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Bill Blair launches political career at Sikh celebration

Sun, 26 Apr 2015 20:49:32 EDT


Dressed in a plain black suit, blue shirt and striped tie, retired Toronto police chief Bill Blair stepped outside his comfort zone Sunday on his first day as a civilian and aspiring federal Liberal candidate.

“Public safety was easy. Locking up the bad guys is a piece of cake,” he quipped after greeting several dozen Sikh police officers at the CNE before Sunday’s Khalsa Day parade.

“This other thing is hard.”

As reported in the Sunday Star, Blair is entering federal politics and seeking the Liberal nomination in Scarborough Southwest, a community where he has lived most of his life.

Former CTV anchor Tim Weber is also running for the Liberal nomination in anticipation of next fall’s federal election. The riding is currently held by New Democrat Dan Harris.

Blair’s 10-year tenure as chief officially ended Saturday night. But Toronto’s former top cop said he couldn’t miss the annual Khalsa Day celebration, which marks the Sikh New Year. The parade drew an estimated 100,000 people to downtown streets Sunday.

“I have a very special relationship with this community. I have been coming to this event for 25 years,” said Blair. Over his suit, he wore an orange scarf he received several years ago during a visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a holy Sikh site in Punjab, India.

“Although I no longer wear the uniform of the Toronto Police Service . . . I wanted to be here with these people today because it is an incredibly important day for our Sikh community and the city of Toronto,” he told reporters after addressing several thousand gathered in the CNE’s Better Living Building.

As he posed for photos and mingled with the friendly crowd, talk quickly turned to his political aspirations

“We are looking forward to seeing you in Ottawa,” said event organizer Gobinder Randhawa, founder of Scarborough’s first Sikh temple in 1985.

“We should talk,” Blair responded, as the group laughed.

“I have to tell you, for most of my life, I have run from politicians, not for politics,” he said. “But I want to continue to serve.”

In an interview later, Randhawa said he hopes Blair wins the nomination and the election.

“The quality in politics has to be improved,” he said. “I think we need men like him at every level of government.”

Many police officers at the event seemed pleased their old boss is making the leap into federal politics.

Staff Supt. Rick Stubbings said the retired chief has been “a real bridge” to the Sikh community and predicted he will make a good politician.

“He really is authentic. He cares about people,” added Stubbings, a member of Blair’s senior management team for 10 years and the senior officer at the event.

Auxiliary Const. Anmol Lal, who has served for four years and hopes to join the force full time, said Blair is popular in the Sikh community and among the police rank and file.

“It’s a great thing. He was an amazing chief,” said Lal, one of several who wore turbans with their uniforms.

Speaking to reporters, Blair said he is seeking political office because he wants to continue to serve the public.

“I know the issues that confront our citizens. I know a lot about public safety and national security, issues of drug policy and a lot of things about social justice, because that’s what it means to be a public servant in the city of Toronto,” he said.

Although Blair said he had “respectful conversations with everybody,” he chose the Liberals because the party’s “values most closely fit with my own.”

He said he hopes to bring what he has learned from almost 40 years on the police service “to a national discussion of how we can keep all communities safe, livable, respectful and inclusive.”

But Blair is taking nothing for granted.

“I’m going to have to earn that nomination and try to convince them that I am the best person to represent them (in Ottawa),” he said.


Three women jailed in Russia for twerking next to war monument

Sun, 26 Apr 2015 18:06:26 EDT


MOSCOW—A court in southern Russia has sentenced three young women to brief jail terms for making a video showing them twerking next to a Second World War memorial.

Russia celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ victory in the Second World War next month, an emotionally charged holiday the Kremlin has been using for propaganda purposes.

The sentencing in the Novorossiysk district court of a 19-year-old woman to 15 days in jail and two women in their 20s to 10 days comes after prosecutors launched a probe into a video showing a group of women twerking next to the memorial on the Black Sea. Twerking is a sexually provocative dance involving thrusting of the hips.

Prosecutors said in a statement Saturday that five women were found guilty of “hooliganism” and two of them were spared jail because of poor health. Hooliganism is the charge that sent two members of punk band Pussy Riot to prison for two years for an impromptu protest at Moscow’s main cathedral in 2012.

Prosecutors in Novorossiysk also said they were pressing charges against the parents of one underage girl who was twerking with the others girls for “the failure to encourage the physical, intellectual, physiological, spiritual and moral development of a child.”

This is the second twerking scandal in Russia in less than two weeks.

Investigators last week launched a probe into a dance school in the city of Orenburg after a YouTube video of school girls dressed as bees and twerking in a sexually suggestive Winnie the Pooh routine sparked outrage. The dance school was temporarily shut down while officials in this southern city not far from the Kazakh border ordered an inspection of all dance schools in the region.


Michael Ondaatje withdraws from gala to protest honour for Charlie Hebdo

Sun, 26 Apr 2015 23:59:54 EDT


NEW YORK—Canada’s Michael Ondaatje as well as American Francine Prose and at least four other writers have withdrawn from next month’s PEN American Center gala, citing objections to the literary and human rights organization’s honouring the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

PEN announced Sunday that the writers were upset by Charlie Hebdo’s portrayals of Muslims and “the disenfranchised generally.” The Paris-based magazine, where 12 people were killed in a January attack at its offices, is to receive a Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the May 5 event in Manhattan. Much of the literary community rallied behind Charlie Hebdo after the shootings, but some have expressed unhappiness with its scathing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and Muslims more generally.

“I was quite upset as soon as I heard about (the award),” Prose, a former PEN American president, told The Associated Press during a telephone interview Sunday night. Prose said she was in favour of “freedom of speech without limitations” and that she “deplored” the January shootings, but added that giving an award signified “admiration and respect” for the honoree’s work.

“I couldn’t imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo,” Prose said.

The gala is the highlight of PEN’s annual, week-long World Voices Festival and is intended as a celebration of artistic achievement and expression, with past award winners including Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth. Besides Charlie Hebdo, which will be represented by editor in chief Gerard Biard and critic and essayist Jean-Baptiste Thoret, others receiving awards include playwright Tom Stoppard, Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova and Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle.

Ondaatje — the Toronto-based writer who shared the 1992 Booker Prize for The English Patient — and Prose were among more than 60 writers scheduled to serve as hosts. According to PEN, the other hosts who decided not to attend were Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi and Australia’s Peter Carey, a two-time Booker Prize winner.

In a letter sent earlier Sunday to PEN trustees, current PEN American president Andrew Solomon acknowledged that several people were offended by some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, but added that PEN believed strongly in the “appropriateness” of the award.

“It is undoubtedly true that in addition to provoking violent threats from extremists, the Hebdo cartoons offended some other Muslims, as their cartoons offended members of the many other groups they targeted,” Solomon wrote.

“But, based on their own statements, we believe that Charlie Hebdo’s intent was not to ostracize or insult Muslims, but rather to reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority to place broad categories of speech off limits, no matter the purpose, intent or import of the expression,” he said. “We do not believe that any of us must endorse the contents of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in order to affirm the principles for which they stand, or applaud the staff’s bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats.”

The protest is the biggest controversy for the PEN American Center in recent memory. In 1986, Norman Mailer infuriated many writers when he invited then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz to address the annual Congress of International PEN. E.L. Doctorow complained at the time that Mailer, the PEN American president, was turning the gathering into “a forum for the Reagan administration.”


Nepal earthquake death toll tops 3,700 as rescuers struggle to reach villages near epicentre

Mon, 27 Apr 2015 06:28:56 EDT


KATHMANDU, NEPAL—The death toll from Nepal’s earthquake soared past 3,700 Monday, and how much higher it would rise depended largely on the condition of vulnerable mountain villages that rescue workers were still struggling to reach two days after the disaster.

Reports received so far by the government and aid groups suggest that many communities perched on mountainsides are devastated or struggling to cope. Udav Prashad Timalsina, the top official for the Gorkha district, near the epicentre of Saturday’s quake, said he was in desperate need of help.

“There are people who are not getting food and shelter. I’ve had reports of villages where 70 per cent of the houses have been destroyed,” he said.

He said 223 people had been confirmed dead in the district but he presumed “the number would go up because there are thousands who are injured.”

Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake spread horror from Kathmandu to small villages and to the slopes of Mount Everest, triggering an avalanche that buried part of the base camp packed with foreign climbers preparing to make their summit attempts.

Timalsina said his district had not received enough help from the central government, but Jagdish Pokhrel, the clearly exhausted army spokesman, said nearly the entire 100,000-soldier army was involved in rescue operations.

“We have 90 per cent of the army out there working on search and rescue,” he said. “We are focusing our efforts on that, on saving lives.”

Nepal police said in a statement Monday that the country’s death toll had risen to 3,617 people. That does not include the 18 people killed in the avalanche, which were counted by the mountaineering association. Another 61 people were killed in neighbouring India, and China reported 20 people dead in Tibet.

Well over 1,000 of the victims were in Kathmandu, the capital, where an eerie calm prevailed Monday.

Tens of thousands of families slept outdoors for a second night, fearful of aftershocks that have not ceased. Camped in parks, open squares and a golf course, they cuddled children or pets against chilly Himalayan nighttime temperatures.

They woke to the sound of dogs yelping and jackhammers. As the dawn light crawled across toppled building sites, volunteers and rescue workers carefully shifted broken concrete slabs and crumbled bricks mixed together with humble household items: pots and pans; a purple notebook decorated with butterflies; a framed poster of a bodybuilder; so many shoes.

“It’s overwhelming. It’s too much to think about,” said 55-year-old Bijay Nakarmi, mourning his parents, whose bodies recovered from the rubble of what once was a three-story building.

He could tell how they died from their injuries. His mother was electrocuted by a live wire on the roof top. His father was cut down by falling beams on the staircase.

He had last seen them a few days earlier — on Nepal’s Mother’s Day — for a cheerful family meal.

“I have their bodies by the river. They are resting until relatives can come to the funeral,” Nakarmi said as workers continued searching for another five people buried underneath the wreckage.

Kathmandu district chief administrator Ek Narayan Aryal said tents and water were being handed out Monday at 10 locations in Kathmandu, but that aftershocks were leaving everyone jittery. The largest, on Sunday, was magnitude 6.7.

“There have been nearly 100 earthquakes and aftershocks, which is making rescue work difficult. Even the rescuers are scared and running because of them,” he said.

“We don’t feel safe at all. There have been so many aftershocks. It doesn’t stop,” said Rajendra Dhungana, 34, who spent Sunday with his niece’s family for her cremation at the Pashuputi Nath Temple.

Acrid, white smoke rose above the Hindu temple, Nepal’s most revered. “I’ve watched hundreds of bodies burn,” Dhungana said.

The capital city is largely a collection of small, poorly constructed brick apartment buildings. The earthquake destroyed swaths of the oldest neighbourhoods, but many were surprised by how few modern structures collapsed in the quake.

On Monday morning, some pharmacies and shops for basic provisions opened while bakeries began offering fresh bread. With power lines down, spotty phone connections and almost no Internet connectivity, residents were particularly anxious to buy morning newspapers.

Huge lines of people desperate to secure fuel lined up outside gasoline pumps; prices were the same as they were before the earthquake struck.

“We are not raising prices,” fruit seller Shyam Jaiswal said. “That would be illegal, immoral profit.”

As aid began pouring in from more than a dozen countries, aid workers warned that the situation could be far worse near the epicentre. The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was centred near Lamjung, a district about 80 kilometres northwest of Kathmandu. While not far away, poor roads and steep mountains make Lamjung difficult to reach. Even before the quake, it could take six hours to drive from Kathmandu to parts of the area. Now, many of the few roads are believed to be cut off by small landslides.

The earthquake was the worst to hit the South Asian nation in more than 80 years. It and was strong enough to be felt all across parts of India, Bangladesh, China’s region of Tibet and Pakistan. Nepal’s worst recorded earthquake in 1934 measured 8.0 and all but destroyed the cities of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan.

The quake has put a huge strain on the resources of this impoverished country best known for Everest, the highest mountain in the world. The economy of Nepal, a nation of 27.8 million people, relies heavily on tourism, principally trekking and Himalayan mountain climbing.


Meek effort by Raptors as Wizards win series in rout

Sun, 26 Apr 2015 21:14:19 EDT


WASHINGTON—Silently they sat, clad in red towels, staring at text messages, at the floor, off into space.

It was a stunning end, one few in the room could comprehend, the finish of a once fun season coming in a lopsided, lamentable loss.

“If you had told me a week ago this would have happened, I would have said you were lying,” a somber DeMar DeRozan said.

But there were no lies, just flaws laid bare for all to see as the Raptors were drubbed 125-94 by the Washington Wizards, swept out of the NBA playoffs in four forgettable games.

Meekly they went, void of much fight or determination or hope, a season of some promise torn asunder by a shockingly quick playoff exit.

If there were questions about how the Raptors would treat an elimination game on the road with history against them, it took no time to find an answer.

And it was ugly.

With their season in the balance, the Raptors allowed the Wizards to shoot 71 per cent in a 36-point first quarter that included three personal fouls for Toronto guard Kyle Lowry and none of the fight everyone connected with the Raptors had talked about for two days.

“I thought we were just emotionally drained and kind of gave into their onslaught as the game went on,” said coach Dwane Casey. “That’s how sweep games go — you’re either in it, if you can handle the haymakers you can survive but we didn’t survive the haymakers.”

And they certainly didn’t throw any of their own. Lowry had 23 points but was barely a factor, DeRozan had 14 but took only 13 shots. No one else was really a factor and the season ended with a garbage-time lineup on the Verizon Center floor.

“I was surprised but kind of saw it coming,” said Casey. “How hard we played the first game in overtime, the second game was a tough game, the third game they hit those shots at the end of the game.”

And as if to prove the first quarter cave-in wasn’t a fluke, the Raptors gave up 36 points in the third quarter to trail by 32 points heading into the final 12 minutes of the season.

“The way they came out and their level, I mean they played extremely hard, disciplined and executed every play they wanted to run,” said Lowry. “We have to learn from it. Regular season is completely different from the playoffs and I think you have to take that and understand that we have to raise our level.”

With the season now over, the focus will shift to general manager Masai Ujiri to tinker with a roster he left intact all season to give him more time to evaluate it under different circumstances.

The playoff failure will weigh heavily on his thoughts.

“We’ve got to be resilient,” said DeRozan. “When tough times hit, you hit a little slump, bump in the road, we’ve got to understand we’ve got to pull together and become better once we get back on track. We’ve got to be consistent.”

And continue to improve.

“I said at the beginning of the year that the next step this team and this organization has to make is probably going to be the toughest,” said Casey.

“To go from just making the playoffs to continuing in the playoffs and playing for a championship, I know how hard that is. When we won it in Dallas it took us three years with a veteran team to get to that level.

“Our guys are just scratching the surface of where we need to be.”


How the ‚??Grim Sleeper‚?? got away with killing L.A.‚??s black women

Mon, 27 Apr 2015 07:00:00 EDT


It took 30 years before America woke up to what Margaret Prescod was yelling about.

For three decades, the black activist had been raising the alarm that someone was killing black women in South Central Los Angeles and no one listened — not police, not prosecutors, not anybody in power.

At local rallies and protests, Prescod had screamed

“Black lives matter” decades before a police officer shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year, and before teenager Trayvon Martin was gunned down by a white man in Florida in 2012.

Prescod estimates at least 200 African-American women are missing and as many as 100 have been killed on the streets of South Central, an impoverished, gang-ridden part of Los Angeles.

Outrage erupted in the black community when it was rumoured police had labelled the crimes as NHI — “no humans involved.”

“This is a community of colour. A mainly black community, increasingly Latino, but certainly when these murders began it was a predominantly black neighbourhood,” says Prescod.

“There was, recently, a young white West Virginian college student who went missing and I can tell you, there were daily updates on Google News, on all the major media outlets about her. But how is it possible that you can have this many women missing in South Central L.A., in a relatively small area, and it seems not to matter?” Prescod says.

“I’m not putting down the investigation on the white West Virginian woman. She had a right to that. But so did these women. . . . These women weren’t all school teachers or nurses. The mantle of respectability was kind of ripped off, but what does that matter? These are someone’s daughters and sisters.”

In the end, science led police to accused serial killer Lonnie Franklin, Jr. Franklin’s adult son, Christopher, had a brush with the law five years ago and a swab of his DNA was taken. That sample pointed to his father.

The elder Franklin, now 62, was arrested in July 2010 and charged with 10 counts of murder and one of attempted murder. Eight of the women died of gunshot wounds and two had been strangled.

Enietra Washington was raped and shot in 1988, but survived. She described her attacker as a man in his 20s, about 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, articulate, soft-spoken and with a pockmarked face, according to the Los Angeles Times. She is the attempted murder.

Franklin has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His trial is scheduled to begin on June 29.

A former city trash collector and part-time mechanic, Franklin was a married family man, well-known in the neighbourhood. He was the guy who went out of his way to fix a broken car or appliance. He had a criminal record but not one that warranted DNA collection.

There is fear that Franklin could be responsible for the deaths of scores more women. As of last year, the L.A. coroner’s office had close to 100 unsolved murder cases of women it couldn’t identify, women killed during the years the Grim Sleeper was active, according to LA Weekly. There were also dozens of open missing-persons cases.

The murders spanned 1985 to 1988 and 2002 to 2007. The killer was nicknamed the Grim Sleeper because it appeared he took a 14-year break — from 1988 to 2002 — between the two clusters of slayings.

When Franklin was arrested, police found more than 180 images of black women inside his modest home. Some of the women were partially undressed or naked and looked to be posing for whoever took the pictures. Some of the women were described as having the still look of death.

The LAPD held a news conference in December 2010, trying to identify the women in the pictures. While some of the women have come forward, other identities remain a mystery.

In the mid-1980s, Prescod founded the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders after she heard the LAPD announce there was a potential serial killer in South Central L.A.

“That didn’t get a lot of publicity. I happen to catch it. I called some of my friends, some other black women, and said, ‘Listen, why don’t we go down to police headquarters and find out what the heck is going on?’ So we went down, a little crew of us, to headquarters to ask about it and the captain asked us, ‘Why are you concerned about it? He is only killing prostitutes.’ ”

That response fuelled Prescod’s fury. “So what if all the women were prostitutes? Turns out that wasn’t true. And they were referring to this in the press as the ‘prostitute slayer.’ ”

Prescod and her friends printed information flyers, distributing them to women in South Central. “We’d go out late at night where the women were working, near to the hotels and whatnot, and the women just didn’t know. They were like sitting ducks. They didn’t know there was somebody or some people out there hunting down and killing them and they knew nothing about it.”

She laughs that it took a white man, British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield, to raise international awareness about the killings.

His film, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival last year and recently premiered in the United Kingdom. It will air on HBO in the United States on April 27.

“You can imagine if two women disappeared in Beverly Hills, the whole place would close down,” Broomfield said late last year on the red carpet of the American Film Institute’s annual film festival in Los Angeles.

“Somebody must have known something and how come nothing happened?” Broomfield asked.

Finally, 30 years after Prescod began complaining, and five years after Franklin was charged, the trial is nearly here. Prescod will be at the courthouse every day to support the families.

“We are not disappearing,” she says. “We’ll see it out, whatever way it goes.”


Educators battle false information as sex-ed opposition grows

Sun, 26 Apr 2015 09:30:00 EDT


Ontario educators are scrambling to combat confusion and false information among critics of the province’s new sex-education curriculum — including claims it offers how-to lessons on masturbation, homosexuality and anal sex.

The move comes as thousands of parents across the province plan to keep their kids home from school the week of May 4 to protest the new curriculum.

So many parents in Peel Region have expressed concerns over the curriculum, the school board fears hundreds of parents in their region alone — as many as 200 to 300 in some neighbourhoods — will ask that their children be exempt from sex-education classes next fall, warned Janet McDougald, chair of the Peel District School Board.

“A small fraction are intentionally misleading people (about the curriculum),” she said, “but the vast majority are confused and upset about what they’re reading and we need the (education) minister to work more aggressively at providing parents the answers they need to feel comfortable about it going forward.”

McDougald will ask trustees Tuesday to send an open letter to Queen’s Park asking for help to debunk the myths around the new lessons — like explaining that masturbation is not a topic that must be taught, but rather is a subject on which teachers have been given tips on how to respond if any student happens to bring it up.

“The ministry hasn’t distinguished between the actual subjects to be covered and ‘prompts’ it offers teachers to questions that may or may not come up,” said McDougald.

Some 5,000 parents, largely in the GTA, have joined a Facebook group calling for a boycott of classes May 4 to 10 to express opposition to the curriculum.

Peel mother Firani Siddiqui will keep her two younger children home to protest the curriculum she said breaches her right to decide when her children learn sensitive sexual information.

“I don’t want teachers to tell my children that masturbation is a healthy thing — it’s a no no; maybe I don’t want her to think it’s a healthy practice,” said Siddiqui, who said she is not anti-gay, but simply believes the new curriculum gets too explicit too early. “I don’t want a stranger telling my kids about oral and anal sex.”

Schools in Toronto’s largely Muslim neighbourhood of Thorncliffe Park also expect many parents to take part in the sex-ed boycott of school next week, and also try to opt out of the curriculum next fall, said Trustee Gerri Gershon. She is working with public health nurses to reach out to the community to combat misconceptions. The elementary school principal has sent a letter home encouraging students not to miss school.

In both areas, hysteria over the new curriculum even spilled over into recent Day of Pink anti-homophobia events. McDougald said some Peel schools were half-empty as parents kept their children home to protest what they saw as a promotion of homosexuality.

Schools need a strong, clear document from the province, she said, to counter flyers being circulated by some parent groups that can be more graphic than the curriculum itself, including one anoymous letter being passed around some Peel schools in Arabic warning that, under the new curriculum:

<bullet> “In Grade 1 they will learn to reveal their private parts (not just name), they will see posters and flash cards of private parts, they will learn to touch the private area and identify it on themselves and others.” (Not true, said Nilani Logeswaran, spokesperson for Education Minister Liz Sandals.)

<bullet> “Grade 6 is about the promotion of self-discovery through masturbation. Our 12-year-old daughter or son, who is not even a teenager yet, will be asked in class to explore his or her own body by touching their private parts, masturbating and pleasuring their body.” (Not true, said Logeswaran.)

The Peel school board letter also will ask Sandals to counter accusations that the new curriculum violates the Criminal Code of Canada by referring to anal sex, even though it is presented largely in the context of warning students that anal and oral sex can be high-risk activities that can spread sexually transmitted infections, noted Logeswaran.

While the Criminal Code used to forbid anal intercourse under the age of 18 — which some warned could apply to school discussions of anal sex — that section was declared unconstitutional in 1995, said Logeswaran.

Yet the letter circulating in Peel warns parents “Anal Play 101 class in Grade 8” would actually provide instruction on anal sex play. “In Making Sex Feel Good unit, they will be asked to look at sexy magazines and movies to investigate what arouses and seduces them,” the letter continues. Logeswaran said both claims don’t represent the curriculum.

McDougald also wants Queen’s Park to make it clear that while students have the right to opt out of lessons on sexuality if their parents feel it violates their beliefs — they can go instead to the library or another classroom — but they cannot be excused from lessons that talk about accepting different sexual lifestyles, because that is protected by the Ontario Human Rights Code.

“When it comes to discussions of human rights and equity (and different kinds of families, including same-sex parents) students who want to opt out would have to stay home,” said McDougald. “You can’t opt out of human rights.”


A mid-campaign scare or end of an era in Alberta? Tim Harper

Sun, 26 Apr 2015 19:53:42 EDT


CALGARY—The barbarians are at the gate again — and this time the dynasty is having trouble with the drawbridge.

As the Alberta election campaign enters its final full week, the Progressive Conservative dynasty — the country’s longest ever — is being entrusted to the increasingly shaky grip of leader Jim Prentice.

Of course, we’ve been here before.

Three short years ago the dynasty was about to unravel under Alison Redford before a late eruption of intolerance and bigotry sank Wildrose under Danielle Smith and kept the dynasty chugging along into years 42, 43, 44.

Both women are now political footnotes and Prentice, the suave, experienced, former Stephen Harper cabinet minister came charging in to protect one-party rule and calm everything down. Instead, he has done everything he can to lose.

Whether Prentice has lost the fire, whether a hiatus from politics has left him rusty, whether he believed this election was a walk in the park and is rattled — or whether plunging oil prices have finally signalled a fin de régime — he is in trouble.

He is running behind Brian Jean, the leader of Wildrose, a party which tried to euthanize itself but was lifted off its deathbed by supporters who refused to follow former leader Smith off the cliff in a historic defection.

Jean, a former Conservative MP, has been on the job four whole weeks.

And, most remarkably, Prentice is running behind the NDP — yes, the NDP in Alberta — under the smooth leadership of Rachel Notley.

Jean and Notley did not exactly take juggernauts into this campaign. Nothing indicated either was anywhere but the wilderness, certainly not on the cusp of history.

Jean had a caucus of five in the 87-seat legislature, only three of whom ran again. Notley had a caucus of four and a history of party futility in a province which dismissed any political pretender cloaked in orange.

Prentice has done all he could to make this a race.

Before he even went to the people, he told them to “look in the mirror” if they wanted to see who was responsible for the economic woes here.

Then, faced with a $7-billion hole blown in government revenues, he unveiled a budget which featured 59 separate tax and fee hikes in a province that believes it is its divine right to avoid taxes felt elsewhere in the country.

But Prentice left corporate taxes alone.

There was immediate blowback. Prentice went to the polls anyway — a year before he had to under fixed date legislation.

He has backtracked on the reduction of the tax credit for charitable donations. He came across sounding sexist when, taking a shot at Notley’s botched numbers in her economic platform, told her “I know that math is difficult.”

Saturday, he lost his justice minister who resigned because he is tied up in litigation with his estranged wife.

For those who like metaphors, his campaign bus was rammed from behind by his security detail.

But the Alberta status quo has eight days to snap back.

Notley’s ascension could be her ultimate downfall if this province awakens to a realization that it could elect an NDP government or a minority with the NDP holding the balance of power.

“Alberta is not an NDP province,” Prentice declared Saturday.

And so the PC guns are trained on the 51-year-old NDP leader, the daughter of a one-time iconic NDP leader who died young in a plane crash.

Over the weekend, it was her comment that she would not push the Northern Gateway pipeline which would transport Alberta bitumen across British Columbia to a port at Kitimat, B.C.

The PCs pounced, but Notley was surely stating the obvious. Even Harper Conservatives in Ottawa are silent about the diminished prospects of Northern Gateway.

Prentice, himself, has talked about the difficulty of overcoming aboriginal opposition and the problems with the Kitimat terminus, but Saturday he was (wrongly) accusing Notley of being against all pipelines. The NDP leader does support the Kinder Morgan pipeline in British Columbia and Energy East.

And who came riding to her defence?

That would be Smith, once the right-wing barbarian at the gate, now watching the man she embraced from the sidelines, chastened and bruised, reminding voters that Notley does champion other pipelines.

That may show us two things — the fear factor may have to be ramped up before the drawbridge can be closed and it is mighty difficult to tell the players without a program in a province where the status quo was once the only sure thing.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. tharper@thestar.ca Twitter:@nutgraf1


Let the Omar Khadr furor fade away with him: DiManno

Sun, 26 Apr 2015 21:56:41 EDT


There is nothing alleged about Omar Khadr or “so-called” about the terror he inflicted. The crimes were confessed, in his own words, under oath at trial in Guantanamo.

Convicted and sentenced means dropping the qualifiers, whatever retractions Khadr floats now.

He did throw the grenade that killed U.S. Sgt. Christopher Speer and wounded another serviceman. He did construct improvised explosive devices used against Western troops.

He’s not even — and wasn’t at the time of his seizure by U.S. troops, following a firefight on the Afghanistan border — a child soldier, as defined by the Geneva Conventions and just about every other protocol on the subject of kids forced into combat. They draw the line at “children who have not attained the age of 15 years.” Khadr was 15.

Even regardless of age, as per the Geneva Conventions, he wasn’t part of military operations conducted “according to the law and customs of war,” not did he wear “distinctive markings visible from a distance,” nor “bear arms openly.”

And, but for a pro forma apology to Speer’s widow at trial in 2010 — “I’m really, really sorry for the pain I caused you and your family” — Khadr has never expressed remorse. (That contrition should be viewed skeptically, since Khadr has since admitted he would have babbled anything to get out of the notorious detention camp.)

All that said — enough.

By hook or by crook — and his apologists are adamant it was both — the Canadian son of a prominent Al Qaeda family has done his time.

A decade behind bars in Gitmo and nearly three years at maximum-security prisons in Canada amounts to a far harsher sentence that Khadr would have received if found guilty, as a minor, of first-degree murder in this country, unless he were designated a dangerous offender.

It’s impossible to know what’s in Khadr’s soul or if he would revert to the militant cause that defined his childhood and to which he was clearly groomed by a villainous, zealous father, a man who did a monumentally successful job of radicalizing all his offspring before killed by Pakistani security forces in 2003.

The legal manoeuvres that continue to swirl around Omar Khadr guarantee tons of billable legal hours for years to come, if not by his pro bono defenders than certainly by the government lawyers arrayed against him. Ottawa is appealing a ruling from last July that recognized Khadr as a juvenile and ordered his transfer to a provincial facility. Khadr is appealing — from afar — the legality of his conviction in the U.S. on war crimes. And now the Stephen Harper government has announced it will appeal last week’s ruling that Khadr be released on bail while the Canadian appeal is argued.

In any event, we’re still talking here about a matter of weeks or months or, at most, up to a year and a half because he becomes eligible for statutory release in October, 2016, after having served two-thirds of his eight-year sentence — imposed under the plea deal in Guantanamo (for murder in violation of the law of war, attempted murder in violation of the law of war, providing material support for terrorism, and spying) and accepted by Ottawa when he was repatriated to Canada.

In parsing the facets of that sentence, government lawyers argued last week that Justice June Ross didn’t have jurisdiction to grant bail because Khadr’s appeal is being mounted in the U.S. And further — a long stretch — that doing so would jeopardize diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Jurisdiction is at the heart of Khadr’s appeal south of the border, because the five offences under the Military Commissions Act on which he was found guilty were written years after his crimes were committed — though President Barack Obama, who wants the whole Gitmo mess to go away and the facility closed, stands by them.

Khadr is the only captive ever charged — and convicted — by the U.S. for a war crime in the death of an American service member in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Many of Khadr’s advocates attest that Harper’s Conservatives are exploiting the Khadr quandary as a blatantly political ploy, in advance of the federal election, playing to their strengths with the electorate: tough on crime, tough on national security.

Well, it may be all that, a voting-booth tactic. But it’s also very much at the hardcore of ideology. They are consistent and true to their beliefs.

They’re also, at this late stage in the Khadr game, wrong.

It’s over.

Khadr was undeniably a terrorist. But he’s been, for 13-plus years, a model prisoner by all reports. Community leaders have rallied ’round. (The part about a Christian university offering him admission is a bit rich.) If he hasn’t overtly renounced The Gospel of Al Qaeda, neither is he required to do so. He too is entitled to his beliefs, however repugnant they may be, so long as he doesn’t commit acts in support of them.

Doubtless, in front of a parole board, Khadr would have some problems reconciling what he said at trial with what he’s said once safely out of American military justice’s reach. Still, that’s not likely to be a parole-killer, his first swing at the plate.

There is no point — except meanness and intractability — for the government to maintain its posture of tough-on-Khadr. He is low risk to reoffend. He is estranged from much of his deplorable family. And he’s done the time. The more obstructionist Ottawa gets, the more he will be characterized as martyr to a political agenda, and the entire Khadr industry will never be laid to rest.

He’s not the terrorist bogeyman. He is yesterday’s news.

Let him go quietly — as if — into obscurity.

Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.


Underground child porn trade moving toward youngest victims

Sun, 26 Apr 2015 22:00:00 EDT


WINNIPEG—Sexualized images of children under the age of 9, most depicting explicit sexual acts, represent the largest and fastest-growing category in Canada’s underground child pornography trade, according to exclusive data obtained by the Star from the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

And their abusers, say experts, are overwhelmingly family and friends.

Cypertip.ca, a national, non-profit tip line run by the centre that gathers and investigates alleged child pornography online, last year catalogued more than 15,000 images from the Internet of children up to 8 years old, according to the data.

Those images accounted for 56 per cent of the 26,886 inventory of images Cybertip.ca analysts documented last year, a seven per cent jump from 2012-2013.

Even more disturbing, the data shows 73 per cent of the images of young victims depicted sex acts that included “bondage” and “torture.” That figure was up 12 per cent over the previous year.

“It continues to shock me,” says Signy Arnason, director of Cybertip.ca. “If your deviance is pedophilia, it’s not hard to imagine that people want to dig deeper into those trenches and seek out deeper and darker content and material to satisfy their sexual deviance as time progresses.”

The data marks the first time that the age category from newborn to 8 accounted for more than half of the material Cybertip.ca analyzes. Images of children in older age categories dropped or held steady from the previous year.

“If there is an increase in the interest in young children as an erotic potential for people out there, that causes a very serious concern, because the lower the age, the more severe the pedophilia,” said Dr. John Bradford, a forensic psychiatry professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in sexual deviation.

“It’s a whole other level of severity and concern. It’s more pathological. And we know it increases the harm ratio and risk of re-offence. All of that are very significant red flags.”

Arnason says that while teens and tweens are often exploited by strangers who lure them online and groom them, the youngest victims are typically abused by those they know well.

“When you’re abusing very, very young children, somebody has to have access to that child and needs time alone with them, so it’s likely a family member or someone close within the family,” she says.

The average age of child pornography victims was about 12 when Paul Gillespie ran the Toronto Police Service’s child exploitation squad a decade ago.

Today, the average age of victims he sees has dropped to age 5 or below, says Gillespie, who is now president of the Kids Internet Safety Alliance, which trains police and prosecutors around the world in investigating child exploitation.

“The appetite (for younger children) is identical everywhere,” says Gillespie. “It’s hard to believe there could be more heightened levels of depravity, but there is.”

There were 622 Canadians charged with child pornography in 2013, up from 442 in 2009, according to Statistics Canada.

“This is a societal need to do better than we’re doing. I can never understand why the average citizen doesn’t throw up when they hear this stuff. . . Once you see one of these photos your life is never the same again.”

Catherine Chabbert, one of eight Cybertip.ca analysts who review complaints from the public before forwarding potentially illegal material to police, says many of the images depict children too young to even communicate the abuse.

In some cases, she has seen unknown children literally grow up before her eyes — from children to young adults — in a sequence of explicit images.

“A lot of the progressive abuse happens in a timeline,” she says. “I’ve seen timelines of a child with a collage of those images starting off when a child was an infant until they’re 14 years old. . . . Sometimes it’s still occurring because they haven’t found the offender or the victim. It’s a scary thing to know and to keep with you.”

Stephen Sauer has been an analyst at the Cybertip.ca offices in Winnipeg for the past decade.

In some cases, images of the increasingly young are customized to the wishes and appetites of those who consume them, he says.

“Typically, individuals are requesting images from offenders and offenders will create those images on the spot,” he says. “They might be asking for a certain type of abuse and there’s a close community where individuals are sharing this type of images.”


Brampton probe of $500M deal ready for release

Sun, 26 Apr 2015 20:00:00 EDT


Results of an investigation into possible misconduct by city staff, which Brampton council has been waiting for since December, are expected to be released Monday.

Councillors ordered the probe last fall, following allegations that they had been misled by senior city staff in 2011 regarding the process of awarding a $500-million downtown redevelopment contract to Dominus Construction.

Interim auditor general George Rust-D’Eye was hired with council’s approval in September to investigate the allegations, many of which appeared in documents filed in a $28.5-million lawsuit against the city by another developer who alleges he was unfairly disqualified from bidding on the deal. (Dominus is not a target of the lawsuit.)

The City of Brampton denies all allegations in the lawsuit. Dominus has stated that it followed all the rules of the bidding process.

An unusually secretive bidding process called “competitive dialogue” was used for the massive procurement. Brampton staff said the method, never before used in Canada, would guarantee protection from cost overruns in exchange for protecting the pricing developers used in their bids. As a result of this untried process, council had very little involvement and its oversight role was replaced by a “fairness advisor.”

Rust-D’Eye’s report has been delayed three times, trying the patience of some councillors, but staff told them Wednesday that his findings would be handed over Monday.

Rust-D’Eye made it clear in an October preliminary report that none of the allegations he was investigating had been proven and that none of the specific allegations against Dominus, Brampton city staff and members of council had been validated.

Here are the allegations councillors asked him to investigate:

  • Whether or not staff misled council on key details during the selection process, when it recommended Dominus. Rust-D’Eye stated in an outline of his investigation that the following staff, at the time, were on the selection committee: Mo Lewis, commissioner of finance (no longer employed by the city); Julian Patteson, commissioner of buildings; Dennis Cutajar, commissioner of economic development; John Corbett, commissioner of planning (no longer employed by the city); Randy Rason, director of design and construction; and Peter Honeyborne, director of treasury.
  • Whether or not Dominus improperly lobbied any member of council, trying to influence council’s decision, and if there was any possible payback to a member of council.
  • How staff funded a $480,000 option on a parcel of land for Dominus, using taxpayer money, without ever telling council.
  • Whether or not council and Brampton residents had reasonable time and information to have input in the selection process.
  • Whether or not the city’s procurement and zoning rules were followed during the selection process; whether the $205 million the city is paying for the first of the project’s three phases was a good deal for Brampton taxpayers; and whether the calculation of the cost was accurate.
  • Whether or not any members of staff or council used improper influence during the selection process and whether or not favouritism was shown toward Dominus, effectively pre-determining the outcome.

  • Police urging caution for homeless after 2 men killed in downtown Winnipeg

    Sun, 26 Apr 2015 20:23:00 EDT


    WINNIPEG—Police in Winnipeg are advising the homeless to use caution in the wake of two homicides, and are asking other citizens to pay special attention to make sure the homeless are safe.

    Police say the bodies of two men who both lived off the streets were found on Saturday behind buildings in the downtown area.

    Sgt. John O’Donovan told a news conference on Sunday that while autopsy results are still pending, the similarities between the two deaths makes police believe the cases are related.

    “You can trust me, it was not a simple killing,” O’Donovan said.

    Investigators say the body of an older man was found early Saturday morning, and the second body was found later in the day about a block away.

    Police say they believe one suspect is responsible for both deaths.

    Police have released pictures taken from surveillance video of a male O’Donovan said was in the area at the time and may have information about the case. He said police are trying to identify and speak with him, as well as two other people who were seen near a construction trailer in the area.

    O’Donovan said investigators also haven’t ruled out the possibility the cases may be linked to the death of a homeless man in the city on April 10th.

    “If you’re a person who lives on the streets and you happen to see this broadcast, you know what to do to stay safe and survive. Stay with your friends – there’s safety in numbers. Don’t wander off with someone you don’t know,” O’Donovan said during the news conference.

    “These vulnerable people, they’re a part of our community and it’s all our responsibility to keep them safe.”

    O’Donovan said one of the victims was homeless, while the second man lived a similar lifestyle but did have a home.

    The identities of the victims have not been released.

    O’Donovan said investigators have been reviewing a lot of surveillance video for clues, and that businesses have been helpful providing it.

    He asked all people in Winnipeg to help protect the city’s vulnerable population. He said if it’s safe, take cellphone video of anything suspicious.

    “They’re often invisible, but make sure they’re safe and they’re not being harassed by anybody or appear to be in a disadvantaged position with someone,” O’Donovan said.

    They are asking homeless people and those who frequent the streets to avoid secluded areas and, if possible, walk with others.

    Police say autopsies and family notifications are pending.


    Battle shaping up over east Gardiner options

    Sun, 26 Apr 2015 20:00:28 EDT


    A brewing Gardiner Expressway battle has left-leaning city councillors accusing conservative colleagues of wanting to blow a half-billion dollars to save a tiny minority of motorists a few minutes in travel time.

    Torontonians, meanwhile, at public consultations downtown and in Scarborough split between the financial and public-space benefits of pulling down the entire 2.4-kilometre east Gardiner span, and the traffic benefits of paying more to keeping it in place to the Don Valley Parkway.

    And then there are the councillors who think the motorists who benefit from the pricier option should fund it through a road toll.

    The debate has many moving parts and anybody hoping for a speedy resolution might settle in for a honk-filled crawl.

    “These are sad, sad wastes of money that throw into question the argument that these councillors are fiscal conservatives at all,” fumes Councillor Joe Mihevc (open Joe Mihevc's policard) of Mayor John Tory (open John Tory's policard)’s allies lining up behind the priciest “hybrid” option that would leave the Gardiner in place to the DVP and slow commutes marginally less than full removal.

    Councillor Gord Perks (open Gord Perks's policard) notes a growing list of capital costs facing Toronto, totalling billions of dollars, and says: “It’s like Mayor (John) Tory is out Christmas shopping and he’s already maxed out his credit cards. Sooner or later somebody’s going to take it from him and cut it up.”

    Tory campaigned on the hybrid option, which would see only the ramps east of the Don River pulled down, and also on improving commute times and holding property tax increases to the rate of inflation.

    However, the mayor is “keeping an open mind while public consultations and the process unfolds,” says Tory spokeswoman Amanda Galbraith.

    She notes a separate report on the economic impacts of both options has not yet been released. Toronto commutes are among the worst in North America and the city pegs the regional cost of gridlock at $6 billion.

    A recently released environmental assessment says the “100-year” construction and maintenance costs of the hybrid option are $919 million — $458 million more than full removal and replacement with an eight-lane, at-grade boulevard between Jarvis St. and the DVP.

    Computer modelling of the two options by city staff and Waterfront Toronto predicts removal would add, depending on the route, an extra two or three minutes to the average morning rush-hour Gardiner commute.

    The east Gardiner is the lightest used stretch, carrying only 5,200 cars per hour during a typical peak period.

    The small number of beneficiaries does not faze deputy mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong (open Denzil Minnan-Wong's policard), who is vowing to fight any efforts to remove the expressway west of the Don River.

    “Toronto has network of expressways and highways and to tear down infrastructure is short-sighted,” says the Don Valley councillor who, like many at a public consultation in Scarborough last week, said he believes a grade-level boulevard with stoplights would add more than two or three minutes.

    A highway connection to the DVP is vital for commercial traffic, he adds.

    “You can’t take a truckload of cement on a streetcar or a subway.”

    As public works chair under former mayor Rob Ford (open Rob Ford's policard), Minnan-Wong argued to maintain the entire elevated portion. Asked for his preference now, he says: “Hybrid or maintain.” Asked to choose, he says: “No comment.”

    City staff and Waterfront Toronto argue that spending $864 million to maintain the whole span indefinitely is not a wise expense.

    The full removal and hybrid options both would open up land for development, something key to Tory’s unproven plan to help finance his SmartTrack transit expansion by borrowing against future tax revenue increases in rapidly developing zones.

    The hybrid option was first floated last year by developer First Gulf, which wants to build a large-scale office and retail development on 29 acres just east of the Gardiner-DVP junction. The city owns 20 adjacent acres and is eyeing the area for a SmartTrack station.

    Tory’s office wants a decision at public works committee in May and a final vote at council in June.

    Mihevc expects Tory to eventually get his way but says: “This is a multi-generational decision. This is not one meeting in June.”

    Scarborough Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker (open Glenn De Baeremaeker's policard) told the Star he has to research the options but notes that, when he pushed for the pricier subway option over light rail in Scarborough, he identified a dedicated property tax hike and development charges as ways for the city to pay the premium.

    “To those who want the more expensive option I say, ‘How do you pay for it?’ ” he says. “If ever there was an argument for a toll, this is it. If a senior who lives out by the zoo never takes the Gardiner, why should she help pay $500 million to make it faster? Maybe those who use it should pay.”

    Councillor Paula Fletcher (open Paula Fletcher's policard), whose ward includes the Gardiner-DVP junction, said she is keeping an open mind but supports looking at tolling the east Gardiner — an option that city staff have not put on the table.