News

1. Budget

Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

Social assistance payments are increasing $100 per month for every adult in Nova Scotia households.

That increase — the biggest in provincial history — is the line item in the provincial budget released yesterday that will make the biggest material difference in people’s lives. It comes at a cost of $35.2 million.

Much of the budget was crafted under former Premier Stephen McNeil, but Finance Minister Labi Kousoulis said that the increase in social assistance came at the insistence of new Premier Iain Rankin.

According to a Department of Community Services official, the increase will move Nova Scotia to the middle-to-upper part of the pack of Atlantic Canada provinces, but the province will remain near the bottom of all provinces. NDP Leader Gary Burrill noted that for one specific household configuration — a single parent with one child — Nova Scotia’s payments remain the lowest in Canada, even after the increase.

Christine Saulnier is the executive director of the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a group which produces annual report cards on the state of poverty in Nova Scotia, where more than one in four kids do not get enough to eat. Saulnier said while the $100 a month increase is “historic” and “a welcome help,” that amount is still “insignificant” when considering the gap between Nova Scotian families living on welfare and the official poverty line as defined by Statistics Canada.

Saulnier quoted figures from StatsCan that estimate that income gap at $15,000 a year for an individual adult and $17,000 a year for a family of four living in Halifax between what they pay for food, rent, and utilities and the cheques they receive from Community Services and the federal Child Tax Benefit. 

(A family of two adults and two children in Halifax receives a total of $27,974 in government cheques, barely enough to cover the rent. Statistics Canada defines the poverty line as $45,872 for that same family of four.)

“What struck me about this budget,” said Saulnier, “is we still haven’t learned the lessons I thought we had learned from the pandemic. One of them is $100 a month is good; $2,000 a month as an income base is what people really need. We are giving people such a little amount to begin with, it’s hard to be excited about the fact it has been increased by $100.”

Still, the increase is welcomed, and was praised by both NDP Leader Gary Burrill and Conservative Leader Tim Houston.

There have been decades of inaction on social assistance payments, with either no increases at all or increases so small they haven’t kept up with inflation, which led to Nova Scotia having the lowest social assistance payments in the country.

Some years ago, during the Conservative government of Rodney MacDonald, all three political parties recognized that the minimum wage was likewise slipping behind as inflation ate away at its real value. And so the government enacted a three-step increase in minimum wage to make up for past losses, and then tied it to the rate of inflation; every year, there is a small increase in minimum wage that reflects inflation. Minimum wage is still far too low, but at least it no longer falls further behind.

Yesterday, I asked Premier Iain Rankin if he would be open to likewise tying social assistance rates to the rate of inflation. “”I wouldn’t [it] rule out,” he replied, but made no indication that legislation would be introduced to that effect.

Public housing

Finance and Treasury Board Minister Labi Kousoulis at the budget news conference. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

The budget also has aspects that won’t materially affect people’s lives.

For instance, there is no new money for new public housing units. Kousoulis continues to insist that the housing crisis reflects only a shortage of units, which can be addressed by unspecified market interventions. While the laws of supply-and-demand are something of a religion in today’s neoliberal paradise — among a wide swath of society, and especially among policy makers, it’s literally impossible to question the supposed physics-like perfection of the market — there’s no actual evidence that increasing housing stock actually results in lower rents.

In fact, there’s no restraint on the market — there’s no meaningful regulatory prohibition against building new housing in Halifax or anywhere else in the province. As we’ve seen time and again, Halifax council and its various subcommittees routinely rubberstamp pretty much every development proposal that comes before them, overriding neighbourhood opposition, heritage concerns, and good taste.

Globally, there are trillions of dollars being dumped into real estate, much of it criminally gained, but all of it unmoored from any notion that everyday working people should be able to lease an apartment without selling off a kidney or becoming debt slaves for the rest of their lives.

The market may in fact be perfect, but only in the sense that it’s perfectly cruel.

In terms of public housing in Nova Scotia, Burrill said that there are 5,000 people on waiting lists, and about 500 homeless people, all of whom could benefit from more public housing. But I guess we’re waiting for the invisible hand job to help them.

Nursing homes

Upgrades to seven nursing homes and 236 new nursing home beds were announced in February, and the $8.6 million price tag for that initiative is in the budget.

But nothing more is budgeted for new nursing home beds. No doubt 236 beds are something, but there are 1,300 people on nursing home waitlists. Even the construction bringing the 236 new beds won’t be completed this year, said Burrill.

In opposition, Tim Houston has promised enough spending to eliminate the wait list.

Climate change

“I’m seeing positive signals that this government is taking the climate emergency seriously,” said Marla MacLeod, director of programs for the Ecology Action Centre. “The devil is in the details, as always. We are seeing money for efficiency programs which is great; we are seeing more money for renewable energy which is great. But on the flip side, we are still seeing spending on offshore petroleum. So to me, are we really serious about moving to the future if we are still looking for offshore oil and gas and still considering LNG?”

Spending at the Department of Environment and Climate Change will increase by 4.4% next year.

Spending is also up 11% at Energy and Mines. According to Energy communications director Michael Noonan, most of that increase is attributable to Green Energy Funds and Low-Carbon allocations that did not go out the door last year because of slow uptake during the pandemic.

A landmark report from the International Panel on Climate Change a few years ago noted governments have only another nine years to take action. 

“Every budget counts,” said MacLeod. “The question we should be asking isn’t ‘are we spending more on green initiatives this year than last year?’ but ‘is this the level of government spending that is going to support the action we need to respond to a climate emergency?’”

Mental health

There are increases in the budget to help people struggling with mental health and addiction issues, which have soared during the pandemic. The budget includes $336.5 million for mental health, which is a $12.3 million increase. One major improvement will eventually allow people struggling with a pressing mental health issue to access help without a referral from a doctor and within 24 hours of making the call.

“As an active member of the mental health and wellness community, we welcome the announcement from the Government of Nova Scotia today,” said an email to the Examiner from the Board of Directors of the Canadian Mental Health Association. “It has been a challenging year with the COVID-19 pandemic which highlighted the important role mental health plays in our overall wellness. These additional funds will support much needed programming and support in our Nova Scotia communities.”

Houston criticized the government for creating new mental health programs when people can’t access the existing programs.

Big numbers

I suppose I wrote this item in the opposite order as most reporters would write it. They’d start with the big numbers — it’s a budget of about $12.4 billion, with about a half-billion dollar deficit. But those big numbers don’t mean a whole lot for the average citizen, and the debt (and forecasted “return to balance”) are impossible to make sense of by anyone in these pandemic times and with effectively zero interest rates. The budget documents are full of projections reflecting expected GDP growth and the like, but if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that no one can predict this stuff with any certainty — one little microscopic strand of RNA can toss all your best calculations out the window. What matters most is how we take care of each other, and especially the most vulnerable among us.

With files from Jennifer Henderson.

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2. Provincial budget and Halifax Transit

The route map in Halifax Transit’s Rapid Transit Plan.

“There are lots of words and a little money for public transit in the provincial budget released Thursday, and despite a lack of hard figures around commitments to bus electrification and new ferry routes, Halifax’s mayor is encouraged by the government’s direction,” reports Zane Woodford.

Click here to read “What does the provincial budget mean for transit in Halifax?”

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3. SIRT and the Glen Assoun case

Glen Assoun. Photo: Halifax Examiner

Yesterday, the Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT, the provincial body tasked with investigating potential police misconduct) issued the following release:

Independent Investigations Office of BC (IIOBC) To Investigate Historical Matter in Nova Scotia

On September 8, 2020, then Minister of Justice and Attorney General Mark Furey, asked the Serious Incident Response Team to investigate whether there was criminal misconduct by the police during the period before the appeal of Glen Assoun’s conviction.

In the interest of transparency, Director Cacchione asked The Independent Investigations Office (IIO) of BC to conduct the investigation into this historical matter. The IIO is under the leadership of Ronald J. MacDonald, former director of the Nova Scotia Serious Incident Response Team.

On March 8, 2021, an Order in Council endorsed an IIO inquiry into allegations that the RCMP in Nova Scotia inappropriately destroyed evidence which was used in the 1999 wrongful murder conviction of Glen Assoun. The investigation will also examine whether any member of the Halifax Regional Police committed any offence related to this conviction.

IIO investigators will begin a review of the matter in the near future to undertake this work. This will include their deployment to Nova Scotia as necessary. The IIO utilizes a “start from zero” approach, drawing no conclusions regarding the outcome of an investigation while working to gather all available evidence. The Chief Civilian Director will then review the evidence and, applying relevant legal principles, will determine whether reasonable grounds exist to believe that an officer may have committed an offence.

The IIO is committed to upholding the public trust placed in the civilian oversight of law enforcement system. Upon conclusion of the investigation, the IIO will report out its findings in as transparent a manner as practicable.

I reported essentially the same information last October:

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.

So I guess the news is this: six months after IIC was requested to conduct the investigation, it’s finally agreed to it.

I appreciate that I live in a news media world that has a different perspective of time — asking me to schedule something in May is essentially the same as asking me to schedule something for the year 2047 — but as they say in the courts, justice delayed is justice denied. Glen Assoun isn’t getting any younger; he’s in frail health and some explanation for his wrongful conviction might ease his mental anguish. Besides that, as with any dated police investigation, witnesses die or move on, memories fade, evidence disappears. Speed is of the essence here.

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’m not overly excited about the SIRT/IIC investigation. As I wrote in October:

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.

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.

And what of the Crown?

Read the entire post to better understand my view.

I’m obsessed with that damn knife. What happened with the knife, and how it was used to convict Assoun, gets at the very core of this wrongful conviction. I have no doubt, no doubt at all, that all the people in the Justice system — the cops, the Crown, even the judge — knew it was complete and utter bullshit, but they let the knife be entered in evidence against Glen and polished a bunch of turds to present to a gullible jury in order to convict. To be sure, there’s lots besides the knife, but the knife is the perfect encapsulation of the injustice.

That’s why when I had the opportunity to finally see the knife for myself, I jumped at it. That’s in Episode 7 of the Dead Wrong podcast.

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4. COVID: a new school-based case

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

There is a new school-based case of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia. The case is connected to Millwood High School in Middle Sackville. The school is closed for cleaning and contact tracing, and will reopen on Wednesday.

Because the school case was discovered Thursday, it is not included in the numbers below, which are for new cases discovered Wednesday and reported Thursday; the school-based case will be included in today’s numbers.

Otherwise, three new cases of COVID-19 were announced in Nova Scotia yesterday (Thursday, March 25).

Two of the cases are in Nova Scotia Health’s Central Zone — one is a close contact to previously announced cases, and the other is related to travel outside of Atlantic Canada

The third case is in Nova Scotia Health’s Eastern Zone, and is also related to travel outside Atlantic Canada.

There are 25 known active cases in the province. No one is in hospital with the disease.

The active cases are distributed as follows:

• 5 in the Halifax Peninsula/Chebucto Community Health Network in the Central Zone
• 11 in the Dartmouth/Southeastern Community Health Network in the Central Zone
• 3 in the Bedford/Sackville Community Health Network in the Central Zone
• 1 in the Cape Breton Community Health Network in the Eastern Zone
• 3 in the Inverness, Victoria, and Richmond Community Health Network in the Eastern Zone
• 2 in the Annapolis and Kings Community Health Network in the Western Zone

Nova Scotia Health labs completed 2,851 tests Wednesday.

Pop-up testing has been scheduled for the following locations:

Friday: Cole Harbour Place, noon-7pm
Friday: Halifax Convention Centre, 3pm-9pm
Saturday: Cole Harbour Place, 11am-6pm
Saturday: Halifax Convention Centre, noon-6pm

You can also get tested at the Nova Scotia Health labs by going here.

Wednesday, 5,698 vaccine doses were administered. In total, 77,431 doses have been administered — 54,514 first doses and 22,917 second doses.

People who are 80 or over can book a vaccine appointment here.

People who are 60 to 64 years old can book an appointment to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine here; most of the available times have been taken, but there may be a few left. Those deciding to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine will not be eligible to get the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

Here are the new daily cases and seven-day rolling average (today at 3.1) since the start of the second wave (Oct. 1):

And here is the active caseload for the second wave:

Yesterday evening, Public Health issued the following potential COVID exposure advisories:

Anyone who worked at or visited the following locations on the specified dates and times should immediately visit covid-self-assessment.novascotia.ca/ to book a COVID-19 test,regardless of whether or not they have COVID-19 symptoms. You can also call 811 if you don’t have online access or if you have other symptoms that concern you.
If you have symptoms of COVID-19 you are required to self-isolate while you wait for your test result. If you do not have any symptoms of COVID-19 you do not need to self-isolate while you wait for your test result.
  • IKEA Dartmouth Crossing (645 Cutler Ave, Dartmouth) on March 20 between 3:50 p.m. and 5:55 p.m. It is anticipated that anyone exposed to the virus at this location on the named date may develop symptoms up to, and including, April 3.
  • HomeSense Dartmouth Crossing (110 Gale Terrace, Dartmouth) on March 20 between 5:25 p.m. and 6:40 p.m. It is anticipated that anyone exposed to the virus at this location on the named date may develop symptoms up to, and including, April 3.
  • Subway Bridgewater (215 Dominion St, Bridgewater) on March 21 between 11 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. It is anticipated that anyone exposed to the virus at this location on the named date may develop symptoms up to, and including, April 4.
  • Sobeys Penhorn (551 Portland St, Dartmouth) on March 24 between 12 noon and 5 p.m. It is anticipated that anyone exposed to the virus at this location on the named date may develop symptoms up to, and including, April 7.

I’ve updated the potential COVID exposure advisory map to include the new sites and remove sites for which the advisories have expired:

Premier Iain Rankin and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang have scheduled a COVID briefing for 1pm today; I’ll be live-blogging in on my Twitter account.

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5. Virtual health care

“For Elizabeth Hopkins, a visit to her family doctor usually means taking two buses on a two-hour round trip from Halifax to Lower Sackville,” reports Suzanne Rent:

Those visits with her would last about 10 minutes. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring, Hopkins, like many other Nova Scotians, started having doctor appointments by phone. So far, she’s had about five appointments for prescription renewals.  

“In some ways it’s great,” Hopkins says. “It’s time saving. It’s very handy that way because you don’t have to interrupt your day to get on a bus and just sit around in an office for an hour. You could take your phone with you and you could be out having a walk.” 

Click here to read “Virtual health care: ‘We jumped a generation and started catching up.’”

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6. Herring Cove Road

Herring Cove Road at Cowie Hill Road in a 2019 Google Streetview image.

“Councillors on the municipal Transportation Standing Committee need more time to digest the big plans for Herring Cove Road,” reports Zane Woodford:

Municipal staff are recommending in favour of bus and bike lanes for most of the 5.5-km stretch of road being redesigned, along with a continuous sidewalk where there are now gaps and subpar asphalt walking surfaces…

To give residents and themselves more time to do that, councillors decided on Thursday not to vote on the plans just yet.

Click here to read “Halifax committee defers debate on Herring Cove Road plan.”

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Views

1. Biodiversity Act

Yesterday, Philip Moscovitch noted:

They created a fake coalition and lied about measures not even in the bill in order to get the government to weaken protections — and admit to the whole thing.

— Philip Moscovitch (@PhilMoscovitch) March 26, 2021

As Joan Baxter explained, the push-back on the Biodiversity Act was filled with lies and ugly, Trump-like attacks on perceived enemies.

Consider this post by Peter Spicer, highlighted by the so-called Concerned Private Landowner Coalition, which appears to be an astroturf group founded by timber companies:

I’ve been stressed about covering Jacob Fillmore’s hunger strike, as I’m worried about the ethics of covering and potentially encouraging someone towards self-harm. I realize there’s a counter-argument — he’s an adult and who am I to pass judgment on his activism? — and that’s why I’ve been stressing about it. But as I’ve been stressing about it, other news media and social media have moved the story along, so my misgivings don’t matter at all.

Still, despite those misgivings, I’ve never thought that Fillmore is anything other than as he presents: he’s an earnest young man with a deep concern about the environment, and is willing to go to extreme measures to present his case. There is zero evidence that he is “probably a paid member of Extinction Rebellion” — which is an absurd and slanderous assertion.

And now, having attacked the “provincial newspaper,” Spicer has managed to get quoted as just a concerned landowner by Saltwire reporter Darrell Cole.

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Government

City

Budget Committee (Friday, 9:30am) — contingency date

Province

No public meetings.


On campus

Dalhousie

Sustaining Slavery: Food Provisioning, Power, and Protest in the British Caribbean, c. 1791-1802 (Friday, 3:30pm) — Nick Crawford from Washington University will talk. Email here for the link.

Saint Mary’s

Times Past, Times to Come: 100 years of language rights in Ireland. Where to now? (Friday, 12pm) — Zoom session with Rónán Ó Domhnaill, An Coimisinéir Teanga [the Irish-language Ombudsman], and ICUF D’Arcy McGee Beacon Fellow.


In the harbour

06:00: ZIM Shekou, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from Valencia, Spain
06:00: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, moves from anchorage to Pier 41
15:30: Manon, car carrier, arrives at Autoport from Southampton, England
16:30: ZIM Shekou sails for New York
16:30: Nolhanava, ro-ro cargo, sails from Fairview Cove for Saint-Pierre


Footnotes

Today’s the deadline for an administrative project I’ve been working on, so I’ll disappear from the internet from now until the COVID briefing at 1pm.

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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. Market forces absolutely matter for MARKET housing. As we’ve seen in the past year, even a smallish imbalance between supply and demand can send prices skyrocketing. More supply will help that situation.

    However, affordable housing is pretty much by definition NOT market housing. About the only time the market serves this segment is if you have a complete market crash and prices collapse to nothing (Las Vegas housing circa 2008?). Affordable housing can only truly be served by entities who don’t have to play by market forces, namely governments. And Nova Scotia has been woeful in this regard.