McNeil Government’s Culture Action Plan – All Talk, No Action

Stephen McNeil and Minister of Communities, Culture & Heritage Tony Ince held a big event yesterday to announce their new Culture Action Plan. McNeil danced (literally, and then figuratively when he spoke), and Ince talked about his commitment to culture, a speech that stood in stark contrast to the silence that he maintained when McNeil and Diana Whalen blew up the Nova Scotia film and television industry in April 2015. The cultural bureaucrats in the private sector predictably lined up and said it was all a wonderful thing, because they never want to offend or call into question the government that provides them with much of their operating funds, and everyone went home happy.

Well, here’s the thing. We’ve heard this all before from the McNeil government. Freeman, Ivany, Broten… reports have come with great fanfare and commitment to change, and then they get circular filed. Anyone who would trust the McNeil government to follow through on any of the cultural “action plan” almost deserves the inevitable disappointment that we have seen with these reports so many times before.

Oh, sure, it sounds good, just like all of these reports do – bureaucrats and their enablers have it down to a science when it comes to writing these things. But what does it really all mean? The “value of culture” stuff is easy to write, probably because it’s been written many times before. I’ve seen this language for twenty years, both during my time in government in the late 1990s and in the years since. There’s an art to it, ironically, but it doesn’t mean anything. They’re just words, and words are a dime a dozen, especially with the McNeil government.

Where are the actual plans? You know, things like specific new budgetary provisions, or real programs, or success measurement benchmarks and matrices. Those kinds of things, which are what you’ll find in an actual plan, are missing.

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View 902 Podcast Episode 3 – Silver Donald Cameron

In this episode of the View 902 podcast I am joined by author, journalist and activist Silver Donald Cameron to talk about his most recent book, Warrior Lawyers – From Manilla to Manhattan: lawyers for the earth, which contains a series of interviews that Don conducted with people around the world who have used the law as a tool to achieve environmental justice. We discuss the concept of natural law, and our duty of care as human beings to the planet and to the creatures with which we share it, and talk about a couple of examples from the book of lawyers and others who have engaged in citizen activism and used the law to combat corporate wrongdoing and change government policy on the environment.

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Viola Desmond’s Story on Film

The announcement that Viola Desmond will grace Canada’s ten-dollar bill has brought her story to the attention of a new generation of Canadians. It is a story of profound courage and resolve that Iain MacLeod and Brian Murray, two Nova Scotian filmmakers, have told in different but equally compelling ways.

MacLeod’s film was a drama shot in black and white back in 1996, whereas Murray’s film is a documentary made in 2012 for his employer, Communications Nova Scotia, to commemorate Canada Post issuing a stamp in Desmond’s honour. Both films run about 45 minutes.

MacLeod took an oblique approach “November 1946,” never showing the actual incident itself but rather letting the word “spread around the town.” Ultimately he used Desmond’s narrative to set up the tension in order to portray an inter-racial romance. The film was an ambitious costume drama that played to a packed house at the 1996 Atlantic Film Festival. Its unusual length and rough language made further distribution a challenge, and sadly it is mostly unseen today. I remember it vividly, however, as it marked MacLeod as a filmmaker of vision and substance.

For Murray, the story of Viola Desmond was one that needed to be simply and directly retold using modern-day documentary techniques. Because there is little to no footage of Desmond herself, Murray used a blend of dramatic re-creations, punctuated by expert ‘talking head’ testimony and period stock footage.

Perhaps most importantly, Murray’s “Long Road To Justice” provides more depth and insight to a story that continues to gain resonance and momentum. As national audiences now catch up to speed with the narrative, we can all consider the extraordinary contribution Viola Desmond has made to Canada’s cultural fabric.

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Remembering Jack Craig

John Robert (Jack) Craig, a key figure for many years in Halifax’s arts community, passed away on October 11th. Along with his wife Joan, Jack Craig formed the Craig Foundation to support the visual and performing arts. He also served on the boards of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and Neptune Theatre, and put time and money into countless arts activities throughout the province. Jack and Joan Craig also endowed a chair at Dalhousie University for research into Autism.

For my part, I remember Jack Craig as the firm, quiet, wonderful and almost quite average father of one of my childhood friends, his son Michael. I met Jack again years later at a Board meeting of the Atlantic Film Festival (he had been invited to join) when I was making a presentation on the upcoming year’s programming aims and objectives. Jack was gentlemanly, and genuinely interested in what was going on at the Film Festival. I asked how Michael was doing and Jack said he was doing fine. Sadly, the agenda of the meeting, held in the evening at the National Film Board on Spring Garden Road, precluded much more social chatting, as there was a long list of items to go over.

By then the Craigs had gone on to a have almost a legendary status in the arts community of Halifax. I knew countless artists, actors and writers who received a grant from their foundation; it seemed I reviewed numerous theatre productions for the Daily News that listed the Craigs as benefactors.

Jack Craig was without question a very successful businessman. I knew him better as a father and a family man, and also as a man who put a great deal back into his community, for which we all should be thankful. Halifax is, by far, a better place because of Jack and Joan Craig.

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Artists and the Chronicle Herald

The unionized reporters and editors of the Chronicle Herald have been on strike since January 23rd, and there is no end in sight. The Herald has consistently refused to bargain in good faith, rejecting every proposal put forward by the union. Instead, publisher Mark Lever has stated that the paper needs to “move on,” which is barely-disguised code for the employer’s desire to break the union.

Sure, the newspaper industry is changing, but the Chronicle Herald is attempting to place all of the burden for meeting those challenges (and answering for the mistakes management have made) upon the workers. That’s just not right.

The unionized reporters have since created their own free, on-line news outlet called Local XPress. The reportage and commentary that you’ll find there is thoughtful and professional, which stands in marked contrast to what you’ll find from the scab staff now being employed by the Chronicle Herald.

This dispute puts artists in particular in a difficult place.

On the one hand, we need to find an audience for their work, and the Chronicle Herald still has the biggest print media reach in the province.

On the other hand, the real arts reporters on strike – Stephen Cooke, Andrea Nemetz, Elissa Barnard – are good, hard-working people whom most of us have come to know and respect over the years. At one time or another, almost all artists in Nova Scotia have benefited from their hard work and good reportage, whether directly or indirectly.

Finally, there’s the longstanding tradition of artists standing together, and standing with others who are fighting against bullies. The Chronicle Herald is the clear bully here, trying to bust a legally constituted union (and employing some pretty heavy-handed tactics to achieve that aim).

As artists, we have a moral responsibility when a dispute like this happens to stand with the folks in the trenches.

At the end of the day, that means sacrificing our own interests for the greater good.

It means standing with the real reporters, who have for years stood with us.

It means not talking to the Chronicle Herald.

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The 2016 East Coast Paraconference

The second annual East Coast Paraconference took place last weekend (August 5th, 6th and 7th) in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, and I was fortunate to attend as a speaker. In the Internet era where fewer events like these are held – and those that do take place have seen declining attendance for years – I’m happy to report that here in Nova Scotia the Paraconference saw a marked increase in attendance from the first event held in August, 2015. The organizers in Queen’s County worked tirelessly to put on a first-class show for the people who made their way to the Liverpool Best Western over the weekend, and it paid off as attendees were treated to an eclectic group of knowledgeable, thought-provoking and entertaining speakers (and me) who covered a wide range of esoteric subjects, including crop circles, UFOs, Men-in-Black, ghosts, Oak Island, and psychic phenomena.

Speakers included author / radio host Greg Bishop, historian Aaron John Gulyas, UFO researcher Chris Styles, Oak Island historian Danny Hennigar, ghost investigators from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, psychic – medium Shawn Leonard, author and folklorist Steve Vernon, and yours truly.

Kudos to the organizing team for putting on a world class show. I’ve been to many paranormal conferences in the United States and the United Kingdom over the years, often whilst filming documentaries, and the East Coast Paraconference is the best event of its sort that I’ve attended. It combines down-home Maritime hospitality with an eclectic array of guest speakers who challenge the audience to expand their horizons all while spinning some entertaining yarns that just may be true, much in line with the tradition of great Maritime storytellers and folklorists such as Helen Creighton.

Planning is apparently already underway for the third annual Paraconference in August, 2017, and I heartily recommend that anyone interested in the paranormal mark the dates of August 11th, 12th and 13th of next year off on their calendar, because the East Coast Paraconference is one of those quintessentially Nova Scotian events that you don’t want to miss.

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Jack Kerouac’s Maritime Connections

Jack Kerouac, along with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, formed the triumvirate of literary and cultural giants at the center of the Beat Generation universe. They set the stage for the 1960s Counterculture, and a general questioning of all Western values that has lingered on into contemporary times.

Kerouac made several references to Nova Scotia in his works. There’s one, in Tristessa, a novel set in Mexico City. There are two others that describe the same incidents when Kerouac, then a merchant mariner in the midst of World War II, landed in Sydney for a raucous shore leave that ended up in some nice working family’s living room after a wild all-night party.

That incident is recounted in Kerouac’s first published book, The Town and the City, from 1950. He and his editors misspelled Sydney as ‘Sidney’, but otherwise the descriptions ring true. The Beat novelist revisited the story again in his 1967 book, Vanity of Dulouz, where, this time, he got the spelling right.

Kerouac had joined the merchant marine after quitting Columbia University, where he had been on a football scholarship, once his career as a university sportsman was done due to an injury. Feeling like he had to contribute somehow to the war effort, he chose one of the most dangerous occupations, travelling the North Atlantic on a merchant ship.

The visit to Cape Breton was on the way to and from assignments to supply the new American air base in Thule, Greenland. After Kerouac had finished his trips to Thule and had safely returned to land, his ship was torpedoed and sunk.

Kerouac’s references to ‘the endless pine forests of Nova Scotia’ are of particular interest to me, not because we’re related, although that helps, but rather because of the particular strain of Tibetan Buddhism tha eventually found its way to the Bluenose Province. That strain, known locally as Shambhala, came to Nova Scotia when its leader, Chögyam Trungpa, ‘felt something’ when flying over the East Coast.

Trungpa was a legendary figure who left Tibet as a young man in the midst of the 1959 Chinese Invasion. He founded Buddhist Centres in Scotland, Spain and finally Boulder, Colorado, attracting attention and devotees as a powerful, if unorthodox, spiritual leader. His version of Buddhism seemed to include a meeting of the West and the East where spiritual quests seemed to include an unexpectedly hedonistic edge.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia, and particularly Cape Breton, had begun to fill up with Beat and post-Beat figures such as Robert Frank, Richard Serra and Rudy Wurlitzer. Marshall McLuhan once famously said that artists where the antennae of civilization, foretelling the future. If that’s the case, then perhaps Kerouac did foretell of Nova Scotia’s possible role as some kind of promised land.

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West In East: Sam Shepard In Nova Scotia

From the late 1960s to 1984, the playwright and actor Sam Shepard lived in Nova Scotia, in a place called Hilltop Farms between Advocate and Parrsboro.

It’s not a widely known fact. A few “connect-the-dots” references float around the internet; there’s a couple of pictures of Shepard with a rifle, hunting; there’s a thin thread of mentions by other writers. And some years ago in the musical biography book Girls Like Us, the author figured out that Shepard was the “Coyote” of Joni Mitchell’s 1976 song, pursuing her even though he was, in Mitchell’s words, “Too far from the Bay of Fundy.”

Poet / musician Patti Smith stated in her National Book-Award-Winning memoir Just Kids that she and Shepard performed their play Cowboy Mouth in New York City in 1971. She goes on to say that Shepard then left the production abruptly to go to Nova Scotia.

Of course, Sam Shepard didn’t spend all of those fifteen years or so in the Bluenose province. According to a recent feature documentary, Shepard and Dark, the playwright and actor kept a busy schedule writing and filming while mostly living in San Francisco and New York City. In 1984 he left his wife and son to live with the actress Jessica Lange, which may have precipitated his departure from Nova Scotia. He sold Hilltop Farm to the Canadian actor Megan Follows, best known for her starring roles in the 1980s versions of Anne of Green Gables.

Sam Shepard was hardly an anomaly in landing in Nova Scotia. A raft of world class American artists started showing up in the province in the late 1960s. The East Coast of Canada beckoned to the likes of composer Philip Glass, filmmaker / photographer Robert Frank, screenwriter / novelist Rudy Wurlitzer, and artist / sculptor Richard Serra.

Many of these artists interacted with Nova Scotia’s culture. Glass, for example, was the featured composer and performer for the Scotia Festival of Music, and he also lectured on writing music for motion pictures for the Dalhousie Art Gallery, where I had the pleasure of meeting and introducing him to the audience. Frank taught at NSCAD in 1972 and presented his work at Dalhousie in 1997. Frank hosted an exhibition of his work at the Art College as recently as 2014. Serra accepted an honourary doctorate from the Art College and delivered a fascinating commencement speech which revealed some of his work habits. Wurlitzer has given extensive interviews about his affection for Nova Scotia, detailing some of his connections to Cape Breton’s Buddhist community. He even named one of his characters in his novels ‘Halifax’.

Sam Shepard, on the other hand, seems to have come to the province to get away from everywhere and everything else.

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Blue Mountain / Birch Cove Lakes Supporters Fight Back

Following a calamitous HRM presentation meeting concerning the proposed Blue Mountain/Birch Coves last week, the Ecology Action Centre organized a response gathering at Dalhousie University on Wednesday Night, June 29th.

Smoothly run with flashes of passion and humour, and bursting with precise information, the meeting was the antithesis of the previous disaster where no-one was allowed to ask questions and the 300-plus crowd tried to cram into the 85-seater hotel conference room.

The Dalhousie Lecture Hall, with a capacity of 700, was about half full, an astonishing number concerning it was a week full of graduations and looming vacations. EAC Wilderness coordinator Ray Plourde acted as master of ceremonies, blending a talent for disgorging facts and figures with some old-time revivalist oratory that had the audience delivering several standing ovations.

With a table full of allies including The Halifax Field Naturalists, The Halifax North West Trails Society, and Fusion Halifax, Plourde implored the crowd to become ‘Blue Mountain/Birch Cove Lake Park Rangers’ in order to save the imperiled Wilderness Zone from a private sector development that may be looming in the near future.

A July 4th deadline for comments to the City will be followed by a mid-month council meeting that could approve the dismemberment of the park. Time is still of the essence and yet opposition to development is still being rallied.

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Karma hits Stephen McNeil as Halifax filmmakers get involved in politics

It was inevitable after Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government decimated the Nova Scotia film industry in April 2015 that politically-conscious film industry professionals would fight back. In the year and two months since that disastrous decision – one of many mistakes made by the McNeil Liberals, who have pinballed from self-made crisis to self-made crisis during their three years in office – we have seen a massive protest at Province House, the rise of Screen Nova Scotia as a politically active and savvy lobbying group, and a non-stop barrage of letters to the editor, radio interviews, and articles from film industry workers determined to defeat the government at the first possible turn (a factor that probably led to the election of NDP MLA Marian Mancini in a Dartmouth by-election last year by a tight margin).

Now two veteran and award-winning Halifax-based filmmakers, both of whom were instrumental in crafting the old film funding system during their time as Program Administrators at the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation in the 1990s, have decided to take the fight against the Liberal government one step further. John Wesley Chisholm and my friend and colleague Paul Kimball have decided to seek the nomination for the progressive Conservative Party in the ridings of Halifax Chebucto and Halifax Needham, respectively.

Both Chisholm and Kimball are highly educated, very articulate, and very media savvy.

In other words, they may just be Stephen McNeil’s worst nightmare.

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The Ghosts of Icon Bay

I stopped by Icon Bay, the “can’t miss it” giant blue skyscraper at 50 Bedford Highway, on Sunday, June 26th, at 1:00 pm for their advertised open house. Unfortunately, there was no-one there.

Not a sign.

Not a banner.

Nary a real estate agent.


It was fitting, however. The ediface occupies a ghostly spot on the Bedford Basin waterfront, overlooking the railway shunting yards and the Bedford Highway.

Looking a bit like a Borg spaceship, of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame, attracted to Earth by the Fairview container terminal’s endless supply of delicious-looking boxy rectangles, Icon Bay might just have slipped past Halifax’s planners in the height department. Now that it’s built, however, there’s no turning back. Hence my interest in a tour.

Since that didn’t quite turn out as advertised, I can at least examine Icon Bay’s strange site history. It’s a history that is haunted by the ghosts of two dark episodes from Halifax’s past.

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Howard Epstein’s “Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks” – A Review

Howard Epstein’s Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks is part idiosyncratic political memoir and part bitter philippic from someone who was both in the Nova Scotia government from 2009 until 2013, in the sense that he was an MLA of the governing party, but also never really part of the government during the Dexter years due to his exclusion from cabinet – something that clearly still rankles Mr. Epstein, despite his frequent assertions to the contrary.

The book does contain information and perspectives that historians will find useful, and for that reason alone it merits a spot on the shelf of anyone interested in Nova Scotian political history, but when it comes to his central thesis Mr. Epstein singularly fails to make the case that he prosecutes against the 2009 – 2013 NDP government as a sell-out of progressive values. Furthermore, the vision that he offers for rebuilding the party is one rooted in the ideological battles of the 20th century, and not the realities and the very exciting possibilities of the 21st. In a no doubt unintended irony, this self-defined champion of “true” progressive values actually emerges from Rise Again as the most reactionary of all the former members of the NDP government. He is looking backward with a mixture of bitterness and self-righteousness, as opposed to forward with the hope and optimism and spirit of true cooperation that Nova Scotians need now more than ever.

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Blue Mountain / Birch Cove Lakes Presentation “Public Meeting” a Complete Train Wreck

The “Presentation” of Justice Heather Robertson’s report on the Blue Mountain/Birch Cove Lakes Park Proposal came to a screeching halt at a bizarre meeting held in the tiny meeting room at the Lacewood Future Inn this evening.

Hundreds of people showed up for the meeting, held in a room that had a maximum capacity for 120.

The 35-minute meeting, surely the shortest and most deranged Municipal meeting I’ve ever attended, saw Justice Robertson attempt to justify her report, while a City solicitor added some technical details, before a developer sputtered through a plan to disembowel the proposed park.

The chair repeated that questions from the public were not to be taken. The public, which spilled out into the hallway and the lobby of the hotel, had plenty of questions anyway. Once those questions started flying, the ‘presenters’ simply gave up. They decided to cut and run, and the meeting was over, leaving a tsunami of hostility washing over the proceedings.

Holding a short meeting in an inadequate space is Bad Governance 101. There entire proceeding was an embarrassment – as one City councillor told me, it was as if Justice Roberstson had gone rogue, not understanding the process she had been brought into.

The mood of the crowd was ugly at times. When Justice Robertson said at one point that this review could be a three to five year process, for example, and that there would be a great deal more more public consultation, I heard a person squeezed into the hallway near me say, “bullshit,” and another person followed up with “how much are they paying you?” At other times, it was hard to make out anything she or the other speakers said because of the boos that drowned out their remarks.

Halifax’s rampant over-development has reached a new level of madness, and the citizenry is on the verge of revolt. In the old days, pitchforks and burning torches would have no doubt been seen.

Citizens can make comments on Justice Robertson’s report and the developer’s proposals on the Blue Mountain/Birch Cove Lakes Park plans until July 4th, 2016 at, or by fax or mail, although at this point, with a feeling that the entire deal is a fait accompli, one wonders if anyone in power will really listen.

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Wormwood’s Memories… and lessons for the arts in Halifax in 2016

Wormwoods Dog & Monkey Cinema closed in 1998. That’s almost 20 years ago, and Halifax is no closer to finding an adequate 7-day-a-week replacement specialty motion picture house.

It’s a disheartening situation, considering Wolfville has a thriving independent cinema scene at the Al Whittle Theatre, which provides a vigorous level of non-mainstream programming. Despite the Atlantic Film Festival, the Halifax Independent Film Festival, and weekly screenings by the Carbon Arc from October to April, neither the private sector nor the public sector have managed to re-create in Halifax what Gordon Parsons and a smattering of Atlantic Film Co-op people put together in the mid 1970s.

Pinpointing what is missing from Wormwood’s long absence is difficult. Some organizations have managed to make do, organizing haphazard screenings here and there in the city. We have come close once or twice. The Paradise Sisters group was $30,000 short of opening a new facility on Market Street. Former Dalhousie President Tom Traves wanted a major screening setup in the McCain Building when it was being constructed; the expense of the specialized projection exhaust system put an end to that dream.

Why, in a city with a metropolitan area population of four hundred thousand, we can’t have a functioning specialty cinema tells you a great deal about what is and what is not possible in Halifax, and the priorities of our current ruling class.

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An Open Letter to the NDP members in Halifax Needham

Hi folks,

Just taking a moment to answer all the questions I am getting at once about my possible candidacy for the NDP nomination in Halifax Needham.

I had agreed to put my name forward to stand for the NDP nomination here in Needham after having been encouraged to do so by local party members. It was not something I had ever thought of up until then,

I went through the vetting process at the local level, seemingly without issue. My name, along with a few others, was forwarded on to the central party office.

I was informed in a phone call yesterday that I was prohibited from standing by the party head office.

The reason I was given was that my candidacy could prove embarrassing to the party.

What was so embarrassing, you might ask? What was the deep, dark secret?

I said positive things about PC MLA Tim Houston, and I have a scientific and historical interest in the paranormal and the subculture of people who study it.

And that’s it, as far as I was told.

I didn’t think it was possible for a political party in this province to make me feel more unwelcome than the Liberals, but it turns out I was wrong.

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The Motherhouse Lands Legacy: Endangering the Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area

The legacy of the Motherhouse lands is having a secondary ripple effect on the proposed Blue Mountain / Birch Cove Lakes Nature Park. The massive reserve has run into a severe roadblock in a new report issued by Judge Heather Robertson who was brought in to mediate between the City of Halifax and the private landowners who have yet to be bought out on the project.

Robertson has sided with the developers, the Annapolis Group and the Susie Lake Development outfit. That means private houses perched over the lakes, all in order for the developers to build adequate access for the rest of the public to get in to the park.

It’s another aspect of a legacy of public good that is drifting into private hands. Susie Lake was, for generations, a recreational area accessed by the old road the Sisters had made so that the water could be piped to a water tower. Once upon a time, when I was a teenager, you could literally walk up to the lake from many points in old Rockingham, whether it was Clayton Park, Bridgeview or Wedgewood.

Most of those trails are now gone. There are paths that go behind Bayer’s Lake Industrial and Retail Park, but anyone can see that the lake has been put in severe environmental risk by the horrifying clear-cut visible from almost any point in the park. It’s like some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland, soon to be sacrificed on the altar of never-ending “development”.

While the expansion of Bayer’s Lake looms over one side of the proposed park, there is a real possibility that the plans of the Annapolis Group and Susie Lake Development will shrink the vision of the Blue Mountain/Birch Coves lake Park to a shadow of its former self, to the detriment of all Haligonians.

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Developing the Motherhouse Lands

This past Monday night I attended a re-zoning meeting concerned with what is known as ‘The Motherhouse Lands’ – a large block of land between the suburbs of Clayton Park and Bridgeview, with a spectacular view of the Bedford Basin thrown in for good measure.

It was for decades the site of the Mount Saint Vincent Motherhouse, once the largest building east of Montreal. The Motherhouse was the home for the Sisters of Charity, until they determined in 2001 that it no longer suited their needs (largely due to the declining population of retired nuns who lived there). The grand old building was demolished several years ago. The current development proposal, from South West Properties, promises all sunshine and lollipops. It’s a special development that places a Spring Garden Road style commercial and office strip of eight and twelve-story buildings, surrounded by a ‘mixed’ range of residences crowned by a single twenty story ‘signature’ building, which was, interestingly enough, not there in the last public meeting. I guess that’s what the developers consider progress.

The breathless exposition by the developers formed the first part of the meeting, as they described how great their plans were. Minutes from the City’s Core! Park and water features! Close to all the amenities! Stable and long-term residences all around! Wonderful neighbours! Dynamic retail opportunities! Etc Etc Etc!

While the developers provided no 3-D imagery for the audience – estimated at over one hundred – the pictures were pretty, dipicting a brown, grey and glass series of Jetsons-style space age buildings. The grid-pattern streets looked neat despite the fact that the steep gradient would play havoc with everything from construction to street safety, whether it be winter or summer.

The only thing missing was a monorail!

Despite all the promises and assurances of Southwest Properties, the only truly viable and community-appropriate use for the Motherhouse Lands is for it to be deeded to Mount Saint Vincent University to retain its current status as ‘Park and Institutional’. It is the only way to guarantee the quality of life for the area’s citizens.

Alas, that was not on the agenda. The city should reconsider, or it risks eroding its relationship with its residents even further.

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The Election Campaign Nova Scotians Deserve

There are rumors of a fall election here in Nova Scotia. Regardless of whether it happens then, or in 2017, people should consider what kind of political discourse they want to see in this province.

Do we want a campaign about personalities and banal soundbites, or do we want a campaign about real ideas?

If we want to settle for the former, then we’ll do things the way we’ve always done them.

But if we want something better, then we need to do things differently.

My idea? A series of all-candidate debates in every riding, at as many different times and locations as possible. Some could be general, but others could be tailored to specific subjects, such as poverty, or economic development, or the nature of governance and government, or health care. There are plenty of pressing topics from which to choose.

For example, the Liberals axed the film funding system that existed in Nova Scotia for twenty years. The NDP and Tories have criticized this decision, and have made general promises to restore the old film tax credit. Let each party’s candidates in every riding debate the issue, and its larger implications as part of the conversation about the provincial economy and how the government can best help the private sector (or whether they should be helping at all).

Make them tell us their ideas… but also make them listen to ours.

Let’s create a genuine dialogue.

Only then we can make the reasoned and informed choices that our province needs us to make.

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Marc Almon – The Happy Warrior of #NSFilmJobs

I first met Marc Almon back in 1998 when he was the proverbial bright-eyed and bushy-tailed president of the Kings College Independent Film Society and I was the Program Administrator for the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation. Marc had applied for a small operating grant for the society, and while I was inclined to recommend it my boss was less enthusiastic. So I arranged a meeting in which I asked Marc to basically tell me how he wanted me to sell the proposal to my superiors. I left that meeting thinking this was a kid who was going to be a successful film producer someday if he pursued it as a career, because he was passionate and because he was a natural at making the best case for why he and his group deserved the money. Needless to say, they got their grant, and when I attended their annual screening of the short films they made with it some months later, I wasn’t surprised in the least that Marc and KIFS had managed to pack the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium.

As it turns out, Marc did indeed pursue a career in filmmaking, and by 2015 had emerged as one of the top up-and-coming young film producers in Canada. He produced the critically-acclaimed and award-winning feature film Blackbird by director Jason Buxton, and had a number of other projects in development.

And then all hell broke loose in April, 2015, when the Liberal government of Stephen McNeil released a budget that contained massive cuts to the Nova Scotia film industry, including the closing down of Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia and the slashing of the film tax credit to levels that were simply unworkable for producers. As the chairperson of the fledgling industry association Screen Nova Scotia, Marc was thrust into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, as he led the fight to save the film industry from complete disaster even as he tried to keep his business going and get his own productions financed in a world where the old financing model no longer existed.

It’s a testament to Marc’s ability as both a producer and a leader that he managed to succeed in both tasks. While the film industry in Nova Scotia isn’t what it was prior to the Liberal cuts, it also isn’t gone altogether, and that’s due to the efforts of Marc and his colleagues at Screen Nova Scotia. In terms of his own business, Marc managed to recover from the setback of last April and found a way to pull together the financing to get the feature film Nineteenseventysomething made, directed by Bruce McDonald and written by Daniel MacIvor (the film is currently in post-production, and Marc plans to debut it at this year’s Atlantic Film Festival).

Marc’s term as chairperson of Screen Nova Scotia came to an end last month, so I thought it would be a good time to sit down with him and reflect upon the hectic events of the past couple of years. Here is that conversation.

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Remembering the Halifax Daily News

I admit it. I was a writer for the Halifax Daily News, back in the halcyon days when the capital of Nova Scotia was a lively two-newspaper town.

While the Chronicle Herald was very much the “establishment” paper (and remains so today), the Daily News was the upstart, cheeky, rabble-rousing new kid on the block – the paper that was willing to upset the apple cart with more vivid opinions and harder-edged reporting, along with some columnists who could really get up people’s noses, yours truly foremost among them.

It was a wonderful place to work. Alas, a series of ownership changes, which preceded the general decline of the newspaper industry, introduced great instability. A series of cuts in 2005 prefigured the abrupt closure of the paper in February, 2008. Reborn as the much-lessened Metro, the existing tabloid is but a ghostly reminder of Halifax’s salad days as a two-newspaper town.

Many of the people I had the pleasure of working with at the Daily News went on to greater things, and higher salaries. Editor Bill Turpin ended up with the Provincial Government. Entertainment editor Marilyn Smulders moved from Dalhousie to NSCAD where she now expertly guides their communications. Arts writer Marla Cranston is the the public relations person for the Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society. Arts Editor and columnist David Swick teaches ethics at the King’s College journalism school. Lifestyle writer Skana Gee handled the publicity for the long running HBO series Haven. I produce feature films. The list goes on.

The Daily News made Halifax a better place. It also made the Chronicle Herald a better paper. Watching the Herald’s current bitter labour dispute linger reminds us all how fragile the mainstream media has become in an age when the internet was allegedly going to make media available to everyone.

The lack of arts and culture writing and coverage these days in Halifax is especially startling, and more than a bit depressing. Finding decent theatre reviews or anything more than puff pieces when it comes to music is virtually impossible. And while the media scene is constantly changing, there has been nothing to compare with the coverage Halifax received from the Daily News and the Chronicle Herald in those heady days of the 1990s.

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The PWC Report on The Nova Scotia Film Industry

Screen Nova Scotia released the long-awaited independent study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) yesterday on the economic impact that the Nova Scotia film industry had in Nova Scotia prior to the cuts to the film financing programs and Film and Creative Industries last April by the Liberal government of Stephen McNeil. The PwC Report is detailed, well-researched, methodologically sound, and comprehensive. What is shows, beyond any shadow of a doubt, is that the film industry as structured prior to the Liberal cuts was a net economic benefit to the Province of Nova Scotia on many levels.

The film & television industry is a net economic benefit for the Province of Nova Scotia, it employs a more highly educated and younger workforce, it is primarily locally owned and operated, and the rate of the tax credit as it stood prior to the Liberal cuts was in line with Ontario and British Columbia, despite the fact that both of these provinces have significant competitive advantages over Nova Scotia in terms of industry resources.

In other words, everything the Liberals have told Nova Scotians about the film and television industry has been false, and remains false. There is no other way to look at it.

The Premier’s response?

He hasn’t read the report, and it won’t make any difference anyway.

And that sums up simply, and sadly, the shameful and incompetent state of governance in Nova Scotia today.

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MLAs who support the Nova Scotia Film Industry – Karla MacFarlane

Karla MacFarlane is the Progressive Conservative MLA for Pictou West. The owner and operator of The Ship Hector Company Store in Pictou and an active community volunteer, she was first elected to the House of Assembly in 2013. She is currently a member of the Human Resources and Law Amendments Committees, and is the Progressive Conservative critic for the Environment, Municipal Relations, the Public Service Commission & Communities, Culture & Heritage.

MacFarlane is one of the opposition MLAs who have worked hard to hold the Liberals to account for their disastrous film industry policy. For example, in a letter to the editor of the New Glasgow Evening News that MacFarlane wrote in May, 2015, she noted the film industry controversy within the context of Liberal policies that were on the whole devastating for rural Nova Scotia:

“I went into this session of legislature optimistic about the future of our province and with the hopes of a budget that cut wasteful spending and offered plans for the future and job creation. Instead we got a budget that is taking away jobs and making it more difficult for people and industries, like the film industry, to survive. I voted against the Liberal budget because it does nothing for rural Nova Scotians… During the election campaign in 2013, the Liberals promised the film industry that if elected they would not cut the film tax credit. The McNeil government cut the film tax credit on budget day putting our province at a competitive disadvantage. This is another example of a decision where the full impact of the consequences won’t be felt until it is too late.”

While the Liberals have spent the past year showing Nova Scotians what bad governance looks like, MacFarlane has stood out on the film industry controversy as a dedicated proponent of a system that worked well for twenty years. In the process, she has demonstrated to Nova Scotians that there are informed, reasonable and honest alternatives to the regressive and bad faith austerity-based politics practiced by the government of Stephen McNeil.

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How The Liberals Swiftboated the Nova Scotia Film Industry

The public relations campaign waged by the Liberal government of Stephen McNeil against the film and television industry in this province over the past year has been a textbook example of Swiftboating.

It began when then Finance Minister Diana Whalen made a pre-budget speech to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce on March 25, 2015. In her remarks, which warned of austerity measures to come, she singled out the film tax credit in particular as a program that was “under review” (usually a political euphemism for “on the chopping block”). According to Whalen, the program “costs taxpayers $24 million dollars a year. With it, Nova Scotia tax payers pay up to 65 percent of the eligible salaries for film and television projects. Now by contrast, our payroll rebate program for other industries are capped at 8 to 10 percent for eligible salaries. Surprisingly, within the rules, there is no requirement to film in Nova Scotia. It may be called a tax credit, but it isn’t used to offset taxes that are owed. 99 percent of the money is being paid directly to companies that don’t owe taxes in Nova Scotia.”

In one speech, Whalen had portrayed the film and television industry as a group of money-grubbing fat cats who cost the Province $24 million based on a super-rich subsidy and that had no obligation to even film or pay taxes here. She might as well have included a picture of Scrooge McDuck lounging in his money bin with “Nova Scotia Film Industry” plastered all over it.

The problem was that her statement was a gross distortion of the facts. Nova Scotians deserve better.

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Liberal Government’s Film Industry Cuts Hit Rural Nova Scotia Hardest

I posted my article “Why The Film Industry Controversy Matters To All Nova Scotians” in the Film Nova Scotia group on Facebook, and a reader posted the following comment, which I think is worth a response because it touches on a popular misconception about both the Nova Scotia film and television industry in general, and the areas in which it has the most impact.

“I applaud the effort here,” he wrote, “but I don’t think it’s the correct argument to make (although it is accurate) – at least not to the constituents that matter. After the decision on the tax credit cut, the government popularity *INCREASED* in most rural Liberal ridings. That’s because the government paints film makers as, more or less, ‘godless, scruffy city living hipsters that only work 11 weeks a year.’ That perception, widely held in rural ridings, is never going to change – at least not in a time frame that is useful to us… Add to that the perception that people in the industry make too much money (based on zero data, but still a belief that is widely held among rural Nova Scotians) and you get no sympathy. Combined with the anti-Halifax sentiment, rural Liberal voters are always going to side with the government. The only way to move the government is to change the perception in the ridings where they are most vulnerable. TO do this, we can’t argue trust, or government failure etc. The only thing that may work is to argue directly at the self-interest of the people who vote Liberal in Liberal held ridings.”

In broad strokes, this perception seems accurate. Almost all of the Nova Scotia film and television production companies that form the core of the industry, for example, are based in Halifax, or nearby. The equipment rental companies, such as William F. White, are based here as well. The unions all have their headquarters in Halifax. Film and Creative Industries was located in downtown Halifax before the Liberals closed it down last April, as is the head regional office for Telefilm Canada, the National Film Board, the CBC, and so on.

But dig deeper and you see that this perception is fundamentally flawed, because it overlooks the key factor in determining the overall benefits of the film industry to the Nova Scotia economy – where productions are filmed, and the effects that they have in that area.

Indeed, the negative effects of the Liberal government’s actions in dismantling the 20-year old film funding structure and government film agency last April will be most strongly felt not in Halifax, but in the rest of the Province, and work directly against the goal of revitalizing and diversifying the economy of rural Nova Scotia.

In other words, we are all in this together.

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Why The Film Industry Controversy Matters To All Nova Scotians

Much has been said and written over the past year about the Liberal government’s decision in April 2015 to do away with the government funding structure for the film and television industry that had existed in Nova Scotia for twenty years. Financing structures for the industry are a bit of an arcane art to begin with (as they are with most industries), and it has been made even more difficult for the average Nova Scotian to follow given the fact that there have been different numbers and statistics put forward by both the government and the industry to attempt to justify their respective positions – the industry has largely relied on numbers provided by the former government film agency in previous years along with industry sources such as the Canadian Media Producers Association, while the government has primarily relied on figures provided by the Department of Finance. The issues involved in terms of the actual mechanics of the production and financing system of the Nova Scotian film and television sector, which after all is but a very small part of a much larger globalized multimedia industry, are complex and difficult to distill into media-friendly soundbites. Nova Scotians could be forgiven if they threw up their hands in frustration and said, “we don’t know who is right, and really… why should we care?”

The answer is simple: The film industry controversy centers on two issues of fundamental importance to all Nova Scotians:

(1) Our ability as citizens to trust our government (and our concomitant ability to believe that it is dealing with us in good faith); and

(2) The way that government does business with the private sector.

When we examine how the Liberal government has dealt with the film industry, serious problems are evident on both counts.

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Slut: The Play, by Theatre Antigonish – A Review

Theatre Antigonish presented the bracing 80-minute work Slut: The Play at Mount Saint Vincent University’s multi-purpose room Saturday night, invited by MSVU’s Alexa McDonough Institute.

The drama was developed in New York using real stories told by young women. Katie Cappiello shaped it into an 11-character piece that jumbles storylines and builds up choral-like effects. The result was a brisk and satisfying theatrical experience.

The real point of Slut, however, is to confront contemporary issues of sexual assault in high school and university age groups. Because it is an all-female play, the point of view is aptly skewed to explore the current contradictions in sexual behaviour and expectations.

The play brings contemporary issues to the forefront. Its initial run in Antigonish ended in December, but the troupe has toured the play around the Province since then. I heartily recommend that you take the opportunity to see the play if it comes to a theatre or school near you. It is an important work of art that deals directly with an issue that touches all of us, in one way or another.

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The Halifax Hurricanes at Mid-Season

It is just past the midway point in the 2015 – 16 NBL Canada season, and the Halifax Hurricanes sit at the top of the standings in the Atlantic Division at 16 wins and 7 losses, two games clear of the Saint John Mill Rats after Thursday night’s convincing 112 – 101 win at the Scotiabank Centre, and they stand one game clear of the Central Division leaders the London Lightning in terms of overall record. By any measure, that is a great start for the new franchise, which is attempting to rebuild professional basketball in Halifax after last season’s debacle with the now-defunct Halifax Rainmen.

I’ve been to almost all of the home games, and caught many of the team’s away games on the NBL live feed, which has also given me the chance to keep track of the action elsewhere, particularly in the Central Division, whose teams only visit the east coast once in the season (the Niagra River Lions and the Orangeville A’s have already made their swing through our region; the Lightning and Windsor Express are still to come). The Hurricanes are doing a lot of things right, but attendance has still been disappointing, which is a real shame because the franchise is putting forth a compelling entertainment experience. But as my brother said to me at the game last night against the Mill Rats, rebuilding the NBL brand in Halifax is going to be a process that takes time, and it will require commitment from the owners and consistency from the franchise. So far both seem to be well in place, and I hope that as the season progresses into its second half and then the playoffs more Haligonians take notice of the team and give them a real chance.

In the meantime, here are the three things that have really stood out for me in terms of what the Hurricanes have done well so far this season, both on and off the court… and one area where I think changes should be made.

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Gregor Ash… Unplugged

If you had to compile a list of the twenty most important and / or influential people in the arts and culture scene in Nova Scotia over the past fifteen years, it would probably include Gregor Ash. Starting from his first arts gig as sales and promotion manager at CKDU radio in 1991 – 1992 through his various key roles in the music industry at the height of the Halifax Pop Explosion to his tenure at the Atlantic Film Festival, first as Operations Manager from 1996 until 2000 and then as the very forward-looking Executive Director of the Festival from 2000 until 2012, Gregor was on the front lines of what was a true Renaissance period for film and music in the province. He has also served as a member of the Nova Scotia Arts & Culture Partnership Council in 2010 – 2011, and as the Director of the Institute of Applied Creativity at NSCAD University from 2012 until 2014. A two time candidate for elected office as a New Democrat (federally in 2011 and provincially in 2013), Gregor currently runs his own independent consultancy firm. I’ve known him since he was at the Film Festival and I was the Program Administrator at the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation, and I’ve always had a great deal of respect for his commitment to the arts specifically, and public policy in general. He describes himself on Twitter as “a passionate servant of the Arts, a political junkie, a food lover and proud Newfoundlander, living a content life in the wonderful city of Halifax, Nova Scotia,” and I think that pegs him pretty much spot on. In an industry full of poseurs and provocateurs (and that applies to both the arts and politics), Gregor is genuine,passionate, and hard-working.

I asked him a couple of weeks ago if he would be willing to sit down and discuss his career in the arts and politics to date, and he readily agreed. We finally managed to sync our schedules for Friday afternoon, the 26th of February, and we got together at the Second Cup in the Killam Library at Dalhousie for a wide-ranging conversation about arts, culture, the creative economy, and politics. We had actually been chatting for about twenty minutes – and both of us had been airing our opinions freely – when I finally said to him that I was going to turn my tape recorder on and start the interview. He looked a bit surprised and said that he thought I had begun recording at the beginning. I replied that I would never record anyone without letting them know, and that I thought perhaps what we were talking about might be things that he wouldn’t want on the record.

Gregor laughed. “Screw it,” he said. “Roll the tape!”

So I did.

Here is the conversation that followed – Gregor Ash… unplugged.

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Nova Scotia PC Leader Jamie Baillie on Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy

In early February I sent all three candidates for the Nova Scotia NDP leadership an e-mail asking them to respond to five questions concerning their policies with respect to arts, culture and the creative economy in the province.

I sent Progressive Conservative Party leader Jamie Baillie the same questions a week later. Like his fellow PC MLA Tim Houston and former interim-NDP leader Maureen MacDonald, among others, Baillie has been outspoken in his criticism of the McNeil government’s policies with respect to the creative economy, particularly after last April’s budget that dismantled Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia, failed to implement a sound recording tax credit as the Liberals had promised, and did away with the film tax credit. For example, on April 15, 2015, Baillie rose in the House of Assembly and made the following statement:

“Mr. Speaker, the short-sighted action of the McNeil Liberals is putting in jeopardy 2,700 jobs and an entire young industry. The Premier and Minister of Finance and Treasury Board want to talk about their decision to wipe out the film industry only in terms of tax formulas. They should know there is a human cost to their actions. The industry told the Minister of Finance and Treasury Board yesterday that this plan is not workable. Today we will tell the stories of the producers, directors, caterers, costume designers, and makeup artists, who feel let down by a broken Liberal promise and abandoned by a government that doesn’t see the value of their work. These are real people who are angry and frustrated at the thought of leaving an industry they have built to find work in another province.”

I wanted to give Mr. Baillie the same opportunity as I had given the NDP leadership contenders to set out his views on these questions critical to so many Nova Scotians. Here is his reply.

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Beyond the Ropes: An Interview with WrestleCentre’s Tyler Burns

Many Nova Scotians are unfamiliar with our province’s role in wrestling history. Several big names and legends in the professional wrestling business performed in our province for decades. Major changes came about in the 1980s when the WWF (now known as WWE) began competing for the attention of a national audience, both in Canada and the United States. Before this happened, the wrestling business operated in specific territories, most of which eventually went out of business or were significantly marginalized when cable television and pay-per-view events allowed for the monopolization of the market.

While the WWE is now a global entertainment empire, local wrestling territories have made a comeback in recent years, in what are commonly known in the business as “the independents”. There is a promotion running here on the East Coast known as WrestleCentre which showcases not only local talent but big names recognized internationally among wrestling fans. As a longtime fan, I wanted to ask WrestleCentre’s creative writer and producer, Tyler Burns, a few questions. Here is our conversation.

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