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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“First Features” Film Series Begins at Dalhousie Art Gallery

A new film series begins at the Dalhousie Art Gallery this Wednesday evening (January 18th), curated by my good friend and colleague Ron Foley Macdonald. This time out Ron has created an eclectic program of “first features” by well known film directors. As Ron puts it in his write-up for the program:

“Some directors arrive fully formed on their debut features. Others never recover. In this survey of first features, we begin with one of the greatest motion pictures of all time,Citizen Kane, and then progress to more contemporary times where some directors—Duncan Tucker and Transamerica, for example—disappear from the scene after tackling some exceptional subject matter. Female directors and stories of gender determination dominate more modern times; Art House staple directors such as Lars von Trier (The Element of Crime) and Andrei Tarkovsky (Ivan’s Childhood) help anchor the series to the traditions of ‘serious’ cinema, while other directors’ debuts mark them for ‘serious’ Hollywood success.”

All of the screenings start at 8 pm, and are free to the public. If you’re a filmmaker, or someone who wants to become one, you should make a point of going to as many screenings as you can. It’s like a masterclass in how to make a film, enhanced each time by Ron’s introduction.

Here is the schedule, with Ron’s notes. The series begins with Citizen Kane, a film that many people consider the greatest film of all time – which makes for quite the first feature, indeed – although there is a group of Kane admirers who believe that The Magnificent Ambersons was actually Welles’ best film.

Let the debates begin!

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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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Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”

Bruce Springsteen’s new memoir, “Born to Run,” tells the tale of a man consumed by ambition and tough clawing towards the goal of making a living in music. There are plenty of hard lessons, as band-mates get tossed, nameless girlfriends appear as pit-stops along the way, and friends are measured by how they can be used to build up a career, but what dominates is a drive to succeed, rather than any particular insight.

While the book disappoints in one way, it does cruise onward with an unstoppable sense of forward motion. There’s a powerful therapeutic reasoning behind Springsteen’s writing, as he tries to understand his father’s inarticulateness that rode the edge between the repression of the 1950s and the growing counterculture of the 1960s.

In between various levels of success, the book details a battle with late-onset depression. It seems something of a sideshow to the main narrative of the music, but the tension involved does provide for a sense of ongoing drama.

At times, like in his artistic career, Springsteen strains for significance. I always preferred his throwaway pop material, like the stuff he wrote for the Pointer Sisters (“Fire”) and the two albums for old-school rocker Gary ‘US’ Bonds, where music is fun, disposable and untethered to stories about lost dreams and crummy economies. But Springsteen himself clearly wants to be taken seriously, hence the epic reach of the tome.

Still, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” is a gripping page-turner that rates as essential reading for any and all of his fans. Those interested in popular culture and autobiographies in general should find it both satisfying and illuminating.

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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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Inside “Head Space” with Nicole Steeves & Struan Sutherland

I first met Nicole Steeves in 2012 when my friend John Rosborough recommended her for a leading role in a low budget feature film I was directing called The Cuckoo in the Clock. We wound up casting her, and she did such a good job that I cast her again the following year when I made my next feature film, Roundabout, and she turned in another fine performance.

As talented as she is in front of the camera, however, Nicole also has a passion for working behind the camera, particularly for writing and directing, so I was pleased to hear in April that she had been selected as one of the five recipients for the 1K WAVE Atlantic program. The initiative, which is sponsored by Women in Film and Television Atlantic (WIFT-AT) and pUNK Films, provides an opportunity for five female filmmakers the opportunity to make a feature film under the guidance of industry mentors. Projects can be any genre, from narrative fiction to documentary to experimental. The budget? $1,000.

That’s right. $1,000.

Let me just say that the prospect of making a quality feature film for $1,000 is… well, the polite word would be “daunting.” Even most independent films will spend that much just on catering and food for cast and crew alone. To shoot an entire film with just a grand? I’m not sure most filmmakers I know could pull that off – including me!

But Nicole has done just that with her debut feature film Head Space. She was kind enough to let me have an advance look at the film, which premieres at the 2016 Atlantic Film Festival. Displaying the same commitment, creativity and resilience that I saw in her work on both The Cuckoo in the Clock and Roundabout, she has crafted a strange, off-kilter and utterly affecting low-fi film that punches well above its budgetary weight. Yes, there are some rough edges, but that’s part of its charm.

It’s a comedy, but it definitely inhabits the darker corners of the room, sliding and shifting just outside the warm and fuzzy laugh-track light of more mainstream fare. The film is anchored by a convincing performance from Struan Sutherland as Floyd, an agoraphobic with no intention of ever leaving his basement. His past as a comedian and TV pitch-man has left him broken and unable to face the outside world. Sutherland spends much of the film either alone or acting with a headless mannequin as his scene partner, and he brings a real sense of understated pathos to a role that could have easily been overplayed. When they consider who should win the best actor award at the Atlantic Film Festival this year, he merits strong consideration.

After watching Head Space, I asked Nicole if she would be willing to sit down and talk about the film for View 902. She readily agreed, and brought Struan along as well, which made perfect sense – as you’ll see, they are very much a creative team.

Here is my interview with Nicole and Struan, conducted at the Humani-T Cafe in the North End of Halifax on Tuesday, August 30th.

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Bruce McDonald’s “Weirdos” is a Wonderful Paean to Can-Con Identity

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky to see a sneak preview of the new Bruce McDonald film Weirdos courtesy of my cousin Mark Almon, who was one of the producers of the film.

While there are many fascinating angles to talk about in what is a wonderful film overall, the one that stood out to me perhaps the most is the theme of English Canadian nationalism, which is expressed visually through constant background coverage of the US Bicentennial celebrations (the story is set over the July 1st to July 4th weekend of 1976) and then contrasted by the constant audio of early and mid-1970s “Can-Con” pop radio that pours joyously out of the various cars that transport the young characters from place to place in the film.

While there has always been a unique vitality to French Canadian nationalism, the response from the English side of the equation has often been marginalized in the broader transatlantic imperial Anglo-Saxon monoculture. As a result, it was for many years reduced to a small but important stream: the Confederation Poets, the Group of Seven, and the CBC and the National Film Board in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In 1970, the iconoclastic Don Shebib film Goin’ Down the Road added to the mix.

English Canadian nationalism’s ground zero in the 1960s was marked by the Halifax philosopher George Parkin Grant’s 1965 book Lament For A Nation. It set forth the argument that English Canada was doomed to vanish into the great mush of the endless dynamic of America’s dominant culture.

The book, posted on the Literary Review of Canada’s 2005 “Most Important 100 Canadian Books Ever” list, challenged a generation of nascent nationalists to prove Grant wrong. Inspiring the likes of Margaret Atwood and James Laxer, a new English Canadian nationalism did eventually arise, but it was rarely expressed in the broader popular culture.

Except in pop music.

Eclectic. Distinct. Glorious. Catchy. Irresistible.

It was, culturally, the only thing that seemed to be ours.

It’s all there, raging in the background of Weirdos, a quintessentially Canadian film in the very best sense, and that you positively have to see… and hear!

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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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It’s Time to Abolish the Maritime Film Classification Board

Last month’s announcement that the beloved and long-running Quinpool Road film rental store Video Difference, along with its Bedford satellite site, will shut down August 20th and sell off its stock of films brought a range of emotions from its customers.

The store was acclaimed as classy and well-run with a reputation for service and selection. A victim of changing times – like the blacksmith shops of a hundred years ago – the closing of Video Difference marks the end of an age.

With any luck, a bit of long-overdue collateral damage should be the Maritime Film Classification Board. The agency of the provincial government that issues ratings for theatrically played films and video store selections, the MFCB has lost about half of its rather thin reason to exist with the closure of last major video rental store in Halifax.

The system is a dinosaur – a relic from a bygone era. If we really need ratings (a debatable point in the era of free-flowing online information), they can come from either Ontario, or the MPAA in the United States. Nobody needs Nova Scotian film ratings anymore. The old saw of “Community Standards” has been eclipsed by the flood of material on the Internet. Besides, “Community Standards” always brought up the question of “whose community, whose standards?”

So with only three hundred or so films to be classified from now on, it’s time for the Maritime Film Classification Board to be put to bed.


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Barbara Hannigan Awarded the Order of Canada

Barbara Hannigan has been awarded the Order of Canada for her achievements in singing and conducting classical music in some of the world’s most important venues.

Hannigan was born in Nova Scotia in 1971 and raised in Waverley, at the time a small village just outside of Dartmouth. I first came across her name a few years ago while checking out recent post-modernist releases on the web. In 2013, she recorded the premiere of French composer Henri Dutilleux’s massive piece Correspondances. It won the Gramophone ‘Recording of the Year Award’.

To think that the East Coast’s classical music scene produced one of the world’s great contemporary music talents provides one of those sobering moments in the arts out here. Hannigan may be less well known to casual listeners than Waverley’s other great musical export, April Wine’s Myles Goodwyn, but there is no question about her monumental achievements.

Hannigan studied in Nova Scotia until she was 17. She moved on to the University of Toronto before plying her trade mostly in Europe. Still, this should prove something of a rallying point for Halifax’s under-reported classical music scene, as well as the often neglected cause of teaching music in the school system.

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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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The Annie Leibovitz photos and the Art Gallery Of Nova Scotia

June 2013, saw one of the most exciting announcements ever come out of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia: The donation of a huge cache (1,307 in total) of famed photographer Annie Leibovitz’s original photographs to our regional art museum. Included in the collection, which numbers over 2,000 prints, are some of Leibovitz’s most iconic images: John Lennon and Yoko Ono, taken just hours before he was killed; the naked and pregnant Demi Moore; Queen Elizabeth II; the Blues Brothers. It is reportedly worth $20 million.

The buzz created by the deal went national and international. Clearly, the AGNS had lucked into a wonderful blast of philanthropy from the collection’s owners, the family of Al and the late Faye Mintz, who were looking for a smaller gallery as a home for a sure-to-be popular attraction. In 2013, AGNS CEO Ray Cronin called the photos “one of the most transformative additions to the collection” and that they would probably be exhibited in 2014.

Since the initial news release, however, what should have been a great story has turned sour. 2014 came and went, as did 2015, and now almost half of 2016, and there is still no established date for the exhibition of Leibovitz’s pictures. In the meantime, Ray Cronin has been let go as CEO and nobody seems to know what exactly is going on at the AGNS.

Whether we see the explanation before we see the Annie Leibovitz photos that were donated by the Mintz family is an open, ongoing question.

How something that began with such goodwill could end so badly casts a long shadow of over the whole of Nova Scotia’s cultural sector.

Questions of accountability and competence are at the heart of the matter.

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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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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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The Liberal Government’s Nova Scotia Film Industry Debacle – One Year Later

A year ago this coming Saturday the NS government released its 2015-16 budget, which contained measures (the elimination of Film & Creative Industries Nova Scotia, the dismantling of the film financing system, including the tax credit and equity investments) that devastated the industry.

On the “almost anniversary” of that disastrous decision, I think it’s worth taking a look at an internal government document that shows exactly how good the film and television industry – as structured prior to the changes by the Liberals – was for the Province.

Accordingly, here is the 2010-11 business plan for Film Nova Scotia (which later became FCINS), which shows in detail (a) a Crown agency that actually worked, and was committed and knowledgeable about its brief, and (b) statistics, from the government itself, showing the value of the industry, on many levels.

One can have a reasonable debate about whether the tax credit rate had gotten too high (I believe it should have been reduced); one can have a reasonable debate about what kind of industry we should have been focusing on (I believe we should have been placing greater focus on local production, and less on courting come-from-away service production). Indeed, one can have a reasoned debate about all sorts of things with respect to film financing policy.

The one thing for which there can be no reasoned debate is the nature of the system that had been carefully built up for twenty years, by all parties (Liberal, Progressive Conservative, and NDP), and which was destroyed a year ago by the McNeil government. The system worked. It created an industry that rarest if things these days – a Nova Scotia success story.

Throughout this entire debacle, the Liberal government has shown a stunning lack of vision, made a series of broken promises, and evidenced a fundamental failure to be honest with the citizens of Nova Scotia about the value of the industry and the nature of the system that supported it and which they destroyed.

It is a damning indictment of their inability to govern effectively, and in good faith.

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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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Our Favourite Songs by Nova Scotians

Since Ron and I posted our picks for the top 20 albums by Nova Scotians a few weeks ago, we’ve been having a lively debate between ourselves about individual songs by our fellow Bluenosers. We decided to do things a bit differently – this time out we have tossed critical objectivity out the proverbial window in favour of embracing our own feelings. Accordingly, we each agreed to pick our favourite five songs based solely on our own idiosyncratic points of view… and then we added five more that were “honourable mentions,” because we both found it too difficult to winnow it down to just a quintet!

These are the songs that we love the most, for reasons that we each briefly describe as best we can. It can be hard even for practiced wordsmiths like Ron and me to put feelings into words sometimes – how exactly, for example, do I describe the joy I feel when listening to “You Feel The Same Way Too” by the Rankin Family other than to say “it’s just so irresistibly fun”?

Speaking of the Rankins, it’s worth noting that Ron and I each chose a song by the first family of Nova Scotia music, and then I added another in my honourable mentions. He and I might be rockers at heart, but neither of us can resist the wonderful song craft and pure joie de vivre of the clan from Cape Breton.

Our lists include an eclectic mix of songs by Sloan, Wintersleep, Matt Mays, Four The Moment, Rose Cousins, and more. As always, we view it as a starting point for a conversation. Leave a comment and tell us your “fab five”!

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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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Pioneering Canadian Filmmaker Don Owen Dies at 84

One of English Canada’s pioneering filmmakers, Don Owen, died at age 84 on February 21st.

While Owen made his films mostly in Toronto and Montreal in the 1960s, ‘70s and 80s, he lived in Halifax for almost a decade after he finished his final feature, Turnabout, in 1988, which screened at that year’s Atlantic Film Festival. He made his mark mostly at the National Film Board of Canada, particularly with the breakout feature Nobody Waved Goodbye, a 1964 long-form film that gained international acclaim and distribution in the US, at rarity at the time. Judith Crist of the New York Herald Tribune called it “a remarkable film,” and the New York Post hailed the film as “a masterpiece.”

Don Owen was a colourful character, generous with his opinions and time. His cinematic legacy, celebrated during his lifetime, will undoubtedly endure.

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Fixing the Nova Scotia Film Industry

Several weeks ago I was contacted by an old friend who works the back-rooms of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party when he isn’t working in one of the bright and shiny waterfront towers in downtown Halifax. He wanted to get my thoughts on what he called “the Chinese water torture” that has become the Nova Scotia film industry controversy. As I’m always happy to pontificate if someone else is buying the coffee, and because I hadn’t seen my friend in a while, I readily agreed to sit down and chat.

What follows is a summary of a fairly long and involved back and forth. My answer was simple: fix the industry by lifting the cap on the incentive fund that replaced the film tax credit, and by closing the gap in financing that was created by the loss of equity investment for local productions when Film and Creative Industries was closed last April.

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The Nova Scotia NDP Leadership Candidates on Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy

The Nova Scotia New Democratic Party is currently in the final two weeks of a long leadership campaign to determine who will be elected the next leader of the Party. Three candidates entered the race and are now nearing the finish line (voting commences on February 15th and runs until February 27th):

1. Gary Burrill, the MLA from Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley 2009 until 2013.

2. Dave Wilson, the MLA for Sackville-Cobequid since 2003; Wilson served as a cabinet minister in the NDP government from 2011 until 2013, and is the current House Leader for the NDP; and

3. Lenore Zann, the MLA from Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River since 2009, and the current Deputy House Leader for the NDP.

The NDP government from 2009 until 2013 had some significant achievements in terms of policy surrounding the creative economy, and arts & culture in general. From the restoration of the Nova Scotia Arts Council and the passing of the Status of the Artist Act to the establishment of Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia and the Creative Nova Scotia Leadership Council, the NDP government consistently prioritized arts and culture as part of their overall agenda. Unfortunately, much of their work has been undone by the austerity government of Stephen McNeil and the Liberals that defeated the NDP in the 2013 general election. The funding system for the film and television industry has been completely dismantled and replaced with a fund that is simply not working despite the best efforts of the bureaucrats who have been charged with its administration. Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia has been dissolved. Many artists across the Province feel as if the government no longer values their contribution to society in general, and to the economy in particular.

Accordingly, we here at View 902 thought we would take the opportunity to ask the candidates a few questions about what plan they have for the future of arts & culture and the creative economy in Nova Scotia.

Here are their replies.

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