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Decision on Trans Mountain pipeline’s fate might not come until summer

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Canada’s energy regulator will tell the federal government this week whether it still thinks the Trans Mountain pipeline should be expanded, but cabinet’s final say on the project’s future is still several months away.

The National Energy Board is reconsidering the project’s impact on marine life, including highly endangered southern resident killer whales, after the Federal Court of Appeal ruled last year that the NEB’s 2016 approval failed to properly take into account how the whales would be affected by having additional oil tankers in their waters.

The report’s delivery will start the clock on a 90-day deadline for cabinet to decide whether the controversial project will proceed, a deadline officials are already signalling could be pushed back.

In addition to the NEB review, Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi has ordered a new round of consultations with Indigenous communities to satisfy the court.

A team of 60 people has been assigned to consultation teams that have met with 70 communities since October, but that leaves more than 60 affected communities line still waiting for a meeting.

There is no deadline for those consultations to wrap up, but officials in Sohi’s office have told The Canadian Press a final decision on whether the pipeline proceeds won’t be made until those they are complete.

Meantime, cabinet is under immense pressure to decide the fate of the pipeline before the federal election in the fall.

There is also pressure to get the expansion built because Ottawa bought the existing pipeline from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion last August, after political opposition to the expansion left the company’s shareholders reluctant to proceed.

Impact on killer whales key to discussion

The impact of the expansion on the southern resident killer whales — of which only 74 survive — is key to the discussion. Conservationists say the pipeline will make their recovery nearly impossible.

« The decision really comes down to: Will the federal government say that the economic interests associated with the pipeline outweigh the presence of having southern resident killer whales on the landscape, » said Misty MacDuffee, a biologist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

The whales started the year on a high note with the birth of a new calf, and two more females in the population are pregnant. But the happy news comes with a major caveat: no southern resident baby has survived more than a year since 2015.

The whales are being harmed by everything from boat noise and the decline in chinook salmon to contaminants in the water from sewage. The National Energy Board in 2016 did conclude the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion would « further impede » the recovery of the whales, but still gave the project the go-ahead because it said its mandate was to consider the impacts of the pipeline itself, not from project-related marine shipping.

Southern resident killer whales are pictured off the coast of B.C. (C. Emmons/NOAA Fisheries)

Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said he won’t prejudge what the National Energy Board will say, but he is confident the government has put in place enough new protections for whales and other marine life to mitigate the impact of the pipeline.

« No government has ever taken these kind of steps to try to address a critical species like the southern resident killer whale, » he said.

The Oceans Protection Plan, a $1.5 billion federal policy unveiled in 2016, includes new protected areas for the whales; attempts to recover their main food source, Chinook salmon; new research on water contaminants; and plans to reduce noise from the thousands of boats that travel near the whales each year.

The plan was not in place when the National Energy Board first reviewed the project, and Wilkinson notes the court didn’t take it into account either.

MacDuffee said there is nothing that can currently be done to reduce the effects of boat noise on the whales. She adds that while the government says only six more tankers a week will be added, those six tankers will mean the whales will go from being in the presence of boats about 85 per cent of the time, to more than 95 per cent of the time.

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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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