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Autism group says minister warned of ‘long, hard four years’ if they didn’t support changes

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Behaviour analysts say children’s minister Lisa MacLeod and her staff threatened to make their lives miserable for the next four years if they didn’t endorse the government’s changes to autism services.

In a memo to members Wednesday, the board of the Ontario Association for Behavioural Analysts said “the minister and her staff requested that ONTABA provide a quote of support, without providing full details on the program, and indicated that failure to do so would result in “four long years’ for the organization.”

It went on to say that “the minister also indicated that if a quote of support was not forthcoming, a communication that behaviour analysts are ‘self-interested’ would be released from her office … In spite of the implied risk, the organization refused.”

One analyst who attended the meeting said it was more “akin to dealing with a mob boss than an elected official.”

The rift with ONTABA is part of an escalating division between the Ford government and some in the autism community in the wake of its overhaul to the system, which MacLeod has pledged will clear the massive wait list for services in two years.

Parents of children with autism are also feeling bruised by the government’s dismissal of the Ontario Autism Coalition, a grassroots Facebook group of parent advocates, as “professional protesters.”

A senior source in the community and social services ministry said staff had met with ONTABA four times — and had provided details of the coming changes, and was under the understanding a supportive quote was planned. However, the source said, different representatives attended the final meeting and the tone changed.

The government “had a number of productive and cordial meetings” with the therapists as well as others in the autism community, from parents to service providers, said the source.

The source did not recall MacLeod saying that should the group not provide public support, rocky relations would ensue.

“She certainly said that we are committed to this plan,” said the source.

Several service providers and hospitals provided endorsements of the plan.

Meanwhile, the government faced more opposition from Autism Ontario, which said despite ministry claims, the organization will not be managing intake or dispersing money to families over the next year while the province overhauls autism funding.

Autism Ontario said its statement is aimed at correcting a “number of misunderstandings or assumptions,” since the government announced age-based funding caps to clear a therapy wait list of 23,000 kids, the organization said.

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The organization came under fire from angry parents last week when MacLeod suggested Autism Ontario was playing an integral part in her government’s plan to shift control of provincial funding for autism services from regional agencies to parents.

In at least one media interview, MacLeod said Autism Ontario will be directly involved with the new funding regime.

Under the changes announced by MacLeod Feb. 6, children with autism up to age 6 will receive lifetime caps of up to $140,000 until age 18, while those over age 6 will get $55,000. Funding will be aimed at low- to moderate-income families with those earning more than $250,000 no longer eligible, she said.

But parents, whose noisy protests in 2016 convinced the previous Liberal government to reverse a similar age-based funding scheme, say the Progressive Conservative plan makes the same mistake. They say the new funding falls woefully short of meeting the needs of children with complex needs whose therapy may cost as much as $80,000 a year. And it may be too much for others. It will likely mean cuts to 8,400 children currently receiving help with no funding cap, they add.

In a statement, ministry officials confirmed Autism Ontario will not be directly involved with the wait list or the funding.

Autism Ontario has been supporting families and people with autism in Ontario for the past 46 years and has parent representatives across the province through 25 local chapters, said spokesperson Katharine Buchan. It supports and advocates on behalf of both children and adults with autism through workshops, training and individual support, she added.

Social media attacks against the organization’s staff and volunteers, many of whom are also parents with autistic children, have been difficult, she said.

One part-time Autism Ontario staffer in a local chapter, who is a mother of an autistic child, called police over what she felt were threatening Facebook posts from another mother, Buchan confirmed.

“The anger is justified, but I’m not sure it makes sense to be directing it at one another when we need to be working together ensure that all children’s needs are met,” she said.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government should not be “labelling groups of parents who are doing their best for their children as professional protesters.

“It’s despicable. Shameful.” she added.

“They are using these tactics to try to besmirch these parents, parents who are very worried about their children,” she said in an interview

She called analysts’ claim they were pressured to endorse the autism overhaul “strong arming professionals in the autism field, trying to knuckle them down and prevent them from providing their professional opinion on the government’s changes.”

Kendra Thomson, the incoming president of ONTABA, said her organization was not provided with any details about how their profession would be regulated, and because they weren’t told what the government’s planned registry would look like, they could not publicly support it.

As for allegations ONTABA is a lobby group, she said it is a non-profit that represents a number of professionals and promotes evidence-based services.

She also said the group was not “meaningfully consulted” on the autism changes, and despite the discord, “if we were given the opportunity to provide meaningful conversation, that would surpass the tone and anything (communicated) to date.”

She said ONTABA’s representatives left that final meeting feeling very disappointed, though “the tone was consistent with previous meetings with myself and others.”

Louis Busch, a past-president of ONTABA who attended the final meeting with the minister and her staff, said he went as a “private citizen” and that it was a tense meeting from the outset, unlike any he has attended with the past five ministers to hold this portfolio.

Busch, a board-certified behaviour analyst who works with adults, said after pressing for details, they were told a regulatory college would not be announced, but a website would provide a list “which is not regulation.”

Busch noted that MacLeod said without public support from ONTABA, “it’s going to be a long, hard four years for you.”

“This was more akin to meeting with a mob boss than an elected official,” Busch said.

Meanwhile, at a Wednesday announcement on Ontario’s fiscal situation, Finance Minister Vic Fedeli said there will no additional funding for autism services beyond the $321 million announced last week.

“There were 23,000 families with children with autism who received no help whatsoever, so this plan is a fair, sustainable, and equitable plan,” said Fedeli, noting it has been well-received in his hometown of North Bay.

“We all don’t have the same services that are readily available in the south, so we’ve delivered on that. That’s why at home they’re very happy with this plan,” the treasurer said.

With files from Robert Benzie

Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

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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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