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Dave Williams flew to space but faced biggest challenges on solid ground

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  • MONTREAL — As he was training in 2004 for his second space flight to help in the construction of the International Space Station, a routine visit to the doctor almost cut short Dave Williams’ career as an astronaut.

    Williams, a physician himself, had gone for his annual checkup to maintain his flight status as an astronaut and pilot when a blood test revealed he had prostate cancer.

    He was three years away from the planned 2007 space station mission, but suddenly everything was on hold.

    Williams titles his new memoir, ‘Defying Limits – Lessons from the Edge of the Universe’, but the book reveals it was back on Earth that he faced some of his greatest challenges.

    “I sort of forgot that I was a doctor when I heard the news. All of a sudden I had the feeling that ‘Oh, my goodness, I’ve got cancer, I’m going to die’,” Williams, 64, told The Canadian Press.

    “Fortunately, the rational part of me sort of kicked in, and I started to approach this as I would if I was another patient — even though the patient was myself.”

    NASA found a surgeon for Williams at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and he had his prostate removed in August 2004.

    While performing the procedure, doctors discovered the tumour had spread, but they were able to get it all. Williams was given the green light to continue training for his space voyage.

    The cancer scare came the year after another trauma for Williams. In February 2003, the U.S. space shuttle Columbia broke up while returning to Earth, killing seven astronauts — all close friends of Williams.

    He took part in recovery efforts searching for debris, and recounting that chapter of his life was tough.

    “I’d write a couple of paragraphs and then I’d quite literally have to take a break and go do something else and come back to continue writing,” he said. “It was a very sad time for us in the program.”

    During his 2007 space station visit, Williams helped installed a truss on the orbiting laboratory and performed a Canadian record of three spacewalks.

    It was during his second sortie, perched on the Canadarm, that he gazed down at Earth awestruck. He realized he was “looking at this incredible four-and-a-half-billion-year-old planet upon which the entire history of the human species had taken place,” he said in the interview.

    His first space mission was on board the shuttle Columbia in April, 1998 — the same orbiter that blew up five years later. During the 16-day flight, while serving as a mission specialist, Williams carried out neuroscience experiments that focused on the effects of microgravity on the brain and nervous system.

    Born in Saskatoon, Williams grew up in Montreal. His dream of becoming an astronaut began just before his seventh birthday when he watched on a black-and-white TV as astronaut Alan Shepard took a sub-orbital flight in May 1961, becoming the first American in space.

    His book recounts setbacks large and small that he experienced as he pursued his dream. In Grade 5, while living in suburban Montreal, he was struck by a car on his bike while headed to school but escaped without serious injury. Later as a teenager in the Royal Canadian Army cadets, he was thrown from a military truck when it overturned, but he managed to walk away with some scrapes and aches.

    A more sobering moment came during the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut selection process in 1992, when an eye exam revealed Williams had a degenerative condition of the retina. The degeneration turned out to be mild, and the Canadian Space Agency selected Williams and three others to join the astronaut corps.

    Williams met his wife Cathy, who went on to become an airline pilot, at a swimming pool in a Montreal suburb in 1978. 

    He recounts how despite his busy schedule, he tried to stay in touch, even at the most improbable moments. During his first space trip, Williams sent a message directly to his wife’s Air Canada cockpit while she was co-piloting a flight between Montreal and Toronto.

    “We are having a great time orbiting the Earth at Mach 25 much higher than flight levels,” it read. “Please extend best wishes … to the captain, the crew and all passengers.”

    The captain flicked on the plane’s PA system and read the message to the entire plane, prompting a round of applause.

    Williams has a daughter Olivia and a son Evan as well as a nephew Theo, who came to live with the family after losing both of his parents to cancer. Evan was diagnosed with Down syndrome when he was born in 1994, but for the Canadian astronaut it was just another personal challenge.

    “Life is full of adversity, and I don’t think I’m unique in that way,” Williams said in the interview.

    “I think most people in their lives have had challenges at one point or another, and I think it is how we respond to those challenges that, in part, brings meaning to our life.”

    The book, which was released Oct. 30, is published by Simon and Schuster Canada.

    Peter Rakobowchuk, The Canadian Press


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    Health

    Examine ‘monstrous’ allegations of forced sterilization of Indigenous women: NDP

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  • OTTAWA — The federal government and the provinces must examine “monstrous” allegations of modern-day forced sterilizations of Indigenous women, NDP reconciliation critic Romeo Saganash said Monday before he pressed for answers in the House of Commons.

    Coerced sterilization clearly breaches human-rights standards that Canada must fight to uphold, Saganash in an interview Monday, and said that authorities should very carefully read Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the UN in 1948.

    That international agreement says that “genocide” includes any acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, such as by “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”

    Canadians should not tolerate allegations of forced sterilization in their country, Saganash said, and Ottawa must address the issue as victims share their stories.

    “I think they have to take this seriously,” said the Cree lawyer and MP from northern Quebec. “Just the fact that it is happening and people are coming out makes it serious enough to look for a solution.”

    The issue of forced sterilizations will also be raised at the UN Committee Against Torture this week, when Amnesty International Canada and a national law firm call for accountability for the practice.

    Maurice Law is leading a proposed class-action lawsuit against the federal government, the government of Saskatchewan, all its health authorities, and individual medical professionals.

    The lawsuit was launched in 2017 by two affected women in the Saskatoon Health Region who each claimed $7 million in damages. Now about 60 women are part of the lawsuit.

    An additional 32 women have come forward to report they were sterilized without consent since The Canadian Press first published a story last Sunday, associate Alisa Lombard said Monday, noting the women are mostly from Saskatchewan but elsewhere as well.

    In its submission to the UN committee, Maurice Law said there has been no effort at a comprehensive review to understand the scale of the problem or the conditions that make forced sterilizations possible.

    It also listed a number of solutions, including a proposal to specifically criminalize forced sterilization as the “single most effective, immediate and enduring measure that could be taken” to protect women from this practice.

    The Liberal government has not indicated it is looking at this step.

    During question period on Monday, Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said the Liberal government knows coerced sterilization is a gross violation of human rights and of reproductive rights. 

    The federal government is actively working with provinces and faculties of medicine to ensure safe and culturally appropriate health care is available across the country, she added.

    “This is not something that any one order of government can address alone,” Philpott said. “All Canadians have a responsibility to ensure that these practices never happen again.”

    For its part, Amnesty International Canada has recommended the federal government appoint a special representative to examine the prevalence of the practice.

    Yvonne Boyer, a Metis senator for Ontario, has welcomed this recommendation. She’s said that tubal ligations carried out on unwilling Indigenous women constitute one of the “most heinous” practices in health care in Canada.

    Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde also wants to see the scope of forced sterilization examined and called the practice wrong, immoral and a gross human-rights violation.

    —Follow @kkirkup on Twitter

    Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press



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    Data suggests violence rising in Winnipeg remand jail; union says meth a factor

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  • WINNIPEG — Newly obtained statistics point to increasing violence at the Winnipeg Remand Centre and the union that represents correctional workers says methamphetamine use is a major factor. 

    “Our members actually believe that some of the incidents are definitely fuelled by drugs such as meth,” said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union.

    “They know that meth is an issue, that it lingers in the inmate.”

    Records obtained by The Canadian Press under the province’s freedom-of-information law show remand centre guards called for backup 47 times between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 this year. That’s already higher than any full-year numbers reported in the previous five years for which statistics were provided and more than double the number in 2014.

    There were another 20 cases in the first nine months of this year in which a corrections officer issued a more serious call of being in immediate danger. That figure is on track, by the end of 2018, to be the highest in recent years.

    One worker at the remand centre, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to publicly discuss matters inside the jail, said inmates on meth are unpredictable and can become violent suddenly.

    “You’re dealing with zombies, for lack of a better word,” the worker told The Canadian Press.

    “An alcoholic is usually slow. They’re sluggish. But an inmate who’s on meth … in my opinion they have increased strength.”

    The 300-bed remand centre is normally the first stop for people after they are arrested until they are granted bail or transferred to another jail. Because the effects of meth can last much longer than those of other drugs, inmates can be under its influence long after they enter the facility, the worker said.

    The worker said one inmate at the remand centre was on meth and appeared to settle down, but then erupted in violence when cell doors were opened.

    “He came out of his cell and proceeded directly into another cell … and with a (homemade) weapon, started attacking both of the guys who were sleeping.”

    Gawronsky said the union has raised the issue with Justice Minister Cliff Cullen and is hoping to have jail staff receive more training.

    The Justice Department would not comment on security issues inside the remand centre. Cullen, who was out of the province much of last week meeting with other provincial justice ministers, issued a brief written statement.

    “Correctional centres can be volatile environments and Manitoba Justice is committed to working with staff and the (union) to manage offenders with a variety of needs, including addictions to methamphetamine and other substances,” he said in the statement.

    The John Howard Society of Canada, a prisoners rights group, said rising meth problems in jails should come as no surprise, given that police forces in Winnipeg and other cities have noticed an increase in the drug’s use.

    John Hutton, the group’s executive director in Manitoba, said the problem needs to be addressed before people end up behind bars.

    “The facilities weren’t built with detoxification units and it’s a challenge,” Hutton said.

    “I don’t think anyone would disagree we need more resources in the community for people to get treatment for meth addiction before they end up in custody.”

    Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press




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