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US moves to rejoin UN rights council, reversing Trump anew

MATTHEW LEE, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | posted Monday, Feb 8th, 2021

The Biden administration is set to announce this week that it will reengage with the much-maligned U.N. Human Rights Council that former President Donald Trump withdrew from almost three years ago, U.S. officials said Sunday. The decision reverses another Trump-era move away from multilateral organizations and agreements.

U..S. officials say Secretary of State Antony Blinken and a senior U.S. diplomat in Geneva will announce on Monday that Washington will return to the Geneva-based body as an observer with an eye toward seeking election as a full member. The decision is likely to draw criticism from conservative lawmakers and many in the pro-Israel community.

Trump pulled out of the world body’s main human rights agency in 2018 due to its disproportionate focus on Israel, which has received by far the largest number of critical council resolutions against any country, as well as the number of authoritarian countries among its members and because it failed to meet an extensive list of reforms demanded by then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.

In addition to the council’s persistent focus on Israel, the Trump administration took issue with the body’s membership, which currently includes China, Cuba, Eritrea, Russia and Venezuela, all of which have been accused of human rights abuses.

One senior U.S. official said the Biden administration believed the council must still reform but that the best way to promote change is to “engage with it in a principled fashion.” The official said it can be “an important forum for those fighting tyranny and injustice around the world” and the U.S. presence intends to “ensure it can live up to that potential.”

That official and three others familiar with the decision were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly ahead of the announcement, and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Although the U.S. will have only nonvoting observer status on the council through the end of 2021, the officials said the administration intends to seek one of three full member seats — currently held by Austria, Denmark and Italy — from the “Western Europe and other states group” that come up for election later this year.

The U.N. General Assembly makes the final choice in a vote that generally takes place in October every year to fill vacancies in three-year terms at the 47-member-state council.

U.S. engagement with the council and its predecessor, the U.N. Human Rights Commission, has been something of a political football between Republican and Democratic administrations for decades. While recognizing its shortcomings, Democratic presidents have tended to want a seat at the table while Republicans have recoiled at its criticism of Israel.

Trump’s withdrawal from the UNHRC, however, was one of a number of U.S. retrenchments from the international community during his four years in office. He also walked away from the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran nuclear deal, the World Health Organization, U.N. education and cultural organization, UNESCO, and several arms-control treaties. Trump also threatened to withdraw from the International Postal Union and frequently hinted at pulling out of the World Trade Organization.

Since taking office last month, President Joe Biden has rejoined both the Paris accord and the WHO and has signalled interest in returning to the Iran deal as well as UNESCO.

Ford set to announce plans for gradually reopening Ontario

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Monday, Feb 8th, 2021

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is expected to announce plans Monday to reopen the province following its state of emergency.

A senior government source who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter says Ford will announce that the state of emergency declared last month will be allowed to expire as scheduled on Tuesday.

However, the source adds that a stay-at-home order will remain in effect as regions gradually transition back to the government’s colour-coded restrictions system over the next three weeks.

The source says the government will also introduce an “emergency brake” that allows the province’s top doctor to immediately move a region back into lockdown if cases spike.

Ontario has been in lockdown since Boxing Day, and on Jan. 12, the province declared a state of emergency over rising cases of COVID-19.

It also instituted a stay-at-home order, which prohibited people from going out except for essential purposes, such as for exercise or to buy groceries.

First Brazilian and South African variants of COVID-19 identified in Toronto

BT Toronto | posted Monday, Feb 8th, 2021

Toronto Public Health has confirmed the first cases of the Brazilian and South African variant of the COVID-19 virus in the city.

Officials said on Sunday that a patient who had recently travelled from Brazil has tested positive for the P.1 COVID-19 mutation. They are currently hospitalized.

This also marks the first confirmed case of the Brazilian variant in the province of Ontario.

Health officials also reported the first confirmed case of the B.1.351 mutation, known as the South African variant of the virus. This person has no recent travel history and has had no known contact with anyone who has recently traveled.

Toronto Public Health says there are currently 27 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 variant in the city.

As of Sunday, the province had counted 176 confirmed cases of the variant from the U.K., and one of the variant from South Africa, not including Toronto’s new case.

A single-day snapshot from January found that the variant from the U.K. accounted for 5.5 per cent of all positive COVID-19 cases in the province, and that percentage is expected to rise quickly.

As of last week, the province has been screening all positive cases to see if they can be tied to one of the variants.

Most of the variant cases are in the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, where an outbreak ripped through a Barrie nursing home killing more than half of the residents and an essential caregiver.

Public health officials around the world have raised concerns about new virus variants that are more contagious or resistant to existing vaccines. While viruses mutate constantly, most of the changes cause little concern. But scientists are closely tracking these mutations to make sure they quickly identify variants of concern.

Public health officials are also concerned because the variant first discovered in South Africa contains a mutation of the virus’ characteristic spike protein targeted by existing vaccines. The mutation may mean the vaccines offer less protection against the variant.

The developers of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine say the shot appears to work against the variant detected in Britain late last year which is similar to previously reported results by other vaccine manufacturers, including Pfizer and Moderna. Researchers are studying the potential effectiveness of the vaccine against the South Africa variant.

Files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press were used in this report

Tom Brady leads Bucs to convincing win over Chiefs in Super Bowl LV

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | posted Monday, Feb 8th, 2021

Tom Brady made his seventh Super Bowl title look familiar – despite moving south to a new team and conference during a pandemic.

Brady threw two touchdown passes to old friend Rob Gronkowski and one to good pal Antonio Brown, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City 31-9 on their home field in Super Bowl 55 on Sunday.

The GOAT (Greatest of all-time) extended his Super Bowl titles’ record in his 10th appearance, his first without Patriots coach Bill Belichick. The 43-year-old Brady broke his own mark for oldest player to win a Super Bowl and joins Hall of Famer Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to win one with multiple franchises.

“I’m not making any comparisons,” Brady said. “Experiencing it with this group of guys is amazing.”

Brady was also named the MVP of the game for the fifth time in his career. That moves him past LeBron James and leaves him one behind only Michael Jordan’s 6 for most championship series/game MVP awards won by a player in North American major pro team sports history.

I’m so proud of all these guys. We had a rough November but we came together at the right time. We knew this was gonna happen. We played our best game of the year – Tom Brady

The Buccaneers (15-5) won their second NFL title and first in 18 years while becoming the first team to play the big game at home, capping an unusual and challenging season played through the novel coronavirus. They won three road games as a wild-card team to reach the Super Bowl.

Tampa’s victory prevented Mahomes and the Chiefs (16-3) from becoming the first repeat champions since Brady’s Patriots did it in 2003-04.

Bruce Arians became the oldest coach at age 68 to win the Super Bowl. His mom, 95-year-old Kay Arians, witnessed it in person. Brady, Gronk and defensive co-ordinator Todd Bowles helped Arians get that Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Bowles devised a masterful plan to frustrate Mahomes and shut down the Chiefs, the complete opposite of Kansas City’s 27-24 win in Tampa in Week 12, when the Chiefs jumped to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter. Tyreek Hill had 269 yards receiving and three TDs in that one. He was held to 73 yards on seven catches.

The NFL completed its 269-game season on time without any cancellations, a remarkable accomplishment that required nearly 1 million COVID-19 tests for players and team personnel.

Due to the virus, only 25,000 mask-wearing fans were allowed in, including approximately 7,500 vaccinated health care workers who were given free tickets by the NFL. About 30,000 cardboard cutouts made the stadium look full.

The game also featured a halftime performance by Scarborough-born R&B superstar The Weeknd. The Grammy-winning singer performed a medley of his hits, including “Can’t Feel My Face,” “Earned It” and his most recent chart topper, “Blinding Lights.”

Tom Brady leads Bucs to convincing win over Chiefs in Super Bowl LV

Ford government considers cancelling March break, unions question move

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, Feb 5th, 2021

Ontario is considering cancelling March break in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Speaking on Breakfast Television this morning, Education Minister Stephen Lecce says he hopes to have a decision by next week.

“I’m going to follow the public health advice on this. I’ve sought the opinion of the Chief Medical Officer of Health and if he believes – and the experts believe – it is better to keep kids in school learning, then I will accept that advice,” said Lecce. “At the end of the day folks should not be travelling during March break anyway.”

Ford government considers cancelling March break, unions question move

News of the potential spring break cancellation comes a day after Lecce released plans to reopen those schools still closed in the coming weeks.

Schools in Toronto, Peel and York are to reopen on Feb. 16, while those in other public health units where in-person classes haven’t resumed reopen Feb. 8.

Lecce said he will base the March break decision entirely on “public health imperatives.”

But the unions representing the province’s elementary, secondary and Catholic school teachers said mental health should also be considered.

“We are living in unprecedented times that continue to create high levels of stress, fear and anxiety for everyone,” said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. “We have heard repeatedly that students, families and educators need a break right now.”

He said travel-related concerns should be dealt with in other ways.

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, believes the minister is just trying to gauge public opinion.

“I fully believe he’s just floating political trial balloons and he truly doesn’t care about the medical advice he gets,” Bischof tells 680 NEWS. “The idea of reducing gatherings, for example, by cancelling March break flies in the face of logic.”

In addition to the mental health concerns, there are some logistical issues at play said Bischof.

Many local collective agreements have a requirement for the number of school days in a year, he said, so if March break is cancelled and no days off are offered in lieu, it could lead to problems.

The government could remedy that by starting the summer break early, which Bischof noted is well within the ministry’s rights.

Jennifer Harris Bialczyk, a Toronto mother of two, says she can see it both ways.

She went from celebrating Lecce’s school reopening announcement with friends over Zoom – “we all had wine,” she said – to wondering whether she’d have to cancel plans to visit her cottage over the spring break.

“I can see it both ways,” she said. “I understand that the cases will likely go up if there is a March break. But I also think the kids, the parents, and the teachers all need a break.”

She said the last month of balancing online learning and her own work has left her exhausted, so she was looking forward to some time off.

NDP education critic Marit Stiles said Lecce’s comments teasing an announcement on March Break’s potential cancellation are unfair to parents and educators who need time to prepare.

“They’re just stringing everyone along, trying to build up some anticipation, but the problem is that it leaves people frustrated, scared,” she said. “Real people have real lives and they need to plan.”

Stiles said students, parents and teachers need the break because weeks of online learning has been stressful for all involved.

“I don’t know what planet (the government) has been on, but this has not been a break for parents, or kids or on staff,” she said. “It has been extraordinarily hard work.”

The federal government has instituted its own policies aimed at preventing travel over the spring break, announcing last week that four major airlines would halt flights from Canada to Mexico and the Caribbean until the end of April.

The provincial government has also introduced mandatory COVID-19 testing for all international arrivals to Ontario, and Ottawa has a similar program ramping up in the coming weeks.

Ontario allows pet groomers to reopen for some appointment-only services

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, Feb 5th, 2021

Pet groomers across Ontario can reopen to provide certain services, the province said Thursday as it clarified its pandemic regulations surrounding animal care.

Solicitor General Sylvia Jones’ office said groomers can reopen to provide services necessary to prevent “foreseeable and reasonably imminent” veterinary care.

Groomers can also provide services if an order has been issued to a pet owner under the province’s animal welfare act.

The services must be by appointment-only, through curbside pickup, and groomers are only permitted to take one animal at a time.

Lindsay Buccella, a pet groomer in Stouffville, Ont., said Thursday’s announcement was welcome, although she added that the government needed to specify what type of care might be necessary to prevent a vet visit.

“Every groom is for the welfare of an animal and if they don’t get groomed on a regular basis, they could end up at the vet,” she said.

“This is good news but if they’re going to put these restrictions, they need to specify what they consider an emergency.”

Buccella said she already had clients booked for nail trimming appointments after the government updated its rules. Long dog nails, she noted, can cause permanent skeletal damage if not trimmed.

Pet grooming businesses were ordered closed when a provincial lockdown took effect in late December.

The province had said, however, that pet grooming was allowed when required for an animal’s health and said a vet could provide those services.

Some cities said that the province’s rules led to confusion for businesses and pet owners.

Earlier this week, the Greater Toronto and Hamilton-area mayors and chairs asked the government to clarify the rules.

Mississauga, Ont., Mayor Bonnie Crombie had said her city would not issue fines or take other enforcement action against pet grooming businesses that operate using a curbside pickup system. She had called on the province to amend the rules to clearly permit the services.

Pet groomers had said their businesses help keep animals healthy and noted that vets may not be able to take animals for grooming-related needs because of limited capacity during lockdown.

The Ontario Veterinary Medical Association said some vet clinics have longer wait times for appointments due to a backlog of cases from earlier in the pandemic and COVID-19 safety protocols.

Legislation coming this year to force Google, Facebook to pay for news content

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, Feb 5th, 2021

Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault is promising legislation this year to ensure tech giants like Google and Facebook pay for the news content they disseminate on their platforms.

The promise comes as newspapers across the country are displaying blank front pages in a bid to highlight the “urgent” need for news media companies to be paid for their work.

News Media Canada, which represents newspaper publishers, organized the campaign; it saw some 105 daily and community newspapers across the country displaying blank front pages Thursday, with more to follow Friday.

The organization argues that Canadian news media companies are going under and journalism jobs are disappearing because their content is being used for free by Google and Facebook, which are simultaneously hoovering up 80 per cent of all digital advertising revenue.

It warns that as the producers of real news disappear, “hate and fake news” will be all that’s left.

In a statement, Guilbeault says his department is studying options for a made-in-Canada formula for ensuring publishers are fairly compensated for the news they produce; his goal is to introduce legislation on the matter this year.

“News is not free and has never been,” he said in the statement Thursday.

“Our position is clear: publishers must be adequately compensated for their work and we will support them as they deliver essential information for the benefit of our democracy and the health and well-being of our communities.”

While the tech giants have played a positive role in making news accessible, Guilbeault said, “we must address the market imbalance between news media organizations and those who benefit from their work.”

He added that the government is looking closely at how other countries are handling the issue, specifically France and Australia.

As far as News Media Canada is concerned, Australia has found the right solution: mandatory arbitration if digital companies fail to reach an agreement with news publishers on how much they should be paid.

“These massive American companies get virtually all of the revenue and don’t pay for content,” says the organization’s president, John Hinds, in an open letter to members of Parliament.

“Movie content doesn’t work that way in Canada. Music content doesn’t work that way. TV show content doesn’t work that way. So why is news content treated differently?”

Google and Facebook have threatened to shut down their services in Australia if the mandatory arbitration policy is implemented. However, Guilbeault has suggested such boycotts will become untenable as more countries follow Australia’s lead.

The minister is expected sometime this winter to introduce legislation to regulate the dissemination of hate speech, child pornography, non-consensual sexual images, terrorism and incitements to violence on social media.

His office says legislation dealing with fair compensation for news content will be introduced separately.

COVID variant spread currently low but likely to rise quickly, officials say

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, Feb 5th, 2021

A snapshot of COVID-19 variants on a single day in January suggests levels of the more contagious strains in Ontario are low but that’s expected to change quickly, public health officials said Thursday.

A Public Health Ontario study of COVID-19 cases on a single day in January found variants in 5.5 per cent of cases screened, with the majority linked to a long-term care home outbreak.

Dr. Vanessa Allen, the agency’s top microbiologist, said the results highlight how quickly variants of COVID-19 can spread in an outbreak.

While the data suggests low prevalence, variants are expected to spread rapidly, she said.

“Essentially, doubling is expected approximately every one to two weeks,” Allen said.

Public Health Ontario started screening all positive COVID-19 samples for variants on Wednesday, Allen said.

“Data in the coming days will be helpful to understand how this is evolving in the Ontario context,” she said.

So far, Ontario has recorded 152 cases of the variant that first emerged in the U.K. and one case of another that first emerged in South Africa.

A third variant that first emerged in Brazil has not yet been detected in Ontario.

The variants are believed to be more infectious and health officials have said they might also cause more severe illness.

The province’s medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, said residents must continue following public health practices like masking and physical distancing to guard against further spread of variants.

“What we said before was important for COVID-19 writ large, now for the variant is even more important – to be vigilant in what you’re doing, be careful and cautious,” Williams said.

In its study, Public Health Ontario screened 1,880 positive COVID-19 samples from Jan. 20 and found variants in 103 cases.

The agency said 89 of those cases were in the Simcoe-Muskoka health unit, where a deadly outbreak at the Roberta Place nursing home in Barrie, Ont., was linked to the variant.

Sixty-six residents at Roberta Place had died from the virus as of Thursday. The outbreak has infected more than 200 people, including staff and close contacts.

Outside of outbreaks, the Public Health Ontario study found 1.2 per cent of the total samples were variant cases.

More results from the study are expected in the coming days, the agency said.

The variant that emerged in the U.K. was first detected in Ontario in December and has since been found in 11 public health units.

In Simcoe-Muskoka, the local health unit reported that 91 cases of the U.K. variant had been confirmed in the region as of Thursday, with 60 other likely cases that were awaiting test results.

The unit also reported 85 deaths from COVID-19 in the month of January, “over four times higher” than deaths reported in December 2020.

Ontario reported 1,563 new cases of COVID-19 and 88 more deaths linked to the virus on Thursday.

Public health officials have noted, however, that updates to a provincial database are causing data fluctuations in this week’s case counts.

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