Rod Phillips, Ontario finance minister, resigns after taking Caribbean pandemic vacation

Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips speaks to the media about the state of emergency amid the coronavirus pandemic, while Premier Doug Ford looks on, on March 18, 2020. Phillips has come under heavy criticism for a vacation to the Caribbean while Ontario was locked down over Christmas.

TORONTO — Ontario’s finance minister resigned from his cabinet position Thursday, hours after returning from a Caribbean vacation amid a provincewide lockdown.

Rod Phillips travelled to St. Barts on Dec. 13 despite provincial guidelines urging people to avoid all non-essential travel.

Premier Doug Ford announced the finance minister’s resignation in a written statement.

“At a time when the people of Ontario have sacrificed so much, today’s resignation is a demonstration that our government takes seriously our obligation to hold ourselves to a higher standard,” Ford said.

The premier said he has asked Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy to assume the role of minister of finance and deliver the government’s 2021 Budget.

“This appointment will help ensure economic stability in the months ahead, as we support Ontario families, workers and businesses through the COVID-19 pandemic, and as we chart our path to long-term economic recovery,” Ford said.

Upon his arrival at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Thursday morning, Phillips told reporters he wanted to stay on as finance minister.

“There’s very important work that still needs to be done, and I’d like to continue to be a part of that. But I do understand, people are angry, they deserve to be angry, I have to earn back their confidence,” he said.

Ford said Wednesday he first learned about the trip shortly after Phillips arrived in St. Barts. He said he should have asked the finance minister to immediately return to Ontario, but he didn’t — calling it a mistake.

Phillips, who will remain a member of the provincial legislature, said Thursday that he regrets his decision.

“It was a significant error in judgment, a dumb, dumb mistake,” Phillips said. “Again, I apologize for it, I regret it, but all I can do now is make that apology and move forward.”

In a statement released after his resignation Thursday, Phillips again said he regretted his decision to travel over the holidays.

“I once again offer my unreserved apology,” he said.

Ontario’s new finance minister was sworn in to no fanfare at the provincial legislature Thursday afternoon. He met the province’s lieutenant governor for a brief closed-door ceremony that lasted around 20 minutes.

As he left, Bethlenfalvy did not directly address Phillips’ resignation or the possible impact it could have on the government’s public health messaging.

“We’ll have more to say later,” he said. “We’re all going to work hard on behalf of the people of Ontario.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath criticized Ford for his role in the leadup to Phillips’ resignation.

“Doug Ford knew about Rod Phillips’ trip to St. Barts two weeks ago,” she said in a statement. “Not only did Ford not fire him then, he helped him keep the trip a secret. Phillips’ resignation from cabinet today is not because of Phillips’ vacation, it’s because they got caught.”

 The constituency office door of Ontario MPP and now former provincial finance minister Rod Phillips on Dec. 31, 2020.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said Phillips was right to resign for “deceiving Ontarians for weeks” but asked what consequences Ford will face for the situation.

“Doug Ford admittedly knew about Phillips’ vacation for two weeks and did nothing to stop it,” he said in a statement. “He shares as much blame as Phillips, and he needs to be held accountable for it.”

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said there must be accountability for Phillips’ “deliberate disregard” for public health rules.

“There shouldn’t be one rulebook for the Ford government, and a different rulebook for everyone else,” he said.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, who has known and been a political ally of Phillips for several decades, called his actions “wrong”.

“As finance minister, Mr. Phillips was a good, supportive partner for the City of Toronto but, as he has acknowledged, his recent regrettable actions were wrong and require this level of accountability,” Tory said in a statement.

Phillips, 55, entered public life in 2017 when he was acclaimed as the Progressive Conservative candidate for the Ontario riding of Ajax.

He briefly contemplated a run for the leadership of the party after then leader Patrick Brown resigned in early 2018 but instead backed Caroline Mulroney, who eventually lost to Ford.

Phillips won a seat in the legislature later that year and was appointed environment minister as the new government dismantled the previous Liberal’s cap-and-trade climate change plan.

He was tasked with rolling out the province’s controversial new strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that fall.

Prior to entering politics, Phillips was the CEO of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, and chairman of newspaper publisher Postmedia.

He also served as chief of staff to former Progressive Conservative labour minister Elizabeth Witmer and former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman.

Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques

Australia wants to build an Antarctica airport for its scientists. The scientists don't want it

A helicopter pilot critically injured in Antarctica when he fell 20 metres down a crevasse may be flown to mainland Australia for treatment.

Australia’s government is planning to build an airport and runway in Antarctica, as part of a multimillion dollar scheme it says will ensure year-round access for environmental scientists to study the continent’s wildlife and marine ecosystem.

There’s just one problem, though — many of the environmental scientists in question say they do not want the infrastructure. Instead, some deem the scheme a waste of time, saying it could potentially be destructive to the biodiversity of the continent.

“Although it is being done in the name of science, very few scientists are enthusiastic,” Shaun Brooks, an environmental scientist at the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies of the University at Tasmania, told

the Guardian

. “This is more about flag-waving. It is about firming up Australia’s presence and our claim.”

Australia currently maintains three year-round research stations — at Mawson, Casey, Davis — and also has one on sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island. Flights to the continent often depend on under-developed gravel or ice runways during warmer periods of the year, such as the blue-ice runway at the Wilkins Aerodrome. These runways are, however, becoming inoperable as global warming melts local surfaces.

The new proposed airstrip would be 2.7 kilometres long and 40 metres wide, according to the government, and, unlike current runways, would be constructed out of cement and 11,500 concrete blocks, each weighing more than 10 tonnes.

The land would be flattened by blasting and crushing, before the runway was filled out with soil and rock. The plan, which could take decades to construct, would also require a new storage area for explosives; land reclamation from the sea for a new wharf where transport ships could dock; tanks for aviation fuel; and a four-kilometre access road.

Brooks said the infrastructure would increase the human footprint on the continent by an estimated 40 per cent, which could not only devastate wildlife habitat, but also disrupt breeding colonies of seals and penguins.

“I can’t help thinking this will become a white elephant. How can you justify a multi-billion-dollar runway for a base with only 19 people during the winter and which has been maintained without problems since 1957?” he told the Guardian.

Geoff Dimmock, a former organizer of mail drops and supply missions in the region, also criticized the plan, adding that there was no way to avoid noise disruption and contamination as part of the project. “I don’t want the hills flattened,” he told the Guardian. “Environmentally, I think this is a real bad precedent to set. And it’s poor value for money.”

Peter Whish-Wilson, an Australian Green Party senator, asked parliament how such a project could align with the country’s goal to promote “leadership and environmental stewardship” in the region.

The government, though, insists the environmental impact will be scrutinized carefully, and will be submitted to other Antarctic Treaty nations and released for public consultation.

“The construction of the aerodome will have some unavoidable impacts,” a spokesperson told the Guardian,” and we are committed to understanding the environmental impacts and implementing mitigation measures to the highest standards possible.”

Activists say there are other alternatives, such as using aircraft that use skis instead of wheels for take-off and landing.

Plans to built a permanent airport at the Davis research station had been proposed decades ago, but were balked at by past governments due to the cost involved. Interest in the idea was revived in recent years and has since been pushed by Environment Minister Sussan Levy, and head of the Australian Antarctic Division Kim Ellis, who is also the chief executive of Sydney Airport.

The government is conscious that China and Russia are upgrading their bases in the region and want to up their presence on the continent, the Guardian reported.

“The scale of this is so out of step with our requirements. I think putting up this big flag will encourage others to do something similar,” Brooks said. “It doesn’t align with Australia’s claim to be an environmental leader. Antarctica is special. Everywhere else in the world, you measure wilderness by what’s left. In Antarctica, it’s still the other way round.”

Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques

An oral history of the Speaker's Scotch: Uncorking the secrets behind the least likely antidote to partisanship

Starting in 2003 with Peter Milliken, each Speaker of Canada's House of Commons has selected an official Scotch. Between the four of them, they have released six different single malts over 17 years, each with a distinctive label and special packaging.

On the last day of Parliament before Christmas break, Anthony Rota, Speaker of the House of Commons, was hustling through a hallway when someone stopped and asked him to autograph a bottle of whisky.

Rota happily complied. It was, after all, his whisky. In a way.

The bottle was the newly released Speaker Rota’s Selection Scotch, a lavish and intense cask strength single malt, the latest release following a tradition of each new Speaker of the House of Commons releasing a special bottling of one of the many malts from Scotland.

It speaks to how popular the tradition has become that it has its own niche of collectors: politics nerd meets Scotch connoisseur.

It all sounds like an old, dusty tradition.

One can imagine James Cockburn, Canada’s first Speaker, a waistcoat-wearing Conservative elected in 1867, with monstrous mutton-chop sideburns, demanding a special dram to wet his whistle, perhaps something peaty and dark, drawn from a forgotten cask in the bowels of a Highland warehouse.

But he didn’t start this. Nowhere close.

It started with Peter Milliken in 2003. The retired Liberal MP for Ontario’s riding of Kingston and the Islands became the longest-serving Speaker in Canadian history, presiding over the House during three prime ministers. Among his accolades is an achievement ignored even by his Wikipedia page.

He decided the Speaker should have an official Scotch.

Now the person who starts something is important, but so is the second who repeats it, and the third who makes it a tradition.

Rota is now the fourth consecutive Speaker to select an official Speaker’s Scotch for Canada’s Parliament. Between them, they have released six different single malts over 17 years, each with a distinctive label and special packaging.

Milliken insists the Speaker’s Scotch — and the way it is chosen — acts as an antidote to the rabid partisanship of the modern-day Parliament, although he concedes even the power of one of the world’s most storied drinks can only do so much.

It’s had its critics and controversies. It’s had its supply problems. It’s an intensive labour of love, requiring staff to hand-label thousands of bottles. And it’s even needed an unorthodox facelift because of COVID-19. Through it all, however, this modern tradition has flourished.

It’s now something a new Speaker is most asked about when taking office.

Even so, there is a reluctance to talk about it publicly. Although run on a cost-recovery basis, there can be an optics problem connecting booze too strongly with the corridors of power. and embracing a product often associated with elites and wealth. And a foreign one at that.

To uncork all of this, National Post spoke with each of the Speakers who have presided over the House and the tradition of the Speaker’s Scotch.

It all suitably began on the banks of the River Thames in London, under the imposing façade of Big Ben, in the Palace of Westminster, Britain’s Houses of Parliament.

 The label from the original Speaker’s Scotch selected by Peter Milliken in 2003. It is the only one not to bear the name of the Speaker who selected it.


(Speaker of the House from 2001 to 2011)

: I went on an official visit to Britain to the Speaker there, fairly soon after I was first elected. I visited a few times. And Speaker Michael Martin talked to me about his whisky that he had selected and all that. I met with him and had a taste of his whisky and I thought this is something that we should do in the Parliament of Canada, too.

I arranged to have it done by having a tasting, at which a number of whiskies were offered for tasting to the MPs. It was a popular event. Members from all parties came, a fair number of them. They seemed to like the experience of standing around in the Speaker’s dining room, mixing and mingling and sipping these different whiskies. Then they voted for which one they thought was the best. I voted too, but whichever won the vote was the Speaker’s Selection.

The Speaker’s Selection isn’t really the Speaker’s choice — it’s the member’s choice, they vote for it. I organize the tasting and select the whiskies for the tasting, but it was the members who voted it in.


(Speaker 2011 to 2015)

: After I was first elected, I remember being invited to the Speaker’s event where Mr. Milliken explained to MPs he would be selecting a Scotch but he wanted it to be something members themselves enjoyed. I remember attending that and sampling and voting for the one I liked best.

I thought it was a neat thing to do and a neat way to get members from all different parties in the same room and visiting, over a couple of samples of different Scotches. I thought it was great.

 A Speaker’s Scotch selected and autographed by Geoff Regan.


(Speaker 2015 to 2019

): I’m trying to recall whether I’d heard of the Speaker’s Scotch before I became Speaker, frankly. Not long after I became Speaker, someone in the media was interviewing me about my new role and asked me what the Speaker’s Scotch would be. And I said, ‘Oh I get to pick a Scotch? Well, then it’d be Glen Breton.’ But Glen Breton is a single-malt whisky made in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Of course, you can’t call it a Scotch unless it’s made in Scotland.

I was excited about that, but then I learned from the staff, some of them had been there for a while, they explained how it usually works, that the Speaker doesn’t simply pick whatever Scotch he or she wants. In fact, you do a taste-testing.


(Speaker 2019 to present)

: When I became an MP, one of the highlights was going to the Speaker’s dining room and trying the different Scotches that were put before us and we would rank them. One of the questions I got most often after being elected Speaker was, When are you getting a Scotch? When will the Scotch come out?

The first Speaker’s Scotch, chosen by MPs in 2003 was a feisty one, ten-year-old Talisker, with a smoky start and a peppery finish. It’s worlds apart from the second chosen during Milliken’s tenure, a 15-year-old Dalwhinnie, which swaps custard and honey for smoke and pepper. The bottles are specially labeled and sold in the parliamentary dining room. They became popular with MPs to buy as gifts for supporters and friends, especially at Christmas. Speakers present them to international delegations, when visiting others, and serve it at receptions.


The reason I did a second was the members came to me and said you’ve got to have another one of these. This was so much fun, we’ve got to do it again. I said OK, alright.

My staff would bring a list of ones that were available at the LCBO (Ontario’s government liquor stores) to me. We’d discuss which ones we think we should go with and come up with a list of five or six. We’d go down and buy a few bottles of each, bring them up and have them ready for the tasting. When one was chosen, we had labels done for the bottles and had permission to re-label them as Speaker’s Selection.

 A Speaker’s Scotch (with box) selected by Andrew Scheer.


Two days after being elected Speaker, I had members from all different parties saying, are you going to have your own Speaker’s Selection? Are you going to continue that tradition? It was clear to me early on in my mandate that members would very much appreciate having that tradition carried on, so it wasn’t a very difficult decision.

I think Speaker Milliken found a neat way to engage members in the selection and pick something that was not just reflective of his own taste but something that would be enjoyed by a broad section. Obviously, we couldn’t have 50 different kinds to sample, so we did provide a selection that I either had recommendations from other members or I knew myself were nice bottles.

Scotch can sometimes be associated with a hoity-toity type of thing but in reality, there are a lot of very accessible, enjoyable selections.

I think there is a sweet spot — something that’s very enjoyable, not just bar rail stuff, that has a nice presentation; we obviously want to keep the price point down to something affordable. I did throw in a bottle of Laphroaig (a particularly in-your-face whisky) just to see if anybody would go for the smokier stuff. I don’t think it got too, too many votes, it’s a bit of an acquired taste.

Scheer also had two Speaker’s Selection. A second was needed after the first was discontinued by the distributor. The first was a 12-year-old Glenmorangie with a special aging process. For his second, MPs chose a complex but mellow 12-year-old Balvenie DoubleWood.


When the distributor (for the first) was discontinuing serving the Ontario market, rather than try to find a work around or bootleg it in from a different province, we just decided to have a second selection tasting.


We had a reception for MPs and then they could do a blind taste test and vote. The funny thing is, when we had our reception, I was there and talking to people but it was so busy that I never got to taste any or vote. And then my staff said you have to get to your next event. It’s called the Speaker’s Selection, but I didn’t play much of a role in its selection.

 A Speaker’s Scotch selected by Anthony Rota.


They are hand-labeled. A design team arranged a meeting. I gave them some ideas, they gave me some ideas, and then they came back with a dozen different choices. We modified them a bit and then we picked the one label I thought worked best.


One thing that was part of the design, the plastic that covered the cap, the top, is put on at the factory. We couldn’t change that. In our case it was a plum colour. We had to have a label design that went with that. Someone found a tartan that had that colour in it.

As the Speaker’s Scotch became more popular, Canadian distillers got agitated that Parliament wasn’t using a domestic whisky. It became a scandal in 2016, when Canadian whisky advocates complained to the media. Regan took the brunt of complaints, even though he had insisted on Glen Breton, a single malt from his home province of Nova Scotia included in the taste testing. It didn’t win. A 12-year-old Aberlour did.


I can’t complain about Canadian distillers being upset. Their reaction was entirely reasonable. I have no argument with their reaction. I must say, I would have been delighted if it was Glen Breton, but that wasn’t the one that was selected by the voting.


I was more looking at it with a view towards continuing the tradition Speaker Milliken had started, that it’d be important to establish that first and then see if we wanted to modify it. I do remember being approached by the Canadian distillers about whether or not it would be possible to do something. The suggestion came well after we had already made the Scotch selection.


I could have gone with rye, I suppose, instead. But I’ve never been a big rye drinker, I preferred Scotch. I decided to just run with the Scotch because I thought it would be popular with the members and it was — they weren’t complaining that I wasn’t doing ryes.


One of the things people have expressed concern about is that we have a foreign distiller providing the Speaker’s drink. It is a tradition that it is Scotch, and I don’t want to break that tradition, but one tradition I’m looking to start is to have a Speaker’s Canadian rye whisky as well. I’m hoping that we will all come back (from COVID-19) and part of the return will be a tasting of the different ryes.

After Rota’s election as Speaker, COVID-19 made a tasting and voting by MPs impossible, but demands for a new bottling for Christmas gifts remained.


In February (2020) we had decided we were going to go ahead — but then COVID hit and I thought I’ll wait until we return to some semblance of normal so that we can have an official tasting. Well, we waited and waited and waited. Everyone was asking for it. They started asking again when we got back in September, but as we got close to Christmas, more and more people were asking about it.

Finally, we thought, OK, we’re obviously not going to end up having a big taste test, so we’re going to bring them home at the Speaker’s Farm, which is the Speaker’s residence, and on a Saturday night I had to sacrifice myself and try the different Scotches myself.

My wife’s not a big fan of Scotch, she said she’d run the blind taste test and make sure it is completely random. She had them all lined up and then she had a second run with a little bit of water in them. She knew which one was which. I was not aware of what I was drinking. I really enjoyed the evening and my wife enjoyed it as well.

One really caught Rota’s attention. It packs a huge punch. With a splash of water, it really opened up. That’s the one he picked. It was a cask-strength Aberlour A’Bunadh. Milliken is pleased his tradition carries on. When COVID retreats, he joked, Rota should hold a reception to “see if his selection is upheld by the members.” Such interactions are about more than fun.


So often MPs are only talking to their caucus friends but not with anybody else. When I was (in Parliament), you could go and chat with members on the other side and that was really helpful. Now it doesn’t happen, so you’re left to arguing everything on the House floor and because they aren’t friends with one another, particularly, it’s more hostile

But at the tastings, they end up mixing and chatting with everybody, even switching languages. It was beneficial, I thought, for collegiality among the group. Having these tastings was an important part of what the Speaker can do to keep things more civil in the chambers.

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Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques

2020, the year you want to forget? Archivists say not so fast

Archivists across Ontario have set up ways for everyday people to document how the pandemic has affected them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left a disruptive mark on this holiday season, as family gatherings turned into Zoom calls and everyone felt less together. Accommodations like these are disappointing and maybe worth forgetting, but for Ontario’s archives it’s necessary to remember these extraordinary times.

On the website for the Ontario Jewish Archives (OJA), there are posts from ordinary people who’ve shared photos, video and descriptions of their COVID-19 experiences.

In one post, the Reitman family shared photos from Passover seder and described how the pandemic transformed it. Relatives around the world met during a Zoom call, paid tribute to an uncle who died from COVID-19, and affirmed their togetherness on the Passover holiday.

“Those kinds of stories help illuminate the COVID-19 experience,” said Donna Bernardo-Ceriz, managing director of the OJA and its

COVID-19 Documentation Project


The pandemic is an obvious historical moment, and no one knows this more than archivists. As society went into lockdown, individuals and families isolated, and the wearing of masks and social distancing became customary, many of Ontario’s archives started preserving those experiences so future generations can study and understand the pandemic.

“The idea was we would put up a page on our website inviting people to submit their materials,” Bernardo-Ceriz said.

People can submit “whatever they feel is reflective of what they’re experiencing,” she explained. “It can be photographs, Zoom recordings, writings — really, it can be anything.”

The Ontario Jewish Archives, along with archives from the University of Toronto, Ryerson University and Queen’s University, have all created web pages where community members can post personal materials and thoughts related to their COVID-19 experiences. Each of these COVID-19 archives aims to document life during the pandemic.

“I think it’ll be really interesting for students and researchers to come to this material and see what people were creating, what people were thinking, and how this moment will be remembered,” said Olivia Wong, a curatorial special at Ryerson University’s Archives and Special Collections who is working on the

COVID-19 Community Experiences Archive


For now, archives are not collecting physical records because of social distancing measures. At

Queen’s University Archive

, they anticipate collecting physical items like pandemic-related arts and crafts when it’s safe.

“It’s something we’re looking toward in order to round out everything,” said Jeremy Heil, a digital and private records archivist in Kingston, Ont.

Digital records are laying the groundwork for COVID-19 archives, which makes sense when the pandemic has forced people to work from home and rely on digital technology to stay connected.

“Digital records are very reflective of our times,” Heil observed. “So I would say web archives are probably the richest resource we have.”

When it comes to storing these digital records, Queen’s pays for storage space by subscribing to a service called

Archive It


Queen’s archivists have been adding records from university and community webpages that “capture COVID-19 stories and stories that relate directly to the experience,” said Heil. These include notices and articles about masks and online education.

So far, U of T, Ryerson, and Queen’s are not making their COVID-19 collections public, while they curate and organize material for future display and research. The OJA has shared some COVID-19 contributions to its website.

“We wanted to share some of the material that had come in,” Bernardo-Ceriz said. “To encourage others to donate and to give a sense of what we’re looking for.”

Normally, archives proactively seek donors and contributions, but the pandemic’s social distancing measures forced archives to take a more passive role by inviting contributions.

Tys Klumpenhouwer, an archivist at the University of Toronto’s Archives and Record Management Services (UTARMS), said this new approach fits within a broader trend across archives.

“These experience projects are part of a shift in archives giving up the traditional power they’ve had in deciding what’s in and what’s out,” Klumpenhouwer said. “We’re shifting that power to the people we want to document and giving them the tools to document themselves.”

Traditionally, archives employed a top-down approach by collecting materials from powerful institutions.

When U of T archived the 1918 Spanish flu

, it stored administrative records but left out responses and material from students and the community.

U of T and many other archives are now seeking to correct imbalances like these by involving everyday people in their collection and appraisal of records.

Using questionnaires and prompts, archives are asking ordinary people to submit their COVID-19 experiences.

U of T’s COVID-19 Community Experience Questionnaire

asks community members to describe the pandemic’s impact on their lives, how they perceive U of T’s response, and what they miss about the U of T campus.

“U of T has all these lives,” private records archivist Daniela Ansovini said. “It’s a social place, a place of labour, and a place of study, so the questionnaire gives us more to understand what U of T means in people’s lives.”

The goal is to “collect everybody’s experience,” Klumpenhouwer said. “So people a hundred years from now can see what everyone’s response was, good or bad.”

This is the first time U of T’s archive has done a project like this.

“Is this a new way for us to collect and document people’s experiences and memories of events,” asked Klumpenhouwer. “This project could be the first of many or the start of a new trend.”

At Defining Moments Canada — a heritage and educational organization that creates digital resources for teachers and researchers — there’s a mandated interest in telling history from the perspectives of everyday people.

During the organization’s

2018 Spanish flu project

, “Defining Moments Canada went to work telling this story through individual narratives and how ordinary Canadians experienced it,” said executive director Jenifer Terry. “Versus statistics on how many people were

infected or died


Users can find an interactive story map and an artifact gallery on the Defining Moments Canada website, which tells the Spanish flu stories of nurses, mothers and soldiers returning from the First World War.

“It’s incredibly important for people to see history from the bottom-up,” Terry said. “It can really send the message home that people are making history and are a part of history every day.”

Archives hope these stories will give researchers a more complete COVID-19 history to study in the future.

“It’s up to archives to encourage this archiving and build these collections,” said Ryerson’s Olivia Wong. “But it’s also up to folks to do some personal archiving themselves.”

“Do it in a way that speaks to you and your experience and then value it,” suggested U of T’s Ansovini.

There are countless ways to record or document one’s COVID-19 experience, whether it’s through photography, journaling, creative writing, filmmaking, painting, and so much more.

Archives suggest recording background information like your location, the date, and who you’re with, too. When it’s time to submit, find a local archive and they’ll help.

Archives plan to keep collecting COVID-19 records and experiences for several years.

“Our plan is to keep it open for a number of years,” said Klumpenhouwer. “Because there are people who’ll be affected by this for years.”

Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques

In a year of tense Indigenous protests, all eyes turn to federal government

A man carrying a Mohawk Warrior Flag faces a line of Parliamentary Protective Service officers during the All Eyes on Parliament: Rally for the Wet'suwet'en in downtown Ottawa. February 24, 2020.

As 2020 began, last winter, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on the case of two Innu First Nations who opposed a mining project that straddles the Quebec border with Newfoundland and Labrador.

The case came out of Quebec’s court, where N.L. had failed in its legal effort to strike the parts of the claim that relate to land in N.L., claiming a lack of jurisdiction.

A key finding of the top court’s majority decision to dismiss N.L.’s appeal was that Aboriginal rights are not like property rights or personal rights, which are constrained by provincial borders. Rather, they are special sorts of rights that predate Canada and apply evenly across provincial lines.

The fact that Canada is divided into provinces, with different court jurisdictions, “should not be permitted to deprive or impede the right of Aboriginal peoples to effective remedies for alleged violations of these pre‑existing rights,” the court ruled.

You would hardly know it from the Indigenous land and resource disputes that went unresolved across Canada through 2020, even as they were overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The year began with a showdown in Western Canada, in Wet’suwet’en territory in northern British Columbia, where a Coastal GasLink pipeline is being built to the sea. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police moved in to arrest people blocking a service road. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it an issue of international law, a matter to be resolved “nation-to-nation.” Protests in solidarity were spreading across the country, including a rail blockade in Ontario, just as the pandemic’s first wave began in March.

More recently, in Nova Scotia, the lobster fishery in the Bay of Fundy saw arson and physical confrontations when commercial workers in the off season protested the Sipekne’katik First Nation’s launching of lobster boats. The disagreement was over the established legal right of Mi’kmaw people to a “moderate livelihood” from the fishery, with little in the way of clear regulatory guidance about what that means.

And in Caledonia, Ontario, a dispute over housing development on land claimed by the Six Nations of the Grand River, flared up again in summer, without resolution. Indigenous groups occupied an area of the development in mid-July and set up an encampment where they remain, more than 150 days later. A burned-out school bus blocks one of the main roads near the protested site. The land developer has recently filed a class action lawsuit against the province of Ontario, on behalf of people economically harmed by the protest, including the proposed representative plaintiff, who owns a Pita Pit franchise, alleging “misfeasance in a public office and for negligence respecting, among other matters, blockades erected by protestors”

The chair of the local police services board has also urged the Ontario Provincial Police to change its longstanding policy on response to similar protests, the Framework for Police Preparedness for Indigenous Critical Incidents, a document created after the Ipperwash inquiry of 2007 into the police shooting of a protester — even as he walked back and apologized for the board’s unfounded accusation in September that the protesters were “terrorists.”

A common theme in all of this is that, as tense protests develop, all eyes turn to Ottawa, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, after five years in government, is gathering a collection of missed milestones on Indigenous reconciliation, notably including on clean drinking water, but also on land and resource rights.

There are other factors. In B.C., for example, there were competing claims of legitimacy between elected and hereditary chiefs. There is also an international treaty environment, in which Canada knows the eyes of the world are on it.

 Supporters of the Wet’suwet’en Nation take a break during occupation of railway tracks, as part of a protest against British Columbia’s Coastal GasLink pipeline, in Toronto, on Feb. 15.

In December, the Liberal government introduced a bill that would require all Canadian law to conform to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

These problems are perennial. It was 15 years ago that three Haudenosaunee women began the occupation of a housing development in Caledonia, Ont. They were joined by others, and ordered out by a court in March. The Ontario Provincial Police acted in April, meeting resistance, including the setting up of barricades, mischief and vandalism. More than 50 charges were laid. By June, the province had bought Douglas Creek Estates. In 2011, it settled a class action by setting up a compensation fund.

The Nova Scotia fishery has a similar history of high-profile events and false conclusions. This year’s conflict proved that even a decision of the Supreme Court of Canada could not settle the matter, as the 1999 ruling in the case of Donald Marshall, Jr. appeared to do by setting out the right of First Nations to fish for a “moderate livelihood,” which the federal government has declined to define.

Justice Minister David Lametti was optimistic that the signing of the UN treaty will be an important milestone to guide progress and not yet another failed pledge.

“Working with First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples to implement the declaration and create a framework to achieve its objectives is a statement that the Government of Canada values, respects and promotes the human rights of all, and not just some,” said Lametti at a press conference with First Nations leaders in December. “The legislation is a significant step forward on the shared path to reconciliation for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike.”

Perry Bellegarde, outgoing Assembly of First Nations Chief, endorsed the bill as a way to balance economic and environmental concerns in pursuit of a better country, but said it has a “precarious journey” ahead on the way to Royal Assent.

Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques

Hundreds of thousands of travellers at Toronto Pearson to be tested for COVID-19 in early 2021

A person wearing a mask walks through Toronto Pearson Airport's Terminal 1 on May 20, 2020.

OTTAWA — The Ontario and federal governments are preparing to unveil a joint COVID-19 rapid testing program at the province’s biggest airport as early as next week, as both sides seek to deflect blame for a growing number of travel-related cases entering Canada.

A spokesperson for Ontario Premier Doug Ford said a new pilot program to test international travellers entering Canada through Toronto Pearson International Airport would be unveiled “in the early new year.” The plan is likely to test roughly 315,000 travellers for COVID-19 over a three-month period, but the arrangement has not yet been finalized, the person said.

Those hopes come after weeks of failed negotiations between the two governments, who have sparred in recent weeks after Premier Ford claimed that Ottawa has failed in its duty to secure the Canadian border during the pandemic.

“We’ve continually — and I’m going to repeat this, continually — asked the federal government to secure our borders,” Ford said in a press conference last week, when he imposed sweeping new lockdowns across the province.

Ford denounced the federal government in particular for what he called a failure to enforce mandatory testing at airports, which he said has in turn raised the overall number of new cases in the province. Some critics viewed his comments as an attempt to deflect blame for rising COVID-19 cases in the province.

Ford’s concerns have taken on a heightened urgency in recent days after a new strain of COVID-19, first identified in the U.K., was confirmed in Ontario this weekend. Quebec on Tuesday also confirmed its first case of the variant, which is thought to be much more contagious than earlier strains.

Ford’s comments prompted some pushback from the federal health and public safety ministers, who sought to reiterate some of the measures they’ve introduced, including penalties for travellers who do not abide by the 14-day quarantine period and rudimentary contact tracing efforts.

The Public Health Agency of Canada issued a press release on Tuesday that again repeated those measures, saying the federal government “continues to advise against non-essential travel and reminds all travellers returning to Canada that contravening the mandatory quarantine can lead to severe penalties.”

More than 180 contract tracing officials are currently making over 4,600 calls per day to identify potential cases, PHAC said. Authorities have so far levelled 130 fines and charged another eight travellers who broke quarantine rules or other directives. “Verbal warnings” have been issued to 185 people, and written warnings to 20, the department said.

Federal ministers have sought to distance themselves from criticism over border security, and have said they are working with some provinces to introduce testing at airports.

“I’m surprised by the Premier of Ontario’s comments,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said in response to Ford last week. “We have been working with his government on his request to conduct a testing pilot project at Pearson International Airport for weeks.”

Alberta partnered with the federal government in October to begin a pilot testing program at the Calgary airport and Coutts border crossing to identify positive COVID-19 cases.

Differing views over border security also comes amid recent media reports of politicians taking personal trips outside the country in recent weeks, raising fresh doubts over whether some are prepared to endure the restrictions they impose. Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips took

an international trip with his wife

in mid-December, just weeks before the Ford government imposed strict lockdowns on the province.

And Quebec Liberal MNA Pierre Arcand is currently in the West Indies with his wife. In a statement obtained by Presse Canadienne, the former interim leader of the Quebec Liberal Party confirmed he was in Barbados, “one of the safest places in the world right now,” and that he regretted his decision “given the current situation in Quebec and the respect we owe to health workers.”

 Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips takes questions during the daily briefing at Queen’s Park in Toronto on May 11, 2020.

The trips come at a time when federal authorities have repeatedly advised against non-essential international travel, and as Ontario and Quebec plead with people to follow pandemic restrictions.

International travel accounts for only a small portion of new COVID-19 cases, according to public figures. But data on international travel is limited due to the absence of testing at airports, and people have continued to flow in and out of the country even as pandemic restrictions remain in place.

Over the last two weeks, government officials have identified 24 international flights entering Pearson airport with positive COVID-19 cases. Another 10 positive flights departed Toronto to other destinations, including three to Delhi. Other positive cases left Toronto for Mexico City, London and Dublin, among other destinations.

The proposal to test just over 300,000 travellers entering Pearson airport over three months is a fraction of the roughly 750,000 total travellers who arrive over the same period, according to public data.

Ontario officials in November initially proposed testing 900,000 travellers over six months, which was ultimately rejected by the federal health department, according to one provincial official.

Ontario currently has the capacity to test roughly 100,000 people per day, province-wide.

Total new infections in Ontario from travel have been sizeable, but much smaller than those caused by community spread, potentially because travel-related infections are confined to single aircraft. As of Dec. 27, a total of 3,945 travel-related COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in Ontario — 114 of which arrived in the last week.

By comparison, “community spread” has been responsible for 33,276 cases, and “close contact” cases for 71,310, according to government data.

With files from the Montreal Gazette

Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques

Doug Ford tells his finance minister Rod Phillips to come home from the Caribbean

Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips speaks at a press conference on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

Premier Doug Ford said he’s told his finance minister to return to Canada after news broke that Rod Phillips was on a trip outside the country.

Phillips posted photos on social media in recent weeks that show him at locations in Ontario, but his office said Tuesday the photos had been taken before his departure.

The Ford government continues to urge people to refrain from non-essential travel.

“I have let the minister know that his decision to travel is completely unacceptable and that it will not be tolerated again — by him or any member of our cabinet and caucus,” Ford said in a statement Tuesday.

“I have also told the minister I need him back in the country immediately.”

Phillips said in a statement that he left on a trip to St. Barts on Dec. 13 after the end of the legislative session. He said he was arranging to return to Ontario immediately and would begin a 14-day quarantine when he arrives.

“I deeply regret travelling over the holidays. It was a mistake and I apologize,” Phillips said.

Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques

How a diminished Department of Finance brings into question Canada's fiscal future

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, right, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government has been unacceptably opaque in its handling of the national purse, several former senior Finance officials say, a concern that reflects deeper disagreements in Ottawa between the public service and the Liberal government’s lofty spending plans.

Their worries include what some officials describe as an increasingly centralized power base within the Prime Minister’s Office, which intensified under the Harper government following the 2009 recession and has continued under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.


National Post

spoke with six former Department of Finance officials, including two former deputy ministers, who expressed concern over a lack of fiscal transparency in Ottawa at a time of unprecedented deficit spending. The people stressed that there has always been some degree of disagreement between the PMO, who makes decisions based on political calculations, and the much more staid Department of Finance, which has long acted as a sort of sober second thought in Ottawa.

But those inherent divides have deepened in recent years as the Trudeau government fixates on expanding the social safety net, said David Dodge, who served as deputy minister of finance from 1992 to 1997 before becoming governor of the Bank of Canada. Trudeau’s policies have broadly centred around redistribution, with much less regard for tackling difficult economic questions or making efforts to cut unnecessary spending.

“The policies of the government in power, and the proclivities of the current prime minister, are not particularly oriented towards the hard work of generating economic growth, and that can make things difficult for the Department of Finance,” Dodge said.

Differing policy views between the two has in turn prompted deeper questions about Finance’s role in Ottawa — and uncertainty over who will ensure sound fiscal management in future.

The federal government has yet to provide an updated fiscal anchor since the beginning of the pandemic, leaving little indication of how or when it might begin to rein in COVID-19 emergency spending.

Economists are nearly unanimous in their support for the $381-billion deficit Ottawa plans to run in 2021, saying it was a necessary attempt to hold over the Canadian economy.

But a lack of accountability around those spending measures has raised eyebrows. That was particularly the case when Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland tabled her fiscal update on Nov. 30, where she promised between $70 billion and $100 billion in stimulus spending over three years while declining to detail where a single cent of the funding would go.

“The lack of transparency around the government’s intentions in its economic and fiscal forecast is not acceptable in a democracy,” said Don Drummond, who held several senior positions in the Department of Finance over his 23-year career. “I think everyone should be concerned about this.”

Eleven days later, Ottawa announced an entirely new package of spending, this time $15 billion in subsidies to help Canada exceed its Paris climate targets. While developed economies including the U.K. and Australia have tabled budgets during the pandemic, the Liberals have only provided high-level spending in two separate fiscal “snapshots.”

That apparent disregard for basic fiscal hygiene plays into a much longer-running dissatisfaction among some over the increasingly vapid nature of modern budgets.

Many former Finance official will talk nostalgically about the more straightforward, no-nonsense budgets tabled by past governments. Dodge can recall joining the department in 1972, a year when Ottawa ran a 60-page budget, many of the copies stamped onto paper using an old mimeograph.

The fiscal update by Freeland ran 223 pages, each one crammed to the neck with political jargon about “investing in Canadians” or the “future shared prosperity” of the country. That sort of “puffery” has always existed to some extent, but has accelerated in the last decade, Dodge said.

“Budgets used to be budgets,” he said. “They were always political documents, but they were also built around the numbers and some explanation of those numbers.”

The absence of clear language in modern budgets is largely a result of a wider shift in Ottawa, where the balance of power is increasingly centralized in the Prime Minster’s Office. Scott Clark, who replaced Dodge as deputy minister of Finance in 1998, said that shift has had a particular effect on the role of the department.

“I think the Finance Department has been a bit diminished in terms of its positioning in the city and its power base — not just recently but starting under Harper,” said Clark, who served as deputy minister from 1998 to 2001.

Clark and others emphasized that the PMO has always been the final decision-maker in Ottawa, and often disregards the advice of the department in favour of politically sexier policies.

But the propensity for the PMO to drive its own policy began to accelerate under Harper, who put immense emphasis on controlling his political message from the centre. That has continued in much the same way under Trudeau, where Liberal ministers have for years stuck to narrow talking points almost without exception.

The Harper government introduced an internal policy that sought to create greater transparency across government departments in Ottawa, forcing them to provide spending estimates to the PMO on new proposals.

 David Dodge responds to reporters questions concerning the Monetary Policy Report, at a news conference in Ottawa, Jan 24, 2008.

The move actually gave each of the departments more clout, according to some officials, and provided the opportunity to pitch spending proposals directly to the PMO. In practice, that indirectly lowered the dependence of the PMO on spending proposals drafted by Finance.

Some department officials including Clark are hopeful that the shifting power balance could be at least partly corrected under the leadership of Michael Sabia, who replaced Paul Rachon as head of the department earlier this month.

It remains unclear whether anything will change under Sabia, a former telecoms executive and head of Quebec’s pension fund. In a Globe and Mail op-ed in early March, Sabia proposed a suite of ambitious (if vague) policy changes to help guide Canada out of the pandemic, and called on the Trudeau government to “avoid the trap of incremental, piece-by-piece action that is so often the reflex of bureaucracy.”

Clark says his appointment could “re-establish Finance in its leadership role.”

It’s a correction that is long overdue, according to those who see Finance’s role as a crucial backstop within the federal government. As the Liberal government floats expensive and seemingly permanent measures to “build back better” out of the pandemic, some see that role as more crucial than ever.

“Their ability to push back against dumb ideas, or to ask where the money is going to come from, has gone out the window,” said one former finance official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

It’s not a unanimous view, both within and without the department. Jennifer Robson, professor at Carleton University specializing in national finance, said claims about a diminished Department of Finance are often comparing current circumstances to the early-and- mid-1990s, when the department had the full ear of the Chrétien government.

Debt costs at the time were six times the current rate, and foreign governments and investment funds had stopped buying Canada’s bonds, prompting a fiscal reckoning in Ottawa. Austerity budgets came soon after, driven in part by a PMO and finance minister who swallowed the department’s prescription pills.

“There is always a tendency to yearn for the good old days,” Robson said.

“People have been complaining about the centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s Office since at least Trudeau senior,” she said.

That much was understood by Justin Trudeau himself, who ran in the 2015 election partly in opposition to the central governing style of Harper.

“One of the things we’ve seen throughout the past decades in government is the trend toward more control in the Prime Minister’s Office,” Trudeau told the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge in a 2015 interview. “Actually, it can be traced as far back as my father, who kicked it off in the first place. And I think we’ve reached the end point on that.”

Regardless of the future position of Finance within Ottawa, all officials agreed that the federal government needs to address some of the major economic issues of the day, and do so while adhering to clear fiscal guidelines. That would likely mean a reorientation toward ensuring that private-sector operators can reach full capacity, they said.

Economic growth even before the pandemic was set to average just 1.8 per cent over the next five years, which has since fallen to just 1.5 per cent growth. That kind of lag points to the need for Canada to introduce meaningful but perhaps less sexy policy changes: creating truly free inter-provincial trade, cutting regulations, and helping innovative companies to scale up.

Dodge said that the government has been long on promises to rejuvenate the economy. But it has been far less enthusiastic about ensuring that its goals are met, including anything from planting trees to funnelling billions of dollars into infrastructure projects.

“It’s a lack of discipline and a lack of focus on actually delivering,” he said. “You send out a press release and that’s seen as the end game, whereas the real issue is in actually governing.”

Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques

Alberta company sued after former employee spends two months in hellish Congo jail

Pointe-Noire, Congo.

Ronan O’Mhaoinigh had been working in the Republic of Congo for Alberta’s United Safety International barely six weeks when the subpoena arrived.

It summoned him ominously to a courthouse in Pointe-Noire, heart of the central African country’s sizeable oil industry, to face unspecified legal accusations.

The situation quickly grew even more alarming. The Irish native learned he was being sued by the Canadian firm’s former agent, a man with links to the nation’s autocratic rulers. The agent claimed O’Mhaoinigh had pocketed $2 million in unpaid fees owed to him, news to the novice employee.

Soon enough the judge had the United Safety worker handcuffed and hustled off to a local jail.

And for the next two months in 2015, O’Mhaoinigh and another employee languished in the lockup’s hellish conditions, where 300 prisoners were jammed into a space equivalent to two basketball courts, guards kept their distance and violent criminals ruled the roost.

He eventually fled the country with his wife, a Congo native, but the couple are now suing United Safety in an unusual civil action. It alleges the Airdrie, Alta., oil and gas safety-equipment supplier was immersed in the corruption of what NGO

Global Witness

calls “one of the world’s longest-lasting kleptocracies.”

The company exposed O’Mhaoinigh to danger through its questionable dealings with well-connected agent Marc Emanuelli, struck a back-room deal for his freedom that left a baseless criminal charge hanging over his head and laid him off not long after the ordeal, he charges.

“Just yesterday or the day before, I rang my wife to remind her of how we were before United Safety came along,” O’Mhaoinigh said in an affidavit filed a year ago in the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. “We were hopeful, we had plans, we wanted children, we helped each other … United Safety and its directors took away all that.”

None of the allegations has been proven in court. A legal official called a “master” ruled this month against the plaintiffs’ request for a “summary judgment” based on written submissions, saying the dispute would have to be settled at trial.

Unable to afford a lawyer in Alberta, the plaintiffs are representing themselves.

The company, like O’Mhaoinigh, declined to comment on the action, but it has responded in court with a very different version of events.

United Safety says it had no idea Emanuelli was accused of involvement in shady activities, but did all it could with its Canadian and African lawyers to get O’Mhaoinigh released. In the meantime, the employee needlessly antagonized the judicial and political systems in Congo, tried to bribe a court officer, and spurned the help of United Safety and its lawyers, the firm charges.

He was laid off eventually, after taking months of paid leave, only because the global oil industry was crumbling and United Safety was pulling out of Congo, it says.

“United Safety worked tirelessly and at great expense to support and free Mr. O’Mhaoinigh from detention,” CEO Lee Whittaker says in an affidavit.

Regardless of whose account is more accurate, the case shines a light on the sometimes controversial role played by Western businesses in resource-wealthy developing countries like Congo, sub-Saharan Africa’s third-biggest oil producer.

Despite its petroleum riches, Congo — also known as Congo-Brazzaville — is nearly bankrupt after years of corruption under strong-man president Denis Sassou Nguesso.

 Republic of Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso arrives for a visit at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Sept. 3, 2019.

In a report earlier this year,

Global Witness noted

that over US$1 billion of the state oil company’s revenue is unaccounted for, something it says needs to be investigated given Congo’s “long history of diversion of public funds by political elites.”

Swiss authorities fined

a company US$95 million in 2019 for employing bribery in the country, and San Marino

confiscated $US17 million

from Nguesso in a money-laundering investigation. Meanwhile, the president lives in luxury, spending a reported US$110,000 just on

crocodile-skin shoes


United Safety, which was

founded in 1987,

and boasts of its “excellent (employee) safety record,” has branch offices throughout the world, from Kazakhstan to Singapore, Romania and Saudi Arabia. It had been doing business in Congo since at least 2011.

O’Mhaoinigh moved to the country in 2012 with his Congolese wife, Marie Therese Nenette Bouithy, the couple having met while both were working for Médecins Sans Frontières in Colombia. Bouithy started a wholesale flower-growing business. The husband first worked for a security company, then took the job as account manager with United Safety, spending the first three months training in Alberta.

He started work on the ground in January 2015, and a few weeks later received the subpoena, requiring him to meet the judge in a “dark, dungeon-like and untidy” office, his affidavit says. The official asked immediately if he had stolen Emmanuelli’s money.

O’Mhaoinigh said ‘No,” and pleaded ignorance of the whole situation, but the judge promptly had him arrested, as United Safety’s lawyer said nothing, the suit alleges.

He was the only white man in the jail, the area for prisoners surrounded by a canal full of urine and excrement, with no running water available. Absent any guards, prisoners armed with razor blades and other weapons kept order, administering beatings with a metal rod on a daily basis, alleges the lawsuit.

O’Mhaoinigh said a sense of hopelessness overtook him, and he was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and would lash out at his wife periodically for months after his release.

He says he knew nothing about Emanuelli at the time, but it turns out the firm had ended its contract with the agent days before the Irishman’s arrest in Pointe-Noire. The arrangement had given the French-Lebanese citizen 10 per cent of any deals the Calgary firm struck in Congo.

In a pre-trial examination for discovery, United Safety CEO Lee Whittaker said Emanuelli had been hired as a sort of facilitator to navigate local culture, language, tax laws and other aspects of doing business in Congo.

But for at least one of his foreign clients, the businessman had a history of providing much more. According to the Swiss watchdog group

Public Eye

, Emanuelli helped the Swiss commodity trader Gunvor gain a foothold in Congo, introducing

Denis Cristel Sassou Nguesso

, the president’s son, to Gunvor executives at a high-end hotel in Paris in 2008. Bribes were involved, Public Eye alleged.

Gunvor later worked with other go-betweens on more lucrative deals, and last year was

convicted under Swiss laws

of facilitating corruption in Congo, including the payment of millions in bribes.

With two of his own staff in jail, Whittaker wrote Emanuelli in 2015, offering to pay him $2 million in five installments for his work that year, indicates a letter filed in court. The CEO wrote that he understood the agent would “proceed to the immediate release of my employees” and withdrawal of charges on receiving the letter.

But the CEO says in an affidavit that O’Mhaoinigh was not freed because of any payments United Safety made to Emanuelli. The company was also unaware of allegations of corruption against the agent, and has seen no objective proof of those charges.

O’Mhaoinigh argues in court documents his role was essentially to do what Emanuelli had been doing — help obtain business for United Safety. He questions why he was paid $54,000 a year and the local businessman millions if that money wasn’t used for greasing the wheels of a corrupt government.

He alleges the company worked behind the scenes, tapping high-level contacts with Congo’s leadership, to get him released and his passport returned. But O’Mhaoinigh alleges it left him still facing a criminal charge and fearful of more retribution from Nguesso allies. He says lawyers he retained were on the way to having him cleared completely but the company essentially short-circuited those efforts.

United Safety says it was the work of its own lawyers and nothing else that got its employees out of jail and that, in fact, all charges were dismissed. And the situation was exacerbated by O’Mhaoinigh’s own actions, charges Whittaker’s affidavit.

That includes his “aggressive and disrespectful behaviour” in the Congolese courts; attempt to bribe a police officer; refusal to co-operate with the company and its lawyer; political activism; and publication on the Internet of details of the case, which the judge deemed “an attack on his honour,” the affidavit says.

A letter from the company’s lawyer that O’Mhaoinigh received after his release, also filed in court, accuses him of conducting a “campaign of defamation and denigration” against United Safety and Congo’s judiciary, and said the firm reserved the right to take legal action against him if he persisted.

Regardless, O’Mhaoinigh says in court documents the episode has turned the couple’s lives upside down.

They left Congo with nothing, touching down first in Spain, then moving to Ireland, O’Mhaoinigh says. He even tried to obtain a visa to Canada, but his application was rejected at that time because of the bogus criminal charge in Congo, he says in an affidavit.

He says his career in corporate finance is effectively over, the outstanding charge in Congo turning off most employers.

The lawsuit claims more than $18 million in damages, much of it for “economic loss.”

Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques

Dividends still went out even after soldiers marched in to long-term care homes in Canada

A staff member escorts members of the Canadian Armed Forces in to a long term care home, in Pickering, Ont. on Saturday, April 25, 2020.

OTTAWA – In the spring, Sienna Senior living needed military support in two of its overwhelmed long-term care homes where COVID-19 was surging, but even though soldiers were marching in, the company still paid out $45 million to its shareholders.

Sienna is a publicly traded company that runs dozens of long-term care homes and retirement residences in Ontario and British Columbia. During the spring, two of its homes required military support; Altamont Care Community where 53 people have died and Woodbridge Vista Care Community where 31 people died.

In a report that was made public in the spring

, military officers detailed appalling conditions at Altamont, including patients receiving meals late and not receiving three meals a day. When the military first arrived, they reported, some residents had been bed bound for weeks. Staff were overworked and under-resourced with personal support workers expected to cover 30 to 40 patients each on evening shifts.

The military pegged the overall cost of its COVID operations at $418 million, but that includes support for the public health agency’s warehouses, as well as the deployment to dozens of long-term care homes, seven in Ontario and another 47 in Quebec.

According to a spokesperson, for the complete operation the forces called up 9,711 reservists, at a cost of $207.8 million. The military spent another $34.2 million on travel, medical equipment, PPE and training.

Some of the costs would have been paid regardless of the pandemic, like the salaries of military doctors and nurses. Some operations that had been planned were cancelled leading to savings, but the forces’ estimate for the additional costs is still $255 million.

When the crisis hit, Sienna’s stock price plummeted, losing nearly half its value in early March. Since then, however, it has regained about half of its losses. It has also continued to pay out dividends to shareholders. The dividends were $15.6 million in the first three quarters of this year and it is likely to continue into the final quarter.

In a response, the company said the dividends were necessary and it has invested $20.5 million above and beyond any government support to improve the care homes.

“Dividends are similar to interest costs on loans — dividends are paid to shareholders who have provided the capital necessary to invest in the maintenance, upgrading and building of new long-term care residences,” the company wrote in a statement to the National Post. “At no point has the payment of dividends taken away from front-line care.”

In addition to the military’s support, Sienna’s fiscal statements reveal the company received $21 million from the Ontario government for staffing and PPE and $4 million for capital spending to improve infection control.

The financial statement mentions the company has also applied to the government to expand the Altamont Care facility, redeveloping the 159 beds and adding 161 new ones.

Three of the company’s homes were overseen by hospitals during the pandemic and Sienna paid those hospitals $1.9 million in management fees. Long-term care homes are generally paid on an occupancy basis, but the provincial government is covering lower occupancy rates for now. Sienna is also facing several lawsuits, from patients and their families, over its handling of the pandemic.

The company said it’s offering more employees full-time hours to keep them. But a note in the financial statements reveals, while it brought on 1,400 full-time and 1,100 part-time workers between March and October, it has also lost 1,700 people for a net increase of 800 people.

The company said staffing was an issue across the long-term care sector and it struggled just as other companies did.

“Given the intensity of the pandemic, many front-line workers chose to leave the field. At the same time, COVID-19 created an intense demand for registered staff across the LTC sector, as well as from hospitals, schools and other workplaces.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the company’s decision to pay out dividends, but didn’t weigh in on the issue.

“I know over the coming months there will be many reflections by Canadians and others on that.”

The federal government put no financial conditions on companies receiving military assistance. It also did not prevent companies that received the government’s wage subsidy from paying out dividends to shareholders. Sienna did not receive the wage subsidy, but others in the long-term care sector did.

He said with the situation deteriorating so drastically in the spring, the government only wanted to do what it could to help.

“Our focus from the very beginning, was to just be there for Canadians who needed help.”

Public ownership

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who has frequently called for long-term care homes to be put into public ownership, said the company’s behaviour is reprehensible.

“A pandemic is happening, people are dying, there are horrible conditions, the military is called in all that on one side and on the other they’re paying out dividends.”

The federal government is expected to be asked to spend more money in the coming years on long-term care homes and is pushing for national standards. Singh said all of that should happen, but that renewed funding shouldn’t become profit.

”I don’t think many Canadians would feel comfortable that if we transfer money to take care of seniors, which we should, if we transfer more money to long-term care which we should, if that money went to paying shareholder dividends, or if that money goes to, to the bonuses for executives,” he said. “If we’re spending public money to help seniors that doesn’t actually end up caring for seniors, no one would think that’s a good idea.”

Singh said the government could buy out the for-profit long-term care homes, starting with Revera, a company that is already owned by the Public Sector Pension Investment Board.

“If we could do it with a pipeline — which I think was a bad decision — we could absolutely do it to ensure seniors are cared for.”



Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques