Halifax still struggling to find a rat solution

A rat baiting station at King’s College Photo by Thomas Cobbett Labonté

Originally published on Jan. 24, 2017 at http://signalhfx.ca/halifax-still-struggling-to-find-a-rat-solution/

The rat problem is far from being a new issue in Halifax and the Municipal councillors are divided over how to solve the problem.

At the Halifax and West Community Council’s bi-weekly meeting on Jan. 17, rodent control was again a big subject of debate. All of the councillors present at the meeting agreed that Halifax has a rat problem, but they did not all see eye to eye on what to do about it.

A staff report was requested in June 2016 by the council in the hopes of having a better understanding of the problem and to present suggestions on how to combat it. On Tuesday, the report was presented, but it fell short in the eyes of a few councillors, especially District 10 councillor, Russell Walker.

“Personally, I don’t think this resolves anything,” said Walker during the meeting. “I am still going to get my emails and phone calls saying, ‘What can you do about my rodent problem?’ And I’m going to say, ‘uhm …’”

The staff report recommended that the Halifax Regional Municipality continue baiting for rodent control on municipal properties. It also recommended that the municipality force “construction sites’ management” to “include rodent control in the form of pre-baiting for a period of 10-14 days prior to demolition or major construction.”

One scientist in Nova Scotia says that construction might be causing the rats to move “into new habitats.”

Andrew Hebda is the curator of zoology at the Nova Scotia Museum.

“Generally, 50 to 60 rats will reside in a city block and as soon as you start disturbing their habitat, that causes a displacement of the rats,” he says.

Walker disagrees that the high number of construction sites in Halifax are the sole cause of the rat problem. He says that contractors have been taking too much unfair blame and the municipality needs to bait the sewers.

“Some people are up to 34-39 rats on their property and there is no construction at all,” Walker says.

HRM spokesperson Tiffany Chase says sewers are only baited when “there’s a project underway on underground infrastructure that causes displacements of rodents.”

To Walker, the staff report “doesn’t come close” to having a real solution.

“It’s a Band-Aid solution,” he says. “Until we bait the sewers, we are not going anywhere with this.”

At the centre of the issue, the municipality is still trying to know where the rats come from and if there is really an increase in the amount of rats.

Hebda, too, is unsure whether there are more rats in Halifax, or if they are just more visible than ever before.

“I am not convinced there are more rats,” says Hebda. “We are just seeing just seeing these ones displaced and once they are displaced they are just looking for a new habitat.”

When asked during the meeting by councillor Richard Zurawski if there was a quantifiable increase in the population of rats in Halifax, or if it was a change in perception. Director of Public Works Bruce Zvaniga replied that he did not have any factual information on that.

“We don’t have tags on the rodents and we don’t know where they are coming from,” says Zvaniga.

Hebda says it’s possible to track rats, but it’s an expensive process. Rats would need to be captured, tagged and recaptured later. There’s also a high chance the rats would die or evade recapture, which would make the sample size too small to gather useful data.

For now, the motion will be forwarded to Halifax Regional Council for their consideration at a later date.

A piece of Syria at the Seaport Farmers’ Market

Piece of the East with the Minister of Immigration Lena M. Diab Photo by Thomas Cobbett Labonté

Originally published on Jan. 27, 2017 at http://signalhfx.ca/a-piece-of-syria-at-the-seaport-farmers-market/

Following in the footsteps of Peace By Chocolate and of ice cream entrepreneur Samer Jokhdar, Piece of the East is continuing the trend of new Syrian food startups in Halifax by selling a mix of traditional Syrian desserts, zaatar bread and jam.

The story behind the making of their food, however, is nothing close to traditional.

The idea for Piece of the East came while Ahmed Alhraki, one of the co-founders, was working at the Parker Street Food Bank. One of his responsibilities there is to go through food pallets, and throw away any food that could be compromised or that has a short lifespan.

“Ahmed, one day when we were sorting, said: ‘I can make jam out of this; imagine the amount of jam I could make,’” says Syliva Gawad, another co-founder of the company.

Piece of the East at Seaport Market Photo by Thomas Cobbett Labonté

Gawad thought this over and proposed the idea of a company that could take all the food being thrown away and upcycle it into Syrian cuisine. With the help of Alaa Alhraki, Ahmed’s brother, and Ratat Harb they decided to start Piece of the East.

Melissa Hunt, the food management co-ordinator at Parker Street, was very happy to help them get started. She says that they wish they could upcycle the food themselves, but lack the personnel to do so.

“What they take are things that we can’t use. Things like a bruised apple or a bruised pear,” says Hunt. “Things that we wouldn’t be able to give to the clients.”

Most of the members of Piece of the East still work at Parker Street and put aside any food they can use to upcycle. They say they are not concerned about not finding enough food every week.

Piece of the East at Seaport Market Photo by Thomas Cobbett Labonté

“We can make food with anything. We can make pickles, we can make jam, bread,” says Gawad. “The ideas are endless.”

With a few months of preparation, they opened Saturday, Jan. 21,  at the Seaport Farmers’ Market. Crowds gathered around they kiosk while offered samples.

A few notable Haligonians also joined the celebration as Lena M. Diab, minister of immigration, and Mike Savage, mayor of the Halifax Regional Municipality, came and met the team.

Piece of the East even broke into dancing, showing off their skills to the market and inviting others to participate.

Piece of the East at Seaport Market Photo by Thomas Cobbett Labonté

Piece of the East will be at the Seaport Farmers’ Market each Saturday and Sunday.

Interfaith Harmony Week in times of great turmoil

Interfaith Harmony Week at the Hindu temple Photo by Thomas Cobbett Labonté

Originally published on Jan. 30, 2017 at http://signalhfx.ca/interfaith-harmony-week-in-times-of-great-turmoil/

After a recent executive order by U.S. president Donald Trump aimed at banning immigrants from several majority-Muslim countries — and in light of a shooting at a Quebec city mosque on Sunday night — Halifax is hosting an event that stands in stark contrast.

The Interfaith Harmony Week promotes unity through the appreciation of differences. The organizers invite all Haligonians to visit different places of worship and get to know the culture and communities that gather there.

“We walk by these places, but this provides an opportunity as they are prepared to receive guests,” says Clement Mehlman, chaplain at Dalhousie University and one of the organizers in Halifax.

As part of the Interfaith Harmony Week, the cities participating are also competing with each other. This year’s event comes one year after Halifax won third place among hundreds of other cities across the world.

A meal is served after the event at the Hindu temple Photo by Thomas Cobbett Labonté

The week started yesterday and one of the first events was held at the Hindu temple. Guests and regulars participated in the Sunday Puja and Prasad. The Prasad, a meal that serves as a religious offering, was served after the Puja and offered to everyone.

Interfaith Harmony Week was created by King Abdullah II of Jordan in 2010 and is sponsored by the United Nations. One of the event’s goals is to build stronger bonds between all people of faiths and recognize the common values that are shared by believers and non-believers.

“It is very important to have a mutual understanding that all faith groups lead to the same goal of human evolution and spiritual fulfilment, says Sastry Vankamamidi, a priest at the Hindu temple. “Whatever be the god you believe in, you have to practise your religion freely and obtain the goals set in our particular faith.”

As part of the Interfaith Harmony Week, more than 50 people have signed up to participate in the engagement program. All those participating will go to at least three events and meet up after the week is done to talk about their experience. They will carry passports that are signed at every event they attend and are encouraged to immerse themselves as much as possible in the different faith communities they visit.

Darlene Burton is a teacher at the Nova Scotia Community College and is one of those participants. She says she is attending this year after getting rave reviews from one of her students.

“We are celebrating diversity, but really you notice that ‘gee, we are not that different,’” she says.

This year’s Interfaith Harmony Week coincides with harsh immigration bans being implemented in the United States. Melhman says that President Donald Trump was in the back of many people’s minds this year.

“How do we get to the point where we love difference and are not threaten by it?,” Melhman says that the Interfaith Harmony Week is a push in that direction.

That is one of the reasons why the engagement program exists and why Burton is participating.

“With so much discussion and talk about people being more nationalistic and close cultures, one good way to oppose that is to embrace other cultures and demonstrate it through events like this,” says Burton.

A show of solidarity at a Halifax mosque

Two men praying at Ummah Masjid in Halifax  Photo by Thomas Cobbett Labonté

Originally published on Feb. 3, 2017 at http://signalhfx.ca/a-show-of-solidarity-at-a-halifax-mosque/

“You can always find something bright even in the darkest of times.”

That was part of Moataz Soliman’s Jummah Khutbah, Friday prayer, at the Ummah Mosque and Community Centre.

While giving his Khutbah, or sermon, a larger crowd than usual was sitting in front of him. Behind the regulars, hundreds of “neighbours” were listening to him as well.

“What good thing can come out of such a sad situation?” asks Soliman. “This struggle strengthens the good people. Strengthens what is good. Brings about many good things in many people — and one of the things I see in front of my eyes now is our neighbours sitting with us.”

There were always going to be strangers at this event. The Jummah Khutbah is one of many events in the Interfaith Harmony Week. Interfaith Harmony Week is an U.N. sponsored event that promotes communication and understanding between faiths in one municipality.

No one last week, however, could have predicted the size of the crowd that came to participate on Friday.

In response to the terrorist attack on a Quebec City mosque on Jan. 29, hundreds of people gathered at the mosque on Friday and, in a show of solidarity, formed a human circle around it by holding hands together and standing outside the building.

People holding hands around Ummah Mosque in Halifax Photo by Thomas Cobbett Labonté

“When we are surrounding the mosque facing out, we are protecting the sanctity of the sanctuary inside,” says Rev. Norm Horofker. “We respect, honour and encourage those in prayer and their right to do that in peace.”

Horofker is the minister of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Halifax and one of the organizers of this gathering. “I just started the ball rolling on social media and it took off,” he says.

Kim MacAuley is one of the key coordinators of Interfaith Harmony Halifax and was also at the mosque.

She says that tragedies like the one in that happened in Quebec City shows how important it is to have communication and trust between all communities in Halifax.

“What we need to do is really be proactive so to build the right conditions for peace, harmony and goodwill. That’s what Interfaith Harmony Week is all about,” says MacAuley.

“The support we received today and the previous days is really heartwarming. I cannot describe it in words. It’s beautiful,” says Soliman.

He says people don’t need special events to come and visit, however.

“The mosque is always open. We don’t even need a program,” says Soliman. “The doors are always open and anyone can listen and ask questions.”

Giving change on the street might be thing of the past

Panhandler on Spring Garden. Photo by Thomas Cobbett Labonté

Originally published on Feb. 10, 2017 at http://signalhfx.ca/giving-change-on-the-street-might-be-thing-of-the-past/

Giving change to people on the street is on it’s way out and a tech group in Halifax is trying to provide an alternative.

As part of the Blockchain Virtual Govhack, a worldwide competition that helps build smarter cities, a tech company called BlockCrushr Labs is developing a project called Hypergive.

“The initial seed for the idea started to germinate when I was in Toronto in 2015,” says Scott Burke. He is one of the founders of BlockCrushr Labs which is located in Volta Labs, the hub for technological startups in Halifax. “I started thinking about some of the issues around person-to-person giving and how technology could improve that.”

Burke identified two issues in panhandling he thought could be solved with modern technology.

First, people are less likely to give money to someone in the street as they usually only carry debit or credit cards. A survey released by Moneris in 2016 predicts that 70 per cent of Canada will be cashless by 2030. A cashless society greatly diminishes the chances to give money to people on the street.

Second, even when people have cash on them, Burke says there is a lot of cynicism about where the money eventually gets spent. He says he has spoken to a lot of people that are reluctant to give money to people on the street in fear that it will be used to buy alcohol or drugs.

“We want to tackle that cynicism,” says Burke. “Through this technological solution, people are able to give money to people in their community, with the confidence that the money is going to be spent for the purpose it is being given for.”

Hypergive will be an app where someone can give money to the homeless people they cross on the street. That money will then be transferred to an account accessible to the homeless person through a smart card. That card will allow them to use the money at certain retailers for food or health products. Hypergive isn’t available yet as it is still in development.

This project is made possible by a new technology called blockchain. This technology is the same one used by cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoins, and is being presented by many economists and programmers as the way of the future. Cryptocurrency is a way to securely and openly make transactions with others and records all of that in every block of the chain.

“Blockchain is an underlying protocol that defines a way that parties may communicate in an open, transparent, distributed form of consensus,” says Andrew Redden, another founder of BlockCrushr Labs.

Every party is represented as a block and all transactions between those blocks are transmitted to all the other blocks. That ensures that all the transactions follow a certain set of rules and guarantees transparency.

“Blockchains are a method to assure trust in information in a decentralized fashion,” says Burke.

Using that technology, Hypergive would allow anyone to give money via an app or website and it makes sure that the money can only be spent according to the rules set. This app would allow everyone to keep the immediacy of giving change on the street with the same benefits as giving a gift card.

In order for the recipient of the donations to use the transfer, they must comply to the protocol set in the blockchain. That ensures transparency and that the money will be used for food or basic needs.

That protocol is set by the local community centre or government. BlockCrushr Labs say they don’t plan on micromanaging the implementation of the app.

Ben Mogl-MacLean is the volunteer and shelter coordinator at Out of the Cold, an emergency winter shelter in Halifax. He had never heard of Hypergive before, but says “it seems really cool.”

However, Mogl-MacLean says he is concerned that Hypergive is playing into a harmful narrative about homelessness.

“The issues that people on the streets are fighting are so much more complex than the idea that they don’t want it to go towards alcohol or drugs,” says Mogl-MacLean.

BlockCrushr Labs say they are not pretending to know the intricacies of being homeless. The app is a tool that will be available to any community that wants to use it.

“We are trying to provide communities with tools and say ‘hey, maybe this can help,’” says Burke.

Halifax video game developer on quest to create Zelda-inspired game

Originally published at http://signalhfx.ca/halifax-video-game-developer-on-quest-to-create-zelda-inspired-game/ on NOVEMBER 22, 2016

The independent video game community in Halifax is up and coming due, in no small part to Dalarna, a small county in the middle of Sweden.

That is where Andrew Shouldice, a Halifax independent video game developer, spent two months of his summer participating in the accelerator program Stugan.


While living in a remote cabin in the Swedish countryside, Shouldice got to work on his game surrounded by like-minded people while rediscovering the importance of having the support of a community.

Being part of a strong community isn’t anything new to Shouldice.

Around 2014, with the help of his friend Ben Swinden, he helped create the Halifax Game Collective.

“I got the idea after attending [a similar event] in Montreal.”

Shouldice was impressed with the strength of the video game community in Montreal and the effect it was having on the video game scene.

“We want to build Halifax into a Neo-Montreal,” says Shouldice, helping to build a city where independent video game development is supported by its community.

Shouldice always dreamed of becoming an independent video game developer. He had made a few small projects before, but was itching to have a major release under his name.

“At a certain point I thought if I’m going to do this indie thing, I am going to pull this trigger at some point.”

A year later, in the spring of 2015, Shouldice decided to quit his job at Silverback Games to start working on Secret Legend, his first major video game.

He had long thought about taking the plunge and branching out on his own to develop a game and finally decided to take his chance with a Zelda-inspired action-adventure game.

Adapting from working in a big studio to working alone on a big project was tough. Even if it can be very empowering to be in total control of your creative project, having to structure your own time, discipline yourself and having no support from coworkers is always a challenge.

A year passed, and Shouldice was still having trouble making progress with his game.

That’s when his friend Robin Baumgarten told him he had to go and participate in the Stugan program.

Stugan is a non-profit accelerator program for young independent video game developers.

Around 20 developers from around the world get chosen every year and move to a secluded wooden cabin in Dalarna and work on their projects for two months.

“Robin was right. It was one of the best experiences of my life,” says Shouldice.

While surrounded by other young independent video game developers, Shouldice found the help and support he had needed all that time.

Back from Stugan, Shouldice is a lot more confident about Secret Legend and hopes to release the game around the end of 2017.

It has also invigorated his involvement with the Halifax Game Collective.

Having had the help and support to assist him on his way, Shouldice wants to make sure there is a community of people that can do the same for other independent video game developers.