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Trudeau expected perception issues with WE deal, but no conflict of interest

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OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he knew there would be problems with perception over having WE Charity run a $900-million student-volunteer program, but he believed there was no conflict of interest because his family would not benefit.

The prime minister also said he did not seek guidance from the federal ethics commissioner after public servants recommended the WE organization administer the Canada Student Service Grant.

This, despite the fact Trudeau said he did know the public and opposition politicians would scrutinize the deal because of his own and his family’s ties to WE, which is why he told the public servants recommending the organization to go back and make absolutely sure they were on solid ground.

“I knew there would be perception issues around this,” Trudeau said Friday in Ottawa, speaking to reporters less than 24 hours after making a rare prime ministerial appearance at a House of Commons committee over his role in the controversy.

“At the same time, delivering a grant program to students who volunteer across the country has absolutely nothing to do with any work my brother or mother did with WE and that’s why there was no conflict of interest.”

Trudeau said he should have recused himself from the discussions, but instead chose to ask for this due diligence to be done — something he says he now regrets.

The prime minister testified Thursday that he didn’t learn WE had been chosen by the public service to run the program until May 8, which was just hours before the arrangement was to be taken to cabinet for approval.

That’s when, Trudeau said, he put the brakes on the deal.

“We pulled the item from the agenda so that we could be doing the right thing, the way,” Trudeau told the Commons finance committee.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he doesn’t buy Trudeau’s account.

“Multiple ministers and senior officials have testified at the finance committee. Not one of them said that the prime minister pulled the WE proposal from the May 8 cabinet meeting and sent it back for further scrutiny,” Scheer said in a statement Friday.

The public service later came back on May 21 to reaffirm its recommendation that WE was the only organization that could run the student-volunteer program, Trudeau said. WE ended up backing out of the deal in early July over the political controversy.

Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford  testified that the civil servants presented it as a “binary choice” — either they moved ahead with WE Charity to deliver the program or they wouldn’t go ahead with it at all.

In his testimony, Trudeau acknowledged his family’s involvement with WE: his mother, brother and wife have participated in and spoken at WE events, and have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and expenses, although he testified the amounts were not previously known to him.

He stressed that he did not have any conversations with WE co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger during this time and that WE Charity did not receive any preferential treatment by him or anyone else in the government.

He also said he didn’t talk to his staff about WE Charity or its proposed involvement in the volunteering program until May 8, although he has since learned policy staff in his office had been working with the Privy Council Office and other departments, and they knew that WE Charity was under consideration to run the effort.

The prime minister and Telford also both noted that Sophie Gregoire Trudeau’s work with WE, including a podcast on mental wellness, has been unpaid except for expenses covered by the organization, all of which had been cleared by the ethics commissioner.

The Conservatives and NDP have called on federal ethics watchdog Mario Dion to widen his probe of Trudeau to include these expenses.

Dion is already investigating Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau for possible violations of the Conflict of Interest Act for not recusing themselves during cabinet discussions about the WE deal. Dion is also looking into WE-sponsored trips Morneau and his family took in 2017. Morneau repaid $41,000 in related expenses last week.

Opposition MPs on the Commons finance committee are now pushing to hear from more junior staffers in the prime minister’s office, and demanding access to cabinet documents.

“If the prime minister has nothing to hide, he needs to waive cabinet confidentiality so that committee and the ethics commissioner can do their job and get to the bottom of this issue without interference and excuses from the PMO,” NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said in a statement Friday.

They want more detailed answers about why WE Charity began working on and incurring expenses for the program on May 5, when it had not yet been approved by cabinet.

Telford told the committee that another Trudeau aide, Rick Theis, talked to WE that same day, though she said he referred WE to the public service to talk about anything substantial. 

The Kielburger brothers have said those departmental officials told WE it could incur expenses before being awarded the agreement.

The brothers said they wanted to get the program going quickly, and started work knowing they could lose money if cabinet said no.

Asked about this Friday, Trudeau said it was the Kielburgers alone who decided to go ahead and start working and incurring expenses on the grant program.

“That was a decision that they took because they knew how important it was to get this program going and they assumed certain risks in going forward and starting to spend on a program that hadn’t yet been approved by cabinet and would not be approved for another few weeks,” Trudeau said.

Scheer said he is also skeptical of this explanation.

“Why was WE so sure that they were going to be approved? Why were they told they could start charging expenses before the program was even approved?” Scheer said.

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

Teresa Wright, 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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