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Why aren’t our federal politicians held to account for what they say in election ads?

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Justin Trudeau dropped a couple of big hints about the coming budget in a video he released on social media this week.

It’s a transit-themed video. The prime minister appears at a variety of transit stops — including the GO station he visited in Milton, Ont, just last week — to boast that his federal Liberals have kept their word on building infrastructure across Canada.

“This month we’ll be announcing everything we’ve done and announcing new projects to create good, middle-class jobs and build the infrastructure we need,” Trudeau says.

So we learn two things from that one-minute video: Trudeau’s last budget before the election will likely land this month (bet on the last week of February) and it will include new announcements for infrastructure programs across the country.

Trudeau isn’t the only one doing videos either.

Both ads were withdrawn after a bit of a backlash, but one does wonder whether this is some kind of new publicity tactic on the part of the Conservatives. Retracting the ads, after all, may have yielded more attention to the attack ads than the Conservatives would have achieved without the outcry. If it happens a third time, assume that this is a new wrinkle in Canadian political-ad wars: advance, retreat, advance again.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Conservatives have blazed an advertising trail either in Canada. When they were in government from 2006 to 2015, they were the first to make extensive use of attack ads against opponents in between official campaign periods, with relentless waves of advertising against successive leaders Stéphane Dion, Michael Ignatieff and Trudeau.

For the most part, Canadians have been spared that perpetual ad campaign over the past three and a half years.

But have the ad wars begun for the 2019 campaign? It would seem so, though Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has been out on the TV advertising circuit for a while now with mainly positive ads, introducing himself to Canadians as a guy who’s far more in touch with middle-class suburbanites than the prime minister is.

I couldn’t get an answer from the Liberals when I asked who paid for Trudeau’s new video — Liberal contributors or Canadian taxpayers? (Presumably they’ll be upping their game on promised ad “transparency” before the election.) But the focus on infrastructure and transit is very much linked to Liberal advertising of the past.

Back in the 2015 campaign, using data culled from the party’s massive voter outreach efforts, Trudeau walked into a studio one day and recorded 40 different ads, promising to fix individual infrastructure issues identified as the largest concerns in 40 different communities. You may even remember hearing them — Trudeau talking about water-quality issues in your town or gridlock you were encountering on your commute to work.

It would be a worthwhile exercise to measure this month’s announcements from Trudeau against those promises in the 40 radio ads. (Unfortunately, no archive seems to exist.) Perhaps the Trudeau government has already taken stock of its long-ago promises, and the infrastructure-themed video this week is a bid to tie up some loose ends from the 2015 campaign.

Ads are the most powerful tools the political parties have for communicating with the voters. More people will view ads than the relatively few who sift through the party platforms or who closely read the political news (sorry to have to acknowledge this.)

On the question of ad accountability, however, we here in Canada are somewhat behind the times. We don’t require politicians to personally endorse the ad claims at the end of the spot, as they do in the United States, and we in the media tend to keep track more on what the parties are spending than on what they say or promise in those 20- to 30-second spots.

This election year is a good time to shift that approach; to hold the leaders and the parties accountable for the content of the advertising they’re now writing and filming to fill up the airwaves and our social-media feeds.

If the ad war is about to begin, complete with transit-stop videos and retracted claims, then that accountability effort should start now 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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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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