Joan Baxter first approached me in March 2018 to pitch an article about the Northern Pulp Mill. As she had literally written a book about the mill — it’s titled The Mill — I readily accepted. I found her a joy to work with.

A couple of months later, Joan had another proposal: A four-part series about the government of Nova Scotia’s efforts to open up the province to gold mining. I was completely unaware of that issue, and Joan educated me and everyone else with the series, which the Examiner co-published with the Cape Breton Spectator.

Since then, Joan has become the go-to reporter on natural resource issues in Nova Scotia, and indeed, in much of Canada and even the world. Her work on the timber industry, mining, fracking, liquified natural gas, “green hydrogen” and other such issues has garnered global attention — a two-part series she co-wrote for the Examiner and The Energy Mix was repurposed for The Guardian in Britain; Joan is part of an international group of investigative reporters coordinating their work; and Wall Street and other financial industry types regularly contact her for information and with tips.

That’s a huge profile for someone using the tiny Halifax Examiner as a jumping off point.

Here’s how Joan and I typically interact. Joan contacts me and asks, ‘Would you be interested in this story?’ I reply, ‘Have I ever said no?’ She then goes away for a couple of weeks and returns with a incredibly detailed, footnoted opus that blows open some previously unreported story.

Joan is a reporters’ reporter. She is fearless, and attacks a story like a hungry dog on a meaty bone. We need more Joans.

But if we can’t have more Joans, maybe we can have more Joan. I want to give Joan more time, money, and resources to do even more of her already incredible work. And that requires a growing stream of reliable revenue for the Halifax Examiner — that is, it requires your subscription money.

If you value Joan’s work, please value it with a subscription to the Halifax Examiner.

As always, thank you!


NEWS

1. Catching COVID in hospital

Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province, Iran. Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

“Given the many hundreds, possibly thousands, of people who have contracted COVID in hospital, I asked Nova Scotia Health how many of those people subsequently died from the disease,” I wrote last week:

Answer: That data isn’t collected, so we don’t know.

That answer is, well, unsatisfactory. There was a decision made to do away with hospital COVID wards, and as a result, a very large number of people who were COVID-free when they entered hospital were infected with the virus there. It strikes me as tremendously irresponsible to not even track how many of those people have succumbed to the disease, so I pressed. The communications people said they’d keep asking on my behalf.

Brendan Elliott, the spokesperson for Nova Scotia Health, got back to me at the end of the day yesterday. He emailed:

Hi Tim, I was able to chat with our folks a bit more on this and was able to dive a bit deeper. Here’s what I found out.

We do review these cases, but given the volume, that assessment has not yet been completed for all patients. We agree it is important to assess the impact of COVID-19 on our patients, but the assessment of outcomes is complex given the myriad health conditions of our inpatients. For example, sometimes the exact cause of death isn’t obvious. A patient could be frail and while they die with COVID-19, was it COVID-19 that caused the death? The answer to that question is sometimes never conclusive. This analysis will take time to complete.

Our top priority is ensuring we do everything in our power to prevent death and spread of the virus to others.

Nova Scotia Health has maintained many measures to mitigate the risk of introduction and transmission of COVID-19 in our facilities. All patients and essential care partners are screened for COVID-19 symptoms and exposure risk factors when entering any facility and all patients requiring admission or high risk procedures are tested for COVID-19 at the time of admission.

Patients with COVID-19 are admitted to private rooms with appropriate precautions in the area of the hospital most appropriate for their care.

All health care staff, essential care partners, and visitors are required to wear a mask and whenever possible, patients wear a mask when out of their bed.

The introduction of COVID-19 into health care facilities is often through patients who are asymptomatic, pre-symptomatic, or mildly symptomatic but have a negative PCR test at the time of admission. This leads to transmission to roommates in shared rooms or by visitors to our facilities who are not aware they have COVID-19 when visiting.

The increase in the number of outbreaks in Nova Scotia hospitals has been evident since introduction of the highly transmissible Omicron and cannot be attributed to the shift from dedicated COVID-19 units to caring for patients in the area of the hospital best suited to their care needs.

Infection Prevention and Control practitioners assist clinical teams in the management of patients found to have COVID-19 following admission to ensure they are immediately removed from shared rooms and appropriate safety measures are put in place. Should additional cases be identified on a hospital unit, additional measures are put in place on the unit to reduce the risk of further transmission.

Brendan

Well. I guess that means we’ll never know how many people who contradicted COVID in hospital subsequently died from the disease.

People are telling me they’re not taking their elderly loved ones to hospital for other issues for fear of losing them to COVID. Some clarity on the actual risks might allay some of those fears and assure people that hospitals are safe. Or, of course, the information might instead lead to the opposite conclusion. Either way, the information should be collected and made publicly available.

It’s remarkable how Nova Scotia went from being relatively transparent on the COVID front, at least within the constraints of processing the information, to seemingly wanting to be as obtuse as possible.

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2. Province House

The statue of Joseph Howe outside Province House in June 2021. Credit: Zane Woodford

This item is written by Jennifer Henderson.

Opposition leaders peppered Premier Tim Houston with questions in the legislature yesterday, asking when the government intends to take action to assist working class Nova Scotians struggling to cope with the rising cost of living. 

Prices for food, gasoline, and home heating have all shot up due to inflation, and a litre of furnace oil in Halifax now costs $2.14, with winter right around the corner. 

Both Liberal and NDP leaders persisted in trying to convince Houston that now is the time the government should be using some of its surplus to help households whose income is too high to qualify for assistance with home heating bills or the senior’s grant. 

Houston was asked by Liberal leader Zach Churchill to commit to two things: (1) raise the income threshold to allow more families to access financial help from the government and (2) do as many other provinces have and index income assistance (welfare) cheques to the cost of inflation.

Houston did not respond to suggestions he should index welfare payments to the cost-of-living. But he did say analyses are taking place at this moment to see where the government might “update” income thresholds for certain programs. 

“We might index the Heating Assistance Rebate Program to inflation,” said Houston. “We are looking for steps that are sustainable in the long term. We have made changes for CCAs and ECEs, to the Family tax benefit and affordable child care.”

The present Heating Assistance Rebate Program offers a maximum (a maximum!!) payment of $200 for families with incomes around $44,000 a year. The cut-off for single persons is $29,000. Senior citizens can apply for an additional $250 a year if their incomes are below $37,400. The rebate is a pittance, especially when you consider the cost of fuel and the fact 200,000 households in this province still heat with oil. 

Nova Scotians are eagerly waiting for details on when the province plans to roll out some $60 million in federal funding from the Environment and Climate Change department targeted to help people get through this winter and encourage the transition off oil. There is also $20 million extra the province has collected at the gas pumps (the motive fuel tax) that could also be re-distributed.  

Government Passes Law to Limit NS Power profits, curb rate hike

Natural Resources and Renewable Energy minister Tory Rushton introduced Bill 212 for third and final reading yesterday. Rushton called it “a temporary measure for two years” that is “all about affordability and protecting ratepayers.” 

The change to the Public Utilities Act restricts power rates from rising more than 1.8% over two years on non-fuel costs such as operations and maintenance.

Fuel costs, which can’t be avoided, are expected to hover around 10% a year. That percentage could rise depending on whether Ottawa imposes a carbon tax on large emitters or accepts Nova Scotia’s workaround proposal.

Related: Muskrat Falls power delays will lead to very high rate increases in Nova Scotia

Rushton told the House of Assembly the 1.8% rate increase is the equivalent of $25-30 million a year and should permit the company to maintain tree-trimming as well as proceed to hire 60 more powerline technicians. 

He also said he expects Nova Scotia Power to continue to attend ongoing federal-provincial meetings over the proposed Atlantic Loop. Emera CEO Scott Balfour has said the province will be unable to close coal plants by 2030 unless the Loop gets off the drawing board. 

Both Balfour and Nova Scotia Power president Peter Gregg have complained the government’s intervention restricting Nova Scotia Power from retaining a larger share of profits (capped at 9.25%) will curtail plans to spend $500 million on capital projects such as wind farms and battery storage systems to help green the grid.

Although all three political parties voted to pass Bill 212 limiting the size of power rate increases and power company profits, both the Liberal and NDP leaders expressed concerns about its long-term effect. 

“While we might be limiting rates in the short-term, based on what we are hearing from Emera about the Atlantic Loop and renewable projects such as wind farms, we may now be at risk of those being scrapped,” said Liberal leader Zach Churchill. “This could potentially severely impact Nova Scotia’s ability to get off coal by 2030. We all know the impacts that will have on our weather and our economy.”

“This change may be necessary but it is not sufficient,” said NDP leader Claudia Chender. “People’s bills are still going to skyrocket because of the cost of fuel. We haven’t seen the indexing of the heating assistance rebate programs. We haven’t seen the introduction of a low-income power rate program (as the NDP proposed last spring) which would allow people to afford power. So this may be too little, too late and it’s not the kind of intervention we need to break the cycle.”

The passage of this legislation and the fact politicians will be at the House of Assembly for extended hours from 1pm to midnight today are indications the government expects to wrap up this session and head home for the long weekend.

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3. John Lohr goes to council

Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr speaks to Halifax regional council on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. Credit: Zane Woodford

“Councillors commended Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr for stepping into the ‘lion’s den,’ and that’s about it,'” reports Zane Woodford:

Lohr made a presentation to Halifax regional council at the start of its meeting on Tuesday, and heard councillors’ numerous concerns with his government’s approach to housing, and Bill 225

That bill gives Lohr the power to nullify any HRM bylaw passed within the last six months if it has anything to do with housing and development. It’s ostensibly designed to reverse council’s recent amendments to HRM’s noise bylaw, ending the construction workday at 8pm, rather than 9:30pm. As the Halifax Examiner reported last week, councillors don’t like the bill.

Lohr told councillors he wants to work together to fix the housing crisis.

“I have no pleasure in being at odds with you, but if necessary I will be,” Lohr said.

For the next half hour, councillors addressed their concerns with the bill, and the government’s past intrusions into municipal decision-making.

Mayor Mike Savage told Lohr he was “disappointed.”

“You and I have met a fair number of times, we’ve broken bread a few times, and I had no heads-up on this whatsoever,” Savage said.

Click here to read “John Lohr hears Halifax council concerns on plan to nullify city bylaws, but Bill 225 passes.”

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4. Fall River project rejected by council

A rendering of the proposal for Fall River. Credit: T.A. Scott Architecture and Design

“The vote couldn’t have been closer, but it’s a no for a Fall River developer,” reports Zane Woodford:

Halifax regional council held a public hearing Tuesday night to consider a municipal planning strategy (MPS) amendment to enable a proposal from Perry Lake Developments. The company wants to build three 40-unit, three-storey buildings at the end of Ingram Drive in Fall River.

Several councillors said they were on the fence, and the final vote was too; it was an 8-8 tie.

“You can’t be serious,” Mayor Mike Savage said at the result.

Under council’s procedures, a tie vote is a defeat.

The vote came just hours after Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr appeared at council to talk about the speed at which it’s approving developments.

Click here to read “Tie vote means council says no to Fall River development proposal.”

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5. Black and African Diaspora degree

Isaac Saney, chair of the Black and African Diaspora Studies Degree Major Committee at Dalhousie University. Credit: Matthew Byard

“A Black history professor at Dalhousie University says a proposal to expand the university’s Black and African Diaspora studies minor program into a full degree could make it the first program of its kind in Canada,” reports Matthew Byard:

The current minor program started online in 2017 within the faculty of arts and social sciences. Isaac Saney, chair of the Black and African Diaspora Studies Degree Major Committee, is now working with other Black professors at Dalhousie on the final proposal for the full degree program. 

“Then the idea came out,” Saney said. “Why don’t we have a major where somebody can come in and graduate with a degree in Black and African Diaspora Studies?”

Saney said he had a role in creating the initial program, along with Dalhousie Black Faculty and Staff Caucus members Afua Cooper, Chike Jeffers, and assistant professor Vincent Simedoh. Saney said the program is “one of the first, if not the first ” of its kind in Canada.

As a minor program, Black and African Diaspora Studies can only be a small concentration of study within a larger degree.

“A major means the meat of your degree will be on Black and African Diaspora Studies,” Saney said. “It means you’ll have greater exposure, greater expertise in that area. So, Black and African Diaspora Studies would be on the same level as political science, sociology, and so forth.”

Click here to read “Black and African Diaspora degree program at Dalhousie may be first in Canada, professor says.”

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6. Immigration

Jennifer Henderson reports:

Auditor General Kim Adair has made 15 recommendations to improve procedures and training of staff at Immigration & Population Growth, a division of the Labour, Skills, and Immigration department. 

All recommendations have been accepted by Minister Jill Balser, who yesterday announced the hiring of 12 people to bring the staff complement to 60. By the end of August, the province had welcomed more than 9,300 newcomers this year. 

Adair says if the province intends to hit its population target of two million people by 2060, that would mean the Immigration division will be processing closer to 25,000 applications a year. 

Spot checks by Adair’s team uncovered no major problems. However, the auditor says the risk of fraud is prevalent in all areas of immigration and the division needs to develop training policies and manuals to help employees identify and deal with fraud when it occurs. She also stressed the need for training to ensure applications from immigrants are processed with more consistency.

The auditor general said she was unable to determine if the $6.4 million a year the province gives to immigrant settlement associations to help newcomers with housing, work, and language is effective. Spot checks of five service providers turned up no glaring issues, but Adair recommends that the province do a better job surveying and talking with newcomers to determine if it is getting the best value for money. Balser says follow-up work is currently being done through a consultant.

The government has accepted Adair’s recommendation requiring all immigrant settlement groups to provide the province with annual audited financial statements, including receipts. Until now they submitted quarterly reports without documentation.

Adair says the province uses tax return information to see how many immigrants remain in the province five to six years after landing. The current retention rate hovers around 70%.

Back to Tim Bousquet.

It’s good that the auditor is keeping an eye on the immigration programs, as such programs have been rife with corruption across Canada.

Recall that the man who in April 2020 killed 22 people in Nova Scotia, who the Examiner refers to as GW, had the year before conspired to profit off an immigration scam. As I reported in July:

In 2019, GW and Toronto lawyer Kevin von Bargen plotted to illegally profit from the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program (AIPP), a government initiative that fast-tracked permanent residency for immigrants after one year of employment at a sponsoring business. The scheme would involve GW supposedly employing applicants at the denturist clinic, but they would never actually work there; instead, the immigrants would pay a large upfront “administrative fee” to von Bargen and GW, and then pay for their own salaries and living expenses for the year. The plot was aborted only when GW realized that, as his own tax-reported salary through the denturist clinic was so low, suddenly employing immigrants at higher salaries would draw the attention of tax auditors.

GW and von Bargen seemed not at all concerned that administrators of the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program would discover their plot, which perhaps speaks to their belief that there was no real oversight of the immigration program.

Corruption aside, is increased population necessarily a good thing? Maybe not.

As I wrote in September:

It’s silly to try to predict population changes over decades. Anything could happen — huge influxes of refugees from wars and climate change, or huge decreases in population due to, er, wars and climate change, but also because hormone-disrupting Phthalates cause global sterility or the meteor strikes or the Christians are finally raptured away, thank god.

More likely, population changes will reflect more prosaic causes, like the kids need to find work in Toronto or Americans begin taking Cape Breton up on the offer of free land.

But here the province is making a huge, well, not prediction exactly, but an aspirational goal of increasing the provincial population from the current 1,000,001 (thereabouts) to 2,000,000 by 2060. On the one hand, that’s a short 38 years during which there must be annual increases of about five percent, year after year, but on the other hand, that’s a long 38 years during which wars and climate change and global sterility and meteors and rapture can happen.

Who knows? It might be fun to see what happens. Or it might be terrible. I doubt I’ll last that long, so you’ll have to increase your aspirational goal by one.

As I’ve said before, a population increase by itself is neither a good nor a bad thing. Premier Tim Houston and the rest of the government tells us that increasing the population is “good for the economy,” but, well, no, not necessarily.

A population increase could be a good thing, especially if the newcomers see their standards of livings, opportunities, and quality of life improved, and the rest of us are enriched not just monetarily but also culturally by the newcomers’ presence.

But a population increase could be a bad thing if the newcomers are merely exploited as cheap labour used to further enrich the already wealthy, leading to increased inequality, taking opportunity away from most people.

There’s a political discussion that must accompany any goals for population growth, and that discussion must include detailed proposals for living wages, minimum wages, how the tax burden is allocated, the cost of university and loans, and more.

If they’re not talking about the above, they’re playing us for suckers.

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7. CRA

GW’s Portapique cottage.

Above, I spoke of GW’s apparent perception that he could get away with immigration fraud because the financial controls on the program were so loose. It was only a worry that using the program would draw the attention of the CRA that caused him pause.

I wonder if that worry was justified.

I have a pal who is currently wrangling with the CRA over a supposed $500 miscalculation of a EI payment from three years ago. My pal says he’s done nothing wrong, and I believe him. He’s a stand-up guy who plays by the rules. He lives a modest life in an apartment he can only afford to rent because he has a roommate, but here he is spending his time and stressing out over a bureaucratic screwup.

Contrast that to GW, who had owned a building in downtown Dartmouth and three parcels in Portapique, including an expansive cottage and “warehouse” playground. He also owned a truck, a Jeep, a Mercedes, four Ford Tauruses bought at government auctions, and at least a dozen motorbikes. He had hundreds of thousands of dollars in various financial instruments that banks report to the CRA. He additionally took several trips a year to Caribbean resorts.

Despite all that readily apparent wealth, over many years, GW claimed an income averaging less than $40,000 annually. Crickets from the CRA.

Imagine if just one percent of the CRA’s resources that are focused on things like my friend’s disputed $500 EI payment and innocent people getting caught up in CERB mistakes had instead been directed towards obvious and substantial tax cheats like GW.

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8. Ransomware attacks

“Two major Canadian food companies continue to keep mum about information technology problems that have plagued their operations for days and as the silence drags on, some experts say a ransomware attack could be behind the issues,” reports Francis Willick for the CBC:

Empire Company, which owns 1,500 stores across Canada, including Sobeys, Lawtons, IGA, Safeway, Foodland, Needs and other grocery outlets, said Monday an “information technology systems issue” was causing some of its pharmacies to experience difficulty fulfilling prescriptions. Signs posted at some stores also said the gift card and Scene points systems were down.

The company has not released any further information about the issues affecting the chain, and did not respond to questions posed by CBC News on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Maple Leaf Foods says it’s continuing to grapple with the effects of a cybersecurity incident that began having impacts on its operations over the weekend.

Most companies are reluctant to admit they’ve been hacked, says Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst based in London, Ont.

“If you admit that you were hit by a ransomware attack, then you admit that you didn’t invest enough in cybersecurity and you didn’t take your clients’ and stakeholders’ data seriously enough. And nobody wants to admit that — it’s like the modern day equivalent of the Scarlet Letter.”

After similar attacks in the U.S. against Colonial Pipeline and JBS USA disrupted gas and food deliveries, the American federal government now requires mandatory reporting of ransomware attacks when they involve critical infrastructure. Similar reporting requirements have been proposed in Canada, but that legislation appears to have stalled.


Government

City

Today

Council Continuation (Wednesday, 1pm, City Hall and online) — if required

District Boundary Resident Review Panel (Wednesday, 3:30pm, City Hall) — agenda

Tomorrow

Design Review Committee (Thursday, 4:30pm, online) — agenda

Province

No meetings


On campus

No events


In the harbour

Halifax
05:00: MOL Experience, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Antwerp, Belgium
05:30: MSC Malena, container ship, sails from Pier 42 for Barcelona
06:30: Algoma Integrity, bulker, arrives at Gold Bond from Portsmouth, New Hampshire
07:00: USS Cooperstown, U.S. naval frigate, arrives at Dockyard from sea
08:30: MOL Charisma, container ship, sails from Pier 41 for New York
09:00: Acadian, oil tanker, moves from anchorage to Irving Oil
10:00: Maersk Idaho, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from Antwerp, Belgium
11:00: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, arrives at Autoport from St. John’s
16:00: Nor’easter, oil tanker, arrives at Irving Oil from Boston
16:30: USS Cooperstown sails for sea
17:00: MOL Experience sails for Fort Lauderdale, Florida
18:30: Maersk Idaho sails for sea
22:00: Augusta Luna, cargo ship, sails from Pier 27 for Bilboa, Spain

Cape Breton
14:00: Atlantic Sealion, barge, and Atlantic Beech, tug, sail from Port Hawkesbury for sea
16:00: Balsa 86, cargo ship, sails from Mulgrave for sea
17:00: Algoma Mariner, bulker, arrives at Aulds Cove quarry from Halifax


Footnotes

I avoided following U.S. election results last night because I didn’t need the additional stress and worry. Maybe it’s not going to be as bad as I feared? That it’s this close is its own problem, obviously.

I’m on Mastodon now.


Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

Jennifer Henderson

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

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2 Comments

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  1. One tax measure that the Province should take is to adjust personal income tax rates by the rate of inflation each year as the Federal Government and every other province does, with the exception of P.E.I and N.S. Not doing so results in a real tax increase every year so long as there is inflation.

  2. Re: the CRA. One of the things that always bothered me when I worked in gov was seeing when the cost of people dealing with something became more than it was actually worth.

    For that $500 once approx 16 hours of work (either 16 hours by one person or 4 hours be 4 people etc.) by an employee making ~30 bucks an hour is done by bureaucrats they are in a deficit where they’ve spent more wages on it than they could ever get back by collecting it. If a high paid manager gets involved the cost balloons even faster.
    Maybe your friend should run the numbers to the CRA employee and their manager and try to convince them it’s not worth their while!
    The question of ‘when to stop’ is not though of often enough in government employees caught up in routines, policies and rules.