Considering the Case for an Inverness Airport

You would have to be completely foolhardy to question the brain trust that has formed to support spending public money to build an airport in Inverness but foolhardy’s my middle name so — hold my beer.

The group — consisting of former premiers, businesspeople, consultants and Mary Tulle — has launched a website that grabs you by the lapels and yells:

“More visitors to Cape Breton benefits us all.”

Got that, you naysayers who think the airport is simply intended to benefit Ben Cowan-Dewar and his golf courses (Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs)? No? Still doubtful? Well, listen to what Lauchie MacLean of Glenora Distilleries (located minutes by car from Inverness) has to say:

“A rising tide lifts all boats. As someone deeply invested in the hospitality industry in Cape Breton, I am thrilled by the possibilities of this proposal. I see it as a launching pad for even more growth in the sector.” Lauchie MacLean, Glenora Distilleries

Really, people, you have only to look around you to see how high that “rising tide” of tourism has lifted us all. As I discussed with Doug Lionais, an assistant professor at CBU’s Shannon School of Business, in March of this year, all the trends in Cape Breton — employment rates, unemployment rates, labor force participation rates — are NEGATIVE, bucking the trend in the rest of the country and… wait, sorry, that’s not helpful. Let’s try that again:

While those trends may have been negative for the island in the January Labour Force Survey from Stats Canada, if you look at the longer term, the picture is…much worse. As Lionais, who has data stretching back to the mid-’80s, put it:

[T]hroughout that whole time, Cape Breton’s unemployment rate has been at least double and sometimes close to triple the national level. And I’m sure if I got data going from the mid-’70s or so, we’d still see that.

So, the story about Cape Breton is we are in this chronic place of crisis and it’s not getting better…[T]he only time we’ve ever come below double [the national unemployment rate] — and just below double — is when the national economy collapses. So in the bubble, the 2008 crisis, when the national economy takes a hit and lays off a bunch of people, that’s when our numbers, in relation [improve]. But we’ve essentially been in chronic crisis for decades.

Add to his the fact that even where job numbers are rising — which is the case at the national level — wages are stagnating or declining and I’m afraid, Lauchie MacLean, sir, your “rising tide” assertion doesn’t hold water.

Several aircraft parked on the apron at Allan J. MacEachen Port Hawkesbury Airport, 18 June 2019. (Photo by WayeMason, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Simply irresistable

But let’s see what Annette Vershuren has to say about this proposed Inverness airport:

“As a Cape Breton native, I know how irresistible our Island is. I also know that sometimes it’s been hard to tell that story to the world. When you can bring the world right to your shores, that story becomes a lot easier to tell.” Annette Verschuren, O.C., Companion Canadian Business Hall of Fame, Chair and CEO of NRStor Inc.

I’m confused. How could a “Cape Breton native” not realize that we already have the ability to bring people “right to our shores?” Has she never come home? Does she not know about the Causeway, the St. Peter’s Canal, the airports in Sydney and Port Hawkesbury, our wide selection of docks and wharves?

Let’s assume she does and what she’s saying is that viability as a tourism destination hinges on proximity to an airport handling commercial flights (Sydney being the only such airport on the island). Does this mean we also have to build an airport on Isle Madame? It’s one hour and 40 minutes by car from Sydney airport — is that enough to discourage people from visiting?

What about Canso? It’s roughly three hours from the nearest airport in either direction (Sydney or Halifax). Shouldn’t we make it as convenient as possible to get there, too? What’s that you say, there are no world-class golf courses in Isle Madame and Canso? But I thought you said this wasn’t about the golf courses? You people are just as confused as I am.


Thinking thoughts

Okay, what does Mary Tulle have to say?

“I spent nearly a decade thinking about little else but tourism in Cape Breton. I know this project will help tourism operators across Cape Breton Island and build on the momentum we have seen over the past few years.” – Mary Tulle, former CEO, Destination Cape Breton, tourism consultant

This is the argument for the new airport I really don’t understand:  if visitors are allowed to arrive directly in Inverness, it will somehow “help tourism operators across Cape Breton Island,” but if visitors arrive at either of the other airports (or drive from Halifax airport) it won’t.

How will these people who can’t deal with a one-hour drive from Port Hawkesbury or a two-hour drive from Sydney — these people who apparently need to land practically on the roof of the club house — benefit “tourism operators across Cape Breton Island?” Will they even visit the Cape Breton Highlands National Park? Getting from Inverness to Neil’s Harbour takes over two hours by car. Do we need an airport in Neil’s Harbour, too?

I also have to note that Tulle’s decade of “thinking about little else but tourism in Cape Breton” involved spending millions in public money on marketing campaigns that apparently — if what Annette Vershuren says is true — failed to “tell” our “story” to the world.



But I know what you’re all really wondering — what does former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna think? (There’s a reason everyone in Cape Breton wears those “What Would Frank Do?” bracelets.)

“Tourism is an anchor industry in Cape Breton, and we have to support it. Visitors from around the world are clamouring to spend time here, and this will make that easier and more convenient. We are on the cusp of something special – let’s make it happen.”Frank McKenna, former Premier of New Brunswick, Deputy Chair, TD Bank Group, Chair, Advisory Council on Jobs and the Visitor Economy

(McKenna’s bio on that federal Advisory Council on Jobs and the Visitor Economy says his work with TD involves “supporting the Bank in its customer acquisition strategy” which makes it sound like he buys customers — maybe he could do the same for tourists?)

This council advises Mélanie Joly, Minister of Tourism, Official Languages and La Francophonie, on issues related to tourism. Joly, it’s worth noting, “also count[s] on the support and expertise of Mr. Dominic Barton, Global Managing Partner Emeritus of McKinsey, as well as Ben Cowan-Dewar, Chair of Destination Canada.”

So, Cowan-Dewar is the Chair of Destination Canada and he advises the Canadian government on tourism and that advice included “build an $18 million airport to service my golf courses.” No conflict of interest there.

The “Build Cape Breton” (that’s the url) website cites a 2018 Destination Canada report (without mentioning Destination Canada is headed by Cowan-Dewar) which:

…identified the need for joint public, private and non-profit groups to align their resources toward building up regional tourism clusters and entirely new destinations, including supporting infrastructure like air and road access.

I would like to hear more about these people (I don’t think you can call them “visitors” if they have yet to come here) who are “clamouring” to spend time in Cape Breton but find our existing airports, highways and ports too inconvenient to allow them to actually make the trip. They must be a very special breed.


Fogo Island

Finally, what does Zeta Cobb of Fogo Island Inn and Shorefast have to say about all this?

“We’ve seen the dramatic impact a tourism cluster can have on a community, region, and province. It lifts us all and provides a sense of resilience, spirit, and economic vitality. The airport project in Cape Breton will undoubtedly contribute to all those things for western Cape Breton. I look forward to seeing its impact.”  Zita Cobb, Founder and CEO, Shorefast and Fogo Island Inn

Comparing Cowan-Dewar’s Inverness golf courses to Cobb’s Fogo Island project is so deeply disingenuous I’m kind of amazed Cobb did it.

For one thing, Fogo Island’s “isolation” is one of its selling points. Here’s Niquae McIntosh writing about it in The Independent in 2011:

With the arrival of the Arts Corporation and the art studios, the appeal of Fogo Island’s near inaccessibility could transform the island into a Diaspora of artistic possibilities.

The closest commercial airport is in Gander — two-and-a-half hours away by car. (There’s a private charter service flying directly from Halifax to Fogo Island, but there are private charter services flying directly to Port Hawkesbury and proponents of the Inverness airport say that’s not good enough — they need direct, commercial flights, which Fogo Island does not have.)

You can view the standard picture of the Fogo Island Inn anywhere, I like this view of Barr’d Islands. (Photo by Shhewitt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The glaring difference between Cobb’s undertaking on Fogo Island and Cowan-Dewar’s golf courses, though, is in the business model, as National Geographic explained:

Fogo Island Inn came to be for all the right reasons. The brainchild of high-tech entrepreneur and native Newfoundlander Zita Cobb, the Inn was conceived as a way to save one of Canada’s oldest rural cultures. Available jobs on the island had plummeted with the crash of the cod industry, and the population had dwindled to half its size in just a few decades.

Enter a daring idea to build a lodge that belongs to the local people—a social business that funnels all surplus profits back into Fogo Island. The Inn would exist in symbiosis with the local community, employing its people, celebrating its traditions, and offering guests an honest, authentic experience with an outport culture that remains little changed over the centuries. The result has been a wonderful renaissance of traditional woodworking, weaving, quilting, and other crafts, and the once-threatened community now thrives—precisely by embracing the customs that define them.

What has that got to do with Cowan-Dewar’s golf courses, which funnel all surplus profits back to Cowan-Dewar and his investors while keeping alive the local traditions of bed-making, food prepping, toilet-cleaning, turf tending and caddying?

Zita Cobb and her brothers established the Shorefast Foundation to “revitalize the island by preserving the local culture and make it a geotourism destination.” She spent $6 million of her own money combined with $5 million from the Canadian government and $5 million from the provincial government to launch the venture — a five-star inn and gallery space and an artists residency program — in 2009. (A 2010 Fast Company profile said Cobb was investing $10 million of her own money.)

And that $5 million from the provincial government? It was used to facilitate the amalgamation of four existing towns (Fogo, Joe Batt’s Arm, Barr’d Islands & Shoal Bay, Seldom-Little Seldom and Tilting) and one regional council to form the Town of Fogo Island:

The agreement includes payment of approximately $4.8 million to write down combined outstanding debt, a grant to develop a town plan, funding for a new soccer field, and funding to cover transitional costs for the transfer of assets and other associated merger expenses.

Cobb’s foundation has built artists’ studios and the Fogo Island Inn, which is just as high-end as the Cabot Cliffs and Cabot Links golf courses, but which puts its surplus revenues back into the community.


Universal truths

Some of the statements on the website are unattributed, offered simply as truths universally acknowledged, such as:

When it comes to tourism, our neighbours are not our competitors. We are competing with other destinations. This project will build on the massive tourism potential of northern and western Cape Breton. Visitors to our island spend their money in multiple communities. The airport is a non-profit, meaning revenue is going to be invested back into our communities.

Yeah, except, you’re totally competing with Port Hawkesbury and Sydney for airport traffic.

And you apparently don’t want your visitors driving through or seeing or possibly stopping and spending money in any of your neighboring communities.

And has it never occurred to you that visitors are spending money in “multiple communities” because they currently must pass through “multiple communities” to reach Inverness? Do you think that if you allowed them to enter and leave the island via Inverness they might cease spending money in “multiple communities?”

As for revenue from the airport going “back into the communities,” how much revenue do you think a seasonal airport in Inverness is going to generate?


We know that our visitors expect convenience and choice. Commercial flyers shouldn’t have to drive 3 ½ hours after landing in Halifax. A visitor who spends less time getting to their destination has more time to explore Cape Breton. This is one more step in Cape Breton’s evolution as a world-class destination.

The first question here, obviously, is why commercial travelers are choosing to land in Halifax and drive three-and-a-half hours to Inverness rather than landing in Sydney and driving two.

Here’s how Cape Breton Canso MP Rodger Cuzner, who supports the proposed airport, explained the situation to the CBC:

The airport in Port Hawkesbury does not handle scheduled flights from major carriers, but caters largely to privately owned aircraft and flights operated by government departments such as Lands and Forestry and the Canadian Coast Guard.

Last year, the company that operates the airport, Celtic Air Services, said it welcomed more than 1,000 flights, three-quarters of which were passengers visiting golf courses in Cape Breton.

But Cuzner said the Inverness airport plans to bring in scheduled commercial flights, and that would attract a different type of visitor.

“The people flying into Port Hawkesbury are those who can afford to hire private jets,” said Cuzner, adding many other visitors to the golf courses in Inverness currently fly into Halifax and drive the rest of the way.

He said scheduled flights to Inverness would bring in “the next tier” of traveller.

“They can’t afford to charter a plane, or they don’t own a plane, but they can fly directly,” said Cuzner.

Okay, he didn’t actually address my question, so let’s assume people are landing in Halifax and driving three-and-a-half hours to Inverness because it is cheaper than flying directly to Sydney and driving two hours to Inverness.

Which makes me wonder: if there is all this potential “next tier” commercial traffic out there, why hasn’t an airline started offering a cheaper, seasonal flight to Sydney (with a shuttle to Inverness)?

Could it be because there is no potential “next tier” commercial traffic out there? Or at least, not sufficient to make cheaper direct flights to Sydney viable?

Is it telling that there’s no quote on the website from the CEOs of WestJet or Air Canada supporting the construction of an airport in Inverness?

Could it be talk of “commercial flights” and “next tier” traffic is just a smokescreen for the actual goal of the Inverness airport which is to attract even more top-tier travelers — that is, after it’s stolen the existing private jet and charter traffic from Port Hawkesbury airport? Because no “first tier” traveler is going to drive an hour to a destination they can fly to directly.

And that would be doubly true if Inverness were ever to attract commercial flights. Does Cuzner not understand the laws of this jungle? No self-respecting hedge fund manager is going to drive an hour to reach a destination a Tim Horton’s franchise owner is flying directly into.


Tourism in Cape Breton grew by 15% in 2016 over 2015, and a further 6% increase in 2017 over 2016, outperforming the rest of Atlantic Canada. This exciting project will position Cape Breton as a leader in destination development and marketing.

I wondered why the most recent statistics, for the 2018 tourist season, were not included in this account and then I remembered: Cape Breton tourism declined year/year in 2018, as the Cape Breton Post reported:

Cape Breton tourism operators saw widespread declines in visitor traffic over the summer months after the record numbers set in 2017 from the year-long Canada 150 celebrations.

Over the June to September peak tourism period, there were 277,000 licensed room nights sold in Cape Breton for fixed-roof accommodations. It was a decline of 5.8 per cent from the same period in 2017 (294,000 room nights sold)…

In releasing the summer numbers Monday, Tourism Nova Scotia made special note that 2017 was a special year as the federal government celebrated the 150th anniversary of Confederation by offering free admittance into national parks and historic sites. It resulted in spikes in tourism traffic throughout the province.

When comparing this year’s June to September tourism traffic numbers in Cape Breton to 2016 statistics, there’s a drop of 1.1 per cent for summer 2018.

Leaving out the most recent stats because they don’t support your case doesn’t strengthen your case.

Oh, and on the subject of tourism stats — most people who came to Nova Scotia in 2018 (66%) traveled by car:

As various commentators have pointed out, fixing our roads would benefit a much broader swath of tourists (not to mention Cape Bretoners).


Long hours

I personally think all this talk of “tourism clusters” and “burgeoning tourism hubs” in relation to the Inverness airport is pure hokum. It’s the kind of thing promoters say to get public money and stop saying the moment the money has been got. (Think of all the $4 million Ben Eoin Marina was going to do for recreational marine tourism on the Bras d’Or Lakes.)

I’ve also seen the case made for the golf course as a source of summer employment for Inverness kids, but to borrow a line from Laura Penny, funding an airport to make university more accessible to kids from Inverness is like going to the movies to get a snack. [Wrestles with urge to bring up neoliberalism again, defeats it.] If the goal is to make university more accessible to kids from Inverness and there’s a budget of $18 million, surely funneling money through an airport and golf course is not the most efficient way to achieve that goal?

And let’s talk about those jobs.

I’ve been reading some of the comments about working at Cabot Links on the Indeed website (and before you tell me the posters are anonymous and probably didn’t actually work at Cabot Links, let me point out that Cabot Links treats them as legitimate — it responds to every post.) Some are positive but the phrase “overworked and underpaid” appears more than once.

I also checked out some of the job postings on the Cabot Links website (which currently lists 45 openings) and was struck by the “physical” demands attached to a number of the “career opportunities” and by one phrase that occurs repeatedly and which I’ve highlighted:

Laundry Attendant:

  • Ability to work in a fast-paced environment and tolerate heat
  • Ability to spend long hours moving around, walking, sitting, standing, kneeling, pushing, pulling, and lifting
  • Frequent lifting and carrying of up to 35 lb
  • Occasional ascending and descending stairs and ramps

Pro Shop Assistant

  • Ability to spend long hours moving around, walking, sitting, standing, kneeling, reaching
  • Exerting up to 50 pounds of force occasionally, and/or up to 25 pounds of force frequently or constantly lift, carry, push, or otherwise move objects

Assistant Executive Housekeeper

  • Working in an outdoor environment (i.e.: sun, wind, rain)
  • Ascending and descending stairs and ramps
  • Must be able to stand and exert well-paced mobility for long periods of time- up to 5 hours at a time.
  • Required to sit and stoop, kneel or crouch, as well as stretch to fulfill cleaning tasks.
  • Use hands to handle or feel objects, tools or controls; reach with hands and arms, repetitive motions.
  • Exert up to 50 pounds of force occasionally, and/or up to 20 pounds of force frequently or constantly to lift, carry, push, pull or otherwise move objects.
  • Specific vision abilities include close vision, distance vision, color vision, peripheral vision, depth perception, and the ability to adjust focus.
  • Requires manual dexterity to use and operate all necessary equipment, tools, products, and supplies

Cleaning cart. (Photo by Yuya Tamai, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Manager, Food & Beverage

  • Able to work long hours, be flexible and work well under pressure
  • Ability to spend long hours moving around, walking, sitting, standing
  • Occasional ascending or descending stairs and ramps
  • Occasional kneeling, pushing, pulling, lifting
  • Exerting up to 50 pounds of force occasionally, and/or up to 25 pounds of force frequently or constantly lift, carry, push, or otherwise move objects

Player Assistant

  • Ability to spend long hours moving around, walking, sitting, standing
  • Ability to work in an outdoor environment (i.e.: sun, wind, rain)

Front Desk Agent

  • Ability to spend long hours moving around, walking, sitting, standing and crouching while performing other duties
  • Ability to lift, carry, push, pull, or otherwise move luggage and objects up to 50 lbs

I remember back in the bad old days when I was looking for summer jobs, the descriptions used to include something called “hours,” which explained the number you were expected to work per day (or shift, or week) and even how much you might expect to be paid for working them, but this information has been omitted from most of the Cabot Links postings (although they do find the space to write: “Built by dreamers, for dreamers.”)

The ads for some jobs, like Housekeeping Supervisor, list 14 “core accountabilities” then add, “Other duties as assigned by management.”

I’m exhausted just reading it. I barely have enough energy to make one final point:

When I think of industries likely to adapt and survive despite climate change, air travel and golf are not at the top of my list. So investments in infrastructure intended to facilitate air travel to golf courses?  Maybe not the best use of public money in 2019.

But when Rodney MacDonald and Annette Vershuren and Darrell Dexter and Frank McKenna (FRANK MCKENNA!) all say “Yay,” who am I to contradict them?