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GTA school boards take unusual step in declaring snow day

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John Malloy isn’t an early riser but the head of Toronto’s public school board was up at 4:45 a.m. Tuesday, without the aid of an alarm clock, because of a gut feeling that he would need to make “a really big decision.”

By about 6 a.m., before a single snowflake had fallen, Malloy had taken the rare step in declaring a snow day — the third in the last two decades — shutting down the Toronto District School Board, impacting thousands of families.

Several school boards across the Greater Toronto Area shut down, while classes at most universities and colleges were cancelled. Some flights were also cancelled at the city’s airports.
Several school boards across the Greater Toronto Area shut down, while classes at most universities and colleges were cancelled. Some flights were also cancelled at the city’s airports.  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

“The safest and wisest thing was to close schools,” explained the director of education, during the afternoon as a storm of snow, ice pellets, and freezing rain pummelled the city. “It was the smart move.”

He wasn’t alone in making that call. Several school boards across the Greater Toronto Area also shut down and classes at most universities and colleges were cancelled. There were also disruptions at Toronto’s Billy Bishop and Pearson airports, with flights cancelled.

“Closing schools is something we seldom consider,” explained Malloy of the TDSB which is the largest public school board in Canada with 582 schools and 246,000 students. It’s rarely considered because 90 per cent of students live within walking distance of the school, many parents have to work, which can leave some scrambling about what to do with their children, and staff are supported if they feel they can’t get to work safely.

The last time the board closed was in 2011, when a storm dubbed Snowmageddon failed to deliver the anticipated wallop, leaving some parents saying school officials had overreacted. Prior to that, there was a snow day in 1999, when then-mayor Mel Lastman called in the army to help clear snow.

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“These decisions are important — they are about safety, about family, about service and so we take it very, very seriously,” said Malloy. “All of this happened between 5 a.m. and 6:15 a.m.”

By 5 a.m. transportation staff at the TDSB and the Toronto Catholic District School Board were in joint talks with their bus carrier, which services both boards, about current and forecast weather conditions and road conditions. After the associate directors at both boards made the decision to cancel buses, it was up to the directors to decide on school closures for their boards. Malloy called his counterpart at the TCDSB, Rory McGuckin, and the pair discussed weather conditions and what other boards, universities and colleges were doing. And, he said, they listened to their instincts, both agreeing that closing schools was the best move.

“People sometimes wonder why we don’t make these decisions early and the reason we don’t is because weather changes — and if weather changes and the conditions we expect don’t happen, people get upset,” explained Malloy.

At the Catholic board, the closure affected 196 schools and 95,000 students.

“We don’t take the decision-making process lightly,” said TCDSB spokesperson Shazia Vlahos. “(We’re) always erring on the side of safety for children and staff.”

People wait for the bus in an iced-up bus shelter at Bay and Queen streets. Freezing rain began to fall during the evening commute in Toronto.
People wait for the bus in an iced-up bus shelter at Bay and Queen streets. Freezing rain began to fall during the evening commute in Toronto.  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

Peel District School Board, Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, Halton Catholic District School Board and Halton District School Board also closed schools. In York Region and Durham, public and Catholic school boards cancelled bus service but remained opened, which drew criticism on social media from people who said classes should have also been cancelled.

The early decision by Toronto school boards meant that daycares operating inside of schools were also closed, said city spokesperson Brad Ross. The city also cancelled recreation programs, such as swimming and skating lessons, and at city hall, “non-essential” staff were able to leave work early afternoon.

“We really leave it up to the division head’s discretion in terms of who they’re able to free up to allow to go home,” added Ross. “It’s not unlike, really, how things are dealt with on a Christmas Eve.”

People make their way along the sidewalk on Wellington Street West. With schools closed and many office workers staying home, the downtown core was unusually quiet.
People make their way along the sidewalk on Wellington Street West. With schools closed and many office workers staying home, the downtown core was unusually quiet.  (Rick Madonik / Toronto Star)

City services such as 311, garbage collection, and snowplowing continued throughout the day.

Some flights at Toronto’s airports were cancelled or delayed. Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said a “number of considerations” go into cancellations, including weather at the arrival airport, if the airline has space on a later flight to the same destination, or if they can find a larger airplane and consolidate two flights into one.

“We don’t like to cancel flights with lots of connections because then people can get stranded,” he said in an email. “We tend to cancel more short-haul trips on routes with lots of daily flights.”

Once a cancellation is decided, customers are contacted to rebook, he said, urging people to always check their flight status before heading to the airport.

In the region, classes at many universities and colleges were cancelled, including University of Waterloo, Ryerson University and George Brown College.

At the University of Toronto, the Mississauga and Scarborough campuses were closed for the day; however the downtown St. George campus remained open. By midday officials had reversed their decision, cancelling classes after 4 p.m.

A woman crosses Front and Sherbourne streets. Toronto had a mixed bag of snow, rain and ice on Tuesday making driving and walking treacherous.
A woman crosses Front and Sherbourne streets. Toronto had a mixed bag of snow, rain and ice on Tuesday making driving and walking treacherous.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

The initial decision drew sharp criticism from students on social media, who wondered why the downtown campus was open when others were closed.

Third-year English major Lindsay Tramble called this approach a “blatant disregard for the safety of students.”

“As a commuter from Etobicoke I am forced to schlep two hours each way on the TTC through the ice and cold when other colleges/universities have made their students’ safety their number one priority,” she said in an email.

University spokesperson Elizabeth Church, said in an email the decision to cancel classes is based on a number of factors, “including, public transportation, highway conditions and snow and ice removal on campus grounds.” She added, the safety of the community is the top priority when making a decision about class cancellations.

Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74

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‘We’re back’: Montreal festival promoters happy to return but looking to next year

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In downtown Montreal, it’s festival season.

In the city’s entertainment district, a musical act was conducting a sound check on stage Friday evening — the second day of the French-language version of the renowned Just For Laughs comedy festival. Tickets for many of the festival’s free outdoor shows — limited by COVID-19 regulations — were sold out.

Two blocks away, more than 100 people were watching an acoustic performance by the Isaac Neto Trio — part of the last weekend of the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique, a celebration of music from the African continent and the African diaspora.

With COVID-19 restrictions continuing to limit capacity, festival organizers say they’re glad to be back but looking forward to next year when they hope border restrictions and capacity limits won’t affect their plans.

Charles Décarie, Just For Laughs’ CEO and president, said this is a “transition year.”

“Even though we have major constraints from the public health group in Montreal, we’ve managed to design a festival that can navigate through those constraints,” Décarie said.

The French-language Juste pour rire festival began on July 15 and is followed by the English-language festival until July 31.

When planning began in February and March, Décarie said, organizers came up with a variety of scenarios for different crowd sizes, ranging from no spectators to 50 per cent of usual capacity.

“You’ve got to build scenarios,” he said. “You do have to plan a little bit more than usual because you have to have alternatives.”

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Anglais

MELS new major movie studio to be built in Montreal

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MONTREAL — MELS Studios will build a new film studio in Montreal, filling some of the gap in supply to meet the demand of Hollywood productions.

MELS president Martin Carrier said on Friday that MELS 4 studio construction will begin « as soon as possible », either in the fall or winter of next year. The studio could host productions as early as spring 2023.

The total investment for the project is $76 million, with the Quebec government contributing a $25 million loan. The project will create 110 jobs, according to the company.

The TVA Group subsidiary’s project will enable it to stand out « even more » internationally, according to Quebecor president and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau. In the past, MELS Studios has hosted several major productions, including chapters of the X-Men franchise. The next Transformers movie is shooting this summer in Montreal.

Péladeau insisted that local cultural productions would also benefit from the new facility, adding that the studio ensures foreign revenues and to showcase talent and maintain an industry of Quebec producers.

STUDIO SHORTAGE

The film industry is cramped in Montreal.

According to a report published last May by the Bureau du cinéma et de la télévision du Québec (BCTQ), there is a shortage of nearly 400,000 square feet of studio space.

With the addition of MELS 4, which will be 160,000 square feet, the company is filling part of the gap.

Carrier admitted that he has had to turn down contracts because of the lack of space, representing missed opportunities of « tens of millions of dollars, not only for MELS, but also for the Quebec economy. »

« Montreal’s expertise is in high demand, » said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who was present at the announcement.

She said she received great testimonials from « Netflix, Disney, HBO and company » during an economic mission to Los Angeles in 2019.

« What stands out is that they love Montreal because of its expertise, knowledge and beauty. We need more space, like MELS 4, » she said.

There is still not enough capacity in Quebec, acknowledged Minister of Finance, the Economy and Innovation Eric Girard.

« It is certain that the government is concerned about fairness and balance, so if other requests come in, we will study them with the same seriousness as we have studied this one, » he said.

Grandé Studios is the second-largest player in the industry. Last May, the company said it had expansion plans that should begin in 2022. Investissement Québec and Bell are minority shareholders in the company.

For its part, MELS will have 400,000 square feet of production space once MELS 4 is completed. The company employs 450 people in Quebec and offers a range of services including studio and equipment rentals, image and sound postproduction, visual effects and a virtual production platform.

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Anglais

Birdhouse Wingerie & Bar is the Latest to Hatch in West Island’s Bubbling Restaurant Scene

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Wings are the thing at the latest restaurant to make its mark on Montreal’s West Island: Birdhouse Wingerie & Bar.

At the buzzy new Dollard-Des Ormeaux eatery, the bird limbs come aplenty, with a menu listing eleven “wet & messy” wings, including smoked apple habanero, sriracha lime, and cherry cola BBQ; and four — cacio e pepe, ketchups chip, Nashville hot, and the garlicky, lemon pepper “vampire slayer” — dry rub flavours. They come 10 for $18 or 20 for $34, plus the option of ranch, parmesan, or blue cheese dipping sauce.

Tacos, nachos, poutines (one made with bone marrow, another with tater tots), smashed burgers, salads, and a classic buttermilk fried chicken dinner are just sampling of the other dishes that round out the offering. On the drinks side, there are cocktails, sangrias, and spiked milkshakes in popular chocolate bar flavours: After Eight, Skor, Bounty, or Reeses.

Opened on July 5, Birdhouse is among a recent influx of restaurants to grace the island’s western end, including birria taco slinger Tacos Don Rigo and barbecue joint Smoke Box — a double whammy in the same Pierrefonds area strip mall. That comes in addition to plans for Fairview Pointe Claire’s incoming “District Gourmand” (slated to usher in Tommy Café), and, of course, a number of the area’s longer-standing stalwarts — from southern belle Bistro Nolah to old-school casse-croûte Smoked Meat Pete — that have helped bolster the West Island’s culinary credentials.

The brand-new Brunswick Boulevard restaurant is the brainchild of Montreal entrepreneur Lorne Schwartz, restaurateur George Massouras (of Madisons and Arahova Souvlaki), and among the other partners involved, Brahm Mauer, son of the founder of beloved buffalo hot wings expert Wings ‘n’ Things. Mauer has tried his hand at reviving the original Wings ‘n’ Things recipe — the restaurant originally opened in 1986 — over the years, including with a Royalmount Avenue location in 2012, then as a roaming summertime food truck and NDG pop-up. That same truck has now been made over with a Birdhouse-branded livery to be deployed for private events.

A likely draw to many, Birdhouse is reprising the “famous flavours, untouched” of the once-upon-a-time NDG staple, represented on its menu as “The Legendary WNT Buffalo” chicken wing.

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