​Local biscuits take the oatcake

A Halifax baker finds a sweet spot with his recipe for oatcakes.

For some, Nova Scotia is the sight of leaves changing colour in the Annapolis Valley. For others, it’s the sound of waves crashing along the Eastern Shore. But for Ken Wallace, a taste of Nova Scotia is always just a bite away.

“I fell in love with oatcakes when I moved here from Ontario 30 years ago,” says Wallace.

He can’t recall how he first happened upon a recipe for the oat-based treats, but remembers that once he started making them, he couldn’t stop.

“I was experimenting with the ingredients and next thing I know, I was baking batches to send to my family members across the country.”

After decades of receiving rave reviews from relatives, friends, and neighbours, Wallace decided to make biscuits his business. Last July, he founded Genuine Nova Scotia Oatcakes and began selling the cookies with the mission of offering “a wholesome and delicious oatcake made from the finest local ingredients,” or, as he calls it:

A respectable recipe

Wallace gets his ingredients from producers in the Maritimes located as near to his Halifax home as possible.

“It really is a challenge to make something just from stuff that’s nearby, but it’s about giving something to the community while making a bit of a living too,” he says.

He uses organic oats and spelt flour from New Brunswick’s Speerville Flour Mill. The cookies are sweetened with honey and maple syrup from Nova Scotian bee farms and sugar shacks.

“They’re handmade. So while they’re consistently good, each one’s as unique as a snowflake. Some are thinner, some are thicker. Some are chewier, some are crisper,” says Wallace. “It all depends on timing and where they sit in the oven.”

Wallace’s treats are about the size of a checkers piece, making them much smaller than many of the “hockey puck” sized oatcakes sold around Halifax. He thinks the treats are better for sharing when they’re bite-sized. He says no one ever just eats one.

“It’s almost like there’s some sort of universal law. You’re always reaching for another.”

Wallace has put a lot of thought into what goes inside the treats, but he’s equally mindful of what goes outside of them.

“A case of Oreos comes in a plastic tray that gets thrown directly into the garbage,” he says. “There’s just so much waste.”

That inspired the baker to deliver his desserts in a way that’s kinder to the environment. Small batches of Genuine Nova Scotia Oatcakes come in recyclable and reusable bags.

More serious snackers have the option of ordering a KiloCan, 60 oatcakes packaged inside an old coffee tin. Wallace uses a unique eco-friendly lining for the tin to keep the cookies from crumbling — oatmeal.

“Who said you can’t have your (oat) cake and eat porridge too?” he jokes on his website.

The lining’s especially important for when the oatcakes make long journeys abroad, travelling to first-time customers and Nova Scotians yearning for a taste of home. Wallace has shipped tins to Hawaii and Arizona in the U.S., and to Bhutan and Gambia. In early February, he shipped an order to Queensland, Australia. It was a 72-day trip by boat.

“The thing about oatcakes is someone could find one in 10,000 years and it would probably still be fresh,” he says.

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A busy business

At this point, Wallace is making oatcakes one or two days a week in order to fill private orders and supply the six stores in Halifax where they’re sold. Wallace estimates he’s baked more than 12,000 biscuits since last July. He had to add an extra rack to the oven in his north-end home to keep up with demand.

“The best day’s an oatcake day. It starts with a meditation and then I put on music or a great audiobook and start baking. Even if I begin early in the morning, I won’t finish until late at night.”

The radio is always playing when Wallace bakes. Inspired by the day’s current events, he gives each batch of cookies a unique name. Recent trays of blueberry oatcakes were named March Blizzard Blues to honour the storm raging beyond his window. When another hit later that week, he christened the lot Double Whammies.

As his business approaches its first anniversary, Wallace has begun to play around with a few ideas for the future.

“I’m not quite sure where it’s heading but I think there’s a lot of potential. I always hear there are no oatcakes in Toronto or New York,” he says. “Who knows, maybe we’re going to take over the world with oatcakes.”

In the meantime, Wallace has more important things on his plate — his afternoon snack, a selection of freshly baked biscuits.

A call for better access to abortions

International Women’s Day event shines light on the barriers women face for access to safe abortion services in many provinces.

Abortion services remain out of reach for many women in Canada, according to members of a panel at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law, Sunday afternoon.

In recognition of International Women’s Day, the group discussed the barriers that continue to make it difficult for women to access safe abortion services in many provinces.

“Abortion was thoroughly criminalized in Canada until 1988,” said Dalhousie professor Archie Kaiser, who specializes in criminal and mental disability law. “The situation in Canada is not great now, but it’s improved significantly.”

Under the Canada Health Act, abortion is considered a medically necessary procedure, which means it should be funded by provincial health authorities and be equally accessible for women across the country.

Despite the legislation, Kaiser said it is challenging for many Canadian women to access the services they need.

He said the problems vary from province to province. In some parts of the country, few hospitals perform abortions, there are restrictions on medical insurance contributions when they are performed outside of a hospital, and there are few free-standing clinics.

Accessibility in Canada

A recent chart from the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada shows some regions are much better equipped than others.

Quebec provides the best access to abortions in the country. It has 31 hospitals and 36 clinics that perform the procedure.

British Columbia is the only province with bubble zones around clinics to ensure women can access the service without being harassed.

“I regret to say that in the Atlantic provinces, there are way fewer providers in our region than there should be,” said Kaiser.

According to statistics from the advocacy group Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, only four per cent of hospitals in New Brunswick, 21 per cent of hospitals in Newfoundland and Labrador, and 13 per cent of hospitals in Nova Scotia perform abortions.

One private clinic operates in New Brunswick and another in Newfoundland, but Nova Scotia has none.

There is no access for women in P.E.I., meaning women who need an abortion must travel from the island to New Brunswick or Nova Scotia.

Provincial governments fund out-of-province abortions but they do not pay for abortions at private clinics, where the procedure typically costs between $600 and $800.

 Accessibility in Halifax

Accessibility issues for women continue to be a problem even in provinces where abortion is available.

Kaleigh Trace, a disabled sex educator, author, and advocate for reproductive justice, lives in Halifax and had an abortion in Nova Scotia in 2011. She has written about it on her blog and spoke about her experience at Sunday’s event.

“I wasn’t unsure of myself. I was ready for it and I had a support system,” said Trace. “But with all of those things in place, it was still incredibly difficult.”

When Trace found out she was pregnant, she went to the Halifax Sexual Health Centre, an organization she had previously worked with, for an abortion referral. She said she was moved to the front of the list because of her connections.

“They bumped me on the list and I got to go in early. I experienced the privilege of knowing the right people and getting in on time.”

Despite that advantage, she found the referral process very frustrating. She was especially discouraged by the system’s need for her to justify her choice repeatedly.

“In abortion narratives we so often hear that someone’s single, young, poor, or disabled. I was all of those things, but those shouldn’t have to justify my choice. I could have made that choice if I was older, if I was married, if I was rich or able-bodied.”

Her experience at the Victoria General Hospital was generally positive, but she also said that the process was, at times,  lonely and scary.

“I was grateful for the kindness of the folks who work there, but because they have to protect themselves from the public, I had to be separated from my friends who came as my supporters. I didn’t know how to find them afterwards and you’re left alone at the end.”

Trace had her abortion at the same time that 40 Days For Life, an international group opposed to abortions, was running a campaign in the region. Because there are no bubble-zones in Halifax, there were protesters outside of the hospital on the day of her procedure.

“I think when you grow up experiencing systemic oppression, so if you’re disabled or a woman like I am, you can learn not to be ashamed of the decisions you make when society tells you they’re wrong,” said Trace. “But the force of people’s opposition to abortion is strong and I couldn’t not feel it.”

Trace felt she was better off going through the process than many women. She received a quick referral, lived close to the hospital, and spoke the same language as the doctors. Because of her disability, she was also used to navigating hospitals alone.

“I had all these points of privilege and still it was hard, which I think speaks to how hard it is.”

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Accessibility in the future

Trace said she believes education and more open and respectful conversations about women’s bodies could help create changes in the medical system and society’s treatment of abortion.

“If we started getting better sex education at a younger age, I genuinely believe access to abortion would be different and the way we understand women’s rights would be different,” she said.

 Kaiser said that the current flaws in the system are dangerous. He is concerned that accessibility could keep getting worse.

“The right to abortion in principle can be taken away by whittling away the access points at many levels,” he said. “Many countries at similar levels of development have seen attacks on the kinds of freedoms that women have won through their hard efforts here in Canada.”

Trace hopes that accessibility to abortion across the country only improves from its current state.

“It’s mind-boggling that if someone has a vulva, they are denied safe and easy access to reproductive justice in Canada. It’s embarrassing that something our grandmothers fought for is still something we are fighting for,” she said.

“Bodily autonomy is a human right. Your body, your choice is not a concept that should not be up for debate.”

The organizers

The organizers of Sunday’s event, members of the Dalhousie Feminist Legal Association (DFLA) and Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), agree with Trace.

LEAF Halifax advocates for the equal rights of women in Canada. It reformed its dormant branch in April 2014 when the Morgentaler clinic in Fredericton announced it was closing.

“We wanted to use it as a platform to do action on reproductive justice and a lot has happened over the past year,” said Martha Paynter, LEAF Halifax’s co-chair.

LEAF Halifax tried to help the Morgentaler clinic stay open. When it closed its doors in July, the group helped raise $125 000 to buy the space and open a new private medical centre, Clinic 554, in its place.

“The other thing that happened was the election in New Brunswick,” said Paynter. “The Conservative government fell and I think abortion was a huge election issue. The new Liberal government has started to repeal some of the restrictions the province has had for eons.”

The changes in policy mean women no longer need the permission of two physicians to have a publicly funded procedure in the hospitals in Moncton or Bathurst.

Paynter said her organization and pro-choice advocates should celebrate the victories they have had over the past year, but she still thinks there is work to be done.

“The clinic that operates in Fredericton should be publicly funded and that’s just New Brunswick,” she said.

“There are also major access issues in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and we’re glad people are here to talk about it today.”

The fur flies at Argyle Fine Art opening

An age-old dispute about what pets are best goes on display at Halifax art gallery.

Cat and dog lovers were invited to an exclusive BYOP (bring your own pets) event Saturday to celebrate the launch of Argyle Fine Art’s latest exhibit, Cat Person Dog Person, a multimedia tribute to furry foes.

“We know people love their pets, so we wanted to host a family-friendly opening event where people could come bring their dogs and cats by appointment,” said Adriana Afford, the gallery’s owner.

But when the felines failed to show, the party went to the dogs.

The canines and their owners wandered freely through the gallery, which showcased the creative works of local artists bringing beloved felines and pups to life through painting, sculpture, print and more.

Following a call for general submissions, 20 artists were chosen to feature their creations of the age-old rivals. Among them was six year old Hunter Keefe — a committed cat person, prolific painter and animal advocate.

“I have two at my house. Shamrock and Murdoch,” said Keefe.

His favourite piece from his collection is a painting of a rainbow-coloured feline with the phrase “I love cats!” scrawled in the top left corner of the canvas.

“The cat in a boat is probably my second best,” said Keefe, pointing to a frame featuring a pink kitten floating on a body of blue water.

The artist sold two works within an hour of the exhibit’s opening. They went for $35 a piece, but instead of pocketing the profits, Keefe is donating the proceeds directly to the Halifax Cat Rescue Society.

Keefe started supporting the charity last summer. Keefe raised $300 selling baked goods and his first paintings around his community

Since then, Keefe has had three paintings specifically commissioned and he is still accepting custom orders upon request.

“I really just want to help out lost cats,” Keefe said. “I love them so so much.”

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The six-year old makes a convincing case for cat people caring more deeply for their preferred pets than their counterparts, but the debate isn’t so easy to settle.

The exhibit only featured felines when it began three years ago. The gallery put together that first show in response to a growing internet obsession with cats.

Pooches were included the following year at the insistence of dog lovers and given the animals’ equal representation in this year’s show, it seems like puppy love is here to stay.

“People are really passionate about it,” said Afford. “That’s what makes it so fun.”

The reception included 10-minute custom pet portraits by Halifax-based artist Lindsay Hicks and complimentary “pupcakes” from Three Dog Bakery for guests.

Afford said people are especially in need of events like the one she planned around this time of year.

“In February, people have had enough of ice, snow and winter,” said Afford. “This is a great excuse to get your dog out for a walk, come in and see some great artwork.”

The exhibit runs until March 11. Photographs of the works in the collection can also be viewed online.