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Canadian nominees dominate Oscars animated short film category


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TORONTO — Canadians dominated the best animated short category during Tuesday’s Oscar nominations, with three of the five films done by homegrown talent, who all know of each other and joke that they’ll venture to the Los Angeles celebrations in Canuck attire.

“Two of them are from Toronto originally, as I am, so we can all go down wearing our Toronto Maple Leafs jerseys,” said Vancouver-based David Fine, who is nominated in the category along with Alison Snowden for “Animal Behaviour.”

“Or Toronto Raptors jerseys — I’m more of a basketball fan,” added director Trevor Jimenez, who got a nomination in the category for “Weekends” — on the same day he and his wife were celebrating their wedding anniversary.

Domee Shi is also nominated for best animated short, along with Becky Neiman-Cobb, for the Pixar production “Bao.” Shi is the first female director to helm a Pixar short film. The eight-minute “Bao” is the sweet story of an older Chinese woman in Toronto who gets another chance at motherhood when one of her steamed dumplings comes to life.

The category is rounded out by the Irish title “Late Afternoon” by Louise Bagnall and Nuria Gonzalez Blanco, and the Chinese/American production “One Small Step” by Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas.

Shi, who lives in California, said she woke up after the Oscar nominations because she’s “paranoid about this type of stuff” and was pleasantly surprised to see more than 20 text messages congratulating her.

Both she and Jimenez studied animation at Ontario’s Sheridan College and now work at the Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. 

“We’re always really supportive of each other, because both of us are from Toronto,” said Shi, who was born in Chongqing, China and moved to Toronto when she was two.

“I always looked up to him, because he was four years ahead of me and his student film ‘Key Lime Pie’ was so impressive.

“I remember being a starry-eyed first year like, ‘Oh my gosh, Trevor’s film is so awesome. What if I get to work with him one day?’ So it’s really cool that we’re both nominated today for the same category.”

Jimenez watched the nominations on a live stream in Berkeley, Calif., sitting beside his wife while Skyping his mother.

“I was speechless after,” he said. “I just looked at my mom on Skype who was crying and then looked at my wife. Just a lot of love. One of the most incredible feelings I’ve had.”

“Weekends” is a touching, hand-drawn look at a young boy shuffling between the homes of his recently divorced parents in the 1980s. Like “Bao,” it features many Toronto landmarks, including the CN Tower.

Jimenez, who wrote and directed the 15-minute film, said the story is inspired by his own experiences with his parents’ split — spending weekdays with his mom in Hamilton and weekends with his dad in Toronto.

He devoted more than 10 years to the 2-D project, working with production designer Chris Sasaki, and shared every version with his mother to make sure she was comfortable with it.

“There’s a lot of emotional truth in there and I think that’s why it’s also emotional for me, that my mom was there watching the announcement with me,” said Jimenez, who has been a story artist for over a decade and has also worked at Disney Feature Animation.

“We’ve just been through a lot together … us being around each other all the time and the ups and downs, just her raising me. I was the only kid, so it was just us.”

Jimenez said he’s had email correspondence with Fine and Snowden, a husband-and-wife filmmaking team who won an Oscar in 1994 for best animated short for “Bob’s Birthday.”

“I actually emailed David and told him I that watched ‘Bob’s Birthday’ — I rented it from the library when I was, like, nine,” Jimenez said.

“It was the first time I saw animated nudity. I love that short. I love ‘Animal Behaviour,’ too.”

“Animal Behaviour” was produced at the National Film Board of Canada and gives a comedic look at a group therapy session that includes a leech with separation anxiety and a pig with an eating disorder.

The 14-minute film was made with digital, hand-drawn 2-D animation and was inspired by the idea that “animals have similar issues to people but they don’t get judged by it,” said Snowden.

It’s the fourth animated-short Oscar nomination for Fine and Snowden, who both write, direct and animate. Their first nomination was in 1986 for “Second Class Mail” and their second was in ’88 for “George and Rosemary.”

“Going to the event is incredible,” said Fine. “I remember the first time I was in the washroom at the urinal beside Bob Hope and that was pretty thrilling. I said, ‘Hi, Bob,’ and he went, ‘How ya doin’?'”

Snowden had a more nerve-racking experience at their first Oscars.

“I was terrified,” she said. “I broke out in a rash.”

Snowden and Fine met as students at Britain’s National Film & Television School, where they both graduated in 1984.

“Animal Behaviour” is the couple’s first animated short since they ventured into the TV world after “Bob’s Birthday.”

Watching their Oscar nomination come through on a live stream was a much different experience than last time around, when “a carrier pigeon” told them they were contenders, they joked.

“It was all done by landline and fax machine, so it is a different world,” said Fine.

Other Canadians up for hardware at the Feb. 24 Oscars include sound mixer Paul Massey for “Bohemian Rhapsody” and set decorator Gordon Sim for “Mary Poppins Returns.” The live action short film category also has two finalists from Montreal — Jeremy Comte for “Fauve” and Marianne Farley for “Marguerite.”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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Supreme Court to rule on constitutionality of genetic discrimination law

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OTTAWA — The Supreme Court of Canada is slated to rule this morning on the constitutionality of a federal law that forbids companies from making people undergo genetic testing before buying insurance or other services.

The Genetic Non-Discrimination Act also outlaws the practice of requiring the disclosure of existing genetic test results as a condition for obtaining such services or entering into a contract.

The act is intended to ensure Canadians can take genetic tests to help identify health risks without fear they will be penalized when seeking life or health insurance.

The law, passed three years ago, is the result of a private member’s bill that was introduced in the Senate and garnered strong support from MPs despite opposition from then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

The Quebec government referred the new law to the provincial Court of Appeal, which ruled in 2018 that it strayed beyond the federal government’s jurisdiction over criminal law.

The Canadian Coalition for Genetic Fairness then challenged the ruling in the Supreme Court of Canada, which heard the appeal last October.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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North Atlantic right whales nearing extinction, international nature body says

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OTTAWA — North Atlantic right whales are now considered one step away from complete eradication.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature is moving the whales from “endangered” to “critically endangered” on its red list of global species facing threats to their survival.

The only step beyond “critically endangered” is extinction.

Fewer than 250 mature whales were known to exist at the end of 2018, in a total population of only about 400.

More than 30 whales have been killed by ships or fishing gear entanglements in the last three years, two-thirds of them in Canadian waters.

The conservation group classified right whales as endangered in 2008, and since then the population has declined more than 15 per cent.

Sean Brillant, a senior conservation biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation in Halifax, says the change in status is not surprising and should put even more pressure on governments in Canada and the United States to do more to stop these whales from being wiped out.

“We are an affluent country with an incredible amount of knowledge and resources, we have good controls over our oceans industry,” he said. “And we can’t figure this out? How embarrassing. We need to step up and solve this problem.”

He said Canada has done a lot in recent years to try to protect the whales, including closing fisheries and implementing speed limits for boats. This year, more than 12,000 square kilometres of the Gulf of St. Lawrence has already been closed to fixed-gear fishing until November, because so many North Atlantic right whales were spotted in the region this summer.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans rules close about 2,000 square kilometres for 15 days around a place where a whale is spotted; if a whale is spotted within that area again in that period, the area closes for the rest of the season.

Brillant said it’s still not enough. Oceans Canada recently called on Ottawa to make speed limits in the Cabot Strait mandatory instead of voluntary after research showed most ship captains were choosing not to follow it. The Cabot Strait is the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence between Newfoundland and Cape Breton that most of the whales use.

Brillant also said speed limits are better than nothing but the only full solution is to prevent the ships from going near the whales at all.

Amy Butcher, a spokeswoman for Transport Minister Marc Garneau, said the government has mandatory speed restrictions in most of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and this year imposed a new restricted area that requires ships to stay away or reduce speeds even further from 10 knots to eight.

“Our government takes the protection and recovery of the North Atlantic right whale very seriously,” she said.

Brillant said so far this year has been positive with no whales dying in Canadian waters thus far. Two calves have died in American waters, and one of their mothers has not been seen since the calf showed up dead. Both calves were killed by ships, and one was hit by ships twice in its seven months of life.

The whales, which migrate along the eastern coast of North America, spend winters off Florida and Georgia before migrating north to New England and Atlantic Canada in the summer. 

The whales are threatened by a combination of factors, including climate change, which appears to be driving them further north in the summer months to find food. Brillant said before 2017, surveys of the whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence were limited, but when that work began in more detail, it was clear there were a lot of whales present in waters that opened them up to serious risk of being hit by big ships or tangled in fishing lines.

Brillant said in addition to the 31 whales that have died, at least another 10 have been entangled with fishing gear, most of them in Canada. Whales tangled up in fishing gear are “as good as dead” because they cannot reproduce and their prospects for survival are not good.

“We are not going to be graded on good intentions and good decisions unless we get the results. And the results have to be that we don’t drive this species to extinction.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 9, 2020.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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