OTTAWA — A YouTuber who gives investment tips helped fund the escape of 170 Afghans from the Taliban to Canada.
David Lee, an investor who lives in Texas, helped a large group of stranded Afghans get to the Pakistan border after the Taliban took control last August.
The Hazaras, who arrived in Calgary earlier this week, included filmmakers, members of Afghanistan’s artistic community and human-rights activists.
They fled Kabul last summer when the Taliban took control but were stranded in Kandahar, in the south of Afghanistan, with no funds to get to the Pakistan border. They had days to get to a border crossing before it closed but had spent all their money fleeing Kabul.
Lee, who had previously funded the escape of a group of 38 Hazaras to Pakistan, as well as emergency food shipments to Afghanistan, was contacted by an Afghan from an aid organization in the United States to see if he could urgently help.
Members of the 170-strong group do not want to be identified for fear of Taliban reprisals against friends and family.
Taliban fundamentalists have targeted democracy and women activists, as well as musicians, smashing their instruments and beating them up, according to Sen. Salma Ataullahjan, who was born in Pakistan and has contacts with many Afghans. She said one professional Afghan musician she knows buried his instrument for fear of persecution.
The Taliban has also imposed harsh restrictions on what Afghans can watch and banned women from appearing in television dramas, according to a report by the BBC. The Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has instructed broadcasters not to screen movies or programs that are “against Islamic or Afghan values.”
With some of his YouTube followers, Lee raised around US$12,000 within hours to fund taxi fares and other costs to enable the refugees to get to a crossing into Pakistan before the border closed.
Lee, who gives investment education via YouTube, had previously helped a group of 38 Afghans, including the family of a student at the University of British Columbia, to cross the Pakistan border. He warned the contact who asked him for help that the group had just days to get out of the country before the Afghan-Pakistan border near Quetta closed.
But local bus services that could have got them to the border ceased after the Taliban took power.
“They wanted to cross the border but they were stuck. They had used up all their money to get to Kandahar. Taxis were charging prices ten times higher than usual. I had helped 38 others cross the border and I said, ‘Your group needs to move as soon as possible,’” he said.
“I tapped my network and a bunch of people who watch investors’ videos, and within a few hours we got the fees — it was about $12,000 for their costs, most of it for transportation. They made it out just in the nick of time. A couple of days later the land border shut.”
The money was wired to Pakistan where a go-between managed to arrange transportation for the group of Hazaras.
Hazaras are one of Afghanistan’s largest minorities and speak Hazaraqi, a dialect of Persian. They are also found in parts of Iran and Pakistan, with a large population in Quetta. Historically they have faced persecution in Afghanistan, including by the mainly Pashtun Taliban.
The border, near Quetta, closed within days of the refugees crossing. Some of the group almost did not make it across, Lee said. One man spent three days at the border trying to persuade the guards to let him cross. At the border, the refugees had their luggage taken away from them and then returned on the Pakistan side.
From the border they journeyed to Quetta where they ended up sleeping on the floor of an unheated marriage hall.
In Islamabad, with the help of human-rights groups, they were referred to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which referred them to Canada’s “special humanitarian program” — one of two set up to help bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada. The program is intended to help vulnerable groups including human-rights activists, women leaders, persecuted religious or ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people and journalists.
In Islamabad, Lee said, Canadian embassy staff interviewed the refugees and took biometric data before approving immigration to Canada.
The Hazaras were part of a group of 252 Afghan refugees welcomed to Canada by immigration minister Sean Fraser on Tuesday, and the first admitted through the special humanitarian program.
The day after their plane touched down in Calgary, the leader of the group messaged Lee to tell him the entire group was now on Canadian soil and safe and well.
The group is now in isolation in a Calgary hotel and will travel to Edmonton when they emerge from quarantine, Lee said.
Lee, who lives in Texas, is hoping to travel to Edmonton to meet members of the group when the pandemic wanes.
“I was so delighted personally when they arrived,” he said. “Their lives and those of future generations will be changed forever.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2022.
Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press
Calgary man who admitted to participating in terrorism activity to be sentenced
CALGARY — A man who admitted to terrorism-related acts with the militant group Islamic State is to be sentenced today in a Calgary courtroom.
Hussein Borhot, who is 36, has pleaded guilty to one count of participating in terrorism group activity between May 9, 2013, and June 7, 2014, as well as to kidnapping for a terrorist group while in Syria.
RCMP arrested him in July 2020 after a seven-year investigation.
An agreed statement of facts read in court last month said Borhot travelled to Syria through Turkey to join the Islamic State.
The statement said he signed up as a fighter, received substantial training and excelled as a sniper, but did not tell his wife or father before the trip.
Court heard that Borhot revealed much of the information to an undercover officer after he returned to Canada.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2022.
The Canadian Press
Cheese not on the table in Canada-U.K. trade talks as Britain seeks market access
OTTAWA — The British foreign secretary has often been mocked for her preoccupation with cheese. It started eight years ago when Liz Truss expressed outrage in a speech to her party’s annual conference.
“We import two thirds of our cheese,” she raged. “That is a disgrace.”
Now Truss is facing another battle over cheese, this time with Canada.
Britain wants greater access to Canadian markets for more than 700 varieties of cheese including Stilton, Cheshire, and Wensleydale, a crumbly variety originating from Yorkshire.
But Ottawa has made it clear it does not want to see more British cheddar, let alone artisan varieties such as stinking bishop, renegade monk and Hereford hop, on Canadian fridge shelves.
During the first round of negotiations of the U.K.-Canada trade deal, Canada told Britain that a larger quota for British cheese is not on the negotiating table.
When it was a European Union member, Britain was part of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada, giving it some access to Canada’s cheese market.
After the U.K. left the EU, a “continuity agreement” with Canada was swiftly put in place to maintain the CETA arrangement until a bilateral trade deal could be struck.
Ralph Goodale, Canada’s high commissioner to the U.K., said if Britain wants more access to Canadian markets for its cheese as part of a bilateral free-trade agreement, it will have to knock on Brussels’ door and get its part of the dairy quota back.
“The point is we have already provided that volume in the EU deal and the British left it there without taking it with them,” he said in an interview. “That’s an issue they need to resolve with the Europeans because the Europeans have their quota.”
Goodale said the U.K.’s request for extra access for British cheese — on top of the access given to the EU — is “what the Canadian negotiators consider to be pretty much a dead end.”
“You are talking about a double concession — one we have already made to the EU and the request is being made by the U.K. for yet another one on top of that,” he said.
The high commissioner said Canada values its trading relationship with the U.K., adding that he is confident that a mutually-beneficial trade deal will be reached.
But if Canada allows the British to export more of their cheese it would involve “a major commitment of compensation to dairy producers” in Canada to make up for lost incomes.
In 2018, after the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement gave the U.S. fresh access to the Canadian dairy market, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would compensate Canadian dairy farmers.
Canada’s dairy industry was worth over $7 billion in 2020, according to the Canadian Dairy Commission’s annual report.
There are over 10,000 dairy farms in Canada — most of them in Quebec and Ontario — with an average of 92 cows per farm, it said.
Until at least the end of next year, Britain will be able to keep exporting its cheese to Canada under the trade continuity agreement, the U.K.’s trade department said.
This allows U.K. cheese exporters to access the Canadian market tariff-free under the EU portion of Canada’s World Trade Organization cheese tariff rate quota.
As part of the 1995 WTO agreement on agriculture, Canada established tariff rate quotas for cheese and other dairy products. The quotas set out quantities of dairy that could enter Canada with little or no duty.
For Britain, a fully fledged free trade deal with Canada is crucial after Brexit left it looking for fresh tariff-free markets.
“We want to negotiate an ambitious and comprehensive new agreement with Canada that will strengthen our close and historic bilateral trade relationship,” said a U.K. government trade spokesman in a statement, adding the relationship was worth about $34.5 billion in 2021.
In March, U.K. Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan flew to Canada to announce with Canada’s Trade Minister Mary Ng that bilateral negotiations had officially begun.
In a speech in the House of Lords in London earlier this month, Goodale reported on progress in the talks, saying that “both sides are optimistic that, as good as CETA and the continuity agreement were, we can do better still when Canada and the U.K. negotiate a deal face-to-face, directly with each other.”
Like Goodale, Ng said Canada is confident a free-trade deal with Britain will be reached, enhancing co-operation in a number of areas, including on renewables, sustainability and the digital economy.
“Canada values the relationship with the United Kingdom. They are … an important trading partner and a trade agreement with the U.K. will be very good for Canadian businesses,” she said in a phone interview from Thailand last weekend.
But she was also firm about the need to protect Canada’s dairy producers, and that means keeping more British cheese out.
“I have been very clear, our government has been very clear, that we will not provide access to our supply-managed sector,” she said. “We have been clear about that from the get-go.”
The Canadian dairy sector now produces 1,450 varieties of cheese, including ewe, goat and buffalo varieties, as well as the cheese curds used in the Québécois dish poutine.
At least half of Canada’s cheese is made in Quebec, which is home to a number of artisan varieties including bleu l’ermite, or blue hermit, and Oka, a popular semi-soft rind cheese.
Pierre Lampron, president of the Dairy Farmers of Canada, has made it clear he will fiercely protect Canadian cheese from British interlopers.
Lampron said he had “validated that the issue of access to the Canadian dairy market was not on the agenda of these trade talks.”
Canada’s protectionist stance toward its dairy industry may have pleased farmers. But it has caused some tension with close allies.
Earlier this month, New Zealand launched a formal trade dispute against Canada, accusing the federal government of breaking promises to give access for dairy imports under the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.
The Biden administration also recently said it was asking for a second dispute settlement panel under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement to review a trade dispute with Canada over dairy import quotas.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2022.
Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press
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