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Activists says a still-active human rights case in N.L. speaks to the lasting homophobia in Canada

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Just over 14 years ago, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador issued the province’s marriage commissioners an ultimatum: agree to perform same-sex marriages or resign.

At least seven commissioners, many of them mayors, chose to quit, arguing overseeing such marriages would contradict their religious beliefs.

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But one former commissioner, Desiree Dichmont, also filed a human rights complaint, claiming discrimination based on religious creed. The case has been snaking its way through the courts ever since – and even though Dichmont has died, the case remains alive.

READ MORE: Vehicle vandalized with homophobic slur in Upper Tantallon, N.S.

An Alberta-based free speech advocacy group, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, recently won the right to intervene in the appeal proceedings, arguing the public has an interest in the outcome. The latest appeal in the case will be heard next month.

LGBTQ activists who championed the issue of same-sex marriage more than a decade ago say the case’s renewed life speaks to lingering homophobia in Canada that has since moved under the surface.

“I feel like I’m in a time warp,” said Newfoundlander Gemma Hickey, who was president of advocacy group EGALE Canada in 2004 when same-sex marriage was legalized and fought for legalization across Canada.

“I wasn’t surprised back then and I’m not surprised now,” Hickey said in an email from Tokyo.

Should the case set a precedent for future objections based on religious belief, Hickey said the consequences would be dire for LGBTQ people in rural parts of the province.

For example, then-mayor Claude Elliott was Gander’s sole marriage commissioner when he resigned his duties as a marriage commissioner in 2005.

“My concern is for same-sex couples in rural areas who don’t have a choice between marriage commissioners. They shouldn’t have to travel elsewhere to find someone to marry them in a civil ceremony,” Hickey said.

“A wedding is something to celebrate and regardless if someone agrees or disagrees, same-sex marriage has been a reality in the province of N.L. since 2004 and in Canada since 2005.”

WATCH: Canada speaks out against homophobia in Chechnya






Winding its way through the justice system

Dichmont’s complaint arguing discrimination based on religious creed was filed in 2005, and was at first dismissed by the Human Rights Commission for insufficient evidence.

After an appeal, the province’s supreme court ordered a hearing by the commission’s board of inquiry. A ruling finally came down in 2017 in the province’s favour.

Dichmont passed away before the adjudicator released his report, but her estate appealed the decision. A January hearing on the Dichmont estate’s latest appeal was pushed back to March following the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms’ application for intervener status.

The group cited the estate’s notice of appeal, which argues the outcome of the Dichmont appeal raises matters of “broad public and societal concern.”

It argues the human rights adjudicator unfairly placed charter obligations on Dichmont, and that her employer failed to accommodate her individual religious views by making her act as a representative of government first.

It also argues the duty of state neutrality was not applied to her.

Justice Rosalie McGrath of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador said she agreed to grant the Justice Centre intervener status because it has experience acting as an intervener and can make a “useful contribution.”

“The Justice Centre has identified a different perspective it can bring by focusing on the evolution of case law, particularly from the Supreme Court of Canada, on the issue of how the Charter applies to public servants,” McGrath wrote in a Feb. 1 ruling.

McGrath said “the issue of mootness as well as the standing of the estate remain live issues to be argued at the hearing of the matter.” That hearing is scheduled for March 4-5.

A lawyer with the province’s Human Rights Commission said in an interview that the organization’s stance, laid out by adjudicator Robby Ash in his 2017 decision, has not changed.

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Ash dismissed Dichmont’s complaint, saying her request for a system that would assign same-sex couples to a non-objecting marriage commissioner would contradict the province’s duty of neutrality in delivering public services.

“To borrow a phrase from the Ontario Court of Appeal …. requiring minorities to reveal their differences for the purposes of accommodating those who oppose what makes them different only serves as a ‘subtle and constant reminder’ of unacceptance and intolerance. A ‘single point entry’ system would do just that,” Ash wrote.

“Each marriage commissioner, vested with the authority of the state, is required to provide the service on behalf of government to all those eligible under law to receive the service.”

A spokesperson for EGALE Canada said the organization is watching the case and considering next steps, including the possibility of legal action.

Gerry Rogers, then a film-maker and activist and now the outgoing leader of the province’s NDP, wrote to the premier in 2005, requesting marriage commissioners declare their willingness to perform same-sex marriages.

Rogers and several others became marriage commissioners in response to the objectors’ resignations.

Rogers, a former acquaintance of Dichmont, said she was bewildered and disappointed by her decision to pursue the case, and by continued efforts from outside groups to push back against a human rights matter that has already been decided upon by Canada’s highest court.

“They’re absolute dinosaurs and they should simply take their case and go home,” said Rogers, who was the province’s first openly gay party leader. “It’s time to move on. This has already been settled in the courts.”

WATCH: Ellen Page slams Pence over LGBTQ rights during Colbert appearance






Hickey said instances like this show how rights awarded to minority groups are not simply given, but are the result of ongoing, hard-won fights for change.

“I try not to let my fear paralyze me. But our rights are never given to us. We have to fight for them.”

The issue of LGBTQ rights hasn’t completely left the public square in Newfoundland and Labrador, particularly in rural areas.

Last spring, the province and country rallied in support of Springdale, N.L., teenagers after town councillors voted down the Gender-Sexuality Alliance’s bid for a rainbow crosswalk, igniting fierce debate.

“Homophobia and transphobia never went away,” Hickey said.

“In my experience, laws change faster than attitudes.”

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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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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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