1. Freedom of information: The right to “no”
Hot off the digital press: Part one of Joan Baxter’s two-part series on the sorry state of Freedom of Information requests in Nova Scotia.
Baxter uses one request from the Halifax Examiner — for information on an application to protect the French River watershed — to provide insight into a broken system. Not only do those who make freedom of information requests often face exorbitant fees ($540 in this case), they frequently receive information that is so heavily redacted as to be useless. That is, when the information is released at all.
Here’s what Baxter wanted to learn via the FOIPOP. Baxter writes:
I was trying to find out what had happened to the application the Municipal Council of the County of Colchester had submitted a year earlier to the province for protection of the French River watershed on the wooded slopes of Warwick Mountain in the Cobequid Hills, just inland from Tatamagouche.
Specifically, the municipality’s goal was to keep mineral exploration and mining out of the watershed that provides Tatamagouche with its drinking water.
How illuminating were the results? Here’s Baxter again:
A virtual meeting was scheduled for December and then another in January 2021, but redactions make it impossible to know what it was about and who would be present.
Almost every email from November 2020 onwards is redacted, as are all drafts of the contents of a presentation that NSE staff were preparing for the minister.
The January 2021 presentation included background, which was already well known, but the rest of its contents are “withheld.” After redactions, only the headers are visible on the presentation slides for “Considerations,” “Options,” “Longer Term Considerations,” and “Recommendation.”…
At the end of the 866 pages, I still had absolutely no idea why the province still hadn’t approved the application from a municipality seeking to protect the water supply of one of its communities.
All that time painstakingly going through hundreds of pages, making notes, and the $540 were for naught. Everything that might have shed some light on the decision process and reasons for its delay.
The details of how we got from Baxter’s original results to here, and the stakes for the region’s water supply are well worth reading. The whole story is here.
2. Kaleb Simmonds and Andru Winter collaborate on music and more
Matthew Byard talks to hip-hop artists Kaleb Simmonds and Andru Winter on their collaborations in music and beyond. He also gets into their backgrounds and the complex paths that led them away from Nova Scotia and back again.
Winter and Simmonds grew up in the same Dartmouth neighbourhood known as Cranberry.
“I met [Simmonds] for the first time when I’m in like Grade 7,” says Winter. “I used to go up to him in the hallways and kick a rap for him because it was known that he was like a musician, and that he was a beatboxer, and a rapper — all these things … I wanted to rap. So I’d just walk up to him… I’d sit around for days trying to write a rap that would impress him.”
Simmonds was in the top seven on Canadian Idol in 2004, then moved to Toronto to further his musical career. Winter, meanwhile, had dropped out of music altogether:
Winter moved out west to work on the oil rigs, missed the music. “it just made me realize more and more that I was in the wrong place.”
He moved to Toronto in 2010, just as Simmonds’ music career was taking off and Drake and Kaleb were establishing a hip hop scene in the city.
While working as a videographer, Winter met back up with Simmonds.
“And we always talked about doing business together,” Simmonds says, “not knowing how we were gonna do it, and making things great for Nova Scotia and helping set like a tone for Nova Scotia, inspire Nova Scotia’s artists, and different things like that, especially from the Black aspect.”
Read the full story on more about their collaborations and what’s next for the pair.
3. New Tideline: Tara Thorne interviews Sheri Elwood
The latest episode of the Tideline podcast, with Tara Thorne, is live. This time around Tara interviews Sheri Elwood, creator of the TV show Moonshine.
Here’s the show description:
The Canadian television multi-hyphenate Sheri Elwood has spent the past two summers down in Hubbards making Moonshine, a semi-autobiographical drama about the family that runs a summer resort and its adjacent venue (aka The Shore Club). In a spare 15 minutes from creating, co-writing, and directing the second season, she phones in from the shore to talk about being “repatriated” from American TV (and the differences of working in it versus here), and why now felt like the time for a show like this.
Back in 2002, when I was the editor of Canadian Screenwriter magazine, we ran a story by Vern Smith on pitching at festivals. It relied heavily on quotes from Elwood, and opened with this great lead:
Writer and director Sheri Elwood’s best advice to unknown screenwriters revolves around chasing the folks with money to film and television festivals around the world. And for those who don’t have a budget to be globetrotting gumshoes, don’t worry — she says chasing producers at smaller fests might work even better.
4. COVID-19 update: 19 new cases
The province reported 19 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday. Tim Bousquet noted on Twitter that chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang said, “Most people contracting COVID-19 have not been vaccinated. Vaccination is the absolute best way to protect yourself and those around you. To everyone who is fully vaccinated — thank you. To all those who are not — please don’t wait.”
Bousquet’s COVID update includes the latest vaccination numbers and more, including a full list of COVID exposure sites. There are currently 10 people in hospital in Nova Scotia with the disease, but nobody in intensive care. By contrast, Alberta, with just under five times the population of our province, currently has over a thousand people in hospital. Which leads to our next item…
5. Phase 5 may include indoor masking
At CBC, Taryn Grant reports Strang is considering changes to the province’s Phase 5 reopening plan — most notably that a requirement for masks in indoor public spaces may remain.
The original plan for Phase 5 was to lift most remaining public health restrictions, including the mask mandate and gathering limits. But as a fourth wave takes grip in parts of Canada, the chief medical officer of health for Nova Scotia said he’s reviewing plans around masking.
“That is a key issue that I’ve asked my public health team to look at carefully,” Dr. Robert Strang said in an interview.
Over the past several weeks, provinces that had previously lifted mask mandates have been reinstating them, including, most recently, New Brunswick.
I remember feeling (and writing about) a sense of dread when it became clear we were going to be wearing masks. Not a rational response. Probably just because it seemed like a sign that things were either really bad or about to get really bad. Now? Meh. Put on a mask. Big deal. I don’t understand this business of masking not being mandatory but also strongly recommended. It is so much harder to go back to masking than to just leave it in place a little longer.
6. Labour pains, restaurant edition, continued
Mary Campbell takes another kick at the “we can’t find workers” can in the Cape Breton Spectator, writing about what she calls restaurant owner Danny Ellis’s “bellyaching tour of local media outlets.”
Naturally, government wage supports came up as one of the key culprits. Campbell writes:
I’ve made this point before but it bears repeating: if you collected CERB for a year at $500 a week, you earned $24,000. That’s the princely sum that has knocked the restaurant industry for a loop.
But fear not, restaurant owners have solutions — immigration, government support and temporary foreign workers…
Why raise wages when you can just flood the labor pool with people willing to work for less?
Reading Campbell’s piece, I see she is also a fan of the Citations Needed podcast, which did an excellent episode on this very issue. Campbell again:
As I read these stories, I was reminded of an episode of the (excellent) Citations Needed podcast I’d listened to back in April. Hosts Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi examined what they called “The Labour Shortage Ruse” (sub head: “How Capital Invents Staffing Crises to Bust Unions and Depress Wages”) taking aim both at industry groups claiming to be victims of such shortages and — because it’s a US-based podcast focused on “the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit” — at American media outlets who “unquestionably repeat” labor shortage claims without ever bothering to ask “why they’re reporting on the same supposed labor shortage every year for the past thirty years.”
In particular, I remembered what their guest, Kevin Cashman, a senior associate at Center for Economic and Policy Research, had to say about such “shortages” in the restaurant industry:
“It’s a lot easier to demonize people and say, ‘Well, you know, you should be taking this job instead of taking unemployment,’ you know, we should…have employers that are paying wages that incorporate all the requirements of the job. I don’t know many people who write these stories that would want to go be a line cook in a restaurant if that was the only job they had available to them during a pandemic because it’s just not worth the risk to their health.”
He could have been quoting Danny Ellis, who seems to assume that all his former dishwashers spent 2020 on their couches.
One element of Campbell’s story is the claim that Ellis himself was forced to wash dishes. I have heard this repeated over and over in other stories. The owner had to wash dishes. Can you imagine?
For anyone else interested in this subject, there is a superb This American Life episode on essential workers, which includes the questions who is essential, why does that vary from place to place, and why are so many of the people considered essential paid so little? It spotlights the stories of a transit worker in New York, a waitress in Phoenix, a daycare teacher in a town of 8,000 people in Maine, and a McDonald’s employee serving up free meals to health care workers.
As with the Examiner, the Cape Breton Spectator is subscriber supported, and so this article is behind the Spectator’s paywall. Click here to purchase a subscription to the Spectator, or click on the photo below to get a joint subscription to both the Spectator and the Examiner.
1. Photographing the not-so-barren barrens
At first, Kent Martin was just going for a walk. He would regularly head out to the barrens in the Peggy’s Cove Preservation Area, camera in hand, photographing whatever caught his eye. A collection of those photos has just been published in Martin’s first book, The Peggy’s Cove Barrens: Rock, Life, Sea and Sky.
Regular readers may recognize Martin’s name from photos in the Examiner. (He is also my father-in-law, and we sometimes work together on projects.) He has been a filmmaker for years, but describes photography as his first love. I talked to him about the book, and why he was drawn to the barrens. He said:
Although there are barrens stretching from Yarmouth all the way up to Cape Breton along the Atlantic coast, they’re not a destination for people, and they’re certainly not featured. What I find fascinating about them is that their landscape feels very primeval. Although the landscape itself only came into existence at the end of the last Ice Age [about 10,000 years ago], it still always gives me a sense of just how old the earth is, the changes it’s gone through, and the geology — because everything’s close to the surface.
Martin took the photos over a three-year period, and said it took him awhile to actually start noticing how rich the environment was. Even after he started photographing, he would often get home and see more in the images than he had realized was there.
In December 2019, I wrote about the diversity of the barrens and a terrible, now-dead proposal to put a parking lot there, to ease congestion in Peggy’s Cove. (I see I illustrated the piece with some of Martin’s photos, taken before he had any thoughts of putting together a book.) At the time, I quoted a 1980 newsletter from the Halifax Field Naturalists, on the diversity of the barrens:
There are five major habitats within the study area near Peggy’s Cove: coastal barrens, patches of scrub spruce, bogs, ponds, and the intertidal zone…
In general, [the coastal barrens] sub-habitat encompasses the hillsides, but it must be noted that it is, in fact, a mosaic of wet, dry, sheltered, and exposed micro-habitats, depending on local topography. Both soil and moisture accumulate as one moves from the bare tops of the hills to their bases, and some shelter from the wind can be found in the lees of the hills. The vegetation cover ameloriates temperatures and the extremes common on the hilltops are not pronounced on the hillsides…
Broad-leaved shrubs and herbs are common, but for some species it is a sub-optimal habitat (eg. bunchberry, wild lily-of- the-valley, gall-of-the-earth grow better in the forest understory). Stunted trees, mostly conifers, grow in sheltered hollows, and eventually create their own microhabitat. Although the majority of the plants in the barrens are mesophytes (middle plants, with respect to moisture), some show xerophytic adaptations, especially evergreen species that must minimise water loss in winter when moisture is often frozen and thus, unavailable. For example, Labrador Tea has thick, leathery leaves with a hairy covering over the stomata; lambkill has a waxy cuticle…
“There’s lots to explore there,” Martin said, adding:
Gradually, there’s a transition from the barrens to the beginnings of the woodlands and the Acadian Forest that’s typical of this region. But on the barrens themselves you see a lot of plants and bushes that almost feel sub-arctic… When I went there at first, I didn’t really appreciate those things. I would just walk by a lot of the small plants, like the tiny orchids and even the blueberries. I had to get down on my hands and knees or even lie on the ground to look at them, being careful not to damage them.
In addition to the plant life, Martin said he was drawn to the boulders, known as erratics, dragged and left there by glaciers:
They litter the landscape of the barrens, and they’re fascinating. They’re in all shapes and sizes, some of them as big as a bus. They remind me of the rocks at Stonehenge . They’re reaching up to heaven, and they’re grounded, and sometimes they’re just balanced precariously on a few small stones underneath them. There’s just something about them that makes them very interesting for a photographer. But they also seem to have a kind of presence.
I asked him if he had a favourite image from the book, and he mentioned the one below.
I was out on the on the barrens one morning when the weather was changing. I think there was some rain, there was drizzle, sleet, then it was ice pellets and snow. And this young woman, I think she was from North Carolina, came along out of nowhere. And I just asked her to walk up the hill and I took a couple of pictures… It’s very dramatic.
Beyond the beauty and changeability of the landscape, Martin said one of his goals is to realize how unique the barrens are. In some ways, he said, it may be a good thing that most people don’t recognize the beauty of the barrens, because they are so fragile, and can’t withstand much “trampling over by humans.” But that also leaves them vulnerable. The photos in his book come from the area around Peggy’s Cove, which is protected, as is the land at the Kejimkujik Seaside Adjunct. But most of the barrens in the province — including at Owl’s Head — are not.
Noticed: Doing more of what’s not working to prevent suicide
This article discusses suicide.
September 10 was World Suicide Prevention Day. (This blurb is coming to you late, because I was off last week.) One of the best things I have read on the subjects of suicide prevention is a blog post that is now some five years old, written by British psychologist Anne Cooke, clinical director of the doctoral program in clinical psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University, and Ian Marsh, who teaches in the university’s School of Allied and Public Health Professions.
It’s great to see political parties talking more about mental health care. But as Marsh and Cooke note in the blog, called The Politics of Suicide, too often the rhetoric is individualized — that is, seen as a personal rather than social issue.
They say the idea that people who kill themselves are mentally ill has “dominated our thinking on suicide prevention for a long time. As a consequence, many of us have come to see suicide as an individual mental health problem and the job of mental health services as identifying and ‘managing’ those at risk. While this has some value, there are some big problems with it too.”
One of these problems is that it ignores policies that lead to people living in poverty and distress. The same governments that laud suicide prevention programs also implement policies causing widespread misery. In one of his essays, Marsh argues that we need to look more closely at “the question of how experiences of inequality and injustice contribute to suicide.”
In The Politics of Suicide, he and Cooke write:
[One of the problems] with seeing suicide as an individual mental health problem is that it distracts us from what could make a difference: namely addressing the circumstances of people’s lives, such as unemployment or poverty, that are often what lead us to be so desperate that we consider taking our own lives. In paying so little attention to these, and to the social and political contexts that give rise to them, current proposals are like exhortations to mop a floor faster while ignoring the source of a leak.
And our life circumstances really matter. The [UK] Government’s ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing in England’ report found something rather staggering: nearly half of all people in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance (a benefit for people unable to work because of poor health or disability) had attempted suicide. The report sees this as an example of the role played by ‘socioeconomic adversity’.
The possible role of the Government’s own policies is noticeably absent from the discussion.
A story published yesterday in the Globe and Mail looks at a new study on the dramatic drop in the Canadian suicide rate last year. Reporter Zosia Bielski notes suicides dropped 32% last year, despite the pandemic. Bielski writes:
“It’s a remarkable finding, that during this awful time, we saw a decrease,” said the report’s lead author, Roger McIntyre, a University of Toronto professor of psychiatry and pharmacology…
“Our results suggest that government interventions that broadly aim to reduce measures of insecurity (economic, housing, health), and timely psychiatric services should be prioritized as part of a national suicide reduction strategy, not only during but after termination of the COVID-19 pandemic,” reads the report, which drew from Statistics Canada data on suicide rates over nearly 11 years…
Government provisions deployed early in the pandemic softened the blow, the study authors say. Dr. McIntyre cited the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which offered employed people $2,000 a month for up to 28 weeks; the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, which provided $1,250 a month for 16 weeks, as well as provisions for small business, mortgage leniency for homeowners and eviction bans for renters.
Besides financial help, the report also noted a boost in regional funding for psychotherapy and counselling services, and 24/7 crisis lines.
Nova Scotia has a 24-hour crisis line. In June, 2021. the Nova Scotia Advocate ran a piece by Jamie Livingston, looking at the effectiveness of the Nova Scotia Crisis Line, whose number appears at the top of this item.
Livingston, an associate professor of criminology at Saint Mary’s University, cites cases in which callers to the crisis line couldn’t reach anyone, or were made to feel that they were not being taken seriously. Since the line is a key part oof the province’s strategy to prevent suicide, Livingston says we should be given more information on how effective it is.
Although crisis lines are recognized as a critical component to a mental health crisis response system, their evidence is rather limited. An article published last year summarized the findings of over 30 crisis line studies – mostly in the US – and concluded that “high quality evidence demonstrating crisis line effectiveness is lacking”. Crisis line services have shown positive outcomes, such as decreasing callers’ imminent risk of suicide and reducing their distress during crisis calls. Other studies have also revealed negative outcomes, such as service user dissatisfaction and no change in callers’ suicidal thoughts. Despite the mixed results, low-quality evidence, and absence of long-term outcome studies, the authors conclude that “Current evidence supports the continuation and expansion of crisis line services as an important safety net for comprehensive suicide prevention care”. In general, studies show the beneficial outcomes of telephone crisis lines while also drawing attention to major gaps concerning what we know about their effects.
Given how heavily our government and health systems depend on the Nova Scotia mental health crisis line, it is prudent for them to invest in rigorous study of how well it is working, including whether the crisis line is meeting the needs of people experiencing mental distress, their support network, and the broader community. The Nova Scotia mental health crisis line is supposed to provide “immediate access” to “24/7” support with calls returned “within 30 minutes”, which are all performance indicators that should be routinely evaluated and publicly reported by our health system. The effectiveness of crisis lines hinge on the quality of services being delivered, including whether they are accessible to, and offer proper support for, people from diverse communities (e.g., African Nova Scotian, Indigenous, Immigrant). Public data or independent evaluations of the Nova Scotia mental health crisis line have not been produced or made available.
No meetings Thursday or Friday
Legislature sits (Friday, 2pm, Province House)
Women In Entrepreneurship Speaker Series (Thursday, 8:30am) —student founders Rafaela Andrade, Stephanie Arnold, and Serena Jackson speak with Alice Aiken
Spinal cord mechanisms of mechanical pain after nerve injury (Thursday, 11am) — Reza Sharif-Naeini from McGill university will talk
Finding Confluence: Hildegard’s Enduring Green Voice (Thursday, 12pm) — Janet Youngdahl from the University of Lethbridge will talk
Making a Universe with Axions (Thursday, 2pm) — online lecture by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein from the University of New Hampshire
Bring your own axions, if you can prove they exist.
Democracy on Edge (Thursday, Rebecca Cohn Auditorium and online, 7pm) — in the first of the Stanfield Conversations: Talking Democracy series, Charles Taylor and Simone Chambers
will engage in a wide-ranging conversation on the sources of sinking trust in democracy, and new directions to address contemporary challenges. Beginning with the rise of ‘populism’ and what it means for democracy, they will also discuss the role of disinformation in our new, hyper-partisan and increasingly splintered digital landscape as well as institutional reforms to restore citizen trust.
Celebrating 30 Years of the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award (Thursday, 7:30pm) — register for this Zoom webinar to win a basket of books by the featured authors. With Anne Simpson, Don Hannah, John Steffler, Alistair MacLeod, Alexander MacLeod, Lisa Moore, Linda Little, and Michael Crummy.
Pandemic Preparedness: Impact of COVID on Hospital Design (Friday, 1pm, Room HB4, School of Architecture) — a talk with architect Bryan Langlands
Working and living in NYC through the first wave of COVID-19, Bryan Langlands will share his personal insights and observations as to how the pandemic has influenced hospital design for his academic medical center clients, ranging from the initial immediate need to create additional capacity through the creation of makeshift clinical spaces to the ongoing planning, design, and construction of hospital projects.
Village Prose, the Thaw, and Soviet Peasantry: A Reading Audience That Was Not There? (Friday, 3:30, Room 1170, McCain Building) —Denis Kozlov will talk. More info and complete schedule via this email.
Fall Convocation (Friday and Saturday, 5pm) — in person and via live stream
Jungle Flower Workshop (Thursday, 6pm) — Zoom workshop for students in Nova Scotia who have experienced abuse and sexual violence
In the harbour
06:15: Grande Torino, car carrier, arrives at Autoport from Valencia, Spain
06:30: Horizon Enabler, offshore supply ship, arrives at Dartmouth Cove from St. John’s
09:30: MSC Shristi, container ship, sails from Pier 42 for sea
11:00: Algoma Integrity, bulker, sails from Gold Bond for sea
11:45: Grande Torino sails for sea
16:00: Horizon Enabler sails for sea
19:00: AlgoNorth, oil tanker, sails from Irving Oil for sea
18:00: Solana, oil tanker, arrives at Point Tupper from Prof. John Evans Atta (offshore terminal), Ghana
If Clint Eastwood owns the Grande Torino, don’t mess with it.
Shinkansen are Japanese bullet trains, and there is a Twitter account of the same name devoted to them. It consists of photos and very short videos, showing trains at stations, passing each other, on bridges, and passing by at night. I am always pleased when these turn up in my feed. I click and watch the videos (which usually run about five seconds). I find them oddly mesmerizing and comforting, especially those in which the trains pass each other.
Last week, we took the train from Montreal to Toronto. Pleasant, but no shinkansen.