Write On: Rod Gale Wants Action on Poverty

Rod Gale

Rod Gale

If you follow CBRM politics, are on social media or hold local elected office, you probably know the name Rod Gale. The South Bar resident (who has written for this publication in the past) doesn’t hesitate to share his thoughts, especially on matters about which he’s passionate — like poverty.

A few weeks ago, he found himself on Charlotte Street in Sydney, parked next to a vacant lot. What he saw there — the remnants of a homeless person’s bed for the night — prompted him to write to a veritable Who’s Who of local officials.

He emailed MPs (local and from elsewhere in the province), MLAs, Senators, municipal politicians and media types (including yours truly). He described what he’d seen on Charlotte Street and said:

We as a society can’t just turn a blind eye to the poor in our communities because with a trick of the light that could be you or I sleeping under a stairwell.

I urge you again as leaders of our community to unite and address the growing poverty issue in Cape Breton. If you do not I am afraid that more and more of our people will be sleeping rough across our island in the near future.

He attached a photo he’d taken of the spot, under a staircase, near the Highland Arts Theatre:

And then he waited for replies.


Gale and I met for coffee last week, and he told me this is the first winter in 15 years he’s lived full-time in Cape Breton, without traveling out West for work, and:

I just kept noticing more and more poverty, obvious signs of poverty, that were being ignored throughout the CBRM.

[A] week before that person died in the CN station, I sent a letter to [District 5 Councilor] Eldon MacDonald saying, “Eldon, you know, I saw seven people go into the CN station and I know they’re crashing there. Same with the Cape Breton Post building, people have been squatting there for years and years…Or you go down to Loaves and Fishes on any day and you’ll see more and more families going in. These are obvious signs that anyone can see and it’s becoming more and more prominent with the pandemic…


Homeless person's bed, Sydney, NS.

Photo by Rod Gale

Gale said this recent letter was actually his second — he began by writing to CBRM council and says he heard back from precisely one councilor, Gordon MacDonald of District 1, at which point he decided to cast his net wider:

I started out kind of small, I said, I’m going to contact the CBRM about this…then I said, well, we’re gonna branch out, we’re gonna make it bigger — so I’m going to contact every MP, MLA, councilor, whatever, see what happens.

Although Gale was gratified by the responses he received (about which, more in a moment), he says overall he was surprised at the “lack of recognition,” particularly from the MLAs, only two of whom responded — NDP leader Gary Burrill and Kendra Coombes, the NDP MLA for Cape Breton Centre.

Gale has a theory about the general lack of interest:

I’m not one of these Cape Breton separatists or anything like that but I do believe that once someone leaves this island — and it could be a politician, businessperson, rank and file person working some job anywhere else — they forget about the actual reality that’s going on here in Cape Breton. And they need to be reminded.

That said, some of his correspondents didn’t need a reminder.


Asked which answers he found the most encouraging, Gale pointed to those from Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton and Senators Jane Cordy, Mary Coyle and Stanley Kutcher. Cordy, who was born in Sydney and who Gale says “seems to be a great proponent for Cape Breton Island,” wrote:

I have worked with a community group in CB to help young people who are living in poverty. I heard from young people who are trying to work in low paying jobs and trying to bring children to childcare when they don’t have a car and they don’t always have childcare within their community. Their willingness to juggle all these things speaks to their strength and efforts to be successful. We must always keep these cases in our minds when we are developing policies.

Nova Scotia Senators Jane Cordy, Mary Coyle and Stanley Kutcher

Senators Jane Cordy, Mary Coyle and Stanley Kutcher

As for Kutcher, both he and Coyle went straight to the question of basic income (BI). Wrote Kutcher:

You may be aware that numerous parliamentarians have been supporting the idea of a Universal Basic Income that could be one of the solutions to the many structural inequities that may in many cases underly a life lived in poverty. We also need to target racism, improve educational outcomes and expand rapid and continued access to effective treatments for those who live with a mental illness or substance abuse.

Coyle, after acknowledging the “deplorable” poverty in many parts of Nova Scotia, cited the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ 220 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Nova Scotia: Willful Neglect?, which found the province had the third-highest rate of child poverty in Canada and the highest in Atlantic Canada:

Too many people are falling through the cracks of a system meant to help them weather the storm.

I have been working with the All Party Anti-Poverty Caucus to look into how we can address these issues across the country and most recently on the possibility of creating a Guaranteed Livable Income here in Canada.

We must find new paths forward to help those that face particular hardship and it is my hope that as the Senate returns next week, we are able to explore this topic further.

(Coyle then recommended Uncommons, a podcast hosted by Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, the Liberal MP for Beaches-East York and chair of the All Party Anti-Poverty Caucus. This particular episode is devoted to UBI.)


Gale was also pleased to hear from the local (Liberal) MPs, Jaime Battiste in Sydney Victoria and Mike Kelloway in Cape Breton-Canso. Gale said he’s previously had conversations about poverty with Kelloway, whose assistant emailed offering to set up a Zoom meeting or call with the MP to further discuss the issue.

Coincidentally, Gale and I met the same week Kelloway joined the CBRM regional council meeting to discuss a number of items — including his efforts to establish a basic income pilot program in Nova Scotia.

Cape Breton-Canso MP Mike Kelloway attending CBRM virtual council meeting, 26 Jan. 2021

Cape Breton-Canso MP Mike Kelloway attending CBRM virtual council meeting, 26 Jan. 2021 (Source: YouTube)

After my interview with Gale, I went back to listen to Kelloway’s presentation to council, in which he noted that BI had been a “personal interest” of his pre-pandemic:

Simply put, in my opinion, no Canadian should have to worry about paying the bills, rent or putting food on the table.

Kelloway told council he believed the success of the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) during COVID proved that Canadians would benefit from “some sort of basic income.” He said he’s at the “research and development” stage of the pilot program, looking into the various models of BI, and told councilors he would “welcome their commentary.”

Councilors who took him up on this offer were very positive on the notion of BI — District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger says the possibility “has to be discussed” and told Kelloway he was “glad to hear” the MP was “working along those lines.”

District 8 Councilor James Edwards told Kelloway he thought the introduction of a BI was a “gimmee” for the federal government and thanked Kelloway and his colleagues for bringing “that file forward.”

Councilor Eldon MacDonald joined the chorus, saying he was “glad to hear they’re looking at BI” and that “COVID has taught us a lot about what BI can do to help people who are struggling in our communities.”

Gale is also pro-basic income:

Having received the CERB, I can tell you, it kept us afloat.

He agrees CERB has shown BI is “workable,” it’s just a matter of priorities:

Canada has to stop following the American model…Let’s look to the Nordic nations, and let’s look to how they handle their people. Let’s go for intelligence, not brashness, right? A society that actually cares [about] and nurtures and embraces people instead of, you know, casting them aside if they can’t make a buck.


Gale’s next letter — and there will be a next one — will see him changing tack. He wants to reach out to the Cape Breton diaspora:

What’s our biggest export from Cape Breton? Minds. Brain power. For a small island, we’re punching above our weight, if you look at it, when it comes to influence on the national scene.

Lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc, that have moved off the island.

That’s going to be my next avenue for this, is that I want to tap into the ex-pat community and say, “This is the reality of your island and I want you to bring pressure on our leadership to solve it — to solve this problem.”

His goal, he says, is to motivate all these people — the businesspeople, the elected officials, the expats — to “get together and discuss poverty and the causes of poverty on this island.”

Not in Nova Scotia, not in Canada, I want to know what we can do about Cape Breton. I believe that we’re a unique culture, and we have a unique economic environment here and we need to come up with a solution made here in Cape Breton.

And, Gale said, he has no doubt that Cape Bretoners are capable of finding such a solution:

That’s the way we are out West…I’ve seen Cape Bretoners, when we work together, accomplish feats that neither a machine nor beast could do…