The Project is Dead, But the Controversy Continues

Editor’s Note: This is Part III of a series that will continue until I find some answers or give up, whichever comes first. You’ll find Part I here and Part II here.


I had a some assistance with my research this week and was able to plow through two months (October and November) of 1984 Cape Breton Posts in my search for information about the abandoned plan to bury the power lines on Charlotte Street.

Both my research assistant and myself were what the politicians call “laser-focused” on our subject, but did take time to note the conviction of Colin Thatcher for murdering his ex-wife, the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the headings from the “World in Brief” section of the paper, which continued to be cryptically amusing. One edition featured the following:

  • Loses Appeal
  • Rake Refuge
  • Faces Charges
  • Prospects Dim
  • Donates Files
  • Denies Helping
  • Can Ease Cough
  • Plane was Spying

But down to business.

On Saturday, October 6, the Post‘s Between-the-Lines (BTL) column asked:

Who is going to pay the estimated $200,000 it will take to remove the machinery and materials from Charlotte Street after the downtown development reversal?

(In November, the same column would return to this subject, by which time the bill had climbed to $300,000 and the matter was said to be “heading for a court sequel.”)

Though the Charlotte Street development was generally considered dead on arrival, the political battle surrounding it continued. That same edition of the paper featured an interview with newly re-elected Cape Breton the Sydneys MP Russell MacLellan, responding to remarks by Premier John Buchanan, who’d claimed (as chronicled in last week’s installment of this series) that the development plan didn’t actually exist.

Russell MacLellan, Natalie MacLean, Vince MacLean, Doreen MacDonnell, Paul Wiseman

Russell MacLellan, Natalie MacLean, Vince MacLean, Doreen MacDonnell and Paul Wiseman in a photo from Vince MacLean’s nomination meeting.

MacLellan called the Premier’s attitude “destructive” and “dishonorable” and said that, not only did the plan exist, the federal money for it remained on the table.

MacLellan had a lot more to say about Buchanan’s government, to which the Post responded in an October 10 editorial headlined:

Dispute: MacLellan and Buchanan square off

MacLellan, said the Post, “has come out swinging against the government of Nova Scotia on two key issues, but he’s only half right to do so.”

The issue MacLellan got right, according to the paper, was the provincial government’s “lack of attention to development in Cape Breton.” MacLellan had said it was “reprehensible” of Buchanan—who had just called a provincial election for November 6—to be:

…saying, in effect, “I’ll patch up the steel plant to keep the city alive, providing Ottawa pays for it, but you’ll have to do with band-aid assistance till the city withers away. There’ll be no funding to strengthen Sydney’s future and no catalysts for development as was done for Halifax and Dartmouth and other provincial centers.”

Autographed photo of John Buchanan. (Source: eBay)

Autographed photo of John Buchanan. (Source: eBay)

MacLellan accused the Buchanan government of exercising “a policy of attrition” with respect to industrial Cape Breton, saying the premier had:

…messed around with the education system, leaving it less than it was, and closed hospital beds even though patients are sleeping in the hallways. This is not so much a government as a rearrangement of power in the Halifax-Dartmouth area.

Having granted all of that (“the MP makes some salient points”), the Post nevertheless took exception to MacLellan’s accusation that the premier was responsible for derailing downtown redevelopment plans for Charlotte Street:

The whole situation has been a terrible mess for the average citizen to try to sort through, and all the participants involved seem to deserve some of the blame for the resulting fiasco. Mr. MacLellan, for example, had no right to go ahead with his one-sided announcement of what was supposed to be a joint project under a provincial program. Can you imagine two sides of a business deal acting like that in the corporate world?

MacLellan, instead of trying to “patch things up” was now engaging in “a destructive exchange with the premier during a provincial election campaign,” allowing “partisan politics” to predominate over “the common good of the community” and:

Citizens here have a right to expect better than that from their elected leaders—all of them.

If the Post hoped this would end hostilities between the local pols, it was sadly mistaken.


A quick note on the council minutes I  mentioned last week: I had an opportunity to read the Sydney City Council minutes from 1983-84 (once again, I was hard pressed to stay focused on the subject of downtown development, but I’ll tell you about the other things that caught my eye on Friday). The minutes do suggest that council, as Sydney Mayor Manning MacDonald had stated, was not entirely up to speed on the downtown development plans MacLellan was championing.

John Kennedy

Source: Cape Breton Post microfilm, CBU

For example, during a meeting on 17 May 1984, council requested “a report” to “provide clarification on both the Mainstreet Program and downtown development.”

They also show that the political disputes raging in the pages of the Post did sometimes make their way into the council chambers. In November 1983, for example, Alderman John Kennedy, chair of council’s development committee (who would make an unsuccessful bid for the Tory nomination in Cape Breton Nova), rose on a “point of privilege” to demand:

That Mr. Russell MacLellan, MP, apologize to individual members of Council for the remarks accredited to him in the CB Post on November 24, 1983.

The motion carried, although how that qualified as a “Point of Privilege” or under what authority a municipal council could order a member of parliament to apologize I cannot say.

In truth, however, the council minutes from 1984 were mostly silent on the battles taking up so much space in the Post—and on the local CBC TV news program, Cape Breton Report, because we had local CBC television at that point (although there were fears we were about to lose it  due to Mulroney’s cuts to the corporation’s budget and, in fact, the station was closed in 1990). On 18 October 1984, the Post reported that a feature story by CBC reporter Allan MacKillop, tracing the entire downtown development saga from its beginnings, had irked the mayor. (I would very much like to view that report.)

The silence of the minutes is partly due to their style (they are just very dry, brief accounts of discussions, the Post‘s accounts were much more interesting) but also because the battles in question were largely between the Mayor and the feds and province, so let’s get back to the battlefield.


On 26 October 1984, Liberal MLA Vince MacLean, then fighting to retain his Cape Breton South seat, told the Post it was “ridiculous” for Premier Buchanan to “feign ignorance” about the Charlotte Street redevelopment project “when it was discussed in cabinet, and his own minister of development wrote letters encouraging Maritime Tel and Nova Scotia Power Corporation to order necessary materials.”

MacLean quoted from duplicate letters sent by Development Minister Rollie Thornhill on 2 May 1984 to Maritme Tel & Tel president Struan Robertson and NSPC president Louis Comeau:

The intent of this letter is to advise it is the intention of the provincial government to seek approval for a committment [sic] of approximately $3-million for the actual redevelopment of Charlotte Street.

Struan Robertson

I thought “Struan” was a typo, but it wasn’t. (Source: MT&T Annual Report, 1980)

MacLean said his “sources” told him the project “was indeed given tentative approval by cabinet” and “as is evident from the piles of materials stacked at the corner of Charlotte and Pitt streets, NSPC and MT&T did act on the minister’s written assurance.” Moreover, he said the provincial development department had spent:

…in excess of $10,000 to have Margaret Larson of New York design a program of entertainment and events that would keep shoppers patronizing the downtown stores while the heaviest construction was going on between late August and the end of October.

(I would really like to see that program—and to know who Margaret Larson is.) The MLA told the paper it was his understanding the federal money for the redevelopment project was still on the table.

A few days later on October 30, MacLean was back in the Post, claiming that Premier John Buchanan had been “sampling local business opinion on what effect killing the Charlotte St.—Waterfront redevelopment project would have on MacLean’s chances of re-election.”

MacLean said he was “amazed” when local business people informed him they’d gotten calls “from people in the provincial development department” but was “happy to say” that:

…all the individuals I talked to all let the government know that the people of Sydney don’t like what the premier is doing to this project. They told him he might as well forget about winning this seat and get that project going instead of being petty.”

"Don't Be Petty" MLA Tells Premier (headline from 1984 CB Post)

MacLean then said that he’d met with the Rocca Group—the New Brunswick developers whose plan for downtown Sydney the premier had recently announced he favored:

I went to Saint John and talked to Mr. Rocca and looked at the plan he has in mind. It’s a hotel complex and mall behind the Vogue Theatre and on the old Cape Breton Dairy lot over to Civic Centre. And while the premier keeps talking about the need for private investment, the Rocca plan relies almost entirely on federal-provincial government funding. Compared to the plan they’ve stalled for so long, the Rocca concept does nothing for Charlotte St. and very little for the waterfront.

Directly above the interview with MacLean was a story about his Tory opponent in Cape Breton South, Dr. Murdock Smith who, in classic Cape Breton style, also happened to be Mayor Manning MacDonald’s brother-in-law.

Under the headline “Smith Committed to Downtown Plan,” Smith was quoted as saying:

There is a great deal of smoke clouding the downtown development plan issue…The federal Liberals undoubtedly used this important program as a political football in the recent federal election to the disadvantage of businessmen in the downtown area.

Smith felt he could work with the new Conservative government in Ottawa and a re-elected Buchanan government to see the program to a successful conclusion.


Which brings us to November 1984.

On November 2, MacLellan was back in the Post, criticizing the province for delays coming up with its $150,000 contribution to the expansion of the McConnell Library as well as its failure to match federal funds for what he called the Sydney Forum refurbishment but what, by this time, pretty much everyone else (including the Post and Liberal MLA Vince MacLean) was calling Centre 200. MacLellan was particularly cross about Buchanan “denying knowledge” of the federal agreement that would have provided $8 million for Sydney’s downtown and waterfront redevelopment.

The next day was a Saturday, and Between-the-Lines had an item about the Mayor’s political inclinations and I think it’s about time to say this whole political spat becomes particularly bizarre when you know, as we do, that MacDonald would eventually join the Liberals, take over Vince MacLean’s Cape Breton South seat and become a minister with multiple portfolios in Premier Russell MacLellan’s cabinet. But that was a decade away. In 1984, “His worship” was “playing it cozy with Premier John Buchanan,” according to BTL, because he needed funding for Centre 200 and downtown development.

The gossip column also noted that Buchanan had “again participated in talks” with New Brunswick developer Pat Rocca and details about the Rocca plan for downtown Sydney could be expected “early in the New Year.”

The November 6 edition of the paper reported that Sydney Alderman John Nardocchio, chair of the library committee, was not happy about MacLellan’s library funding comments, telling the paper he’d “chased MP MacLellan for eight months for the federal funding of $135,000” for the library expansion.

November 6, you may recall, was election day, and the next day’s edition of the Post reported that Buchanan had won a third term in a landslide, leaving the Liberals “crushed and leaderless” (although this wasn’t strictly true, as Liberal leader Sandy Cameron, although he’d lost his own seat, had not resigned). Buchanan’s Tories took 42 of the 52 seats in the legislature. The Liberals were reduced from 12 seats to six, but one of those seats was Cape Breton South, where Vince MacLean had hung in (Murdock Smith had given him a run for his money, taking 5,049 votes to the MacLean’s 5,961). The NDP won a record three seats and Paul MacEwan was re-elected in his Whitney Pier seat as a member of the Cape Breton Labour Party.

Candidates from all four of Cape Breton's political parties.

Candidates from all four of Cape Breton’s political parties debate prior to the 1984 provincial election.

The November 8 edition of the paper found Mayor MacDonald defending his involvement in the provincial election as “minimal,” despite the candidacy of his brother-in-law. Answering accusations from MacLellan that his political machine had backed Smith against MacLean in Cape Breton South, MacDonald said:

I made no secret of the fact that the PC candidate is my brother-in-law and I did meet with h[im] and the premier on the need to get on with a number of projects.

November 9 brought front-page, big-type news of the Mulroney government’s plans to “Axe Billions in Spending Cuts.” One of the first victims of Mulroney’s axe was the plan to move 75 Health and Welfare Income Security jobs from Halifax to Sydney, as part of the previous Liberal government’s program of “decentralization.”

The next day’s paper featured a letter to the editor from the Toronto-based head of the National Citizens’ Coalition, congratulating the Mulroney government on its plans to privatize crown corporations and asking that “Air Canada, CN, CBC and Petro-Canada” be added to the list. (You will note the CBC is the only corporation on that list that remains government owned. The Citizens’ Coalition must be so pleased.)

Between-the-Lines opined that week that Buchanan would approve a downtown development project for Sydney but “maybe back off somewhat on Centre 200” because the Jeux Canada Games committee had been working hard to secure a stadium at UCCB and a “controversy at this time over two arenas five miles apart could wreck the games.”

The same column noted that Mayor MacDonald was:

…pleased with the meeting he had with developer John Rocca in Saint John last week. A plan for Sydney’s downtown redevelopment was discussed and another meeting is scheduled early in the New Year.


On November 19, things took another strange turn as Mayor MacDonald told the Post he wanted an inquiry into the downtown-waterfront development “debacle” by “an independent person appointed by council.”

Manning MacDonald

Manning MacDonald (Source: Cape Breton Post microfilm, CBU)

MacDonald, who said he was discussing details of the inquiry with the City Solicitor, told the paper that “the people of Sydney deserve answers” about what happened between the announcement of the project and “its demise in the midst of back-to-back federal and provincial elections.” The mayor said it was “very embarrassing” to have to say you don’t know when people ask you what happened.

MacDonald said he hadn’t written the project off, that he’d met with Provincial Development Minister Rollie Thornhill for an update and that  the minister had “promised to find out and get back to the City soon.”

The Mayor said he and the council were to meet soon with the Downtown Parking and Development Corporation (DPDC), the organization established to oversee Sydney’s Mainstreet program, for a “full discussion of what’s happened.”

MacDonald said the $400,000 engineering study for the Charlotte Street work was done under the Mainstreet program, but it was his understanding that the rest of the project would be funded “under a separate arrangement.” The City, he said, had contributed $96,000 to the study, after which it was “frozen out” of federal and provincial negotiations.

His proposed inquiry would try to find out where things went from there, determine who authorized the ordering of materials by Maritime Tel & Tel and Nova Scotia Power (this, I have to note, was the first time I’d seen it spelled out that these corporations had ordered materials—presumably, the materials that were sitting on the corner of Pitt and Esplanade), who gave the go ahead to call tenders, how the $8 million waterfront development entered the picture “without council knowing about it” and who had a copy of the federal-provincial agreement.

MacDonald, who didn’t want the inquiry misconstrued as a “witch hunt,” noted that council had the right, under its City Charter, to get this information. It could even, he said, issue subpoenas and examine witnesses under oath if necessary.

I’m going to end this section here because I think we all need a moment to digest that last bit of information.


On November 25, the Post‘s John Campbell (a boxing fan) reported that the “bitterness” over stalled downtown development that had surfaced during a recent “City Council harangue over the waterfront-downtown development debacle” was in evidence again at a Friday press conference called by MP MacLellan:

What developed was closer to a political pier sixer with the press on the sidelines and politicians from all three levels of government in the ring.

(A quick aside: a “pier sixer,” also known as a “Pier-Six brawl,” has nothing to do with Whitney Pier, it’s a term that’s apparently been applied to “hard fought boxing contests” for nearly a century. Ian Douglass of the Splice Today blog went to some effort to trace the origins of the expression to a famous bare-knuckle fight on the Amos Street Dock on the Hudson River in New York, which he describes in entertaining detail.)

During the “fractious” and “stormy” session, an “obviously extremely angry” Vince MacLean “lashed out at the mayor,” an “angry” Alderman Alex MacInnis complained the information presented by MacLellan should have been shared earlier “when it would have done some good” and the mayor “grumbled” about the city being kept in the dark on the projects.

MacLellan had called the press conference to “trace the history” of the downtown-waterfront development from the beginning, which he dated to the autumn of 1982, when “Premier John Buchanan approached him about federal funding for a Sydney development with New Brunswick developer Pat Rocca.”

Buchanan never got back to him on that one, said the MP, and while council went of on the trail of Centre 200, he took an interest in developing the Charlotte St. renewal project in cooperation with MLA Vince MacLean and the Downtown Parking and Development Corporation…

MacLellan “introduced a series of letters tracing a pattern of communication between himself, the corporation and the provincial development department as the planning proceeded.”

The MP said he feared if the deal wasn’t signed before the federal elections and the Liberal government was defeated, “there’d be no evidence after a Tory election win that it ever even existed.”

As it turned out, the province refused to sign, although MacLellan wrote the premier assuring him he would not claim any political points. A similar letter was sent to the mayor, asking him to press the premier to sign. Neither letter was answered. (The mayor said he’d tried to reach MacLellan by phone in the week before the election, with the intention of making a joint approach to Buchanan, but couldn’t make contact.)

In addition to the letters, MacLellan produced a copy of the federal-provincial subsidiary agreement that would have financed the $12 million project, had the province agreed to sign. The Post noted that the copy of the agreement distributed to reporters did not bear the signature of then-DRIE Minister Ed Lumley. MacLellan said it was because the originals were “in the DRIE regional office in Halifax.” But, he said, the signed document had been in Sydney in August 15 with the federal minister of state for Photo of Jim MacCormackdevelopment who had “offered to meet development minister Roland Thornhill at his convenience to arrange the signing.” (MacLellan, who was, it should be remembered, a lawyer by trade, produced a copy of a telex to that effect.)

MacLellan said that, as far as he was aware, the $8 million federal commitment (“approved by the previous cabinet and treasury board over the opposition of Ed Lumley”) still stood. He admitted “federal foot dragging” had delayed negotiations with the province and that it wasn’t until Deputy Prime Minister Allan MacEachen intervened with Prime Minister John Turner that the deal was settled “in Sydney’s favor.”

Once the dust from the pier-sixer had settled, it was generally agreed, as a companion story suggested, that the only way forward was the mayor’s planned inquiry.

The following Saturday’s edition of Between-the-Lines announced “sweeping changes” at the Downtown Parking and Development Corporation, the group, headed by Sydney businessman Bob Martinello (whom MacLellan had singled out for praise during his press conference). The “top guns” were out, according to BTL and several directors would be replaced. Names mentioned for possible board seats included Sydney businessmen Harvey Webber, Bill Sidney and Bill Young.

The column then reported that the mayor had asked the city’s community services director, Jim MacCormack, to “carry out an investigation into the downtown development debacle.” But the following Monday, a Post reporter offered a corrected version of this: the Mayor had asked MacCormack to “lay groundwork” for an inquiry. MacCormack would be asked to gather “all the readily available information” about downtown and waterfront development and “lay out some guidelines” for areas to be covered by an inquiry. This information would go to council which would decide whether it wished to proceed.

And that’s where things stood at the end of November 1984, giving me the chance to end on an—admittedly rather low-key— cliffhanger.