Stephen McNeil at July 9 briefing. (Communications Nova Scotia)

Quick question. Does Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil believe in Section 2(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is to say freedom of association, or, more precisely, the right of workers to freely organize and be meaningfully represented by the union of their choice?

Next question.

Let us begin from the latest fronts of McNeil’s war on workers and their unions.

Last Wednesday evening shortly before 8pm at the scale house near the Fort Lawrence crossing of the border between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, an unarmed Nova Scotia government compliance officer conducting a routine inspection was physically assaulted by a truck driver. The driver, in the words of Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union President Jason MacLean, “got angry and went after [the officer] and grabbed him by the neck and assaulted him.”

Two nearby conservation officers intervened and held the man until police could arrive. He has since been charged with assaulting a peace officer and breach of conditions.

Why did the driver get angry? “I can’t make it up why the person got upset,” MacLean said, reasonably enough, “but one could figure, maybe they waited a long time at the border, [but] maybe they didn’t.”

Since the opening of the Atlantic Bubble on July 3, travelers, including on-the-clock truck drivers, have faced significant delays at the border. On Thursday, CTV reported delays of up to three hours, creating havoc for essential workers with jobs on the opposite side of the border, as well as for commercial drivers. “Some truck drivers say they are being held up for hours and are missing their delivery times, prompting calls for a clearly marked and enforced lane for truckers only.”

As for the compliance officer, MacLean reported he was shaken up and sore as a result of the attack. “This is something that has been ongoing with this group of workers, our vehicle compliance officers, for some time,” he told the CBC. The officers work alone and are equipped with only a phone. “We’ve been advocating for them to have more defensive weapons, such as pepper spray or batons or things of that nature, not to go out and enforce anything on people, but to be able to protect themselves if a situation like this does arise.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the incident prompted questions at the premier’s COVID-19 briefing the next day, including from CTV’s Natasha Pace. (Their exchange starts at the 12:23 mark and continues to about 14:15.)

YouTube video

Initially, McNeil’s response was what you might expect/hope. He called the assault “concerning” and said, “I do want to thank the tremendous work that has been happening by the members of the public service, and I continue to look forward to work with them,” and blah blah blah.

But Pace, citing three or four incidents in the past several months in which officers had been attacked, followed up by asking if the premier was prepared to talk with the union about “providing more training, providing more protective equipment that they say workers need?”

At which point, a testy premier pivoted from issue deflection to an aggressive attack on the union: “To me, the union has looked at every opportunity to complain and looked to divide,” he declared. There is nothing new in this. From the day he was elected, McNeil has set out to destroy the union, which represents the majority of Nova Scotia’s public sector workers.

Then at the end of the news conference — as my colleague Tim Bousquet noted in Friday’s Morning File — McNeil returned, unbidden, to his favourite target. (This soliloquy begins at 30:24.) “There are those out there who thrive on the negative, who misinform to suit their own purposes, and who distort the facts to divide us. Let’s not let that happen.”

Uh… about that call for more training, more protective equipment? “Have a great weekend,” the premier declared. “Stay positive and stay safe.”

Thanks for that.

Last week, we also learned letters of discipline had been placed in the personnel files of each unionized Nova Scotia Crown attorney who participated in last fall’s job action to protest government legislation.

That legislation, unilaterally and without consultation, revoked the Crowns’ right to binding arbitration, which its association had won in the previous round of collective bargaining as a trade-off for accepting a government wage restraint package.

But as soon as the prosecutors indicated they would seek arbitration in this round of bargaining to settle their going-nowhere negotiations with the McNeil government, the government smashed down its legislative hammer and took away their “right.”

While the government did pass the new law despite two days of protests and job actions by the Crowns, it didn’t proclaim it. Instead, it immediately agreed to return to the bargaining table and negotiated a much more favourable contract than the one the Crowns had previously rejected. Justice Minister Mark Furey even publicly apologized for incendiary and “inappropriate” comments he’d made about the prosecutors and the work they do.

All good. All done. Back to work.

Not quite. In April of this year in the middle of what was supposed to be the all-hands-on-deck pandemic response, Laura Lee Langley, Nova Scotia’s public service commissioner, quietly sent letters to each of the Crowns. Without referring to the events that had led to their protest or its purpose, Langley wrote:

“This behaviour is considered insubordinate and unprofessional; it is unacceptable and must not reoccur… Additionally, as a civil servant, you owe a duty of loyalty to your employer and are expected to support the efforts of our elected government to develop and implement law and public policy. Instead actions of the [Nova Scotia Crown Attorney Association] were harmful to the trust and confidence of elected officials and the citizens we serve… I have determined that written discipline is warranted under the circumstances.”

While Langley signed the letters — which now become damaging additions to each lawyer’s personnel file — we can reasonably assume she didn’t decide to send those letters on her own.

They were yet another Stephen McNeil punishment targeting unionized workers who dared to question him or his government.

Last week, a lawyer for the Crowns announced they are asking for a judicial review of the government’s action.

And so it goes.

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. If anyone employed in this province believes the present Premier would support their welfare they are fooling themselves. It is plainly obvious MacNeil would literally kill (or at least have anyone badly beaten) to have a province free of unions, contracts and employee rights.

    When is the next election?

  2. He comes from an authoritarian family and lifestyle. I do not know why anyone is surprised that he tends to think and act in that same ilk while in an role that makes him a person with access to authority.

    Hardly the best kind of person to put charge of a democratic organization — but his mindset is far more common across this province the citizens are comfortable admitting is the case.

    This province really needs more progressive thinkers and coalition style thinkers in office.

    1. Not only from an Authoritarian family, but from a family where many of his numerous siblings were and are teachers and police officers. Is his grudge with unions just sibling rivalry being played out on a grand scale?

  3. I see no reason to expect anything more or less from McNeil. He has been systematically attacking unions since day one. I don’t think his problem with unions is philosophical, but stems from his desire for control at any cost. He has a cunning for setting one against the other. It’s as if he is trying to impose a rather peculiar ‘family’ dynamic, like divide and conquer, on his fellow citizens. It saddens me that one of the last Liberal premiers in Canada casts such a bad light on liberal democratic principles in general, and people’s rights to protect themselves under the provisions of the Charter in particular.

  4. Were I a prosecutor who was sent one of these letters, I would frame it beside a copy of the original agreement allowing for arbitration, and a copy of the legislation unilaterally removing that right, and hang it over my desk.

  5. In the past I have referred to McNeil as the Ralph Klein of Nova Scotia, hating Unions and blaming public service workers for many provincial finance problems. I now stand corrected. McNeil is much sneakier and Machiavellian than Klein ever was. He continually tries to drive a wedge between public sector workers and private. I don’t know if this is simply economics and politics or if he is philosophically opposed to Unions. What I do know is that he is subtly and in some cases not so subtly trying crush the spirit of Unions and that is odd because working for the collective good seems to be the message he keeps sending out time and time again.