One of the Christmas gifts I received from my daughter, Krista, is a 2014 desktop daily tear off block calendar.
Each day offers a single word, followed by its definition and an example of its usage. In February, I studied, among other words, plebian (of, or pertaining to, the common class of ancient Rome), aqueous (resembling water, watery, or mixed with water), oblivious (unaware of one’s surroundings, situation or the consequences of one’s actions), circuitous (having a winding course), and phlegmatic (slow or plodding).
Some words I already know. Others are new to me.
A book I’ve been reading recently introduced me to yet another uncommon word. Dan Soucoup, a bookseller and publisher in Dartmouth, NS, is the author of "Failures and Fiascos: Atlantic Canada’s Biggest Boondoggles."
Boondoggle is a verb that means to waste time on pointless and unnecessary work; work of little or no value done merely to keep or look busy; or a project funded by the federal government out of political favouritism that is of no real value to the community or nation. I now have another word to add to my personal repertoire.
Soucoup introduces readers to what he refers to as "some of the more unusual ways of conducting business," resulting in "incredible twists and turns that often defy logic." He focuses on what he deems to be "the more offbeat projects."
Admittedly, he explains, "many of these boondoggles were hare-brained ideas to begin with, others were solid ideas that went wrong operationally or were short of financing," a not unusual problem in the Atlantic provinces. Other ideas "were simply the right project launched at the wrong time." All of them together "create fascinating stories," bound to pique the interest of readers.
Individual chapters are devoted to such boondoggles as a long and winding railway, Shubenacadie’s too-late canal, Prince Edward Island’s railway debacle, a great log raft experiment, the doomed Chignecto ship railway, a rotten potato scandal, bootlegging and rum-running, the Clairtone fiasco, a heavy-water sinkhole, the Westmorland industrial park flop, the Bricklin sports car disaster, the tainted tuna matter, a too-good-to-be-true board game factory, the Meteor Creek gas find, the steel mill no one wanted, bidding for the Commonwealth Games, a northern bridge and the collapse of Atcon, a flawed immigrant investor program, and boats that wouldn’t float.
Whatever were they thinking?
Soucoup highlights three classic failures and fiascos from our own province.
First, the controversial Churchill Falls project that delivers some of the world’s cheapest hydroelectric power from Churchill Falls to Hydro-Quebec.
"Over 40 years later," he writes, "the sweetheart transaction forced on Canada’s easternmost province still troubles Newfoundland and Labrador and clouds provincial relations between Quebec and Atlantic Canada."
Second, the Come by Chance refinery. Built by Shaheen Resources in 1971-73, "it was a colossal economic failure. Its $600-million bankruptcy in 1976 was, at the time, the largest bankruptcy of its kind in Canadian history."
I remember well when the refinery opened. I was living in Port aux Basques. That day, I was at home from school sick. I rested in bed and listened to the festivities on CBC radio. John Shaheen had chartered the Queen Elizabeth II at $97,000 a day to bring celebrities from New York. Joey and Clara Smallwood had flown to the Big Apple to join the ocean liner.
Third, the Sprung greenhouse, also known as "Premier Peckford’s Pickled Palace." Heather Mallick, writing in the "Globe and Mail," opined, "As scams to rake in government money went, it was the most embarrassing in Canadian history."
Soucoup writes: "In all, over $20 million in public funds went down the tubes as the whole experiment in miracle growing technology to help vault Newfoundland into prosperity came to an embarrassing halt." Rex Murphy, no mean wordsmith himself, characterized the cucumber affair as a combination of "Star Trek" and "The Lost Warrior."
Perhaps Frank Sobey had it right when he said: "You know, once you start making business decisions based on what politicians want, you’re headed for trouble." Or, in the words of the adage, "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is."
The value of Soucoup’s book is enhanced by the inclusion of several maps, more than 30 photographs, and a bibliography.
"Failures and Fiascos: Atlantic Canada’s Biggest Boondoggles" is a product of Nimbus Publishing, Halifax, NS.
— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at email@example.com