News

1. Mass killer’s former neighbour recounts horrifying history of violence and terror

Memorial at entrance to Portapique Beach Road. Photo: Joan Baxter.

Joan Baxter speaks with a former Portapique neighbour of the killer who committed the worst mass murder in Canadian history. Even after his death, and despite the fact she now lives in western Canada, she would only agree to be identified by her nickname, Boe, because she is still scared.

Boe tells Baxter about a series of instances of the killer’s violent and frightening behaviour (description of domestic violence ahead):

Boe said she learned GW had again physically abused his partner, this time on a piece of property he owned:

And he had [her] on the ground. He was choking her, screaming at her, telling everybody around… Just screaming at her and stuff … It was bad, bad, bad, bad.

According to Boe, at some point, GW pressured his partner to sell her vehicle and to work for him at his denturist office. Boe said that GW would leave his partner working in the city, and come to Portapique in the company of other women. When Boe spoke with his partner about this, she then confronted GW. And that’s when it “got scary” for Boe:

“…because he dragged her back up to our house. My husband was downstairs. I was upstairs. I had a little bit of the flu. So I was in bed. It was during the daytime. He pounded on the door. [My husband] opens it. And [GW] starts screaming …

Boe also says she and her partner told the RCMP about GW’s stash of illegal weapons.

Read “He was a psychopath” here.

This article should put to rest any question of the links between violence against women and the “incidents” (as the RCMP have delicately put it) of last month.

2. How many people are dying of heart attacks because of COVID-19?

Dr. Ratika Parkash. Photo: Dalhousie University

Yvette d’Entremont has a story about a Dal researcher and cardiologist looking into excess mortality from heart attacks and strokes during the pandemic.

Excess mortality refers to an increase in the number of people you would statistically expect to die in a given period.

“As soon as the COVID scenario hit, we noticed that patients weren’t coming to the emergency department as frequently. The numbers came down dramatically,” [Dr. Ratika] Parkash said.

“We were concerned that patients were staying home with heart attacks and potentially suffering with either significant symptoms, or even dying suddenly, which could be otherwise preventable.”

She and her team wanted to know what was happening to those patients who actually need care but were staying home rather than seeking medical assistance.

“Personally just from operating here in the tertiary care centre, we’ve noted that patients are sicker when they appear,” Parkash said.

Over the weekend, I interviewed a doctor serving a remote community in northern Ontario, and he said residents requiring urgent care have resisted a medevac because of fears of COVID-19. “Meanwhile,” the doctor said, “we’re worried they’re going to die of a heart attack.”

Read “Researcher wants to know how many people are dying from heart attacks because of COVID response here.”

As with all of the Examiner’s pandemic coverage, this story is free for everyone. We can do this work thanks to our subscribers. If you can, please subscribe.

3. Concerns over Fire and Emergency cuts

Fire at Seven Mile Lake. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

Deputy Mayor Lisa Blackburn and Brendan Meagher, president of the Halifax Professional Fire Fighters Association, are worried about proposed cuts to the Fire and Emergency budget, Zane Woodford reports:

“Our standard is a real compromise on the industry standard for response times and personnel, and to cut that back any farther is just not wise,” Meagher said.

“We have not grown as a fire department in many years. Our city continues to grow.”

When he started in 1997, Meagher said he was fighting brush fires in the area that is now Larry Uteck Boulevard, where thousands of people live in high rises. Nearby West Bedford has ballooned in population, too, and fire staffing has not kept up.

“Massive growth in that area, and we have not upgraded our infrastructure or our capabilities in those areas,” he said.

Read “Deputy mayor, union concerned about proposed cuts to Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency budget” here.

4. On the other hand… police chief says cuts won’t affect service

Police Chief Dan Kinsella. Photo: Halifax Examiner

Woodford also reports that Halifax police chief Dan Kinsella says the revised municipal budget won’t affect public safety, despite proposed service cuts:

It’s self-evident. There’s positions that are not filled, there’s going to be work we can’t do,” Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella told the board of police commissioners on Monday.

“We’re not going to let it affect public safety.”

Kinsella presented his plan to cut $5.5 million from his fiscal 2020-2021 budget to the first-ever virtual meeting of the city’s board of police commissioners on Monday. That’s a 6.1% cut to the force’s originally-approved budget, bringing it down to $84.3 million.

Don’t worry, we’re still getting the tank though.

Woodford writes:

The purchase of armoured vehicle approved in last year’s budget is still going ahead. There has been a delay in the production of the vehicle and police have yet to receive it or pay for it.

Read “More than $5 million in cuts to Halifax police budget won’t affect public safety, chief says” here.

5. Left out of the “pandemic premium”?

Nicole Munro reports for the Chronicle Herald on health-care workers worried about being left out of the province’s “pandemic premium” payments.

While workers in long-term care, home care and in-home support and emergency health services qualify for the essential health-care workers program in Nova Scotia, it appears workers at adult residential centres and regional rehabilitation centres do not…

Kim Cail, provincial co-ordinator for Canadian Union of Public Employees at worksites funded by the Department of Community Services, says the bonus leaves out front-line staff who work at residential facilities.

“While we applaud the government for acknowledging health-care workers, the premium does not extend to community services workers who are providing direct support to persons with disabilities and who are required to follow the same directives set out by the Department of Health for essential workers during COVID-19,” Cail said.

Workers Munro interviews are understandably upset that they face the same issues as other health-care workers, but don’t appear to be eligible for the $2,000 bonuses.


Views

1.

Shawinigan Handshake beer, from Quebec brewery Le Trou du Diable.

In the Chronicle Herald, Emilie Chiasson laments the passing of East Coast characters. The story is illustrated with a photo of Jean Chrétien throttling a protester.

Chiasson tells us she does “a solid impression of Chretien – rough French accent, talk out of the side of my mouth and use a lot of intonation” and says “I love the story about the Shawinigan handshake.” The story being that in 1996 the then-Prime Minister grabbed a protester by the neck and shoved him out of his way.

In the rest of the column, Chiasson treats us to a bunch of anecdotes about people she grew up around who were big-C characters: the music teacher whose car was full of sheet music; the guy who would come late to church every week and make a ruckus with his entrance; and various family storytellers who had a way with words.

She also tells us about her old neighbour, Freddy:

Picking up hitchhikers was a common gesture. Our neighbour, Freddy, was often thumbing, so we would scoop him on our way to town. He was a character; he never married, apparently could work harder in the woods than most anyone and loved animals. Our old Lab Becky used to make a daily pilgrimage across the road to get a feed of steak from Freddy. She loved his company. He also had a penchant for ‘the drink’. Hours after dropping him in town, you might see him thumbing his way home – let’s just say some money may have been spent at the Legion. Later in life, he needed to have a leg amputated in Halifax. Mom called and asked me to go visit him because she figured he wouldn’t have any visitors. It was highly entertaining. He was a bit confused from drugs and such; upon explaining to him who I was, he thought I was my grandmother. He said, ‘Fody, Lord Jesus, you are looking good.’ Grandma would have been around 90 at the time. He also offered to show me his stump. I passed.

Look, I like characters too. What writer doesn’t? For my regular Saltscapes gig I look for them. I’ve interviewed guys named Smiles and Honey, and they didn’t disappoint. An old work colleague of my brother’s who definitely fit the definition of larger-than-life character (from what I know of him) passed away recently, and my brother and his friends were swapping stories of his various sharp turns of phrase and his unique way of seeing the world.

Chiasson laments that characters like these aren’t around anymore, which, I would suggest, is perhaps not the case. But more importantly, her column got me thinking about what lies behind some of the stories that get passed around.

I mean, Freddy is entertaining in the hospital because the poor guy’s doped up on painkillers after having had his leg amputated, and he’s got an alcohol addiction to boot. I’ve shared all kinds of stories about characters I’ve met that, when I stopped to think about them, made me think that either I was laughing at someone else’s tragedy, or the characters themselves were pretty much behaving like assholes.

Maybe it’s like that famous Mel Brooks quote: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

2. How far can you water down a living wage motion?

Let’s travel down memory lane, to June 20, 2017. That’s the date councillor Lindell Smith brought a motion to council about requiring city contractors to pay a living wage. The motion, which was approved, read as follows:

THAT Halifax Regional Council direct staff to create a cross departmental working group to engage external stakeholders, conduct further investigation and recommend with respect to whether or not to adopt a policy framework for the consideration of social economic benefit, employee compensation/living wage and environmental impacts in the procurement process (excluding local preference) and report back to Council.

THAT the motion be amended to include:

2. Report back to Regional Council with an update prior to the finalization of the 2018-2019 budget, outlining scoring options that may be identified by then and;
3. Prepare an In Camera report that outlines upcoming contracts that will be put to tender before the 2018-2019 budget is finalized.

As Tim Bousquet noted in January 2019:

The 2018-2019 budget has come and gone, and now council is working up the 2019-20 budget. Still no living wage ordinance.

The living wage ordinance got wrapped up instead in “a social policy framework” report.

On May 4, Bousquet included this item in the Morning File:

After almost three years and as many false starts, Coun. Lindell Smith’s requested social policy framework is finally complete and coming to the next meeting of Halifax regional council,” reports Zane Woodford for Saltwire:

Smith gave notice of motion council’s virtual meeting this week, April 28, that he’d be moving a new administrative order at the next meeting: “the social policy administrative order, the purpose of which is to provide a clearly-defined, consistent and collaborative approach to social policy.”

“It feels like déjà vu,” he told his colleagues.

That’s because it’s at least the third time the Halifax Peninsula North councillor has made that notice of motion, following administrative delays and agenda-setting mishaps.

“Hopefully this is the last time, and we can actually get to voting and I can actually get to see the report,” Smith said in an April 29 interview.

As I’ve repeatedly and rather frustratingly reported again and again, the social policy proposal, which includes a look at ensuring that city employees and contractors are paid a living wage, has been purposefully sidelined and ignored.

Well, today’s the big day! Item 8.1.3 at today’s council meeting is this:

8.1.3 Proposed Administrative Order 2020-002-GOV, Social Policy Administrative Order – Social Policy [PDF]

Motion:
That Halifax Regional Council adopt the Social Policy Administrative Order 2020-002-GOV attached to the staff report dated March 3, 2020

The words “living wage” appear once in the document, in the “Background” section:

Council has had an interest in exploring several social policy issues in recent years. One of these issues was a motion to provide options for incorporating social economic benefit, living wage and environmental impact into procurement policy and processes: the work toward developing a social policy approach will inform possible municipal programs and initiatives in the area of social policy, including procurement.

These are the report’s “guiding principles”:

The following principles are suggested to guide the implementation of the Social Policy:

1. Support HRM’s Corporate Strategic Direction: Taken collectively, the Social Policy will contribute to and support the city’s corporate strategic plan and existing internal strategies and plans.

2. Enhance Social, Environmental, and Economic Sustainability: The Social Policy will address current and future social needs while also being financially viable, environmentally focused, and equity based.

3. Complement Interests, Policies, Programs, Services and Funding Priorities: In addition to setting direction for Halifax, the Social Policy will aim to complement other key initiatives, policies, programs, services and funding priorities as well as leverage work underway within other levels of government and within communities and the non-profit sector.

4. Focus on Assets and Recognize Social Capital: The Social Policy will build on Halifax’s social capital, strengths, and initiatives (ie residents’ knowledge and capabilities and connections within and among social networks).

5. Be Flexible and Resilient: While providing direction for HRM, the Social Policy will be flexible and adaptable as implementation proceeds and as social context and trends change over time.

This, and the six-month wait time for a staff report on whether we can temporarily open up more pedestrian and cycling space for social distancing, bring to mind FR Scott’s poem “W.L.M.K” about prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, written after news of his death:

Let us raise up a temple
To the cult of mediocrity,
Do nothing by halves
Which can be done by quarters.

3. When news coverage goes down, taxes go up

A photo from the Before Times: Premier Stephen McNeil flanked by reporters at a media scrum. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

I am a big fan of WNYC’s consistently excellent On the Media podcast. This week’s episode is on the collapse of local media in the United States, and what that means for accountability.

Of course, we are facing a similar collapse in Canada.

A couple of things struck me about this episode, in particular the first segment, with Penny Abernathy, Knight Chair in journalism and digital media economics at the University of North Carolina.

One of them was this quote from Abernathy:

There has been recent research that shows when you lose a newspaper, citizens in a town wind up paying more in taxes, because there is just no-one reporting on the local bond issue.

She also notes that publishers are less willing to run risky stories, because they worry they no longer have the resources to fight lawsuits. Abernathy says a small-town Pulitzer Prize winning community publisher told her “that he had to think twice about every story that might require legal action.”

Frighteningly, the public seems mostly oblivious. Abernathy again:

One of the things that has concerned me over the last five years… is just the lack of public awareness of the problem. Pew did a survey last year that showed 75 percent of people they surveyed were totally unaware of the financial problems going on at their local newspaper or news organization, even though 50 percent of them had noticed there was a loss of local news…There’s been a huge disconnect also in the willingness to pay for the news… Only 15 percent of those surveyed by Pew said they had subscribed to something in the last year.”

But surveys also showed people trust local media over national media. (Please subscribe to the Halifax Examiner.)

The podcast also notes that epidemiologists rely on local media. I’ll write something about that when I’m back on the Morning File Thursday.


Noticed

The May 4 issue of the New Yorker has a great story by Charles Duhigg that is, in part, on government communications during the pandemic. The online version is called “Seattle’s Leaders Let Scientists Take the Lead. New York’s Did Not” while the print version of the same story is under the headline “The Pandemic Protocol.”

By this point, I assume all, or at least most of us have watched or listened to at least one federal or provincial COVID-19 briefing. The first one I heard led off with the premier expressing condolences to the family of a Northwood resident who had died, before he handed off the meatier, informational part of the proceedings to Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang.

Typically, briefings put medical people out front, not politicians. Watch this briefing by BC provincial medical health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, and you’ll see she’s the only one at the podium.

The New Yorker story quotes extensively from the US Centers for Disease Control’s Field Epidemiology Manual, which includes a chapter called Communicating During an Outbreak or Public Health Investigation.

Near the start of the chapter, the CDC manual says this:

Risk communication literature identifies four factors that determine whether an audience, including journalists, will perceive a messenger as trusted and credible, including

  • Empathy and caring,
  • Honesty and openness,
  • Dedication and commitment, and
  • Competence and expertise

Reading the New Yorker story, I had one of those comic book lightbulb moments reading this section:

During a health emergency… there should be a lead spokesperson whom the public gets to know—familiarity breeds trust. The spokesperson should have a “Single Overriding Health Communication Objective, or sohco (pronounced sock-O),” which should be repeated at the beginning and the end of any communication with the public. After the opening sohco, the spokesperson should “acknowledge concerns and express understanding of how those affected by the illnesses or injuries are probably feeling.” Such a gesture of empathy establishes common ground with scared and dubious citizens—who, because of their mistrust, can be at the highest risk for transmission. The spokesperson should make special efforts to explain both what is known and what is unknown. Transparency is essential, the field manual says, and officials must “not over-reassure or overpromise.”

The lead spokesperson should be a scientist. Dr. Richard Besser, a former acting C.D.C. director… explained to me, “If you have a politician on the stage, there’s a very real risk that half the nation is going to do the opposite of what they say.”

Oh, I realized when I read this. Of course. They have a playbook and they’re following it.

In BC, Bonnie Henry’s signature line is, “Be kind, be calm, and be safe.” Simple, three parts. I don’t know if McNeil’s “Stay the blazes home” was a deliberate sohco message, but whatever you think of it, it does seem to have been effective, if scolding (more on that in a bit).

The New Yorker piece also gets into the importance of appropriate messaging at the appropriate time. Remember Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, telling us masks weren’t necessary before recommending them? Rather than a flip-flop, that may have been a response to changing understanding, or it could have been a communications strategy. (The two messages were not actually all that different — in both cases Tam said masks don’t offer significant protection to the wearer and need to be worn and removed properly.)

Here’s the New Yorker on the decisions over what measures to take and communicate when COVID-19 first appeared in and around Seattle — the first hotspot in the US:

Dr. Jeff Duchin [is] the top public-health physician for Seattle and surrounding King County. To Duchin, the cluster suggested that there was already an area-wide outbreak. He told Dow Constantine, the King County Executive, that it was time to start considering restrictions on public gatherings and telling residents to stay home. This advice struck Constantine as possibly crazy. There were only two dozen covid-19 diagnoses in the entire nation. Life looked normal. How could people be persuaded to stop going to bars, much less to work, just because a handful of old people were sick?

Constantine told me, “Jeff recognized what he was asking for was impractical. He said if we advised social distancing right away there would be zero acceptance. And so the question was: What can we say today so that people will be ready to hear what we need to say tomorrow?” In e-mails and phone calls, the men began playing a game: What was the most extreme advice they could give that people wouldn’t scoff at? Considering what would likely be happening four days from then, what would they regret not having said?

In early March, I was in Florida, feeling trepidatious and washing my hands a lot. But I would have felt ridiculous wearing a mask. Soon after, thousands of Canadians headed off on March break. The week after that, most people started to understand the scale of what we faced.

If we’d told people in the first week of March to stay home from work, that schools were shutting, to not visit anyone else at home, to stay six feet apart, and to wear masks when going out, would people have listened? Or would they have just laughed off the seeming absurdity of it all? Now, we’re making fashion choices with our masks. (I just got a new one with a flame pattern.)

The CDC guide gets quite specific on how to communicate about risk:

Risk Communication Messaging Tips and Examples
  • Express empathy and understanding: “We know this situation is scary.”
  • Do not over-reassure: “Let me make myself clear. This is a challenging situation.”
  • Acknowledge uncertainty: “Here is what we do not know yet.”
  • Share dilemmas: “We can do [X] or [Y]. If we do [X], here are the advantages and disadvantages. If we do [Y], the advantages and disadvantages are . . .”
  • Foreshadow possibilities: “Over the next several days, we might see more cases because . . . ”
  • Express a desire to find the answers for what is not yet known: “We wish we had answers to . . .”
  • Explain the process in place for finding those answers: “Here is what we are doing to learn more.”
  • Give the audience some things to do: “Here is what we need you to do.”

Of course, the CDC communications guidelines contrast quite dramatically with US president Donald Trump’s updates, in which he generally offers misinformation and attacks the press and/or political opponents. In his briefing yesterday, CBS news reporter Weijia Jiang asked Trump why he keeps repeating that the US is doing so much better than any other country when it comes to testing, when so many Americans are dying every day. He told her to “ask China. Don’t ask me, ask China that question, OK?” Jiang pulled down her mask and asked Trump why he was giving that answer specifically to her, and he said it wasn’t aimed specifically at her, but it was “a nasty question.”

I’m guessing none of that is in the CDC playbook.

In Nova Scotia, we get a hybrid, with premier Stephen McNeil on the podium along with Strang. McNeil can pull off the empathy bit — for a bit anyway. But he also highlights the danger of having a politician sharing the stage with the lead health official.

Last Friday, May 8, after the Examiner published slides from a presentation Strang made to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce and the Nova Scotia Business & Labour Economic Coalition, McNeil got testy during the regular briefing. Seated at the table with Strang, McNeil said:

There have been a number of media reports in the last few days about a document Dr. Strang presented to a group of representative of business associations and unions. Some of the stories have suggested that Dr. Strang and I have not been transparent with our fellow Nova Scotians. Imagine! For the past two months, we have come here virtually every day to tell you everything that we know: the good news, the bad news, and the complications. We have said from the very beginning that we’re all in this together and nothing has changed.

But some seem to want to make COVID political and discredit our chief medical officer who is helping us get through this unprecedented time.

While watching the briefing, Dartmouth resident @katynotie wrote on Twitter: “Ooooh, Tall Man is going angry dad.”

I don’t know about you, but the main thing I took from that briefing was, McNeil is angry again.

Not good messaging.

Finally, on the subject of poor messaging, yesterday the British government unveiled new guidelines, easing some restrictions, and a new message.

I follow a lot of Twitter accounts from the UK, so I woke up yesterday morning to all kinds of confusion, both about this message and about the new guidelines on gathering, which seemed to indicate it’s not OK to visit your parents, but it is OK to have cleaners come to your home. The brilliant Caitlin Moran, author of How to Build a Girl and Raised by Wolves, came through with the pithy class and gender analysis this morning:

That the latest “decision” is that you can have your cleaner or your nanny visit your house, but not your parents, is so parodically the call of posh men who were sent away to boarding school, it’s actually made me hysterical.

The satirical Daily Mash has fun with this too:

Why is it safe for a cleaner to come to my house but not a relative? 

Cleaners, like anyone doing honest paid work, emit tiny anti-viral ‘grafter’ particles which repel the coronavirus completely. This is why all workplaces are safe except middle-class ones.

On the All Things IC communications blog, Rachel Miller had a field day with the new messaging, in a post called “What does the government’s new messaging mean?”

Miller contrasts the new message with the previous one: “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.”

She writes:

How can we stay alert? What does that mean? How can we control the virus?

What should it say instead?

Without knowing exactly what the Government is trying to communicate, it’s hard to have a robust answer. The lack of clarity and various ways it can be interpreted is spectacularly unhelpful… The top-down approach has moved to devolved responsibility, where citizens are expected to know, understand and act on the information. But being open to interpretation results in a situation where it means different things to different people.

The also brilliant Hannah Jane Parkinson, who writes for The Guardian, had this to say on Twitter:

The rules are clear: stay alert. Staying alert means staying home as much as possible. But also going out as many times as you like to do squats. You can do the squats in the park 2 metres from any family, as long as it is not your own family. If you need to get to work, crawl.


Government

City

Tuesday

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

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

Wednesday

9am:  Special Budget Committee — virtual meeting. Agenda and link here.

Province

No meetings.


In the harbour

10:00: One Matrix, cargo ship, sails from Fairview Cove for sea
16:00: Thunder Bay, bulker, arrives at National Gypsum from Summerside, PEI


Footnotes

I can’t get enough of the new Bob Dylan song.

Philip Moscovitch

Philip Moscovitch is a writer and audio producer, and the author of the book Adventures in Bubbles and Brine; Website:...

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  1. Quoting F. R. Scott. Now that’s impressive. Perilously close to being tagged as one of the over-educated intellectual elite–but still impressive. And the quote is spot on. Full marks.

    My favourite piece from Frank Scott is his poem criticizing “Towards the Last Spike”–a poem in praise of all those who built the CPR–except the Chinese.

    All the Spikes But the Last

    Where are the coolies in your poem, Ned?
    Where are the thousands from China who swung
    their picks with bare hands at forty below?

    Between the first and the million other spikes
    they drove, and the dressed-up act of
    Donald Smith, who has sung their story?

    Did they fare so well in the land they helped to
    unite? Did they get one of the 25,000,000 CPR acres?

    Is all Canada has to say to them written in the Chinese
    Immigration Act?

  2. Re the Armoured Rescue vehicle.This item first appeared in the 2019/20 Capital Budget distributed to members of council in early December 2018. Tim wrote about the vehicle a few day before the April 15 2019 Board of Police Commissioners meeting. The article was the first time the public was aware of the proposed purchase and the first time Cllrs. Smith,Austin,Cleary, Craig and two others heard of the vehicle.
    Six members of council did not read all of the capital budget they received in early December 2018. Last August I asked Hendsbee when he first learned of the vehicle and he told me he read it in the document in December 2018; he knew the page number and the estimated cost as well as the cost of the other vehicles on the page.
    Makes one wonder what other documents they don’t read.

  3. Will the CAO or Finance staff reveal the cash position of HRM as of March 31 2020 and as of May 7 2020 and will the council and the public be advised how the cash is invested ?
    On May 4 I sent the following to the person who presents the information to the HRM Investment Policy Advisory Committee :
    ” What was the HRM cash position as of March 31 2020 and on May 4 2020 ?
    What was the General Rate Surplus for March 31 2020 ( approx will be sufficient) ”
    There has been no reply.