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National

As women celebrate historic Congress, consensus is the hardest roads lie ahead

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  • WASHINGTON — Just up Pennsylvania Avenue from Capitol Hill, where a roof-raising posse of congresswomen wearing white upstaged Donald Trump during last week’s state of the union, a drizzle-soaked lineup Tuesday outside the Canadian embassy offered still more proof that women in Washington are having a moment.

    Embassy staffers handed out orange umbrellas to queued-up latecomers outside while guests jammed into a standing-room-only auditorium to celebrate members of Congress — present and future — as the vanguard of a female-driven paradigm shift in American politics.

    “We are really in this profound and historic moment — 100 years after women got the right to vote, now you have the largest number of women ever serving in the body,” said newly elected Rep. Haley Stevens, a Democrat from Michigan who helped oversee Barack Obama’s auto-industry bailout efforts in 2009.

    “While nobody asked me to run for Congress, I put up my hand to go do that because I felt something in the air and I felt the charge of the time.”

    In November, that charge became a thunderbolt.

    Americans elected 36 new female faces in last year’s midterm elections — most of them Democrats in the House of Representatives — in what proved to be the most ethnically diverse and women-centric freshman class in the history of Congress, which now boasts the most women members in its history, including the first Muslim and Indigenous women ever elected to sit in the chamber.

    They have made their presence felt ever since, no more so than during the state of the union speech. More than half the new jobs created last year were filled by women, Trump said, prompting a raucous that’s-us outburst of high-fives and raise-the-roof gestures from the women in the Democratic caucus, all of them dressed in white in tribute to the suffrage movement.

    Prior to Tuesday night’s panel — organized by Running Start, an advocacy group that helps young women who aspire to elected office — a group of young finalists hoping to be named the group’s ambassador took to the stage to show off their skills.

    “Even a few months ago, Congress didn’t look like this,” gushed Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah, a Running Start alum and former intern for Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who’s now contesting the Democratic nomination to run for U.S. president.  

    “There were times during my internship when I questioned whether I belonged on Capitol Hill.”

    It doesn’t take an ambitious, type-A ‘alpha’ woman to mount a successful election bid, said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat who now represents Pennsylvania’s 6th District.

    “I would so much rather be in my pyjamas right now,” Houlahan, a self-professed introvert, admitted to gales of laughter.

    “This is a hard experience, and I think that makes it better. I really, genuinely have to do this — it’s a calling, this is a call to serve, and I think people should answer their call, whatever it is. If it makes you uncomfortable, that’s even better, because we all are here to serve a purpose and to challenge ourselves.”

    Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould was on hand for the event, as was Maryam Monsef, the federal minister for women and gender equality, both of whom spent the last two days taking part in meetings on Capitol Hill.

    Winning an election, said Monsef, is the easy part.

    “Celebrating this important milestone, all of us are also mindful of the fact that this progress is not carved in stone, that we still have a long way to go,” she said in an interview.

    “No one comes into these roles expecting them to be easy. If they were easy, we already would have achieved the progress that we’re still working on, you know, 100 years ago, when women first began to get the right to vote. Expecting that it’s going to be difficult is something that we all have in common coming into this.”

    That’s something to which Jody Wilson-Raybould, Monsef’s now-former cabinet colleague and long seen as one of the Liberal government’s strongest female stars, can no doubt attest.

    Wilson-Raybould, who was shuffled out of the justice portfolio last month and placed in Veterans Affairs, quit cabinet in an apparent show of defiance Tuesday as controversy mounted over allegations Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office improperly tried to pressure her to help Montreal-based construction giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.  

    Trudeau, of course, famously came into office in 2015 touting his feminist bona fides and promising to champion issues of gender equality, including around his own cabinet table. But the treatment of the famously strong-willed Wilson-Raybould has Liberal critics — and even allies — raising the spectre of sexism.

    “I can tell you she is fierce, smart and unapologetic,” Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes tweeted on the weekend. “When women speak up and out, they are always going to be labelled. Go ahead. Label away. We are not going anywhere.”

    The Wilson-Raybould controversy will “absolutely not” derail the Liberal government’s gender equality agenda, Monsef insisted Wednesday.

    “This work is going to continue and we’re going to stay focused on it,” she said, citing pay equity legislation, the decision to turn the Status of Women agency into a full-blown government department and the advancement of gender issues through last year’s G7 meetings as key victories.

    “The results speak for themselves, and we’re going to remain focused relentlessly on advancing women and gender equality because it’s the right thing to do and it grows the economy.”

    James McCarten, The Canadian Press


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    Construction

    Three instances when SNC-case was discussed with Wilson-Raybould, clerk says

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  • OTTAWA — Michael Wernick, clerk of the Privy Council, appeared at the House of Commons justice committee Thursday, to answer questions about his knowledge on the SNC-Lavalin affair and whether former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould was pressured not to prosecute the company.

    Wernick predicted Wilson-Raybould will express concerns about three meetings when she appears at the committee next week, two of which he attended and all of which he maintained did not cross the line into improper pressure on Wilson-Raybould.

    Here is Wernick’s version of those events:

    Sept. 17, 2018

    A meeting involving Wilson-Raybould, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Wernick, two weeks after the director of public prosecutions decided not to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin. 

    Wernick said Trudeau called the meeting to discuss the Indigenous rights recognition framework which had bogged down due to “a very serious policy difference” between Wilson-Raybould and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, and other colleagues, about how to proceed on the framework.

    Almost the entire meeting was devoted to that subject, he said, but Trudeau did also reassure Wilson-Raybould that any decision on whether to instruct the public prosecutor to drop the SNC-Lavalin prosecution was hers alone.

    Dec. 18, 2018

    A meeting between the prime minister’s staff and Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff. Wernick, who wasn’t involved, did not provide any details.

    Dec. 19, 2018

    A conversation between Wilson-Raybould and Wernick.

    Wernick said he was trying to get a handle on the issues that might confront the government when Parliament resumed sitting in January. He wanted to know, among other things, whether a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin was still an option and said he “conveyed to her that a lot of her colleagues and the prime minister were quite anxious about what they were hearing and reading in the business press … about the company moving or closing” if the prosecution continued. There were fears it would have consequences for innocent employees, shareholders, pensioners, third-party suppliers and affected communities.

    Wernick said he’s confident the conversation was “within the boundaries of what’s lawful and appropriate. I was informing the minister of context. She may have another view of the conversation but that’s something that the ethics commissioner could sort out.”

    The Canadian Press


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    Canadian shares story of abuse with church officials ahead of Vatican summit

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  • One by one, a dozen survivors shared their shattering tales of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy with high-ranking church officials gathered to listen to the stories they’d declined to hear for years.

    Leona Huggins, the only Canadian in the gathering that took place ahead of a historic summit at the Vatican this week, said the energy built “like a tsunami” as victims hailing from Spain to Jamaica urged clergy to take concrete action to begin a new chapter for the church.

    But she said the tide ebbed quickly as soon as the harrowing accounts were presented.

    Huggins said one archbishop reacted by saying “I guess we’ll have to get to work,” prompting her to ask why such work had not already begun. That question was answered with a demand to be respectful, she said, eroding hope that this week’s summit meant to tackle sexual abuse in clerical ranks would result in true change.

    “We were truth-tellers in that room,” the Vancouver-based school teacher said in a telephone interview from Rome. “It’s really hard for me to think how anyone could hear those stories and not take courageous action.”

    Huggins, 56, had limited hopes for the international meeting, called by Pope Francis in a bid to quell a scandal that has dogged his tenure as head of the Catholic Church.

    The pontiff himself was not at the gathering of survivors held a day before the official summit got underway Thursday, a point that did not sit well with those who shared their stories.

    Huggins, who has gone public with her story of abuse, said her experience played out like so many others. She said she was groomed and ultimately abused by a Catholic priest who worked in her British Columbia parish in the early 1970s.

    He was ultimately convicted in 1991 of sexual offences against two women, including Huggins, but continued working as a priest in communities ranging from Lethbridge, Alta., to Ottawa until his death in 2018.

    Huggins, who used some of her time at the closed-door gathering to call for recognition of Canadian Indigenous victims of abuse, said the Pope’s presence would have been an important sign that the church was serious about addressing past wrongs and preventing new ones from unfolding.

    Pope Francis expressed many high-minded intentions at the summit’s official opening on Thursday, acknowledging the need for concrete action and significant, internal change.

    “Listen to the cry of the young, who want justice,” he told the gathering. “The holy people of God are watching and expect not just simple and obvious condemnations, but efficient and concrete measures to be established.”

    People from five continents shared their stories of abuse, including an unnamed woman from Africa who told the gathering of the three abortions her former priest forced her to have during the decades in which he raped her.

    The Pope, for his part, handed out a list of 21 proposals for the church to consider, including specific protocols to handle accusations against bishops.

    One idea called for raising the minimum age for marriage to 16 while another suggested a basic handbook showing bishops how to investigate cases.

    But for Huggins, the specifics of the 21 points did even more than Wednesday’s gathering to chip away at what little optimism remains, lamenting the newly raised minimum age is still wildly out of step with societal norms and criticizing the church for not having a handbook in circulation long ago.

    Huggins said she feels she still has to “hold out hope” that leaders will make good on their promises of reform. If they don’t, she said, she fears an entirely new generation would be at risk.

    “I don’t see how anyone can continue to bring their child to a church that will not promise their child’s safety,” she said.

    — with Files from the Associated Press.

    Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press


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