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Ford threatens walkout as provincial officials criticize agenda for first ministers conference

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As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the premiers of the provinces and territories gather for talks in Montreal, bickering over the meeting’s agenda has escalated to the point where not all of the participants are sure they still want to be there.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is now suggesting he may walk out of the meeting early — or not turn up at all — if his concerns aren’t addressed.

« No one should assume the premier of Ontario is prepared to spend his Friday sitting through a series of lectures from federal cabinet ministers, » a senior official in Doug Ford’s office told CBC News Thursday. « We are considering our options. We hope it doesn’t come to that. »

The agenda for the meeting — originally intended to be a stock-taking on a range of economic and trade issues, including the recently signed revised North American trade agreement and stalled efforts to reduce internal trade barriers — is now the focus of a dispute that threatens to overshadow policy discussions.

On Tuesday, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe wrote to Trudeau asking that the « crisis facing the energy industry » be added to the agenda. The Prime Minister’s Office told CBC News on Tuesday that the energy crisis would fit in with the planned discussion.

Provincial officials told CBC News Wednesday that they want Trudeau and his ministers to listen to their priorities. The draft agenda that was circulated, said one provincial official, « had the prime minister fitting in a train of his cabinet ministers to lecture the premiers on the topics of his choosing. »

The official in Ford’s office said the premier will make his decision after he meets privately with Trudeau Thursday afternoon in Montreal, just before 4 p.m. ET.

« As it stands right now, the agenda is one we are not happy with, » the official said. « And certainly we are leaving our options open to how we respond if the prime minister digs his heels in. »

In an interview Wednesday, Moe said he didn’t intend to leave the Montreal meeting early, despite his concerns over whether the agenda addresses issues that matter to his government — oil prices, the federal carbon tax, pipeline construction and controversial federal reforms to the rules for environmental assessments on energy projects.

Separately, Quebec Premier ​François ​Legault said he wants the discussion Friday to focus on American tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum products and compensation for dairy farmers hurt by the revised NAFTA deal. In a statement, Legault said he’d also be raising Quebec’s demand for more compensation to cover the cost of irregular asylum seekers.

Premiers requested meeting

When the Council of the Federation met last July, the premiers as a group — including Ford — asked Trudeau for a first ministers meeting focused on the economy by the end of the year.

Trudeau obliged quickly with a statement inviting the premiers to join him for talks focused on trade and the economy this fall, although the precise date and location for the talks now set for Friday in Montreal took several months to schedule.

The provincial committee tasked with working to reduce interprovincial trade barriers met last month but has yet to show significant progress. 

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister noted Wednesday that current interprovincial trade barriers impose great costs on Canada’s economy, equivalent to a seven per cent tariff on goods that cross provincial borders.

Friday’s agenda, as it stands, is supposed to begin with a meeting between all the premiers and Indigenous leaders, followed by talks between the premiers, Trudeau and three members of his cabinet: Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc.

A private working dinner has been organized for the prime minister and the premiers for Thursday evening.

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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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