Parts of Nova Scotia recorded 50 cm of snow after a winter storm blew through Atlantic Canada.
Parts of Nova Scotia recorded 50 cm of snow after a winter storm blew through Atlantic Canada.
WASHINGTON — Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm won Senate confirmation Thursday to be energy secretary, joining President Joe Biden's Cabinet as a leader of Biden’s effort to build a green economy as the United States moves to slow climate change. The vote was 64-35, with all Democrats and 14 Republicans, including GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, voting yes. Granholm, 62, served two terms as governor in a state dominated by the auto industry and devastated by the 2008 recession. She has promoted emerging clean energy technologies, such as electric vehicles and battery manufacturing, as an answer for jobs that will be lost as the U.S. transitions away from oil, coal and other fossil fuels. Granholm, who was sworn in late Thursday, is just the second woman to serve as energy secretary. She tweeted her thanks to senators and said, "I’m obsessed with creating good-paying clean energy jobs in all corners of America in service of addressing our climate crisis. I’m impatient for results. Now let’s get to work!'' Sen. Joe Manchin, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Granholm has the leadership skills, vision and compassion needed at the Energy Department to “develop innovative solutions for the climate challenge'' while preserving jobs. Granholm is committed to working every day “to ensure that we don’t leave any workers behind as we move towards a cleaner energy future,'' said Manchin, D-W.Va. During her confirmation hearing last month, Granholm pushed her plans to embrace new wind and solar technologies. But her position caused tension with some Republicans who fear for the future of fossil fuels. “We can buy electric car batteries from Asia, or we can make them in America,” Granholm told senators. “We can install wind turbines from Denmark, or we can make them in America.'' Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate energy committee, said Biden “seems to want to pull the plug on American energy dominance. So I cannot in good conscience vote to approve his nominee for secretary of energy.'' Barrasso and other Republicans have complained that a freeze imposed by Biden on oil and gas leases on federal lands is taking a “sledgehammer” to Western states’ economies. The moratorium could cost tens of thousands of jobs unless rescinded, Barrasso said. He and other Republicans also bemoaned Biden’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, saying thousands of jobs will be lost and a friendly source of oil left idle. Granholm assured lawmakers that creating jobs was her top priority — and Biden's. “We cannot leave our people behind. In West Virginia, and in other fossil fuel states, there is an opportunity for us to specialize in the technologies that reduce carbon emissions, to make those technologies here, to put people to work here, and to look at other ways to diversify,'' she said at her Jan. 27 hearing. During her introduction as Biden's nominee, Granholm described arriving in the U.S. at age 4, brought from Canada by a family “seeking opportunity.” She said her father found work as a bank teller and retired as head of the bank. “It’s because of my family’s journey and my experience in fighting for hardworking Michigan families that I have become obsessed ... with gaining good-paying jobs in America in a global economy,” she said. In other action Thursday on Biden's Cabinet nominees: SURGEON GENERAL Surgeon general nominee Dr. Vivek Murthy said Americans must not lose track of opioid addiction and other health emergencies amid the intense national focus on overcoming the coronavirus pandemic. He told senators at a hearing that “we cannot neglect the other public health crises that have been exacerbated by this pandemic, particularly the opioid epidemic, mental illness and racial and geographic health inequities.” After dipping slightly, opioid deaths have risen again, the result of street formulations laced with the powerful painkiller fentanyl. Murthy told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that the overdose rescue drug naloxone should be even more widely available and that medication-assisted treatment must be expanded. Murthy, who was surgeon general in the Obama administration, has drawn opposition from gun rights groups because of his assessment that gun violence is a public health problem. But he tried to dispel notions that he would launch a crusade against guns. He told Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., that while he supports government studying the problem, “my focus is not on this issue, and if I’m confirmed it will be on COVID, on mental health and substance use disorder.” TRADE REPRESENTATIVE Biden’s pick for U.S. trade representative promised to work with America’s allies to combat China’s aggressive trade policies, indicating a break from the Trump administration’s go-it-alone approach. Katherine Tai told the Senate Finance Committee that rebuilding international alliances would be a priority, as well as "reengaging with international institutions? to present Beijing with “a united front of U.S. allies.? Tai did not address whether the Biden administration would drop former President Donald Trump’s tariffs on imported steel and aluminum or whether it would revive the Obama administration's Asia-Pacific trade deal, which Trump killed. BUDGET DIRECTOR Another key Republican lawmaker came out against Biden’s embattled pick to head the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, raising further questions about her viability. Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley told reporters he won't support her nomination. He and Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski were two Republicans seen as potentially gettable votes for the White House, as Grassley had previously said he’d had good conversations with Tanden. Murkowski has yet to say how she'd vote. With a handful of other key centrist Republicans coming out against her in recent days, Tanden’s path to confirmation hinges largely on Murkowski and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., neither of whom have made their positions known. The White House was forced to search for a Republican to support Tanden after West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin announced his opposition last week. Lawmakers have largely cited Tanden’s controversial and at times harshly critical tweets about members of both parties in explaining their opposition to her. ___ Associated Press writers Alexandra Jaffe, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Paul Wiseman contributed to this report. Matthew Daly, The Associated Press
NEW YORK — Is it Mr. Potato Head or not? Hasbro created confusion Thursday when it announced that it would drop the “Mr.” from the brand’s name in order to be more inclusive and so all could feel “welcome in the Potato Head world.” It also said it would sell a new playset this fall without the Mr. and Mrs. designations that will let kids create their own type of potato families, including two moms or two dads. But in a tweet later that afternoon, Hasbro clarified that the Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head characters will still live on and be sold in stores, but under the Potato Head brand. In a picture posted on Twitter, the “Mr.” and “Mrs.” names are less prominently displayed at the bottom of the box, instead of the top. “While it was announced today that the POTATO HEAD brand name & logo are dropping the ‘MR.’ I yam proud to confirm that MR. & MRS. POTATO HEAD aren’t going anywhere and will remain MR. & MRS. POTATO HEAD,” the company tweeted. The tweet came after news of the brand name change exploded on Twitter, with people asking if Barbie will change her name next. “I think Hasbro needs to drop the “Bro” and just be “Has,'” another person tweeted. Hasbro appears to want to have it both ways: expand the brand, while not killing off its most iconic characters, which appeared in the “Toy Story” films. “They are looking to broaden the franchise,” said Robert Passikoff, founder of marketing consultancy Brand Keys. “You take the focus of what is essentially one character and now allow it to be a platform for many characters.” Kimberly Boyd, a senior vice-president at Hasbro, said the intention of the brand name change was to be more inclusive and to have the characters still live within the Potato Head universe. “It created a lot of excitement," she said about the reaction. GLAAD, an LGBTQ advocacy group, applauded the more inclusive Potato playset. “Hasbro is helping kids to simply see toys as toys, which encourages them to be their authentic selves outside of the pressures of traditional gender norms,” said Rich Ferraro, GLAAD’s chief communications officer, in a statement. Many toymakers have been updating their classic brands in recent years, hoping to relate to today’s kids and reflect more modern families. “It’s a potato,” said Ali Mierzejewski, editor in chief at toy review site The Toy Insider, about the new playset. “But kids like to see themselves in the toys they are playing with.” Barbie, for example, has tried to shed its blonde image and now comes in multiple skin tones and body shapes. The Thomas the Tank Engine toy line added more girl characters. And American Girl is now selling a boy doll. Mr. Potato Head first hit the toy scene in 1952, when it didn’t even come with a plastic potato — kids had to supply their own vegetable to poke eyes, a nose or moustache into. Hasbro, which also makes Monopoly and My Little Pony, bought the brand and eventually added a plastic spud. Joseph Pisani, The Associated Press
WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government is looking at easing many of its COVID-19 restrictions as the province's pandemic indicators continue to improve. A set of proposed changes released Thursday includes doubling capacity limits in stores and restaurants, as well as for personal services, to 50 per cent. Seating at restaurant tables would still be limited to members of the same household. Indoor religious services could operate at 25 per cent capacity instead of the current 10 per cent. Indoor arcades and outdoor amusement parks could reopen with capacity limits. The few facilities that would have to remain closed include theatres, concert halls and casinos. The cap on outdoor gatherings would rise to 10 people from five. And instead of households being permitted to only designate two people as visitors, the province could allow two-household bubbles so entire families could get together. "Manitoba's case numbers, test positivity rate (and) health-care-system admission rates continue to trend in the right direction, which allows us to consider reopening more services cautiously and safely," said Dr. Brent Roussin, chief public health officer. The proposed changes could take effect as early as March 5 and are subject to public feedback before any final decisions are made, he said. Changes could also be phased in. Health officials reported 70 new COVID-19 cases and one death Thursday. Three cases from unspecified dates were removed due to data correction for a net increase of 67. The province's case count has dropped sharply since a severe spike in the fall when Manitoba led all the provinces in the per-capita rate of new infections. The strain on intensive care units has eased and the test positivity rate has dropped from 13 per cent to 4.3. The proposed changes could also mean big shifts for sports enthusiasts and players of video lottery terminals. VLTs would be allowed to operate again as long as they were two metres apart or separated by physical barriers. Indoor gyms and fitness facilities could offer group classes again, although with a 25 per cent capacity limit. Roussin said there is a risk in such indoor settings. "There is risk involved with all these things and we're weighing the benefit ... to having businesses open, the benefit for people (of) physical activity," he said. "It's very cautious and 25 per cent capacity, I think, gives us that ability to have people spaced out quite a bit." This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021 Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
REGINA — Saskatchewan's top doctor says the presence of more contagious variants makes testing even more important to stem the spread of COVID-19. Dr. Saqib Shahab says the province needs to keep its daily cases low and people must follow public-health advice to try to prevent more infectious variants from taking over. "We need to use testing more, even more now, because of the variants of concern," he said during a briefing Thursday. The province says thousands of rapid-testing kits from Ottawa will be deployed into long-term care homes, schools, detox facilities, shelters, as well as to first responders. The province is also looking to hire a third-party provider to help any groups that may be unable to use the kits themselves. Shahab says some people have delayed getting tested and gone to work with symptoms, which has led to outbreaks. Testing will help the province's caseload decrease because tests can help break chains of transmission, he said. Cory Neudorf, a public health and epidemiology professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said provinces are at a critical point in the pandemic. He said vaccine rollouts for the most vulnerable are in their early days and the risk is that variants could drive up spread before many older residents are immunized. Two weeks ago, the Saskatchewan Health Authority gave an update to physicians that included a discussion on community spread with some point-in-time modelling. A senior medical which warned that confirmed cases in the province could double to 50,000 by mid-April, if certain indicators didn't change, such as the reproductive figure for how many people one person with COVID-19 infects. The Saskatchewan Health Authority said Thursday that calculation was based on an earlier case count. It said as of Feb. 20, the reproductive figure has been below one. That means case growth is less than it was when the town hall estimate was given. “It’s a slightly less possibility than it was a few weeks ago, but it’s still possible that we would be seeing a resurgence by mid-April. Whether or not it gets to 50,000 cases, I don’t know," Neudorf said. Neudorf does point out that caseloads have begun to stabilize and drop in the past few weeks in parts of the province, including around Saskatoon and in the south. The province on Thursday reported 211 new infections after only 56 on Wednesday — the lowest count in months. The total number of confirmed cases since the pandemic took hold last March sits at slightly over 28,000. Shahab said it's a positive sign that pressure on the health system has dropped. There were 165 people in hospital and 18 in intensive care Thursday. But Saskatchewan, with a population of 1.1 million, still reports having the highest rate of active cases per capita in Canada. It also has two cases of the variant first identified in the United Kingdom with no known links to travel. Shahab has said this is the third week in some time in which seven-day averages of new daily cases are below 200. He also said the province's test positivity rate is about seven per cent, down from 10. Still, health officials say more testing is needed because it's higher than five per cent. This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021 Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press
TORONTO — Ontario's explanation that ongoing tests are delaying the launch of its vaccine-booking web portal doesn't carry water for experts, who said Thursday that the province should have begun those trials months ago. The website – set to launch in mid-March when residents aged 80 and older can start getting vaccinated against COVID-19 – has already been piloted, but the government said it won't go live until the province is sure it can withstand the large volume of requests expected. Experts said, however, that the government should have been able to have the site up and running earlier. Similar sites are already up and running in provinces such as Quebec and Alberta, though the web portal for the latter crashed Wednesday when 150,000 people visited it at once. It's since been restored. Elsewhere, such as in Nova Scotia and British Columbia, the websites won't launch until March. Nancy Walton, a professor of nursing at Ryerson University with a specialization in mobile technologies, said Ontario has had plenty of time to plan its vaccine rollout and could have launched the web portal well in advance of the appointments that will be booked through it. "Rolling out that plan and setting up an online portal with a call centre ahead of time seems reasonable," she said. There are a number of things the government must take into account when building such a system, not the least of which is accessibility, she said. People who are not particularly tech savvy – including those who are older and didn't grow up around computers – should be able to navigate the system intuitively, she said, noting that could tack on time to the development process. Eyal de Lara, a professor of computer science at the University of Toronto, said the site also has to be accessible to people with disabilities – and specifically must work with screen readers used by people who are blind. That tends to be lower on the to-do list for private corporations building websites, rightly or wrongly, he said. The province's site also should be accessible to people who don't speak English or French as a first language, he noted. From a technical standpoint, he said, concerns about the site crashing are legitimate but can be dealt with. "It's not an impossible task, of course, but it is a complex task," de Lara said, pointing to initial problems with the Obamacare website launch in the U.S. as an example. That site wasn't engineered properly to be able to handle a huge influx of traffic, he said, making it impossible to use. Ontario is right to put time and effort into widescale testing of its web portal, though it could have started on that process sooner, he said. The province also has to make sure the site is incredibly secure, given the sensitive nature of health-care information, not to mention privacy laws. "It's a potential target for attacks, and actually doing a proper security review takes time," de Lara said. "This type of application is not something that you can just put together in a couple of weeks... It's clearly a task that will take several months to do." The head of the province's vaccine task force, retired general Rick Hillier, said his team is "furiously working" to test and refine the website so it can launch on March 15. Health Minister Christine Elliott said Thursday that the government wanted to ensure the system won't crash when it goes live. "We don't want to rush to failure," she said. Elliott also said it "will probably take another short while" to get vaccinations started for those aged 80 and older after they book their appointments through the portal as the province has to first vaccinate those in the highest-priority groups, such as long-term care. The province also plans to launch a phone line alongside its web portal in mid-March. This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021. Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press
PORT HAWKESBURY, N.S. — A former Canadian soldier who killed three family members and himself in 2017 received sporadic mental health treatment immediately after he left the military in 2015, a fatality inquiry heard Thursday. The provincial inquiry in Nova Scotia learned the Canadian Armed Forces had arranged for therapy to continue for Lionel Desmond after he was medically discharged. But the lack of structure outside the military created new challenges for the mentally ill veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Psychologist Mathieu Murgatroyd, who worked at the Operational Stress Injury Clinic in Fredericton, was tasked with providing the former corporal with treatment from June 2015 to October 2016. The psychologist said there were problems from the start because Desmond, then 32, often cancelled appointments or didn't show up. Plans for therapy were derailed by the fact that Desmond spent much of his time travelling between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, where he was trying to re-establish a relationship with his wife, Shanna, and his young daughter, Aaliyah. "In terms of commitment and engagement, it was interfering with the therapy process," Murgatroyd testified. "We were concerned with this inconsistency." Murgatroyd said it was clear Desmond needed help. In 2011, while posted to Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick, Desmond was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression. That was four years after he served as a rifleman during a particularly violent tour of duty in Afghanistan. Earlier this week, mental health professionals contracted by the military told the inquiry that Desmond initially responded well to treatment, but that he suffered a relapse in May 2013 when military colleagues subjected him to racist comments about his African Nova Scotian heritage. Murgatroyd testified that Desmond appeared guarded and distant when they first met in June 2015 at the federally funded clinic, which receives referrals from the Department of National Defence, Veterans Affairs Canada and the RCMP. "Based on his presentation, the risk was more elevated in terms of spiralling down," Murgatroyd said. As well, he said Desmond made it clear his relationship with his wife, Shanna, was in turmoil. "There were moments when they seemed to be doing better, but for the most part, strained," he said, adding that Desmond had increased his alcohol consumption to deal with stress. Murgatroyd recalled that during their first treatment session, Desmond complained about nightmares, night sweats, daily intrusive thoughts, disturbed sleep, chronic pain and "homicidal thoughts without intent." "He hardly gets out of his house because of his paranoia," Murgatroyd noted after an early therapy session in 2015. Desmond said he had suffered a number of head injuries while serving in the military, and that he worried about a possible brain injury. The inquiry has heard the former corporal did not disclose this concern while he was in the military. Though Desmond was under Murgatroyd's care for 16 months, the psychologist said his therapeutic plan never got off the ground. "We were just putting out fires rather than working on any real intervention," he said. He said it appeared Desmond's source of psychological distress eventually shifted from his combat-related PTSD symptoms to an angry "fixation" with his wife's handling of their finances and concerns that she may be cheating on him. Murgatroyd said Desmond told him about gruesome nightmares he had that suggested his wife had been sleeping with another man, whose head was later found on the floor. The psychologist agreed when asked if Desmond's dreams were having an impact on his perception of reality. Murgatroyd said that helped explain why Desmond would later revoke his consent to allow the clinic to share information with his wife. Eventually, staff at the clinic decided therapy for Desmond wasn't an option until he was properly stabilized. They recommended he should take part in an intensive treatment program at Ste. Anne's hospital in Montreal, which has an in-patient operational stress injury clinic. By April 2016, Desmond had agreed to go to Ste. Anne's, having recognized that his relationship with his wife was deteriorating amid talk of divorce, Murgatroyd said. The following month, Desmond reached "an all-time low," Murgatroyd said, adding that his patient was distressed about the state of his finances and the idea his wife was manipulative and could not be trusted. "With things spiralling down, he was looking for help." Desmond arrived at St. Anne's on May 30, 2016, but he left less than three months into a six-month program, even though he had reported he was enjoying his stay there, Murgatroyd said. The inquiry has heard that Desmond returned home to Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., in August 2016. Evidence presented to the inquiry has shown Desmond received no therapeutic treatment for the next four months, even though Murgatroyd and Veterans Affairs Canada were making arrangements for treatment in Nova Scotia. Staff at Ste. Anne's had recommended Desmond receive an in-depth neuro-psychological assessment and more treatment, but that never happened. On Jan. 3, 2017, Desmond bought a semi-automatic rifle. Later that day, he fatally shot his 31-year-old wife, their 10-year-daughter and his 52-year-old mother, Brenda, before killing himself in the family's home. This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021. — By Michael MacDonald in Halifax The Canadian Press
The province is pushing off deep cuts to its bottom line in order to help protect the economy and lives during the pandemic as it anticipates high deficits, even higher debt and modest recovery to its revenues. On Feb. 25, the Alberta government released its annual budget, giving Albertans their first in-depth look at the fiscal picture for the province since the pandemic hit, with the UCP government pushing off the large cuts it had proposed in 2019 and 2020 until mass COVID-19 vaccinations take place. Instead, the province said the focus of its latest budget is on protecting Albertans’ health and jobs and positioning the economy for recovery while still trying to deliver services in an efficient way. “Adequately resourcing health care is our number one priority,” Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews said. In the past year, the province has invested $5.8 billion in its COVID-19 response and recovery. The UCP has budgeted another $3.1 billion for the 2021-22 economic recovery, along with another $1.25 billion for a COVID-19 contingency plan, which includes the roll-out of the vaccine across the province. “We are working with health and (Alberta Health Services) to make sure they have all the resources they need to deal with the pandemic,” Toews said. In a press conference following the release of the budget, Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley criticized the budget as a "deer-in-the-headlights" budget that didn't take into consideration population and inflation growth, and didn't spend in the right areas. "We needed to see a budget that had a plan to get people back to work, keep young people in Alberta, grow the tech sector, diversify our economy ... (but) as much as Jason Kenney is trying to claim otherwise, this is a cuts budget," Notley said. "By failing to account for simple population and inflation, Jason Kenney is ignoring the fact that we have more people in the province and things tend to get a little bit more expensive over time, even in the last year." Alberta’s revenue fell to a forecasted $42.3 billion in 2020, $7.7 billion less than the government had budgeted for last February. In the coming year, the province is estimating revenues will recover slightly, coming in at $43.7 billion thanks to factors like higher resource revenue, more income tax. Alberta’s revenues could recover to pre-pandemic levels within a couple years, rising to $47.4 billion next year and $50.9 billion the following year. However, due to COVID-19, the province is also falling deeper into debt and further away from balancing its budget. The province is estimating a deficit of $18.2 billion in 2021-22, though that deficit should shrink to $11 billion next year and $8 billion the following year. “I am very disappointed we can’t present a balanced budget in our first term,” Toews said. Taxpayer-supported debt is at $98.3 billion and is expected to hit $115.8 billion by the end of 2021-22 – number $21.4 billion and $32.9 billion higher, respectively, than expected in last year’s budget, in part due to the higher deficit. In 2022-23, debt is estimated to climb to $128.1 billion, rising further to $132.5 billion by 2023-24. That will bring debt servicing costs soaring up to the highest rates the province has ever seen. Taxpayers will be coughing up $2.8 billion in 2021-22 just to service provincial debt, which is around 5.3 per cent of estimated total revenue. In lieu of a path to a balanced budget, the government has introduced new “anchors” to guide fiscal decision-making, including keeping net debt to GDP under 30 per cent, getting per-capita spending in line with comparator provinces, and after the pandemic, re-establishing a commitment to balance the budget. “The fiscal anchors will be very important,” Toews said. In 2021-22, the province projects its net debt to GDP to be 24.5 per cent, climbing to 26.1 per cent in 2022-23 and 26.6 per cent in 2023-24. Overall in 2021, real GDP is expected to grow by 4.8 per cent. This climb comes after a drop in GDP by 7.8 per cent in 2020 and a near-flat GDP in 2019. One way the province is aiming to get its fiscal house in order is through accountability, with a bright spotlight shining on public sector compensation and getting Alberta’s public sector spending in line with other provinces. Right now, about half the province’s operating expenses are related to compensation. The provincial budget states Alberta will be enabling private sector delivery to services “when it is more efficient to do so.” Some $26.7 billion of the provincial budget is spent overall on public sector compensation. The budget will see a continuation of the province's goal to reduce the size of the public sector, which it aims to reduce by 7.7 per cent over four years, ending in 2023. It aims to bring per-capita spending in line with other provinces on health care, education and public sector compensation, and to reduce the size of government. But even once Alberta gets spending in line with other provinces, which is expected in 2023-24, the province will still face an $8-billion deficit. While Toews said there “are no new taxes or tax increases in Budget 2021,” the province will have to eventually address the gaping hole in its revenues, which the minister said will be done by appointing a revenue panel. During the pandemic, addressing revenue is not a priority, Toews said, and the province plans to focus on supporting healthcare, readying the economy for a recovery and fiscal accountability, but the question of looming fiscal shortfalls will need to be addressed in the coming years, which could be achieved by a provincial sales tax (PST). Alberta is currently the only province without a PST. “Tax increases are much more harmful than spending reductions,” Toews said on Feb. 25. Cancelling crude-by-rail contracts is expected to cost $2.287 billion, up $120 million from the August fiscal update due to the high oil differential and the current oil market. The NDP government created the crude-by-rail plan in their governing term after hitting roadblocks getting pipelines out of the province approved, but the UCP squashed the program once elected. No accounting provision has been built into the budget to handle the hit the province will take from Keystone XL, as the province is still negotiating with TC Energy to determine what the final hit to taxpayers will look like. The province invested $1.5 billion in the pipeline, which was killed when U.S. President Joe Biden was inaugurated in January. Alberta’s economy is now pegged to recover to pre-COVID-19 levels by 2022, one year earlier than had been expected in the mid-year quarterly fiscal update. This change is primarily due to rapid vaccine development, economic activity and demand for oil that is expected to follow. While an early recovery is good news, the province hadn’t even fully recovered from the 2015 recession before the pandemic hit. Officials are predicting the province won’t reach 2014 economic markers until 2023. Overall, this economic outlook is rosier than officials predicted in the past three quarterly fiscal updates, due to higher oil prices and early vaccine development, but the province is making modest predictions for its path forward. A recent sharp increase in oil prices in the past few weeks sent West Texas Intermediate (WTI) up to $55 from $45, but the province won’t be betting the farm on those high oil prices. For this coming year, Alberta is estimating oil prices to average out to $46, and climb to $56.50 by 2023-24. The province is predicting more conservative WTI prices than the private sector, predicting $5 below the private sector average for 2021-22 and $2 below for the following year. Along with hope that oil prices will rebound, the province is panning for a provincial recovery by investing in infrastructure, including $21 billion in construction projects to support 90,000 new jobs. This will be $1.7 billion more than what had been planned in Budget 2020 for 2021-22. The government is also earmarking $1.5 billion to support targeted strategies to help out key sectors, like agriculture, energy, technology and tourism, and plans for that funding will be released during the year. The pot also includes a contingency of $500 million in 2021-22 to fund emerging sector strategies and any further economic recovery needs that arise during the year. Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Albert Gazette
VICTORIA — A special prosecutor says there may have been a miscarriage of justice when a babysitter was convicted of criminal negligence causing death in the drowning of a toddler in Cranbrook, B.C. Tammy Bouvette was originally charged with second-degree murder but pleaded guilty in 2013 to the lesser charge in the death of 19-month-old Iyanna Teeple, who was found unconscious and not breathing in a bathtub while under her care. The BC Prosecution Service announced last year that it was appointing lawyer Marilyn Sandford as a special prosecutor to review the case, following media inquiries about disclosure issues linked to a pathologist involved in the matter. The service says in a statement Thursday that Sandford has completed her review and provided a written report, in which she says there is a strong case to be made that Bouvette did not receive disclosure of significant and relevant materials. The statement says Sandford concluded that as a result of that non-disclosure, Bouvette's charter rights may have been breached and her conviction may represent a miscarriage of justice. It says Sandford found a review by the B.C. Court of Appeal is desirable in order to determine whether a miscarriage of justice occurred, and she directed the prosecution service to provide Bouvette with copies of all materials collected in her investigation. The prosecution service says the Crown will not oppose Bouvette if she applies to the Appeal Court for a time extension to file an appeal of her conviction, nor if she applies to file fresh evidence based on any materials not previously disclosed to her. It says Sandford will continue as special prosecutor on the matter and has already taken steps to begin implementing her conclusions and recommendations. This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021. The Canadian Press
On Thursday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller responded to an auditor general report from earlier in the day that stated AG Karen Hogan was "very concerned and disheartened" that the Liberal government was unable to meet its commitment to ending all boil water advisories for Indigenous communities. Miller accepted the AG's recommendations and went over the water advisories that have been lifted, as well as the finances secured to work ahead to end all the advisories.
NEW YORK — Another mutated version of the coronavirus has popped up in New York City, and experts reacted to the the news with a mixture of caution and concern. The new variant first appeared in the New York area in late November, and has since cropped up in neighbouring states, according to researchers at the California Institute of Technology, one of two teams to share their work this week. But how problematic the variant may be isn’t known yet. Viruses are constantly mutating — or making typos in their genetic code — as they spread and make copies of themselves. “Most are not of particular concern,” said Francois Balloux, director of the University College London’s Genetics Institute. However, he added, “Noticing them early, flagging them, raising concern is useful." That's because some genetic tweaks can be worrisome, especially if they help the virus spread more easily, make it more deadly or curb the effectiveness of vaccines. Scientists use genome sequencing and other research to figure out which are a potential problem. New York City health officials and Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday sought to tamp down worries about the new variant, emphasizing that the new research is preliminary and little is known about the variant. “Some variants are just that, they’re variants.” said Dr. Jay Varma, senior health adviser to the mayor. WHAT DID THEY FIND IN NEW YORK? Two research groups — at Caltech and Columbia University in New York — released papers this week describing their findings about the new variant. Neither paper has been published or reviewed by other scientists. The Caltech researchers found that the new variant showed up in about a quarter of the 1,200 virus sequences they looked at this month. The variant has also shown up in New Jersey and Connecticut and has made “isolated appearances across the country,” said CalTech's Anthony West, a co-author of the paper. On Thursday, Columbia University researchers released their research that scrutinized about 1,100 virus samples from patients treated at the university's medical centre, dating back to November. During the second week of February, the new variant was identified in 12% of the samples, they reported. They also found patients infected with the mutated virus were more likely to be older and have been hospitalized. Both groups noted that the new variant has a mutation that could potentially weaken the effectiveness of vaccines — a mutation seen in other worrisome variants. “There is clearly something to keep an eye on,” Balloux said. HOW MANY OTHER VARIANTS ARE THERE? New variants have been showing up throughout the pandemic, but three are considered the most worrisome — they've been designated “variants of concern." They were first detected in Britain, South Africa and Brazil but have spread to other countries. The one identified in the U.K. late last year has since been found in 45 U.S. states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The strain is concerning because it has so many mutations, nearly two dozen. Some are on the spiky protein that the virus uses to attach to and infect cells — and that current vaccines and antibody drugs target. One of the spike protein mutations is seen in the variants discovered early on in Brazil and South Africa, and, now, the new variant in New York. A variant that has been spreading in California is also getting attention. It's been found in 40% to 50% of samples examined by the Los Angeles Count Department of Public Health, according to Director Barbara Ferrer. But there isn't enough rigorous research to determine what, if any, effect its mutations might have. WHAT'S NEXT? After what many described as a slow start, the federal government in recent weeks has ramped up its genetic sequencing to look for and study virus variants to figure out which ones might be a problem. In the meantime, Ana S. Gonzalez Reiche, a virologist at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, urged caution. “Without evidence, we don’t need to alarm ourselves about every variant detected,” she said. Studies are raising concern that first-generation COVID-19 vaccines don’t work as well against a variant that first emerged in South Africa as they do against other versions. In response, drug companies are already figuring out how to modify their vaccines. Experts say that in the meantime, public health measures like social distancing and masks will reduce opportunities for the coronavirus to continue mutating and run rampant. “Emerging of variants will occur," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, told NBC on Thursday. "The trick is when they do occur, to prevent them from spreading.” ___ The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content. Marion Renault, The Associated Press
Privacy concerns about government-acquired tracking devices are being raised in light of Ontario's $2.5 million purchase.
(Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press - image credit) The outbreak at Joyceville Institution in northeast Kingston, Ont., is over, the Correctional Service Canada (CSC) says. In December, CSC said the medium-security prison was dealing with a serious outbreak that saw dozens of inmates and a handful of staff infected. In an emailed update Thursday night, CSC declared the outbreak over and said all 160 Joyceville inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 have now recovered. CSC also said there are zero active cases at federal institutions in Ontario. The department also said there have not been any deaths from the illness in any of the institutions. "While the current situation is certainly a positive step for our correctional institutions, to continue protecting our staff and inmates, we will maintain the rigorous health measures we've implemented," CSC wrote in the update. CSC says it received help from the Canadian Red Cross at the beginning of the outbreak at Joyceville Institution. At the time, inmates and family members issued a press release saying some prisoners didn't have access to N95 masks and face shields, so some were using makeshift curtains to limit the spread of the virus.
Ohio on Thursday became the first state to challenge the U.S. Census Bureau's decision to push back the release of 2020 census figures so more time can be spent on fixing any inaccuracies in the data. The lawsuit filed by Ohio asks a federal judge in Dayton to restore a March 31 deadline for the Census Bureau to turn over 2020 census figures used for redrawing congressional and legislative districts, instead of a Sept. 30 deadline announced by the statistical agency earlier this month. The lawsuit claims the delay will undermine Ohio's process of redrawing districts. Census Bureau officials blamed the need for extra time on operational delays during the 2020 census caused by the pandemic. The dates for releasing the 2020 census data have bounced all over the calendar because of court fights and changes made to adjust to hurdles posed by the pandemic and efforts to comply with federally mandated deadlines. The 2020 census data include state population counts used for determining the distribution of congressional seats and Electoral College votes among the states, as well as redistricting data used for redrawing congressional and legislative districts. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators recently announced plans to introduce legislation that would push back the deadline for the state population counts from the end of last year to the end of April and the due date for the redistricting data from the statutorily required March 31 date to Sept. 30. The redistricting data includes counts of population by race, Hispanic origin, voting age and housing occupancy status at geographic levels as small as neighbourhoods, and they are used for drawing voting districts for Congress and state legislatures. Unlike past decades when the data were released to states on a flow basis, the 2020 redistricting data will be made available to the states all at once, according to the Census Bureau. The delay in releasing the redistricting data has sent states scrambling to come up with alternative plans because many will not get the data until after their legal deadlines for drawing new districts, requiring them to either rewrite laws or ask courts to allow them a free pass because of the delay. Candidates may not know yet whether they will live in the district they want to run in by the filing deadline. In some cases, if fights over new maps drag into the new year, primaries may have to be delayed. Ohio law requires a newly formed commission to finalize state legislative districts by Sept. 1 and to hold three public meetings before doing so. Ohio's General Assembly is required adopt a map for congressional districts by Sept. 30. Ohio won't be able to use the 2020 census data to redraw districts if the figures aren't released until the end of September. That will force the state to use alternative figures, setting off a fight over which data to use and “fanning partisan flames when one data source is eventually chosen, no matter how precise and reliable," the lawsuit said. “The many people who voted for redistricting reform deserve better than to have their efforts thwarted by a federal government that refuses to do its job," the lawsuit said. “No doubt, the pandemic has greatly complicated the Census Bureau’s task. But the pandemic has complicated the jobs of firefighters, police officers, and judges too. All those public servants found ways to continue fulfilling their obligations to the public, recognizing that government officials may not shelter in place while their duties go unfulfilled." The Census Bureau said in a statement that it doesn't comment on pending litigation. Meanwhile, a coalition of municipalities and civil rights groups that had sued the Census Bureau over concerns about data quality and deadlines said in a court filing Wednesday that they were working toward a potential agreement to their lawsuit with the statistical agency. A hearing on the lawsuit in federal court in San Jose, California, had been scheduled for Friday, but both sides in a court filing asked for a delay until next month to continue “good-faith discussions concerning the potential resolution of this case." ___ This story has been corrected to reflect that the commission must finalize state legislative districts by Sept. 1, not Sept. 30. ___ Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP Mike Schneider, The Associated Press
The top doctor for the Thunder Bay, Ont., area is recommending all schools move classes online for the next two weeks due to rising COVID-19 cases. Dr. Janet DeMille made the recommendation in a Thursday memo to school boards in the region. Lakehead Public Schools shared the memo on its website and announced classes would move online starting Monday, with further instruction from the health unit to come. The school board had called for the move to virtual school this week amid outbreaks that had already forced four schools online. The board said COVID-19 cases and exposures have led to a staffing shortage and sent hundreds of students into isolation. Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the situation in Thunder Bay schools is related to rising COVID-19 transmission in the broader community. "There's actions being taken to reduce that ... at the community level which ultimately will help ensure schools can reopen and stay safe in the province," Lecce told reporters on Thursday. He said testing resources will be deployed to school communities Schools elsewhere in Ontario were dealing with cases of more infectious variants of COVID-19 on Thursday. As of Thursday, 11 schools in Toronto had detected at least one case of a more contagious COVID-19 variant. Affected individuals and cohorts have been sent home based on their risk level, according to the local public health unit. The Toronto District School Board said Earl Grey SPS, Edgewood PS and Pleasant View MS were added to the list on Thursday. A spokesman for Toronto District School Board said the public health unit has not advised schools to take any additional health and safety measures at this time. "But at the same time, they're reminding everyone of the importance of the existing health and safety measures," said Ryan Bird. "While concerning, we have received assurances from public health officials that there are no additional precautions that need to be taken." Variant cases have been found in Toronto's public and Catholic school boards, as well as two private schools. Lecce pointed to new provincial requirements that students with one COVID-19 symptom must now isolate for 10 days to illustrate the province's stronger public health measures for schools light of the new variants. "The province has stepped up the requirements, both on the system and on families, just to be absolutely vigilant that we don't see variants of concerns spreading and creating challenges for our kids, for our staff and just for the healthcare system that we're trying to protect," Lecce told reporters on Thursday. On Wednesday, public health officials dismissed students and staff from two Sudbury, Ont., schools following five confirmed cases of COVID-19. All five cases have been identified by Public Health Sudbury and Districts as variants of concern. Provincial data as of 10:30 a.m. on Thursday reported 18 schools closed due to COVID-19 and 430 schools with a reported case, representing nearly nine per cent of schools provincewide. This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021. This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship. Denise Paglinawan and Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press
(Victoria Police - image credit) Victoria Police are investigating after a statue of Queen Elizabeth II was discovered beheaded in Beacon Hill Park Wednesday. Police are trying to determine whether the discovery is connected to two recent violent attacks — and numerous acts of vandalism that saw an area near the statue, as well as public and private property spray-painted with graffiti Wednesday morning. "A lot of the messaging ... was focused on Beacon Hill Park as well as some city staff," said Bowen Osoko with Victoria police. Osoko said a man was arrested recently after attacking bylaw staff with a shovel in a local park. "He was actually arrested at gunpoint," said Osoko. "We certainly don't arrest people at gunpoint everyday." On Tuesday morning, police made another arrest after park staff were attacked by a man with a sledgehammer. The statue of Queen Elizabeth II before the vandalism. Mayor Lisa Helps says that defacing public property is "completely unacceptable." "Whether it's the beheading of a statue or writing on the wall or etching of glass or anything, it's just completely unacceptable and it's completely unnecessary," Helps said Wednesday. The statue, now covered in a wooden crate, was erected to commemorate a 45-day cross-Canada tour by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in 1959. Victoria Police Chief Del Manak said the incidents are unfortunate. "We have beautiful parks in the City of Victoria here and it's really, really important that we all work together to protect these green spaces," he said. Osoko said the head has not been recovered — and repairs to fix the statue could be in the tens of thousands of dollars. A wooden box now covers the decapitated statue of Queen Elizabeth II in Victoria's Beacon Hill Park.
(CBC - image credit) The Salvation Army's Centre of Hope shelter in Windsor's downtown will be cutting off new intakes starting Friday as it struggles with a large COVID-19 outbreak at its facility. "We want to get out of outbreak as soon as we can and that's our number one priority right now," Glenn Van Gulik, the divisional secretary for public relations with Salvation Army Ontario said. The facility first reported its outbreak last week with eight positive cases, but that has now grown to 34 total cases. The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit said it would not order the Salvation Army to close, even though it just mandated that for the Downtown Mission, another shelter experiencing a large outbreak. "We haven't considered a similar order that we have for the mission because of how the salvation is structured and their ability to implement some of these outbreak control measures," Dr. Wajid Ahmed, medical officer of health for the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit said. Glenn Van Gulik is the divisional secretary for public relations with the Salvation Army Ontario. The Salvation Army has room for 50 individuals, including a shelter capacity of 26 and 24 additional housing units on-site. Van Gulik said while some have gone to the city's Isolation and Recovery Centre, others are able to recover on site because it acts as both an emergency shelter and residential program. "We've got a number of individuals who are housed on our third floor that have small apartments that we are able to make sure they are safe in those locations," he said. "That can be separated from and we can work with those individuals in a different way rather than have them in a congregate population." No new intakes across province While the Windsor shelter is suspending new intakes this week, it's not the only one. Other Salvation Army locations across the province are doing the same. As for Windsor specifically, Van Gulik said it will not be taking in new people until the outbreak is over. "What we want to do is stop that intake... until we can get ourselves out of outbreak and then we can re-admit people safely," Van Gulik said. It is, however, attempting to open its gymnasium as a separate place for people seeking refuge, he said. But he said it's unclear when that will happen as the effort is somewhat hampered by a recent fire the facility had. "We're working with the city, working with public health and working with the fire marshal to make sure that we can re-open that safely but that will be separated from the rest of our residents at the Windsor Centre of Hope so that we can add up to 25 people on that side of our facility."
(Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press - image credit) As the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients rises, so too does the need for ventilators — and the people who know how they work. And that, according to one union, is an urgent problem. The Association of Allied Health Professionals, which represents respiratory therapists, says their members were already stretched thin prior to the pandemic. It penned a scathing open letter to the Liberal government Thursday, claiming the union's pleas for help have been roundly ignored. "It's not access to ventilators, but access to the respiratory therapists needed to operate them that's the real risk right now," the letter said. Union president Gordon Piercey told CBC News he's hearing from some of the 60 respiratory therapists in Newfoundland and Labrador, worried about how the province will handle a spike in people admitted for breathing issues. "They worry about their patients. They worry about their coworkers working that night shift, and they're worried about what they're going to face the next morning when they go in," Piercey said. "We are really concerned about what the plan is. If we have increased hospitalizations due to COVID, what that will look like." Gordon Piercey, president of the union that represents the province's 60 respiratory therapists, says many of them fear the worst if hospitalizations continue to rise. There aren't any contingencies he's aware of if those therapists are sent to quarantine or fall ill themselves, he says. Piercey says his members often work 12-hour shifts without a break, running between departments. If enough of them are forced to stay home, he wonders how treatment could continue. "They will do the work, probably to their own detriment, their own ... mental health and wellbeing," he said. "But that's not good enough." As an outbreak in the most populous part of the province continues to spread coronavirus variant B117, patients have found themselves facing delays when seeking emergency care. Eastern Health has said its staff at Health Sciences Centre in St. John's is pushed to its limits this week, as COVID patients flock there for treatment and upwards of 300 health-care workers remain in isolation. For weeks prior to the outbreak, the province had no more than one person in the hospital at a time. Now it has ten, according to the Department of Health, with five of those in intensive care. Therapists fear worst-case scenario Staffing shortages continue to plague the regional health authorities, with some medical workers told they may be summoned to fill gaps left by those completing a quarantine period. It's especially noticeable in long-term care centres, like Pleasantview Towers in St. John's, said Yvette Coffey, president of the Registered Nurses' Association of N.L. "They are looking at people with skill mix," said Coffey. "They are looking at people with the experience to redeploy back to Pleasantview Towers." "We've been a year into this pandemic and we feel like some of these conversations probably should have happened before this," Piercey said, indicating that the union wrote to the premier's office Monday to request a discussion. "It's now after lunch on Thursday and we still haven't heard a thing ... I've never experienced us treated that way by any former administration of government." Later Thursday afternoon, the premier's office issued a statement to CBC News, saying Premier Andrew Furey and Health Minister John Haggie — both in caretaker roles until votes are counted in March — had acknowledged the union's concerns and offered to set up a meeting. "We are happy to meet as representatives of the Liberal Party," the statement said, "respecting the caretaker government convention currently in place." "I think everyone's worst-case scenario right now is this pandemic accelerating to a point where health-care resources are going to become very, very strained," Piercey said. "We want to have this conversation ... And we don't want to be caught in a situation where we're trying to catch up after things have gone astray." Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador
POUCE COUPE, B.C. — The mayor of a village in northeastern British Columbia says she is sorry for an online post that was not meant to be racist against Indigenous Peoples, but now she wants people to stop bullying her. Lorraine Michetti, who was first elected in Pouce Coupe in 2016, said through tears Thursday that she realizes people were hurt after seeing the post showing photos of garbage-strewn lawns with a caption that suggested those who want to protect their land from pipelines should clean up their own backyards. "I'm not sleeping. I'm upset that people think I'm racist," Michetti said in an interview. Michetti said she put the post on Facebook about two years ago and took it down about 10 minutes later but it was saved by someone and she believes it would resurface. Instead, the mayor said she reposted the original herself last week and that it was meant to draw attention to environmental issues though she now understands its contents were offensive to some people. She said she has issued apologies to local First Nations. "I realized that they're hurting but I never, ever, ever meant it to be racist," she said. Michetti said she is hoping to take cultural sensitivity courses, which would send a clear message to First Nations and her council that she is making efforts to come to terms with her actions, even as local residents continue criticizing her. "I'm trying. Let me prove myself. Why are people texting me and messaging me and degrading me and bullying me?" The post was taken out of context, she said. At a council meeting on Monday, the mayor also admitted she sent a Facebook post in which she suggested federal gun control laws make her feel like a Jew "waiting for my cattle car." As Coun. Ken Drover began asking her about likening herself to a Jew waiting to go to a gas chamber, Michetti cut him off. "Once they take our guns away, back when Hitler, that's what it was all about," she told council. "That is a terrible, terrible, comparison. How dare you compare yourself to a Jewish person? There is no comparison. That comparison is inexcusable," Drover said. "I realize that, Ken, but that again was taken out of context," Michetti responded. She also said she would not step down as mayor, adding: "I got emails coming out of my yingyang for me not to resign, from all over Canada." Drover resigned from his position on Wednesday. Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne called Michetti's comments a serious issue. "I want to be clear that anti-Indigenous racism and anti-Semitism require us to all come together and challenge inequities and we have no space for these actions in our communities," she said at a news conference on infrastructure spending. "We expect all elected officials to act with integrity and with respect. They must explain their choices and be accountable to their community." Osborne said the province is working to update legislation regarding municipal politicians. Pouce Coupe introduced a code of conduct in 2018, and at an emergency meeting last weekend councillors accused Michetti of violating it. Chris Leggett, the village's chief administrative officer, said the code of conduct gives Michetti two weeks to explain her actions. However, he suggested that without any provincial legislation that includes consequences, he suspects the issue will result in a "stalemate" between the mayor and the three remaining councillors. "They have stated that they would like to see her resign. But at the end of the day, it looks like it's up to the mayor to resign." — By Camille Bains in Vancouver This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2020. The Canadian Press Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said there were four remaining councillors.
After pivoting the popular Pig Out festival due to the pandemic in 2020, Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country is bringing back the new Pig Out Trails format to keep the event safe and fun as it marks 10 years in the community. On May 28 and 29, Pig Out Trails returns as attendees cruise down a curated trial of wine tasting experiences guided by some of the region’s most established winemakers in outdoor settings. The event’s format is again designed to be flexible in order to accommodate the fast-changing nature of the pandemic health and safety regulations. “Flexible” has been the key word for event organizers recently. Last year, the event was moved from May to October, and the team at Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country put together a modified event with groups in separate pods, touring and tasting outdoors at different venues. While the weather was briefly uncooperative last year, the response to the new format from attendees was very positive “I had emails in my inbox in November asking what we were doing for Pig Out for 2021 and what the format was going to be like,” said Jennifer Busmann, executive director of Oliver and Osoyoos Wine Country. Many guests at 2020’s Pig Out Trails were happy to simply be attending an event at all in a year that didn’t see many. “It was really heartwarming for all those Pig Out attendees who came in October. Just due to the restrictions and the numbers and how we safely move people through our region and what we were permitted to do. We had about 540 guests total attend in these small little groups. They were so thankful and so excited that it just gave you a little pep in your step to see that,” Busmann said. Oliver and Osoyoos Wine Country will be using the work they accomplished to create a safe event in 2020 as a foundation for this year’s Pig Out event. Working with the local health authority, developing health and safety plans, contact tracing, keeping guests spaced out and outdoors are all foundational building blocks for putting on events as case numbers and public health restrictions are liable to change at any moment. “We’re a really small team of people that put all of this together. So we’re using that framework as a basis, which was really a lot of work to put together and understand all of the pieces, all of the changes and all of the regulatory bodies,” Busmann said. “We’re using that as a foundation to build and brainstorm and put all of our pieces together. Then we really just have to wait and bend and flex and see what happens within the province.” On Saturday, May 29, 2021 Pig Out Trails attendees will board a dedicated bus adhering to recommended safety protocols including mandatory face masks and hand sanitizer, before heading to the first of four winery stops. The event’s “Escape the Pen” theme will be interpreted in different and unique ways at each of the 40 wineries that feature along 10 different trails, as they create outdoor tasting experiences, aimed at showcasing their wines as well as educating guests in farming and grape growing practices and the art of winemaking. Each stop will also feature a delicious dish prepared by Oliver Eats Ltd., visiting guest chefs, or from select onsite restaurant partners including Terrafina at Hester Creek Estate Winery, Miradoro at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards, the culinary team at Phantom Creek Estates and Masala Bistro at Kismet Estate Winery. A popular addition to last year’s Pig Out Trails, Vancouver’s Paella Guys, will return in 2021 as well. On Friday May 28, two iconic wineries, one on the Black Sage Road Bench and one on the Golden Mile Bench will host “guest chef dinners,” small, outdoor, multi-course feasts prepared by the Paella Guys alongside other notable local and guest chefs and paired with a range of wines from vineyards nearby. Tickets for the Pig Out Trails ($99 per person plus tax) and the Pig Out Guest Chef Dinner ($129 per person plus tax and gratuity) are now available on the Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country website: www.oliverosoyoos.com. Dale Boyd, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Times-Chronicle
MEXICO CITY — The number of monarch butterflies that showed up at their winter resting grounds in central Mexico decreased by about 26% this year, and four times as many trees were lost to illegal logging, drought and other causes, making 2020 a bad year for the butterflies. The government commission for natural protected areas said the butterflies’ population covered only 2.1 hectares (5.2 acres) in 2020, compared to 2.8 hectares (6.9 acres) the previous year and about one-third of the 6.05 hectares (14.95 acres) detected in 2018. Because the monarchs cluster so densely in pine and fir trees, it is easier to count them by area rather than by individuals. Gloria Tavera, the regional director of Mexico's Commission for National Protected Areas, blamed the drop on “extreme climate conditions,” the loss of milkweed habitat in the United States and Canada on which butterflies depend, and deforestation in the butterflies' wintering grounds in Mexico. Illegal logging in the monarchs wintering rounds rose to almost 13.4 hectares (33 acres), a huge increase from the 0.43 hectare (1 acre) lost to logging last year. Jorge Rickards of the WWF environmental group acknowledged the lost trees were a blow, but said “the logging is very localized” in three or four of the mountain communities that make up the butterfly reserve. In addition, wind storms, drought and the felling of trees that had fallen victim to pine beetles or disease, caused the loss of another 6.9 hectares (17 acres) in the reserve, bringing the total forest loss in 2020 to 20.65 hectares (51 acres). That compares to an overall loss of about 5 hectares (12.3 acres) from all causes the previous year. Tavera said the drought was affecting the butterflies themselves, as well as the pine and fir trees where the clump together for warmth. “The severe drought we are experiencing is having effects,” Tavera said. “All the forests in the reserve are under water stress, the forests are dry.” “The butterflies are looking for water on the lower slopes, near the houses,” she noted. Tavera also expressed concern about the sever winter storms in Texas, which the butterflies will have to cross — and feed and lay their eggs — on their way back to their northern summer homes in coming months. “This is a cause for worry,” Tavera said, referring to whether the monarchs will find enough food and habitat after the winter freeze. It was also a bad year for the mountain farming communities that depend for part of their income on tourists who visit the reserves. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, visits fell from around 490,000 last year, to just 80,000 in the 2020-2021 season. Environmentalist and writer Homero Aridjis, who grew up around the reserve, said the decline in butterflies and rise in logging was not surprising, given the reduction in Mexican government funding for protected natural areas and environmental work. “While the reserves were closed to tourism during practically the whole (winter) season, the way was open for loggers, with no control,” Aridjis said. “The question is, can the monarch migration survive this environmental negligence?” The U.S. group Center for Food Safety called for the monarchs to be granted endangered species protection, noting “the minimum population threshold needed to be out of the danger zone of extinction is six hectares.” It was unclear whether the drop in tourism income contributed to the increased logging. Rickards said there has long been pressure on the area's forests from people who want to open land for planting crops. Felipe Martínez Meza, director of the butterfly reserve, said there have been attempts to plant orchards of avocados — hugely profitable crop for farmers in the area — in the buffer zones around the reserve. The high mountain peaks where the butterflies clump in trees are probably a bit above the altitude where avocado trees like to grow, Martinez Meza said. But the buffer zones provide protection and support for the higher areas, and he said more must be done to combat the change in land use. Frequently, illegal logging is carried out by outsiders or organized gangs, and not by the farm communities that technically own the land. Millions of monarchs migrate from the U.S. and Canada each year to forests west of Mexico’s capital. The butterflies hit a low of just 0.67 hectares (1.66 acres) in 2013-2014. Loss of habitat, especially the milkweed where the monarchs lay their eggs, pesticide and herbicide use, as well climate change, all pose threats to the species’ migration. While there was plenty of bad news for the butterflies — very few showed up to some historic wintering sites like Sierra Chincua — there was the welcome news that a new wintering site was discovered nearby, in a mountaintop near the Lagunas de Zempoala protected area, near Mexico City. Tavera said the wintering site had always been there, but was so difficult to reach that it wasn't discovered until earlier this month. Mark Stevenson, The Associated Press