Iain Rankin closed a border, Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin courted the crazed and Tim Houston made his Hobson’s choice between principle and power. After which he dumped Smith-McCrossin. Oh, and then Rankin reopened the border after all. Welcome to another week in pre-election Nova Scotia.
Tim Houston did the right thing, and it may cost him a legislature seat he can’t afford to lose.
Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin did the wrong thing, and it may make her the de-facto leader of an anti-vaxxer crazies’ cult no self-respecting registered nurse should ever want to be within spitting distance of.
And Iain Rankin, whose own mixed-message, about-face thing not surprisingly upset a lot of people and triggered the Smith-McCrossin wrong thing, may ultimately emerge electorally unscathed from a likely no-win with a big win, thanks largely to Smith-McCrossin’s dumb-as-dirt publicity stunt.
Just another week in pre-election Nova Scotia.
On Tuesday, June 22, Premier Rankin announced Nova Scotia was bursting the Atlantic bubble before it could even be fully inflated. The four Atlantic provinces had been supposed to open their borders to each other the next day.
Instead — surprise, or perhaps not — Rankin announced he was clamping tough new restrictions on anyone arriving in Nova Scotia from New Brunswick. Rankin’s rule winching, ironically, came just as Ottawa announced it would soon be easing self-isolation requirements for fully vaccinated Canadians returning to the country.
Under the Rankin rules, anyone coming to Nova Scotia from New Brunswick, even those who’d already had two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, would need to self-isolate until they received a negative test result. Those with just one dose of the magic border-crossing potion would have to quarantine for at least seven days and be able to show two negative tests before passing Nova Scotia GO. No vaccine? Isolate for a full 14 days until tests at the beginning and end returned no-COVID-here results.
Nova Scotia’s restrictions came nearly a week after — and because — New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs had announced he was opening his province up to visitors from the rest of Canada.
That, in effect, would have opened Nova Scotia’s borders as well — not just to other Canadians but also, potentially, to COVID’s highly contagious and dangerous Delta variant, which Rankin legitimately noted had become “prominent in other provinces.”
Worse, Higgs hadn’t consulted Rankin in advance, hadn’t even given him the courtesy of a heads-up before his official announcement.
Which meant Nova Scotia officials had to spend most of the next week trying to better understand what restrictions, “or lack thereof,” New Brunswick actually planned to impose on out-of-region arrivals. What they learned, Rankin explained, explained why they’d decided to temporarily take the air out of the Atlantic bubble.
Had he told Higgs about his decision in advance, reporters asked Rankin? No. Cue the diversionary bickering-premiers side story.
More importantly, Rankin hadn’t bothered to warn Nova Scotians, many of whom had already begun making plans for family reunions and travel. Perhaps most importantly, members of a powerful business lobby who’d been loudly hectoring the premier to ease up and let them get back to business thought they’d been betrayed.
Robert Zed is the spokesperson for more than 100 influential business leaders who’d publicly called on the premier earlier in the month to open up faster and with clearer timelines. They’d been convinced they had his ear. Which led a frustrated Zed to tell the business news site allnovascotia.com that Rankin had “violated a promise made last week. I cannot keep up with the emails of shock, dismay and anger with the misjudgment and lack of business sense with this government. Their sole focus is the election call.”
Halifax’s business districts issued a joint communique, arguing the government’s hasty decision was “compounding the already dire and fast vanishing prospects for the summer tourism season.”
PC leader Tim Houston and his business-friendly Tory party suddenly seemed to have Rankin and his dithering Liberals in their crosshairs. At last.
Enter Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin.
In her short time in politics, Smith-McCrossin — a nurse with an MBA who’d also operated four successful businesses in Amherst — had seemed something of a rising star.
In the 2017 provincial election, she’d wrested once traditionally Conservative Cumberland North back into the PC column after close to a decade of Liberal and NDP interlopers.
Then, in 2018, she ran against Tim Houston for the PC leadership. She didn’t win — she came fourth — but she attracted high profile support from the luminary likes of Tory insider Robert Batherson, who co-chaired her campaign with former federal MP Scott Armstrong, and a host of other “formers,” such as MP George Cooper, provincial cabinet ministers Joel Matheson and Murray Scott and legislature speaker Art Donahoe.
At 3 pm on June 23, 2021, from inside her social media bunker, Comandante Smith-McCrossin issued a three-minute Facebook rant-ultimatum:
Premier Rankin, you have until 4 o’clock today. If you do not change your mind and allow the people of Cumberland and New Brunswick to see one another without self-isolating, the Trans-Canada Highway will be shut down and it will be shut down until you open that border for the families of Cumberland.
Before we continue, it is worth noting that, according to The MacDonald Notebook, another online news site, Smith-McCrossin’s view of blockades has done a 180 since February 2020. That’s when she posted a demand that governments end what she called an “illegal” Indigenous rail blockade because of its impact on local businesses in her area.
But I digress.
Within a few hours, Smith-McCrossin and her crew, who would ultimately number close to 150, had closed Highway 104, the main route from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick.
Their quarry included 18-wheelers coming into Nova Scotia carrying everything from supply-chain-critical food supplies to pharmaceuticals, as well as truckloads heading west and south filled with Nova Scotia seafood.
Not good for business. Not at all.
Making a bad situation even worse, the closure prevented some healthcare workers from getting to their jobs, resulting in the cancellation of nearly 100 appointments at the Cumberland Regional Health Centre.
Then, adding embarrassment to inconvenience, reporters interviewed some of Smith-McCrossin’s road warriors. They turned out to be rabid anti-vaxxers ranting on about “poisons.” They even briefly attempted to stop a tractor-trailer they wrongly believed carried COVID vaccine. (The RCMP had to escort the truck, which was carrying perishable blood products, across the line.)
Tim Houston only heard about Smith-McCrossin’s planned action after the plan had been put into action. He initially offered tepid support — just representing her constituents, not an organizer and blah blah — but he also made the case that a blockade was not the way to go.
“I know Elizabeth is in Halifax today outside the premier’s office,” Houston told reporters the next morning, still playing catch up after he’d learned — again from the media — that his MLA was now camped outside Premier Rankin’s office. She was demanding a meeting with him, even though she should have known by then the premier had left town on a well-publicized trip. “People standing up for what matters to them, in the case of MLAs for their communities, that’s okay,” Houston declared, adding quickly, “Blocking a highway is not okay.”
The next day, however, Houston put an abrupt end to Smith-McCrossin’s brief career as a Tory MLA after learning more about her role in the fiasco. “When you know more, you do more.” He said he’d given her an opportunity to explain herself to him and members of the Tory caucus, but “unfortunately,” she’d refused to take responsibility for her role in inciting the insurrection or offered to apologize to Nova Scotians for it.
“I will never apologize for doing my job to represent my constituents,” Smith-McCrossin declared in her own defiant Facebook riposte.
Later that day, the RCMP put an end to the 20-hour blockade and arrested several protestors.
Meanwhile, Rankin — after another call with Higgs and his other fellow Atlantic premiers to clarify what New Brunswick was doing to track visitors from outside Atlantic Canada — announced Nova Scotia would indeed reopen to New Brunswickers without restrictions on June 30 and that New Brunswickers who’d had two doses could come to Nova Scotia immediately without having to self-isolate.
Smith McCrossin, for her part, said she was going to take some time to consider her political future.
With an election looming, she may not have much time. Neither does Houston.
In 2017, Smith-McCrossin won Cumberland North with more than 50 per cent of the votes cast in a five-person race. The last time the PC caucus dumped a sitting Cumberland North MLA was in 2007 after the incumbent, Ernie Fage, was convicted of leaving the scene of an accident in which witnesses claimed they’d smelled alcohol on his breath. In the subsequent election, Fage ran as an independent. He finished second but ahead of the party’s official candidate, allowing the NDP to slip up the middle and take the riding.
The party didn’t win it back until McCrossin’s victory in 2017.
You won’t be surprised to learn — via the well-connected MacDonald Notebook — that Rankin’s backroom Svengali, Dale Palmeter, is already courting someone to run against McCrossin and/or whoever the Tories can recruit on short notice.
The person Palmeter has set his sights on: recently retired Bill Casey, the onetime Tory MP for Cumberland-Colchester who was booted from the federal caucus for refusing to support Stephen Harper’s 2007 budget, won re-election the next year as an Independent and then switched to the Liberals and won again in 2015.
Politics in Nova Scotia. Never a dull moment.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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