Coal, Politics, John Chisholm,
and Don Cameron's Pal

There was no bloody way Downe was going to give
a strip mine contract to any friend of Donald Cameron,
much less one linked with Westray

Coal, Politics, John Chisholm,
and Don Cameron's Pal

By Jim Meek

This article appeared in
The Chronicle-Herald and The Mail-Star
Halifax, Friday, 2 February 1996

John Chisholm, the owner of Nova Construction of Antigonish, had a gala year in 1995.

Nova won the right to produce coal for 13 years from a strip mine in Stellarton. That contract is described as a cash cow. (But not by Chisholm, who clings to the belief that Nova's financial returns are his business – and his alone.)

Nova also struck paydirt as part of the consortium awarded the contract to build the $100-million Death Valley bypass.

Canadians resent success and stigmatize failure – to paraphrase Conrad Black – and I was initially tempted to portray Chisholm as another hack on the Grit gravy train.

He committed the unpardonable sin of giving money to the governing party, and his demonization would fit neatly with a scathing attack on recent appointments to the trough. (Heather Robertson, John Morash, Robert Sampson, et al.)

The trouble with my bash Chisholm strategy turned out to be his firm's unforvigable competence. Chisholm, who must understand Nova Scotia politics because he has donated money to the Tories as well, may be best known as operator of that gravel quarry at Porcupine Mountain. (By the causeway, b'y.) But Nova also won the right to develop the Westville strip mine (1984), and to operate a surface mine near Point Aconi (1980). A Tory named Buchanan was the premier at the time; he was no piker when it came to dispensing patronage; and Nova won those contracts from Tory government agencies despite the fact Chisholm was a "known Liberal".

According to sources at Nova Scotia Power – the major coal buyer in the province – Chisholm's company has become a favourite supplier for the usual reasons: it delivers on time and "meets spec". (Its coal isn't too dirty or too ashy.)

So Nova deserved to get the Stellarton strip mine project, right?

Sorry, but it ain't necessarily so.

The rub here is the fact that a company owned by Eric Barker, a close friend of former Tory premier Don Cameron, also submitted a bid to run the mine. (Barker is a former owner of Satellite Construction, which only half-deserved the hell it took for winning contracts to do surface work at Westray mine.)

Another Barker company, Pictou County Mining, was one of five groups which submitted bids to operate the Stellarton strip mine.

And it could make some bonafide claims to competence as well. For one thing, Barker managed the mine after Westray was given the right to take a 100,000 tonne "test" sample out of the pit in 1992.

In its initial call for proposals on Aug. 19, 1994, Don Downe's Department of Natural Resources asked bidders to provide detailed financial information concerning the projected costs and returns from operating the pit mine.

The proposal from Chisholm, a Liberal, barely contains a dollar sign. The proposal from Barker, Cameron's boating buddy, contains a dozen or so pages of very detailed cost and revenue projections.

Further, when government released the bids in response to a request from Tory MLA George Archibald, it deleted financial information from Barker's proposal.

Barker told me this was not done at his request, but wouldn't say much else. ("It would only sound like sour grapes.")

My guess is that the government suppressed the disclosure of information which made Pictou County Mining's proposal look better than Nova Construction's.

Barker's company met the terms set down by government, and did not get the contract. Chisholm's company did not satisfy government criteria, and got the contract.

I called Downe for an explanation; he did not call back.

The truth is that there was no bloody way Downe was going to give a strip mine contract to any friend of Donald Cameron – much less one linked with Westray.

Yes, I take the word of half a dozen sources that Nova is the most competent strip mining company in the province.

But Chisholm still shouldn't have been given the Stellarton contract before meeting the criteria set down by government itself.

The Savage government, in short, has failed (again) in the lax enforcement of its own regulations. Its actions have left Chisholm open to criticism.

Another scribbler, whose heart does not overflow like mine with the milk of human kindness, might unfairly conclude that John was just another snorter at the trough.

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