Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for November, 2007

A Farm in Eleuthera

Sunday, November 25th, 2007


Tall, lean Calder MacInnis is bent double, sitting on a wheel well in the back of a Mitsubishi Pajero 4×4 which is jouncing along an overgrown bush track on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera. I sit on a sack of fertilizer, facing Calder, bouncing up and down, hitting my head, jarring my teeth. The Mitsubishi’s windows are closed to prevent vines and branches from slapping us in the face. It is stifling inside the vehicle, and both of us are streaming with sweat.

Calder and his brother run a surveying business in West Bay, Cape Breton. Among his friends is John Pratt — “Johnny Grape” — who owns the vineyard in nearby Marble Mountain. John sits in the passenger seat. He owns a rental property in Harbour Island, near Eleuthera. Calder and I, and our wives, are guests of the Pratts. We are in the Bahamas to have fun.

“Uff!” grunts Calder, as the Japanese jeeplet drops into a particularly deep pothole in the limestone bedrock.

“When I discovered this road — ” says Austin Mullin, the driver, a young Irishman from County Donegal.

“Road? What road?” I inquire innocently. And everyone laughs.

We are actually are having fun. We are visiting Austin’s farm.

Austin has taught school in Dunmore Town, on Harbour Island, for a decade. His wife Gail, also a teacher, is a native of Harbour Island. They have three gorgeous children. Austin cares passionately about education, is devoted to his students and seems to be a much-loved teacher. When we went out on the streets with him one evening to follow a noisy band practicing for the Christmas festival called Junkanoo, local kids greeted him with transparent affection, joking with him, teasing him, holding his hand.

Because Gail Mullin was born and raised on Harbour Island, she is entitled to a share of the “commonage” on Eleuthera — an area which Harbour Island people own in common. Individuals can use it, but cannot sell it. They can build houses there, for instance, and bequeath them to their children.

Or they can establish farms — and that is what Austin is doing. Most days he works on his farm after school. The farm includes a gleaming white beach beside the turquoise sea. So Austin normally travels the easy way — by motorboat, not by Mitsubishi. But today he needs the 4×4.

Farming in Eleuthera is not like farming in Manitoba or the Annapolis Valley. It’s more like farming in Peggy’s Cove, or on the Funk Islands. There is no soil. You can’t grow carrots, corn or lettuce. Sea grape thrives there, along with palmetto, Australian pine and other tough, unusable plants. These invasive plants can be cleared off, but they quickly spring back.

To keep them down, Austin maintains a flock of sheep and goats, which will eat almost anything. The animals, however, are easy prey for feral “potcake” dogs — and now for raccoons, which some lunatic recently introduced to Eleuthera. To protect the farm animals, Austin relies on high chain-link fences set in concrete.

To make concrete, Austin must bring large quantities of washed sand over his alleged road. He carries the sand in a rough-and-ready box trailer behind his Pajero. The sand, however, is so heavy that it recently broke the trailer’s tongue.

And that’s why we all came to Eleuthera — to help Austin unload the sand, jury-rig the tongue and tow the trailer to a welding shop for repairs. We bagged the sand, sandwiched the tongue between two-inch planks, and delivered the trailer. Now Austin is taking us to the farm, which is a long way off the main road.

The farm looks more like a hippie’s homestead than a regular farm. There’s a dug well in a hollow, a pump, and a big plastic tank up on a hill which provides water for the animals. The only building is a tool shed. The ground is hilly and rough, composed mainly of lumpy white rock.

Here and there, small depressions contain little pockets of soil. In those depressions, Austin has planted fruit trees, each one carefully fenced with plywood, wire and steel rod. As John Pratt remarks, Austin is “farming in the pot-holes.”

The farm has one great advantage: a warm, temperate climate, ideal for bananas, mangoes and citrus. But these, too, require a lot of hard work. Sour orange trees root well here, for instance, but nobody wants sour oranges. So Austin cuts off the branches and grafts other citrus species — lemons, limes, sweet oranges, grapefruit — onto the sour orange rootstock. Eventually, only the trunk of the tree will be sour orange.

And eventually the farm will produce cash crops. Eventually, Austin and Gail will live here. Eventually, their children can also build houses nearby.

“It’s a lot of work,” says Austin. “But when I ask if it’s worthwhile, I just look at my family. They make it all worthwhile.”

— 30 —

Mysteries of the Heart

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

Halifax Sunday Herald column, November 18, 2007

Jean Chretien was playing golf with a cardiologist when he complained that he had a bit of discomfort in his chest.

“You’d better come and see me,” said the cardiologist. But Chretien finished the golf game, attended a cocktail party, and didn’t go to the Montreal Heart Institute till the next morning, when his chest pain had become severe.

No wonder. All his coronary arteries were partially blocked, and he was poised for a massive heart attack. But Dr. Michael Pellerin did a quadruple by-pass, and Chretien should make a full recovery.

Chretien’s story illustrates both what’s right and what’s wrong with our handling of heart problems. If patients get expert help within the “golden hour,” the brief interval at the beginning of a heart attack before the heart muscle begins to die, then our doctors can perform miracles, as they did with Chretien.

If patients don’t get help fast, however – and only about 10% do – their hearts can be severely or fatally damaged. But most people – like Chretien – don’t want to believe that they’re having a heart attack. They don’t want to cause a big fuss and scare their families over what may be a bout of indigestion. We would, literally, rather die than look foolish.

Believe me, I know. When my chest felt strange one July evening in 2006, I didn’t call 911. I waited till the morning, and then – second dumb decision – I didn’t call an ambulance. I got Marjorie to drive me to the hospital.

“Suppose you’d really been stricken in the car,” the ER doctor scolded me. “What’s your wife going to do? Stop and administer CPR? Keep going to the hospital? Panic? What if she’s stuck in traffic? She doesn’t have a siren, or oxygen. She can’t radio ahead. Next time, call 911 and get an ambulance.”

The average time between the onset of symptoms and calling 911, says a Mayo clinic cardiologist, is 111 minutes. That hasn’t changed in 10 years. And at least 50% of patients, like me, don’t call an ambulance. Some head for the hospital on foot.

The astonishing truth is that we know enough about the prevention and treatment of heart attacks that we could almost eliminate them. But heart disease remains a major killer. Why? First, victims wait too long to get help. Second, half of all heart patients eventually stop taking their drugs. Patients simply don’t accept that they will need medication for the rest of their lives – particularly aspirin, which reduces the clotting that causes heart attacks and strokes.

It’s easy to understand. You improve your diet, start exercising, get yourself in shape. You look good, and you feel good. So you don’t need the drugs any more, right?

Wrong. Indeed, dead wrong.

I don’t want to sound too sanctimonious. I’m faithful about my pills, and I’m careful with my diet. And I amble along the shore for about a kilometer a day – which is not enough, but is better than I used to do.

That said, the failures are not altogether the fault of the patients. Doctors don’t always communicate well – so patients often don’t understand that aspirin and Lipitor are forever. And then there’s the little matter of knowing that you’re having a heart episode.

In a heart attack, you don’t clutch your chest and fall over. Instead, you feel pressure, heaviness, shortness of breath, perhaps an ache. Sometimes the sensation spreads to the arms, neck or back. In women, especially, it often spreads to the jaw – a fact that few women know. People may break out in a sweat, or experience sudden feelings of great anxiety, or have blue lips or hands or feet. Diabetics often have “silent heart attacks” with no symptoms at all except a sudden sense of complete exhaustion.

The symptoms of a heart attack are so varied and diffuse that they’re hard to identify, even for the victim. So it’s just too glib to say, “get medical help immediately.” If I knew I was having a heart attack, I’d call 911 in a trice. But how would I know?

Here is a place where medical research could make a huge advance fairly easily. What we need at least as much as another drug is a reliable test to confirm that a heart attack is taking place.

In my own case, I didn’t think I was having a heart attack. Then I thought I was. Now, ironically, the cardiologists aren’t so sure. I have no heart symptoms. I definitely have blockages in my heart arteries, but recent tests show the heart functioning very well. Maybe I had a muscle spasm, or indigestion.

But if even the cardiologists can’t tell, how can the patient possibly know?

I’m not quitting the pills or the diet, and I’ll try to do better about exercise. Next time I suspect a heart attack, I’ll take no chances. But it really would be better to know.

– 30 —

Dance of the Icebreakers

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

Halifax Sunday Herald column, November 11, 2007

Samuel Johnson was wrong. The last refuge of scoundrels is not patriotism, but “budget constraints.” When governments want to do something, they can always find the money. When they don’t want to act – or when they want to do something indefensible — they cite budget constraints.

Last month, for example, Fisheries New Minister Loyola Hearn announced that “Canada’s New Government” — which is getting a bit long in the tooth now – was making “an investment of $12.2 million for the restoration of three buildings located on the Canadian Coast Guard base in Quebec City.” The objective is to “enhance the area’s architectural landscape” in time for the 400th anniversary of the city’s founding.

Fine. Quebec deserves it. But Canada’s New Government can’t then claim that it doesn’t have $6 million to repair and renew the decrepit Coast Guard base in Dartmouth, and that it therefore must close the base and move the Coast Guard’s two largest icebreakers to Newfoundland.

Canada’s New Government is awash in cash. Just like Canada’s Old Government, it’s running a massive surplus – maybe a record $20 billion. But if funds were tight? Well, the Coast Guard isn’t in the business of enhancing the streetscapes of the nation. It’s in the business of search-and-rescue, coastal patrol, ice-breaking and similar difficult and essential marine pursuits. Its most important assets are not buildings but ships and the facilities that support the ships and the men and women who sail them.

If you had to choose, that’s where you’d spend your money. But we don’t have to choose. So what’s going on with those icebreakers?

Go back to 1995, when Canada’s Old Government – claiming budget constraints – merged its two non-military fleets by moving the Coast Guard from the Department of Transport to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which had a fleet of scientific research and fisheries enforcement vessels. Where the two fleets had contiguous bases, the facilities would be merged. So the Dartmouth Coast Guard operations would move to the Bedford Institute of Oceanography.

Great on paper – but the BIO had no wharves adequate for the big icebreakers Terry Fox and Louis St. Laurent. Very well: new wharves would be built. Whoops: that would cost $6.4 million – almost exactly the same cost as upgrading the original Coast Guard base. All right, perhaps the Terry Fox could dock at a leased Navy facility, with the Louis St. Laurent being moved to Sydney or Mulgrave. Maybe.

Meanwhile, the merger of the two fleets didn’t go particularly well. For mariners, particularly fishermen, the Coast Guard represents safety and security. They’re the guys who pluck you off your burning or sinking vessel. DFO, however, represents law enforcement. They’re the guys who charge you if you break their regulations. Two different functions, two different cultures. Morale in the Coast Guard plummetted.

And then, last April, Loyola Hearn dropped a bomb. The two big icebreakers would move from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland “to avoid significant additional infrastructure costs which would be required if they stayed in the Maritimes Region.” In Newfoundland, “the infrastructure is already in place.”

Bosh. Louis St. Laurent goes to Argentia, a port where the Coast Guard has no presence and which affords almost no facilities for a ship this size. The only appropriate berth is a deteriorated naval dock which is barred to heavy trucks and cranes. St. John’s is 85 miles away — $125 by taxi — so bringing in crews and supplies will be costly and time-consuming.

And St. John’s? The Fox visited there this fall, riding relatively high after using up much of her fuel on an Arctic voyage. The harbour pilot refused to take her alongside the shallow Coast Guard wharves unless she was further lightened. Unless the wharf is dredged, the ship will have to lie elsewhere. She may have to lie elsewhere anyway, since the Coast Guard base isn’t big enough for the existing fleet plus the Fox.

And does anyone care about the disruption of the lives of 150 families associated with the two ships, or the loss to Halifax of about $15 million a year?

This reeking proposal produced a storm of objections from Coast Guard retirees, opposition MPs and MLAs, citizens, and even serving Coast Guard officers like Stewart Klebert, skipper of the Louis St. Laurent – though little from the muted mayor of Halifax and the muzzled premier of Nova Scotia. All hands agreed that the cheapest and simplest option would be to repair the Dartmouth base and keep the ships where they are.

So what’s motivating Loyola Hearn? Survival. With Danny Williams on the war-path, no federal Conservative seat in Newfoundland is safe. The Tories hold three Newfoundland ridings, and this proposal would put icebreakers in two of them.

Canada’s New Government? Phooey. The faces look different, but the smell is the same.


– 30 –

Workers of the World, Where Are You?

Friday, November 23rd, 2007
Halifax Sunday Herald column, November 4, 2007

“The thing to do,” says Jim McNiven, “is to let the States do the screening for us. Tell them, when they find illegal immigrants working in factories or warehouses, don’t ship them south to Mexico. Ship them north to us. We need them.”

What?

Big Jim McNiven is only half joking. That would be Dr. McNiven to you, sonny, the august personage who was once the provincial deputy minister of development, and later the dean of the Dalhousie management school. He’s standing before a crowd of 200 at an Assembly of Leaders convened at St. Mary’s University by Novaknowledge, the advocacy group which speaks for Nova Scotia’s knowledge economy.

Big Jim is talking about Nova Scotia’s looming economic crisis – too many jobs, not enough workers.

What?

Look at the numbers, says McNiven. Nova Scotia will run out of workers completely in about eight years. Our economic policies and structures, rooted in the last century, are all upside down. They assume we have a surplus of workers and a shortage of jobs. But those days have vanished.

This dramatic change results from a low birth rate during the past generation. To sustain a population, you need 2.1 births per fertile woman. Nova Scotia’s rate is 1.39. The Canadian rate is 1.5. The developed countries all have low rates. European nations range from 1.0 to 1.9. Many countries offer hefty baby bonuses. Russia is proposing “procreation holidays.” The assembled leaders chuckle audibly.

“I gather,” smiles McNiven, “that there’s some enthusiasm here for that idea.”

The brutal fact is that Nova Scotia will need 52,000 more workers by 2026. But our population is dropping by 500 people a year, partly from out-migration and partly from attrition. The local kids who will be entering the workforce by 2026 have already been born. We know there aren’t enough of them. We have labour shortages already in rural areas and small towns – and those shortages will only get worse as the competition for labour in the cities intensifies.

“We could drain off all our rural workers into the cities and turn rural Nova Scotia into a national park, and it still wouldn’t be enough,” says McNiven.

And with too few workers, the economy declines, which has serious implications for government revenues and services, entrepreneurial opportunities and general quality of life.

Big Jim puts up another slide. There are only three ways to make up the shortfall. One is to increase the participation rate – the proportion of the population that’s actually in the work force. We can make better use of now-marginalized groups like the disabled, for instance. We can encourage more women to work. We can discourage older workers from retiring. Never mind Freedom 55, says McNiven. Think Freedom 75.

The second approach is increased immigration, but that’s not a complete solution. To get 52,000 new workers, we’d have to attract well over 100,000 new citizens, but most immigrants actually go to “TMV” – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

“I’m half serious about the illegal immigrants in the US,” says McNiven. “Those people are so intent on getting work that they walk 80 miles in the Arizona desert after crossing the border. They’re highly motivated, they have work experience, and they speak some English. They’re just the kind of folks we want. The Americans haven’t caught on yet that they need them too. We should take them off their hands.”

The third solution is productivity – getting more output from each participant in the work force. It sounds awful, like Scrooge squeezing Bob Cratchit, but in fact we see it all the time. When I got my first computer, for example, I couldn’t believe how much more work I got done. That’s productivity, and it came directly from a capital investment.

“Productivity” really means making much better use of our people. Pay employees well, and give them the best possible tools. Automate what can be automated. Provide decent benefits for part-time workers. Expand day care. In general, recognize that the key to prosperity in this strange new world is the effectiveness of working people.

McNiven makes other unorthodox suggestions. Lower the school age to three or four, freeing up young mothers for the work force. Abolish the school-leaving age and provide flexible high school and college education on the Internet. Double the payroll tax, to encourage businesses to get more production from their existing workers rather than hiring additional ones.

Big Jim would also increase the inheritance tax dramatically, which will encourage parents to give their savings to their children early. The kids will spend it quickly and foolishly, and so both parents and kids will have to keep working.

“These suggestions are somewhat frivolous, and may not be the way to go,” McNiven concludes, “but doing nothing is not the way to go either.”

The assembled leaders nod. It’s a remarkable moment. We’ve just seen a man plant a topic squarely on the public agenda. And I’d bet we’ll hear a lot more about it, on the road to 2026.

– 30 –

Silver Donald Cameron received an honorary D.Litt. degree from Cape Breton University yesterday.