News

1. COVID

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

A man in his 80s died of COVID-19. He was living in the Nova Scotia Health’s Northern Zone, and his case was connected to “a previous case of a traveller coming from outside the Atlantic bubble,” according to a government press release. He is the 65th person in Nova Scotia to die from the disease.

In addition, two new cases of COVID-19 were announced yesterday, both also connected to previous cases. There are now seven active cases of COVID-19 in the province.

Although the Department of Health isn’t saying, the public is guessing that some or all of the active cases are related to someone (or someones) who travelled into the province and did not self-isolate as required. It would be worthwhile if Public Health could address that concern directly.

Last Thursday, I wrote an article, “How and why did Public Health change its mind about Murphy’s Fish & Chips?“; you can read the article yourself. Late Friday, I was sent the following response from Gary O’Toole, Nova Scotia Health senior director of Population and Public Health:

Hi Tim,

The article you published yesterday “How and why did Public Health change its mind about Murphy’s Fish & Chips?” was based on assumptions you made that were, quite frankly, inaccurate.

Even your headline is false. Public Health did not change its mind about sending out a public notification. And if you had waited for an explanation from Nova Scotia Health before publishing your piece, you would have realized that.

The potential COVID-19 exposure you referenced in your piece — and that your inquiries on Monday related to — is not the same case for which we sent out a public exposure notification yesterday. You assumed the two cases were one in the same. They were not.

We cannot provide further details on either case due to privacy and confidentiality concerns. We have a responsibility to protect the privacy of those connected to our investigations, but we also take seriously the need to inform the public when there is something they need to know in order to help contain and manage the virus. This is integral to the work of Public Health.

We are incredibly disappointed in the tone and commentary you used in the article, which can only be described as an overt attempt on the part of the Halifax Examiner to erode public confidence in the hard work our staff have been committed to over the past six months of this pandemic, and the work we do every day in health protection.

Public Health staff are responsible for conducting the incredibly important work of contact tracing, and we want Nova Scotians to recognize we conduct these investigations with the highest degree of professionalism and integrity.

As you know, investigations can be complex and ever-evolving. There is a lot of challenging work to ensure we have the best information to inform steps to contain and manage an outbreak. These processes are followed in any Public Health investigation of a communicable disease, including COVID-19.

For those personally touched by COVID-19, either through direct contact or exposure, these are incredibly stressful and trying times. Your article yesterday did nothing to ease those feelings. We ask that in the future you stick to the facts and not make unfounded assumptions.

We also ask that you print a correction to your piece.

Here’s the email Jennifer Henderson sent to Public Health on Saturday, August 15, at 3:07pm:

Can you confirm one of the three positive test results in the Northern Zone involves a customer who ate at Murphy’s Fish & Chips in Truro last Sunday, August 9?  that is my understanding. Have any staff who waited on the individual been asked to take a test for COVID-19? [emphasis added]

Not getting a response to that question, Henderson followed up on Monday, August 17, at 11:52am:

Here is a re-send of my original email to Public Health through this COVID-19 media line. It is now Monday noon. When  may I expect a response to Query #1 re Truro restaurant?

A response came on Monday at 2:36pm:

When a new case of COVID-19 is confirmed, public health works to identify and test people who may have come in close contact with that person. That work was completed without the need to issue a public exposure notification and we will not be providing any further details.

On Thursday, Nova Scotia Health Authority sent out the following advisory:

Nova Scotia Health Public Health is advising of potential exposures to COVID-19 at the following locations:
  • Murphy’s Fish and Chips, 88 Esplanade Street, Truro, on August 9 from 5 to 7 p.m. [emphasis added]
  • 102 (Colchester) Wing Royal Canadian Air Force Association, 22 Cottage Street, Truro, on August 15 from 4 to 6:30 p.m.

I don’t know what to make of this. Jennifer Henderson asked specifically about potential COVID exposure at Murphy’s on Sunday, August 9 and was told there was no need for an advisory, and then Public Health issued an advisory about potential COVID exposure at Murphy’s on Sunday, August 9. But now Gary O’Toole tells me that “You assumed the two cases were one in the same. They were not.”

So, er, two different people with COVID went to the same restaurant separately on the same day? Or did a person who later tested positive go to the restaurant with someone who initially tested negative but then the negative person later tested positive? Or did one catch it from the other at the restaurant? What’s going on here? And: why can’t Public Health simply tell us what’s going on here?

[Jennifer Henderson passes on that all employees at Murphy’s have been tested.]

I totally get protection of privacy. I don’t need to know the names of people with the disease, and neither do you. But that doesn’t preclude giving “further details.” Public Health has to be more forthcoming with information so the public can understand how the disease spreads. Giving details about how and why Public Health issues (and doesn’t issue) advisories, and the underlying particulars of the spread — from travel, through community spread, etc. — informs the public. We don’t need to know the SIN and mother’s maiden name of the sick people, but it would be extremely helpful if we knew where they travelled, how the disease was transmitted, if precautions were taken or not, or if the precautions failed, and if so how so. That kind of information can be used by people to better protect themselves and other people. Instead, we’re treated like children: just do as you’re told, and stop questioning.

“[W]e also take seriously the need to inform the public when there is something they need to know in order to help contain and manage the virus,” wrote O’Toole, exactly expressing the paternalistic attitude I’m taking umbrage with. We need information not just because we are individuals who can can help contain and manage the virus, but also because we are citizens who have the right and duty to understand public policy, and how it is applied.

O’Toole seems to take offence at the notion that people will question Public Health. That, sir, is what democracy is all about.

Lisa Gannett, a philosopher of science at Saint Mary’s University, raises much the same issue related to the reopening of schools:

The pandemic response in this province, led by Premier Stephen McNeil and Dr. Strang, has been characterized by the paternalism and top-down exercise of authority exhibited in [Education Minister Zach] Churchill’s reassurances. Few efforts are made to win the public’s trust by providing education about the relevant scientific issues or clarity about the goals behind the public health advice.

Nova Scotians came together to flatten and then bend the curve. Whether there is or is not a second wave of COVID-19 is up to us. We deserve a return-to-school plan driven by the public health goal of keeping us healthy by preventing the spread of COVID-19, not just the goal of tracing contacts once outbreaks occur.

Nova Scotia’s Back to School Plan is not a plan. It is an abdication of responsibility by the government and opens the door to the resurgence of COVID-19 in the province.

Click here to read “Nova Scotia’s Back to School Plan is not a plan.”

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2. Lahey Report

Westfor clearcut from 2018, inside the Tobeatic Wildlife Management Area. Photo: Linda Pannozzo

“Two full years after the release of the Lahey Independent Review on Forestry, Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin acknowledges it will be some time yet before the report’s 45 recommendations toward a more ecological approach to forestry will be implemented,” reports Jennifer Henderson.

Click here to read “It’s been two years since the Lahey report was released, but its recommendations have yet to be implemented.”

This article is for subscribers. Click here to subscribe.

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3. The next premier

Stephen McNeil at July 9 briefing. (Communications Nova Scotia)

Writes Stephen Kimber:

If there is just one trait I will hope for in a new Liberal leader — a person who will automatically become our premier without benefit of even any public laying on of electoral hands — it is simply be that she or he not be as unreflectively, reflexively anti-union as the incumbent.

Click here to read “Will the new McNeil be like the old one? Let’s hope not.”

This article is for subscribers. Click here to subscribe.

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4. Halifax police and Michael McGray

Michael McGray (left) wearing sandals in a 2000 interview with prison officials.

Each day this week, I’ll be writing “extras” related to the Uncover: Dead Wrong podcast — exploring material that we couldn’t fit into the podcast.

Yesterday, I started with police records detailing Halifax police’s interactions with Michael McGray, including the numerous times McGray was named as a suspect in other crimes, both before Brenda Way’s murder and after the murder but before Glen Assoun was wrongly convicted for it.

The short of it is that McGray was named as a suspect in one other murder (Shelley Connors’) and as a suspect in four missing person cases. The point isn’t that McGray was actually the culprit in these cases — I don’t think he was — but rather that police considered him as a possibility, if only to rule him out later. That is, they knew McGray was a dangerous, violent man, capable of murder.

And, for the first time, I’m reporting details of McGray’s attempted suicide attempt in June 1995, just five months before Brenda’s murder. Police responded to the attempt, and so knew he lived near the murder site.

Police also interacted with McGray in January 1996, two months after the murder, so knew he was in the Halifax area both before and after the murder.

It’s bizarre that McGray was named as a suspect in so many other murders and potential murders in and around Halifax, but was not considered as a possible suspect for the murder right in his north end Dartmouth neighbourhood. In fact, even after McGray was arrested for the murder of Joan and Nina Hicks in Moncton in March 1998, and started saying he had killed many more people, Halifax police never seriously considered him as responsible for Brenda’s murder.

I made the point explicit in the podcast: While we can’t prove a counterfactual, had police connected the dots and zeroed in on Michael McGray as the murderer of Brenda Way — that is, had they not been so singularly focused on Glen Assoun as the murderer — it’s possible that Joan and Nina Hicks would be alive today.

That’s yet another tragic result of wrongful convictions: when the wrong person is convicted of a murder, the actual murderer is free to go on and kill again.

Have you not yet listened to the podcast? Listen to the podcast.

Click here to read “Dead Wrong Extra: What Halifax police knew about Michael McGray.”

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5. Jimmy Melvin, Sr.

Jimmy Melvin Sr.’s Shad Bay apartment building. — KWR Approvals
Jimmy Melvin Sr.’s Shad Bay apartment building. — KWR Approvals

“The Halifax and West community council approved a development agreement this week for a seniors residence in Shad Bay — owned by a numbered company registered to Jimmy Melvin Sr. — despite one area resident’s claim she was threatened near the property,” reports Zane Woodford:

James E. Melvin is better known as Jimmy Melvin Sr. — the patriarch of the Melvin family. In 2018, a supreme court justice described Melvin and his son, Jimmy Melvin Jr., as “notorious and violent crime figures in this city.”

Click here to read “Jimmy Melvin Sr. gets community council approval for Halifax-area seniors residence.”

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6. $48 NSF Fee Centre

The $48 NSF Fee Centre last May as the Halifax Mooseheads practiced ahead of the Memorial Cup. — Photo: Zane Woodford
The $48 NSF Fee Centre last May as the Halifax Mooseheads practiced ahead of the Memorial Cup. — Photo: Zane Woodford

“Halifax will have to pay more than $500,000 for last year’s deficit at the building formerly known as the Metro Centre — but like the convention centre, we still don’t know what COVID-19 means for the current fiscal year,” reports Zane Woodford.

Click here to read “$48 NSF Fee Centre costs Halifax an extra $500,000.”

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7. Economists and their predictions

Three months ago, in late May, the Conference Board of Canada predicted that:

Nova Scotia’s economy will shrink by a record-breaking 3.8 per cent in 2020, pulled down by the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting provincial and global economic shutdowns. … Overall, despite the jaw-dropping 22 per cent contraction expected in the second quarter of this year, we believe that the recession will be short-lived. Economic recovery will begin in the second half of the year, leading to a 5.5 per cent rebound in the province’s real GDP in 2021.

That was then. Ancient history. Now, in late August, the Conference Board of Canada has a new prediction about Nova Scotia’s economy:

We now expect real GDP to drop by 7.6 per cent this year and to only partly recover in 2021 with growth of 4.6 per cent.

In terms of the overall economic position of the province, consider the contrast. In May:

Over the medium term, the $10-billion Goldboro LNG project, along with the Nova Scotia government’s healthy fiscal condition, will boost economic growth in the province.

In August:

Nova Scotia’s economy was in trouble even before the pandemic hit, as weak growth was already anticipated this year.

The province’s population growth wasn’t important enough to mention in May. Now, in August:

A key factor behind the economic gains in Nova Scotia over the past few years was strong population growth. However, population growth started to decline once the pandemic erupted, in large part due to a drop in immigration. The degree to which population growth rebounds is highly uncertain because it depends on the development of an effective vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 and on future federal and provincial government policies concerning immigration. If population growth in the province levels off through the near and medium terms, the housing sector and household spending could both be hurt.

Compare the Conference Board’s relatively dismal prognosis of the province’s economy to the upbeat spin on the economy just last week from Finance Minister Karen Casey:

“Nova Scotia had a strong economy coming into this pandemic. This solid foundation enabled us to respond with needed investments to support Nova Scotians and our business community,” said Karen Casey, Minister of Finance and Treasury Board.

At a press conference, Casey claimed wages were increasing at a record pace last year, and compared favourably with the wage growth of other provinces. I wanted to dive into that, but given the format of the virtual press conferences, I wasn’t given the opportunity.

The annual increase in minimum wage — tied to inflation — accounted for some of that wage growth, but my guess is that wasn’t significant in the overall scheme of things. And most public employee unions did not see a wage increase at all, so provincial workers don’t account for the wage growth. As for the ultra wealthy, their riches don’t so much come from wages but from equity growth and dividends. So where’s this wage growth coming from? I don’t know. But a recent report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives looks at inequality in Nova Scotia, and shows that high wage earners have seen the largest percentage increase in wages in recent years, albeit the most recent figures in that report are from 2018.

I think that if the Finance minister is going to make claims about wages, she should include an analysis of inequality. If wage growth is concentrated among those already making six figures while working people who are struggling aren’t seeing much more, it’s not really something to celebrate.

Besides that, as the rapidly changing Conference Board of Canada forecasts demonstrate, economists are good at predicting a theoretical model-based future, but they aren’t good at all at predicting the future of the actual real world.

6. Outpatient Centre

The site of the Community Outpatient Centre. Photo: Halifax Bloggers

A government press release from Friday:

EllisDon Infrastructure Healthcare was awarded the contract to design, build, finance and maintain the new Community Outpatient Centre in Bayers Lake, Halifax, which is part of the QEII New Generation project.

The total cost of the contract is $259.4 million for the design, construction and financing, as well as 30 years of maintenance. Construction will start this fall and is expected to be completed in August 2023.

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Views

1. CERB and CEWS

“Almost from the time it was introduced to provide Canadians with some economic protection from the COVID-19 pandemic there has been hand wringing in some conservative and business circles about the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB),” writes Richard Starr:

The claim that the CERB is holding back economic recovery by discouraging people from going back to work was heard again last week when the federal government announced a one-month extension of CERB to September 26, to be followed by a suite of assistance programs extending into 2021. The predictable response to that $37 billion aid package from the head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business was that it will “serve as a disincentive for many part-time workers to return to their pre-COVID employment.” And in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail, Kevin Lynch and Serge Dupont, former top Ottawa mandarins, observed that “if workers can earn more income staying home safely, there is no economic incentive to rejoin the work force.”

Although the critics have produced no actual evidence, common sense would suggest they are likely right to think that some Canadians, given the choice, would prefer to keep $500 a week coming in rather than return to part-time work at or near minimum wage without adequate child care or a guarantee of a safe workplace. Moreover, as economist and columnist Paul Krugman has pointed out, without programs like CERB and its U.S. counterpart, small business naysayers like the CFIB would have a lot more to worry about.

Tens of millions of (U.S.) workers lost their jobs and their regular wage income -and the job-losers were disproportionately low-wage workers with little in the way of financial resources to fall back on. So absent government aid they would have been forced to slash spending, leading to a whole second round of job losses across the economy. Unemployment benefits, however, sustained many workers’ incomes, averting this second-round depression. So “paying people not to work,” as right-wingers like to describe it, actually saved millions of jobs.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a Halifax bar owner, back in pre-pandemic days when I used to hang out in bars. The bar owner was railing against public employee unions, and I stopped him to point out customers gathered at tables around the bar: “See that table? Those are teachers. That table over there? They work for the province. That other table? City maintenance workers. Who do you think your customers are? You know, if you cut their pay, they’ll have less to spend in your bar.”

I’ve ridiculed the anti-worker and anti-union sentiment with the reductio ad absurdum: If only everyone were paid less, we’d all be rich.

When consumer spending accounts for the bulk of economic activity — and all of it, in the retail sector — cutting workers’ pay serves to undermine the entire economy, including for the merchant class. I can only understand the refusal of some people to understand this as willful ignorance; they’re all about the “multiplier effect” when it comes to, say, the convention centre, but are incapable of spreading the logic to the people who do the necessary work in our community. It’s either that the wage-cutters are completely blinded by class identity, or they somehow think their particular ownership of a slice of the economic pie is immune from the effects of impoverishing workers.

In any event, Starr continues:

While CERB has been watched with a critical eye, the other big economic salvage operation — the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) — has received much less political and media scrutiny, despite the fact that, as reported last month the projected program cost jumped 50 percent to more than $80 billion.

The small business lobby has driven much of the public criticism of CEWS, perhaps understandable given the numbers. Adding up the totals for the three and a half months from the program’s inception to July 4 reveals that less than one quarter of the $23.9 billion in subsidies to that point went to small business. Large corporations, with 250 employees or more, received over $8 billion in CEWS funds.

…The example of oil, gas and mining company subsidies further drives home the fact that despite the oft-expressed desire for a new normal to emerge from the pandemic, CEWS is mainly about maintaining the status quo. Based on the story so far, tainted shareholder dividends, handouts to big business, wage disparities and largesse for polluting industry are all being further entrenched.

Click here to read “CERB’s under scrutiny, but CEWS needs a long hard look.”

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Noticed

I’m always very hesitant about amplifying police missing people reports because I worry about the long-term effects on the missing person: The vast majority of such people will be found, and whatever the circumstances of their disappearance, they will one day return to a normal ho-hum life, applying for schools and jobs and finding potential dates and mates. Today, however, part of normal ho-hum life is to have your name googled whenever you apply for school or a job or flirt with someone online, and these people will forever be defined by the time they were missing.

Sometimes, people just get lost. There have been a lot of reports of elderly people with dementia wandering away from home and not returning, and I don’t think it does any harm to publicize their names and photos, and it might help in locating them.

But publicizing the names and photos of missing young people presents a problem. Some of these will be runaways — but running away from what? We can all imagine abusive or neglectful situations at home that may cause a young person to flee. Other times, there might be the suggestion of abduction, either from a parent denied custody by the courts, or by a sexual predator.

Sure, for the sake of their immediate safety, we want these young people found, but publicizing their names and photos in a manner that will forever be archived on the internet might well serve to further victimize them into the future.

It’s especially problematic with teenagers, who have some degree of agency but aren’t legally capable of consent. It shouldn’t be this way, but it’s the way the world operates: an abduction by a potential sexual predator will taint the reputation of the victim. It should be up to that teenager as they grow into adulthood to tell their story if they want to, and to whom they want to, in a time and manner that they control; the story of their disappearance, with all its suppositions and inferences, true or not, should not be readily google-able, forever.

So how do we both help secure the immediate safety of a missing teenager and protect them into the future? A best practice is now emerging: Media — and that includes not just news media but also everyone on social media — should not republish the name and likeness of the missing person, but rather link to the police report of it. That way, the essential information that is needed to find the person is spread, but when the person is found, the police agency can delete the news report or tweet.

There’s an obvious problem: public record laws make it illegal for police to delete or destroy press releases, tweets, Facebook posts, and the like. Maybe, in this instance, there should be an exception to prohibition against destroying public records, but that will need oversight.

The real solution is to change public attitudes around victims, but that’s a change that will be a very long time in the making. In the meanwhile, we should all be very mindful of what potential harm we are bringing upon young people as we attempt to help them.

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Government

City

Monday

The original proposal, left, and the updated one. — Kassner Goodspeed Architects/ZZap Consulting
The original proposal, left, and the updated one. — Kassner Goodspeed Architects/ZZap Consulting

Halifax Peninsula Planning Advisory Committee (Monday, 4:30pm) — virtual meeting; agenda here.

The committee is considering an updated design for its massive development project slated for the corner of Robie Street and Spring Garden Road. Zane Woodford wrote about the new proposal last month:

Rouvalis’ original proposal contemplated towers of 26 and 20 storeys, with about 400 residential units, 32,000 square feet of commercial space, and more than 350 parking spaces.

The towers in the updated proposal would be 29 and 28 storeys, plus mechanical penthouses. The number of units has increased to 577, commercial space to about 43,000 square feet, and the number of parking spaces to more than 500.

Tuesday

Special Regional Centre Community Council (Tuesday, 6pm) — virtual meeting; agenda here.

Province

Monday

No meetings.

Tuesday

Human Resources (Tuesday, 10am) — a per diem meeting.


In the harbour

05:00: Atlantic Sun, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Liverpool, England
13:10: CSL Tacoma, bulker, arrives at National Gypsum from Punta Rincón, Panama
15:00: Torrens, car carrier, sails from Autoport for sea
15:00: MOL Mission, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Norfolk
15:30: Atlantic Sun sails for New York
17:30: Tropic Hope, container ship, sails from Pier 42 for Palm Beach, Florida


Footnotes

I’m glad I don’t cover federal politics.

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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. I call bullshit on the way Covid19 cases in NS are being reported. I’ve watched a few Covid19 updates from PEI and they seem to be way more transparent in their reporting…….lots of details are given…..everything but the name of the person, really. I just got back from a camping trip and you know what…..all kinds of people outside of the bubble are wandering about the province, cars packed with camping gear. At the campground there were several out-of-bubble plates and others with rental cars that were obviously not from around here (unable to speak English and speaking other languages, which is fine….but uh….we’re in a pandemic). It doesn’t surprise me one bit that there are cases from people not self-isolating…..the province has allowed this situation to exist…….of course they want to be as opaque as possible.

  2. Exactly, Tim. As you said: “We need information not just because we are individuals who can can help contain and manage the virus, but also because we are citizens who have the right and duty to understand public policy, and how it is applied.“ The paternalism exhibited by Gary O’Toole et al. is appalling, a danger to public health and safety.

  3. Thank you, Tim, for asking the government and Public Health tough, probing questions throughout the pandemic. Gary O’Toole should be thanking you, too, instead of scolding. Keep at it (as I know you will).

  4. “Although the Department of Health isn’t saying, the public is guessing that some or all of the active cases are related to someone (or someones) who travelled into the province and did not self-isolate as required. It would be worthwhile if Public Health could address that concern directly.”

    I could not agree more. I wrote to the Dept. of Health using the online form well over a week ago asking questions about these new cases. Their automatic reply said they would call within five days. They did not.

    When the cause of a case is travel related and the person has self isolated they tell us that. So when they do not tell us that we are left to conclude:
    1. The person did not self isolate and should have.
    2. The person was some kind of essential worker with an exemption.

    If it is the latter surely these people should not be going to bars and restaurants.

    If the person failed to self isolate we should hear what sanctions there have been.

    I know they are making some phone calls to people in isolation but obviously more needs to be done. If the call is made to a cell phone, how do you know that the person is where he/she should be?

    Thank you for the work you are doing to keep us informed.

  5. For what it is worth, I like the building proposal on the right better – it kind of looks like the Chrysler building, but built in minecraft by an eight year old who got bored 3/4 of the way up.

    Official wage growth statistics are meaningless if they don’t take into account housing costs. The average home in Halifax sold for 15% more than 1 year ago. Over the last 10 years the average price has gone from $200K to $275K. In reality we have negative real wage growth.