Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Board blessings

Michelle Wilson campaign sign, Cape Breton Centre-Whitney Pier, 2021A reader sent along an interesting piece of correspondence received from the Sydney Downtown Development Association (SDDA) just prior to the provincial election.

Signed by board chair Jennifer Griffin, it concerns the executive director of the association, Michelle Wilson, and her foray into provincial politics. Griffin writes:

Due to Michelle’s hard work and dedication, she was approached to run in the next Provincial election. Last night, she was named the official candidate for the riding of Cape Breton Center – Whitney Pier…

As a board, we have given Michelle the blessing to maintain her employment with Sydney Downtown Development for the duration of time until election night, and beyond, should she not be the successful candidate. We are excited for her and encourage you to congratulate her on taking this step.

I’m having so many — often contradictory — thoughts.

On the one hand, I don’t have a problem with people retaining their day jobs when they run for office — how else could most people even think of running?

On the other hand, isn’t the SDDA supposed to be politically neutral? Shouldn’t this letter have stated Wilson had been approached to run by the Liberals (there is no excuse for not naming the party), that she had accepted the nomination and that “according to SDDA policy” she would be granted a leave of absence to campaign? That way people (like me) whose first thought is, “I wonder what would have happened had she announced she was running as a Marxist-Leninist?” would have their answer.

Instead, you get the very strong impression that this “blessing” is being bestowed because the board likes the Liberals who, in the lead-up to the election, announced millions to revitalize Charlotte Street. That’s not a good look for an association funded by a commercial tax levy and government grants.

As it happens, Wilson lost to the NDP incumbent Kendra Coombes, so will return to her role as executive director of the SDDA. She will also, apparently, return to her seat on the board of directors (I was just perusing the Registry of Joint Stock Companies), which means she serves as both an employee and a board member which is frowned upon in non-profit circles because of the obvious potential for a conflict of interest.

But that’s a worry for another day.


Chicago vs The Lake

I read this New York Times article about Chicago this week and it has made me realize, among other things, how little I know about Chicago.

I had no idea, for instance, that the original city was so low-lying that to lay sewer lines, they’d had to raise the existing buildings, sidewalks and streets:

Buildings in downtown were raised by as much as eight feet, an enterprise that required placing immense beams and jackscrews beneath their foundations. Then, a conductor would direct hundreds of laborers in the precisely choreographed turns of the screws to lift the structures out of the muck.

I did not realize that they’d reversed the course of the Chicago River so that it carried the city’s sewage away from — and not into — Lake Michigan, its source of drinking water:

They achieved this by dynamiting a 28-mile-long canal connecting the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River, which flows toward the Mississippi. It was a project typical of a city that, as one author described in 1898, “stands as a stupendous piece of blasphemy against nature.”

Raising buildings, Chicago

Source: Chicago History Museum

And I didn’t know water levels in the lake had been hitting such extremes this century — from an all-time low in 2013 to an all-time high in 2020, swinging six feet in seven years, a pattern that is expected to continue.

But what really struck me was the discussion of the city’s sewage treatment system (Dan Egan, the article’s author, uses “sewage” rather than the less graphic “wastewater.”) Egan writes:

Throughout much of the 20th century, storm-loaded sewers regularly overwhelmed Chicago’s sewage treatment plants, resulting in storm water and sewage (Chicago’s old-fashioned sewers carry both) being dumped straight into the river and canal.

It reminded me of something Matt Viva, the CBRM’s wastewater guy, told me back in 2017, which was that once the CBRM ensures all its sewage is being treated, its next concern will be storm water, because Sydney also has “old-fashioned sewers” that “carry both.”

In Chicago, the heaviest storms have overwhelmed even the river and canal system:

Which left two bad choices: Let the river and canal overtop their banks and flood city streets with sewage, or open the lock gates so the swollen, polluted river could again, albeit temporarily, tumble into Lake Michigan.

Since the 1970s, the city has been constructing:

…a multibillion-dollar system of sewage-storage tunnels and reservoirs. The idea is that, when rainstorms hit, the extra runoff can be safely warehoused. Once a storm subsides, all that storm water and raw sewage can be slowly treated and released, avoiding floods and also avoiding the release of untreated filth into the lake.

The tunnels, some a yawning 33 feet in diameter and running up to 300 feet below city streets, stretch 109 miles and collectively hold 2.3 billion gallons of water. A network of reservoirs holds roughly an additional 12 billion gallons and, once the entire project is completed by decade’s end, it will have the capacity to hold more than 20 billion gallons.

How big is that? Imagine a 30-foot-deep sewer lagoon roughly the size of two-and-a-half New York City Central Parks.

While the system has dramatically increased water quality in the river and lake, it’s still not big enough to handle the worst storms.

Reading this was sobering — as was watching recent reports of flooding in New York City and that high-rise collapse in Miami and wildfire destroying the town of Lytton, BC. Each event can be traced, to greater or lesser extent, to climate change and yet, here in CBRM we are merrily building on our waterfront and listing our community priorities as:

CBRM top 5 priorities

Are we in for a rude awakening?

(With thanks to the spectator who recommended this piece to me!)


9/11 Poems

Unrecovered: 9/11 Poems, Then As NowI had the pleasure of hearing Sean Howard reading from and discussing his newest book of poetry on the most recent episode of CBC’s Island Echoes with Wendy Bergfeldt. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be available online.)

I hesitate to write about poetry, not because I don’t appreciate it, but because I feel that good poetry has the effect of stripping away everything that is superfluous and unnecessary for the purpose of conveying meaning — and writing about it feels like piling all the superfluity back on.

On the other hand, listening to Howard discuss his frame of mind in writing the poems — inspired by the events of 9/11 — and his motivation for writing has thoroughly added to my appreciation of the work. Two phrases leapt out at me:

What I don’t want to do is settle for conventional commemoration in a way that denies the rawness that we need to remember…


One of my great terrors about conventional war remembrance is that it goes through a set of tropes and memes and routines and, at it’s worst…clockwork and then you tick the box of remembrance in a way.

I feel like I’ve witnessed a lot of box-ticking around the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and Howard’s book — Unrecovered: 9/11 Poems, Then As Now — is a good corrective.

(Gaspereau Publishing, 2021)


On Paper

The Winter WivesSticking with books, I would like to thank Donnie Calabrese and Alison Uhma of On Paper Books on Charlotte Street for last night’s evening with Linden MacIntyre.

MacIntyre was there to talk about his latest book, The Winter Wives, and he did, and I look forward to reading it, but the COVID-capacity crowd was also treated to some war stories about his time as a reporter in Sydney and — as you might imagine — I drank that stuff up.

One particular story — involving developers and dodgy deals and a defamation suit heard in Truro, of all places — struck me particularly because, as MacIntyre said, he was lucky enough to work for an organization like the CBC that had the resources and — perhaps more importantly — the willingness to fight lawsuits.

Being threatened with a lawsuit, however frivolous, when you don’t work for an organization with guts and deep pockets, is far less amusing, believe me. I have a story to tell about this and I hope one day to tell it in all its ridiculous detail. For now, let’s just say I learned a lesson — and it wasn’t to step back from asking hard questions, it was to carry libel insurance.

It’s really expensive, but it lets me sleep at night.

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