Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things


James McConnell Memorial Library, Sydney. (Source: DSRA)

James McConnell Memorial Library, Sydney. (Source: DSRA)

Okay, so on Tuesday, as I was burrowing through the documents I’d received from the feds relating to the 2012 sale of the Royal Cape Breton Yacht Club, I thought I might try to follow the CBRM Council meeting about the library at the same time. (You know how this is going to end, don’t you?)

I tuned in shortly after 10 am in time to hear Mayor Cecil Clarke — who had called the meeting — trying to explain its purpose to District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall.

Readers, as soon as he began speaking I realized the awful truth: this was not a meeting with an actual purpose, this was a PR stunt.

And perhaps it’s a sign of Clarke’s waning interest in all things municipal that it wasn’t even as good as his old PR stunts, which used to involve pseudo-announcements about port development and tug boats and cameos by Chinese engineers and refreshments. This was just like a regular council meeting except it focused on one topic and lasted all blessed day.

I stayed tuned long enough to hear long-suffering regional librarian Faye MacDougall begin to explain — for what must be the gazillionth time — what the library does and why the current facilities are no longer adequate — and then I turned it off.

I know what the library does (I was there on Wednesday). I know the problems with the existing facility –as does everyone else who was in the council chambers on Monday. So why put everyone through a rehash?

Apparently so Mayor Clarke could grandstand, judging by the media reports — the CBC’s Tom Ayers noted that:

Clarke initially blamed the federal government for holding up the project, but Monday, council heard the delay was at the provincial level.

Meanwhile, David Jala, writing in the Post, quoted Clarke as saying:

I’ve been part of many, many, many infrastructure programs from the cabinet table to the department level to the CBRM, and where there is political will there is a way — when it comes to funding streams, the province can open them up if they want to open them up or they can do other things until funding streams open up.

To which the obvious answer is: then why not use some of that insider know-how and political savvy to get the funding for the library instead of using it to try and score points on your political opponents?

This library file is a hot mess. Ayers reported that during Monday’s council meeting it was revealed that nobody knows how much it costs to run the existing McConnell Library:

One of the questions councillors asked was the annual operating cost of the existing downtown Sydney branch.

They were told no one in the municipal office or library has that information.

Clarke said later that municipal staff had not identified that as being necessary before applying to other levels of government for funding to replace the existing building.

Even assuming you didn’t need those figures for the funding application, wouldn’t that be information you’d want at your fingertips if you were a municipal staffer involved with the new central library project?

I’m going to point out again — because nobody else is doing it — that the municipal staffer who shepherded that application through council (and straight off a cliff), Economic Development Manager John Phelan, has since returned to the Public Works Department.

But the private development company that has inserted itself into the project, Martin Chernin’s Harbour Royal Development Limited (HRDL), remains very much involved. (Jim Wooder, who serves as “project manager” for HRDL’s waterfront development scheme — which includes the public library — is pictured in Tuesday’s Post deep in consultation with District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald.) And so we seem doomed to continue this ass-backward approach to waterfront development. Think about it: wouldn’t it have made more sense to build the public library and then call for proposals to develop the — suddenly more attractive because of the library — land around it?

(That is, assuming the library has to be on the waterfront — which it doesn’t. But I suspect even having the library downtown would make the adjacent waterfront more attractive to developers.)

On the other hand, Chernin has only six months left in his 18-month agreement to develop the Sydney waterfront, so the clock is ticking, and maybe, just maybe, council won’t give him an extension when he, inevitably, requests one.

Maybe we’ll be able to hit reset on the library project and try it one more time — with intelligence.


Davis Day

If I were the local representative of an anti-union American coal company determined to re-open a mine in Cape Breton despite roof falls, methane fires, repeated safety violations and the fact that coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel of them all, I think I would ditch the reflective aviators for Davis Day:


Calling ACOA

Of course Iowa businessman (and ardent Trump supporter) Anthony Marlowe got $500,000 from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) to expand his Sydney call center.

Pouring money into call centers is a time-honored, post-industrial Cape Breton tradition: Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation (ECBC) dumped millions into them. ACOA is simply continuing the practice of highly paid bureaucrats securing stressful, non-unionized, low-paying jobs for their fellow Atlantic Canadians.

Follow the logic: the Cape Breton workers are the call center’s biggest asset — George Karaphillis, dean of the Shannon School of Business at Cape Breton University told The Halifax Star‘s Taryn Grant so in February — and as such, they should take whatever work they can get at whatever wage is offered and be grateful for the “health benefits” and “safe working conditions.” (No roof falls in the lunch room. No methane fires in the cubicles. These people clearly have it made.)

Besides, Marlowe needs the money — he had to pay $1.5 million to buy the call center assets in the first place and, as he told Grant in that same article, the center brought in only $1 million in revenue in its first month of post-bankruptcy operation. (Yes, he called the figure “unbelievable” and expressed confidence it would only go up from there, but that doesn’t mean he can afford to fund his own expansion, silly.)

And of course the entire community must pitch in to keep Marlowe happy — besides the ACOA loan, he’s received a payroll rebate worth $2.5 million from the provincial government — because the community has “a vested interest in the success of such a major employer,” according to Karaphillis.

Of course, the business professor noted, local ownership would be better for the resiliency of the Cape Breton economy, but that’s a philosophical ideal and remains evasive. The community’s immediate welfare trumps all else, he said.

As Moses Coady famously said:

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Allow him to fish part-time for a foreign-owned seafood company and he will be able to buy Kraft Dinner.

If local ownership of a major employer and improved resiliency of the Cape Breton economy have become no more than a “philosophical ideal” then 40 years of regional economic development has been an utter and complete flop.

And frankly, that “the community’s immediate welfare trumps all else” is precisely the problem — poor communities are like poor people, they don’t have the luxury of long-term planning, they just struggle along day to day, one closure away from disaster. We’re going to give Marlowe as many inducements as we can to keep him here, but eventually the Canadian dollar will get too strong or his favorite president will slap tariffs on Canadian-based call centers, and Marlowe will pack up his contracts (and whatever equipment the ACOA loan has allowed him to buy) and leave. And we’ll be in exactly the same situation we were in last Christmas.

People, like the Dutch economist Rutger Bregman, who support a universal basic income, say we have to get beyond the 19th century notion that everyone must work for a living because a large percentage of the jobs that now exist are pointless and that percentage is going to continue to grow. (He actually includes a lot of high-paying jobs in the “pointless” category.) Bregman also suggests that giving people enough money to cover their basic expenses will not make them lazy but will free them to do work of actual value, for returns that don’t flow to Iowa. As Bregman puts it:

Capitalism will always create bullshit jobs.

Do our governments really need to help it?



In that same Halifax Star story, George Karaphillis also said he didn’t think many people in Sydney knew or cared about Marlowe’s political affiliations (which is probably true) but Marlowe himself went a step further, saying he figured Cape Bretoners — who got their 15 minutes of fame in 2016 by inviting Americans worried about a Trump presidency to move here —  probably really like the guy:

“Frankly, I wouldn’t be very much surprised if the president of the U.S. would have a good amount of support from Cape Bretoners given his ethnicity, where he and his family are from and his kind of pragmatic approach about the workers first,” he said.

Anti-Trump rally, Scotland, 2018. (Photo by Azerifactory, CC BY-SA 4.0)

I know there are Cape Bretoners who like Trump, I’ve spoken to a few of them, but I don’t think they represent the majority of us.

And although Trump’s mother was Scottish — or “Scotch” as he himself puts it — it doesn’t seem to do him much good with the actual Scots, so I’m not sure it will serve him any better with people of Scottish descent.

As for the notion that Trump puts “the workers” first, I think it would be more convincing coming from a worker.


End note

I have been more furious than curious this week, as you can probably tell by the tone.