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Coronavirus threat to First Nations, Inuit communities grows as it eases elsewhere

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, May 1st, 2020

The federal government will be under pressure today to explain what it’s doing to prevent coronavirus from spreading like wildfire through First Nations reserves and remote Inuit communities in the North.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal are scheduled to be grilled by MPs at a virtual meeting of the House of Commons Indigenous and Northern Affairs committee.

Their appearance comes one day after Nunavut identified its first positive case of COVID-19 in the 1,600-strong, largely Inuit community of Pond Inlet on Baffin Island.

First Nations reserves and remote communities are considered among the most vulnerable areas in the country, due to often over-crowded living conditions that make physical distancing next to impossible and the lack of ready access to health-care services.

Even as the infection rate appears to be slowing down in most of the country and provinces are taking the first cautious steps toward reopening their economies, chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam warned Thursday about the growing risk to Indigenous communities.

“I am also concerned about increasing numbers of COVID-19 in First Nations communities in several provinces,” she said.

“We must get ahead of things to protect and support these communities, ramping up testing and contact tracing to find where chains of transmission are occurring.”

As of April 29, Miller said there have been 129 COVID-19 cases in First Nations reserves and 16 confirmed cases in Nunavik’s Inuit communities.

As for Nunavut’s first case, Miller promised that the federal government “will be giving this our full attention to ensure appropriate contact tracing and maximum containment efforts are undertaken.”

The federal government has so far committed more than $690 million to pandemic preparedness and procurement of supplies and nursing services for Indigenous communities.

It has been heavily criticized, however, for largely ignoring the needs of Indigenous people living off reserve.

As the situation grows more worrisome for Indigenous communities, Prince Edward Island is poised today to become the second province to cautiously begin a gradual return to normal.

It will restart priority, non-urgent health-care services, including some elective surgeries and certain health providers, including physiotherapists, optometrists and chiropractors. And it will begin allowing outdoor gatherings and non-contact outdoor recreational activities of no more than five individuals from different households.

P.E.I. follows New Brunswick’s move last week to allow limited golfing, fishing and hunting;    interactions between two families; and a return to school for post-secondary students.

Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba are planning to ease some restrictions starting on Monday.

Quebec, which has seen the largest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, is also set to re-open retail stores outside Montreal on Monday, with those in Montreal to follow on May 11. Schools and daycares outside Montreal are set to re-open May 11 as well.

The federal government, in collaboration with the provinces and territories, unveiled earlier this week national guidelines for re-opening shuttered businesses and allowing Canadians to resume more normal activities.

During a conference call late Thursday, premiers “reaffirmed their commitment to the joint statement on the shared public health approach to support restarting the economy,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office said a statement summarizing the call.

“They spoke about the plans they are putting forward in each of their respective jurisdictions to restart the economy. First ministers acknowledged the importance of doing this through a gradual and phased approach, based on the advice of public health experts.”

A look at how provinces plan to emerge from coronavirus shutdown

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, May 1st, 2020

Provinces have begun to release plans for easing restrictions that were put in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Here is what some of the provinces have announced so far:

Newfoundland and Labrador

Newfoundland and Labrador plans to loosen some public health restrictions in a series of five “alert levels.” The move to level four on May 11 will allow some medical procedures to resume as well as low-risk activities, such as golf, hunting and fishing. Low-risk businesses including garden centres and professional services, such as law firms, will be able to reopen under level four. Alert level four is to remain in place for at least 28 days. At level three, private health clinics, such as optometrists and dentists, will be permitted to open, as well as medium-risk businesses, such as clothing stores and hair salons. At level two, some small gatherings will be permitted, and businesses like performance spaces and gyms will be allowed to open. Level one will represent “the new normal.”

Prince Edward Island

The Renew P.E.I. Together plan calls for the restart of priority non-urgent health-care services on May 1, including certain elective surgeries and select health-service providers, including physiotherapists, optometrists and chiropractors. Also to begin May 1 are outdoor gatherings and non-contact outdoor recreational activities of no more than five individuals from different households. Screening is to continue at points of entry and all people coming into P.E.I. will be required to isolate for 14 days.

New Brunswick

Premier Blaine Higgs put the first phase of his four-phase reopening plan into action April 24. It allows limited play on golf courses as well as fishing and hunting. Two families are allowed to interact as part of a so-called “two-family bubble.” Post-secondary students can return if it’s deemed safe by the school, and outdoor church services can be held, if people remain in their vehicles and are two metres apart. The second phase, which could begin within two to four weeks would see resumption of elective surgeries, and reopening of daycares, offices, restaurants, ATV trails and seasonal campgrounds. The third phase would allow regular church services, dentistry work and reopened fitness centres. The final phase, which would probably come only after a vaccine is available, would include large gatherings.

Quebec

Premier Francois Legault has set May 11 as reopening day for schools and daycares outside greater Montreal. The city is to follow suit on May 19. Legault says attendance won’t be mandatory. High schools, junior colleges and universities are to remain closed until September. Quebec aims to open retail stores outside Montreal by May 4 while those in the greater Montreal region are to reopen May 11. The construction industry is to completely start up May 11, while manufacturing companies are to resume operations the same day with initial limits on the total number of employees who can work per shift.

Ontario

Premier Doug Ford released a three-step plan on April 27, but did not include a timeline. Stage 1 could include opening select workplaces that could modify operations such as providing curbside pickup or delivery, opening parks, allowing for more people at certain events such as funerals, and having hospitals resume some non-urgent surgeries. Stage 2 could include opening more businesses, opening more outdoor spaces, and allowing some larger public gatherings. Stage 3 would include having all workplaces open and further relaxing rules on public gatherings — though large ones such as sporting events and concerts would still be restricted.

Saskatchewan

The Saskatchewan government released on April 23 a five-phase plan to reopen parts of its economy. Lifting of some measures could start May 4, with dentists, optometrists and other health professionals allowed to resume services. Phase 1 also includes reopened golf courses and campgrounds. Phase 2 would give the green light to retail businesses and salons. Restaurants and gyms could open in Phase 3 but with limited capacity. Phase 4 could see arenas, swimming pools and playgrounds opening. In Phase 5, the province would consider lifting restrictions on the size of public gatherings.

Manitoba

May 4 is the day Manitoba plans to allow reopening of health offices, including dentists, chiropractors and physiotherapists. Retail businesses to reopen at half occupancy as long as they can ensure physical spacing. Restaurants to reopen patios and walk-up service. Museums and libraries to open doors, but occupancy to be limited to 50 per cent. Playgrounds, golf courses and tennis courts can reopen along with parks and campgrounds. A second phase of the plan is to begin no earlier than June 1. That’s when restaurants to be allowed to open indoor dining areas and non-contact children’s sports to resume. Mass gatherings such as concerts and major sporting events will not be considered before September.

Alberta

Alberta plans to allow some scheduled, non-urgent surgeries to start May 4. Dentists, physiotherapists and other medical professionals will be allow to open. On May 2, in golf courses can reopen as long as their pro shops and clubhouses remain shuttered. On May 14, retail businesses, such as clothing, furniture and bookstores, will be allowed to reopen gradually. Cafes and restaurants with no bar service will also be allowed to reopen at half capacity. The second phase of Alberta’s plan includes potential kindergarten to Grade 12 classes, with restrictions, and movie theatres and theatres, again, with restrictions. The third phase includes nightclubs, gyms, pools, recreation centres and arenas all with restrictions. There is no timeline for the final two phases.

British Columbia:

The province hasn’t released its reopening plan, but Premier John Horgan is promising details next week.

Man seriously injured in East York shooting, 1 in custody

BT Toronto | posted Thursday, Apr 30th, 2020

One person is in custody after a man suffered serious injuries following a reported drive by shooting in East York.

Police say they responded to reports of gunfire in the area of Wakunda Place and O’Connor Drive just before 8 p.m.

Upon arrival police discovered a male victim suffering from gunshot wounds. He was taken to a trauma centre in non-life threatening condition.

Police say one man is in custody and a firearm has been recovered. They are searching for two other suspects, both described as black males, approximately 6-feet tall, wearing dark hoodies. They were last seen fleeing the area northbound on Victoria Park Avenue in a white SUV.

‘What do we do with the kids?’ Experts say child care needed in reopening plans

STEPHANIE TAYLOR, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Thursday, Apr 30th, 2020

Kelly Knowles has many questions about returning to work, including where her son would go.

The Regina hairstylist contacted his daycare after the Saskatchewan government announced last week that some businesses such as salons, shut down because of COVID-19, could reopen in mid-May.

She was told there is space for her 2-1/2-year old, but the centre is only caring for kids of essential workers. And with her partner still working, there isn’t anyone else at home to help, she said.

“If I did go back to work, we do need that extra care,” Knowles told The Canadian Press.

“I can’t open up my schedule and start accepting my guests to come in if I don’t have a daycare for my son.”

Questions about child care and schools are being raised as various provinces outline their plans to relax public health restrictions so that some services and businesses can reopen and residents can go back to work.

“For families with kids, they can’t participate in that if they don’t have child care,” says Jennifer Robson, associate professor in political management at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Each province is dealing with the issue differently. In Saskatchewan, there is no timeline for expanding the current capacity in child-care facilities. Premier Scott Moe has said students are unlikely to return to classes this school year.

Manitoba plans to keep schools closed, but intends to allow day camps with a maximum of 16 kids per site.

Schools and daycares in Quebec are to reopen May 11 outside greater Montreal, but high schools are to stay closed until September. In Ontario, publicly funded schools are to stay closed until at least the end of May.

The inability to provide hard timelines is understandable, Robson says, since those decisions are driven by medical evidence.

She says households with parents who can resume work will be figuring out what makes economic sense. And without child care or schools, someone has to stay home with the kids.

“Gender roles being what they are and gender-related pay gaps being what they are, odds are good that most families are going to elect to have Mom end up staying home with the kids.”

Lindsay Tedds, professor of economics at the University of Calgary, says women have already borne the brunt of the pandemic and, without child-care options, that could be exacerbated.

Citing a Statistics Canada labour force survey from March, Tedds says women were the hardest hit by job losses and a lot of the impact was felt in female-dominated sectors such as hospitality and tourism.

“Women had to leave their jobs even before the big shutdown started simply because the schools shut down.”

In a statement, the president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada, acknowledges that restarting the economy will be tough for working parents if schools and daycares stay closed during the initial phases. Goldy Hyder encourages employers to be flexible.

Dan Kelly, head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says some employers may not be able to find workers who can pull away from their families. But he feels it’s better to move ahead with an imperfect plan than to keep the economy frozen.

While some parents can work from home, those who work in bars, restaurants and sectors such as the airline industry cannot, Tedds notes.

She and Robson say household incomes will continue to take a hit if both parents can’t get back to work. Gains made over the last few decades have been in large part thanks to women entering the labour force.

They also say time away from work may mean not getting promotions or building up work hours associated with career advancement. As well, staying home means not paying into a pension plan or employment insurance, including maternity and paternity leave.

“If we’re … expected to go back to work and nobody has thought about what we do with the kids, we have a huge problem,” said Tedds.

The CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation says it’s time governments examine how child-care centres are funded. Right now, without receiving fees from parents, they could close.

Paulette Senior says Ottawa has a critical role to play.

“This government is committed to gender equality and gender equality is an essential rung to the economy.”

Maryam Monsef, federal minister for women and gender equality, says in a statement that the pandemic has shown long-term solutions are needed in child care — and provinces need to collaborate.

“It is clear that the steps that all orders of government take in the next days and weeks as we contemplate slowly reopening our economy will require a vision for child care.

“We can’t resume without it.”

Parliamentary budget officer weighs costliest federal emergency aid programs

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Thursday, Apr 30th, 2020

Canadians will get an update Thursday on two of the costliest emergency aid programs the federal government has initiated to help them weather the coronavirus crisis.

The parliamentary budget officer is scheduled to post a costing note on the 75 per cent wage subsidy — a program the government expects to cost $73 billion and which it has called the largest economic policy in Canada since the Second World War.

Yves Giroux is also expected to post a costing note on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which is providing $2,000 a month for four months to Canadians forced out of work due to the pandemic.

The government has estimated the cost of that program at $35 billion, but has expanded the eligibility criteria several times to add those initially left out, including workers earning up to $1,000 per month, seasonal workers and those who have exhausted their regular employment insurance benefits.

In total, the federal government has so far poured $145 billion into emergency aid and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised more to come, including for seniors.

He is not expected to announce any new funding Thursday, however. His daily briefing on the pandemic is likely to be overtaken by questions about another tragedy — the crash of a Royal Canadian Air Force’s Cyclone helicopter into the Mediterranean Sea late Wednesday.

The Cyclone was participating in a NATO exercise off the coast of Greece when the crash occurred, the Canadian Armed Forces has said.

The military said a search and rescue operation was under way and declined all other comment.

However, Greek state broadcaster ERT said one body had been found and five others on board were missing.

While Trudeau will likely be preoccupied with that bad news, MPs on six House of Commons committees will be delving into various aspects of the federal response to the pandemic.

Industry Minister Navdeep Bains — who is spearheading the drive to mobilize Canadian researchers and scientists in the campaign to develop tests, treatments and ultimately a vaccine to protect against the novel coronavirus — is to testify at the industry committee.

And Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen, who is responsible for measures aimed at helping children, seniors and the homeless through the pandemic, is to testify at the human resources committee.

That committee is also scheduled to hear from the head of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. The CMHC is administering the federal government’s new program to relieve eligible small businesses of 75 per cent of their rent payments due in April, May and June.

Meanwhile, the procedure and House affairs committee is scheduled to hear how legislatures in Wales, Scotland and the United Kingdom are handling the move to virtual sittings as politicians, like everyone else, try to keep physical distance from one another to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Canada’s MPs held their first virtual gathering on Tuesday, which was deemed generally successful despite numerous glitches in using unaccustomed video-conferencing technology.

Toronto City Council to meet online Thursday due to coronavirus restrictions

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Thursday, Apr 30th, 2020

Toronto City Council will hold a special meeting online Thursday due to restrictions on public gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.

City councillors will use an online video conferencing platform while the public can watch a livestream of the meeting.

It’s the first time councillors of Canada’s most populous city will meet virtually.

Mayor John Tory’s report on the COVID-19 emergency response is on the agenda, which has already been posted online.

 

3 staff test positive for coronavirus at city daycare centre

BT Toronto | posted Wednesday, Apr 29th, 2020

Three staff members at a city-run child care centre have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The city said Tuesday night the three people work at the Jesse Ketchum Early Learning and Child Care Centre at 7 Berryman Road in the Davenport Road and Bay Street area.

Two other staff members and two children are also awaiting test results, the city said in a news release.

“The city continues to reach out to notify the families who have children attending the child care centre. Staff and the 58 children who attended the child care centre from April 21 to April 28 will be asked to remain at home for two weeks from their last day at the child care centre and will be excluded from all Toronto emergency child care centres as a precautionary measure for this same period,” the city said.

The facility has suspended child-care services for 14 days to allow crews to clean and disinfect the building.

The Jesse Ketchum site is one of seven emergency child care centres that were kept open to care for the children of essential services workers.

The city’s other remaining emergency child-care centres will remain open. A list is available here.

Ontario Energy Association calls for end to most hydro subsidies

SHAWN JEFFORDS, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Wednesday, Apr 29th, 2020

The association representing Ontario’s energy producers and distributors says the province should stop subsidizing the price of hydro and instead offer targeted help to customers who need it most.

The Ontario Energy Association makes the request of the Ontario government in a policy paper released Wednesday, saying most of the nearly $6 billion the province spends every year to cut electricity costs goes to customers who don’t need help paying their bills.

If the province continues with its current pace, it will spend $228 billion subsidizing hydro rates over the next 25 years, according to the association.

“Ontario is also now spending more on electricity subsidies than on its entire transportation system,” the report states.

The paper, which was developed in partnership with former federal spending watchdog Kevin Page, makes a series of recommendations, including phasing out subsidies to help improve price stability.

The hydro file has been a problem for successive governments, with former premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals introducing their Fair Hydro Plan in 2017 to address a public outcry over soaring hydro rates, particularly in rural areas.

The policy lowered time-of-use rates by 25 per cent by removing from bills a portion of the global adjustment — a charge consumers paid for above-market rates to power producers.

Over the next decade, a new entity overseen by Ontario Power Generation was to pay that difference and take on debt to do so.

The energy association says looking back now, the impact experienced by some customers “cascaded into a broader reaction by voters that was vastly disproportionate” to the actual impact.

The association’s report says that despite years of relatively high increases, residential rates in Ontario remain among the lowest in North America.

Vince Brescia, the association’s president, said the group decided to publish the paper now because it believes the anger that surrounded electricity costs in 2017 has dissipated.

But he acknowledged that removing subsidies, thereby increasing costs for some customers, will not be a popular message.

“It may fall on deaf ears. It’s not a message a lot of people want to hear,” he said in an interview. “But most of people aren’t aware that we’re borrowing money to subsidize electricity, and when they find out that we’re doing that they really don’t like it. They think it’s a bad idea.”

The province will need the money it’s been spending on subsidies for other things coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brescia added.

“We need them for other societal issues,” he said. “The point is, we don’t see them going to good use and we think somebody needs to say this.”

The report does recommend the government keep some subsidies in place for rural and low-income residents, while also continuing to remove the provincial portion of the sales tax from bills.

In March, Premier Doug Ford reaffirmed a key campaign promise he made during the 2018 election to slash costs by 12 per cent.

“We’re trying to hold the line,” he said at the time. “We are going to keep our promise (and) reduce it by 12 per cent. It’s a very, very complicated, complicated issue.”

Brescia said Ford should also reconsider making good on his promise to cut rates by heaping on any further subsidies.

“Who really cares about that commitment now … we’re in a post-pandemic world,” he said. “We need to really think about what our priorities are.”

During the pandemic, Ford’s government has cut hydro rates for residential consumers, farms and small businesses in response to a surge in people working from home — spending $162 million to subsidize the 45-day switch to off-peak rates.

In January, Ontario’s finance minister announced the province would spend $1.6 billion more than it had budgeted to “stabilize” hydro rates for customers in 2019-2020.

Rod Phillips blamed the previous Liberal government’s Fair Hydro Plan and green energy deals for creating an environment that has led to an increase in hydro rates.

“There’s no question that $1.6 billion of additional spending is troubling,” he said at the time. “This is the legacy of a failed Liberal energy strategy that provided energy people didn’t need at prices they couldn’t afford.”

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