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Amid backlash, Nova Scotia tells schools athletics authority to reinstate rugby

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HALIFAX — The Nova Scotia government has told the province’s schools athletics authority to reinstate high school rugby, after it was abruptly cancelled across the province without warning over safety and liability concerns. 

Amid a backlash from players, politicians and Rugby Canada, Education Minister Zach Churchill said in a statement late Friday that the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation had contravened a governing agreement with the province.

He said its decision came without appropriate consultation, and noted that respected physicians including the provincial medical officer of health have expressed concerns about it.

The athletic federation had said Thursday its board of governors made the decision for safety reasons after reviewing incident report data from the province’s School Insurance Program.

Stephen MacNeil, chairman of the federation’s board of governors, said Friday the data indicates that over a five-year period, there were three times as many insurance claims from rugby players when compared with those playing soccer, football and hockey.

He said those figures indicated that rugby players were also five times as likely to suffer head injuries or possible concussions.

“Everyone in the meeting was unanimous in their opinion that this is not a safe sporting environment for our students,” he said.

But Churchill said the federation had neglected to inform the Education Department of its intent, which contravenes its memorandum of agreement with the department.

“Furthermore, (it) made the decision without appropriate consultation with school communities,” he said in a statement.

“Given the perspective offered by the province’s medical officer of health, I have called on NSSAF to reinstate rugby for all high schools immediately for the duration of the season.”

He said he has asked the federation to assemble a panel of experts “to thoroughly review and assess available research on safety in sports for school sports across Nova Scotia.”

Dozens of athletes had converged Friday on a Halifax luncheon celebrating high school sport in the province, chanting “Let us play” and “We want rugby back.”

“It’s due to our safety, but we all go into playing rugby knowing the risks of it,” said Kelly Baillie, a Grade 10 student who plays for the girls team at J.L. Ilsley High School in Halifax.

“I don’t think it’s a good decision at all.”

MacNeil confirmed that an international student attending the Sydney Academy sustained a head injury during a Nova Scotia rugby match on Wednesday and had to be airlifted to a Halifax hospital. He said the boy’s mother and sister had flown to Halifax to be by his side.

He said Nova Scotia officials were also cognizant of the death last May of P.E.I. rugby player Brodie McCarthy. The 18-year-old sustained a fatal brain injury during a routine play which resulted in bleeding from two different parts of his brain.

However, MacNeil said concerns about rugby had been discussed at the board level for two years and he was adamant that the decision wasn’t a “knee-jerk one.”

“Despite our attempts to educate coaches and make sure certain levels of certification are gained the injuries are still coming and we don’t have to look any further than the last year for two very significant ones,” he said. “We’re not against rugby, but initiating a student’s exposure to rugby at the high school level is too dangerous an environment right now.”

Tim Powers, chairman of Rugby Canada, agreed safety should be a concern, but he wondered about the level of consultation and the data used to arrive at the Nova Scotia ban.

Powers said the level of injury reporting in rugby is high because it has been prioritized through his organization’s Play Smart program.

He said there’s also plenty of global data to show that rugby ranks behind soccer, football and equestrian sports in terms of catastrophic injuries, adding that it also suggests the risk for pre-teens is not unacceptably high when compared to other sports.

“We arguably are a safer sport than other contact sports,” said Powers, who added the decision could eventually have ramifications beyond Nova Scotia.

“I think the intent was right here, but I think the decision is ill-informed and ill-informed decisions like this, yes sometimes can spread like wildfire.”

The ban also drew political fire from Nova Scotia’s opposition parties on Friday. 

In a statement, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston noted the decision had resulted in “widespread shock and anger from the public.” The New Democrats also issued a statement of support from MLA Susan Leblanc, a former student rugby player.

Meanwhile, Baillie said her team has received support from many football players at her school.

“They know they are a full contact sport as well and they could very well be next,” she said.

Ben Lohr, a Grade 12 student who captains the boys team at King’s-Edgehill School in Windsor, N.S., questioned the decision to end rugby for safety reasons.

“Look at the rest of the world,” he said. “When you have people who actually understand the sport and know how to play it properly and tackle properly it’s a safe sport.”

According to Statistics Canada, rugby was the third most common sport in which 15- to 19-year-old males sustained concussions and other brain injuries between 2012 and 2014, behind ice hockey and football.

In 2013, Rowan Stringer, a 17-year-old high school rugby player from Ottawa, suffered two concussions in one week before sustaining a third during a rugby game that led to her death two days later. Ontario later passed Rowan’s Law, concussion safety legislation designed to protect amateur athletes and educate coaches about the dangers of head injuries.

A study conducted by the medical director of Trauma Nova Scotia, Dr. Robert Green, shows youth sport-related deaths, especially rugby-related deaths, are rare.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

National

Ethnic media aim to help maintain boost in voting by new Canadians

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OTTAWA — Zuhair Alshaer spends most of his day editing articles and organizing interviews with politicians for his Ottawa-based Arab Canada newspaper, to introduce Arabic-speaking new Canadians to federal politics.

The community Alshaer’s paper serves is growing — more immigrants are arriving in Canada from Africa, Asia and the Middle East than ever before, surpassing Europe that was once the dominant source.

And it is also becoming more politically engaged: The voting rate of immigrant from West Central Asia and the Middle East increased to 73 per cent in the 2015 election from the 57 per cent recorded four years earlier, the largest increase among the 10 immigrant regions studied by Statistics Canada.

For Alshaer, and other ethnic media outlets, all his efforts are aimed at helping Arabic-speaking new Canadians kick isolation and get involved in politics.

“We’re trying to encourage our audience to integrate,” he said. “We show them how important is to participate in politics.”

Research published by Statistics Canada in 2016 highlighted that new Canadians made up about one-fifth of the voting population. Their numbers are likely to increase in the coming years: Statistics Canada projects the proportion of foreign-born individuals who immigrated to Canada could reach between 25 per cent and 30 per cent by 2036.

Alshaer, a Palestinian immigrant who came to Canada 20 years ago, is hoping that his monthly newspaper, launched three years ago, will connect his community with federal politics, so more people cast a ballot on Oct. 21.

“We should believe that Canada is our country and behave accordingly,” he said.

The most recent issue of his newspaper, published earlier this month, included an op-ed signed by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, and an extended interview with Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre, who are seeking re-election in their respective Ottawa-area seats.

“We worked on building trust between our audience and the politicians and candidates,” said Alshaer, the paper’s editor-in-chief. “We don’t have any affiliation with any candidate or political party.”

But newcomers from countries with no established democratic traditions is an obstacle that makes participating in Canadian politics more challenging. Research has also shown that lower-income individuals — a group that includes newcomers — may not see voting as a priority for because they are more focused on more immediate concerns, adding another obstacle.

“A lot of newcomers, in the first few years, are facing tremendous anxiety and challenges when it comes to economic and social integration,” said Liberal MP Omar Alghabra, who was born in Saudi Arabia to a Syrian family and immigrated to Canada about 30 years ago.

Statistics Canada data show that turnout rates for established immigrants, defined as those who lived in the country for at least 10 years, was a few points higher in 2015 than recent immigrants.

Overall, turnout rates were up by 14.4 percentage points in 2015 compared to the 2011 election, Statistics Canada said, with above-average increases recorded for newcomers from West Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Getting used to the idea of voting “takes a few years for newcomers to wrap their heads around it,” Algabra said. He added it was important to explain to new Canadians that the outcomes of the election “will have an immediate impact on their lives” and each outcome could mean different things to different people.

A few of the volunteers with Algabra’s re-election campaign are newcomers. Some don’t even have their permanent residency or citizenship, but are “excited about living in a country with a society that encourages participation and democratic practices,” Algabra said.

“I’ve also seen a group of newcomers who are extremely excited about earning their Canadian citizenship,” Alghabra said. “They are really keen on not only voting, but also participating in democratic process.”

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press

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Saskatchewan abandons commitment to improve northern airport after crash: chief

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Louie Mercredi of the Fond du Lac Denesuline First Nation

REGINA — A chief of a remote Saskatchewan First Nation says the province’s decision not to help improve an airport runway in his community while doing so in a city outside Regina shows racism.

Louie Mercredi of the Fond du Lac Denesuline First Nation says the province is abandoning its commitment to develop the runway near his isolated northern reserve.

He says the airport is in poor condition and the runway needs to be expanded. He’s been pushing for changes since one person died and nine were seriously injured following a plane crash there in December 2017.

Lori Carr, minister of government relations, says the province didn’t receive a completed application for the project.

She says officials requested in June that the First Nation hand in a full application, but it was not done.

“It should not come down to an application,” Mercredi told a news conference in Regina on Thursday.

“I have told my people that we are getting a runway upgraded so the province (has) created a liar. I’ve lied to my people.”

Mercredi said the province was almost done with the design of the project. He says the First Nation submitted an application in March, but it was incomplete because staff lacked technical expertise.

He wants the province to help finish the application and fund the project, since the government committed to doing so.

“Now that I’ve found out a Moose Jaw airport application was also late and that was accepted by the province, what is going on here?” he said.

“Are they just supporting their ridings? What I’m seeing is racism here.”

“This airport is the only access point for many northern communities and the fact that needed improvements still haven’t been made is ridiculous,” said Opposition infrastructure critic Buckley Belanger.

A runway expansion for Moose Jaw was one of nearly 30 projects the province brought to the federal government in a request for infrastructure funding, which has been the subject of an ongoing dispute between Saskatchewan and Ottawa.

The Saskatchewan NDP said the government has been engaged in “partisan finger-pointing” over infrastructure funding.

Mercredi said he has sent about a dozen letters to the provincial government seeking updates to his proposal and was under the impression the province was still committed to paying for runway improvements.

“Still ’til today no response.”

He said he learned through a news report that the runway wasn’t a priority for the province.

Deputy premier Gord Wyant has said the upgrades are not a priority for the government this budget year.

“What is more important than human lives?” Mercredi asked.

“What kind of government is this when they prioritize landfills before human lives?”

Bobby Cameron, chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said applications shouldn’t be the issue and the province should focus on safety.

Mercredi said the Fond du Lac runway isn’t safe for larger aircraft, so people are transported on smaller planes and their flights are consistently delayed.

As well, he said, most of their food is flown in and that’s fallen behind due to having to downsize the planes being used.

Carr said Fond du Lac’s existing runway is safe and the Transportation Safety Board didn’t find the airstrip contributed to the 2017 crash.

The safety board said in a report in December that the pilot of the plane took off despite noticing ice on the aircraft during a pre-flight inspection.

The board said people using remote, northern airports are at substantial risk because of a lack of proper equipment for de-icing planes.

The federal government announced in February that it was spending $12 million for safety upgrades at the airport.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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