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How a Degrassi child star became a leading academic voice on legalizing weed

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When Rebecca Haines-Saah was 13, she saw an ad in the Toronto Sun looking for teenagers to star in what would become a cult classic Canadian TV show. Having experience in dance and theatre — she already had an agent — she showed up to the audition with a pink, cable-knit sweater and loads of teenage ambition.

The show was Degrassi Junior High, the drama that dealt with teen pregnancy, underage drinking and drug use. For many children growing up in the 1980s, it would become a cultural treasure.

Haines-Saah didn’t get the part of Melanie Brodie, whom she had auditioned to play, but the show’s writers were so enamoured with her acting chops that they created a new role for her: Melanie’s best friend, Kathleen Mead. The so-called Wicked Witch of Degrassi.

While Haines-Saah played the character for five seasons, she didn’t go on to become a professional actor. Instead, she reinvented herself as an academic. But the parallels between her childhood job and her career as an adult are all the more striking.

This episode of Degrassi Junior High is the first appearance for Kathleen Mead (blue sweater), played by Rebecca Haines-Saah. Joey Jeremiah ends up selling them vitamins as drugs. 1:08

The woman who played a teen experimenting with drugs, dealing with anorexia and coping with a mother addicted to alcohol now researches youth substance use and mental health at the University of Calgary.

The child star whose character once brought pot to a birthday party, grew up to become a leading academic voice in Alberta on the value of legalizing cannabis, arguing that jailing users created more harm than the drug itself.

« It’s that approach to engaging youth voices and putting youth stories at the centre, that really shapes my work, » says Haines-Saah, who teaches in the department of community health services and works with youth on video and photo projects to help share their stories.

Youth have something valuable to say

« That’s really a Degrassi-style approach to storytelling and to thinking youth have something valuable to say. If we want to help youth in any way, we need to talk to them and understand how they see the world, not our adult-centric perspective on life. »

Haines-Saah grew up in Toronto’s Regent Park, where she saw the rise of the crack epidemic, with people using and selling drugs, and engaging in sex work around her doorstep. She left that same stoop every morning to film on set, but she couldn’t get a taxi to drop her off close to home at day’s end, because of the way her neighbourhood was viewed.

Kathleen Mead had a streak of mischief. In this episode, she brings 2 joints to a birthday slumber party. 0:30

« I had this dual experience growing up, and it really did inform how I approach people who use drugs, the compassion that I think we need and why I challenge stigma, » she says.

There are some notable contrasts between her and the character she played for most of her teenage years.

Haines-Saah is warm and engaging. To be charitable, Kathleen was cold. A harsher assessment might peg her as a snooty mean girl. But her hostile demeanour was often a defence mechanism against her peers prying into her personal life, especially her troubled home.

She was a trivia master who wanted to excel at school and, most of all, make her parents proud. She once produced a science project with her bestie Melanie about the dangers of pollution and acid rain, and was crushed when it didn’t win at the school science fair.

Character could be mistaken for a nerd

Kathleen could have been mistaken for a nerd if it weren’t for her streak of mischief. In one episode, she finds a pair of cannabis joints and shares them with friends during a birthday party sleepover. The drama takes a turn when Melanie gets so high she reveals some of Kathleen’s deepest, darkest secrets, including that she’s in counselling.

« Kathleen, I don’t see what the big deal is, » her best friend blurts out. « You had anorexia. Your mom is an alcoholic. And your boyfriend beat you up. Most people would need counselling for even one of those things. »

Kathleen Mead had a reputation for being cold, including in this episode about a trivia contest. Haines-Saah says she sometimes had a hard time convincing fans she’s not the « evil character » she played on TV. 0:44

Despite her hard exterior, the character resonated with Haines-Saah, given that Kathleen’s home life « isn’t that far off from what many kids experience, » and given her « remarkable resilience » to all those challenges. Still, the actor sometimes got heckled on the streets of Toronto over her character’s harsh disposition.

« The male castmates had fun, » she says. « They had teenage girls chasing them around, trying to get into their hotel rooms and date them.

« I just got yelled at and called names. »

Haines-Saah starred in Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, along with a single appearance on Degrassi: The Next Generation. As a young Canadian actor, she didn’t lead a lavish life of luxury.

Awkward moments, worst hairstyles forever captured

« I don’t think I ever really experienced that type of uber celebrity that child stars have now, and in many ways I’m thankful for that, » she says. « But I have some of my most awkward teenage moments and worst hairstyles forever captured on film for everybody to see. »

While she played a young student, she missed three or four months of school a year. Her mom told her if her average fell below 80 per cent, she had to quit the show.

Rebecca Haines-Saah argues cannabis prohibition and scare-tactic campaigns like the poster hanging in her office did not stop youth from smoking pot. She says the policy did more harm than the drug itself. (Reid Southwick/CBC)

« I literally had a tutor driving me around on geography field trips around Ontario to look at granite outcrops and all kinds of other ridiculous things on the weekends, » she says. « I’d be writing a chemistry exam on set at 7 a.m. supervised by a production assistant and then sending it over to the school. »

Academics were always important. She had read somewhere « if you could picture yourself being happy doing anything other than acting, you should go and do that thing. » So she enrolled at McGill University. She was initially in communications, thinking she’d get into journalism or film production, but she fell in love with research and writing papers, later shifting her focus to youth drug use.

Putting youth at the centre

« It’s no accident that I became a youth substance use researcher, » she says on a University of Calgary video about legalizing cannabis, « because I started out as an actress on the Canadian television series Degrassi.

« What was so unique and different about Degrassi, compared to other television for young people is that, in the Degrassi storylines, youth always solved their own problems … and that’s definitely the approach I take in my research, is amplifying youth voices and putting youth at the centre. »

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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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