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Two decades of world-class delusion 

How Halifax’s big dreams have become a nightmare, and what needs to happen to make the city a great place to live.

click to enlarge YULIA SEMENOVA
  • Yulia Semenova

After "drop the bomb," never have three simple words

so devastated a place.

The first reference I can find to anyone using the phrase "world-class city" to describe Halifax comes from 1994. That July, Fred MacGillivray was hired as president of the World Trade and Convention Centre, the provincial crown corporation now called Trade Centre Limited. Three months into the job, Halifax was picked as the site of the 1995 G7 summit, and on October 17, MacGillivray gushed to the Daily News about Halifax's bright future.

"The problem," MacGillivray told reporter Brian Flinn, "is that all the world doesn't know where Halifax is. But hundreds of millions of eyes will be set upon Halifax during the [G7] conference. To me, that's the biggest opportunity this city, this area, has ever been presented. No longer will we be deemed a small place in Canada. We'll be seen as a world-class city."

"MacGillivray's description of the summit and its potential benefits is peppered with the term 'world-class,'" explained Flinn in the news article. "It's a piece of hyperbole that Torontonians have frequently used to describe their city, its institutions and its public buildings, in an attempt to assert their big-league status."

Within weeks, the adopted hyperbolic Toronto phrase had permeated the local provincial and city bureaucracy. It was also bandied about by Haligonians in the business world who think of themselves movers and shakers, and by wannabe mucky-mucks running for office.


"The purpose of the project is to demonstrate to the world that Nova Scotia has world-class technologies to deal with the harbour and estuary pollution problems.”—City staff report, 1995


The province got ready for the G7 by hiring Bristol Communications for $270,000 "to market Nova Scotia as a world-class venue during the summit," reported the Daily News.

No one then, or since, has defined "world-class city." It's just understood to be a good thing, like "proactive" in the '80s, "sustainable" in the aughts, "innovation" in the current decade—substance-less bureaucratic lingo. Among the ignorant managerial classes, the person who masters bullshit is considered smart.

But whatever "world-class city" meant, it probably didn't mean a place that had raw sewage and associated "floatables" lapping against the bulkheads along the waterfront where G7 delegates and the international press corps were meeting.

Someone suggested that, for maybe a million dollars, the five sewage outfalls along the downtown waterfront could be connected to a pipe that carried the mess a bit further out into the harbour. But Halifax council rejected that idea, with then-alderman Howard Epstein pointing out the pipe wouldn't improve water quality one iota, but merely masked the problem for visiting high-wattage politicians while locals suffered the same environmental and health problems unabated.

ACOA, of course, came to the rescue, contracting out a $297,500 "demonstration project."

"The purpose of the project is to demonstrate to the world that Nova Scotia has world-class technologies to deal with the harbor and estuary pollution problems," read a city report, employing "world-class" to appeal to the rube-iest councillors: Ignore that raw shit, folks, we've got world-class technologies!

During the G7, six firms set up sewage demonstrations in tents in the parking lot north of the Cogswell Interchange. The tents were open to the public, and the hope was that G7 delegates and international reporters would check them out, but if Bob Woodward or Helmut Kohl stopped by to sniff the world-class technology, I can find no record of how impressed they were.


"How can we be a world-class city, a smart city, without a stadium and a CFL team?”—Talk show host Rick Howe, 2004


Infused with G7 euphoria and drinking the "world-class city" Kool-Aid, Haligonians were dreaming big. Mayor Walter Fitzgerald and federal Public Works minister David Dingwall proposed that Halifax host...the 2008 Summer Olympics.

"If we can handle the G7 summit, we can handle anything," Fitzgerald told then-reporter Shaune MacKinlay, who now runs PR for mayor Mike Savage. "It's only limited by the imagination," said Fitzgerald.

Amazingly, the absurd notion that Halifax could host the Olympics kicked around government offices for nearly two years before Joe Gillivan, the manager at Holiday Inn, threw cold water on it. He pointed out that to handle the onslaught of visitors, not only would every hotel and dorm room in town need to be rented out, but each and every private home in HRM would have to take in 14 guests. Fitzgerald's response to that objection was to suggest that the city could rent out a flotilla of cruise ships to act as temporary hotels.


Nova Scotia has a provincialism that's typical of colonial

outposts: a sad need for outside validation, a craving for attention from the wider world coupled perhaps paradoxically with a suspicion of actual Come From Aways.

The zenith point of that provincialism, its most absurd and embarrassing moment, had to be when, as part of CBC Information Morning's bid to get David Letterman to visit Nova Scotia, then-premier Rodney MacDonald read an awkward Top 10 list full of sexual and scatological references, and culminating with MacDonald playing the fiddle while step-dancing. Thankfully, Letterman ignored the entire "Visit Nova Scotia!" campaign, the way classy people pretend they don't notice a fart in the elevator.

Lots of places are guilty of provincialism. I've seen it in the American south. In the 19th century, towns on the western frontier ridiculously argued with each about which would become "the next Pittsburgh." I'm sure the agents of empire in the British Raj checked the London papers for references to Madras and Punjab.

But Nova Scotia's provincialism has two intertwined aspects I've not seen elsewhere. The first is an ideological commitment to mercantilism, the prevailing economic theory when Halifax was founded in 1749. For the people now running the show in Nova Scotia, it's as if Adam Smith and Karl Marx had never been born. As with the mercantilists, for Nova Scotia's present-day economic development professionals there is only a fixed amount of wealth in the world. Wealth can not be created through our own hard work, but rather can only be obtained from others.


"Halifax has community support, the facilities, expertise and world-class hospitality to successfully open its arms to the people of the world and the athletes of the Commonwealth in 2014.”—Commonwealth Games bid committee website, 2006


Therefore, the route to economic success is to get rich people out there in the world to bring their money here, and we'll do just about anything to make that happen: forgive their payroll taxes, give them hundreds of millions of dollars in flat-out subsidies, outsource our government agencies to them.

This thinking led to the horrendous decision to outsource the provincial SAP department to IBM. "This success is owed to Nova Scotia's world-class infrastructure and short commutes," explained a Nova Scotia Business, Inc. press release issued when the deal was announced earlier this year.

Anything for Money From Away. What we won't do is invest in our own students, so they can graduate debt-free and generate homegrown wealth—because that view of the world doesn't fit the ideological filter of mercantilism. We worship rich people who might bring money here. Our own hard-working people are worthless, because they have no money.

The second unique aspect to Nova Scotian provincialism is an over-the-top over-compensation for poor self-image. It's not enough to want to do something a little better than we're doing it now, or in ways that simply work–we have to leap from "not working" right past "competent" and become the very best in the entire world, immediately, by force of will alone.

These two qualities interact to bring us the mega-project, the bizarrely over-reaching schemes that will bring rich people's money to us, keep us employed forever and "put us on the map." I'm building a running list of such. Here are a few:

In the 1960s, semi-feudal Nova Scotia was going to enter the nuclear age, and so hundreds of millions of dollars were dumped into a subsidized heavy water plant in Glace Bay, with the hope it could make sales to nuclear plants around the world. But the heavy water plant was mis-engineered and poorly managed, and within a decade seawater had entered its pipes, rusting them out. The entire factory was torn down, then rebuilt, at a cost of $130 million. Even then, however, it failed to turn a profit, and was shut down in the 1980s. Last year the feds funded an environmental clean-up of the monument to wasteful wishful thinking.


"We have a world-class port in a world-class city and this conference allows us to showcase all we have to offer.” —Port president Karen Oldfield, 2006


In 1969, desperate for jobs that are the eternal promise of Money From Away, then-premier Robert Stanfield gave subsidies to the Clairtone Sound Corporation, a cutting-edge builder of stereos, to set up shop in Nova Scotia. The company instantly flopped. "Its main mistake," explain Paul Matthews, Alexander Herman and Andrew Feindel in a blog promoting their book Kickstart, was "it went after easy regional development funding in Nova Scotia, setting up factories for the manufacture of radios and TV in rural Stellarton and allowing politicians and local business people onto its board in lieu of industry experts. Then it tried to get into the automobile industry and one day found itself controlled by the provincial government of Nova Scotia. A significant whoops to be sure." The province lost $20 million.

In his tell-all book Bagman, former PC insider Don Ripley details many failed mega-projects from the 1970s. One was "the idea of having a cruise ship, like the Love Boat of TV fame, sail out of Halifax to various southward points on the eastern Seaboard and to the Caribbean Islands...to promote tourism, employment, and all the other motherhood ideas politicians adore," wrote Ripley. A German ship, the Regina Maris, was purchased and renamed the Mercator One, after a Dartmouth company, but the boat was a piece of junk and—shocker!—the scheme inspired by a TV sitcom proved unworkable. The province ended up losing millions of dollars.

There were also two attempts to get Money From Away to build oil refineries in the province—one at Canso, another at Pittson—with similar "we'll give you millions of dollars if you come here and employ us" thinking behind them. Thankfully, they both failed to get off the ground.

My favourite mega-project idea is from the 1970s, just after the Three Mile Island incident. As US states were strengthening regulation of nuclear power plants, an American huckser, using a false identity, saw his opportunity. He managed to sucker the provincial government into believing he could build 10 nuclear reactors, Fukushima-style, on Stoddart Island in Shag Harbour, and then sell all the power to New York City via a deep sea cable. I've tried to find government documents related to the scam, but apparently they've all been destroyed. No doubt the scamster made off with millions of dollars, courtesy of the Nova Scotian taxpayer. On the plus side, this was one of a series of environmental issues that led to the creation of the Ecology Action Centre.

All these mega-projects had one thing in common: Nova Scotia was going to get rich thanks to rich people from away bringing their money here. For that, ironically, we paid dearly, losing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.


After MacGillivray first uttered it, there was an unwritten

law that no bureaucrat, business person, pundit or politician could talk about Halifax without using the phrase "world-class city."

In a 2001 op-ed, the Daily News' David Rodenhiser defended himself, his wife and other nude sunbathers at Crystal Crescent Beach, who had been threatened with arrest by the cops. Rodenhiser quoted a Toronto economic development official explaining that city created a nude beach because "given that Toronto is a major world-class city, we should recognize that there is an element of the population who enjoy nude sunbathing and recreation."

"Not in our world-class city, though," wrote Rodenhiser. "Here in Halifax, we welcome police harassment and handcuffs." Rodenhiser now works, mostly clothed, as a flack for Nova Scotia Power.

In June, 2002, an official named Harry Adams said the federal government wouldn't reimburse downtown Halifax businesses that lost business due to security at the G7 summit. "The reality of it is," Adams told the Daily News, "anytime you're a world-class city, you're going to attract meetings and you're going to attract protestors."


"New convention centre to attract world-class events to city and province.” —Trade Centre Limited press release announcing funding for new convention centre, 2009


"How can we be a world-class city, a smart city, without a stadium and a CFL team?" Rick Howe asked in his Daily News column, in 2004.

In 2005, port president Karen Oldfied celebrated the naming of Halifax as host for a convention of international port officials, explaining that "we have a world-class port in a world-class city and this conference allows us to showcase all we have to offer."

The following year, Chronicle-Herald columnist Marilla Stephenson complained that a real world-class city would clear the streets of snow more quickly. And that paper once editorialized that a true world-class city wouldn't have taxi zones.

The phrase "world-class" shows up 442 different places on halifax.ca, the city's website, in documents dating from the formation of HRM in 1996, right up to last week.


The obsession with becoming a "world-class city" led

naturally, necessarily, to the colossal clusterfuck of the Commonwealth Games bid.

In 2006 the man who introduced "world-class city" to Halifax, Trade Centre Limited's president Fred MacGillivray, was appointed chair of the Commonwealth Games Bid Committee. "Halifax," explained the bid committee's website, "has community support, the facilities, expertise and world-class hospitality to successfully open its arms to the people of the world and the athletes of the Commonwealth in 2014."

Of course, important world-class go-getters in charge of world-class games needed to have world-class office space and world-class salaries and world-class suits (yes, we paid for their suits) and world-class first-class air travel to world-class destinations to host world-class schmoozefests over world-class cocktails with other world-class movers and shakers. And the next thing you know, MacGillivray had presided over the secret expenditure of $8.5 million in tax money.

As for the Commonwealth Games themselves, the group of world-class bullshitters had pieced together a $2 billion pile o' crap, an unworkable plan with unrealistic assumptions and unachievable goals. A consultant hired to de-fumigate the mess lambasted every aspect of the plan, including the business plan, ticket prices, sports selected, bogus projections of media sales, and more. Finally, even fiddle-playing, step-dancing Rodney MacDonald couldn't stomach the grift, and on March 8, 2007, the premier pulled the plug on the games bid.


Halifax had adopted the phrase from Toronto, but in 2008

then-Toronto mayor David Miller realized that "world-class city" stank of desperation.

"I think the phrase is both meaningless and demeaning," Miller tells me over the phone, from what sounds like an airport departure gate. "A city's goal, from my perspective, should be to be the best it can possibly be. If you're a great place to live, and you've got great public amenities and thriving businesses and relative social equality, you're going to be a place that attracts people from around the world.

"And in Toronto's case, there are some very concrete things we should be doing: building transit, making sure our huge number of immigrants settle well and participate in the life of the city, addressing some of our economic inequality issues, building on the industries in which we have strength to create strong employment for the future, things like that.

"When you say 'world-class,'" continues Miller, "you're really saying something like, 'Well, we actually really don't like what we are, we want to try to be something else.' And first of all, you never can be something else, and secondly, that's demeaning to a city. Toronto is a great city, and if it focuses on its strengths it can be even better. The same thing is true of Halifax. But neither of us is Paris. Nor should we try to be."

Miller says he doesn't know MacGillivray, and isn't very familiar with Trade Centre Limited or details of the Commonwealth Games fiasco. But, "I can say that ambitions like this were the kinds of ambitions that brought us the SkyDome, which is probably the biggest municipal boondoggle in the history of Canada–it was supposed to be $150 million, and it ended up being over $600 million." Of bureaucratic infatuation with the term "world-class city," Miller says: "You may be right, it may be cover to give you broad latitude to do things that if you discussed them in detail, the public wouldn't support."


Alas, as Toronto was seeing through the world-class bullshit,

Halifax doubled down on it.

The dust hadn't yet settled on the Commonwealth Games bid when Trade Centre Limited prez Scott Ferguson (MacGillivray had retired) joined up with Halifax's then-mayor Peter Kelly and the city's top bureaucrat, Wayne Anstey, to turn the Halifax Common into an outdoor concert Mecca.

"We are very confident we can make this a world-class event," Kelly told the Chronicle-Herald, in the days leading up to one of the concerts. To that end, Ferguson, Kelly and Anstey did what all world-class self-important people do: they lied and they cheated.

They lied about concert attendance figures, allowing all the world believe that over 50,000 people went to the Paul McCartney concert, when in reality only 26,000 tickets were sold. That lie led to more lies about attendance at the other Common concerts.


"No longer will we deemed a small place in Canada. We’ll be seen as a world-class city.” —Trade Centre Limited president Fred MacGillivray, 1994


They cheated by ignoring city finance policies and secretly loaning $7.4 million in city funds to Harold MacKay, the concert promoter who couldn't turn a profit on a former Beatle. The house of cards collapsed in 2010, and eventually the city ate nearly $400,000.

As a result of the scandal, in true world-class city style, Ferguson got a raise and was praised by Economic Development minister Percy Paris. Kelly took no responsibility and put all blame on Anstey, who managed to retire with full benefits.

And now, sigh, there's the convention centre. The existing convention centre, managed by TCL, has long billed itself as, yep, a "world-class facility" that serves "world-class cuisine." The adjoining Metro Centre, also managed by TCL, hosts "world-class sporting events" and "world-class acts." But apparently the convention centre isn't world-classy enough. Because all wealth comes from rich people bringing their money here, it was decided we needed a bigger, even more world-classier convention centre to attract even more Money From Away.

So in 2009, the city and province signed a financing deal subsidizing private developer Joe Ramia to the tune of $375 million in taxpayer money. TCL justified that financing through a series of bogus delegate projections for a bigger centre, which in turn were amplified by a bogus economic impact report. TCL then issued a press release: "New convention centre to attract world-class events to city and province," it read.

As it's all based on bogus numbers, there's no doubt that, like the Commonwealth Games and concert scandals before it, the new convention centre will be a world-class failure. Because we've been collectively obsessed with being a "world-class city," we'll be paying through the nose for the convention centre, for decades.

If nothing else, this strand of Nova Scotia history should have taught us one thing by now: When people declare they are going to turn Halifax into a "world-class city," prepare to be fleeced.


Thankfully, Nova Scotia has an alternate strand of history

from which we can learn.

Just as former Toronto mayor David Miller tells us the path to economic development lies in creating "relative social equality" and resisting the lure of Money From Away, Nova Scotia has a long tradition of people coming together to create home-grown institutions of social equality that lead to wealth. In the early part of the last century, the Antigonish Movement was started by Catholic clerics fearing the very real appeal of communism in the hard-scrabble coal mines and fishing villages of Cape Breton and eastern Nova Scotia.

The problem they sought to address was the crushing poverty caused by exploitation of workers by a handful of corporations. The coal fields had first been turned over to Boston-based Henry Whitney, whose Dominion Coal Company was given a 99-year lease on Cape Breton's coal mines, and then to Roy "The Wolf" Wolvin, a Minnesotan who teamed up with the British Empire Steel Corporation to take over the failed Dominion operations and immediately cut wages in the mines. On the fishery side, most sales went through Boston-based brokers who offered take-it-or-leave-it low prices for the catch—Money From Away.

The Antigonish Movement's solution was mutual support and self-reliance on the part of common people. The movement hinged foremost on education, to teach communities about the wider world, and how to build and manage the institutions they needed to break the cycle of dependence on Money From Away. About 10,000 "study clubs" were formed, where adults helped each other to learn.

Instead of going to the company store, miners formed cooperative grocery stores, keeping prices low and profits in the community. Fishers joined together to create cooperative fish plants and lobster canneries, bypassing the cutthroat buyers in the middle. Housing cooperatives started everywhere, breaking the hold of the rentier class. Many of these rural people joined the military and moved to the Halifax area, where they improved their lot by building military housing cooperatives in Sackville and Dartmouth.

The most successful institution of mutual support was the credit union. Hundreds of credit unions were started, freeing people from banks, and allowing deposits to be re-invested in the community, stimulating local, and locally owned, economic enterprise.

Unfortunately we've turned our back on those institutions of mutual support. Nova Scotia once had the highest credit union membership rate in the country; it now has among the lowest. And membership in those surviving credit unions is mostly inactive, allowing the institutions to turn themselves into something indistinguishable from commercial banks. Cooperative grocery stores are closing across the province. Housing cooperatives struggle. Education is either simply a commodity, or ridiculed.


We've given up on mutual support. Now it's every man and

every woman for his- or herself. We delude ourselves into thinking prosperity will come by turning Halifax into a "world-class city," whatever that is. We dream that wealth will come not from communities investing back into themselves, but rather through the benevolence of Money From Away, a true sucker's game.

But imagine if the money squandered on pie-in-the-sky world-class delusions was instead used to support cooperative enterprises and small start-ups. Imagine a significant annual provincial investment to build an off-market housing stock owned cooperatively by residents.

Our city and provincial governments are gearing up to spend a billion dollars for the widening of Bayers Road and Highway 102, a project that will keep commuters atomized, separated from each other by two-tonne individualized chunks of steel, which will increase our reliance on imported oil, and therefore increase the amount of our incomes going directly out of here. Imagine instead if we spent half as much money to build an environmentally friendly light rail system, where we travelled together–sitting next to each other–and kept much of the money that would otherwise go to fuel right here in the community.

Imagine the entire provincial budget being deposited in credit unions to give a solid financing base for economic development projects decided democratically by members, rather than by scamsters in suits. Better yet, imagine a provincially owned bank.

As for education, in the personal or family sense, people have always thought of education as being valuable in terms of personal financial gain. You go to college, become a doctor or whatever, and you're a success because you make the big money.

But in terms of public policy, it used to be that education was valuable in its own right, as education: it made us more rounded people, appreciative of the arts, knowledgeable about at least the broad outlines of the sciences, more informed citizens. Money aside, a society that educates its citizens is a nicer, more interesting place, with people who are respectful of each other and who care for those who would otherwise be overlooked.

Nowadays, however, education isn't much spoken of in those broad terms. The "value of education" is merely that educated people get better-paying jobs as drones at all those corporations we're supposedly luring here with our world-class subsidies. And because education is only about personal enrichment, with no societal benefit, the cost of education is increasingly saddled on students, who carry unrelenting debt into their dronehood for decades to come, limiting their options in life.

This is hamster-wheel thinking: running faster and faster, chasing the Money From Away, but getting nowhere at all.

Even if we were to somehow actually reach the fabled pot of gold at the end of the world-class hamster wheel, to what end? To get a bigger wheel? We can run, run, run, never getting to know our neighbours, never experiencing the satisfaction of self-accomplishment, never finding community through mutual endeavour.

It doesn't have to be this way. Halifax is a nice small city, full of wonderful people, interesting university communities, a fun arts and music scene, beautiful scenery. We should celebrate ourselves for what we are, stand tall without seeking that outside approval or the Money From Away. We should enjoy the things that work, fix the things that are fixable, come together in face of the woes that are inescapable.

Let's rediscover and make live our history of mutual support, and forget about our world-class delusions.

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