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Canadians who fell ill in Cuba have brain-injury symptoms, doctor says

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OTTAWA—Canadian diplomats suffering health woes after time in Cuba have symptoms consistent with a brain injury, according to an Ottawa doctor who has assessed them, turning aside speculation that the problems are psychosomatic.

“Do I believe that these people have presentations consistent with someone who has had a concussion or brain injury? Yes,” said Dr. Shawn Marshall, medical director for acquired brain injury rehabilitation at the Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre.

Canadians and American diplomats and dependants began reporting mysterious health problems in late 2016 and into 2017, setting off an international investigation.

Marshall started seeing the Canadians in mid-2017 at the request of Global Affairs. Marshall, a specialist in brain injuries, said he assessed the patients using a protocol similar to one used to screen people who have suffered a concussion.

“Most of them present with difficulties with physical symptoms,” Marshall told the Star in an interview.

Marshall said that at the outset, there was little known about the potential cause of the symptoms. While the symptoms were similar to those of a concussion, none of these patients had suffered a blunt force blow that might explain it.

But Marshall said there can be a number of causes for such injuries in addition to an external force.

“But those forces or injury to the brain can be from physical forces that aren’t necessarily traumatic strikes or blows. For example, we know that a blast … can cause brain injury,” Marshall said.

“There are different forms of energy that can cause it. Infection can definitely cause it … I don’t have any evidence of that at all or any suggestion of that. But I’m just saying that there are multiple different causes.”

Even now after his assessments, Marshall said the cause remains a puzzle. “The only connection I have is that these patients were associated with a government posting in Havana.”

Global Affairs officials also say that a multi-agency investigation has not yet been able to pinpoint a cause. An examination of potential environmental factors at Havana properties occupied by the Canadians ruled out air or water as the cause.

Some of the diplomats and family members associated the onset of the symptoms with strange noises heard at the time, like grinding noises or the sound of warping metal. However experts aren’t convinced there is a link.

In the absence of clear causes, there’s been speculation the ailment might be mass hysteria or conversion disorder, where a person suffers symptoms that can’t be explained by a physical cause, sometimes triggered by stress. It was a theory most recently advanced in a Vanity Fair feature, titled, “The Real Story Behind the Havana Embassy Mystery.”

But Marshall disagrees. He has also treated patients with such disorders and that’s not what he saw in the Canadians.

“I’m less inclined to believe that. Having seen these patients, that was not my overall impression,” he said.

“I have actually seen a number of patients with conversion disorder, factitious disorder over the years. These patients I’m seeing don’t seem to be like that,” he said.

For starters, Marshall said that some of the Canadians experienced symptoms before they became aware of a broader problem, discounting the possibility that they were influenced by reports of illness among their colleagues.

“Before they even knew something was going on, they were describing some pretty remarkable symptoms that would be hard to explain as it being due to other causes, like social influence or fear, anxiety,” Marshall said.

The union representing foreign service workers has also pushed back against suggestions that the mass hysteria is the cause.

The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland a year ago to flag “serious concern” about the government’s handling of the case.

In that letter, obtained by the Star, the association accused Global Affairs of downplaying the impact of the incidents on Canadian personnel, “even going so far as to question whether or not the issues our members were psychosomatic in nature.

“PAFSO consider that the collective hysteria hypothesis is not rigorous and impossible,” stated the letter, dated Jan. 22, 2018.

It said that “repeated suggestions that health issues are imagined or the ‘symptoms of extreme stress’” were only adding to the duress felt by diplomats and family members already struggling with health ailments.

In a statement to the Star earlier this month, Global Affairs said the cause of the health woes was still not known.

“We are investigating any and all possible causes, and we will continue to take the measures necessary to protect our diplomats and their families,” the department said.

“Canada has an evidence-based approach to addressing this situation, and our response is guided by the advice of medical experts and treating physicians. At the current time, the cause of these health problems remains unknown.”

The U.S. State Department is sticking by its claim that its personnel were deliberately targeted. To date, 26 Americans have been identified with “otherwise-unexplained medically confirmed symptoms and clinical findings” and the department isn’t ruling out that there may be more cases yet.

“Given the seeming exclusive focus on U.S. government personnel and their families in Havana, as well as the scope and duration of incidents, the department has categorized the events in Havana as attacks,” the department said in an email to the Star. “The investigation is ongoing to determine the source and cause of the health attacks.”

Marshall said that the Canadians affected by the health problems are improving, thanks to therapy and in some cases medication but cautioned that recovery from brain injuries can take time.

“Life is complicated and other factors affect your function. So if you ask too much of your brain, you may not recover as expected or if you’re asking it to function at high level, you can have other complications, like your mood can change if you can’t do what you need to do and symptoms can persist,” he said.

Meanwhile, Global Affairs refuses to comment on the fate of Canada’s embassy in Havana after a high-level visit by officials last month.

In December, the department revealed that medical testing had confirmed yet another diplomat who had served in Cuba was suffering health problems. That brought to 13 the number of confirmed cases, including dependants.

The discovery of another case prompted the federal government to send a high-level team to Havana to evaluate diplomatic operations in the country to ensure the protection of embassy staff.

But since that visit the department has been tight-lipped on the outcome of that visit or what, if any, changes were made to Canada’s diplomatic footprint in Cuba, despite repeated questions from the Star.

Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier

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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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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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