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Pass the peas, keep the peace: How to keep politics from ruining Thanksgiving

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All across Canada, people have been bracing themselves for this weekend’s awkward Thanksgiving dinner conversations.

Holidays aren’t politics-free zones in Canada — some election victories in recent history may have hinged on them. The Christmas-New Year’s break in the 2005-06 is believed to have been a turning point in favour of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, while Thanksgiving 2015 could have sealed the majority win for Justin Trudeau.

In the United States, some research has shown that Donald Trump is ruining Thanksgiving — for real. One intriguing study of cellphone data showed that politically divided American families were cutting short their Thanksgiving visits in 2016, presumably to escape dinner-wrecking discussions.

“This is no longer (just) politics in Washington. It’s now politics in their hometowns. It’s in their family. It’s the Thanksgiving table,” said Tim Dixon, co-founder of More in Common, an international organization that has been doing extensive work on identity and polarization in the U.S. and Europe. “Division has invaded their own private space.”

Dixon was in Ottawa last week to talk at about what he calls the “exhausted majority” — a reportedly vast group in the middle of the polarized landscape of the United States which is fed up with both the extremes and the status quo.

Don’t assume you can change people’s opinions these days with mere facts and reason. Much of modern politics, according to this research, is being driven by tribal-type thinking. “People are lining up with their tribe,” Dixon said. “The way that they think about an issue like police brutality against African Americans, or feminism, or Muslim immigration, or refugees … people just line up (behind others who share their views.) There doesn’t seem to be a lot of independent thought almost being exercised.”

Stop lecturing about diversity. This is advice that may appeal to former Conservative MP Maxime Bernier, founder of the new People’s Party and an opponent of what he calls “radical diversity.”

People have been mocking Bernier for that statement, but from my anecdotal evidence, that sentiment stretches beyond the People’s Party or even the conservative right these days. Dixon’s findings bear that out, too.

“We need to emphasize less the value of difference,” Dixon said. “This is not to say that diversity isn’t important … It’s to say that people get that already, and we need to frame it in a larger sense about the what we have in common, because people are not hearing enough about the commonality of our values.”

Forget this idea of trying to reclaim the political centre — or at least our old ideas of it. “When I talk about the middle, I think the really important insight is it’s not the way that we would’ve talked about the middle in a past political generation …. the parties of the left moving toward the right and parties to the right embracing social liberalism,” said Dixon. “It’s a different dynamic now. … The middle is angry, they’re anti-status quo, they want to see things change.”

Don’t try to paper over polarized differences with platitudes or empty phrases about politics and democracy. The “exhausted middle” cannot be described as “namby-pamby, kumbaya kind of mushy middle people” in Dixon’s parlance.

“They’re against the status quo, and this is where the centrists, the centre, is different to what it was,” he said. “They really think the system’s corrupt … They want disruption, they want change. They want to ‘drain the swamp.’”

Dixon and the More in Common group hail from the progressive side of the political spectrum, so you might have expected him to have some harsh things to say about how the hard-right conservatives and populists have been playing on people’s anxieties.

But it was a refreshing, even surprising part of his presentation to hear him be critical of how so-called “cosmopolitans” have been mishandling the debates on this score.

“They tend to talk down to people in the middle groups, and a lot of what we pick up in focus groups across different countries is a sort of resentment,” Dixon said. “The ‘liberal-elite’ thing that the right often talks about is a real thing.”

That’s probably a good tip for dinner conversation, too, no matter which side of the table you’re sitting on: Don’t talk down to your family and friends. And happy Thanksgiving.

Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: sdelacourt@thestar.ca or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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