John Risley

I was scrolling/strolling/trolling through my weekend news feed recently when I stumbled upon this item from the Macdonald Notebook, a business-friendly news site run by former allnovascotia journalist Andrew Macdonald. The story was headlined: “John Risley This Week: Bemoans Tedious Delays of Highway Twinning in Nova Scotia.”

I almost upchucked my Bran Buds.

Risley, of course, is a notorious bemoaner, a whinger of the first water when it comes to all things having to do with government spending and decision-making — except, that is when such spending or decisioning helps him become even richer than he already is, which has been more often than not.

With a net worth of $1.2 billion, Risley is one of Nova Scotia’s richest men, ranked 88th on a recent Canadian Business “definitive” ranking of Canada’s 100 richest people. He owns a country house in Chester, “one of the largest houses in Nova Scotia,” inside of which you could probably squeeze two dozen affordable housing units, as well as a 107-metre, $350-million US yacht currently on order from Norway, and even his own fleet of private jets.

In spite of that, Risley likes to be disputatious, even over what might seem, to mere mortals, like a billionaire’s table scraps. In 2018, for example, Risley appeared personally in provincial small claims court to argue against a $2,965.62 claim from a tradesman. He “mostly lost.”

That same year, Risley sued a Saudi businessman for “fraudulent misrepresentation” in a business deal Risley claimed had cost his company $15 million CAD. In October of this year, the suit was settled and Risley walked back his accusations. “There was no fraud or conspiracy involved,” Risley jogged it back in his official statement, “rather a business dispute resulting from a series of interactions and proposed ventures, which did not materialize as all had hoped.”

None of which is to suggest Risley isn’t astute. The origin story of Risley’s humble beginnings as a college dropout peddling fresh lobster with his brother-in-law from the back of a pickup truck beside the Bedford Highway has been told and retold hundreds of times by journalists, including at least a couple of times by me.

Risley leveraged hard work and business savvy (and not a little government help) into Clearwater Seafoods, which became “one of the world’s largest vertically-integrated seafood companies.” Last month, Clearwater, now publicly traded, announced it had been sold for $1 billion to a consortium of First Nations and BC-based Premium Seafoods. Once that sale is finally done and dusted, Risley might even move up a few notches in Canada’s rich-man rankings.

But I digress.

Back to the Macdonald Notebook and Risley’s current bemoanings.

Risley, who has homes in both Chester and Halifax, was asked about a newly twinned 11-kilometre section of Highway 103 between Tantallon and Ingramport on the road between Halifax and Chester. While acknowledging the opening of the highway last month is “very welcome,” Risley quickly segued into his high dudgeon, bemoaner mode.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he whinged. “It is disgraceful to see it so long coming… Why it has taken them so long to get it done is a matter, frankly, of poor public policy on behalf of provincial governments.”

OK. Now we know.

Risley described his south shore highway on “Sunday coming back into Halifax, or Friday night leaving… I mean it’s a parking lot.”

As is his wont, Risley knew exactly what governments should do. “If we learned one thing from the Chinese, it’s about the importance of infrastructure,” he told Macdonald. “Infrastructure is a huge stimulus to economic activity, infrastructure of all sorts, whether it is twinned highways or high-speed rail, or new airports. But you cannot go to China, as I have been doing for 30 years, without being enormously impressed, as I have seen, by the speed at which they have developed new infrastructure, and that is a lesson for the rest of the world.”

Uh… let’s stop here for a moment.

Infrastructure costs money. Lots of it. Risley seemed to suggest to Macdonald the simple answer to that — as with most things — is to turn the job over to the private sector. But the reality is that most of China’s massive spending on infrastructure — $28 trillion US by 2040 — has come from the state.

And then wait one more moment. According to the Oxford Review of Economic Policy, the supposition that such massive spending on infrastructure has created economic value in China is a fallacy.

But I digress again…

Back to Risley. Let’s count the many and various ways in which his whinging whacks up against his own hypocrisy.

In 2015 when the province killed the Nova Scotia Film Tax Credit, which had generated thousands of well-paying jobs in the culture sector, you may recall that Risley was first in line to declare his support for the government cuts, calling the tax credit “absolute nonsense. The government cannot afford to be subsidizing any industry to such an extent.”

My colleague, Tim Bousquet, responded with a partial accounting of the millions in “unconditionally unrepayable,” “conditionally repayable” and occasionally maybe someday repayable federal and provincial loans, grants, contributions and guarantees to Risley’s various ventures, including Clearwater and Ocean Nutrition, the world’s largest Omega-3 nutritional supplements manufacturer.

“This is how you become a billionaire in Nova Scotia,” Tim wrote. “You get the taxpayer to finance you.”

I may have missed it, but I don’t recall seeing any stories about how Risley intended to share with taxpayers some of the rewards he reaped from selling Ocean Nutrition to Royal DSM in 2012 for $600 million, or from Clearwater’s $1-billion sale this year.

Meanwhile, back at the counting-house, Risley does his best to pay as little in tax as possible. While I don’t have a clue what he does or doesn’t pay, I think this example may be instructive about his general approach. In 2011, the Chronicle Herald’s Chris Lambie documented, Risley used a shell company to try to “avoid paying federal taxes on a $30 million line of credit” he’d used to construct a previous yacht.

So it was, is, and perhaps ever will be.

As I continued my scroll/stroll/troll through my news feed that morning, I came across this report from Canadians for Tax Fairness: It’s Time to Tax Extreme Wealth Inequality. In the past decade, its report said, “the number and wealth of Canada’s billionaires has more than doubled. Only the top one per cent increased their share of total wealth from 2010 to 2019 while the share of all other groups declined.” During the April-October period of the current pandemic, the wealth of Canada’s biggest billionaires even grew by 28 per cent.

The tax lobby group, which noted Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals have committed to identifying ways to tax away that extreme wealth inequality, offered Ottawa some suggestions. “A progressive annual wealth tax on the richest Canadians, on wealth of over $10 million, could generate $20 billion annually,” it pointed out. “Other progressive tax reforms such as closing tax loopholes and tackling tax havens could raise billions more.”

Maybe we could use some of those billions to twin those highways John Risley is so keen on. Or not.

Stephen Kimber

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. Um, Trudeau and the Liberals are thinking of ways to tax the wealthy? The NDP just put a bill forward that would increase taxes by 1% on the super wealthy. It was voted down by the Conservatives, the Block And the Liberals. So, there’s that.

  2. The way highway funding was explained to me some time ago, and this may no longer apply, but there are designated, and non-designated EMO routes in NS. And Trans Canada designated routes. Those designated routes are co-funded by the Federal government to the tune of 50%. So that meant the 105 in Cape Breton (chosen by the Province at the time to get the 50% funding for the hugely expensive Seal Island Bridge) and the 101 through the Valley (chosen by the Province at the time apparently because of purely political reasons, and maybe John Risley wasn’t around yet – ha ha). Up until recently, when according to what I have heard, a true hero within NSTIR successfully argued our case to someone in Ottawa, and that support changed to cover the non designated routes NS. It is interesting, because in both the cases – the 104 vs. 105 in CB, and the 103 vs 101 in Southwest NS, the longer route was funded 50% when the intent of the EMO status was supposed to be to save time as well as being safer. It is still quicker, in good weather, to go to Yarmouth by the 103, and to Sydney via the 104.

  3. Come on now…..this article is chock full of vitriol, and little objectivity.

    To start with, the 103 should have been twinned to Bridgewater with a toll highway. It would likely have been built by now, and made the journey safer for all.

    Mr. Risley (whom I have never met) is an Atlantic Canadian success story and his business journey should be celebrated.

    As well as being wealthy, he is a philanthropist, both publicly and privately.

    I did not notice any reference to these activities, which indeed may have helped in some small way to balanced your article.

    1. No, Mr. Risley is not a philanthropist. Those from whom he extracts resources and labour for which he pays far too little are the philanthropists. He’s a success story solely because of government grants. Lots of people work as hard (harder) as John Risley has worked but there’s a capitalist like Risley willing to exploit that work and pay less than its worth. Thus, most hard workers never get rich and most just get by.

      Highway 103 doesn’t need twinning to Bridgewater and it is definitely not a parking lot at any time of any day. I have driven that highway nearly every working day since 1993 and it’s pure bullshit to pretend it’s that busy. Some talk about how dangerous it is but that’s because it was designed to be built inexpensively in the first place and the twinning from Tantallon to Hubbards is simply copying the bad design. The answer should have been to spend far less to straighten out the hair-pin turns and spend the rest on healthcare and education rather than pavement. That, and make Risley pay his fair share of taxes.

      1. The bad design part of that section of road, the long sweeping radius corner on the Hubbard side of the Puddle, looks to be going to be abandoned with all 4 lanes taking a new route with a modern spiral curve. Regardless, even making that curve 0ne-way addresses the design issue.

        Now the REAL design problem with the entire 103 is that had they routed it about 2 m higher for much of its length, you could see the ocean. A tragic lost opportunity for tourism, and general enjoyment. They really should, at minimum, acquire as much land as possible to the ocean side, and do some cutting and thinning. You only get the odd glimpse now.

    2. Could not agree more.
      It is hard to disagree with Mr. Risley’s observations.
      I do find the article petty and in bad taste.

    3. I drive it every day as well and the twinning that’s been done will save 5 lives over the next 10 years at the cost of 140$ million. That money could have provided 109 family docs to the south shore for the next decade saving far more lives.

  4. good report but in many ways ‘ old news ‘ revisited
    ye do not get rich by being nice
    think ‘ robber barons ‘

  5. John Risley – tax the shit outta the bastard and to the media, stop soliticing opinions from this unibrowed misanthrope.

  6. As it almost always the case…billionaires get there on the backs of government and the small working person. The same governments that deny poverty etc, will finance the 0.1 percent. And give them the most generous tax cuts.

    You can stop whining now, Risley. Or do you need more ?