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Former Syrian White Helmet rescuers, reluctantly resettled, embrace their new lives in Canada

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As Maysoon al-Masri struck out for the Israeli border with Syria on a pitch-black night last summer, she struggled with second thoughts — and with the kind of homesick remorse that is impossible to shake.

The former journalist and her husband slipped through the dark, ruined streets of Daraa in southwestern Syria toward a pre-arranged meeting point on the border, where — with the help of the Israeli military — they became exiles, travelling west in the hope of a new, peaceful life.

« I was really upset. I didn’t want to leave home, » al-Masri told CBC News in an exclusive interview. « It was like ripping roots from the ground. »

As she and her husband approached the border, she was struck by the knowledge that she might never see her family again.

Over almost five years, al-Masri bore witness to some of the most terrifying, brutal episodes of her country’s long, unfinished civil war.

Moments of grace punctuate her horrific memories like bright lights in a dark room. Carrying a wounded young boy to hospital in her arms. Squeezing the hand of a woman writhing in pain, whose burn dressings were being changed without medication.

CBC News has learned Canada has accepted 117 Syrian refugees — former White Helmet emergency volunteers and their families, rescued in a dramatic international evacuation in July.

That extraordinary effort involving Israel, Britain, France and Germany was driven by Canada, which repeatedly has singled out the volunteer first responders as heroes.

Several Western countries, including Canada, agreed to resettle the volunteers, who have waited months in a United Nations refugee camp in Jordan.

The now-former White Helmets destined for this country arrived quietly last week and will find new homes in four provinces: British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nova Scotia.

CBC News was granted exclusive access when the largest group of seven families arrived at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Tuesday. Some stayed in southern Ontario, while others moved on to different provinces and new homes.

It was a low-key welcome, with only a single representative of the White Helmets in Canada there to greet them — a stark contrast to the scene three years ago, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally welcomed the first wave of 52,000 Syrian refugees to this country.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets 16-month-old Madeleine Jamkossian, right, and her father Kevork Jamkossian, refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, during their arrival at Pearson International airport, in Toronto, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Among the recent arrivals was al-Masri, who visited Canada last spring as part of an international outreach effort by the White Helmets, who are condemned as terrorists and propagandists by the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad and his ally Russia.

Both governments have gone as far as to accuse the first responders of faking atrocities.

The White Helmets — runners-up for the last Nobel Peace Prize and likely to be nominated again this year by human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler — have witnessed and documented the savagery being inflicted upon ordinary people in Syria.

Backed by Russian airpower last spring, Assad’s forces drove towards Daraa, which has been described as the cradle of the rebellion — one of the first cities to rise up in protest during the 2011 Arab Spring.

The White Helmets in the city had a target on their backs — something that became obvious as government troops started cutting off roads in the region.

They knew what their fate would be if they stayed. They knew what would happen to their parents, spouses and children.

« The reason we left was to escape arrest, » said al-Masri in a translated interview. « We are not scared of dying. We’re scared of being tortured and what would happen to our families. Our situation was very dangerous. »

The evacuation plan emerged in early July after Robin Wettlaufer, Ottawa’s special envoy to Syria, received an urgent appeal from one of the leaders of the group.

It was a risky plan, one that relied largely on coordination inside Syria through WhatsApp text messages — which al-Masri said worked fine only when they had internet access.

The international community expected to remove up to 1,200 evacuees — first responders and their families. In the end, only 422 Syrian White Helmets and their families managed to get out last July.

Hundreds remain trapped in Syria. Some of those who tried to escape through other means were betrayed by their neighbours — and even by rebels who had been granted safe passage out of the area by the Russians.

« There were people from the neighbourhoods that knew us, » she said. « Rebels would go talk to them when buses would come up to checkpoints. The rebels would get on the bus and anyone that they knew worked for the White Helmets, they would take them away. »

‘We are not scared of dying. We’re scared of being tortured and what would happen to our families,’ al-Masri says. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

The fate of those arrested is unknown, al-Masri said.

Some White Helmets still trapped in Syria managed to make it to rebel-controlled territory. Some of them have sent texts to al-Masri pleading with her to get them out.

One such appeal arrived recently from a friend. Al-Masri said she has not answered yet — because she doesn’t know what to say.

She said she believes the international community must undertake a renewed attempt to rescue the rescuers who desperately want to leave.

Al-Masri offered an extraordinary account of life in the Azraq refugee camp, which is home to 40,000 other Syrians who have fled to neighbouring Jordan.

Upon arrival, she said, their smartphones and electronics were confiscated. The devices were wiped and returned only as the UN was escorting them to the airport for departure, said al-Masri.

The White Helmet volunteers and their families lived in the camp in metal huts as temperatures hovered around 40 C for two months.

There was infrequent and incomplete access to doctors and medical staff, she said.

One of the women who was resettled in Canada with al-Masri, and who did not want to be interviewed, was pregnant during the evacuation and gave birth only two weeks ago.

She had trouble getting access to a doctor in the camp, al-Masri claimed.

Muzna Dureid, who represents the White Helmets in Canada and was at the airport to welcome them, said she hopes the misery is over for these former first responders.

« It’s giving them a safe space, peace, and what they need … protection, » she said.

They left the war behind. The memories will follow them forever.

Just prior to boarding the flight for Canada, al-Masri learned her 32-year-old nephew, also a White Helmet, died recently.

« What we lived through was difficult and we will need time to move on from the memories, » she said.

« Even now, even though we know we’re safe, the sounds of the missiles and bombings are still here. When a car drives by us, or we hear a weird noise, we automatically try to get into position and take cover. »

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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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