Monday, January 2, 2017

The Frank Corbett Stayed-To-Do-Well Award

Just over forty years ago I worked in Frobisher Bay (as it was then known; Iqaluit now), a northern town of about 2500 people. About 1/3 of the residents were from South - we were mostly Hudson's Bay Company staff, school teachers, government employees, a few clergy. There were a number of small businesses around, and many were owned by folk who had come North to work for government at some level, and ended up in their own business. Their best customers were always the government. There was a phrase we heard often: Came to do good, stayed to do well.

It's a phrase that has stayed with me these four decades, and it almost perfectly describes the political career of Frank Corbett, recently retired MLA for Cape Breton Centre. According to his official biography he was a TV cameraman at the CTV station in Sydney, and more importantly, he was a good union man, rising in the union ranks. Eventually he became an MLA, and then - wonder of wonders - in 2009 the NDP formed government and our shop steward became Deputy Premier among other jobs. His real job, as revealed by Graham Steele in his political memoirs, was to be the guardian of ideological purity in meetings where Premier Dexter was absent.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Failure of Leadership

Hon. Karen Casey
The new school year has just started and the Wentworth, Maitland and River John students are all enduring their long bus rides. Parents are upset. The basic premise of schooling for our children has always been that the little ones go to local schools and the older ones travel farther to middle and high schools. That compact is now broken.

It is easy to point the finger at the senior staff of the Chignecto Central Regional School Board, and especially now-retired superintendent Clarke and the current Director of Operations Steeves. They have long forgotten the concept of community schooling and community engagement, if they ever truly comprehended it. The CCRSB is now just another civil service empire presided over by bureaucrats whose principal occupation appears to be the maintenance and expansion of their empire, with providing education for children a distant second.

The communities of River John and Maitland have different troubles with their schools. They have large schools with empty wings. Wentworth, however, has a small school with no empty space. We have two classrooms, a small gym, a library and a smaller all-purpose room. We have a growing enrollment, currently at 23 and soon to rise to 30 students. Our school is in fairly good shape.

The school closure process is fairly clear. The school Board identifies schools to be considered for closure, the Board staff make their case for closing the school and community makes its case for keeping the school open, and the elected Board members decide. It is an adversarial approach. However, the process is predicated on a number of factors, including:

- it is presumed that the Board staff will work with open hands and open minds, and will co-operate with the community group to provide all of the information that the Board has, in terms of costs to operate, current and future enrollment, alternative arrangements for the education of the children;

- it is presumed that the community groups will have ample opportunity to assess and correct the information being provided to the elected Board, and to make its own case;

- it is presumed that the Board has the independence, and the staff resources that independence costs, to assess the information laid before it, and make their decision.

In the case of the Wentworth school process, the senior staff of the CCRSB, especially including Mr Clarke, did not subscribe to the three tenets outlined above, and instead did their very best to prevent current information from being released to the community, did their best to prevent revised information from being laid before the Board members, and did their best to ensure that the elected Board members did not feel that they had the choice to side with the community, despite the evidence.

It is a measure of the dysfunction that our community group had to have our MLA file Freedom of Information requests to secure the data that the CCRSB staff were supposed to provide, and the Municipality of Cumberland County paid the filing fees.


One of our great Canadian philosophers, John Ralston Saul, once said that the further from a community a decision is made, the less likely that that decision will reflect the choices and values of the community. Distance is not measured just in miles. With school board staff not co-operating with the community, and with the community unable to correct the information provided by the staff, the distance between the School board and the community was a huge gulf that we could not bridge.

There is another old chestnut, left over from my community development days, which suggests that in any public consultation process, if a community feels that they are fully and fairly heard, they are more likely to accept a decision that goes against the community's initial position.

Both of those aphorisms help explain why the three communities feel that their schools have been stolen from them. The communities are also left wondering why there was no policeman to stop the theft. The senior staff of the CCRSB felt that they were under no obligation to fairly participate in the school closure process, so they openly and blatantly set the three communities up to fail. And they succeeded, because they had the Minister of Education in their pocket.


A few months ago, before the final vote,  the Wentworth community met to review the situation. We couldn't meet in the school, of course, because the CCRSB made sure that we could not meet their conditions for use of the facility. So we met in the Recreation Centre. After the meeting,  a few citizens were openly wondering why Hon. Karen Casey, Minister of Education and Childhood Development, would not protect our community from the bureaucrats. Why did she not force them to deal with us openly and honestly? There were a couple of suggestions put forward. One was that if she lost her seat she would want to return to teaching and she needed to have the CCRSB bureaucrats on her side. Another suggested that it was payback time, as Wentworth was unwise to elect as MLA the man who defeated her for the leadership of the PC party. In the end, it was agreed that the likely reason is that Minister Casey had worked for those guys for so long that she till reflexively believed what she was told, and did what she was told. She still worked for them, and silly us, we thought that our elected officials work for us.

That's why so many people don't vote. They believe that it makes no difference, and they believe that all politicians are the same, and none of them much care about the people who elected them. They probably do at the start, but before very long they are almost all proof of another old aphorism, that they came to do good, and stayed to do well.  As far as I can see, that pretty much describes Minister Casey's career. A failure of leadership. Good pension, though, and probably a good dental plan.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Watch Out, Wallace! Your School Is Next!

Wallace Elementary School
Parents in Wallace should be very worried about the future of their school. They have a nice little school that has been expanded and maintained over the years but the enrollment has been dropping. That's usually a good sign that the Chignecto Central Regional School Board sees a chance to chop another rural school and bus kids to larger schools.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The New Face of Entitlement

Gary G. Clarke
There is a class struggle coming to Nova Scotia, but it won't be between the 1% and the 99%, as is happening in the USA. Instead, it will be between the civil service elites (which includes our MLA's) and the private sector taxpayers who actually pay the bills.

This man, Mr Clarke, is the recently retired Superintendent of Schools and CEO of the Chignecto Central Regional School Board (CCRSB). He is the man most responsible for the closing of the schools in Wentworth, River John and Maitland, and he is the one who set the tone for the whole school review process.

It is important to understand the school review process from the point-of-view of the communities involved. There was a regulated process that was to be followed, with the Board staff making the case for closing the schools and the community making the case for keeping the schools open, and the elected Board would make the final decision. But the whole process is predicated upon both sides acting in good faith. The communities have no power in such a process so we have to rely on the Board staff acting in good faith. The Board staff are under no compunction to actually do so, and so they didn't.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Wentworth School Closes

28 June 2015 in Wentworth
The Chignecto Central Regional School Board (CCRSB), a proxy for the provincial government of Premier Stephen MacNeil, has finally closed our school. It was a nice little school, fully utilised, no room to spare, still in good condition after 50 years, and attended by 23 students, rising to 30 within a few years. It was closed on the fourth attempt by the bureaucrats, because they felt that they could spend our rural dollars better in larger urban schools where their own children attend. It certainly helped their effort that they owned the Minister of Education, The Honourable Karen Casey, who still tugged her forelock at the bidding of the Superintendent, for whom she worked most of her life.

But here we were, to close the school.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Regulatory Excellence (not!)

In several newspaper articles Ms Susanna Fuller, of the Ecology Action Centre, has floated the notion of regulatory excellence: that the citizens of Nova Scotia would be much more willing to entertain resource development if they thought that the government would protect the environment and a citizen's right to have clean air, clean water, and an un-despoiled landscape.  Comments at public meetings of the Wheeler Commission on fracking seemed to show a very high level of distrust of government's ability to protect the environment, and the same attitudes were on display at recent public meetings to discuss the disposal of treated fracking wastewater now sitting in lagoons in Kennetcook.

Folks have it right. They have all seen the mess at the Sydney Tar Ponds, the clearcutting of our forests, the proposals to create monstrous quarries, open pit mining in Pictou County, the unimaginable smell from the rendering plant in Lower Truro, and the smog and pollution from the Northern Pulp operation that assaults Pictou County every day.

Here's my story. How many remember the mess when the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline went though the province? Here's what the Wallace River in Cumberland County looked like after the pipeline went through:

The Wallace River

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Northern Pulp and Clean Air

The Northern Pulp mill on Pictou Harbour  17 August 2014
On a visit to Pictou a few weeks ago we asked the restaurant owner why the town was so quiet. At suppertime on a holiday Friday afternoon there were almost no folks on the street. Most of the restaurants are closed, and the waterfront gift shop is closing at the end of this month. Even the Tim Horton's is gone from the downtown. Our host pointed to the plume of crap spewing from the mill. That was the problem with Pictou.

In truth, it's a problem for all Nova Scotians, because we have far more money in the mill than the owners do. We own the Boat Harbour wastewater treatment facility, and we have assumed all environmental liabilities for the mill once it closes. When the owners are finished with the mill they can likely sell it for scrap, and then we clean up the site. Taxpayers. Us.

After the recent spill of untreated effluent the Province agreed to build a new treatment plant and remediate Boat Harbour lagoon, at a cost to taxpayers of about $100 million.

Every time the mill changes hands, taxpayers assume more and more of the responsibility for that plant, and we sacrifice more and more of our woodland to the companies that run the mill. The Abercrombie mill was initially built by Scott Paper in the 1960's as a market for all of the balsam fir that was growing all over northern Nova Scotia. The mill was a great buyer of wood from farmers and foresters, although the rapid mechanisation of the harvesting industry led to the situation today where harvesting equipment costs many millions of dollars and the operators have to run it 24/7 just to make the payments. And with so much of the wood now small second-growth stems it is hard for anyone to make money.

But I don't lose any sleep over the possibility of the plant being forced to close. They are one of the most rapacious harvesters of our woodlands, and they have been so through all of their different owners. Thousands of hectares of Nova Scotia have been destroyed by that mill - flash up Google Earth and have a look at the wastelands near Wallace Station, and around Mooseland. The Liscomb Game Sanctuary has been destroyed. They take everything, to feed the paper machine or to feed the boiler, or to trade with other mills. Nothing escapes them, except particulate matter that is sickening the folks of Pictou County.

I wonder if the present government will have the backbone to bring them to heel? Which is to say, I wonder if the government will enforce its own regulations?

That's the issue for the folks from Pictou: will the government of the Province of Nova Scotia enforce its own environmental regulations, or do the owners of the mill decide when and how they will comply?  At the moment, I'd say that the mill is on top . . .