Six weeks into Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, a panel of medical experts weigh in on the bumps in the road and where to go next.
Six weeks into Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, a panel of medical experts weigh in on the bumps in the road and where to go next.
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 — 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
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
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
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
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 — British Columbia isn’t at the point where public health restrictions can be lifted with concerns about the potential for the rapid spread of COVID-19, the province’s top doctor says. Dr. Bonnie Henry said she understands the desire to see restrictions lifted on rules like the limit on social gatherings, but concerns over the province’s rising rolling seven-day average of cases means the indefinite restrictions put in place earlier this month will stay. “There’s potential for rapid growth if we’re not careful,” she told a news conference. B.C. reported 395 cases of COVID-19 and 10 new deaths on Thursday. Close to 240,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in B.C. so far, including more than 68,000 people who received their second shot. As B.C. works to identify the more than 120 cases of COVID-19 variants across the province, Henry said health authorities are ramping up the screening for them. Its aim is to test 100 per cent of all positive samples to see if they are likely variants that should be sent on for further testing. Ontario and Quebec already screen all positive cases for variants. Henry expressed confidence in limiting the spread of the variant cases, even though one-quarter of the variant cases diagnosed in B.C. have not yet been traced back to their origin. "The things we do to prevent transmission works against these variants as well, which is why we all have to continue doing what we're doing," she said. The majority of COVID-19 cases are spread through workplace interactions, Henry said, but part of limiting transmission includes staying close to home during the upcoming March break. Henry also spoke of the challenges she's faced during the pandemic, including new death threats and the impact they have had on her family and co-workers. "It's one of the things that have been incredibly challenging," she said. Health Minister Adrian Dix said the threats and personal attacks directed at Henry are "completely unacceptable." "I condemn them utterly," he said. "We all have to find ways to disagree without personal attack." This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021. The Canadian Press
The harmless puppy just wanted to play around! How cute is that?
A year into the COVID-19 pandemic and long-haul truckers are still among the very few people allowed to cross North American borders. While many industries have faced stops and starts with lockdowns, transport has kept on trucking – with some changes. Preeti Gill has been a long-haul trucker for three years. Free Press reporter Max Martin spoke with her during a quick stop at the Woodstock ONroute as she returned from Texas. Perhaps the biggest challenge truckers face is finding a place to stop and rest. "Because of the pandemic, so many rest areas are also closed," Gill said. "That is the major problem we are facing nowadays." Sites that are open often have reduced hours, she said, "because of no business and nobody travelling." At overnight truck stops, Gill said some have closed showers or are no longer giving out towels. Gill spends five or six days a week on the road in the U.S., leaving off from a truckyard in Brampton. The 37-year-old admits trucking is already a solitary profession, but she said that's made it easier to adjust to pandemic-induced isolation. "Truck drivers, before the pandemic were isolated also, so I found there are no more changes," she said. While her hauls have gone off as normal – with fewer people involved in the process – Gill said the most noticeable change in her daily routine is, like in many industries, enhanced cleaning. "The biggest thing now, I have too many bottles of Lysol," she said. "Now I have to do door cleaning, it's more work to do." On her day off, she spends her time at home in St. Catharines with her father and sister. Gill just completed a route through Texas. Next, she's set to take a route to Orlando, Fla. – both states among those reporting the highest number of COVID-19 cases across the United States. But from what Gill has seen, she said there's a noticeable difference between Canadian and American attitudes toward COVID-19 safety protocols. "In the States, a little bit different ... people are stubborn there," she said. "They just say they don't want to wear the mask ... they don't follow the rules." Nowadays, it's taking Gill longer to cross the border. Although she said border officers have reduced the frequency of random checks to avoid unnecessary interactions, there's additional paperwork and checks and balances to be done. Working commercial drivers are required to submit contact information, travel details and a personal health assessment, the Canadian Border Services Agency said. Gill must also check-in when she arrives back in Canada through a mobile app. "Whenever we enter, that's extra work we have to do," she said. "It's just more time-consuming." In 2016, Canadian Census data showed there were only 5,880 female tractor-trailer drivers in the country, compared to 175,450 men. "In the U.S., one guy told me, 'Oh, you are a woman, why are you driving?'" Gill recalled. "I said, 'Why, who told you only the men can drive the truck?'" She said some companies initially hesitated to hire her as a trucker, fearing she'd struggle to load the truck – but Gill said she's just as capable. "I've found on the road, women are safer than the men," as drivers, she said. "We try to help fill the shelves," Gill said. "Due to trucking ... food supply and other essentials, like medication, sanitization is supplied." Despite loving her trucking job, she's also studying online to become a nurse, all while on the road. While she plans to go from one essential service to another, Gill said people underestimate the importance of trucking – especially during the pandemic. Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press
(Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press - image credit) The Supreme Court of Canada has dismissed an application for leave to appeal on a long-standing dispute over government funding for Catholic schools in Saskatchewan. Thursday's decision from Canada's highest court ends a 16-year court battle between Public Schools of Saskatchewan — an organization that represents 15 public school boards in the province and advocates for public education — and the Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association. The dismissal of the public school organization's application for leave to appeal means that non-Catholic students in the province will continue to receive government funding to attend Catholic schools in Saskatchewan. Tom Fortosky, executive director of the Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association, says the Supreme Court's decision comes as a relief. "[It's] a very emotional moment.... Really what we want to do now is just get back to doing what we do best, which is educating children," he said. Tom Fortosky says Catholic school board officials are grateful for the government's decision. The saga began in 2003, when the public Good Spirit School Division decided to close the only school in Theodore, Sask. The school had served both Catholic and non-Catholic students. In order to keep their school, local parents decided to start a new one under a separate school board. That new school division bought the existing school in the village and renamed it St. Theodore Roman Catholic School. The majority of students switched to the Catholic school system, despite not being Catholic. The Good Spirit division took the matter to court in 2005, arguing that the constitutional protection of Catholic schools does not include the right for those schools to receive government funding for non–Catholic students. Fortosky says that line of thinking is problematic for families. "From our perspective, this was about parental choice," he said. "If the funding didn't come with the child, there would be a practical barrier for parents who wish to choose a Catholic faith-based education for their children." The court battle launched in 2005 led to a landmark decision in 2017, in which Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench Justice Donald Layh ruled it was unconstitutional for the province to fund non-Catholic students at Catholic schools. Funding "non-minority faith students" in faith-based schools violated both the Charter of Rights and "the state's duty of religious neutrality," Layh wrote. The case made its way to Saskatchewan's Court of Appeal, which delivered a unanimous decision in March 2020, saying separate schools could receive provincial government funding for students who are not Catholic. The appeal court said the trial judge made "fundamental errors of law," and said considering the matter as one involving funding for non-Catholics in a Catholic school was too narrow. The question should be considered in the context of two publicly funded school systems, the appeal court said. "It is an effect of this parallel public system of education that non-Catholic students may attend public, separate schools, but it is also an effect that Catholic students may attend public, secular schools," the 2020 decision said. Public Schools of Saskatchewan was seeking leave to appeal that decision at the Supreme Court. Dismissal Thursday's dismissal of the application came as a disappointment to Norm Dray, executive director of Public Schools of Saskatchewan. "What's happening is wrong for education in Saskatchewan.... We don't believe that there should be two systems that get government funding for all students," Dray said. Catholic schools are set up to educate Catholic students, he said, "and we have no trouble with with Catholic schools existing for that purpose." "What we don't accept is that they have a mandate to teach all students … [including] non-Catholics. And we don't believe they should get government funding for that." In a statement on Tuesday, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said his government is pleased with the Supreme Court's decision. "Our government strongly supports parent and student choice in education, including Saskatchewan's public, separate and faith-based schools," said Moe.
CALGARY — Pembina Pipeline Corp. is reporting a $1.2 billion net fourth-quarter loss thanks mainly to $1.6 billion in non-cash after-tax impairment charges on its proposals to build an Alberta petrochemical plant and Oregon LNG export facility. The Calgary-based company said in December it and joint venture partner Petrochemical Industries Co. of Kuwait had decided to halt work on an integrated propane dehydration plant and polypropylene upgrading facility near Edmonton. Pembina has a 50 per cent interest in the project designed to turn propane into plastic pellets, similar to the nearby $4 billion Heartland Petrochemical Complex under construction by rival Inter Pipeline Ltd. It says it is also taking a charge against its proposed Jordan Cove LNG Project at Coos Bay, Ore., and a related natural gas supply pipeline in light of "regulatory and political uncertainty." The project received tentative Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval last year but hasn't been able to secure a required clean water permit from the state. Pembina says it thinks both projects are sound but it is taking the impairment charges because it can't reasonably forecast when they will be built. "We believe the time for these projects may come; however, we can sadly no longer predict with certainty when that time will be and hence were compelled to reflect their impairments in our 2020 financial statements through a non-cash charge," it said in a news release. It says its fourth-quarter earnings would have been $338 million excluding the impairments and the associated deferred tax recovery. This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021. Companies in this story: (TSX:PPL) The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — Public Safety Minister Bill Blair says he assumes security authorities signed off on an arrangement to allow a company owned by a Chinese police force to run Canada's visa application centre in Beijing. Blair says he can only make assumptions because the arrangement was put in place in 2008, under the previous Conservative government. Still, he says he's been assured by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) that the personal information provided by visa applicants is secure. He says the information is handled according to Canada's privacy laws, that no application or biometrically collected data is stored at the centre and that all databases containing personal information are located in Canada. Questions have been raised about the centre since The Globe and Mail reported earlier this month that its operation has been subcontracted to Beijing Shuangxiong Foreign Service Company, which is owned by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau. Opposition MPs questioned Blair about the possibility that visa applicants' personal information could be relayed to the Chinese government and cause negative repercussions, particularly for dissidents trying to flee the country's repressive Communist regime. Bloc Quebecois MP Stephane Bergeron and New Democrat MP Jack Harris pressed Blair to explain which of Canada's national security agencies signed off on the subcontract to the Chinese police. "I have some difficulty frankly answering your question Mr. Harris about the origins of this contract," Blair told the special committee on Canada-China relations Thursday. "It was signed in 2008. So it's been in place for 12 years now and so its origin and who actually authorized this contract predates me or my government and frankly my knowledge." Blair said there are "normal procurement processes" in place for contracting out services and he assumes they were followed in this case. "I want to make sure that it's clear. I'm only able to make an assumption that those processes were in fact followed because it did take place 12 years ago." "That's not much comfort, I have to say," Harris responded. Blair acknowledged that IRCC is not a security agency but he said it does have an information technology specialist department that has provided assurances that the visa information is secure. He said inspections and audits are regularly conducted to ensure there is no privacy breach of sensitive information and there has been no evidence of a problem. This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021. The Canadian Press Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A headline on a previous version said Bill Blair testified a Conservative government authorized the contracting-out of visa services in Beijing specifically to a company owned by Chinese police.
CANBERRA, Australia — Facebook announced on Friday preliminary agreements with three Australian publishers, a day after the Parliament passed a law that would make the digital giants pay for news. Facebook said letters of intent had been signed with independent news organizations Private Media, Schwartz Media and Solstice Media. The commercial agreements are subject to the signing of full agreements within the next 60 days, a Facebook statement said. “These agreements will bring a new slate of premium journalism, including some previously paywalled content, to Facebook,” the statement said. Schwartz Media chief executive Rebecca Costello said the deal would help her company continue to produce independent journalism. “It’s never been more important than it is now to have a plurality of voices in the Australian press,” Costello said. Private Media chief executive Will Hayward said the new deal built on an existing Facebook partnership. Australia's Parliament on Thursday had passed the final amendments to the so-called News Media Bargaining Code. In return for the changes, Facebook agreed to lift a six-day-old ban on Australians accessing and sharing news. Access to Australian news sites did not appear to be fully restored until Friday. Google, the only other digital giant targeted by the legislation, has already struck content licensing deals, or is close to deals, with some of Australia’s biggest news publishers including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and Seven West Media. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the new Australian law was critical to the deals that Australian media businesses were negotiating with the two gateways to the internet. Under the law, if a platform can't reach agreement with a news business, an arbitration panel can be appointed to set a legally binding price for journalism. "Global tech giants are changing the world, but we can’t let them run the world,” Morrison told reporters. “People in free societies like Australia, who go to ballot boxes and who go and they vote, that’s who should run the world,” Morrison added. Facebook Vice-President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg on Wednesday took a veiled swipe at News Corp. in a social media post criticizing Australia’s law, which is aimed at setting a fair price for the Australian journalism that the digital platforms display. “It is ironic that some of the biggest publishers that have long advocated for free markets and voluntary commercial undertakings now appear to be in favour of state sponsored price setting,” the former British deputy prime minister wrote. News Corp. Australia executive chairman Michael Miller said last week that his company had pay negotiations with Facebook. “Having been someone who’s dealt with Facebook over the past months, we have some weeks where we’re getting good engagement and think we’re progressing and then you get silence. I think the door is still open,” Miller told a Senate inquiry into Australian media diversity. News Corp. owns most of Australia’s major newspapers, and some analysts argue the U.S.-based international media empire is the driver for the conservative Australian government making Facebook and Google pay. News Corp. has announced a wide-ranging deal with Google covering operations in the United States and Britain as well as Australia. Rod McGuirk, The Associated Press
(Submitted by Darcy Iron - image credit) Some of Darcy Iron's earliest memories are of hunting with his grandfather. He remembers falling asleep on his grandfather's boat early one morning when he was about four or five years old. Iron''s aunties used to bug him about how fast he'd run home after school, trying to get there in time to go hunting. He still remembers feeling crestfallen the days he missed out. As an adult, Iron hunts to feed his small family. He said it's cheaper and healthier as a single parent to fill his freezer with game meat. He is trying to instill his love of the land and hunting in his children. Iron said he has always been aware of the tense relationship between treaty hunters and conservation officers in Saskatchewan. He'd had some personal experience, but on Dec. 30 he was detained by a conservation officer for more than an hour due to what could be summed up as a filing error. The officer also confiscated Iron's firearms for more than a month and refused to give them back until he could provide proof of a Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL). Iron said it stemmed back to him being charged criminally in 2006 and given a 10-year firearms ban. He said RCMP forgot to update his record once the ban ended. Fast-forward to that day in late December. Iron took his two children, nine and 11, to an area near Meecham, Sask., to watch for animals. He said he brought a firearm just in case the opportunity to put food in his freezer arose. He encountered a conservation officer on his way to Crown lands and said it was a fairly cordial experience. Iron said he and his children didn't stick around the area long and decided to head back to their home in Saskatoon. Iron said the same conservation officer pulled him over again while the family was leaving. This time, Iron said, the conservation officer had discovered the errant firearms ban on Iron's record. Iron said he was detained in the officer's vehicle. He said he explained his situation and that the officer seemed understanding and contacted RCMP to verify the firearms ban was over. Iron said the officer also told Iron he had warrants out for his arrest in Alberta and would have to wait for the warrant situation to be figured out before he could be released. In the meantime, Iron had to wait in the conservation officer's vehicle while his two children waited in the family vehicle. "My daughter, she was crying when I went back to the truck. She was hurt," Iron said, adding he found out she was scared he was going to be taken away by the officer. "[My son] was able to pull it together a bit because he's 11-years-old, you know, he's a little man there, and trying to calm his sister down." Iron said the conservation officer only checked on his kids once in the hour-plus he was detained. Iron was given a ticket for carrying a firearm contrary to a court order thanks to the erroneous ban label. Despite the alleged warrants, he was eventually allowed to leave. He said he had no idea why he would have warrants out for his arrest in Alberta and that he hasn't been contacted at all by the RCMP about the matter in the nearly two months that passed between when he was detained and when he spoke with CBC News. Iron said the firearms-related ticket against him was dropped. An uncomfortable turn Iron said he and the conservation officer made conversation to pass the time while waiting for response on both the warrants and the firearms matter. Things took an uncomfortable turn, Iron said. "One of the things he did mention was, 'you guys are always going around, you know, shooting animals with your windows down, shooting out of vehicles and making it bad for everybody else,'" Iron said. "I'm like, 'Excuse me? Who are you referring to? You guys?'" Iron said the conservation officer tried to backtrack and told Iron he didn't mean him specifically, but Iron pressed further and told the officer he felt the comment was directed at First Nations hunters specifically. Iron also said he inquired about why his guns were being seized and felt uncomfortable with the response he got. He said he was under the impression that as a treaty hunter, he would not have to obtain his PAL. He said the conservation officer told him he "needed to get into the 20th century" and obtain the licence. In an emailed statement, the provincial Ministry of Environment said it would investigate the incident. The statement did not say if the conservation officer would apologize to Iron. It said the ministry had not received a formal complaint from him about the interaction. Iron was with his children Cecilia, 9, and Hunter, 11, when they were stopped by the conservation officer last December. The ministry statement outlined the conservation officer's reasoning for taking the firearms, stating a normal field check showed Iron had a firearms prohibition and outstanding warrants for his arrest. "The officer attempted to confirm outstanding warrants as per normal standard process. Warrants must be verified by home RCMP detachment in which the file originates," the statement said. After a delay in getting a response from that home detachment, the conservation officer released Iron "and provided an opportunity for voluntary compliance with the warrants at a later time." The firearms had to be seized, the ministry said, due to the apparent prohibition which was eventually sorted out with RCMP. As for why returning Iron's firearms took so long, the ministry said Iron was required to comply with The Firearms Act and obtain his PAL before the guns were returned. A generational conflict Iron said the comments the conservation officer made are emblematic of a tenuous relationship between conservation officers and treaty hunters that has spanned generations. He said his grandfather referred to conservation officers as Kanaweechikeewuk, or the "ones who are always watching out." Iron said the areas where conservation officers operated was common knowledge among his grandfather and his social circle of hunters. Often, he said, they would avoid the areas all together, but run-ins still happened. Iron said when he was in his teens, he knew of hunters who got into trouble for shooting in what were then newfangled things called wildlife corridors. Hunters — treaty and non-treaty alike — can't hunt in wildlife corridors in Saskatchewan. It's a rule he said he never understood, but always respected. Conservation officers, he said, would place animal decoys in the hopes of catching out-of-season hunters along the corridor on Highway 903 in Saskatchewan's west-central, close to Canoe Lake. Iron said he felt conservation officers used the method to target and punish First Nation hunters specifically, as they were placed close to the community and he heard of the decoys being used well before hunting season opened. Iron says an apology from the officer to his children could go a long way toward restoring some of the generations-long relationship status between treaty hunters and conservation officers. He saw historical parallels in the seizure of his firearms. Losing a gun, he said, could be detrimental to the well-being of a person's family, as they were relied on for hunting and often too expensive to quickly replace. The strained relationship was something he said he hoped to see change for the new generation of hunters and conservation officers — his kids included. "The part that really gets me the most is that my children were involved," Iron said. "What they're experiencing now is going to have an effect on them throughout their young lives and in the future and their outlook of conservation officers." Iron is calling for the officer to apologize directly to his children to reassure them that things can change for the better. He said he has noticed a change in his children. They are talking more about race. He noted how conversations around race are more prevalent online in the wake of the Black Live Matter movement and Indigenous rights-related subjects that made headlines last year. Even at their young age, his children took notice. Their interaction with the conservation officer led to a topic he didn't expect to talk with his kids about when they were so young: Saskatoon's notorious Starlight Tours. "It's bad enough what they experienced. I do my best to try and explain to them, you know, what's right and what's wrong," he said. "You have to be proactive. You have to try and reassure them that things are changing. Eventually, you won't have to go through situations like this when you're out there in 20, 30 years from now." FSIN backs calls for change The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) has long reported disputes between conservation officers and treaty hunters. FSIN's goal is the protection of inherent and treaty rights for First Nations people in Saskatchewan. FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said he has heard of many instances similar to Iron's. Cameron said the FSIN was willing to go as far as Iron was willing to take the matter on his behalf — all the way to the Human Rights Commission if needed. "To detain him in the vehicle for one hour or so, and have his young children in the vehicle crying and living in fear, not knowing where daddy is, you think [conservation officers] would ever do that to a non-First Nation hunter and his children?" Cameron said. "Never." Cameron said Iron's experience and the documented interactions between treaty hunters and conservation officers in Saskatchewan showed a lack of understanding of inherent and treaty rights. He said they highlight what he perceives as an old mentality among conservation officers, one that says First Nations people are always guilty. He called for the conservation officer who detained Iron to issue an apology and for the ministry of environment to fire him. "We want him terminated. That's complete BS, on what he said," Cameron said. "There are thousands of us who hunt ethically. And we respect the land, we respect the animal wholeheartedly. We don't shoot out the windows." Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations chief Bobby Cameron called for change within the ranks of conservation officers in Saskatchewan, after hearing of numerous negative interactions between officers and treaty hunters. In a news release published Tuesday, the FSIN called for a full investigation and review from the ministry into Iron's interaction with the officer. The FSIN announced it had set up a website for treaty hunters to report run-ins with conservation officers while hunting. Cameron also called for improved cultural sensitivity training from the ministry for conservation officers. The Ministry of Environment's comment said conservation officers receive two-year diplomas in resource environmental law, which include a treaty and hunting rights component. Once a position with the ministry is secured, would-be conservation officers take part in a 16-week education program through the Western Canadian Law Enforcement Academy, which also includes an educational section on Indigenous hunting and treaty rights. Finally, the ministry said, it requires all staff including conservation officers to take part in Indigenous awareness training. Cameron said the extra training he is calling for would basically be a stop-gap for what he hopes to achieve one day: First Nation conservation officers trained by First Nation communities using First Nation knowledge. "There's been a Chief's resolution to start training and educating our own conservation officers on reserve, through our own institutions, to do enforcement, the preservation, the protection, all the things we were taught," he said. "It may take a little while to get there, but we are going to get there, to that point."
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
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
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers pressed the acting U.S. Capitol Police chief Thursday to explain why the force wasn't prepared to fend off a violent mob of insurrectionists even though officials had compiled specific, compelling intelligence that extremists were likely to attack Congress and try to halt the certification of Donald Trump's election loss. Acting Chief Yogananda Pittman conceded there were multiple levels of failures that allowed hundreds of pro-Trump rioters to storm their way into the U.S. Capitol, overwhelming outnumbered officers and breaking through doors and windows. However, she denied that law enforcement failed to take seriously warnings of violence before the Jan. 6 insurrection. Three days before the riot, Capitol Police distributed an internal document warning that armed extremists were poised for violence and could invade Congress because they saw it as the last chance to overturn the election results, Pittman said. Her testimony drove home a seeming disconnect between the intelligence and the preparation. Lawmakers, who were witnesses and potential victims last month as well as investigators now, are trying to get answers to why this symbol of American democracy was overrun so quickly by a mob whose plans were online and known. Reports aside, the assault was much bigger than expected, Pittman said. “Although we knew the likelihood for violence by extremists, no credible threat indicated that tens of thousands would attack the U.S. Capitol, nor did the intelligence received from the FBI or any other law enforcement partner indicate such a threat,” she said. Later, under questioning by the House subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Tim Ryan, Pittman said that while there may have been thousands of people heading to the Capitol from a pro-Trump rally, about 800 people actually made their way into the building. Pittman's testimony provided the clearest and most detailed picture so far that Capitol Police were so concerned by the intelligence that they took extraordinary measures, including giving assault-style rifles to agents guarding congressional leaders and having other officers waiting with evacuation vehicles for top lawmakers to flee the Capitol, if needed. On Jan. 6, however, as the invaders wielded metal pipes, planks of wood, stun guns and bear spray, the vastly outnumbered rank-and-file officers inside the building were left to fend for themselves without proper communication or strong guidance from supervisors. The officers weren't sure when they could use deadly force, had failed to properly lock down the building and could be heard making frantic radio calls for backup as they were shoved to the ground and beaten by rioters, with some left bloodied. Five people died, including a Capitol Police officer and a woman that police shot. While Pittman said in her testimony that sergeants and lieutenants were supposed to pass on intelligence to the department’s rank and file, many officers have said they were given little or no information or training for what they would face. Four officers told The Associated Press shortly after the riot that they heard nothing from then-Chief Steven Sund, Pittman, or other top commanders as the building was breached. And officers were left in many cases to improvise or try to save colleagues facing peril. One officer said the department did not hold planning meetings with rank-and-file officers prior to Jan. 6 as it does with routine events like holiday concerts. The officer and others who spoke to AP were not authorized by the department to speak publicly and were granted anonymity. Thursday's hearing highlighted specific intelligence failures. Lawmakers focused not only on the Capitol Police force's own advance assessment of threats but on why senior department officials never reviewed a report from the FBI that warned about concerning online posts foreshadowing a “war” at the Capitol. That warning made its way to investigators within the police force and to the department's intelligence unit but was never forwarded up the chain of command, Pittman said. Even if it had reached the top officials, Pittman argued, Capitol Police wouldn't have done anything differently. Before she was named acting police chief — Sund, the former chief, resigned after the riot — Pittman was the assistant chief in charge of intelligence operations. “We do not believe that based on the information in that document, we would have changed our posture, per se," Pittman said. “The information that was shared was very similar to what U.S. Capitol Police already had, in terms of the militia groups, the white supremacist groups, as well as the extremists that were going to participate in acts of violence and potentially be armed on the campus.” Ryan, a Democrat from Ohio, said the internal report that the protests would be focused on the Capitol, and then the FBI memo firming that up “should have elevated the response, and it didn’t.” “And that’s where, you know, leaders get paid for judgment. And that was some bad judgment,” Ryan said. “And they also get paid to have nerve, and courage, to make the tough decisions when those tough decisions needed to be made.” The panel’s top Republican, Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera-Beutler, said the top Capitol Police officials “either failed to take seriously the intelligence received or the intelligence failed to reach the right people.” The issue was also raised of whether police were hampered by a reluctance by higher-ups to call for National Guard troops to help. The police force is overseen by a separate body — the Capitol Police Board — which includes the sergeants at arms of both houses. Sund said at a separate hearing on Tuesday that then-House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving was concerned about the “optics” of the guard defending the Capitol, a contention Irving denied. In her testimony, Pittman denied that race played a role in the failure to heed warning signs. Images of white rioters moving unimpeded through the Capitol evoked comparisons to the far more heavy-handed response of law enforcement to Black Lives Matter protests and other marches and rallies. Pittman noted that she became the department’s first Black chief when she replaced Sund. Pittman is not only facing pressure from congressional leaders, but also faces internal criticism from her own officers, particularly after the Capitol Police union recently issued a vote of no confidence against her. Ryan stopped short of saying Pittman should be fired but said there are “some real questions about the decision making that was made.” He said there are “a lot of concerns” among Republicans and Democrats on the committee about her leadership and noted the lack of trust on her force. ___ Merchant reported from Houston. Michael Balsamo, Mary Clare Jalonick And Nomaan Merchant, The Associated Press
If you're coming to “ Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry ” hoping for a primer on the music sensation, you’ve come to the wrong place. Filmmaker R.J. Cutler’s two hour and 20-minute documentary about the “Ocean Eyes” singer and songwriter is not biography or reportage. It’s a verite-style plunge into her life, her home, her concerts, her process, her Tourette’s, her brother’s bedroom where they famously write all their songs and even her diary in the year in which she became a star. It is raw and filled with music — over 20 of her songs are played over the course of the film, including live performances, like her extraordinary Coachella showing in 2019. Some are shown in full. It is also very, very long. Cutler, who also did “The September Issue” and “Belushi,” cited seminal verite rock docs “Gimme Shelter” and “Dont Look Back” as inspiration. But both of those came a few years and albums into The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan’s superstardom. Eilish’s ascent is extraordinary and yet she is still in the early part of her artistic and actual life. Fans will certainly disagree, as is their right, but it is an enormous amount of unfiltered space to give to an artist who is still getting started. There's no right or wrong way to make a documentary like this, but for the Eilish curious and not the Eilish die-hards, it's initiation by fire without any context. Clearly someone in Eilish’s camp had an eye toward legacy when they invited Cutler to her family home to see if he wanted to follow the then-16-year-old during her breakout year, during which she and her brother Finneas wrote, recorded and released her debut album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” Eilish is funny and sullen and charismatic and moody, just as you’d want and expect a teenage artist to be. She gets dreamy and protective of her followers, saying “they’re not my fans, they’re like part of me” and complains that for her, writing songs is “torture.” And she breaks the fourth wall occasionally (she’d told Cutler that she wanted it to be like “The Office”) to let the audience knows that she knows they’re there. Her brother is the driving force a lot of the productivity in their cozy family home in the Highland Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles (he’s since moved out). Their parents homeschooled them and music was always part of their life, with mom, Maggie Baird, teaching them how to write songs and dad, Patrick O’Connell, teaching instruments. It is interesting to see her and Finneas riff about lyrics and test things out — he has anxiety about having to produce a hit and she couldn’t care less — and the juxtaposition of her glamorous appearances and performances with the modest normalcy of their home life. There are some terrific moments that Cutler caught out on the road: In one instance, she meets Katy Perry who introduces Eilish to her fiance — “a big fan.” It’s only later that Eilish realizes that was Orlando Bloom. Her brother reminds her he is “Will Turner from the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies.” She wants a redo. “I thought he was just some dude,” she says. Another is her first meeting with Justin Bieber. She talks about her longstanding obsession in an interview, he gets in touch three days before her album release about wanting to collaborate. (She tells her manager that “he could ask me to kill my dog and I would.”) Then at Coachella he appears as she’s greeting a hoard of her fans. She freezes and becomes a fan herself. Later she’ll sob over a heartfelt message he sends her. And there are some incredibly vulnerable moments too, showing the performer exhausted and annoyed. Eilish remains as unique and enigmatic as she seems from a distance, but also is presented very much like a normal Los Angeles teenager, getting her driver's license, dreaming of a matte black Dodge Challenger and texting with a largely absent boyfriend. Fans will eat up every morsel of this documentary and wish for more. For newcomers, however, it might benefit from watching in installments, which is one of the benefits of the film debuting on Apple TV+. There’s even an intermission to help take the guesswork out of where to hit pause. This does not come across as a vanity project that’s been intensely controlled by the star or the machinery around her, either. It’s refreshing. It's also probably one of the last times we’ll all be invited into her life in this way. “Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry,” an Apple TV+ and Neon release out Friday, has not been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 140 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four. ___ Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press
Tay residents were unanimous that council is putting the cart before the horse by including a short-term rental accommodation (STRA) definition into its zoning bylaw. About a dozen residents expressed their thoughts, either by attending a recent public meeting or by sending in prior written comment, of which all but one aligned with the general sentiment that it was premature to include a definition before the ad hoc committee had completed its process. The proposed definition says STRA “shall mean the use of a main building containing a dwelling unit, or any part thereof,that is operating or offering a place of temporary accommodation, lodging or occupancy by way of concession, permit, lease, license, rental agreement or similar commercial arrangement for any period of 31 consecutive calendar days or less, throughout all or any part of a calendar year. "Short Term Rental uses shall not mean or include a motel, hotel, bed and breakfast establishment, cabin rental establishment, tourist lodge or similar commercial or institutional use.” Tay resident Patrick Hawkins was first in line at the virtual public meeting. "I oppose the definition of STR as I indicated in my written submission," he said. "With the greatest respect to council and staff, it puts the cart before the horse. It assumes there is something to regulate before the ad hoc committee does its work. It assumes council can decide on the definition and what has to be regulated before it has done the necessary work." Hawkins said the basic problem is the lack of definition around the problem. "This council needs to address whether this is a problem that can actually be fixed by new regulation or is it a problem that needs to be fixed with better enforcement and stiffer fines under current regulation," he said. Pavan Sharma was of a similar view. "There are a lot of bylaws that exist in the toolbox, so by trying to regulate STRAs right off the bat, versus trying to enforce existing bylaws, it causes more complications," said the Victoria Harbour resident. "It will end up potentially costing more because you still would have to enforce STR licensing versus dealing with the root problem." The next resident, John Rose, had an issue with the exclusion of bed and breakfasts from the definition. "I heard Mr. Farquharson talk about B&B in the usual definition, one of the hallmarks is that the owners residing are residents," he said. "Unfortunately, from what I see in the zoning bylaw definition, both the current zoning bylaw of B&B establishments and the draft from May 2018, neither requires the owner to be a resident at the dwelling at the time. "There can be some real confusion about whether someone is operating a B&B or STRA. Someone trying to avoid regulations that apply to STRAs could simply say, 'I meet the definition of the B&B so I'm operating a B&B and not an STRA.'" When another resident also raised a similar question,Steve Farquharson, general manager, protective and development services, manager of planning and development services, had to reiterate the section of the zoning bylaw that deals with B&Bs. "Section 4.4 of the zoning bylaw has regulations in place for B&B," he said. "The use shall be carried out by land owner who resides in the dwelling unit. It's not in the definition, but there are policies in place within the existing bylaw for B&Bs." Resident Kate Tagseth took it further. "The zoning covers commercial uses and we know AirBnBs are commercial," she said. "They're a multi-billion-dollar corporation. The houses we've been looking up in Victoria Harbour are listed as AirBnB accommodations. "I would agree with some of the earlier speakers that at this point a definition of a short-term rental is a little premature because you can't legislate something that is illegal. Our zoning already alludes to the fact that businesses in residential areas are illegal." Another resident said regulating STRs would affect the township's economy. "One of the reasons is that I think by having a definition which may lead to regulation could stifle economic development to the township," said Tiere Sharma. "If it were to be regulated in some fashion going in the future, I think it would prohibit tourism to the township and affect businesses. I would recommend any current STRs be grandfathered in and be exempt from future rules." Mara Burton said supports the definition if the addition would help bylaw enforce the current illegal use of short-term rentals. "These are neighbourhoods and we want to make sure we know our neighbours," she said. At the beginning of the meeting, Farquharson had said that all comments received will be compiled and presented to the ad hoc committee for further consideration before anything is brought to council. "We understand it's a very hot topic within the municipality, as well as other municipalities within Simcoe County, especially those that have waterfront property," he added. "We are just proposing to add the definition in there." Later in the evening, Tay resident James Pedretti questioned Farquharson's use of the term "hot topic." "The intent of my comment is that we're not the only municipality that's dealing with this item," clarified the latter. "We've had sessions at the County of Simcoe. The comment of it being a hot topic item is that we're not alone in dealing with this. It's not a revenue generating stream the township is looking at." Cathy Graham had questions about the types of properties to be included in the definition. "When you're defining your STRs, will you also be including the difference between single-family dwellings (and larger units) in the STRs?" she asked. Farquharson said the proposed definition currently does not distinguish between building structures. "It does say dwelling unit," he added. "If it's something we need to have in there, we can look to address that when we report back." All comments and feedback around the addition of a definition will be compiled and presented to an ad hoc committee, which will comprise of two council members, Coun. Paul Raymond, chair, and Coun. Mary Warnock, vice chair, of the protective and development services committee, Farquharson, township planner, the municipal law enforcement officer and any other staff as designated by Farquharson. Mehreen Shahid, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, OrilliaMatters.com
City councillors discussed the merits of new public murals at this week’s parks, recreation and cultural services committee meeting. Six mural projects were recommended through the city’s public art community mural program. The budget of the program is $30,000, and this year’s projects are also being funded by other sources. The proposed projects are as follows: • Lehigh Hanson, a construction manufacturer on Mitchell island, is anticipated to cost $12,000, of which $6,000 will come from the mural program and $6,000 from a grant that supports the city’s environmental stewardship work on Mitchell Island) • McMath secondary is anticipated to cost $17,000 of which $8,000 will come from the mural program funding and $9,000 from the school. • Thompson elementary is anticipated to cost $6,200 of which $6,000 will come from the mural program funding and $200 from the school. • Homma elementary is anticipated to cost $10,000 of which $5,000 will come from the mural program funding and $5,000 from the school. • Westwind elementary is anticipated to cost $5,000 all from the mural program funding. • Gateway Theatre is anticipated to cost $20,000 all funded by the theatre itself. This project was highly rated but due to its costs was only deemed feasible after Gateway said they could finance the mural with funds from a show cancelled due to the pandemic. Several Richmond artists are being recommended to work on these projects: Fiona Tang at Thompson, Atheana Picha at Homma and Dawn Lo at Westwind (in collaboration with a second artist). Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Richmond Sentinel