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hal102_20150106240887_highFor me, the most intriguing section of Friday’s 65-page “Report from the Restorative Justice Process at the Dalhousie University Faculty of Dentistry” is the one that documents the evolution of the now-infamous “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” group.

The Facebook group caused a scandal and resulted in the suspension of 13 male students after sexist posts came to light in December.

It was, in fact, only one of three private Facebook spaces — men’s, women’s and  general — students in the Class of 2015 created as they began their studies in September 2011. Initially suggested by a fourth-year student, the idea was to “share information, jokes, homework, and to bond and get to know each other.” (Why those bonding spaces had to be gender-segregated isn’t clear.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, some mixed homework posting with re-posted content, occasionally including “crude quotations from stand-up comedians and popular movies, and decontextualized quotations from instructors or class presentations.” Some students attempted to “‘dentist-ify’ [Internet] content with sexual innuendos reflecting dentistry themes.” “One-upping” one another, they pushed “boundaries in terms of shock value.”

By third year, however, investigators noted the “jovial tone” of the male posts had morphed into something else. The posts became “accusatory, expressing frustration and… distrust of the faculty” as students vied for position in the highly competitive, academically critical Dalhousie Dental Clinic.  One student (gender not identified) compared it to “surviving the Hunger Games.

At this point, gender seems to have become more significant. Some posts reference rumours of “sexually inappropriate relationships” between female students and male faculty, and suggest those students may have gotten “preferential treatment… Frustrations spilled over into other aspects of student life, including… the men’s Facebook group.”

The report highlighted a disconnect. Dentistry’s old boys’ culture had smacked up against the changing social reality of a university that now emphasizes gender diversity in its admissions process. Investigators learned of a private lounge where students scrawled graffiti — since painted over — of not only the “I-was-here” variety but also of sexist and homophobic remarks. Dalhousie also had a tradition of alcohol-fuelled, student-organized roasts featuring demeaning jokes about fellow students and faculty.

What happened in the School of Dentistry appears to be about much more than simple bad behaviour. Instead, it’s yet another footnote in the ongoing generational and seismic social transformation in relations between men and women.

Unfortunately, it probably isn’t the last.

“Hi there,” began the breathlessly chatty, early February email from someone named Emily from something called Veritas Communications.

Emily was just writing to let me know “Seretha W. of Hammonds Plains, N.S., recently received $20,000 from Dr Pepper Canada to be put towards her education goal of obtaining a Master of Nursing degree. As part of the $100,000 Dr Pepper Tuition Giveaway, five ‘One-of-a-Kind’ Canadians were selected to receive tuition grants to help them achieve their education goals.”

Emily helpfully pointed me to a compilation YouTube video I could check out to see the delight on the faces of the winners as a swarm of Dr Pepper employees descended on their doors with smiles, balloons and oversized cheques.

What had the winners done to justify their $20,000? They’d submitted a one-minute video “explaining why and how they wanted to pursue further education.”

Dr Pepper, of course, is a soft drink marketed by Canada Dry Mott’s, a subsidiary of Dr Pepper Snapple, “one of the leading refreshment beverage businesses in North America.” So when did the good Dr Pepper get into the education scholarship business?

The week before I received Emily’s email, my Facebook feed had lit up with the unrelated but related news that Halifax-based Souls Harbour Rescue Mission had just won one of five $100,000 prizes in the sixth annual Aviva Community Fund competition. If I’d missed it on Facebook, it was also broadcast live on Canada AM.

This competition, sponsored by Aviva, the insurance company, allowed community groups to submit “ideas that would have a positive impact on the community. Those are then voted for online, with the top vote-getters being awarded prize money.”

Souls Harbour had received 20,000 votes, the third most in the country. I knew that because friends, who were championing Souls Harbour, had been hijacking my Facebook feed for months to urge everyone to get out and vote (you could vote daily) in the preliminary round, the semis, the finals…

Souls Harbour seems a more-than-worthy cause. Its founders, a reverend and his wife from Saskatchewan, opened their soup kitchen in 2011, and serve 90 hot meals a day, 25,000 a year. Their $100,000 prize, they explained, will allow them to upgrade from “a home kitchen, one fridge, one stove,” to a purpose-built commercial kitchen.

So… all good?

Well, not really.

Far be it from me to suggest corporations shouldn’t show social responsibility or provide community benefits. They should.

But it is worth asking why private companies seem able to do what our governments no longer can. And to wonder whether we really want decisions about important social concerns — who deserves financial help with their education, which among the many important and needy social service providers, should get inevitably scarce funds — turned into bread-and-circuses online popularity contests and corporate marketing campaigns masking as charity?

How did we get to this sorry pass?

Well, for starters, consider how corporate tax rates have declined year over year, decade over decade, starving governments of revenues to provide help to the needy and worthy.

Consider too that Canada lost $80 billion to tax evasion in 2011, with almost a quarter of Canadian direct investment overseas that year ending up parked in one of the world’s top tax havens, not coincidentally beyond the reach of the tax man.

Or consider that, thanks to tax loopholes, Target’s CEO not only walked out the door of the failed retail giant with a $70-million personal severance package (equal to the total severance for Target’s other 17,600 employees!) but also won’t pay tax on the first 50 per cent of it. Thanks to a loophole that exempts CEOs from tax on half the income earned “cashing in company stock… received as part of their compensation,” Canada loses one billion dollars a year.

That would fund a lot of scholarships. Or soup kitchens.

And the decisions could then be based on something more meaningful than product-placements, one-minute videos, or online voting.

Just sayin’.

 

This column originally appeared in the May-June 2015 issue of Atlantic Business Magazine.

Betty, my trusty backyard barbecue — barbecues should have names — has officially become one more innocent victim of 2015, Halifax’s Winter Without End… joining my car’s front windshield (ice-cracked), front fender (ice-whacked) and underside (salt-slimed, rusting).  But I digress…

I only discovered its demise after the winter’s geologic layers of snow and ice had finally melted away from the back deck, revealing not only mountains of buried blue bags full of perfectly preserved cereal boxes and pop cans, but also one sadly expired barbecue.

Last fall, I’d intended to clean the grill, disconnect the tank and find some sheltered spot for Betty to weather the weather. I didn’t. It wasn’t the first winter I didn’t. That may have been the problem.

At any rate, the snows came, and came, and came. The barbecue disappeared. Snow snaked inside, melted, froze, melted, corroded.

Unaware, I unwisely bought steaks so we could celebrate the return of something approximating spring. But when I went to light the grill, I noticed the too-many holes, the rusted pipes — sure signs that lighting this might be a mistake.

Time to replace Betty.

I will confess I have an irrational fear of assembling barbecues. I cannot count the springtime hours of my middle age I wasted wondering where random Part XY went, or how come there were two ABs when the instructions only called for one, or why the instructions were not in any English I understood.

Luckily, I have finally passed the life stage where I feel compelled to prove I can do it myself.  I can’t.

So this time, when I told the clerk I’ll take that one, I added quickly: “assembled, please.”

I’m glad I did. As I admired Barb, my gleaming new, fully put-together, stainless steel meat maker, I smugly examined the Assembly Manual’s “exploded diagram,” full of its myriad parts and pieces. I re-read the un-instructions: “The top of the front brace (CG) can be identified by two clips located on the top left, and right side of this part, as shown in B… WARNING: This part may have sharp edges. Wear protective gloves when assembling.”

Not me.

Not this time.

Happy… spring!

So here’s the one-term wonder question. Why did Darrell Dexter’s New Democrats, who won so convincingly in Nova Scotia in 2009, lose even more convincingly in 2013?

For NDP partisans, that question is more than academic. As they gear up to choose a new leader next February, they must divine what went so right we elected Nova Scotia’s first-ever NDP government but then so wrong it became the province’s first majority government in 141 years to go down to humiliating, even-the-leader-loses-his-seat defeat after just one term.

Enter, stage left, Howard Epstein, the former Halifax Chebucto NDP MLA. In his new book, Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks (Empty Mirrors Press), Epstein — the (not just) self-acknowledged smartest member of caucus never invited to Dexter’s cabinet table — offers his own damning assessment.

Epstein dismisses the conventional leader-centred view that the NDP won in 2009 not only because Rodney MacDonald’s tired, tattered Tory government defeated itself but also, critically, because Darrell Dexter presented a “moderate and therefore not threatening alternative” voters trusted.

Epstein — never one to doubt the wisdom of his own thinking — calls the latter proposition “profoundly mistaken.”

Epstein says voters were looking for the NDP to be “profoundly different,” by which he means much more progressive on economic and social issues. When Dexter’s government showed itself to be a pale imitation of the same-old same old, voters turfed it for the real thing.

Epstein believes Dexter and his acolytes created a false divide between what they considered incrementalist pragmatists — themselves — who understood how to win and exercise power, and traditional left-leaning party members, “who would rather be right than in power.”

For his part, Epstein argues optimistically the party can be both ideologically pure and electorally successful.

I’m not so sure.

But that doesn’t mean I think the best option is incremental pragmatism in pursuit of power either.

Politically, the NDP has done its most important work — from promoting social welfare to standing for civil liberties— when speaking up for principle without attempting to engineer electoral advantage.

We could use a party more concerned with principle than power… but one that doesn’t delude itself into believing purity of principle will lead to electoral power. There lies disappointment.

Do you know how many of the donations to winning candidates in the 2012 Halifax municipal election came from companies “involved in development?”

Do you know how much money your district councillor received from this dog’s breakfast of “involved” developers, construction companies and real estate firms, each with self-interests in sundry proposals, projects and permits that may affect your neighbourhood and your city, which will ultimately be voted on by the people you elect — and they pay for?

I do.

Thanks to a CBC Nova Scotia news investigation and its accompanying burrow-down-the-data interactive database, I now know development-related corporate donations totalled a stunning one-third or more of all campaign funds received by 10 of Halifax’s 16 municipal councillors. Four councillors, in fact, raked in more than half of their elect-me budgets from the development industry’s verdant lawns.

There are a couple of lessons here.

The first, most obvious one is that we need legislation to control how much anyone — especially those with vested interests in council’s decisions — can donate to wannabe municipal politicians.

In February, council agreed to ask staff for a report on reforming what is currently an essentially  lawless, limitless world of municipal campaign financing.

That report is expected in June.

But thanks to the CBC’s work in making the information easily accessible and searchable, we can ferret out the information we need as citizens to better understand the issue, and ask the right questions of staff and our elected representatives.

That’s the second lesson. We still need journalism — especially publicly funded, public interest journalism  — to do the hard  work to make sense of our world.

No other current news organization has the mandate — or had the resources — to do the kind of digging, public service journalism the CBC  consistently does.

Or did.

Last month, the CBC eliminated 11 more positions in Nova Scotia. Across the network, 140 jobs in local news operations disappeared. By 2020, the public broadcaster says it will shed 1,000-1,500 more people.

The world isn’t getting simpler. It’s getting more complicated. We need more, not fewer journalists.

Marco_munn_photo

Marco Navarro-Genie

“The business of government is not to prop up businesses,” harrumphed Marco Navarro-Genie, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), the Halifax-based right-wing think tank that rarely encounters a government program (or government for that matter) it does not think should shrivel up and die. “The real point,” he continued, “ought to be whether government should be engaged in doling out public money to money-making industries.”

Navarro-Genie was ruminating on the debate over the Liberal government’s plan to eviscerate the provincial film tax credit and wipe out the province’s film and television industry.

But let’s expand this interesting discussion, shall we?

Marco, meet John, and John…

John Risley

John Risley

First, there’s John Risley, the billionaire president and CEO of Clearwater Fine Foods, all-round capitalist curmudgeon and — not coincidentally — chair of the AIMS board.

Then there’s John F. Irving, member in good standing of that Irving clan, a director of J. D. Irving, owners of the Halifax Shipyard and — not coincidentally again — AIMS past chair.

John F Irving

John F Irving

Given Navarro-Genie’s concern about “doling out public money to money-making industries,” there must be some interesting conversations around the AIMS board table.

J.D. Irving is the money-making, hand-over-fist 2012 recipient of more than $300 million in public largesse ($260 million of it forgivable) to gear up for the federal shipbuilding contract.

One can argue whether the investment was necessary, or wise. One cannot doubt the “money-making” Irvings asked the then-NDP government to “prop up” its business.

Let us also consider John Risley, who — never one to miss an opportunity — piled on in the film tax credit debate, declaring the McNeil government “cannot afford to be subsidizing any industry to this extent.”

Except, of course, when the industries are his. Social media has gone giddy this past week calculating just how often Risley has tapped government money trees for millions in direct grants and/or loans, indirect funding for scientific research and here’s-our-resources-for-your-profit giveaways.

And Risley calls the film tax credit “nuts”?

What is nuts is the stunning hypocrisy of the likes of AIMS, John Risley and Marco Navarro-Genie.

Last week’s provincial budget shows how governments can be tough-talking, penny-pinching wise and what-were-they-smoking, real-world foolish, both at the same time.

Exhibit A: the evisceration of Nova Scotia’s film tax credit.

Finance Minister Diana Whalen

Finance Minister Diana Whalen

Finance Minister Diana Whalen argued the credit was too generous, went to filmmakers whose films weren’t shot in Nova Scotia and to companies that didn’t owe provincial taxes. (Earth to Diana: you need new advisors who understand the industry.)

While cutting the tax credit may magically make the books appear closer to balance, it will also help dismantle the yellow brick road to prosperity the government claims it’s building.

The industry not only employs more than 2,000 highly-skilled, well-paid, tax-paying workers, but it also spreads its financial, filmic fairy dust over other sectors: it rents hotel rooms, vehicles, security guards, offices, studios, locations; it spends at supermarkets, building supply outlets, furniture stores, clothing retailers, even second-hand shops…

In 1993 when the credit was introduced, Nova Scotia’s film and TV industry was worth $6 million; last year, $150 million.

The government says the credit costs taxpayers $24 million a year. Under Whalen’s new formula, that outlay will ostensibly shrink to $6 million per year — but probably closer to zero as every footloose producer flees to jurisdictions offering more generous rebates.

It’s already happening. Two producers considering filming in Nova Scotia apparently changed their minds after Thursday’s budget. DHX, the Nova Scotia-born-and-based international entertainment conglomerate, says it will shut down its animation facility — 155 jobs — and may move its head office. 22 Minutes, Mr. D., Haven all appear prepared to wave goodbye too.

If so, Whalen’s prediction of a surplus budget in 2016-17 may turn out to be as real as a Hollywood fantasy.

So too any hope (See: the Ivany Report, the future, etc., etc…) of keeping those smart, well-trained people here in Nova Scotia.

As local film industry veteran Keith Currie lamented to Metro’s Stephanie Taylor: “Once again, we’ve managed to take the best and brightest and force them to go down the road.”

All that to pretend to save $18 million — out of a budget of $10 billion.

Penny wise.

Pound nutty.

WhatLiescoversmAs this weekend’s historic Summit of the America’s wraps up —with Cuba finally at the table — here are three short, sort-of-related excerpts from What Lies Across The Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five.

Felix Rodriguez:

  • Rodriguez, the former CIA agent credited with orchestrating the murder of Che Guevera, was in Panama for the summit. His presence provoked anger among many Cubans. If you want to understand the feelings many Cubans have toward him, consider this accidental encounter between Gerardo Hernandez, the leader of the Cuban Five, and Rodriguez at a Miami shopping Centre in 1997.

Posada and the Panama Plot:

  • In 2000, Luis Posada, the most notorious of the Cuban exile terrorists, was arrested at another summit in Panama. Thanks to Fidel Castro — and Cuban State Security!

The Miami River Incident:

  • Speaking of plots against Fidel — there were many — here’s a reminder of the work the Cuban Five did in Miami in the 1990s, and their success in heading off yet another dangerous plot without endangering life themselves. (Compare and contrast with the Posada plot above.)

At what point does lawyerly risk-taking in the public interest become crass ambulance chasing?

Before we consider today’s case — personal injury law firms hovering over last week’s late-night crash landing of Air Canada Flight 624 — let’s layer in some context.

In 2013, the Halifax law firm McInnes Cooper won an $887-million class action law suit on behalf of disabled veterans and their families. For 30 years, successive federal governments had clawed back their benefits. The law firm took on Ottawa’s bottomless pockets. Its lawyers rang up 8,500 potentially un-billable hours — $3.2 million — over six years to hold the government to account.

They won, and were rewarded for their effort.

But they could as easily have lost it all.

So too with Wagners, another Halifax law firm. It spent 16 years fighting provincial governments for compensation for hundreds of physically and sexually abused children at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. Besides providing “total free” legal services during those years, the firm spent $500,000 to pursue the case. Its lawyers eventually won $34 million in settlements for the victims and were awarded $5.78 million in legal fees.

Those cases would never have been heard — and justice done for powerless victims— if those law firms hadn’t taken a risk.

How does that compare to Flight 624?

Well, Air Canada has already ponied up $5,000 to each of the 133 passengers for their inconvenience. Everyone understands that is both proactive PR and an opening gambit. The airline will inevitably pay more. How much is the question. The answer will be determined, in part, by the success of now competing law firms eager to represent the passengers.

“Eager” because this is a win-win. The airline will settle, likely out of court. The law firm will get a good payday.

But do such cases — and settlements — serve the public interest? Or simply make us a more needlessly litigious society?

Ray Wagner, whose Wagners law firm also wants to represent Flight 624 passengers, insists such law suits force public safety improvements.

I doubt that. Change will be spurred, as usual, by the results of the ongoing Transportation Safety Board investigation.

All the rest — in this case at least — is about money.

I’m delighted to report I’ve been nominated for four Atlantic Journalism Awards for my writing in 2014: Best Magazine Article, Best Profile, Best Feature Article and Best Commentary. All of the finalist pieces appeared in St. John’s-based Atlantic Business Magazine, which itself earned seven nominations. You can read the complete list of the nominees here. The awards will be presented at a dinner in Halifax on May 9, 2015.

For those who may be interested, here are links to each of my nominated articles:

Hard… and soft as Harry  Steele 

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Photo by Marvin Moore

Atlantic Magazine: Best Profile Article

Harry Steele is happy to chat, he tells me (“let’s have coffee”), but he isn’t particularly interested these days in pontificating about the state of the world, business or otherwise, or being interviewed for publication yet again.

He’s now in the fullness of his 86th year—“I celebrated my 85th in June”—and he’s no longer deeply involved in the day-to-day business of Newfoundland Capital Corporation, the holding company he formed back in 1980 and which has since mutated and morphed into various, almost always successful corporate investment personas: airlines, oil and gas, trucking, coastal shipping, container terminals, newspapers and, now, radio broadcasting.

The reality, Harry Steele is quick to point out, is that he hasn’t been the president of NCC for more than 20 years. He stepped down as the company’s CEO 12 years ago and now, though he is still the nonexecutive (the emphasis is his) chair of the Board, he is more than happy and confident to leave the decisionmaking, and the talking, to his son Rob.

“You should talk to younger people,” he tells me. “I don’t have anything new to say.” (More)

 Spilled Secrets: The Richard Oland Murder Mystery 

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Atlantic Magazine Article of the Year

Maureen Adamson showed up for work as usual that sunny summer morning. She inserted her key in the street-level door at 52 Canterbury Street, a refurbished 19th century, three storey, red-brick office building in the heart of historic downtown Saint John, New Brunswick. The door was unlocked. Curious. It was always kept locked.

The door led up a set of stairs to the second floor offices of Far End Corporation, the investment firm owned by Adamson’s boss, Richard Oland, for whom she’d worked as a secretary for 30 years. When she reached the entrance to the offices, she discovered that that door, which was also always kept locked, was ajar too.

Adamson pushed it open, glanced around, saw what she saw and immediately bolted back down the stairs and into a print shop located on the ground floor. (More)

Closure

Photo by Laura Hubbard

Feature Reporting: Print

 

It wasn’t his fault. Rob Thompson was just a bit player in the 1992 Westray mine disaster that took 26 lives. But today, nearly 22 years later, his own small role in that tragedy, not to forget the fact he never got to testify about what he knew in any public inquiry or court case, as well as the reality that what he remembers differs in small, but he believes crucial, ways from some of what others testified to, continues to haunt him 

At the time, they were just one more set of numbers, one more set of test results. Rob Thompson, 26, was a junior lab technologist for SGS, a Swiss-based independent contractor hired to provide onsite, laboratory services for the operator of the new Westray coal mine in Plymouth, N.S. (More)

What would you do to un-Harper Canada

Commentary: Any Medium

For as long as I can remember, Canadian politics has been a pleasantly diverting if meaningless game of rascal tossing. We pick one set of rascals to govern us and toss the last set out. After a while, those no-longer new rascals run amok. Can you say sponsorship scandal? Brian Mulroney? Need we say more? So we kick those rascals out, and let the old lot back for another kick at the governing can. Occasionally, we say a pox on both their sorry houses and elect enough neither-of-the-aboves to make things interesting without fundamentally altering anything significant.

When one rascal party replaces the other, the new government rarely revisits legislation the previous group passed. That’s because, until recently, all parties shared a traditional, transcendent understanding about who we are as a people and what we are as a country. (More)