News

1. Donkin mine

The Donkin headland. Photo: Morien Resources Corp.

“The operator of the Donkin coal mine is facing sanctions under the temporary foreign worker program after an investigation found the company was paying American workers far more than it said it would when the jobs were advertised to Canadians,” reports Tom Ayers for the CBC:

A 2016 investigation by Service Canada resulted in Kameron Coal being levied an administrative penalty of $230,000 and receiving a 10-year ban on accessing the program.

The sanctions were reduced last year to a $54,000 fine and a one-year ban on using temporary foreign workers, as well as posting the company’s name and violations on the Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada website listing non-compliant employers.

The ban on using temporary foreign workers would not apply to existing employees.

Kameron Coal has since appealed the sanctions to the Federal Court.

Details of the pay amounts are at the link.

2. “Investments”

Yesterday, the province announced it is spending $1.45 million to bolster early childhood education training programs at the community colleges:

Creating more opportunities for Nova Scotians who want to pursue a career in early childhood education will strengthen and develop the workforce and help meet the needs of families with young children.

Government is working with the Nova Scotia Community College to create 135 new seats in the early childhood education program over the next three years. The total investment is $1.45 million.

Government will also invest $800,000 to create a temporary tuition support program for Nova Scotians who attend an early childhood education program at one of three private career colleges in the province. This funding comes from a three-year, $35 million early learning and child care funding agreement the province signed with the federal government in January. [emphasis added]

The story was picked up by Global under the headline “Province invests $1.45 million to expand NSCC Early Childhood Education Program” [emphasis added].

Is the $1.45 million a good expenditure? Maybe. For sure, the McNeil’s government approach to preschooling could be analyzed from many perspectives, both positively and negatively; that’s the stuff of political debate and further analysis in the media. Jean Laroche at the CBC brought some nuance into the issue: “It takes two years to earn a diploma in early childhood education. Those who own or run child-care programs are struggling to find trained staff to fill current vacancies, but [Education Minister Zach] Churchill dismissed the suggestion the province should have acted sooner.” But I’m not here to question the expenditure.

Rather, I want to talk about the words “invest” and “investment.”

I think I first noticed “investment” being used to describe government expenditures in Nova Scotia during the PC MacDonald government years. It was certainly a staple of the NDP Dexter government, and now the Liberal McNeil government. So it’s tri-partisan spin; I’m guessing that back in the aughts, somebody at Communications Nova Scotia, maybe Jim Vibert, noticed “investment” being used somewhere else, and so all CNS workers were brought in for a four-day training camp to learn how to write “investment” rather than “spend.”

Does it matter? Yes. Governments spend money; that’s their job, by and large. They spend money on roads, on cops, on firefighters, on schools, on playgrounds, on tax subsidies for big corporations, on mostly empty ferries, on convention centres, on courts, on assistance for poor people, on war preparations… on all sorts of stuff.

Every government will argue that each and every nickel it spends is spent wisely, judiciously, and with only the public interest in mind. So far as the government is concerned, there’s no wasted money, no overpayments, no inefficiencies, no stupid expenditures, no reason to question any of it. Just ask them.

Or read their press releases: every dollar spent is now an “investment,” something that will bring a return, presumably bigger than the amount “invested,” and not a simple unidirectional expenditure. A thousand dollars “spent” on schoolbooks is just that — spent, a thousand dollars going from your bank accounts, taxpayers, to the schoolbook publisher. Spent. Gone. But a thousand dollars “invested” in schoolbooks will magically boomerang back into your bank accounts, taxpayers, in the form of future return on investment.

Using “investment” reframes the expenditure, nudges it a bit into the territory of being unquestionable.

But questioning and critiquing the government’s expenditures is the role of an active citizenry and the independent media. And we lose that independence when we unthinkingly adopt the “investment” framing provided by government PR people.

I’ve been cranky lately, and so I went on about this yesterday on Twitter. As I wrote:

First of all, on a simple accounting basis, the expenditures are just that: expenditures. There’s no special category of “investments” as there is with, say, capital projects. It’s just a government expense. But more importantly, “investment” frames a legitimate (and often, extremely important and necessary) government expense only in terms of its potential dollar return on investment. For sure, that’s one consideration, but only one of many. There are other values that should — must — be considered.

There are plenty of just and good government expenses that should be made simply because they’re the right thing to do — health care, education, transportation, social assistance, etc. — regardless of the direct monetary return. You can argue that not spending the money will result in higher costs down the road, or that spending the money will help improve the economy and so increase future tax revenues, but again, that’s the stuff for political debate; the framing of every expense as an “investment” to some degree precludes that debate.

As I said, I’m being a crank, but I think we should let the public assess for itself (or we should explore it in the media) whether any given expense is a worthy one, and we shouldn’t be giving the government of the day the immediate propaganda victory by using “investment.”

3. Security failure

“Nova Scotia’s Department of Community Services was the hardest hit by a data breach of one of the government’s websites earlier this year, internal emails and memos released under freedom of information requests reveal,” reports Alexander Quon for Global, employing the government’s obfuscating term “data breach” instead of the more accurate “security failure” to describe the incident.

As you’ll recall, security of the Freedom of Information website was laughably lax, such that a Halifax teenager employing a common and perfectly legal website scraping technique haplessly downloaded information that should have never been put on a public-facing website in the first place. Using “data breach” implies the teenager was at fault, whereas “security failure” puts the onus where it belongs — on those who designed and operated the website.

Quon continues:

At the time, the province said more than 7,000 documents were inappropriately downloaded as a result of the breach, and 250 of the documents contained “highly sensitive” personal information such as social insurance numbers, birth dates and personal addresses.

The government’s internal emails — dated between April 7 and April 16 and sent to the Office of Premier Stephen McNeil — indicate that the government actually increased their internal assessment of the number of documents with highly sensitive personal information to 369.

Of the 369 documents containing highly sensitive personal information, 273 (74 per cent) came from the Department of Community Services, which deals with income assistance, employment support, and child and youth services.

This is about what I expected. We journalists talk about using the Freedom of Information Act a lot, but the primary users are just regular citizens accessing their own information — people on income assistance needing a documented payment history to file an appeal for denied benefits, people applying for jobs who may have had problems documenting that they’re not on the sex offenders registry, people asking for their adoption records, like that.

4. 86 cranes

The first six of 86 rail-mounted gantry cranes destined for delivery to container terminals at The Port of Virginia come into port in February.

Yesterday, the Virginia Port Authority received “the first group of six rail-mounted gantry cranes (RMGs) that are the centerpieces of the $375 million capacity-expansion project that is under way” at Norfolk International Terminals, reports American Shipper:

The arrival of the RMGs signals the start of an 18-month cycle during which 60 cranes will be delivered to NIT. The expansion project launched in January and will be completed by mid-2020. The work will expand NIT’s annual throughput capacity by 400,000 container units.

By way of comparison, the increase in capacity at Norfolk, 400,000 container units, is on the order of magnitude of the total container traffic of the entire Port of Halifax, at both terminals, which is about 500,000 containers annually.

Moreover, the expansion of the Norfolk International Terminals is matched by an expansion of the VIG terminal across the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth:

In June, The Port of Virginia accepted the last load of 26 new RMGs at Virginia International Gateway, where $320 million is being invested to expand cargo capacity and operations. The new cranes will support cargo operations in 13 new container stacks.

That’s a total of 86 new cranes at the port.

The American Journal of Transportation outlines the entire port expansion project:

With plans advancing for a wider, 55-foot-deep harbor, as well as enhanced infrastructure and systems coming online, The Port of Virginia is assertively preparing to efficiently handle even more containers from ever-larger vessels.

“I think we’re moving at a pretty good clip.” John F. Reinhart, the Virginia Port Authority’s chief executive officer and executive director, told AJOT, citing numerous efforts to build upon record containerized cargo throughput in addition to delivering the U.S. East Coast’s deepest, widest, safest harbor.

I lived in Norfolk when NIT was established on former military land. A four-lane divided road called Terminal Boulevard was built to link the terminal with Interstate 564. There were, as I recall, three stop lights between the terminal and the interstate highway, and I thought of it as pretty much an expressway — there were no businesses or other pull-offs along the road; it was roughly what Burnside Drive is here. But apparently those three stoplights on Terminal Boulevard have been deemed to be too much of an impediment, and so an “intermodal connector,” a new highway dedicated just to trucks accessing the terminal, has been built:

Thus trucks serving NIT no longer have to traverse residential streets but rather can move right out of the terminal onto freeway ramps, unimpeded by traffic and stoplights.

And rail connections to the terminals, especially at VIG, have been upgraded:

Another factor helping speed cargo to final destinations is the extensive use of Norfolk Southern and CSX rail at The Port of Virginia. According to Reinhart, the 36.3 percent of the port’s freight that moves via intermodal rail is the highest such figure among East Coast ports. With modernization of the rail yard at VIG, Reinhart projects a 150 percent increase in capacity to swiftly move that rail freight, with another 360,000 rail moves achievable if such capability is totally utilized. That would propel Virginia into being the first East Coast port to move more than 1 million containers a year by rail.

Norfolk Southern and CSX have upgraded their lines into the Midwest such that double-decker container cars can now travel all the way to Chicago.

So Virginia and New York and South Carolina aren’t just idly sitting around and waiting for upstart port operations in the Maritimes to replace them — those American ports are spending billions of dollars to expand operations, deepen and widen harbour channels, improve rail lines, and build new highways to keep and expand their market share.

By comparison, the proposal for a terminal in Sydney looks simply ridiculous, and the inability to get trucks off downtown Halifax streets is just sad.


Government

City

Wednesday

Community Design Advisory Committee (Tuesday, 11:30am, City Hall) — the committee is still pretending that the Centre Plan will matter.

Western Common Advisory Committee (Wednesday, 6:30pm, Art Room, Prospect Road Community Centre) — the only thing on the agenda is an update on the Nichols Lake Trail.

Public Information Meeting (Wednesday, 6:30pm, Helen Creighton Room, Alderney Gate Library) — Michael Napier Architecture Inc. has a development agreement to build a 10-storey building with 80 apartments at 169 Wyse Road in Dartmouth (the old Little Nashville/Centrefolds Strip Bar site), but now wants to reconfigure that into a six-storey building with 76 apartments.

Public Information Meeting – Case 21336 (Wednesday, 7pm, Community Room, Atlantic Superstore, 3601 Joseph Howe Dr., Halifax) — stuff in Fairview.

Thursday

Transportation Standing Committee (Thursday, 1pm, City Hall) — lots of stuff is being discussed. I’ll write about it tomorrow.

Province

No public meetings this week.


On campus

Dalhousie

Wednesday

The Commodification of Pride: A Facilitated Conversation (Wednesday, 7pm, Venus Envy, 1598 Barrington Street) — from the event listing:

You are welcomed to a facilitated conversation about the systemic and widespread commodification of pride celebrations. This space will be participatory and will be centred around self examination and discussion. The goal of this space is to be one of reflection, healing, and movement. This conversation aims to use larger concepts such as community/family, power, and access as a lens to examine questions such as:

• In which ways are your queerness and consumerism connected? How is this linked to pink-washing?

• How do you feel or see yourself represented within queer joy or queer celebration? How is this tied to mass consumption of certain kinds of “acceptable” queerness?

• Is celebration a tangible part of your queer identity? How does this show up in how you present? In how your body feels? In how you hold relationships?

• Can queerness be appropriated?

Contact: HRES@dal.ca

Thursday

(Re)conceptualizing the last eukaryotic common ancestor (Thursday, 10am, Room 3-H1, Tupper Medical Building) — Maureen O’Malley from the University of Bordeaux / University of Sydney will speak. Her abstract:

By definition, the last eukaryotic common ancestor (LECA) gave rise to all extant eukaryotes (and some extinct ones too). However, there is more to LECA than its assignment to a node in an ancestral reconstruction. LECA was indisputably a biological entity of some sort. But what can we say about that entity, without subscribing to any particular hypothesis of eukaryotic origins? Michelle Leger, Jeremy Wideman, and Iñaki Ruiz-Trillo and I are exploring that question. We first analyse a continuum of LECA conceptions. These include LECA as a single cell, LECA as a population, and LECA as a community. We end up focusing on a pangenomic notion of LECA, which describes a population that exhibits extensive genomic and phenotypic heterogeneity, despite being the same ‘species’ (though that can be argued against). We look into what a pangenomic concept of LECA might mean for how early eukaryote evolution and ancestral reconstruction are understood.

28th annual Dalhousie Engineering Robot Competition (Thursday, 10am, Sexton Gymnasium) — From the event listing:

This full-day event features automated robots, designed by undergraduate electrical and computer engineering students, competing in obstacle course races. Groups of students test their engineering skills, creativity, stamina, teamwork, multi-tasking abilities, and endurance when sleep-deprived as they compete to create a robot that can finish the course the fastest (assuming, of course, that their robot finishes at all!). The competition is open to the public, so anyone with an interest in design, robotics, electrical engineering, or mechanical mayhem is welcome to join us in the Sexton Gym.​

Bring your own human-killing robot.


In the harbour

1:30am: AS Felicia, container ship, sails from Pier 41 for Kingston, Jamaica
6am: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, arrives at Pier 41 from St. John’s


Footnotes

Yesterday, I picked up a giant package in response to a FOIPOP request. It’s gonna be great fun reading it, like Xmas for reporters.

I’ll be on The Sheldon MacLeod Show, News 95.7, at 2pm.

Tim Bousquet

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

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  1. The Temporary Foreign Worker Program was meant to be a last resort. Employers were meant to try every possible means to hire local or at least Canadian. Instead it has become a program of choice. What employers mean in the vast majority of cases is that they can’t get local employees to work for what they want to pay them. Then they bring in TFWs who work for less. This precludes employers paying market rate for workers and artificially depressing the labour market.

  2. There are only four things you can do with money:

    Spend
    Invest
    Save
    Give it away

    When government does any of these things they all have the same impact in the short run. It’s in the long run that the differences appear.

    Ferries to fireworks.

    If the government bought a ferry to deliver goods and take people across the harbour to get to and from work it would have an impact on the economy over a long period of time.

    If the government put on a fireworks display over the harbour it would employ and entertain a some people for a short period of time.

    The harbour ferry is Infrastructure because it enables production, the traditional engine of the economy. It’s an investment because it creates more wealth in the long run.

    Fireworks might be considered a symbol of success. A celebration of our wealth. But it’s a fleeting experience with little or no lingering economic impact.

    Knowing the difference between the four things we can do with money is as crucial to good government as it is to good household finance.

    Unfortunately, the example given, education of child care workers, is an exceptionally vexing and confusing case. Generally, education, in the modern age, is considered an investment, but there’s a debate raging about the nature and the value of the return. Similarly, child care is considered a crucial piece of social infrastructure required if we want everyone in the community to be free to work outside the home but we know there are other possible ways to arrange the economy where encouraging families to be together and share experiences at home might build a different kind of wealth.

    Taken together, these two examples get right to the very heart of our politics, our culture, and our economy.

    If you reject that money spent on education and child care capacity is investment in every case without exception then we would have a very different kind of politics, government, and society to build.

    Interestingly, it’s more obvious to me that things that would normally be thought of as investments, like the convention centre, the Yarmouth ferry, pulp mills and P3 highways are actually simple expenditures and giveaways of money. This is true because not only do they not create more wealth in the long run, they commit us to a stream of ongoing costs that can not be recovered.

    The first thing I wonder when I hear a number from government is “Is that a big number?” The second thing I think is “What bucket does that go in: spending, investment, saving, or give away?” The truth is we should do some of each of these things and it’s important to know which is which to help find the balance that works best.

  3. I’ve often thought that a solution to the issues surrounding TFWs and work visas would be to mandate extremely high (for whatever industry) pay.