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Grassy Narrows leader Steve Fobister dead at 66

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When Steve Fobister came to protest outside the Legislature in 2014, the former fishing guide and chief came with his tent and an ultimatum.

Fobister, who was suffering from a degenerative neurological disorder, wanted a care home for those suffering from mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Steve Fobister at home in 2015.
Steve Fobister at home in 2015.  (FreeGrassy.net)

“He said quite calmly: ‘I will stay until I get some action. Or until I die,’ ” recalled former Indigenous affairs minister David Zimmer. “Though he and his community had a lot to be really angry about, he was a gentle person. His goal was to do something about it.”

Fobister’s brief hunger strike got Ontario’s attention and a promise to explore building a home.

He did not live long enough to see the facility built or any of the recent promises by lawmakers come to his community. Fobister died Thursday, not at home close to his relatives and culture, but in a Kenora, Ont., hospital after shuttling between there and a Thunder Bay facility 600 kilometres from Grassy Narrows.

Like a lot of the young men at the time, Fobister was a trapper and fishing guide to wealthy tourists who came to Grassy Narrows and the famous Ball Lake Lodge camp. He frequently ate the fish.

During the 1960s, the Dryden pulp and paper mill, operated by Reed Paper, dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River that feeds Grassy Narrows downstream. The potent neurotoxin contaminated the fish and poisoned the people who ate it. They developed tremors, slurred speech and tunnel vision, and lost muscle co-ordination. Scientists strongly suspect that old mercury still contaminates the mill site and continues to pollute the river.

What many residents of Grassy Narrows have, according to Japanese scientists, is Minamata disease — also known as methylmercury poisoning. It was first discovered in 1956 in Japan and takes its name from Minamata city.

Leg cramps, a stutter and loss of balance forced Fobister to stop working as a railroad engineer in the early 1970s. He was examined by Japanese researchers and diagnosed with mercury poisoning, he said.

He then became a band councillor, politically active on the reserve. An old photo, published in the Star in 1978, shows Fobister and Grassy Narrows resident Fred Land leaning on an Ontario government sign posted in their community. It says, “Check Before You Eat,” and provides guidelines on the consumption of contaminated fish.

Photograph of Steve Fobister (left) that ran in the Star in 1978.
Photograph of Steve Fobister (left) that ran in the Star in 1978.  (Toronto Star file photo)

Fobister lived off the land and loved eating game, though in his final days he struggled to keep down duck soup, said his niece Christine Pahpasay.

Around the campfire, telling stories, he made bannock. “Oh, it was nice and thick, and so soft. It was no effort, it came to him naturally,” Pahpasay said.

“I think he was always a leader, even when he didn’t hold a title.”

Fobister was the Grand Chief of Treaty #3, Chief of Grassy Narrows for five terms, a probation officer, environmentalist, hunter, Ball Lake Lodge manager and hockey coach of the “Famous Grassy Narrows Rockies.”

He was fearless but wasn’t loud about it, said Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald, who joined Fobister in 2000 to protest clear-cutting of forests. “He was a very measured, calm, gentle, kind person. He loved his community. He was not afraid of anything. That’s the kind of person you want to go into a battle with.”

Fobister, along with government officials, helped set up the Mercury Disability Board in the mid 1980s to compensate those who can demonstrate symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning. The board has long been criticized by Fobister and others as being inadequate. The criteria for payments are too restrictive and the amounts too low, they have said.

In a statement sent to the provincial and federal governments Wednesday, the family said: “We call on you to admit at long last that Steve Fobister Sr. lived with mercury poisoning and died from mercury poisoning. … (Steve) was forced to fight for four decades for mercury justice in the face of denial, delay, and discrimination.”

When the Star visited him in 2016, Fobister attributed his hand weakness, slurred speech and difficulty swallowing to mercury poisoning. He said he got $250 per month. “A lot of people felt that I should have got the max” of $800.

“(Doctors) tell me that I have ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). I also have mercury poisoning. I’m also a diabetic,” he said. “It’s been hard living.”

In the living room of his small house, Fobister, his body stooped and inert, looked out the window.

“You look at the lake. It looks good, it looks clean, the fish look all right. How to believe that something like that could turn against you?”

He seemed weary of fighting.

“Look at me. I’m a sick old man. … My community is sick. … We’ve done this for 40 years and nothing has changed. My life is gone. It’s been destroyed. I hope the future generation can have a better life than what I had.”

Former Grassy Narrows leader Steve Fobister died on October 11, 2018. Fobister suffered from a degenerative neurological disorder likely caused by mercury poisoning on the First Nation.

Fobister never stopped advocating for a better future for his people, though, telling a friend last fall that a healthcare facility on reserve “could be a beginning. …I think it is time that we should try to look after each other.”

Spurred in part by Fobister’s brief hunger strike, the disability board underwent a sweeping review. This led to the announcement this year that the province will retroactively index payments to inflation.

There have been other developments.

Recent research found eating fish with higher levels of mercury may be linked to a higher risk of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), though the ALS Association notes that the same finding has not been made across all studies.

And after the Star and scientists revealed that fish downstream near Grassy Narrows remain the most contaminated in the province and that there is mercury-contaminated soil and river sediment at or near the site of the old mill, the province committed $85 million to clean up the river. Then the federal government pledged to help build the care home that will help some of the sickest residents.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer with Fobister at Queen's Park in 2014 during his hunger strike.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer with Fobister at Queen’s Park in 2014 during his hunger strike.  (Robert Benzie/Toronto Star file photo)

“Steve leaves behind him a legacy of powerful advocacy and courage. He was a testament not only to his community, Treaty 3 and the Anishinabe people of northern Ontario, but he set a standard for leadership for others to follow,” new Ontario Indigenous affairs minister Greg Rickford said.

And on Wednesday federal Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott reaffirmed her government’s commitment to help build the home. She said money has already been provided for planning and design. The facility could include palliative care, physiotherapy, counselling and traditional healing.

About 150 people gathered for Fobister’s funeral service, the room smelling of sage and cedar. Elders closed the ceremony with an Anishinabe version of the Travelling Song played on a hand drum.

Fobister was wrapped in a white blanket and then a black one, each adorned with Indigenous designs, and then buried. Family members were then told to walk to their vehicles and not look back.

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Anglais

‘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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Anglais

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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Anglais

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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