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U.S. college bribery scandal unlikely in Canada, but inequality persists

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The college bribery scandal is spurring discussion about the ways in which money greases the wheels of the U.S. admissions process — and while most acknowledge there are fewer shortcuts to securing a spot in Canadian schools, advocates say the system is slanted to give well-off students a leg up.

American authorities have accused dozens of people of taking part in a $25-million bribery scheme in which parents allegedly paid to ensure their children’s enrolment in elite schools. Among the parents charged are Vancouver businessman David Sidoo, who has pleaded not guilty, and TV actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.

The selection process at Canadian schools is heavily weighted towards high school report cards, leaving less wiggle room for the sort of chicanery being alleged in the U.S., an admissions consultant says.

“The competitive landscape is very different in the United States,” said Robert Astroff, president of Astroff Consultants, which helps students prepare for their post-secondary studies. “There’s much less opportunity to game the system in Canada.”

Canada doesn’t have standardized admissions tests like the SAT or ACT, which some of those charged in the U.S. are accused of falsifying, said Astroff.

Prosecutors also allege that parents bribed college coaches to recruit their children. In the U.S., varsity sports are highly monetized, Astroff said, so more emphasis is placed on athletics than in Canada.

There are several other factors that can contribute to a student’s chances of getting into a U.S. school, he said: personal essays, letters of reference, class rankings and relationships with alumni.

In Canada, the admissions criteria are less subjective, he said, and an applicant’s acceptance often comes down to whether their high school grades meet the minimum requirements.

U.S. schools are sorted into a “tiered” system in which there’s a vast gulf between going to an Ivy League university and a community college, Astroff noted. There’s far less differentiation among Canadian universities, so the selection process is not nearly as cutthroat, he said.

Admissions officials at Canadian universities also stressed these cross-border distinctions.

Curtis Michaelis, admissions and recruitment co-ordinator at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., said the U.S. students he works with are often shocked at how “transparent” the Canadian system is.

Richard Levin, executive director of enrolment services and registrar at the University of Toronto, said most programs accept 50 to 60 per cent of applicants, while acceptance rates at prestigious U.S. schools can be as low as five or six per cent.

“It reflects the fact that we have larger public universities with a big breadth of programs that are generally pretty accessible,” he said.

According to a 2017 report by Statistics Canada, the post-secondary enrolment rate of 19-year-old Canadians increased from 52.6 per cent in 2001 to 63.8 per cent in 2014 — with the largest gains being made among youth from lower-income families.

But Eloise Tan, research program director of Ontario-based advocacy group People for Education, said schools and policy-makers shouldn’t be so quick to pat themselves on the back.

“It’s not just about explicit paying or bribery to get your kid into school,” said Tan. “There’s other benefits to having a higher income, that the data shows those students are just more likely to go to school.”

Tan pointed to a report released earlier this month by the provincially funded Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario suggesting that high school students who come from families where neither parent has a post-secondary degree are 33 per cent less likely to earn one themselves compared to peers whose parents completed a university or college program.

Students from lower-income families were also less likely to pursue higher education than peers from more privileged backgrounds, the report found.

Tan said parents are increasingly spending money on tutors to boost their children’s marks, but many students can’t afford those supports. And as Ontario educators struggle for resources, she said youth from higher-income families are more likely to attend schools that have the fundraising to offer extracurricular activities.

Students from lower-income families are also less likely to have access to guidance counsellors, she said, and if their parents don’t have post-secondary degrees, the application process can seem overwhelming.

“(The disadvantages) are almost invisible, but we need to make sure they don’t remain invisible,” said Tan.

Even when universities try to level the playing field, they don’t always get it right, said one researcher with the University of British Columbia.

Emily Truong-Cheung, a PhD student in sociology, said UBC changed its admission process in 2012 in an effort to diversify its student population. Instead of just looking at grades, it asks applicants about extracurricular activities and volunteer work.

She interviewed 25 applicants and found that while upper-class youth have the time and resources for volunteering, travel and extracurriculars, working-class students often spend their extra time studying and working to support their families.

“They were very embarrassed — ‘I don’t want to write about working at McDonald’s. That’s not impressive.’ “

Working-class students also felt conflicted about answering a question on overcoming adversity, she said. They wanted to show they had triumphed against the odds, but they also questioned what it had to do with their potential success at UBC.

The University of British Columbia said in a statement the school scores every aspect of an application, so administrators can “empirically” measure where every candidate falls relative to the pool of potential students.

Truong-Cheung said she didn’t think the university should abandon the new process, but it should address the concerns of working-class students. She appreciates that the U.S. scandal has opened a conversation about class inequality in Canadian universities, she added.

“I think what admission processes are trying to say is: We want the best. But what this news has shown is that the best looks a lot like someone who has a lot of resources.”

Adina Bresge and Laura Kane, The Canadian Press

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Trans Mountain puts contractors on notice to get ready for pipeline restart

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Trans Mountain Pipeline

OTTAWA — Construction on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project is set to restart in the next month, just in time for the official kick-off of the federal election.

Trans Mountain Corp., the federal crown agency that owns and operates the pipeline, said Wednesday that work on the terminals in Burnaby, B.C. is set to restart immediately, while work laying pipe on the route in parts of Alberta are on track to start within the next month. Construction contractors were told they have 30 days to hire workers, prepare detailed construction plans and mobilize equipment.

“This is a major milestone,” said Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi.

Getting construction underway likely leaves many Liberals breathing a sigh of relief, including Sohi, whose riding is just a few kilometres from the Edmonton terminal where the pipeline begins. His already shaky re-election prospects would be even tougher if the pipeline remained stalled.

The federal campaign has to begin no later than Sept. 15 for an Oct. 21 vote, but Sohi said getting shovels in the ground on Trans Mountain has nothing to do with politics.

“I know people want to link this to elections,” he said. “I have never linked it to elections. I always tell that we owe it to Albertans, we owe it to Canadians, energy sector workers and communities who rely on middle class jobs that we get the process right.”

Sohi won in 2015 by less than 100 votes, one of only four Liberals elected in Alberta in the last election. All four seats are considered in play in this election, and anger in Alberta about the struggling oil industry is one of the reasons why.

Sohi visited with pipeline workers on site in Sherwood Park, Alta., on Wednesday. He told them that 4,200 people should be working on the project before the end of the year and the new completion date is in 2022. When the pipeline was initially approved in 2016, construction was supposed to be done by the end of this year.

Sohi also said the construction is going ahead “despite the fearmongering of some Conservative politicians to tell Canadians minutes after we approved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion that the construction will never happen.”

Edmonton Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux was not impressed with the news.

“Canadians have heard time and time again that Justin Trudeau wants to get pipelines built, yet in four years he has done the exact opposite,” Jeneroux said in an emailed statement.

The Conservatives say the Liberals have killed other pipelines and now have a new environmental assessment process coming in that will ensure no more pipelines are ever approved going forward.

“These decisions are all part of Justin Trudeau’s plan to phase out Canada’s oil and gas sector,” Jeneroux said.

The federal Liberals approved the Trans Mountain expansion in 2016, but the pressure to bring the project to fruition heightened in May 2018 when the government decided to buy the pipeline for $4.5 billion when Kinder Morgan Canada backed away under the uncertainty of numerous legal challenges and political fighting. The Liberals said the government would buy the pipeline, build the expansion and sell it back to a private investor.

The court decision three months later to rip up approval threw all those plans in jeopardy.

After another round of Indigenous consultations and a new review of the project’s impact on marine life off the coast of Vancouver, cabinet green-lighted the expansion for a second time in June.

Six British Columbia First Nations and at least two environment groups have filed new court challenges against the approval.

The Canadian Press


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Huawei executive’s defence team alleges Canadians were ‘agents’ of the FBI

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Huawei Headquarters

VANCOUVER — A defence team for a Chinese telecom executive is alleging Canadian officials acted as “agents” of American law enforcement while she was detained at Vancouver’s airport for three hours ahead of her arrest.

In court documents released this week, defence lawyers for Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou point to handwritten notes by Canadian officers indicating Meng’s electronics were collected in anticipation of a request from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States.

The notes show the RCMP asked the FBI if the U.S. was interested in Meng’s luggage and that a Canada Border Services Agency officer wrote down Meng’s passcodes, while another questioned her about Huawei’s alleged business in Iran.

This happened before she was informed of her arrest, the defence says.

“The RCMP and/or CBSA were acting as agents of the FBI for the purpose of obtaining and preserving evidence,” alleges a memorandum of fact and law filed by the defence.

“The question that remains is to what extent and how the FBI were involved in this scheme.”

The materials collected by the defence were released ahead of an eight-day hearing scheduled for September, in which the defence is expected to argue for access to more documentation ahead of Meng’s extradition trial.

The Attorney General of Canada has yet to file a response and none of the allegations have been tested in court.

Meng’s arrest at Vancouver airport has sparked a diplomatic crisis between Canada and China and drawn international scrutiny of Canadian extradition laws.

She was arrested at the behest of the U.S., which is seeking her extradition on fraud charges in violation of sanctions with Iran.

Both Meng and Huawei have denied any wrongdoing. Meng is free on bail and is living in one of her multimillion-dollar homes in Vancouver.

The RCMP and CBSA did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the documents but have said in a response to a civil claim that border officials only examined Meng and her luggage for immigration and customs purposes.

Meng extradition trial won’t begin until Jan. 20, but the court documents shed light on her defence team’s planned arguments that her arrest was unlawful and for the benefit of the United States.

“These are allegations of a purposeful violation of a court order and the abuse of important Canadian legal norms for improper purposes, namely, to further the objectives of the requesting state,” the defence says.

They plan to argue that the U.S. committed an abuse of process by using the extradition proceedings for political and economic gain. Parts of the defence are comments by U.S. President Donald Trump that he would intervene in Meng’s case “if necessary.”

The seizure of electronics and questioning of Meng by border officials in Canada also follows a pattern of how Huawei employees have been treated at U.S. ports of entry.

“This targeting has included the apparent abuse of customs and immigration powers to search and question Huawei employees at various U.S. ports of entry,” the documents say.

The defence accuses officers of intentionally poor note keeping that obscures what exactly happened, including why the arrest plan apparently changed.

The documents suggest that Canadian officials initially planned to arrest Meng “immediately” after she landed, by boarding the plane before she got off. Instead, three CBSA officers immediately detained Meng when she disembarked the plane while two RCMP officers stood nearby and watched, despite their knowledge of the warrant calling for her “immediate” arrest, the defence says.

The defence argues spotty notes kept by the CBSA officers constitute a “strategic omission.”

“When assessed together, a clear pattern emerges from these materials: the CBSA and the RCMP have strategically drafted these documents to subvert the applicant’s ability to learn the truth regarding her detention,” the defence says.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press


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