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Watchdog forum has its eyes on Sidewalk Labs Quayside development

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Sidewalk Labs’ controversial plan to build a data-driven neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront is probably one of the most heavily scrutinized development proposals in the city’s recent memory.

The dizzying list of groups looking into the “smart city” project include the tech and privacy experts on the digital strategy advisory panel providing advice to Waterfront Toronto, Sidewalk Labs’ data governance advisory working group, and an advisory council of urban thinkers and executives in Canada that is providing input to Sidewalk Labs.

Sidewalk also has a residents reference panel, made up of randomly selected Torontonians, and Waterfront Toronto hosts public roundtables on the Sidewalk proposal and is planning special “civic labs” where interested people can discuss concerns about the project that will feed into the roundtables.

Now another group has come together to jump into the mix.

Formed in mid-October, the Toronto Open Smart Cities Forum has no ties to either Waterfront Toronto or Sidewalk Labs.

The forum is a “self-directed” group comprised of experts specializing in areas such as the law, technology, real estate, data, and housing. While the forum is primarily focused on providing input to Sidewalk Toronto’s community engagement process, their long-term goal is providing support to the public in Canadian cities dealing with other smart city projects.

“What we’re trying to start is a dialogue that tries to establish what a more open and public kind of smart city infrastructure and policy would look like,” says the co-chair of the forum’s steering committee, David Murakami Wood, Canada research chair in surveillance studies, and associate professor in the department of sociology at Queen’s University.

Is the forum opposed to the Sidewalk project?

“It would be inaccurate to describe this as an anti-Sidewalk group,” Murakami Wood says.

He says the group is about “establishing a vision for how this might work in Toronto and elsewhere,” Murakami Wood adds.

“I don’t think there is anybody in the group who is a massive cheerleader of Sidewalk. That’s certainly true. We don’t need any more of that. There’s plenty of that going on,” he adds.

Waterfront Toronto, a body representing the federal, provincial and municipal governments, is overseeing the Sidewalk proposal. Sidewalk is expected to complete a master plan for the project, likely sometime next year. The plan must be approved by Waterfront Toronto.

Sidewalk wants to build a high-tech community on a track of land called Quayside, located near Parliament and Queens Quay. The neighbourhood would feature sensors to measure temperature and weather conditions and utilize so-call urban data — information collected from people in Quayside’s physical environment — but controversy has been raised about who will own the data, control it and make money from it.

Sidewalk, a Manhattan-based sister firm of Google, recently came out with digital governance proposals, saying no one should own the data. Sidewalk is also calling for the establishment of an independent civic data trust that would oversee and control the data.

Murakami Wood says he is “skeptical” of the Sidewalk proposal.

“They are private, for-profit companies looking to make money from individual and collective data, and that fundamentally can’t be forgotten,” he says.

“We want any development to be done in ways that are for the public good, and in ways where residents have a say and degree of control over what happens, particularly when it comes to the streets we walk on and the data collected about us,” says Brenda McPhail, a member of the forum steering committee and director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s privacy, technology and surveillance project.

The forum is receiving administrative support from the Centre For Free Expression, in Toronto.

Shauna Brail, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, and a senior associate in the innovation policy lab at the Munk School of global affairs, says the forum and the criticisms surrounding the Sidewalk project are symptomatic of a larger trend.

“In many ways, this is part of what has been referred to as a techlash (a backlash against powerful technology firms) — an increasingly global phenomena,” Brail says.

The forum has members who recently stepped back from direct involvement in the Sidewalk review process, including Saadia Muzaffar, a tech expert who resigned recently from Waterfront Toronto’s digital strategy advisory group, in part over concerns about the control of data.

This past weekend, Ann Cavoukian, former Information and Privacy commissioner of Ontario, resigned from Sidewalk’s data governance advisory group, concerned that the proposed protection of personal data in the project “is not acceptable.” However, she is not a member of the new forum.

Sidewalk says it’s moving ahead with the proposal.

“No one is proposing to hand over public space to Sidewalk Labs. In fact, it is quite the opposite. A cornerstone of our proposal is that no private group, including Sidewalk Labs, will own urban data and any information gathered should be freely and publicly accessible through an independent civic data trust, which will set clear rules around privacy and how data is collected, stored, and used,” said Sidewalk spokesperson Dan Levitan.

Donovan Vincent is a housing reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent

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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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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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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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