In the past month or so, an awful lot of people — especially people with nothing to gain from a new airport that would serve a couple of luxury golf resorts in Inverness — have put forward more than enough good reasons for both the federal and provincial governments to tell Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs co-owner Ben Cowan-Dewar and his coterie of pro-airport poo-bahs, that there is no way in hell that they will put one thin dime of public money into the project.

Not that good reasons are likely to stop either level of government from bankrolling the airport once they’ve fallen for the poo-bahs’ PR, and whatever other kind of tactics they use to convince elected officials to go against the wishes and interests of those who elected them.

A quick recap.

In early June, rumours started swirling that Ben Cowan-Dewar, co-founder and managing director of Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs was trying – not for the first time – to push through a new airport in Inverness and to get tax-paying citizens to fund it. The cost would be $18 million, with the province and federal government splitting the tab.

Ben Cowan-Dewar

Chronicle Herald reporter Aaron Beswick reported that Cowan-Dewar had founded something called the Cape Breton Island Airport Community Interest Company, of which he was both president and a director. Cabot Links CFO Jennifer Alkenbrack was secretary and director, while Cox & Palmer senior partner Daniel Gallivan* was another director and registered agent. The company owns no land.

Since then, the arguments — both pro-airport and staunchly against it — have been flying back and forth like jets in an epic air battle.

On the pro side, there are some very well-heeled and powerful types. Among them is former New Brunswick premier, Frank McKenna, who is also member of the Canadian advisory board of the private investment firm full of political heavyweights in both Canada and the US, the Carlyle Group, and Deputy Chair at Toronto Dominion Bank. Also defending the tax-funded airport are former NS premiers Darrell Dexter and Rodney MacDonald, as well as Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner.

On the other side of the issue are many diverse people with many diverse reasons for not wanting government to support a new airport that will mostly serve the privileged bigwigs who fly their own private aircraft to luxurious golf courses, and who do not believe for a second that any commercial carriers are likely to start flying into a seasonal airport in Inverness.

Chronicle Herald reporter Francis Campbell samples a few opposing views here, including the question of whether such an airport is viable, whether $18 million is a realistic price tag, and why public money should be spent on an airport that will service private interests rather than on community infrastructure that would serve the broader public, such as an aquatic centre and gymnastic facility, as proposed by the Margaree Environmental Association.

There are also concerns that a new airport in Inverness would “bankrupt” the airport in Port Hawkesbury, just an hour and four minute drive away, which currently handles three-quarters of the passengers flying into Cape Breton to tee off at Cabot. The worry is that an airport in Inverness would cater only to people interested in jetting in and out for a golf game, doing nothing to increase tourism throughout Cape Breton.

In the Cape Breton Spectator, here and here, Mary Campbell does a thorough and superb job of shredding the trumped-up arguments in favour of the airport.

President of the Tourism Association of Nova Scotia, Darlene Grant Fiander has also weighed in on the proposal, saying the airport could harm existing tourism assets in Cape Breton.

A particularly powerful salvo against the use of tax dollars for the airport comes from the son of the late Ron Joyce, co-founder of Tim Hortons, who later built a $40-million golf resort and airport at Fox Harbour in northern Nova Scotia. Speaking to Andrew Macdonald of the news site The Macdonald Notebook, Steven Joyce said it was “offensive” and “borderline disgusting” that Cowan-Dewar could use public funds to build the Cabot Links airport.

Protected public land

Now it turns out that it’s not just public funds — $18 million dollars — on offer for a new airport in Inverness. It’s also public land, and the proposed airport could encroach on a precious nature reserve.

A map of the Masons Mountain Nature Reserve. Nova Scotia Parks Wilderness Areas.

Late last week, in an article entitled “Details emerge on proposed new airport for Inverness” (although few real details did emerge), CBC reporter Tom Ayers noted that Cowan-Dewar said that government and not the golf courses should fund the airport because it would be a public benefit.

“A new airport wouldn’t benefit the golf courses right away because they are already booked solid,” Cowan-Dewar told Ayers, a statement so ludicrous that it caused Tim Bousquet to spew his morning coffee all over his computer screen.

Cowan-Dewer, it is worth adding, is not just co-owner of the two golf resorts along with American billionaire Mike Keiser described by Fortune.com as “Donald Trump’s biggest rival in the golf business.” He is also, as Mary Campbell has noted in the Cape Breton Spectator:

…Chair of [the Crown corporation] Destination Canada and he advises the Canadian government on tourism and that advice included ‘build an $18 million airport to service my golf course.’ No conflict of interest there. 

CBC reported that last week Cowan-Dewar revealed that the plan was to build the airport on Crown land off Campbellton Road, about five kilometres north of the town of Inverness.

Sites of Cabot Links Golf Course and the proposed airport. Google Earth
A topographic map shows the proximity of Cambellton to the Masons Mountain Nature Reserve. Source: https://en-ca.topographic-map.com/maps/qui/Nova-Scotia/

This is what drew the attention — and the wrath — of the Ecology Action Centre’s wilderness coordinator, Raymond Plourde. In an interview, he pointed out that the road in question leads to the Masons Mountain Nature Reserve. Plourde said that the airport would have to be built on a flat piece of land, and that could well mean the plateau in the area, and thus encroachment on the 831-hectare nature reserve, designated in 2014.

“Nature reserves have the highest level of protection you can get in the province,” Plourde said. Activities such as hunting, fishing, and trapping that are permitted in protected wilderness areas are prohibited in nature reserves, which are governed by the Special Places Protection Act

According to the Nova Scotia government, nature reserves:

are protected to safeguard the species, ecosystems, and other natural features, while providing opportunities for scientific research, education, and nature appreciation.

And they are established to:

protect rare, outstanding, or representative natural features or phenomena, such as old-growth forests or the habitats of rare or endangered plants or animals. These features can easily be damaged or destroyed by certain types of human activities, including forestry, mining, road construction, or all-terrain vehicle use. A nature reserve designation legally restricts the types of uses and activities that can occur within the designated boundaries.

Not, as Plourde pointed out, the kind of place one wants to have commercial jets “screaming in and out.”

The Masons Mountain Nature Reserve. Photo: NS Environment Protected Areas website

I looked for more details on the proposed location for the airport on a website that calls itself “Build Cape Breton.”

The site provides a five-page, befuddling and buzzword-riddled summary of the “business case” for the airport (Cowan-Dewar told the Cape Breton Post that the full report cannot be released to the public — that is supposed to pay for the airport — because it contains “confidential” information).

However, the dumbed down “business case” available on the Build Cape Breton website does offer the public a mystifying graph on page three called “Top experiences during trip in 2017.” It provides no sources for the data or what “trip” it represents.

There is also a “take action” button that leads directly to a form letter to be sent to Liberal MP and federal Minister of Rural Economic Development, Bernadette Jordan. The letter urges Jordan to support the new airport, and not to let this “chance slip through our fingers” [the way citizens’ dollars surely will slip — or rather pour  — through their fingers if the federal and provincial government decide to finance the airport].

The website also has a page of Frequently Asked Questions, but apparently no one has frequently asked where, exactly, the airport would be built — and if it would encroach on the Masons Mountain Nature Reserve — because there is no mention of that on the FAQ page.

It does, however, invite visitors to submit additional questions. So I did, asking if the airport would encroach on the nature reserve, how many hectares would be required, who all is behind the Build Cape Breton website, and why there are no contacts provided. So far, I have had no reply.

Nor have I heard back from Minister Bernadette Jordan, whom I emailed to ask whether she supported the federal funding for the airport.

Plourde sees the plan to use public land — and possibly protected land at that — for the airport as part of what he calls a “pattern” in the behaviour of Cowan-Dewar.

“The two golf courses [Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs] have already encroached on protected beaches,” he told me, adding:

The first time they did it illegally, without permission, got away with it.  The second time they asked for permission and got 1.1 hectares of protected beach.

Plourde said he has a message for Cowan-Dewar:

“Hands off our protected areas, and lay off our Crown land.”

Neal Livingston, co-chair of the Margaree Environmental Association, told me in an interview that when Cabot Links went ahead and built on the Inverness Beach, which is protected under the NS Beaches Act, he called it “the largest violation of a protected beach area in the history of Nova Scotia.”

Yet, Livingston added, shortly after this happened in 2013, the provincial NDP government offered Cabot Links a low-interest loan of $8.5 million, saying it had done a great environmental job with its golf course.

To this day, Livingston said, there have been no sanctions for the summary offence of building on the protected beach, and only one of two beach-access paths for the public that Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs were mandated to provide has been built.

However, Livingston seems convinced that the airport project will not go through, saying that despite the high-powered PR campaign run by high-powered people. “Nova Scotians aren’t fooled by advertising campaigns by large corporate players, telling them how to think,” he says.

That may be true, but it is also true that Nova Scotian governments have a long history of giving away the store whenever wealthy “investors” have come looking for resources and deals they might not be able to find elsewhere.

200 acres for $1

When the American billionaire Mike Keiser was seeking choice oceanfront properties around the world, on which to build some of the world’s top golf courses, he found one he liked in Bandon on the coast of Oregon.

For that 1,200-acre property he offered $2,000 an acre, and paid total of $2.4 million.

Contrast this with what happened when he came to Nova Scotia.

Mike Keiser. Photo from The Story of Mike Keiser by Brendan Havens

In the video “The Story of Mike Keiser,” which promotes Keiser’s golf courses in Bandon and Inverness, Cape Breton (and mostly promotes Mike Keiser), he has this to say to his interviewer about the land deal he got in Cape Breton:

It was the townspeople who cannily decided the price for 200 acres on the ocean in our bedraggled town of Inverness should be a dollar.

The interviewer, clearly incredulous, says to Keiser:

You bought the property you built Cabot Links on for a dollar?

Keiser replies:

I bought the original site of Cabot Links for a dollar. That’s what the province wants, a province of 900,000 people is all rooting for Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs, to bring tourism back to Nova Scotia.

As luxurious and spectacular as Keiser’s and Cowan-Dewar’s Cape Breton golf courses may be — thanks in large part to the natural beauty of the island and its coastline and its precious beaches — it seems more than a bit of a stretch for Keiser to claim that they have brought “tourism back to Nova Scotia.”

It’s also more than sad that the Inverness Development Association gave this beautiful oceanfront property away to people so wealthy they could easily have paid a very large sum for it, and many times over.

The largesse didn’t end there.

As Tim Bousquet reported for the Halifax Examiner in 2015, in 2008 the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) loaned Cowan-Dewar $2.5 million to build Cabot Links, another $750,000 in 2012 to build the hotel, and then another $2.75 million to expand the course in 2014.

Just over a year ago, as Bousquet reported here, ACOA loaned Cabot Links still more money — another $2 million to “expand resort operations.”

And now, here we go yet again.

After all that free land and cheap money they’ve received over the years, it’s a sorry statement about government priorities (and our democracy) in this province and country that both the provincial and federal governments are now contemplating giving away citizens’ money to build an airport for these same very wealthy people.

That public land — and possibly protected land — is also part of that deal, just makes it even worse. If that’s possible.

Update, July 22: The Build Cape Breton website responded as follows:

Thank you for your interest in this story and for your questions.

It is too early in the process to know exactly how much land would be required for the airport. Those questions would be answered in the detailed design phase of the project.

The airport would not infringe upon the boundaries of Masons Mountain Nature Reserve. We take the protection of our natural areas seriously and would work closely with all government authorities to ensure our protected areas are preserved at all times. Cape Breton’s natural beauty is a key part of the appeal for our visitors, and we want to protect it for future generations to enjoy.  

It is also too early to have engaged with Nova Scotia Environment or any other regulators. We can say that we will work closely with all relevant authorities to ensure all regulations, legislation, and procedures are followed. 

To your question surrounding contacts – there is no designated spokesperson for Build Cape Breton. This is because we want people to speak to how the airport will uniquely benefit their business, community, and region. People like:  

  •  Ben Cowan-Dewar, Cabot Links 
  •  Frank Corbett, former MLA and Deputy Premier
  •  Rodney MacDonald, former Premier of NS
  •  Darrell Dexter, former Premier of NS
  •  Michele McKenzie, tourism expert, former Deputy Minister of Tourism, Culture & Heritage
  •  Mary Tulle, tourism expert, former CEO of Destination Cape Breton
  •  Lauchie MacLean, Glenora Distilleries
  •  Rob Romard, Rob Romard Photography
  •  Parker Horton and Matt Wallace, Breton Air

Build Cape Breton is a passionate group of businesses and individuals who have come together to support the potential of an airport for western Cape Breton. The website is one tool we have used to spread our message of economic development, prosperity, and hope. 

As you can see from the testimonials on the website, we have a broad range of support from business, political, and community leaders. Build Cape Breton is less of an official organization and more of an organic collection of people who have a similar vision for the future of western Cape Breton. 

* as originally published, this article misidentified Gallivan’s title at Cox & Palmer.


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Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website: www.joanbaxter.ca;...

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  1. It is difficult to read this without becoming physically ill. The NS government’s constant refrain has been “we cannot afford…”, and so the film industry, health care workers and teachers, to name a few, were put “in their place” in the cause of “fiscal responsibility.” Now millions are suddenly available for a smoke and mirrors flim flam project that caters to the very wealthy. There are not enough words to describe my disgust or their hypocrisy.