Save Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes

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Canoeists on Susies Lake, one of several Birch Cove Lakes put in danger by facilitator’s report. Photo by Irwin Barrett. Used with permission.

Here is my open letter to Mayor Mike Savage and Halifax councillors.

Dear Mayor Savage and Councillors,

From the moment I took my first hike in the Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes wilderness area, I was amazed by the beauty of the landscape. With all the lakes, trees, streams, and rock outcroppings providing stunning views, it was pure Canadiana in all its splendour.

I fear with the recent facilitator’s report that some councillors will forget about the promise that was made by council to create an urban wilderness park in conjunction with the province. I also fear that Council is not fully aware of the tremendous opportunity that will be lost. The Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes Regional Park is an opportunity to create a mini-Kejimkujik within our city limits.

It would be a tremendous recreational destination that would be accessible to all in Halifax because one could get to it on a city bus. Once there, one could enjoy a quick paddle or rent a canoe. There is a portage route around the lakes that provides the quintessential Canadian experience right in our backyard. We need to preserve this and promote it, not allow more urban sprawl.

No decision to set land aside for parkland is ever regretted. Point Pleasant Park, Shubie Park, Hemlock Ravine, and Fleming Park are just a few of the cherished parks we have in our city.

The recent facilitator’s report failed to achieve its stated objective or even meet the stated terms of reference. Please reject it and do not enter into any secondary planning with the landowners. Instead, I urge Council to purchase these lands and make this park a reality. If you do, it will be your finest accomplishment and a legacy for which future generations will thank you.

Sincerely,

Ryan Van Horne

NOTE: If you would like to learn more about this issue, please go to this link on the city’s webpage and read the facilitator’s report. If you would like to make your own comment, you can e-mail directly to clerks@halifax.ca or use this link provided by CPAWS, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

IKEA’s dark secret

Ikea

Count me among the group that doesn’t give a tinker’s damn that IKEA is returning to Dartmouth.

Dartmouth, which is part of Atlantic Canada’s largest metropolitan area, has gone absolutely agog since the giant retailer has announced they’re going to set up shop here again after a 25-year absence.

I wasn’t around in the early 60s when The Beatles first came to North America, but I’ve seen video and pictures. Some people are that excited and I guess that’s their prerogative, but the disappointing thing is how some media outlets are treating this like it’s news.

IKEA is the “least sustainable retailer on the planet” says Wig Zamore,  an urban development expert trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If you look past the thin veneer of their slick marketing campaign, you’ll realize that they are just like Wal-Mart, but without the image problem. That’s right, IKEA is Wal-Mart with a little Scandinavian élan.

The only time I ever shopped at IKEA was when I was a student back in the 80s. I bought a shelf there and I still have it, despite repeated suggestions from people I live with to throw it out. I have refused, a concept which completely undermines their business model that is designed around cheap, throw-away furniture.

My shelf still works. Its pine arms have not gotten tired and it still holds things up in my basement. If I ever need to replace it, I won’t be going back there for a new one after reading this excellent takedown in The Globe and Mail. It’s an excerpt from Ellen Ruppel Shell’s book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture (Penguin, 2009).

Read it all the way through, and I hope that it makes you think before you decide to shop at IKEA. It’s a free country and I understand the difficulty of trying to make ends meet, but how we shop shapes the world we live in. When you spend your money, you’re voting on the type of economy you want. There is no such thing as cheap. There are always costs, it’s just that some of them are hidden from your view.

Nova Scotia Power parent company doubles in size

The Nova Scotia power generating station at Tufts Cove on the Dartmouth waterfront.

The Nova Scotia power generating station at Tufts Cove on the Dartmouth waterfront.

While most Nova Scotians were getting ready to celebrate the last long weekend of summer, executives at Emera Inc. were stuck in the office working late on Friday.

Don’t feel too bad, though, the hard-working executives at Emera are richly rewarded. CEO Chris Huskilson earned a cool $4.6 million last year, so it’s not unreasonable to expect him to put in a few hours of overtime – even on a Friday before Labour Day weekend.

Emera, which is the parent company of Nova Scotia’s venerable electrical utility, was announcing a bit of a milestone. It had a conference call at 7 p.m. Friday evening, but once that conference call was over, I’m hoping that they popped the cork on a bottle of champagne (or better yet, Nova 7) and celebrated.

On Friday, Emera Inc. doubled in size. It purchased Florida-based TECO Energy Inc. for $10.4 billion, a price that includes $6.5 billion for the company and the assumption of $3.9 billion in debt, according to Bloomberg. TECO investors will receive $27.55 per share – a 48 per cent premium based on the company’s July 15 closing price.

It is Emera’s biggest purchase and means that it will have assets of $20 billion, with U.S. operations making up 71 per cent of its earnings.

Timothy Winter, an analyst at Gabelli & Co. in Rye, N.Y., gave an interesting quote to Bloomberg on Friday.

“It is a healthy price,” he said before adding that Emera, along with other Canadian utilities show a common trait when making foreign acquisitions: They “tend to pay a reasonable price to make shareholders happy.”

Isn’t that nice? Not only does Emera Inc. ensure that its shareholders are happy, they make sure that when they takeover an electrical utility in Florida, their shareholders are happy, too. Print that quote off and when that cold north wind blows this winter, read it to get that nice warm fuzzy feeling you won’t get from your electric baseboard heater.

It’s an amazing move for the once little-holding company that could, so I wondered why they issued their news release at 4:45 p.m. on Friday before a long weekend. This isn’t the sort of deal that gets whipped up in an afternoon or even a week, so I know that the timing of that release was carefully chosen.

Cynical journalists have long suspected that people trying to hide “bad news” always release it on the Friday afternoon before a long weekend. Since I cannot imagine why Emera would want to downplay its purchase of TECO Energy, I am left to assume that this is just another example of Canadian modesty.

Instead of trumpeting their corporate exploit, the demure Emera executives chose to time the announcement for when it would generate the least amount of news coverage. No doubt, they must have been blushing when they still received attention from the CBC, The Chronicle Herald, Bloomberg, and the Tampa Bay Times.

Emera Inc. is an amazing and improbable success story that would make Rumpelstiltskin proud. Rumpelstiltskin, an imp-like creature who could spin straw into gold in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, would admire Huskilson, the genius who orchestrated the latter stages of Nova Scotia Power’s transition from a money-losing Crown corporation that amassed $4 billion in debt to what it is today, just 23 years after privatization.

Thankfully, Nova Scotian taxpayers were off the hook for that debt as it netted about $4 billion from the sale of Nova Scotia Power in 1992, but wouldn’t it be great if instead of a Florida utility’s debt getting paid off, some of Nova Scotia’s $15-billion provincial debt could have been paid? And wouldn’t it also be great if instead of investing in foreign utilities, Emera would invest in Nova Scotia and accelerate Nova Scotia’s Power’s switch to renewable energy?

There’s no doubt in my mind that unless it was freed from bureaucratic shackles, Nova Scotia Power would not have become the revenue-generating entity that it is today. There is also no doubt in my mind that were it not for legal requirements to generate renewable energy, the utility would have continued burning coal – or whatever fuel was cheapest – regardless of the consequences to the environment and the climate.

So, while global warming forces people in Florida to either crank up their air conditioners or run sump pumps to empty their flooded basements after yet another hurricane, be confident in the knowledge that a Nova Scotia-based company is making money for Emera shareholders off of that. Remember, too, that while Nova Scotia Power’s rate of return is regulated, the effect of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not and that global warming continues unabated. While ocean levels are rising, the water in the ocean is getting more acidic because it is absorbing more carbon, and glaciers are melting, the switch to renewable energy lags behind where it needs to be.

Finally, when you get that disconnection notice in the mail this winter, don’t seethe with anger. Suck it up and pay it off, even if it means going hungry or not buying warm winter coats for your kids.

You are supporting that once-little holding company that could. Channel your inner jingoist and revel in the fact that a Canadian-based company has bought a big American utility like TECO Energy and is now one of the 20 largest energy utilities in North America.

I’m sure Emera won’t stop there, either. It is building an empire that could potentially span the globe, or at least the parts of it that don’t have salty fog.

Accused in Rehtaeh Parsons case set free

rehtaeh parsons

The boy who took the picture used to shame Rehtaeh Parsons was set free today and won’t spend a day in jail.

The accused, now 20, pleaded guilty in September to production of child pornography. He took a picture of Rehtaeh Parsons and his co-accused. Parsons was puking out a window while the other boy mugged for the camera and gave a thumbs-up sign. Despite admitting his guilt, he won’t go to jail and will have 12 months to meet certain conditions. If he meets them, he will receive a conditional discharge. He will not be put on probation.

Some will say this is a travesty of justice, but Glen Canning – Rehtaeh’s dad – said there won’t be justice until there are charges of sexual assault in the case.

The most telling moment of today’s sentencing came when Judge Greg Lenehan said the 20-year-old Eastern Shore man who took the picture should have known better and told him to consider what he would have wanted someone else to do if it was his sister being violated while she was puking out the window.

“The image you took is an example of the objectification of girls and women,” Lenehan said to him.

The accused shifted uncomfortably on the bench and looked nervous. Then muscles on his face twitched as he seemed to realize the cruelty of what he did.

Lenehan told him he “should never forget the promising, vibrant young life that was eventually destroyed by his choice to record an act of sexual degradation.”

“You did, in a few seconds, set in motion a series of events that led to a great deal of shame, humiliation, anger, despair, anguish, loss, hurt, and destruction for Ms. Parsons, her family, you, your family, and for the entire community.”

Lenehan told him the moment he captured on camera was “not a trophy moment, but that is certainly what it was portrayed as.”

In the era of cellphones when people seem to document everything, this was not a moment to be documented, the judge said.

Despite the tragic impact of the accused’s actions, Lenehan said he had to take into consideration the prime purpose of Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act, which emphasizes rehabilitation and reintegration into society. The accused, who was 17 at the time of the incident three years ago, has already shown signs of doing that.

“I accept that he is genuinely remorseful. I think he is quite sickened by the realization that his decision eventually led Rehtaeh Parsons to fall into the deep dark hole of despair from which she could not extricate herself. His actions led to a series of events that eventually drained her of her very essence.”

The accused has been suffering from anxiety and insomnia since the death of Rehtaeh Parsons in April 2013. Lenehan said the accused’s confession to police in August 2013 and his guilty plea on Sept. 22 are all factors that bode well for his rehabilitation. He has a full-time job, has not been in trouble with the law since the incident, nor was he ever in trouble with the law before that.

“This is a very difficult sentencing,” Lenehan said. “Nothing I can do can compensate for her tragic loss of life. There is no measure that could ever properly reflect her value.”

Despite the public calls for revenge, he stressed youth court is “not a court of retribution” and so gave the youth a conditional discharge while imposing some conditions. The accused must seek counselling for 12 months, provide a DNA sample, and write an apology to Rehtaeh Parsons’ parents.

“You are also required to locate and attend, successfully complete a course on sexual harassment,” Lenehan said. “It’s vitally important that you understand how you can interact and treat all females as you go forward.”

“I do not want to hamstring you. I do want to encourage you to become a productive member of society. I want you to be the type of young man that if you ever see somebody humiliating or treating a girl or a woman in any fashion that would call into question their dignity or worth, that you would not stand by and be an observer; that you would be the type of person that would say ‘This needs to stop’ and you would stop it.”

The other accused in this case will stand trial on distribution of child pornography charges on Nov. 24. His father was in court watching today’s proceedings.

Radio interview about publication ban

Rick Howe had me on his show this afternoon. I agreed not to mention Rehtaeh Parsons’ name during the interview, but that is the case we are talking about.

If you’d like to listen, here’s a link.

Publication ban is pointless

Canning Parsons

Glen Canning (left) and Leah Parsons have fought to keep their daughter’s name alive.

One of the beauties of being a freelancer is that I don’t have to worry about consulting lawyers or publishers, I can just follow my gut and do what a journalist is supposed to do.

To paraphrase the Mr. Dooley character of American humorist Finley Peter Dunne: It’s the job of journalists to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

Sometimes, you get the opportunity to do both and when those opportunities arise, you must seize them. Yesterday, more than any other day, it was important to use Rehtaeh Parsons’ name.

The guilty plea of one of the accused was validation for her and her family. Any journalist with a sense of public good would recognize that you’d need to link yesterday’s development back to April 2013, when the whole world knew her name and the eyes of the world were on Nova Scotia because of the failure of our justice system to lay any charges.

There was a clear purpose to my post and I’m not content to wait for politicians to change the law. I’m going to point out its flaws, why it needs to be amended, and why it should not apply in this case. I also consulted with Rehtaeh Parsons’ parents – Leah Parsons and Glen Canning — and got a blessing from both of them to break the ban.

Also, reading the judge’s decision from May gave me confidence that it was a pretty safe path if I chose my steps carefully. I was not flouting it just for the sake of flouting it. Former colleague Stephen Kimber, a professor of journalism at King’s College, suggested in a Facebook discussion that “there’s a danger when we start violating bans because we believe it’s wrong in one particular instance.”

“What if another reporter decides to name an alleged rape victim, or a child abuse victim because they think it’s justified. Do we get to decide when the law applies and when it doesn’t? And, given that everyone already knows who the victim is in this case, is it really necessary to break the ban to make the argument it is wrong here, or to write in a way that makes the connections for the reader without specifically naming the victim?”

In this case, I take to heart the comments made by Judge Jamie Campbell when he wrote in his decision: “It’s a ban that everyone wants, just not in this case.”

To see Judge Campbell’s decision, click here.

Clearly, it’s a good law, but it just doesn’t work in this instance. A judge, our director of public prosecutions, and our Attorney General had an opportunity to fix that, but none took the opportunities available to them for various reasons. You say that “everyone” knows her name, but I think that only those closely connected to the case would make the crucial connection if not for the efforts of the victim’s parents — Glen Canning and Leah Parsons — who have been breaking the ban.

I’m not claiming the right for me or any other journalist to decide when the law applies and when it doesn’t. But remember, both of Rehtaeh’s parents opposed the ban and the Crown fought it, too. Also, when the Crown reviews a complaint — if there is one — they will consider the intent of Parliament in drafting the law, the wishes of the parents, and whether the public interest is served in prosecuting.

Precisely the things that I considered before writing the post.

Guilty plea in Rehtaeh Parsons case

rehtaeh parsons

Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide in April 2013. Her death helped spark a new police investigation.

A young man who took the picture used to shame and bully Rehtaeh Parsons has pleaded guilty to production of child pornography.

He admitted to taking the picture of another boy, a co-accused in the case, who was in the picture with Rehtaeh in November 2011 when he was 17 and Rehtaeh was 15. Neither of the accused, who were both under 18 at the time, can be named. Their identities are protected by the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Crown Attorney Alex Smith read an agreed statement of facts to Halifax Provincial Court Judge Greg Lenehan.

Smith describes the image which shows one boy, naked from the waist down, behind Rehtaeh and pressing his genital region up against her while giving a thumbs-up sign. Rehtaeh Parsons is naked from the waist down.

“At the time the photograph was taken, (one of the accused) was having sex with Rehtaeh Parsons as she was vomiting out the window,” Smith told the court.

The youth in court today faced charges of production and distribution of child pornography. The Crown dropped the charge of distribution.

Another boy, the one in the picture who is charged only with distribution of child pornography, is scheduled to go on trial in November.

There is also a publication ban on the identity of the victim, Rehtaeh Parsons, despite the opposition of the Crown Attorney and her parents. Four Nova Scotia media outlets fought the ban in May, but Judge Jamie Campbell said it was a statutory ban that he had to impose – even though it didn’t make sense because her name was already so well known. In reporting this story today, media outlets continue to observe the ban.

It is the law of the country and judges must do their duty and enforce the law passed by Parliament. That is why the judge cannot be faulted in this case.

This post respectfully disregards the publication ban because a greater public good is served by doing so.

There is a higher goal than upholding the law and that is justice; something that judges, especially those that practice judicial restraint, sometimes do not consider.

There is an oft-told story of a conversation between two great American jurists, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Learned Hand, who met for lunch one day.

As Holmes began to drive away, Hand implored him to “Do justice, sir, do justice!”

Holmes stopped and admonished his fellow judge with this retort: “That is not my job. It is my job to apply the law.”

In the absence of an activist judge, or an Attorney General or Director of Public Prosecutions willing to make a public pronouncement that no charges will be laid in this case, it is left to the media to wonder about the safety of violating the ban.

Henry David Thoreau, in his essay Civil Disobedience, encouraged people to disobey what he called “unjust laws.”

Thoreau wrote: “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”

Let me be clear. It’s not that this law is unjust. It is that it is unjust in this case and should be ignored.

Clearly, this is an exception that Parliament did not think of when they passed the law and they need to amend it.

Lastly, there is a clause in the Youth Criminal Justice Act that allows for the parents of a victim to waive the privacy rights of their children. Glen Canning and Leah Parsons have done so in this case, but Judge Campbell chose not to accept that argument, saying that the Criminal Code provision wins the day – even though it doesn’t really make any sense in this case. See decision here.

Rehtaeh Parsons’ name brings power to any discussion about sexual consent, cyber-bullying, and suicide prevention. Her case prompted important legal reforms in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada. The federal government, which is working on passing Bill C-13 to counter cyber-bullying, is doing so partly because of what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons.

Most importantly, this change of plea needs to be connected to the case at a time when publication of her name was permitted.

Why?

Because of the way the police and the Public Prosecution Service handled the case. Initially, the police focussed their investigation — such as it was — on sexual assault after an incident in November 2011. They spent most of their early efforts investigating Rehtaeh and took a long time – several months – before interviewing the four teenage boys alleged to have raped her when she was extremely intoxicated.

The Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service reviewed the case, but didn’t lay charges because there wasn’t a strong enough likelihood of a conviction. It was dubbed a “he said, she said” case amid claims that Rehtaeh had made advances, or at least appeared willing earlier in the evening.

By the time the picture was taken, as the agreed statement of facts read into court today would indicate, Rehtaeh was not in any state to be consenting to sex.

Amazingly, the existence of a photograph of a minor engaged in a sexual act did not spark law enforcement professionals involved in the investigation to consider laying a charge of production and distribution of child pornography. Canning said police and school officials knew of the photo’s existence within a week of it being taken.

“They allowed this image to spread even knowing that this was child pornography. They knew who had it and who was doing it and there was nothing done to stop it,” he said. “Every time it was shared, it victimized Rehtaeh.”

The photo spread like wildfire through her community in a suburb of Halifax. Fellow students called Rehtaeh Parsons a slut and some total strangers texted her and asked her if she wanted to have sex with them. The bullying became too much so she switched schools and sought counselling. She claimed she was raped, but no charges were laid and this added to the grief. She struggled for months, but in April 2013, she committed suicide by hanging herself in the bathroom with a belt.

Her case attracted worldwide attention and even prompted the intervention of Anonymous, who started #OpJustice4Rehtaeh to get the police to reopen the case. The police reopened the case and, amid the furor, some people defended the four boys saying that the sex was consensual.

Within a few months, the police laid charges of production and distribution of child pornography against two of the four boys, but some claimed it was just a way to put an end to mounting public pressure.

Today’s guilty plea should put an end to those claims.

When Judge Greg Lenehan told the young man to meet with a probation officer and cooperate with them in the preparation of a pre-sentence report, he responded in a subdued voice. “Yes, sir.”

He is scheduled to return to court for sentencing on Nov. 13.

For Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mother, nothing will ever bring her daughter back. But keeping her memory alive and using it to make some important changes, means a great deal to her.

“None of it is enough, but the fact that he’s pleading guilty is some consolation,” she said. “I do feel some solace in that she just wanted to be validated and she wanted people to know that this actually happened to her.”