Tag Archives: Nova Scotia

Fall Back Up

Jordi FBU Cover 3.01

This week on Fall Back Up, I have two podcasts for you to enjoy with two exceptional people.

The intent of this podcast is to is to provide you with engaging and thoughtful insights into Atlantic Canada through conversations with business leaders, innovators and high performers.

First up this week, one of Atlantic Canada’s digital pioneers. Back in the early 90’s Malcolm Fraser saw a business opportunity in this thing called the Internet. Over the years he built Internet Solutions Limited (ISL) into one of Atlantic Canada’s largest web marketing and development companies, but as you’ll hear, it wasn’t without some bumps in the road.

MalcolmIMG_2060-1000x464-1401900483He is an active member of the business community and has been recognized as one of Atlantic Canada’s Top 50 CEOs and is now the Vice President and Managing Director, Halifax at FCV Interactive.

In this episode we have a wide ranging conversation about the early days of the Internet, what business needs to know about adapting to new digital marketing environments, and what’s really going on in the background while you’re scrolling through social media.

The second episode is with Dr. Jeremy Koenig, a fascinating guy who I first met when I was looking to get in shape to run the Bluenose Marathon in 2012. While I never became marathon man, he did manage to whip my 50 year old carcass into the best shape it had been in for 30 years.

Jeremy is a geneticist and athlete. He got his PhD in biochemistry and molecular biologyJeremy_New specializing in genetics. As he tells it, he ran track because it fed his need to train.

After teaching nutrigenomics at Mount St. Vincent University and training high-performance athletes, in 2014, he launched Athletigen in cooperation with the high tech incubation hub Volta Labs. Athletigen uses proprietary software which looks at an athlete’s DNA to uncover data about strengths, weaknesses and ideal diets.

In another wide ranging conversation, we talk about how he landed in Halifax, how DNA analysis could be a game changer in personal health care and thoughts on success and failure.

If you have any feedback, comments, or suggestions, please be sure to leave a quick note on the comments section of my site.

To access the podcasts, there are a few options here. You can click on the pictures above, take this link to my PodBean site and you also can now also find Fall Back Up on  Stitcher or  iTunes.  The Soundcloud versions are below. I’m testing to see what works best so let me know if you have a preference of platform.

Have a great weekend.

 

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Nova Scotia’s pre election budget: anger and gratitude

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Nova Scotia Finance Minister Randy DeLorey looks on as Premier Stephen McNeil speaks in Nova Scotia Legislature 

Premier Stephen McNeil must be listening to Tony Robbins. One of the tenets of the motivational speaker’s philosophy is it’s impossible to be angry and grateful at the same time. McNeil’s recent budget leverages the idea in spades.

CFIB members have been lobbying for tax relief over the last four years. Finance Minister Randy DeLorey delivered one of our key asks, to raise the small business tax threshold from $350,000 to $500,000, giving small business owners the capacity to retain more money in their business to innovate and create employment. Check that box.

Additionally, we’ve been adamant about providing some relief on personal income taxes, especially so lower-income earners can keep more of their earnings.

By raising the basic personal exemption by up to $3,000 for those earning less than $75,000, many low-and-middle-income earners in the province will see more of their paycheck, a much preferable mechanism than raising the minimum wage.

As we’ve argued for years, as a poverty-reduction measure, minimum wage is ineffective because government becomes the principal beneficiary through higher taxes. With this adjustment to the basic personal exemption, thousands more lower-income Nova Scotians will pay no provincial tax at all.

Another positive benefit of the budget for small business owners is the provincial government’s measurable commitment to reduce red tape. This is a principal file for CFIB. We have been supportive of the efforts of this government to put in place the structures to begin reducing unnecessary regulatory burden. Nailing down a target of $25 million in cost to business is the right thing to do.

CFIB members will be grateful for these improvements, which may temper taxpayer anger heading into the predicted provincial election. While these measures are sensible, and should be commended, there is still much work to be done on tax reform to put Nova Scotia in a competitive position.

We remain concerned, however, about the propensity of government to create boutique programs to benefit specific sectors. While there are programs geared toward small business growth in areas such as export and innovation, historically the programs go largely unnoticed or unused.

Leaving more money in the hands of small business owners to reinvest, without forcing them through the rigours of bureaucratic process to access benefits is a far more efficient and desirable approach.

Preparing for an election, it’s not hard to see why this government has chosen the former option. It provides more control over who will be the principal beneficiaries and constituencies. That is a simple political calculation.

Many small business owners remain frustrated by high taxes and governments that seem out of touch or ambivalent to their needs. This is a good start, but it’s only a start.

It has been a very long time since the people in Nova Scotia have seen any meaningful tax relief at all. A morsel can seem like a feast for the starving. Now that the math is done in the Department of Finance, it will, presumably, be put to the people of Nova Scotia to determine if they are indeed grateful or angry.

This post originally appeared in the Chronicle Herald, April 29, 2017 on day prior to the call of the 2017 provincial election.

Cap and Trade for Nova Scotia Still Fuzzy for Small Business

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The Nova Scotia government’s decision to go it alone with cap-and-trade to put a price on carbon raises more questions than answers.

This spring, government released a discussion paper, looking for feedback. They gave less than a month for responses and you needed a degree in environmental science to make any sense of what was being asked.

At an information session, executive director Jason Hollett of the climate change unit tried valiantly to outline a coherent picture, but he was working within an unreasonably tight timeline and without all the tools. In spite of a commendable effort, many left the session scratching their heads. Under questioning, somewhat ominously, he referred to the scheme as “a big regulatory beast.”

Without much heavy industry, Nova Scotia has few large greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters. Our coal-burning generating stations are pumping out the lion’s share (44 per cent). The transportation industry creates 27 per cent, followed by commercial and residential heat (combined 13 per cent) and the oil and gas industry (five per cent). The remainder comes from waste, agriculture and other industry.

For years, Nova Scotians have been paying through the nose to achieve GHG reductions through transition to renewable electricity generation and efficiency. We can pat ourselves on the back. After coughing up the highest power rates in the country over the last 10 years, our renewable portfolio has grown from seven to 27 per cent, exceeding our reduction targets.

Apparently unsatisfied with this progress, the Trudeau government, riding its mandate to legislate away climatic catastrophe, told Nova Scotia to put a price on carbon by 2018 or we’ll do it for you. The McNeil government initially balked, then came up with what it felt was the best option, a go-it-alone cap-and trade-system.

Using cap and trade, the premier successfully avoided the “carbon tax” narrative, opting instead for what appears to be a more saleable version.

The proposed Nova Scotia cap-and-trade model is fairly simple, but its administration is expected to be complex and therefore, presumably, costly.

Government will cap the amount of GHGs emitted into the atmosphere, hand out free credits for that tonnage to this handful of larger polluters and they can trade among themselves. When someone needs more, they can buy in this tiny market of emitters. How that will affect price is unclear.

A central tenet of carbon pricing is revenue neutrality. But with this plan, at least for now, there is no clarity in respect to dollars changing hands or how it will affect the price of electricity or fuel. Other questions: Will the incentive to be greener simply be higher energy and transportation costs? What would be the offset?

Moving ahead without the required evidence in respect to cost and competitiveness will frustrate business owners. In spite of a stated intention by government to measure and cost all regulation prior to application, none of these calculations are yet available.

While public servants are trying to align regulations between provinces to break down trade barriers, Nova Scotia’s approach (in spite of the premier’s openness to having the other Atlantic provinces jump on board) could result in two, three or four carbon pricing schemes in the region.

cap and trade chart

CFIB members support environmental initiatives. Seventy-nine per cent believe it is possible to grow the economy and protect the environment at the same time. But 80 per cent say government must consider the cost to small business before implementing a mechanism to price carbon. That means measuring and communicating real economic costs and environmental benefits and establishing a reasonable window for consultation and implementation.

In light of the work by this government to improve the regulatory environment, introduction of a “regulatory beast” feels counter-intuitive and environmental and economic impacts are still fuzzy. For something of this size and importance to be a cost of doing business in Nova Scotia, we need clarity.

This originally appeared in the Chronicle Herald, April 26, 2017

Nova Scotia business needs clarity from Minister on any new recycling fees

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25 years ago, Swedish academic and environmental economist Thomas Lindhqvist coined the term “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR). The concept is fairly simple; shift the responsibility and cost for disposal and recycling of products from the general tax base onto producers. Initially, the concept was applied to automobiles, large appliances and electronics. In the simplest of terms, the thinking is, producers will change the design of their products to ensure they are more effectively recycled, creating less waste destined for landfills or other environmentally degrading destinations.

Under the EPR law, brand owners must take responsibility for the complete life cycle of their product from inception to disposal. Driven by the polluter-pays principle, EPR has provided the foundation for new administrative, informative or economic policy instruments being developed or already implemented in other countries and by provincial and municipal governments across Canada.

Nova Scotia was drawn into the EPR discussion after the signing of a memorandum of agreement in 2010 by provincial environment ministers. The plan was to have EPR in place in all 10 provinces by the fall of 2015. Quebec, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan have already implemented EPR but none of the Atlantic Provinces have rolled out their programs … yet.

Over the past couple of years, the Environment Department has been gathering information on how to adopt such a scheme in Nova Scotia. To date, no clear plan has emerged, however the Minister of the Environment, Andrew Younger has taken pains to say it’s coming, but not before better consultation and some form of economic impact analysis has been completed. None has yet been done.

The results of the previous EPR consultations were of concern, as CFIB felt they didn’t adequately represent the views of small business. So, this July, CFIB surveyed its members on the issue, based upon “the British Columbia model” that was deemed “best practice” by the department. The results stated 82 per cent of small business owners were not aware of a new EPR program, 99 per cent said they had not been consulted and 70 per cent said that they were not supportive of the ideas we presented from the BC Model. Interestingly, on October 23rd, at a meeting of the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities, Minister Younger told municipal representatives when and if they move ahead with EPR, Nova Scotia’s program will look like the BC’s, which is not particularly comforting.

He also floated a couple of trial balloons about exemptions including a “one or two million” dollar “de minimus” (the revenue line under which business would not be captured by regulation), the single retail point exemption and the 1 tonne of paper or packaging threshold. None of these ideas had been brought up before the UNSM meeting. Prior to the Minister running these up the flagpole, the Department’s regulatory framework was working on the premise that everything and everybody would have been captured.

When these exemptions were applied in BC, it reduced the number of affected businesses under their EPR system from upwards of 80,000 to just about 3,000. If the Nova Scotia government is going to apply the same standards, it too will have to look at what is the acceptable casualty rate among small businesses.

So, why are we making such a fuss? In a portion of the EPR policy that deals with printed paper and packaging, producers or first importers are expected to weigh, measure, record and forecast all of the packaging they sell in their business. If a small business receives goods from outside Nova Scotia, it could be deemed the first importer of goods in Nova Scotia. Let’s take for example a small independent pharmacy, perhaps part of a small group of small town pharmacies operated by one owner. With annual revenue above 1 million dollars, 3 locations and “producing” more than 1 tonne of paper and packaging, this business would not be exempt from the EPR law as Minister Younger has envisioned it.

Next time you drop in for a prescription, have a look at the shelves and imagine categorizing all the packaging, measuring it, reporting it and paying a fee to have it recycled. When that’s done, wait for an end of year compliance report and hope that your forecast was accurate so you won’t be fined. Oh, and all of this will be handled by a third party “stewardship” body which is unaccountable to government. It’s not hard to start seeing how the regulatory burden, compliance and cost might become worrisome.

If a small town in rural Atlantic Canada wants a pharmacy under EPR, it might just end up looking like the bulk barn.

Bulk Barn

This new scheme would be piled on top of taxes businesses already pay for the disposal and recycling of materials now being handled through municipal waste management programs. Retailers and franchisees are being hardest hit with EPR, as many of these smaller firms have little or no control over the materials generated. Market forces or franchise agreements don’t allow for arbitrary price increases to offset these additional costs.

Nova Scotia is already dealing with some of the highest cumulative business and personal tax rates in the country. Adding more fees and red tape is certain to harm employment and economic growth and put inflationary pressure on consumer goods. The question must be asked, what problem is government trying to solve?

Currently, Nova Scotia leads the country in waste diversion and recycling. Attitudes are mixed on what EPR is even meant to achieve. Is it to increase the recyclability of products? Promote recycling? Reduce toxic substances? Or is it to simply shift the financial burden of recycling from municipalities to “producers”? It is worth noting the Minister is pleased with the recycling progress in Nova Scotia, but he adds, it’s very expensive. Nova Scotia pays an average of $657 per tonne to recycle, more than double what New Brunswick pays. (New Brunswick is watching Nova Scotia carefully to see how their program unfolds and there are those who speculate a similar scheme is probably not far behind in that province.)

Even if we accept the solution is to shift the burden of recycling over to industry, one also has to understand that small- and medium-size businesses downstream from manufacturers caught in this regulatory maze will be punished for something they have little or no control over. For that matter, at this point, it isn’t even particularly clear who qualifies as a producer. Is it the importer, the manufacturer or the retailer?

From the perspective of some municipalities, this is could be a gift from above. With accumulating fiscal pressure, having the responsibility of waste management paid for by business is a release valve. For others, having recycling taken away from them may remove an important source of revenue. One thing is certain, if the government is foolish enough to force further costs of recycling onto small businesses, consideration absolutely must be given on the taxation side of the ledger. Surely municipalities could not expect small business to simply pick up the tab for waste management and not provide commensurate tax relief.

Until the provincial government can provide more clarity on the direction it wishes to take on EPR, CFIB will continue to be wary of plans the Environment Minister is pushing. We look forward to assisting small- and medium-size business stay out of the way of the EPR trawler by providing input to government through their next consultation phase.

As we are also working with other partners in the Atlantic Red Tape Reduction Partnership we remain adamant Atlantic Canada cannot afford to be walking blindly into a new set of punitive regulations and costs for small business, especially in the current economic environment.

Ray Ivany and the Cold Hard Truth About Our Culture of… Whaaa?

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In March of 2002 Stephen Harper set off a firestorm of criticism after being quoted in the Saint John Telegraph Journal. When asked about the economic performance of the region, he responded by saying, “I think in Atlantic Canada, because of what happened in the decades following Confederation, there is a culture of defeat that we have to overcome. …Atlantic Canada’s culture of defeat will be hard to overcome as long as Atlantic Canada is actually physically trailing the rest of the country.”

The headline writer didn’t have to dig to deep to find gold. His political opponents of the day didn’t have to work to hard to extrapolate all the verbal batons with which to beat him over the head. I still believe had Mr. Harper not framed it just so, the federal political landscape might look a lot less Liberal and NDP is this neck of the woods. I knew as soon as I read that he said it there would be a significant personal political price he would pay in Atlantic Canada. There was.

Fortunately, Ray Ivany and his panel on Nova Scotia’s economic recovery aren’t worried about getting elected. If any politician had stood up and spoke as frankly as Ivany did yesterday, political opponents would be falling over themselves to discount the formidable truth of what was said. It was true 12 years ago. It’s still true today.

The panel’s findings are nothing new. Collectively we all realized or at least suspected the key points. People who are paying attention have known it for a long time. The Herald editorial call it a “unvarnished, awkward and often unflattering truth— about our collective selves.”

Essentially, the report says we have developed a culture of “No”. Call it what you will but Harper’s 2002 interpretations ain’t far off. We can argue about policies going back to Confederation that have entrenched this attitude but there is no denying it exists…in Now or Never, An Urgent Call to Action for Nova Scotians,  Ivany’s panel affirmed this in spades.

Among other points, it’s made clear we depend too heavily on government interventionism. Ivany takes pains to point out some new program or policy tweak is not going to turn this around.

Evidence of this may no clearer than our response to the shipbuilding procurement strategy. There is no denying that injecting 30 billion dollars into a local economy will have an impact…but let’s see it for what it is. It’s primarily federal public money backed up by provincial public money going into DND, another publicly funded entity. It’s redistribution not wealth creation.

Is this simply going to become another government teat on which we will become dependent or do we actually believe it will transmogrify into private sector wealth creation and development? To do that we had better understand that it’s through the private sector we will make that happen through export development and market expansion of defense technology. I can already hear the naysayers.

Government also has to look at its relationship to business and figure out how to get the hell out of the way. Our tax and regulatory load in this province is debilitating. All the payroll tax credits and government “incentives” in the world won’t alleviate the outright punitive measures that are in place to set up shop and run a business in Nova Scotia. Can you say the highest Workman’s Comp rates, convoluted apprenticeship regulations, the First Contract Arbitration legislation…? I could go on for days. While we’ve seen some nominal reduction of regulatory burden recently, it’s not nearly enough.

On my radio program I tried on many occasions to talk about immigration. From most of the calls I received, we don’t much like folks “from away”. This is bad. Very bad.

Ivany’s report talks about our demographic decline. We have a rapidly aging workforce and shocking levels of out-migration. These alarm bells have been ringing for a dozen years.

It’s not good enough to just tolerate higher levels of immigration, as a culture we must be embracing the benefits of immigration and promoting Nova Scotia as a place that wants and welcomes immigrants. The provincial government may not be able to solve this problems on its own, but having the highest personal, business and consumption taxes in the country doesn’t exactly say “céad míle fáilte”.

Perhaps the most refreshing component of yesterday’s illuminations was Ivany’s insistence that this was a message for the people of the province, not simply a message for government. While I accept his point, government however is how we collectively make decisions and it is, or ideally should be, a reflection of our collective will. Let’s hope government listens and embraces these ideas.

Ivany usefully called for long-term targets be legislated and that the legislation be enforced. I would take this a step further and demand short, medium and long-term targets be legislated and rigorous metrics be transparently applied to ensure governments are meeting those goals and reporting back to the public.

It’s true we may not be capable of running government like business but we can sure as hell take a few cues from successful enterprise and apply it to public policy.

Ivany’s comment about Nova Scotia taking a long hard collective look in the mirror is a great one. Often when criticism comes from outside, as Maritimers, we are too quick to become defensive. Ivany has said we need to take an honest look at ourselves, reset our attitudes and get on with the work of turning our beloved province around.

I guess it just must be said by someone who isn’t “from away.”

The Liberals look a bit dim on Efficiency Nova Scotia

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The recent 19.5% rate hike the Utility and Review Board imposed on Nova Scotia Power ratepayers (read-all of us) has served to shine a light on the rather dim Liberal policy toward Efficiency Nova Scotia.

When Andrew Younger took office as Energy Minister, the folks in the department wasted no time in pulling out the Power Point presentation on the merits of ENS. Apparently the newly minted Minister nodded in appreciation and quickly began the thinking of ways to back pedal on his party’s election promise to remove the surcharge on our power bills and send it over to Nova Scotia Power.

Andrew is no dummy. I suspect he may have seen this coming. I mean really, you could almost envision the pre-election napkin scribbling. Everyone hates that damn surcharge. Everyone hates Nova Scotia Power. Let’s make them pay it. Perfect! 

But there’s a problem. For a party that has railed against the monopolistic nature of NSP, giving them the bill for what acts essentially as their only competition, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

In spite of all the smiling, happy people standing behind the information pamphlets and CFL bulbs at Home Hardware, it’s snappy website and slick advertising, most people in Nova Scotia still remain largely in the dark about the benefits of ENS and its importance to improving power rates over the long-term.

I normally don’t agree with Chronicle Herald columnist Ralph Surette on much (If anything) however in his latest screed in Saturday’s paper he rightly points out his disagreement with what he called the Liberals “whining” around Efficiency Nova Scotia.

The Liberals policy on ENS in the last election was wrong-headed and poorly thought through. I said so at the time and maintain it may have been easy to sell the idea of eliminating the premium charged on power bills and shifting the burden of ENS on to Nova Scotia Power books, what they didn’t explain was how this would be recouped by NSP and the problems it would create for the agency.

It was a dumb promise at the time and is still a dumb idea that Energy Minister Andrew Younger will spend the next year or so trying to figure out how to back away from without looking like a complete idiot.

Efficiency Nova Scotia is a very good idea. It’s a good use of money. It empowers and benefits consumers and it should serve to eventually keep power rates in check through the simple laws of supply and demand.

lt has also been an abject communications failure. In spit of spending nearly 4 million dollars a year in marketing and communications ENS remains a very simple idea, poorly defined. I would be surprised if more than 1 in 10 people in this province could explain what Efficiency Nova Scotia is designed to do, in spite of the fact that everybody who rents or owns a property in this province forks over money every month to keep it afloat.

Granted, ENS got off to a rocky start when Premier Rodney MacDonald appointed Heather Foley Melvin to set up the entity as CEO of Conserve Nova Scotia. Ms. Melvin was a political lightning rod who had run MacDonald’s leadership campaign and had a brief tenure as Rodney’s Chief of Staff.

Her appointment to head Conserve Nova Scotia was widely regarded as blatant patronage and in spite of her abilities and the validity of the Conserve Nova Scotia purpose, most people didn’t care much about WHY we were doing this and saw the body as little more than an unnecessary arm of government flogging expensive light bulbs and programs people neither wanted or understood.

I will admit, I was one of them, but I took their free LED Christmas lights.

When the NDP took power, they saw the value of Conserve Nova Scotia but also saw the need to re-brand, re-tool as an arm’s-length body and re-sell the idea. Efficiency Nova Scotia was born. Giving the top job to Allan Crandlemire, a bureaucrat from the Department of Energy, probably didn’t help distinguish ENS from government, however that might have been a good time to tell people exactly WHY it should exist.

I will give the folks at ENS marks for trying. When I was hosting my radio program I was approached several times to have people on the program to try to explain the benefits of ENS programs. Donald Dodge appeared a few times. Generally, people just called in to say why they were pissed off about the surcharge on their power bill but occasionally some of the people who had actually taken advantage of the ENS programs added their testimony.

I never got the sense the message was getting through. Eventually, it came to the point where ENS offered to let me go through a home audit process and then report back the findings, and savings on the air. Presumably my audience would then believe. I was laid off before getting the opportunity to testify myself, but suffice to say, I became a believer.

In theory, appealing to “what’s in it for me” as a communications strategy makes sense. Tell the story in such a way that individual homeowners would see how they can benefit from this 70 odd million dollar agency. Unfortunately, “I’m from the government and I’m to help you.” is what people were hearing.

Here’s what I see as the problems.

First, most people think ENS is a part of government, siphoning off money on behalf of NSP. It isn’t (In spite of the fact that former bureaucrats are running the show.). It’s an arm’s-length, not-for-profit with a mission to save consumers money. Really.

Second, the micro approach isn’t working by itself. So, maybe it’s time to look at public policy and the common good. After all, isn’t that why people accept their responsibility to pay taxes?

So in an effort to try to validate the 72 million dollars or so being siphoned out of our pockets every year to float this boat, I will try to explain in the simplest of term why I believe ENS is, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing.

  • The people of Nova Scotia waste a huge amounts of electricity. Inefficient, antiquated technology, combined with leaky buildings, siphons off literally billions of kilowatt-hours of wasted power every year. If we save this energy, we don’t have to pay for it. ENS provides the evidence that its programs have saved Nova Scotia collectively nearly 68 million dollars in energy in 2013, and that number is growing…quickly.
  • If we save it, we don’t have to generate it. if we don’t have to generate it we reduce demand. If demand is reduced, cost may not immediately retreat, but we will avoid the cost of building unnecessary power generation capacity and having it downloaded upon us down the road.

Case closed.

As for the Liberals silly idea of shifting the cost of ENS over to Nova Scotia Power, I’ll simply quote Catherine Abreu of the Ecology Action Centre. As she eloquently put it in an interview with CTV News, “Efficiency Nova Scotia is at this point the greatest competitor Nova Scotia Power has in this province…We can’t hamstring (Nova Scotia Power’s) ability to operate as a business, and taking away half of their profits to pay for their largest competitor would do just that.”

Regardless, Efficiency Nova Scotia still has some important communications work to do. ENS has lots of glossy promotional material, complete with “fun facts” and those happy, smiling, stock photo people generously populating their website and annual report. The problem is, while trying to say everything…very little is getting through.

Most folks only see the 5 bucks tacked on to their power bill and wonder why they have to pay it..

In one of their smarter moves, ENS hired away former Atlantic VP Leanne Hachey from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. She has proven herself at CFIB as someone who can crystallize an idea in the public consciousness. Her concise messaging on the URB ruling is the latest evidence of this talent. So there is some hope here.

Given the latest flailing around by the Energy Minister on this file, I suspect the light bulb is beginning to come on in the Liberal caucus office that their back-of-the-napkin election policy on ENS was a bit dim.

Expect something new in the spring.

Oh…and a bit of advice directly to Efficiency Nova Scotia, stop sending me those letters every month saying how efficient my house is…it’s a little creepy.

Groundhog Day, starring you and me.

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Yes, I know it’s not for another 10 days.

Groundhog Day with Bill Murray remains one of my favorite films. Maybe it’s because I spent a few years as a TV weatherman at the CBC and understand the vacuous, repetitive nature of the job, or perhaps it’s because of the film’s important message about occasionally applying some critical thinking to our perspective on life.

The plot of the movie has our narcissistic weatherman, Phil Connors, off to Punxsutawney to cover the annual Groundhog Day goings on. He then finds himself locked in a time loop, forced to relive the same day over and over. Eventually our hero examines his priorities and makes changes.

After reading some of the latest offerings generated by the provincial Liberal communications machinery I’m beginning to feel like Bill Murray, opening his eyes as the clock radio flips to 6:00, Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” fades in and the announcer prattles, “Okay campers, rise and shine…don’t forget your booties cause it’s cold out there today.”

Re-examining the obvious is only marginally better than the previous government’s practice of stumbling over the obvious and deeming it a complete surprise. My question, what does this government still not understand about our population decline and lagging economic indicators? How many more studies are required?

For more than 10 years, labour market experts have been calling for measures to deal with our declining labour force. I distinctly remember attending one of those facilitated “world cafe” type brainstorming exercises in 2004 at SMU dealing with exactly this issue.

The principal take-away from that discussion? If Nova Scotia does not quickly address the declining population and labour force, any hope for an economic turnaround will evaporate.

This isn’t rocket science. If jobs can’t be filled due to a lack of people, there isn’t much hope that businesses will choose to locate in Nova Scotia to grow and flourish. A declining private sector tax base is bad for everyone.

Statistic Canada released its latest Labour Force Survey last week and hopefully the Premier and the folks at Finance are deeply concerned. While the Canadian picture is nothing to write home about, Nova Scotia’s outlook is downright bleak.

Stats Canada Labour Force Survey January 10, 2014
Stats Canada Labour Force Survey January 10, 2014

In a recent piece in the Nova Scotia Business Journal’s by John Soossar, Premier Stephen McNeil outlined a “to do” list addressing our serious labour force, employment and economic issues.

There’s not much meat here, but the bullet points were as follows;

  • Increased immigration.
  • An emphasis on assisting existing Nova Scotia businesses both large and small.
  • An examination of what government is doing to grow the economy and how things can be done differently to improve the outcome, including offering supports and incentives for small businesses through term loan guarantees.
  • Examining the Canada-European Union Free Trade Agreement to determine the opportunities for Nova Scotia and ensuring that the province is “first in the door.”
  • Tackling youth unemployment by acknowledging that young people want to go and experience other provinces “but ensuring we have something for them to come back to.

These are all nice thoughts. But beyond the reference to the CETA there is absolutely nothing in this that we didn’t all didn’t wake up hearing 10 years ago.

Immigration remains a problem because of broken fundamentals in this province. If someone is moving to Canada, they have a choice of where they want to live. Many are entrepreneurs and they will choose to go where they are most likely to succeed.

Retention rates of immigrants in Nova Scotia during the 90’s were deplorable. Of the few that came, over half of them left. The numbers are a little better because of some government and community efforts in the past decade but the overall result still remains poor.

Premier McNeil says he will push to have the cap on immigration removed by the feds and added, “Our job and my job as premier is to push the message that immigrants are not taking our jobs. They are employing Nova Scotians and enhancing our province.”

As much as everyone should be pleased the Premier understands this, it’s not Nova Scotia residents that need to be sold on immigration, it’s the immigrants that need to be sold on Nova Scotia.

Immigration can’t be fixed with messaging or government knob twiddling. The fundamentals must be addressed and addressed now. How many more “examinations” are necessary to have the completely obvious sink in?

In a nutshell…

  • We pay among the highest personal income and corporate taxes in the country.
  • We pay the highest consumption taxes in the country..
  • We pay among the highest power rates in the country
  • We pay the highest workers compensation premiums in the country.
  • We have been paying the highest municipal tax hikes and service fees in the country.

Immigration is only one small piece of this puzzle, the remainder of the Premier’s comments are extensions of a list of reasons not to move to Nova Scotia. Want to help small business and encourage people to move to here and invest?

Try fixing the fundamentals first. They don’t need “examination”. They need fixing. Create an environment for entrepreneurship in this province and we’ll all be better off.

Otherwise it’s just another day of rolling over to hear Sonny and Cher

Nova Scotia’s Ashley Smith

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A tad inflammatory?

That was my response when I first heard Brenda Hardiman invoking the spectre of the Ashley Smith debacle with her daughter Nichele’s plight at the hands of the Department of Community Services and the RCMP.

Ashley Smith’s dreadful experience,of being sucked into the federal penal system and her ultimate death, stands as one of the great failures of the “system” to appropriately deal with mental health issues.

Now, after watching Nichele’s story begin its painful, slow spiral into absurdity, I’m not so sure Brenda isn’t understating this.

So why isn’t the newly minted Liberal Minister of Community Services Joanne Bernard speaking about this file?

I listened with interest this morning to hear the Minister talk to Don Connolly on CBC’s Information Morning. I was hoping the Minister might be questioned about the protocols in place to manage those coping with intellectual and cognitive disabilities who are being handcuffed and dragged out of residential care facilities and into the criminal justice system.

No such luck.

It’s not like the CBC newsroom was unaware of the story. Tom Murphy spoke with Brenda Hardiman on Friday’s Info Morning about the upcoming weekend demonstrations.

How about one question to the Minister responsible?

The focus of this interview with the Minister was the previous government using a little budgetary slight of hand to push 40 million dollars worth of spending into another calendar year. Yeah, it’s an interesting story, but it’s also two weeks old and it’s already been explained.   

The Nichele Benn story has been festering for nearly a year. Last March, (then) DCS Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse promised she would be speaking with (then) Minister of Justice Ross Landry about Nichele Benn because she said changes were needed, there was a gap in the system…yada, yada, yada.

So after a weekend of demonstrations, television news coverage and a front page story on the Herald website…nothing from the Minister. No summarized briefing notes…no speaking points…zip.

The only reference to people with disabilities was a passing comment about Premier McNeil’s commitment to the ” Transformation of Services for Persons with Disabilities” and how they “are absolutely dedicated in moving forward with that road map”.

Awesome. It’s good to see that only 10 weeks into the job, Madam Minister has a handle on the BS boardroom jargon of government.

The Department of Community Services and the Department of Health and Wellness are responsible for providing care for people with disabilities in this province. There are a variety of institutional facilities and smaller care options to care for those who are in need.

The people who work there have a tough job. It really is God’s work. They require patience, compassion and ability. You can be sure finding the right balance between security and care is difficult.

If you’re not aware of Nichele Benn’s full story, you might like to read this Herald story. In short, Nichele is living with cerebral palsy, epilepsy and organic brain disorders. She has violent outbursts.

Last April on Maritime Morning I spoke with Brenda Hardimann about the difficulty she was having with placement of her daughter and the protocols used to deal with Nichele’s occasional outbursts.

We spoke on several other occasions last year as Brenda’s frustration with inaction from DCS continued to grow.

Nichele is now being warehoused in a Lower Sackville facility. Sunday, Nichele had to show up at the local RCMP detachment for fingerprinting. Criminalized. Just one more indignity, one more stupid chapter in this colossal failure of DCS to fix the problem.

Nichele’s story is not unique. Patients from the Forensic Unit in Burnside with histories of violence are transferred to mixed care facilities inadequately staffed to deal with the sort of potential outbursts one might reasonably expect. Staff receiving these patients have to hire temporary security guards. Not really a permanent solution.

Is the Benn case simply the frustration of staff who are not properly supported? If facing violence from a special needs patient, is calling the police the right strategy? Is that really the kind of care we want to offer people with special needs in this province?

As I mentioned in a earlier blog, the Brad Wall government in Saskatchewan is currently implementing a strategy to make that province the best place to live in Canada for people with disabilities. They are consulting with the people who use, administer and interact with the system, citizens and patients alike, to ask what changes are necessary. They are doing something other than drawing up a “road map” in a vacuum.

They are also separating social assistance and disability benefits as two distinctly different areas. Perhaps this is the most important change to note. It is a philosophical shift not just some bureaucratic tinkering.

We in Nova Scotia have a long way to go to become the best place to live in Canada for people with disabilities. We have work to do just to avoid being one of the worst.

The road map for people with disabilities in Nova Scotia should not lead to jail.

A piece of unsolicited advice for Madam Minister…look after the Nichele Benn file, then book a ticket to Regina. You can ask for Mark Docherty.

Pass the Salt: The politics of snow

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“Now is the winter of our discontent.” – W. Shakespeare

While doing talk radio I came to understand the things that irritate the citizenry on a visceral level. Topping the list are garbage collection and snow removal. Two functions the city provides felt directly and immediately. Some of the most lively debates surrounded the transparency of garbage bags. Really.

Snow removal brings everyone together. If streets and sidewalks aren’t cleared quickly and efficiently a fury is unleashed usually reserved for animal abusers and able bodied people who park in handicap zones.

The question is, what is quickly? Politicians are keenly aware of the wrath of the citizenry when their driveway is plowed in, the bus stop is a snowbank, the sidewalk isn’t t cleared and salted and god forbid if the corner crossing isn’t open.

Lousy snow removal in a Canadian city is tantamount to treason. This is Canada dammit. Why don’t those idiots running the city know how to deal with a simple now storm?

Fact is, they do. Things are done much more quickly these days. Remember when cities were paralyzed for days by this stuff.

The problem is, as a population we just don’t have much patience anymore. We drum our fingers waiting for the 3 minute popcorn, grind our teeth because a YouTube video is buffering, bitch about being stuck in tracffic (for 5 or 10 minutes in HRM…talk to someone who drives the Gardiner daily) and when it comes to having our streets cleared, when that last flake is falling, the salt spreaders better be rolling up our street.

Yes there were some problems earlier this week. HRM has taken over snow removal on sidewalks. It was a crappy, snotty mess on the roads and the combination of melting and freezing caused alot of ice. Should they have been spreading salt, probably. Were they prepared for mother nature to act as a giant Zamboni, probably not. Shit happens.

My pal Tim Bousquet from the Coast fell and broke his wrist as the result of ice near Gottingen and North Street. His subsequent article, Sidewalks of Shame is a severe indictment of the ice removal efforts (His comment “Balance is bullshit” in a recent journalism piece by Neal Ozano brought to life). I sympathize with Tim, he’s from California.

Complaining about snow removal is not unique to Halifax. People across our great nation have similar stories to tell about incompetence in getting rid of snow at almost all levels of government. Only the feds seem to come away unscathed on this front as they have people working 24/7 to keep the skateway open on the Rideau Canal. And it’s still kind of bumpy in places.

Perhaps we believe that technology should be able to solve all the problems mother nature flings at us. Urban dewellers see the forces of nature as mere impediments to all the really important things in life, like the buses running on schedule, the street lights working, pizzas being delivered and yes…the immediate removal of all natural impediments to mobility.

Folks in the country seem to have a healthier respect for the forces of winter. Often, when there’s a bad snow storm, like the one I’m looking at out the window, they’ll wait until it ends and then assess what to do with the resultant mess. They realize the road might not get plowed for a while, they might not be able to use the sidewalk for a bit and it might be a good idea to hunker down. With Canaian winters, patience is a virtue.

As for the politicians, they will likely listen to the grumbling, roll their eyes and realize snow removal is unlikely to cause them any problem at the polls. People don’t vote on issues around snow removal or remember them much beyond the time the crocuses appear. It’s just something we put up with and will as long as we carry a Canadian passport.

When it comes to dealing with winter,  take a deep breath and realize, yes we live in Canada, sometimes it’s hard to get around in the winter and everyone is trying to cope with this the best they can.

Why our ancestors decided to settle in this climate, well that’s another question.