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Canada to keep paying for F-35 development as fighter-jet competition ramps up

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OTTAWA — Canada is poised to contribute tens of millions of dollars toward further development of the F-35 stealth fighter even as the federal government wrestles with whether to buy the plane or not.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, the Department of National Defence’s head of military procurement says there are no plans for Canada to quit as one of nine partner countries in the F-35 stealth fighter program until after the Trudeau government completes the competition to determine which fighter jet will replace Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18s.

“We’re committed to staying there (in the program) until we understand where the competition will bring us,” said Patrick Finn, assistant deputy minister of material at National Defence.

The competition is expected to be launched this spring.

The F-35 is one of four planes currently slated to participate in the $19-billion competition, which will result in the purchase of 88 new fighter aircraft to serve as the air force’s backbone for the coming decades.

The Trudeau Liberals campaigned on a promise not to buy the F-35s in 2015, but have since backed away from that pledge. The Harper Conservatives first announced plans to buy 65 F-35s in 2010, but ran into controversy over cost.

Staying on as a partner in the F-35 program comes with advantages, Finn says, including the ability for Canadian companies to compete for billions of dollars in contracts associated with building and maintaining the stealth fighter.

Partners are also allowed to buy the F-35 at a lower price than non-partners, who must pay a variety of fees and other costs to purchase the plane.

“We want to keep the F-35 as an option, as a contender in the competition,” Finn said.

“We want to also make sure that while that’s unfolding, that Canadian industry that have competitively won contracts get to continue to do that.”

The Defence Department says Canadian companies have won more than $1.25 billion in F-35-related contracts over the years.

Yet there are also costs to being a partner; Canada has so far invested more than $500 million into the program over the past 20 years, including $54 million last year.

Its next annual payment is due this spring and there will likely be more as the competition isn’t scheduled to select a winner until 2021 or 2022. The first new aircraft is expected in 2025 and the last in 2031.

There are some technical issues that government officials are working through that could impact how it runs the competition to replace the CF-18s.

One of those is how to ensure the various bids are all measured equally. In addition to Lockheed Martin’s F-35, bids are expected from Boeing’s Super Hornet, Eurofighter’s Typhoon and Saab’s Gripen.

All four companies recently provided feedback on a draft process that the government has drawn up to run the competition, and another round of consultations is scheduled for mid-February.

A big question facing Lockheed is how it can meet Ottawa’s usual requirement that companies who are awarded large military contracts invest back into Canada on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

The F-35 partnership agreement that Canada signed with the other countries bars such promised investments and instead stipulates that companies must compete for the work.

Finn said all four jet companies have unique challenges and circumstances, and that officials in charge of the competition could inject some flexibility into how the requirement is handled.

“There is absolutely flexibility and I would say my colleagues in (the federal industry department) demonstrate that on a weekly, monthly basis,” he said.

“They would be the first to say, and they’re very good at saying, is: ‘Well listen, the first intent is to get the right military capability. We want to have the offsets as well, and with a given market segment, what it is that we do and how do we do it.'”

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Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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COVID-19

HIV spike among B.C. drug users associated with COVID-19 lockdown, research says

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By Brieanna Charlebois in Vancouver

A new study says reduced access to HIV services during early COVID-19 lockdowns in British Columbia was associated with a “sharp increase” in HIV transmission among some drug users.

The study by University of British Columbia researchers says that while reduced social interaction during the March-May 2020 lockdown worked to reduce HIV transmission, that may not have “outweighed” the increase caused by reduced access to services.

The study, published in Lancet Regional Health, found that fewer people started HIV antiretroviral therapy or undertook viral load testing under lockdown, while visits to overdose prevention services and safe consumption sites also decreased.

The overall number of new HIV diagnoses in B.C. continues a decades-long decline.

But Dr. Jeffrey Joy, lead author of the report published on Friday, said he found a “surprising” spike in transmission among some drug users during lockdown.

Joy said transmission rates for such people had previously been fairly stable for about a decade.

“That’s because there’s been really good penetration of treatment and prevention services into those populations,” he said in an interview.

B.C. was a global leader in epidemic monitoring, which means the results are likely applicable elsewhere, Joy said.

“We are uniquely positioned to find these things,” he said. “The reason that I thought it was important to do this study and get it out there is (because) it’s probably happening everywhere, but other places don’t monitor their HIV epidemic in the same way that we do.”

Rachel Miller, a co-author of the report, said health authorities need to consider innovative solutions so the measures “put in place to address one health crisis don’t inadvertently exacerbate another.”

“These services are the front-line defence in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Many of them faced disruptions, closures, capacity limits and other challenges,” Miller said in a news release.

“Maintaining access and engagement with HIV services is absolutely essential to preventing regression in epidemic control and unnecessary harm.”

The Health Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Researchers said the spike among “select groups” could be attributed to a combination of factors, including housing instability and diminished trust, increasing barriers for many people who normally receive HIV services.

British Columbia is set to become the first province in Canada to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs in January, after receiving a temporary federal exemption in May.

Joy said this decision, alongside measures like safe supply and safe needle exchanges, will make a difference preventing similar issues in the future.

“The take-home message here is, in times of crisis and public health emergency or other crises, we need to support those really vulnerable populations more, not less,” he said.

“Minimally, we need to give them continuity and the access to their services that they depend on. Otherwise, it just leads to problems that can have long, long-term consequences.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2022.

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Tragedies unite Humboldt Broncos mom and James Smith Cree Nation artist

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By Mickey Djuric in Regina

Celeste Leray-Leicht received many condolence gifts after the Humboldt Broncos bus crash that claimed the life of her son, but it was a beaded green and yellow ribbon with a white heart that stood out.

Leray-Leicht wore it for years after her son Jacob Leicht died. It now lives on her vehicle’s visor, next to a photo of her children when they were little, alongside a poppy.

She always felt a connection to the beaded ribbon because of the heart.

“My son Jacob, he was a Valentine baby, so I’m drawn to hearts,” Leray-Leicht said from her home in Humboldt, Sask., east of Saskatoon.

On April 6, 2018, near Tisdale, Sask., 16 people were killed and 13 were injured when an inexperienced truck driver ran a stop sign, crashing into a bus that was taking the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team to a playoff game.

Leray-Leicht’s son played with the Broncos and was 19 when he died in the crash.

She never knew who gifted her the beaded pin, but she found out when she headed out to James Smith Cree Nation, northeast of Saskatoon, to drop off food and other donations earlier this month.

Bernard Constant Community School on the reserve has become a gathering hub after a stabbing rampage on Sept. 4 that killed 10 people, nine of whom were James Smith Cree Nation members. Eighteen others were injured. Both suspects have died.

The school is where funerals and wakes were held, where volunteers continue to cook throughout the day to keep members fed as they recover. It’s also where people come to pray.

On Sept. 11, it became the place where two women, dealing with devastating loss, came face to face for the first time.

While in the school’s gym, Leray-Leicht met Lissa Bear, who is a member of James Smith Cree Nation, and has been grieving alongside her community.

She’s also the Indigenous artist who anonymously gifted her the beaded ribbon that had always reminded Leray-Leicht of Jacob.

To Leray-Leicht’s surprise, Bear had approached her saying she had sent her the pin years ago.

“And I said ‘I just looked at that pin half an hour ago,” Leray-Leicht said. “We were kindred spirits. We instantly hit it off.”

Leray-Leicht said it was remarkable to meet Bear, despite the tragedies that unite them.

“I think God is in the details and I don’t really believe in coincidences too much. I think we’ll become good friends,” said Leray-Leicht. “It was just so special to me.”

Bear declined to comment, but gave consent to Leray-Leicht to share the story.

Humboldt and James Smith Cree Nation are 125 kilometres apart, but are connected through their grief.

Since the mass stabbing, families from Humboldt have silently attended funerals, donated food and offered support to people in the Indigenous community.

“As adults and leaders in the community, it’s our responsibility to try and find as many supports as we can for our youth and for our adults without reliving the trauma over and over again,” Leray-Leicht said.

Students in Humboldt wrote messages of hope on hearts for James Smith Cree Nation, something a nearby community did for them in 2018 after the bus crash.

At a vigil in Humboldt on Sept. 14, the hearts were placed in baskets alongside chocolate Hershey hugs, and were given to James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns. They asked him to pass them along to the youth of his community.

“When asked ‘what do you need?’ and they say prayers, I can relate,” said Leray-Leicht, who helped plan the vigil. “That’s all I remember thinking — ‘That’s what we needed, too.’ Prayers to lift us up to survive this devastating loss.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2022.

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