The foot of the mountain: looking back at 2018, and forward to the new year

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There's gotta be a better way! GoPro, care to send me some goodies to test out?
Here I am taping a GoPro to the top of a 10 ft bird cage in preparation for filming Eastern loggerhead shrikes with Wildlife Preservation Canada. The tape liked to break on the splinters and nails and stuff. As you can see, it was a piece of cake.

Last Year

So much happened in 2018. There were wildfires, wars, shootings, famines, refugees, climate change, climate change refugees – standard global events these days. Personally, I spent a lot of 2018 feeling unsure, lost or anxious about one thing or another be it: how I felt about the day’s selection of political outrage, dealing with the ongoing loss of our natural world to pollution and human greed, or musing about whether or not I should pick up apples on my way home, and picturing the number of apples left in the bottom of the crisper and their individual wrinkle-levels. Hopefully I’ll keep better track of them in the new year.

Well into the first calendar month of 2019, I continue to spend a lot of time wondering and worrying. I particularly worry if I’m steering my career off a cliff, because the most important resolution I made in 2018 was to purposefully move into the field of video and photographic story telling, rather than sticking mostly with writing and editing words. I want to tell visual stories that inspire people to care for our planet and the people and creatures who live here. I get excited thinking about the possibilities and the future, but the biggest hurdle to getting started has been… getting started.

When I compare where I’d like to be with where I am in my career, I feel as though I’m standing at the foot of a mountain. The unyielding rock takes up my entire field of view. I crane my neck to try and see a path to the top, but there is no path, and the mountain’s top is covered in cloud and mist. I have no idea how to start this journey. I feel overwhelmed. It’s very tempting to stop.

Sometimes you have to look back

That said, when I take a moment to review what I did accomplish in 2018 and all that I have to look forward to in 2019, I buck up a little. Besides having the honour of interviewing Jane Goodall for an upcoming article in Alternatives Journal, two main projects come to mind. First, I served as the video lead for Alternatives Journal’s video exploration on Indigenous initiatives in Southwestern Ontario. I led every aspect of this project including story development, finding and collaborating with elders and story tellers, and writing, shooting and editing video. I worked with Mary Caibaiosai to tell her story of leading the All Nations Walk for the Grand River in September (see her video here), and with Becky Big Canoe to talk about her project EnviroNative Training Initiatives, to teach Indigenous women how to build their own naturally sourced homes. This initiative simultaneously tackles two of the largest problems our country faces – the susceptibility of Indigenous women to murder and kidnapping due to the precariousness of their housing and living situations, and the lack of adequate, healthy housing for Indigenous communities in Canada. I get tingles thinking about the power of this project and its potential to make change (see her video here). I also worked with Andrew Judge to help him highlight his Minjimendan garden of remembering project to re-discover Indigenous ways of growing food in cooperation with nature. These projects were all very life-giving.

I also volunteered with Wildlife Preservation Canada to write, shoot and edit a short film documenting their program to save the Eastern Loggerhead Shrike. I was able to get to know this plucky bird and the scientists like Hazel Wheeler who work long hours to try and keep it from disappearing forever. I learned how best to tell their story with a lens and on a screen. Using my gifts as a story teller to share about this Ontario bird on the brink of extinction left me feeling satisfied and inspired to continue working in this field.

Protect what you love

Both of these projects in their own way reiterated the same universal lesson, which hit me in the heart and ultimately inspired the re-design of my website: people protect what they love, and they love what they know. It’s the fundamental, ancient truth that fuels all story telling. As Hazel Wheeler said in her interview, we must be curious about our world. If we aren’t, then little by little, species by species, it will all slip through our fingers.

Sudan, the last male white rhino died in March last year. One of my heroes, Ami Vitale, documented Sudan for National Geographic. It looks like Banksy took note as well and commemorated him. Photo courtesy of Flikr.
Sudan, the last male white rhino died in March last year. One of my heroes, Ami Vitale, documented Sudan for National Geographic. It looks like Banksy took note as well and commemorated him. Photo credit: Flikr.

I want to create work that invites people into relationship with our planet. Through my experiences in 2018, I’ve come to see our water, oceans, forests, air and land not as resources, but as family members. I’d like to see 2019 be the year people across the globe take up the mantel of our true roles as caretakers. I’d like to see us caring for and protecting what we love in each of our little corners of the world. So far, the video work I’ve done has been in service to this, and that’s something I can be proud of. I intend to carry this forward in to 2019. All that to say, I guess I have made a start up the mountain. Small. But it’s a start.


Life these days

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A few phone photos of the past couple weeks…

Featuring: trying to shoot a doc without a tripod, goats almost walking on my laptop, hiking up mountains at sunset and so much more!

Goats, Uncategorized

Chapter 4: so how did the goat fair go?


The goat fair was great! There was lots of Inca Kola, but even more home-made passion fruit juice, which is way better in my opinion.

The fair was supposed to start at nine am but we didn’t arrive until nearly 11. Norca and I took a taxi to the fair, and she was nervous about arriving so late. But as we pulled on to the field we passed a group of men hanging the “Chillon River Valley International Goat Fair” sign so I think we arrived precisely when we meant to.

The field was divided in to four sections: on one end was a covered area where the prizes were kept, and on the other end, a large stage; one side of the field was lined with vendors selling various goat products including cooked meals, cheese, milk, yogurt, candy and beauty products; and the other side of the field was lined with goat pens containing goats of every size, shape and colour. The pens looked rickety to me, but the goats were mostly happy to stay inside their pens with the giant heads of cabbage  thrown in for them.

After some milling about, the fair began with a traditional Inkan ceremony. A man wearing a straw hat and a cream poncho/vest with “Inka Naani” sewn on the front stood in the centre of the field surrounded by a circle of fair officials, while everyone watched from the shade near the vendors’ stalls. He explained everything in Spanish before he began. I surmise the wine, grain, grapes and fruit on the blanket spread out in front of him were offerings to various gods, and to Pachamma, Mother Earth. The ceremony itself was done in Quechuan, the ancient language of the Inkans, which is still used today by the aboriginals in Peru. The ceremony included looking through a stone Inkan Cross, picking up and putting down the fruit and grain on the blanket, scattering flower petals on the people in the circle, and finally sharing a small drink of wine from miniature plastic wine cups with everyone in the circle.

After the wine, speeches were made by various important people, including, notably, the honoured  guest judges from Mexico and Columbia. Finally a champagne bottle was broken, and the fair began.

Milking was the first contest. The farmers tugged their goats from the pens to the covered area containing the prizes. A scale and a pile of brand new milk buckets had been set up, and a crowd formed a tight ring around the milkers. They took pictures, cheered and clapped as though they were watching a WWE match. Sometimes with goats, it is.

Edgar Rangel, my host whose farm I am working at, had the honour of weighing the milk and announcing the weights. This is because he also owns and operates a goat dairy processing business, and is a key figure in the local goat industry.

I noticed the goats with the most milk were usually a Nubian breed with long floppy ears. A few of them waddled in to the ring with udders so full, I just couldn’t believe my eyes.

The milking took about an hour and a half, and then everyone dispersed among the different goat vendors for lunch.

The rest of the afternoon was taken up with showing competitions. Each set of farmers with their goats paraded in a circle in the centre of the field, and formed lines. The judges walked up and down the lines viewing and patting the goats, and rearranging the farmers as they went. Little by little, the group would get smaller as the farmers and their goats were sent out of the ring, until only three finalists were left.

This was done for category after category of goat, while behind us the sun sunk into the mountains. Finally, after six p.m., the day’s winners were gathered and handed their prizes which included new milking containers and gas stoves. Everyone applauded, photos were taken, people shook hands, and then it was time to go home.

As people were finishing their drinks, saying their goodbyes, packing up their vendors’ tables, throwing out garbage and dragging goats onto trucks, a local teenage dance group ran into the middle of the field. They were wearing spandex and cheetah print, had painted legs and faces, were wearing blue feather head dresses, and carried spears and large wooden bowls as props. A band set the beat on stage, and we watched them perform a jungle-themed dance. This jungle dance had nothing to do with goats whatsoever, but everyone casually accepted it.

This was the tenth annual Chillon River Valley Goat Fair, and I am pleased to report that it is going strong, and gaining media attention. A reporter and photographer from “Agronoticias” a prominent national agricultural magazine documented the whole day, along with reporters from different newspapers. The local government was also present and photographing the whole event as well. The presence of judges from Mexico and Columbia meant the fair was big enough to attract international attention. It also justified putting “international” in the title of the fair.

Finally, in the middle of the jungle dance, the very last juice in my final battery was spent, and I packed my camera away.  My first goat fair was over.


Goats, Uncategorized

Chapter 3: Cute Goats, Miracles and Goat Fairs


When I greet the baby goats, they skip across their pen and push their fury heads through the fence to nuzzle me with affection. After a moment, I realise their affection is for eating. They are trying to eat me. Not in a malicious or evil way. It’s more like they’re saying “hey, you’re a thing, would you mind terribly if I nibbled you?” I like to think of it as the goat equivalent of Namaste: My tongue and teeth greet your skin and bones.

I stare at their faces bobbing in and out of the fence as they push each other to get a better chance at biting me. Am I horrified? Or do I want to cuddle them all at once? Yes.

With a little sadness, I realise they are noticeably larger than when I arrived a week ago. Soon they won’t be babies and their eager curiosity will dissipate. The good news is they’ll be making milk.

You may have heard my thoughts on the miracle of chickens. Seriously, chickens are miracle workers. They turn bugs, grass and some feed into the perfect protein and supply us with more eggs than we can eat. The pile of eggs in our kitchen won’t stop growing.

I feel the same way about goats. These gals turn water and animal feed (and table scraps, wood, plastic broom bristles, my clothes…) into creamy, nutritious milk.

And the miracle continues. Many argue goat milk is more nutritious than cow milk and easier to digest. They are relatively inexpensive to keep, adaptable to almost any environment and altogether a good option for income generation.

Tomorrow we’ll be travelling an hour to Trapiche district for the tenth annual Chillon River Valley Goat Show. It’s a day to celebrate these fantastic creatures and the farmers who tend them. There will be competitions, prizes, food and lots of Inca Cola, the drink of choice for Peruvians (it’s electric yellow, carbonated and tastes like bubble gum).

Even with just one week behind me, I can tell goat farming can be a lonely profession. Farmers are tied to their goats, they must feed and water them three times a day and they never leave the farm for long. A social life is last on the priority list.

The fair will be a chance for the farmers share goat knowledge, brag and exaggerate about their goats, tell goat jokes, make goat business deals, eat food prepared by someone else (possibly goat?) and have some fun.

I’ll let you know how it goes! I’m planning on interviewing a few people and documenting the event so make sure you ch-ch-check it out.

Now, I must get back to loving/fearing cute baby goats. Please enjoy these videos and photos of cuteness I have put together for you!!

In the baby goat pen:

This baby goat is following me!





Goats, Uncategorized

Chapter Two: a day in the life of a Peruvian goat farmer


These days my hands are almost always dirty. Between doing dishes, milking goats, and petting farmyard  animals, clean hands are no longer the norm since I arrived at Centro Ganadero Aldea Ecologica, the goat farm. It’s a plot of dust in Carabayllo, one of the northernmost districts on the edge of Lima. Like tugging on a pair of overalls, I have stepped into the life of a Peruvian goat farmer. So far, it seems to fit.

We live in the highlands, surrounded by giant hills- almost mountains. They hug the farm, and all day long we can hear industrial trucks weaving through them as they make their way up and down, to or from Lima. Behind our plot of land, down the hill, we can see lime green farmers’ fields leading to a river spliced for irrigation, and beyond that, more highlands. I’ll be spending the rest of the month here with Roiser and Norca, two workers who take care of the farm, and Kenji, a veterinary student who works here four days a week as part of his schooling. The four of us live in a two room cement house where we cook, sleep and watch movies when we aren’t working. When I first saw the house, I wondered how long before we drive each other crazy in these two rooms. But we don’t spend a lot of time in there, and I’m already forgetting why I ever needed more space.

Our schedule revolves around the goats. We wake up at 6 and start milking. We milk thirty goats by hand every morning; a task that uses muscles my hands forgot they contained. The last time I used these muscles was seven years ago during my previous goat experience. Every morning is a test of patience for me, and also for the poor goat with the bad luck to have me milk her. She’ll start to fidget, pull away and kick my bucket if I take too long. This happens every time I milk a goat because my hands are still getting re-acquainted with these long lost milking muscles, and my back isn’t used to so much squatting. It’s really fun.

In the time it takes me to milk one goat, Norca has already finished almost all the rest in the pen. And by the time Norca and I have finished one row of pens, Roiser has already finished the other row and has come to help us finish. Norca has been doing this for a year, and Roiser  for seven. I’m learning from the pros.

After we’ve squeezed all the milk out of the goats, Roiser takes the stainless steel milk container to the milk plant by taxi (note: it is extremely heavy); except on Sundays. On Sundays he and Norca grab a plastic tub, pour all the milk in and combine it with hot water, salt and rennet. In half an hour the milk has become a slimy, chunky froth: delicious cheese. We scoop the chunks into plastic-lined molds, let them sit and put them in the fridge.

After the cheese is away, and the goats and chickens are fed, we eat breakfast. Breakfast in Peru is simple: buns with cheese, jam or eggs and tea. Peruvians raise their eyebrows when I talk about Canadian breakfasts. How can we eat so much, so early?

After breakfast we give the goats fresh water, and find other work to do like cleaning, maintenance, building stuff or general farming duties. By one in the afternoon, only the flies are active. The cats and dogs have all found places to lay down, and the air is so humid inside the cement hut, I feel as though I’m breathing through a hot, damp wash cloth. Eating could not be further from my mind, but for Peruvians it’s the perfect time to have their main meal which always includes heaps of rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes or yuka (a denser, starchier version of a potato) and usually some chicken, ham or beef. The four of us will work together to cook the giant meal, eat, clean up and rest until the heat subsides. Then we continue working, cleaning, tinkering, puttering, gardening and of course feeding the goats again at 6, if they feel like eating. (hahaha)

So far, that seems to be our schedule. Stay tuned for the next blog post! This one’s going to have cute baby goats in it!



Chapter One: so Leah, why are you in Peru?


I like goats. They have spunk and curiosity. I worked with goats for a few weeks in 2009 and every interaction had me laughing my head off.  They were kept in pens, but these were more for show than anything else. Often, I’d walk in to the barn to find the goats perched on top of their pens, waiting to let me know I was late with their dinner.

My time with the goats was too short. I always hoped to learn more about how to take care of goats, to see if I would enjoy keeping my own in the future.

So when I had some time to spare, I contacted Natalia Lozano, a development practitioner and agricultural researcher specializing in goats, and asked if she had any goat farming contacts who would be willing to take me on for a month and teach me.

She connected me with a farmer in Peru, her home country. When she heard I am a trained journalist, she asked me to help promote goat farming in the country.

Lozano told me that goat farming up until recently has had a negative stigma in the country. According to A. Perevolotsky, a researcher who studied Peruvian goat farming in the 90’s, goats were the ‘scapegoats’ for land desertification. He also quoted previous research about anti-goat prejudice in the country. He writes of a negative bias against the goat farming sector in the country as poor and destitute activity, despite the presence of over 2 million goats (at the time of his writing), and the viability of goat production as a means of reliable income.

Peruvian goat enthusiasts have worked hard to reverse this bias. Today Lozano and her colleagues, Dr. Irma Cheli, and Dr. Edgar Rangel are at the forefront of changing the popular perception of goat farming to make life better for the low income farmers who make their living with goats.

Dr. Rangel operates his own goat farm, Centro Ganadero Aldea Ecologica in Carabayllo, Peru. He also seeks out low income dairy goat farmers as business partners. He buys their milk and manufactures dairy products to sell. He is currently working on expanding his icecream line. He tells me when people buy his dairy products, they aren’t just helping him and his family, but the small scale farming families he buys from, and in turn their communities all across rural Peru. He truly believes in the life giving possibilities of goat farming for his country.

I’ll be staying at Dr. Rangel’s goat farm next month, to learn more about goat production, and also to visit with the low income farmers he works with.  We’ve decided my main function will be to promote my experience on the farm via social media, and also create a short documentary about Dr. Rangel’s social enterprise. This will be exciting!


Conversations with the Chapel

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published in The Watch Magazine, October 2014 issue

When King’s tightens the belt, is the chapel squeezed out?

Budget cuts loom at the University of King’s College. Even so, Father Gary Thorne, university chaplain, smiles at everyone he crosses during the day; small moments of calm in the midst of a financial storm.

For it is a storm. The King’s Financial Task Force reports a $1.1 million short-fall this year, and states $500,000 are still needed in extra revenues or savings in 2014/2015. The chaplain’s demeanour is calm, but how will the chapel fair during the tough decisions ahead? Is it a foundational tradition that will continue to uphold the school, or has the time come to let go?

The Atlantic School of Theology took over the instruction of Anglican priests at King’s in 1971. At that point the chapel took on a new identity formed by the intellectual community of the Foundation Year Program. Says Thorne, “What was established had the same sort of universal character that was for all people, at all times.”

The chapel provides the space and activities that put philosophy into practice and in doing so creates community on campus.

“I know some students who build tremendous friendships through that community” says Nick Hatt, Dean of Students. “I would say that’s probably the biggest gift that the chapel makes for students on a regular basis.”

Community isn’t just a nice word, it’s part of the King’s mandate. In the 1993 governing document “The Role of the University”, the college charges itself not only to teach the culmination of Western thought, but to “stimulate concentrated reflection upon it”, and stresses the importance of “community and active participation which has always been a great strength of the College.”

Take Will Barton for example. He graduated in 2013 with a degree in Early Modern Studies and German Language. He says like most students, he had big questions that “everyone probably asks them self at some point. Like how do you be in this place called earth?” In his third year, he met people at the chapel willing to fully engage with these subjects, and who challenged him to become “more fully myself and who I actually am.”

Barton is not the only student to seek and find community in the chapel. Natasha Conde, chapel co-ordinator, says each year approximately 275 first year students participate in a chapel-sponsored program like a hike, retreat, potluck, free concert or volunteer opportunity.

Dr. George Cooper, university president, says that even examined from a purely fiscal standpoint, the chapel’s choir draws a lot of attention to the university. “We don’t believe (the choir) costs money at all,” he says, “in fact it’s at the very worst revenue neutral, but we think it’s actually more than that.”

According to Cooper, the choir has a net cost of $60,000, and maintains a group of about 20 dedicated students, so the school’s commitment level to the chapel is strong.

Not much is sacred during budget cuts however, and nothing is off the chopping block. But the chaplain isn’t worried. Thorne says the chapel is used to facing pressure. In fact, he doesn’t mind it.

“I think the chapel always should have to give an account of itself” he says with a smile, “and I think that’s a good thing.”


Gottingen’s Still Got a Voice

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Seth Glasgow will never forget the day ‘Got A Voice’, the official radio station of the Gottingen 250 festival, started broadcasting. He was an intern helping to run the show when interference from their radio equipment triggered the fire alarms in the North Memorial Public Library where they set up. Everyone evacuated, and once they were back inside up and running again, the alarms went off a second time.

“At that point, the library said they had to shut everything down.” says Glasgow.

They had to find another location to keep broadcasting for the day. But after that, the rest of the week went smoothly. More than smooth; the community broadcast was so popular, so well-received, the group will continue broadcasting as Halifax’s newest community radio station.

Got A Voice, a project of iMOVe Arts Association, was born of a desire for the youth and community members in the Gottingen area to tell their stories during the recent celebration of Gottingen Street’s 250th year.

Says Glasgow, “we had random people come in and give shout-outs or just sit down and talk with us. We had people from all over the neighbourhood come in, and I think that’s what made it successful, because anyone could literally walk in and say what they wanted to say.”

Charlene Gagnon, the Youth Program Director at iMOVe, says people can expect to see a website for the station by the end of October, and to start listening again in November.

The FM channel they were using during the festival is designated for special events only, and applying to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for their own channel is an expensive, two year process. In the meantime, they will broadcast from the web, both live and with podcasts, from the Ubinacke Centre for Community Development 24 hours a day, seven days a week, playing their favourite music and focusing on the voices that aren’t usually found in the media.

Says Gagnon, “If people want to learn something about cultural communities in their own city that never get air time, that aren’t part of the mainstream, then they should tune in.”

Radio is not a dying medium. The CRTC projects a high demand for FM radio frequencies in the next year, and it’s a proven tool for community development all over the world. The group is applying for more funding from the United Way, and donations are always welcome.

The station will continue the conversations that began during the festival, and give youth a platform to share their stories and gain media skills while they do it. The youth know their neighbourhood has a bad reputation, but they’re eager to change that,

“People just assume it’s a lot of negativity down here” says intern Jourdin Symonds, “I just think the radio will give people a chance to voice their opinions, things that might be on their mind, things that could fix the community, just issues in general, and I think that will give people a lot more pride, and I think that’ll slowly change the community.”

Glasgow agrees, “It’s not a bad community, and Got A Voice is proof of that.” he says. “Even little kids no older than six or seven are getting on the radio, talking, just having fun. Because that’s what Got A Voice is about. It’s not a dangerous neighbourhood. We’re all good people.”


Birth Behind Bars

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New birth services offered at the Burnside prison.


Jean Catherine Steinberg says her day job is profound and humbling. She is a doula, a non-medical birth worker, both privately and as a volunteer with the Chebucto Family Centre.

Two years ago, she heard a gruesome story. Julie Bilotta, pregnant and in custody at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, gave birth alone in solitary confinement.

The story made international headlines, but to Steinberg and her fellow volunteers, it was more than just a headline. It was a spark.

“Some of us were obviously quite disgusted by hearing this story,” says Steinberg. “Some other birth workers got in touch with me because I’ve been doing other prison work for many years.”

So they started planning how to reach expecting inmates here in Halifax. Now, after two years of preparation, the Centre has begun offering doula services at the Central Nova Correctional Facility, commonly known as the Burnside Facility.

In the last 12 years, seven inmates at Burnside have given birth, says Eileen Collett, Deputy Superintendent of Administration and Programs at Central Nova. Right now, one pregnant woman is in custody.

Though Canadian statistics are unavailable, the US Bureau of Justice 2004 survey data found that four per cent of female inmates in state prisons were pregnant upon admission.

The purpose of the new program at Burnside is to augment the care already provided. The doulas hope to reach these women, support them during pregnancy, birth and after birth, and also pre-connect them to a supportive community before being released.

For the volunteers at the Chebucto Family Centre, it’s a natural extension of what they do.

“Birth and parenting can literally change the way (a woman) looks at her entire life,” says Jessie Harrold, the Volunteer Doula Program Co-ordinator. “Maybe that’s idealistic, but I see it. I see it in my work. That’s the great hope that many of us birth workers have when we support women who are living in vulnerable situations.”

The workers at Burnside share this hope for the inmates.

Says Collett, “When offenders are in custody, they are being released to the community, and when they go in to the community we want them to be healthy and able to live safely.”

Similar programs already exist elsewhere, including one called Isis Rising in Minnesota. Though too early to be conclusive, it has improved birth outcomes for incarcerated new mothers, indicated by factors like delivery method, gestational age and birth weight.

Burnside and Chebucto Family Services are excited for the possibilities of their fledgling program. The doulas have ideas for a wider range of services, and the professionals at Burnside are excited to learn.

Both parties are acutely aware of the inmates’ potential. They take it for granted, and constantly anticipate the inmates lives’ beyond their present incarceration- something many community members don’t often consider.

“Prisons are the intersection of so many issues in our world,” says Steinberg. “It’s really easy for a lot of people who don’t have loved ones inside- moms, dads, siblings, cousins, partners- to pretend that prisons don’t exist.”

Julie Bilotta’s case forced the issue into the Canadian consciousness. The Chebucto birth volunteers and the Burnside staff will continue the conversations the incident ignited. After her many years volunteering in the prison system, Steinberg’s best advice to readers is to take the time to learn.

“I hope that people reading this article don’t just think that watching Orange is the New Black is getting educated on prisons,” says Steinberg. “Learn about what prisons are here in Nova Scotia. For those who don’t feel like they have a connection to prisons, I would ask them to question that. We are all very deeply connected.”

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My name is Leah Gerber. I am a freelance writer currently based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Please make yourself at home and take a look around.