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This pregnant teen is a 4.0 student, but her school wonâ??t let her attend graduation

Wed, 24 May 2017 19:21:14 EDT

A small Christian school in western Maryland is not backing down from its decision to ban a pregnant Grade 12 student from walking at graduation next week.

Despite a public outcry and growing pressure from national anti-abortion groups to reconsider, Heritage Academy in Hagerstown, Md., says that Grade 12 student Maddi Runkles broke the school’s rules by engaging in intimate sexual activity.

In a letter to parents Tuesday evening, school principal David Hobbs said that Runkles is being disciplined, “not because she is pregnant but because she was immoral . . . The best way to love her right now is to hold her accountable for her morality that began this situation.”

Runkles, 18, is a 4.0 student who has attended the school since 2009. She found out she was pregnant in January and informed the school, where her father was then a board member, in February. Initially the school told Runkles that she would be suspended and removed from her role as student council president and would have to finish the rest of the school year at home.

After the family appealed, Heritage said it would allow Runkles to finish the school year with her 14 classmates but she would not be able to walk with the other seniors to receive her diploma at graduation. The family believes that the decision is unfair and that she is being punished more harshly than others who have broken the rules.

“It’s because I’m pregnant and you can see the results of my mistake,” Runkles said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “There have been kids who have broken the student code and they could have hurt people or even gone to jail and they only received an in-school suspension and they’re allowed to walk this year. The school is worried about its reputation, but I think they’re missing out on an incredible opportunity to set an example for the pro-life community and Christian schools about how to treat guys and girls like me.”

The baby’s father is out of high school and did not attend Heritage.

To Hobbs, a long-time educator completing his first year as the school’s principal, the decision to not allow Runkles to take part in graduation resulted from her actions. He thinks she needs to be held responsible and believes the penalty will be instructive to other students.

“The breach of a standard of abstinence is a grievous choice,” he said in an interview. “Maddi made a grievous choice. We do believe in forgiveness, but forgiveness does not mean there’s no accountability.”

Hobbs said Heritage, which opened in 1969 and has 175 students from pre-kindergarten through Grade 12, emphasizes abstinence and tells students to “maintain their purity until their wedding night.”

“We teach our students about the beauty of marriage and that sex inside of marriage is one of the things that is beautiful about marriage,” he said.

But while the school reaffirmed its decision, anti-abortion groups have rallied to support Runkles. They argue that by singling out a pregnant student, the school is making it more likely that young women will choose abortion rather than suffer embarrassment and punishment.

“It’s a bad decision,” said Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life. “I was horrified when I learned that they wouldn’t let her walk at graduation. Usually when a woman is facing an unwanted pregnancy, especially a young woman, there is a sense of shame that comes into play and can have an impact on her decision and often does.”

Mancini said that while she respects the school’s code of conduct she worries about what the next pregnant student will do.

“What she needs is support, and what the school is doing is really the opposite of that,” she said. “It’s the antithesis of what it means to be Christian.”

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, also criticized the school. “By banning her and her alone, the administration and board collectively decided to make a public example of one student and has either intentionally or unintentionally communicated to the school community that pregnancy (not simply premarital sex) is a shame and should not be observed within our school community,” she said in a statement.

Runkles said her situation has drawn so much media attention in the past week, with her story being told by the New York Times, CBS and Fox, that some friends and classmates who once supported her now think she is just seeking publicity. The backlash has been severe, especially on social media, where she says strangers, acquaintances and parents of other students have attacked her.

“It has really gotten out of control,” Runkles said. “Moms of students have tagged me and said nasty things about me. I’ve had students start group messages to start nasty rumours. People saying I’m just attention-seeking and spoiled.”

The blowback led Runkles’ parents to pull Maddi and her Grade 9 brother out of the school for the remainder of the year. Her father, Scott Runkles, has resigned from the school’s board and her brother will transfer to another Christian school in the fall.

While she feels that her experience at Heritage has been ruined, Runkles says she is grateful for the support from her family and the Baptist church she belongs to in Frederick. She has also become involved in anti-abortion activism, taking part in rallies and speaking out against federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

“I chose life and sometimes it feels like it wasn’t worth it, but then it’s been kind of a blessing because I have a big platform to help other people,” she said.

Runkles, who has been accepted to Bob Jones University, a Christian school in South Carolina, doesn’t believe Heritage will change its mind about letting her walk at graduation June 2, but she said that if it does, she will take part.

“I would love to attend because my best friends will be there and I want to share that with them,” she said. “Some people are upset because they think I’m out to get the school, but I’m not. I just want them to do the right thing.”

Still, Runkles isn’t holding her breath waiting for the school to reconsider. And she has other things on her mind. Her baby boy is due Sept. 4.

Boy, 5, dies after being hit by a vehicle in Parkdale

Wed, 24 May 2017 20:10:28 EDT

A 5-year-old boy is dead after being struck by a vehicle in Parkdale on Wednesday evening.

Toronto police arrived near Lake Shore Blvd. W and Jameson Ave. around 6:30 p.m. The driver of the vehicle remained at the scene. Paramedics took the boy to the Hospital for Sick Children, where he later succumbed to his injuries.

Toronto Star opinions editor Scott Colby was biking in the area shortly after the accident happened.

“I went over and it was like witnessing a nightmare.”

Witnesses told Colby the boy was hit after he ended up on the road. The boy was accompanied by an adult.

Colby said he saw the boy lying by the car. A bystander had begun administering CPR before paramedics arrived.

He said the driver remained on the scene and that he was “absolutely devastated” when he got out of his car.

Colby said the vehicle likely swerved to try to avoid hitting the child.

Police are continuing to investigate.

“As a father of twins about to turn 5, seeing that little boy lying in the road tears your heart into a million pieces. The tragedy is almost unbearable,” Colby said.

“So many lives destroyed in an instant. That poor sweet boy, the guardian, his parents, the driver. It's impossible to make sense of it all.”

Supreme Court to decide who owns the 38,000 stories of residential school survivors

Wed, 24 May 2017 23:59:40 EDT

Who ultimately controls the stories of 38,000 residential school survivors may finally be decided on May 25 when the question goes before the Supreme Court.

The courts have consistently ruled it is up to the survivors to decide what happens to their own accounts of their experiences, stories that led to Ottawa paying out more than $5 billion in compensation, and that it is the survivors’ wishes that must be upheld and respected. The courts say the 38,000 survivors have 15 years to decide individually if their stories should be preserved in an archive at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) at the University of Manitoba or be destroyed.

But a coalition representing the children and grandchildren of residential school survivors was recently granted intervention status at the hearing. They want to save the 38,000 stories, which they say are the largest firsthand accounts of the residential school system.

“When I ask people if they want their story deleted, I ask them to think about it in the intergenerational perspective,” said Carey Newman, founder of the Coalition to Preserve Truth and the artist behind the Witness Blanket, a massive, art installation — made up of leftover pieces of residential school items, churches and government buildings. The blanket is currently touring the country. Newman is of British, Kwagiulth and Salish descent.

“Think about it with the idea that we as Indigenous people work to protect the Earth and the water for future generations because we don’t feel it belongs specifically to us. We are stewards of the world. What we consume here we are taking from the future. There is intergenerational trauma that cycles through our community generation after generation, and the only way to stop it is to confront it and understand the root of where it comes from,” he said.

Nearly 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families from the mid-1800s to the 1990s when the last school funded by the government and run by the church, shut its doors. Residential schools were meant to assimilate Indigenous people to Canadian society and to Christianize them.

Many of the students were physically, sexually and emotionally abused. They were malnourished, inadequately clothed and housed and they were forbidden to speak their own language and practice their own culture. The shattering effects of that abuse runs through generations of Indigenous families.

The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, a comprehensive settlement of class actions, made way for a process for survivors to settle abuse claims with Canada if they went through an Independent Assessment Process (IAP) to tell their stories. It is those horrific stories, contained on application forms and written and audio records, which are now the subject of the Supreme Court case.

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) believes the former residential schools students must be in complete control of their own stories — accounts that were shared under the belief they would never become public, said National Chief Perry Bellegarde.

“The AFN recognizes that people have different views on this matter. The AFN takes the position that personal stories and experiences belong to the individual, and they have the right to decide what happens to their testimony,” Bellegarde said.

“The use, access, storage, copying and dissemination of information by or with the assistance of the NCTR must ensure that the privacy interests of Independent Assessment Process claimants and former students are protected at all times. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement provides a mechanism for IAP claimants to archive their IAP records. As this process moves on in court, the AFN remains focused on working towards justice, healing and reconciliation.”

Newman, whose father Victor attended two residential schools, said he wanted to be a voice for the survivors and the intergenerational survivors because those perspectives were missing from earlier hearings. They are raising money to fund the court intervention.

In the interests of privacy, last week, the coalition indicated to the court that they want the names redacted from each survivor’s statement along with the names of perpetrators redacted so they will not be identified.

“That is the balance we have struck to address the concerns of survivors who want their stories protected and also to balance it against the collective interest of intergenerational survivors of historical relevance. That is the focus of our intervention in the case,” Newman said. The coalition has started a campaign raising money for their court effort at gofundme.com/standfortruth.

Condo owner shocked her unit was being sublet on Airbnb

Wed, 24 May 2017 18:54:00 EDT

Even in Toronto’s tight rental market, Zenobia Omarali agreed to lower the rent for her tenant — the son of a former employee — when he moved into her spacious downtown loft two years ago.

And this past winter, when the tenant, Zeyadh Moosa, asked her to pay a pest control service to get rid of bed bugs — and replace his mattress — Omarali agreed.

She said Moosa told her the bedbugs “came through the walls, and it’s my fault.”

So she was shocked when she found out that Moosa, 26, had been subletting the unit on Airbnb for up to $200 a night.

Moosa is currently paying $2,600 a month for the loft, Omarali said.

“My heart’s just going ‘Oh my gosh, no wonder I had to buy a new mattress,’ ” she said of her suspicion that an Airbnb “guest” imported the bedbugs.

“I trust all my tenants,” said Omarali, a high school guidance counsellor who owns several rental properties in Toronto. “When you have your own property and rent to someone else, that’s a bond. When you break that bond it’s heartbreaking. It’s not just a transaction; it’s more of a relationship.”

Read more:

Are short-term rental firms like Airbnb turning Toronto’s condos into hotels?

Airbnb doesn’t play fair, say Toronto hotels

Airbnb fans, detractors meet to discuss potential regulation in Toronto

When contacted by the Star recently and asked if he put the unit on Airbnb, Moosa said he did because he was using it to find long-term renters “to help her (Omarali) fill holes in units she wasn’t able to find tenants for, which I was successfully doing for her.”

Moosa said he discovered the bedbugs “during that time I was living there,” adding “it’s an old building.”

He said his family and Omarali have known each other for almost 20 years, and said he thinks there has been “a misunderstanding about this whole situation.”

Omarali’s story highlights a new area of concern for renters in Toronto: the business of short-term, online rentals.

Airbnb may be popular with budget travelers and “hosts” looking for extra cash, but such rental businesses have become a vexing issue for condominium owners, condo boards and management companies.

There’s concern over the constant arrival and departure of short-term visitors, wear and tear on buildings, insurance, legal and zoning implications and the fact that there is no way of knowing how many online, short-term rentals are in violation of condo declarations, bylaws and rules, said Toronto condo Lawyer Denise Lash.

“The problem is catching people,” she said.

Lash’s law firm has produced a “practical guide to short-term stays” for condo boards and owners that includes tips for residents and condo staff.

They include posting notices in elevators “reminding residents of the restrictions or prohibitions,” and going online “to see if the unit is posted on one of many websites that offer these services.”

Omarali checked online to see if the unit was posted on a short-term rental site. She also called Airbnb and asked if the unit — located at Village by the Grange on McCaul St. — was listed.

The company sent her an email that read “communicating directly with your tenant is the simplest way to address these types of complaints.”

Omarali said the response surprised her.

“I can’t believe that Airbnb does not verify ownership or if a client can legally rent or sublease their unit,” she said.

In response to questions by the Star, Airbnb spokesperson Lindsey Scully wrote in an email that the San Francisco-based company asks all its hosts “to follow their local laws and to receive permission from landlords before hosting.”

After getting nowhere, someone suggested Omarali search Moosa’s host nickname, Airbnz.

She did and found photos from the loft she bought almost two decades ago. There was also another condo unit under his “host” name.

“I saw that he had over 140 reviews praising him for the service, the outdoor patio and convenient location,” Omarali said.

Moosa said those reviews weren’t for her unit alone. “You must understand I was brokering for other property owners and people trying to rent out their spaces, so it was not just all for one unit,” he said.

Omarali said she visited Moosa at his eyewear store to ask about her concerns. Moosa told her seven people had stayed in her unit and that the reviews were for other condos he rents.

During her visit, Moosa agreed to sign a “cease and desist agreement,” she said. The “Queen Street Loft” listing has been taken off the Airbnb website.

Omarali said he told her he was unaware of the condominium corporation’s rules that state “use of a unit for short-term leasing, whether through companies such as Airbnb or similar business enterprises, is strictly prohibited.”

Omarali wants her story to serve as a cautionary tale for other condo owners — while sending a message to city officials studying short-term rental regulations that “they need to do something about this Wild West, free-for-all mentality.”

From now on, Omarali plans to include a no-subletting clause in her leases that explicitly says “no Airbnb.”

Her biggest concern, she said, is the potential for her own liability “if something happens in the unit.”

It’s a legitimate concern. Insurance Bureau of Canada’s Pete Karageorgos said she and other condo owners have good reason to be worried about the validity of their insurance coverage if a unit has been turned “into a hotel” and is being rented to “anyone and everyone.”

Tenants should also be mindful that they could incur costs if something goes wrong when a condo is occupied by a short-term Airbnb renter.

“Ultimately a tenant who is trying to make a few bucks can end up being out of pocket for injuries or damages,” Karageorgos said.

Condo lawyer Lash hopes the city will follow Chicago’s lead by establishing a prohibited building list of properties where short-term rental activity is illegal.

“Hosts” and short-term rental companies found in violation are subject to escalating fines and penalties, Lash said.

Thorben Wieditz, a spokesperson for Fairbnb, a coalition of labour, tenant and resident groups pushing for regulation, said his group has heard many stories about problems with short-term rentals.

It “shows that regulation is desperately needed,” he wrote in email.

Toronto city staff will present short-term regulatory options to Mayor John Tory’s executive committee next month.

Metrolinx appealing court ruling on $770M Bombardier contract

Wed, 24 May 2017 22:25:40 EDT

Metrolinx has filed an appeal questioning the decision of an Ontario judge last month that preserved the transit agency’s contract with Bombardier Transportation.

The notice of appeal deepens the legal dispute between the Ontario transit agency and Bombardier over the company’s ability to fulfil train orders in Toronto, where gridlock has become increasingly frustrating for hundreds of thousands of commuters.

In April, a judge ruled that Metrolinx can’t cancel a $770-million contract with Bombardier without first going through dispute resolution.

Metrolinx earlier this month also turned to a French manufacturer for light-rail vehicles as a backup plan if Bombardier fails to deliver the contracted transit projects in Toronto.

Ontario has reached a $528-million agreement to buy 61 light-rail vehicles from Alstom in case Bombardier is found to be in default at the end of a court-ordered dispute resolution process.

Read more:

Not in Service: Inside Bombardier’s delayed streetcar deliveries

How do Toronto’s light rail vehicles compare? It’s Bombardier versus Alstom

Good news and bad news at Bombardier: Editorial

In an email to The Canadian Press on Wednesday, a Metrolinx spokesperson confirmed the transit agency filed the notice of appeal before the Friday deadline.

The point of the appeal is to seek court clarification over the amount of time Bombardier has to fix — or “cure,” as stated in the contract — problems with its vehicles.

“Metrolinx is preserving our right to seek clarification of the decision principally as it relates to the permitted cure periods,” spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins said in a statement. “At the same time, we will continue with the dispute resolution process with Bombardier.”

Metrolinx alleges that Bombardier has repeatedly failed to deliver a prototype vehicle on time for the scheduled 2021 opening of the $5.3-billion Eglinton Crosstown line.

Bombardier has rejected Metrolinx’s allegations, saying it will deliver the vehicles on time by November 2018, well before the Eglinton Crosstown tracks are even built.

In a statement Wednesday, Bombardier said it is “deeply concerned” about the effect Metrolinx’s legal actions will have on transit users and taxpayers.

“By choosing to pursue a lengthy court battle, at the public’s expense, it is clear that Metrolinx continues using every recourse to prevent us from delivering on our commitments,” Bombardier spokesperson Marc-André Lefebvre said. “Metrolinx is only creating further delays in this project.”

Council pushes ahead with relief line, but project still unfunded

Wed, 24 May 2017 10:48:08 EDT

City council has voted to move ahead with planning work for the relief line subway, although it remains unclear who will pay to build the vital but as-yet-unfunded transit project.

In a vote of 42 to 1, councillors endorsed a city report that gave the green light for city and TTC staff to advance the design of the first phase of the relief line, which the TTC has identified as Toronto’s most pressing transit priority.

In a council speech, Mayor John Tory called the vote “a big step forward” for the city’s transit plans. However, he reiterated calls for the province to help pay for the subway, which is currently estimated to cost $6.8 billion and has no firm funding commitment from any level of government.

Tory acknowledged Queen’s Park has invested in Toronto transit in the past but urged them not to turn off the tap now.

“As much as we may be grateful, we’ve moved on. And we’re looking to secure funding for that next wave of transit projects that’s going to help us keep this city livable, build this city, accommodate the people that are coming here let alone the people who are already here, and that is led by the relief line,” he said.

Earlier in the day Tory took his case directly to transit riders by handing out flyers at Pape station that urged commuters to contact their local MPPs and Transportation Minster Steven Del Duca “to let them know that funding for the relief line is a priority.”

The flyers included contact information for Del Duca, who is also the Liberal MPP for the riding of Vaughan.

Del Duca responded with a statement in which he claimed the Liberal government has already “invested more in transit in Toronto than any other government in the province’s history.”

The statement cited more than $10 billion of provincial investments in Toronto LRT projects, the Scarborough subway extension, the Spadina subway extension and the Union Pearson Express.

It also noted that the Liberals plan to increase transit funding to Toronto by doubling the city’s share of gas tax proceeds by 2021. Queen’s Park has also allocated $150 million for relief line planning.

“We’ve proven time and time again that we remain steadfast in our commitment to Toronto transit,” Del Duca said.

As part of the relief line report, councillors also voted Wednesday to proceed with design work for an extension of the TTC’s Line 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina) subway north to Richmond Hill Centre.

The five-stop, 7.4-kilometre Yonge North extension would add passengers to already overcrowded Line 1, and it has long been the city’s position that the relief line must be in place before it goes ahead. That’s because the relief line would divert riders from Line 1 by connecting the eastern arm of Line 2 (Bloor-Danforth) at Pape with the downtown core. Experts say it must be completed by 2031, which is when Line 1 is expected to reach capacity.

Earlier this month, Mayor Tory stoked controversy when he joined with mayors in York Region to advocate as a bloc for provincial funding for both the Yonge North extension and the relief line and for both projects go ahead at the same time.

Most of the Yonge North extension would be outside Toronto’s borders and city planners have never ranked it within the city’s top 10 transit priorities. But Tory defended the alliance Wednesday, saying that banding together with politicians in the 905 to push for both projects strengthened the city’s position.

“(York Region politicians are) going to be supportive of a relief line. When was the last time you heard of them being supportive of a transit project in Toronto? I think that’s welcome news,” he said.

Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) moved a motion that would have halted planning for the Yonge North extension. Although the city has stipulated that the province and York Region will reimburse the TTC for any work done on the project, the councillor argued that putting Toronto’s transit agency to work on the project would only distract from the relief line.

“We have a decision to make today. Do we focus on a key priority that all the evidence and all the experts and all of our staff say is a priority?” Matlow asked, accusing the mayor of “playing games” with transit projects.

“Please, focus on the relief line. Let’s get this done.”

Matlow’s motion failed, on a vote of 6 to 37.

The first phase of the relief line would have eight stops and be 7.5 kilometres long. Although there are no firm funding commitments for it yet, the federal government has signalled it is willing to pay up to 40 per cent of the cost of new transit projects. Tory said Wednesday he was examining a “range of options” that the city could use to pay for its share.

As part of the report Wednesday, council also approved a new route for the line that would see it run beneath Carlaw Ave. instead of Pape Ave. south of Gerrard St. E. City. TTC staff plan to report back in 2019 with a refined cost, design, and delivery schedule.

In an effort to ensure the Yonge North project doesn’t unduly sap Toronto transit resources, councillors also voted for motions stipulating the city wouldn’t allow the extension to go ahead unless the relief line “has been fully funded with a firm schedule for completion” and to negotiate “satisfactory cost-sharing agreements” with the province and York Region on the operating costs of the extension which have not yet been finalized.

27 homeless deaths in Toronto in just three months

Thu, 25 May 2017 00:05:53 EDT

Homeless people in Toronto are dying at a rate of more than two per week on average, according to disturbing new data collected by the city.

From January to the end of March 2017, a total of 27 homeless deaths were tracked in an expanded research initiative led by Toronto Public Health and supported by about 200 health and social services agencies. The median age of the deceased is 51.

“It’s a sign that our city is failing,” said City Councillor Joe Cressy (Trinity-Spadina). “It seems to me that in a city as wealthy as ours that to have dozens of people dying on the streets is wrong, it’s disturbing and it’s a failure on all of us. While we might not be able to prevent the loss of every life, we certainly can prevent many of these if we do more.”

Advocates for the homeless have long maintained that efforts thus far to accurately count the dead have under-reported the true scope of the tragedy.

Previously, the city has recorded deaths only in city-administered shelters; that number for all of 2016 was 33.

The death rate for 2017, if it continues at two per week through December, would top 100 — the most ever recorded in Toronto.

“While we hoped the new numbers would not be much higher, the results thus far are not unexpected,” said Paul Fleiszer, manager, surveillance and epidemiology at Toronto Public Health, referring to the new data. “Unfortunately, the real number may even be higher because we are at the early stages of the project and still getting more agencies to come on board to the reporting system.”

As a comparison to the 27 deaths recorded in the first three months of 2017 by Toronto Public Health and its partners, volunteers with the Toronto Homeless Memorial recorded 11 over the same period.

The memorial is an unofficial record of homeless people in the GTA who have died since the 1980s. Deaths are vetted and the list maintained by outreach volunteers, such as street nurses and social workers. There are more than 850 names on the memorial; its highest annual death count was 72 in 2005.

Cathy Crowe is a long-time street nurse and distinguished visiting practitioner at Ryerson University’s department of politics and public administration. She said the new numbers from the city confirm that previous death counts have been historically under-reported — something advocates for the homeless and health workers have been saying for more than a decade.

“This is a wake-up call,” Crowe said. “Doing this research is just not for the sake of counting. It is to identify ways to prevent deaths . . . I can tell you absolutely that access to emergency shelters, harm reduction, warming centres and better-funded drop-ins are key.”

Fleiszer said the homeless are one of the city’s vulnerable populations “because they are more at risk for adverse health outcomes and contribute disproportionately to early death and other morbidities.”

Fleiszer highlighted the age of the decedents.

“The young age at which homeless people die is reflected in the current data that shows the median age is 51 years. This means that half of this group is in fact younger than 51,” he said.

The city’s tracking system is collecting information such as age, gender, unofficial cause of death and the location of death, history of homelessness and whether the deceased is of Indigenous heritage. Individual-level data, such as names, will be kept confidential. The data for all of 2017 will be released in an annual report early next year.

The city began its expanded death monitoring in January, 11 months after a Star investigation found that the province and most Ontario municipalities have no mandate to track homeless deaths comprehensively, if at all.

The Star chronicled the life of Brad Chapman, a homeless Toronto man, who died at age 43 in hospital following a drug overdose in August 2015. Because Chapman did not die in a city-administered shelter, and his death was not deemed suspicious, he became an invisible statistic.

Leigh Chapman, Brad Chapman’s sister, called the 27 deaths recorded to date by the city, “staggering.”

“These are all people who are loved,” she said. “These are brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, and I think this is a staggering loss of life of a preventable cause.”

Chapman, a registered nurse and a PhD candidate, said city councillors must commit to act on the findings.

“They can’t just pass the motion to track the deaths, and that’s the end of it.”

Why high speed rail switched from Montreal to Kitchener-Waterloo: Cohn

Wed, 24 May 2017 19:20:22 EDT

High speed rail has taken a U-turn in Ontario.

For decades, all roads — or at least routes — led to Montreal. Driven by the perennial national unity debate, premiers preened for annual photo-ops while promising to bind Ontario and Quebec not just economically but politically.

Yet high speed rail remained stuck on a slow train that never left the station.

Now, the destination is in another direction — with westward stops in Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo and London.

Why the turnaround? And why did the Quebec quest reach a dead end?

Today the politics are more provincial than national, and the economics are more practical than aspirational.

Premier Kathleen Wynne dreams, no doubt, of harvesting more votes by proclaiming Ontario’s biggest-ever infrastructure project — a sleek high-speed train with all the bells and whistles — as her $20-billion legacy. But southwestern Ontario is hardly fertile territory for her governing Liberals, and she’s unlikely to be in office to drive the last spike eight to 14 years from now.

A better explanation for the new direction is the belated recognition that a fast train to Montreal isn’t as smooth as it sounds. At least not at that price.

If you build it, they may not come. Or pay.

The trip between Canada’s two biggest cities has always been driven by the promise of business travellers and tourists paying top dollar for a short trip. But the problem with occasional travellers is that they come and go — without coming back often enough to build a business around it.

Consider the painful fiasco of the Union Pearson Express to Toronto’s airport.

A train that targeted an exclusive business market didn’t generate much high-end traffic in the end, or the high revenues to pay for it. Only when UP opened up to everyone along the route — transforming it from a business and ruling class train to a people’s class commute — did the seats finally get filled and the cash begin to flow (though still too slowly).

This is not a columnist’s customary second-guessing, merely second thoughts. I’d long supported an airport rail link here, having regularly ridden the Hong Kong Airport Express when I lived there (also a 22-minute ride downtown). Just as I’d always supported the idea of a high-speed link to Montreal — or anywhere.

One trip on the Maglev train from Shanghai’s airport at the warp speed of 432 km/h takes the breath away, even if the terminus in suburban Pudong is in the middle of nowhere. But no amount of love and affection for train technology (vintage or vector) will keep a dreamy journey from crashing down to earth on faulty economics.

Without the ridership and revenue bases, any train is baseless. It’s not clear that North American distances, densities or propensities among riders would have sustained customer demand here until recently. The appeal of this proposed route — if the economics can be made to work — is that it connects 7 million people along a population corridor that accounts for 60 per cent of Ontario’s economy.

Phase One would link downtown Toronto to Pearson Airport and the high-tech hub of Kitchener-Waterloo at speeds of up to 250 km/h, ending in London. The latter destination seems more of a stretch (and happens to be the home of deputy premier Deb Matthews, whose riding is increasingly encircled by New Democrat MPPs), but there may be an argument for a southwestern Ontario nexus that draws in that economically depressed population centre.

Phase Two leads from London to Windsor but may never get off the ground. A report to Wynne by former federal transport minister David Collenette concedes that ridership and revenue remain unproven on that stretch, relying instead on “socio-economic and regional development grounds” for a future extension.

A Windsor terminus sounds more political than economical, destined to be deferred from one election campaign to the next. Just as the perennial route to Quebec kept going in circles.

High-speed rail has been a long journey, more prosaic than romantic. Instead of passengers gliding to Montreal for a getaway, think of commuters hitching a 48-minute from Kitchener-Waterloo to the GTA as part of their daily grind.

Customers in a hurry, heading from home to work and back again. Who keep coming back.

Martin Regg Cohnâ??s political column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. mcohn@thestar.ca , Twitter: @reggcohn

U.K. â??right to be furiousâ?? with U.S. over leaks about Manchester bombing

Wed, 24 May 2017 15:54:00 EDT

LONDON—Britain’s home secretary criticized U.S. officials on Wednesday for leaking sensitive information about the inquiry into the extremist attack that killed 22 people at a Manchester concert arena.

Amber Rudd told Sky News that U.S. officials provided information to the news media that Britain preferred to keep confidential for reasons of operational security. Britain has raised its official terror threat to “critical” — meaning it is likely an attack is imminent — and is trying to uncover a suspected extremist network before it strikes again.

Rudd said the “element of surprise” in the police and security service measures could be compromised by information being released too quickly. Rudd said she had complained to U.S. officials to make sure the flow of information is staunched.

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British officials hadn’t, for example, released the name of the bomber until it surfaced in the U.S. media based on leaks from U.S. officials briefed by their British counterparts. Other details also surfaced first because of leaks in Washington.

It comes at a time when European security officials have expressed concern about sharing intelligence with the U.S. after President Donald Trump discussed highly classified intelligence about Daesh, also known as ISIS or ISIL, with senior Russian officials visiting the White House.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told reporters Wednesday he understands the concern about U.S. leaks possibly harming the U.K. police operation.

“If that’s something that we did, I think that’s a real problem,” he said. “If we gave up information that has interfered in any way with their investigation because it tipped off people in Britain — perhaps associates of this person that we identified as the bomber — then that’s a real problem and they have every right to be furious.”

He said, however, that even if U.S. intelligence sources shared vital information with the media, it likely would not affect the strong intelligence sharing relationship between the U.S. and Britain because it helps both countries.

A European security official said “having a U.S. leak when the situation has developed in the U.K. is nothing new.

“Historically, and nearly philosophically, the U.S. and U.K. intel services follow different paths,” the official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak about the investigation. “The U.S. have adopted a “zero risk” approach meaning that the U.S. services have a much shorter trigger when it comes to stop an ongoing operation. The U.K. services play it totally differently.”

This was highlighted in the 2006 trans-Atlantic liquid bomb plot. Americans wanted to pounce to quickly stop the plot whereas British authorities were trying to better determine the suspects’ capability and wider terror connections, according to two British officials who worked on the case at the time.

U.S. Homeland Security Department spokesperson David Lapan declined to say Wednesday if suspected bomber in the Manchester attack, Salman Abedi, had been placed on the U.S. no-fly list. Under normal circumstances, he said, Abedi may have been able to travel to the United States because he was from Britain, a visa-waiver country, but he would have been subjected to a background check via the U.S. government’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA.

Lapan said the Homeland Security Department has shared some information about Abedi’s travel with the British government, but declined to offer specifics. Customs and Border Protection has access to a broad array of air travel information through the U.S. government’s National Targeting Center.

Madeleine Meilleurâ??s appointment fails the non-partisan smell test: HĂ©bert

Wed, 24 May 2017 18:06:15 EDT

MONTREAL—At this time last year, Madeleine Meilleur was a long-serving cabinet minister in the Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne. Over her 13 years at Queen’s Park she held a number of portfolios under two premiers. Her initial time in the legislature coincided with the Ontario tenure of both of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s top aides Katie Telford and Gerald Butts.

When Meilleur left active politics last summer, she had her heart set on securing a Senate appointment. That was until it was made clear that Trudeau’s more independent Senate was no place for a just-retired Liberal politician.

That is how she came to set her sights on the then-soon-to-be-vacant post of commissioner of official languages. She applied for it like anyone else. Before and during her years in politics Meilleur had been a strong advocate for French-language rights. Earlier this month her name emerged as the prime minister’s choice for the post. But that is not to say that the process that led to the decision was a blind one.

Meilleur says she had chats about her application with Telford and Butts along the way. And it was Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly — according to her spokesperson — who conducted the final interviews.

The official languages commissioner is one of eight agents of Parliament. The auditor general is another, as is the chief electoral officer. They report to Parliament, not the prime minister.

The collective mission of these parliamentary officers is to act as independent watchdogs in their designated areas of expertise. The term “independent” is an operative word in their job definition or at least it was until Meilleur’s proposed nomination.

That there is less than a degree of separation between Meilleur and Trudeau’s Liberal government is not in question. That closeness is unique in the history of similar appointments.

Among the half dozen that served as official languages commissioners since the post was created in 1970, only one, Victor Goldbloom, was ever active in electoral politics. The others hailed from academia, journalism or had been career diplomats.

Goldbloom had served in the Quebec cabinet of Robert Bourassa. But the parallels with Meilleur stop there for he left the national assembly more than a decade prior to his federal appointment. In the interval, he had held a number of non-partisan positions. And while Goldbloom had been a provincial Liberal MNA, it was Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney who put his name forward.

This is Trudeau’s first proposed appointment of an agent of Parliament. There are more to come. At this juncture, more than half the positions are filled on an interim basis. In some instances, as in the case of the chief electoral officer, the length of the hiatus is unprecedented. Marc Mayrand left his post five months ago after having given six months’ notice. The government says the quest for a more arm’s-length, merit-based process has been slowing things down.

But there is little that is arm’s length in the process described by both Meilleur and Joly’s office. Based on their accounts, the only feature that is more transparent than ever is the wall that should stand between government officials and the selection of independent parliamentary watchdogs.

The opposition parties have not signed off on Meilleur’s nomination. They have complained to the Speaker that the prime minister ignored his legal obligation to consult them prior to making the announcement.

If and when Meilleur’s name is put to a vote in the Commons, her appointment might carry only because the Liberals hold a majority. Under that scenario, things could get difficult in the Senate. Some independent senators may balk at vetting an appointment that is devoid of consensual support in the other house. It does not help that some of the associations that toil on the front of French-language rights have expressed concerns over the integrity of the process.

This comes at a time when the Liberal government has presented legislation that could clip the wings of the parliamentary budget officer. To say that there is widespread opposition suspicion that the Liberals like watchdogs best when they are on a leash — just as their predecessors did — is an understatement.

In the last election campaign, Trudeau accused Stephen Harper of having turned Parliament Hill into “a partisan swamp.” He said he would clean it up. It is hard to reconcile that promise with an appointment that fails the non-partisan smell test.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Ontario watchdog to probe driverâ??s licence snafus

Wed, 24 May 2017 14:56:35 EDT

The Ontario Ombudsman wants to slam the brakes on the practice of government failing to tell drivers when their licences are suspended and reinstated.

In the wake of stories by the Star’s Norris McDonald, Paul Dubé announced Wednesday he would be probing how the Ministry of Transportation communicates licence suspensions and reinstatements to motorists.

“We have heard from drivers who went for years without knowing their licences were suspended,” said Dubé.

“When they finally found out, it was through their insurance company or police, not the ministry — which then treated them as brand-new drivers, requiring them to go through the graduated licencing program to have their licences reinstated,” he said.

Dubé said, while his office has been working with transportation officials in recent years to improve suspension and reinstatement fee notification letters, complaints continue.

That suggests “an underlying systemic problem” in a department that sends out about 130,000 suspension notices annually to drivers who have failed to pay traffic fines, he said.

Celso Pereira, press secretary to Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca, said the ministry “takes the concerns of the ombudsman very seriously.”

“As we have said prior to this announcement, we understand that there are concerns that the system should be strengthened to ensure effective notification, and that is why we are already taking a look at the matter,” said Pereira.

“The ombudsman’s investigation will assist with the internal work the ministry is already doing in collaboration with partner ministries to find the most effective way to notify ‎drivers whose driver’s licenses are suspended.”

In March, the Star disclosed the plight of Leslieville’s James Strachan, 40, who learned this year his licence had been under suspension since 2013 after he forgot to pay a speeding ticket for going 15 km/h above the speed limit on Hwy. 401 near Oshawa.

Even though Strachan had paid his fine later in 2013 — five months late — the licence he didn’t even know had been suspended was not reinstated.

An offender has 15 days to either pay a fine or dispute a ticket.

If it’s neither, the court can order a licence suspension.

His bureaucratic nightmare came to a head this past February when he was stopped by the OPP and told he was driving under suspension.

Strachan paid $150 to reinstate his licence only to be told he would have to undergo the graduated licensing program from scratch, which can take up to two years and cost about $300.

“I’m not saying the ministry didn’t try to inform me,” he told McDonald earlier this year.

“I’m saying that I wasn’t informed. The ministry might well have sent a letter telling me of the suspension, but I didn’t receive it. Somebody else might have found it in their mailbox, but I never received anything telling me this.”

Despite that, Strachan was able to renew his licence plate sticker at least twice, purchase another car, and renew his auto insurance several times without anyone pointing out his licence was under suspension.

After the Star published his story, more than 100 readers came forward with similar tales.

Dubé said if anyone else has experienced such problems they can fill out a confidential complaint form at www.ombudsman.on.ca, or call 1-800-263-1830.

Newly built GTA home prices soar despite surge in re-sale listings

Wed, 24 May 2017 14:48:20 EDT

A surge in re-sale listings this spring has not had an impact on the demand for new construction homes, which cost 40 per cent more on average in April than the same month last year.

The price of a newly built low-rise home — a category that includes detached, semi-detached and townhouses — was $1.2 million last month in the Toronto region, while detached homes alone averaged $1.8 million.

The cost of condos, which made up 70 per cent of new home sales in the Toronto region, rose nearly 24 per cent from April 2016 to $570,226, according to the statistics released by the Building and Land Development Association (BILD) on Wednesday.

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“The additional re-sale listings only moved the needle on the supply situation from ridiculously tight to extremely tight,” said Patricia Arsenault, executive vice-president at Altus Group, which tracks sales for BILD.

There were 34 per cent more re-sale home listings in the Toronto region in April, according to Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) figures released earlier in May.

But that still equates to only one month supply of single-family homes and three months for condos. A year ago, there was 1.5 months’ supply of single-family homes and 9.5 months’ inventory of condos, said Arsenault.

While the new and re-sale home markets are connected, there are always buyers who prefer new construction, she said.

For the first time in more than a decade, there were fewer than 10,000 new housing units available across the Toronto region in April.

That reflects strong demand rather than a reduction in the number of new homes coming on the market, said Arsenault.

The number of sales actually increased 7 per cent compared to April 2016 and 24 per cent in the first quarter over the first four months last year.

More than 11,000 new homes came on the market in the first quarter of the year — that’s about a third more than the two-year average. But at the end of April only one in five of those were still available. In April 2015, it was two in five.

Amendments released last week to Ontario’s Growth Plan could further restrict the supply of new homes, said BILD CEO Bryan Tuckey.

The plan requires municipalities to concentrate population growth around services such as transit. It’s designed to slow urban sprawl by encouraging the development of denser housing forms such as condos and stacked townhomes.

“The new Growth Plan will do little to improve our problems with new housing supply and the resulting price increases in the GTA and surrounding area,” said Tuckey. “The devil will be in the details of how this plan will be implemented. Our current housing market problems developed under the existing Growth Plan which did not have the appropriate implementation supports. If the new plan does not receive the appropriate implementation support, it could make a bad situation worse.”

Meanwhile, Ontario’s 16-point Fair Housing Plan is curbing investor interest in new condos, according to online development hub BuzzBuzzHome.

The province’s plan aims to curb foreign real estate speculation by taxing off-shore, non-resident buyers. It would also expand rent controls to newer buildings.

Inquiries into Ontario developments dropped 49 per cent in the four-week period directly before and after the government’s April 20 announcement, said BuzzBuzzHome. Inquiries in the rest of Canada were up 36 per cent in the same period.

Only rental inquiries increased during those weeks — climbing 9 per cent.

“We certainly feel that the announcement of the Ontario Fair Housing Plan has the condo investment community possibly holding back new investment in order to fully consider the final effects of new legislation on their investment decisions,” said Greg White, vice-president of data.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the government’s plan will tamp down speculation long-term, however, he said.

According to White, it “could be more of a reflection of the uncertainty factors.”

Manchester bombing probe widens with 7 suspects arrested on 2 continents

Wed, 24 May 2017 06:25:00 EDT

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND—The investigation into a suicide blast that killed at least 22 people at a pop concert dramatically widened Wednesday, with security services on two continents rounding up suspects amid fears that the bombmaker who devised the bolt-spewing source of the carnage remains at large.

The arrests stretched from the normally quiet lanes of a northern English town to the bustling streets of Tripoli, where Libyan officials said they had disrupted a planned attack by the suspected bomber’s brother.

But by day’s end, British authorities acknowledged that they remained vulnerable to a follow-up attack, with the nation’s state of alert stuck at “critical”—the highest possible level.

Read more:

U.K. raises terror level after concert attack in Manchester kills 22

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What we know about the Manchester attacker

Let’s delete Islamic/Islamist labels for terrorists: Paradkar

Sky News on Wednesday aired two screengrabs of a man walking in Manchester’s Arndale shopping centre on Friday night carrying a blue backpack with a sales tag still hanging off of it.

Sky did not say how in its report it obtained the footage.

But the broadcaster reported that police think the man is the alleged bomber Salman Albedi and the backpack played a role in Monday’s attack.

In London, the sight of soldiers deploying at landmarks such as Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street underscored the gravity of a threat that was known in general terms before Monday night’s explosion but has come sharply into focus in the 48 hours since.

The morning after the attack, police had said they believed that the suspect, Abedi, a British citizen, had carried it out alone and had died in the blast he triggered.

But in their statements Wednesday, authorities expressed growing confidence that Abedi—who had recently returned from a trip to Libya and may have also travelled to Syria—had been only one part of a web of plotters behind Britain’s worst terrorist attack in more than a decade.

“It’s very clear that this is a network we are investigating,” Greater Manchester Chief Constable Ian Hopkins said.

Hopkins said police were moving quickly to disrupt the group, carrying out raids across the city and arresting four people, including Abedi’s older brother, Ismail. A fifth suspect was later apprehended carrying “a suspicious package” in the town of Wigan, about 32 kilometres west of Manchester.

On Wednesday evening, authorities arrested a female suspect in Manchester and a man in the English Midlands town of Nuneaton, bringing to seven the number of people detained in Britain in connection with the blast. A raid by balaclava-wearing police at an apartment in central Manchester spawned speculation that authorities may have uncovered the location where the bomb was built, although that appeared to have been unfounded.

In conflict-scarred Libya, counterterrorism authorities said they had arrested at least two additional members of Salman Abedi’s family, including a younger brother suspected of preparing an attack in Tripoli.

Ahmed Dagdoug, a spokesperson for Libya’s counterterrorism Reda Force, said Hashem Abedi was arrested late Tuesday and is suspected of “planning to stage an attack in Tripoli.”

Dagdoug said Hashem Abedi had confessed to helping his brother prepare the Manchester attack. “Hashem has the same ideology as his brother,” Dagdoug said.

Abedi’s father, Ramadan, was arrested Wednesday, although it was not clear on what grounds. Ramadan Abedi had earlier asserted that his sons were innocent, telling the Associated Press that “we don’t believe in killing innocents. This is not us.”

He said Salman sounded “normal” when they last spoke five days ago. The elder Abedi said his son had planned to visit Saudi Arabia and then spend the Islamic holy month of Ramadan with family in Libya.

Dagdoug said Hashem Abedi had been in frequent contact with Salman Abedi and was aware of the plans to attack the concert. Dagdoug described Hashem Abedi as an operative of Daesh, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has asserted responsibility for Monday’s blast.

It was unclear whether investigators believed that Salman Abedi’s relatives were a key part of the network planning the Manchester attack. But authorities were increasingly exploring the emerging connections between Britain and Libya.

Salman Abedi, whose parents had emigrated from Libya to escape the rule of Moammar Gaddafi, was on the radar of British security services before Monday’s attack.

But Home Secretary Amber Rudd, the nation’s top domestic security official, suggested that he was not a major focus of any inquiries, telling the BBC that authorities had been aware of him only “to a point.”

Rudd said that Abedi had recently returned from Libya and that that was a focus of the investigators’ inquiry.

Rudd’s French counterpart, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, told broadcaster BFMTV that Abedi may have also gone to Syria and had “proven” links with Daesh.

Abedi was reported on Wednesday to have been a college dropout who had recently become radicalized. Security experts said it was unlikely that he co-ordinated the attack, and the BBC reported that he may have been “a mule” tasked with carrying out the bombing but had little role in creating the explosive or choosing the target.

Of particular concern to British investigators was the possibility that the bombmaker was still at large and may be planning to strike again.

In London, nearly 1,000 soldiers were sent onto the streets to help free up police. Cressida Dick, the police commissioner for Britain’s capital, said the troops would stay until “we no longer need them.”

Hopkins said there were no plans to dispatch troops in Manchester. But armed police were more visible in the streets Wednesday than usual, and Hopkins said the deployment of soldiers in London would make more police available in other parts of the country.

But despite oft-repeated statements of national resolve and a refusal to give in to terrorism, authorities were making some changes Wednesday in light of the security situation.

Parliament announced that all public tours of the Palace of Westminster would be stopped. The Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace—a popular tourist attraction—was cancelled.

Chelsea, the title-winning soccer club in England’s Premier League, called off a planned victory parade through London. The team said it “would not want in any way to divert important resources.”

The cancellations came as Britain continued to mourn the dead, with moments of silence and memorial services in schools, town squares and other sites.

Hopkins sad Wednesday that medical examiners had finished identifying all of the victims and that an off-duty police officer was among the dead.

Health officials said Wednesday that 20 people remained in “critical care” and were suffering from “horrific injuries.”

Monday’s attack has been condemned by leaders both global and local. The mosque where the Abedi family worshipped—and where Ramadan Abedi had once been responsible for issuing the call to prayer—on Wednesday denounced the blast and expressed hope that Manchester can heal.

“The horrific atrocity that occurred in Manchester on Monday night has shocked us all,” said Fawzi Haffar, a trustee with the Manchester Islamic Center, also known as the Didsbury Mosque. “This act of cowardice has no place in our religion or any other religion.”

With files from The Associated Press