Quebec facing strong opposition to new bill restricting cannabis consumption – Montreal

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The Quebec government faced strong opposition as public consultations began Tuesday on its bill seeking to increase the legal age of cannabis consumption and ban it from all public areas.

Junior Health Minister Lionel Carmant has said he tabled Bill 2 in order to protect young people and send a message that smoking marijuana is not a trivial matter. The proposed legislation restricts marijuana usage to people aged 21 and over and limits its smoking to private property.

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READ MORE: Quebec moves to raise legal age to consume cannabis to 21

The province’s public health agencies are largely against the new restrictions. They say raising the legal age to 21 from 18 won’t prevent young people from obtaining marijuana. And they say banning it from public areas marginalizes tenants whose landlords have banned smoking, creating a system were only certain groups can consume a legal product without breaking the law.

The Canadian Press has learned that two public health organizations are planning to suggest a compromise on the age limit during hearings on Bill 2 before a legislative committee in Quebec City. Two well-placed sources said the committee will be told the government should give gradual access to cannabis to youth aged 18 to 20.

WATCH: Montrealers line up on the first day of legal marijuana sales






People between 18 and 20 years should only be allowed to purchase marijuana with a low percentage of THC — the drug’s main psychoactive component, the committee will be told. “This proposal shows the scientific community, in public health, is trying to give an honourable exit door to the government on its policy,” said one source, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

The current law is already one of the strictest legal regimes for marijuana in the country. Personal cultivation of cannabis plants is banned and the only way to legally purchase the product is through a government agency.

The previous Liberal government had allowed public consumption of marijuana in places where tobacco was permitted, with certain restrictions, but the new Coalition Avenir Québec government is not alone in seeking tighter rules. Even before Bill 2, many Quebec municipalities adopted their own bylaws banning all public consumption of cannabis.

READ MORE: Quebec’s cannabis agency cuts back expansion plans amid shortages

Marianne Dessureault, spokeswoman for Quebec’s association of public health, will appear before the committee Wednesday. She said she understands the desire to protect young, developing brains from the risks of marijuana, but she feels the bill lacks a scientific basis.

“I am worried that we are going ahead and maybe transforming a law that sought to protect public health, towards a law that has more of a political flavour,” she said in an interview. “It’s concerning. It’s clear that (the bill) has a populist appeal and that it doesn’t have its place in public health policy.”

WATCH BELOW: Cannabis activist hopes to change Quebec marijuana laws






Bastien Quirion, professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, is also scheduled appear before the committee Wednesday. He questioned why the government would prohibit people under 21 years old from consuming cannabis but allow them to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco.

“One hundred years of cannabis prohibition show that it’s not through banning it that we are going to eradicate the practice or prevent risky behaviour,” he said in an interview.

“It will just put certain groups in a precarious position.”

Maude Faniel-Methot, a spokeswoman for Carmant, declined to comment on the idea of giving younger people gradual access to THC. She said the minister is open to listening to all suggestions to amend the bill.

READ MORE: Long lineup at Montreal pot shop as legalization begins

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Conservative senator says ‘parts of the government’ want to kill the oilsands with Bill C-69

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Conservative Sen. Doug Black says if the Liberal environmental assessment bill currently being studied by the Senate isn’t amended, it could kill the oilsands.

And he says that might be the intent.

READ MORE: ‘Lack of clarity’ in Bill C-69 leads Senate to send act to committee

“There will be no new development in the oilsands. Many would argue that’s the very intent of the legislation,” he said in an interview with the West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson when asked whether the bill’s proposed new environmental assessment rules could kill the oilsands.

“I believe there are parts of the government that believe that would be a desirable outcome.”

WATCH BELOW: Conservatives demand Liberals scrap ‘no pipelines’ Bill C-69







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Introduced to the House of Commons in February 2018, the Liberals’ Bill C-69 would change how natural resource projects are assessed.

The legislation would get rid of the National Energy Board, replace it with a Canadian Energy Regulator, and also create an Impact Assessment Agency to measure how best to mitigate environmental impacts from proposed developments.

It could also lead to confusion and delays over project timelines.

READ MORE: Alberta environment minister says federal energy bill C-69 inadequate in current form

The bill lowers the timeline for major projects from 720 days to 600, but also sets aside 180 days for early engagement with stakeholders like Indigenous communities and allows the government to repeatedly extend that engagement period with few, if any, real limits.

Opponents of the legislation argue projects like the Trans Mountain expansion wouldn’t have been able to get approval under the proposed system and that it puts too heavy a burden on businesses to jump through hoops before a project gets approval, which could make them reconsider seeking approval in the first place.

LISTEN: Alberta Senator Paula Simons joins Rob Breakenridge to discuss Bill C-69

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Supporters of the bill, including the Mining Association of Canada, argue that while the bill is “not perfect,” passing it will reduce uncertainty to the mining industry because the legislation has the confidence of many Indigenous communities and offers a more coordinated approach to assessing overall impacts of proposed projects.

WATCH BELOW: Trudeau talks about Bill C-69 to Alberta’s Chamber of Commerce






Having received approval from the House of Commons, the bill is now before the Senate, which it will need to pass if the government wants to get royal assent on the legislation before the end of the session in June — without that, it will die when the election is called.

The Senate Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee met for the first time last week and Black was among the senators arguing for a travel budget to be set up so members can meet with Canadians outside of Ottawa about the impact of the bill.

The government, meanwhile, argues that would be an expensive political stunt.

But Black says the legislation would create significant hurt for Canadians working in the natural resource industries and that their voices will not be heard if the committee only stays in Ottawa as is usually the case for such studies of bills.

“You don’t hear it here in Ottawa. You don’t see it, you don’t feel it in Ottawa, so this is very important,” he said.

“Of course, there’s a cost [to travel], but the cost of the Canadian economy of not getting this right is literally trillions of dollars.”

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Ontario health care ‘super agency’ would allow more privatization, confidential draft bill shows

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A confidential draft bill from Premier Doug Ford’s government would establish a health “super agency” to create “efficiencies” in the system and empower cabinet to privatize more services and sell medical data, according to a leaked copy.

The new “super agency” to oversee health care was first revealed by the Star on Jan. 17.

The leaked version of the Health System Efficiency Act 2019, obtained by the New Democrats and revealed Thursday, states the super agency — yet to be named — would implement the new Progressive Conservative government’s health system strategies, hinted at in a new report released Thursday from Ford’s health care czar Dr. Rueben Devlin.

Devlin said the complex health-care system is too “difficult” for patients to navigate, pointing to the need to make treatment paths more efficient and, for example, take better care of people with chronic diseases like diabetes.

Under the draft bill, the super agency would have the powers to “designate” providers of integrated care providing a mix of at least two of the following: hospital care, primary care, mental health, addictions, home care, long-term care, and palliative care.

The bill would also give Health Minister Christine Elliott the power to “consider whether to adjust the funding (of the super agency) to take into account a portion of the savings from efficiencies that the super agency generated in the previous fiscal year and that the super agency proposes to spend on patient care in subsequent fiscal years.”

A source told the Star an official announcement on the super agency, which the legislation says will have a 15-member board of directors, is expected in late February.

More to come

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Indigenous languages bill coming ‘very soon,’ heritage minister says

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OTTAWA—More than two years after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised legislation to revitalize Indigenous languages that Canada tried for generations to extinguish, the minister responsible for the bill says he can’t promise it will become law before this year’s federal election.

Even so, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said the long-anticipated legislation will be tabled “very, very soon” and that the Liberal government will work to pass it through Parliament as quickly as possible.

Federal Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism Pablo Rodriguez says legislation to revitalize Indigenous languages —which Canada tried for generations to extinguish — will be tabled “very, very soon” and that the Liberal government will work to pass it through Parliament as quickly as possible.
Federal Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism Pablo Rodriguez says legislation to revitalize Indigenous languages —which Canada tried for generations to extinguish — will be tabled “very, very soon” and that the Liberal government will work to pass it through Parliament as quickly as possible.  (Justin Tang / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO)

“I cannot say yes (it will pass), but I can tell you one thing—this is an absolute priority for the prime minister, for myself, for the government and for all the Indigenous people across the country,” Rodriguez told the Star Wednesday.

The heritage minister will travel to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly on Friday, where he will highlight the Trudeau government’s commitment to reconciliation between the Canadian state and Indigenous nations, and underscore the importance of supporting Indigenous languages before they disappear. Rodriguez will be accompanied by leaders from three national Indigenous groups: the Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

The organizations helped craft the coming languages bill, a necessary approach that has taken longer than it would have had the government written the legislation on its own, Rodriguez said. And while his predecessor in the heritage portfolio previewed facets of the bill last June—saying Ottawa planned to recognize Indigenous languages as a constitutional right and create a new office of commissioners to protect and promote them—Rodriguez was tight-lipped about what the coming legislation would contain.

Following the government’s $90-million commitment to support the dozens of Indigenous languages from 2017 to 2019, Rodriguez said the coming bill is meant to form a legal framework that will empower Inuit, First Nations and Métis communities to decide for themselves how best to preserve their traditional tongues.

“It is also going to be a very flexible bill to take into consideration different realities for different groups, and also, they will be able to determine what are their priorities, the way they want to do things their own way,” Rodriguez said.

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the bill needs to include long-term, stable sources of money so that Indigenous communities can rebuild language fluency among young people. In that way, it could help reverse the consequences of Canada’s residential schools, where tens of thousands of Indigenous children were removed from their families over several decades and forced to speak French and English instead of their native languages.

“We don’t want the residential school system to win, and the Crown has an obligation to put as much resources to revitalize and promote Indigenous languages as they used to eradicate our languages,” Bellegarde said.

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, has said he will only support the bill if it goes beyond “symbolic” measures. In a statement to the Star, Obed said the legislation must include “substantive provisions that the revitalization, maintenance, and promotion of Inuktut,” the language of majority in Nunavut.

“We continue to engage with the Government of Canada in an effort to ensure that the bill meets this expectation,” he said.

While declining to reveal details of the bill, Rodriguez called it a “first step” towards revitalizing Indigenous languages, and pledged that the “necessary resources will be in place” to do so.

In the meantime, Bellegarde said Canadian politicians need to band together to make sure this bill gets passed before Parliament breaks in June and heads into the general election—especially as some languages are now only spoken by handfuls of people.

“It’s a very, very tight time frame, and we don’t want to miss this opportunity,” he said.

“This is very important to get this legislation in place and make sure we get this done for our children, and those yet to come.”

Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga

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‘We heard you loud and clear on Bill 66,’ Premier Doug Ford assures rural Ontario municipalities

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The Progressive Conservatives’ retreat on controversial new planning legislation proves the government will listen to municipalities, says Premier Doug Ford.

Speaking to the Rural Ontario Municipalities Association conference Monday, Ford said last week’s cancellation of a contentious section of Bill 66 is significant.

The Ford government backed down on a plan that could have opened up the Greenbelt to development.
The Ford government backed down on a plan that could have opened up the Greenbelt to development.  (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press)

“We heard you loud and clear on Bill 66,” the premier told about 1,000 rural mayors, reeves, and councillors from across the province at the Sheraton Centre convention in Toronto.

Read more:

Tories’ Bill 66 would undermine clean-water protections that followed Walkerton tragedy, victims and advocates warn

Ford government backs down on plan that could have opened up the Greenbelt to development

After much criticism, Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark last Wednesday axed the one-paragraph schedule 10 to the bill that would amend the Planning Act to allow municipalities to bypass existing development requirements and restrictions for companies promising to create 50 or more jobs.

Projects could have been granted expedited provincial approvals within one year, allowing businesses to begin construction.

Critics had warned that would have put prime farmland and the 1.8-million acre Greenbelt around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area at risk of development.

Ford assured rural civic leaders that was not the intention of the omnibus legislation that was hastily introduced before the house rose for Christmas.

“Of course, we’d never have approved any projects at the expense of the Greenbelt, water quality or public health,” the premier said.

“But, as Minister Clark recently announced, we will not proceed with schedule 10 of the bill,” he emphasized.

“We’re committed to cutting red tape in a way that protects workers, protects the environment and eliminates waste and we’ll make sure our legislation does exactly that.”

The premier, who was joined at the conference by many ministers and MPPs, stressed his government is “here to listen to you.”

“That’s why we repealed the Green Energy Act — to help local communities have a say on energy projects in their municipalities,” Ford said of the previous Liberal government’s polarizing legislation on siting wind turbines and solar projects.

“Today local communities have final say on these local planning decisions,” he said.

The premier also announced that Clark and Attorney General Caroline Mulroney would soon begin province-wide consultations on muncipalities’ liability.

“We have heard your concerns about increasing insurance costs and the impact that these costs and settlements can have on property taxes and municipal taxpayers,” said Ford.

“We’ve heard your concerns about the ‘liability chill’ preventing everyday activities in your municipalities, like tobogganing and street hockey,” he said.

“We need to make sure that vulnerable injured people are fairly compensated. We’ll need to look at the evidence and develop solutions that make sense.”

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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Your tax bill could change in 2019. Here’s what to expect.

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A whole host of federal tax changes come into effect in the new year. Some will hit your paycheque, others your bills — and if you’re a small business owner, there are a couple of changes coming for which you’ve likely been preparing for months.

Starting in January, Canadians’ Canada Pension Plan contributions increase from 4.95 per cent to 5.1 per cent on earnings between $3,500 and $57,400. It’s the first of five years of graduated increases running until 2023, when the rate will reach 5.95 per cent.

The increases are going to pay for what eventually will be an enhanced CPP. The Quebec Pension Plan will see similar changes.

« You can think of it as a cost right now, but you’re actually going to be contributing toward an enhanced Canada Pension Plan benefit over time, ultimately leading to a higher amount of pensionable earnings, » said Jamie Golombek, managing director of tax and estate planning with CIBC.

« So you’re actually going to get something in return for that extra contribution. »

Partially offsetting that increased CPP contribution on your paycheque will be a drop in Employment Insurance premiums, from $1.66 to $1.62 per $100 of insurable earnings.

2019 also will be the first tax year when low income workers can qualify for a more generous Canada Workers Benefit, a program intended to help the working poor stay employed.

The maximum benefit will increase by between $300 and $400, based on whether the applicant is single or part of a family. That brings the maximum benefits to $1,355 for a single person or $2,335 for a single parent or couple, depending on personal incomes.

However, as 2019 is the eligibility year, low income workers will have to wait until 2020 to get the boosted benefit.

Experts say more than half of Canadians who live in poverty are working.

« Gone is this idea, I hope … that people live in poverty because they just need to find a job, they need to pull up their boot straps and get off their couch, » said Michele Bliss of the non-profit advocacy group Canada Without Poverty. « That idea is so antiquated. »

Small business tax changes

One of the big news stories of the past year and half has been the changes the federal government is making to small business taxes. The most controversial change affects the rules on how much passive income an incorporated small business can hold.

Passive income is money earned in interest on funds that sit idle within an incorporated business, without being reinvested or used to cover operating expenses. As of January 1, business owners can hold up to $50,000 in passive income before they start to lose access to the advantageous small business tax rate.

Small businesses pay a relatively low tax rate — currently 10 per cent — on the first $500,000 of business earnings. But staring in January, if those businesses hold in excess of the new limit on passive income, some of that first half-million in earnings will be subjected to the much higher corporate rate, depending on how far over the new limit they are.

The federal government’s goal is to encourage business owners to reinvest their passive earnings into their businesses, or into hiring more people, rather than sitting on the cash.

« I think a lot of small businesses are still unaware that some of the changes are coming, » said Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

« In fact, that’s one of my biggest worries. I think a lot of firms are sitting ducks for the Canada Revenue Agency. »

However, the small business tax rate is going down from 10 to 9 per cent in 2019 — a move long promised by the Liberal government, one that many saw as an attempt to placate a small business community angered by the passive income changes.

« But the passive investment increases are going to eclipse any reduction in taxes that a small business might feel, » said Kelly.

Still, the federal government estimates the average small business — one that has eligible business income of $107,000 — will keep an extra $1,600 per year after the cut.

And for some really small businesses — especially those not incorporated and with no passive income to worry about — that tax cut will be very welcome.

« 2018 was actually one of the toughest years we’ve had. We sell a niche product that’s been copied and is now sold in box stores. So we’re competing with a lot of big businesses here, » said Katrina Barclay of Malenka Originals in Ottawa. Her store refurbishes outdated furniture with a special chalk paint.

« At the end of the day, at the end of the month, if there’s a little bit of extra money left over that we can reinvest into the business, then it definitely helps. »

Higher prices at the pump

Possibly the most politically charged tax change coming in 2019 is Ottawa’s new carbon pricing system. In jurisdictions that don’t have carbon pricing mechanisms of their own, Ottawa will levy a tax on fossil fuels of $20 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions starting in the new year, rising by $10 each year to $50 a tonne by 2022.

Emissions over set limits from large, industrial emitters in provinces without carbon pricing systems will fall under the federal governments carbon pricing rules starting in January. For consumers, the cost of fossil fuels and the services they support will start going up in April.

The government estimates that, once the carbon tax is in place in the provinces where it will be imposed, the cost of a litre of gasoline will go up 4.42 cents, natural gas will go up 3.91 cents per cubic metre and propane will go up 3.10 cents a litre.

People in those provinces will get direct rebates to offset the increased costs. The amount will vary based on the province and the number of people in the household. In Ontario, for example, the rebate for the average household (defined as 2.6 people) would be about $300 a year, or about $248 in New Brunswick, or $336 in Manitoba, or $598 in Saskatchewan.

« I think the government has designed this system in a way that will prevent us from getting a big ding from the carbon pricing system, » said Nick Rivers, Canada Research Chair in Climate and Energy Policy at the University of Ottawa.

In Yukon and Nunavut, consumers will see the cost of fossil fuels rise due to carbon pricing — but because the territories themselves are adopting the federal system, the revenue will go to the territorial governments, not to individual households.

Other tax and price changes coming:

Postage stamp prices are set to increase.

Many personal income tax credit and benefit amounts are being indexed to inflation:

  • The basic personal amount rises to $12,069
  • The annual contribution limit to tax-free savings accounts will increase to $6,000 from $5,500

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Passenger bill of rights may let airlines ‘off the hook’ without an ombudsman: advocate

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A consumer rights advocate is frustrated Canada’s proposed new air passenger bill of rights doesn’t include plans for an independent body that will review passenger complaints.

Highlights of the proposed new regulations were released earlier this week.

« The most polite thing I could say is that we’re disappointed in what is being produced. After all this time — it’s been decades in the making — and really it’s like a bucket of muddy water, » said Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers Association of Canada.

« One of the things we would have liked to have seen, in fact I think it’s essential, is some sort of an ombudsman structure so people can put their complaints into an independent arbitrator. There’s not much in there for consumers. »

The U.S. and Europe have had passenger rights regulations in place for years, and Cran jokes that after this bill is put in place Canadians still won’t have them — they’ll have an « airline bill of rights » instead.

Right now, airlines set out their own terms and conditions, and if they break their own rules, a person can complain to the Canadian Transportation Agency, an independent tribunal run by the federal government.

Consumer groups have long complained that the CTA does little to enforce the payment of those tariffs, and that most Canadians don’t understand airlines’ obligations or know how to file a claim.

The new regulations would put more black-and-white rules in place for airlines — for example that passengers must be compensated a set amount in cash for delays, or airlines could face big penalties — but enforcement will still be kicked back to Canadian Transportation Agency staff.

Law ‘should protect passengers’

« I think there are a lot of things in there that probably let them off the hook and they’ll be decided in the favour of the airlines rather than the airline passengers … it’s not a matter of compensating passengers, it’s a matter of making it difficult for the airlines to survive if they don’t conform to what’s supposed to be the law, which again, should protect passengers, » Cran said.

The CTA had a complaints commissioner back in the early 2000s, but the position was eventually eliminated and its highly publicized annual reports faded away.

David Western, the former director of tariff enforcement and complaints with the CTA, said he was essentially the commissioner’s right-hand-man.

Past commissioners made ‘huge difference’

« I think that the [complaints] commissioner made a huge difference in terms of customer service from the airlines, » he said.

Western said that when Canadian Airlines and Air Canada amalgamated in 1999, there were thousands of complaints about the level of customer service from Air Canada, but over the two commissioners’ terms, service improved enormously.

« We were getting satisfaction on about 75 per cent of the complaints that had not been resolved satisfactorily by the airlines. »

The trick, according to Western, was that the commissioner put out an annual written report — and companies really, really didn’t want to be profiled in it.

He said one commissioner, an ex-NHL referee, loved to « blow the whistle » on cases where customers hadn’t been treated fairly.

« I think that there are advantages to having a readily identifiable spokesperson or an ombudsperson who people can recognize and turn to, » he said.

However Ian Jack of the Canadian Automobile Association says Canadians should see how the new bill plays out before worrying about adding another layer of bureaucracy.

Too soon to say

The CAA books about 700,000 trips each year, trips that Jack stresses aren’t for business travellers or frequent flyers, who are often taken care of more quickly when there’s an issue with a flight.

« It’s a brand new regime and I think we have to see how it works until you know before we decide that it’s not working, » Jack said.

« While the regime that’s been proposed by the government is far from perfect … the fact is, this is a solid advance over what we have had, which is a chaotic series of semi-hidden rules that nobody really knew about, where people who flew a lot were treated a lot better than people who didn’t. »

The CTA says there are currently no plans for an ombudsman, and if facilitation and mediation aren’t conclusive, the complaint will then go through an adjudication process.

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Liberals’ election reform bill becomes law on last day of parliamentary sitting

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After receiving royal assent today — the final day of the current parliamentary sitting before the Christmas break — the Liberal government’s electoral reform bill, C-76, is now law.

The Trudeau government tabled C-76 last year. It limits the length of federal election campaigns, restricts the amount of spending allowed in the period immediately before a campaign, works to prevent foreign interference and introduces new rules to regulate third-party political activity.

On third parties, the bill would require them to use a dedicated Canadian bank account for payment of election-related spending. It also limits their spending on advertising, surveys and other election-related activities to $1 million in the two months before an election is called, and to $500,000 during the campaign.

Commissioner of Elections Yves Côté told CBC in October that Parliament needed to adopt C-76 by December to give him powers to fight foreign interference and social media abuse in the coming federal election, scheduled for October 2019.

« We have reached a critical moment now and, to me, I would say if this bill is not passed by December, we’re going to be in a very, very difficult situation, » he said.

Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault also called for C-76 to be adopted in short order to give him time to implement it during the next election.

Arms trade and border security

Other bills that were given royal assent today include C-21, introduced by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale more than two years ago.

The bill would implement an « entry/exit program » to keep track of when individual Canadians enter and leave the country — information that wasn’t always collected in the past.

Bill C-47, the Act to Amend the Export and Import Permits Act, was also given royal assent. The act enables Canada to join the international Arms Trade Treaty — something the Liberals promised they would do during the 2015 election campaign.

And C-51 was made law Thursday. The act purges the Criminal Code of old, outdated laws — often referred to as « zombie laws » — and clarifies the Code when it comes to sexual assault law.

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Tories’ Bill 66 would undermine clean-water protections that followed Walkerton tragedy, victims and advocates warn

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“Do not drink this water,” warned the signs taped to fountains and bathroom sinks in a small Ontario town.

For thousands of people in the rural community 150 kilometres northwest of Toronto, the water they once used to brush their teeth, bathe their children and prepare their meals had become a hostile enemy.

Seven people died and thousands fell ill in 2000, when Walkerton’s water supply became contaminated by E. coli.
Seven people died and thousands fell ill in 2000, when Walkerton’s water supply became contaminated by E. coli.  (Jim Rankin / Toronto Star file photo)

Jugs of clean water had to be delivered to a depot. Hospitals were overrun with new patients. Children were pulled out of school. Businesses closed.

The tainted-water scandal in Walkerton in the spring of 2000 devastated the community, with thousands falling ill and seven people dying. It was one of the worst health epidemics in the province’s history.

Nearly 19 years later, environmental advocates say Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government is posing one of the greatest risks both the environment and public health have faced in decades.

Last week, the government tabled a new piece of legislation, Bill 66, that, if passed, would allow commercial development to bypass several long-standing laws meant to protect the natural environment and the health of residents, including the Clean Water Act that was put in place following the Walkerton tragedy.

Read more:

New bill aims to reduce red tape for business, says Ford government

Environmentalists fear provincial changes mean Greenbelt is open for development

Opinion | Keenan: That ‘red tape’ Ford is cutting? It was meant to protect the environment, workers, lives

The stated purpose of the proposed bill, called the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act, is to cut “red tape” around planning approvals for businesses looking to invest in local communities.

Under the proposed legislation, if a development has the support of both the municipal government and the province and can demonstrate it would create 50 new jobs in areas with populations under 250,000, or 100 jobs for bigger cities, it could get the green light despite possibly being detrimental to the environment.

Bruce Davidson knows what’s at stake.

It’s been many years since he became a spokesperson for himself, his family and his concerned neighbours.

Reached by phone at his home in Walkerton, he said many couldn’t have found his town on a map before the outbreak. He continues to educate others on clean drinking water.

But he worries that as time passes and the Walkerton tragedy becomes a part of history, a distant memory, it’s easy to forget why the hard-won protections were put in place.

“I think as Walkerton sort of moves more into the rear-view mirror … the tendency is sort of to say, ‘Well, is that really necessary?’” Davidson said.

“I think it sends the wrong message to industry and to everyone that if we have enough dollars in our pocket, the economic impact will win over the environmental impact.”

Walkerton resident Bruce Davidson, who became an unofficial town spokesperson during the tainted-water tragedy in 2000, calls the Ford government's Bill 66 "ill considered."
Walkerton resident Bruce Davidson, who became an unofficial town spokesperson during the tainted-water tragedy in 2000, calls the Ford government’s Bill 66 « ill considered. »  (Toronto Star)

He called the Ford government’s plan “ill-considered,” noting that the protections in place since 2006 are being studied as best practices as far away as China.

The bill, which would also circumvent legislation protecting the Greenbelt, Great Lakes and other environmentally sensitive areas, is set to be debated next year. It was introduced without any public consultation or warning.

According to the conclusions of an inquiry into the Walkerton tragedy, in May 2000, some 2,321 people became ill from two types of bacteria, including a type of dangerous E. coli, after heavy rainfall caused flooding that flushed the bacteria from cow manure near a farm into one of three groundwater wells that was the source of water for Walkerton.

The number of people who fell ill represented about half the town’s population.

It was concluded after much investigation that the water coming out of the taps in Walkerton had not been properly treated so as to kill off the deadly bacteria, and the tragedy could have been prevented if proper monitoring, protections and oversight had existed.

The E. coli subgroup that affected local residents, typically carried by cattle, causes intestinal disease with multiple symptoms, including the possibility of kidney failure and other life-threatening issues.

For Walkerton residents, it caused debilitating sickness — including for a two-year-old boy who was nearly lifeless, suffering from bloody diarrhea, and who experienced heart failure as he underwent dialysis, according to an account given by his mother at the time.

Following the outbreak, the Ontario government called a judicial inquiry, led by Justice Dennis O’Connor, which made conclusions in 2002 about the lasting impact, source of contamination and recommended next steps for both local and provincial governments.

It specifically recommended the provincial government “develop a comprehensive, source-to-tap, government-wide drinking water policy” and noted: “It is reasonable for all those in Ontario to expect that the government will do all it reasonably can to support a safe drinking water system.”

In 2006, under then-premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government, the Clean Water Act was passed.

It followed directly from a dozen of the inquiry’s recommendations and was meant to be a science-based approach to protect the sources of clean drinking water — lakes, rivers and aquifers.

“Keeping source water free of contamination is smarter, safer and more effective than cleaning up problems after the fact,” said a release at the time from then-environment minister Laurel Broten.

The act required the creation of protection plans that would identify and then mitigate contamination risks to sources of drinking water: For example, preventing manure or harmful pesticides from leaching into a drinking water system from a nearby farm.

Bruce Davidson, seen in a 2001 photo, says the economic costs of the Walkerton tragedy have also been great ? he estimates as much as $200 million was spent on cleanup and payouts to victims.
Bruce Davidson, seen in a 2001 photo, says the economic costs of the Walkerton tragedy have also been great ? he estimates as much as $200 million was spent on cleanup and payouts to victims.  (Jim Rankin/Toronto Star file photo)

On Friday, Theresa McClenaghan and Richard Lindgren, respectively the executive director and counsel for the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), posted on the organization’s website that Bill 66, together with other recent moves by the Ford government — including the decision to abolish the office of the province’s environmental watchdog — “constitutes the biggest and most significant environmental rollback to occur in a generation in Ontario.”

In particular, they said the attempt to prevent a particular section of the Clean Water Act from applying to certain types of new development is both “objectionable and risk-laden.”

The particular section of the act that would not apply to new developments approved under the “open for business” rules is not some “obscure” provision in the law, but the key part of the act that requires land-use planning decisions in the province to protect safe drinking water, they said.

“In our view, this important provision must remain applicable to all municipal planning and zoning decisions in order to protect public health and safety,” their post reads.

“CELA is extremely disappointed to see that the lessons from the Walkerton tragedy are being discounted or ignored by the current Ontario government.”

Municipal politicians have also come out against the new bill.

Toronto councillors Josh Matlow, Gord Perks, Mike Layton and Mike Colle — who have all individually campaigned for stronger environmental protections, both as activists and in office — have written to Ford saying the exemptions should be reconsidered.

“Eroding environmental protections like the Clean Water Act, legislated in the wake of the Walkerton tragedy, will put the health of the people you serve at risk and make our province less attractive to prospective companies looking to create new jobs,” the letter said, referring to another town that has seen a crisis of contaminated drinking water.

“Businesses from around the world are lining up to invest in places like Toronto and Ottawa, not Flint, Michigan.”

The human cost of Walkerton has been long-lasting.

Those who were affected continue to face health challenges, including lasting kidney damage.

The Star’s Paul Hunter recently reported on the life and assisted death of Robbie Schnurr, a long-suffering victim of Walkerton’s tainted water who died with the help of a physician earlier this year after becoming confined to his bed following complications that caused debilitating pain.

The economic costs have also been great.

What was saved by not properly treating and monitoring the water before the epidemic has been grossly overshadowed by what was spent on the resulting cleanup and payments to victims, Davidson said.

He estimates it cost as much as $200 million.

Davidson said the protections now in place were the result of scientific planning involving public consultation. They were not designed to stall development and cover very little total land mass.

He’d like to see evidence of where there are onerous restrictions or significant roadblocks and a discussion of how to address those instead of boycotting the rules long in place.

Protection is often confused with treatment, he said — a situation he likened to putting five forwards on during a hockey game but leaving the net without a goalie or proper defence. Eventually a puck or two gets through.

“I think its really sort of a false narrative to suggest it’s an either-or,” he said of creating new investment and protecting the environment.

Davidson and his neighbours have seen what happens when there isn’t a strong defence in place.

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Bell sorry for $788 bill sent to man displaced by Parliament Street apartment fire

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A Toronto man displaced by a major apartment fire at 650 Parliament St. in August says he received a bill for $788 from Bell Canada months after he tried to cancel his TV and internet bundle. 

« I’ve always had Bell Canada in my life, and now I go through this, » Thomas King said. 

The telecom giant apologized for how it handled King’s complaint soon after CBC Toronto called about King’s struggle to deal with the bill. 

« We will be contacting Mr. King immediately to resolve this issue to his complete satisfaction, » Bell said in a statement Wednesday.   

King, 71, has been allowed back in his apartment, in the east end of Toronto’s downtown core, only once since an electrical fire ravaged the downtown highrise on Aug. 21 and forced 1,500 residents to vacate.

King received this bill for the TV receiver and internet modem from Bell Canada — two months after he cancelled his service. (Submitted by Thomas King)

Within days after he relocated, King says, he cancelled his cable plan.

Two months later, he claims, a Bell collections agent phoned him and asked for the TV receiver internet modem to be returned or he would have to pay $788 to cover the cost. 

« It has been frustrating, » he told CBC Toronto, noting he feared the ordeal would hurt his credit rating. 

King says he tried to retrieve the receiver from his unit to no avail. 

The 50-year-old building suffered  significant structural damage in the fire, which started in the basement, and further inspections revealed problems with its electrical distribution system.

The building’s property manager has said all of the ceilings in all of the corridors had to be pulled down to release trapped smoke, and most of the electrical components are being removed and replaced.

Given the damage, residents have been told it will likely not be possible to live in the building until at least June 2019.

An electrical fire tore through this highrise building on Aug. 21 and forced around 1,500 residents to vacate. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

« They said, ‘You’re not going to be able to get into the building at all. That’s the end of the story,' » King said, referring to the response from the building’s security. 

On Monday, King called Bell’s customer service to clear up the situation. He claims the agent told him it’s Bell’s policy to ask for the money or the equipment back. 

« There’s no budging, » he said.  

Bell’s terms of service allow the telecom to charge for products when a customer cancels service.  

Since King had an HDPVR receiver and modem, the contract requires him to return it or pay $788 for the items. 

Bell Canada admitted it should have been ‘more accommodating’ to King’s circumstances. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

After CBC Toronto contacted Bell Canada about King’s complaint, the national provider apologized for the mixup and scrapped the bill. 

« Our customer service representatives should have been more accommodating in this case, » Nathan Gibson, a spokesperson for Bell Canada, said in an email.

« While we do encourage customers to claim the cost of lost or irretrievable equipment through their household insurance, we understand that customers can sometimes find themselves in unfortunate circumstances beyond their control. »

Damage from unexpected disasters, such as the downtown fire, would typically be covered by many tenant insurance policies, says Pete Karageorgos, director of consumer and industry relations at the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

However, tenants would not be able to recoup the cost of a stolen or smoke-damaged TV receiver and internet modem that was rented from Bell because they have no « financial interest » in the item, Karageorgos said. 

« Technically, he doesn’t even have the ability to insure it, because it’s not his property. It’s the cable company’s, » he told CBC Toronto. 

This situation « isn’t common, » Karageorgos explained, pointing out that only the telecom provider or property manager have the authority to help residents.

Despite the positive resolution, King said the experience has tainted his view of Bell. 

« It’s not very likely that when I get back in I’m going to be using Bell services, » he said.

« I’m going to pack up that stuff and get rid of it. »

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