The news business is frantic even in slow times. Reporters cover some event (a press conference, a government meeting, a court hearing), then rush off to write up a synopsis that makes sense to readers while it’s still fresh news. All the while, reporters are communicating with the editor, who gets the article published and out into the world.
But 2020 isn’t a slow time. We’ve been supercharged all year. On top of everything else, the Halifax Examiner has been covering the pandemic, the mass murder, the lobster dispute, and so much more.
And we try to do more than just cover this or that event. We make the investment into investigative reporting, which requires far more time from both the reporters and the editor (usually, me). In addition, I also report.
This morning, for example, as I’ve been writing Morning File, I’ve edited articles from both Jennifer Henderson and Zane Woodford; I received responses from one of two government agencies I asked for information yesterday, and if the second one comes in before I finish Morning File, I’ll write that up; I just interviewed Fisheries Minister Keith Colwell, in part to help fill out an investigative piece that Joan Baxter is writing today. Hopefully, I’ll actually finish Morning File by 10am, but then I have to rush off to court to do some research before the noon COVID briefing, which will take an hour, likely. All the while, I’m sitting on some explosive potential news about a story we at the Examiner have been covering for months, so I have to find some time to flesh that out in a way that is both accurate and doesn’t get us sued. Somewhere along the way, I’ll speak with Iris about payroll and work out a separate technical issue. Around 1pm, I’ll probably stop at Scotia Square for a cup of coffee and I’ll figure out what my afternoon looks like. I expect I’ll be editing articles from Joan and possibly Yvette d’Entremont. I’ll have to spend a couple of hours reviewing documents related to that potentially explosive news story, and probably have to arrange time with the lawyer for pre-publication advice. Undoubtedly, there will be other fires to put out along the way.
Pretty much every day looks something like this for me. I’m not complaining — I love my job!
But all this is — all my work, all the reporters’ work, the investigations, the day-to-day reporting, the legal fees — all of it is fuelled by subscriptions. You make it possible. Ten bucks a month goes a very long way.
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1. Mary Campbell wins FOI battle
Like a dog on a putrid, stanky bone… no, wait, let’s try that again. Like the intrepid, dedicated reporter she is, Mary Campbell has been on the Sydney Port file for many years, even before she started the Cape Breton Spectator, at least since 2015, when she filed a Freedom of Information request with the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, asking for:
Any communications between Mayor Cecil Clarke or his communications staff or CAO Michael Merrit[t] and Barry Sheehy and/or Albert Barbusci and/or Harbor Port Development Partners between December 1, 2013 and June 29, 2015.
Campbell gives context for the request:
Sheehy and Barbusci are the principals of Harbor Port Development Partners (now Sydney Harbour Investment Partners), a company with its registered office in Montreal. HPDP was established on 26 May 2015.
Less than a month later, on 16 June 2015, CBRM Council approved an agreement giving HPDP what the Post described at the time as, “exclusive rights to market Sydney as a commercial gateway to North America.” How a company that didn’t exist before 26 May 2015 came to be signing an exclusivity agreement with the municipality in June was explained this way:
Barbusci and Sheehy have already been working with the CBRM for 16 months, investing $1.2 million of their own capital into port development.
The whole situation struck me as bizarre — what kind of municipality engages secret, volunteer port developers for 16 months? And what kind of port developers invest $1.2 million of their own money in a project before they have an actual contract?
It took the municipality 104 days to respond to Campbell (far more than the statutory requirement of 30 days, with the possibility of a 30-day extension), and even then, what she got back was underwhelming. Campbell continues:
When the municipality finally did reply, it was to send me an “odd little collection of documents”: a handful of emails from Sheehy to Mayor Clarke in which Sheehy sends along articles (one he wrote with his brother about pilot-less planes, one he wrote himself about the decline of America), offers to assist the reconstruction of St. Mary’s Polish Church, provides his pro-port Cape Breton Post op-ed pieces before they appear in the paper, praises Clarke for a recent CBC interview and congratulates him on WestJet’s recently announced daily flights between Sydney and Halifax.
Considering that the period covered by my request included 16 months during which Sheehy and Barbusci were apparently spending over $1 million of their own money to promote our port, it seemed to me implausible that this was the sum total of communications between HPDP and the CBRM.
And so, I appealed the response to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) for Nova Scotia.
Last week, five years after Campbell initiated the review, Information and Privacy Commissioner Tricia Ralph issued a report that entirely vindicates Campbell. From Ralph’s report:
The applicant [Campbell] sought access to all communications relating to the grant of the exclusive right to market the Port of Sydney. The Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) severed and withheld information in full under s. 477 (financial or economic interests), s. 480(1) (personal information) and s. 481 (confidential information) of the Municipal Government Act (MGA). The Commissioner finds that the CBRM failed to meet its burden of showing that the information should be withheld pursuant to the above-noted sections of the MGA. On that basis, the Commissioner recommends disclosure of all of the information in full. In addition, the Commissioner finds that the CBRM failed in its duty to assist the applicant by not conducting a reasonable search for records as required by s. 467(1) of the MGA. Furthermore, the CBRM contravened s. 465(2) of the MGA by withholding the documents in full and not conducting a line-by-line review of the records. The Commissioner recommends that the CBRM conduct a new and complete search and provide the applicant with a new open, accurate and complete decision in response to the applicant’s access to information request.
You can read the commissioner’s entire report here.
Campbell, citing from the report, reacted to it:
I have to admit, I gasped when I read they had withheld 862 pages of information from me, a total beyond my wildest, most paranoid dreams. And compared to the 28 pages I was sent, the 862 pages the CBRM withheld sound way more interesting. Ralph characterized the categories of information as:
- draft news releases and articles,
- strategies for what should be included in news releases and articles,
- preparation and circulation of presentation emails, and
- business agreements
Ralph conducted a detailed analysis of the issues at play and concluded that all the information should be turned over to Campbell.
The word that comes to mind is “contempt” — for me, for the Privacy Commissioner, for the law.
It’s not even that I think there’s a smoking gun in those 862 pages, I don’t, not really (although I think there will be a lot of funny stuff which is almost as good in my book). It’s just that I have a right to that information and the CBRM didn’t even pretend it was going to give it to me.
I’m also struck by the lack of understanding of the applicable law — this municipality doesn’t seem to have a basic grasp of access to information legislation.
Alas, the recommendations of the commissioner are not binding, so it’s anyone’s guess whether Campbell will actually receive the information.
Still, this is a fantastic victory for press freedom and public access to information, and a blot on the CBRM’s reputation.
And what about that putrid, stanky port file? “Stay tuned,” says Campbell.
Click here to read Campbell’s take on the story, “CBRM Gets Schooled by Privacy Commissioner.”
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.
2. Yarmouth ferry
Reports Jennifer Henderson:
How much is Bay Ferries being paid to operate the Yarmouth-Maine ferry service on behalf of the province and taxpayers? How much profit does it make?
Those are the questions the Progressive Conservatives have been asking since filing a Freedom of Information request back in May 2016. Yes, 2016. Yesterday, Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston and the Tory Caucus finally got their day in court — after nearly two years after tactical maneuvering on the part of Bay Ferries to try and have the question thrown out.
Click here to read “McNeil government defends Yarmouth ferry ‘management fee’ secrecy in court.”
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3. When righting past wrongs and ongoing systemic racism is considered preferential treatment
“A Halifax regional councillor wants to root out racial language in the city’s policies, but at least one of his colleagues worries that kind of move would leave marginalized people behind,” reports Zane Woodford:
At Tuesday’s meeting, Coun. Paul Russell gave notice of motion for this coming Tuesday’s meeting, announcing that he intends “to request a staff report that identifies any forms of preferential or prejudicial language related to race in any HRM bylaws or administrative orders.”
Asked whether it has anything to do with the municipality’s new social procurement policy — which, along with a living wage policy, includes a section on supplier diversity, meaning “opportunities for diverse suppliers including suppliers owned, operated by, or employing African Nova Scotians, Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities and/or other traditionally underrepresented groups” — Russell said that’s part of it.
“That does have a little bit to do with it, but I want to make sure that everything, that there’s nothing in there. The procurement policy is part of it, but I want to have a far more broad look at things than that,” he said.
Russell voted against the social procurement policy, mainly because he’s opposed to requiring contractors to pay employees a living wage.
Coun. Lindell Smith championed the social procurement policy, and isn’t keen on removing the supplier diversity section.
Click here to read “Councillor wants to identify ‘preferential or prejudicial language related to race’ in Halifax policies. Here’s what that really means.”
4. Serrece Winter
The Serrece Winter story is beyond disturbing. I don’t have anything to add to this, but please read the CBC reports on it.
5. John A. MacDonald
“A high school in Upper Tantallon, N.S., has decided to change its name, saying the current one doesn’t reflect school values,” reports Karla Renic for Global:
The principal of Sir John A. Macdonald High School said they will begin the process of renaming on Thursday, after a years-long discourse on Macdonald’s legacy.
The decision was made “so that every student that walks through the door feels welcome,” school principal Darlene Fitzgerald told Global News.
Fitzgerald said for Indigenous students, having Macdonald’s name on the wall isn’t welcoming and doesn’t make them feel safe.
6. The tampered Halloween candy conspiracy lives on
I really thought COVID would put an end to this nonsense:
Investigators with the General Investigation Section of the Integrated Criminal Investigation Division are investigating a potential Halloween candy tampering incident.
I mean, it’s not like there’s real crime to be investigating out there, like potential prosecutorial misconduct or landlords charging usurious rents. More important to go after the entirely fictional candy tampering. Specifically:
On November 11 at approximately 3:55 p.m., Halifax Regional Police responded to a suspicious circumstance call at residence on Princess Margaret Boulevard in Dartmouth. A man reported that he felt unwell after eating a piece chocolate candy that tasted like soap. The candy is believed to have been given out in the Fairview area of Halifax on Halloween.
Stop the presses! “Dartmouth man eats Mars bar!”
Yesterday, Nova Scotia Health issued an advisory about potential COVID-19 exposure at the Barrington Street Superstore:
Nova Scotia Health Public Health is advising of potential exposure to COVID-19 at Atlantic Superstore (1075 Barrington St, Halifax) on Nov. 7 between 9 and 10 a.m.
Anyone present at this location during the time named is asked to monitor for symptoms of COVID-19. It is anticipated that anyone exposed to the virus at this location on the named dates may develop symptoms up to, and including, Nov. 21.
There have been a handful of advisories about grocery stores in Nova Scotia, but so far as I’m aware, no one in the province has contracted the disease at a grocery store.
It’s too early to say for sure, but there’s an indication that the Clayton Park cluster may have been contained. At least, there were no new positive cases announced yesterday, so knock wood.
For context, however, on Wednesday, South Dakota, population ~900,000, had 1,362 new COVID cases, 543 people in hospital, and 27 deaths. The same day, Nova Scotia, population ~1 million, had 0 new cases, 0 in hospital, and 0 deaths.
That’s not to say we should relax. Rather, this could go sideways quickly if we don’t stay on top of the situation.
In the harbour
03:30: Tampa Trader, container ship, sails from Pier 42 for Kingston, Jamaica
05:00: Pictor, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from Argentia, Newfoundland
05:00: ZIM Vancouver, container ship, arrives at Pier 41 from Valencia, Spain
14:00: Pictor sails for Portland
15:30: ZIM Vancouver sails for New York
16:30: MOL Mission, container ship, sails from Fairview Cove for Dubai
16:30: Acadian, oil tanker, arrives at Irving Oil from Saint John
19:30: Nolhanava, ro-ro cargo, sails from Fairview Cove for Saint-Pierre
I’ve got nothing.
Thank you journalists for doggedly finding and revealing the information that those with power conceal. We citizens are all beneficiaries of this essential service, whether we are aware or not. Democracy does not work, let alone get better, without you!
She’s not only a tenacious and intelligent researcher. She’s also a very good writer who knows when she can have fun with a story. My subscription to the Spectator is a bargain.
We need to get Houston and Burrill on the record stating they will bring in FOI legislation that meets the needs of the 21st century and gives the Privacy Review Officer the power to order release of information and that all legal costs for an applicant will be paid by the body appealing the decision.
I’d like to see the Liberal leadership candidates pressed on this as well.
I applaud Mary Campbell’s tenacity.
Problem remains- when will the level of service with respect to FOI requests reflect the intent of that legislation?
So the folks in Sydney have basically just confirmed that there are shady dealings behind the whole Sydney Harbour Port Development. That is the only reason why they would try and hide so many documents. Tine to send in auditors to find the truth.
According to the CBC, SIRT is not investigating the assault on Seerce Winter because she had no “physical injuries”. What century are we living?
I really, really hope that Paul Russell has not taken up Matt Whitman’s torch.