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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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    Soldiers deploying to flood-prone areas as water levels rise in New Brunswick

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  • FREDERICTON — About 120 Canadian soldiers will soon be deployed in western New Brunswick to help residents threatened by rising floodwaters.

    The soldiers from Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in southern New Brunswick have been tasked with helping fill sandbags and assisting with evacuating homes, if necessary.

    Lt.-Col. Sean French, commander of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, says the soldiers are also prepared to conduct “wellness checks” in various communities, using heavy vehicles that can move through deep water.

    Water levels in the Saint John River Basin are expected to rise significantly over the next few days, reaching or passing flood stage in several areas.

    With heavy rain expected to continue through the day, particularly in northern New Brunswick, residents of 15 communities have been warned to remain on high alert.

    Greg MacCallum, director of New Brunswick’s Emergency Measures Organization, says the rising waters are sure to lead to road closures in several areas, particularly in the Fredericton area and communities farther south.

     

    The Canadian Press



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    Rain, wind equals no 4-20 blow out for Parliament Hill, but West Coast shines

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  • OTTAWA — It was a blow out, man, the kind that’s a total drag.

    Protesters dotted one half of Parliament Hill’s front lawn on a blustery, rainy Saturday at the climax the first 4-20 “Weed Day” demonstration since Canada legalized recreational marijuana.

    The turnout disappointed organizers who expected thousands more, but a festive atmosphere prevailed as the Peace Tower clock struck 4:20 p.m., sparking simultaneous smart phone photography and the lighting of joints, bongs and pipes.

    “The weather didn’t co-operate. It kind of shut us down,” Shawn Mac, a program director for 4-20 Ottawa, said moments earlier. “Coming and going, we’ve probably seen about 3,000, but right now, probably about a thousand.”

    A bout of blowing rain earlier in the afternoon meant the shutdown of a public address system, and a made for a sparse gathering of perhaps several dozen people, most huddled under plastic ponchos or tarps.

    Sara Bakir, 29, of Ottawa was one of early arrivals, dressed in a dark hoodie under a black umbrella.

    “It’s still nice to be out with a few like-minded people,” she said laughing, and casting her eyes at the empty and soaked brownish yellow lawn. 

    Organizers learned a tough lesson even before the rain started falling — new freedoms bring great bureaucracy.

    Mac said his group is encountering more red tape Saturday than on past April 20 protests.

    Organizers can’t use the steps to the now-closed Centre Block, which means spectators will need a front row position on the lawn to see or hear — something Mac calls a “huge letdown.” 

    “Hearing is already a problem so not being able to see is a crushing blow,” he said.

    Organizers have also been told to limit musical performers to just two, Mac said, adding that isn’t in the rules of how to hold a public event on the Hill. 

    New limits on auto access also meant organizers had to haul equipment and material by hand up to the lawn from Wellington Street, he added.

    “It’s frustrating because legalization was supposed to … make things easier and not more complicated,” he said.

    Lingering post-legalization concerns are sustaining a sense of protest among 4-20 event organizers across the country.

    They include concerns over the government’s decision to tax medicinal marijuana, slow progress on legislation to expedite pardons for people previously convicted of simple pot possession, and the fact that provincial and municipal governments are grappling with retail sales and land-use laws for growing pot.

    The federal government also has yet to legalize edible marijuana products and has six more months to set rules to do so. 

    “Everything about legalization has made things harder, which is the opposite of what is was supposed to be,” said Mac.

    Others were more upbeat and saw Saturday’s event as an inspiration to the world.

    “Again, the world is watching, and I’m very proud of Canada today and Canadians,” said Kelly Coulter, a cannabis policy adviser based in British Columbia.

    She said Canada is helping change global attitudes and policies as the first G7 nation to legalize pot, and she expected people from Germany and Britain to take part in Saturday’s festivities on the Hill.

    It was a far cry from Ottawa’s subdued festivities on the West Coast, as hoards of people crowded Vancouver’s Sunset Beach to mark the city’s 25th annual 4-20 event warmed by rays of glorious spring sunshine amid a low lying marijuana haze.

    A much smaller crowd gathered at the front lawn of British Columbia’s legislature in Victoria, but the mood was equally celebratory and defiant.

    “Today, in many ways, is bittersweet for us,” said long-time marijuana activist Ted Smith, who led the countdown chant to 4:20 p.m. in Victoria. “We’re happy it’s legalized, sure, but there’s a lot of things to protest.”

    Smith, in between puffs from a large joint, said the current marijuana rules are biased against entrepreneurs who want to sell their products in much the same way as craft brewers and winemakers.

    And a downpour didn’t dampen the festivities at Woodbine Park in Toronto’s east end, where revellers trampled through the muddy grass to the steady thrum of house music.

    Cannabis artisans sold their wares at tarp-covered stands, many expressing hope that they could one day emerge from the “grey market” to set up shop at brick-and-mortar storefronts.

    Justin Loizos, owner of the Just Compassion marijuana dispensary in Toronto, said the mood Saturday was more celebratory than in past 4-20 gatherings, which felt more like protests.

    The current regime may not be the “legalization people asked for,” Loizos said, but the cannabis community should take heart in just how far Canada has come.

    “I see a lot of people complaining, whatever — don’t,” he said. “We’re just going to celebrate here and enjoy the day.”

    — with files from Adina Bresge and Dirk Meissner.

    Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press




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