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Justin Trudeau’s India trip highlighted the power of social media

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Justin Trudeau’s disastrous trip to India can now be considered globally infamous.

The Washington Post released a list of the 10 most-read columns in its Global Opinions section on Thursday, and not one but two of those pieces were about Trudeau’s trip to India last February.

When I sat down with him in Montreal for the Star’s interview, I asked him exactly what he regretted about it — or at least, what he’d learned from the reputation-bruising experience.

It was, Trudeau said, a lesson in the downside of social-media sensationalism, which has often played to his advantage. In other words, just as it doesn’t take much effort or depth to go viral in a good way, one misstep can also go viral in a very bad way.

“A story with me and Trump in it gets more ‘likes’ or a story about my socks gets coverage,” he explained. “Those are all sort of positive. But the flip side is also true …. It started with a few people pointing out that there was a theoretical snub at the airport, even though there wasn’t. And that started a line.”

Trudeau said he found it notable that journalists on the trip saw it very differently from those who were watching from afar. These reporters “had a very different experience than those who were writing headlines and seeing what was getting clicks in the online world.”

But he says in retrospect that communications around the trip, as well as some security issues, were obviously bungled. Earlier this month, the special parliamentary committee on national security issued its report on the trip, specifically on how Jaspal Atwal, a man convicted of attempted murder, had made it into events organized by the Canadian delegation to India.

Trudeau said that some elements of the trip, especially “people-to-people relations” with business and trade interests in India, went well.

“But it all got overshadowed by this narrative that caught fire, that had we been quicker to respond or had we thought about it differently … it might have been salvageable,” he said, though also noting that the Atwal issue was a “genuine, substantive” problem with how the trip was organized.

What Trudeau didn’t spell out for me, or any of his other year-end interviewers, was the thinking behind what most people will vividly remember about the trip — the wardrobe choices, the cringeworthy efforts at cultural appropriation, dancing and bowing, and so on. Presumably all that has been rethought — we likely shouldn’t expect to see Trudeau sporting any other national attire anytime soon. More generally, maybe it can be even be added to the rules for all politicians about avoiding hats or any photos that show them eating.

Quite apart from India, Trudeau also seems to be thinking a lot as he heads into 2019 about how bad news travels quickly on social media. He said he is aware, for instance, that foreign actors may try to harness this power to make trouble for all kinds of political people during the election, as security experts have been warning.

“There are going to be attempts by groups around the world, whether they are actual state actors or subgroups in different countries, to try and shift the narrative,” he said.

What surprised me somewhat, though, was what Trudeau saw as the antidote to mischief, misuse or worse on the social media front.

“There’s all sorts of things we can and must do around the tools,” he said. “But the biggest and most important thing … is educating the public.”

Cynical or even skeptical people might wonder, as I did, whether this sounds a little inadequate to the magnitude of the democratic threat. But no, the prime minister insisted, education is the best weapon against misinformation. “I think citizens who are thoughtful and aware of the kinds of forces and competing interests and narratives out there, they are a very, very powerful bulwark against that kind of challenge.”

The interview wasn’t long enough for me to ask him to parse that thought with his India trip experience. Is Trudeau saying that a little more knowledge might have thwarted the “narrative” that took hold on his India trip?

At any rate, it’s an enduring story, as the Washington Post’s top-10 list proves — and apparently a global one, too.

Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: sdelacourt@thestar.ca or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt

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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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