It began with a January phone call from a school principal, inviting Wanda and Joe Robson to travel from their home in Cape Breton to metro to attend a Feb. 17 unveiling of a portrait honouring Wanda’s sister, Viola Desmond.
Desmond — who was convicted for sitting in the whites-only section of a New Glasgow movie theatre in 1946, nine years before Rosa Park’s refusal to sit in the blacks-only section of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus launched the American civil rights movement — is one of Canada’s still-too-little-celebrated heroes.
Her now 87-year-old sister Wanda is among many who’ve campaigned to have a new February provincial holiday designated “Viola Desmond Day — A Day To Honour All Those Who Have Fought for Social Justice in Nova Scotia.” The Cape Breton Regional Municipality and town councils in New Glasgow and Shelburne have voiced their support .
No one told Wanda there was any connection between the portrait unveiling and plans to announce the holiday, not even when Heritage Minister Tony Ince called to tell Wanda how much he’d like to see her at the unveiling.
Wanda and Joe couldn’t go, They only found out what had happened — and then only part of it — last Monday when Wanda got a congratulatory call from Wendy Bergfeldt, the host of Sydney’s CBC radio afternoon show. Ince and Labour Minister Kelly Regan had announced the 2015 holiday would be named Viola Desmond Day. Wanda said she was “thrilled.”
“I said I was pleased,” Wanda says now. “I had to be pleased.”
But there was a catch. Only the first holiday will honour Desmond. “Each year,” Kelly told reporters, “we'll celebrate a different contribution to Nova Scotia's storied past and diverse culture.”
When she learned the full truth. Wanda felt “blindsided. I’m not happy.”
For starters, she believes — as do many — that a holiday in the middle of Black History Month should logically honour someone of African descent. And that the holiday’s name should more broadly recognize those who’ve “fought for social justice.”The new, rotating, something-for-everyone holiday will do neither.
It’s too bad. The new provincial government had the opportunity to at least try to be a shadow as courageous as Viola Desmond. It failed.
Back in late September 2013, in the warm afterglow of the celebration of yet another Right to Know Week in Canada and the publication of yet another report decrying the creaking weaknesses in Nova Scotia’s 35-year-old freedom of information legislation, the province's Freedom of Information Review Officer Dulcie McCallum expressed guarded optimism.
Both Liberal leader Stephen McNeil and Tory leader Jamie Baillie — campaigning, it should be noted, in a provincial election at the time — had “unequivocally” agreed to the report’s three specific recommendations to modernize the act. Better, the leaders of all three parties had responded “positively” to a letter from McCallum — a former British Columbia ombudsman who’d taken on the Nova Scotia job in 2007 — calling for yet another critical legislative reset: “To ensure true independence from government, make the review officer an officer of the legislature, like the auditor general and ombudsman.”
Those positive vibes from the political leaders, McCallum wrote at the time, “tells me that there is an overall appreciation of the need to reform our access legislation.”
Four months and one government later, Stephen McNeil publicly demonstrated his “unequivocal” support for more open, responsive and accountable government: he fired Dulcie McCallum.
On January 17, McNeil’s new government — having given her no reason to suspect it would not reappoint her — informed McCallum it was saying, thank you for your “excellent service,” here’s your two weeks notice, goodbye.
The government, she was told, wanted to appoint its own candidate for the position.
Uh… wasn’t that the problem — that the government of the day, which will almost inevitably find itself in the cross-hairs of any review officer worthy of the name, gets to hire and fire the person — that McCallum’s legislative appointment proposal was designed to fix? And didn’t Stephen McNeil respond “positively” to the idea?
Or was that Campaigning Stephen vs governing Stephen?
Will the government now follow its own rapidly evolving tradition and appointment a party stalwart — perhaps one with a “rejigged” resumé — to the job?
Or will McNeil seize the opportunity, declare it had been... ahem... his intention all along to amend the legislation and then turn the appointment of a the next Review Officer over to the legislature?
Hold your breath… but not too long.
What are we to make of delicate-flower Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino?
Last week, after missing a meeting in Ottawa with a delegation of Canadian veterans — including Ron Clarke, a 73-year-old, 36-year career military man from Sydney — Fantino breezed into the room an hour late without so much as an apology as the vets prepared to hold a news conference.
But then one grizzled veteran called the minister’s hogwash-explanation of how closing eight specialized veterans’ offices and forcing aged, injured or mentally troubled veterans to navigate the Internet or Service Canada’s please-hold-your-call-is-important-to-us telephone jungle would actually mean better service for veterans… “hogwash.”
Another elderly veteran wagged his finger in the general direction of the minister.
Fantino walked out.
Soon after, his office issued a bland statement about the “roundtable” with veterans, during which Fantino had been “pleased to reassure” veterans about the glorious new world his government was creating.
The next day — after the TV cameras documented Fantino’s actual “roundtable” — the minister issued a semi-full apology. He’d been “very late” because of a cabinet meeting, he acknowledged. “I sincerely apologize.”
Sincerely? In the next breath, Fantino was bitching to his stenographers at the Toronto Sun that the multi-medalled, wheel-chaired vets had been “duped… jacked up” by the union representing public servants who will lose their jobs and who had paid the veterans’ airfare to Ottawa.
When those mindless-dupe vets failed to show Fantino the due deference he required, he told the Sun, “I wasn’t just going to play dead.”
Uh… In November, 3,000 people turned out in Sydney to protest the planned veterans’ offices closure there. Hundreds more attended a “wake” Friday to mark its final shutdown.
Despite such broad-based public support, Fantino — and the prime minister — see the closures as yet another excuse to attack public sector unions.
That is what this is all about: slashing services to vets to balance the books before the next election. Veterans are collateral damage.
Instead of scapegoating, Fantino might want to ask why 238-and-counting Canadian servicemen and women have killed themselves since 1995, including four Afghan vets in the space of a few recent days, and why one in seven Afghan veterans suffer from service-related post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.
Please hold. Your call is important to us.
So Energy Minister Andrew Younger is launching a year-long review of Nova Scotia’s electricity system. Although energy supply and demand are supposedly both on the table, Younger has already made clear his obsession with cutting power rates, not reducing energy demand.
During the last election campaign, Younger offered two concrete proposals the Liberals claimed would rein in rates: one was to force Nova Scotia Power shareholders to accept a lower rate of return on their investment. The other was to force NSP to take over Efficiency Nova Scotia, the independent energy conservation agency set up by the NDP.
Both options reflect dumb-as-a-dustball non-thinking, but Younger — who fancies himself the smartest person in any room he enters — seems wedded to bulling ahead with implementing both, the review notwithstanding.
While NSP’s 9.2 per cent rate of return for shareholders may seem excessive to thee and me, it is — as a CBC “reality check” during the election campaign noted — “in line with most other regulated utilities in Canada and the U.S.” That means that if the government reduces it significantly, investors will simply invest elsewhere. The only logical option then would be to nationalize NSP; the Liberals won’t propose that any time soon.
Younger’s other flat-line brainwave is to make NSP shareholders take over Efficiency Nova Scotia, which is currently not only at arms length from both the government and NSP but also funded by a conservation levy on our power bills. Forget the fact NSP would find a way to increase our rates to cover any increased costs, the fact is handing responsibility for conservation over to the company whose raison d’etre is to increase demand is, well, ludicrous.
Given his views, can you imagine any review Younger establishes recommending Nova Scotia really needs an independently-funded, arms-length organization dedicated to promoting energy efficiency… say something that resembles Efficiency Nova Scotia, the independently-funded, arms-length organization dedicated to promoting energy efficiency Younger wants to disembowel.
We do need a comprehensive, everything-on-the-table review of our electricity system.
The problem is that that’s not what Andrew Younger wants.
“The outcome we’re looking for,” he says, is “to rein in [power] rates.”
Starting with the outcome is no way to begin a real review.
It is too soon to draw conclusions, but the patronage portents from Stephen McNeil’s first three months in power are not promising.
First, there was the case of Glennie Langille, the defeated Liberal candidate and former party communications chief. Without benefit of a competition, McNeil handed her an $85,000-per-year plum as the province’s new chief of protocol.
The apolitical position — which involves coordinating official ceremonies, hosting royal and other high-mucky-muck visitors, and managing the Order of Nova Scotia — was previously held by a public servant.
There was no good reason, and no need, for McNeil to plop the job back into the fetid patronage pool. That he publicly defended his appointment (“a great choice”) and dismissed criticism (“I've answered more questions here from each of you,” he told reporters, “than I have from anyone out on main street”) shows McNeil sliding down the slippery, entitled-to-his-entitlements slope that would eventually cost Darrell Dexter his job.The latest example — awarding a tender to a freshly formed consulting company owned by Chris McNeil, the premier’s brother — is more complicated.
The $16,750 contract, which is renewable for up to four years, is to devise a training course for the transportation department’s 40 compliance officers, the folks who inspect heavy commercial vehicles at highway weigh stations.
McNeil’s company, Seventeen Consulting — named after the 17 siblings in the McNeil family? — was one of three bidders. Although tenders closed Oct. 30, the province didn’t post the results until Dec. 30.
The province says it referred the contract to Conflict of Interest Commissioner Merlin Nunn “as a precaution,” but it doesn’t say when, or if that was the reason for the delay in awarding it.
The McNeil contract and the bidding process may have been entirely above board, as may be the fact that Seventeen Consulting wasn’t officially registered with the Registry of Joint Stocks until the day after the tender closed. Chris McNeil, the former HRM deputy police chief, is certainly qualified for the contract. And he shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to participate in a legitimate bidding process simply because he is the premier’s brother.
That said, Stephen McNeil has already used up his benefit-of-the-doubt card.
One of the interesting early smoke signals from the new Liberal government is the one they aren’t sending — that the sky is falling. The Liberals did not, as the previous NDP government did, order up an immediate full-blown independent report on the state of the province’s finances, a report whose conclusions changed the course of the Dexter government’s first term and, arguably, put paid to its hopes of a second.
Could it be that those godless, investment-scaring tax-and-spend socialists managed to put the previous Tory government’s mismanaged fiscal house in order in their four years, allowing the Liberals to seamlessly begin governing as if the hobnailed boots of the apocalypse were not already upon our necks?
Or are we just waiting for the other, reality shoe to drop?
Time will tell.
Which is probably the safest thing to be said at this point about Stephen McNeil’s new brooms.
They are governing with a certain confidence-inducing confidence: fleshing out their promised public inquiry into the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children, making sure $60 million in federal social housing funds get spent wisely, launching a full-scale review of MLA compensation, pledging a happy-making winter holiday and telling other jurisdictions to keep their fracking waste to themselves, thank you very much.
At the same time, they have shown how easy it is to slide comfortably into governing’s perks. They swiftly shredded their opposition argument to remove political control from funding decisions at the government’s business slush fund. Not to worry, they say, they’ll be more transparent about it. That’s… comforting.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the government’s first order of business when the legislature opened last week was a bill aimed at “breaking” Nova Scotia Power’s monopoly on the electricity grid, allowing independent power generators to sell directly to customers.
Which sounds good and was the centerpiece of the Liberals’ energy-focused winning election platform. But it came with the implicit promise of lower power rates, which even the government now admits won’t happen as a result.
At best, the move will be a no-gain-no-loss symbolic gesture; at worst, removing big customers from the NSP grid will drive up costs for the rest of us.
Time will tell. For us. And for the eventual fate of Stephen McNeil's new government.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Kimber