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Nova Scotia church, worshippers fined more than $70,000 for ignoring health rules

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WESTON, N.S. — Nova Scotia RCMP fined 26 people $2,422 each after officers responded to a complaint that a faith-based gathering Sunday at a church in the Annapolis Valley was in violation of public health restrictions.

RCMP spokesman Cpl. Chris Marshall said Monday the church that organized the event, the Weston Christian Fellowship Church in Weston, N.S., was also fined $11,622.

Marshall said that as the service was starting at 11:15 a.m., the congregation was warned they could face fines under the province’s Health Protection Act, but the event went ahead anyway.

Officers had been dispatched to the same church a week earlier, on May 2, after receiving a complaint about a crowd gathering to worship, Marshall said.

But at that time, the RCMP used its discretion to issue a warning because new rules banning faith-based gatherings had come into force only on April 28 as the provincial government moved to deal with a growing COVID-19 outbreak.

Those handed tickets Sunday included 13 men and 13 women.

“It was made clear to them that should complaints continue to come in, that our members would return,” Marshall said in an interview.

“There’s been a few incidents like this, but they’ve been rare — especially large occurrences with this many people. It’s exceptional.”

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang expressed disappointment about the illegal event during a COVID-19 briefing Monday, telling reporters he has been in regular contact with religious leaders.

“Together we recognize the importance of faith services, but we also recognize that right now there’s a need to do that in ways that don’t bring people together,” Strang said. “These congregations are putting each other at risk by coming together in person.”

Also on Monday, RCMP confirmed that an unidentified “personal services” company in Windsor, N.S., was fined $11,622 on May 6 for failing to shut down as required under the Health Protection Act.

West Hants RCMP said police were notified the business was still operating, even though the owner “went to great lengths to make it appear that she had closed.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2021.

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'Belfast' wins People's Choice prize at Toronto International Film Festival

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TORONTO — “Belfast” from writer-director Kenneth Branagh has won the People’s Choice prize at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The Northern Ireland-set family drama was announced as winner of the honour during the TIFF Tribute Awards broadcast on CTV, which marked the end of 10 days of pandemic-tailored in-person screenings and digital at-home viewing.

The prize chosen through online votes is often a predictor of Academy Award success.

Last year’s winner, the road drama “Nomadland,” won the best-picture Oscar. 

Other previous People’s Choice winners that have nabbed best picture include “Green Book,” “12 Years a Slave,” “The King’s Speech” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

This year’s People’s Choice race had a caveat, though: films that didn’t screen on the festival’s digital site were not eligible for the prize, including buzzy titles “Spencer” and “Dune.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2021.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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‘I’m here but my mind is always there:’ Ontario woman returns home from Afghanistan

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Heartbreak and guilt are all Zakia Zarifi has been feeling since she returned to her home in Ontario from Afghanistan.

“I’m happy to see my family here, but it’s torture for me because I couldn’t bring my parents with me,” the real estate agent from Brampton said over the phone.

“It was the hardest goodbye ever, but deep down I have hope that I can bring them here.”

The single mother says she was beaten, shot at and barely dodged a bomb outside Kabul airport during the chaotic journey. All she thinks about now is helping the people left behind.

“(A) genocide … is happening right now in Afghanistan and no one is talking about it. That’s why I’m here but my mind is always there.”

Zarifi, 50, arrived this week to tears and warm hugs from her three grown children. They frantically worked to bring their mother home after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August. She had gone there to try to get her aging parents out of danger.

Before she got out herself, Zarifi was critical of Canada’s evacuation of its citizens from the region.

She told The Canadian Press while she was stuck in Afghanistan that she twice tried to escape before the U.S.-led military mission’s Aug. 31 deadline, but was beaten by Taliban members and pushed away from the airport’s gates.

She was angry Canadian officials told her and others to meet at dangerous locations, while other countries helped their citizens get to military planes using safer routes. Ten days after Canadian Forces left the region, and as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced criticism for mishandling the evacuation, Zarifi got another call from Global Affairs Canada, she said. This time the plan was better. “They told me to be at (Kabul) Serena Hotel and then, from there, the Qatari government was in charge of taking us to the airport. We had a flight with the Qatar airline (to Qatar).” By Tuesday, she was on a plane from Doha to Canada.

“The first flight that left Afghanistan (had) all different citizens from all over the world. On the second flight … there were, I believe, 10 Canadians.”

She said others on the flight home told horrifying stories about the Taliban knocking on their families’ doors and taking their men.

“They took their birth certificates, and took them to this place. They are all vanished,” she said.

“Someone even came to knock on my parents’ door. The guy who looks after them (said), ‘No one lives here,’  and they left.”

Zarifi said her parents are a target because they are from the northeastern province of Panjshir, the heart of military resistance in Afghanistan and where her father fought against Taliban rule.

While she waited for a flight, she and her family helped other Afghans, she said.

They gave away items in their home, distributed 120 blankets and provided food supplies to 500 families. Many Afghans they helped are among thousands who are religious and ethnic minorities who worry the Taliban’s return to power will lead to oppression or death.

Zarifi recalled a similar journey she made in 1987 during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. She escaped to Pakistan from Kabul. Two years later, she moved to Canada.

“Afghans … a majority of them are refugees and they’ve all found a way to get out before and through significantly worse times,” said Zarifi’s daughter Marjan.

“When my mom first came to Canada, she had to walk two days, two nights to get to where she needed to go. They were being directly shot at. So she has done this twice.

“She keeps a lot of strength and says, ‘It’s gonna be OK,’ but every day we can’t think straight … Everyone just kind of moves on with life, but my mind is constantly with my family and what’s going on.”

Despite her frustration with the Canadian government, Zarifi said she’s thankful Trudeau did not forget her and other citizens.

“I just hope that the Liberal (government) do their best to bring people, because their life is in danger,” Zarifi said.

“When I moved here, I worked 20-hour days. I worked as a bookkeeper, did accounting, night shifts at Walmart. I worked hard. I made a living for myself.”

She said she prays that other Afghans will have the same chance at a new life. For her part, she plans to continue helping people in Afghanistan in whatever way she can.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 17. 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

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