The year of hard truths
“Collective Unity Among Allyship” June 1, Spring Garden Road. Photo: Kordeena Clayton
Where is Halifax headed in 2022?
COVID-19 opened a lot of eyes in Nova Scotia.
It exposed the vulnerabilities of essential workers, people with lower incomes, older populations, and the Black and Indigenous communities. And now, as we haltingly emerge from the crisis, people are seeing ways to make the city a better place to live.
Better support for mental health, tackling climate change, pushing back against systemic racism, addressing income inequality, and attracting the right population while making sure people can afford to live with roofs over their heads are all in the mix.
DeRico Symonds, co-founder of the grassroots activism group GameChangers902, knows what he’ll do if he’s out driving alone at night and sees the flashing lights of a police car behind him.
“I’m not stopping until I get to a public place, like a gas station where it’s lit up, because I do not trust law enforcement,” says the advocate for racialized and marginalized communities. “I certainly know it’s not all law enforcement, but I have a fear and distrust for a very good reason.”
The July “driving while Black” incident — the RCMP pulled over a Halifax police superintendent driving in North Preston with his wife (who has since been elected as an MLA), and then, he says, ordered him out of the car at gunpoint — put a spotlight on systemic racism in policing.
The persistence, despite a ban on street checks, is one of many ways the system keeps African Nova Scotians, Indigenous people, and other visible minorities at a disadvantage.
Things haven’t gotten any better since Halifax felt the need to enlist a white criminology professor and a white retired judge to validate what Black Nova Scotians have been saying all along: that street checks are a violation of human rights. Halifax Regional Police apologized for the practice two years ago, but the RCMP recently opted not to follow suit. The RCMP said in an email to the Canadian Press that it “acknowledges” the disproportionate harm that street checks have caused, but then went on to say the force still supports the practice as a national policy.
Newly elected Premier Tim Houston showed he, too, can be tone deaf on the issue, enlisting a white man, Pat Dunn, as minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs. He says the absence of any Black PC MLAs tied his hands, but he has the power to appoint whomever he wants: a cabinet minister need not be a member of the governing party, or even an MLA. After meeting with Black community leaders, Houston opted to name Dwayne Provo, a Black educational administrator and former football pro, as associate deputy minister.
Symonds is unwilling to discuss Dunn’s appointment because he works for the provincial government as a senior policy analyst.
“I will say generally that, as we make different strides forward, like funding for the African Nova Scotian Justice Institute, it seems we get a reminder that, ‘Hey, hey, you’re moving too quick. We don’t like it,’” he says. “The powers that be will then make changes as a reminder.”
Halifax’s history of racism is as old as the city itself. Many Black people arrived as slaves, and the city later razed their descendants’ homes in Africville.
“This distinct group of people has been here for hundreds of years and contributed to the social fabric and the physical environments that we see today but have received no recognition and little appreciation,” says Symonds, an eighth generation African Nova Scotian, who grew up in public housing in the city. “Citadel Hill in Halifax was built by Jamaican Maroons. But you would never know that if you go there because there’s no statue. There’s no monument. There’s nothing there to say that happened.”
The displacement of Blacks into public housing on the outskirts of the city keeps them disadvantaged.
Symonds has heard countless first-hand accounts of how businesses won’t hire from certain neighbourhoods or people with Black-sounding names. He sees over-policing in Black communities.
“You can imagine if there’s a police station across the street or in your community, they’re going to see you do something. Maybe I turn in my driveway without my blinker on,” says Symonds. “This over-surveillance can lead to confirmation bias. If media say Black people are committing more crimes, you’re eventually going to find what you’re looking for.”
Symonds recognizes that some white people have difficult lives and struggles.
“The distinct difference is skin colour isn’t something that contributed into making those lives difficult,” he says. “Almost at every single stop, there is a particular barrier that Black people face every single day.”
The unbalanced scales of justice
In Nova Scotia, police are six times more likely to pull over Black people than other drivers, the highest rate of that disparity in Canada, according to a landmark 2019 report by criminologist Scot Wortley. He also found that between 2015 and 2016, 30 per cent of Black men in Halifax had faced criminal charges, compared with 6.8 per cent of white men.
For many Generation Xers graduating from school in Halifax in the 1980s and 1990s, leaving the province was the only way to find a decent job.
“I remember myself as a teen in the 1980s talking with all my friends about who’s going where and not that many seeing opportunities in the Maritimes,” says Ian Munro, chief economist with the Halifax Partnership, the city’s economic development agency. “People would be having those dinner table discussions with their parents, saying, ‘I guess I’m moving three provinces away.’”
For Millennials and Gen Zers, the tables have turned. There are jobs aplenty.
It’s been an important population booster, a welcome trend to bolster the city’s economy as Baby Boomers retire, spend less, and require more costly services such as health care.
Long-term data, for a 30-year swath from the mid-1980s until 2015, show Nova Scotia was losing an average of 1,300 young people, aged 20 to 29, every year for other provinces. But since 2017, interprovincial migration had more comers than goers.
“We’ve actually been importing young people from other provinces,” says Munro. “That’s a pretty dramatic turnaround.”
Migration from other provinces for the first quarter of 2021 came in at 1,870. Munro looked at the data as far back as it goes to 1961 (about 239 quarters). “Over the entire series, there’s only been four times that the net migration number has been higher,” he says.
The last time was in the third quarter of 1984, which coincided with a Western Canadian oil crash.
“The particular spike in 2021 might be linked to the phenomenon of, ‘Alright, this COVID thing has shown me that I don’t need to live in the big city anymore. I’m heading East,’” says Munro.
But there’s also been deliberate effort over the past several years by the Halifax Partnership and others to woo working-age people to the city to fill the gap as Baby Boomers age out of the workforce.
“We don’t want 747s full of 90-year-olds coming in,” says Munro. “We want people coming in the door who are in their 20s and 30s and able to fill the jobs that employers need filled.”
Halifax’s “dependency ratio” shows why. In 2020, the city boasted the second-highest population growth rate across Canada. But the gain in working-age folks is lower than the influx of people either too young or too old to work. Kids up to age 14 and the 65-and-up set rose 3.1 per cent. Those in between, aged 15 to 64, grew a much smaller 1.6 per cent.
“A rise in the dependency ratio by small amount isn’t necessarily something to get worried about. It’s when that really starts to ratchet up it becomes problematic,” says Munro. “That what we’re trying to forestall by having this continued focus on population growth, and in particular working-age population growth.”
The effort is crucial now that Halifax has shifted from a labour surplus to a shortage. “That’s the big policy issue we’re going to have to grapple with for the next 10 or 20 years: finding the people for the jobs, not finding the jobs for the people as it was in the 70s and 80s,” Munro says.
And employers will have to change their thinking: for the first time in generations, they’re competing for workers. The winners will be the workplaces.
Life after COVID
In a disheartening twist after more than a year and a half of COVID precautions, the long-promised life-after-the-pandemic seems no closer, even in Halifax, where low case counts have been the envy of other cities, leaving many expecting things would be back to “normal” by now.
“We all thought the vaccine was going to be our ticket out of this, that there would be an end, and it would be sooner rather than later,” says clinical psychologist Dayna Lee-Baggley, who offers virtual group therapy sessions to treat COVID fallout. “People are feeling disappointed. There’s a good chance we’re going to have to figure out how to live with COVID.”
Lee-Baggley, a frontline health-care worker before shifting to private practice after the pandemic’s second wave, says many people underestimate the amount of stress we’re all carrying around.
“Had this been World War Three, we would have gotten rid of all kinds of expectations and just focused on the war effort,” she says. “But what we’ve done is just added the stress of the pandemic on to the stress of everyday life. Many people are struggling.”
Two sections of our brains have been in a constant tug of war: the survival part, which is an automatic, unconscious system, versus the frontal lobe, which controls behaviour, willpower, self-control, decision-making, and planning.
The latter is like a battery. “At this point in the pandemic, there’s no frontal lobes anywhere,” says Lee-Baggley. “Everybody is so exhausted that everybody is feeling depleted. It’s hard to recharge those batteries back to the same level they were.”
It’s giving the survival brain more play in people’s day-to-day lives. “Survival brains don’t work on probabilities, they work on worst-case scenarios,” says Lee-Baggley. “Even if we can logically understand that people are vaccinated in our workplaces or things like that, survival brains interpret these things as threats.”
To combat COVID-induced depression and anxiety people need to continuously make sure their batteries are recharged. “At this point, we want to think about adding joy back into our lives,” says Lee-Baggley. “The antidote to burnout isn’t rest. It’s reigniting a sense of meaning and purpose. It’s reconnecting.”
That doesn’t mean scrolling through social media. “It’s not great for mental health,” says Lee-Baggley. But when COVID makes in-person visits inadvisable, texting or video calls can make people feel less isolated. “They don’t feel as good as in-person connections, but they’re still an expression of that value of connecting with people,” she says.
While Halifax will one day see a return to something like normal, perhaps after the current fourth wave, or a fifth, a sixth, COVID’s impact on mental health could be long lasting.
Lee-Baggley expects burnout and “moral injury,” where a person’s morals feel violated because of something done by them or to them, to persist, particularly among those on the frontlines in health care and other essential services. “They’re still treating Vietnam vets for moral injury in the United States,” she says. “These things last a long time.”
COVID can have an upside. For many, it’s a chance to reassess their lives, not unlike the people with life-threatening conditions Lee-Baggley counselled in her nearly 15 years of practise at hospitals in Halifax.
“When cancer patients go through cancer, they can either respond once they’re done (treatment) by acting like cancer never happened and wanting to go back to life exactly to the way it was before,” she says. “Or they can make use of that experience to reprioritize their lives, to think about what really matters to them, and to live their lives more meaningfully from that point forward.”
By offering group therapy, her goal is to help fill gaps in a mental health-care system plagued by long waiting lists.
“It does require some intention and reflection,” she says. “We’ve been in survival mode for a long time.”
Climate’s ticking clock
Activists met Halifax’s ambitious plan to drive down carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 with a collective “hooray” when it won unanimous HRM Council approval in June 2020.
But since then, the wheels have turned slowly.
“We are not on track,” says Shannon Miedema, who’s heading up the effort as the municipality’s manager of environment and climate change. “We need to shift from a business-as-usual approach. We need to treat it like an emergency.”
A big part of Halifax’s success hinges on more aggressive environmental policies from Ottawa and the province. The challenge on the ground is getting the municipality’s various departments up to speed with a sense of urgency, Miedema says. “Just because this plan passed doesn’t mean people know what do with it.”
When the Halifact climate action strategy was greenlit just as COVID hit, the various departments were working on their business plans. Budgeting for climate change wasn’t their bailiwick. It fell on Miedema and her tiny team of five to make sure the new goals were included.
“We can do educated guesses, and a lot of financial analysis based on what we know the average cost of X, Y, or Z is,” she says. “But it’s really up to the different departments to figure out what they need…If we said we’ve budgeted this many people for corporate fleet and this much money, they might say, ‘Well, that’s not how it works here.’ We don’t know what they need.”
Miedema spent the summer in meetings to get each of the departments, from transit to public works to finance, up to speed. “It wasn’t like it was going to be just a flip of a switch be integrated,” she says. “That was a bit of a reality check for us.”
The pandemic put the brakes on budget requests. But now HRM staffers are trying to figure out the appropriate resources, both money and people, each department needs each year for the next four to 10 years to implement the climate action plan.
All the 46 actions are urgent. But from the get-go, the list was winnowed down by the municipality to seven priorities. Retrofitting municipal buildings, electrifying city buses and ferries, coming up with a framework to assess and protect critical infrastructure, and figuring out a financing strategy to pay for the $22- billion plan over the next 30 years made the shortlist. HRM will cover part of the cost but is also looking for the federal and provincial governments, private partners, and homeowners to chip in too.
The payoff is in the savings: an estimated $22 billion by 2050 fuelled by cheaper energy bills and lower operating and maintenance costs.
As the implementation revs up, Miedema’s gotten approval to hire six more workers, doubling the size of the team.
She’s confident she can meet the 2030 goal of net zero municipal operations. “We can offset what we need to hit that target, she says. “We’re looking at buying a bunch of wind power.”
Homeowners can do their part by making their houses more energy efficient. Miedema says HRM is aiming to make that easier by hiring a “navigator” to steer people through the myriad of options to make their homes greener and take advantage of government rebates.
“Homeowners have said there’s so much confusion,” she says. “That’s the thing we’re trying to test right now: if we can fulfill that need with an actual human that holds the hand of a willing participant through a deep energy retrofit, will they actually go for it?”
The municipality got provincial and federal funding for not-for-profits and homeowners but would like to see that expanded to commercial properties, since old buildings are the city’s single biggest carbon emitters.
“A lot of our buildings are still on fuel oil,” says Miedema. “We have a lot of old buildings that are very leaky with poor insulation. Our climate dictates energy use all year long.”
Switching to an electric vehicle also will help make the city greener, she says. Before taking the plunge, Haligonians can set up a test drive through the “Next Ride” program offered by green not-for-profit Clean Foundation Nova Scotia.
Miedema says Halifax has lots to be proud of so far, but lots to work on to meet the ambitious goals.
“Ethically, we’re a high GDP city with a high intensity grid, so we should be trying to drive down our emissions steeply right now, she says. “It’s a strategic investment that pays off, but it’s the crunch of right now that’s the tricky part.”
The affordability gap
A surge in the cost of rent, homes, food, and gasoline, and heating bills is making Halifax a more expensive place to live, especially for those who were already feeling the crunch.
COVID exposed wide gaps in our society and highlighted how many Haligonians are barely scraping by, pandemic or not. Emerging from the crisis is an opportunity to fix the gaps, to give everyone a chance to thrive.
So far, the effort’s been spotty.
“Our systems and supports should already be strong enough to endure a shock. Isn’t that the point of a safety net?” says Christine Saulnier, director of the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “Instead, most of the initiatives are seen as temporary.”
Paid sick leave ended up a stopgap program the province phased out at the end of July as concerns about COVID abated. Governments have also said that rent control, additional funds for those on social assistance, and support to access the internet won’t extend indefinitely.
The promise by the federal and provincial governments to halve the cost of child care to an average of $10 a day shows the kinds of steps that we could take.
But Saulnier says she’s seeing few real signs yet of a change in course. “Permanent paid sick days would be the obvious and clear signal if there was commitment to learn the lessons from COVID,” she says.
Ignoring society’s problems can lead to more costly fixes down the road, as highlighted by Halifax’s affordable housing crisis. The city is now short an estimated 25,000 units and is scrambling to come up with temporary solutions while trying to secure a more permanent supply.
The situation is all the more dire as the housing crunch enables landlords to opt for “renovictions” where landlords turf tenants claiming the need for major renovations so they can jack up rents. As part of sweeping new measures by Premier Tim Houston to address the housing crisis, landlords now must give three months notice of an eviction to renovate. If the tenant doesn’t agree, the landlord must apply with the province.
The mess could have been skirted if the province had considered the growing affordable housing shortfall as the city embarked on a construction boom after the 2008 financial crisis.
“That was when we needed to be thinking about inclusive growth, where we’re being very intentional ensuring that everyone is benefitting, that you aren’t just doing the gentrification that’s pushing people out of their neighbourhoods,” says Saulnier. “We were very keen to grow Halifax. There were a lot of positive changes. But politicians and governments have been too focused on growth. GDP growth, if it’s not shared, just feeds into income inequality and all the other inequities.”
The latest calculations from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that Haligonians need to earn $22.05 an hour to have a proper living wage.
Saulnier says she isn’t suggesting the minimum wage be jacked up to that amount. But at $12.95, it’s far too low.
Now, with the cost of housing skyrocketing and other expenses rising, more people are going into debt just to maintain their status quo.
“People are using credit to fill in the gaps, or living paycheque to paycheque, not knowing what’s going to happen with shelter costs should the rent cap come off. People are just feeling very, very insecure,” says Saulnier. “We need government to figure out what its role is in public services.”
She’s heartened by an increasingly noisy, and now perhaps more heard, minority of Haligonians that is pushing back, saying homelessness is unacceptable, that Black lives matter, that Indigenous people deserve reverence and respect, that temporary foreign workers should enjoy the same rights as others.
“That’s how change happens,” says Saulnier. “From the bottom up.”