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 jacob@thecoast.ca to send a tip.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Nova Scotia approves tire burning just in time for the end of the world

Cement plant will receive $367,500 subsidy to burn scrap tires as fuel.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 10, 2018 at 3:03 PM

Not exactly as illustrated. - ADOBE STOCK
  • Not exactly as illustrated.
  • ADOBE STOCK

Urgent changes at an unprecedented level never before seen in human history are needed to save the planet from environmental collapse. Nova Scotia has responded to this clarion call from the world's leading scientists by paying a company to burn old tires.

The Department of Environment announced today it’s awarded industrial approval for Lafarge Canada to burn 350,000 scrap tires as fuel for the company's Brookfield cement plant.

Lafarge will receive $367,5000 in public money to subsidize its efforts.

The license is only for a 12-month period. At least to start. Similar environmental approvals are normally granted 10 years at a time.

“The shorter period allows the province to ensure that terms and conditions are being met, and can be modified if needed to ensure the environment and human health are protected,” writes spokesperson Bruce Nunn in a press release.

But Ecology Action Centre policy director Mark Butler says once the fire is lit it will be hard to put out.

“The EAC is of the view that once the tire burning infrastructure is in place at the Lafarge plant it will be difficult for government to reverse the decision to burn tires, regardless of monitoring and test results,” Butler writes via press release.

Environment minister Iain Rankin first gave Lafarge Canada the go-ahead for its tire-kiln pilot project last summer. The decision was appealed by nearby residents and environmental groups who felt the province had failed to adequately consult the public and that Lafarge’s plans were based on shoddy science. The appeal was ultimately rejected by the courts.

Research from Lafarge and Dalhousie University suggests that the global manufacturer can reduce its Brookfield plant’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent just by switching from coal to scrap tires.

Phasing out coal is one of the quickest methods countries around the world will need to take to reduce GHG emissions, according to a dire report released earlier this week from the world’s leading climate scientists.

The authors of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change study warn there are only 12 years left to keep the planet from warming an additional 1.5C and thus stave off catastrophic environmental failure.

Achieving that goal will require urgent and unprecedented changes from all aspects of society, including a severe curtailing of greenhouse gas emissions.

But Nova Scotia's scrap tires were already being reused as something more useful than coal-replacement. The old rubber would be chopped up by C&D Recycling and spread as infill in roadwork projects.

Without a supply of tires, local engineers will instead need to use mineral aggregates. The mining of those products is considerably more carbon-intensive than any savings calculated by Lafarge, says Butler.

“Burning tires, rather than recycling them, will not reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions in Nova Scotia, will undermine recycling and will pose an additional health hazard to local residents,” Butler states. “In addition, taking tires away from the recycling industry and giving them to Lafarge to burn will result in a net loss of jobs and economic activity.”

Burning tires, even when carefully monitored, risks releasing toxic dioxins and dangerous heavy metals in the local environment.

According to today's press release, Lafarge will have to undertake air quality monitoring at regular intervals whenever the tire kiln is lit. Groundwater and surface water monitoring is also required.

Setting up those monitoring systems will be a little easier thanks to the $1.05 per-tire subsidy Lafarge will be paid by Divert Nova Scotia. The money comes out of an environmental fee Divert NS collects from consumers who buy new tires.

“It is EAC’s view that Divert NS, which describes itself as fostering a culture of recycling in Nova Scotia for over 20 years, does not have the moral authority to collect a fee which will be given to a company to burn, not recycle, tires,” states Butler.

Lafarge had previously put forward a tire-burning plan in 2007 but it was rejected by Nova Scotia’s Tory government for having too many risks. The following year, the legislature passed a bill outright banning tire burning in the province. It was never proclaimed.

Today the NS NDP announced it will re-introduce that bill in response to the Liberal government’s Lafarge decision.

“We shouldn’t be burning tires for fuel, especially when they could be recycled,” states Lenore Zann, NDP environment critic. “Today’s decision will not only degrade Nova Scotia’s environment but further damage our reputation as a leader in tackling climate change.”

Nova Scotia produces roughly 1 million scrap tires each year.
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Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Secret access codes needed to buy NSLC weed online

Passcodes acquired in person from NSLC stores will need to be entered whenever users visit cannabis sales website.

Posted By on Tue, Oct 9, 2018 at 4:46 PM

THE MATRIX
  • THE MATRIX

Here's a fun way to pretend you're some kind of hacker man.

The Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation announced today how it's going to keep recreational cannabis that's sold online out of the hands of those under 19.

An online access code will be required to visit and make purchases at the province's new online cannabis store, which is set to launch October 17.

Cards containing the access codes will be given out to customers with a valid ID at all NSLC stores starting next Wednesday.

Once the secret access code has been obtained, players will need to enter it every time they log on to NSLC's cannabis website while protecting its contents from waves of pot-loving teenagers.

“It’s important that we offer recreational cannabis to Nova Scotians in a safe and responsible manner,” says Dave DiPersio, senior vice president and chief services officer for the NSLC, in a release. “The NSLC team is working hard to have everything ready to go online and in-store when cannabis is legalized.”

The cards themselves are not tied to any customer information and can be reused indefinitely, passed down from one generation to the next.

NSLC's website also features additional age verification systems, along with detailed information about each cannabis product and the option to check out as either a guest or create an account for use in any future government data breaches.

Responsible use messaging will be “prominently” featured on the site, “encouraging customers to start low and go slow” on their new, legal high.

All online cannabis purchases will be delivered by Canada Post to whatever shipping address is provided at the time of sale, but customers will still need to show a valid photo ID upon delivery.

The online website for purchasing cannabis goes live on October 17.

Where to smoke outside is still TBD. Only eight days before legalization, the city has yet to post a list of designated smoking areas approved for its new cannabis/tobacco ban.
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25 for 25: episode 2009

Tim Bousquet talks about when the sewage treatment plant failed. Plus, Paul McCartney is in town, dead birds in the Public Gardens and, yes, Brindi.

Posted By on Tue, Oct 9, 2018 at 12:55 PM

Clockwise from top-right: The Coast's sewage plant cover story, Brindi, Darrell Dexter, Peter Kelly, Tim Bousquet.
  • Clockwise from top-right: The Coast's sewage plant cover story, Brindi, Darrell Dexter, Peter Kelly, Tim Bousquet.

Former Coast news editor Tim Bousquet joins us to talk about the day the sewage treatment plant failed and what lessons were learned at city hall. Then we get into HRM By Design and Tim's early days live-tweeting council.

Plus Paul McCartney comes to town for what's sure to be a successful concert, chef Ray Bear flees from Halifax after his business partner threatens his life and historic Morris House is on the move.

Tara and Jacob also look at racism in the Halifax fire department, the Chronicle Herald axes a quarter of its newsroom and suspicions of fowl play inside the Public Gardens when a famous goose turns up dead...or was she murdered?

And, yes, we also talk about Brindi.

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Friday, October 5, 2018

Dal researcher says shark-tagging group a risk to swimmers, sharks

Non-profit Ocearch is more interested in tweeting than science, claims Canada Research Chair in fisheries ecology.

Posted By on Fri, Oct 5, 2018 at 5:02 PM

Nova the shark, pictured on Ocearch's advertisement-covered tagging platform. - VIA TWITTER
  • Nova the shark, pictured on Ocearch's advertisement-covered tagging platform.
  • VIA TWITTER

A Dalhousie University ocean research scientist says that the organization tagging and tracking sharks these past several weeks in Nova Scotian waters is posing a danger to both sharks and swimmers.

The American non-profit Ocearch has been on an expedition to study sharks off the coast of Nova Scotia since mid-September. The group finds and tags white sharks, ostensibly to track their migration and breeding habits.

But Aaron MacNeil, who holds the Canada Research Chair in fisheries ecology, says that Ocearch's mission seems to be less about scientific research and more about posting to Twitter.

“Basically, they have a thin veneer of science,” he says. “Like a candy shell of science.”

Ocearch is a “data-centric organization built to help scientists collect previously unattainable data.”

The organization throws bait and baited lines into the water to lure white sharks to the surface, then hooks and lifts the animal out of the water for tagging.

Since 2007, Ocearch has led 32 expeditions around the world, tagging some 330 animals.

The excursions offer plenty of dramatic photo opportunities that Ocearch happily shares on social media. Each animal is also named and assigned its own Twitter handle.

Fans of the tagged shark can then follow along in the animal’s ocean journey. Hilton, one of Ocearch’s most well-known celebrity sharks, currently has nearly 47,000 followers.

Ocearch says it facilitates scientific research. But MacNeil argues the group is “at the margins” of what other shark researchers investigate.

“I think they’re largely overselling the importance of the work they’re doing.”

Neither the Department of Fisheries and Oceans nor Dalhousie University’s Oceans Tracking Network is working with Ocearch on its expedition, he points out.

“If they were getting world-leading data, you’d expect those people to be working with them,” says MacNeil. “I mean, the fellow who founded it is a former reality TV host for a fishing program. So you can read into that what you like.”

Ocearch founder Chris Fischer and his team star in the History channel television series Shark Wranglers, which follows the organization’s vessel on tagging expeditions across the world.

During those travels, the non-profit has been barred from the waters around Massachusetts, Florida, northern California and from South Africa, where a bodyboarder was killed in 2012 by a shark only a week after Ocearch chummed nearby water.

MacNeil is now worried Ocearch’s “chumming” of the waters close to Nova Scotia's public beaches brings similar risks of white sharks coming into contact with swimmers and surfers.

“When I actually went and looked where they were tagging these things, I said, ‘Holy crap.”

Department of Fisheries and Oceans spokesperson Stephen Bornais says the DFO is “aware of recent concerns” about the use of chum to attract sharks and has advised Ocearch to alter course.

“While it is not anticipated that white sharks will change where they forage for food as a result of any chumming that occurs as part of this research, the department has advised Ocearch to move away from coastal areas frequented by recreational users.”
At more risk may be the sharks themselves. Past tagging efforts by Ocearch appear to have caused the death of a nine-foot female great white near South Africa, as documented on the organization’s reality show.

Ocearch claims that taking sharks out of the water via their modified crab boats is actually safer and less stressful than traditional tagging efforts.

“The shark’s eyes are covered with a towel and ocean water is fed down a tube so it can run through the gills,” Fischer tells Halifax Today. “Blood samples are taken right after the animal comes on board and again right before being released to test the shark’s stress level.”

But MacNeil argues the best thing for an ocean-dwelling animal is always leaving it in the water.

“You’re essentially beaching it temporarily, and a lot of marine animals are terrified about being beached because it crushes their organs and causes lots of problems.”

A Scientific American article from 2016 quotes Chris Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at California State University in Long Beach, as saying Ocearch’s tactics of catching and handling sharks also increases the likelihood that the animals will leave their habitat in response to the disturbance.

“Much less invasive procedures like external tagging that do not require capture should have less effect on subsequent behaviour,” states Lowe.

The DFO has issued Ocearch special permits to tag up to 20 white sharks off the coast of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland this fall.

So far, the group has tagged three males: Nova, named for Nova Scotia; Hal, named for Halifax; and Jefferson, named for one of Ocearch’s corporate sponsors, Jefferson Bourbon.

Other commercial partners of the American organization include a brewery, a sunglasses company and SeaWorld—itself a centre of controversy when it comes to animal welfare.

MacNeil does admit that Ocearch's sleek digital packages and media appearances are great for educating the public about the oceans. But it’s not doing much for science.

“They have left a trail of burned bridges behind them all over the world,” he says. “They’re coming in swaggering and they haven’t interacted very well with the science community here.”

Meanwhile, Hilton and Ocearch’s other sharks continue swimming, blissfully unaware they’ve been co-opted as brand ambassadors.

“Holy smokes I finally made it to Newfoundland!” someone from Ocearch tweeted Friday while pretending to be a shark.

Information on white sharks in Atlantic Canada is limited and reporting is strongly encouraged by the DFO to increase knowledge about the species and inform its recovery. Anyone spotting a white shark in provincial waters can email Fisheries and Oceans at Shark.MAR@dfo-mpo.gc.ca , telephone 1-844-400-7870 or contact the DFO website.
 
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Gus didn't get an Order of Nova Scotia 😞

I'm sorry. We failed you, Halifax.

Posted By on Fri, Oct 5, 2018 at 1:36 PM

Gus is unimpressed with today's announcement. - VIA INSTAGRAM
  • Gus is unimpressed with today's announcement.
  • VIA INSTAGRAM

Well, at least we tried.

Gus, the Museum of Natural History’s gopher tortoise, Halifax's beloved mascot, living monument of history, multi-generational icon, will not be receiving an Order of Nova Scotia award this year.

As announced today by lieutenant governor Arthur LeBlanc, five other extraordinary Nova Scotians and also John Bragg have been awarded the province's highest honour instead.

The 2018 recipients of the Order of Nova Scotia are famed Olympian Ellie Black, nursing trailblazer Clotilda Douglas-Yakimchuk, superstar historian Janet Kitz, healthcare innovator Patti Melanson, community pillar Wade Smith and John Bragg.

Absent from the list is Gus, who The Coast officially nominated earlier this year with accompanying letters of support from Ecology Action Centre wilderness coordinator Raymond Plourde, former Gus caretaker Scott Pelton, HRM deputy mayor Waye Mason and former Halifax Member of Parliament Megan Leslie.

Traditionally, the ONS has only been bestowed on humans. But per international Air Bud rules, as there was no regulation explicitly stating tortoises couldn't win, we thought it was worth a shot.

Alas.

“One of the most enjoyable roles I have as the Queen's representative in this province is to invest the 2018 appointees with the Order of Nova Scotia, which is our highest honour,” LeBlanc stated in a tortoise-free press release. “The achievements by these six outstanding Nova Scotians makes us all proud and I greatly look forward to congratulating them in person at the investiture ceremony in November.”

None of the nominees have delighted Nova Scotians for two-thirds of a century, but their achievements are no less remarkable; their stories no less inspiring.

The second person under 18 to receive the ONS, Black has represented Canada twice at the Summer Olympics and recently led her team to gold at the Commonwealth Games.

Douglas-Yakimchuk was the first Black graduate of the Nova Scotia Hospital School of Nursing back in 1954 and eventually became the first, and only, Black president of the Registered Nurses' Association of Nova Scotia.

Kitz, originally from Scotland, is a leading academic on the Halifax Explosion and author of Shattered City. She also helped create the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic's permanent exhibit on the disaster.

A practicing nurse of over 25 years, Melanson has been a driving force in how healthcare is offered to vulnerable populations, having helped create the Mobile Street Outreach Team and advocated for the Housing First model of helping those living in shelters find adequate housing.

Smith, the former principal of Citadel High School, was a lifelong educator and a passionate advocate for African Nova Scotian culture and education. Smith sadly passed away last year after battling cancer. His life and impact on the city was celebrated for weeks afterwards by the thousands of lives he touched.

John Bragg sells blueberries and owns Eastlink.

via the Museum of Natural History.
  • via the Museum of Natural History.

The Order of Nova Scotia was established in 2001, and over the past 17 years has been awarded to 93 recipients who get a medal and the right to use O.N.S. after their names.

The gopher tortoise who would one day be known as Gus hatched from a golf-ball sized egg in Silver Springs, Florida circa 1922. Former Halifax museum director Don Crowdis brought him to his new home in Nova Scotia 20 years later.

In 2009, the province celebrated Gus’ 87th birthday with a press release which emotionally detailed his impact on generations of Nova Scotians. “His shell wears a gentle sheen from being touched by more than a million children’s hands,” it reads.

On behalf of everyone at The Coast, congratulations to most of the nominees and our heartfelt condolences to Gus. There's always next year, little guy.
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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Council approves new campaign 
finance rules

Cynical public will still think we’re bought by developers, elected officials whine.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 3, 2018 at 9:02 PM

City Hall, now with rules for entry. - DANIELLE CAMERON
  • City Hall, now with rules for entry.
  • DANIELLE CAMERON

Halifax council has approved its first ever set of campaign finance rules, putting restrictions on who can donate and how much can be contributed to a municipal election.

Donations from any corporation, union or organization are now illegal under the new bylaw, which was approved at Tuesday’s meeting. The limit for an individual to donate is now set at $1,000 per councillor, not exceeding $5,000 total per election.

Previously, the sky was the limit. The Municipal Elections Act doesn’t put any restrictions on donations or how much money candidates can spend, leading to a wide disparity between campaigns and accusations that councillors were being swayed by donations from the development community.

A CBC investigation in 2015 determined that one-third of all the donations made in the 2012 municipal election came from developers.

But some councillors take umbrage at the idea that they could be bought for a few thousand dollars every few years.

“I’ve run eight elections since 1999 and nobody has ever bought my vote and nobody will buy my vote,” said Waverley–Fall River–Musquodoboit Valley councillor Steve Streatch.

“Why are we doing this? I guess it’s for transparency. I guess it’s the new norm. I guess the cynicism that appears to be out there these days needs an outlet.”

Dartmouth South–Eastern Passage councillor Bill Karsten likewise defended the reputation of developers as pillars of the community.

“Councillors don’t build cities,” admitted Karsten. “It’s the development community.”

Other campaign finance changes include a maximum spending limit for each candidate, set at $30,000 for each council seat and $300,000 for future mayoral races.

Back in 2012, Mike Savage raised over $300,000 in donations during his inaugural mayoral campaign, arguably the biggest war chest gathered by any municipal politician in Nova Scotia history.

Ever since his election, the mayor has strongly advocated for campaign finance reform.

“We do need this and not because there’s any criminality happening or anything that’s wrong. But you just need to have systems in place,” said Savage.

Candidates and their spouses will also now be limited to spending $15,000 of their own money on their campaign. The restriction is meant to prevent the rich and powerful from having an unfair advantage in an election.

Councillor Russell Walker objected to the idea, however, arguing that anyone who needs more money in a campaign could simply take out a loan from the bank.

That option isn’t available for everyone, countered Halifax Peninsula North councillor Lindell Smith.

“That is a privilege,” said Smith. “Someone from a marginalized community, to be able to go to a bank and say, ‘Can I have $15,000,’ they’re going to laugh at you.”

The new campaign finance rules will limit political contributions to March 1 or later in an election year. Any funds left unspent by the candidates can either by donated to a non-profit organization or held in trust by the city for use by an incumbent during the next election.

All of these changes, of course, only impact above-the-table contributions. Back in 2006, former councillor Dawn Sloane, told the Chronicle Herald that she was offered and turned down a roll of bills while in a meeting with a local developer. Other councillors likewise told the press they had been offered similar bribes.

“The question’s been asked a couple of times, who are we doing this for?” said Middle/Upper Sackville–Beaver Bank–Lucasville councillor Lisa Blackburn during council’s meeting. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re doing this for my two buddies, democracy and transparency.”

In a separate motion later in the day, council voted to work with the province to expand the provincial Lobbyist Registry to include any lobbying conducted at the municipal level.
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Monday, October 1, 2018

25 for 25: episode 2008

Reminiscing with Joel Plaskett about his career, and reflections on covering suicides with journalist Matthieu Aikins.

Posted By on Mon, Oct 1, 2018 at 10:56 AM

THE COAST
  • THE COAST

It's a Joel Plaskett emergency as the local legend joins us in studio with tales from the road. The storied son of Dartmouth talks about his critically acclaimed nostalgia opus, Ashtray Rock, and his busy year back in 2008.

Then, award-winning journalist Matthieu Aikins calls in with reflections on his lauded Coast cover feature about Macdonald Bridge suicides, “Adam's Fall.”

All this plus, Peter Kelly goes for a swim, fire boats flip over in the harbour, the Spryfield drug wars erupt, lie detector tests exposed at city hall and we offer some definitive rulings on proper bus etiquette.

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If you like the podcast, please feel free to give us a nice rating or leave a review. If you hate the podcast, want to correct something we got wrong or have comments about any events we forgot to mention you can email us at letters@thecoast.ca.

Catch up on past episodes here.
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Friday, September 28, 2018

New smoking bylaws to be enforced starting October 15

Designated smoking areas already decided on include bus terminals in Burnside, Clayton Park and Dartmouth.

Posted By on Fri, Sep 28, 2018 at 5:26 PM

Stay within the green. - VIA HRM
  • Stay within the green.
  • VIA HRM

You’ve got two more weeks to light up on public property.

Come October 15, Halifax will officially start enforcing its new bylaw amendments banning all smoking on public property outside of designated smoking areas.

A “couple dozen” smoking areas will initially be in place come October 15, just two days before cannabis is legal.

“We suspect that a good number, a couple dozen to three dozen, will be up and operational by the 15,” says spokesperson Brendan Elliott.

Those locations will be identified via signs like the above prototype, though the suggested safe distance of three-metres will fluctuate.

“There could be some that say three metres, there could be some that are bookends,” says Elliott. Meaning smokers could light up in the area between two different signs. “I don’t want to be tied to a specific measurement because each situation will dictate its own reasonable distance for smoking.”

Locations already decided on include the bus terminals in Burnside, Clayton Park and Dartmouth. Those are the “easy ones,” says Elliott, as HRM already has direct control of the land's use.

An online map to be posted in the next few days will show all approved locations and update as new sites are chosen. Meanwhile, residents can submit requests for specific smoking locations to a dedicated email address (TBD).

Elliott says city staff will also be monitoring the discourse on social media, should the public have suggestions.

“This is something that’s organic. It’ll grow as we get our feet on the ground with this legislation.”

The bylaw amendments—which have been loudly criticized by residents and councillors as totalitarian, unenforceable and ripe for abuse—will level fines ranging from $20 to $2,000 on smokers outside the safety zones.

City hall had originally hoped the signage could be in place for October 1, allowing a two-week adjustment period before cannabis is legal. That self-imposed deadline was “too ambitious,” admits Elliott.

Implementing these changes has been challenging, says the spokesperson, in so far as it's the first time HRM has ever had to do something like this.

“If I can describe government as being nimble, this is one of those cases where we’re absolutely going to have to be flexible in how we apply the amendments that council has given us.”

The smoking bylaw’s second reading comes to council for final approval on Tuesday. Unlike changes to land-use bylaws, these amendments to the nuisance act don't require a public hearing before being enacted.
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Friday, September 21, 2018

Province relaxes oversight of Halifax Convention Centre

New legislation doubles what Events East can spend without government approval, eliminates annual reports on centre's effectiveness.

Posted By on Fri, Sep 21, 2018 at 4:01 PM

It governs itself, sort of like the Vatican. - VIA FACEBOOK
  • It governs itself, sort of like the Vatican.
  • VIA FACEBOOK

New legislation introduced on Friday will expand the powers of Events East to operate the Halifax Convention Centre with far less oversight from the city and province.

The Crown Corporation, which manages the Argyle Street enterprise, will see its spending limit without prior written government approval increase from $250,000 to $500,000.

The proposed changes to the Halifax Convention Centre Act will also allow Events East to hire, fire and set the salaries of all its executives—other than the president and CEO. That position will still need approval from the province and city hall.

Events East will also no longer need to provide an annual report “on the effectiveness and competitiveness of the operations of the Convention Centre.”

Likewise, the convention centre’s strategic and business plans—along with an independent evaluation of its operations—will only need to be filed “as required” by council or the minister of business and not annually, as was previously the case. Those plans will also no longer need to include budgetary estimates or outline the aspects of the Convention Centre's operations being performed by external companies.

“The new Halifax Convention Centre is a world-class facility that is generating millions of dollars for our economy and boosting tourism,” business minister Geoff MacLellan said in a release announcing the changes. “This legislation gives Events East the authority to keep drumming up business, attracting large events and welcoming visitors.”

There are currently over 160 events booked for the Convention Centre from now until the end of the fiscal year next spring. Events East estimates it'll bring some 100,000 delegates and more than $50 million to the province in that time.

Despite the numbers, Events East's operating budget for the year is sitting at a $4.1-million deficit.

In a presentation to Halifax council earlier this week, president and CEO Carrie Cussons blamed the red ink on building costs.

“This is our first year in operations in a new and more complex building and I expect there will be key learnings,” Cussons said.

Nova Scotia and HRM co-own the Halifax Convention Centre and split any operating costs 50-50.

The amendments to the Convention Centre Act will still need to work their way through debate at the Legislature and Law Amendments Committee before coming into effect. 
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Stephen McNeil's contempt for transparency

The premier has no interest in fixing the broken freedom of information system his government openly ignores.

Posted By on Fri, Sep 21, 2018 at 1:19 PM

The premier is turning his back on freedom of information. - VIA INSTAGRAM
  • The premier is turning his back on freedom of information.
  • VIA INSTAGRAM

It's been a depressing week for Nova Scotia's freedom of information.

First, premier Stephen McNeil said his 2013 campaign promise to “expand the powers and mandate” of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner was a “mistake.”

Days later it came to light that the premier's office had blocked privacy commissioner Catherine Tully in her efforts to investigate health minister Leo Glavine's use of personal email to conduct government business.

The damning report from Tully’s office claims the department of health “failed to make any effort, let alone every reasonable effort” to search for the documents, originally requested by Global Halifax.

Confronted by reporters at Province House, McNeil seemed to mock the very idea that public servants should have done what is legally required of them, instead suggesting an information officer's job was better spent looking for new doctors.

“Should I have the department of health looking for emails or should I have them look for doctors?” said McNeil. “So I always have to balance that stuff out.”

Tully's report originates in Freedom of Information requests launched by former Global reporter Marieke Walsh for copies of any work-related emails Glavine had stored on his personal email accounts. Despite there being proof that Glavine was using his Gmail for ministerial work—and thereby circumventing access-to-information laws—the FOIPOP requests were denied.

But the health department didn’t even try to comply with the initial request. No one even bothered to ask the minister about his emails.

“This is a ‘don't tell, don't ask’ records management philosophy,” writes Tulley. “The department conducted no search for records either inside or outside the government system.”

Nova Scotia's Access to Information Act says public bodies must assist people who file document requests.

When Tully tried to speak to Glavine's executive assistant, Peter Bragg, for her investigation, the premier's office informed Tully that Bragg would not be made available for an interview.

According to the commissioner, it's “one of the many weaknesses of Nova Scotia's outdated right to information law” that her office doesn't have the power to summon witnesses for questioning.

But the premier sees no problem with any of this.

“The information officer was looking at minister Glavine using his Gmail account, which he acknowledged and he fixed the practice,” McNeil told reporters Thursday at Province House.

Glavine has, apparently, stopped using his personal email account for government business. He claims his actions were honest mistakes and not an attempt to hide government dealings.

“What more was she looking for?” the premier asks of Tully. “You don't call witnesses when someone actually says, ‘You know what, you're right, I was wrong.’”

McNeil has previously stated that he likes to conduct government business over the phone specifically in order to circumvent the information ever being released to the public.

The OIPC has repeatedly warned Nova Scotians that the use of personal email accounts and cell phones to conduct government business has the potential to subvert the province's access to information laws.

Tully's report into Glavine's email mess ends with recommendations for a policy prohibiting personal email use for government business and asks the health minister to turn over all the emails which Global was originally asking for.

The government will have 30 days to respond but has no requirement to comply.

Closing off this absurdity, next week is Right to Know Week in Nova Scotia, where the OIPC will hold a number of public events “to raise awareness about the importance of the right to access information.”
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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Kathy Symington’s discrimination complaint will be heard in full

Nova Scotia's Human Rights Commission changes its mind about the former Halifax firefighter's case of systemic gender discrimination and harassment.

Posted By on Thu, Sep 20, 2018 at 4:01 AM

Symington joined the Halifax fire department in 1997. - SCREENSHOT FROM CBC NEWS
  • Symington joined the Halifax fire department in 1997.
  • SCREENSHOT FROM CBC NEWS

Sixteen years and 24 hours later, Kathy Symington’s complaint will be heard in full by Nova Scotia’s Human Rights Commission.

The news was announced Wednesday by civic advocacy group Equity Watch, which has been fighting on behalf of the firefighter’s gender discrimination case.

Equity Watch held a press conference on Tuesday at Province House decrying the HRC for its lack of response to Symington’s complaints. Fewer than 24 hours later, Symington says she received an email from the commission announcing her full complaint was being referred to a board of inquiry.

It's a pyrrhic victory, though, according to Equity Watch member Judy Haiven.  Today’s decision doesn't make the delays and hurdles faced by Symington any less infuriating.

“We should be furious that it’s taken 16 years and this poor woman has lost her job, her pension, everything and now she’s going to get her day in court,” says Haiven. “It is a travesty, in a way, that we won.”

One of the city’s first female firefighters, Symington went to the HRC in 2002 with complaints about harassment, bullying and systemic gender discrimination in her workplace.

That first complaint was thrown out by the HRC four years later with no reason given. Symington tried again in 2013, but it would take Halifax Fire and her union another five years to respond. When they did, they denied her accusations and listed 150 allegations of their own against Symington.

In some 1,400 pages of documentation from an 18-year career with Halifax Fire, Symington claims to have faced continual harassment and sexualized bullying, was denied career advancement opportunities, had her car vandalized three times (she suspects by a coworker) and was even accused of sleeping with her harasser.

It’s a remarkably similar story to what fellow firefighter and Equity Watch member Liane Tessier fought in her own 12-year battle against gender discrimination in the Halifax fire department.

Tessier finally received a settlement last December, along with a public apology from fire chief Ken Stuebing who said he believes “wholeheartedly that Ms. Tessier believes everything she says.” None of the men who harassed Tessier were disciplined and many remain on the job.

Despite an acknowledgement by the current fire chief that systemic gender discrimination existed within Halifax Fire, the HRC told Symington earlier this year that it was planning to only move forward on her complaint based on a single matter—the denial of top-up payment while on maternity leave.

The HRC was supposed to meet over two days this week to determine whether to proceed on that single issue. But that was before Tuesday's press conference. Now the complaint will be heard in full.

“This proves that the battle I fought for 14 years was not in vain,” Tessier writes in a release. “Finally, the commission is going to look at Symington’s complaint through the lens of systemic gender discrimination—an approach I fought for and won.”

When that will happen is still to be determined, but Haiven doesn't expect it will be a long wait for the board of inquiry to reach a final decision.

“I think they’re going to have to fast-track this because of the announcement made today,” she says. “I’m hoping just after Christmas, or very soon.”
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Monday, September 17, 2018

25 for 25: episode 2007

Inside the Square with councillor Lindell Smith and Halifax's slow road to better biking with Kelsey Lane.

Posted By on Mon, Sep 17, 2018 at 12:45 PM

Councillor Lindell Smith and Halifax Cycling Coalition executive director Kelsey Lane. - THE COAST
  • Councillor Lindell Smith and Halifax Cycling Coalition executive director Kelsey Lane.
  • THE COAST

City councillor Lindell Smith was a 16-year-old aspiring audio technician the first time that he was mentioned in The Coast, as part of Stephen Kimber's 2007 cover story, “Inside the Square.” Smith joins us to talk about the stigma surrounding Uniacke Square, his political goals and how the north end has changed over the past decade.

Also, it was 11 years ago when the Halifax Cycling Coalition formed in response to the death of a cyclist on Barrington Street. Executive director Kelsey Lane calls in from her vacation to chat about the coalition's history and the exhausting work of improving HRM's streets one metre at a time.

All this, plus Island Greek opens, the Apple Barrel closes, Peter Kelly cozies up to the Guardian Angels, the province cracks down on squeegee kids, Celine Dion snubs the city and we say goodbye, one last time, to Helen Hill.

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If you like the podcast, please feel free to give us a nice rating or leave a review. If you hate the podcast, want to correct something we got wrong or have comments about any events we forgot to mention you can email us at letters@thecoast.ca.

Catch up on past episodes here.
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Friday, September 14, 2018

Petition to rename Cornwallis Street delivered to city hall

Over 1,700 online signatures and 60 area residents want the controversial north end street's name changed to Rocky Jones Boulevard.

Posted By on Fri, Sep 14, 2018 at 5:47 PM

Could this soon be changed to Rocky Jones Street? - THE COAST
  • Could this soon be changed to Rocky Jones Street?
  • THE COAST

“The statue coming down was a great first step, but there's more that can be done,”

 says Angel Marcus-Panag.

On Thursday, the Halifax resident went to City Hall and delivered his petition containing over 1,700 signatures in favour of renaming Cornwallis Street to Rocky Jones Boulevard.

The vast majority of those names come from an online Change.org petition that Marcus-Panag created several months ago. Along with those names are 56 signatures from people who live, work or own property on the seven-block street.

“Most people, after speaking with them, signed the petition,” Marcus-Panag says. “Everyone was fine with it.”

It's the latest effort in what's been an increasing desire from the public to re-examine how Halifax honours its founder, Edward Cornwallis.

The first governor of Nova Scotia has become more well-known over the past several years for the treaties he broke and violent actions he ordered against the area's indigenous population, including an infamous 1749 bounty on Mi'kmaq scalps.

In 2011, public outcry caused the Halifax Regional School Board to change the name of Cornwallis Junior High. Earlier this year, the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church also changed its name to New Horizons, in order to better reflect the church's values and its solidarity with the local Indigenous community.

Back in January, HRM removed a bronze statue of Cornwallis and put it into storage, awaiting a verdict from an expert advisory panel on what Halifax should do about its problematic founder’s legacy.

But Cornwallis’ name still adorns the south-end park where his statue once stood, and the north-end street running between North Park and Barrington.

A lot of Marcus-Panag's life has centred around that rapidly gentrifying area, he says. Rocky Jones was also his mentor when Marcus-Panag first started university. The legendary human rights activist was a founding member of the National Black Coalition of Canada, the Black United Front of Nova Scotia and Dalhousie’s University’s Transition Year Program. He and his wife Joan worked tirelessly for decades in support of African Nova Scotians, the Mi'kmaq community and for the rights of prison inmates.

Marcus-Panag started thinking about this project after Jones’ death in 2013, realizing the community pillar deserved some concrete recognition for the neighbourhood he helped support.

The petition, he says, is just as much about honouring Jones as it is about taking off the Cornwallis name.

“It's win-win, is the way I see it.”

Halifax's charter grants council the authority to name and rename any street or private road, though, given the inconvenience on area residents, the process isn't usually undertaken without widespread public support from property owners.

With all the names on his petition, however, Marcus-Panag is hopeful that area-councillor Lindell Smith will get the ball rolling with a motion to rename what could soon become the former Cornwallis Street.

“I think it's important for the younger generation growing up to see someone positive and for a lot of the African Nova Scotian and Indigenous people who live in this city to feel that they're welcome in this city too,” he says.

“There's a long history of being not treated as an equal. I think it's important to change that.”
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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Delay in addressing workplace racism a “slap in the face,” says councillor

“I just think, as a municipality, it looks more reactive than proactive.”

Posted By on Thu, Sep 13, 2018 at 4:06 AM

Lindell Smith, speaking to reporters at City Hall. - THE COAST
  • Lindell Smith, speaking to reporters at City Hall.
  • THE COAST

It shouldn't be taking this long.

This week at council, staff presented a progress update on efforts to address widespread racism within city hall's workforce, as documented in the 2016 Employment Systems Review.

The update on that external consultant's report comes more than two years since its completion and nine months after Peninsula North councillor Lindell Smith first asked for it. It was seemingly only after municipal employees protested in front of City Hall last May that the report was fast-tracked over the summer.

“Which to me was almost a slap in the face,” Smith said Tuesday. “It took protesters for us to get this report when it was already asked for a year ahead of time. I just think, as a municipality, it looks more reactive than proactive.”

First leaked to the press two years ago, the third-party Employment Systems Review described a culture of harassment and racial discrimination within HRM's workforce. Employees, it found, were subjected to racist comments, sexist and homophobic language and other forms of blatant misconduct.

All the while, city hall failed to effectively address the situation. Supervisors routinely dismissed complaints or blamed victims for coming forward, most infamously in the case of Randy Symonds and the backlash he faced for trying to expose the horrific abuse at Halifax Transit's Burnside garage.

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

The report made a total of 90 recommendations to address all that discrimination, but for years there was no progress report from the city.

The silence caused some 20 public employees to demonstrate outside City Hall back in May, looking for an update on what Halifax has done to create a more diverse and supportive work environment.

The update finally arrived last month and was brought forward for discussion at Tuesday's council meeting.

As of July, 63 percent of the ESR report's 90 recommendations have been completed, with 12 percent on-track, six percent pending and 19 percent at risk.

Director of human resources Catherine Mullally assured council on Tuesday that those recommendations are only “at-risk” of not meeting HRM's own timeline, “not at risk of not being achieved.”

Councillor Matt Whitman, who brought the information item forward for discussion, told Mullally he hoped the money spent on the ESR was not being wasted by letting the report sit on a shelf.

“We’ve got great staff working on it. We’ve got great consultants working on it. I just have to make sure we benefit in that hard work,” said Whitman. “We need to get to the bottom of this to get better.”

Mullally told the councillors that HRM has made leaps and bounds on improving employee equity since the ESR was completed. The municipality has, over the past two years, conducted dozens of diversity training seminars, removed requirements for discriminatory criminal record checks and revised its employment equity policy with the aim to increase the diversity of HRM's workforce.

Great, said Smith. So let's tell people that.

“If we’re going to do this work and if we’re going to move forward and we want staff and we want people to know that we’re working on this, we need to show people that we’re doing this,” said the councillor.

Whether any of the changes already made will result in workplace improvements might be visible next week, when the first quarterly public report on racism, sexism and harassment within city hall is brought to council.
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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Planner's exit could impact Centre Plan

Mayor is sad to see Jacob Ritchie leave city hall, but what his departure means for HRM's new planning bible remains to be seen.

Posted By on Wed, Sep 12, 2018 at 2:53 PM

Jacob Ritchie, taking a selfie in his soon-to-be former office. - VIA INSTAGRAM
  • Jacob Ritchie, taking a selfie in his soon-to-be former office.
  • VIA INSTAGRAM

Mayor Mike Savage isn't sure what sort of impact Jacob Ritchie's departure from city hall will have on the long-delayed Centre Plan.

The urban planner has been shepherding the new planning bible through a slow, often delayed approval process for the past few years. But this week he'll be leaving city hall behind to head up the school board-replacing Halifax Regional Centre for Education, just as the long-awaited Centre Plan nears some sort of finish line.

“I’m really sorry to see that,” says Savage. “We don’t keep people forever. That’s just a fact a life…I really enjoyed working with him. I think he pushed us when we should be pushed.”

A collection of new development guidelines and planning policies, the Centre Plan is supposed to be the municipality's blueprint for growth in the urban core.

The first half of those rules, known as “Package A,” was recently given a thumbs-up by the Community Design Advisory Committee after months of public feedback. It now heads to the Community Planning and Economic Development Committee, then final revisions by staff and another round of committee hearings and council debates before being put into action.

How long it'll take to finally approve what's only the first half of the Centre Plan is anyone's guess. When Ritchie started in 2015, he anticipated the task could be completed by December 2016.

“I have been bad at predicting that in my time at the municipality, so I’ve kind of stopped trying,” he told The Coast last fall. “I’m 14 months behind where I thought I was.”

Ritchie's departure comes a year after HRM fired chief planner Bob Bjerke, who was replaced back in June by then-acting director Kelly Denty.

Despite the shakeups, mayor Savage says the city's oft-criticized planning department is in good hands.

“These are folks who really know how to get stuff done,” says Savage, who's convinced the “bright stars” in Halifax planning will finish the work Ritchie started.

“We are supposed to be running our business in a way that nobody is indispensable. I think we’ll be OK.”
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In Print This Week

Vol 26, No 24
November 8, 2018

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