1. COVID-19 and politics

I don’t want to be this guy again, but I haven’t had time this past weekend or again this morning to write a full article about Stephen McNeil’s criticism of the media for making politics with the COVID crisis.

(I’ve been working pretty much non-stop on the podcast, which has some pressing deadlines, and so some of my Examiner responsibilities have had to be set aside for the moment; I’m returning to them today.)

I’ll write that article today. But I just want to quickly say: of course the COVID crisis is political. Everything about it is political. Some 40+ people living in Northwood have died with COVID-19, and only one other person living in a Nova Scotia nursing home has died with the disease. There have been other cases in nursing homes — The Admiral in Dartmouth, for instance — but unlike at Northwood, those cases did not result in large breakouts that killed lots of people in those homes.

It’s obvious that the deaths at Northwood are related both to it being a very large building and to the residents being double-roomed. Long-standing policy initiatives were intended to address both those situations — the MacDonald government began funding the building of smaller nursing homes with single rooms — but those policy initiatives were delayed and defunded by successive governments, right up to the present government. These were political choices, and so we can only understand them through a political analysis.

Likewise, how and when COVID preparations were put in place at Northwood — the issuance of PPE equipment, the restrictions on workers switching between facilities, etc. — reflect funding decisions, budget constraints, and policy frameworks that are inherently political.

And I’ll have much more to say about this later, but how McNeil and Strang go about loosening restrictions is also in large part a political process.

McNeil doesn’t get to remove politics from this equation. And the public and the media have every right — every duty, even — to raise political issues.

2. City budget

A Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency truck at an event in front of Halifax City Hall in 2004. Photo:  flickr user William Matheson

“The permanent financial hit to Halifax from COVID-19 this year is projected to be $85.4 million, and some high-profile services and projects are being cut or delayed to close the budget gap,” reports Zane Woodford:

Regional council’s budget committee meets Tuesday afternoon to begin the process of debating and rebuilding the city’s budget. It was ready to approve the original one, crafted over months, in late March when the province went into a state of emergency due to the global pandemic.

The municipality has had to shut down some services, reduce others, defer property tax bills, and lay off nearly 1,500 employees.

And now it’s set to cut costs from Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency and Halifax Regional Police and cut or delay projects like the Cogswell Interchange redevelopment, Halifax Transit’s Moving Forward Together Plan, and park land acquisition.

Click here to read “Halifax’s recast COVID-19 budget is $85 million lighter. Here’s what staff want to cut, including fire and police.”

3. Peter MacKay

“When MacKay decided to retire from politics and retreat to the security of a big Toronto law firm in 2015, I was… professionally disappointed,” writes Stephen Kimber:

But then, last summer, our paths did finally cross. I was researching a biography of former Nova Scotia and federal NDP leader Alexa McDonough. She and MacKay had mostly been on opposite partisan sides, but sometimes — as in the case of the Westray law to hold corporations and executives criminally responsible for failing to provide safe workplaces for their employees — they worked together to achieve a common end. There was a personal connection too. MacKay’s mother and McDonough were longtime friends and allies in the international peace and women’s movements.

We met in his Toronto law office one sunny June morning. MacKay wasn’t only generous with his time and his recollections, but he was also thoughtful and far more complex as a human being than I’d given him credit for.

I came away kind of, sort of, mostly impressed, and wondering what I’d missed all those years…

And then this.

Click here to read “Welcome back, Peter.”

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I had the same sort of “What just happened?” moment with MacKay, also last summer. I was at a PEN Canada event in Toronto, a fish out of water among Canada’s famous and glitterati — Margaret Atwood and Rick Mercer were on stage, while people who reeked of money, old and new, filled the banquet hall.

I was seated with a wonderful group of folks at a side table clearly designated for “the help” — technicians and PAs and the like. They were delightful, and we watched the proceedings, trying to behave ourselves, best we could. “Who’s that?” I’d repeatedly ask half-flirtingly to the publicist seated next to me. “She’s married to Bay Street,” she’d respond, rolling her eyes (at me, not at Mrs. Bay Street). Or, “he owns a bank.”

MacKay was there because, well, because he’s Peter MacKay. But also because his wife, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, was making an address in support of people fighting for freedom in Iran. I gotta say, she was fantastic. She was everything a human rights activist should be: compelling, convincing, and attentive to people so often overlooked by the class represented in the room. She stole the show, really. And that alone made me wonder what kind of mojo Peter MacKay has.

I was there to get an award; I was a 15-second blip on stage between people much better mannered than myself. I think I thanked some people, but honestly it was all sort of a blur, and I was happy to sit down again. But then, during a break in the proceedings, as the servers were switching the dinner plates with dessert plates and I was staring at something drizzled with chocolate and wondering how exactly I was supposed to approach it, MacKay came over to my table and congratulated me. He was gracious, charming even. As Kimber says, in our two-minute conversation I found MacKay “thoughtful and far more complex as a human being than I’d given him credit for.”

The evening ended, and I purposefully took the service exit to make my escape because what was I going to say while stuck in an elevator with Margaret Atwood: “Too bad your books are coming true, eh? but that drizzled chocolate dessert was to die for”?

As I got on the subway, I was thinking about MacKay, and all I could come up with is, he’s from a moneyed upbringing and everything that comes along with that. He knows how to behave himself in the social circles of the famous, the moneyed, the glitterati. He knows whether to use the fork or the spoon while eating drizzled chocolate desserts. He knows how to be charming.

I can’t comprehend the dualism of going home to a charming spouse who clearly gives a damn about the unfortunate and oppressed, and then waking up the next day to being Peter MacKay, the politician attempting to appeal to the crazed right.

I want to say politics must be a joke to him, but I don’t think that’s exactly right. I think it’s more accurate to say that this is how class plays out in our society. Which is to say, the privileged elite are aware of and attuned to lots of things — not just the behaviourisms and niceties of interpersonal interactions, which they have down in spades, but also to human rights concerns and charity and such, and they’ll give of their money and time in ways that only the wealthy can. In isolation, this isn’t a bad thing; all of us should give what we can to make this a better world.

But the one thing the privileged elite seem not aware of or attuned to is their own privileged elitism, how they got there in the first place, and what the very existence of privileged elitism means for the rest of the world. And this is a conversation that is not allowed in polite company.

Heck, it’s not allowed much in common discourse. We’re supposed to praise, say, John Risley as a philanthropist, without mentioning that his billions come thanks to cornering the lobster market and at the expense of fisherman making four bucks a pound and, oh, he parks his billions in tax shelters so it can’t be used for the common good. The phone company is a wonderful corporate citizen for using mental health in an advertising campaign, never mind the company’s internal HR practices or its fleecing of consumers and lobbying for reduced tax loads that could pay for, yep, mental health services. We could fully fund every poverty reduction program we could think of with a tiny wealth tax, but let’s instead get employees’ United Way contributions to fund the local homeless shelter.

These are deeply political issues, but they are quite literally not just unspeakable but unthinkable in much of our discourse.

So Peter MacKay’s politics only make sense when you ignore real politics.

4. Libraries

Halifax’s Central Library is now shuttered, but still delivers services. Photo: Wikipedia

“The doors to the library may be shut, but Troy Myers, librarian in chief for South Shore Public Libraries, says he’s never worked harder,” reports Philip Moscovitch:

“I have to say — take this as a bit of a confession — I haven’t worked this hard in my entire career,” Myers said, speaking from the Bridgewater branch. “The demand for our curbside pickup has been fantastic. The demand in smaller communities has blown me away.”

When the pandemic hit and public gatherings ended, libraries throughout the province shut their doors and most systems stopped circulating physical materials. But South Shore has continued lending books to patrons.

Click here to read “Libraries on overdrive: they’ve ramped up digital services during the pandemic, but the future remains uncertain.”

5. Mothers

Elizabeth Bishop and her mother, Gertrude, 1915-16. Photo: Vassar Encyclopedia

“‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master.’ That’s the opening line of ‘One Art,’ the Elizabeth Bishop villanelle widely considered among the best of the exacting poetic form,” writes Evelyn C. White:

The piece turns on a cascade of sorrows that the Pulitzer Prize-winning author suffered during her life. Chief among them stands the loss of her mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, a native Nova Scotian who was voluntarily admitted to the Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth (then popularly known as the Mount Hope Asylum), in 1916, at age 36.

At the time, the future poet was five and living with her widowed mother and maternal grandparents in Great Village — Gertrude’s hometown. The rural enclave was last month in the news after the RCMP, then in pursuit of a mass killer, established a command post in the Great Village fire hall. As for Elizabeth, she remained in the devoted care of her grandparents until about age 7, when she was returned to relatives in Massachusetts, where she was born.

She never again saw her mother who died, still institutionalized in Dartmouth, in 1934.

Most scholars had dismissed Bishop’s Maritimes roots as irrelevant to her literary career. That is, until the 1990s, when Nova Scotia writer Sandra Barry began to publish work that proved the poet’s early years in Great Village — and subsequent regular visits — central to her identity. Moreover, Barry ventured that Bishop’s relationship with her mother shaped her every triumph and tribulation. Bishop, 68, died in 1979.

In her powerful 2014 essay “In the Village: Bishop and Nova Scotia,” Barry declared: “The most important influence on [the poet] during the first decade of her life is the one least acknowledged in the many books, essays, articles and reviews written about her — that is, her mother.  … Gertrude was tide. Gertrude was time. Gertrude was voice. Bishop learned about ebb and flow, now and then, sound and silence from her mother.”1

With traditional rites and ceremonies now altered by COVID-19 and the grief of Nova Scotians intensified by tragic deaths, I’ve found value in explorations of loss from unconventional angles. As with Barry’s stirring work on Elizabeth Bishop, two recent volumes offer compelling reflections for Mother’s Day 2020.

Click here to read “Three mothers: an exploration of loss.”

6. Heidi Stevenson

Heidi Stevenson. Photo: RCMP

“The Halifax regional councillor for the Cole Harbour area wants to pay tribute to Const. Heidi Stevenson by naming something in the community after the slain RCMP officer who called it home,” reports Zane Woodford:

“She was a hero in life, just from all the things she did for the community,” Cole Harbour-Westphal Coun. Lorelei Nicoll said in an interview Friday.

The councillor has a motion coming to Tuesday’s virtual meeting seeking a staff report on adding Stevenson’s name to the municipality’s commemorative names list “to honour her bravery and service to HRM, and to recommend naming or renaming a municipal asset in the Cole Harbour Area, where Constable Stevenson lived and worked for many years and where her husband and children reside.”

7. Cooking

Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

“Maryanne Fisher wants to know how our relationships with food have changed as a result of pandemic restrictions that have left most of us housebound,” reports Yvette d’Entremont:

The Saint Mary’s University psychology professor is renowned for her research into human relationships. She has joined researchers from more than 30 countries to learn more about our food-related pandemic purchases and habits through a thought-provoking, Belgium-based global Coronavirus Cooking Survey.

The research survey is intended to examine the impact COVID-19 has had on our cooking, eating, and media behaviour.

Click here to read “Cooking during COVID.”


Government

City

Monday

12:30pm: Police Commission — a virtual meeting about the revised budget.

Tuesday

9am: City council — an all-day virtual meeting. Agenda and link here.

1pm: Special Budget Committee — virtual meeting. Agenda and link here.

Province

No public meetings.


In the harbour

05:00: YM Evolution, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from New York
06:00: ARC Integrity, car carrier, moves from Pier 31 to Autoport
08:00: Hilke (Palabora), cargo ship, sails from Pier 27 for sea
10:00: Atlantic Sun, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Liverpool, England
11:00: ARC Integrity sails for sea
15:00: One Matrix, cargo ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Norfolk
16:00: YM Evolution sails for Rotterdam
22:00: Atlantic Sun sails for New York


Footnotes

At least the sun is out.

Tim Bousquet

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

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4 Comments

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  1. Tim, your snide description of those who attended last year’s PEN Canada gala dinner as the “famous and glitterati” who “reeked of money” is inaccurate and unfair. As a former president of PEN Canada, I can tell you that the core of PEN’s supporters are ordinary people except that they happen to believe in and support freedom of expression. That belief is why PEN Canada gave you the 2019 PEN/Filkow Prize for the work you do. By the way, there is no stronger supporter of freedom of expression in Canada than Margaret Atwood (and I”m not talking about money). You can do better than these cheap shots.

    1. Didn’t mean them that way, Philip. I was really honoured! But Peter MacKay and his crew… obviously, most of the people there are just hard working writers. Maybe I’m the one who is of a class(less).

      T

  2. ” he’s from a moneyed upbringing and everything that comes along with that.”
    He married money, he didn’t come from money. He isn’t the son of a tenured university professor in Halifax.
    Take a trip to Lorne and check out all the trees and the rocks, much like most of Nova Scotia where finding rock-free land is quite difficult. He may be a descendant of ‘Squire’ MacKay of the ‘Hector’ and who died aged 97 leaving 19 children and 98 grandchildren. The MacKay bridge is named after a former Tory premier who was also a descendant.

  3. Great comments about your Peter McKay experience and the real underlying politics Tim!