Tag Archives: Halifax Regional Municipality

When people are strange

Almost nothing about her job as the new president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design is familiar, but Aoife Mac Namara wouldn’t have it any other way


In the vestibule of the downtown Halifax campus of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design the commissionaire is telling Aoife Mac Namara about a book. He doesn’t remember its title, or the author’s name, but it has something to do with 10,000 hours. “That’s how long it takes to get good at something,” he says.

The new president of the university is hanging on his every word. She grips the corners of his desk. She shuffles her feet. She nods enthusiastically as if they were dear, old friends. They’re not. They just met.

Or maybe they met a few weeks ago when, on her first day of work, she paused briefly to introduce herself and pronounce her name – which is Irish for “radiant” and sounds like “ee-faw” – before bounding up the stairs to her new digs on the fourth flour.

Her office is sparse. Sticks of furniture rest by a window that affords a view of Historic Properties and the harbour beyond. She has spent the past four years as Dean of Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Communications, Art and Technology in Burnaby, B.C. This, too, is very strange. The space is queer. She’s not used to it. She likes it.

“We have to get used to the unfamiliar,” she says, not actually referring to the room where she sits or the man in the lobby. “We have to embrace it, be happy with it. That’s how we make ourselves more open.”

In fact, that’s been her signature move for most of her life. Born in Amherst, N.S., her Irish parents moved the family back to their homeland when she was three. As a young woman, she received two masters degrees and a PhD in fine arts before climbing the academic career ladder and eventually returning to Canada as Dean of Visual Art and Material Practice at Emily Carr University in Vancouver and then to Simon Fraser.

“She’s a visionary, and students are at the centre of this,” Ellen Balka, Associate Dean of SFU’s communications faculty, says about her old boss. “But she also has a very strong understanding of structures and how they work. She’s not afraid to jump right in and figure things out, and that means she knows how to make change.”

She’ll have to as NSCAD endures one of its existential moments. Students fret about purpose and prices. Faculty (who went on strike earlier this year) worry about workload and wages. Administrators deliver balanced budgets to their Board of Governors, while outsiders question whether the 132-year-old institution can stomach the pressure to become more “market-savvy”, more “job-preppy”.

Mac Namara insists she packs no silver bullets. But she does have a plan, of sorts. She wants to know what, exactly, students hope to pull from the place. She’s keen to understand what, precisely, teachers need to cultivate imaginative thinking. She’s determined to meet with and hear from as many citizens of her college as she possibly can, and to fold their promising ideas and inspirations into the school’s curriculum.

She also wants to know who isn’t there. Who is, well, unfamiliar. “Why, for example, are other people not partnering with us?”

By “partnering”, she means with the big, wide world beyond the university’s doors. “We must demonstrate the impact that cultural industries have in different ways on the economy. It’s actually huge.”

She’s not wrong. Canadian Heritage estimates that in 2017 creative industries accounted for $53.1 billion, or 2.7 per cent, of national GDP, and more than 600,000 direct jobs. That’s bigger than mining and agriculture, combined.

“Ask anyone, though, and they won’t believe you,” she says. “So, we need to have better alliances. We we need to go out and talk to our neighbours, to strangers – to all of the people who are building partnerships and enterprise in the knowledge economy, in the ocean superclusters right here. It’s our job to help them comprehend us.”

She wouldn’t be the first head of a fine arts university to throw down this particular gauntlet. Today, as she moves from her seat to take in the view of an alien waterfront, she just sounds like it.

“I don’t buy this whole arts versus the rest of society argument,” she says. “It’s a false dichotomy. But I can sympathize. People believe that stuff. The story goes that you’ll never get a job and that universities don’t add value unless they provide clear programs that lead to existing, traditional employment. That’s disingenuous. We are living in a time when even the most stable professions are beginning to lose massive numbers of workers. Automation is completely changing the workplace.

“What I do buy is this: Students need to talk to people they don’t know. Teachers need to do the same thing. We all need to do this – to be open, to be empathetic, to learn, to collaborate. That’s how, when we walk out these doors, we’re all going to be future-ready.”

Ready, indeed, for the unexpected, which can be as exciting as getting to know a new job brimming with boundless creative possibilities, a different sea bound coast on the other side of the country, or a stranger who shares the same tastes in reading material.

Ten-thousand hours to get good at something? That’s from Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Aoife Mac Namara is not familiar with the book. But, chances are, she will be.

For: Halifax Magazine, September 2019

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When home-sweet-home becomes a battlefield


Each and every day, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) concerns itself with the weighty problems of life on Canada’s east coast – problems such as equalization, energy policy, health care, labour markets, municipal tax reform and. . .um. . .doorknobs.

That’s right, doorknobs; specifically, whether they should be round or levered. Here’s what Marco Navarro-Genie, AIMS’ president, had to say on the subject in a recent commentary for The Chronicle-Herald of Halifax:

“Vancouver’s recently passed legislation outlawing round doorknobs for new construction, favouring protruding levers instead, seems enlightened and compassionate toward those with limited manual dexterity, such as the elderly. . . .Surprisingly. . .the move puts children between the ages of six and 10, who are roughly about 125 centimeters tall, at significant risk. Door levers are disastrously dangerous for them, especially boys.”

Mr. Navarro-Genie then references two recent studies – one published in the British Journal of Opthalmology; the other in the Annals of Pediatric Surgery – that cite cases of detached retinas and pierced throats thanks to unfortunate collisions with the pointy ends of levered doorknobs.

Indeed, the good fellow seems downright offended by one Halifax city councillor’s  desire to have her municipality emulate Vancouver. “Coun. Jennifer Watts promises similar enlightenment for Haligonians,” he writes. “Perhaps less impressive is the ideological motivation of progress. For some, the thought of being ‘ahead of their time‘ is an exhilarating experience. . .Imposing the use of levers in all public buildings might not be far behind when people live by the dictates of progress or by the desire to out-progress others.”

That’s certainly been my observation. In fact, it is my contention that the road to hell is paved not with good intentions but with the “desire to our-progress others”. Presumably, that’s why the economy of the Maritimes is in such rotten shape these days. We’ve all been too busy out-progressing one another to stick to our knitting.

But, I digress.

Mr. Navarro-Genie’s point assumes that kids between the ages of six and 10 are either idiots or masochists. It also suggests that parents and other adult guardians or caregivers are either too distracted or too callous to notice junior impaling himself on a doorknob. Fair enough.

Still, why stop with mere handles? In a world fraught with dangers, the home can be a veritable minefield.

Consider, for example, the door, itself. Even without a knob, this deceptively harmless contrivance is an accident just waiting to happen. Try jamming your fingers between the hinges before slamming it shut and then tell me I’m wrong. Try banging your head against the molding until you see stars and you’ll know I’m right. You’re welcome, brother.

And what about walls? You’re bound to run into at least one of them, especially if you’re a sleepwalker (or just home after midnight on New Years Eve). If, on the other hand, you are tempted to remove one or two for reasons of safety, if not feng shui, you risk bringing the ceiling down on your head. So, don’t be fooled. Walls only seem like your best friends. In reality, they’re out to get you, just like everything else in your home.

The obvious perils include falling fridges, exploding gas ranges, flying fireplace pokers, exploding circuit breakers, leaky roofs, and crumbling chimneys. But forewarned  is forearmed. It’s the less obvious threats that are more likely to do you in.

Have you considered how much safer you would be without a flight of stairs to face every morning and night? You might climb those puppies 1,000 times never thinking that there, but for the grace of the Almighty, go you slipping and tumbling into a traction cast for six months.

It is as Mr. Navarro-Genie says, when he writes, “It is not too late for Haligonian councillors and future copycats elsewhere to consider whether to sacrifice even one child’s vision for the sake of easier access. Given that (the) Halifax Regional Municipality cannot modify the building code without the intervention of the province of Nova Scotia, legislators must also consider the question. . .So let’s think of the children.”

Hells ya!  And let’s keep the doorknobs round while we’re at it.

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