News

1. First officers on the scene at Portapique testify

RCMP Constables Adam Merchant, Aaron Patton, and Stuart Beselt, left to right, the first officers on the scene in Portapique, are questioned by commission counsel Roger Burrill at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18/19, 2020, in Halifax on Monday, March 28, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

The Mass Casualty Commission began hearings again yesterday. Tim Bousquet was there for the Halifax Examiner, covering the testimony of the first three officers to arrive on the scene in Portapique on the night of April 18, 2020. 

The testimony of the three officers — Adam Merchant, Aaron Patton, and Stuart Beselt — paints a picture of hours of chaos and questioning. Was this a mental health call? (It quickly became apparent the answer to that one was no, after they encountered a man who had been shot.) What was the nature of the supposed RCMP car on the scene? Should they get the kids who survived out of the house they were hiding in and go look for the shooter, or was that putting the kids in more danger? And, critically, for a lot of the time, the three weren’t even aware of their exact location:

Throughout the night, the three constables were confused as to where they were, and so would from time to time huddle around their personal smartphones, checking Google Maps to understand the lay of the land…

The children told the 911 operator that they heard someone banging on the door. The three constables went to the house; there was no one else there, so they told the children to get in the basement. And, to their training, the three constables left them to look for the shooter.

“It was a super hard decision,” said Beselt. “It would’ve been easy to stay to protect the kids, but if you think he was killing someone down the road … he could’ve killed the entire subdivision.”

“Nobody wanted to leave the kids,” said Merchant. “We’re dads.”

Critically, it turns out the police officers could have known where they were: their radios were GPS-enabled, but they didn’t know it, and the GPS had not been activated on them.

Patton also describes seeing a flashlight, thinking it might belong to the shooter, and then regretting not following the person into the woods or firing. That regret later turned into relief, when he realized the man with the flashlight was Clinton Ellison, out looking for his brother Corrie, who had been killed by the gunman:

“I was distraught that I hadn’t taken a shot, because I could’ve prevented all that came after,” he said. “But then I learned it was the wrong guy … I made the right decision.”

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2. NDP seeks support for bill to reduce overdose deaths

NDP Gord Johns, Member of Parliament Courtney-Alberni, BC, left, and NDP Susan Leblanc, MLA, Dartmouth North. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Over the last six  years, 25,000 Canadians have died of opioid overdoses. Of those, 380 were Nova Scotians.

Odds are you do not have to look far in your circles of friends, family, and colleagues, to find someone who has died of an overdose. NDP MP Gord Johns, calls it “the second health crisis (after COVID) gripping this country,” Jennifer Henderson reports:

“I live in a community of 18,000 people. Just in the last year, I know six people who died because of a poisoned drug supply,” said Johns, tearing up at a news conference co-hosted by Dartmouth North MLA Susan Leblanc. “My friend Judy who worked in law firm, she was a recreational drug user. A fisherman who was the father of one of my son’s lacrosse teammates, and two who were children of friends. It’s pretty serious and it’s emotional.”

Johns was in town on Monday seeking support for his private member’s bill, which he hopes will reduce the number of overdose deaths through three measures. Henderson writes:

John’s Bill-216 has three components: (1) decriminalize the personal possession of drugs so substance users don’t fear punishment when seeking support and treatment; (2) erase criminal records for the possession of drugs because convictions create barriers to getting housing and jobs; and (3) create national policy and national standards to provide a safer supply of drugs…

Dartmouth North MLA Susan Leblanc said a safe supply is “crucial for the health and well being of people who use drugs.”

“The Nova Scotia New Democratic Party support the development of a safe supply of drugs in Nova Scotia as part of a harm reduction approach,” Leblanc said.

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3. Maybe kinda sorta affordable housing coming

Developer’s site plan for Mount Hope. Photo: HRM/Clayton Developments

Ethan Lycan-Lang reports on housing minister John Lohr’s announcement of new “affordable” units coming to Dartmouth:

At a news conference Monday, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr announced the province is spending $21.8 million for the development of 373 affordable housing units in the Mount Hope area of Dartmouth.

The affordable units will be rented for 60% to 80% of the area’s average market rent, and part of a larger community of 875 apartments, townhouses, and fourplexes that will be developed on the south Dartmouth site. Tenants with extremely low incomes will also be able to apply for rent supplements to further subsidize the cost. The average rent supplement is $350…

The $21.8 million will be paid to Clayton Developments as a forgivable loan, and is the last of the $35 million the province had set aside for 1,100 new affordable housing units. 

Lycan-Lang looks more deeply into what’s involved, and speaks to critics of the project as well.

My editorializing: tying affordability to market rates ensures they are not really affordable.

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4. Portland, Oregon rolls out non-police crisis response city-wide

Portland Street Response. Photo: portland.gov

A Portland pilot project to send teams that don’t include police officers to respond to mental health crisis calls is being expanded to cover the whole city, Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

Crucially, the service is housed within the fire department. Reporter Rebecca Ellis writes:

Starting Monday, people across Portland looking to assist someone in a mental health crisis have a new option: They can call 911 and ask for the Portland Street Response.

The unarmed emergency response program now serves the entire city, quadrupling the footprint of the program and bringing the police alternative to Portland’s entire 145 square miles.

The program, housed within the Portland Fire Bureau, dispatches a firefighter paramedic, a mental health crisis therapist and two community health workers to respond to emergency calls that don’t require a police response.

Portland mayor Ted Wheeler was previously opposed to expanding the program, but now appears to be on-side:

“Sending the right responders to the right calls with the right training is the best way to meet the needs of those who are suffering on our streets,” Wheeler said. “The expansion of the Portland Street Response citywide is simply the right thing to do.”

The program is designed for calls in which the person in distress is outdoors or in a publicly accessible space (in other words, not a private residence) and there are no weapons involved. Ellis writes:

Program leaders have pushed to allow the teams to also respond to calls inside people’s homes, as well as those involving a risk of suicide. But that expansion is subject to bargaining with the union representing rank-and-file police officers, as the work would overlap with the responsibilities of Portland police.

The Portland program is in contrast to Halifax’s Mental Health Mobile Crisis Unit, which is run as a partnership among the NSHA, IWK, and HRP. I wrote about the unit here. In that story, I quoted social worker Andrew Childerhouse on some of the problems with having police respond to mental health calls:

“We have a policing system that’s not unbiased. Across the board, a lot of [marginalized people] don’t feel safe having a police officer respond,” he said. That holds true even if they are in plain clothes and part of a specialized response team. “At the end of the day, there is still somebody deeply intertwined in the criminal justice system and prison-industrial complex… When police respond to something, they are not part of the long-term solution, where a social worker, nurse or peer could be.”

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Views

Cafés as centres for “queer memory, identity, and place” in Halifax

Photo: Glitter Bean Café Facebook page

Last week, a tweet from @AdornoWasRight about a recent thesis caught my eye. Written by Sarah Budgell, a student at Saint Mary’s University doing a masters in Atlantic Canada Studies, it’s called “Queer Memory, Identity, and Place, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.”

Budgell approaches her research from the perspective of a folklorist. She notes that “folk” is an important category in the way Nova Scotians understand themselves and their history — and is crucial in the province’s tourism marketing. But the typical view of Nova Scotia folklore leaves out huge swathes of experience:

My angle of approach with this project comes from my background in folklore studies. I saw the queer people of Halifax as a folk group, people connected by at least one common cultural element, and looked to identify their stories in the larger narratives of a region whose cultural script of “authenticity,” the pervasive myth of “The Folk,” stubbornly denies their role in shaping its current and historic cultural life. I am a queer researcher and a queer resident of Halifax; I see queer stories everywhere. “We are here now, and we have always been here,” is a powerful message with implications for future research as well as future progress in incorporating queer stories into the broader cultural narratives of Halifax.

Budgell collects responses from 28 participants (a plan to do in-person interviews fell through because of  the pandemic), and divides the thesis into chapters on bars, cafés, Halifax Pride, sport, and “labour and producing queer space.”

I was particularly interested in the section on cafés, which were crucial to Budgell’s own development:

I have had a variety of work experiences during my time in Halifax, but the only times I have been able to extend my queerness into my workday is when I have worked as a barista. For me, being visible at work feels good and affirming; being in an environment where much of the time I  am assumed to be queer is refreshing compared to so many of my other life experiences where a heteronormative environment has pressured me to appear heterosexual or (at the very least) not to be so obvious about being gay, in order to be successful and accepted …

Java Blend, as a space steeped in North End history, resists categorization as belonging to any one part of Halifax’s population as it carries meaning and memory for a huge variety of people. A space that feels queer tends to start with a diverse and visible queer staff who occupy space with their bodies and cultures, but who also have an interest in establishing a social contract in the space that respects queer people; they create an environment where queer forms of expression can thrive. A non-queer ownership can foster this environment with various supports like, for example, nongendered washrooms, anti-oppression training, or adequate medical supports for staff undergoing medical gender transition. Making queer spaces includes creating an attractive, safe environment for queer people to work and be in; this will encourage queer people to show up.

I am personally deeply attached to the queer café as a space of massive potential for studying queer life because of my own lived experience in and out of work. As a very insecure, teenaged “baby gay,” in the closet and new to thinking about gender and sexuality, I cut my teeth on queer life at Halifax cafés … Café culture and learning how to fit in and socialize in these spaces cannot be disentangled from my own growing up and coming out story.

Having worked a bunch of minimum-wage jobs, Budgell writes that café jobs could be affirming:

…working in coffee, and sometimes being part of a majority queer front of house staff, has always felt like an affirming environment for my gender and sexuality. Both as a customer and a staff member, specialty café environments in Halifax feel generally welcoming to me and my identities. Other work environments were at best less explicitly supportive, dismissive of my personal life, or at worst made me vulnerable to harassment and workplace discrimination.

Part of the chapter discusses the transformation of Just Us! to Smiling Goat to Glitter Bean:

The staff, who are majority out queer, emphasize that they are creating queer space by curating the space itself: signs, flags, and art by local queer creators adorn the walls and windows, as well as workplace traditions: “I remember the early days where we had Freddie Friday at The Glitter Bean,  where my coworker and I would play Queen for the whole morning and dance to Freddie Mercury’s voice while pulling shots of espresso” (Emerson). The importance of this curation is well remembered by a number of participants: “I remember warm inviting colours and artwork,” “The walls were really pink, and there was artwork all over the
place,” “It was colourful and filled with people,” (Eli C, Josie, Abbie C).

Budgell’s thesis comes in the context of a time when “Queer spaces in Halifax are closing, and this is unfolding at the same time as (generally speaking) progressive development in North America regarding human rights for people with queer identities.”

Budgell writes:

It would be easy to view these facts together and assume that queer spaces are closing because they are no longer needed; queer people are fully tolerated by society at large..

And as the future of queer spaces “goes incognito,” signalling queer culture without explicitly identifying that way, calling on queer communities’ ongoing and historic presence is a powerful tool for ensuring queer voices are not erased from shaping the urban cultural landscape here. In my view, queer heritage work might no longer mean protecting existing queer spaces or keeping spaces on life support that are no longer working for communities, but identifying and highlighting the queer experience in the everyday life of Halifax’s urban organism.

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The Green Lantern Building. Photo: Stephen Archibald

Don’t look up

In his Old Album, Number Sixteen, Stephen Archibald looks up — sometimes way up — along Barrington Street.

Most of the photos in this collection are from the mid-1970s. Archibald says it was a time when Barrington Street was in transition:

We could still remember when it was a vibrant commercial district, but the future was unclear.

Yet if you looked above the tawdry, modernized shop fronts, the pride and enterprise that had transformed Barrington Street around the beginning of the last century was still intact, although faded. Looking up was like travelling back in time.

The picture below perhaps best captures this aesthetic.

Classic meets drab on Barrington Street. Photo: Stephen Archibald

Archibald writes:

Here you can see that at the pedestrian level shop fronts were channeling the design energy of a contemporary strip mall.

One of my favourites is this 1976 photo showing part of a Zellers sign on a 1939 art deco building.

Zellers sign on an art deco building. Photo: Stephen Archibald

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Government

City

Public Information meeting – Case 23805 (Tuesday, Woodlawn Library Auditorium — also virtual; application by Fathom Studio for a Rezoning and Development Agreement to allow a 7-storey multi-unit residential building with a small commercial space fronting Portland Street at 663 Portland Street and 16 Carver Street, Dartmouth.

Province

Tuesday

Human Resources (Tuesday, 10am) — location TBA; appointments to agencies, boards, and commissions

Legislature sits (Tuesday, 1pm)

Wednesday

Public Accounts (Wednesday, 9am, Province House) — live broadcast; Gravel Road Program and Highway Improvement Plans, with Peter Hackett, Department of Public Works


On campus

Dalhousie

Tuesday

The next generation of the Ocean Tracking Network – Aquatic animal movement on the world stage (Tuesday, 10am, 5th Floor Lounge, Life Science Centre) — also online; second seminar by Robert Lennox, Norwegian Institute for Nature Research; candidate for Scientific Director of the Ocean Tracking Network. Bring your own aquatic animals. On second thought, maybe not.

PhD Defence, Psychology and Neuroscience (Tuesday, 2pm) — online; Matthew Orr will present “A User-Centered Approach to the Development of an E-Learning Program for Classroom Teachers of Students with Disruptive Classroom Behaviour”

Board of Governors meeting (Tuesday, 3pm, Theatre A, Tupper Building) — attend a livestream of the open session portion, masks required

The Crucible (Tuesday, 7:30pm, Dunn theatre, Dalhousie Arts Centre) — directed by Nigel Shawn Williams; masks required, $10/$15, info here

Wednesday

The Crucible (Wednesday, 7:30pm, Dunn theatre, Dalhousie Arts Centre) — directed by Nigel Shawn Williams; masks required, $10/$15, info here

PhD Thesis Defence, Process Engineering and Applied Science (Wednesday, 1pm) — virtual event; Allan Thomson will defend “Production and Utilization of SRC Willow Biomass in Nova Scotia”


In the harbour

Halifax
05:00: Atlantic Sky, ro-ro container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Liverpool, England
05:30: Lake Wanaka, car carrier, arrives at Autoport from Emden, Germany
11:00: ZIM Shekou, container ship, arrives at Pier 41 from Valencia, Spain
15:30: Lake Wanaka sails for sea
15:30: Atlantic Sky sails for New York
18:00: Algoma Verity, bulker, sails from Gold Bond for sea
22:30: ZIM Shekou sails for New York

Cape Breton
04:00: Sarah Desgagnes, oil tanker, arrives at Government Wharf (Sydney) from Gaspé, Quebec
11:00: CSL Tarantau, bulker, moves from Coal Pier (Point Tupper) to Aulds Cove quarry
13:30: Everbright, oil tanker, sails from Point Tupper for sea
14:30: Drepanos, oil tanker, arrives at Point Tupper from Ras Lanuf, Libya
18:00: Sarah Desgagnes sails for sea


Footnotes

Hit me up with your non-gloomy podcast recommendations.


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Philip Moscovitch

Philip Moscovitch is a writer and audio producer, and the author of the book Adventures in Bubbles and Brine; Website:...

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  1. I was at the Monday session when the three officers were on the witness stand. Being at the back as public meant lots of replies were garbled for fine details. I missed some important phrases. My overall experience was dispiriting. Both Commission Counsel and the victims’ families lawyer did not ask outright in a specific exchange whether they felt the killer was dead or still on the loose. For me it was the 1000 pound gorilla in the room. I actually confronted the three officers after as they came off the escalator. “Why did you stop looking for the killer? Where do you think he went?” The shift supervisor Beselt said their strategy to locate the killer through
    IARD Training was “fluid”. For me this was the essential climax of their war zone experience. But neither lawyer focused specifically on this judgement, and his reply said nothing. It was a let down experience at the end of the day. The RCMP had a harrowing experience, did their best, but I experienced an anger and disappointment that all this money evaded the central judgement about whether they had killed him or not. The response that they heard a shot and thought the “jig is up” did not hold water. Why not go into the woods and find his body. Perhaps the Commission will delve another day into that “fluid” moment.
    At the end of the day, the team of three’s refusal to ask for backup was a failure of hubris. It would create a possible “blue on blue” incident, he thought. In a terror situation, i guess imagination as a mind’s essential companion was not functioning. There was so much controversy about whether the officers should be witnesses on the stand. They were fortunate, I believe, receiving the soft landing on that Monday March 28 Mass Casualty Commission hearing.

  2. Non gloomy podcast: Art2life NIcholas Wilton
    Nick talks to various creatives, mostly visual artists.

  3. Thanks for the piece about Sarah Budgell’s work! I can’t wait to read it. This is the program I just finished, and I think the potential for this kind of scholarship about our area is so full of possibility, it is glorious. Looking forward to the criminology focused thesis about the missing and murdered women hereabouts, more about Indigenous off-reserve life in Atlantic Canada, or the business-angled examination of the P Kelly concert fiasco….