‘A child is so innocent’: Candlelight vigil held for 11-year-old girl in Ontario Amber Alert

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Community members left grief-stricken by the death of an 11-year-old Brampton, Ont., girl gathered at a park near the child’s school to light candles, lay flowers and show support for the girl’s family at a vigil Saturday evening.

About 200 people gathered at Meadowvale Village Green park in neighbouring Mississauga at 6 p.m., most of them holding candles to place at a growing memorial for Riya Rajkumar, who was found dead in her father’s basement apartment on her birthday this week. 

Some of Riya’s family members attended the vigil, but did not address the crowd.

The group held a moment of silence and, as more people arrived and the sky grew darker, the display of candles grew in front of a pile of flowers and teddy bears.

A woman who knows Riya’s mother planned the candlelight vigil. Amrita Naipaul posted details about the event on her social media accounts.

Members of the community gather at a candlelight vigil in Mississauga on Saturday night for Riya Rajkumar. (Natalie Nanowski/CBC)

« Many people have messaged asking how you can help Riya’s family during this tragic time. As a community, this loss has been felt by all, » she wrote on Instagram and Facebook.

« There are so many people who have been hurting from this angel’s loss, and no one needs our prayer and love more than Riya’s family at this time, » she continued. 

In an interview on Saturday before the vigil, Naipaul said she spoke briefly with Riya’s mother on the phone on Friday evening. 

« I just wanted to make sure out of respect that she was aware of what we were trying to do before we made any arrangements or made any plans, » she told CBC News Network.

« She’s actually the one who suggested that we do it nearby the school, » Naipaul explained, referring to Meadowvale Village Public School, where Riya was a Grade 5 student. 

Naipaul said she has heard from people across Canada, and even from some who live outside the country. 

« There have been many strangers who’ve reached out to me and said, ‘If you get a chance to talk to [Riya’s mother] just let her know that she’s very loved, and she has so much support,' » she continued. 

Naipaul planned to collect donations at the vigil that will be used to help pay for Riya’s funeral. A separate online fund established by the group Neighbourhood Watch Brampton has already raised some $21,000 for Riya’s family.

« I think everybody kind of shares the same sentiment that a child is so innocent and so pure, and a parent is supposed to — especially a father — is supposed to be protective of their child. And to think about what that child went through is just hard for everyone, » she said.

‘Honour a young life’

Rajkumar will also be remembered at a formal memorial on Tuesday night in Brampton, the city about 30 kilometres northwest of Toronto. 

Brampton Coun. Rowena Santos is helping to organize the vigil, which is set to take place at Garden Square from 5:45 p.m. to 7 p.m. ET. 

« Our community is grieving the tragic death of Riya Rajkumar and this is a time to come together in solidarity and remember and honour a young life, » said a notice posted to the city’s website.

« All members of the public are welcome to attend. »

Riya’s father, Roopesh Rajkumar, is facing a charge of first-degree murder in her death. Rajkumar, 41, picked his daughter up at a Mississauga gas station on Thursday afternoon to take her out for her birthday. When he did not return the young girl to her mother at an agreed upon time later that evening, she went to Peel Regional Police for help. 

An Amber Alert was eventually issued around 11 p.m. that night, and was cancelled about an hour later after officers found Riya’s body at an address in Brampton where her father resided.

Rajkumar was arrested by provincial police around the same time while driving north on Highway 11 in Orillia, about 130 kilometres north of Brampton.

Riya was remembered by her classmates and friends as having a vibrant personality and infectious smile.

On Saturday, people continued to stop by the address where Riya was found. The residence is still taped off by police, and officers were going door to door in the area speaking with neighbours.

‘No child deserves this’

A small memorial of flowers and notes of condolences grew in a snowbank outside the home. Family members brought those flowers to Saturday night’s vigil.

« It’s just so sad to hear — an 11-year-old. It could have been my daughter, » said Alexandra Casanova, who brought her children with her so that they could « understand what happened. »

Michael Bettencourt brought his adolescent son with him to pay his respects.

« We are mourning her loss. She was such a young child, and we feel for the family and the community, » he said.

« No child deserves this. »

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Child care costs dropping across Canada, but prices still high in some provinces: study – National

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Daycare fees have dropped — or barely inched up — in some Canadian cities in what might be early signs of the influence of federal child-care money, a new survey says.

The fifth annual survey of child care fees from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives being released Thursday says that fees for full-time, regulated child-care spaces have risen faster than inflation in 61 per cent of cities reviewed.

READ MORE: Children who go to daycare are better behaved, more advanced, study says

The left-leaning think tank found that costs were the highest in Toronto and the surrounding area, where fees for children under 18 months average $1,685, and $1,150 a month for older preschoolers.

Cities in Quebec had the lowest fees for full-time, regulated spaces across the country, followed by Winnipeg and Charlottetown – in the three provinces that have fixed fees for years.

The federal treasury is set to spend $7.5 billion over a decade to help fund child-care spaces across the country, with the money flowing through one-on-one agreements with provinces.

WATCH: A look at child care costs across Canada in 2016






The first three years of spending will be $1.3 billion and potentially create or maintain 40,000 subsidized spaces, a target the Liberals say is on its way to being achieved. Once the three years are up – after this year’s federal election – new funding deals will have to be signed.

David Macdonald, a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said he expected that government policy aimed at lowering fees will lead to an overall decrease in prices for the first time in five years.

“For the survey that we’ve been doing, it’s just been fees going up every year, year after year, far more than the rate of inflation and we’re seeing fees actually start to go in reverse in a couple of the provinces,” Macdonald said.

He says the initial federal spending appears to have helped provinces moving to regulate the prices parents pay for child care.


READ MORE:
How much child care cash do you qualify for? New website, application process goes live

The federal Liberals didn’t expect provinces to set lower fees when it signed funding agreements with all of them last year, but did envision that provincial governments – which are responsible for child care – would find ways to make daycare more affordable for those who need it.

A set-fee regime in St. John’s, N.L., led to a 13-per-cent decline in the fees parents pay, the report says, even though the costs still remain similar to those found in Ottawa, where the rates are set by the market. Reductions were also noted in Edmonton where the provincial NDP has rolled out government-supported $25-a-day daycare.

“There’s a measurable effect,” Macdonald said of federal funding.

“While federal money is certainly flowing out, it in all cases supported pre-existing provincial efforts. So it’s not that the federal money initiated those efforts – the provinces initiated those efforts usually several years prior to the federal bilateral agreements being signed.”

WATCH: More than 40% of kids live in ‘child-care deserts,’ study says






Other provinces are using federal funding towards other efforts, such increasing subsidies for low-income families, Macdonald said, although the impacts won’t be captured in the centre’s survey of what providers charge.

Groups interested in seeing the Liberals boost their child-care pending have come away from talks with the view that the government won’t unveil any new measures in the 2019 budget.

Other groups argue that providing more money to families and letting them make their own child-care decisions is better federal policy.


READ MORE:
How did Trudeau’s taxes and benefits affect you? Find out with our calculator

Cardus, a non-partisan, faith-based think-tank, released a report last month arguing that federal spending should be used to expand the income-tested child benefit, allow parents on leave to earn more income before their employment-insurance benefits are clawed back, and allow for a market-based, independent child-care system.

“We are witnessing unnecessary discrimination against market-based, home-based, or other private/independent child care,” the paper argues. “These forms of care are some of the most popular for parents as they often mimic the home environment more closely.”

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Toronto parents pay the highest child care fees in the country. Elsewhere in Canada, provinces are capping the burden

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More than half of Canadian provinces are using fee caps to rein in parents’ galloping child-care costs, but Ontario isn’t one of them, according to a national survey being released Thursday.

“For the first time in five years we are seeing movement, with more provinces using public policy to make child care more affordable,” said study co-author David Macdonald of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Jessica Dumelie and her daughters, one of whom is almost 3 and the other who is 18 months. Dumelie and her husband will be paying $3,400 a month for child care when Jessica returns to work next year.
Jessica Dumelie and her daughters, one of whom is almost 3 and the other who is 18 months. Dumelie and her husband will be paying $3,400 a month for child care when Jessica returns to work next year.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

“But these bright spots are overshadowed by the fact that fees in Canada remain astronomical, outpacing inflation in most cities,” added Macdonald, senior economist for the left-leaning think tank.

Toronto parents continue to pay the highest median fees in the country, with infant care topping $1,685 a month or $20,220 a year, says the centre’s fifth annual report on child-care affordability.

Parents in Mississauga, Hamilton and Kitchener pay $1,490, while median infant fees in Vancouver are $1,400 a month, according to the study, which surveyed fees in licensed centres and homes in 28 cities across the country last summer.

Spaces for preschoolers (age 2-1/2 to 4), which make up more than half of the 717,000 licensed spots for young children in Canada, are still the most expensive in Toronto with median monthly fees of $1,150. Preschool fees in Brampton, Mississauga, Vaughan, Markham, London, Kitchener and Ottawa follow close behind at $1,000 a month, the report says.

Quebec, Manitoba and PEI enjoy the most affordable child care in the country, thanks to long-standing provincial fee caps. The median monthly cost for all age groups in Quebec is less than $200, while median monthly preschool fees in Manitoba and PEI are $451 and $586 respectively, the report notes.

But the recent introduction of fee caps in Newfoundland, British Columbia and Alberta are starting to make a difference for parents in those provinces too, Macdonald said. For the first time, median fees for preschoolers in St. John’s and Edmonton went down last year, the report says.

Read More:

Child care costs just $10 a day for these B.C. families — and it’s changed their lives

Alberta expanded a $25-a-day pilot project launched in 2017 from 22 centres to 122 locations last year.

B.C.’s new fee-reduction initiative has lowered parent costs by $100 to $350 a month in participating centres. And the NDP government rolled out its promised $10-a-day program in 53 centres last fall.

As part of a 10-year plan launched in 2012, Newfoundland introduced operating grants in 2018 to centres that agreed to cap daily fees at $44 for infants, $35 for toddlers and $30 for preschoolers.

“Almost half of the spaces surveyed in St. John’s in 2018 were participating in the Operating Grant Program, which is reflected in the more than $100 drop in median monthly fees since 2017,” the report says.

In all cases, provinces used federal funding to cap or reduce fees, the report notes, adding such collaboration “can hopefully create a foundation for improving child-care affordability in the future.”

But in Ontario, where the previous Liberal government had planned to introduce free preschool starting next year, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives have promised a child-care fee tax rebate instead.

Toronto parent Jessica Dumelie, 30, who is on maternity leave with her second child, is bracing for the financial fallout when she returns to her health-care job next January.

Monthly child-care costs for her daughters, who will be 18-months- and almost 4-years-old when she goes back to work, will be $1,750 and $1,650 respectively and easily eclipse her family’s mortgage payments.

Fortunately, the whopping $3,400 monthly child-care bill will drop when Dumelie’s older daughter starts kindergarten in the fall of 2020. But Dumelie and her husband, who works in finance, will still be paying more than $2,000 a month for toddler and after-school care.

“We were very excited about the possibility of free preschool for our younger one,” said Dumelie, a member of parent group Toronto East Enders for Child Care. “But now that doesn’t look like an option.”

She’s not sure how the tax rebate would work or even if her family would qualify.

In the meantime, Dumelie said her family is “making sacrifices” and putting money aside to pay for child care when she returns to work.

“Costs are wild,” she said. “We’ll just have to find some way to make it work.”

Thursday’s report also takes a closer look at child-care costs in Quebec, where about two-thirds of centres and home daycares are publicly funded with fees set at $7 a day and the rest are private businesses that charge “market” rates.

Since the mid-2000s, Quebec has offered parents who use private centres a child-care tax rebate to help cover the cost. But even with the tax rebate, parents in those centres pay fees that are between two- and three-times higher than those in publicly-funded programs with a set fee, the report notes.

At an annual cost of about $800 million a year, Quebec’s child-care tax rebate clearly isn’t as effective as set fees when it comes to parent cost, Macdonald said.

Quality in Quebec’s private centres isn’t as high as in $7-a-day programs either, added the report’s co-author Martha Friendly, citing recent research in that province.

“Since we have been doing these studies, the fees (across the country) have continued to go up, up, up,” said Friendly executive director of the Child Care Resource and Research Unit.

“What this report found is that in provinces that set fees, it has an effect in the centres covered by the policy. But it doesn’t have an effect on market-fee centres,” she said.

The experience in Quebec shows Ontario would be making a mistake if it introduces its promised child-care fee rebate, added Friendly.

“We are moving from free child care — the most affordable — to a mirage,” she said. “You don’t create accessible, affordable and quality child care by sending (parents) a cheque or giving them a tax rebate.”

Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb

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P.E.I. hires long-awaited child advocate

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P.E.I. has announced it will create a child advocate position, becoming the last province in Canada to do so.

The announcement was made Friday by Premier Wade MacLauchlan in Charlottetown.

Island children deserve an independent non-partisan advocate … that is not what the premier is providing.— Peter Bevan-Baker

Michele Dorsey was named the children’s commissioner and advocate, effective Jan. 1, 2019. She’ll work through a new government entity, the Office for Children and Youth. 

« The new children’s commissioner and advocate and the Office for Children and Youth is a significant cross-governmental undertaking to build a bright, healthy, prosperous future for young Islanders, » said MacLauchlan in a written release.

The Office for Children and Youth will be responsible for championing the rights of children, ensuring the voice of children and youth are represented in policy and programs, supporting families navigating programs and services and more, the release said.

« A focused government-community approach to children’s healthy development will support healthier and safer environments for Island families, » said Family and Human Services Minister Tina Mundy. 

Recommended following inquest

The initial recommendation for P.E.I. to have a child advocate came from the jury at the inquest looking into the murder-suicide of four-year-old Nash Campbell and his mother Patricia Hennessey.

Premier Wade MacLauchlan made the announcement at Chances Family Centre in Charlottetown.

The two died in a vehicle fire near Tignish on June 21, 2013. Hennessey lost custody of her son the day before.

In his report stemming from that inquest, P.E.I.’s chief coroner of the day Dr. Desmond Colohan recommended the province « assess the need for such a position and consider the best way to meet the intent » of the jury’s recommendation for a child advocate.

Government’s initial position, defended time and again in the face of repeated criticism from opposition parties, was that the province could protect children without creating the position.

The province unveiled a new « hub model » to get various government agencies to work more closely and share information to better protect children at risk. It also created a position for a lawyer to represent children involved in contentious custody disputes.

Motion voted down in 2016

In April 2016 Liberal MLAs voted down a motion introduced by the PCs to create a child advocate.

« We’ve got the official guardian, the family law centre, we’re considering the establishment of a children’s lawyer, we have a hub model of four departments, the chief health officer is in place, » Premier Wade MacLauchlan said at the time. « What is in place is in the fullest sense delivering the service that would be provided by a child advocate. »

A year later, after his government tabled its first balanced budget, the premier said he might be willing to reconsider.

P.E.I. had been the only province in Canada without a child advocate, but after Doug Ford became the premier of Ontario his government announced it would cut its position for a child and youth advocate.

The P.E.I. government created a position for a child and youth services commissioner in 2010 but the position was quietly eliminated in 2015. At the time government said the position was dropped « as part of an effort to move as many resources as possible to the front line. »

‘Hugely disappointing’

Friday, Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker called Dorsey’s appointment « hugely disappointing, especially with respect to the authority and independence of the position, and the hiring process used to fill it, » he said in a written release.

The position is not actually a child advocate as the term is understood in other jurisdictions, he argued in the release.

« Island children deserve an independent non-partisan advocate — an advocate whose authority is set out in legislation, who is hired through an open merit-based process, and who can act independently of government interference, » Bevan-Baker said. « That is not what the premier is providing. »

More P.E.I. news

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4 ways police are fighting the ‘dramatic’ increase in child sexual abuse online

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The Saskatchewan police officers who target online sexual predators say they’re being driven to use a range of investigative methods in order to slow down a problem that’s seen a dramatic increase.

Over the past five years their caseload has more than doubled.

« There’s just not enough time in the day to get to every file and some of them have to be put on the backburner until we have a lull, » said Scott Lambie, the staff sergeant in charge of the Internet Child Exploitation Unit (ICE).

He said he and the 10 officers who work with him feel like they’re using a teacup to empty a swimming pool.

« Each officer is basically doing twice the work that they were doing when the unit started, » said Lambie. 

In 2013, the Sask. ICE unit opened 192 new files. In 2018, it opened almost 400.

There are similar units in every province and they are also seeing rapid growth in investigative files. In 2017, Statistics Canada released a report which showed child pornography offences had increased by 233 per cent over the decade. Experts attribute that growth to new technology which has enabled offenders to easily record, upload and distribute child pornography online. 

« There’s lots of files that we could be working on but the resources sort of limit of what we can go after, » Lambie said. 

He said a file jumps to the top of the list if a child appears to be in imminent danger.

For example, police learned within the past three weeks about a sexualized video of a naked nine-year-old Saskatchewan girl posted on Youtube. Lambie said now they have to figure out who’s responsible.

« There’s only two really two routes for it to get posted on YouTube, » he said. « There’s a third-party offender involved or the child self-exploited and did it herself. »

Lambie said that as horrific as it sounds, clips being posted to YouTube « isn’t uncommon. »

And he said that’s why police are using every tool available to crack down.

1. Undercover investigations 24/7

Last week, CBC’s iTeam highlighted an example of an undercover operation run by ICE.

One of Lambie’s male officers posed as a 15-year-old girl named Aurora and responded to an online ad posted by 57-year-old Rodney Barras. After three weeks of texting back and forth, police had enough evidence to pursue charges against Barras.

Lambie said these sorts of investigations are not nine-to-five. Officers take their investigative tools home and sometimes even text their targets while at home with their own children.

In 2015, CBC interviewed Rodney Barras for a story about his website Babes-Behind-Bars.com. In 2017, Barras pleaded guilty to attempting to lure someone he thought was a child and to possession of child pornography. (CBC News)

At other times, officers will join online chat groups or social media apps, attempting to make personal connections with people sharing child pornography.

« The internet is all about anonymity. Who we’re talking to doesn’t really know who we are as well as we don’t really know who they are, » Lambie said.

Lambie said diving into this world is « a really creepy part of the job » but it’s necessary in order to find people who cloak themselves in secrecy.

In some cases, police have struck a goldmine when « they’ve managed to acquire a lot of contact information from this person’s devices and share that across the world with the other police agencies. »

Lambie said many investigations require a massive amount of time.

In one extreme recent case, they arrested a man with a collection of 24 million images and videos.

Police suspected he may have been creating child porn, so they had to divide the images up between every officer in the unit and comb through them one-by-one. 

Sergeant Scott Lambie says Saskatchewan’s Internet Child Exploitation Unit has seen an explosion of growth in online offences. (CBC News)

2. Facebook helps catch pedophiles

Lambie said his unit receives a steady stream of solid tips from south of the border.

U.S. law requires internet service providers and social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube to report any instances of child pornography being shared through their services.

« They report that to their National Center (for Missing & Exploited Children) in the United States who funnels it up to Canada and eventually to the ICE unit where the offense is believed to have occurred, » he said.

He said this process used to take months but now things move at an astonishing pace. He said if someone were to share child pornography through Facebook today « they can get it up to our desks from the U.S. within a week. »

Lambie said police have software that can identify anyone sharing child pornography through peer-to-peer software. (CBC News)

Lambie said Saskatchewan receives 250-300 of these tips every year « and by the time it gets to us, it’s an investigative file … It’s got child pornography in it already identified by somebody down the line. » The U.S.-based NCMEC passes on similar tips for provinces across Canada and countries around the world. 

Lambie’s officers can then go to court and ask a judge for permission to learn the name and address of the person behind the IP address who shared that pornographic image. 

Then the tough police work begins.

« Whether that leads to charges at the end of the day, we have to look at the totality of the evidence. » 

3. Live monitoring shows thousands sharing child porn

Thousands of people in Saskatchewan and across Canada are sharing child pornography right now. Police have the tools to watch them do it and target them for arrest.

These images are commonly shared through what is known as peer-to-peer software. These programs allow people to share files around the world from a publicly-accessible folder on their own computer.

Lambie said because those folders are public, police are able to look inside and compare the contents to a massive database of every image or video of child pornography ever identified by law enforcement around the globe.

This map flags the computers that were sharing suspected child pornography in Saskatchewan at noon on Friday. As you zoom in on specific cities, more flags are revealed. (CBC News)

Lambie explained that every image contains it’s own « hash value » or « DNA footprint. » 

« If that image is shared or that video was shared that hash value was known because of this library. »

Lambie said the software shows a map of the province and flags every computer in the province that is sharing known child pornography. He said there are thousands of them and each case could legitimately be investigated by police, but because of the sheer volume, the software also flags the top ten offenders.

This is the number of computers that were sharing suspected child pornography in Regina at noon on Friday, according to police software. As you zoom in, more flags are revealed and police say each one could be an investigation. (CBC News)

« We just try to hit the top ones off the list and work our way down trying to reduce the availability of it to other people around the world. »

Lambie said once they find an address for a potential offender, that can lead to uncomfortable conversations.

« Six people in the home — all of them are hooked on to the internet. Which one is actually committing the crime? »

He said through their investigation they can usually figure out which device was used to share the images but ultimately, police have to knock on the door.

He said that often begins a series of « life-altering » conversations.

« The ‘not-involved’ parties don’t have a clue what’s going on. Only the suspect really knows what’s going on, » he said. « It’s very difficult for a spouse to then have to admit to their other spouse that yes it’s me. »

In virtually every situation that « spouse » is a man. Lambie could only recall one case where a female was a suspect.

He said sometimes, officers are surprised by the response.

« Recently, we went through a door and the guy said yes you got me I did it … Take me away. »

In other cases, people aggressively deny doing anything wrong. Lambie said some of them have worked hard to cover their tracks. He referenced one frustrating case.

« We thought we had him dead to rights and we knocked on the door, do the search, gather all the digital evidence and after we analyze it there’s nothing there, » Lambie recalled. « We know how they did it but we just couldn’t find the artifact evidence to prove that they did it. »

4. Teens targeted through social media

Lambie said one of his greatest concerns is the increase of teens being targeted for abuse and sexual extortion through social media.

He said every week he hears another story of a teen, usually a girl, who shared nude images of herself with someone online and is now in a crisis.

« Those are mostly through the walk-ins where the mom or the parent has finally been told by the child that this is actually going on. Now they’re scared. What do I do now? »

He estimated this happens about 10 times a month in Saskatchewan.

Lambie said that most social media apps that teens use like Snapchat, Messenger, Kik or Instagram can be infiltrated by men looking to exploit children who are often easy targets.

Lambie said predators use popular social media apps to target teens. (CBC)

He said online predators are savvy and often several steps ahead of their target. They start by making the teen think they are friends and then pour on the flattery.

« The pedophile just makes the female feel great about themselves, » he said.

Then, the requests begin.

« They start by getting them to just send some basic pictures and then it’s topless pictures and then it’s panty pictures and then it’s naked pictures, » Lambie said.

« Before you know it they’re threatening the child to expose them to their their friends on Facebook to family members and the child gets scared and then they’re stuck in this whole sextortion. »

He said once those images have been shared they quickly move around the world and can haunt the teen for years.

He said it’s up to parents to be aware that pedophiles are hunting their children.

« The parents should be aware of what their children are doing with their phone or their computer or any online application, » he said.

He said parents need to check their children’s « friends » list on social media app and ask their kids if they have personally met them or just interacted online. He said many predators hide behind fake profiles.

When asked for his best advice to parents he replied quickly.

« Take phones away from kids. »

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Ottawa man faces child porn charges after returning from Nepalese orphanage

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Police arrested a 62-year-old man on child pornography charges Friday, weeks after he was first stopped by border officers as he returned to Canada following a volunteer mission to an orphanage in Nepal. 

Officers with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) first found evidence of child pornography as the man was returning to Canada in mid-December, Ottawa police said in a news release.

The Ottawa police said its child exploitation unit identified five Nepalese male victims under the age of 16.  

Police said the man was was arrested at the Toronto Pearson International Airport on Friday and escorted off a plane destined for Panama City. 

During a search of the man’s home, police seized additional electronic devices from his residence in Ottawa that allegedly contained images of child pornography. 

The man is charged with two counts of possessing of child pornography, one count of luring a child under 18 and one count of importing child pornography. 

Police said the investigation is ongoing and additional charges are expected to be laid. 

He is scheduled to appear in court in Ottawa Saturday. 

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How a Degrassi child star became a leading academic voice on legalizing weed

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When Rebecca Haines-Saah was 13, she saw an ad in the Toronto Sun looking for teenagers to star in what would become a cult classic Canadian TV show. Having experience in dance and theatre — she already had an agent — she showed up to the audition with a pink, cable-knit sweater and loads of teenage ambition.

The show was Degrassi Junior High, the drama that dealt with teen pregnancy, underage drinking and drug use. For many children growing up in the 1980s, it would become a cultural treasure.

Haines-Saah didn’t get the part of Melanie Brodie, whom she had auditioned to play, but the show’s writers were so enamoured with her acting chops that they created a new role for her: Melanie’s best friend, Kathleen Mead. The so-called Wicked Witch of Degrassi.

While Haines-Saah played the character for five seasons, she didn’t go on to become a professional actor. Instead, she reinvented herself as an academic. But the parallels between her childhood job and her career as an adult are all the more striking.

This episode of Degrassi Junior High is the first appearance for Kathleen Mead (blue sweater), played by Rebecca Haines-Saah. Joey Jeremiah ends up selling them vitamins as drugs. 1:08

The woman who played a teen experimenting with drugs, dealing with anorexia and coping with a mother addicted to alcohol now researches youth substance use and mental health at the University of Calgary.

The child star whose character once brought pot to a birthday party, grew up to become a leading academic voice in Alberta on the value of legalizing cannabis, arguing that jailing users created more harm than the drug itself.

« It’s that approach to engaging youth voices and putting youth stories at the centre, that really shapes my work, » says Haines-Saah, who teaches in the department of community health services and works with youth on video and photo projects to help share their stories.

Youth have something valuable to say

« That’s really a Degrassi-style approach to storytelling and to thinking youth have something valuable to say. If we want to help youth in any way, we need to talk to them and understand how they see the world, not our adult-centric perspective on life. »

Haines-Saah grew up in Toronto’s Regent Park, where she saw the rise of the crack epidemic, with people using and selling drugs, and engaging in sex work around her doorstep. She left that same stoop every morning to film on set, but she couldn’t get a taxi to drop her off close to home at day’s end, because of the way her neighbourhood was viewed.

Kathleen Mead had a streak of mischief. In this episode, she brings 2 joints to a birthday slumber party. 0:30

« I had this dual experience growing up, and it really did inform how I approach people who use drugs, the compassion that I think we need and why I challenge stigma, » she says.

There are some notable contrasts between her and the character she played for most of her teenage years.

Haines-Saah is warm and engaging. To be charitable, Kathleen was cold. A harsher assessment might peg her as a snooty mean girl. But her hostile demeanour was often a defence mechanism against her peers prying into her personal life, especially her troubled home.

She was a trivia master who wanted to excel at school and, most of all, make her parents proud. She once produced a science project with her bestie Melanie about the dangers of pollution and acid rain, and was crushed when it didn’t win at the school science fair.

Character could be mistaken for a nerd

Kathleen could have been mistaken for a nerd if it weren’t for her streak of mischief. In one episode, she finds a pair of cannabis joints and shares them with friends during a birthday party sleepover. The drama takes a turn when Melanie gets so high she reveals some of Kathleen’s deepest, darkest secrets, including that she’s in counselling.

« Kathleen, I don’t see what the big deal is, » her best friend blurts out. « You had anorexia. Your mom is an alcoholic. And your boyfriend beat you up. Most people would need counselling for even one of those things. »

Kathleen Mead had a reputation for being cold, including in this episode about a trivia contest. Haines-Saah says she sometimes had a hard time convincing fans she’s not the « evil character » she played on TV. 0:44

Despite her hard exterior, the character resonated with Haines-Saah, given that Kathleen’s home life « isn’t that far off from what many kids experience, » and given her « remarkable resilience » to all those challenges. Still, the actor sometimes got heckled on the streets of Toronto over her character’s harsh disposition.

« The male castmates had fun, » she says. « They had teenage girls chasing them around, trying to get into their hotel rooms and date them.

« I just got yelled at and called names. »

Haines-Saah starred in Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, along with a single appearance on Degrassi: The Next Generation. As a young Canadian actor, she didn’t lead a lavish life of luxury.

Awkward moments, worst hairstyles forever captured

« I don’t think I ever really experienced that type of uber celebrity that child stars have now, and in many ways I’m thankful for that, » she says. « But I have some of my most awkward teenage moments and worst hairstyles forever captured on film for everybody to see. »

While she played a young student, she missed three or four months of school a year. Her mom told her if her average fell below 80 per cent, she had to quit the show.

Rebecca Haines-Saah argues cannabis prohibition and scare-tactic campaigns like the poster hanging in her office did not stop youth from smoking pot. She says the policy did more harm than the drug itself. (Reid Southwick/CBC)

« I literally had a tutor driving me around on geography field trips around Ontario to look at granite outcrops and all kinds of other ridiculous things on the weekends, » she says. « I’d be writing a chemistry exam on set at 7 a.m. supervised by a production assistant and then sending it over to the school. »

Academics were always important. She had read somewhere « if you could picture yourself being happy doing anything other than acting, you should go and do that thing. » So she enrolled at McGill University. She was initially in communications, thinking she’d get into journalism or film production, but she fell in love with research and writing papers, later shifting her focus to youth drug use.

Putting youth at the centre

« It’s no accident that I became a youth substance use researcher, » she says on a University of Calgary video about legalizing cannabis, « because I started out as an actress on the Canadian television series Degrassi.

« What was so unique and different about Degrassi, compared to other television for young people is that, in the Degrassi storylines, youth always solved their own problems … and that’s definitely the approach I take in my research, is amplifying youth voices and putting youth at the centre. »

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Why this 300-year-old Virgin and Child underwent a CT scan at Sick Kids

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Like all interesting characters, the 300-year old virgin being prepped for a CT scan at Sick Kids harbours secrets.

Who carved this statue, believed to be a treasure of early Canadian art? What precisely is she made of? Was she given breast reduction surgery?

Lisa Ellis (left, AGO conservator) and Nancy Padfield (Lead Technologist in CT scans at Sick Kids) line up the statue in the CT machine.
Lisa Ellis (left, AGO conservator) and Nancy Padfield (Lead Technologist in CT scans at Sick Kids) line up the statue in the CT machine.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

Those are the questions the Art Gallery of Ontario had hoped would be answered by submitting the statue to high-tech examinations that her likely creator, steeped in religion and working in an atelier in New France in the early 1700s, might have described as miraculous.

And so on a dingy day in late November, the Virgin and Child statue was swathed in Tyvek, a smooth synthetic fibre used to wrap houses to protect them from moisture, and nestled in foam inside a Clydesdale case — the same brand used to ship the Stanley Cup — and then walked 650 metres from the AGO to the Hospital for Sick Children by museum conservator Lisa Ellis.

The bottom of the statue has an inscription that is obscured by a number of identification stickers and it is hoped the CT scan will reveal the words.
The bottom of the statue has an inscription that is obscured by a number of identification stickers and it is hoped the CT scan will reveal the words.  (Richard Lautens)

“It’s very rare for us to hand-carry objects in cases outside of the building, so we do that only in really special cases like this,” said Ellis.

The figure of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus is arguably the finest early-18th-century Canadian sculpture in the AGO’s collection, according to Ellis. It is believed to have come from a school of arts and crafts in what is now the Quebec City area, founded by an artist from Bordeaux who emigrated to New France in 1690 at the age of 19.

The detail of the carving — the flow of the virgin’s robes, the articulation of the hands and her feet atop a serpent representing the evil in the world — speaks to the talent of the artist.

It was donated to the Art Museum of Toronto, forerunner to the AGO, in 1935 by the son of the founder of Salada Tea.

Lisa Ellis, left, and Julia Campbell-Such tenderly handle the Virgin and Child, which is arguably the finest early 18th century Canadian sculpture in the AGO's collection.
Lisa Ellis, left, and Julia Campbell-Such tenderly handle the Virgin and Child, which is arguably the finest early 18th century Canadian sculpture in the AGO’s collection.  (Richard Lautens)

“She’s a really wonderful thing, definitely a treasure of the early collection,” said Ellis, whose own atelier is the Michael and Sonja Koerner Centre for Conservation at the AGO, an airy suite of rooms with soaring ceilings and abundant natural light, where paintings, sculptures, decorative arts and works on paper are brought to be conserved, examined and analyzed.

But the statue was painted and the robes and part of the base were gilded — covered in a thin sheet of pounded gold, making it impossible to tell for sure whether it is one piece of wood or many. The museum stickers on the bottom reveal something of the statue’s history. This virgin travelled internationally — to an exhibit in Detroit, called the Arts of French Canada, in 1946. Another sticker reveals she was the 2,306th object that came into the gallery’s possession.

The stickers also obscure what is believed to be an inscription.

Museums don’t put stickers on the bottom of statues anymore, Ellis said, nor do they remove existing ones.

The AGO wanted to know if beneath the paint the sculpture was all one piece and whether the stickers were hiding the name of the sculptor.

“Generally, wooden sculptures are considered to be finer if they are made out of a single piece of wood, and there were actually guild rules about that in the Renaissance,” said Ellis, whose specialty is sculpture and decorative arts.

Lisa Ellis (right) and Julia Campbell-Such pack away the statue following the scans.
Lisa Ellis (right) and Julia Campbell-Such pack away the statue following the scans.  (Richard Lautens)

“You weren’t allowed to add things to sculptures because it would mean it was an inferior product. Also, if something is made out of pieces, it affects its stability, and so, as a conservator, that would be my number-one concern — how stable is this object?”

There were other considerations. Early virgins were often carved with voluptuous figures which were whittled down in a later, more puritanical age.

“It’s interesting — the body politic,” said Ellis.

Once at the hospital, Ellis and a conservation intern, Julia Campbell-Such, unpacked the statue with reverence and care. Both donned gloves, not just to protect the statue from the oils and any other contaminants on their skin, but also to protect their skin from the statue, which over the years has been painted with pigments containing toxins including mercury and sulphur.

The scans begin to appear on the monitor.
The scans begin to appear on the monitor.  (Richard Lautens)

Sick Kids was a pioneer in the use of CT scans for art history research — it partnered with the ROM in 1976 to help learn more about a mummy in the museum’s collection. Mummies are an obvious choice because they are the shape of human bodies, and scanners are meant to pick up the difference between flesh and bone.

The Virgin and Child was the first work of art the AGO brought to the hospital for diagnostics.

A CT scan can be a terrifying machine to children, and so the one at Sick Kids has been wrapped to look like a submarine and the walls and part of the ceiling are painted with fish and other marine life.

Mothers often ask to be allowed to take the test with their children, so they can comfort them, but because of the exposure to radiation, they are required to remain outside the room.

“It’s the first time we’ve scanned mother and baby at the same time. That was a new thing for us,” said Guila BenDavid, manager of CT and nuclear medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children.

The AGO asked Sick Kids Hospital to allow them to use a CT scanner on a sculpture in order to understand the structure to restore it and also to find out if there is a design on the bottom of it, which is now covered by paper.
The AGO asked Sick Kids Hospital to allow them to use a CT scanner on a sculpture in order to understand the structure to restore it and also to find out if there is a design on the bottom of it, which is now covered by paper.  (Richard Lautens)

The CT scanner is shaped like a giant doughnut — round, with a large hole in the middle. Patients lie on a table that moves through the hole while X-ray beams shoot across it from every position in the circle and are captured on the opposite side by a detector.

It is able to create images of organs, bones and other tissues, in greater detail than simple X-rays. It’s used to diagnose bone fractures, heart disease, blood clots and cancer.

CT scanning produces hundreds of thin slices of information — imagine cutting precisely and thinly through a loaf of bread — that can be examined separately or piled together to create computerized 3D models, allowing curators to get inside a work of art, even beneath layers of paint. The virgin-and-child was scanned multiple times, producing 1,561 images.

The AGO got lucky — there were no medical emergencies requiring a CT scan while the virgin was being scanned.

“We don’t do that much CT anymore,” said BenDavid. “We used to, but predominantly here at Sick Kids, if we can avoid using radiation on our patients, we do that, so we use ultrasound or MRI or other modalities that don’t use radiation.”

The hospital charged a fee for the service.

The control room where the scans are done is typically a quiet place, with an atmosphere not unlike a church, where people speak in hushed tones about life and death matters. But on the day of the CT scan, the control room was filled with experts in medicine and art, animated by the novelty of the task.

It was immediately obvious that the statue was carved from a single piece of wood — even the grain was visible on the CT scan. But there was disappointment, too. There is no inscription on the bottom of the statue, just some shallow grooves that look like it was clawed by some kind of instrument. The scan did uncover a short tunnel drilled in the bottom of the statue, suggesting she was anchored somewhere — perhaps part of the altar of a church. Campbell-Such, a cabinet maker, determined that it was not likely caused by a lathe.

The question of the breast reduction surgery was definitively resolved.

Story Behind the Story delivers insights into how the Star investigates, reports, and produces stories.

“I was interested in seeing if she had received a breast reduction. She did not. This is her in all of her natural glory,” said Ellis.

But the identity of the person who carved the precious artifact remains a mystery, for now.

Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF

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Ottawa could be facing human rights tribunal hearing to settle First Nations child welfare compensation

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The federal government could be headed back before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to settle an outstanding question on compensation for First Nations children who faced discrimination under the on-reserve child welfare system.

When the human rights tribunal first ruled in January 2016 that Ottawa discriminated against First Nations children by underfunding on-reserve services, it reserved its decision on the issue of compensation to allow the parties to come to a settlement.

Last Friday, hours after Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott announced upcoming legislation on Indigenous child welfare, Justice Canada lawyer Robert Frater wrote the tribunal to secure hearing dates for possible arguments on the compensation issue.

Frater said in the letter that officials on the file had still not received a mandate on how to proceed on compensation.

« We remain committed to discussing the compensation issue with the parties, and attempting to reach a resolution, » said Frater’s letter.

« But in view of the fact that we have not yet received final instructions, it is apparent that we will likely have to set the issue down for argument. »

Minister wants a negotiated settlement

The window is closing on settling the issue outside of another round of hearings before the tribunal. The tribunal is facing the end of its oversight powers on the issue next March.

The tribunal also ordered Canada to implement Jordan’s Principle, ensuring jurisdictional conflicts between Ottawa and the provinces don’t hinder delivery of services to First Nations children. Families affected by Ottawa’s failure to follow Jordan’s Principle before the ruling could also be eligible for compensation.

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott faced questions from chiefs Wednesday about the issue following her speech to the Assembly of First Nations, which is holding its annual December meeting this week at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa.

Cindy Blackstock, who heads the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, holds her Spirit Bear while speaking to reporters during the Assembly of First Nations meeting in Ottawa. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

She told chiefs that she wants settle the issue through talks.

« I have been very clear that I want to resolve all issues related to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal and I want to resolve those directly by working with the parties, » Philpott told reporters following her speech.

Philpott said she would rather deal with the compensation issue outside the tribunal process.

« As soon as the parties to the tribunal are happy to drop that legal mechanism and to work with us directly, we will be extremely happy to do so, » Philpott said.

Philpott said she did not see the letter before it was sent.

A spokesperson for Philpott’s office said the letter does not preclude « other mechanisms from moving forward » and there is still hope a resolution can be reached outside the tribunal process.

John Cutfeet, chair of the Sioux Lookout First Nation Health Authority, said there seems to be conflicting messages coming from the ministers and their officials.

« The minister is saying, ‘We don’t want to go there.’ She wants to work it out, » said Cutfeet. « But why hasn’t she provided direction to Justice Canada to say this is how we are going to do this? »

Compensation could be in the billions of dollars

Cindy Blackstock, who heads the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and led the human rights complaint, said the compensation issue has been on the table for months.

Blackstock said her organization filed questions on the issue in the summer and that Ottawa filed the Nov. 30 letter at the deadline set for its response.

« Canada seems to have changed its position about litigating the compensation that is owed the children who were affected by the human rights tribunal, » said Blackstock.

Drummers at the Assembly of First Nations meeting in Ottawa this week take a break during proceedings. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

Blackstock said if Canada wants to go back before the tribunal to argue the issue again, she is prepared for another round.

« If there is a rights breach, or if Canada is not prepared to fulfil its responsibility, then for us as the Caring Society, we are prepared to litigate. »

Blackstock said she wants affected children and families to get the maximum amount available under federal human rights legislation — $20,000 for discrimination, plus an additional $20,000 if the discrimination was done willfully or recklessly.

The overall compensation amount could hit at least an estimated $1.5 billion, said Blackstock.

There were, on average, between 8,500 and 10,000 on-reserve First Nations children in care between 2006 and 2018.

It remains unclear how many families and children were affected by the government’s failure to implement Jordan’s Principle before the ruling.

According to Indigenous Services figures, there were more than 165,000 requests for products, services and supports approved for First Nations children post-ruling between July 2016 and September 2018.

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Announcement on reform of Indigenous child and family services LIVE

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Live

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott, AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed, and Métis National Council president Clément Chartier attend. Media availability follows.

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott, AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed, and Métis National Council president Clément Chartier attend. Media availability follows. 0:00

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