Centre for International Studies at Cape Breton University

My letter of support in a campaign to secure continued funding for Cape Breton University’s Centre for International Studies

I was a student at CBU from 2001 to 2005. Early on, I started attending CIS events, and it wasn’t long before I was playing a small role in helping to organize and promote those events. Soon after (2006 approximately) I joined the advisory board as one of its non-academic “community” members – a role/title I maintain to this day.

There are several parts to this history: opportunity, experience, and effect. CIS gave me opportunity – to get involved in the life of my university, the life of my community, and the life of the world in which I live. It also gave me experience – both work-like experience in organizing events and creating media and art to promote those events; as well as, later, governance experience as a member of the advisory committee.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, through those events CIS opened my young eyes, mind, and heart to the diversity, injustice, and possibility in the world.

I met, listened to, and learned from academics and activists and workers and journalists from Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, not to mention other parts of North America and other voices from CBU and Cape Breton Island that I might otherwise not have been exposed to. I heard their stories and internalized their lessons – often inspiring, often harrowing, often both. Whether at a lecture hall, a pub, or a conference off-island – where I was joining, in solidarity, with new friends I had met through CIS – I could describe several instances where a CIS event (or an encounter with one of the speakers perhaps at a party or dinner afterward) had a profound effect on me.

There was the conference about media and communications where I suddenly felt a deep solidarity with my steelworker grandfather who had passed away the year before.

There was an intense, late-night debate at a pub, between a military journalist and my future wife, that seemed to involve a life’s-worth of ambition.

And there were countless events where, knowing I was in a safe environment, I found my voice, and even surprised myself at what I said. I won’t detail these encounters, or attempt to do justice to the ensuing epiphanies and their effects. They were profound experiences for a young student, and as a result very personal. But I list them here (a terribly incomplete list) for the purposes of this testimonial: every student, at CBU or any university, should be able to look back at their time and say they had the kind of life-changing opportunity and experience that I can say I’ve had at CBU, due in no small part to CIS.

Global Entrepreneurship Week 2014

The world is being built and rebuilt with computers and robotics and the code that controls them. It’s a paradigm shift that affects the entire economy, not just private sector business and employment, but public health care, government, education… everything.

It’s a brave new world characterized by the digit(al)ization and commodification of data, including personal information, resulting in a wholesale reconceptualization of privacy and a radical shift – and accompanying redistribution of wealth – from manufacturing to knowledge-based economies, especially knowledge that can be codified.

It’s important to remember that this shift is neither an accident nor an inevitability. After all, computer code doesn’t write itself; it’s written by humans: individuals who make certain decisions, and have certain agendas; individuals who decide what problems to solve for, and what the solutions should look like. Whoever writes the code, controls one of the primary means of production of 21st century economic life – creates the operating system of 21st century life in general. Program or be programmed.

But it’s also important to remember that access to the skills and tools necessary to make the decisions and set the agenda has, generally speaking, been unevenly distributed. This ranges from computer programming skills to physical infrastructure and machinery like computers, 3D printers, robotics, even internet access.

Access is one of many issues addressed during Global Entrepreneurship Week. For example, at events like:

  • “Brilliant Labs” which supports the creation of makerspaces in classrooms and after-school programs;
  • “Social Storm” Global Hackathon which brought together students from 10 international post-secondary institutions to collaborate on technology-based solutions to real-world problems around global access to education.

Other examples include a Women Entrepreneurs lunch & learn; the recent Girls Learning Code; the Lego Robotics tournament at NSCC Marconi; and the UIT Startup Immersion program.

Universities like CBU, in supporting or leading these initiatives, have a particular obligation and imperative to ensure the greatest possible access to 21st century tools and skills both within their walls and in the communities in which they’re located. And I’m not just talking tools of profit but tools of personal and social health & well-being; cultural & environmental sustainability; education; governance… everything.

After all, technology is not just about selling a sleeker smartphone; and entrepreneurship is not just about being able to buy a fancier car. It’s just as often about making the world a better place. 

Here are some great counter examples of those stereotypes.

Happy Global Entrepreneurship Week 2014!

Sustainable Cape Breton

We are a group of concerned citizens exploring ways to promote environmental, economic, social, and cultural sustainability in Cape Breton.

Global climate change poses one of the most significant challenges of our time, and affects us all. It is therefore incumbent upon us to work together to find solutions. We believe that the most practical place to start is at the local level, expanding outward; and that the best way to address this and other issues is with an integrated, community-based approach.

And we are not alone. Our goal is to engage communities and organizations already working on these issues, as well as all those with a stake in Cape Breton’s future. As an organization we are goal-oriented, but we believe that sustainable, legitimate results are only possible through consensus-building.

We believe real change is needed, and that significant gains can be made, in three sectors:

  • energy
  • transportation
  • agriculture

Creative, grassroots solutions to the climate crisis can reduce our impact on the environment, develop (as oppose to grow) the economy, preserve and promote our cultural heritage, and protect society. All the while making our communities more resilient and adaptive, safer and healthier – and generally better places to live.

SPARCK PARK: Steel Plant Area Renewal for the Community and Kids

The Sydney Tar Ponds cleanup is almost complete. In its place will be a new park, with walking trail, creek-side boardwalk, dog park, bike park, sports field, playground, outdoor skating, and amphitheatre.

Since the tar ponds are no more, the area needs a new name. A contest to name the park received over 200 submissions from school-age kids. Here are the 5 finalists: SydneyParkProject.ca

One of the finalists is my daughter’s grade primary class (she’s front-row right in the video above). They suggested the name SPARCK PARK, which stands for Steel Plant Area Renewal for the Community and Kids.

Voting is open to the public. You can vote daily. Voting closes midnight June 3rd. VOTE HERE.

Zadie’s grandfather worked at the steel plant for 40-odd years, around the time he returned from the war until his retirement.

For more info about the future use of the former tar ponds site, check out tarpondscleanup.ca/futureuse.

Cape Breton’s First Hackathon

Cape Breton’s first what??

A hackathon is a place for programmers, developers, designers, as well as anyone interested in meeting and learning from them, to get together and collaborate.

The event takes place Saturday, May 18th from 10am ’til 9pm (hence the “marathon” metaphor). The location is TBA once total attendance is known, but it’ll be somewhere in downtown Sydney.

And it’s all free! You just have to register.

The day starts with 30 minutes dedicated to people pitching their project development ideas. Others vote on the ideas, teams get formed, and everyone sets to work building the projects or apps.

Rather than being centred around a particular programming language (which is normally the case), this hackathon will focus on the platform: anything you can build on a Raspberry Pi.

The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. It’s a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video. We want to see it being used by kids all over the world to learn programming. (Raspberry Pi FAQ)

Let me emphasize that last part: “we want to see it being used by kids all over the world to learn programming.” There’s no age limit (in either direction) to participate in Cape Breton’s First Hackathon.

The day will end with demos of the projects and winners will be crowned. Food and beverages are provided all day, you get a t-shirt, and it’s all free! Don’t forget to register.

For more info, check out the Facebook page.

Programming a sustainable future

For anyone convinced that programming is just about wasting people’s time with Angry Birds and invading their privacy with Facebook ads…

Coding and design can be about so much more — even a new form of civic engagement. Just check out the National Day of Civic Hacking, taking place June 1st in the US.

A national event that will bring together citizens, software developers, and entrepreneurs to collaboratively create, build and invent, using publicly-released data, code and technology to solve challenges relevant to our neighbourhoods, our cities, our states and our country.

The White House is even hosting an event!

Coders and designers can help open up government; improve and increase community engagement; empower citizens to solve problems together; facilitate learning; and so much more. (Check out “10 Ways Civic Hacking is Good for Cities”.)

It can also spur economic growth. Check out this infographic[pdf] of Canadian high-tech companies acquired over the past five years. Including hundreds of millions of dollars worth of activity in the Maritimes from the sale of just three companies!

The new “superpower” that isn’t being taught in most schools

Despite its economic impact and potential for massive growth, programming is absent from most school curricula. Instead, websites, online courses, and hackathons have stepped up to fill the gap. You might have seen this video that went viral a few months ago, showing the workplace utopia awaiting those who learn to code:

Some have criticized the video above for equating programming with the paycheque, rather than with its transformative power to change the world. But it can be both. (It can also be neither). As the founder of Dropbox says at the 4-minute mark:

“Whether you’re trying to make a lot of money, or whether you just want to change the world, computer programming is an incredibly empowering skill to learn.”


“I think that if someone had told me that software is really about humanity, that it’s really about helping people, by using computer technology, it would have changed my outlook a lot earlier.”

If you have a young person in your life who wants to change the world, encourage them to register for Cape Breton’s First Hackathon.


A factory building collapses in Bangladesh, killing a thousand garment workers, many of them young girls. “What a tragedy,” we all say.

A woman is found alive, 17 days later, in the rubble. She’s rescued just moments before heavy machinery was due to move in and clear away the wreckage. “What a miracle,” we all say.

Days or weeks or months from now, she returns to work in some other garment factory, with some other child labourers, earning the same exploitative wages from some other garment producer. “What a tragedy,” we won’t say, because we’ll all have moved on to the next thing.

Mi’kmaq Economic Benefits Office of Nova Scotia

The new Mi’kmaq Economic Benefits Office of Nova Scotia is a unique project providing training and work experience in the shipbuilding industry, the spin-off economy, and other growth sectors.

The new website (and accompanying Facebook, Twitter, and email newsletter) is their answer to the question:

“How do we communicate in a timely manner with 13 First Nation communities that are spread out from one end of the province to the other, from Acadia to Membertou, from Bear River to Indian Brook, more than 20,000 Mi’kmaq across Nova Scotia,” says Owen Fitzgerald, executive director of NSAEP and Unama’ki Economic Benefits Office in Membertou.

The Unama’ki Economic Benefits Office (UEBO) was established in 2007 in Membertou. It negotiated a Tar Ponds set-aside agreement worth $19 million, and has since helped create 200 full time jobs and $72 million of dollars in contracts. The process has evolved into a unique First Nations model for economic development, delivering valuable experience, building capacity, expertise and confidence for local Aboriginal businesses and individuals.

Happy Earth Day

CustomMade Buying Local Infographic

Why Buying Local is Worth Every Cent Infographic by CustomMade

Nova Scotia NDP: Balanced Budget Bullshit

The Nova Scotia NDP released its 2013 provincial budget on Thursday afternoon; and on Friday morning I was part of a panel on CBC Information Morning to discuss the budget’s impact on us ordinary folk.

I stayed up late Thursday night reading the embargoed budget documents and woke up early Friday morning to scan the media coverage, and as I read and re-read the words “balanced budget” all I could think was: balanced budget and what?

Balanced budget and a 9% unemployment rate in the province (double that in Cape Breton at 18% and no doubt higher in certain parts of the island).

Balanced budget and a child poverty rate in the double digits (20+% across the province, 30+% in Cape Breton, and 40+% for children 0-6 in Cape Breton).

Balanced budget and a social deficit that costs the province between $1.5 to $2.2 billion dollars per year in costs related to poverty (higher crime rates, increased health care needs, higher school dropout rates, lost productivity, and a vicious cycle where kids can’t get out of the poverty they’re born into).

Yet the government says: “Everyone shared in the challenge of getting Nova Scotia back to balance.” Everyone may have shared — but they sure didn’t share equally. It would be like building a house but skipping the floor boards in the kids’ rooms so that you could claim you finished under budget… but then the kids fall through the cracks! (Sorry, too literal?)

While the budget establishes “children’s centres to make it easier for families to access support services for young children and help them make a successful transition to elementary school,” the expenditure is only $1.2 million. The Chronicle Herald wrote, about the balanced budget, that “at $16.4 million, or 17 one-hundredths of one per cent of a $9.5-billion budget, this surplus is subatomic.” So what does that make a $1.2 million investment in the early years?

To be fair, the budget also includes a few tens of millions of dollars in HST rebates for kids’ clothing and footwear, diapers, books; expanding universal dental coverage to all kids under 13 (it used to be under 9); and funding insulin treatments.

But the budget also subsidizes energy consumption for everyone — including those who can well afford it — to the tune of $104 million! (This is separate from the $12 million it rebates to low-income earners.)

In 2009, when the government first introduced this universal energy subsidy, I suggested on contrarian.ca a grassroots response to the wastefulness of it all:

“While the NDP’s home insulation & energy-efficiency improvement program for low-income earners is a good idea, the electricity rebate is an inefficient fossil fuel subsidy that will likely encourage wasteful consumption precisely because it is not targeted at those in need. Here’s my idea: those on one side of the wage gap donate their rebate to a fund that feeds into the energy-efficiency program for low-incomers. This fund could be set up by a charity or the province itself. If only 6 or 7 thousand people did this, it would double the program’s current budget.”

Home-heat is a necessity; greenhouse gas emissions are not. Not only could the government do away with the universal rebate and shift it to those who most need it, it could introduce a carbon pollution tax (exempt low-incomers). Revenues generated could help fund renewable energy development in order to decouple energy from carbon. This, plus small income tax increases on the most wealthy, would help compensate for the reduction in HST in the years to come (which is a good move since the HST is a regressive consumption tax: like the universal energy rebate it doesn’t target those in need).

The government should be more creative, rather than simply handing out coupons that do little more than subsidize oil companies and Nova Scotia Power. Instead, putting money toward renewable energy systems that are designed, manufactured, installed and maintained by companies and employees in Nova Scotia, would “make life more affordable” for homeowners — like the recipients of property tax rebates that help low-income seniors stay in their homes — while also putting others to work. Grow the economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To make a point of it, the government could invest some of its hundreds of millions of dollars in provincial petroleum royalties and federal offshore oil and gas payments to pay for the creation of a “green-collar economy” in Nova Scotia — similar to what the government is doing (only) in the Halifax Regional School Board.

And why balance the books at all? It’s a great time to be in debt! 🙂

Nova Scotia’s debt-to-GDP ratio is roughly 35%, which is fine. In fact it’s great compared to ten years ago when it was almost 50%. The cost of servicing the debt has also dropped dramatically in the last decade, from 20% to roughly 10% of expenditures. This is partly due to low interest rates, which are in turn due to the tanking of the global economy. But that means the government could not only refinance its debt, it could also borrow at low interest rates to make timely investments in the economy and put people to work — precisely when the global economy is crap!

I don’t expect the NDP government to be able to snap its legislative fingers and simply end unemployment and childhood poverty. But they shouldn’t be so smug, let alone downright disingenuous, about “balancing” the budget. They shouldn’t be so oblivious to the connection between child poverty, unemployment, and the government’s bottom line.

The Score on Canadian Student Journalists

During my undergrad, I worked at the Caper Times, CBU’s student-run campus newspaper. I wrote a column called The Bike Lane, which was published every two weeks between 2002-2006, and was editor of first the Arts & Culture section and later the Features section.

One of the perks of being on staff was getting to attend a national Canadian University Press (CUP) conference in Montreal, and two Atlantic Regional (ARCUP) conferences: one in New Brunswick, and one at CBU, hosted by the Caper Times.

The Caper-Times-hosted conference was, I think, during the 2005-2006 school year. That was of course in the dark ages of the Internet, when most campus newspapers didn’t even have a website, so Google isn’t much help jogging my memory. But whenever it was, 2013 isn’t the first time the conference has been held in Cape Breton, despite what the current Caper Times staff seems to think about the ARCUP conference they recently hosted.

Not that it matters. It just made me chuckle. After the first-first CBU-hosted conference, I wrote in my column that Canadian student journalists are getting it all wrong. (Not my exact words — my tone back then was at least 100x more caustic.) It was after a panel billed as “The role of campus newspapers.” The question that ended up being discussed was more like, “What even is news? And how should student journalists cover it?”

Opinion was divided. Between one wrong and another.

The first (wrong) argument goes like this: Every news story is made of facts and nothing but. The student reporter’s job is to observe and report these facts. According to this argument, news exists as if in a vacuum, the objective reporter need only reach in and pull it out — and then get it to press as fast as possible before it gets contaminated with bias or opinion!

If this were true, robots would be reporting the news, and all journalists (student or otherwise) would be out of a job. All except opinion columnists. But opinionated robots wouldn’t be far behind.

Thankfully, news stories are not like this. Instead, news stories are a reporter’s interpretation of an event. The reporter is, hopefully, more authoritative than any old joe. But that authority, like all authority, is not absolute; it is open to challenge and criticism from other perspectives.

If you’re a student journalist reading this, and this idea of news makes you uncomfortable, get yourself reassigned to the sports or business desk (or the college equivalent). You can report game scores or stock market stats or whatever…

These are facts. They are observable, verifiable, simple and static, i.e., if the score of last night’s game was 51-49, it will forever have been 51-49. Just don’t interview the players and coaches. They might tell you why the game was 51-49, and chances are their stories will differ from those of the players and coaches on the other team.

And while that might not be a particularly interesting example of a news story, it’s what the news fundamentally is: slippery, debatable, complex and dynamic.

Consider another example given by one of the conference participants back in 2005/2006:

Two public figures, Person A and Person B, dispute a budget expense. Was it X or not-X? The intrepid student reporter must look critically at the claims of both sides, and tease out the truth of the matter.


Just as the score of last night’s game can’t be both 51-49 and not-51-49 at the same, there can only exist one correct number here. It will be observable, verifiable, simple and static. So first, find that number. And where will you look for it? Not with either of the “Persons”, dummy!

There now. Got it? Good. Great. Now that the boring “truth” part is over, let’s get down to the interesting part. The news here is not which number is correct. It’s that either someone is lying about budget numbers, or was misinformed by a subordinate, or is bad at math, or… or… Or maybe — shit — maybe both numbers are true(ish), depending on how one interprets the guiding policy!!

The intrepid student reporter may not have uncovered any secret truths about sinister motives, incompetent subordinates, or poor math skills. But he or she may have shined some light on the secret ideology of various public figures, given how they seem to interpret policy. So let the debate begin! (Oh and good for you, intrepid student reporter, for getting the debate going. Seriously.)

Speaking of ideology, this brings me to the second (wrong) argument, which goes like this: campus and community newspapers should seek out and cover stories that have been marginalized by the mainstream / corporate / Right-wing media. In a nutshell, push the Left’s agenda.

If the first position was about objectivity, this second position is about revealing the hidden conservative bias in the mainstream media’s so-called neutrality — its ostensible objectivity.

I’m all for uncovering bias disguised as truth, but it goes further. According to some, the role of campus newspapers is to provide something called counterbalance. But if you start with a deliberate agenda, how can this balance be anything other than ironic? It doesn’t straighten the slant of the Right-wing mainstream media; it merely creates a mirror-image slant in the opposite direction.

It doesn’t matter whether this pseudo-balance can be achieved in practice. We shouldn’t desire it even in theory. Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore on a teeter-totter. Nuff said.

So what is news?? And how should student journalists cover it??

News is storytelling. It’s hermeneutics (the art of interpretation). It’s also facts, and plenty of them — but facts in context. Two plus two will always equal four, and the score of last night’s game will always have been 51-49. But if the context changes — if a steroids scandal is revealed, for example — then everything changes. Except the score, that stays the same. But now it means something new and different.

The facts aren’t the end of the debate, they’re just the beginning. The goal is to neither do away with bias (false objectivity) nor embrace bias with wholehearted irony (false balance). The goal is to negotiate bias — your own and others’. To hold it up in the light of your intuitive sense of fairness. And then negotiate your intuitions. Rinse. Repeat.

I know, it’s probably an infinite regress. But, as my wife says, just waking up in the morning is a slippery slope. No one said this would be easy. But you can deal with this slipperiness either by diving in or letting it trip you up like a banana peel. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor.)

Either way, your chances of getting a job in Canadian journalism are probably 51-49.