This morning I went to the Building our Future breakfast sponsored by Greater Halifax Partnership at the Delta Halifax. I have been critical of the entire “Bold Halifax” campaign from the start, but I went with something of an open mind—I didn’t think I would change my opinion of the campaign, but I thought I might better understand where the organizers were coming from. Maybe I would learn something.
One problem was obvious from the start: it was a self-selecting group. I think most everyone there was there on someone else’s dime—the $50 fee ($40 for GHP “investors”) was paid for by a government, a corporation, a college. I wrote off my $50 ticket as a business expense, too. It’s possible some of the Fusion members paid their own discounted $20 entry fee, but even so, there wasn’t much diversity in the room—I saw exactly two visible minorities, for instance. The room was a sea of people in business suits. Panel member Danny Graham commented on the lack of diversity, noting that a lot of people wouldn’t be at the breakfast because they were out working, “trying to survive.”
But the bigger problem was that I never found out, exactly, what “bold” is. And there was a basic contradiction at work: The entire premise of the breakfast was to encourage people to become bold, implying that boldness is a quality we lack but need to attain. But nearly every speaker told us that they were already bold.
For instance, Chronicle Herald president Mark Lever told us that his company had become bold when it decided to “stop looking at the past” and trying instead to innovate, even if that meant a few failures (that was an interesting spin coming just weeks after laying off a quarter of its newsroom). The fellow from RBC (sorry, didn’t catch his name) told us that the bank was being bold by opening storefront banks with iPads and using Facebook. Colette O’Hara, of the Red Balloon PR firm, said she has demonstrated her boldness by “breaking rank” and hugging people when they expected a handshake. Adam Hayter, of Fusion, said he boldly stayed in Halifax instead of moving out west after college. Graham told us that Tim Merry’s public consultations for the library were bold. Phil Otto of the Revolve PR firm said amalgamation was bold. An audience member said the city’s Solar City program was bold. Gloria McCluskey said Francis Fares is bold. “I’m all about being bold,” said the new GHP president Michele McKenzie. Deciding to build the new convention centre was bold, said Trade Centre Limited president Scott Ferguson.
So as I understand it, Halifax is woefully lacking in boldness as a collective, and it’s something we should aspire to, but everyone you ask is already bold individually. This is akin to the social dance swingers go through when meeting new people: Everyone is privately bold, but you can’t have the bold orgy until it’s out in the open.
Early on, moderator Fred Morley told us that Halifax has a lot of great things going for it: the universities, the hospitals, the scenery, etc. (he left out my favourite, the time zone). But, continued Morley, “the missing ingredient seems to be the right attitude.” Boldness, then, must be a mindset. This encouraged a stream of psychobabble from O’Hara, who mentioned a Buddhist parable about 1,000 paths leading to the summit, and it doesn’t matter which one you’re on, so long as you’re on one—boldness, then, is whatever we want it to be, so long as it’s going up. Of course then we’ve got to define what “up” means in the context of breakfast encouragement, so we’re stuck in a sort of analogical drift, the mountain analogy replacing the bold analogy, but bringing us no closer to understanding. We’re just as omless as when we started.
Nevertheless, O’Hara told us the “we shouldn’t be down at the bottom yelling at people, telling them that they’re on the wrong path.” Mayor Mike Savage echoed the sentiment, saying that “it’s not positive to call other people negative.” “Being bold is not about silencing criticism, but having solutions,” agreed Morley. But then Phil Otto ruined the moment by saying if Haligonians didn’t get on page, we’d end up “looking like New Minas,” which was very definitely a negative assessment of that valley town.
As the breakfast proceeded—and for 50 bucks, couldn’t we have had some table service?—I couldn’t stop wondering what the point of the exercise was. No one was writing anything down. There were no flow charts scrawled on butcher paper, no sticky notes, no plan, no strategy, to get from Point A boldlessness to Point B boldness.
The breakfast felt a bit like those cheerleading competitions where’s there’s not a team to cheer for, except the cheerleading squad itself. Now imagine a competition of the people cheering on the cheerleading squads, and you’ve got the experience in a nutshell.
And if there’s anything substantively different between this morning’s breakfast and a similar gathering a decade ago, I don’t know what it would be. Oh, that reminds me of this wonderful video of many of Halifax’s business community who attended the Tony Robbins event at the Metro Centre in 2008:
Some things never change.
Undoubtedly I’ll be accused of “negativity” and worse for writing this post, but I honestly can’t see the point of the bold exercise, unless it’s simply to transfer cash to a couple of PR firms.