Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

FOIPOP blues

Since the dawn of the age of Big Data — hell, since the dawn of the age of Excel spreadsheets — tracking and collating information has become much easier for us humans. Data entry is boring but not difficult, and once entered (whether into a database or a spreadsheet) that data is easily accessed. And shared.

Why, then, did it take CBRM employees 17 hours to pull together travel and expense information for five months for the mayor and two municipal employees? If you are refunding expenses, you are surely tracking expenses, and if you are tracking expenses, shouldn’t you be able to access the information easily?

Didn’t the CBRM launch a travel and expense database in October 2018? Didn’t the municipality’s technology director say in a report to council:

Recognizing that it was necessary to enhance our processing of expense claims and with the pending expense claim legislation, the CBRM began developing an online CBRM expense claims portal. The portal is a “one stop shop” for expense claim requests, approval, and reimbursement. It incorporates electronic approvals at each stage of the process for future reviews and auditing purposes. The information contained in the expense claims is published to a secure relational database and gives the CBRM ability to publish expense information easily, efficiently, and accurately.

So why did it take 17 hours (up by four hours and $120 from Municipal Clerk Deborah Campbell’s original estimate) to find the information I’d requested? And why should a citizen be required — as I am — to pay $510 to access this information?

Nova Scotia’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Catherine Tully is apparently in the process of creating new “guidance tools” for the fees organizations can charge for processing FOIPOP requests — she says in her latest annual report that they will be available on the OIPC website “later this year.” Let’s hope the guidance includes “Don’t charge so much for information that it becomes impossible for citizens to access it.”



I was downtown in Sydney the other morning and noticed that, like the swallows returning to Capistrano, the Adirondack chairs have returned to Charlotte Street!

I spotted two of them in front of what used to be Rascals, the children’s clothing store, and stopped to take a picture because I thought it was ironic — the chairs, designed to attract people to our main commercial street, in front of an empty storefront.

Then I realized the storefront wasn’t empty — it’s the new location for the Cape Breton Fudge Company and Rita’s Tearoom, according to the Downtown Sydney Development Association.

There are lots of eateries in Downtown Sydney these days. Thinking about this reminded me of an essay by Rory Andrews, who totally flipped the script for me on what downtowns should be in this day and age:

[M]uch like spoons weren’t designed to spread butter, modern Downtowns aren’t meant to be parking lots where you can buy your latest pair of jeans. Sure, they can have those things. There’s no law against it, but Downtown Sydney is never going to be as good at parking at and shopping in [as] a facility built specifically for those purposes, which is called a mall…

[J]ust as cars displaced horses as the predominant hauler of stuff, malls displaced downtowns as the predominant shopping district. This isn’t just a Sydney story either. This happened in almost every major city in North America in the 20th century, as downtowns shriveled up and suburbs exploded in a symphony of Malls, Walmarts, and mid-range chain restaurants. So what did downtowns do? Much like horses, downtowns changed their definition. To my generation, a downtown is not a place to shop. Downtown is a place to live.

A downtown has sidewalks, bars, restaurants, and strange stores that give a community an identity beyond “that one place with the Walmart on the bypass.”

Andrews, in another essay, noted that Charlotte Street at the moment is neither a success story nor a total failure but somewhere in between and I think that analysis still holds, but watching new eateries open — and seeing the Farmers’ Market relocated, and knowing the newly renovated Convent will open soon, and that we’re going to have a cidery on Nepean Street, and that the Downtown Development Association is adding tables and board games to the Adirondack chairs this season — makes me think we’re a little closer to success story than failure these days.


Water vs Gold

Tim Bousquet reported on Thursday about — yet another — gold mining project in the works in Nova Scotia, this one here in our own Cape Breton Highlands:


It’s all part of what Joan Baxter has termed the “21st century gold rush” in Nova Scotia — you can read all about in her Fool’s Gold series, which the Spectator published with the Halifax Examiner last year.

I was struggling to write something coherent about why mining gold in 2019 makes no sense, when I realized I didn’t have to –Joan has already done it:

Gold is a strange substance. It is a precious metal that has long been coveted for its beauty. But it has no intrinsic value like, say, water, which we need to live, or the surface vegetation and soil in which we grow our food, which miners call “overburden”…

Alan Septoff of the US-based Earthworks organization that leads a campaign called “No Dirty Gold” told the Cape Breton Spectator that gold is unique among the other mined metals; it has very limited use in technology. In other words, not one of us would suffer should gold mining stop today. Further, he says that industrial-scale gold mining harms the environment “irreparably,” so by that standard, there is no such thing as “clean gold” unless it is recycled or vintage.

But of course, as long as there is money to made from gold mining, and the metal is hoarded because of the monetary value that humans attribute to it, it will continue.

I am particular struck by the stupidity of using (or risking polluting) large quantities of water without which human existence is not possible to produce small quantities of gold, without which human existence would continue unhindered.

It reminds me of the joke about the guy who was so proud of his gold medal he had it bronzed. Are we really going to be that guy?


Farewell, my hard-nosed friend

Days after his odd visit with Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil in Halifax, China’s ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye — described in various headlines as “hard-nosed” — was “promoted” to ambassador to Paris.

(I don’t actually know why I put “promoted” in quotation marks — Paris is obviously a step-up from Ottawa. Even Ottawa would admit it.)

In the coverage of Lu’s departure, I ran across a link to an interview he gave the Canadian Press early in his tenure as ambassador to Canada in which he shared his thoughts on what he saw as the out-sized role of the Canadian media:

“I think the Canadian government is pressured by the media on this issue,” Lu said through a translator provided by his embassy. “I think that Canadian media is quite influential.”

Lu then interjected in English to stress that Canadian politicians sometimes have to “bow before media.” He recommended the approach of his country’s ruling communist party as an efficient way of dealing with the media.

Stephen McNeil actually followed this recommendation when Lu was in town, barring reporters from asking questions during his photo opp with the Chinese ambassador. No wonder they get along so well.


Cruise symposium

There was a three-day cruise symposium in Sydney this week. The Cape Breton Post report from Day 2 included this gem:

Cruise lines are also pushing for more experiential tourism where passengers meet and speak with locals on excursions.

[Christina] Lamey [manager of cruise marketing and development for the Port of Sydney] said Cape Breton gets high marks for its ability to immerse tourists into visits at the Cape Breton Miners’ Museum in Glace Bay, the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, as well as the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck and Goat Island tours in Eskasoni First Nation.

“(Cruise lines) want their passengers to interact with local people where they experience life the way they do.”

The easiest way for cruise passengers to “interact” with locals would be to walk around town. Interacting comes naturally to Cape Bretoners (I have a Halifax friend who says she has to budget “interacting” time into her day when running errands in Sydney.)

But the cruise lines, you’ll note, want this interaction to take place within the framework of “excursions” for which they can charge their passengers outsized fees. (I’ve already discussed — at some length — how much cruise lines benefit from our local museums and parks and nature trails, so I won’t bore you with that again, except to remind you that the first cruise ship to arrive here this season charged passengers $183 for an excursion to the Fortress of Louisbourg for which the Fortress received, at most, $14.95 per passenger.)

Still, this idea that passengers want to experience life the way locals do is giving me all kinds of excursion ideas:

The Waiting: Passengers spend eight hours in the Emergency Department at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital.

Pounding the Pavement: Passengers try to find jobs.

The Highland Grind: Passengers pretend they’ve been hired at Cabot Cliffs for the season and must find affordable accommodations.

Dr Who: Passengers spend the day calling doctors to find one who is accepting new patients.

Speed Bonnie Bus: Passengers work two part-time jobs and must travel between them (and back to the dock) by public transit.

Canary for a Day: Passengers work a shift in the Donkin coal mine.

Ciad Mille FOIPOPs: Passengers submit access to information requests to the CBRM and pay $478 to see the information.

I am really a natural at this. It’s funny they didn’t invite me to the symposium.


Market value

This last item is thanks to Citizen Joe Ward, who raised this subject on his Twitter feed.

Port of Sydney N.S. update brochure

Artist’s rendition of second cruise berth.

The Cape Breton Post‘s Nancy King, who has been keeping a close eye on the CBRM’s expropriation of land owned by businessman Jerry Nickerson for the construction of the second cruise ship berth, got her hands on the competing appraisals last week.

The appraisals were filed with the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board (NSUARB), which will hold hearings on the value of the land on 3-7 February 2020.

Reports King:

The two appraisals commissioned by the former owner of the property expropriated for the construction of a second cruise ship berth in Sydney place the value of the parcels at a total of $4.15-4.24 million.

However, the appraisal prepared for the Cape Breton Regional Municipality only values the land at $1.53-1.82 million.

As you may recall, the consultant charged with conducting a “due diligence assessment” of the plans for the second berth, CPCS, wrote:

Other cost components, including the acquisition of the North Lands Property & Water Lot (the “Nickerson Property”), estimated to cost $1.5 million, may also be underestimated. We understand, for example, that the owner of the Nickerson Property is seeking $6 million for the property. We further understand that this land is contaminated. It is unclear to what extent the cost of environmental remediation is included in the estimate (though CBRM and the Port of Sydney have both indicated that adequate provision for environmental remediation is included in the cost estimates for the project).

According to King:

Both appraisal reports reference possible contamination of the lands due to their former industrial use, but add that it is assumed that any contamination can be managed without extensive remediation.

(I have no idea whether that assumption is valid — it would be more encouraging to read “it is known that any contamination can be managed without extensive remediation.”)

In penning the CBRM’s response to Nickerson’s claim, regional solicitor Demetri Kachafanas disputed any comparison to the sale of the Robin Hood Flour lots, also owned by Nickerson, to the CBRM for $1.5 million in 2011, noting:

…the Robin Hood Flour lots were “purchased by a highly motivated buyer from an unwilling seller and the sale price does not represent a sale for fair market value.”

What Joe Ward pointed out was that there’s another parcel of waterfront land of interest in this discussion of value: the land on which the CBRM is talking about building a new central library and which it valued at $3 million in its (failed) funding application.

Is this a case of having your cake and eating it too? Waterfront land is valuable when it’s serving as part of the municipality’s capital contribution to a library, not so much when it’s being expropriated from a citizen?