Reality Bites provides the best coverage of current affairs and political issues related to Halifax and City Council anywhere in the Halifax Regional Municipality. Oh, and we bring the snark, too. Contact to send a tip.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The agave plant is dead

Halifax admits massive tropical plant is unlikely to ever bloom.

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2018 at 5:57 PM

The dead plant that couldn't bloom is Halifax's official flower. - VIA AYLA-MONIC M MCKAY, ON INSTAGRAM
  • The dead plant that couldn't bloom is Halifax's official flower.
  • VIA Ayla-Monic M McKay, on INSTAGRAM

Halifax's celebrity plant is pushing up daisies.

The agave inside the Public Gardens has been killed by Nova Scotia's chilly spring weather. Like so many of us in this town, it will never blossom.

Municipal spokesperson Erin DiCarlo says gardeners haven't seen much new growth from the plant since putting it outside and some of the older leaves are now becoming discoloured.

While there was some hope warmer temperatures in coming weeks could turn things around, it appears the agave has bit the dust.

“It is unclear at present whether the flowering will take place, however, it doesn’t look good at this stage,” says DiCarlo. “The weather has been the biggest challenge as it’s a tropical plant.”

Native to Mexico and the southwestern United States, the municipality's agave americana had been safe and warm during past cold months in HRM's greenhouse.

After 25 years it began sprouting a large flowering stalk earlier this spring and was moved to the Public Gardens so the general public could enjoy the once-in-a-generation event of watching it bloom.

[More accurately, as CBC notes, it was just getting too big to fit in the greenhouse.]

But a cold snap quickly ended the plant's growth, putting the vegetation into what HRM's horticulturalists hoped to be a temporary stasis. No such luck.

Technically, the agave has been dying ever since it sprouted its asparagus-like stalk. Once the plant flowers, or in this case doesn't flower, it dies.

Nevertheless, many shots of tequila will be poured tonight in honour of the departed.
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Province promises no payouts to lure conventions

But industry expert says those rebates and handouts are a “market reality.”

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2018 at 5:36 PM

So hot (hot damn). - VIA TWITTER

It’s standard practice elsewhere in the world, but government officials say it won’t be happening in Halifax.

The Halifax Convention Centre has no plans to offer financial incentives to attract business, promises Events East spokesperson Erin Esiyok-Prime.

At least, not any more than has already been spent.

The Crown corporation paid out just over $1 million appeasing conventioneers last year. Twenty-two national and international events in 2017 were impacted by the convention centre’s delayed opening.

Events East spent $870,000 mitigating that impact with discounted room rentals and services at the World Trade and Convention Centre, along with $120,000 for repairs and upgrades to align with client expectations and $37,000 on travel costs and meetings.

“Beyond the delay incentives noted above, Events East currently has no plans to offer financial incentives to attract business to the Halifax Convention Centre,” writes Esiyok-Prime in an email to The Coast.

But market expert Heywood Sanders doesn’t expect that policy will last very long.

“The reality is in Canada as well as the US, incentives including free centre rent and other things have become the norm,” says the American professor and author of Convention Center Follies. “It is a market reality.”

Sanders points to San Francisco, which discounts $6 million a year attracting meetings to its convention centre. Likewise, the city of Los Angeles offers free first-year rent and signing bonuses for multi-year bookings.

Those incentives are even more common in a convention space’s first year of operations so stakeholders can “kick the tires.”

“That’s how the deal works these days,” Sanders says. “You want to get their convention, they say give us the centre free and give us money too.”

The money doesn't have to come from operators either. Ontario, like many jurisdictions, has provincial Convention Development Funds to discount rents.

Provincial spokesperson Kelly Bennett says Nova Scotia's government hasn’t set aside any sort of similar CDF for Events East. Besides the money paid out last year, “we are not aware of any other incentives planned or being offered for booking events in the new Convention Centre,” says Bennett.

But the Crown corp does need some help marketing its new facility. A request for tenders issued this week is asking for marketing and communications services to assist in selling the Halifax Convention Centre on a global stage.

The outside hire will support in-house marketing efforts geared towards a “highly targeted” group of clients through advertising campaigns, social media strategies and creative development. Annually that’ll work out to anywhere between $75,000 and $250,000 worth of work, according to estimates in the RFP.

One place potential convention planners can save money with Events East, though, is at the banquet table. Esiyok-Prime says rental costs for booking the HCC are negotiated on a sliding scale based on food and beverage revenue.

“Our pricing strategy factors in the competitive environment, profitability and projected economic and community impact of the event,” she says.

No additional bait is needed to hook the whales, says Events East. The Halifax Convention Centre is at capacity in its first year of operations, with 120 events booked and an expected 80,000 visitors.

Don't pop the cork just yet, though. Sanders says the cold reality of the convention game is you have to pay to play. Charm alone won’t bring events to your shores.

“You may think you have the most lovely city on the face of the Earth, but so do lots of other people in lots of other cities,” he says. “Is Halifax and Nova Scotia such a desirable destination that this is all irrelevant? My guess is no.”
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Is Meghan Markle a Haligonian?


Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2018 at 4:42 PM


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City hall bends over backwards to make Armco happy

Developer helps HRM draft bylaw amendments for its Willow Tree project.

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2018 at 9:42 AM

CAO Jacques Dubé (centre left) consults with planning staff and legal director John Traves in the middle of Tuesday's meeting. - THE COAST
  • CAO Jacques Dubé (centre left) consults with planning staff and legal director John Traves in the middle of Tuesday's meeting.

You can't fault the customer service.

City council voted on Tuesday to move forward for the second time with a public hearing for the controversial Willow Tree development at the corner of Quinpool Road and Robie Street. The decision was made after a last-minute scramble to once again rewrite HRM’s planning bylaws in order to best suit the financial needs of developer Armco.

Previously, council had rejected a development agreement for 20 storeys on the site under the advice of George Armoyan’s property firm, who advised the city in an unsolicited update last year that the shorter height wasn’t profitable.

Instead, the city moved forward with a 25-storey proposal that would include 10 affordable housing units and some other public amenities like the burial of overhead electrical and telephone wires.

But according to the staff report before council Tuesday, “undergrounding” those wires would be extremely expensive for Armco, and the company feels shouldering that cost on its own is unfair given neighbouring landowners would also benefit from the burial.

Councillor Shawn Cleary, attempting to help, put forward an amendment whereby the developer could instead trade the dollar value of burying the wires for an equal amount of affordable housing.

This brought a warning from CAO Jacques Dubé. If burying the electrical wires is too expensive then a commensurate cash payment elsewhere would likewise be too rich for the company’s blood.

“I think that would literally kill the project,” advised Dubé.

Maybe. But Willow Tree has proven exceptionally hard to kill.

Armco has put forward several designs for the site over the past four years to moderate success. Council first approved a 29-storey tower on the lot, against the recommendation of staff. Shortly after the last municipal election that design was pruned back to just 20 storeys in order to better fit planning principals written into the draft Centre Plan.

Then came the sudden bulletin from Armco that the company would need at least 25 storeys to make the project financially viable. Charitably, the developer was willing to trade 10 affordable housing units (maintained for 15 years) in exchange for the increased height.

Planning staff came back with a supplemental report containing several methods for installing a single-use density bonusing agreement. One of those scenarios used the formula contained in the Centre Plan to calculate Willow Tree would need 36 affordable housing units (or $3.27 million in public benefit) to earn the extra density.

As an alternative, councillor Cleary created his own impromptu formula by taking the 10 affordable units Armco wanted to offer and from that “reverse engineered” a public benefit of $900,000.

The months of special considerations for Armco’s needs based on private financial information HRM isn't able to actually review didn't sit well with councillor Tim Outhit on Tuesday.

“If we were going to apply for a loan at a bank today, ‘Just trust me I can afford to drive a Mercedes. I make $150 million a year.’ Well, we would be thrown out.”

An exhausted Outhit said city council was being asked to “suck and blow at the same time here” by approving a proposal based on Armco’s business needs without any proof what the company says is true.

Armco representative Adam McLean told reporters after the meeting that Outhit is entitled to his opinion, even if he doesn't agree with the councillor's remarks.

“We sometimes hear staff say things to council we can’t correct,” McLean said. “This has been going on for four years and we’ve had 10 minutes to speak in front of council, so it is tough to get all the information back and forth.”

Chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé—the man who first brought forward Armco’s financial difficulties for council’s considerations—responded to Outhit’s concerns by stressing that a private company’s financial books should not be open to the public.

“We’re in the business of regulating the use of land,” Dubé said without irony. “Financial considerations are really the business of business.”

Dubé, legal director John Traves and planning staff immediately then went off for a closed-door meeting with McLean to suss out an amendment better tailored to Armco’s wishes.

The newly modified agreement that came back two hours later gives the developer several options on how to proceed: Armco can bury the lines and offer up 10 affordable units; not bury the wires and build 20 affordable units; build 10 units and pay HRM $900,000 in cash towards an affordable housing fund that doesn’t exist yet or just scrap the affordable units altogether and cut a cheque for $1.8 million.

“It’s good to have the flexibility,” said McLean. “That’s more recognizing that affordable housing right now is done through the province, so if there are any complications with trying to get an agreement done with the province on affordable housing, there’s still an option for the municipality to still get the value.”

Any affordable housing built into Willow Tree will depend on Armco signing some sort of official agreement with the provincial government. Given Nova Scotia’s track record with other housing projects, that's far from a guarantee.

“I still feel like we’re going off of hopes and possibilities,” said area councillor Lindell Smith. “I just don’t feel we’re really working with actual possibilities here.”

The amended motion passed 13-3, with only councillors Smith, Sam Austin and Waye Mason voting against.

The second and potentially final public hearing on Willow Tree will take place at a future date, yet to be determined.
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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Council approves Khyber sale to community group

Patrons of the arts rejoice! The Khyber will return.

Posted By on Tue, May 22, 2018 at 10:20 PM

1588 but no heartbreaks. - DANIELLE MCCREADIE
  • 1588 but no heartbreaks.

After years of waiting, supporters of the old Khyber building can finally begin to rebuild.

During a public hearing Tuesday night, Regional Council approved the sale of 1588 Barrington Street—the former location of the Khyber—to the non-profit 1588 Barrington Street Building Preservation Society for a nominal price of one dollar.

The vote was met with cheers from the assembled crowd at City Hall.

For Khyber Centre for the Arts director Hannah Guinan, it’s been a long four years—and two moves—since the organization was pushed out of its Barrington Street home back in 2014.

“So many organizations like us do struggle with space, have struggled with space. It would be really important for the city to make it a priority,” she says.

The 1588 Society is working in partnership with the Khyber Centre and Neptune Theatre to re-establish the building as a not-for-profit community arts hub. Emily Davidson, president of the 1588 Society says she hopes to see the historic property become a safe space once again for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“It’s a space that we believe is going to foster collaboration between arts and other non-profit sectors and a space that is really going to take this historic gem and bring it right up to date into this very alive space,” she says.

“We really want to make good on our promise to the community as the new stewards of this building, to bring this plan to fruition,” says Emily Davidson. - DANIELLE MCCREADIE
  • “We really want to make good on our promise to the community as the new stewards of this building, to bring this plan to fruition,” says Emily Davidson.
1588 Barrington Street has been in limbo for almost 25 years, with its tenancy constantly in flux. The Khyber Arts Society laid its roots at the site in 1993, in exchange for maintaining the property, but HRM closed the building down in April 2014 due to structural degradation and asbestos.

The four-storey Victorian Gothic building on Barrington Street is worth $1.5 million on paper, but will need $3.2 million in renovations and improvements. The site has been a registered heritage property since 1988 when the former City of Halifax purchased it from a private owner.

Municipal staff have said the deteriorating 127-year-old building is the second-worst in HRM’s property portfolio. Shortly after displacing tenants back in 2014, HRM tried to sell the property off as surplus before public outcry had council instead promise to find an alternative solution to “save the Khyber.”

But the journey isn’t over yet. While council also approved a $250,000 grant for redevelopment of the building, there’s still a lot of fundraising to be done, says Davidson. The building has been unoccupied for several years and needs some TLC. The 1588 Society also wants to increase wheelchair accessibility, add an elevator, and create a fourth floor.

“We really want to make good on our promise to the community as the new stewards of this building, to bring this plan to fruition,” says Davidson. “That is going to mean gathering our talents and making sure that we can reach our fundraising goals for this project.”
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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Halifax auditor general blasts woeful procurement process at city hall

Contracts awarded and extended without proper approval, high risk of fraud and a muddied scoring system just some of the dangers flagged.

Posted By on Wed, May 16, 2018 at 3:50 PM

Council chambers inside City Hall. - VIA HRM
  • Council chambers inside City Hall.
  • via HRM

A year after discovering a half-million-dollar case of vendor fraud, HRM’s procurement policies remain dangerously unguarded.

In a report presented Wednesday to the Audit and Finance committee, auditor general Evangeline Colman-Sadd says the municipality's oversite of contracts and tenders needs “significant improvement.”

Twenty percent of the 94 procurement files reviewed by the Office of the Auditor General were found to lack proper approvals. Contracts were extended without authorization, sometimes for trivial reasons, in 12 of 20 cases.

“One contract was extended seven months, with increased pricing, because the business unit did not have specifications ready for a new competition,” the audit reads.

In another case, expenses ended up being 10 times the maximum approved value because staff were “behind” on their work.

 “This contract was flagged in a monthly report for over two years.”

The audit comes almost a full year after a case of third-party fraud was uncovered by procurement staff. Last June, an employee flagged a one-time electronic transfer of $485,000 containing payment for three separate invoices.

The municipality alerted the Bank of Nova Scotia, which was able to intercept the withdrawal. Spokesperson Brendan Elliott says HRM has so-far recovered more than 90 percent of the money.

“We process over $700 million in transactions every year, with 70 percent of our payments made electronically,” states Elliott. “This is the first time in the history of the municipality that we have been victimized by a third-party payment fraud of this nature.”

Elliott wouldn’t disclose the vendor in question, under the advice of legal staff.

Wednesday’s audit says several improvements have been implemented in response to the fraud issue from last year, including a clear checklist for confirming any change in a vendor's banking information before authorizing a transaction.

But despite the new precautions, Colman-Sadd’s team found 65 percent of the time procurement staff were failing to confirm updated banking info with the vendor before releasing funds.

Monitoring of all those files is particularly weak, with 69 current and former employees having unauthorized access to purchase orders and vendor information. Procurement staff were also found to override policy and increase contracts without required approval.

A $2.5-million contract was approved by a business unit manager, bypassing both council and the CAO. Managers are supposed to only be able to approve tenders up to $100,000.

“To get the work through by skirting those controls is not acceptable,” said councillor Steve Craig in response to the OAG's findings.

Other problems outlined include missing conflict of interest disclosures—which are required under provincial law—and an opaque scoring system for tenders. Staff were unable to prove that 10 out of 32 cases examined went to the highest-scoring bidder.

“It would be remiss of me to not say that I’m highly disappointed,” said finance chair Bill Karsten. “I thought this committee had sent the message on previous occasions that procurement needed to be tightened up.”

Some of these same procurement issues were identified as far back as 2012, during a time when Halifax was dealing with the fallout from former CAO Dan English secretively approving an $8.1-million construction tender for the Washmill Underpass without council’s knowledge.

The city's procurement policies were updated last year, but the OAG says this latest audit shows staff seemingly don’t understand those rules or their approval limits.

Councillor Matt Whitman, who has been a vocal critic of procurement staff during past council meetings, asked what disciplinary penalties have been imposed for the uncovered blunders.

Chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé declined to get into personnel issues but told the finance committee that HRM management agrees with all 28 recommendations made by the auditor general.

Dubé will report back to audit and finance in three months with a progress update on implementing those proposals.

Last fiscal year, the city processed 50,000 purchase orders with a total value of just over $265 million.
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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Central Nova Correctional Facility unveils $6.8-million renovations

Open concept “day rooms” and body scanners will better monitor inmate population, says prison officials.

Posted By on Tue, May 15, 2018 at 6:10 PM

Tim Carroll, superintendent of Central Nova, shows media around the revamped day rooms. - TUNDÉ BALOGUN
  • Tim Carroll, superintendent of Central Nova, shows media around the revamped day rooms.
  • Tundé Balogun

Burnside’s prison is hoping to shed its infamous and violent reputation with the help of an expensive makeover.

The Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility gave a media tour of its $6.8-million renovations Tuesday morning. The upgrades are part of a new way of facilitating inmates’ living quarters, designed to prevent violent altercations and quickly suppress them when they occur.

The new “day rooms” will house 62 inmates at any given time, with guards having direct supervision 24 hours a day from a central common area.

The change from close quarters and intermittent patrolling to an open environment and constant supervision will drastically lower any potential altercations, believes Jim Hayman, a staff trainer with Correctional Services.

“Just our presences alone can help any situation…we don’t have to cross that bridge from verbal to physical,” says Hayman.

Nova Scotia's largest prison has been marred in the past by excessive use of solitary confinement, violent confrontations between inmates and staff and dehumanizing conditions. The new model at least aims to prevent some of those incidents that so often result in inmates being confined to their cells.

“We treat people with respect and as normal adults,” says Hayman. “When you have a lot of people, there are different personalities, and all have to be managed differently.”

The day room will have two guards on duty for 12-hour shifts behind a desk, monitoring and interacting with inmates. The living quarters have both single and double cells, shower facilities and an open area with bolted tables and chairs.

The renovated facilities won't be ready to house inmates until late June. - TUNDÉ BALOGUN
  • The renovated facilities won't be ready to house inmates until late June.
  • Tundé Balogun
During Tuesday’s open house, officials also screened a promotional video showing off the Soter RS body-scan machine that will be implemented in the near future to better detect drugs and contraband.

Made by the Dutch company OD Security, the scanner can detect contraband in an inmate’s clothing or body cavities. The technology is already being used at facilities in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario and is the first of its kind in Nova Scotia.

Central Nova has purchased five of the machines at a cost of $198,000 per unit. David Mills, manager of policies and programs, says the body scanners will reduce illegal items entering the facility by 95 percent and only emit radiation levels equivalent to eating two bananas.

Since a large number of inmates enter the facility addicted to illicit drugs, prison officials are also working with the Nova Scotia Health Authority to identify high-profile individuals at risk of substance abuse.

“We have hired five social workers in the past year and committed to hiring additional staff to deal with any addictions issues if they arise,” says chief superintendent John Scoville of the Department of Justice Corrections Services.

The prison also hosted a community resource fair on Tuesday as part of Corrections Week. Inmates were able to connect with several non-profit groups and community organizations that can help with integration upon their release.

Currently, Central Nova’s revamped north unit remains under construction and won’t be ready to house inmates until late June. The renovated west unit is expected to be ready within the next six months.
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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

City hall employees protest racism in the workplace

Municipal workers claim little has changed since a 2016 report called out HRM for a culture of intolerance and lack of diversity.

Posted By on Tue, May 8, 2018 at 5:36 PM

HRM employees (and social worker Raymond Sheppard) outside City Hall on Tuesday. - THE COAST
  • HRM employees (and social worker Raymond Sheppard) outside City Hall on Tuesday.

The municipality admits it’s not going a good enough job in creating a diverse and supportive work environment, and is promising—once again—to do better.

The acknowledgement comes after 20 public employees demonstrated outside City Hall on Tuesday in protest of racial discrimination inside HRM’s workforce.

The mostly African Nova Scotian group was speaking out against employment barriers within HRM that prevent Black workers from being hired for managerial positions, and the municipality’s slow progress acting on recommendations from the 2016 Employee Systems Review.

Copies of the third-party ESR analysis leaked to the press two years ago describe an overwhelming culture of harassment and discrimination in the municipal operations workforce. Employees were subjected to racist comments and conduct, sexist and homophobic language and other intolerable behaviours.

The municipality, according to the ESR, failed to effectively address the situation and departmental supervisors routinely dismissed any complaints or blamed the victim for coming forward.

“Of concern to us is not just that these incidents occurred, but that they were not immediately and effectively addressed by supervisors,” the report reads. “Supervisors and managers have condoned the behaviour, and, as such, make themselves personally liable should a successful human rights complaint be made.”

The ESR report made 90 recommendations to address the workplace racism, but it's now two years later and fewer than half have been completed.

Fourteen of the recommendations are still listed by HRM as “pending” and another 27 are “at risk” and require immediate attention.

Operations employees—who look after green spaces, parks, sidewalks and snow clearing, among other duties—were looking for an update on that progress during Tuesday's demonstration.

Several of them had to schedule vacation time to take part in the protest, which one of the employees guessed is what tipped off city hall management that the event would be taking place.

Halifax CAO Jacques Dubé issued a detailed press release about the protest only minutes after employees gathered outside his window.

Dubé stated that HRM is “trying to create a workforce that better reflects the diversity of the community it serves,” but that “takes time.”

“We do know we can do better than our past and we are committed to making it happen,” writes the CAO, who's no stranger himself to HR complaints. “We appreciate change isn’t happening fast enough. But even if it’s not happening as fast as we would like, we have the capacity and desire to change as an organization.”

Although council doesn’t handle personnel matters, mayor Mike Savage weighed in after Tuesday's meeting, telling reporters that HRM’s current hiring practices are “not sufficient” when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

“Our community has had systemic racism for many many years, and the municipality is not immune to that,” said Savage. “I think we can do a lot better than we have done.”

The CAO’s press release promises Halifax will be making improvements to its hiring practices in order to encourage more racially visible candidates for leadership positions.

“We recognize most employees connect to their organization’s culture and purpose through their immediate supervisor,” writes Dubé. “For African Nova Scotia employees, this can be challenging if they don’t feel represented by their manager.”

According to HRM, there have been “limited recruitment opportunities” since 2016 for supervisor positions and none of the employees hired have been African Nova Scotian.

The municipality can’t really say how limited is “limited,” though. An exact number of recruitment opportunities since 2016 wasn’t able to be collected and shared with The Coast before deadline.

An updated progress report on the ESR’s recommendations that was asked for earlier this year by councillor Lindell Smith is expected back at council within a month.
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Monday, May 7, 2018

Cornwallis Street Baptist Church is now New Horizons

Historic African Nova Scotian house of worship changes its name to “better reflect the church’s values.”

Posted By on Mon, May 7, 2018 at 2:06 PM

New Horizons celebrates its name change during a sod-turning ceremony this past Sunday. - NEW HORIZONS
  • New Horizons celebrates its name change during a sod-turning ceremony this past Sunday.

The former Cornwallis Street Baptist Church will now be known as New Horizons Baptist Church.

Members voted on the new designation, which still needs to be approved by the Registry of Joint Stocks, after service this past Sunday.

“The intent of the name change is to identify ourselves by a name that better reflects the church’s values with an eye to the church's work in the future,” senior pastor Rhonda Britton states in a press release announcing the news.

“The change also supports our First Nations sisters and brothers in their continued efforts to educate the public regarding the violence and mistreatment they have endured, as we all become more mindful of those we choose to honour and celebrate in history.”

The historic Cornwallis Street Baptist Church celebrated its 185th anniversary last summer. - MEGHAN TANSEY WHITTON
  • The historic Cornwallis Street Baptist Church celebrated its 185th anniversary last summer.

The historic north end place of worship was founded in 1832 and has long been a vital resource for the African Nova Scotian community.

But in recent years, the namesake of the street on which the church still stands has faced increased scrutiny about his violence towards the Mi’kmaq nation.

Former governor Edward Cornwallis infamously issued a proclamation for Mi’kmaw scalps the same year he founded the city of Halifax.

Last year, in recognition of its ongoing collaborations with Indigenous communities and the church’s history of addressing social injustice, members at the Baptist Church’s annual meeting passed a motion to change their name.

The decision sparked headlines across the country and the inevitable racist backlash. On Twitter, Britton shared a letter she received from one angry Canadian calling her an “anti-white racist” who needed to “get over your whining.”

Britton responded that she was “#PrayingForThisPoorSoul.”

Cornwallis’ history is still attached to the north end street and south end park that both bear his name, and the statue forged in his image that's currently hidden away in a secret location while HRM figures out what to do with it.

New Horizons celebrated its name change on Sunday with a sod-turning ceremony to kick off the building’s planned renovations, which are scheduled for later this summer.

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Breach teen is free!

Halifax police have no grounds to lay charges against the 19-year-old railroaded by the province for its lacklustre FOI site security.

Posted By on Mon, May 7, 2018 at 12:55 PM

An excellent use of everyone's time! - THE COAST
  • An excellent use of everyone's time!
  • The Coast

The teenager who helped expose Nova Scotia's embarrassing cybersecurity fail is a free man.

Halifax Regional Police have concluded an investigation into the data breach of the province's Freedom of Information web portal and have determined there are no grounds to lay charges.

“This was a high-profile case that potentially impacted many Nova Scotians,” CID superintendent Jim Perrin says in a press release. “As the investigation evolved, we have determined that the 19-year-old who was arrested on April 11 did not have intent to commit a criminal offence by accessing the information.”

The “breach” of the province's online security involved sensitive private material left on publicly accessible URLs next to—and indistinguishable from—other information cleared for public release.

The 19-year-old used a simple web scraper to download thousands of documents he assumed were publicly viewable as part of research he was undertaking.

Once the province stumbled across what had happened a month later the police were dispatched, leading to 15 officers swarming the teenager's family home, detaining his little sister and confiscating his and his parents' electronics.

The young man was facing a charge of “unauthorized use of a computer.” It now appears that charge has been dropped.

The outcome isn't unexpected given the province has faced harsh criticism from political opponents, digital rights advocates and the general public for what appeared to be scapegoating efforts against a teenager to cover the government's own ineptitude. 

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia's privacy commissioner and auditor general are both still working on parallel investigations into the FOI leak.

Last week, the province announced the data leak was more substantial than initial reports, with 11 additional IP addresses having been forwarded to Halifax Regional Police to investigate.

The FOI website remains offline as of this week, as IT staff along with contractor Unisys try to secure their system.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Jamaican Cultural Association wants official apology from Smith-McCrossin

Community group met with the Tory leadership candidate to “express their personal experiences and frustrations” about her recent cannabis comments.

Posted By on Tue, May 1, 2018 at 1:26 PM


The Jamaican Cultural Association of Nova Scotia wants an official apology on the floor of the Legislature from Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin.

A press release from the not-for-profit says JCANS representatives recently met with the Cumberland North MLA about her comments that legalizing cannabis could make Nova Scotia unproductive like Jamaica.

During a debate on Nova Scotia's new Cannabis Control Act last month, Smith-McCrossin told Province House her friend from Jamaica warned her there's "very low productivity" in the island country due to smoking marijuana.

“I think we already have a productivity problem here in Nova Scotia,” Smith-McCrossin said. “We do not need something else making it worse.”

The comments drew harsh condemnation and the Progressive Conservative leadership candidate quickly offered extended apologies stating she “needs to do better.”

Advocates from JCANS say they've now met with Smith-McCrossin to discuss the distress her comments caused Nova Scotia's Caribbean community.

“The meeting was by mutual agreement so many Jamaicans could express their personal experiences and frustrations in hearing the inappropriate comments made by Smith-McCrossin as an elected official,” reads Tuesday's release.

Once again the MLA apologized for her comments.

“JCANS then went on to educate Smith-McCrossin on the requirements of an apology noting that it is meaningless to simply state an apology but a true apology mixes those words with appropriate actions. ”

On that front, the association is asking Smith-McCrossin for a formal apology to be given on the floor of the Legislature, as well as diversity training for “herself and her colleagues.”

The group is also asking for a commitment from the MLA to actively support programs for the Jamaican community in Nova Scotia and to help spread awareness of the contributions made by Caribbean people to the province’s social and economic development.

“JCANS hopes this event can educate many about Jamaican history and culture and await a response from Smith-McCrossin by the middle of May as agreed to at the meeting.”

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Three more NSLC stores to sell cannabis

Bridgewater, New Minas and Antigonish stores join the party, bringing total number of retail outlets in Nova Scotia to 12.

Posted By on Tue, May 1, 2018 at 12:33 PM

Future generations will abbreviate NSLC as the Can-Liq store. - VIA ISTOCK
  • Future generations will abbreviate NSLC as the Can-Liq store.

The market's not even open for business yet and the province is already expanding its territory.

There will be three more NSLC stores selling cannabis this fall, bringing the total number of legal weed retail outlets in Nova Scotia to 12.

“Since we announced the first nine stores that would sell cannabis, NSLC has been working to identify additional locations that could be renovated for cannabis sales,” Finance and Treasury Board minister Karen Casey writes in a press release. “The addition of these three stores will provide greater access to the legal market for Nova Scotians.”

The additional locations include NSLCs on Dufferin Street in Bridgewater, Commercial Street in New Minas and Church Street in Antigonish.

They join previously announced retail outlets for cannabis sales at NSLC stores in Amherst, New Glasgow, Sydney River, Truro and Yarmouth.

Four of the 12 proposed outlets will be located in HRM, with select NSLC stores in Dartmouth, Lower Sackville and peninsula Halifax selling cannabis.

The NSLC's Clyde Street location will solely be used for cannabis sales and will not sell alcohol.

For everyone else who's not able to conveniently access those scattered locations, NSLC will offer online orders with home delivery.

All of the stores will open sometime later this summer once federal cannabis legalization comes into effect.

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Monday, April 30, 2018

Forestry review needs further review

Additional input needed from experts in economics and international law before public release.

Posted By on Mon, Apr 30, 2018 at 10:37 PM


The province will have to wait a little while longer for an independent review of its forestry practices.

The hotly anticipated report from University of Kings College president Bill Lahey—which will advise the government on environmental and economic improvements in forest management—is nearly complete but in need of some additional input.

The province announced Monday via press release that Lahey will be subjecting the draft version of his report to advisors in international law and forestry economics before releasing it to the public.

“This is a significant matter for our forest industry and I appreciate professor Lahey’s considered judgement to subject his report to further review,” writes Natural Resources minister Margaret Miller.

It's the second deadline extension for the “Independent Review of Forest Practices.” Lahey was originally scheduled to complete his report by March before the mandate was extended to the end of April.

The forestry review was a central part of the Liberals' environmental platform in last spring's election. Among other topics, it will examine legislation, regulation and whether clearcutting can or should play a part in Nova Scotia's forestry sector.

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11 more security failures discovered in Freedom of Information database

Additional leaks from March were discovered two weeks ago by the province.

Posted By on Mon, Apr 30, 2018 at 5:46 PM

Once more unto the breach, dear friends. - VIA ISTOCK, PROBABLY
  • Once more unto the breach, dear friends.

In addition to a Halifax teenager's computer, eleven other IP addresses downloaded 900 public-facing documents containing private information from the province's Freedom of Information web portal this past March.

The additional leaks were disclosed Monday as part of an overall update on the FOI privacy nightmare that's engulfing the department of Internal Services.

The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPOP) website has been offline since early April when a government employee accidentally discovered an obvious security flaw that allowed for the easy access of personal files simply by altering numbers in URLs.

It was an oversite that allowed a 19-year-old man in Halifax to download 7,000 documents between March 3 and 5. The teenager, who has told the media he was only conducting research on what he thought were public documents, is awaiting a day in court on a charge of unauthorized computer use.

The province says this latest round of data leaks contain 900 documents downloaded by 11 different IP addresses from late February to early April. All of the files were part of the same 7,000 documents already accidentally released.

The 11 additional IP addresses—all from Nova Scotia—have also been forwarded to Halifax Regional Police to investigate.

The news was met with harsh words from opposition critics.

Interim Progressive Conservative leader Karla MacFarlane says the latest breach proves the Liberal government can’t be trusted to keep personal data safe.

“The Liberals left the portal wide open. They used full force to arrest a 19-year-old kid but now they must be left scratching their heads,” she says in a written statement. “This is pure incompetence.”

Dave Wilson, NDP Internal Services critic, says in an emailed statement that the province shouldn’t be surprised the data was accessed multiple times given its weak security.

“Premier McNeil and his government need to acknowledge the system in place wasn’t good enough and tell people what is being done moving forward to protect private information.”

Provincial spokesperson Brian Taylor says the extra abnormal activity was flagged by vendor Unisys and confirmed by Internal Services staff two weeks ago on April 17.

The 53 people impacted by these latest security failures would have already received a letter informing them that their information was put at risk in the prior breach. Nevertheless, another round of letters will be sent out.

The province’s privacy commissioner and auditor general are both working on parallel investigations into the FOIPOP mess, while IT staff and Unisys work get the website back online—and finally secured.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Council split on budget approval

Tim Outhit says he can't “in good conscience” support 2018-19 budget due to 1.975 percent tax increase.

Posted By on Tue, Apr 24, 2018 at 10:37 PM

Noted nay-sayer Tim Outhit - RILEY SMITH
  • Noted nay-sayer Tim Outhit

It's a bit of a bad news story if you ask Tim Outhit.

Council approved HRM's billion-dollar 2018-19 budget on Tuesday after some three hours of debate, with Outhit and fellow councillor Shawn Cleary being the only two votes against.

The financial plan increases the average tax bill in Halifax by 1.975 percent—about $37 per single-family home—while the average commercial tax bill will see a decrease of 1.1 percent.

It’s the culmination of months of fiscal planning by HRM staff, who were directed by council back in December to move forward with the roughly two percent increase.

Despite the lengthy groundwork, some councillors wanted to call an audible on fourth-and-goal.

A proposed amendment by Outhit would have used $1.89 million from HRM’s reserve funds to cut the tax increase off at 1.6 percent.

The Bedford–Wentworth councillor said he could not “in good conscience” support the higher tax hike while sitting on $15-million surplus this year.

Staff and other councillors strongly recommended against using the one-time surplus funds for ongoing operating expenses—a conversation council had many times during the past budget season.

“I tear my hair out wondering what the heck we’ve been doing giving staff direction over the last three-and-a-half, four months, under the premise that it was going to be 1.9 percent,” pleaded Bill Karsten. “We talked about this.”

Mayor Mike Savage voiced support for Outhit’s plan, even while admitting a 1.97 percent increase is still below inflation and the five percent-or-higher hikes being seen in other Canadian cities this year.

“I’m pretty comfortable with where we’re headed, whether it’s 1.97 or 1.6,” said Savage. “My preference would be 1.6.”

Finance staff had anticipated a 1.6 percent increase back when they were crunching numbers during year one of HRM’s two-year budget planning process. But that figure rose last summer after an arbitration decision on Halifax Regional Police wages.

The service costs for both the police department and Halifax Fire and Emergency are growing at nearly 13 percent and are currently unsustainable, CAO Jacques Dubé warned council on Tuesday.

“This condition cannot continue,” said Dubé, who predicted tough decisions “surely lie ahead” for Halifax.

Outhit’s amendment was eventually defeated 9-6, motivating the councillor to vote against the final document.

“This has been a great process—a great budget—but I cannot support a budget that gives people an unnecessarily high tax increase,” he said.

The 2018-19 budget includes $918 million in operating costs—$157.9 million of which goes directly to mandatory provincial payments—and $128 million in capital expenses.

Staff will now go back to the books to produce the next two-year budget cycle, returning to council for more fiscal direction later this fall.

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