The Ford government set for changes to the planning act, education and health care


They’re back and should be busier than ever.

MPPs return to the legislature Tuesday after the Christmas break with a full slate on their plates.

“We’re moving at breakneck speed on all kinds of stuff. We’re going to have a robust schedule when the house resumes,” government house leader Todd Smith said in an interview Friday.

First up will be a revised version of Bill 66 to eliminate an amendment to the Planning Act that would have allowed municipalities to bypass existing development requirements and restrictions for companies creating jobs.

Projects would have been granted expedited provincial approvals within one year, allowing businesses to begin construction, but critics warned that would have put prime farmland and the 1.8-million acre Greenbelt around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area at risk.

Smith said another piece of legislation in the days ahead will be Health Minister Christine Elliott’s bill to reorganize the health-care system.

A draft version — which confirmed the incorporation of a new “super agency” called Health Program Initiatives that the Star revealed in January — was leaked to the NDP and a mid-level bureaucrat was fired Feb. 4 for the breach.

While the New Democrats claim the bill will usher in additional privatization to health care in Ontario, Elliott has dismissed that as “fear mongering.”

Also expected this month are potentially controversial bills on policing oversight from Community Safety Minister Sylvia Jones and on schools from Education Minister Lisa Thompson.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who has already called for the resignation of Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod over the Tories’ contentious revamping of funding for autism services, warned the government is in for a bumpy ride on many fronts.

Horwath pledged to “fight for the services people care about, whether that’s young people, whether that’s children with autism, whether that’s our public health system that we so fiercely want to defend, that’s what we’re going to be doing.”

“Doug Ford is not the king of Ontario. He has to answer for his actions,” she said Friday.

With such rhetoric, Smith conceded it should be an emotionally charged session.

“They scream that the sky is falling no matter what we do. They seem to be a protest party and they like to plan protests,” the house leader said of the New Democrats.

Still, Smith said autism funding is “a tough file” and the Tories are bracing for the issue to dominate question period this week.

The opposition parties will also be hammering the government over its bid to appoint Toronto police Supt. Ron Taverner, a 72-year-old friend of Ford’s, as commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police.

That OPP posting is now subject of an ethics investigation by integrity commissioner J. David Wake.

Horwath said she will be highlighting the “tidal wave of criticism” over the appointment.

The government, which took office last June, is also looking ahead to its first budget.

Although Ford has promised to cut 4 per cent of spending — the equivalent of $6 billion on a $150 billion budget — he’s insisted “not one job” will be lost as the Tories move toward balancing the books.

“We’re going to be responsible. If it takes a year longer, so be it,” the premier said Thursday, referring to the timetable for being back in the black.

“I’ve said over and over again, I’m not going in there hacking and slashing, and with a chainsaw cutting it up. It’s not going to happen under our administration. We’re going to find efficiencies.”

Finance Minister Vic Fedeli, who is hoping to reduce a $13.5 billion deficit, is signalling Ontarians to gird for austerity measures.

“We have to start with the understanding that the previous government was spending $40 million a day more than they brought in,” said Fedeli of the Liberals of former premier Kathleen Wynne.

“We know that in this budget we must also indicate our path to balance. It’s mandatory in this budget,” he said, declining to tip his hand on when the province will be out of the red.

“I like to use my Goldilocks reference: it won’t be too soon, because, quite frankly, nobody would believe it; it won’t be too long, because anybody can do that; it will be just right.”

Asked what that means, Fedeli smiled and said: “It means that the 2019 budget will see a detailed path to balance.”

With files from Rob Ferguson

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie


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Lost gifts prompt act of kindness at Calgary store


It’s not the start to Christmas that Kyle Larocque had pictured.

Two bags of presents worth thousands of dollars disappeared from his truck while traveling from Lumsden, Sask., to Calgary.

“We pulled up to the driveway and started unloading the gifts,” said Laroque. “[The bags were] right at the back and they were gone.”

Larocque believes the suitcases were stolen sometime during the eight-hour drive. He said there’s no way the suitcases could have been tossed from the truck.

“We had our bungee cords and straps holding stuff down but we didn’t think about people.”

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Larocque was determined to make sure an early Christmas still went ahead as planned and made a trip to Sunridge Mall. His hope was to replace some of the stolen presents.

One stop for a few kitchen supplies brought him to Think Kitchen to pick up gifts meant for his children and spouse.

When he was asked by an employee what he was looking for, and said he was re-buying some gifts, he was met with a generous surprise.

“It was time for me to pay so I said: ‘How much is it?’” said Larocque. “They just smiled at me… They shook their heads and smiled and said: ‘Merry Christmas.’”

Ali Ahamadi and Natasha Spencer had split the $22 bill for the gifts as a way to help out the family.

Volunteer ‘elves’ from across Calgary prepare for Christmas at Santa’s workshop

Both employees said past experiences helped them realize that even the smallest gesture can help during the holidays.

Ahamadi said he’s no stranger to stolen presents ahead of the holidays.

“A couple years ago my family’s house got broken into,” he explained. “Even when people helped us a little bit, that felt really good.”

Spencer said the recent kindness of customers prompted her to help out.

“We’ve had a couple incidents where customers have come in, bought stuff and given us gifts. So it was us paying it forward,” said Spencer.

Larocque’s partner said the small but meaningful act of kindness has inspired them to help out in the future.

“I think we’ll try and come up with something to help someone else in need or who’s fallen on hard times,” said Kerstin Johnson. “Maybe not even at Christmas, but throughout the year.”

Brooks RCMP said they investigated but because there’s no way to find the gifts or whoever stole them, the case has been closed.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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Queen’s University officials stress safety after report of indecent act – Kingston


The topic of safety has come up on the Queen’s University campus in Kingston after a disturbing incident.

Kingston police are searching for a man who allegedly committed an indecent act in front of a woman last Saturday night.

The student government has increased its walk-home service. The Alma Mater Society runs the service and has done so for 30 years now. Matt Rowland, the head walk-home manager, says it’s there for whoever needs it.

“What we do is we try to get students from point A to point B. We try to make this campus more accessible by offering a confidential and anonymous service that students can request walks from a team of two.”

Queen’s Alma Mater Society holds town hall on proposed John Deutsch University Centre redevelopment

Kingston police said a woman was walking alone around 8:30 p.m. Saturday night in front of Adelaide Hall at the corner of Stuart Street and University Avenue when a man stopped his vehicle near the woman and asked her for directions.

When the woman came up to the vehicle, police said she saw the man allegedly masturbating.

Police also said when the woman walked away, the man in the car followed her and asked her to come back.

“Kingston police are actively investigating this matter and hopefully, it will come to a resolution soon,” said Joel Keenleyside, Queen’s security operations manager.

Queen’s University name new principal

Keenleyside says despite the incident, university officials feel it is a safe place to be and hopes the university community feels the same.

The suspect is described as a Caucasian male with an average build who looked to be in his 30s. He has a beard and was seen driving a small white car that looked to be new.

— with files from Alexandra Mazur

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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Leah Penniman on Why Farming Is an Act of Defiance for People of Color | Healthyish


Leah Penniman is a Black Kreyol farmer who has been tending the soil for 20 years and organizing for an anti-racist food system for 15 years. She currently serves as founding co-executive director of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, a people-of-color led project that works to dismantle racism in the food system. Her first book, Farming While Black, is out today.

As a young person, and one of three mixed-race Black children raised in the rural North mostly by our white father, I found it very difficult to understand who I was. Some of the children in our conservative, almost all-white public school taunted, bullied, and assaulted us, and I was confused and terrified by their malice. But while school was often terrifying, I found solace in the forest. When human beings were too much to bear, the earth consistently held firm under my feet and the solid, sticky trunk of the majestic white pine offered me something stable to grasp. I imagined that I was alone in identifying with Earth as Sacred Mother, having no idea that my African ancestors were transmitting their cosmology to me, whispering across time, “Hold on daughter—we won’t let you fall.”

I never imagined that I would become a farmer. In my teenage years, as my race consciousness evolved, I got the message loud and clear that Black activists were concerned with gun violence, housing discrimination, and education reform, while white folks were concerned with organic farming and environmental conservation. I felt that I had to choose between “my people” and the Earth, that my dual loyalties were pulling me apart and negating my inherent right to belong. Fortunately, my ancestors had other plans. I passed by a flyer advertising a summer job at The Food Project, in Boston, Massachusetts, that promised applicants the opportunity to grow food and serve the urban community. I was blessed to be accepted into the program, and from the first day, when the scent of freshly harvested cilantro nestled into my finger creases and dirty sweat stung my eyes, I was hooked on farming. Something profound and magical happened to me as I learned to plant, tend, and harvest, and later to prepare and serve that produce in Boston’s toughest neighborhoods. I found an anchor in the elegant simplicity of working the earth and sharing her bounty. What I was doing was good, right, and unconfused. Shoulder-to-shoulder with my peers of all hues, feet planted firmly in the earth, stewarding life-giving crops for Black community—I was home.

At organic agriculture conferences, all of the speakers were white, all of the technical books sold were authored by white people, and conversations about equity were considered irrelevant. I thought that organic farming was invented by white people and worried that my ancestors who fought and died to break away from the land would roll over in their graves to see me stooping. I struggled with the feeling that a life on land would be a betrayal of my people. I could not have been more wrong.

At the annual gathering of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, I decided to ask the handful of people of color at the event to gather for a conversation, known as a caucus. In that conversation I learned that my struggles as a Black farmer in a white-dominated agricultural community were not unique, and we decided to create another conference to bring together Black and Brown farmers and urban gardeners. In 2010 the National Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference (BUGS), which continues to meet annually, was convened by Karen Washington. Over 500 aspiring and veteran Black farmers gathered for knowledge exchange and for affirmation of our belonging to the sustainable food movement.

Through BUGS and my growing network of Black farmers, I began to see how miseducated I had been regarding sustainable agriculture. I learned that “organic farming” was an African-indigenous system developed over millennia and first revived in the United States by a Black farmer, Dr. George Washington Carver, of Tuskegee University in the early 1900s. Dr. Booker T. Whatley, another Tuskegee professor, was one of the inventors of community-supported agriculture (CSA), and that community land trusts were first started in 1969 by Black farmers, with the New Communities movement leading the way in Georgia.

Learning this, I realized that during all those years of seeing images of only white people as the stewards of the land, only white people as organic farmers, only white people in conversations about sustainability, the only consistent story I’d seen or been told about Black people and the land was about slavery and sharecropping, about coercion and brutality and misery and sorrow. And yet here was an entire history, blooming into our present, in which Black people’s expertise and love of the land and one another was evident. When we as Black people are bombarded with messages that our only place of belonging on land is as slaves, performing dangerous and backbreaking menial labor, to learn of our true and noble history as farmers and ecological stewards is deeply healing.

Fortified by a more accurate picture of my people’s belonging on land, I knew I was ready to create a mission-driven farm centering on the needs of the Black community. At the time, I was living with my Jewish husband, Jonah, and our two young children, Neshima and Emet, in the South End of Albany, New York, a neighborhood classified as a “food desert” by the federal government. On a personal level this meant that despite our deep commitment to feeding our young children fresh food and despite our extensive farming skills, structural barriers to accessing good food stood in our way. The corner store specialized in Doritos and Coke. We would have needed a car or taxi to get to the nearest grocery store, which served up artificially inflated prices and wrinkled vegetables. There were no available lots where we could garden. Desperate, we signed up for a CSA share, and walked 2.2 miles to the pickup point with the newborn in the backpack and the toddler in the stroller. We paid more than we could afford for these vegetables and literally had to pile them on top of the resting toddler for the long walk back to our apartment.

When our South End neighbors learned that Jonah and I both had many years of experience working on farms, from Many Hands Organic Farm, in Barre, Massachusetts, to Live Power Farm, in Covelo, California, they began to ask whether we planned to start a farm to feed this community. At first we hesitated. I was a full-time public school science teacher, Jonah had his natural building business, and we were parenting two young children. But we were firmly rooted in our love for our people and for the land, and this passion for justice won out. We cobbled together our modest savings, loans from friends and family, and 40 percent of my teaching salary every year in order to capitalize the project. The land that chose us was relatively affordable, just over $2,000 an acre, but the necessary investments in electricity, septic, water, and dwelling spaces tripled that cost. With the tireless support of hundreds of volunteers, and after four years of building infrastructure and soil, we opened Soul Fire Farm, a project committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system, providing life-giving food to people living in food deserts, and transferring skills and knowledge to the next generation of farmer-activists.

Our first order of business was feeding our community back in the South End of Albany. While the government labels this neighborhood a food desert, I prefer the term food apartheid, because it makes clear that we have a human-created system of segregation that relegates certain groups to food opulence and prevents others from accessing life-giving nourishment. About 24 million Americans live under food apartheid, in which it’s difficult to impossible to access affordable, healthy food. This trend is not race-neutral. White neighborhoods have an average of four times as many supermarkets as predominantly Black communities. This lack of access to nutritious food has dire consequences for our communities. Incidences of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease are on the rise in all populations, but the greatest increases have occurred among people of color, especially African Americans and Native Americans.

To farm while Black is an act of defiance against white supremacy and a means to honor the agricultural ingenuity of our ancestors. As Toni Morrison is reported to have said, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Farming While Black is the book I needed someone to write for me when I was a teen who incorrectly believed that choosing a life on land would be a betrayal of my ancestors and of my Black community. It’s a reverently compiled manual for African-heritage people ready to reclaim our rightful place of dignified agency in the food system.

This excerpt is adapted from the introduction of Leah Penniman’s book Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (Chelsea Green Publishing, November 2018) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.


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Canada’s re-engagement with Iran blocked by act that allows its assets to be seized, says retired envoy


The real reason the Liberal government hasn’t been able to re-establish relations with Iran is due to its adherence to a « stupid » Canadian law allowing the seizure of Iranian assets, says Canada’s recently expelled ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Dennis Horak, who was expelled from Saudi Arabia in August after its rulers were incensed by a tweet from Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, offered that blunt assessment as he shed new light on another controversial moment in Canada’s Middle East relations.

Six years ago, the previous Conservative government abruptly severed its diplomatic relations with Iran, shut its embassy in Tehran and expelled Iranian diplomats from Canada.

The current Liberal government campaigned in 2015 on re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iran but it has been unable to deliver on that foreign policy promise because Iran appears unwilling to re-engage.

Horak, who retired recently, said one obstacle is standing in the way — the passage in 2012 of Canada’s Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which allows victims of terrorism to sue countries that are listed as supporters of terrorism.

Among other things, the law paved the way for last year’s Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that upheld the seizure of $1.7 billion US in private Iranian assets by a group of American plaintiffs whose loved ones were killed in terrorist attacks allegedly sponsored by the Iranian regime.

« It was a stupid law. And it’s still a stupid law, » Horak told a meeting of the Canadian International Council in Ottawa this week.

« But we’re stuck with it. »

‘Embassy closed day after legislation’

Horak, who was the Canadian foreign ministry’s director of Middle East relations in 2012, said the three major federal parties supported the law.

Then foreign affairs minister John Baird abruptly announced the Tehran embassy closure in September 2012, accusing Iran of being a state sponsor of terrorism and saying it was for the safety of Canadian diplomats.

Though he cited the attack on the British embassy in Tehran 10 months earlier that saw an angry mob storm the diplomatic compound, Baird and the Conservative government declined to say whether Canadian diplomats faced any imminent threat.

Former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dennis Horak, was the Canadian foreign ministry’s director of Middle East relations in 2012. (CBC)

« Lost in all of the information about the reasons why, was the real reason … It was the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, frankly. That’s the reason; that still exists, » Horak said.

« It’s no coincidence that we closed the embassy basically the day after the legislation became effective. »

After the attack on the British embassy, the Canadian government realized it had « very poor security » around its own compound, Horak said, suggesting that would leave it vulnerable to an Iranian mob.

« The British weren’t even seizing Iranian government property. This law called for the seizure of Iranian government properties, » said Horak, adding the Iranians « have a very flexible view on diplomatic immunity. »

« How could we possibly stay open under those conditions? » he asked. « How can we reopen under those conditions? »

Freeland’s office did not respond to questions about the status of diplomatic talks with Iran.

Saudi spat continues

Horak has already criticized Freeland for her August tweet calling for the release of imprisoned activists in Saudi Arabia, which led the Saudi regime to declare Horak persona non grata, recall Saudi university students from Canada, and cancel flights between the countries. Horak said the tweet was « ill advised, » but Saudi Arabia overreacted in response.

Michael Grant, who recently returned to Ottawa after a posting as one of Canada’s ambassadors to the United Nations in New York, said Horak was one of Canada’s top analysts of Middle East affairs. He said Horak’s diplomatic dispatches will add greatly to the country’s understanding of the region when they are declassified in the coming decades.

In his speech to the council, Horak cited the conflict between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran as the core conflict shaping the geopolitics of the Middle East.

His presentation underscored the fact that Canada is now diplomatically hamstrung in both countries — it has no ambassador to lead its embassy in Riyadh, while its mission in Tehran remains closed. 

« How can you have a dialogue when you don’t have ambassadors? » asked retired diplomat John Noble, who was part of the sold-out crowd that turned out for Horak.

Still, Noble said Canada has not traditionally played a major role in the Middle East even though Lester Pearson won a Nobel Peace Prize in the 1950s for helping defuse the Suez Crisis.

« He was trying to prevent a break-up of the Commonwealth and of NATO, » said Noble, who held ambassadorships in Greece and Switzerland.

« The idea that we had a big role in the Middle East has always been over-inflated. »

Watch Dennis Horak discuss Canada’s relations with Saudi Arabia on Power and Politics

Canada’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dennis Horak joined Power & Politics Monday to discuss the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the current state of Canada-Saudi relations. 9:32


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Changes to Nova Scotia’s Gaming Control Act on the horizon – Halifax


A win at the casino can be an exciting moment, but for an addict, it can be dangerous.

“If you make a lot of money your first time around, that is something they chase after, like a heroin addict,” said NDP MLA Lenore Zann.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia to eliminate lifetime ban for gamblers in self-exclusion program

She knows the feeling well herself, not from gambling, but from alcohol. “I’m an alcoholic, I quit drinking 24 years ago.”

That’s why she’s taken a stance against amendments to the Gaming Control Act.

Currently, the province has a voluntary exclusion program, which allows those with an addiction to voluntarily ban themselves from casinos in Nova Scotia. But it’s a lifetime ban, and amendments to the act are looking to change that.

The proposed legislation would allow for variable time lengths for the program.

“It is likely to mean a great number of people who would not have chosen self-exclusion because of the lifetime ban will now be able to opt into it,” said Jon Kelly, the former chair of Responsible Gambling Council.

“Where you have a variety of bans, you have more flexibility and you have more responsibility for the individual themselves.”

But Zann said that flexibility can be part of the problem.

“For most addicts, the only answer is they do need to abstain.”

Voluntary exclusion programs are common across the country but Nova Scotia is the only province with a lifetime ban. It also has one of the lowest take-up rates with only about 2,000 participants.

WATCH: Nova Scotia gambling revenue increases again

All four opposition MLAs on the Law Amendments Committee, including Zann, voted to stand the bill. But ultimately, it passed committee and will go back to the House for its third reading.

Zann said that if the bill helps more people to get help, then it will be a good thing but what she really wants is for the government to complete a gambling strategy.

“Look at what are the causes and effects of gambling in Nova Scotia, how many people are being affected, and whether or not the government should even take the money from this type of activity,” she said.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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