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U.S. pandemic diplomacy continues with Blinken’s Zoom meeting with Trudeau, Garneau

JAMES MCCARTEN, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, Feb 26th, 2021

The pandemic diplomacy at work between the United States and Canada is continuing, this time with the secretary of state.

Antony Blinken will visit virtually with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau as part of the Biden administration’s post-Trump fence-mending campaign.

Blinken’s “virtual trips” to Canada and Mexico mark the secretary’s first bilateral video conferences since taking office.

The visit follows up on Trudeau’s own virtual summit this week with the U.S. president, which produced a “road map” for collaboration on issues like climate change, the economy and COVID-19.

With travel still ill-advised, Trudeau and Garneau will dial in from Ottawa, with Blinken at the State Department’s headquarters in Foggy Bottom.

Spokesperson Ned Price says the agenda includes North American defence, security and human rights in the West and around the world.

That means the conversations will likely include the plight of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, two Canadians who have spent the last two years in custody in China.

Spavor and Kovrig — known in Canada simply as the “two Michaels” — were swept up after Canada’s arrest in December 2018 of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei.

Meng is in the midst of an extradition hearing in Vancouver to determine whether she should be sent to the U.S. to face fraud charges.

On Tuesday, Biden vowed to work with Canada to secure the two Michaels’ release, but offered no clues as to what specifically the U.S. is prepared to do.

Justice Department spokesman Marc Raimondi would only say the U.S. will “continue to seek extradition” of Meng, who is under house arrest in Vancouver and due back in court Monday.

Earlier this month, Canada, the U.S. and a coalition of 56 other countries collectively denounced the state-sponsored arbitrary detention of foreign nationals for political purposes.

Julie Chung, the acting assistant secretary for State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said the U.S. supports that measure and backs Canada’s demand for the release of Spavor and Kovrig.

“Human beings should not be used as pawns,” she said Thursday. “We stand by Canada, our strong friend and partner, in the issues of arbitrary detention and for the release of the two Canadian citizens.”

Blinken is also scheduled to meet with a group of Canadian students, as well as with Mexico’s foreign secretary and secretary of the economy during a “visit” to a port of entry facility along the southern U.S. border.

Meanwhile, efforts to fortify Canada-U.S. ties have continued, albeit virtually, along other departmental fronts all week.

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson spoke Wednesday with John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy on climate, to shore up plans for more stringent emissions-reduction targets in advance of a climate summit in April.

And Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Transport Minister Omar Alghabra have committed to tougher vehicle pollution standards, and collaborating on new standards for aircraft and ships.

TDSB student raises concerns over ‘racially insensitive’ poem assigned to French class

MELISSA NAKHAVOLY AND NEWS STAFF | posted Friday, Feb 26th, 2021

A Toronto District School Board (TDSB) student is raising concerns over a “racially insensitive” poem being taught in class which makes references to slavery.

The poem was by French poet Jacques Prevert titled “Pour Toi, Mon Amour,” and was assigned to a Grade 10 virtual French class at Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute.

WATCH VIDEO: https://toronto.citynews.ca/2021/02/25/tdsb-student-raise-concerns-over-racially-insensitive-poem-assigned-to-french-class/

The part of the poem in question when translated into English reads, “‘I went to the scrap market and bought chains, heavy chains. For you, my love.’ And then it proceeds to say, ‘I went to the slave market and I looked for you but I didn’t find you, my love’,” said the student

“There are certain lines in the poem that was said that were inappropriate or culturally insensitive,” they added

The student, who did not want to be identified out of fears of repercussion, says the poem was assigned as part of their poetry unit in their French class on Thursday.

The student said there was no discussion or disclaimer explaining the insensitive nature or even the history of poem.

“In my class, we haven’t had any discussions regarding Black History Month or regarding the fact that it is Black History Month and there are some sensitive topics that will be talked about in this poem. Nothing like that was discussed prior to us getting the assignment,” the student said.

The Grade 10 student said they approached the teacher to discuss why this poem was chosen and the teacher claimed it was part of the curriculum.

“There could be other Black students that have faced racial injustice directly to them and maybe this can offend them in someway you can never know. I just don’t feel this is something that needs to be talked about or taught in classrooms,” they said.

The student tells CityNews they spoke out in hopes of getting the school board’s attention.

“We’re supposed to be going forward when it comes to racism but instead it seems like we’re going backwards because this is still being taught in classrooms. Whether this is an important part of the curriculum or not, this poem is racially insensitive to all black students across the board,” said the student.

The Toronto District School Board said they weren’t aware of the situation until CityNews reached out for a statement, but said the poem is not part of TDSB or Ministry of Education curriculum.

“We have only just learned of this incident and encourage the student and their family to speak with the principal so that we can understand what happened. In the meantime, we can confirm that this poem is not part of any TDSB or Ministry of Education curriculum.” read the statement.

“These kids, us teenagers are the future. We’re the people that will be going further so if this is something that is given and it’s supposed to be looked like that it’s fine just because its a part of the school curriculum,” added the student. “We’re [just] supposed to get it and not question anything, that’s muzzling us. Trying to get us to stop and not make changes for the future.”

Head of Canada’s largest pension plan receives COVID vaccine in Dubai: memo

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, Feb 26th, 2021

The head of Canada’s largest pension fund received a COVID-19 vaccination while on a “very personal” trip to Dubai, he told staff in an email Thursday night.

Mark Machin disclosed the information in an internal memo after the Wall Street Journal reported he flew to the United Arab Emirates earlier this month, where he received the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and is awaiting the second dose.

Machin said in the email viewed by The Canadian Press that he remains in Dubai with his partner “for many reasons, some of which are deeply personal.”

“This was a very personal trip and was undertaken after careful consideration and consultation,” the memo reads.

CPP Investments did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday evening.

The federal government is actively discouraging Canadians from travelling abroad and recently implemented strict quarantine measures for those returning home.

Machin told staff he followed all travel protocols related to his role as head of the pension fund while on the trip.

“This trip was intended to be very private and I am disappointed it has become the focus of public attention and expected criticism,” he wrote.

Several politicians and health-care officials have become high profile flashpoints of public anger in recent months for leaving the country despite public health advice to the contrary.

Among them, the former CEO of the London Health Sciences Centre is now embroiled in litigation after his travel to the U.S. prompted the hospital to terminate his contract.

Rod Phillips, Ontario’s former finance minister, resigned from his post in late December after taking a personal trip to St. Barts.

CPP Investments, which had $475.7 billion in assets under management as of Dec. 31, invests money on behalf of retired and active employees covered by the Canada Pension Plan.

A spokeswoman for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said that while CPPIB is an independent organization, the revelation is “very troubling.”

“The federal government has been clear with Canadians that now is not the time to travel abroad,” Katherine Cuplinskas said in an emailed statement.

“We were not made aware of this travel and further questions should be directed to the CPPIB on this matter.”

Machin, who has been in his current role since 2016, joined CPP Investments in 2012. Prior to joining the pension fund manager, he spent 20 years at investment bank Goldman Sachs.

Ontario lacked updated pandemic response plan before COVID-19 hit

COLIN PERKEL, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, Feb 26th, 2021

Ontario had no updated plan for dealing with a pandemic when COVID-19 began cutting a deadly swath through the province last spring, a public commission was told.

In testimony before the panel released on Thursday, the province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, denied responsibility for the shortcoming.

The province had developed a pandemic response plan in 2006 that was updated in 2013, but the process stalled after work started on a “Ready and Resilient” blueprint in 2016.

“Do you have any knowledge about the “Ready and Resilient” plan and why it wasn’t completed in four years before COVID?” commission co-counsel John Callaghan asked.

“The process was in place, and they were doing reviews on it,” Williams answered.

“Why was it not done?”

“Because it was not completed.”

The commission is delving into the devastating impact of COVID-19 on Ontario’s long-term care homes. To date, coronavirus disease has killed 3,753 residents and 11 staff members.

Williams said pandemic preparation drifted down the priority list because things had been relatively quiet for several years. Historically, he said, planning focused on influenza A, a situation that hadn’t changed as late as 2019 when the World Health Organization said the world is not ready for a pandemic.

“For seven years, you never felt the need to increase your pandemic plan, your influenza pandemic plan?” Callaghan asked.

“We did quality work back in 2006,” Williams said.

“You are saying, in your opinion, it was your decision not to upgrade the 2013 plan?”

“No, I was not asked to update the plan.”

Williams said he “took flak” over pushing more robust preparation for a major infectious disease outbreak because others saw the exercise as wasting time and resources for something that would never occur.

“It is hard to keep that prevention thing always at the front table because the tyranny of the urgent always pushes things aside,” Williams said. “It was to me disappointing to find the lack of depth and breadth of infection prevention and control expertise that was available out there.”

Williams said he was shocked to discover the poor situation at long-term care homes when it came to masks and other personal protective equipment. The purpose of the provincial stockpile, he said, was to equip front-line doctors and their offices, not long-term care facilities.

Nursing homes, he said, were supposed to have their own supplies able to last between four and seven weeks. However, when the pandemic hit in earnest, he learned most of the protective equipment was made in China and global demand had outstripped supply.

“That was startling and shocking to me that that had happened in there because it is something that I thought we had in-house; anyways in North America at least,” he said.

Constant staff turnover of key personnel in nursing homes hampered efforts to ensure adequate infection prevention controls were in place, he said.

“The changeover was at times disconcerting,” he said.

Callaghan called it “vexing” the commission had received 217,000 pages of documents from Williams only in the week before he testified. The co-counsel also noted Williams had provided 2,000 pages of his redacted notes.

New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath said Williams’ testimony made it “astoundingly clear” the government was trying to hide its response to COVID-19 in nursing homes.

“The Ford government and Dr. Williams are taking great pains to hide, bury and cover up how they dealt with COVID-19 in long-term care homes,” Horwath said.

Nicole’s Peanut Butter Banana Cake

Kyle Mack | posted Thursday, Feb 25th, 2021

Ingredients

  • Wet ingredients
  • 3 very overripe medium bananas, mashed (1 ¼ cup mashed overripe banana)
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup pure maple syrup
  • ¾ cup natural creamy peanut butter (only peanuts & salt as ingredients)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • Dry ingredients
  • 2 cups packed super fine blanched almond flour (I use Bob’s Red Mill)
  • ½ cup coconut flour (do not pack)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup mini chocolate chips, dairy free if desired
  • For the frosting:
  • ½ cup butter, at room temperature (or sub vegan butter)
  • ½ cup natural creamy peanut butter (just peanuts + salt)
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2-3 tablespoons unsweetened almond milk (or milk of choice), to make the frosting creamy
  • To garnish the cake:
  • Mini chocolate chips around the edges of the cake

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom of three 6-inch round cake pans or two 8-inch round cake pans with parchment paper rounds. Spray parchment paper and sides of pan with nonstick cooking spray. YOU SHOULD USE PARCHMENT PAPER or the cake is likely to stick. Please do not forget.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together mashed bananas, eggs, pure maple syrup, peanut butter and vanilla extract until smooth.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk the almond flour, coconut flour, baking soda and salt together. Set aside. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and mix with a wooden spoon until well combined. Fold in mini chocolate chips.
  4. Divide batter evenly between pans and spread out with a spatula to smooth the tops. Bake for 20-30 minutes if using two 8-inch pans and 25-35 minutes for three 6-inch pans. Cakes are done when a tester comes out clean or with just a few crumbs attached. Allow cake to cool completely before frosting or removing from the pans. The cake should be room temperature or cold when you frost it. This is very important. Cakes can be made a day ahead and stored in the fridge if you’d like.
  5. Make your frosting: In the bowl of an electric mixer, add the softened butter and peanut butter and whip on high until light and fluffy. Add powdered sugar, vanilla and 2 tablespoons almond milk. Beat slow at first, then increase speed to high and beat for approximately two minutes. Frosting should be nice and creamy, if you want it extra creamy, add another tablespoon of almond milk and beat again.
  6. Now it’s time to frost the cake: place about 1-2 tablespoons down onto the cake stand and spread out. Invert 1 cake onto the cake stand, add about ½ heaping cup frosting between each layer, repeat with each cake, then frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting. If you’d like, you can do a crumb coat for the frosting first (to avoid crumbs in the frosting) by doing the following: Frost the layers as you normally would and then coat the outside of the cake with a very thin layer of frosting and place in fridge for 10-15 minutes before you finish frosting. This is so that the crumbs stick to this layer of frosting and not your main layer.

LA sheriff says no charges in Tiger Woods crash; ‘purely an accident’

STEFANIE DAZIO AND DOUG FERGUSON, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | posted Thursday, Feb 25th, 2021

The Los Angeles County sheriff on Wednesday characterized the crash that seriously injured Tiger Woods as “purely an accident” and appeared to rule out any potential criminal charges even as authorities were still investigating.

Deputies did not see any evidence that the golf star was impaired by drugs or alcohol after Tuesday’s rollover wreck on a downhill stretch of road known for crashes, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said.

“He was not drunk,” Villanueva said during a livestreamed social media event. “We can throw that one out.”

Woods, who had checked into a clinic in 2017 for help dealing with prescription medication, was driving alone through coastal Los Angeles suburbs when his SUV struck a raised median, crossed into oncoming lanes and flipped several times. The crash caused “significant” injuries to his right leg, and he underwent a “long surgical procedure,” according to a post on the golfer’s Twitter account.

Villanueva said investigators may seek search warrants for a blood sample to definitively rule out drugs and alcohol. Detectives also could apply for search warrants for Woods’ cellphone to see if he was driving distracted, as well as the vehicle’s event data recorder, or “black box,” which would give information about how fast he was going.

Joe Giacalone, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired New York police sergeant, said it was “premature” for Villanueva to determine the crash was an accident just a day later.

“The blood test could give us a whole other insight,” Giacalone said, noting that some drugs are not necessarily detectable by observation. “Because it’s Tiger Woods, people are going to demand answers. You have to dot your I’s and cross your T’s.”

Crash investigations typically include interviews of first responders and bystanders as well as inspections of the road and the vehicle, including photographing and measuring the scene and checking to see if the vehicle had defects or malfunctions, according to William Peppard, a retired Bergen County, New Jersey, police detective who has served as a crash investigator.

Peppard said in typical cases with no immediate indications the driver was impaired, detectives might not seek blood samples if the crash did not injure anyone else or damage property.

“Take the celebrity out of it – it’s a matter of resources and time,” he said.

The crash was the latest setback for Woods, who at times has looked unstoppable with his 15 major championships and record-tying 82 victories on the PGA Tour. He is among the world’s most recognizable sports figures, and at 45, with a reduced schedule from nine previous surgeries, remains golf’s biggest draw.

He won the 2008 U.S. Open with shredded knee ligaments and two stress fractures in his left leg. His personal life imploded in 2009 when he was caught having multiple extramarital affairs and crashed his vehicle near his Florida home. He returned to win his 11th award as PGA Tour player of the year and reach No. 1.

In 2017, Florida police found him asleep behind the wheel of a car parked awkwardly on the side of the road. He was arrested on a DUI charge and said he had an unexpected reaction to prescription medicine for back pain. Woods later pleaded guilty to reckless driving and checked into a clinic to get help with prescription medication and a sleep disorder.

And then after four back surgeries that kept him out of golf for the better part of two years, he won the Masters in April 2019 for the fifth time, ranking among the great comebacks in golf.

Woods had a fifth back surgery, a microdiscectomy, on Dec. 23, just three days after he played the PNC Championship with his son Charlie, now 12.

Woods was in Los Angeles over the weekend as the tournament host of the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club. Monday and Tuesday had been set aside for him to give golf tips to celebrities on Discovery-owned GOLFTV.

Woods was driving his courtesy vehicle from the Genesis Invitational when he crashed. Deputy Carlos Gonzalez, who was the first to arrive at the crash, patrols the road and said he sometimes catches people topping 80 mph (129 kph) in the downhill, 45-mph zone. Crashes are common.

Phase 2 of COVID-19 vaccinations for those 80-years and up to start week of March 15

BT Toronto | posted Thursday, Feb 25th, 2021

Ontarians 80 years and older will start to get vaccinated during the third week of March, says the head of the province’s vaccine task force.

WATCH: https://toronto.citynews.ca/2021/02/24/covid-vaccine-phase-2-ontario/

Retired General Rick Hillier says Phase 2 of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccination plan will begin next month and those 80 years and older should start getting their first doses starting the week of March 15.

An online booking system and service desk will become available on that date as well and people in that 80 and older age range, or those booking for them, can access it.

WATCH: https://toronto.citynews.ca/2021/02/24/covid-vaccine-phase-2-ontario/

“Unless you’re 80-years-old or unless you’re acting to get a reservation for somebody who is 80-years-old or more, please do not go online. You will not be permitted to go through the system if you’re not in that age bracket,” Hillier warned against anyone attempting to jump the queue.

Quebec’s portal to book online vaccines is scheduled to go live this week, but Hillier it’s not necessary yet in Ontario because they are completing the first phase of vaccinations for long-term care residents and health care workers. Those individuals are expected to receive their second doses by next week.

Hillier says the task force aims to then vaccinate adults aged 75 and older starting April 15, and shots will go to those 70 and older beginning May 1. He says people aged 65 and older will be vaccinated starting June 1.

Vaccinations in populations considered high-risk, including Indigenous adults, will continue during that phase and essential workers will begin getting their shots in May.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hillier says pharmacies will also begin assisting with vaccinations during Phase 2, which will take much of the strain off hospitals in case there is a surge in new COVID-19 cases.

Hillier says they hope to complete between 16,000 to 18,000 vaccinations a day but he cautioned that Ontario’s plan is dependent on vaccine supply from the federal government.

Hillier also expressed skepticism about the federal government’s timeline for inoculating all Canadians. Ottawa has consistently said that everyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one by the end of September, but Hillier isn’t so sure.

“I’d love to say, yeah by Labour Day weekend we’re going to have every single person in Ontario who is eligible and who wants a vaccine to have one. I’m a little bit reluctant to do that because it depends on the arrival of those vaccines.”

Dr. Nathan Stall, a geriatrician at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, called the province’s vaccine rollout to seniors slow and “extremely disappointing,” noting that the group represents more than 95 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in Ontario to date.

He said the plan to vaccinate essential workers at the same time as older adults will complicate efforts, and called for greater transparency on how groups are being prioritized.

“Let’s simplify it and let’s focus our supply of vaccine where we know deaths and hospitalizations are occurring,” Stall said in an interview.

Hillier said he would have liked to see the booking system up and running sooner but noted that it hadn’t been required for the high-priority populations the province has so far focused on, such as those in long-term care.

He added that some private-sector companies with large operations have offered to vaccinate their essential workers, their families and communities when the time comes and the province intends to take up those offers.

Premier Doug Ford said his province is lagging behind others – such as Alberta – in offering vaccines to adults under age 80 because Ontario has a larger population with more people in long-term care.

He said the rollout is focused on those most at risk and argued the plan depends on supply.

“The bottom line is, we need vaccines. If we had millions of vaccines, it’d be a lot easier,” Ford said Wednesday.

“When we get to that point, everyone will know when their turn is coming.”

NDP leader Andrea Horwath accused the Ford government of botching the vaccine rollout, calling it “terrifying.”

Horwath predicts the goal of having everyone in Ontario vaccinated by the end of the summer won’t happen. She says the Ford government has been incompetent in the handling of the virus.

Liberal health critic John Fraser said the government seems unprepared for the broader distribution of vaccines.

“People want answers. They didn’t get any answers this morning, other than it’s taking longer than we thought it would, and we’re actually not ready,” Fraser said.

A total of 602,848 vaccine doses have been administered in the province so far with 251,590 people having received both doses.

 

Complaints spike as taxpayers’ watchdog to review CRA handling of locked accounts

JORDAN PRESS, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Thursday, Feb 25th, 2021

OTTAWA — The federal taxpayers’ watchdog says complaints to his office spiked in the hours after he went public with concerns about how the Canada Revenue Agency locked users out of their online accounts.

The accounts were locked just over one week ago when the agency found evidence that an unspecified number of user IDs and passwords might have been stolen in a cyberattack.

It was later found that wasn’t the case, but not before notices went out to users of the CRA’s online services, who had their accounts locked as a preventive measure.

Taxpayer ombudsperson François Boileau says the issue has dominated the number of complaints his office has received, amounting to three-quarters of those filed in 24 hours this week.

Almost a third of people complaining about being locked out of their accounts were facing urgent and dire financial situations that Boileau says his office was trying to help quickly resolve.

Boileau says he believes the CRA didn’t initially provide adequate information to affected Canadians, causing widespread concern and confusion.

Worsening the problems was trouble users had reaching the CRA to unlock their accounts or get more information, which has driven complaints to Boileau’s office daily since the incident.

“It’s a typical case for me that sometimes the left hand may not know what the right hand is doing,” he says.

Boileau says the CRA should have had a clear communications plan ready to roll to avoid sowing confusions and concerns.

Citing people waiting on hold for extended periods, getting disconnected or rerouted to multiple call centre agents, or being directed to an external website, the watchdog says the agency’s communications fell short of what Canadians expect.

“They deserve to know what happened. They deserve to know, with clarity … usefulness and timeliness. And that’s something that ought to be at the forefront of every communication with the public,” Boileau says.

“Last week, it felt like it was not done in that spirit.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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