Monday, June 8, 2020

Changing Our Priorities on Policing

Dear Mayor and Council.

I am writing to you as the Halifax Regional Municipality is faced with significant budget constraints brought on by COVID-19, to urge you to begin changing the way the City approaches community safety and law enforcement, and begin reallocating funding from the Halifax Regional Police to other community safety initiatives. I would urge you to start by restoring the full budget cut of $5.5 million proposed for the Halifax Regional Police, and allocating the $2 million in savings that was identified to other community health and safety initiatives.

As a citizen, I have grown increasingly concerned about the effectiveness of our current approach to law enforcement, and particularly the negative impacts it has on African Nova Scotians, Indigenous people, and racialized communities. 

From the Marshall Inquiry to the Wortley report, we have had numerous wake-up calls in terms of how racialized groups are often unfairly targeted by law enforcement and the justice system in Halifax and across Nova Scotia.

Recent events in the US have highlighted the dangers of police violence and police militarization. Closer to home, the tragic shooting of Chantel Moore underscores the problems of using police officers to conduct "wellness checks", and other functions they were never intended to carry out. 

I have a number of colleagues, friends, and family, who work in the criminal justice system. Their roles are varied, but they make similar observations about their work: that the vast majority of behaviour that the criminal justice system deals with is not rooted in ill intent, but is rooted in addiction and mental health issues, problems the criminal justice system is not well equipped to solve. As a result, we are often sending police officers to deal with problems they are not in a good position to deal with. We have, as one person put it, turned the police into "social workers with guns". This is an expensive solution with often disastrous results. We need to change our approach, and start transitioning from that form of policing, to broader community health and wellness initiatives. 

Councillors, you can't control many aspects of the justice system. But you do have control of one thing: police oversight, and the police budget. We are in a budget crisis, but in crisis comes opportunity. The opportunity to shift our priorities. The opportunity to do things differently. 

Chief Kinsella himself has said that the $5.5 million cut will not affect community safety. Take those savings and re-allocate them to initiatives that will make a difference: mental health and addiction services. Community based patrols (for a good example, see the work that the Bear Clan Patrol has done in urban centres and Indigenous communities in Western Canada). 

Start doing the things that will reduce our dependence on police, courts, and prisons to solve our social problems.If you do, we can emerge from this crisis as a stronger, healthier, and safer community. 


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Minister, You are Letting our Kids Down

Dear Minister Churchill,

I am writing to you today as a parent of two children in the public school system to express my extreme disappointment with how you and your government have handled the response of public schools to the COVID-19 crisis. 

First of all, I recognize that these have been challenging times for everyone in the Province. I am working hard to keep my business running and my wife is working to meet the demands of her job during this crisis, while also trying to keep our kids active, engaged, and learning from home. This has been a difficult balancing act. We also know that there are others facing far greater hardships than us.

Considering all of that, the lack of support for students and parents from the public school system in this Province has been staggering. 

The Premier announced the closure of Nova Scotia schools on March 15th, 2020. While most universities and private schools had online learning for their classes set up within days, it took until April 8th (three and a half weeks) for the public school system to have online learning in place, despite the fact that google classroom was already available and in use as a tool..

Our experience with online learning has been mixed. Our son's class has had twice weekly class sessions by video conference, and daily assignments which take up to an hour to complete, with limited parental guidance. This has provided our son with much-needed structure and opportunities to socialize with his classmates, both important at his age. It keeps him engaged, and allows us to complete our work as well. 

Our daughter's class has not had any group classroom sessions. They have had weekly one on one sessions for half an hour, and daily assignments, most of which have taken no more than five minutes to complete. They were provided with free access to a book website for 30 days, after which we had to pay for the subscription ourselves. She has been missing both structure and the opportunity to socialize with her classmates. This has directly affected both her mental health and ours. 

Other parents report mixed experiences, with some barely receiving any support at all. This suggests that teachers have not been given clear expectations regarding their work during COVID-19, and that not enough of them have been trained to use the tools that are available, like google classroom. Nor has the Province provided much in the way of resources to parents to support their kids in learning: No websites, no online subscriptions, and no materials. 

And what little support we were getting has been abruptly cut off. Your government recently announced that online learning would end on June 5th, three and a half weeks before the end of the school year, without any explanation as to how or why this decision was taken.

More recently, the website for registration for EXCEL has failed multiple times during registration, causing additional stress and uncertainty for parents, and wasting more of the little remaining free time that we have. 

The expectation seems to be that the kids can "catch up" if they go back to school in the Fall. Yet experts are predicting multiple waves of this disease, and it is entirely possible the kids may be sent home again for periods next year. It remains far from clear that the public school system is prepared for that eventuality. The experience to date inspires little confidence. 

Throughout this, communication from the Halifax Regional Centre for Education has been limited, sporadic, and often confusing. Communication from you as Minister has been virtually non-existent. I can only compare this to other Provinces like New Brunswick, where the Minister of Education has been front and centre in leading the response to COVID-19. Even the Prime Minister took the time to directly address students, and made an offer to assist with their homework. That token gesture is more help than we have received from your Department. 

Further, there has been little in the way of effort to solicit input from parents. School Advisory Councils are not operating, and neither the Department nor HRCE appear to have undertaken any widespread efforts to solicit parent feedback.

Minister, your government chose to take complete control of the school system, and abolish the school boards, eliminating the only direct link between parents, the public, and the governance of the school system. You own this problem now. This is your crisis to manage.

Either step up, or step aside. Because continuing to let our kids down is not an option.


Derek Simon
Dartmouth, NS

(This letter was sent to Minister Churchill on May 20th, 2020. I will keep you posted on any reply."

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Why Cornwallis Must Come Down: My Letter to Mayor and Council

Mayor and Councillors,

I am writing to you today in support of the motion to immediately remove the statue of Edward Cornwallis, to place it in temporary storage, while broader dialogue is undertaken with both the Assembly of Mi'kmaq Chiefs of Nova Scotia, and with the citizens of HRM.

On December 8, 2015, Halifax Regional Council unanimously adopted a statement of reconciliation, committing to  "a new equal partnership with Aboriginal people in Canada; one based on truth, dignity, and mutual respect."  

Indeed, Reconciliation is impossible without truth, even when those truths are difficult to face. There are some simple facts about our history that we need to acknowledge. For starters, that the Mi'kmaq were here, in this place, Kjipuktuk, for millennia before Cornwallis arrived. As the Mi'kmaq Chiefs wrote to Cornwallis in September, 1749:

"The place where you are, the place where you live, the place where you are building a fortification, the place where you want now to establish yourself, the place of which you want to make yourself the absolute master, this place belongs to me. I come out of this earth like a blade of grass, me, the Indian, I have been born there the son [and] from father to son. This place is my land, I swear it. It is God who has given me this land to be my homeland forever."

We also need to acknowledge that the founding of Halifax, without the consent of the Mi'kmaq, and in breach of the Treaties, provoked a six year war, with many casualties on both sides. And that the scalping proclamation was intended, in the words of Cornwallis himself to "destroy the savage commonly known as Micmac" and to "root the Micmac out of the peninsula", their homeland "decisively and forever". 

Unfortunately, many of us did not learn that history in school, and you would not learn it from visiting the Statue of Edward Cornwallis today, where his career is presented largely as one of unmitigated success.

If we are to achieve reconciliation, we must begin to acknowledge and educate people about those basic facts. For that reason, I think a process of broader public engagement and education is important.

But Statements of Reconciliation are also meaningless without action,  

The Mi'kmaq have sought justice and recognition of their rights since Cornwallis first arrived in this Harbour. There have been better periods in the relationship, such as the signing of the Treaty of 1761 at Governor's Farm (now the Courthosue on Spring Garden) with a ceremonial burying of the hatchet. And there have been darker period, the period after the founding of Halifax being among the worst.

It is true that we cannot change history. If Edward Cornwallis had sought the friendship and the consent of the Mi'kmaq before founding Halifax, our history might be very different today. We can't say for sure, and we can't change the past. What we can change is what aspects of the past we choose to celebrate, in a way that better reflects the relationships we want in the present.

What aspects of our history we celebrate say something about who we are, and the relationships we want to have. We need to acknowledge the difficult periods in our history in order to learn from them. Choosing to celebrate one of the worst periods in Mi'kmaq-British relations in Nova Scotia, while ignoring some of the moments of friendship and true treaty partnership, does not result in a balanced understanding of history, nor is not going to result in a relationship different than that which we have now.

We also cannot erase history. Like most, I want the full history of Cornwallis to be taught. We need to learn from our mistakes. But I do not think that a statue that honours him and celebrates his accomplishments while completely ignoring the terrible aspects of his legacy is teaching anyone anything of value.

If we want a better relationship with the Mi'kmaq, then we need to revisit the spirit of the Peace and Friendship Treaties that brought us together. We need to honour those ancestors who worked toward a better relationship, and not just those like Cornwallis, who said that "Treaties with the Indians are nothing, only force will prevail".

To improve that relationship, I think you need to take action, and honour the request of the Mi'kmaq to immediately remove the statue, and initiate a broader dialogue while we decide whether the statue can be placed in a more appropriate context, or whether it should be replaced entirely by something that better reflects our shared history.

As a father of two young children, both Mi'kmaw, I hope one day to be able to take them to what is now Cornwallis Park, and instead of a statue of a man who sought to exterminate their ancestors, to show them a monument that accurately honours and reflects our shared history (good and bad) and our shared aspirations.

I urge you to make history yourselves, and support this motion.

In Peace and Friendship,

Derek Simon
Dartmouth, NS

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Paradise Lost: The Evisceration of Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes Regional Park

Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes is a a paradise: a piece of wilderness the size of the Halifax peninsula, just 10 km from the downtown core. A mere bus ride away, it contains a series of lakes that form a complete canoe loop, and local non-profits are working to develop a trail system in the area. You can literally step into the forest behind the Kent in Bayers Lake, and lose yourself in wilderness. It's like a small piece of Kejimkujik in our backyard, and one of the many things that make Halifax a great place to live.

Most cities would give their right arm for a jewel like this: a near-urban wilderness tract that offers amazing outdoor recreational opportunities. As Tim Bousquet said in his 2009 article about the area, "It's hard to believe this place exists."

Unfortunately, this place may not exist as is much longer. Private landowners/developers are pushing to open up a significant portion of the Birch Cove Lakes to development, and the HRM is currently consulting on a facilitator's report that would allow them to do just that.

Blue Mountain and a portion of the Birch Cove Lakes are already protected as a provincial wilderness area, designated in 2009 and expanded in 2015. However, much of the remaining land is in private hands, some of it in prime lakefront or wilderness areas.

In the 2006 Regional Plan (updated in 2014), the HRM made clear its desire to create a Regional Park in Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes, identified park boundaries, with the intention that private land would be acquired for inclusion in the park. Private lands within the proposed park boundaries were designated "urban reserve", meaning they were not to be developed until at least 2031.

The facilitator's report is the result of a multi-year negotiation process between the HRM and developers in an attempt to determine the boundaries of the proposed regional park, and in particular, how much private land will be purchased and added to the park. Unfortunately and unusually, the facilitator seems to have come down pretty much entirely on the side of the developers. Her conclusions would use the park boundaries as proposed by the developers, which would open up most of the remaining lakes to development, defeating one of the main purposes in creating the park in the first place. It also seems to contemplate major infrastructure to make the park more "accessible" to the public, which seems inconsistent with much of the park's status as a wilderness area. Most alarmingly, it seems to propose opening up those private lands for immediate development, which is contrary to the Regional Plan.

While the report talks a great deal about "cost" and "economic feasibility" of the park, it makes little or no reference to ecological integrity, or to water quality, biodiversity or wilderness protection, which are the primary reasons for establishing the park in the first place. It ignores the huge public benefit that a park like this provides. It also glosses over the cost to the HRM of opening up these lands for development, and the benefit to the developer of the creation of a regional park on their doorstep. It ignores the fact that HRM already has enough land available for development to meet demand for the next 28 to 35 years. There is no need to open these particular lands up for development.

Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes is already under development pressure, and HRM already lost recreational opportunities when a popular mountain biking and hiking area was cleared to allow for further expansion of Bayers Lake.

However, the long fight to protect Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes is not over. There is a public presentation on the facilitator's report on Monday, June 20, 2016, at 7:00 p.m. at the Future Inns Aspin/Birch Room, 30 Fairfax Drive, Halifax, Nova Scotia. And we have until  3:00 p.m. on Monday, July 4, 2016 to submit your comments to the Municipal Clerk's office by fax, 902-490-4208; or by e-mail,

I also urge people to contact the Mayor, and their regional councillor, to let them know that both the process and the proposal are deeply flawed, and that they need to stand up for Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes, and a regional park that protects the entire area for now and for future generations. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to protect a jewel that most cities only dream of. Let's not let it slip through our grasp.

Monday, February 1, 2016

"Halifax is on a roll, and doesn't even know it"

There's been a lot of talk lately about reasons for leaving Halifax. Allison Sparling, who recently left the city for Toronto, penned a widely discussed blog post about the reasons she, like other young people, was leaving her hometown (she wrote an equally poignant piece about things she loves about Halifax, which didn't get enough attention). Lezlie Lowe published a piece in the Herald entitled "Halifax, please let me know: Should I stay or should I go?" capturing the tug of war that many young people feel between love of this town, and the perception of a lack of economic opportunity.

Those of you that know me know that while I am a fan of Halifax, I am not a cheerleader. If anything, at times I am quite critical of some of the city's failings. But sometimes, when being critical, one loses sight of the notion that criticism should really be aimed at making things better. Sometimes it's easy to lose sight of all the good things going on around us. And sometimes it takes someone from the outside looking in to give us a dose of perspective.

A few weeks ago, I had a twitter exchange with a law school classmate, who grew up in Halifax, but now lives in Toronto. He comes back to visit a couple of times a year, and had this to say: "I don't think [Halifax] realizes it, but it's kind of on a roll right now."

He went on to talk about how the new Library fills him with hope and pride. I don't think he's alone. The Library really is a remarkable public space, and an award-winning architectural jewel that has transformed the look and feel of Spring Garden Road.

But it's not the only great public space we've added in the past few years. When I first moved to Halifax, I remember people complaining about the lack of winter recreation opportunities in the Downtown. The Oval, built as a temporary facility for the Canada Games in 2011, was so unexpectedly popular with the public, it became a permanent fixture that filled that winter gap. The Commons, which used to get pretty desolate in the winter time, has been transformed into a year round playground.

The Waterfront has also seen some significant improvements, with more to come. In summertime, the boardwalk is a great place to sit and read or people watch, and there are few better places to sit and sip a beer on a sunny day than the Stillwell Beer Garden.

I think the proposal for the Khyber Building offers the opportunity for a similarly exceptional public space, this time for the arts community. These types of spaces will attract more people back to our downtown core, to live, work and play. Let's make it happen.

Similarly, in a city which has sometimes gone out of its way to erase neighbourhood identities, we have seen the resurgence of great neighbourhoods like the North End (which is really made up of a number of great neighbourhoods) and Downtown Dartmouth, both of which have been recognized as being among Canada's great neighbourhoods.

Another area in which Halifax has arguably been punching above its weight is the restaurant scene. For a city of our size, we really have some top notch chefs and restaurants: Edna, Gio, Agricola Street Brasserie, Chives and Bicycle Thief to name but a few. I've taken friends, family and colleagues from Toronto and Vancouver to restaurants that are on par with what's they are used to getting in bigger cities, often at a fraction of the price.

Yes, the selection of international food still leaves something to be desired: good Indian can be hard to come by, and options like Malaysian food are practically nonexistent. But with the proliferation of Thai, Korean and other foods, it's a far cry from the days when Alfredo, Weinstein and Ho's was considered exotic.

And while the explosion of craft brewing isn't unique to Nova Scotia (and arrived here a bit later than most places), our Province has really come into its own in the last few years. When I moved to Halifax 9 years ago, there were 3 craft breweries total. I now count 10 in HRM, and 25 across the Province, with seemingly more opening all the time. It really is an embarrassment of riches.

All of these things; good public spaces, good neighbourhoods, a vibrant food and drink scene, are important elements in making our city an attractive place to live.

This isn't to say we don't still face challenges. Nova Scotia continues to struggle economically and demographically, the only province to have negative population growth over the last few years. That being said, despite perceptions, Halifax has done reasonably well, with relatively low unemployment and relatively strong median income compared to similar sized cities.

There is no question that Halifax doesn't necessarily have the breadth of opportunity that bigger cities offer: that is partly a function of size. But sometimes being in a smaller centre offers opportunities that wouldn't exist elsewhere. I have friends that have leadership roles, that run organizations, that influence public policy, in a way that would not be possible in larger centres.

Our transportation system also needs work. Although Halifax enjoys a fairly high proportion of people who take transit or walk to work compared to similar Canadian cities, we continue to resist and delay improvements to transit and active transportation infrastructure. Between the recent uptick in pedestrian/car collisions, and the misguided government response, it's obvious we have some work to do to make travel in our city easy safe and friendly for all users of our streets.

We still need to work on making our downtown core a more attractive place to live. Although the debates on downtown development are not as toxic as they were a few years back, and some exciting developments are moving ahead in the urban core, we need to make sure that we get the right kind of density in the right areas, in a way that supports a vibrant urban environment rather than taking away from it.

Finally, we have a challenge which is also an opportunity: Halifax has amazing near-urban wilderness, but we are at risk of losing it. Places like the Purcells Cove Backlands or Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes provide amazing wilderness recreation opportunities in location that are, in some cases, minutes from our downtown core.  But more needs to be done to protect these amazing areas from development pressures which threaten to destroy the very things that make these areas attractive to live in the first place. Coalitions like Our HRM Alliance and its member groups continue to work on policies like greenbelting that could preserve these areas for future generations, but can only do so with sufficient public support.

All of which is to say that in our desire to make our city a better place to live, we shouldn't lose sight of many of the great things we already have, but also shouldn't lose focus on some of the real challenges we face: diversifying our economy, fixing our transportation system, densifying our urban areas, and preserving our amazing outdoors, among others. A city isn't made better by blind optimism, but it isn't made better by relentless pessimism either.

Halifax: you're on a bit of a roll. Let's keep things moving forward.