Housing Minister John Lohr says he is “absolutely committed” to moving forward with a new law that will give the minister sole control over the pace of housing development in HRM.
“The crisis in housing is profound,” Lohr said on Tuesday.
Bill 329 will proceed “with minor tweaks” despite a barrage of criticism from HRM mayor Mike Savage and several councillors who claim a two-year freeze on water and other fees to lower costs for developers will raise taxes for people living and working in HRM.
Savage called that measure “egregious” while opposition leaders have expressed concern that another part of Bill 329 that fast-tracks building by “trusted developers” could lead to the kind of scandal that exposed backroom dealings involving Doug Ford’s government in Ontario.
“I am concerned when I hear comparisons to the Ontario greenbelt. I reject that totally and, in fact, I would say the opposite,” Lohr said.
“What we see happening is when HRM Council receives a project that is compliant with the Municipal Planning Strategy (MPS) and is recommended by staff, and then council, for whatever reason votes it down. Six or seven months later the decision goes to the Utilities and Review Board and, in a number of cases, HRM doesn’t call witnesses or provide a defence for their reasons. This is a concern for me. I think HRM has to respect their own process and their own Municipal Planning Strategy.”
Bill 329 could be passed into law as early as Friday. It has already cleared Law Amendments Committee after the scantiest possible public notice issued late Friday afternoon for a session scheduled for Monday.
Fewer people eligible for heating rebate program
On another housing note, Halifax Chebucto MLA Gary Burrill came out swinging during Question Period, noting that the Heating Assistance Rebate Program (HARP) the Houston government provided last winter to support people affected by rising inflation has been dramatically scaled back.
Burrill said the average cost to fill an oil tank is about $1,500 today, but the $1,000 rebate households received last year has been lowered to $600 this winter. Fewer people will also be eligible to receive it because the threshold has been changed from less than $85,000 per household to less than $75,000.
Service Nova Scotia Minister Colton LeBlanc said HARP is just one of several subsidy programs the government provides, including a $750 seniors grant. LeBlanc said the government has already received 23,000 applications for HARP since it was announced this week.
PCs introduce changes to Municipal Reform Act
Lohr introduced another piece of legislation on Tuesday. The Municipal Reform Act re-negotiates who pays what for certain services.
According to Lohr, the changes will save towns and villages across the province approximately $40 million a year. Lohr told reporters that beginning April 2024, the province will pick up the municipalities’ $7 million tab for jails and corrections.
The province will also cover the 12% of net operating losses on public housing previously paid by municipalities, a cost that fluctuates but averages about $10 million a year. The province is additionally absorbing costs related to obsolete schools built prior to 1981, such as site remediation or demolition. Communities will be offered first dibs on purchasing an obsolete school at a negotiated price. Lohr noted some of the land where obsolete schools are located could be re-purposed to build new housing.
The act is the result of 18 months of meeting with representatives of municipalities. There are several big issues still under discussion. They include concerns over policing costs, roads, and fire service.
Lohr said Justice Minister Brad Johns is the lead on discussions over what level of government picks up policing costs, which are now the fastest growing item for communities and rural areas that rely on contracted services provided by the RCMP.
The Municipal Reform Act does not include the Halifax Regionality Municipality, which because of its size and its charter will require a separate agreement in the future.
Anti-Semitic post attributed to PC staffer
Liberal leader Zach Churchill wants to know what the Progressive Conservative government intends to do about an anti-Semitic tweet sent out late Monday afternoon by an employee who is a special advisor to the Minister of Labour, Skills and Immigration Jill Balser.
The tweet’s first line read, “Israel must stop being the Nazi’s of 21st century. Killing innocent Palestinians for political gain is inhumane and dictatorial.”
Nargis DeMolitor appeared to be the sender of the message issued on social media at 4:45pm Monday and which was taken down within minutes. On Tuesday morning at 8:45am, Nargis DeMolitor tweeted that her personal account had been hacked earlier the previous day.
“Information was tweeted without my knowledge. I apologize if anyone was offended,” she said.
DeMolitor remains on staff. With Premier Tim Houston still in Ottawa on Tuesday, it fell to deputy premier Allan MacMaster to explain what action, if any, the government intended to take.
“The most important thing to find out is, ‘was it said by her?” We have been provided with some evidence there was an unauthorized access to a personal account she had on Twitter… so I’m hesitant to condemn her for something that was said on her account unless we can be sure she actually said it,” MacMaster said.
Reporters wanted to know who was investigating to discover the actual author of a message that all three political leaders — MacMaster, Churchill, and Chender — agreed was “hurtful” and “unacceptable” at a time when the Middle East is on fire and thousands of people are grieving the loss of family members.
MacMaster said both the government and the PC party are investigating the origin of the message because DeMolitor is technically employed by the Progressive Conservative Caucus. What he didn’t say was that she had also been a PC candidate in the riding of Clayton Park West during the 2021 provincial election.
Churchill said this was the third time someone who worked for the PC government had made an online racist or anti-Semitic remark. The most recent example involved a staffer in the premier’s office who was so enthused by the PC’s win in Preston this past August, he compared the success of the Houston regime to “the reign of the Third Reich.”
The staffer apologized early the next day. Another staffer was fired by the Houston government after making racist comments about former Liberal MLA Angela Simmonds a couple years ago. Churchill told reporters he does not trust the PC caucus to get to the bottom of who was behind the anti-Semitic post.
“If this was a hack of a minister’s staff person’s account, that really should be going to the Privacy Commissioner and the RCMP should be notified,” Churchill said.
“I think if the PCs are in charge of this investigation, they are just going to want to cover their own arses. I don’t know that we can trust what the outcome of that investigation is going to be. It does need to be with an independent body.”
NDP leader Claudia Chender reminded journalists her own experience includes being the granddaughter of two people who survived the Holocaust. She said the deputy premier’s assessment that “at a minimum, Ms. DeMolitor must apologize” if she was indeed the author of the tweet was simply not good enough.
“This is in the context of extraordinarily heightened tensions in the Middle East and here in Nova Scotia with all kinds of communities who are paralyzed with fear for what is happening to loved ones,” Chender said.
“So I think we expect decisive action on this. The minister of Finance’s flowery speech about how we all have to be able to forgive each other was misplaced. I think there are times, of course, when we need to be reminded of that and there are other times when as legislators, we need to stand up very clearly and say we have zero tolerance not just for anti-Semitism but for Islamophobia and for racism and for anything that minimizes the experience of Nova Scotians.”
By 5:35pm Tuesday, Meagan Byrd, the premier’s press secretary, sent reporters the following statement to try and dampen the fire:
We were horrified by the Tweet. The investigation by the PC Party uncovered evidence that someone did access Ms. DeMolitor account without authorization.
We believe we have identified that person. They were a party member but they were swiftly removed from the PC Party.
The individual was not an employee of the Party, Caucus, or government. We have also suggested that Ms. DeMolitor contact the authorities. The PC Party and Government of Nova Scotia have zero tolerance for hate”.
Shelley Gray honoured as provincial literacy champion
Kentville resident Shelley Gray is the winner of this year’s literacy award from the Nova Scotia Council of Literacy Federations. Gray dropped out of school in Grade 9 and worked for the next couple of decades as a seasonal production worker processing fruit and vegetables. Standing on concrete floors wrecked her knees and when her doctor suggested she find other work, Gray decided to go back to school as an adult learner.
For the past five years Gray has worked diligently toward achieving her Grade 12 equivalency with the help of instructors at the Valley Community Learning Association. Instructor Shawna Young said, “Shelley is a model student and everyone admires her determination and perseverance.”
Gray has just one course left to complete her GED. She has continued to attend despite the loss of her husband two years ago and sharing her home with an adult daughter and three grandchildren. Gray now has a full-time job as a support worker for people with intellectual disabilities.
“I love going to work each day,” Gray told the Halifax Examiner. “I get a lot back from the people I help.”