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Alberta justice minister hikes fines, promises renewed effort on COVID-19 scofflaws

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EDMONTON — Alberta has doubled fines for disobeying public health measures meant to fight COVID-19 and Justice Minister Kaycee Madu is promising a renewed effort to stop public health scofflaws will succeed.

“Enforcement will be done, and Albertans will see it being done,” Madu told a news conference Wednesday.

“It has become clear that there are a small few who refuse to comply with reasonable and legitimate public health orders”

The United Conservative government passed an order in council Wednesday that doubles fines for public health violations to $2,000.

Madu said there is also a new protocol for health officials, police and government to co-ordinate and target repeat individuals and groups that flout the law.

He said he discussed with police chiefs this week what further tools and resources they need to step up enforcement.

Premier Jason Kenney on Tuesday announced stronger measures to reverse soaring COVID-19 cases that threaten to overwhelm hospitals by month’s end and to force doctors to decide which patients get life-saving care.

Kenney’s government has been criticized for being a paper tiger on lawbreakers. In January, it allowed some restaurants to flout dine-in restrictions. GraceLife church, in Spruce Grove, Alta., west of Edmonton, was able to hold Sunday services for months that officials have said ignored rules on masks, capacity limits and physical distancing. Police physically blocked off the church just a month ago.

The enforcement issue made headlines again on this weekend when hundreds of people gathered near Bowden in central Alberta for a pre-advertised maskless “No More Lockdowns” protest rodeo.

Edmonton and Calgary have also seen maskless mass protests against health restrictions.

Action was taken Wednesday against one accused repeat offender. Alberta Health Services announced the Whistle Stop Café in Mirror, Alta., had been physically closed and access barred. The café had been flagged for repeatedly breaking COVID-19 health restrictions by staying open and serving customers.

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Kenney’s government set its enforcement policy up for failure from the get-go by stressing education first and enforcement as a last resort.

Referring to the protocol Madu outlined, Notley said: “The fact there is a protocol to tell them to talk to each other is not new. It is a policy dressed up to look like action, but it is not significant, and that’s why we’re calling on them to do more.”

She criticized the plan to target only repeat offenders: “(That) says to me their plan is to give everybody their first rodeo free, which is in effect what they did with the Bowden rodeo.

“This has to stop because that Bowden rodeo will turn out to be a super-spreader. People will get sick from that rodeo. People will get seriously ill.”

Kenney announced tighter rules Tuesday, some of which came in effect Wednesday. Outdoor gatherings, which had been limited to 10 people, are now capped at five. Worship services, which were allowed at 15 per cent capacity, have been reduced to 15 people maximum.

Retailers, which had been open at 15 per cent customer capacity, are restricted to 10 per cent.

On Friday, all kindergarten to Grade 12 students will learn from home. On Sunday, restaurants must close their patios and offer takeout service only. Personal wellness services, including hair salons and barber shops, will have to close.

Indoor social gatherings remain banned. Entertainment venues, including movie theatres and casinos, also remain closed.

As of Wednesday, Alberta had 24,156 active cases of COVID-19, with 666 people in hospital. It has experienced the highest infection rates in North America in recent weeks.

There are almost 1.7 million Albertans who have received at least one dose of vaccine. About one in three adults have had a shot.

Kenney said the vaccination rollout will be expanded drastically, with everyone in the province 12 and older to soon be eligible.

Every Albertan born in 1991 or earlier will be able to book vaccinations starting Friday. On Monday, appointments will be offered to anyone born between 2009 and 1992.

Earlier Wednesday, Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children as young as 12.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2021.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Edmonton police use DNA phenotyping to find sex assault suspect

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By Angela Amato in Edmonton

Edmonton police say they are using DNA phenotyping, for the first time in its history, in trying to solve a sexual assault.

DNA phenotyping predicts physical appearance and ancestry from unidentified DNA evidence, and police use that information to narrow suspects and generate leads in criminal investigations.

Det. Colleen Maynes says the method is a last resort after all other investigative avenues have been exhausted.

“This was a vicious assault,” said Maynes, adding she doesn’t want to see the perpetrator act again.

A woman lost consciousness after she was violently sexually assaulted by a man who followed her from a bus stop in the central Spruce Avenue neighbourhood in March of 2019.

She sustained serious injuries and was found wearing only a shirt when it was -27 C.

“This survivor deserves justice,” said Maynes.

There were no witnesses, surveillance video, public tips or DNA matches in the case.

Detectives enlisted DNA technology company Parabon NanoLabs in Virginia to help in the investigation. The lab has provided DNA phenotyping to help with other files in Saskatchewan and Ontario.

Most DNA testing in Canada goes through the RCMP’s lab. Maynes said this can take a long time, as the RCMP deals with cases across the country and doesn’t have the resources or technologies that other labs do.

“We are lacking with that technology here in Canada,” said Maynes.

Paula Armentrout with Parabon said that since 2018, its labs have helped solve 230 violent crimes in North America, although not all of them used DNA phenotyping.

DNA phenotyping is not exclusive to sexual assault cases. The analysis has also been used to find possible suspects in murder cases and to identify remains.

With a computer-generated snapshot in the Edmonton sex assault case, DNA phenotyping determined the suspect to be a Black man with dark brown to black hair and dark brown eyes who stands about five-foot-four.

Armentrout said the turnaround for this type of analysis is about 45 days after receiving a DNA sample.

Police said the suspect’s description may impact a marginalized community. After consulting with community stakeholders and considering the severity of the assault and the threat to public safety, police released the details with a computer-generated image.

Any leads generated from the image will require further investigative steps, said Maynes.

“It is by no means an immediate path to accusing a suspect,” she said. “What it does is potentially give us leads in a cold case, and we can follow up with DNA testing from there.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2022.

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Alberta

Former head of Alberta Human Rights Commission suing justice minister over dismissal

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By Bob Weber in Edmonton

The former head of the Alberta Human Rights Commission is suing the province’s justice minister for wrongful dismissal, claiming Tyler Shandro caved in to carefully orchestrated political pressure.

Collin May’s statement of claim alleges members and supporters of the Opposition New Democratic Party feared May would expose sexual harassment problems at the commission that occurred when they were in government.

“This made the plaintiff a threat, and he was subsequently targeted by political opponents weeks before he was scheduled to start his term as chief,” the document says.

New Democrat justice critic Irfan Sabir called the charges a distraction.

“Collin May published overtly racist and Islamophobic views,” he said in an email Tuesday.

“The UCP government belatedly held him accountable for that. Mr. May’s innuendo is merely an attempt to distract from his own behaviour.”

May, a Calgary lawyer, was hired as chief of the commission on May 25.

Questions about his appointment began almost immediately. Some criticized his lack of experience in human rights law and others pointed to a book review he wrote in 2009 in which he quoted statements saying Islam was a fundamentally violent religion.

That review drew concerns from the National Council of Canadian Muslims. Members of the NDP caucus also called for May’s resignation.

The statement of claim accuses NDP supporters of stockpiling May’s book review years ago, then carefully co-ordinating and managing the public outcry against him to engineer his removal.

“The NDP were clearly co-ordinated for the purpose of smearing the plaintiff’s character,” the document says.

It goes on to allege the New Democrats went after May because they were afraid he would renew sexual harassment allegations against two senior members of the commission who had been appointed by NDP leader and then-premier Rachel Notley.

“(May) learned that there was also a culture of pervasive sexual harassment within the NDP during Notley’s time as premier,” says the claim.

“Notley therefore could not afford to have the public learn that … her own appointees had also allowed for a culture of pervasive sexual harassment and bullying.”

The document says Shandro neither defended May nor emphasized that the commission is an arm’s length agency, which he has no direct control over. In fact, it alleges senior officials in Shandro’s office were so insistent on getting May to apologize for statements he says he didn’t make that May had to block their numbers on his cellphone.

As well, the lawsuit alleges May was forbidden from meeting with Muslim organizations by Muhammad Yaseen, Alberta’s associate minister of immigration and multiculturalism. It says May was told to wait to await ministerial direction, which never came.

“Minister Shandro’s office was heavily involved in facilitating the smear campaign against Collin May,” said May’s lawyer Kathryn Marshall in an interview.

The situation got so bad that May received threatening phone calls at his home. May’s law firm removed his phone number from its website and for four days in July, the lawsuit says, May and his partner were afraid to leave their Calgary home.

“The (commission) and the defendant did nothing to support (May) during this difficult time,” the lawsuit says.

It says that on Sept. 15, May got a letter telling him his job was over on a “without cause” basis.

A spokesman for Shandro declined to comment, saying the matter is before the courts.

Marshall said May had signed a five-year contract on the same basis as any other civil servant and was not given the basic rights he was due under Canadian law.

“It’s not about deflecting criticism or playing political games,” she said. “This is about getting my clients’ rights enforced.

“(The government) fired him and are now falsely alleging he resigned.”

The lawsuit seeks to recover the money May would have earned over the five-year term as well as damages to his reputation — about $2.1 million.

The allegations in the statement of claim have not been tested in court.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2022.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

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