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Navy enters new era by welcoming long-awaited Arctic warship into fleet

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OTTAWA — The Royal Canadian Navy is poised to enter a new era by taking possession of the first armed warship under the federal government’s multibillion-dollar shipbuilding plan, and the first built for Arctic military operations in decades.

HMCS Harry DeWolf was welcomed in a ceremony at Canadian Forces Base Halifax on Friday, five years after Irving Shipbuilding first started cutting steel on the Arctic offshore patrol ship — and two years later than originally scheduled.

Top navy officers marked the occasion along with representatives from Irving, which is slated to build five more such vessels for the navy and two for the Canadian Coast Guard in the next few years.

“These ships will be at the core of an enhanced Canadian Arctic presence, effectively complementing the capabilities of our other current and future warships through critical reconnaissance and surveillance operations,” said Vice-Admiral Art McDonald, the commander of the navy, in a statement.

Harry DeWolf was a career navy officer who retired as chief of the naval staff in 1960. He rose to prominence as commander of HMCS Haida during the Second World War, known for daring tactical manoeuvres and sinking numerous enemy vessels, especially in the English Channel.

While the DeWolf’s delivery is a major milestone for the federal government’s shipbuilding plan — through which Ottawa is replacing nearly all of the large ships in the navy and coast guard — it wasn’t easy coming.

Then-prime minister Stephen Harper first announced plans to build up to eight armed Arctic patrol vessels in July 2007 and Irving was selected in October 2011 to produce them before building replacements for the navy’s frigates and destroyers.

But the following years saw several cost overruns and delays in the program.

After work started on the DeWolf in 2015, Irving said it would only be able to build five ships with the $3.1 billion budgeted for the project. The government ended up increasing the budget to $4.1 billion for six.

That money does not include the two ships for the coast guard, which are expected to cost about $400 million each.

Technical problems were also blamed for pushing the delivery date back several times. Then Irving closed its Halifax shipyard in March for several months because of COVID-19.

Despite those setbacks, University of Calgary professor Rob Huebert described the DeWolf’s arrival as an “amazing step forward” for the Royal Canadian Navy. It’s the first vessel specially built for military operations in the Arctic since the 1950s.

And it couldn’t come at a better time, as more and more countries are starting to increase their interest — and military footprints — in the Far North, which is becoming easier to access due to climate change, said Huebert, who is an expert on Arctic policy.

“Even the most profound Arctic exceptionalist who says the Arctic is just peace, love and ‘Kumbaya’ will recognize there is a growing need to have at least a presence in the Arctic as it opens up and becomes a greater part of the geopolitical environment,” he said. 

“But once again, this is going to now give us a capability to operate that we haven’t had since a short little period between 1956 to ’57 with (HMCS) Labrador.”

The Labrador was an icebreaker built for the navy but was in the fleet just a few years before being transferred to non-military use.

The navy was actually disdainful when Harper announced the new Arctic ships in 2007. Part of it was their slow speed and light armament, as the ships have only one small cannon. But mostly it was because the navy saw the Arctic as coast guard territory.

“Because they had not done this since ’57, there was a little bit of: OK, what the hell do we do with these ships? We know what we need to do with NATO and in the Pacific. But this is going to sort of require us to scratch our head,'” Huebert said.

“Once the navy got comfortable and started realizing what it could do with it, that has subsequently changed.”

The Royal Canadian Navy is only the latest naval force to join the fray in the Far North. Russia, the U.S., China and some European countries have been increasing their maritime capabilities in the region in recent years as part of a seemingly slow military buildup.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press



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Leave your deets when dining: Restaurants taking personal info to trace COVID-19

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TORONTO — As COVID-19 restrictions ease and restaurants start to welcome customers back, one thing Canadians may soon have to get used to is providing their personal information before they grab a bite. 

Guidelines for restaurants vary in each province. But some jurisdictions are requiring a customer’s name and phone number or email address, along with their table number, to help with contract tracing in the event of an outbreak.

Ontario announced Friday that it will require bars and restaurants to keep client logs for 30 days. These will have to be disclosed to the medical officer of health or an inspector if tracing is needed.

In Toronto, collecting the info can be done at the time of reservations or through another system, said Toronto Public Health spokesperson Vinita Dubey.

Dubey said indoor bars and restaurants present a higher level of risk for COVID-19 transmission because they involve crowds, close contact and closed spaces.

“As soon as (Toronto Public Health) becomes aware of a COVID-19 case, we act on the information to follow up immediately,” Dubey said in an email.

Similar guidelines apply to restaurants and bars in British Columbia.

That province’s public health officials have started requiring restaurants to collect personal information from customers when they make reservations or at the time of seating. The details also have to be kept for a month.

Since reopening, Acorn Restaurant in Vancouver has only been taking reservations, which makes it easier to collect customer information.

“Thankfully our guests have been pretty understanding,” said founder Shira Blustein. “Some guests have been equally anxious to be out so they’re appreciative of our plan.”

Gerald Evans, chair of the infectious diseases division at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said contact tracing was done at restaurants even before COVID-19.

Public health officials have used reservation lists to contact diners in the event of a food-borne outbreak, he said.

“It’s not unprecedented in the restaurant industry that public health would reach out to them and get that kind of information.”

Evans said one drawback is that there is no way to verify the information a customer is giving is correct.

“Now, 99 per cent of the public is going to be truthful, but what do you do with the one per cent?” he asked.

If people giving false information becomes a problem, governments could potentially step in to make sure that people have to show an ID card to verify their identity, Evans suggested.

He said collecting customer information is much more effective than “passive tracing,” in which public health does a broad announcement about a case at a specific restaurant on a certain day. That practice has been criticized by some restaurant owners.

Restaurants Canada vice-president David Lefebvre said there are costs associated with collecting personal details. And it can be time-consuming for places that provide quick service to a lot of customers.

“Our position as an association on this is: let’s make sure everybody, as a recommendation, respect the public health requirements,” he said.

“But at the same time, let’s make sure that it’s not something that becomes too onerous and costs too much.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 2, 2020

Denise Paglinawan, The Canadian Press

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Despite ‘perfect storm’ of U.S. discord, America’s truths trump foreign fictions

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WASHINGTON — The confluence of a pandemic, a raucous civil-rights movement, an economy on the brink and a stubborn, deeply divided electorate: experts call it a “perfect storm” of conditions in which to sow the seeds of disinformation and partisan strife in the United States.

Too perfect, in fact.

Given the hard lessons of the 2016 U.S. election, it’s safe to assume that bad actors, foreign and domestic alike, are already hard at work trying to take full advantage of the discord, said Jed Willard, a Harvard University expert on information warfare.

But much of the work is being done for them — partisan battles over masks, economic lockdowns and Black Lives Matter protests, inflamed by joblessness and uncertainty, have ripped more holes in America’s social fabric than any disinformation peddlers could ever hope to do themselves.

“On masking, it is extremely silly, it’s extremely dangerous,” Willard said of the culture clash that has divided Americans over wearing face coverings to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

It’s also extremely outlandish and implausible — too much so, in fact, for foreign disinformation agents in Russia and China. They have focused more on convincing westerners the virus is a man-made bioweapon, a storyline that never took root despite its familiar, Hollywood-friendly frame.

“What happened in the United States is that our own domestic misinformation was so much more effective at exploiting the real divisions in our society, that the foreign actors just amplified it,” Willard said.

“They didn’t bother pushing their master narratives, which is weird for them. They just went with what we were already doing to ourselves.”

On cue, straight from the stranger-than-fiction files came Rep. Louie Gohmert, an anti-mask Republican from Texas who tested positive last week for the “Wuhan virus,” then promptly blamed his diagnosis on having been forced to wear a face-covering to do his job on Capitol Hill.

“I’ve worn a mask in the last week or two more than I have in the last four months,” constantly fiddling with it for comfort, Gohmert said on Twitter. “I can’t help but wonder if that put some germs in the mask.”

Gabrielle Lim, a researcher with the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, spends her time looking for ways disinformation aimed at undermining democracy is being injected into the U.S. public discourse.

For her team, the politicization of masks has been just another day at the office.

“Things are so weird already that this didn’t seem bizarre,” Lim said. “It’s sad that it’s become a weirdly partisan issue when it should never have been a partisan issue. And now, it’s become a lightning rod for people to state which side of the aisle they’re on.”

But there’s an upside, she added: it’s harder for foreign actors to actually disrupt anything that’s already so disrupted.

“Evidence of activity is not evidence of impact,” Lim said. “It’s really, really hard to figure out what the actual impact is.”

That won’t stop trolls from trying, U.S. officials warn.

“The coronavirus pandemic and recent protests … continue to serve as fodder for foreign influence and disinformation efforts in America,” William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, warned last month.

“Foreign nations continue to use influence measures in social and traditional media in an effort to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, to shift U.S. policies, to increase discord and to undermine confidence in our democratic process.”

So, too, however, does Trump himself, who suggested for the first time publicly Thursday that the November contest be delayed “until people can properly, securely and safely vote.”

The president, of course, lacks the power to do any such thing. But that hasn’t stopped him before — indeed, Trump and his followers have proven powerful agents of disinformation since long before he moved into the White House.

Back in May, it was largely domestic Trump supporters and pro-gun groups in the U.S. who lured Americans out of their homes and into the streets, where they massed in front of state legislatures to demand the right to resume their lives and open their businesses, COVID-19 be damned.

Such plain-sight domestic discord obscures foreign interference happening in real time, particularly when the agents of that interference are so practised at making it blend with authentic public discourse — successfully winning credible media coverage, for instance.

In her 2018 book “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President,” University of Pennsylvania communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson documented Russia’s 2016 efforts, successful ones, she concludes, to sway the election that put Trump in office.

And they were busy long before that election year, working to alter discourse in the U.S. on issues fraught with potential for conspiracy theorists — genetically modified organisms, vaccination and the next-generation cellphone technology known  as 5G, to name a few, she said.

“Where do I assume they are right now? I assume they’re feeding conspiracy theories about vaccination to discredit a U.S. (COVID-19) vaccine. But do I know that? No,” Jamieson said in an interview.

“Do I assume it’s likely given their past behaviour? Yes. Do I assume they’re probably feeding conspiracy theories about 5G? Yes. Anyplace they can discredit something that is a U.S.-based technology, they will be trying to do it because it’s in their country’s self-interest.”

It’s a new Cold War, she said, with Russia, China and Iran as the principal antagonists. Like the virus itself, the threat is extremely insidious and largely invisible, making it difficult to mobilize Americans against it.

“We can’t really see it, so it’s hard to imagine the effect it can have on us,” Jamieson said.

“That’s part of the problem of explaining why it is that the Russian intervention in 2016 probably did shape enough votes to change the outcome. They didn’t push the levers … They changed minds.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 2, 2020.

— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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august, 2020

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