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OSPCA wants out of horse, livestock cruelty probes due to funding shortage

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Ontario’s animal welfare agency plans to pull back from investigating cruelty cases involving livestock and horses as part of a restructure that insiders say may eventually see all its resources go toward shelters and rescue programs.

The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, whose officers have police powers and can lay both provincial offence and criminal animal cruelty charges, said lack of funding and years of financial losses had led to the decision.

« We’re looking for help and we’re challenging the status quo, » said OSPCA spokeswoman Alison Cross. « Otherwise these challenges will never be addressed. We have to restructure. »

Sources say the OSPCA has been quietly discussing the merits of remaining in the animal cruelty investigation field altogether, citing increasing costs and the collapse of several high-profile cases, such as a probe involving Marineland, which have contributed to poor public perception of the organization.

Last week, the OSPCA called in its animal welfare officers from across the province for a meeting at its headquarters in Stouffville, Ont., north of Toronto. There, CEO Kate MacDonald laid out the organization’s plans for the future.

« During our meeting we felt it was important to begin our discussion on our new focus we’ll be undertaking over the next year, » said OSPCA deputy chief Jennifer Bluhm.

Part of the plan MacDonald discussed at the meeting was farming out animal cruelty protection of large farm animals to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

Not notified of plan, province says

That was news to the Progressive Conservative government, which pays the OSPCA $5.75 million each year under an agreement that stipulates the agency is responsible for running a call centre to respond to animal cruelty tips, a major case team to investigate complex cases, a registry of zoos and aquariums and specialists to investigate those facilities, as well as animal cruelty coverage of First Nations and northern Ontario.

A government spokesman said the OSPCA had not notified the province of its plan. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs assists with inspections and investigations related to farm animals when requested by the OSPCA or police, but it does not have the authority to enforce the provisions of the OSPCA Act, Brent Ross said in an email.

« In the event the OSPCA no longer performs these duties, police services have authority to enforce animal welfare laws, » he said.

The OSPCA said it has for years operated its enforcement arm at a significant financial loss and had to balance the books by pulling from its donor dollars that it uses to fund its other operations, which include shelters and rescue programs. The OSPCA said that will stop by 2019.

The agency brought in $7 million from donations and fundraising last year, according to its 2017 financial report. It took in about $2.4 million in municipal contract fees and $2.1 million in shelter and veterinary revenue. The report states animal care and protection cost nearly $14 million.

The OSPCA said it continues to respond to livestock cruelty concerns, but hopes that the provincial government will take over that role.

However, some of the officers who attended the agency meeting last week said they were left with the impression that the move was imminent.

« We are no longer all things to all animals…We are no longer investing in investigations, » MacDonald said at the meeting, according to two officers who were present but did not want their names used for fear of being fired.

« It sounds like we’ll become a dog and cat cruelty organization, » one of the officers said. « Those are much easier to deal with. »

No organization can do work alone​: OSPCA

When asked about the CEO’s remarks, the OSPCA said it strives to be a leader in animal welfare, but that no single organization can do the work alone.

« As we restructure, the Society will turn to other industry experts to assist in addressing concerns for animal welfare, » Cross, the spokeswoman, said.

There are currently 71 officers who respond to animal cruelty concerns across the entire province, down from about 200 a decade ago.

The OSPCA started as an animal shelter in 1873. In 1919, it entered into an agreement with the provincial government to enforce animal cruelty laws through legislation that created the OSPCA Act. The OSPCA received little government funding until 2012 when then-Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty decided to augment their enforcement abilities and give them more than $5 million annually to carry out those new responsibilities.

A 2016 report titled Difference Makers: Understanding and Improving the OSPCA’s Animal Cruelty Investigation Network found that the majority of officers are poorly paid, work in the field alone often facing dangerous circumstances, and are responsible for « extremely large geographic regions. »

One of the authors, Kendra Coulter, the chair of labour studies at Brock University, said funding for the OSPCA is insufficient.

« The idea of using donor dollars to help fund the enforcement of public laws, to me, is very problematic, » she said. « (But) I don’t think abandoning large groups of animals, many of whom are the most vulnerable, is the appropriate response to financial constraints. »

Coulter also criticized the entire set up of a private charity using public money to enforce the law, citing lack of transparency and accountability.

« It’s an organization with a board and upper management that makes a range of decisions on how to spend public money and the public has few opportunities to better understand how those decisions are made, » she said.

Financial struggles

Internal documents show the agency has been struggling financially for years.

In November 2016, it was forced to disband its major case management team, a centralized group of specialized investigators tackling complex cases like dogfighting rings and allegations of cruelty at zoos and aquariums, according to an internal memo.

The agency said the team was struggling to keep up with more than 15 complex cases per year, so it decided to instead deploy specialists throughout the province, a tactic that was more efficient.

Mike Zimmerman, a former manager of animal welfare with the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services who was involved in the drafting of the 2012 agreement, said the agency crying poor was a false argument.

« They were doing investigations entirely on their own income when the government said we’d like to help with that and provide money for additional services and strategies, » he said. « And they’d had little government money going back to 1919. »

Zimmerman said under the 2012 agreement, the government was never meant to provide all the funds for enforcement, adding the OSPCA fundraises on the backs of their cruelty investigations.

« They’re operating in a way that ignores their primary reason to be, which is to protect animals in Ontario — all animals, » he said.

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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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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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