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UN formally asks Canada to extend Mali mission to prevent medevac gap

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  • OTTAWA — The United Nations has formally asked Canada to extend its mission in Mali in what appears to be a last-ditch effort to prevent a gap in the provision of military medical evacuations for wounded peacekeepers and UN staff.

    The UN request is contained in a letter sent to the federal government at the end of February after months of quiet lobbying was met with steadfast resistance in Ottawa.

    The move is somewhat unusual because such formal requests are often only made when the UN believes it has a good chance of success, which is anything but certain in this particular circumstance.

    Yet the presence of a formal request also increases the pressure on Canada to respond positively after the government, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, repeatedly played down the gap.

    The timing is also noteworthy given that the UN hosts a major peacekeeping summit in New York next week, the first such meeting since Canada hosted a similar event in Vancouver in November 2017.

    Canada has eight helicopters and 250 military personnel in Mali, where they have been providing emergency medical evacuations and transporting troops and equipment across a large swath of the remote African country.

    The contingent is scheduled to end operations at the end of July, at which point it will pack up and leave before a Romanian force arrives to take over.

    However, the Romanians aren’t scheduled to begin operations until Oct. 15, meaning there will be a roughly two-and-a-half-month gap needed to be filled.

    In its Feb. 28 letter to the government, portions of which were read to The Canadian Press, the UN “kindly asks the government of Canada to consider a short extension of its contribution.”

    Specifically, it asks that Canada continue full operations until Sept. 15, and then more limited operations until Oct. 15 as the Canadians draw down and withdraw to make way for the Romanians.

    The unsigned letter goes on to say that “such an approach will bridge the gap” until the Romanian contingent can begin operations.

    The UN wanted a response by Friday. A UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities, said the federal government has since asked for a two-week extension.

    Officials for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is expected to attend next week’s peacekeeping summit in New York, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

    The federal government previously argued that the UN can fill the gap between the departure of the Canadians contingent and arrival of the Romanians with civilian contractors, as it has done in the past.

    The Liberals also suggested that Canada is actually supporting the UN by sticking to its schedule to end operations at the end of July, while downplaying the UN’s concerns about the gap.

    “We are confident, and we are hearing from the UN that there is no concern about that gap being a problem,” Trudeau told reporters during a visit to the Mali mission in December.

    The UN, which has faced shrinking budgets after the U.S. cut its funding to peacekeeping last year, argues that a short extension is more cost efficient given that Canada already has the people and equipment in Mali for the mission.

    Contracting civilian helicopters in Mali costs about $1 million per month, the UN official said.

    Civilian helicopters also aren’t able to provide the same level of comprehensive medical treatment that the Canadians are set up to offer, the UN has said, and are more restricted in when and where they can operate.

    NDP defence critic Randall Garrison, who called for the government to extend the mission after visiting Mali last month, said the letter “puts the lie” to the Liberals’ arguments for not extending the mission.

    He said not extending the mission “puts people’s lives at risk in Mali and it puts our international reputation at risk now that we know the UN has formally asked for an extension.”

    — Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

    Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press



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    Environment

    Eastern Canada braces for more flooding as forecast calls for rain

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  • MONTREAL — Communities across much of Eastern Canada are bracing for more flooding today, with rain in the forecast from central Ontario to northern New Brunswick.

    Officials in Quebec are keeping a close eye on a hydroelectric dam west that’s at risk of failing, while Ottawa’s mayor has declared an emergency and part of the Trans-Canada Highway has been closed in New Brunswick.

    The Chute-Bell dam west of Montreal has reached “millennial” water levels, meaning a flood that happens once every 1,000 years, but Hydro-Quebec says it’s confident the structure is solid.

    Simon Racicot, the utility’s director of production and maintenance, told reporters yesterday that “we are entering into an unknown zone right now — completely unknown.”

    Meantime, Ottawa has joined several smaller Ontario communities in declaring a state of emergency, with Mayor Jim Watson requesting help from the Canadian Forces.

    Farther east, New Brunswick’s Department of Transportation said the Trans-Canada Highway was fully closed from Oromocto to River Glade, and could remain closed for several days.

    And there’s not much relief in sight, with Environment Canada predicting rain for a large swath of Eastern Canada, from Georgian Bay to the Gaspe Peninsula.

    The Canadian Press


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    National

    Don’t make election about immigration, corporate Canada tells political leaders

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  • OTTAWA — Big business leaders worried about Canada’s aging demographics have been urging political parties to avoid inflaming the immigration debate ahead of this fall’s federal election.

    The head of the lobby group representing chief executives of Canada’s largest corporations said he’s already raised the issue with political leaders who are shifting into campaign mode for the October vote.

    With signs of public concern about immigration, Business Council of Canada president and CEO Goldy Hyder said he’s promoted the economic case in favour of opening the country’s doors to more people.

    “We are 10 years away from a true demographic pressure point,” Hyder said during a meeting with reporters Thursday in Ottawa. “What I’ve said to the leaders of the political parties on this issue is, ‘Please, please do all you can to resist making this election about immigration.’ That’s as bluntly as I can say it to them.”

    The message from corporate Canada comes at a time when public and political debate has focused on immigration, refugees and border security, to the point it could emerge as a key election issue, tempting parties fighting hard for votes.

    A poll released this month by Ekos Research Associates suggested that the share of people who think there are too many visible minorities in Canada is up “significantly,” even though overall opposition to immigration has been largely unchanged in recent years and remains lower than it was in the 1990s.

    Canada has been ratcheting up its immigration numbers and it plans to welcome more. The Immigration Department set targets of bringing in nearly 331,000 newcomers this year, 341,000 in 2020 and 350,000 in 2021, according to its 2018 report to Parliament.

    As the baby-boomer generation ages, experts say Canada — like other western countries — will need a steady influx of workers to fill jobs and to fund social programs, like public health care, through taxes.

    Thanks to the stronger economy, Canadian companies have already been dealing with labour shortages. Healthy employment growth has tightened job markets, making it more difficult for firms to find workers.

    “Every job that sits empty is a person not paying taxes … We have job shortages across the country and they’re just not at the high end,” said Hyder, who added his members are well aware that immigration has become a tricky political issue.

    “We’re worried about that in the sense that the public can very easily go to a xenophobic place.”

    Hyder also brought up Quebec Premier Francois Legault’s election promise last year to cut annual immigration levels in his province by 20 per cent. Legault won the election after making the vow, even though Quebec faces significant demographic challenges.

    Earlier this week, the Bank of Canada noted the economic importance of immigration in its monetary policy report. Carolyn Wilkins, the central bank’s senior deputy governor, said without immigration, Canada’s labour force would cease adding workers within five years.

    “The fact we’ve got people that are buying things, that are using services, that are going to stores, that need houses — well, that creates a little bit of a boost to the economy,” Wilkins told a news conference in Ottawa when asked about the subject. “Certainly, immigration is a big part of the story in terms of potential growth, which will feed itself into actual growth.”

    Hyder said he’s personally part of a group called the Century Initiative, which would like to see Canada, a country of about 37 million, grow to 100 million people by 2100.

    The group was co-founded by Hyder and several others, including two members of the Trudeau government’s influential economic advisory council — Dominic Barton, global managing director of consulting firm McKinsey & Co., and Mark Wiseman, a senior managing director for investment management giant BlackRock Inc. Hyder was a business consultant before joining the business council and was once a top aide to federal Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark.

    The Century Initiative wants Canada to responsibly expand its population as a way to help drive its economic potential.

    “Demographics are not going to be relying on just making babies, we’re going to need immigration,” Hyder said. “We have to be able to communicate that from an economic perspective, but cognizant of the social concerns that people have.”

    —Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

    Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press


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