Premier Makes Mysterious Trip to Mysterious East

Nova Scotia, in case you missed the memo, is now in year two of a five-year “strategy” to boost trade with China.

That it’s a strategy with “no budget, target or goal,”¬†as the CBC reported in April 2016, has the advantage, from Premier Stephen McNeil’s perspective, of allowing him to proclaim almost any development a victory. (It’s also eerily reminiscent of a number of my own budget-less, target-less, goal-less, five-year strategies. McNeil must be reading my diary.)

This is a picture of Stephen McNeil in Guangzhou, China on 7 September 2014.

This is a picture of Stephen McNeil in Guangzhou, China on 7 September 2014.

Presumably as part of said strategy, the premier paid an “Executive Visit to Asia” from 30 August to 17 September 2017, traveling to China and Japan. Accompanying him were Laurie Graham, his principal secretary; Albert (Buddy) Walzak, director of international relations for the province of Nova Scotia; Mike McMurray, director, universities and colleges at the Nova Scotia Department of Labor and Advanced Education; and¬†Christine Yang, also with international relations for the province.

I was rather ashamed not to have known the premier had been in Asia this fall until I began looking for coverage of the visit and although I Googled until my fingers ached, I could not find any news stories about the trip, which ended just before the Nova Scotia legislature reconvened on 21 September 2017.


Buddy leaves

Some enterprising media outlet clearly knew about the “executive visit” (or found out about it after the fact) because it FOIPOPed the government on October 11 to find out how much it cost Nova Scotians and what-all the premier got up to in Asia.

The documents released (on November 7) in response to that FOIPOP have now been made public on the government’s access to information website. The expense information is all there — hotels, flights, “incidentals” — and the trip was as expensive as you’d imagine a trip to Asia would be. You can read it all yourself, I’d just like to mention my three favorite items:

The first is the itinerary for Wednesday, September 6, which begins “Buddy departs.” Being from Cape Breton, I immediately assumed the person writing the itinerary had forgotten buddy’s name. When I realized it was actually a reference to Albert “Buddy” Walzak, I was kind of disappointed.

My second favorite item is Mike McMurray’s list of estimated costs in which he states:

We will be using burner cell phones with travel packages.

We fans of The Wire all know what burner cell phones are for — they’re for ensuring the Baltimore cops can’t tap your phone. Good thinking, McMurray.

And my final favorite item is that the premier did $187.01 worth of laundry in Hong Kong.


My Dinner with [REDACTED]

My least favorite part of these documents, on the other hand, are the grey blocks covering up the names of almost everyone the premier met with while abroad. Have a look for yourself:





Yes, it has come to this: the premier of Nova Scotia can travel to Asia on public business but refuse to tell the public who he met with while there.

The government cited two reasons, under Nova Scotia’s Freedom of Information/Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPOP), for withholding the information:

Section 17 (1): information the release of which would have a detrimental financial or economic impact on Nova Scotia or is the subject of negotiations;

Section 20 (1): unreasonable invasion of personal privacy.

First of all, I would suggest that any company with a financial interest in knowing who Stephen McNeil met with in China knows who Stephen McNeil met with in China. It’s called “business intelligence” and it’s something companies pay for, on the principal that nobody should know their business but they are entitled to know everything money can buy about everybody else’s business.

And second, why should someone meeting with an official delegation from a Canadian province expect to do so in private? Does our government not see how that practice could be open to abuse?

I turned, as I always do in these situations, to Michael Karanicolas of the Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia. I sent him a copy of the documents and asked what he thought. He told me in an email:

This is yet another indication of the government’s lack of respect for the public’s right to information, and an abusive misuse of the exceptions in the FOIPOP. While privacy is an important human right, people obviously do not carry an expectation of privacy for meetings they hold with the Premier in his official capacity. Likewise, the claim that merely disclosing the names of people who the Premier is meeting with would somehow undermine Nova Scotia’s financial interests is simply not credible. Progressive countries around the world disclose this information routinely.

What he said.