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Canada is Rahaf Mohammed’s guardian now




If the long predatory reach of Saudi extra-judicial malice can murder an internationally renowned journalist in a foreign country, what hope is there for an 18-year-old who’s embarrassed the Kingdom?

Rahaf Mohammed — as of Monday, she is no longer using the family surname Alqunun — is no Jamal Khashoggi, nephew of a billionaire arms dealer, former editor in Saudi Arabia and columnist-in-exile for the Washington Post when he was assassinated by Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last Oct. 2, the remains of his dismembered body never found.

Yet the teenager riveted the world last week, tweeting desperately for help from a barricaded airport hotel room in Bangkok, fearing for her life, terrified that Thailand officials would cave to Saudi demands that she be put on a plane and returned to the family she’d clandestinely fled while they’d been on holiday in Kuwait.

It was on the final day of that vacation, Rahaf said yesterday during an hour-long interview with the Star and the CBC. Her last chance for a bid at freedom. Waited till everyone was asleep, booked a flight to Bangkok, and was gone by 7 a.m. before the family awoke.

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Had hoped to find refuge in Australia but immigration officials were dragging their feet. Didn’t have a visa – all her papers had been taken away by a man who’d met her flight, holding up a sign with her name on it, claiming to be with the Thai government, there to assist. He wasn’t and didn’t, as Rahaf was whisked away to the hotel. With Australia’s foreign minister claiming Rafah should not be treated differently from anybody else applying for refugee admission, Canada stepped in on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announcing that this country would grant her asylum immediately.

Arrived on Saturday, exhausted but jubilant. Had discarded the hijab for a UNHCR (High Commissioner for Refugees) ball cap and Canada hoodie, met by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland.

On Monday, she looked like any other Canadian teenage girl, wearing torn jeans, a cable-knit sweater, and fashionable ankle boots. Astonishingly self-possessed, though.

“Lots of girls think the same way,’’ she explained through an interpreter. “A lot of my friends are girls that have escaped and are now refugees themselves.’’

The ingenious teen had succeeded where an untold number of other Saudi women have failed – secured liberation from a deeply conservative and misogynist regime. Where others have been returned to Saudi Arabia, against their will, on the insistence of families and a government few nations will dare defy, never heard from again, Rahaf cleverly harnessed the power of social media to rise from anonymity, to make of herself a global cause celebre. She tweet-bombarded the UN, ambassadors, media, anyone who might respond to her pleas, racking up 66,000 followers on her Twitter account over a matter of days.

Her father and brother – a sibling one year older who’d been invested with her care because dad, governor of a Saudi state, lived elsewhere, with another family and other children – had flown to Thailand, intent on hauling this willful girl back home, Rahaf said. She refused to even speak with him.

“They have disowned me,’’ says Rahaf, only at that point tearing up. That’s why she’s dropped the family name.

The family, which includes four sisters, has tweeted out: “A naughty daughter who abused us with shameful and uncustomary behaviour and embarrassed our Islamic customs and values.”

Rahaf confirms that she has renounced Islam, a decision she actually arrived at two years ago, chafing under the social and religious constraints of the Kingdom’s formal Wahhabi faith, with its strict adherence to the Koran. But under her brother’s thumb, and a mother she claims tried to beat rebellion out of her — allegedly locked her up for six months for cutting her hair too short and “manly” — the girl deliberately waited until she was 18 — and the opportunity presented by the vacation in Kuwait. To run, turning her back on everything she’s known, possibly never seeing her family again.

It is almost beyond comprehension where this young woman got the guts to embark on emancipation, secretly and hastily making her own arrangements, traveling alone, knowing that she would be vilified by much of the public in Saudi Arabia when, if, her getaway would become public.

In doing so, Rahaf says she was rejecting the principles of “Male Guardianship Rules” in the Kingdom which, among other restrictions, constraints, require females to obtain the consent of a male relative — usually father, brother or husband — if they want to travel, take out a passport or marry.

“I was treated like a slave,” says Rahaf. “It was always taking demands from your parents about where to go, what to do and how to do it.

“It doesn’t matter whether a (female) is 60 years old or 10 years old.”

While dissidents and activists within the Kingdom have applauded Rahaf’s courageous escape, she has been crucified in much of the Arab media, the majority of Saudis agreeing with the government position that the matter is a “family affair’’ blown out of proportion by “anti-Saudi forces’’. There has been much condemnation over Rahaf drinking wine – forbidden – on her flight to Canada.

“I was showing my happiness and I’m not a child so I could do what I want.’’

According to translations provided by MEMRI — the Middle East Media Research Institute (founded by an Israeli) — Mufleh Al-Qahatani, chair of the government-funded Saudi National Human Rights Society, has accused unspecified countries and international organizations of “acting out of political motivations rather than humanitarian ones,” using their officials to “incite Saudi delinquents and teenage girls to depart from their families’ values and traditions that guarantee a dignified life and constant protection.’’

This, continued Al-Qahatani, could eventually “lead (the girls) to perdition and perhaps into the arms of human traffickers.”

Rahaf says she was receiving about a hundred death threats a day until closing down her social media accounts..

Canada is her guardian now. We are responsible for this girl’s safety.

The Kingdom is already under intense international criticism for the murder of Khashoggi, allegedly committed on the personal order of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That is the conclusion of the CIA.

The prince, de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, not long ago celebrated for easing constraints against women – finally allowing them to drive, for example – could very well attempt nefarious means to drag Rahaf back. Or he might ignore her defiance completely, set the entire escapade aside as unworthy of further effort, diplomatic or covert and thuggish. But the threat is certainly there so Rahaf must be protected, even as the teenager embraces the “free life” she covets – continuing her education (wants to be an engineer), getting a job, advocating for other Saudi girls.

“I feel safe here but it’s not 100 per cent because everybody knows me now.”

It’s unclear if Rahaf actually grasps the enormity of what she’s done, that she might have a lifetime of looking over her shoulder. “That’s the thing I fear the most.

“My life is an example of someone who’s lived under oppression and had to escape.”

Yet she doesn’t recommend fleeing for other Saudi women.

“I don’t want them to escape because it puts their lives in danger.”

Rahaf did try to reach a beloved younger sister via social media.

“I’ve been blocked.”

Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno


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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal




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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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow




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




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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