A photo of Stephen McNeil
Premier Stephen McNeil. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Nova Scotia cabinet ministers met for the first time in three weeks yesterday. After their meeting, journalists had the opportunity to ask the premier a few questions.

Inverness airport

One question: How much has the Province been asked to contribute to an $18-million airport in Inverness, Cape Breton?

The joint venture would make it easier for visitors to fly in and play golf at the privately owned Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs golf courses.

McNeil’s answer: “The federal government asked that it be on the list. It was not a priority of ours but there is a back and forth when it comes to making infrastructure investments, they have supported some of ours. We have been asked for something in the vicinity of $8.5 million and now it will go through the process.”

McNeil acknowledged this could affect business at both the publicly owned Sydney airport two hours away and the nearer, privately operated airport in Port Hawkesbury used exclusively by private airplanes. He says no decision has yet been made on whether to (a) subsidize the proposed Inverness airport or (b) provide Crown land on which to build the airport near a nature preserve.

The Inverness airport is being promoted by Build Cape Breton, a group that includes Cabot co-founder and manager Ben Cowan-Dewar, to improve and grow tourism in the western part of the Island. Cowan-Dewar has suggested building the airport could create as many as 600 new jobs at local businesses in the area (his included) over the next five years.

While the businessman is not planning to put up his own money, published reports by CBC News and The Chronicle Herald say the golf course entrepreneur would be willing to cover any deficit incurred by the seasonal facility.

As McNeil was speaking today, however, Bernadette Jordan, the federal minister of Rural Economic Development, announced that she has rejected the airport proposal, so presumably the ask to the province is now moot.

“Conquered peoples”

Another question: Why is the province spending money to hire outside lawyers to take a legal fight all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada to prevent the release of government documents that Nova Scotia courts have ordered?

The fight involves former Justice Department lawyer Alex Cameron. Cameron retired in 2017 and has sued the province for constructive dismissal after McNeil, who in 2016 was both premier and the minister responsible for Aboriginal Affairs, said publicly neither he nor Justice Minister Diana Whalen endorsed an argument Cameron put forward in court.

At that time, Cameron argued the province did not have a duty to consult the First Nation opposed to the Alton natural gas storage project because the Mi’kmaw are “a conquered people.” McNeil disagreed with that characterization and offered a public apology to the Assembly of Chiefs. He implied that Cameron had gone rogue by acting on his own or at least without authorization from the ministers in charge at Justice and Aboriginal Affairs.

The sealed court documents that could have shed some light on whose version of the truth to believe were scheduled to go public a week ago. Nova Scotia Court of Appeals Justice Duncan Beveridge ruled that releasing the documents would not cause the government irreparable harm, just embarrassment.

But at the eleventh hour, the province convinced a Supreme Court of Canada judge to prevent the documents’ release until the country’s top court decides whether to hear the province’s appeal of Beveridge’s decision. Waiting for that will take many months.

Here is what McNeil told reporters today when asked if the reason for the legal challenge is to hold off political embarrassment: “The reality of it is, this is about solicitor-client privilege. It’s nothing more than that.”

In this case, the province is the client and the privilege to keep conversations secret would normally extend to discussions between the Justice Department lawyer (Alex Cameron) and senior government officials and/or Ministers.

“This is not about privilege,” PC leader Tim Houston told reporters after the scrum with the premier. “When the premier talked about instructions that he may or may not have given, he broke the solicitor-client privilege. That was the decision of three courts in Nova Scotia. This is about the premier and the Liberal government hiding information.”

Houston went on to talk about other behaviours that point in the same direction. “I think the fact the premier won’t release (to the Mi’kmaw Chiefs) the findings of the government’s own internal investigation three years ago…. and the fact the premier is going all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and hiring outside lawyers which will be very expensive, confirmed for me what the last judge said: that this information is embarrassing to this government. Today I would encourage the Premier to just come clean and release the information”.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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