Not a Hangover, But a Headache

william_powell_myrna_loy_asta_dog_the_thin_manOn January 14th, the Chronicle-Herald published the latest from columnist Bill Black, entitled “Drinking local — this party comes with a hangover”, in which he attempts to outline how preferential treatment provided to local producers costs the Province of Nova Scotia millions of dollars each year. As the person who had overall responsibility for this file within the NSLC for over 10 years, I feel the need to respond.

Aside from my disappointment in Mr. Black referring to the NSLC as “the Commission” – a term that hasn’t been correct in over 15 years, ever since it became a Crown corporation with outside Directors in 2001 – perhaps my greatest disdain for his piece was with the simplistic and narrow view of the sector which he puts forward. Some history is in order.

Local small-scale producers are a relatively new thing in Nova Scotia. The first farm-based winery was Grand Pre, which started in the late 1980s. The first craft brewers began in the early to mid 1990s. And the first small-scale distillery, Glenora, began around that same time. In all of these instances, the pioneers had to deal with a provincial  regulatory environment and NSLC policy structure that was ill-suited to their unique type of operation. It was built for an industry that was based on large-scale manufacturing, not one that was producing a comparative trickle of products.

When you are making products in small volumes, each unit costs you more – a lot more, because your ingredients are more expensive, your labor costs are higher, and your overhead gets allocated over a much smaller volume of product. So when you sell it, you have to charge more. If your retailer – and back then, the only liquor retailer in Nova Scotia was the NSLC – marks it up at 80% or 140% or over 200%,  nobody is going to buy your product, no matter how good it is or how much you play up the local aspect of it. That’s just reality. Most people aren’t buying a $30 or $40 bottle of wine to go with Tuesday’s frozen entree dinner.

These new types of producers forced government and the NSLC to make some changes, small ones at first. In the latter half of the 1980s government introduced the Nova Scotia Farm Wine Policy as an agricultural development incentive – for growing grapes – and gave some advantages to wineries that also grew their own grapes locally, namely the ability to sell their products on-site and keep a bigger portion of the markup. In the 1990s the NSLC recognized that high markups on commercial beer meant that they couldn’t sell local craft beer because it would be priced out of range, so that was adjusted downward for those producers, just as every other jurisdiction in Canada eventually did. It only makes sense.

I remember when I had my first visit to a Nova Scotia winery in 2001, something which was totally foreign to me at the time. I visited the Jost Winery in Malagash, met Hans-Christian Jost, and toured around the facility. I was astounded to find such a bustling place in what was otherwise a fairly sleepy spot. People were working there, and lots of  visitors were coming in and spending money. To see that kind of activity in a such a rural part of Nova Scotia was an eye-opener. That kind of economic activity simply would not exist there without the regulatory and policy framework that had been put in place, and Hans-Christian and others in the industry had ideas on how it could be made even better.

A few years later, the Winery Association of Nova Scotia produced its first strategic plan, which called for 1000 acres of vineyard in Nova Scotia by the year 2020 and set a number of priorities for the industry to pursue. The Board of the NSLC at the time was highly supportive of local industry given that it is one of the NSLC’s 4 legislated objectives,  and agreed to help with an economic impact study to determine what the industry added to the provincial economy, which was later updated by staff within government in 2012. A similar study was done for the craft beer industry about 5 years ago. Such studies are sometimes derided for overstating the benefits that arise from whatever the activity under analysis may be. But until someone comes along with something better, they are the best gauge for measuring these effects, and the provincial Department of Finance actually is the custodian of the economic model used.

The results of these studies as they relate to wine made from locally-grown grapes or other produce are eye-opening. Because pretty much everything used in making that kind of wine is from within Nova Scotia, well over 90% of the economic activity generated stays within Nova Scotia. The industry is quite literally rooted in the ground here and unlikely to pull up stakes and go somewhere else. That creates jobs for not only the people growing the grapes and making the wine, but also for the people who make the cases and print the labels and staff the winery outlets and maintain the facilities. The activity from selling a bottle of New Zealand wine here is a mere fraction of that.

In 2007 the Board of the NSLC approved a reduced markup for wines from small regions sold by the NSLC, recognizing the higher wholesale cost that small producers are forced to charge. They also acknowledged that the profit impact was a drop in the bucket compared to the overall return of the NSLC. This let more of those wines start to appear on NSLC shelves and that better distribution combined with increasing awareness of the quality of Nova Scotia products and the broader “buy local” trend let the industry take off. As Mr. Black notes, there are now 21 wineries in this province, all of them in rural Nova Scotia where jobs are scarce. Most of the craft breweries and distilleries are rural as well. The government should be on their knees giving thanks to those entrepreneurs for doing what they do given the state of Nova Scotia’s rural economy.

Many of those same consumer trends related to favoring locally-made products led to the growth in the craft beer and distilling sectors. While initially not tied as closely to local agriculture as the wine sector, most players in those operations recognize the value in doing that and are moving in that direction. We now have a local malting facility in Nova Scotia, and farmers are planting grain crops that can be used in brewing and distilling. The amount of growth seen in both areas locally over the last 5 years is truly remarkable. As the saying goes, it’s all good.

I take issue with what Mr. Black terms a “subsidy” for these operations. A subsidy is defined as a payment made in order to keep an operation going or to reduce the price it charges. The NSLC or the Province are not writing cheques to these businesses, as was the case for the film industry. It is instead helping them to generate sales by not taking as much of a cut on sales the NSLC makes. A fine point but a useful one, since most of those sales likely would not happen if they didn’t do that.

The second, and I think more useful point, is that those sales that are now happening are not totally substitutable, or as economists say, fungible (I love that word). If you’re looking for a bottle of local craft beer, you probably aren’t buying a case of corporate beer if it isn’t on the shelf. That bottle of local Tidal Bay isn’t likely to be replaced by a box of French Cross, or by a bottle of Semillon from France. There is some substitution on the fringes, but it is small. Therefore any figures bandied about as to what it costs the Nova Scotia treasury are questionable at best, and also fail to take into account the revenue all the associated economic activity generated by the manufacture of these items produces in terms of payroll, income, and sales taxes. This kind of simplistic thinking is what the original Nova Scotia Liquor Commission used back in the day to argue against any kind of incentives for local producers, by failing to look at the bigger picture. Yes, the profits taken in from the sale of liquor help fund government services, but they are not the only yardstick. All that economic activity produced by the industry generates taxes and jobs. Import substitution is one of the best things you can do for any economy. It’s like eating your vegetables – it’s hard to do too much of it. Using NSLC profit as your only measuring tool is the best way I know of to kill a burgeoning industry, which compared to the big multinational manufacturers that the NSLC generally deals with, is still miniscule in size.

The most questionable part of Black’s piece is extending the “lost profits” argument from sales made by local producers directly to the public at their retail stores as a loss to the provincial treasury. The reality is that almost none of those sales would exist if those outlets didn’t exist. Most people don’t go to the Benjamin Bridge winery to buy their Nova 7 or to Tatamagouche to buy their Hippie Dippie Pale Ale. Unless you’re a local resident, those sales are made to visitors and tourists, and in the big picture, don’t amount to a lot. Keep in mind that the outlets wouldn’t exist if they had to pay full NSLC markup, because they would be selling those products at a loss. You can’t lose something you don’t have. It is a silly, almost churlish, position to take.

Should there be a transition point where the advantages are reduced as the operation gets large? Perhaps so. But none of our local craft producers are anywhere near that stage as yet. By any standard used within the industry, they are all tiny. Over the years the Province has bent over backwards to provide advantages to the large commercial brewers who have been located here. The one that remains provides a couple of hundred good-paying jobs, which are nothing to sneeze at. But the craft brewing sector employs more people in Nova Scotia now than they do, albeit at not as high a pay scale. By all means, track what the advantages provided by government policy to all industries may be. But don’t think the government can just pocket that money if they stop providing that incentive. In most cases, those industries will eventually just go away, and so will the jobs and tax revenue that goes with them.

The issue here as I see it is that the world has changed. The world that the old NSLC was built to operate within saw the public happy to buy products from Gallo, Constellation, Diageo, InBev, and other large multinational producers. In some cases that was because they had no other choice. The NSLC was a mass-market retailer for the most part. Niche products were largely unknown, and were never a strength of that type of model. But just like in all sorts of other sectors of the economy, the old rules don’t always apply any more. Just ask the newspaper in which Mr. Black’s piece appeared. Trying to save those old ways of thinking by destroying something new is seldom a useful exercise. The NSLC has done a good job in the recent past in embracing – reluctantly at times – our local beverage alcohol industry. In turn the various governments over those years have been happy to wrap themselves in the buy-local flag, especially when it comes to these industries. Nova Scotia is now seen as a leader within all of Canada in terms of how it has helped its local beverage alcohol industry take off. We should be proud of that. Government and NSLC can be a catalyst for it to grow even more if they choose to take on that role. Or they can kick and scream that throwing back to their old ways of thinking will give the treasury more money. It won’t. But it would be a tragic mistake both for them, and for us.

Posted in Industry, liquor, Nova Scotia, NSLC | 2 Comments

How I Didn’t Get To Meet Arnold Palmer


I was born in 1956 and Arnold Palmer won his first PGA Tour event – The Canadian Open – in 1955, so much of his success came before I was even aware of golf. In our home we got a color television set in 1970 and, it seems to me, that is when we started watching golf on TV. Especially when it was cold and snowy and generally miserable here for a good part of the year, both my parents and myself liked watching the lush settings and beautiful weather seen on golf tournaments from California or Hawaii or Florida. “Where’s that from?”, one of them would almost always ask when they walked into the living room and saw the screen filled with images of green grass, blue ocean, and palm trees. It usually meant that they would sit down and watch for a bit, not for the golf since they never played the game, but just for the visuals. By that time, Arnold’s days of contending on the Tour were largely over, but along with Jack Nicklaus they were the two big names everybody knew about.

Back then in the pre-cable days of only 2 over-the-air channels, all you could count on seeing were the four major championships plus the Canadian Open and a few others the Canadian networks might choose to offer on the weekend. But once cable arrived you could watch golf every weekend and I found that I liked it. In turn that led me to become interested in playing golf myself and that happened in the late 1980s. I took a few lessons and read a bunch of books, and among those were a few by Palmer that not only offered tips but were accounts of his life. It was then that I realized what an important role he had played in growing the game in the 1960s, and what an incredible businessman he had become. As I understood the history of the game more, I also realized how important and respected a figure he was, not just for his golf exploits. The tips I read never made me very good at the game but I went through a period where I was totally golf-crazy and played as often as I could.

In March of 1990 I visited Florida to spend some time with my dad who wintered down there, and drove over to Orlando to spend a few days doing some touristy things. On Sunday I decided to attend the Nestle Invitational (now the Arnold Palmer Invitational) at Bay Hill, the PGA Tour event at Arnold’s club. It was the first Tour event I attended and was a wonderful day. Golf fans may remember this as the tournament where Robert Gamez holed out from the 18th fairway later that day to win the event and give Greg Norman another heartbreaking defeat. But earlier in the day when I arrived I spent some time wandering around taking it all in until I finally joined a crowd surrounding the 1st tee where the groups starting their rounds were being announced.

There was a large gallery there many rows deep and from my spot near the back I could see very little. But people were constantly coming and going so I was able to gradually make my way to the front and eventually snag a spot next to the ropes to watch the players hit their opening tee shots. In between groups there was a lot of chatter among the gallery and I overheard a couple behind me talking about how they really couldn’t see much. Glancing back, I saw they were an older couple, probably in their 60s, and both rather diminutive. Shortly thereafter someone on one side of me left and I slid over to make space and gestured for them to move up next to me at the rope line.  They were grateful and we chatted about where I was from and what to do there during the day. When the man – I believe his name was Tony Ruggiero, but I can’t be certain now, 26 years later – realized how far I had come, he asked me “Would you like to meet Arnie?”

Well, duh. It turned out he worked for Arnie in some capacity at Bay Hill, and he could get me in to meet him. I was thrilled, and he said that as soon as the last groups had teed off, we would go over to the Clubhouse and he would introduce me. Not to mince words – I was as excited as hell.

The remaining groups were seemingly taking forever to come through and I couldn’t wait for it to all be done so we could go meet Arnie. Suddenly Tony’s wife was stricken with a coughing spell that would not go away.  Maybe she inhaled a fly or something, I don’t know. Well, you can’t have someone hacking away when pro golfers are trying to tee off, so he quickly hustled her away from there to attend to whatever had afflicted her. I never saw them again for the rest of the day. Bye-bye to meeting Arnie. No handshake, no autographed program, no thanks for coming from the great man. I couldn’t believe it.

It obviously made an impact on me because it stayed with me and about 10 years later, I remember writing a letter to Mr. Palmer to tell him the story. But when I finished it, I re-read it and thought “Why would he want to read about this? I’m not even sure of the guy’s name or if he actually worked for him”, and never sent it. Now I wish I had. When I would see him on television over the last few years I could tell he was slowing down verbally, and this year it was shocking to see him on the telecast of his tournament. He was obviously not doing well and did not look very good. It was the same story a month later at The Masters when he wasn’t able to hit the ceremonial opening tee shot. I didn’t know all the details about the many health problems he grappled with over the last few years that came out today after his passing, but he had multiple ailments so his passing on Sunday wasn’t really a surprise but it was still very sad. Getting old is not for the faint of heart. Rest in peace, Arnie.

PS: One of Arnie’s many business ventures was being a co-founder of the Golf Channel in 1995. It has become a huge success, and last night when I saw the news break on Twitter I switched them on for details. They were still doing live coverage of a Champions Tour event – the Tour that Arnie helped create – but I was surprised to see no crawl on the bottom of the screen with any info at all. But finally they left the live golf in mid-playoff and went to what they do best, with continuous live programming with a revolving roster of guests live or on the phone to talk about their reactions to the news and their memories of the man. It was obvious they had taken an hour or so to scramble everyone into on-air mode from the site of the Ryder Cup in Minnesota later this week where they were still getting things set up.

I had planned to go to bed fairly early Sunday night but I just couldn’t turn it off because it was just so engaging. The emotion shown by network long-timers Rich Lerner and especially Kelly Tilghman during a live hit from Orlando was something you almost never see from TV people.  I felt so sorry for her because she was really hurting. The on-site people in Minnesota like Tim Rosaforte and Mark Rolfing were still coming to grips with the news and it was tough for them not to show their feelings. Fred Couples, the pro golfer, started to talk about Arnie on a phone hookup and immediately broke down wailing, saying “I can’t do it!”. I thought they were being pranked by some jerk. But it was indeed Fred, and he came back on the line after a few minutes, more composed this time. They had similar emotion from Annika Sorenstam, someone who normally seems pretty unemotional. It was somber but also entertaining as the night went on as the stories started to come out after the shock and sadness. It was like that all night, with great stories from everyone they talked to, people like Lanny Wadkins and Rocco Mediate and Jim Nantz of CBS and Jimmy Roberts of NBC. I gave up and finally went to bed at 2:30AM and they were still going, in their fifth hour of live commercial-free coverage. Well done, Golf Channel.

Posted in Golf, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Deputy Dawgs



A discussion on Twitter yesterday morning about how Deputy Ministers get appointed reminded me of my experience working for the provincial government over the years and interacting with Deputies. That discussion was about whether they have to apply and compete for those positions, or if they just get appointed. I don’t know how it works in other provinces or with the Feds, but here’s what I know about how it happens in the Province of Nova Scotia.


First, an explanation of the title “Deputy Minister”. It really is a misnomer in that a Minister is almost always an elected member of the government in power, a member of the House of Assembly (there have been exceptions to that though, as recently as the 1990s here in Nova Scotia), while the Deputy Minister is not. They are best thought of as the CEO of a Department, the top civil servant in charge. While they need to understand the politics at play in their environment, they should still be giving their Minister the best objective advice possible. In other places – New Brunswick comes to mind – Deputies are sometimes ex-politicians or political operatives connected to the party in power. This thankfully usually does not happen in Nova Scotia. There have been a few, and at least one of them remains a Deputy in Nova Scotia today, but thankfully that is the exception rather than the rule.


There is sometimes an important exception to this, which would be the Deputy to the Premier, the “Deputy of Deputies” as they are sometimes called. That is the most powerful bureaucrat in any government, and issues direction to the other Deputies as to what the Premier needs them to do. It is a very demanding job that has great power, great responsibility, and great risk of blowing up in one’s face. You can well imagine the balancing act that this job needs, and the number of balls in the air at any given time. Because the person is in the Premier’s inner circle and is a confidante for getting things done, it sometimes happens that the person is active in the party structure. It needs to be a person the Premier can trust, and is not a job that is ever posted for competition as far as I can remember. Sometimes the Premier will appoint an existing Deputy into that position, but sometimes it will be someone from within the party or simply someone he trusts and likes. This person is often but not always also the Deputy for the Executive Council Office, the “machinery of government” spot where Cabinet decisions get recorded and made official, among other things.


In recent times it has become more common, if still not usually the case, to see departmental Deputy positions get posted for applicants. That really should not be a surprise – a lot of CEO jobs get competed for too – but that certainly wasn’t always how it worked. I remember back in the John Buchanan era having a casual conversation one day at some sort of office reception with a group of co-workers, when our Minister sat down and joined us just to shoot the breeze, a fairly rare thing. One thing led to another and eventually the subject of Deputy appointments came up. Our Minister described it in these terms: after Cabinet one day, the Premier asked the Cabinet to stay behind after staff left, and he used a whiteboard to list the names of Departments where he wanted to change Deputies. He then polled the room as to who might be good candidates. Names were written on the board, opinions were exchanged, and eventually people were slotted into the spots available like some sort of fantasy draft. As a fairly young and quite green member of the civil service, this boggled my mind. I could just picture it, the backroom boys making deals and kings.


But assuming the names offered were known players in the senior civil service, this might not be as crazy as it sounds in retrospect. I know from having witnessed many competitions for senior positions over the years that even the most structured and well-meaning recruitment process to pick the best candidate is still a crapshoot at these levels. Not everyone is cut out to be a Deputy or a CEO. I know that many times over the years my co-workers and I would talk about why the hell anyone would even want to be a Deputy in the first place. The pay back in the ’80s and ’90s was lousy for the level of responsibility, you had limited ability to actually change anything, you had a rotating series of politicians to try and satisfy, and your life was a series of meetings, demands, and complaints. It wasn’t like you could suddenly become a star. The system prevented that. I can think of a few occasions over the years where outside candidates who went through a selection process were brought in, guns blazing, and flamed out in short order, often because they didn’t understand politics or how government worked. Others immediately proved themselves lackluster at best and either settled into a career of shuffling around, or were eventually eased out. That taught me more about the shortcomings of H.R. recruitment practices than the people themselves.


Part of the reason that outside candidates sometimes struggled as a Deputy is that running a government department is nothing at all like running a private company. You could have all sorts of great ideas, do all the right analysis, make all the right moves, and be shut down with a simple “no” after months of work simply because it was not palatable politically. Trust me, having worked in government I know how that is. But a lot of people in the top chair would not put up with being shot down like that. It would cause some of them to start looking for a new job, while others would toss their grand plans aside and try to get along as best they could. Meanwhile, a person who had been around the civil service for years and rose through the ranks would understand it, even if they didn’t like it, and just continue on.


The other thing that sometimes caused Deputies who were parachuted into a Department from outside government to fail was that the organism itself – the Department – rejected the transplant. If there was a senior staffer who was widely seen as the heir-apparent who ended up getting bypassed, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there might be some resentment from them and their colleagues towards the new arrival. This could even filter down into lower-level staff, with the expected and unfortunate consequences to morale and performance. This was made even worse if the new Deputy was not someone with obvious credentials but instead an outside person selected because of connections or profile, which is something that happens occasionally. Any flaws will be exposed by the senior staff, and any mistakes will be made known. Should the new Deputy attempt to initiate something that was ambitious, the response was often one of nodding in agreement while whispering under one’s breath, “they’ll learn”, and not doing anything to keep them from falling on their face. I saw this in the ’90s with at least one of the Deputies brought in by the Savage government, and again later on in the Tory governments of the early to mid 2000s. Not a nice thing, but it happens.


This leads to the other thing I learned about the Deputy ranks in my time within government – the way to do well and get ahead is to never rock the boat very much. You can play around the edges, but the system is very resistant to change. It is well-nigh impossible to do any sort of meaningful change to improve efficiency or streamline how things work. If legislation needs to be changed to make that happen, that is a very lengthy process with no guarantee of success. If people need to be moved out, either due to poor performance or restructuring, good luck to you with that. While it occasionally happens, that almost always was in the early days of a new government when they thought they were in charge of such things. The reality is that union members working in government never go away unless they want to, they just change locations. Even non-unionized management staff have a system that protects them to at least some (albeit lesser) extent. The result is that big changes take so long to happen that most Deputies have learned it is usually best to not even try. In most cases they will be shuffled to their next assignment before anything happens anyway, so why bother? Just don’t do anything stupid, don’t get a bad reputation, keep your head down, and go along to get along for the most part.


One example of this that never ceases to amaze me is something I worked on in my days at Finance in the late 1990s. We were asked to look at how government managed their equipment fleet – trucks, cars, heavy equipment and the like. While Transportation and Public Works had most of that responsibility, it turned out that other departments had fleet management operations too. We did a lot of work with the staff at TPW (who were great) and realized that there was considerable savings to be had if it was all centralized under one agency, either in a Department, a standalone government operating agency, or privatized. But however you chose to do it, it made zero sense to have a bunch of Departments doing it themselves. What even made less sense was having two fleet garages damn near side by side (separated only by a fence) in St. Peter’s, one belonging to TPW and one belonging to Natural Resources, doing much the same work. I mean, that was a no-brainer. When we presented our conclusions to the Deputies, there was a lot of nodding, everyone agreed it made sense to amalgamate, but in the end nothing ever changed. As of 2012, the date of the most recent Google Streetview images I can find, the status of things in St. Peter’s remains the same. From the Deputies point of view, it would be a lot of trouble dealing with all the displaced workers and facilities, and not only would they would get no reward for their efforts but likely just a lot of grief instead. So why bother?


In the end, that’s why most Deputies come from within the ranks of the senior civil service. Someone working at that level knows all of this, knows how government works and doesn’t work, knows what their department does well and what it doesn’t, and knows what to focus on and what to stay away from. If they aspire to become a Deputy someday, that is known as well, thanks to their annual performance review with the current Deputy when they got to the part that talked about career development. If there is agreement on that being a possibility, the existing Deputy will plant a seed with the right colleagues around the Deputy table and the Minister may well do the same at Cabinet (especially if the person is known to and liked by Cabinet members) after the potential candidate visits to present on something. It is just a lot easier to appoint someone from within the system, even if they may not be the perfect person for the job. All that being said, it is not a guarantee by any means either. I can think of one case where someone who was pretty much a certain future Deputy made a very dumb move, which ultimately ended their career in government. Some had it snatched away when an outsider was brought in and never got another chance. Others might have all the qualities required for the job, but for whatever reason never got the call.


To sum up, the reality is that most departments have senior management in place with one or more likely Deputies already being groomed for the spot, so when the opportunity happens, it is just easier for the sake of effectiveness, expediency, and morale to appoint from within. You tend to see government look outside more often when a department is newly created from parts of others, or if there is a perception that the place needs a good shakeup. It is true that an outsider is often the most likely person for the job when you are looking for big changes to an organization. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that the cure for what ails the Department will always take, given the amount of resistance to change inherent in the government system.

Posted in Nova Scotia | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Judging the New Canadians

The world needs another whisky blogger like it needs more greenhouse gases, so the whisky world need not worry, as I have no intention of writing about it on a regular basis. But I like whisky, especially Scotch and Canadian whisky, have a ridiculous amount of it here, and continue to purchase new arrivals to try.

The latter part of 2015 has brought us several new entrants in the Canadian whisky category here in Nova Scotia. The much-publicized Crown Royal Northern Harvest, proclaimed as Whisky of the Year by Jim Murray, has gotten most of the attention. But we have two mostly local whiskies that appeared this fall, Caldera Hurricane 5, out of River John, NS, and Glynnevan Double Barrelled, out of Guysborough. I say mostly local because in both cases, the latter two are combinations of local aging of whiskies that are sourced from out west (in the case of Glynnevan) or locally produced blended with whisky from elsewhere (in the case of Caldera). I understand both of those operations are either currently or planning to distill their own product down the road.

As a personal note, it is great to see the distilling sector beginning to develop here in Nova Scotia. When I joined the NSLC in 2003, the only distillery in the province was Glenora. As a Scotch whisky fan, I found myself wondering why New Scotland was so lacking in the manufacture of spirits. Ironworks set up in Lunenburg several years later, followed by a small operation at Jost Vineyards, which I understand was discontinued with the sale of the winery in the last few years. Now, there are not only the aforementioned operations but also a few others either already doing business or in the process of getting going. The effect on the local economy from buying locally manufactured product is much greater than when buying something from outside the province, and the more we do that, the better off we all are.

But speaking of things produced outside the province, the phenomenon of Crown Royal Northern Harvest, made at Diageo’s Gimli, Manitoba facility, is rather remarkable. Introduced earlier this year without much fanfare, I saw it as just another extension to the Crown Royal line, which ranges from never-gonna-buy (CR Apple) to quite good (CR Cask 16), and I never gave it much attention. When Jim Murray proclaimed it his Whisky of the Year for 2015, the attendant publicity caused it to immediately start flying off the shelves at the NSLC in a way I had never seen any whisky move before. Naturally, at that point I had to get my hands on a bottle to see what the fuss was all about, and I thought it would be interesting to compare the two local products while I was at it.

Crown Royal Northern Harvest
45% ABV

Reportedly made from 90% rye grain, Northern Harvest possesses much more character than regular Crown Royal, which is balanced and smoothed to the point of inoffensiveness. Points to Diageo for bottling it at 45%, which allows the flavors to be somewhat more concentrated. While the nose on all three whiskies here are nothing to write home about, you do get a whiff of spice and cereal here. On the palate it is very good: sweetness, more cereal, vanilla and, with a bit of water added, a hint of maraschino cherry and rye bread character. It is quite flavorful while retaining the usual CR balance, and very smooth. I don’t know how long this has been aged in wood, but it has been aged long enough to round off the sharp edges but not let the wood take over. At $35, this is good value and a very nice whisky indeed. Maybe that’s part of Murray’s criteria for naming it Whisky of the Year, I don’t know. But it isn’t “The Best” Canadian whisky by a long shot, not when you consider what else is out there. As long as we keep that fact straight, I have no difficulty in recommending it at the current price point.


Caldera Hurricane 5
43% ABV

The small community of River John, not quite halfway between Tatamagouche and Pictou on Highway 6, seems an unlikely place for a distillery. A place that once made wooden ships is now the location of Caldera Distilling, run by Jarret Stuart. Caldera is apparently growing some amount of their own grain for use in making whisky, and contracting local growers for more. As of now they are not distilling on a large scale, but have commercial-sized stills being manufactured for installation next year.

While it is difficult to determine exactly where what is in the handsome Caldera bottle comes from, or what is in it, Hurricane 5 is obviously fairly young whisky. There is a strong ethanol scent on the nose with a hint of citrus or fresh ginger, and some hot pepper on the palate. With a bit of water the nose reveals some toffee notes, and the palate provides some cereal flavors that remind me a bit of Shredded Wheat, though I wouldn’t recommend this as a breakfast food. The overall flavor profile is fairly light, despite the deep color of this whisky, adding to the suggestion this is quite young, and I suspect there isn’t a huge percentage of rye in this blend. Yet there is something about it that keeps drawing me back in, a character I cannot quite pinpoint. With water or over ice, it is eminently drinkable, with a smoothness that belies its youth. I expect good things from Caldera in the years to come.

Glynnevan Double Barrelled
43% ABV

Several times during my career at NSLC I had occasion to meet Glynn Williams, impresario of the Authentic Seacoast operation in Guysborough and someone who has singlehandedly brought a number of new businesses in the town to life. Not long before I departed the premises at the Liquor Corporation, Glynn and his General Manager visited to show us their plans for the construction of a combination brewery and distillery operation in Guysborough, something that is illustrated on the Glynnevan label. Right now they are bringing in spirits from other places, aging, blending, and bottling them in Guysborough, with the intent to make their own product once the facilities are ready. Their first product was Sea Fever rum, and Glynnevan, a project of Glynn and his son Evan,  is their first whisky to hit the shelves.

Since they aren’t distilling this in Guysborough, we can only speculate as to the source of what’s in the bottle. The label says it was born in the west, and my Twitter friend Bruce Fraser suspects it is from Alberta Distillers Limited (ADL). I think he may be correct, but not for the reason he probably thinks. I’ve detected a note in both the nose and palate of some ADL offerings that I don’t find particularly enjoyable, something reminiscent of a solvent smell of some sort. I get that in Dark Horse, and I get it here, not in any kind of overwhelming way, but present nonetheless. ADL are known for their 100% rye whiskies, but I don’t get the typical rye notes I find in whiskies like Lot 40 or even Northern Harvest. Maybe it is something unique to their distilling process that transforms that somehow.

The flavor otherwise is quite pleasant, with some toffee, vanilla, but not overwhelming sweetness. Some water enhances the nose, bringing out more of the vanilla tones, and enhances the creamy toffee on the palate, while adding a hint of wood, perhaps slightly too old wood. ADL makes some solid whiskies, but there is something about most of their products I’ve tried that doesn’t quite work for me. Overall it is good, but sadly, not $45 worth of good, not when I can get Lot 40, Pike Creek or Northern Harvest for the same or less money.

What to make of all this? What I’ve done here is pretty unfair actually, comparing Northern Harvest, a product of a long-established, big distiller with all sorts of resources to draw upon, to two local startups. The prices of the local products reflect the lack of economies of scale and the need to source product from elsewhere, which adds considerably to their costs, and hence their prices. I have no doubt both will get better over time, and they are both making products that are quite acceptable right now. I’d encourage local whisky enthusiasts to give them a try. But if you are looking for a screaming deal on the price-quality value equation, the Northern Harvest is hard to beat right now. It has loads of flavor, lots of subtle complexities, and is dangerously smooth. Get it before the price goes up.

Posted in Nova Scotia, NSLC, Uncategorized, whisky | 1 Comment

The Best Cat Ever


The Internet needs another item about cats the way I need another 20 pounds, but I’m going to add to that list anyway. This is a therapeutic effort for me as much as anything, so I beg your indulgence. Continue at your own risk, because I cried a few times writing this.

My cat Sam died yesterday. It wasn’t a sudden death, and in some ways that is better, but in other ways it was worse. I called him The Best Cat Ever for years, because to me that’s what he was. Let me tell you his story.

Growing up, our home always had cats. Of course when you are a little kid you are susceptible to loving small animals, and I suspect the cat gene installed itself in me at a young age. I still have a barely visible scar on my right forearm where my grandmother’s cat scratched me severely when I was about 5 years old after I foolishly tried to play with him when he was asleep in the sunshine in the yard. He was an ornery old black tomcat that I was told later had been a vermin-hunter for her in a previous residence, and was not a cuddly cat. Over 50 years later I can still see the two streaks on my arm if I look hard enough.

But that didn’t change things for me. There was always a cat in our household growing up and that cat always slept on my bed. Why, I do not know, but it just seemed to happen. When I finally moved away from home when I was in my early 20s I had pet-free apartments and that’s when cat ownership ended. As a young guy who travelled and was often away on business it made sense anyway. But the gene remained, lurking.

By the time I bought my house in 1997 things had started to change. I was no longer on the road, I could see my future a bit more clearly, and possibly a return to having a cat around was more likely. A couple of years later I was working at NS Finance for the remarkable Gillian Wood, who also had the cat gene. So did one of her daughters. Alison had adopted two kittens, littermates simply but usefully named Blackie and Whitey. She had relocated to a small studio apartment at The Carleton Hotel and could not keep them. Gillian began doing the hard sell on me, saying that having two cats was better than having one anyway, and eventually negotiations began. I went up to The Carleton to see them, and they were adorable, probably 5 or 6 months old, bouncing around like a couple of Mexican jumping beans. Eventually a deal was done and they moved to Dartmouth. Gillian organized a “cat shower” for me with my co-workers a short time later so that I could be given some of the necessities of cat parenthood. It was probably as close to the real thing as I would ever get.

The names could not stand, so over the first few days I studied them with the thought of giving them new handles. Blackie was a sleek, shiny, mostly black Tuxedo cat, and he reminded me of a seal, so he became Sammy (the seal), soon shortened to Sam. His brother Whitey was what I later came to call a Holstein cat, white with dark blotches like a Holstein cow. Thankfully I hadn’t made that connection right away or who knows what I might have named him. Instead, he reminded me of a panda bear, so he became Bear.


They soon settled in and became quite the tag team. Being littermates they liked each other, did many things together, and there was none of the hostility that two stranger cats often demonstrate. Their play-wrestling matches never failed to entertain early on. They had boundless energy and could play with each other and with me for hours. They were both very affectionate, but had distinct personalities that emerged quickly. Bear was much more independent while Sam was a bit more timid and liked sticking closer to me. Sam also had the most pronounced purr I had ever heard from a domestic cat. He would lay down next to me while I was talking on the phone, and people on the other end of the line would ask me what that noise was. Early on, he would sleep on the floor next to the head of the bed, and I would hear him spontaneously purring down there. Soon he moved up onto the bed so I could hear him even better. I discovered that a purring cat laying against you at night makes a wonderful sleep aid, strangely enough.


During the negotiations, Gillian had insisted that they be allowed outside, something that she strongly believed in despite the strong indoor cat sentiment that was already quite prevalent. I introduced them to the outdoors carefully, first letting them out on the deck, then in the backyard. Soon they loved being outside when the weather was nice, and began venturing further afield. Brightwood Golf Club backs onto my property and soon I would see them, especially Bear, on the other side of the boundary fence, exploring the course. Sam was usually a bit less adventurous, but he too would go over to the golf course at dusk, and often would return home in the evening soaking wet after getting ambushed by the sprinklers. They both seemed to love it.


Both of them had one habit that drove me crazy. My deck has a privacy screen on one side that extends to the roof of the house, and they soon discovered they could use this to get on the roof. This terrified me, especially when I would look up and see Bear perched on the edge of the chimney looking down the flue. I would yell and call and eventually he would get down. But they both seemed to like heights – I guess a lot of cats do – and would often just go up on the roof to hang out and watch the birds fly past.

This behaviour would have one unhappy consequence. Just before Halloween of 1999 both cats were outside in the early evening. I saw Sam outside the door and when I opened it to let him in he was hobbling on 3 legs, unable to put any weight on his right front leg. I soon saw why – it was badly injured, bleeding from a gash and crooked, obviously broken. I suspect he probably fell off the roof. He made his way to his supper bowl and began to eat, much to my surprise. It was obvious that he needed attention, so off we went to the emergency vet clinic in Burnside. They told me he had a bad break, but they would try to set it and keep him overnight under sedation. The next day I picked him up in a cast, with instructions to keep him confined, preferably in a kennel, and to check in with my regular vet the next week. I didn’t have a kennel, so I set up the spare bedroom for him and kept him confined there. That first night back home I slept with him on the floor in there just to keep him comfortable. I think he slept a lot better than I did.

Soon a large kennel was procured and I installed it in the living room, moving in a litter box, food and water bowls, and some cat toys. He didn’t like it much and would sometimes yowl in protest, but overall tolerated it pretty well. I would take him out for scratches and cuddles of course, but he had adjusted to the cast, had begun feeling better, and missed his freedom. After a few weeks and a couple of cast changes, the vet took some new pictures and was dismayed to see that the bones were not healing. They weren’t really surprised given the nature of the break, and gave me some options, none of which were all that palatable. Euthanasia, if I didn’t want to spend any more money on him, which wasn’t an option at all; amputation, which they told me often let cats live useful lives, but was not something I wanted to consider at that stage; or a trip to the Veterinary College in PEI for more advanced care. That seemed the best though most difficult option, but thankfully before that occurred a different vet at my clinic had a consult over the phone with one of the specialists there, and they concluded that simply more time in the cast might be another option. Some cats were just slow healers, there had been a lot of swelling early on that might have delayed things, and they said if both Sam and I could stand it, it might all work out.


Sam had now become quite proficient in walking with his leg in a cast and no longer needed to live in the kennel. He was limited in some ways and obviously couldn’t go outside – it was winter anyway so he didn’t mind – but all in all he just went about his business. I took to calling him “Pegleg” which probably would have insulted him if he understood it. He needed me to get him on and off the bed at night, but insisted that he sleep in his normal spot next to me. I soon installed a footstool next to the bed to enable him to get up and down without the need for a leap. He even learned to use his cast as a weapon when Bear would want to roughhouse with him, something he no longer welcomed. Periodic x-rays at the vet showed some progress, but it wasn’t until one day in late February after I got home from work that he sat himself down in front of me, started going after the cast with his teeth, and quickly removed it. After some vigorous licking of the leg – the first time he could get at it in 4 months, after all – he got up and walked around on 3 legs quite easily. Within a day he was putting weight on the leg when he sat or ate, and the next day he was walking normally with virtually no limp. The vets were amazed.

Sam’s recovery marked a divergence in the behaviour of the two brothers. Bear continued his adventurous ways, becoming more feisty, wanting to be outside more often, even disappearing on a couple of occasions for over a week at a time. The second time this happened I was certain he was gone for good when he suddenly reappeared after 14 days acting totally nonchalant, like nothing was any different. I remember seeing him come up the walkway and not being able to believe my eyes, as I had accepted that something bad had happened to him. Sam, meanwhile, had become much more of a homebody cat, no longer going out very much or very far, preferring instead to hang around with me. He loved to eat, and the lack of exercise meant he became quite big. At his peak he hit 18 pounds. But he was very happy and despite some arthritis as he got older, seemed to be enjoying life. He still slept next to me every night and still could purr like nobody’s business.

In the summer of 2006, Bear disappeared again. When he didn’t come back after a few days I put up some posters around the neighborhood and a week or so later got a call from a neighbor a few blocks away. She gave me the sad news that she was pretty sure she had seen him get hit by a car in front of her house, and that he had been killed. I was very sad of course, and after a few weeks Sam seemed to miss his buddy.

In the fall I decided to adopt a new cat to give Sam a friend. For whatever reason, at that time there seemed to be very few suitable candidates available. Eventually I adopted a cat I named Coco from the Atlantic Cat Hospital, a small young female kitty who, it was later revealed, was brought here from somewhere out west. She was very affectionate when I met her, but as it turned out, Sam and her did not get along, mostly due to her being very hostile towards him. I often wonder what she went through before I met her, since her behaviour has remained very odd. She loves most people, but not other cats. But I made the decision to adopt her so I was not about to abandon her, and decided to make the best of it. She is entertaining if nothing else and to this day continues to tear around the house like a dervish several times a day.


In the fall of 2007 I happened to look out the back door one day and saw a cat that looked so much like Bear that I did a double-take. I opened the door to take a better look and he sauntered in like he owned the place, went to Sam’s food bowl, and began eating calmly and methodically. Upon closer examination it was clear he wasn’t Bear, but certainly a reasonable facsimile. While he was eating, Sam walked in, took a look at him, and reacted as if he seemed to think, “Oh, you’re back finally,” and just kept walking. It was the damndest thing. The cat then made himself at home in the living room and apparently decided that this wasn’t a bad place to hang out. I figured if he and Sam were getting along, I wouldn’t shoo him out. He looked to be in very good condition and obviously was someone’s cat.


I truly think Sam believed that Bear had returned, because they immediately bonded. The new cat made himself at home and spent the night. When he made no move to leave the next day, I figured it must be fate and concluded that if he wanted to stick around, I would keep him. I named him Fred, though I’m not sure why. After a couple of weeks, I took him to the vet and had him checked out. He was in fine shape, but needed neutering, so after he got his shots I made an appointment for that. The day before that was to happen, he went out and didn’t return. Maybe he knew.

Meanwhile, a large orange tabby that I had seen visiting the yard over the previous few years had started hanging around on the deck and now was obviously hungry. He was timid but could be friendly if the mood struck him, and I would give him the leftovers from the other cats. After 2 weeks of having Fred disappear, I figured he was gone for good, so when the first snow began coming down I invited the big red guy to come in. Again, he was obviously someone else’s cat, but I suspected he had been abandoned. He zoomed inside and settled in, never really being much of a problem and getting on well with Sam, though Coco immediately declared him her new sworn arch-enemy. A trip to the vet determined he was in excellent health and already neutered, so I was back to 3 cats. I had trouble settling on a name for him for the longest time, and eventually started calling him Rusty.


Super Bowl Sunday in early 2008 was notable for a couple of things. The Giants beat the previously undefeated Patriots, ruining their quest for a perfect season. Also, that was the night Fred returned. He had been gone for 8 weeks. Where, obviously, nobody can say and he isn’t talking. Maybe he went back to where he came from originally and decided he had made the right move in leaving the first time, who knows. But once again he just sauntered up the steps and strolled inside like he had just gone out for an hour or so. Suddenly I had 4 cats. I began to understand how you hear about these people whose houses get full of cats, and knew this had to stop. Fortunately, it did.

The one constant this time had been Sam, of course, and even with the various personalities and interactions among them, he made it clear to them that he was the top cat, and they deferred. The vets had noted he was starting to develop some dental problems, and he had a cracked tooth which didn’t seem to bother him much. But they were more concerned about his weight, and didn’t advise dental work just yet. Things were moving along pretty well for the cats, but less so for me. Some heart problems that were originally diagnosed in 1990 began to get worse, and I was scheduled for bypass and valve surgery in 2009. That happened on the Monday of the week before Halloween of ’09 – odd how so many of these events occurred at that time of year – and it was a rough ride. I was told later various stories of how long I was on the operating table – some said 8 hours, some 12, one person claimed it was 14 – and I somehow made it through. That week in the hospital is all a bit fuzzy, especially the first couple of days. They want to get you up and around as soon as they can, and by Thursday they tried to get me walking with a wheeled cart to support me. But I could barely move and was still on some serious drugs, affecting my thinking. By Friday I wanted out of there in the worst way, and around 8PM that night they discharged me.

In retrospect it was a mistake on both my part and that of the hospital staff to let me out. I could barely stand, much less move. But I wanted to get home and I guess I was being such a pain that they finally agreed. I remember my brother helping me get from the car to the door of the house, getting inside, and pretty much falling into a chair. I was in pretty bad shape from both the effects of the surgery and all the drugs I was on, and by about 10:30 I wanted to go to bed. I made it under the covers, and then experienced something I will never forget. Sam came in and took his usual position to my left next to the pillow. Then Coco came in and took the same position on the other side. Then Fred arrived and took a position down by my legs on the left, followed by Rusty on the right. This never, ever happened. They stayed there all night and were still there when I woke up the next morning. Amazing. Even more amazing were the drug-fuelled dreams I had that night, which centered on them, Vancouver ( a place I have never been), McLaren’s olives (remember those?), the year 1969, and that year’s new car introductions, all woven together. Where that all came from I have no idea, but it was hilarious. I learned that according to the dreams, Fred was apparently the designer of the Boss 302 Mustang. Imagine that.

As I tried to recover, Sam and I became even closer, if that was possible. I needed frequent rest, and Sam would always be there with me. He seemed to sense when I was feeling bad and when I was feeling good. It almost like we had some sort of telepathic connection, as strange as that seems. Most mornings previously he would wake me up with a paw to the face so he could get fed, but during that time he would just lay next to me until I was ready to get up. The other cats were less in tune, but he just seemed to know.

In the last few years as Sam aged, he began losing weight. I was concerned it was cancer, but the vet diagnosed it as a thyroid problem and put him on meds. They helped, but he continued to lose weight, just not as dramatically. His teeth began to get worse too, and several were lost. Despite it all he still loved to eat, and maintained his usual personality. Nothing much seemed to bother him, and his weight loss helped him move around much better to boot. He seemed great, up to about 6 weeks ago. He lost one of his upper canines, and apparently an infection set in, though it wasn’t obvious at first. That infection spread through his mouth, making it hard for him to eat, and also caused him to have difficulty keeping things down. A couple of bouts of antibiotics helped, but cats go bad pretty quickly, and by then it was too late. He was down to under 7 pounds, he was dehydrated, his kidneys were failing, and couldn’t eat without great discomfort. It was sad to see such rapid decline. I tried giving him every kind of food, tried hand-feeding him, tried giving him water myself, but nothing worked. He wanted to eat, but he couldn’t, and kept getting worse. He managed to keep getting up on the bed with me at night but it was becoming more and more difficult for him to do, and he wouldn’t stay long, preferring to sleep on the floor.

Some IV fluids helped get him through the weekend, but by Monday he was bad again, and Tuesday it was approaching pathetically pitiful. I couldn’t bear to see him that way. It damn near killed me. I probably picked up the phone 3 times yesterday before finally making the call. I loved him so much that it was emotionally draining, and affected me in a very profound way. The only good thing was that it happened over enough time that I could see what the end was going to look like, and it gave me a chance to talk to him and cuddle him and hear him purr a few last times over the past week or so.

After it was all over last night the house seemed emptier, even though for the last several weeks he seldom ventured out of my bedroom. When I went to bed last night it was odd again, not only that he wasn’t there but none of the other cats would come into the room. Normally Fred and Rusty will come in for a head rub as I’m getting ready before they go elsewhere to sleep, and Coco usually comes barreling in after lights-out to leap up on the bed and sleep with me. Not last night. Maybe their way of showing respect, I don’t know. It seemed strange this morning not to put food out in Sam’s normal eating spot, nor to have to clean his litter box. I’m sure we’ll all get back to normal soon enough, but it is a different time here at the moment.

I do need to thank Dr. Paige Marriott and especially Dr. Ginny Vaughan at Harbour Cities Vet Hospital for all their help, especially over the last few weeks. Ginny made time for me and Sam yesterday because she knew what it would mean to us. I am very grateful, and she was wonderful.


Rest in peace, my noble friend. You were truly The Best Cat Ever.
Sam 1999-2015

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments

Clear As Mud

Back when I was a young teenager growing up I didn’t pay much attention to politicians unless they became the subject for comedians and entertainers. That’s when I began to associate U.S. President Richard Nixon with the line “Let me be perfectly clear” after seeing Rich Little and others begin to use it as a tagline. It became a way to set up the audience for a laugh with the punchline that always followed it.


More recently lots of people (including President Obama and Prime Minister Harper) have fallen into the habit of using the line “Let’s be clear”. I always took that in a different way, thinking they were trying to be serious and emphatic. It almost felt like a challenge or a threat depending on how it was delivered. No laughs there for sure. So when I saw that HRM had chosen the line “Let’s Be Clear” as the tag for its publicity campaign around changes to garbage rules in our town, I immediately detected the subtext that went beyond the obvious reference to using clear garbage bags. They weren’t fooling around, and that became obvious when their detailed messaging started to appear. Residents were being told in no uncertain terms that they were expected to comply, or be sent to bed without their supper – or in this case, without their garbage pickup.

I bought my house in 1997, and a year later, a truck dropped a green bin at the end of my driveway. Like a lot of people, I suspect, at first I eyed it warily. But soon I found it useful, especially for yard waste. Food waste took a bit longer for me to figure out, since the countertop green bin took up too much space and was instantly relegated to a dark corner of the basement, but once I discovered the double-barrel strategy of using an empty cereal or cracker box on the counter each day for that purpose, I started to feed it that too. I was never sure where all this compost HRM was apparently generating was actually going at the end of the process, since I never saw HRM fertilizing their properties very much and I couldn’t imagine that anyone would actually buy the stuff, but whatever.

The same held true for recycling. It was actually easy to keep a blue bag in a can out on the deck for bottles, jars and cans. Over time I discovered that plastics could go in there too, and so I was making use of all the streams as I understood them. Was I perfect? No. Part of that was due to my understanding of the HRM rules, which were communicated spottily at best and often seemed counterproductive, like only taking certain kinds of plastic but not others. Why? That is like saying they will take clear bottles but not brown ones. If you are trying to change people’s behavior, you should make it as easy for them as you can. That is lost on the technocrats far too often, unfortunately.

When the idea of clear bags was floated to “bring people into line” with the rules, as some councillors termed it, my back went up. I didn’t want my garbage on display, nor did I want to see that of my neighbors, and I didn’t like the idea that I needed to be shamed into following the rules. Nor did I like the idea that a contracted garbage collector who wasn’t a HRM employee had the power to refuse me pickup because of what he perceived my clear bag contained. I did understand that some people were not following the rules. I had an example up the street from me, in the form of a neighbor who always had 3 or 4 dark bags on the curb every 2 weeks, never had a blue bag that I remembered seeing, and rarely put out the green bin. This despite living alone, being retired, and probably having the time to figure it all out. It was hardly a secret that he wasn’t following the rules, and it probably wouldn’t have been that hard to identify him and others like him and target him for some help and persuasion. But like a lot of bureaucracies, HRM isn’t good at solving individual problems, preferring to use the large blunt instrument approach. And so we are now saddled with clear bags and revised rules for how to deal with your garbage.

I watched the HRM Council session the night these rules were passed and knew right away I had a problem. The original proposal, you may recall, was for some number of clear bags each pickup day, with a “privacy bag” allowed inside each for your unmentionables. That immediately started being debated – what if the privacy bag was as big as the clear bag, what if people used it to circumvent the rules, what if what if, all sorts of hypotheticals. Now, what staff originally thought on this subject, I do not know. I suspect they conceived that the nested bag would be a plastic grocery bag or kitchen catcher, and that people would understand the spirit and intent of the rules. But no, that quickly got dismissed because Council seemed to think that we were all a bunch of miscreants who would use the provision to break the rules. So instead, on the fly during the meeting they came up with the concept of one dark “privacy” bag – I call it a cheat bag – per pickup, with every other bag needing to be clear, and with no bags containing anything inside those unless they were also clear. Seems to defeat the purpose, but OK. Sounds easy, right?

Right away I could see I was going to have a problem. I have 4 cats and 5 litter boxes. Yeah, I’m crazy, but they keep me from being even more crazy. Every morning, I make the rounds with a grocery bag and a scoop and clean those boxes. So every two weeks I have 14 tied-off grocery bags that go inside garbage bags for pickup. The stuff is heavy, so I split it between two garbage bags and even at that there are times when it probably should be split 3 ways simply because of the weight of it. It makes up probably 95% or more of the weight of my garbage and probably 90% of the volume. The rest is just like everyone else’s trash. But now this would be verboten. I could use my one cheat bag for some of it but not all. What to do with the rest?

While watching the meeting that night I saw that HRM’s City Solicitor, John Traves, was taking part in the discussion. I know John from having worked with him at the Province, so I made a guess at his email address and sent him a description of my problem. To his great credit, he responded quite quickly and undertook to get an answer for me. Unfortunately the answer, when it came, was not very good. The cheat bag could be used for it as always, but that would not be able to fully solve my problem given my volume. HRM Solid Waste was going to change their guidelines from not wanting cat litter to arrive loose in a large garbage bag, and instead would now require it to be loose, if it wasn’t in a smaller clear bag. Having as yet failed to find a source for suitably-sized clear bags, which I would obviously have to buy, this is bad on a number of levels. If the large bag breaks you have a huge, stinky mess on your hands instead of just a pile of smaller bags, and I can only imagine what will happen at the HRM garbage facilities. But that was the official HRM position.

As the date drew closer and HRM went into full campaign blitz mode, I discovered some other bizarre parts to the rules. Dog owners, it turned out, were in a similar position as me when it came to their dog poop bags. These come in various colors, but not in clear. HRM was insisting on clear, but nobody makes them. Now, how a government can mandate that people use something that does not exist escapes me, but there it is. Instead, HRM suggested people use sandwich bags – the term “shit sandwich” immediately comes to mind – and expressed hope that the industry would produce the doggy product in a clear format real soon. Amazing.

Aside from pet waste, there are a bunch of other complexities that boggle my mind. Things like used paper towels still go into the green bin as always, but tissues are garbage. Huh? I was baffled when I discovered this as I had never made a distinction. It turns out that HRM decrees that tissues contain “bodily fluids” and therefore are hazardous and go into the garbage. I mean, really? If I cut myself in the kitchen the first thing I grab is a paper towel since it is right there. If I take a bite of something and discover it has red onions in it, I grab a paper napkin and spit out the contents, which includes some saliva. If the cat barfs on the floor, it gets wiped up with paper towels. Conversely, if I have a tissue nearby I might wipe up a spilled drink with it. I can understand how the subject matter experts come up with things like this, but from a consumer point of view it is senseless.

The same holds true for plastic wrap and aluminum foil. The rules make a distinction between these items being clean or soiled. I suppose it is possible to be in a situation where you would have some clean examples of these kicking around, but the vast majority have touched food and are therefore “soiled” and become garbage in HRM’s terms. Why complicate the rules by making a distinction? I can guess that someone’s solid waste best practice list has this on it, but really – why bother? What difference does it actually make? Wouldn’t making it simpler result in better compliance overall, and less risk of running afoul of the rules?

My ultimate mind-blower came on the Halifax Recycles Facebook page, where someone was answering questions about the rules. Someone asked why plastic disposable cup lids weren’t recyclable, since they had the symbol on them that was the same as a lot of other plastic items that do go in the blue bag. The answer that was given boggled me, so I’m quoting it here for clarity:

Halifax Recycles The lids as well. The recycle symbol doesn’t mean a product is accepted as recycling. It is a symbol the plastic manufacturing industry chose to identify different types of plastic.
Like • 1 • July 27 at 7:07am

And then this got posted as a follow-up:

Halifax Recycles We recycle all plastic CONTAINERS and plastic bags. We don’t look at the number on the plastic, but whether it’s a container (tub, bottle, clamshell for example) or a bag.
Like • 1 • July 27 at 7:33am

This was all news to me. I’m certainly no expert, so I have no idea of why this is the case, but I had no clue that containers and bags were so valuable while other items made of the same material were worthless. In fact I remember my surprise a few years ago when HRM announced they were now accepting #5 plastic in the blue bag, as I had always put it in there anyway. Even at that I had no idea it was just containers made of the stuff. I have a broken plastic part here from my refrigerator stamped with the #5 symbol that I was going to throw in the blue bag, but not now. Surely this makes sense to someone, but not to me. Why such a distinction? Again, make it simple for people to use, and they will comply. Deal with any variances at HRM’s end.

Most recently, there was a communications kerfuffle regarding bags. Someone on Twitter noticed a Council member’s post showing a picture of a family’s first curbside deposit under the new rules and the declaration of how easy it was. They noticed that the recycling was in a clear bag and questioned that. The answer was that it was OK to do that. This caused much consternation, since HRM Communications has been quite clear (ahem) that blue bags only were acceptable for recycling. HRM was brought into the loop and originally contradicted the Council member, then later said that no, it was OK, as long as it was an arm’s length away from the trash bag. Talk about mixed messages. Now they were contradicting everything they had said on the subject previously, including their much-touted app, along with this . As Vince Lombardi once famously said, “What the hell’s going on out there?”

The reaction of people to the rules seems all over the map. Some just seem totally confused. Some are very upset. On the other side, there have been a bunch of people saying, “No problem, works for me, the rest of you must be just a bunch of complainers” or words to that effect. Well, no. If it works for you, I’m glad. Great. But if you think for even a short time, it shouldn’t be too difficult to realize that not everyone’s situation is the same as yours, and maybe the rules don’t work for them quite so well. To some extent the same holds true for those who say “The number of complaints just shows how many people weren’t recycling before”. To that I say it has nothing to do with recycling. It has to do with the risk of getting a sticker on your trash and having it left behind if you run afoul of the rules, which as you can see from the examples I’ve given are not at all straightforward on even sensible in some cases.

I really don’t think this needs to be as hard as HRM has made it. It seems as though they expect residents to be expert trash sorters in order to meet every variation of the rules. What if they just said something like this:

1. Green bins take all organic materials – food waste, plant waste, garden waste (including grass clippings, which while not affecting me, I know some people are worked up about), and any absorbent paper. Boxboard or kraft bags can be used as a container.

2. Blue bags take all bottles, jars, cans, and plastic items containing a recycle symbol. Waste paper, shredded paper, newspaper, boxboard, and magazines go in a separate bag. Cardboard is bundled.

3. Garbage is everything else.

Forget the foolishness about worrying about what is in grocery bags or kitchen catchers, and see how it actually goes. If your kid throws the crust of his sandwich in the trash instead of the green bin, the world isn’t coming to an end. I will even concede on the clear bag issue, although I think it is foolishness, if you give me some slack on what are obviously dog poop or kitty litter bags, or a bathroom garbage can liner. As it is, I will come up with a solution to the kitty litter foolishness we have now, but it won’t be as easy or as elegant as what I’ve always done. My suggestion to HRM is to try working with people instead of hitting them over the head with a blunt instrument. Identify the areas where there are issues and deal with them, rather than starting from the position that everyone will cheat. I’m afraid what we have now is something that will blow up in Council’s collective faces if the collectors and their masters at HRM solid waste decide to get hard-nosed about compliance. Time will tell. It all depends on how HRM chooses to execute this, and whether they realize that demanding perfection from their clients – namely, us – isn’t always the right approach.

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Government, Business, and Hit and Run Politics

When the Hamm government was elected in 1999, one of the 243 promises in their platform was to get Nova Scotia out of the liquor retailing business. That platform was one that I doubt they ever thought they would need to deliver upon, but as things worked out, they were elected with a majority in 1999 and had to start doing the things they had promised. The liquor promise wasn’t a top priority, but by the year 2000 it had been decided to undertake a consultation on what to do regarding the NSLC, and Price Waterhouse Coopers was hired to undertake an analysis of the financial implications of 6 different retail options, from a full Alberta-style privatization to an IPO to improvements on the existing model and variations in between.

At the time I was working at the Priorities and Planning Secretariat and was assigned as the staffer on the file. Michele McKenzie, the Deputy Minister of Tourism who worked for Tourism Minister Rodney MacDonald, also the Minister responsible for the NSLC, led the process for government, and I ended up working closely with her. The consultation was interesting because there was little consensus among the public on anything. Some wanted the NSLC to disappear in favor of an Alberta-style private system, while others thought NSLC was just fine as it was except, perhaps, that even further restrictions on sale were needed. The majority were somewhere in the middle, saying that certainly some changes were necessary at NSLC, but perhaps not something as extreme as an outright selling-off. PWC’s financial analysis concluded that over time the “Alberta model” would bring the greatest return to the province, but that a revitalized NSLC with some agency stores could return about the same amount each year if done right. Given that the government had just gone through a fairly traumatic period in dealing with the unions on a number of attempts at service delivery reform, the ability to avoid that on the liquor file was welcomed, and the direction to reinvent the NSLC as a Crown corporation free of government interference was agreed upon.

In July of 2001 amendments to the Liquor Control Act were proclaimed making the NSLC a Crown corp, and an interim Board of Directors made up of government officials was appointed until a slate of outside Directors could be found. Michele was appointed Chair and I was chosen as one of the interim Directors, while still continuing to work as the government staffer on the file. The NSLC we walked into was a very odd organization, one which few in government knew much about. The NSLC had not been very open to government over the years, and aside from the regular transfer of profits few in government knew much about what went on there. We learned that many of the management staff had become accustomed to being told what to do by previous governments on things like store locations and property purchases, and we discovered that it was just a few years previous that they had finally gotten away from politicians telling them whom to hire. They had been forced to starve the organization of investment in facilities, technology and people in order to give the government the annual increases in revenue it demanded. Without proper management tools at their disposal to help the business perform better, the primary way they met those demands was with annual price increases. To say management was dispirited would be an understatement. After being told time after time that they couldn’t do things, they had, in some ways, given up even trying. Many of the rank and file staff saw themselves as government employees, with the mindset that entailed. Others realized that they had to provide customer service, but they often received mixed messages from above when they tried to do that. It was a very discouraging environment, especially for a retailer. It was, in short, a mess.

When the outside Directors were appointed in December of 2001, they began trying to change things, bringing in a new CEO and directing him to bring in new executive management. Over time, a new group of Vice-Presidents and Directors, most from the private sector, were brought in and began to change things. One of the biggest challenges was the need to build a culture of customer service among the staff. The idea that store staff could recommend products, ask customers what they were looking for, and make suggestions that would result in customers buying something other than what they came in looking for, was quite foreign to some at the beginning. But achieving that was absolutely necessary if the NSLC was to move beyond being order-takers and become a true retailer that drew people in and offered them an interesting experience. Around this time the first strategic plan was rolled out, with the theme of changing the NSLC from a place where you went just to buy something and leave, to instead become a place to shop, browse and linger.

By this time I had moved to the NSLC at the request of the Board and was working as their Corporate Secretary, trying to bridge both the brave new world of private sector management thinking while keeping the government either satisfied, or at times, at bay. Unfortunately the succession of Ministers over the years seldom seemed to fully understand the concept of a Crown corporation and the role of the Board, at times issuing directives directly to the CEO on various issues, leaving the Board wondering why they were even there. The problem is, of course, that when the CEO gets a call from the Minister giving an order, it is very difficult to say “no”. One can try to finesse the answer and immediately contact the Board Chair, who is the person the Minister is supposed to be dealing with, but the result is likely to be the same. Board members never were so upset by this to resign during my tenure there, although there were a few times when issues arose regarding orders from Ministers when some probably should have.

Beginning in 2004, the NSLC held management conferences with their store managers and Head Office managers. They were primarily store-focused given that store managers were the majority of attendees, but tried to offer something for anyone in attendance. With all the changes that the NSLC went through, there was a lot to talk about, from sharing feedback about store designs, new technology systems like SAP that were being implemented, interaction with the marketing and merchandising staff from Head Office, managing staff performance, and most of all, the idea of customer service. This was all new to the staff, but the NSLC wanted to build a customer service culture, and there were all sorts of things introduced at these conferences to support that. After a period of adjustment, most of the store staff began to buy into the concept. If you remember shopping at the NSLC in the old days, clearly there is a huge difference now. Customers would comment on it to us all the time. That ongoing effort to change the culture is the reason why.

The conferences didn’t happen in the same way every year. Some years there wasn’t one at all. Sometimes they were done in a roadshow format, where the executives and some presenters traveled to 4 or 5 locations around the province to meet with that region’s managers for a day. But there were several conferences of the kind that was supposed to happen this year, where everybody met in a central location for a couple of days. In addition to what was presented in the workshop sessions, these had the advantage of everybody meeting each other, sometimes for the first time. There is an advantage to sitting down next to the person you deal with on payroll or logistics issues by email or phone and getting to know them a little, or being able to talk to a V-P who you normally would not be dealing with and letting them know how you feel about something. Cultivating those kind of relationships is really valuable in an organization the size of the NSLC.

The other thing that happened in that style of conference was the ability to hear and ask questions of the CEO. Since the arrival of Bret Mitchell in 2006 this was something he made sure to do every time. He made a real effort to interact with the store managers, who otherwise wouldn’t get to see him very often, and to let them know the kind of organization he wanted the NSLC to be. That isn’t an easy thing to do sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with a well-established culture within a largely unionized workforce. But he always tried to get his points across to them, and made a sincere attempt to answer their questions honestly in a Q&A session he always held to wrap up the sessions. This wasn’t easy for some of the store managers to get used to, as many were used to almost a military style command-and-control, speak-only-when-spoken-to environment. I suspect that kind of free and open access to the CEO is pretty rare in a lot of retail operations, but Bret really tried to make it work, to his credit.

The other thing that Bret did was establish recognition for superior performance. A Store of the Year award was created, one for each region along with one overall winner for the whole province, based upon a long list of performance metrics. There were also individual award winners, chosen by Bret himself based upon nominations submitted by employee peers along with a written justification provided by the nominator as to why the person deserved it. These became very prized and prestigious within the organization, and the people who won them were certainly deserving, having gone above and beyond to help the NSLC succeed. The idea of celebrating success was new to the organization, and it made a difference in the mindset of people working there. It was very different from the traditional government employee mindset. Again, this was all part of the cultural change that we were trying to achieve, and it was working.

After having a few of these conferences in Halifax, there was a desire to move them around the province. Part of that was due to all the distractions in downtown Halifax, which meant that some people from out of town were tempted to wander off and not take part in all the scheduled activities. It was a lot easier to keep people in the fold when you were in a more controlled environment. There was also a desire to move them around because the NSLC was, after all, a province-wide organization. So in 2011 there was a conference in Baddeck, and in 2013 one in Digby. Those offered some logistical challenges, so buses were chartered to bring people in from around the province at the least cost possible. By this time the second strategic plan had been introduced, talking about taking things to the next level by becoming more customer focused by using data analysis to understand customer needs even better. The introduction of Air Miles was just one example of how this was being implemented, and managers needed to be able to understand what it meant to them.

You might say why not pick a more central location, which is a fair question. The problem was finding a spot that had both the conference facilities and the guest rooms required. I gather that typically you need about 150 hotel rooms in one location for this. For whatever reason, places like Truro couldn’t accommodate us at the times we wanted. Given the type of conference it was, with lots of interaction, any sort of video-conferencing simply wasn’t feasible. It was something that had to be done in person. For a lot of people, especially those coming from smaller communities, it was a highlight. Yes, parts of it were fun, but it also built a real sense of pride and loyalty to the organization.

The last conference in Digby cost $140,000 apparently, and the one that was scheduled this year was going to be about the same. I remember that we had discussed it over a year ago when I was still working there, so it had been in the works for a while. The $140,000 wouldn’t include all the internal resources that would have gone into planning and organizing this over the last several months, where a few people would have been working to line up presenters, organize accommodations, work with the host venue, get registration organized, prepare agendas and presentation materials, and get people’s preferences for roommates, meal choices and the like taken care of. Sadly, all of this significant work is now out the window given that the event scheduled for a few weeks from now was cancelled by the Minister after a sideswipe by the PC Party in the midst of the embattled government’s attempts to defend their budget.

Take a step back and look at this from a business point of view. The NSLC is a company that employs about 1500 people working out of over 100 locations. It generates over $600,000,000 in sales revenue every year, and returns about $228,000,000 to the province in profits. Compared to that, the $140,000 cost is insignificant. Compared to the provincial budget of nearly $10 billion, it is really, really, really insignificant. Now, if it was wasteful as some have suggested, then the amount shouldn’t matter – it should go. But I can attest that it wasn’t wasteful given what these sessions helped achieve. I don’t care if someone thinks that nobody should have been offered a scallop when it was held in Digby, or that there shouldn’t have been an evening where people were entertained after Bret presented the awards to that year’s winners during a dinner, in order to both celebrate success and keep folks occupied for a few hours rather than going back to their rooms and doing who-knows-what. I have no problem arguing that it is a cost of doing business in an organization like this. The $140,000 cost is the same as hiring a senior administrator in a government department, university or health authority. And nobody would have a clue if they added one, or 100, of those this year across the system. It would just happen and nobody would be the wiser. Who knows, maybe it has.

This sort of thing is, in fact, exactly why the NSLC became a Crown corporation in 2001, to avoid having politicians make hit-and-run attacks like this to which the government feels compelled to respond. The correct answer for the government to respond with should have been something along the lines of how the business plan includes a bottom-line increase this year, that they always ensure due economy in their operations, and that any questions should really be addressed to the Board of the NSLC. Some would say that the $140,000 should instead be used for health care or some other good cause. That is exactly the kind of thinking that led to the old NSLC not being able to invest in their facilities and people, and which kept them from being able to achieve the results the new NSLC has turned in over the last decade. The old saying “you have to spend money to make money” is something most people in business would understand and agree with, but seems to be foreign to those in the political arena. The focus on cutting costs in government is necessary. But NSLC is not like a government department. It does not simply generate costs like a government department. It is a business, trying to satisfy consumer wants and needs in order to generate revenue. You have to spend to do that. The secret is spending wisely. In my opinion, conferences like these – not an extravagant party, as some have tried to characterize it – are a necessary thing for a successful business.

Last week’s broadside by the PC Party about the conference wasn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened. You might remember 2 years ago, Jamie Baillie made some noise in the press questioning why NSLC’s expenses had gone up by what he claimed was over $100 million over the previous 10 years while the volume of liquor sold had only increased by a smaller percentage. While that is a fairly foolish way to measure things in a retail organization – your expenses are going to go up over a 10-year period even if you don’t sell one more drop of product, simply because of inflation – more importantly, it ignores where the NSLC started from and where it is now in terms of facilities, product assortment, technology, and people. It was a broken organization before, and now it is not. It is that simple, and he likely knew that given his financial background. But hit-and-run attacks by politicians always get them some headlines, and that is really all they are designed to do. If the government reacts without thinking and makes a bad decision, so much the better from their perspective. Perverse, but sadly true.

If you look at the first 10 years the NSLC was a Crown corporation you can see what I’m talking about in terms of spending money to make money. Over that period, overall sales went up by $197 million. Volume of liquid sold increased by about 100,000 litres or about 13%, so more product was sold. Gross profit increased by $120 million, and more significantly, the margin on that product went from 49.5% to 54% thanks to better management – things like better purchasing, better marketing, better selling skills, and better inventory management. While expenses went up due to investing in the business, bottom-line profits after accounting for all those expenses increased by over $62 million annually. That is money that goes straight back to the government to spend on all those good causes every single year. That’s a pretty good return on investment. If you could, you would do that every day of the week. It is simply a money machine.

Working in the capacity I did at the NSLC you sometimes got the impression that everyone hated the organization based upon what you saw in the press. The customer satisfaction data told us otherwise – they were consistently some pretty impressive numbers after the changes that the organization made had been in place for a while – but that didn’t stop the politicians and press from trying to convince people otherwise. Liquor retailing is something most people seem to have an opinion on, and they apparently love to talk about it.  If you look at the comments in the online versions of the coverage of this in the Herald and CBC sites, you see a shocking degree of misinformation among those sharing their wisdom. Many used the $140,000 cost as a jumping-off point to say the whole organization should be sold or dismantled. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater (privatization is a very complex question that goes well beyond this discussion, but suffice it to say that it is not a slam dunk by any means). Some contended it wasn’t actually a business at all, that there was no need for strategy or management, because the product magically sold itself. Now, I have yet to have a product walk up to me and tell me to buy it, but apparently such things exist. There were several saying that the NSLC “got caught” doing something it shouldn’t have been doing. Ridiculous, as this was hardly a secret. They had done it for years, Ministers had always been briefed in advance, end of story. There were many along the lines of “I can’t get this so why should they?”, the all-too-typical attitude of many, and “they all make too much and get bonuses too!” (nobody at NSLC gets bonuses, and haven’t for years). And then there was the ever-popular “Booze is too expensive and this is why”, which fails to recognize that prices all across Canada are generally comparable within a narrow range, and that the cost of this is virtually nil on a $600 million sales line. It’s really quite sad overall.

I can guess that the decision to cancel the conference led to a very bad day at the NSLC last Friday. Not because it was an extravagant party that was kiboshed, and not because anyone got caught doing something that they shouldn’t have. The costs associated with this would have been included in the NSLC’s business plan, which was included in the provincial budget and which would have been already been approved by their Minister. It would not have been a line item because that is not how NSLC budgets (or those of any Crown corp) get submitted. They are supposed to be free to manage the details of what they submit within a framework of management responsibility and policy. There is no policy of which I am aware that does not allow conferences involving employees of the broader public sector (NSLC employees are no longer civil servants). One wonders if employees of health authorities, school boards and universities will also now be prohibited from attending conferences. Nor would they have known anything in advance about the cuts to other areas of government that were announced in the provincial budget. In the midst of the barrage of criticism about the cuts to the provincial budget, the PC Party found an opportunity to fling another spitball at the government, and they did something dumb in response.

This was simply a bad, reactive decision by the government to force this to be cancelled. It won’t save anywhere close to the $140,000 budget since many of the costs would have already been paid or committed and are unavoidable. In the end, I’d guess that maybe 50%-60% of the total can be avoided. But there is a new price to be paid, because the bad day experienced by those at the NSLC was ultimately due to that decision being very reminiscent of the bad old Nova Scotia Liquor Commission days when government meddled in their decisions on a regular basis. One can only hope this isn’t the start of a pattern that affects the ability of those at the NSLC to run their business operations without undue interference from politicians. The chances of the government changing their minds on this are virtually nil, given everything else they are grappling with right now. Bad on the PC Party for making it an issue, and bad on the government for their response. But regardless, it’s a shame.

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