News

1. New council

Coun. Iona Stoddard — Photo: Zane Woodford

“The new regional council was sworn in at a socially distanced ceremony at the Halifax Convention Centre Thursday night, ushering in a more diverse era of municipal politics in the city,” reports Zane Woodford:

There were fewer than 100 people at the event in the big ballroom at the convention centre — at a cost of $2,111 plus tax to the municipality — with each councillor allowed three family members in attendance. Everyone in attendance had to wear masks and stay apart, and there was a self-assessment form to weed out any super-spreaders.

But the rules and restrictions didn’t put a damper on the councillors’ celebration, and it didn’t stop one of them from making history.

When she recited the oath of office, signed it and placed the chain of office around her neck, Coun. Iona Stoddard, representing District 12 – Timberlea-Beechville-Clayton Park, became the first Black woman to become a Halifax councillor.

Click here to read “Newly-elected, more diverse Halifax regional council sworn in: ‘It can be done.’”

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2. Glen Assoun

Glen Assoun. Photo: Halifax Examiner

As I’ve previously reported, the wrongful conviction has been referred to the Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) for investigation of possible criminal wrongdoing by police.

However, I now fear this may be part of a general whitewash of the case.

I spoke with SIRT Director Felix Cacchione earlier this week, and he told me that the Justice Department’s request of the agency was to look into the destruction of evidence in the RCMP VICLAS office in 2004.

You’ll recall that Assoun was convicted for the murder of Brenda Way in 1999, but soon after, Dave Moore, a profiler in the Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System (VICLAS) office in Bedford, suspected that Assoun was actually innocent of the murder, and Moore collected significant evidence to bolster his case. By law, that evidence should have been turned over to Assoun’s lawyer, but instead, people in the VICLAS office destroyed it. As a result, Assoun spent another 10 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

It’s important and necessary that the destruction of evidence be investigated. I’m not opposing the SIRT investigation in principle, but rather I’m saying that it doesn’t go far enough and may be institutionally flawed. These two concerns are intertwined.

To begin with, the SIRT investigation isn’t looking at the original murder investigation conducted by Halifax Regional Police, which led to Assoun’s conviction in 1999. Clearly, Halifax cops fingered the wrong man. There’s no question about that — Assoun has been fully exonerated, not just on some technicality but because he is factually innocent of the murder.

Left unanswered, however, is whether the police investigation of the murder was merely faulty, or whether it amounted to a criminal conspiracy to convict an innocent man.

A 1996 Halifax police photo of the knife that was presented at Glen Assoun’s 1999 trial for the murder of Brenda Way. (Fisher Scientific was the lab company that tested the knife for blood, fingerprints, DNA, or other evidence that might connect it to the murder; it found none.)

I’ve written and podcasted reams of material about that investigation, so I won’t rehash it all here, but just to quickly recap a few of the problems with the investigation: Police used dubious and unreliable jailhouse snitches. A constellation of witnesses against Assoun knew each other and appear to have colluded to align their testimony. A knife with no physical linkage (blood, DNA, fingerprints, etc) to either the murder or to Assoun, and which had been predicted by a psychic, was discovered by the victim’s sister at the murder scene a year after the murder. It’s impossible to believe that police were so credulous as to take all that supposed evidence at face value. They must have known the problems with it. The question, as I see it, is whether that credulity was actually conspiracy. That should be investigated by SIRT. It is not.

Cacchione did tell me that if his investigation into the destruction of evidence uncovers evidence of other police wrongdoing, SIRT would investigate that, but that seems a stretch.

There is, however, something obvious connecting the initial police investigation to the later destruction of evidence: Halifax police officer Ken Bradley, who worked on the Brenda Way murder investigation that led to Assoun’s conviction, was working in the RCMP VICLAS office at the time the evidence was destroyed, and Bradley was at least adjacent to, and probably actively involved in, the destruction of evidence.

And what of the Crown?

Robin Hartrick gives a statement to Halifax police.

I’ve been re-reading the court transcript of the 1999 file, and there’s something that reinforces my questions about that police investigation: how police and the Crown dealt with Robin Hartrick, the woman who placed Assoun very near the scene of the murder at what might have been near the time of the murder (I think it more likely that Way was actually murdered an hour or two later, but I’ll leave that for another day).

Nothing about Hartrick’s story makes sense; I’ve written about that extensively, here. But I haven’t before written about the problems at trial. A few concerns:

Hartrick testified at a preliminary hearing in 1998, but was herself brutally murdered before the 1999 trial. At the time of the preliminary hearing, however, Hartrick was facing a prostitution-related charge, but that charge wasn’t disclosed to Assoun’s lawyer, so she couldn’t be cross-examined about it. The charge appears to have been dropped in return for her testimony.

In her previously written and videotaped statements, Hartrick said she had no criminal record. It’s true she had no charges or convictions in the nationwide Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database, but she most certainly did have charges and at least one conviction in the local police RAPID database. Police insisted they only checked the CPIC database and not the RAPID database. The Crown made a big deal out of the difference between the two — Hartrick’s local conviction was a Summary Offence Conviction, for which fingerprints were not taken, so maybe she didn’t consider it a criminal conviction. There’s a lot of hand-waving by the Crown, and frankly, it requires someone smarter than me to ferret it all out, but it sure looks to me like the Crown was assisting at least a police misdirection, if not an outright lie.

Maybe Hartrick’s story is a small matter (I’m sure Assoun doesn’t see it that way), but consider what Innocence Canada lawyer Phil Campbell called a “stink bomb” the Crown threw into the trial. A woman I call “Roberta” had been terribly assaulted in a warehouse in Burnside in the spring of 1997. Assoun was at that time living in British Columbia. But when Assoun was arrested in 1998, his photo was aired on national television, and Roberta identified Assoun as her attacker. At trial, the Crown suggested that because Assoun’s brother-in-law worked for Air Canada, he could have gotten a discounted plane ticket from Vancouver to Halifax, raped and attacked Roberta, and then flew back to Vancouver, no one the wiser. No actual evidence for this supposed trip was offered up — no flight records, no witnesses who saw him in Nova Scotia, nothing — but the story gave a veneer of plausibility that the jury evidently swallowed. As Campbell points out, it was the Crown’s obligation to interrogate that story, and it didn’t. Many years later, Roberta recanted her identification of Assoun, and realized that it was serial killer Michael McGray who had raped and assaulted her.

So: what about wrongdoing by the Crown? Who’s going to investigate that? Not SIRT; it has no authority to investigate the Crown. SIRT can only investigate police.

The local SIRT office is hopelessly compromised in this investigation — of its four investigators, one is on loan from the Halifax police, one is on loan from the Halifax RCMP, and the other two are retired RCMP officers from other jurisdictions. Cacchione told me he’s aware of that conflict-of-interest, so he’s asking the Independent Investigations Office (IIC) — SIRT’s equivalent in British Columbia — to conduct the investigation. Those investigators are civilians, he told me. They will be overseen jointly by Cacchione and IIC Director Ron MacDonald.

SIRT Director Felix Cacchione. Photo: SIRT

As I’ve said, everyone in Canada knows everyone else, so personal relationships and degree of separation problems will nearly always arise. But let’s consider Cacchione and MacDonald.

Before he was hired into the IIC position, MacDonald ran SIRT here in Nova Scotia. Before that, he was a Crown prosecutor. Cacchione took the SIRT job after MacDonald went to BC. Before that, Cacchione was a judge.

Back when he was a judge, Cacchione wrote a decision in a case called R. v. Watt, in which he castigated MacDonald as the Crown prosector, and did so in no uncertain terms:

In the present case the conduct of the Crown has damaged the integrity of the judicial system.

That conduct was so egregious that Cacchione stayed the proceedings against Watt. The Crown appealed, and the Court of Appeal overruled Cacchione’s decision. Still, that must have stung.

Hey, Cacchione and MacDonald are adults, and presumably professional. They can have past disagreements and still work together productively. We’ll see.

But again: neither SIRT, the IIC, nor anyone else is investigating Halifax police for their actions that led to the wrongful conviction of Assoun. And nobody at all is investigating the Crown’s involvement in the case.

Nova Scotia Justice Minister, July 23, 2020. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

I had this exchange with Justice Minister Mark Furey yesterday:

Bousquet: Minister, you referred the Glen Assoun matter to SIRT and we’ve discussed that. I asked them about that. And they said that you only asked them to look into the destruction of evidence in 2004 and did not ask them to look into the original police investigation that led to Mr. Assoun’s conviction. Why didn’t you ask SIRT to look into the full police investigation?

Furey: I was clear from the outset that the focus requested SIRT was based on those circumstances within the VICLAS unit where there is an allegation that evidence was destroyed. That was the focus of the discussion at the time. That continues to be the focus of the communication I’ve had with SIRT and SIRT has agreed to conduct that work.

Bousquet: How would you respond to to an allegation or an argument that by only focusing on that destruction of evidence, we’re missing the larger picture, not just with the original police investigation, but also with potential misconduct by prosecutors?

Furey: That has not been part of these focused discussions. The work that I’ve asked the director of SIRT to undertake has been specific to the VICLAS component that you and others have advanced. That’s the focus of the work and the request I’ve asked of them.

Bousquet: Surely these broader issues would would be the potential subject for an inquiry?

Furey: Let’s deal with the work of SIRT first specific, specific to VICLAS.

Furey is himself a former RCMP officer.

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3. Housing

As Suzanne Rent detailed yesterday, the housing crisis is in overdrive, with renovictions at an all-time high, and rent increases pricing people out of the last few affordable neighbourhoods in HRM.

The government response to the housing crisis is tepid. While the much-ballyhooed announcement that the federal government is giving $8.7 million to Halifax Regional Municipality to address housing affordability is, I guess, something, it ain’t much — $8.7 million could build fewer than 50 new units; more renters saw evictions in the last week alone.

I’ve been trying to understand the full dimensions of the housing problem, and so have embarked on a data journalism project to better understand it. I had originally hoped that a journalism class could help me with this but the pandemic made that impossible, so I’m going it alone. I doubt I’ll have any reportable results before the end of the year, and even then there will be much further reporting to do.

I’ve wondered if the political leaders have any conceptual framework for the cause(s) of the crisis, so at yesterday’s post-cabinet scrum, I asked both Premier Stephen McNeil and Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Chuck Porter what they felt was the root cause of the problem — why is the current situation orders of magnitude worse than it was even five years ago?

McNeil answered that the increase in housing costs is a reflection of a growing economy — as the economy grows, Halifax becomes more attractive, more people move here, and there’s more demand for housing. I pointed out that a growing economy wouldn’t price people out of housing unless it was matched with growing inequality, and McNeil responded that he was concerned about inequality, and that’s why his government is increasing rent subsidies. Porter echoed those answers.

This is, well, unsettling.

To begin, the housing crisis is hardly unique to Halifax. Mary Campbell has a poignant piece about homelessness in Sydney, driven by increased housing costs. And pretty much every city on the planet is seeing increases in housing costs.

This also is not a supply-demand problem, which seems to be the knee-jerk response from the neoliberal and the usual development apologist crowd. There is effectively nothing preventing new development. There are construction cranes all over the city (and indeed, the Earth), and bureaucratic approval times are faster than they’ve ever been. Buildings are not just being newly constructed, but also reconstructed and renovated, and office space is being converted to residential. One can’t drive around all the construction zones on the peninsula and seriously argue that there isn’t enough development. The problem isn’t lack of development; the problem is that the price for all rental property — including and especially older units that have existed for decades — is being jacked up higher than a lot of working people can afford.

I’m so old I remember when “affordable housing” was defined as rent that was no more than a quarter of your income. Some time in the last decade or so that has been redefined as one-third of your income. I know plenty of people who are spending half their income on rent.

The problem is that too much money is going into housing. It used to be that rich people invested their money in factories and/or companies providing services. But since the financial collapse of 2008/09, there’s no return on such investment because there’s not demand for consumer goods and services, so the now rich people are parking their money in real estate. Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) hardly existed at all before about 2000, but now they’re the investment vehicle of choice. And so REITs from Toronto and Calgary are buying up older apartment complexes in HRM (e.g., Highfield Park, but there are hundreds of others), and jacking up the “undervalued” rent by hundreds of dollars in order to justify the investment and bring the highest return to the investors.

So elderly people, students, and working people in Halifax are being priced out of their homes so that rich people elsewhere can get richer still.

You can look at the problem from one of two perspectives: either regular people don’t have enough money to pay rent, or rich people are making rents too damn high. Guess which perspective government officials see it from.

And so the response from government is not to address the situation head on, but rather to back-fill those high rents with rental assistance programs. Or, to put it crudely, to help the rich get richer still.

This is a global phenomena, and there’s no way that a podunk $8.7 million spent in Halifax is going to do diddly squat about it.

What’s required is to get out of the game entirely by spending billions of dollars to build and provide off-market housing — more social housing, co-ops, non-profit housing, and housing with covenants that don’t allow for market-based resales.

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In the harbour

03:00: Atlantic Sail, ro-ro container, sails from Fairview Cove for Liverpool, England
05:00: ZIM Luanda, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from Valencia, Spain
0800: Algoma Verity, bulker, sails from National Gypsum for Tampa, Florida
15:30: ZIM Luanda sails for New York
16:30: Nolhanava, ro-ro cargo, sails from Fairview Cove for Saint-Pierre
19:00: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, sails from Pier 41 for St. John’s


Footnotes

It took me a while to write that Assoun piece.

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Tim Bousquet

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

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  1. The REITs are not the problem. Increase in population in HRM is the problem – an increase in overseas students enticed here by the offer to gain immigrant status after graduation and many students who are from wealthy Asian families. The REITs provide monthly income to pensioners and pension plans (HRM pension plan has invested in a REIT). The problem is lousy local slum landlords – they upgrade a building and then greatly increase rents.
    HRM should stay out of housing – put pressure on the NDP and the PC to announce a housing programme to be delivered by the next government. And ban/tax heavily Airbnb. And increase provincial taxes to fund new homes.

  2. You have clearly stated the one true solution to affordable housing which is the rapid and aggressive pursuit of non-market based solutions. There is no developer anywhere who is going to build anything to merely break even. Cooperatives are a major and very effective way of providing long term, affordable housing for a great many people. Yet we hear nothing of this as an approach.
    It is no secret that residential development in HRM is totally under the control of developers whose only focus is profits. No one can make profit off of affordable housing. We need to see ground breaking right now on cooperative housing developments instead of the endless eruption of profit making rental accommodations and condos.

  3. Scrap the funds allocated for the stadium and the new total is $28.7M… HRM’s Affordable Housing Work Plan isn’t working and it’s an organizational issue. HRM does not track its housing needs nor does it have any game plan for our non-profit housing sector. In New Brunswick, some municipal governments have assigned affordable housing to their economic development departments. That makes sense because financing of market or non-market housing is typically inbound investment, not to mention the jobs, and products and services associated with the housing sector. Oh yeah, then there’s the socio-economic benefits associated with the vulnerable populations that non-profit housing providers are trying to serve. Housing = economic development.

  4. Excellent analysis of the housing problem.

    Unfortunately this all applies to the Universal Basic Income argument as well. If the government guarantees an income for its citizens that lets employers off the hook for paying a living wage therby making the rich richer.

    It’s going to take a lot for this pro business, neo liberal mindset to change. We shouldn’t be spending all our energy worrying about our retirement but spend more time worrying about our mother earth and fellow brothers and sisters..

    1. Ideally, a Universal Basic Income would replace our complex array of supplements, subsidies, programs, and tax benefits with one support program – and the subsequent efficiency would mean income support can be increased to meaningful amounts and extended to more people. That increases consumer demand, which is good for the wealthy, but it also means people are not desperate to secure or keep jobs offering minimum wage for flexible part-time hours and poor work conditions. Social or government pressure to increase wages may be replaced by competitive pressure to increase wages.