News

1. COVID and schools

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang at the COVID briefing, Dec. 13, 2021. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

In-person classes start in Nova Scotia schools today, and many people are understandably anxious.

Daily case counts are still high, but have perhaps plateaued, although no one really knows how many cases there are. Hospitalizations increased to 68 in hospital yesterday because of COVID, and there are about another 200 in hospital who either were admitted because of COVID but are now no longer considered contagious, or are in hospital for other reasons but tested positive during the admissions screening, or became infected in one of the dozen or so hospital outbreaks.

We’re told the hospital system is strained.

It’s impossible to make sense of the various official responses to the situation. Early Sunday morning, Halifax police issued tickets to 11 people partying together at a house on Bayers Road — that exceeded by one person the informal gathering limits imposed by Health Protection Act; the offence carries a $2,422 fine for each person.

A few hours earlier, hundreds of restaurants and bars across the city were seating and serving a constant rotating customer load of dozens of people.

With classrooms of up to 30 kids, in-person schools are deemed safe, but it’s considered too dangerous for 15 reporters and communications staff to attend a press briefing by the premier and chief medical officer of health in person.

I know the official response to this: the various protocols don’t have to be consistent with each other. Rather, each element of the public health measures is decided through its own risk assessment, balancing potential harm and benefit. It’s absolutely true that there are, for example, mental and physical health reasons to keep gyms open with distancing requirements. There is a real economic harm to workers that would come from shutting down all the restaurants and bars, especially since government no longer seems interested in giving financial support to workers sidelined by such closures. And come on, reporters, get over yourselves.

Still, the confusion is understandable.

As for schools, evidently Dr. Strang has decided that the harms done to children by not attending school in person outweigh the risks of COVID. It’s worth noting that he has made that calculation while all his counterparts in other Atlantic provinces have made the exact opposite assessment.

In some quarters, this decision is politicized: “Tim Houston is ordering Strang to keep the schools open.” I don’t believe this for a moment. Whatever you think of the school policy (or changes in testing protocols, or other Public Health policies), there’s no reason to think Strang would act contrary to what he believes is in the best public interest. He has more integrity than to follow an order he doesn’t agree with. (And what would be the downside of refusing such an order? Going public with such a refusal would only increase his standing in the community and put him in an excellent position to win a wrongful dismissal suit.) There’s no reason to think that Houston isn’t honest when he says he’s following Strang’s advice.

So, we’re left second-guessing Strang. And I honestly can’t come away with any certain assessment of his policies.

I was, however, struck by a comment he made at the last COVID briefing. Here’s the exchange he had with Canadian Press reporter Keith Doucette:

Doucette: Dr. Strang, I recall you previously expressing some time ago that you had some hope that we may have seen a plateau or approaching a plateau in terms of the number of infections. But obviously something has changed since then. I’m wondering what it is — is that the holiday season, we’re finally starting to see the numbers or the spread kick in because of the holiday season? Or is something else going on here?

Dr. Strang: Oh, we’ve had widespread for a couple of weeks, probably more than three weeks. We did see a peak a week ago related to Christmas. We saw a very short peak this last weekend, you know, a week after New Year’s. So, you know, we expected those, but we’re back down again, too. But still at very, you know, much higher daily case counts than is sustainable over the long term. So we still have a lot of work to do to slow the spread down and and get us through this Omicron wave. It will start to come down. At some point, those people who were vulnerable to being infected will have been infected. That’s the way, you know, epidemics work, and we will start to see this coming down in the next few weeks. But right now, I think we’re right in the middle of of the peak of the wave, and there’s still a lot of hard work to do ahead and as we’ve talked about, it’s creating substantive impacts, both from a workforce perspective and also the capacity of patients within our hospitals right now. So we have some challenging days ahead.

I’m hung up a bit about what “vulnerable” means here, but that aside, Strang is telling us that we must “slow the spread down” and “right now” and for the “next few weeks” there are capacity issues at hospitals. So it’s hard to understand why we couldn’t wait another week or two before starting in-person classes, as undoubtedly the schools will increase the spread of the virus.

I think Strang sees little threat to children themselves, and in the main (but not entirely) he’s probably right about that — most kids will handle a case of COVID just fine. But that doesn’t make schools “safe.” And it also doesn’t take into account that small percentage of children who are at greater risk, nor their family members and people in their households who are at greater risk.

We’ll see how this goes. The case numbers and hospitalization figures in the next few weeks might prove Strang completely right. Or not. Or so many teachers and staff are sidelined by Omicron that keeping the schools open becomes impossible. Or so many parents make an independent risk assessment and don’t send their kids to school that they in effect overturn the school policy.

I don’t know. I’m just an observer, and not an epidemiologist, a Public Health official, an education specialist, or even a parent. But I wouldn’t have taken this risk.

Some chief medical officers of health (but not Strang) and Anthony Fauci have said (essentially) that all of us are going to get COVID eventually. And the goal seems to be to “flatten the curve” such that not too many of us land in hospital at any one time.

As I write this, the province has announced that appointments for booster shots are now open for people 18 years old and older, for whom 168 days has passed since their second shot. I got my booster Friday, so I’m waiting another 10 days or so before I venture out into the world a bit more.

I just don’t understand the rush with schools.

(Copy link for this item)

2. Defunding police

A Halifax Regional Police officer blocks a road during the School Strike for Climate Change in Halifax on Sept. 24, 2021. — Photo: Zane Woodford

“Halifax police should be less involved in mental health response and traffic enforcement, they need better oversight, and the municipality should be spending more money on affordable housing,” reports Zane Woodford:

Those are some of the takeaways from a new report coming to the city’s Board of Police Commissioners on Monday.

The report, “Defunding the Police: Defining the Way Forward for HRM” is the work of the board’s Subcommittee to Define Defunding the Police, chaired by El Jones. The subcommittee held a public consultation session last summer, along with an online survey that received more than 2,000 responses.

As a definition of defunding, the authors, — Jones, Tari Ajadi, Harry Critchley, and Julia Rodgers — provide “four pillars of defunding:

  1. “Reforms to police practices, oversight, and accountability;
  2. “Reforms aimed at ‘detasking’ police and ‘retasking’ more appropriate community service providers;
  3. “Legislative, regulatory, and policy reforms intended to promote community safety; and
  4. “Financial reforms aimed at tying police budgets to clear performance metrics and encouraging public participation in municipal budgeting, with the ultimate intention of decreasing budgetary allocations to police and increasing allocations to community-based social services.”

The report goes on to make 36 recommendations directed to the board and/or Halifax regional council, all of which fit within those pillars.

Click here to read “Defunding report calls for better Halifax police oversight, ‘detasking,’ increased spending on affordable housing.”

The police commission is meeting at 12:30 this afternoon, and Woodford will be covering it via his Twitter feed.

(Copy link for this item)

3. Child care

Photo: Aaron Burden

“Friday’s announcement that eligible parents and caregivers will save 25% on child care fees retroactive from Jan. 1, and 50% by year’s end, was greeted with cautious optimism by advocates,” reports Yvette d’Entremont:

“It is historic. It is hard not to stand back sometimes and go ‘Oh God. They’re doing this. They’re investing and they are investing in the right things, they really are,’” Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia (CCPA-NS) director Christine Saulnier said in an interview on Friday.

“But we just want to not lose the bigger picture and ensure that it’s being done and rolled out the right way. That’s my goal.”

During a video conference with federal officials including the prime minister, the province announced it was ahead of schedule in its commitment to lower child care fees under the Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care Agreement announced last July.

Parents and caregivers will benefit from a decrease of 25% (on average) retroactive to Jan. 1, a savings of $200 a month for a toddler in child care. That fee reduction will be 50% by the end of this year.

“For parents, this means hundreds of dollars more in your pocket each month, whether to put healthy food on the table, or sign up the kids for soccer camp or after school activities,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during Friday’s conference. “If you’ve got two children, saving $400 a month is a big deal.”

Click here to read “‘It is historic’: Parents to receive immediate 25% reduction in day care costs, increasing to 50% by the end of the year.”

I feel compelled to respond to a small but vocal group of child care business owners on Twitter who frame the move toward universalizing child care in Canada as an “misogynist attack on women business owners.”

Such is our society that there are three different groups of (mostly) women with competing interests:
1. (mostly) women business owners
2. (mostly) women child care employees
3. (mostly) women parents

Of course any significant change in public policy is going to have winners and losers. No matter how we frame this discussion, some women will benefit and some women will potentially lose out. In the main, however, far more women will benefit by the move to nationalized day care.

I’ll note that when the province expanded the preschool program, some of the same business owners complained because their underpaid workers left the jobs to go work for the province.

I’m reminded that when Saskatchewan became the first province to make health insurance universal, many doctors decried it as an attack on free enterprise and actually went on strike. Thanks to a lot of supportive doctors elsewhere — including from the US — who moved to Saskatchewan to provide services, the strike was broken, and that eventually led to universal health insurance across the country.

In a capitalist system, one can profit by making a good or service scarce, underpaying workers, and having a cost structure that imposes an undue burden on consumers. None of that is good, especially when we’re talking about a needed service like child care.

Still, let’s recognize that through hard work and at considerable financial risk, many women built businesses to provide that needed service. That ain’t nothing, and their work should be recognized.

And there’s no reason to think that the transition as laid out by the Trudeau government is exactly perfect. This CBC article by Erin Pottie raises legitimate concerns, especially about the short timeline for day care owners to make a decision about how to transition their businesses.

But the Child Care Agreement is very, very good news.

(Copy link for this item)

4. Alexa McDonough

Alexa McDonough died Saturday.

“Perhaps the best way to understand the vital personal role Alexa McDonough — the first woman leader of a recognized political party in Canada — played in changing Nova Scotia and Canadian politics for the better is to remember those days in the early 1980s when she was the only New Democrat, the only woman, in a hostile Nova Scotia legislature,” writes Stephen Kimber.

Kimber kindly allowed the Examiner to publish an excerpt from his book Alexa! Changing the Face of Canadian Politics, which recounts the 1983 debate she sparked over secret fees being paid to MLAs for serving on mostly non-existent committees.

Click here to read “Alexa McDonough (1944-2022).”

(Copy link for this item)

5. Lindell Wigginton

Lindell Wigginton gets in position in his first NBA minutes as he waits for the opposing team to shoot free throws. Photo: NBA on TNT

“When she woke up on her birthday Thursday, Nicole Wigginton-Downey had no idea about the surprise her youngest of five sons had in store for her,” reports Matthew Byard:

Earlier that morning, unbeknownst to his family back in Nova Scotia, Dartmouth’s Lindell Wigginton underwent a physical exam in preparation for signing a two-way contract with the defending NBA champions, the Milwaukee Bucks.

Wigginton’s signing came just ahead of a home game later that night against the Golden State Warriors.

Wigginton played a year of high school basketball at Prince Andrew High School in Dartmouth before moving to Virginia to attend a prep school, Oak Hill Academy. From there, he played college basketball for two seasons for Iowa State before declaring himself eligible for the 2019 NBA Draft.

Wigginton ended up going undrafted but was quickly signed by then NBA champions, the Toronto Raptors. After playing in the 2019 NBA Summer League, his mother said Wigginton’s agent decided not to keep him with the Raptors “because they were already guard-heavy.”

From there, Wigginton signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves to play for their G-League affiliate team, the Iowa Wolves. Since then, he’s played two stints with the Wolves, as well as stints in the Israeli Premier League and the Canadian Elite Basketball League.

In a trade this past October, Wigginton ended up back in the NBA G-League, this time playing for the Milwaukee Bucks’ affiliate team, the Wisconsin Herd. Wigginton played 17 games with the Herd this season before signing with the Bucks on Thursday.

Click here to read “‘Best gift ever!’: Dartmouth’s Lindell Wigginton makes his NBA debut on his mother’s birthday.”

(Copy link for this item)

6. Michelin and paid sick leave

Back in 2018, Premier Stephen McNeil came to Pictou County to celebrate the latest Michelin expansion. Buried in paragraph nine of the news release announcement was the obligatory thank you to the Province of Nova Scotia “for its support”: this time a $3.56-million “innovation rebate,” as well as some unspecified additional cash from some often-picked provincial pocket for “training some of the new employees for these projects.” Nothing changes.

“On Monday, January 10, 2022 — with the highly contagious Omicron variant spawning more and more COVID-related illnesses and forcing more and more workers to take time away from their jobs because they’re sick, getting tested, getting vaccinated, taking care of ailing family members and the rest — Nova Scotia’s temporary paid sick leave program made a welcome, if probably still temporary return visit,” reports Stephen Kimber:

You might assume Nova Scotia’s largest private-sector employer — with more than 3,000 employees in three different plants scattered across the province — would be quick to make sure its workers were aware of this updated program and how to access it.

You would assume wrong.

“Michelin?” says the voice on the other end of the telephone with a laugh that is not intended to be funny. “Not a chance.”

Even before the new program was announced, a number of Michelin’s Nova Scotia employees had reached out to the Examiner to express their frustration with the company’s paternalistic, often capricious approaches to providing sick leave for its workers.

Click here to read “Permanent paid sick leave? Not a chance, and you can thank Michelin for that.”

(Copy link for this item)

7. William Sandeson

William Sandeson

“William Sandeson, awaiting his second trial for the murder of Taylor Samson, told jail staff he was ‘feeling homicidal’ and ‘having homicidal thoughts’ according to a court decision released Friday,” reports Zane Woodford:

Sandeson was charged with first-degree murder in 2015 after Samson, last seen entering Sandeson’s apartment, disappeared. In 2017, a jury convicted Sandeson of first-degree murder, but the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal later overturned that conviction.

As the Halifax Examiner reported in June 2020, the court ruled that Sandeson’s first trial should’ve been declared a mistrial after the traitorous conduct of a defence investigator came to light.

Sandeson was denied bail for the third time in October 2021, and according to Blair Rhodes’ reporting for CBC, he appealed that decision.

On Friday, the courts released a decision from Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Frank Hoskins, delivered orally on Monday, on a different legal battle of Sandeson’s.

Click here to read “William Sandeson reported ‘homicidal thoughts’ in jail.”

(Copy link for this item)


Government

City

Monday

Board of Police Commissioners (Monday, 12:30pm) — virtual meeting

Advisory Committee on Accessibility in HRM (Monday, 4pm) — virtual meeting

North West Community Council (Monday, 6pm) — virtual meeting

Tuesday

Halifax and West Community Council (Tuesday, 6pm) — virtual meeting

Province

Tuesday

Veterans Affairs (Tuesday, 1pm) —Women and Gender Diverse Veterans Issues, with Maya Eichler, via video conference

Special Committee to Review the Estimates of the Auditor General and the Chief Electoral Officer (Tuesday, 3:30pm) — video conference

House of Assembly Management Commission (Tuesday, 4pm) — video conference


On campus

Dalhousie

Monday

The Justice System: A Weapon or a Shield, How Relevant is That Today? (Monday, 6pm) — online panel discussion to commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. RSVP for the link.

Mount Saint Vincent

Black and Indigenous Speaker Series: The Healing Thereafter (Wednesday, 12pm) — Register now for Wednesday’s virtual panel discussion of intergenerational trauma and the soul wound resulting from residential schools and the Sixties Scoop.

Our emphasis is to unpack the causal arc that brings us to this current moment, the effects of intergenerational trauma on resultant contemporary conditions, and paths, programs, and policies of healing, resilience, and restoration. The focus of this presentation is healing of identity and a path forward through understanding the dynamics that perpetuate cycles of the soul wound.


In the harbour

Halifax
07:00: CSL Tacoma, bulker, arrives at Gold Bond from Tampa, Florida

Cape Breton

18:30: Resilient Warrior, oil tanker, sails from Point Tupper for sea
19:30: Aurviken, oil tanker, arrives at Point Tupper from Halifax


Footnotes

I woke up thinking about Mom, who died two years ago this morning.

She was lonely without my father, who had died two years before. She arranged to say good-bye to all eight of her living children, anticipating upcoming vacations and the complicated travel arrangements of one kid who lived in New York, another in Canada. She seemed to intuit that the world was about to change in profoundly difficult ways, and I’m glad she didn’t stick around to watch it unfold. She had lived a good, long, decent life. And she was tired. Time to go.

I still don’t know the physical cause of her death. It doesn’t much matter, I suppose. I do know she died as gracefully as she had lived, with poise and dignity, and I look back at her death as a moment of beauty in my own life.

The itinerary of her years is remarkable: she saw the Depression and World War II through the eyes of a child, and as an adult married a dapper pilot who went off to Korea and came back with what we would now recognize as PTSD. But she herself soldiered on, losing her first child at birth, raising eight more, always the solid stalwart of her church and community.

But it’s her inner life I think about the most. Her playfulness, her joy of games. her ability to find pleasure in tiny moments. Mom had a foundational sense of right and wrong, of justice. She was willing to accept the world (and her kids) as it was (and we were), knowing that she couldn’t truly understand it (or us), but by her mere insistent presence, she could budge it (and us) considerably more than a bit.

Miss you, Mom.

Mom

Subscribe to the Halifax Examiner

We have many other subscription options available, or drop us a donation. Thanks!

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

Join the Conversation

5 Comments

Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.
Cancel reply
  1. Seems like a particularly momentous time, reflected in today’s edition. Child care’s big leap forward; the Defunding Police report; 2 COVID stories about back to school in this most confusing of waves and the outsized regressive influence of Michelin on sick leave; remembering remarkable Alexa. And even a milestone good news story about Lindell Wigginton’s debut in the NBA.

    I have to say, regarding COVID, I’m glad I don’t have to make the decisions. This time around seems the least clear to me about the best way forward.

    Your essay about your mum was a touching final reflection Tim.

  2. I’d like to see some of the research on harms to children deprived of in-person learning. CBC mentioned a study today pointing to anxiety and depression as areas of concern, but didn’t link to it. Is this kind of research controlled for the psychological effects on the general population, student or not? Are the results compared with kids who are home-schooled?

    BTW, the government sometimes provides background documents to reporters as part of so-called technical briefings. If it’s doing so with the covid file, it would be great if some innovative news organization made all the material available to its readers.

  3. A forgotten group in terms of public health response is those with children born during the pandemic. Some of those children are now approaching two years old and their immune systems have basically been exposed to regular vaccines and very few common diseases, (cold, bacteria etc) because they have lived almost entirely at home, not been to child care, have had limited contact with other children etc . Their parents and caregivers have also had few common diseases to transmit to them and of course they have no immunity to COVID 19 either.
    How they will fair against COVID 19 when they are exposed to it is a complete unknown. We are seeing kids on ventilators in other parts of Canada and North America and one child <5 in ICU in NS. It's a huge gamble on a potentially very fragile population.

  4. Thank you, again, for all that you and your dedicated team do for us.

    Thank you, specifically, for your update and opinion on the school situation. I agree that it’s a calculated gamble by Dr. Strang. I hope the he is right on this.

    My fear is that several schools were closed prior to Omicron really taking hold here in NS. This lead directly to the decision to close early for the Christmas break. Omicron running rampant lead directly to the decision to delay re-opening and then extend the break another week for in-person classes. All this has me concerned and I expect school closures to be more the norm going forward and likely due to teachers and other staff being off due to COVID or exposure and isolation. Maybe not due to students being positive, but maybe.

    Thank you for sharing about your Mom. She sounds like a wonderful woman, if for no other reason than her son turning out quite well.

  5. Tim: thanks for your reflection on the current state of the pandemic and Dr. Strang’s gamble on opening schools this week – clarifying and prescient. This last month has seemed to turn upside down everything we had learned about testing, tracing and isolating cases so we could all be safer. It is a confusing time that causes considerable anxiety for many – parents, students, teachers, health care workers and those whose age or medical situation renders them vulnerable. Your work is appreciated! Thanks also for sharing about your Mom. No doubt you continue to draw strength from her influence still present in your life.