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How a $5 roadside tortoise turned into a Halifax icon

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At 95 years old, Gus is slow-moving. But that’s in his nature, seeing as he’s a gopher tortoise.

And although he’s often sitting idle in his enclosure, Gus has been captivating visitors to the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History for more than seven decades.

“As time has gone on, he’s become more and more of a fixture here at the museum,” said Jeff Gray, curator of visitor experiences and exhibits. “His life and his legend grows with the years.”

Having lived there for more than 75 years, Gus has become a mascot of sorts for the popular museum in central Halifax.

He emerged from a golf-ball-sized egg in the southern United States in the 1920s. Some 20 years later, former museum director Don Crowdis purchased the sand-coloured tortoise for $5 from a roadside reptile vendor in Florida and brought him back to Nova Scotia.

Gus, a 95-year-old gopher tortoise, his mouth stained from eating berries, is seen at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History in Halifax on Friday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

In 1952, he was named after a young boy who had become fascinated with the reptile. John Augustus Gilhen would later become a curator emeritus with the museum, and still visits his namesake tortoise to this day.

On a busy morning during March break, small children are swirling around his Plexiglas enclosure, which is equipped with a bed of sand and heat lamps to mimic his native land’s warmer climate. Gus is sitting inside a hollowed-out log, his face stained purple from a recent blackberry feast.

In a few hours, he’ll be hoisted from his pen for his daily walk with museum staff. When the weather permits, he enjoys nibbling on dandelions or digging a burrow on the museum grounds.

Gus is one of the first creatures that visitors encounter after entering the museum, which collects artifacts of cultural significance to Nova Scotia and promotes the province’s natural landscape.

In the warmer months, Gus enjoys nibbling on dandelions or digging a burrow on the museum grounds. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

He’s become living Halifax folklore.

Generations of museum-goers have paid him recurring visits over the years, bringing their children and then their grandchildren to see what’s believed to be the world’s oldest known gopher tortoise, said Gray.

“It almost seems made up, but people seem to connect with him when they come through the door,” said Gray over the sound of enthusiastic children. “For a lot of young visitors, it’s one of the things they’ll remember most about the museum. And then they grow into adults who have their own children.”

Gus’s birthday is celebrated every year on the second Sunday in August. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

His cult-like fame was recently acknowledged in a cover story by the city’s alternative weekly newspaper The Coast, which nominated Gus for the province’s highest honour: the Order of Nova Scotia.

“He is the bedrock foundation of Halifax’s identity,” The Coast’s city editor Jacob Boon wrote in a nomination letter dated March 7.

“Generations have grown up looking down into that expressionless face. Our faces age. His stays carved. He is a touchstone of continuity you can always depend on. A childhood memory people get to live over and over again.”

The Order of Nova Scotia says nominees must be a Canadian citizen, though it doesn’t explicitly rule out tortoises. 

Gus’s birthday is celebrated every year on the second Sunday in August. The event has become so popular that the museum now holds two birthday parties for its oldest resident: one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Gus’s birthday celebration has become so popular that the museum now holds two birthday parties for its oldest resident: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Gray said the continued news coverage of Gus is welcomed because regardless of his pop culture status, he’s teaching people about nature.

“He opens the dialogue and makes it easy to have that dialogue,” said Gray. “To me, that’s the greatest legacy that Gus has brought to us. If he can inspire anyone to be thinking about the natural world, then he’s done a wonderful thing.”

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Ottawa families give mixed reviews for online schooling

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So, how’s it going with online school? Families reached by CBC Ottawa seem to have mixed reviews. 

Masuma Khan is a mother of two. Her seven-year-old, Hana Wyndham in Grade 2, is attending French immersion virtual school. Masuma is grateful it’s an option, but can’t help notice a lot of down time.

“There’s a lot of, ‘are you on mute?’ In terms of the amount of learning that’s actually happening, it does seem to be not that high,” said Masuma.

Parents who kept their children at home this fall are in the minority, but they still form a significant chunk of families in Ottawa.

In the city’s largest school board, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), about 27 per cent of elementary students and 22 per cent of high school students chose online learning. The Ottawa Catholic School Board says roughly a quarter of its students are online.

For Masuma, the decision to keep her daughter home was complex: extended family members are immunocompromised and she worried the in-person learning environment would be unpleasant because of precautions. She also felt her daughter might benefit from being supported at home.

“She doesn’t necessarily enjoy school. I also found out during the pandemic that she was being bullied [last year],” said Masuma. “So I thought, why not try from home?”

To help her daughter socialize face-to-face with other kids, Masuma enrolled Hana in Baxter Forest School, an alternative education program where kids spend most of their time outside, one day a week. Hana also attends virtual Arabic classes two days a week after school. 

Masuma’s husband and Hana share the living room work space, and Masuma admits he does the lion’s share of helping their daughter stay on task. There is a possibility that he’ll be required to return to his office in the new year.

“When he goes back to work … it’s probably going to be a little bit more difficult.”

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No school closures after Christmas holiday break, says Ontario education minister

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Ontario elementary and secondary schools will not close for an extended winter break, says Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

Closures aren’t needed given Ontario’s “strong safety protocols, low levels of (COVID-19) transmission and safety within our schools,” Lecce announced Wednesday afternoon. He said he had consulted with Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams and the province’s public health measures advisory table.

That ended speculation about school buildings remaining closed in January for a period of time after the Christmas break.

Earlier in the week, Lecce told reporters the government was considering having students spend “some period out of class” in January, perhaps switching to online learning.

In a statement, Lecce said that even though rates of community transmission of COVID-19 are increasing, “schools have been remarkably successful at minimizing outbreaks to ensure that our kids stay safe and learning in their classrooms.”

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Windy start to the week in Ottawa

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OTTAWA — It’s a blustery Monday in the capital with wind gusts of up to 50 km/hour expected throughout the day.

Environment Canada is forecasting a high of 4 C with a 60 per cent chance of showers or flurries before the wind dies down later this evening.

There’s a chance of flurries on Tuesday as well with a high of -1 C. The overnight low will dip to an unseasonal -9 C.  

Wednesday’s high will be just -5 C with lots of sunshine.

Seasonal temperatures return for the rest of the week..

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