Q2 2021: COVID, Tattoos and Affordable Housing

The Spectator‘s coverage this spring was varied, to say the least. From Albert Barbusci’s nuclear waste deal, to the workings of the Verschuren Centre to the province’s third wave of COVID with a variety of stops in between, including a feature I count among my all-time favorites — the one about Milly Brown’s tattoos — and a series of articles on an issue that might be the most important of the year, affordable housing.



COVID shouldered its way firmly back into these pages early in April, by way of District 1 Councilor Gordon MacDonald’s motion — ultimately defeated — that council send a letter to the provincial government supporting 10 days of paid sick leave for workers.

Also making headlines — via Radio-Canada’s investigative news show Enquête — was Sydney’s favorite port promoter, Albert Barbusci, who turned out to be assisting former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in his negotiations to bury Japanese nuclear waste in Labrador.

Back here at home, I took a hard look at the Verschuren Centre — formerly part of CBU, now a standalone not-for-profit tech incubator — and found lots of things that made me go, “Hmmm…” (And really, I haven’t stopped looking hard at this province’s “startup” ecosystem ever since.)

Illustration of gastropub, downtown Sydney NS

Soure: Downtown Sydney Report by Ekistics Design https://www.cbrm.ns.ca/images/Planning/DowntownSydneyReportbyEkisticsMay2017.pdf

I wrote about the connections between the Atlantic Provinces and Appalachia, announced the possible arrival of a brew pub on Charlotte Street, and tangled with an anonymous Twitter user who had:

…identified me — quite erroneously, as it happens — as the type of person who “wears three masks” and “watches CNN 24/7” and needs to do some “research” and discover this disease has “a 99% recovery rate” and therefore it’s time to “end the lockdown.” If you’re that person, I have no idea what you’re doing right now and I don’t think I want to know.)

Our interaction ended when I stopped doing my daily COVID updates.

The CBRM decided at the end of the month it would waive the $3,500 fee it wanted to charge a citizen for an access-to-information request.

In other news, I was trying to learn Gaelic in April, using Duolingo, and I was really into it but, as with so many things that are not work- or subsistence-related, I let it drop. Am toying with beginning again over the holidays, but no promises.



The last week of April saw the beginning of Nova Scotia’s third wave of COVID, so I came out of retirement and covered a couple of updates with Premier Iain Rankin and Dr. Robert Strang. On April 26, the province reported 66 new cases:

Rankin and Strang announced tighter restrictions across the province, including asking people not to travel outside their own communities unless it was “absolutely necessary.”

NS Premier Iain Rankin and Dr. Robert Strang, COVID update 2021.04.26

NS Premier Iain Rankin and Dr. Robert Strang, COVID update 2021.04.26

The next day, April 27, Strang and the premier announced a two-week, province-wide shutdown. There were 96 new cases of COVID-19 and 419 active cases. Of these new cases, 90 were in the Central Zone, 3  in the Eastern Zone (including one at Sydney Academy), 2 in the Western Zone, and 1 in the Northern Zone. There were 11 people in hospital, including 3 in ICU.

At that point, 283,591 Nova Scotians had received their first dose of vaccine, 35,002 had had two doses and Public Health had just opened up appointments to people aged 55 and over.

The province processed 20,000 tests on April 26.

I thought it would be interesting to compare that to Monday’s data. The province announced 114 new cases but I can’t tell you how many active cases, other than that there were more than 379, because of delays with data entry. Of the new cases,  55 were in Central Zone, 52 in Eastern Zone, 5 in Western Zone and 2 in Northern Zone. (The Eastern Zone cases are being driven by the outbreak at St. FX.) There were 6 people in hospital, including 2 in ICU — there were no hospitalizations in the Eastern Zone where most of those infected are described as young, fully vaccinated people experiencing mild symptoms.

The Omicron variant has arrived in NS (40 cases have been identified) and Premier Tim Houston and Dr. Strang announced tighter restrictions, chiefly physical distancing, gathering limits and mask requirements.

As of December 12, the province had administered 1,681,621 doses of COVID-19 vaccine — 790,778 Nova Scotians had received their second dose, and 46,537 had received a third dose.

The province processed 5,304 tests on December 12.



In May, an email from Montreal-based researcher Jamie Jelinski put me onto the story of his battle to view exhibits at Québec’s Musée de la civilisation. Those exhibits included tattoos taken from the body of a young woman — originally from Sydney — who was murdered in Montreal in 1929. This story was easily one of the most interesting I covered this year. I spoke with Jelinski recently and his battle continues, but he’s made some discoveries related to Mildred Brown, the woman in question, and I’ll be doing a follow-up story with him in the New Year.

Tattoos attached to wooden board

A screenshot from the “Portes Ouvertes” video showing the five tattoos, including Milly Brown’s American flag.

Albert Barbusci, who hadn’t spoken with CBRM council for “over a year,” announced he would be providing an “update” on his Sydney container terminal project and I, realizing he had only eight months left in his “exclusive” contract with the municipality, put a countdown clock on the front page of the Spectator. This would prove to be premature. The update happened in camera, the reason given for the secrecy being “contract negotiations” but immediately following the session, Mayor McDougall told the CBC’s Tom Ayers they hadn’t discussed Barbusci’s contract. The meeting was about Barbusci’s crusade to get the various levels of government to fund repairs to the rail line.

Afterwards, according to District 1 Councilor Gordon MacDonald, councilors received emails from Port CEO Marlene Usher and Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Kathleen Yurchesyn, “castigating them, in Usher’s case, for their failure to show ‘true leadership’ on the port issue and encouraging them to support Barbusci’s call for the government to repair the rail line.” It was clear from the comments made by some councilors that Barbusci did not provide any new information — like, the names of shippers — during the update.

May also found me taking a deep, deep dive into the CBRM’s 2021-22 budget, looking into Parks and Buildings, Roads, Rolling Stock and Water. Super wonky, I know, but I really enjoy this stuff.

And it was also in May that Rob Csernyik’s four-part series on Sydney’s Casino at 25 won a Digital Publishing Award for Best News Coverage (Community Publication), a national honor.

There were more tempests in the Port of Sydney teapot, as the CBRM’s nominating committee declined to reappoint board chair Jerry Gillis and vice-chair Al Pendergast and board members Glen Murrant and Troy Hulme resigned in protest.

I got caught completely by surprise when CBRM council suddenly began considering a proposal for a new court facility attached to Centre 200 (and I wasn’t alone), so after an initial piece discussing the proposal, I spoke to then-Minister of Municipal Affairs (and MLA for Sydney-Whitney Pier) Derek Mombourquette, a self-declared supporter of the Centre 200 project and Greg Callahan of Basketball Cape Breton who told me they’d been as surprised as anyone by the announcement.



June saw the arrival of two reports on affordable housing in this province, one from the Housing for All Working Group of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) in Nova Scotia, the other from the province’s Affordable Housing Commission. I compared and contrasted the two reports, locating the fundamental difference between them in their characterization of housing. The Housing for All Working Group declared it a human right. The Affordable Housing Commission — with four, Halifax-based developers in its ranks — was less certain:

The invaluable input we’ve received from stakeholders often reflected two views about housing, which are sometimes considered to be opposites of each other. The first is that adequate housing is one of the most basic needs, and therefore should be recognized as a human right. The other is that housing is a strategic sector of economic growth. Discussions on this topic can be polarizing, but critical to understand. We heard from experts around the world that both views must be integrated to effectively address Nova Scotia’s housing crisis and should not be viewed as mutually exclusive. Both concepts are fundamental to tackling our deep housing challenges and should shape government policies and stakeholder actions in the future.

The commission report also produced my favorite graphic of 2021:

scale with "human rights" on one side and "economic driver" on the other


Air Canada — the airline local “stakeholders” were urging the feds to bail out back in January — caught some flak when it was revealed that even as it was looking for government assistance, it was paying out $10 million in bonuses to its top brass.

Air Canada did get its bailout, of course, and one of the conditions attached to it was that it restore service to small markets, like Sydney. It brought back service to Toronto in late June and service to Halifax and Montreal in August. But a couple of weeks ago, it announced it will be suspending its Halifax service “indefinitely” in January due to low passenger counts. I drove to Halifax a couple of times this fall and both times it struck me that the faster the trip gets — and when the current twinning work is done, it will be even faster — the less attractive flying will be. I have to think that’s a factor. I mean, besides cost.

Representatives of the Port of Sydney and the port board met with the CBRM council to try to improve their frosty relations. I watched the whole dang thing and decided the best thing to do was to provide some context for the things Port CEO Marlene Usher said, context, as I noted, not being her strong point. So I filled in the background on the navigational aids — necessary to make the deepened harbor channel , the one dredged in 2012 — navigable. And I also provided context on the issue of harbor bottom ownership, a much more nuanced issue than Usher would have us believe.

This was the month Rob Csernyik’s four-part series on Sydney’s Casino at 25 won the Excellence in Digital Journalism: Enterprise/Longform Atlantic Journalism gold award.

Andrew Prossin (detail Tom Ayers, CBC, photo)

Andrew Prossin at helipad launch, (Detail from Tom Ayers/CBC photo)

Andrew Prossin of One Ocean Expeditions (OOE) made a cameo appearance in Sydney for the grand opening of our $100,000 helipad. OOE, a high-end polar cruise operator, sought creditor protection last year and narrowly avoided bankruptcy when the Supreme Court of BC approved its restructuring proposal in October 2020. Prossin’s financial woes began when a Russian vessel he was leasing, the Akademik Ioffe, ran aground in the Canadian Arctic in 2018. OOE is pursuing the vessel’s owner, Russia’s Shirshov Institute of Oceanography, for US$8.3 million in damages and in November 2021, Danish authorities detained the vessel due to the legal claim (apparently a first attempt to seize the vessel, in Portugal in 2020, failed). Prossin has missed the payments to creditors promised as part of his restructuring proposal and does not seem to have resumed cruises in 2021. Nor is there any sign of the zodiac tour company Port of Sydney CEO Marlene Usher said Prossin was planning for Sydney harbor.

This month saw CBRM council approving a three-freaking-year extension to its exclusive contract with Sydney Harbor Investment Partners (SHIP). I smacked my head against my desk for awhile, then deleted my SHIP contract countdown clock, then discovered that the company funding Membertou’s investment in SHIP — the investment that had apparently encouraged Mayor Amanda McDougall to believe the project had a future — had been placed in receivership. The Bridging Finance saga has yet to reach a conclusion; the receiver, PwC is still reviewing bids to buy the company’s assets, but whatever conclusion is reached will have implications for Membertou and SHIP — although Membertou Chief (and “acting CEO”) Terry Paul told me he wasn’t concerned.

I ended the month writing about affordable housing again — specifically, what Nova Scotia could learn from Vienna’s “Red Housing,” the problem with asking the private sector to solve the housing crisis and the phenomenon that is financialized housing.

I also reported on the tired little list of “priorities” the CBRM produced during its closed-door sessions in at the Lakes Golf Course and Resort in March.