FOIPOP Findings: Dear China…

Remember CBRM’s sister city, the Chinese port city of Dalian?

I don’t blame you if you’ve forgotten, the relationship never really amounted to much and we basically stopped talking about it after our sister city (population: 6 million) sentenced a Canadian to death in 2019.

A view of Zhongshan Square in the heart of modern Dalian. 2006 (By MR+G from Wakayama, Japan - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

A view of Zhongshan Square in the heart of modern Dalian. 2006 (By MR+G from Wakayama, Japan – Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

But back in December 2015, Albert Barbusci, CEO of what was then Harbor Port Development Partners (HPDP), assured the CBC the connection would redound to our benefit:

“Dalian has agreed to work with us [on port development],” he said. “But the real value is for Nova Scotia and Cape Breton to look at the potential trading that they can do with China.”

Barbusci said the sister-city agreement will work on at least three levels.

“One is to have a port relationship, second would be city to city and the third tier, which is the most important tier, is to bring the peers together, the business community from Cape Breton and Nova Scotia and to match them up with our colleagues from Dalian so that they can begin to talk about what’s important, and that is trade and business.”

Reading that in 2021, it looks like Barbusci suspected the idea of Dalian helping us with “port development” was a non-starter. Why else pretend that developing the Port of Sydney — the raison d’etre for his company and the goal of his exclusive contract with the CBRM — was less important than playing international matchmaker between Cape Breton and Chinese businesses?

Dalian in particular — and China in general — having turned out to be such a dead end, there’s not much point in digging through the ashes of the relationship, except that some parts of it are funny, and who doesn’t have time for funny?


We Are an (Immense) Island

Take the “China Package.”

This was a collection of documents our heroes were hard at work on in December of 2014, when HPDP principal Barry Sheehy wrote to Barbusci; CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke; Mike Moore, the consultant working on the port project through Business Cape Breton; Christina Lamey, the mayor’s spokesperson; and, inexplicably, John Danch of Gabarus who seems to have been consulted on most of the correspondence regarding China. The China Package, Sheehy explained:

…aims to introduce CBRM and the Port of Sydney to senior officials at Liaoning Province and the Port city of Dalian. At a political and diplomatic level we hope to begin the process of establishing Sister City and Sister Region relationships between CMBR [sic]/Sydney and Liaoning/Dalian.

Sheehy says the effort “has the full support of the Federal and Provincial governments” and the package will include a number of letters from pols, including one from Transport Minister Lisa Raitt (no sign of any such letters in the documents I received, sadly).

The second part of the package, he continues:

…will focus on our Port, Mineral, LNG opportunities. We will expect to be introduced to potential partners in shipping, port management, logistics and investment. Albert has spent two decades doing business and building relationships in this region and we have many friends there. We can expect a positive reception if we turn up prepared and get a decent package to them in advance, including some elements that must be translated into Mandarin.

These “elements” included a cover letter, to be signed by Mayor Cecil Clarke. Sheehy emailed the text for this letter to Lamey and I was struck by this factoid:

Cape Breton is immense in size covering 250,000 Square kilometers…

Which suggests Cape Breton Island is bigger than the entire province of Nova Scotia (55,284 square kilometers) and is, in fact, roughly the same size as the State of Michigan (250,487 square kilometers).

If you’re thinking this was just a draft and the brain trust at the Civic Centre must surely have caught the error before the letter was sent, I’m afraid the evidence suggests otherwise. ThisĀ  — which looks like the final version — preserves the error:




A year later, though, when Clarke is signing his name to letters Sheehy and Barbusci have drafted to the mayor and the chairman of Dalian, the mistake has been corrected — Cape Breton Island has shrunk back to its actual size of “over 10,000 square kilometers.”

But the purpose of Clarke’s letters has evolved, whereas the initial 2014 missive stated the CBRM was pursuing a sister-city strategy to “improve China-Canada relations at all levels,” the 2015 letters get down to business. Clarke writes that as mayor (and on behalf of council) he wishes to:

…open a dialogue aimed at deepening the strategic cooperation and mutual benefit between Cape Breton Island the Province of Liaoning and the City of Dalian. Our aim is to invite Dalian and Dalian Harbour, also China Shipping, to participate in the investment and operation of the Port of Sydney…


Elsewhere Clarke expands upon the shape this “strategic cooperation” could take, writing that CBRM hopes the mayor of Dalian will:

…promote the further development of Dalian, Dalian Port’s ability to invest in Sydney Harbour of Cape Breton Island and participate in the management and construction of Sydney’s port. Also, the proportion of investments could reach more than 50%.

Reading this reminded me that I have never succeeded in holding these two thoughts in my head simultaneously:

  1. Sydney will be home to a container vessel transshipment hub key to container service to the east coast of North America; and
  2. That hub will be majority-owned by the Chinese state.

I don’t want you to think I’m picking on China: I would find it difficult to imagine any other nation owning over 50% of a container terminal in Sydney Harbour. I realize it’s common for terminals to be leased and operated by foreign-owned entities — look at Singapore-based PSA and Halterm in Halifax — but owned by the Chinese state? I have to think that would have run into a few hurdles at the federal level.

But no one in the Civic Centre seems to see this as a problem. Lamey, the mayor’s communications person, edits these letters, changing “can reach more than 50%” to “could reach more than 50%,” without, apparently, batting an eye at the “more than 50%” part of the sentence.


Cost in translation

In addition to the letters to Dalian, Barbusci and Sheehy have a “standard prospectus and value proposition for the Port of Sydney” they want translated into Mandarin. (I don’t see anything in these documents that I would call a “prospectus” although there is something I would call a “brochure.”)

Why they need the documents translated into Mandarin turns out to be funny — and answers a question I’ve long had about whether a man who’s done business in China for “two decades” speaks Mandarin or not. On 13 November 2014, Barbusci writes Moore, Clarke and Sheehy:

I had a very interesting follow-up call with my colleagues in China regarding the CCCC and Cosco groups. Unfortunately one of my partners does not speak English and most of my communication is done through his son. I believe it is extremely important for us to translate an introductory letter as well as the value proposition in[to] Chinese. He’s returning to his office on the 19th and they plan to brief him at that time. He is a senior politician in the Liaoning province and a good friend, I’m certain he will agree to support us.

(I so want his friend’s son to be, like, 12, and totally making up half the stuff he says his father is saying.)

Anyway, Lamey tells Barbusci she’s concerned the prospectus job “might be too much” for her regular translator, so Barbusci offers to get in touch with his “contacts” at Dentons, the international law firm. By which he means, he will email Dentons, where he is a client, and ask if they do English/Mandarin translations. And Dentons will put him in touch with a Shanghai law firm which will quote him a price of $3,000 for the job. And Barbusci will write to Lamey:

Do you have the budget?

The trail goes cold at that point so I don’t know if Lamey had the budget. But I do know that the Port of Sydney paid Judy Hou Consulting $3,982 for “attendance at all China meetings” and “translations services,” so I’m guessing she found it.



A question for you: if I were trying to sell you, I don’t know, cookies, say. And I made up a brochure describing them, and it contained a quote that said:

These cookies are mind-blowingly delicious!

But the quote was from ME, would you find that a little unconvincing as a sales pitch?

I’m guessing you’re going to say, “Yes.” (If you say no, then have I got some cookies for you!)

I mention this because the Port of Sydney brochure (which may be what they’re calling a prospectus, I’m not entirely sure) which Barbusci ordered up for China, begins with this quote:

The Port of Sydney is the North Atlantic’s only new port that can be developed as a diverse intermodal port.

Which might be an interesting selling point, but the quote is from Mayor Cecil Clarke, who is doing the selling. And it’s followed by a quote by Barry Sheehy, who is helping Clarke do the selling:

Port of Sydney is deep enough for these super-ships and they can get here faster and cheaper than any other harbour on the East Coast. If Sydney’s all-in intermodal costs can be proved competitive, or even a touch cheaper, then we have the makings of a super-harbour.

If I were a Chinese investor, before I even wondered whether these statements were true (and both are highly debatable), I would wonder why these promoters couldn’t find anyone, other than themselves, prepared to say these things.

The brochure (which may be a prospectus) then claims the Port of Sydney has access to rail transportation as do the “three fully-serviced business parks” adjacent to the harbor.



Cabot Trail

I mentioned earlier that John Danch, Sheehy’s neighbor in Gabarus, is cc’ed on all the discussions about the “China Package,” but I could find very few occasions where he offered any feedback. One exception, though, is in response to Sheehy’s original draft of the Dalian Sister-City letter, dated 23 December 2014. Sheehy writes that as part of the “expanded relationship” with the city:

…we propose a China/Canada Day along the world famous Cabot Trail featuring runners, cyclists and para-Olympians in the fall of 2015.

But Danch has a concern:

I think you are proposing something that may be attainable, but not realistic to do properly in the time frame stated.

You want something getting international attention, but wanting this done in the time frame of something more attuned to a local community celebration.

I started meetings in April/May for a Remembrance Day Ceremony being held in one building. I could be wrong but what you propose will mean a total rush job.

The Cabot Trail already has the Cabot Trail Relay, with International teams coming to participate. Also a number of other event [sic]

I’d be more inclined to come up with something original.

To which Sheehy responds:

John, Thanks. You’re right. Let’s take out the date and leave in the concept. B.

Danch writes:

I’d also take out the concept. You’re talking of a major event that could literally be wiped out with severe weather.

I’d focus on some sort of multicultural festival orientated event, the opportunity to showcase cultures. Something people orientated.

I take it that the original concept was arrived at through knowledgeable discussion.

Note: he totally did not. He knew damn well the original concept was pulled directly out of Sheehy’s hat.

It’s just that having been involved in planning festivals on both local, and Provincial [levels], it would attract much greater public participation than stretching something for miles over a road.

Sheehy seems to have followed Danch’s, admittedly sound, advice but can you imagine if he’d instead insisted upon organizing a biking, running, para-Olympian, Chinese/Canadian extravaganza on the Cabot Trail in the fall of 2015?

It would have been like the best episodes of Parks and Recreation and Veep and The Thick of It and Twenty Twelve all rolled into one glorious disaster.

Which, come to think of it, might be the epitaph for the entire Port campaign.