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Air Force, UN food agency tackle skyrocketing COVID-19 hunger in Latin America

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OTTAWA — The head of the UN World Food Program says the COVID-19 crisis has dramatically increased the number of starving people in Latin America, which could trigger a refugee exodus to North America if not addressed.

David Beasley, the agency’s director, issued the warning as the Royal Canadian Air Force began Saturday to prepare to end its nearly two-week mission in which a mammoth C-17 Globemaster transport crisscrossed Central and South America and the Caribbean delivering tonnes of medical supplies.

Beasley said there has been a 269 per increase in food insecurity in the region since the pandemic struck.

Beasley tells The Canadian Press that 4.7 million people were already “marching to the brink of starvation” before the pandemic but now that number has that has risen to 16 million.

Beasley praised Canada for lending the Globemaster and nearly three dozen personnel to work in tandem with the WFP and World Health Organization to deliver supplies throughout the region from a newly built hub in Panama.

But he said unless the world answers the biggest humanitarian crisis in the World Food Program’s history, people will die and economic and political upheaval will ensue.

The agency is launching a six-month US$4.9 billion appeal to help feed 138 million people in 83 countries. Since the pandemic struck there have been serious food-insecurity increases in west and central Africa (135 per cent) and southern Africa (90 per cent).

Beasley says tackling the problem will also mean spending hundreds of millions of dollars more to battle the rising hunger in Canada’s Western Hemisphere backyard.

“The first thing is: let’s do what’s good; let’s do what’s right. And if that’s not good enough, do it out of your national-security interest,” Beasley said in an interview.

“If patterns of experience are of any indication, if the economic deterioration due to COVID continues as it is, and we don’t have safety-net programs in place, I don’t see how you don’t have mass migration,” he added.

“You won’t have a mass migration today, tomorrow, but you will have it soon.”

The region was already struggling under the weight of Venezuela’s political and economic crisis. Prior to the pandemic, the UN estimated that six million Venezuelans would flee their country by the year’s end, as its economic, health and education systems collapsed. Neighbouring countries such as Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador have been bearing the brunt of the influx.

While those countries have been welcoming, COVID-19 has added an extra layer of strain and Beasley said the leaders of those countries told him last week they are extremely worried.

“This is why the international community has to step up. Otherwise there’s going to be chaos,” he said.

“And we have a vaccine for this chaos — it’s called food.”

The former Republican governor of South Carolina visited Ottawa in mid-March, meeting multiple Canadian politicians right before the pandemic slammed normal activities to a halt. Beasley would test positive for COVID-19 himself days later, touching off a short-lived panic and rush of testing among the MPs and officials he saw; he’s since recovered.

Beasley was in Panama last week as part of a six-country tour, where he met Lt.-Col. Adam Pentney, the commander of Canada’s military airlift. He also met with Pentney’s crew as they loaded tonnes of personal protective equipment, medical supplies and other humanitarian supplies onto the Globemaster.

“That C-17 is a workhorse and it is a blessing in a time when we need it most. As you can imagine, we’re extremely grateful to the Canadian government for providing this support,” said Beasley.

“It was a beautiful sight. It was absolutely magnificent because that’s life-saving humanitarian support. It shows what happens when the world collaborates.”

Pentney said C-17 mission is the first time he has been part of such a large humanitarian relief effort so close to home.

“It’s in a region where we don’t often get to visit,” Pentney said in a telephone call from Panama this past week, where he was preparing to pilot the Globemaster’s final mission himself.

Friday’s mission to Guatemala was to be its last before the start of weekend preparations to the bring the plane and the 31 people supporting it back to Canada.

“My message to Canadians is they can be very proud of the support that’s being provided and the work that’s being done to look after our global neighbours,” said Pentney.

“The pandemic is very real here. Canada does have a role and a presence here in our backyard and we’re happy to be able to contribute to that.”

Pentney said he didn’t know if another Globemaster crew would be returning. But Beasley said he’s ramping up his fundraising efforts to target another group of donors because he said governments around the world are already strapped because of the pandemic.

“We’re in the worst crisis since World War Two and it’s time for the billionaires to step up and say, ‘We care about humanity, we care about planet Earth’ because we are at a crossroads on this planet right now,” said Beasley.

“The billionaires, especially those that are making billions because of COVID, they need to step up. We’re taking about millions of people dying.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published August 1, 2020.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

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Top court orders parts of N.S. cabinet docs disclosed in judges’ salaries case

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OTTAWA — The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled the vast majority of confidential cabinet documents in two provinces should remain secret, in cases dealing with how judges are paid.

However, the ruling does order parts of a cabinet document in Nova Scotia to be disclosed.

The decision deals with two separate cases in Nova Scotia and British Columbia where lower courts had ordered the production of cabinet documents that are traditionally kept highly confidential.

In both provinces, independent commissions set up to review salaries for provincial court judges in 2016 had proposed significant pay hikes, but the cabinets in both provinces rejected those recommendations and decided on smaller pay increases.

In B.C., the judicial compensation commission recommended an 8.2 per cent salary increase for 2017-18 and 1.5 per cent increases for each of the next two years. The B.C. government disagreed with the first raise, going instead with a 3.8 per cent increase for 2017-18, but agreed with the subsequent two raises.

In Nova Scotia, that province’s independent commission recommended a 5.5 per cent pay hike with an additional 1.2 per cent increase the following year and 2.2 per cent more the year after.

Nova Scotia responded by freezing judges salaries for two years and only allowing a one per cent increase in 2019-20, saying at the time it was to bring judges’ salaries in line with what provincial civil servants were receiving at the time.

The judges’ associations in both provinces applied for judicial reviews and wanted to see cabinet submissions that justified altering the recommended salary hikes.

In its unanimous decision Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada quashed the B.C. Court of Appeal’s decision ordering the B.C. government to produce the cabinet documents.

Supreme Court Justice Andromache Karakatsanis wrote that the judicial commission failed to establish there any reason to believe the cabinet documents in that province may contain evidence to show the government failed to meet a three-part test that must be applied in decisions related to judges’ salaries.

However, in the Nova Scotia case, Canada’s top court ruled most of the cabinet submission should remain confidential, except two components: a paragraph in one document labelled “government-wide implications” and an appendix to the report called the “communications plan.”

The Nova Scotia case differed from the B.C. case because of public statements made by government at the time comparing the salaries of judges to those of civil servants. Also, the Nova Scotia salary freeze that was eventually imposed was exactly what the government had proposed in its submissions to the independent commission before it had formulated its recommendations. 

These circumstances called into question whether the Nova Scotia government properly showed respect for the commission’s process, which is a requirement under the law, the ruling states.

Karakatsanis writes that excluding the two portions of the Nova Scotia cabinet documents from being disclosed would undermine the lower courts’ ability to determine whether the three-part test for judges’ salaries was appropriately applied by the Nova Scotia cabinet.

The ruling is not expected to be widely precedent-setting when it comes to the protection of cabinet confidentiality for provincial governments, as the decisions are based on the specific facts and circumstances of these particular cases involving judicial remuneration.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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Trudeau expected perception issues with WE deal, but no conflict of interest

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OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he knew there would be problems with perception over having WE Charity run a $900-million student-volunteer program, but he believed there was no conflict of interest because his family would not benefit.

The prime minister also said he did not seek guidance from the federal ethics commissioner after public servants recommended the WE organization administer the Canada Student Service Grant.

This, despite the fact Trudeau said he did know the public and opposition politicians would scrutinize the deal because of his own and his family’s ties to WE, which is why he told the public servants recommending the organization to go back and make absolutely sure they were on solid ground.

“I knew there would be perception issues around this,” Trudeau said Friday in Ottawa, speaking to reporters less than 24 hours after making a rare prime ministerial appearance at a House of Commons committee over his role in the controversy.

“At the same time, delivering a grant program to students who volunteer across the country has absolutely nothing to do with any work my brother or mother did with WE and that’s why there was no conflict of interest.”

Trudeau said he should have recused himself from the discussions, but instead chose to ask for this due diligence to be done — something he says he now regrets.

The prime minister testified Thursday that he didn’t learn WE had been chosen by the public service to run the program until May 8, which was just hours before the arrangement was to be taken to cabinet for approval.

That’s when, Trudeau said, he put the brakes on the deal.

“We pulled the item from the agenda so that we could be doing the right thing, the way,” Trudeau told the Commons finance committee.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he doesn’t buy Trudeau’s account.

“Multiple ministers and senior officials have testified at the finance committee. Not one of them said that the prime minister pulled the WE proposal from the May 8 cabinet meeting and sent it back for further scrutiny,” Scheer said in a statement Friday.

The public service later came back on May 21 to reaffirm its recommendation that WE was the only organization that could run the student-volunteer program, Trudeau said. WE ended up backing out of the deal in early July over the political controversy.

Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford  testified that the civil servants presented it as a “binary choice” — either they moved ahead with WE Charity to deliver the program or they wouldn’t go ahead with it at all.

In his testimony, Trudeau acknowledged his family’s involvement with WE: his mother, brother and wife have participated in and spoken at WE events, and have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and expenses, although he testified the amounts were not previously known to him.

He stressed that he did not have any conversations with WE co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger during this time and that WE Charity did not receive any preferential treatment by him or anyone else in the government.

He also said he didn’t talk to his staff about WE Charity or its proposed involvement in the volunteering program until May 8, although he has since learned policy staff in his office had been working with the Privy Council Office and other departments, and they knew that WE Charity was under consideration to run the effort.

The prime minister and Telford also both noted that Sophie Gregoire Trudeau’s work with WE, including a podcast on mental wellness, has been unpaid except for expenses covered by the organization, all of which had been cleared by the ethics commissioner.

The Conservatives and NDP have called on federal ethics watchdog Mario Dion to widen his probe of Trudeau to include these expenses.

Dion is already investigating Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau for possible violations of the Conflict of Interest Act for not recusing themselves during cabinet discussions about the WE deal. Dion is also looking into WE-sponsored trips Morneau and his family took in 2017. Morneau repaid $41,000 in related expenses last week.

Opposition MPs on the Commons finance committee are now pushing to hear from more junior staffers in the prime minister’s office, and demanding access to cabinet documents.

“If the prime minister has nothing to hide, he needs to waive cabinet confidentiality so that committee and the ethics commissioner can do their job and get to the bottom of this issue without interference and excuses from the PMO,” NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said in a statement Friday.

They want more detailed answers about why WE Charity began working on and incurring expenses for the program on May 5, when it had not yet been approved by cabinet.

Telford told the committee that another Trudeau aide, Rick Theis, talked to WE that same day, though she said he referred WE to the public service to talk about anything substantial. 

The Kielburger brothers have said those departmental officials told WE it could incur expenses before being awarded the agreement.

The brothers said they wanted to get the program going quickly, and started work knowing they could lose money if cabinet said no.

Asked about this Friday, Trudeau said it was the Kielburgers alone who decided to go ahead and start working and incurring expenses on the grant program.

“That was a decision that they took because they knew how important it was to get this program going and they assumed certain risks in going forward and starting to spend on a program that hadn’t yet been approved by cabinet and would not be approved for another few weeks,” Trudeau said.

Scheer said he is also skeptical of this explanation.

“Why was WE so sure that they were going to be approved? Why were they told they could start charging expenses before the program was even approved?” Scheer said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2020.

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press


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august, 2020

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