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Posts Tagged ‘Halifax’

The Liberation of Halifax

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

August 31, 2008

“The Mayor of Halifax has very little actual power,” explained the Mayor of Halifax. “But he can use his office to bring people together, he can speak out on issues that matter, and he can lead by example.”

The year was 1968, exactly 40 years ago. The Mayor’s name was Allan O’Brien, and my profile of him was my first national magazine article, in the long-vanished Star Weekly. I quote O’Brien from memory, but I know the substance is correct, because I subsequently came to know him quite well. He was a splendid representative of Halifax, a deep-rooted Nova Scotian with a global vision and a powerful view of his city’s role in the world. He was a national vice-president of the NDP, a dedicated advocate for social justice and a vigorous opponent of the Vietnam war. Was it appropriate for the Mayor of Halifax to speak out on such matters?

“We’re all very concerned about our own local issues, as we should be,” he said. “But I don’t regard that as an excuse for ignoring the plight of our neighbours – anywhere in the world.”

O’Brien sprang to mind recently when I read a speech by Brian Flemming to the fledgling organization called Citizens for Halifax ( I don’t believe that the old City of Halifax was ever again led by a politician of O’Brien’s stature – and Flemming’s analysis of municipal politics today suggests that its clumsy successor never will be either.

As Flemming makes clear, Halifax Regional Municipality – let’s be blunt – is a disaster. I liked John Savage and I honour his memory, but his amalgamation of numerous smaller municipal units to form HRM and CBRM was a breathtakingly dumb idea. As Flemming notes, Nova Scotia politics is dominated by rural Nova Scotia, which is deeply suspicious of the capital. By including all of Halifax County in HRM, Savage ensured that the same dysfunction now exists within HRM itself – and compounded the problems by instituting an unwieldy 23-member council of which only four members are from the genuinely urban peninsula of Halifax, and none are elected at large.

The result is a city council in which the city has no voice. Decisions about pivotal urban issues are taken by rural councillors obsessed, says Flemming, with “potholes in Ecum Secum or Hubbards.” Among the great achievements of this camel of a council is the passage, after endless hours of debate, of an unenforceable cat-control by-law to set alongside the unenforceable dog-control by-law.

This is scandalous. Small though it is, Halifax is a world city. Its history is about cataclysmic conflicts, the clash of empires, international trade, culture and communication. Halifax is leafy and hard-edged, salty and intimate, bustling with students and artists and movers and shakers, small enough to be convenient, large enough to provide a genuine urban lifestyle. Its leadership needs to combine local pride with global vision, treasuring the city’s heritage while embracing its future as a model of sustainability and innovation.

Instead, it’s obsessed with cat control.

Flemming offers no prescriptions for structural changes in HRM, but it’s obvious that we need somehow to separate the truly urban districts ringing Halifax Harbour from the outer reaches of what was once Halifax County. HRM is a shotgun marriage that serves neither population well. In the meantime, Flemming has some useful suggestions to make about one of the major issues affecting the city, namely transportation.

Flemming chaired the Canada Transportation Act Review Panel of 2001, and he contends that core of the transportation system is still the road network. He suggests numerous useful improvements in road transportation – a tiered, closed-in highway along the railway cutting into the South End, a third Halifax Harbour crossing (possibly a tunnel), a bridge across the Northwest Arm, possibly the relocation of the two container piers to the Shearwater lands in Dartmouth.

His most important suggestion is the creation of an HRM Transportation Authority to plan and co-ordinate transportation in the municipality. The Authority would be governed by an independent board of directors, including representatives from such heavy users of the roads as truckers and commuters. Flemming would also give the Authority the power to support viable alternatives to roads, including fast ferries from Bedford and Purcell’s Cove, light commuter rail service to Bedford and Sackville, bike paths and busses.

Such an Authority would benefit every part of HRM. The province would have to create it, but it’s hard to imagine why any provincial politician would oppose it. Even more important, it might be a first step in liberating the capital from the paralysis that now grips it, a vivid example of the foresight and vision that a great little city so desperately needs.

Citizens for Halifax, this would be a great place to start.

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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 –