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    Thousands of Canadian girls are at risk of female genital mutilation, government officials believe. And some are being taken overseas to have the dangerous procedure done — an illegal act known as “vacation cutting.”

    Officials from the federal government’s Global Affairs ministry warn that, similar to forced marriage, the “one chance rule” applies to these cases, meaning a professional might only get one opportunity to speak to a potential victim and save her, according to documents obtained by the Star.

    And yet Canada has done little to understand the scope of the problem and is lagging far behind other developed countries in their efforts to prevent it, experts say.

    “Based on the limited information available, it is possible that a few thousand Canadian girls are at risk, some of whom will be taken overseas for the procedure,” wrote Elaine Cukeric of the federal government’s Vulnerable Children’s unit in a June 2015 email to a Canadian consular official in Nairobi, Kenya. At the time, the unit — tasked with dealing with issues related to Canadian children abroad — was reaching out to consulates in Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan where cutting is prevalent and asking for their experience dealing with the practice so that “we might develop an effective strategy.”

    In a statement to the Star, a Global Affairs spokesperson said the federal government “recognizes that female genital mutilation/cutting is one of the most severe violations of the human rights of women and girls” and when made aware of a case they provide “appropriate consular services.” The spokesperson could not say how many cases her ministry has dealt with in recent years because they “do not have a specific category to track cases of (FGM)” and, further, are “not aware of any updated statistics on the issue of Canadian girls at risk.”

    Female genital mutilation (FGM) — also known as female genital cutting or female circumcision — is a procedure that intentionally alters or causes injury to external female organs. It can be inflicted on girls as young as one and varies in severity from partial removal of the clitoris, to excising the clitoris and labia and stitching up the walls of the vulva to leave only a tiny opening — known as infibulation.

    FGM has no health benefits for girls and women, and can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths, according to the World Health Organization. It can also deny women sexual pleasure. FGM affects more than 200 million women worldwide, according to UNICEF. It is a crime in Canada, as is sending a child elsewhere to have the procedure done.

    What is unknown — beyond anecdotal evidence — is whether FGM is happening within Canadian borders. In the U.S., a doctor in Michigan was recently charged with carrying out the practice on up to 100 young girls, according to federal prosecutors, who say that no Canadian victims have been identified yet. There have also been cases in the UK, France and Australia.

    Cukeric’s email correspondence, as well as dozens of additional emails sent by government employees over the last three years and released to the Star through an access-to-information request, reference multiple cases the government is aware of in which Canadian girls have undergone or are alleged to have undergone cutting abroad.

    Government officials reference summaries of specific cases they are aware of that are housed in internal servers. Many of the cases arose because “a relative (aunt/cousin) was the complainant,” said a Nairobi official. A different consular official in Nairobi wrote their office had seen “several cases, not all of them successful.” Other officials mention known cases in Somalia and Pakistan — where it is “understood they have a lot of experience dealing with” FGM cases.

    In one email chain from September 2015, officials reference a case where a “little girl” was “alleged to be removed from Canada for the purposes of female circumcision.” (The child’s location in Canada and the country she was alleged to have been taken to have both been redacted to protect her privacy.)

    Local police and children’s services “were unable to prevent the girl from leaving,” said one email.

    FGM is practiced in 29 countries around the world, in Africa the Middle East, India and parts of Asia. It is seen by some as a right of passage into womanhood or a condition of marriage. Though it is not considered an Islamic practice, for some, it is a religious ritual or requirement and there are tremendous pressures put on families to have it done.

    In another document from June 2015 summarizing an hour-long phone call with a senior consular officer in Nairobi, the official describes the “very delicate cases” and focuses on Somalia as an example.

    The official explains that many Somali families relocated to Canada during the civil war in the 1990s. Families grew “concerned about the development of Canadian values.” The families told the children they were going on vacation to Australia, for example, but instead, according to the documents, the family travels to a small remote village of Somalia for the girls to be cut. The official adds that the Canadian government has found out about these cases because “having grown up in Canada the girls know their rights” and use social media to tell a friend, who in turn contacts Canadian authorities.

    The consular official then listed a series of challenges associated with intervening, including the “right of the father to prohibit movement” and the fact that locally engaged staff “may be less concerned with FGM and therefore less likely to act.”

    It is also very difficult for victims of FGM to talk against their family, the official said, adding that telling the embassy their story means that they might never see their parents or siblings again. “It becomes the most difficult decision of their young lives,” she said.

    In another summary of a discussion about FGM with a Toronto-based expert whose identity has been censored, the expert tells the Vulnerable Children’s Unit that Global Affairs had previously received accounts of “some girls who have been severely beaten and/or sexually abused by family members prior to (FGM), sometimes due to the girl’s attempt to contact authorities for assistance.”

    At the same time, officials acknowledge they likely aren’t seeing the majority of cases.

    “I think (FGM) is highly under-reported at the consular level, as most victims are young . . . and often not in a position to help themselves,” said yet another consular official in Nairobi in an email sent in March of this year. She added that for older girls, “it is often done in conjunction with a forced marriage, so the two issues are closely linked and might be reported as (forced marriage) instead of (FGM).”

    In 1997, the Criminal Code was amended to include female genital mutilation as a form of aggravated assault. It’s not just the person performing the mutilation that could be charged. Provisions in the code also allow for others to be charged, for example, if a parent actively participates in the offence by holding a child’s hands or requests someone to perform it. And the amendments make it illegal to remove a child from Canada for the purpose of female genital mutilation.

    There has never been a criminal conviction for female genital mutilation in Canada.

    In its statement to the Star, Global Affairs say efforts to prevent FGM “remain collaborative,” and also sent statements on behalf of the RCMP, Department of Justice, Immigration and Refugees and Citizenship Canada and Status of Women. They reference various steps taken by government agencies. For example, the RCMP is currently in the midst of developing an internal policy to deal with FGM. The Justice Department has given nearly $350,000 in funding to an organization in Quebec, RAFIQ, to develop “tools on the physical and psychological consequences of FGM.”

    “The purpose of this project is to try to empower other women to denounce this kind of practice and to help young women to understand why it is not a good practice,” Maria Montejo, chair of the board of RAFIQ, says.

    The statement from Global Affairs also says that, “going forward, we will do more work with local women’s organizations.”

    While there is some movement happening, Canada’s efforts fall short of what other countries are actively doing, says Corinne Packer, a senior researcher at the University of Ottawa’s Institute on Population Health. Packer co-authored a 2015 report on Canada’s response to FGM for the Canadian Medical Association Journal and reviewed the government responses provided to the Star.

    “We’re behind the ball. We’re putting our head in the ground like an ostrich,” she says, adding that by the time a girl is overseas it’s often too late. More needs to done around prevention in Canada, Packer says.

    Earlier this summer, U.S. Homeland Security launched a pilot program to help prevent vacation cutting. The program is based on an initiative at London’s Heathrow airport, where security agents are trained to identify girls who are risk.

    Canada’s Justice Department, in a 2014 internal memo also obtained by the Star through an access-to-information request, acknowledges that the UK has “recently initiated a more proactive approach to FGM with a view to increased prosecutions.”

    Kowser Omer-Hashi, a former Somali refugee now living in Toronto, was subjected to FGM. She is a former midwife who has been campaigning against the practice for more than two decades.

    “We have a Prime Minister who declared himself a feminist and has a daughter the same age as children who could be losing their lives at this moment,” Omer-Hashi says. “If that doesn’t touch his heart to do something about FGM I think there is no hope.”

    In the internal emails obtained by the Star, government officials speaking amongst themselves suggest, and at times, admit, the Canadian response has not been adequate.

    In the 2015 email chain discussing the case in which the “little girl” was alleged to have been removed from Canada for the purpose of FGM and neither local police nor children’s services believed they were able to intervene, one official from Global Affairs asks for an update on how the case unfolded.

    “I believe we never heard back from local partners (CAS and others),” said one response.

    But in the same chain, another official said that at a recent meeting about FGM, the department of Justice and the RCMP said local authorities “had jurisdiction to do more to prevent removal,” under Canada’s laws.

    In yet another email in the chain, which is largely censored, Deputy Director of the Consular Operations Bureau, Sean Blane, said: “I think this speaks to our need for policy of process.”

    Blane said at another point in the thread, “I honestly think if we’re going to do any work on FGM it could be on prevention while in Canada.”

    With files from Michele Henry

    Jayme Poisson can be reached at jpoisson@thestar.ca or (416) 814-2725


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    MONTREAL — Just 49 voters in a rural Quebec municipality will cast ballots in a referendum Sunday to decide whether a parcel of land should be turned into a Muslim-run cemetery for people in the Quebec City area.

    The voters in Saint-Apollinaire, which is located about an hour southwest of the provincial capital, will decide whether to uphold or overturn zoning changes needed to turn a plot currently used to bury ashes contained in funeral urns into a cemetery that operates in accordance with the Islamic faith, according to town officials.

    But the results risk sending a strong message across Canada and outside the country’s borders, said resident Sylvain Roy.

    “My opinion is that the municipality risks being a symbol of social exclusion in all of Canada, in North America and perhaps further away than that,” said Roy, who is director of the Harmonia funeral home that is selling the land to the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec.

    The crucial zoning change is the result of a discussion that began in October 2016 when Roy met a Muslim family that had no local options for burying their loved one in accordance with their religious customs. The only Muslim-run cemetery in Quebec is 250 kilometres away in Laval, a suburb immediately north of Montreal.

    But the issue came to wider public notice this winter after a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque that killed six men and injured a number of others during Sunday evening prayers. One of the six victims was buried in Laval while the others were returned to the countries they were born in.

    The tragedy spurred members of the mosque to complete the transaction for the land in Saint-Apollinaire in February, reportedly worth $215,000. Mayor Bernard Ouellet and the municipal council followed through on May 1 with unanimous approval of the necessary zoning changes.

    But plans were already underway to challenge the changes with a referendum that allows neighbouring residents who might be affected by the project to have a vote on council’s decision. Seventeen signatures were enough to call the referendum. A simple majority of the 49 eligible voters will be enough to uphold council’s changes or overturn the zoning amendment.

    The leader of the group contesting the change, Sunny Létourneau, said they proposed the creation of a multi-confessional cemetery, a co-operative with the Muslim community and a privately run business with separate plot for Islamic burials.

    “They told us that it was contrary to their beliefs,” Létourneau said of the Muslim community. “But when we consulted other imams and other mosques, they said there is nothing in the Qur’an that prevents that.”

    One example is the recent opening last Sunday of a 500-plot section reserved for Muslims that is contained in a larger cemetery, located 30 kilometres from Quebec City.

    Mélijade Rodrigue, a spokesperson for the Lépine Cloutier/Athos Funeral Home, said the Muslim section in the company’s Saint-Augustin- de-Desmaures, Que., cemetery is the latest example of religious cohabitation, but there are others in the province.

    But the Centre Culturel Islamique du Québec wants the certainty and security that will be guaranteed by owning the land outright.

    “When you have land that you own, families have a plot for eternity,” Mohamed Kesri, the organization’s secretary, told The Canadian Press.

    Létourneau said she has other concerns if the project goes ahead, from the maintenance and care that the cemetery grounds will receive to the financial effects to the municipality from tax breaks granted to religious groups in Quebec.

    But her biggest problem is that cemeteries run by religious groups, be they Muslim, Catholic, Jewish or another denomination, keep people out.

    “It’s all religions that pose a problem,” she said, noting that her mother is Catholic but she was never baptized into the faith.

    “I have no religion and I refuse to submit to a religion. I respect peoples’ faiths but it means that I won’t even be able to be buried in the same cemetery as my parents ... It’s a problem that will only grow in our society.”

    No one will hazard a guess as to the outcome of Sunday’s referendum. Roy, the Harmonia funeral director, said there are about 10 people who are stridently in favour of maintaining the zoning change, 10 people stridently against it and roughly 29 people somewhere in the middle whose leaning will decide the outcome.

    Voting closes at 8 p.m. Sunday night. Results are expected to be announced a few minutes later.


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    It often seems, when it comes to Toronto transit, that every silver lining comes surrounded by a dark cloud.

    So it is with news about the St. Clair streetcar route. Starting in September, the TTC will be rolling out its big, new, accessible, air-conditioned streetcars on the route, which is fine news. At the same time, it will discontinue the two-hour transfer that has been available on that route since the right-of-way was built, which is terrible news.

    In fact, the second half of that combination is the exact opposite of what the TTC should be doing. It ought to be expanding the two-hour-transfer rule across the entire system, especially as it goes to a fare system using the Presto card exclusively.

    A bit of background, for those who may be unfamiliar: for most — soon all — of the TTC network, people can pay one fare for an entire uninterrupted trip in one direction, even if they have to change vehicles along the way. If they do need to change vehicles, they use a paper transfer to show they’ve already paid. (Those using Presto cards have the same rules apply, though they don’t need a physical transfer; their card is supposed to keep track and not charge them when they tap on the next vehicle.)

    But riders cannot use their transfers (or Presto credit) for a return trip, and they cannot use it to hop off and then hop back on the same vehicle, either. Get off to grab a coffee and want to continue your trip? Pay another fare. Travelled two stops to the variety store, and now want to go back where you started? Pay another fare.

    On St. Clair, the TTC has been in the midst of a semi-permanent pilot project for the past dozen years where different rules apply: instead of covering a single trip in a single direction, a transfer is good for two hours of travel on the St. Clair line. If you live near St. Clair, you can go to the grocery store, do your shopping, and return home, all on the same fare. You can hop off, visit a newsstand, hop back on and then get off at the café, then get back on and go to the subway. Or whatever you like. One fare is good for two hours of travel.

    The time-based system is used in most other transit systems in the GTA and internationally, and is popular with riders. “The approach has been requested frequently by customers,” the TTC wrote in a report in 2014. With one notable exception, “all other aspects of a time-based transfer system would appear to be positive for both customers and employees,” the report further says. There’s a strong suggestion in there that this system would “undoubtedly increase the number of customer journeys.”

    Win, win, win, win, win. That’s what a time-based transfer system represents for riders, for obvious reasons. It’s simple and easy to understand. It allows flexibility to do a little shopping, or to make a quick return trip. It gives you the freedom to get off a crowded car for a break, or to catch the next one. It’s a luxury that is already one of the great perks of having a Metropass — stopping off to buy a litre of milk on the way home doesn’t suddenly double the cost of your commute. And there’s no conceivable reason to think it’s fair to think it should.

    System-wise, this would be a marginal perk for commuters, who typically put in eight or so hours of work between trips. But for those trying to use the TTC for neighbourhood errands, it would be game changing. Especially in places like the tower neighbourhoods along Lawrence Ave. in Scarborough, for example, where the local post office, grocery store, café, and butcher shop may be located in strip malls many kilometres apart. It would take hours to complete a few little errands on foot. And under the current transfer rules, it would cost a significant sum when you need to pay a new fare every time you stop. A two-hour transfer window would make life easier, and more affordable.

    And the thing is, the introduction of the Presto card makes it make even more sense. As a peer review appendix in that 2014 TTC report notes, the Presto system works more easily with a time-based system than with the existing convoluted one. At that time, three years ago, TTC executives were apparently expecting to go to a time-based system once Presto was implemented, and the peer review panel endorsed that expectation as a positive move.

    Instead, the TTC is currently trying to have Presto enforce its current system. The result is that my Twitter feed — admittedly not a scientific survey — is constantly full of people complaining they’ve been dinged for extra fares because the system didn’t recognize their legit transfers. Simplicity is a virtue in itself when it comes to customer service, and it’s hard to get much simpler than “one fare lasts two hours.” Simple for the card-reader machines to track and understand, too.

    So what’s the catch? What’s that one notable exception to the all-aspects-positive conclusion? Well, it would cost the system, the TTC estimates, about $20 million per year in lost revenue.

    That may sound like a lot of money. I don’t have it available. But in the context of the TTC and city budgets, it’s relative peanuts compared to the benefits to riders. A 10-cent fare hike brings in $27 million. A 1 per cent property tax increase brings in about $25 million.

    Things that improve the service cost some money, and they are worth it. Allowing kids to ride free — as the TTC started doing in 2015 — cost the system $8 million per year. But in the first-year of the policy, the number of kids riding transit doubled. That’s success!

    The purpose of the transit system is not to maximize revenue by unfairly dinging passengers who want to ride it. The purpose is to provide a great service to riders that is affordable and convenient and makes life easier. Sometimes, if they do it right, achieving that goal costs a little money.

    What did the TTC itself say about timed-transfer concept again? “Frequently requested by riders”! “Positive” in virtually every respect for “riders and operators”! “Undoubtedly” will increase ridership!

    Something like that, you’d think they’d want to expand it so everyone benefits. Instead, they’re ending it in the one place they saw how successful it could be.

    Edward Keenan writes on city issues ekeenan@thestar.ca . Follow: @thekeenanwire


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    It takes all of Tam-thanh Doan’s strength to haul herself up the 14 wooden stairs, to the second floor of her North York home.

    Each step is laboured and precise, a necessity for Doan, 74, who uses two prosthetic legs and has no fingers on her right hand and is missing parts of the fingers on her left.

    She is constantly afraid she will fall, or one day become too weak to make the twice-daily climb to her bedroom and the upstairs bathroom, the only one in the house. Staying in bed, she says, feels like she is in jail.

    Doan lives in a Toronto Community Housing Corp. townhouse she has called home for about 10 years. She is on a waitlist for an accessible unit, but public housing staff can’t predict when the type of home she needs will be available.

    A single mother, who came to Canada as a refugee from Vietnam, Doan has already faced enormous challenges but has held on to her positive outlook.

    In August 2016, a kidney stone led to septic shock and the loss of her fingers and lower legs. After months in the hospital and rehabilitation, she came home in January.

    From the base of the stairs it is two steps to the landing.

    She crosses her left arm across her body and wraps her hand around a wood-topped banister. It creaks and sways as she hauls herself up each step. “You see? Here,” she says, shaking the bottom portion.

    Going down, her left hand grasps the banister, she presses the stump of her right arm against the wall and leans back to keep her balance.

    The prosthetics are metal rods, capped with thick plastic and packed with padding to cushion the stumps below her knees. Each weighs just over two kilograms. Her “feet” are clad in white leather running shoes, with black trim.

    Doan has been on the list since November.

    “I have to wait, I know that. But I hope they don’t forget me,” she says, showing the Star her home in late June.

    Earlier that month she fell down the stairs and cut her head.

    People are processed in chronological order, says Brayden Akers, a spokesperson with the housing provider, via email.

    “This provides a fair and equitable process for all tenants in need of an accessible unit; to not place priority on one disability over another,” he says.

    Doan lives with her adult son and has asked for a two-bedroom unit and they have identified a list of potential buildings.

    Toronto Community Housing has 39 fully-modified units, 225 partially modified units and 10,000 with accessibility features, like a grab bar in the bathroom. There are 52 households on the TCHC accessible waitlist, says Akers.

    If partial or fully accessible units open up Doan will be asked if she wants to take a look. If a unit in the regular buildings on their list becomes available housing staff will see if it can be modified.

    On top of prioritizing higher needs tenants, the housing provider is struggling to deal with a massive repair backlog, in a city already facing an affordable housing shortage. The waitlist for affordable housing, which includes TCHC housing, in Toronto has topped 181,000 people.

    Akers says everything was done to make sure her current home is safe, that they worked with “support agencies to ensure home care supports and assistive devices were in place.”

    The Ontario Disability Support Program provided her elevated toilet seat, a wheelchair, a hospital bed, reaching devices and her prosthetic legs.

    Doan’s daughter Hilda, 26, says the housing accessibility co-ordinator has been very pleasant, but sorting out who is responsible for her all of her mother’s housing needs has been a confusing and, at times, opaque process.

    “The main issue right now is that going up and down the stairs is difficult, so now that it’s been a little over half a year we are hoping that in the time that we are waiting for a unit that they make this process as easy as possible for her,” she told the Star in late June.

    Her wheelchair fits in her kitchen and living room. She can still get outside to tend parts of her wide vegetable and flower garden, where she harvests the baby lettuce she eats every day.

    Early in July a railing was installed in the stairwell and a small, metal folding ramp was set up at her door. Toronto community housing paid for both. Doan still uses her walker to get outside because the wheelchair is bulky and hard to move.

    Doan came to Canada in the 1980s, part of a wave of refugees known as “boat people” who risked their lives to escape Vietnam by sea. Doan made several tries to leave and was jailed multiple times in harsh conditions, her daughter says.

    “It was very demeaning. You don’t get to shower, you don’t get fed properly you get to shower when it rains,” she says. Eventually she made it to an island off the coast of Malaysia and then spent months in a refugee camp and then on to Kuala Lumpur, before coming to Toronto.

    Her daughter says she lied about her age to get work, so her identification says she is 64. In Canada, Doan worked as a seamstress and ran her own textile and flooring business, where she also did installation. She also worked behind the scenes at the CN Tower and supported her children, who she had very late in life, on her own.

    “Life has been difficult for her and she had tried really hard. She has had success, she had her own business and it went under. It’s just that life didn’t work out for her and she is stuck,” says her daughter.

    Hilda flew her mother to Vancouver in 2016 so she could see more of Canada. It was during the trip that a kidney stone resulted in sepsis. The potentially lethal condition can impact circulation and led to the amputations and weeks of intensive care.

    She started a GoFundMe page and used most of the $17,500 raised to get her mother home and plans to buy lighter prosthetic legs.

    It was in October, when Doan was in rehabilitation in Toronto, that her children started asking about moving, or making changes to the townhouse.

    They inquired about stair-lifts, which can be installed in some units, but housing doesn’t cover the cost, maintenance or ongoing repair of assistive devices.

    After conversations between an accessibility co-ordinator and the family’s occupational therapist they applied for an accessible home.

    If needed, Doan could also live in a one-level apartment with an automatic door opener and roll-in-shower, they determined.

    Doan’s daughter says she asked early on if they could apply to every building to speed up the process and was told there was no way to expedite the move. She was then told the more buildings they picked the better, so they chose a list.

    Akers says they have encouraged Doan and her son to expand their choices to the entire housing portfolio from the outset, but Doan’s son told them they want to stick with their list.

    While she waits, Doan counts on practice and good health to get her up the stairs.

    In June, she lost her balance, tumbled to the landing and cut her head. She was alone and called 911 on her cellphone.

    Her upstairs bedroom is where she stores her documents and much of her medical supplies in a tall plastic container near her bed.

    Photos of her as a young woman, her children and four of her siblings are placed around the room. One sister lives in the United States. Doan would like to sponsor her niece in Vietnam, to help care for her, but doesn’t know how.

    She says she feels strong, but worries what could happen if she got sick.

    Her neighbours and friends check in on her, but everybody agrees she needs a new home. She is also looking forward to a quieter place.

    It was important to Doan to say that community housing works best when everybody takes care of and respects each other.

    Being positive is part of her nature and she refuses to give up.

    “No pain. No gain,” she says.


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    A man from Brampton has been charged with defrauding the public after allegedly creating a fake website posing as a legitimate online private school.

    Peel police allege Pavanjit Sohal, 28, created a website using the name of the Canadian Higher Learning Academy, a legitimate online private school approved by the Ontario Ministry of Education.

    Indi Sahi, prinicipal of Canadian Higher Learning Academy, said Sohal also allegedly used the school’s logo and information to create fake report cards.

    Sahi was notified last month that there were students from Louise Arbour Secondary School who had report cards stating they completed courses from his academy. But Sahi said those students were never enrolled in courses and that report cards hadn’t been given out.

    “At first I thought this was just some student trying to get ahead, but then I found out this guy (Sohal) had duplicated everything.”

    He was then contacted by two more schools, Mississauga Secondary School and Castlebrooke Secondary School, that said their students had paid online for his academy’s classes and been given reports cards.

    When Sahi saw the report cards, he was shocked at how much effort was put into making them look authentic.

    “If you look at the report cards, you can tell there was a lot of planning that went into it. This wasn’t just a one-day operation, there was a lot of organizing that went into this.”

    Sahi then contacted the Ontario Ministry of Education which later advised him to notify police.

    He said he was told by police that the students were contacted by another student who had allegedly been “recruited” by Sohal.

    The students were mostly in their final year of high school and needed a credit or two more to graduate. They would then allegedly reach out to Sohal to help them get it.

    “What I heard from police was that these kids just had the intention of buying a report card and buying a credit.”

    Sahi said he saw a phone number on the fake report cards that he didn’t recognize, so he called it pretending to be a student.

    “Someone actually picked up and told me he could get me a report card and he’d get back to me with a price and then I could go pay on the website.”

    Sahi believes he was speaking to Sohal.

    Canadian Higher Learning Academy’s legitimate website has a “.ca” web address, but the suspect’s website was “.org,” police said. The fake website was operating for less than a year and is no longer active.

    It is alleged Sohal accepted payment for courses offered on his website.

    Police said they were made aware of fake report cards that were allegedly produced by the suspect and sent to the students’ high schools and the Ontario University Application Centre (OUAC) as part of the post-second application progress.

    Sahi said he knows of seven confirmed students whose credits have been deemed illegitimate and will not be accepted by OUAC – jeopardizing their post-secondary education enrollment for the fall of 2017.

    “I will do anything to support the students and I feel bad, but at the same time I have to question their intentions. My understanding is that some of them were tricked and they actually thought they were being enrolled in a course, and some of them knew what they were getting into.”

    Sohal said Canadian Higher Learning Academy has only operated for a year and all of their classes have been online. He said the courses are about $480 each. On the school’s website there is a warning to not register for courses through a “third party.”

    It is not known how much the students paid for the fake credits.

    Police said they are asking for any other victims to contact police.

    Sohal was arrested on July 5 and released on a promise to appear. He will appear in court on July 31.


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    Sears Canada’s plan to pay out millions in bonuses to keep key staff on board while not paying severance to laid-off workers is being met with shock and disbelief.

    Ken Eady, who spent 30 years at Sears before retiring, said news of the bonuses was just the latest development in a terrible situation.

    “To see people let go after 30 or 40 years of service, without any reasonable notice, or without any severance, and then to see people being paid what might be millions of dollars in bonuses for staying seems so out of balance and so unreasonable that it’s beyond the pale,” said Eady, who now works to protect the pensions of retired Sears employees at the independent SCRG retiree association.

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    Sears Canada got court permission on Thursday to pay $9.2 million in retention bonuses as part of a compromise with retired employees that will see the company continue making some benefit and pension payments until Sept. 30.

    The retailer had initially asked the court for permission to immediately halt payments for pension, health and dental benefits for laid off employees, retirees and surviving spouses due to a severe cash crunch.

    Justice Glenn Hainey wrote in his approval of the $9.2 million in payments that the details should remain confidential. But the company estimated when it sought court protection in June that it would need to pay $7.6 million for key employees at head office and $1.6 million for managers of stores that are scheduled to be closed under the restructuring.

    Sears Canada spokesperson Joel Shaffer said the payments are common during the creditor protection process, and are designed to keep key employees motivated with performance indicators and incentives to successfully close stores.

    He said the payments are designed to support the best possible outcome for the business and stakeholders, and that the situation could worsen without them.

    Along with approving the deal between the company and former employees, Hainey also gave Sears Canada the green light to immediately proceed with reaching out to potential buyers while it’s under court protection from its creditors.

    Sears Canada shocked many employees when it announced in June that it planned to close 59 locations across the country and cut approximately 2,900 jobs, without severance, while under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act.

    Employment lawyer Susan Ursel, whose firm represents more than 17,000 non-unionized former and current employees, said Thursday they continue to push for temporary hardship fund for those who are in dire need of cash and health benefits.


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    “It’s like a Lethal Weapon kind of situation, you know? Television kind of thing. To stop someone, you’ve got to hit them.”

    The case of a man charged with manslaughter after a hit-and-run hinges on the reasonableness of this kind of thinking, says Toronto-based criminal lawyer Antonietta Raviele.

    As the Star reported Friday, Anthony James Kiss was charged with manslaughter after he fatally hit Dario Humberto Romero with his car on June 7. He did it, Kiss said, because he saw Romero holding a knife and attacking a woman.

    Kiss, 31, was also charged with impaired operation of a motor vehicle causing death, over 80 mgs operation of a motor vehicle causing death and failure to stop at a scene of accident causing death.

    The Star contacted two criminal lawyers, who aren’t involved in the case, to get their opinion.

    Kiss’s blood alcohol level and the fact that he fled the scene add layers of complication to the case, said Toronto lawyer Daniel Brown.

    “It sounds like the type of issue we would see on a law school exam,” Brown said. “One that really explores a whole number of topics.”

    Though Kiss has given his account of what happened, his version of events hasn’t been tested in court. Police won’t comment on the case, but said in a news release issued after the incident that a 59-year-old woman suffered injuries unrelated to the collision.

    Raviele said that at the trial, Kiss’s defence lawyer could argue that his actions were necessary in order to prevent another crime — in this case the injury or death of the woman Romero allegedly attacked — from occurring.

    That kind of defence is necessary, Brown said, because Kiss has already said he intentionally hit Romero with his car.

    “A manslaughter conviction can arise when somebody commits a crime . . . that leads to the person’s death even though it wasn’t intended to kill the person,” Brown said.

    The defence will have to demonstrate that Kiss’s action was justified in order to protect the woman, since he does not dispute that the action was intentional.

    Raviele said it’s important to consider that, if Kiss’s version is accurate, without his intervention, a woman may have died or have been seriously injured.

    But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Kiss will be acquitted of the manslaughter charge.

    The judge or jury will have to consider whether there were “less dangerous and more legal” means that Kiss could have pursued to prevent Romero from stabbing the woman, Raviele said. Whether he considered honking or yelling at Romero, or approaching him with his car without making impact, would be aspects that a judge or jury would take into consideration.

    “That’s the most extreme thing he could have done in those circumstances,” Raviele said. This could be the focus of the prosecution.

    The case is further complicated by Kiss’s blood alcohol level (he blew above the legal limit but said he was not impaired) and the fact that he fled the scene after he hit Romero, citing shock.

    The defence will have to show that Kiss’s judgment that night was sound, and that a reasonable, sober person would have made the same call, Brown said.

    Kiss blew over the legal limit but, as Raviele pointed out, being over the legal blood alcohol level does not necessarily denote impairment.

    That’s why impaired driving causing death and driving above 80 mgs causing death are separate charges.

    Raviele said that toxicologists presenting opposing views of how likely Kiss was to be impaired will be called by the prosecution and the defence at trial.

    The lawyers agree that the fact that Kiss was drinking is likely to cause problems for him in court.

    “I think there’s a greater likelihood that he’ll be convicted of the other offences,” including impaired driving causing death, than of manslaughter, Raviele said.

    The fact that Kiss fled rather than stay and call 911 is also a bad sign for him, not just on the charge of failure to stop at a scene causing death, but also for the charge of manslaughter.

    “If it was less about shock and more about ‘I did this and now I have to get away’ then that lends more to the moral blameworthiness of him,” Raviele said.

    Kiss is out on bail and scheduled back in court on Aug. 3.


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    One of the most interesting stories to go viral in recent days involves a web developer in Ann Arbor, Michigan named Madalyn Parker who was dealing with some mental health issues and needed a break from work. However, unlike so many of us in this situation Parker didn’t tell colleagues she had the flu, a bad back, or food poisoning. Instead, she told the truth: “Hey Team,” Parker wrote in an email to her co-workers, “I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%.”

    And what do you know: Parker’s boss, Ben Congleton, the CEO of the company where she works, reacted like a total mensch. “Hey Madalyn,” Congleton responded, “I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this. Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health — I can’t believe this is not a standard practice at all organizations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.”

    Parker shared this email exchange on Twitter and the internet went wild with praise for her and her standup boss. And why not? It was brave of Parker to reveal to her co-workers that she struggles with mental health and it was decent of Congleton to respond positively to her candidness. Both of them have no doubt chipped away at the massive stigma that surrounds talking openly about mental health.

    But despite the enormous respect I have for Parker and her decision to be candid about such a delicate issue, I hope this candidness about mental health in the office doesn’t catch on.

    I don’t say this because I object to talking openly about sensitive personal subjects with colleagues, or because I don’t believe mental health issues are serious. On the contrary, I deal with depression and I take an antidepressant everyday. I say this because as much as I too would like to chip away at the stigma around mental health, I’d hate to see the value we place on privacy around health issues suffer in the name of fighting that stigma.

    As commendable as the recent public push to open up about mental health is, I wish these efforts focused less on personal confession — “I’ve struggled with X issue” — and more on the broader truth: for example, hammering home the fact that mental health is health, period, and employers should treat it as such.

    For me, the problem pivots on this point. You wouldn’t tell your boss you’re staying home to work on your “physical health.” You’d simply say “I’m ill,” or “I’m not feeling great,” statements that happen to apply to depression and the common cold equally. I’m concerned that when we go out of our way to name the specific breed of health issue we suffer from, even if doing so erodes a stigma around that issue, we send a message that confession is more enlightened than confidentiality; that “opening up” is the framework for how a modern office should function.

    Frankly, I don’t want to open up, because opening up implies that mental health must be singled out for validation. Yes, I mentioned that I deal with depression. And yes, I’d like my employer to be understanding and accommodating if my health issue is especially debilitating one week. But I’d rather the norm not shift to a place where it’s standard to divulge to my boss when my reason for staying home is specifically mental health-related. Or worse, why it is so. Can you imagine? “Hey boss, those self-defeating voices in my head are really loud this morning, I think I might have to file my column when they subside. Could be in an hour, could be when I’m 65.”

    Of course, I don’t honestly believe it will come to this, nor do I think Madalyn Parker was anything but brave for being frank with her officemates.

    But I do believe where health is concerned, that privacy in the workplace is paramount. Employees should know they can share as little as possible about their health and receive the same support as colleagues who pour their hearts out.

    In the end, the most profound and destigmatizing message on this matter will arrive, not from employees who suffer from mental health issues, but from employers who out of the blue, unprompted by an unwell subordinate, make it known that “I’m not feeling well, I’m going to take the day off” is a totally valid statement, no matter where in the body a person’s illness takes root.

    Emma Teitel is a national affairs columnist.


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    Yasmin Mumed remembers the brand new pale pink dress with embroidered flowers.

    She remembers the morning trip to the busy market with her grandmother. And the candy she got to eat. It was a sunny, happy day.

    Then her mind flashes to the dark room filled with women. The blindfold. Being laid on her back. The confusion, the fear and the piercing pain.

    When it was all over, and the blindfold came off, she remembers looking down and seeing a patch of blood on her dress, just below her belly button.

    Read more:Canadian girls are being taken abroad to undergo female genital mutilation, documents reveal

    Mumed was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting, at the age of 6 in her village in Ethiopia before immigrating to Canada. She grew up in Scarborough and, now 23, studies at the University of Guelph. She is one of more than 200 million girls worldwide who have been cut.

    An ongoing Toronto Star investigation has revealed that the federal government is aware of cases in which Canadian girls have been taken abroad to be cut. Canada has failed to address and measure the scope of the problem.

    Unlike the United Kingdom, which has undertaken research and is tracking FGM cases, Canada has not collected data on Canadian women who, like Mumed, are living with the physical and psychological affects of FGM, regardless of where and when it happened to them. In the U.K., there are an estimated 137,000 women and girls affected.

    Experts say there is also a lack of local services in Canada for women, and far too few trained professionals, such as doctors and counsellors, to offer support.

    Mumed was cut three years before she immigrated to Canada at the age of 9. She is now fundraising to go to California to have reconstructive surgery.

    “I know there’s a lot of young girls out there who are just like me with a similar background, similar childhoods, who have never heard anyone that looks like them talk about this,” says Mumed of what is often a stigmatized and incredibly private topic. She never spoke about her cutting with her grandmother, who raised her and took her to have it done. She has also never spoken about it with her mother.

    There are no health benefits to FGM, which varies in severity from partial removal of the clitoris to its most severe form — the incision of the clitoris and labia and stitching the vulva together, leaving only a small opening. This is known as infibulation.

    Mumed’s clitoris and part of her labia were cut, preventing her from feeling sexual pleasure in the same way other women do. She looked for support services in the Toronto area to help her live with the anxiety and confusion she was feeling, and to help her navigate day-to-day life, including dating.

    She didn’t find any.

    Instead, Mumed found Dr. Marci Bowers in California, who has placed her on a wait list for a surgery, which some consider controversial, that would remove the scar tissue on her clitoris. It has given her some hope.

    For the last several years, after she became sexually active, Mumed has relived the vivid memories of the day she was cut. At times, the flashbacks have left her with crippling anxiety.

    She remembers walking back to her village from the market with her grandmother, and stopping at her great-grandmother’s home, which was at the end of a row of houses. It was sunny outside, but dark inside. A group of older women were huddled together with one very elderly woman sitting and holding a bowl of water.

    The women then took hold of Mumed, some holding on to her arms and others, her legs. Another, her head.

    “I just started panicking and didn’t know what was going on … I was just kind of freaking out and trying really hard to get out of the situation,” she says. “I didn’t understand what was happening. There was no conversation about what was happening.”

    She was blindfolded and put on her back. That’s when she felt the pain shoot through her body. “I just remember screaming,” she says. Because she was fighting so much, the square-shaped razor the size of a paint chip the woman used to cut her clitoris slipped and also cut part of her labia. When she stood up the blood wasn’t just on her new dress but also pooling on the floor.

    “I remember standing up and I remember my grandma sitting in the crowd looking at me. It was like she was sad but also trying to be strong. She gave me this look to also stop crying,” says Mumed. “I always wanted to make my grandma proud and for her to know that I’m strong.”

    Her great-grandmother made a paste of herbs to place on the wound to help stop the bleeding. For the next several days Mumed stayed in bed, as family members, neighbours and even acquaintances from nearby villages came to bring treats of sweet tahini halva and say hello. Her great-grandmother checked in on her often to make sure there was no infection.

    “I just remember people celebrating, people looking at me,” she says. “I felt kind of happy after. I guess the way people were acting with me was very proud. I felt I was at this different stage of my life.”

    Soon, Mumed pushed the day out of her mind completely. She moved with her grandmother to Ethiopia’s bustling capital, Addis Ababa, to live with her uncle, leaving behind the village, with its open fields and nights lit by oil lamp. Her mother immigrated to Canada when Mumed was a toddler, after her husband, Mumed’s father, died. She had remarried and was trying to bring her only daughter to Canada.

    At the same time, her grandmother was also preparing to leave Ethiopia because of the persecution of her Oromo ethnic group. One day, Mumed woke up and the woman who raised her had gone, left for a refugee camp in Kenya. Mumed stayed with her uncle until her immigration paperwork came through, in 2001. The only reminder of her cutting, her pink embroidered dress, now stained with brown spots from where the blood had faded over the years.

    She continued to wear the dress. It was the nicest garment she owned.

    For many years — growing up in public housing in Scarborough, learning English, adapting to life in Canada — Mumed, whose Oromo name, Galme, is a reference to the diary that holds the history of her people, never thought of her cutting. She took care of her younger half-brother. She spent most of her free time at the local community centre that became her refuge. Her relationship with her mother, who had her when she was just 15-years-old, was rocky. When she was a teenager, Mumed, left home, sleeping on friend’s couches before a family in her neighbourhood took her in.

    The first time she thought at all about the issue of FGM was in her early teens. She was watching an episode of America’s Next Top Model, when a Somali contestant tearfully shared she’d been cut and couldn’t experience sexual pleasure. “Even then I still didn’t make the connection,” she says.

    Soon after, when Mumed was 15 and in Grade 11, she had her first sexual experience. “When I found out something was different with me I immediately started having all these flashbacks,” she says. She turned to the internet and discovered a familiar story. Of the hut. The ambush. The group of women holding down flailing arms and legs.

    She became depressed. “It’s like my whole life had been kind of a lie,” Mumed says. “I just felt like I wasn’t woman enough or I wasn’t whole. Like I wasn’t normal.”

    Then she became angry. By that time her grandmother had been granted refugee status in the U.S. and was living in Seattle. “I remember I would be angry to even want to talk to her,” she says.

    Looking back on it now, though, Mumed does not feel resentment towards her grandmother, who died three years ago.

    She believes that the woman she loves and credits with teaching her how to be the resilient person she is now, wanted her to be cut because she knew her granddaughter was destined to live in another culture.

    “It was her trying to protect me,” Mumed says. “She knew I was going to be raised in a world that’s completely different . . . It came from a really loving place and a place of just genuinely trying to pass something down to me that she genuinely felt was really important.”

    FGM is practiced in 29 countries around the world, in Africa the Middle East, India and other parts of Asia. It is seen by some as a rite of passage into womanhood or a condition of marriage. Though it is not considered an Islamic practice — it predates the religion — for some, it is a religious ritual or requirement and there are tremendous societal pressures put on families to have it done.

    In her village in Ethiopia, where today 63 per cent of women are believed to have been cut, according to UNICEF, it was the norm. “If anything, for people who weren’t cut, I remember that they would feel that they didn’t fit in or something was weird with them,” says Mumed.

    That’s not to say she believes that any young girl should endure what she has. She worries for her little cousins — three girls under the age of five.

    Mumed believes the best way tackle FGM is by “complicating the conversation” — by humanizing the people who are often demonized for perpetuating the practice because they often do it out of love, and by girls like her speaking out about it in a way that shows respect and sensitivity, and takes the issue out of the shadows.

    “If we’re talking to each other and we’re tackling it within ourselves that’s the only way any type of real change, real understanding is going to happen,” she says. She and her friends talk about the complexities of the issue and how they don’t want to continue the tradition with their own children.

    “We talk about it stopping with us,” Mumed says.

    It wasn’t until the fall that Mumed began searching for resources, to help her talk about the traumatic memories of her cutting, or her body image or dating as a young woman. The urge came about because she had met someone she liked through mutual friends. They started talking on FaceTime. But the fact that she might have to tell this person about such a private thing filled her, again, with anxiety. She started losing sleep.

    “When you’re not in an intimate relationship I don’t have to think about it but as soon as something happens where I might have to be intimate with somebody or I’m attracted to somebody that’s something that automatically comes out of nowhere,” she says.

    While every woman’s experience and memories are different, FGM can cause post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, says Jasmine Abdulcadir, a gynecologist working at a specialized clinic for women with FGM at the Geneva University Hospital in Switzerland. And negative public messages about FGM and warnings of serious complications, such as lack of sexual pleasure, aimed at preventing the practice in future generations can also contribute to the stigmatization of women who are already cut, Abdulcadir says.

    Mumed looked on the web for anything in the Toronto area that might help her — a support group, specialized health care professionals, an organization that focuses on FGM. She couldn’t find anything. Her case demonstrates that there is a lack of local services available for women living with it, experts say.

    “It’s still something that people think doesn’t happen,” says Reyhana Patel of Islamic Relief Canada, whose organization has done research on the issue of FGM, adding that if there are services here “no one knows about it.”

    Patel and her organization are calling on the Canadian government to do more, starting with conducting research to understand the issue nationally.

    “When you get a sense of what’s happening you can start applying appropriate services,” she says.

    In the U.K., for example, England’s Royal College of Nurses has undertaken efforts to create an enhanced dataset on FGM. In 2015-16 there were 5,700 new cases of FGM records, including 18 cases in which FGM had been undertaken in the U.K. There is also a government-funded national centre that provides support for survivors of FGM, including directing them to local resources.

    Mumed is waiting for her reconstructive surgery with Bowers, a gynecologist who specializes in transgender surgery. She has performed more than 250 operations on women who have had FGM in her clinic, which is south of San Francisco. Bowers learned how to do the operation — which removes the scar tissue from the clitoris and cuts ligaments around it, allowing it to descend, in the hopes of giving the woman back some sensation — from Dr. Pierre Foldes in Paris, who pioneered the technique.

    A non-governmental organization called Clitoraid, based in Las Vegas, covers the cost for the surgery, but Mumed is fundraising for her airfare and accommodation, as well as prescription drugs. She is also required to bring a friend for support. Her GoFundMe page has raised a little over $2,000 of her $6,650 goal.

    In order to get approval for the surgery, Mumed had to see a gynecologist in Canada to send confirmation to Bowers’ office that she had indeed been cut and that her clitoris had been damaged.

    The entire process was a negative experience, she says. When she went to the walk-in clinic to get a referral, the doctor there didn’t seem to know what she was talking about, Mumed says. When she went to see a gynecologist last December, she says the doctor told her that he didn’t think she needed the surgery because she had not been cut enough to cause problems with going to the bathroom or giving birth.

    “He said ‘you’re perfectly fine.’ I said, ‘that’s not what I’m here for,’ ” Mumed says, adding that the doctor made her feel like she existed only to give birth.

    She left the office and cried.

    Dr. Bowers’ office let her send in photographs instead, to qualify for the surgery.

    “It’s heartbreaking to see your friend go through that,” says Mumed’s friend, Shabina Lafleur-Gangji, who was with her at the gynecologist’s appointment. “It’s just one more hard and difficult step.”

    In 2003, former midwife and anti-FGM campaigner Kowser Omer-Hashi co-authored a book with Beverley Chalmers about giving proper obstetric care to women who have had FGM. At the time, she heard from dozens of women who reported hearing hurtful comments from caregivers. “It really makes me sad,” she says. “Years later we are sitting here discussing the same issues.” While Omer-Hashi says she’s grateful for Canada’s health-care system, she says there should be more education and training about FGM.

    Not all doctors agree on Dr. Bowers’ technique.

    In 2012, Foldes, the doctor who invented the surgery, and his colleagues published a study in the medical journal, The Lancet, that found after a one-year follow-up of 866 patients, most reported an improvement in clitoral pleasure and just over half experienced orgasm.

    In response to Foldes’ study, a group of British doctors wrote The Lancet saying his claims were not “anatomically possible.” (Foldes rejected their remarks).

    While Mumed hopes the surgery will work, she is not certain it will. Her decision to pursue it is, more than anything, about making her own choice about her own body, she says.

    “It’s something that was taken away from me without my consent,” she says of her cutting, adding that she is pursuing the surgery to have “that power back.”

    “I’ve made a decision over my body and I’m choosing to do it. Not everyone makes the same choice. Everyone needs to do their own journey.”

    Jayme Poisson can be reached at jpoisson@thestar.ca or (416) 814-2725


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    Ontario has seen a steady growth in the number of temp agencies starting up at a time the province seeks to enact new protection for its most vulnerable workers.

    Statistics obtained by the Star show a 20 per cent increase in temp agencies in Ontario over the past decade, with much of that growth driven by businesses registering in the Toronto area. In the GTA alone, there are now almost 1,700 active temp agencies — more than the combined total of seven Canadian provinces that track such stats.

    It’s “like a huge warning bell to anyone who is concerned about (work) conditions and low wages and precariousness,” said Deena Ladd of the Toronto-based Workers’ Action Centre.

    “I think it’s a huge indication that corporations are shifting their responsibility to a third party for employment. I think that is incredibly dangerous.”

    To paint a picture of the scale of temp agency work nationwide, the Star filed Freedom of Information requests to every worker’s compensation board in the country seeking the names, addresses and registration dates of all active temp agencies. Staffing firms are required to register with the boards because they are liable when a temp agency worker gets hurt on the job — a financial incentive for companies to use them.

    Two provinces, British Columbia and Quebec, said they did not have the data requested by the Star. The remaining provinces combined declared 847 active temp agencies, while Ontario alone had almost 2,600 in 2016.

    In June, the government proposed sweeping amendments to Ontario’s employment and labour laws that would tackle the rise of precarious work. If passed, the legislation would make it illegal to pay temp agency employees less for doing the same work as permanent workers. It would also make it easier for them to unionize.

    “We seem to be growing into a society where agencies are proliferating, and these people are getting a little piece of everybody’s paycheques,” said Labour Minister Kevin Flynn in an interview with the Star.

    Flynn said he believes there is a legitimate role for temp agencies: catering to people who truly want short-term employment or employers who experience major peaks and valleys in production. But the proposed legislation, Bill 148, aims to remove the financial incentives for companies to use bad-actor agencies to avoid creating permanent jobs.

    “We’re concerned about the people on the production lines and warehouses,” he said. “I think the concept of full-time, permanent work is being abused.”

    Temp agency employment has gained a foothold in other sectors too: Estina Gitan, 59, says she has worked for more than five years as a qualified personal support worker through agencies placing her in hospitals and youth shelters across the GTA.

    Gitan is her family’s main breadwinner because she says her husband was let go from his factory job after he had a heart attack. She says her pay as a temp has always been minimum wage and her schedule erratic. To make ends meet, she rations her medication for an underactive thyroid to make it last and makes her own clothes.

    She says agencies would often charge for “training” courses and in one case made her sign a contract to prevent her from applying to permanent jobs at workplaces where she was assigned.

    “This money is coming from our minimum-wage pocket,” she said.

    While Ladd says she applauds many of the measures in Bill 148, which include increasing the minimum wage to $15, she believes the legislation falls short on temp agency worker protections.

    “We want the client company to be held financially liable for any injuries, and not the temp agencies,” she said.

    That step, she argues, is critical to removing a major financial incentive for companies to use staffing firms. It was also one of the final recommendations made by two labour experts appointed by the government to review its employment laws.

    Workers’ rights advocates also want to see the proposed legislation restrict companies from hiring more than 20 per cent of their workforce through a temp agency, and mandate that they be made permanent if they do the same job at the same company for more than three months.

    “You have to close all the loopholes,” Ladd said.

    Flynn told the Star his ministry sees such regulations as too “unwieldy,” but said the government is currently exploring ways to increase companies’ liability when a temp agency worker is injured. Committee hearings started for Bill 148 this week.

    Mary McIninch, head of the lobby group the Association of Canadian Search, Employment and Staffing Services, which represents 255 Ontario staffing firms, said her organization’s members pledge to uphold a code of ethical standards and are “committed to advancing best practices, including proven safety in the workplace.”

    In its 2015 submission to the government on employment law reform, ACSESS said legislative changes were “unnecessary, unsubstantiated and would cause undue hardship to the staffing industry.” McIninch said her organization does, however, support Bill 148’s proposals to beef up enforcement efforts. She also said she believes “workers embrace temp work for its flexibility, link to learning new skills or pursuing new opportunities.”

    Gitan described her own experience working through a temp agency as akin to being invisible.

    “You would work and they would push you around and you would take it,” she said. “(Permanent staff) would treat you like nothing.”

    Indeed, national statistics have literally erased workers like Gitan: in 2004, Statistics Canada stopped collecting the number of temp agency employees across the country. Instead, it now measures temporary employment — which includes people hired directly by a company on a short-term basis. Currently, there are over 747,000 temporary workers in Ontario, according to Statistics Canada.

    Last year, Ontario temp agencies estimated their workforce to have around 146,000 “full-time equivalent” employees according to the WSIB data requested by the Star. But this number is an estimate calculated through insurable earnings declared by agencies and average hourly wages, and assumes a person works 2,000 hours per year — roughly the equivalent of a full-time job.

    In other words, the figure does not reflect the actual number of people who cycle through temp agencies— who often don’t work standard hours, and may work through multiple staffing firms.

    Gitan currently has one part-time job and picks up more shifts through a temp agency; previously, she worked through two agencies — which she says made her schedule even more erratic.

    “I didn’t get to spend quality time with (my kids),” she said. “We didn’t have a meal together because I was working all the time.”

    “The entire setup is to give client companies, companies who use agencies, a completely disposable labour force,” Ladd said.

    “If you have that kind of system in that place, why would a company ever hire you directly?”

    With files from Erin Nespoli


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    HALIFAX—Organizers say a weekend protest calling for a statue of Halifax’s controversial founder to be toppled will proceed as planned, despite objections from some Mi’kmaq leaders.

    A Facebook event called “Removing Cornwallis” invites protesters to remove a large bronze statue of former governor Edward Cornwallis from atop a stone pedestal on Saturday.

    Organizers haven’t said how they will do that, but the event has reignited debate about how Halifax commemorates its colonial history, as well as how the province’s Mi’kmaq community affirms its past.

    Cornwallis, as governor of Nova Scotia, founded Halifax in 1749 and soon after issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps in response to an attack on colonists. The Mi’kmaq have long called for removal of tributes to Cornwallis, some calling his actions a form of genocide.

    Members of the Nova Scotia Assembly of Mi’kmaq Chiefs agree that the statue should come down. However, they say protesters should use civic engagement, rather than force, to accomplish their goal.

    “There is a process to engage with one another, and while this may take time, it does not mean that work is not being done,” Chief Deborah Robinson, lead chief of Urban Mi’kmaq for the assembly, said in a statement. “While we respect the right to protest, we also want people to know that our primary concern is for the safety of our people.”

    The assembly’s stance was cited by Mayor Mike Savage when he spoke out against the apparent threat to public property on Tuesday.

    Savage said the city will not stand in the way of “legitimate public protest,” but he also said officials will not “condone violent action in the place of real dialogue.”

    Protest organizer Suzanne Patles took issue with the mayor’s characterization of the event, accusing Savage of sowing division within the Mi’kmaq community.

    “We’re not going against our own people. We’re going by the directions of our elders,” Patles said in an interview. “We want these issues to be brought forward as valid and not to be dismissed as something violent and from the left field.”

    Patles said Saturday’s event will feature a ceremonial component, but she declined to comment on plans to topple the statue.

    She said if the city does not commit to removing the statue by Aug. 7 — the city’s birthday and a civic holiday — then the statue “will have a way of coming down.”

    Patles said there is renewed urgency to do something as Cornwallis has emerged as a symbol of prejudice.

    On Canada Day, a group of off-duty Canadian military men disrupted a spiritual event at the statue marking the suffering of Indigenous Peoples.

    The men, who are now facing a military investigation and possible expulsion from the Forces, said they were members of the Proud Boys, a self-declared group of “Western Chauvinists” who say they are tired of apologizing for “creating the modern world.”

    “There’s probably a more urgent need to deal with this,” said Shawn Cleary, a city councillor. “That in particular provided a sort of a trigger or an impetus to move this now.”

    Cleary introduced a motion in April asking council to examine the use of Cornwallis’s name on municipal property. Councillors voted 15-1 in favour of the motion, and an expert panel, which includes Mi’kmaq voices, is being convened to weigh on the municipal landmarks.

    “I’m hoping cooler heads prevail by Saturday,” said Cleary. “I understand why they (the Mi’kmaq community) wouldn’t trust us, but I would ask them to engage in the official process that’s happening now.”

    Halifax’s Mi’kmaq poet laureate, Rebecca Thomas, whose performance about Cornwallis in April helped spur debate at City Hall, said she is of two minds about Saturday’s protest.

    “As much we would love to go up there and pull that statue down, to make meaningful change, we have to hustle and play the system that exists,” Thomas said in an interview. “My feelings and my heart are with those protesters, but so is my anxiety and my worry about fallout from the general public.”

    Indigenous political activity is often perceived as an aggression, she said, and if a peaceful ceremony near the statue can provoke a confrontation with the Proud Boys, she said she fears that an effort to topple the statue may imperil protesters’ safety.

    More than 375 people have indicated on Facebook they plan to attend the protest.

    A spokesperson for the Halifax police said they will be monitoring the event.


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    OTTAWA—A lawsuit that says a federal agency has consistently approved pesticides without enough information on their potential harmful effects has survived an attempt to get it thrown out of court.

    The Federal Court has denied applications from the federal government and four chemical companies to block the lawsuit involving so-called neonic pesticides filed by a group of environmental organizations.

    “We’re definitely very happy to see that outcome,” said Julia Croome, a lawyer for Ecojustice, which is handling the case for the environmental groups. “(The judge) turned this around quickly and we appreciate that.”

    In 2016, the groups filed a challenge to federal permits for a series of common pesticides using the chemicals clothianidin and thiamethoxam that some environmental groups say are suspected in large die-offs in bee populations.

    Read more:

    Massachusetts probing massive honeybee kill that wiped out as many as 60,500 bees

    York study takes on ‘controversy’ over honey bee declines and pesticide use

    New report says pollution costs Canadian economy ‘tens of billions’ each year

    The David Suzuki Foundation, Friends of the Earth Canada, Ontario Nature and the Wilderness Committee allege in court documents that for more than a decade, Canada’s federal pesticide regulator has allowed neonicotinoids to be registered for use despite being uncertain about their risks.

    They say that since 2006, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency has expressed concerns about the safety of those products, which are among the most widely used pesticides in Canada. The registrations being challenged involve 31 different products from four different companies.

    A statement of claim asserts that in 79 cases, the agency requested more information and field studies on the products, then granted conditional registrations. Conditional registrations were repeatedly renewed although the agency has yet to receive any of the requested research, says the statement of claim.

    The groups argue that means the pesticides have been widely applied across the country for more than a decade without a true assessment of their risks.

    The federal government has not filed a statement of defence.

    None of the allegations in the statement of claim have been proven in court.

    In trying to get the case thrown out, the government argued the 79 cases were separate decisions, not a pattern of behaviour. It added that instead of seeking to have the registrations quashed by the court, the environmental groups should instead turn to the review process the regulator already has.

    Bees are crucial to agriculture. Published reports suggest about a third of the crops eaten by humans depend on insect pollination. Bees are responsible for about 80 per cent of that figure.

    Bees have been in serious decline across North America and Europe since about 2006. In Canada, the Canadian Honey Council reports that in 2013-14, beekeepers lost an average of about 25 per cent of their colonies. Ontario’s losses were 58 per cent.

    The average winter loss is about 15 per cent.

    Populations of wild bees are also falling rapidly. A recent American study found their numbers fell by about 23 per cent between 2008 and 2013.

    The University of Guelph’s Honeybee Research Centre blames a combination of disease, parasites, pesticides and habitat destruction.

    A major U.S. study earlier this year found neonics harmed domestic bees in some crops but not others. Research suggests the pesticides are much harder on wild bees than honeybees.

    Europe has imposed a moratorium on neonics. In 2015, the U.S. banned new uses for them. Ontario has announced plans to limit their application. Companies such as Ortho and Home Depot have announced they will phase them out.

    Still, they remain in wide use.

    The Conference Board of Canada, in a 2014 report prepared with support from the Grain Farmers of Ontario and CropLife Canada, estimated banning neonics would cost Ontario farmers $630 million a year.


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    As a father of twins, I strongly condemn Beyoncé for bringing extreme glamour to the exhausting and utterly terrifying first month of life with multiples.

    Did you see the Instagram photo she shared on Friday? How could you not see it? That photo was like a gamma-ray burst in the wee hours, an explosion of blinding light and colour that forced all mere mortals to squint at their screens while mesmerized by a cosmic force.

    In keeping with the theme of her pregnancy photo, the megastar was back outdoors, barefoot in the grass and framed by a blurry ocean, manicured hedges and a vertical halo of flowers that probably cost more than your lawn mower.

    The new twins — now officially trademarked as “Sir Carter and Rumi” — are cradled on the right side of her chest in some kind of advanced hold they must have forgot to teach me in multiples class.

    Their tiny heads are somehow camouflaged by Beyoncé’s shoulder-less, leg-less and torso-less outfit. This is not a gown, as was widely described. It’s a superhero cape for stylish nudists. It’s just one big fuchsia-floral train with matching sleeves adorned with cinched and billowing cuffs that make Bey’s arms look like two Christmas crackers in which the prizes were Jay-Z’s offspring.

    This is also the most misleading baby photo of all time.

    Have you no conscience, Beyoncé? You can’t just share this achingly tranquil image with the world and not expect blowback from those of us who can barely remember the first month after our twins arrived, but are traumatized enough to know it did not look anything like that.

    Come on. The extreme glamour in your first shared photo of your new bundles of joy is an extreme slap in the face to all new parents who are now expecting twins.

    I’m trying to think about the consequences if, one month into my own adventure with multiples, I had suggested the following to my wife: “Hey, why don’t you strip down to your underwear and twist into these floral curtains. Now hold still while I stick this teal veil to your skull. OK, now go stand in the backyard under this bouquet I ordered from 1-800-Flowers while cradling those two little things we brought home from the hospital that haven’t slept or stopped crying.”

    The consequences, about 10 minutes later, would have included first responders pronouncing me dead on the scene.

    Beyoncé had a chance on Friday to keep it real, to help expecting parents of twins understand the true reality of Month 1. She blew it by showing off with a comically staged photo that was as gauzy and impressionistic as a Morisot painting.

    Couldn’t she have at least placed overflowing Diaper Genies in front of the hedges? Or ditched the Palomo Spain ensemble for a tracksuit from Winners that was caked with vomit and spousal tears? Instead of that fierce expression that says, “This maternal goddess does not suffer fools,” how about something more helpful?

    Parents of one-month-old twins are more likely to sport a disoriented countenance, one that says, “Excuse me, what day is it?”

    And they sure as hell don’t have the physical strength to hold such a rigid pose as a $900-per-hour photographer captures more than 1,000 frames in the blazing sun.

    I found a photo that was snapped when my twin daughters were also about a month old. I’m standing in the background holding a paper cup and looking like I was just side-swiped by a minivan. My wife is flopped on a bed in a room that looks like it was hit by a Category 5 hurricane that arrived with the contents of a nearby Babies ‘R’ Us. Although my wife remains the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, in this picture she appears to have just come from wrestling a jungle cat.

    Now this is the kind of photo Beyoncé and other celebrity couples with twins should be sharing. We don’t need to see Jennifer Lopez’s magnificent nursery or watch Ricky Martin lope across an exotic beach with his adorable sons or not hear about the armies of nannies and butlers and hired hands that do all the heavy lifting in the Hollywood fantasy version of rearing multiples.

    There were a bunch of stories this week about how George and Amal Clooney “stepped out” for a lovely dinner in Italy. It’s also about a month since their twins were born and, as People noted, the couple “showed no signs of newborn fatigue.”

    I nearly threw my laptop out the window. How is that not a horrible thing to tell other parents of one-month-old twins who don’t have time to “step out” for a shower or barely have the energy to chuck a frozen lasagna in the microwave?

    Shame on you, Beyoncé, and shame on every other celebrity parent of twins.

    Your parenthood tales and photos are the real fake news.

    vmenon@thestar.ca


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    LONDON—Garbine Muguruza already knew what it’s like to lose to a Williams in the Wimbledon final. Now she knows how it feels to beat one for a championship at the All England Club.

    Muguruza powered her way to her first title at Wimbledon and second at a Grand Slam tournament Saturday, beating a fading Venus Williams 7-5, 6-0 by claiming the final’s last nine games.

    At 37, Williams was bidding for her sixth championship at the grass-court major, 17 years after her first. And she was so close to gaining the upper hand against Muguruza, holding two set points at 5-4 in the opener. But Muguruza fought those off and did not drop a game the rest of the way.

    “She’s such an incredible player,” the 23-year-old Muguruza said about Williams during the trophy ceremony, then drew a laugh from spectators by adding: “I grew up watching her play.”

    In 2015, in her first Grand Slam final, Muguruza lost to Williams’ younger sister, Serena.

    “She told me one day I was going to maybe win,” Muguruza said. “So two years after, here I am.”

    Read more: It's Garbine Muguruza's play that is in fashion at Wimbledon: DiManno

    Muguruza defeated Serena in last year’s French Open title match and, by adding this victory over Venus, the Spaniard becomes the first player to win a Grand Slam final against each member of the greatest Sister Act in sports.

    With the Centre Court roof closed because of rain earlier in the day, creating echoes with each thwack of racket strings against ball by the two big hitters, Muguruza was too good down the stretch.

    Williams began the proceedings with an ace to a corner at 109 mph (176 kph), but Muguruza quickly showed she would neither be overwhelmed by such booming serves nor the occasion. Williams is accustomed to parlaying that stroke into easy points, but Muguruza got back one serve at 113 mph (182 kph) on the match’s second point, and another at 114 mph (184 kph) in the third game — and wound up winning the ensuing exchanges both times.

    Still, Williams twice was a point away from winning the opening set, ahead 5-4 while Muguruza served at 15-40. On the first chance, a 20-stroke point ended when Williams blinked first, putting a forehand into the net. On the second set point, Williams sent a return long, and Muguruza pumped her fist.

    It was as if getting out of that jam freed up Muguruza — and failing to capitalize on the opportunity deflated Williams. That began the match-closing nine-game run for Muguruza.

    Williams began faltering, spraying shots to unintended spots — long, wide, into the net — while the younger, less-experienced Muguruza stayed steady, pounding groundstrokes with all her force. By the latter stages, with the ultimate outcome apparent, the only question was how lopsided the score would be.

    Williams finished with 25 unforced errors, 14 more than Muguruza made. It ended when Williams hit a shot that landed long, but was ruled in. Muguruza challenged the call, and after a bit of a delay, the review showed the ball was, indeed, out. Made to wait to celebrate, Muguruza eventually could enjoy the moment, dropping to her knees and covering her face as tears arrived.

    Soon enough, Muguruza was being shown her name on the list of champions in the stadium’s lobby — “Finally!” she said — and being greeted by former King Juan Carlos of Spain.

    It was an anticlimactic conclusion to the fortnight for Williams, who was the oldest Wimbledon finalist since 1994. She hadn’t made it this far at the All England Club since 2009, hadn’t won the title since a year earlier.

    “A lot of beautiful moments in the last couple of weeks,” the American said.

    Diagnosed in 2011 with Sjogren’s syndrome, an energy-sapping autoimmune disease, she learned to deal with that condition by turning to a plant-based diet and altering other routines. It took a while for her to get back to her best tennis. Her resurgence began in earnest at Wimbledon a year ago, when she made it to the semifinals.

    Then, at the Australian Open in January, Williams reached the final, where she lost to her sister.

    Serena is off the tour for the rest of this year because she is pregnant, and Venus spoke about wanting to earn a trophy for the family name.

    She came close to achieving that, but Muguruza would not allow it.

    Asked if she had a message for Serena, Venus said: “Oh, I miss you. I tried my best to do the same things you do, but I think that there’ll be other opportunities. I do.”


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    HALIFAX—Protesters who pledged to remove a statue of Halifax’s controversial founder Saturday say they came away victorious after the monument to Edward Cornwallis was covered in a tarp.

    Dozens of people — including Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, who had voiced concerns about “violent action” at the protest earlier in the week — looked on as a city-owned truck helped drape the tarp over the statue in Halifax’s Cornwallis Park.

    A Facebook event called “Removing Cornwallis” invited protesters to “peacefully remove” the statue, but organizers didn’t initially say how they planned to make that happen.

    Read more: Halifax protesters plan to fell statue of Cornwallis, the city’s founder who issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps

    Protesters worked with the city to cover the monument, and Savage said the tarp would be taken down after the event.

    Cornwallis, as governor of Nova Scotia, founded Halifax in 1749 and soon after issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps.

    The Mi’kmaq have long called for removal of tributes to Cornwallis, some calling his actions a form of genocide.


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    VLADIVOSTOK, RUSSIA—Across Western Europe and the United States, immigrants from poorer countries, whether plumbers from Poland or farmhands from Mexico, have become a lightning rod for economic anxieties over cheap labour.

    The Russian city of Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean, however, has eagerly embraced a new icon of border-crushing globalization: the North Korean painter.

    Unlike migrant workers in much of the West, destitute decorators from North Korea are so welcome that they have helped make Russia at least the equal of China — Pyongyang’s main backer — as the world’s biggest user of labour from the impoverished yet nuclear-armed country.

    Human rights groups say this state-controlled traffic amounts to a slave trade, but so desperate are conditions in North Korea that labourers often pay bribes to get sent to Russia, where construction companies and Russians who need work on their homes are delighted to have them.

    “They are fast, cheap and very reliable, much better than Russian workers,” Yulia Kravchenko, a 32-year-old Vladivostok housewife said of the painters. “They do nothing but work from morning until late at night.”

    The work habits that delight Vladivostok homeowners are also generating sorely needed cash for the world’s most isolated regime, a hereditary dictatorship in Pyongyang now intent on building nuclear bombs and missiles to carry them as far as the United States.

    Squeezed by international sanctions and unable to produce goods that anyone outside North Korea wants to buy — other than missile parts, coal and mushrooms — the government has sent tens of thousands of its impoverished citizens to cities and towns across the former Soviet Union to earn money for the state.

    North Korean labourers helped build a new soccer stadium in St. Petersburg to be used in next year’s World Cup, a project on which at least one of them died. They are working on a luxury apartment complex in central Moscow, where two North Koreans were found dead last month in a squalid hostel near the construction site. They also cut down trees in remote logging encampments in the Russian Far East that resemble Stalin-era prison camps.

    But they have left their biggest and most visible mark in Vladivostok, providing labour to home-repair companies that boast to customers how North Koreans are cheaper, more disciplined and more sober than native Russians.

    “Surprisingly, these people are hardworking and orderly. They will not take long rests from work, go on frequent cigarette breaks or shirk their duties,” promised the website of a Vladivostok company.

    The home-repair industry stands at the more benign end of North Korea’s labour export program. Painters and plasterers are not generally subjected to the brutal mistreatment endured by North Koreans working in Russian logging camps or on construction sites.

    Though rigidly controlled by minders from the Workers’ Party of Korea, the ruling party in Pyongyang, they do not, on the whole, live in what the State Department in its recently released annual report on human trafficking called “credible reports of slave-like conditions of North Koreans working in Russia.”

    All the same, they still suffer from what human rights groups say is a particularly egregious feature of Pyongyang’s labour export program: Most of their earnings are confiscated by the state.

    A lengthy report on North Korean workers in Russia issued last year by the Data Base Center for North Korean Human Rights, an organization in Seoul, said the Workers’ Party of Korea seizes 80 per cent of the wages earned by forestry workers and at least 30 per cent of the salaries paid to labourers working in construction. Further money is taken to cover living expenses, mandatory contributions to a so-called loyalty fund and other “donations.”

    This “exploitative structure,” the report said, constitutes “one of the fundamental causes of the North Korean workers’ inhumanly hard labour in Russia.”

    The human rights group estimated that the North Korean authorities earn at least $120 million (U.S.) a year from labourers sent to Russia, a vital source of income for a family dynasty founded, with Moscow’s backing, by Kim Il Sung in 1948 and now headed by his 33-year-old grandson, Kim Jong Un. It put the number of North Koreans working in Russia at nearly 50,000, though other studies say the number is 30,000 to 40,000, which is still more than in China or the Middle East, the other principal destinations.

    The Russian boss of a Vladivostok decorating company that employs scores of North Koreans said the amount of money seized from salaries had increased substantially over the past decade, rising to a current monthly rate of 50,000 rubles, or $841, from 17,000 rubles a month in 2006. He said his highest-paid workers now lose half or more of their monthly salary through confiscation, while the leader of each construction squad of around 20 to 30 labourers takes an additional cut of about 20 per cent in return for finding painting jobs for his men.

    The Russian asked that he not be named because he feared that Workers’ Party supervisors would punish his labourers or prevent them from working with him.

    The increased rate of confiscation followed a sharp fall in the value of the ruble against the dollar, a troubling development for a regime that wants dollars, not rubles.

    But the jacking up of the amount of rubles seized more than compensated for the ruble’s fall, reflecting Pyongyang’s desperate hunt for more cash since Kim Jong Un took power in December 2011 and ramped up North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

    International sanctions and a Chinese ban on imports of North Korean coal in February after a series of missile tests have steadily squeezed Pyongyang’s other sources of foreign revenue. That has left the export of labour, along with a string of state-run restaurants and other small businesses in Vladivostok and elsewhere, as one of the regime’s shrinking list of ways to generate hard currency.

    The Russian boss said North Koreans work “crazily long hours” without complaint and call him at 6 a.m., even on weekends, if he has not yet shown up to tell them what to paint or plaster. “They don’t take holidays. They eat, work and sleep and nothing else. And they don’t sleep much,” he said. “They are basically in the situation of slaves.”

    All the same, he added, North Koreans still want to work in Russia, where, despite the hardships and confiscation of a big chunk of their wages, they can live better and freer than they do at home.

    “It is not slave labour but hard labour. And it is much better here than in North Korea,” Georgy Toloraya, a former Russian diplomat in Pyongyang, said.


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    GAZA, PALESTINIAN TERRITORY—Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers on Saturday called on Palestinians to attack Israeli forces in Jerusalem after a sacred site was closed following a deadly assault there.

    Hamas described the closure of the site — known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount — in a statement as a “religious war” and Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum called on the Palestinian “uprising” to target the Israeli army and West Bank settlers.

    Israel made the rare move after three Palestinian assailants opened fire there Friday, killing two Israeli police officers before being shot dead. The attackers were Muslim citizens of Israel.

    On Saturday, the White House condemned the attack in a strongly-worded statement.

    “The people of the United States are heartbroken that terrorists brutally gunned down two Israeli police officers,” press secretary Sean Spicer said. “There must be zero tolerance for terrorism. It is incompatible with achieving peace and we must condemn it in the strongest terms, defeat it, and eradicate it.”

    Hamas staged a rally celebrating the attack.

    The Muslim-administered site is revered by both Muslims and Jews. Israel says it won’t reopen before Sunday.


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    WASHINGTON—Two of the insurance industry’s most powerful organizations say a crucial provision in the Senate Republican health care bill allowing the sale of bare-bones policies is “unworkable in any form,” delivering a blow to party leaders’ efforts to win support for their legislation.

    The language was crafted by conservative Sen. Ted Cruz and leaders have included it in the overall bill in hopes of winning votes from other congressional conservatives. But moderates have worried it will cause people with serious illnesses to lose coverage, and some conservatives say it doesn’t go far enough.

    Two of the 52 GOP senators have already said they will oppose the legislation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cannot lose any others for the legislation to survive a showdown vote expected next week.

    Read more: Trump says passing health bill will be ‘very tough’ as Senate GOP leaders scramble for deal

    The overall measure represents the Senate GOP’s attempt to deliver on the party’s promise to repeal former president Barack Obama’s health care law, which they’ve been pledging to do since its 2010 enactment.

    The criticism of Cruz’s provision was lodged in a rare joint statement by America’s Health Care Plans and the BlueCross BlueShield Association. The two groups released it late Friday in the form of a letter to McConnell.

    “It is simply unworkable in any form,” the letter said. They said it would “undermine protections for those with pre-existing medical conditions,” increase premiums and lead many to lose coverage.

    The provision would let insurers sell low-cost policies with skimpy coverage, as long as they also sell policies that meet a stringent list of services they’re required to provide under Obama’s law, like mental health counselling and prescription drugs.

    Cruz says the proposal would drive down premiums and give people the option of buying the coverage they feel they need.

    Critics say the measure would encourage healthy people to buy the skimpy, low-cost plans, leaving sicker consumers who need more comprehensive coverage confronting unaffordable costs. The insurers’ statement backs up that assertion, lending credence to wary senators’ worries and complicating McConnell’s task of winning them over.

    The two groups say premiums would “skyrocket” for people with pre-existing conditions, especially for middle-income families who don’t qualify for the bill’s tax credit. They also say the plan would leave consumers with fewer insurance options, so “millions of more individuals will become uninsured.”

    Read more: 22 million Americans will lose health coverage under Senate Republican plan, budget office says

    According to an analysis by the BlueCross BlueShield Association, major federal consumer protections would not be required for new plans permitted by the Cruz amendment.

    Among them: guaranteed coverage at standard rates for people with pre-existing conditions, comprehensive benefits, coverage of preventive care — including birth control for women — at no added cost to the consumer, and limits on out-of-pocket spending for deductibles and copayments.

    The bill provides $70 billion for states to use to help contain rising costs for people with serious conditions. But the insurance groups’ statement says that amount “is insufficient and additional funding will not make the provision workable for consumers or taxpayers.”

    The Cruz provision language in the bill is not final. McConnell and other Republicans are considering ways to revise it in hopes of winning broader support.

    McConnell and top Trump administration officials plan to spend the next few days cajoling senators and home-state governors in an effort to nail down support for the bill.

    The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office is expected to release its analysis of McConnell’s revised bill early next week, including an assessment of Cruz’s plan.

    The office estimated that McConnell’s initial bill would have caused 22 million additional people to be uninsured.


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    NEW YORK—As Air Force One flew home from Europe, news was set to break about a meeting that Donald Trump’s eldest son had with a Kremlin-connected lawyer, promising yet another round of unwelcome headlines about the president and Russia. And that happened twice within a week.

    The day-after-day drip-drip-drip of revelations over the past week about Donald Trump Jr.’s contact with the Russian lawyer in 2016 underscores the White House’s inability to shake off the Russia story and close the book on a narrative that casts a shadow over Trump’s presidency. No matter how presidential Trump may have looked on his back-to-back trips to Europe in recent days, the persistent questions about connections between Trump’s team and Russia prevent him from savoring a public relations victory and building momentum for his stalled legislative agenda.

    Read the latest on U.S. President Donald Trump

    “Omissions are as harmful as contradictions because it seems like you’re hiding something,” Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, said of the Trump team’s strategy. “From a communications standpoint, it’s unforgivable.”

    Read more: Russian-linked lobbyist says he was at Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting

    Who’s who in the stunning Russia-conspiracy emails released by Donald Trump Jr.

    Indeed, Trump Jr.’s account of his Trump Tower meeting has seemingly changed on an almost daily basis. At first, the meeting was said to be about a Russian adoption program. Then, it was to hear information about campaign rival Hillary Clinton. Finally, Trump Jr. was forced to release emails — mere moments before The New York Times planned to do so — that revealed he had told an associate that he would “love” Russia’s help in obtaining negative details about the Democratic nominee.

    Even the number of people who attended the meeting has changed. On Friday, a prominent Russian-American lobbyist told The Associated Press that he, too, had been part of the discussion.

    Each revelation, no matter how small, has been seized upon by Democrats and dissected in detail on cable news.

    The investigations have thrown the White House off balance, leaving some officials on edge about whether there are more disclosures to come.

    On Saturday, the White House announced that Trump had hired Washington attorney Ty Cobb to server as his special counsel to handle the White House’s response to the Russia probes. The move reflects the president’s growing acceptance that the Russia probes will linger over his tenure for months or even years.

    Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner — the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser also attended the June 2016 meeting — have retained attorneys separate from those hired by the president.

    The firestorm over Trump Jr.’s emails has been a frustrating distraction during a stretch in which some White House advisers believed they were finding their footing. Trump’s allies also were heartened by his trips to Europe, believing that his speech saluting national pride in Poland was a high point of his presidency and that he appeared statesmanlike during a whirlwind visit to Paris.

    But behind the scenes, a group of Trump aides gathered in a cabin on the presidential aircraft flying home from Germany last weekend to begin preparing for the initial fallout from Trump Jr.’s 2016 meeting. And then just six days later, as Air Force One was returning from France, more news was breaking about Trump Jr.’s shifting account of the meeting, again launching a bad news cycle and straining the credibility of the president’s defence team.

    Read more: Donald Trump Jr. farce makes Russia story more ridiculous, more serious: Analysis

    For some, the steady drumbeat of Russia revelations echoes how the Watergate story emerged in one Washington Post story after another.

    “I think the ‘drip-drip-drip’ is a perfect analogy, for that’s exactly what people said about Watergate and President Nixon’s Oval Office tapes,” said Luke Nichter, a historian who has written several books on the former president. “They were released piecemeal and every release was damaging.”

    Even if the ongoing Russia questions don’t end in legal consequences for Trump, they can still inflict serious political damage if allowed to needlessly drag out.

    “I don’t know that there’s anyone powerful enough on the team to marshal this and get all the facts out now,” Fleischer said.


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    Flights from Europe to Canada faced delays and cancellations Saturday as a computer problem slowed down flight planning.

    NAV Canada, the private company that manages Canadian airspace, said a storm in the Ottawa area Friday night flooded one of the agency’s buildings, disrupted the planning system and required staff to manually enter flight information.

    Ron Singer, spokesperson for NAV Canada, stressed there have been no safety issues or impact on air traffic control.

    The delays and cancellations mainly affected flights inbound from Europe, though some scheduled to leave Canada for Europe were also impacted. There was a “very little” upset to North American flights, Singer said, though he could not say how many flights in all were delayed or cancelled because of the computer problem.

    By Saturday afternoon the system had been partially restored, the agency said on its Twitter account.


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