The Cape Breton Partnership Revisited

As noted elsewhere this week, I’ve been curious about the appointment of Carla Arsenault as principal of the Marconi Campus of the NSCC, but I found I couldn’t think about Arsenault, the former president and CEO of the Cape Breton Partnership, without thinking about the organization she headed for three years, hence this sidebar article.

The Cape Breton Partnership — officially the Cape Breton Business Partnership Inc — is “Cape Breton-Unama’ki’s private sector-led” but publicly funded “economic development organization.”

The group claims over 150 “investors” including both “companies and organizations.” The online directory shows companies like Emera, Cabot Links, Eastlink and Port Hawkesbury Paper but the term “organization” is doing some pretty heavy lifting, covering First Nations (like Membertou and Eskasoni), municipalities (like Inverness, Richmond and the Town of Port Hawkesbury), provincial government entities (like Casino Nova Scotia and Nova Scotia Lands) and federal entities (like ACOA and Parks Canada).

It’s like somebody had the bright idea to open the Chamber of Commerce to government.

The Partnership’s 19-member board, mind you, is made up entirely of representatives of the private sector. (You might argue that Jennifer Martin of Membertou is not private sector, but under “Chief and CEO” Terry Paul the line between the First Nation and the Corporation is pretty blurry.)

CB Partnership Board -- 2020-2021

The Partnership’s key role is as service provider to Cape Breton’s Regional Enterprise Networks, or RENs, of which there are two: the Cape Breton REN (CBREN), serving  the First Nations of Membertou, Eskasoni and Wagmatcook; the Municipalities of Inverness, Richmond and Victoria and the Town of Port Hawkesbury; and the CBRM REN, serving the CBRM — minus Membertou and Eskasoni.

The REN boards come up with “strategic plans” which the Partnership executes.

Except the REN boards are derived from the Partnership board, so in effect, the Partnership both drafts and executes the strategic plans. The province and municipalities. in theory, have final say on those plans through Liaison and Oversight Committees, but the CBRM Liaison and Oversight Committee hasn’t met since January 2019.

Basically, the system allows the region’s businesspeople to decide how provincial and municipal economic development money is spent — and that’s not a bug, that’s a feature, as Mark Peck, an advisor with the Department of Municipal Affairs told me in 2019, the whole idea is to “let business do business.”

Never mind that they’re doing business with public money.

Or that it’s virtually impossible to imagine any other group being granted such a privilege. (Imagine recipients of social assistance or tenants of subsidized housing being permitted to decide how any of that government money was spent.)

The Cape Breton Partnership does raise money from its “investors.” According to Acting President and CEO Tyler Mattheis, investor levels “range from $500 to $5,000 and up,” depending on whether you want to be a Platinum, Gold, Silver or Bronze investor. (There’s no explanation as to what that investment gets you, although it seems fair to assume that whatever it is, you get more of it for $5,000 than you do for $500.)

But if all 150 “companies and organizations” were to invest $5,000 (which they don’t, there are only four “platinum” level investors) the total — $750,000 — would pale in comparison to what the provincial government alone put into the Partnership in 2020-2021, namely, $4.2 million.

So I think I’m within my rights to call the Cape Breton Partnership publicly funded.

And yet, completely unaccountable to the public.


Board games

I asked Mattheis the names of the CBRM REN board members (I’d been advised to do so by provincial government spokesperson Gary Andrea, who told me only that the members came from the Partnership board.)

As of press time, Mattheis hadn’t responded and I can’t find the board members listed online.

Because the CBRM REN involves just one municipality, it isn’t subject to an inter-municipal agreement, like the other provincial RENs, and that seems to mean it doesn’t have to be incorporated and listed in the Joint Stocks Registry. (Andrea told me the Partnership “oversees” the CBRM REN, whatever that means.)

The Cape Breton REN is registered and its board looks like this:

  • Blaire Martell (Lobsters ‘R’ Us Seafood)
  • Osbourne Burke (Victoria Co-op Fisheries Ltd.)
  • Jennifer Martin (Membertou)
  • Allan Eddy (Port Hawkesbury Paper)
  • Steve Parsons (General Manager at Eskasoni and District 7 Councilor for CBRM)
  • Cheryl Smith (former executive director of the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre)

Martell, Osbourne and Martin are current and Parsons and Smith former CB Partnership board members.

And can we take a moment to consider the many hats of Steve Parsons?

He is the general manager of Eskasoni FN, a CBRM councilor and a member of the board of the REN to which Eskasoni — but not CBRM — belongs.

Is it possible to imagine a potential conflict of interest here? Well, there’s already an obvious one, unrelated to the REN. Eskasoni is invested in Novazone, the logistics park attached to Albert Barbusci’s proposed Sydney Harbour container terminal. So any time Parsons, the councilor, votes on matters related to Novaporte, it’s fair to ask whose interests he’s looking out for – those of his CBRM constituents or those of Eskasoni Corporate? He should probably recuse himself from such decisions, but he doesn’t — he voted, for example, in June 2021 to extend Barbuci’s “exclusive” contract with the municipality after speaking emphatically in favor of it.

But if Parsons has a conflict of interest, he’s not the only one. The Partnership, which frequently commissions consultants, has five of them on its board.

I asked about such potential conflicts in 2019 when I spoke to Mark Peck and he seemed unconcerned:

Peck told me that he would imagine that if a board member had a conflict — say, for example, they worked for a consultancy that would be likely to bid for a contract the REN was contemplating — they would recuse themselves from any discussion or decision-making on said contract. “[N]o different than municipal council,” said Peck.

Which may be the way the Partnership operates but who actually knows? Unlike a municipal council, the board does not meet in public nor does it publish the minutes of its meetings.

In lieu of presenting annual financial statements or an annual report, it provides a “Year in Review” — a piece of fluff outlining its various “accomplishments.” The most recent available online is from 2019.



What the Partnership — like the long line of economic development organizations before it — doesn’t really do is develop the local economy. Decades of “initiatives” have left the CBRM with elevated child and family poverty levels, high unemployment and a weak commercial tax base.

The Partnership accidentally underlined the futility of much what it does with the recent launch of a buy-local campaign that was initially launched in the late 1990s by the Cape Breton County Economic Development Authority (CBCEDA) as “Think Cape Breton First,” then rebooted in 2014 by Business Cape Breton as “Cape Breton First,” and now rides again as “#Cape Breton First” (or #CAP-Breton En Premier” or “#Ceap Breatain An Toiseach” or #Unama’ki TMK”).

They even hired the same creative agency that revamped it in 2014 to revamp it again:

And they threw in a video about shopping Cape Breton First that I swear is narrated by Lisa Raitt — who lives in Ontario. A video that has been viewed 325 times (twice by me) since September 2020.

As Tim Bousquet noted Tuesday (in a fascinating thread about Cognizant, the latest company to receive a payroll rebate from Business Nova Scotia):

[I]nvest in people where they live, give them affordable and debt-free educational opportunities, create collectively and community owned enterprises, provide easy access to cheap capital, and watch people succeed on their own terms.