, horrible, and often very lonely situations.  Some of them were in that situation knowing full well why. Some were there because they were lied to and some didn’t understand why they were there but were told it was the right thing to do.

I see it as being similar to the ceremony in Berwick for Harley Lawrence. No one was there to make a statement about mental health or homelessness or anything else. They were there simply to honor a fellow human being who died in a tragic, horrible and very lonely situation.

It is too easy for us today to assume ulterior motives and become cynical about everything around us. For me, the poppy is a sanctuary from that to a simple and basic compassion for another person’s sacrifice and loss. It can be very liberating and comforting if you allow it to take you there, but don’t feel you have to let it.

Another superport skeptic

Cliff White sides Bousquet:

I love the discussion about the superports. Tim Bousquet nailed it. You will remember that a lot of the hype about the Atlantica concept was based on the same false assumptions. During that debate one brilliant supporter suggested reducing transportation costs by hiring Mexicans at low wages to drive the trucks.

At the time I was working for The Council of Canadians. I was heavily involved in organizing against the initiative, until that is I realized it was a delusional pipe dream cooked up by AIMS and some elements of the business community.  At that point I stopped being concerned but had a very difficult time convincing colleagues and allies.

What is perhaps instructive to remember is how many business people, politicians, academics, NGOS, and others—both supporters and opponents—bought into the potential reality of the idea, and how reluctant they were to let go of it, despite its obvious flaws.

Eastport and Canso superports — a skeptic responds


James and Deborah Fallows have been visiting remote corners of the US by small plane to tease out the secrets of successful local economies. In Eastport, Maine, they heard lots of talk about the potential of Eastport’s deep, ice-free harbour, and relative proximity to Europe, to attract European trade. I noted that the same case has been made for Canso, where construction of the causeway to Cape Breton in 1955 inadvertently created a similarly deep, ice-free superport.

Inveterate boosterism deflator Tim Bousquet of  The Coast, a Halifax newsweekly, isn’t impressed:

I think boosters of both the Canso and the Eastport “superports”—and you and Fallows, too—are making the same mistake in logic. No shipper wants to use the North American port that is closest to Europe. That makes no sense at all.

Think about it. You are the manager of a German manufacturing firm, and you want to export to North America. You’re not going to sell many widgets in Canso or in Eastport. Instead, your primary market is going to be places like New York City, or Chicago, where there are millions of people and lots of industry to buy your widgets.

So how do you get your widgets to Chicago? Expensive and light stuff, you can fly directly there. Everything else has two legs: one by sea, and one by land.

The sea part of the voyage is relatively inexpensive. You can stack a gazillion of your widgets in the new post-Panamax ships. A small, underpaid crew from the Philippines steering a ship flying the flag of a lightly regulated country like Liberia doesn’t cost much.

The land part of the journey, however, is expensive. You’ve got to divide up your gigantic cargo and divvy it into a thousand trucks, each driven by a highly paid (relative to the shiphands) driver, using lots of fuel to get to Chicago. Or, if you’re lucky, you can use rail, which, while cheaper than the trucks, is still much more expensive than the sea voyage, per unit transported per distance.

The guy sitting in Germany isn’t looking for the North American port closest to Germany, but rather the North American port closest to Chicago, or wherever his widgets are going. If that means a longer sea journey, the cost is more than made up for with the huge savings of a shorter land journey. I’m not sure why megaport boosters get this so wrong.

Existing American megaports—New York, Hampton Roads, Charleston—are investing billions retrofitting their operations to handle the post-Panamax ships, and the rail lines are upgrading like crazy, refitting for double-stacked containers and such. There’s no chance—none—that Canso or Eastport ports can match the investment, and CN will never be able to out compete Norfolk Southern or CSX for the American midwest market. Just ain’t gonna happen.

I find this megaport boosterism in Canada a little sad, really, for how delusional it is.

To underscore Tim’s point about the low cost of ocean shipping, John “Johnny Nova” Chisholm, former owner of the massive harbourside gravel quarry at Cape Porcupine on the Canso Strait, once told me he could ship gravel to Galveston, Texas, cheaper than he could truck it to Antigonish.

And ship it he did, in vast quantities.

Why doesn’t Quinpool live up to its promise? – updated

TV producer John Wesley Chisholm,  whose Arcadia Entertainment production company is located on Halifax’s Quinnpool Road, wonders why the street never quite achieves its potential as a great urban neighborhood.

In some ways it’s a classic mainstreet. But it’s schizophrenic. It’s a highway with a hundred hidden driveways. It’s a shopping district and residential street. It’s six lanes wide in places, narrow in others. It’s a pedestrian arcade yet almost impossible to cross conveniently. It’s highspeed traffic and slow drag. It’s a parking lot and a thoroughfare.

One thing is certain, it’s tired. The faces of the buildings are tired. The wires, poles and transformers are the distinguishing architectural feature of the street.

But it’s great! It’s connected to some of the nicest neighbourhoods you could imagine anywhere. A wonderful mix of families, young and old. Single houses and apartments. Students and seniors. Folks of all varied mind and manners.

Recently RBC and the Empire theatre have put new facades on their buildings. Many of the small businesses on the street do their best to spruce things up a little. This year some bike racks were installed. There is, by Halifax standards, lots of pedestrian and bike traffic. There is a mix of businesses, services and food more diverse and established than most places in HRM.

But one look with a critical eye and it’s clear things could be better. Over the seven years we’ve been located on Quinpool I’ve been very hesitant to speak out strongly. In spite of the mish mash it all kind of works… at least as well as any other spot in town. Rents are reasonable. There are few blank spots where developers are holding properties empty. I don’t have a great idea about how to ‘fix’ Quinpool without introducing other problems.

It’s hard to leave well enough alone though. There is some kind of Quinpool Rd. development association and they are busy beavers. Early this summer they put up stylized banners on the poles with a graphic interpretation of the street’s name that simply says “QUI”. This week, at great expense I’m sure, bathtub sized plastic planters arrived.

Is mainstreet beautification in the eye of the beholder? Does adding banners and plastic crap, holding casino nights and car meets improve a business district that has seen little capital investment since the seventies? Could we go the other way? Bring in developers, take out all the stops and let them build some highrises, condos, whatever?

What do we really want? What is the best thing for this mainstreet? The people? The neighbourhood? The city? Should the road be narrower? Wider? On-street parking or not? What would really ‘beautify’ the place? What would make it more useful and prosperous?

Chisholm’s right about the wonderfulness of adjacent neighborhoods. When in Halifax, I live two blocks from Quinpool in what I think is one of the best neighborhoods in Nova Scotia, for all the reasons Chisholm cites, but I almost always pick further away streets for eating and shopping, because Quinpool is somehow mildly off-putting.

The Coast’s Tim Bousquet points out that Halifax has a Quinpool Streetscape Project in the works, but it’s stalled. A Contrarian reader notes:

City staff and contractors prepared a detailed design for Quinpool, and the Merchant’s association was eager to proceed with construction. Unfortunately, our deadhead mayor and the council failed to acquire the needed money — they built a 4-plex hockey arena and a new library instead — and nothing has been done. If you ask business owners, they’ll tell you the street is simply a source of tax revenue for the City, but receives nothing but neglect in return.

At least Quinpool’s merchants were on board. A similar plan for Spring Garden Road, in desperate need of a facelift, was reportedly torpedoed by some of that street’s Neanderthal merchants, led by the owner of the always inaccessible Jennifer’s of Nova Scotia.

[UPDATE] Via Twitter, Tim Bousquet says HRM Council did make it a priority, but the federal  Conservative Government killed it by denying federal funds.

Why papers sometimes miss stories

Tim Bousquet, pugnacious news editor of the Halifax news and entertainment weekly, The Coast, responds to Contrarian’s chiding of local media for failing to cover issues surrounding The Old Mill’s closure.

Hardly a week goes by that someone isn’t asking me — usually angrily — “Why isn’t The Coast covering issue X???”

There are a variety of reasons. The Coast — which is basically me, plus whatever freelancers I can lure with a minuscule budget, and the occasional intern — isn’t covering an issue.

Sometimes the issues are too far afield, out of our distribution area, so aren’t a priority. Sometimes other media are covering the issue adequately, and it would be silly for The Coast to extend our limited resources to duplicate the effort. Sometimes the issue doesn’t fit our mandate — the unending stream of young people riding/biking/pogo-sticking across Canada to raise money for the disease of the week, for example. Sometimes, believe it or not, we (I) simply don’t have the expertise or background to adequately report on an issue.

And then, sometimes, we might be inclined to report on an issue, but simply don’t know about it.

Which brings me to the “why isn’t The Coast covering the Sobeys/Old mill” thing. See, I even live the neighbourhood, and vaguely (if distantly) was aware that the Old Mill was closing. I knew nothing of the history of the place, and knew nothing about Sobeys plans.

Things like closing neighbourhood stores in poor neighbourhoods do indeed interest me, and I’d love to get some Coast perspective on them… but I can’t write about them, if I don’t know about them. I guess it’s far easier for some unnamed guy to snipe from the sidelines about how stupid/lazy/hypocritical The Coast is, than it is to pick up the phone and say, “Hey Tim! There’s an issue you might be interested in, let me fill you in…” or better yet, seeing how he’s a journalist, you know, *pitching a story about it.*

Jeebus Christ on a stick, I have a lot of shit on my plate, and can’t be on everything. The Chronicle has a bazillion people in its newsroom and misses things. Anyway, even though it was brought to my attention in a less than collegial manner, rest assured that now that I know about the Sobeys closing, I’ve assigned a writer to the story. Too bad your learned correspondent wasn’t interested in writing the story himself, but so it goes.

Contrarian readers unfamiliar with The Coast should know that, by Bousquet standards, the passage above constitutes a fairly restrained response to the poke we gave The Coast and its brethren. Also, notably, Tim’s explanation mirrors the comments that began our post: internet-induced turmoil in the news-gathering business has made it harder to find good reporting and good writing on local issue. In the US, several major newspapers have notoriously been outsourcing local news coverage to writer/researchers in the Philippines, as reported by This American Life and the Poynter Institute. By comparison, Nova Scotia is a local news Nirvana.

Finally, as noted here yesterday, OpenFile Halifax’s Bethany Horne has done what seems to be a definitive roundup of all things Old Mill- and Sobeys-related.

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.

Coast news editor on anonymous sources

Tim Bousquet’s rules for using anonymous sources:

  1. The information gained through granting anonymity is not otherwise available. Or, put another way, granting anonymity is not a shortcut to doing the hard work of gathering solid information and good reporting.
  2. The anonymous source must have something to lose, should anonymity not be given: loss of a job, etc.
  3. Using an anonymous source must result in some positive public good. “Spinning” someone’s view is not a positive public good.

Bousquet adds:

When I was a reporter at a daily in the states, I had a publisher who wouldn’t allow me to use anonymous sources at all. At the time, I felt that policy unduly constrained me, but I soon discovered it made me a better reporter: I couldn’t just put any old shit out there, I had to document everything, peg every assertion to a named source or document, etc. Mostly, as anonymity is used today by much of the press, it’s an excuse for lazy reporting.

Contrarian reader Stan Jones also weighs in on Ibbitson’s practice of letting Harper operatives issue dubious and partisan talking points without identifying themselves:

I have always thought Ibbitson’s main role was to transcribe whatever was the day’s conservative talking point into grammatical English. So I never read him, preferring to go directly to the source for my daily dose of nonsense.

Green Shambhala breakdown

The late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (left) and modern day acolyte Ryan Watson, outgoing leader of Nova Scotia's Green Party

Coast News Editor Tim Bousquet has stirred things up with his report of a festering schism within Halifax’s Shambhala Buddhist community, and Green Party gadfly Mike Marshall claims the same breach underlies bizarre behaviour by outgoing party leader Ryan Watson and his executive.

Bousquet reports that dissidents, including Mark Szpakowski, Ed Michalik, and Andrew Safer, have set up RadioFreeShambhala, a website to foster discussion they say mainstream Shambhala leadership discourages.

Continue reading Green Shambhala breakdown