Deputy OPP commissioner who raised red flags over Taverner appointment has been interviewed in ethics probe

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The deputy OPP commissioner who raised red flags over the appointment of Premier Doug Ford’s close friend Ron Taverner as head of the provincial police force has been interviewed in the ethics probe into the controversial hiring.

Brad Blair was interim commissioner until being demoted for publicly complaining that Taverner’s appointment put the independence of the country’s second-largest police force in jeopardy.

Deputy OPP commissioner Brad Blair, left and Toronto police Supt. Ron Taverner. Blair has publicly complained about Taverner’s appointment as OPP commissioner. Taverner has asked his posting be put on hold until a probe into his appointment is complete.
Deputy OPP commissioner Brad Blair, left and Toronto police Supt. Ron Taverner. Blair has publicly complained about Taverner’s appointment as OPP commissioner. Taverner has asked his posting be put on hold until a probe into his appointment is complete.  (Emaan)

The interview is significant because of the details Blair revealed in a nine-page letter to the provincial ombudsman Dec. 11, including the claim Ford’s team requested the OPP buy a “large camper-type vehicle” that could be modified and the request be “kept off the books.” Ford’s office denies such a request was made.

Provincial integrity commissioner J. David Wake is now investigating whether there was any political interference in the hiring of Taverner, 72, a Toronto police superintendent who has asked his posting be put on hold until the probe is complete.

The integrity commissioner’s office reached out to Blair for more information as part of the probe.

“He received a summons and participated,” Blair’s lawyer, Julian Falconer, said on Friday.

“The process is confidential, therefore I will not be able to discuss the contents of the examination,” Falconer added, declining further comment.

The integrity commissioner’s probe was prompted by a complaint from New Democrat MPP Kevin Yarde (Brampton North) that Ford may have violated the Members’ Integrity Act when his “long-time friend and ally” was approved as head of the OPP.

Ford has denied any involvement in the Nov. 29 appointment, insisted there is “no better choice” for the job than Taverner, called the concerns raised by Blair “sour grapes” and told a TV news anchor “if I wanted to, I could appoint you OPP commissioner. It’s a political appointment.”

The premier’s office did not reply to a request for comment Friday on whether Ford or his chief of staff Dean French have been interviewed in the integrity commissioner’s investigation.

Blair, who was a runner-up for the commissioner’s post, sounded the alarm a week before Taverner was to be sworn in to the $275,00-a-year job, with his letter asking provincial Ombudsman Paul Dube to probe any “potential political interference” in the hiring process.

Dube declined, saying the matter is outside his jurisdiction, and Blair is mounting a court case aimed at forcing the ombudsman to proceed.

Taverner’s appointment and the van procurement request raises “a legitimate question as to whether the OPP’s integrity has been compromised and whether the public can have confidence in and respect for the OPP going forward,” Blair’s letter stated.

Blair also claimed the decision to name Taverner commissioner was made before a late November cabinet meeting where the decision was said to have been made and that the job posting was changed “without convincing justification,” that the hiring panel had “questionable authority” and that its members changed at the last minute.

In reference to the camper van, the request to keep the modification costs “hidden from the public record” is, at a minimum, a violation of government financial policies, Blair added.

His lawyer, Falconer, has warned the OPP will operate under a cloud of suspicion unless the ombudsman reviews the complaint. It’s not unusual for the OPP to investigate government.

Most recently, the provincial force investigated concerns raised by the Progressive Conservatives about a previous Liberal government deleting documents related to the closure of gas-fired power plants in Oakville and Mississauga before the 2011 election. A top Liberal political aide was convicted on a criminal charge and served a jail term last year.

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1

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NDP flags conflict-of-interest rules in Taverner hiring

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The NDP is trying to derail the appointment of Premier Doug Ford’s friend Ron Taverner as commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police by raising a potential conflict of interest on the hiring panel.

New Democrat MPP Kevin Yarde is questioning why Taverner’s former boss at the Toronto Police Service — who became deputy minister of community safety and corrections last fall — “did not recuse himself from the decision-making process” given conflict-of-interest guidelines for public servants.

“As you are aware, Deputy Minister Mario Di Tommaso played a key role in the search and hiring process,” Yarde wrote Wednesday in a two-page letter to Ontario’s top civil servant, cabinet secretary Steve Orsini.

“Among other roles, he sat in on both first- and second-stage job interviews and, according to Premier Doug Ford, recommended Ronald Taverner for the position,” states Yarde, his party’s critic for community safety and corrections.

He noted that Taverner publicly praised Di Tomasso’s hiring by the Ford government before applying for the OPP post after the qualification level for applicants was lowered.

“The public has a right to know if you were fully briefed on this close relationship before you offered your opinion and, if so, why you felt this did not raise concerns about the appearance of preferential treatment,” the MPP added.

“Any insight and clarity you can provide would be appreciated.”

Orsini was also on the hiring panel that unanimously recommended to Ford and his cabinet that Taverner, 72, be offered the $275,000-a-year job heading Canada’s second-largest police force.

The Star has not yet received replies to emailed requests for comment from Orsini, his office, or Di Tommaso.

The cabinet secretary announced his retirement in December after a furor erupted over the Taverner appointment, which is now on hold at Taverner’s request pending an investigation by provincial integrity commissioner J. David Wake.

In his letter, Yarde quoted two sections of the conflict-of-interest rules.

The first states “a public servant shall not give preferential treatment to any person or entity … in which the public servant or a member of his or her family has an interest.”

A second paragraph stipulates “a public servant shall endeavour to avoid creating the appearance that preferential treatment is being given to a person or entity that could benefit from it.”

The close relationship between Ford and Taverner, who dine together frequently, has raised questions about the independence of the OPP.

Yarde, whose concerns sparked the formal investigation by the integrity commissioner, said earlier this week that Ford’s repeated claims that he had no influence on the Taverner hiring are “crumbling.”

Ford insisted Monday that the hiring of an OPP commissioner is a “political appointment.”

That is not the way it has traditionally been at Queen’s Park, as previous premiers have not viewed it as a patronage post.

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1

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More than 400 students in India told to retake language tests after Niagara College flags concerns

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An Ontario college has raised concerns over the validity of the scores of a popular international standardized language test submitted by students applying from India after a probe found “inconsistencies” in language proficiency.

Niagara College has contacted more than 400 students admitted to its January 2019 programs who had taken IELTS tests at locations in India, telling them they had to undergo a second English test or risk losing their offer of admission.

Niagara College flagged concerns with “inconsistencies” in the scores of English-language tests taken by students applying from India. It has asked 428 applicants to retake the test in India or risk having their offers of acceptance cancelled.
Niagara College flagged concerns with “inconsistencies” in the scores of English-language tests taken by students applying from India. It has asked 428 applicants to retake the test in India or risk having their offers of acceptance cancelled.  (Niagara College)

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is accepted by most Canadian academic institutions and is one of two major English language tests used by Immigration Canada as independent proof of an immigration or citizenship applicant’s language proficiency.

Steve Hudson, Niagara College’s vice-president of academic and learner services, said the school launched an investigation this fall after the number of first-year international students flagged by faculty for being “at risk academically” surged to 300 from an average of 150 in previous years.

Those students were made to take an in-house language test and the college found 200 out of that group were failing in their academic programs because their English was not at the required level. Further investigation found 80 per cent of them were from India and had taken their IELTS tests at locations run by Australia-based IDP Education.

Niagara College said officials alerted IDP Education with their findings shortly after the fall semester started and notified immigration authorities last week.

“Based on (our analysis), we felt we needed to be absolutely certain that applicants for our winter 2019 term have a level of English proficiency that will allow them to succeed, and we wanted to do this before they invested significant time and money to travel here to study,” Hudson said in a statement to the Star.

The IELTS test, which is jointly owned by IDP Education, the British Council and Cambridge Assessment English, is a three-hour exam that assesses candidates’ listening, reading, writing and speaking skills on a scale of 1 to 9. A score of 9 indicates the person is an “expert user” with full command of the language. But it is up to individual organizations to determine a pass score.

More than three million IELTS tests were taken in the last year by people around the world, according to IDP Education.

“The test is recognized for being fair to all test-takers regardless of nationality, cultural background, gender or special needs,” Warwick Freeland, managing director of IELTS/IDP Education, said in an email statement from Melbourne.

“IELTS is the leading English language test for international students in Canada,” he said, adding “results from all IELTS test centres, including all centres located in India, continue to be accepted for admission to Niagara College.”

In a followup email to the Star on Saturday, IDP Education raised questions about the value of the in-house test Niagara College gave to the Indian international students in the fall cohort, saying the college “used a low-stakes” test which is “not approved by Canadian education institutions or government to check their English language skills.”

Niagara College’s Hudson said the IELTS language test results submitted by the first-year at-risk students from India this fall were authenticated by IELTS and the school is treating the “inconsistencies” in their scores and language proficiency as a one-time anomaly. “We continue to believe IELTS is a good test for assessment of English proficiency,” he told the Star.

“We have been open to dialogue with IDP and have been communicating our interest in understanding (the) rationale for the larger number of students identified being at risk of failure,” Hudson said in a followup email on Saturday. “Academic quality and student success has always been and will remain at the core of Niagara College’s decision-making.”

An Immigration Department spokesperson said officials are looking into the matter.

There have been previous instances that have exposed the vulnerability of the administration of language testing around the world:

  • A Pennsylvania State University student from China pleaded guilty this year after paying someone to take the TOEFL English-language entrance exam for her.
  • In 2016, several people in Britain were convicted of running an immigration scam that paid fake “sitters” to take TOEIC language exams for non-EU students.
  • In Australia, an employee at Curtin University’s English Language Centre was found guilty in 2011 of accepting bribes and manipulating IELTS results through the centre’s computer system. The case triggered an investigation by Western Australia’s Corruption and Crime Commission.

Freeland, who said IDP Education partners with a range of organizations who administer IELTS in 140 countries, maintained “IELTS is a secure and valid indicator of a candidate’s ability.”

“All test centres are rigorously monitored to ensure they operate to the highest of standards,” he said.

The test, which costs about $215 in India, has two versions, one for higher-level academic purposes and a general version that measures a person’s ability to function in English.

Niagara College said the school will be responsible for covering the cost of retesting for the 428 students in India and the tests must be completed by Monday.

Gonzalo Peralta, executive director of Languages Canada, an association that represents more than 200 providers of accredited English and French language programs across the country, said maintaining the integrity of language tests is important to the international education sector.

“Language testing is one tool that tells everybody — the students, institutions, Immigration Canada and employers — with confidence that this person is ready to perform linguistically,” he said in an interview. “You can’t run international education without appropriate and good-quality testing. So much depends on it.”

Alarm Raised Over Validity of International Language Tests | Story Behind the Story

Peralta said test operators constantly update their security measures and have tight rules in place at local test centres, including requiring photo ID and banning cellphones.

When informed about the situation at Niagara College, Peralta said, “I’m concerned it impacts one of our good members, Niagara College. I’m also concerned for the students who have invested substantially to learn. I’m concerned about IDP, not knowing what has happened.”

According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, there were 494,525 international students in Canada at all levels of study in 2017, a 17 per cent increase over the previous year. Some 123,940, or 25 per cent, of these students came from India, which made up the second largest contingent behind China.

At Niagara College, which has campuses in Welland and Niagara-on-the-Lake, 2,914 of a total 4,683 international students come from India. Tuition fees for international students average $13,500, more than triple the amount their Canadian peers pay.

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Hudson said the school received about 8,200 international applications for the winter 2019 term, of which 4,800 applicants were from India, where the school recruits through international education fairs. The college made 1,300 admission offers to Indian applicants; 428 of those students have been asked to retake the IELTS test or take the alternative Pearson Test of English.

“We recognize that this is stressful for these applicants and their families, but we want to ensure that before they make significant financial and emotional investments involved with travelling to Niagara College to study, that they have the opportunity to be successful in their studies,” said Hudson.

“We believe the hardship they would experience if they were to travel here and be unable to succeed in their program of study would be much more significant. We will continue to engage with the applicants and IDP throughout this process.”

Hudson said those “at-risk” students who are already attending the college have either been redirected to language programs or offered additional language and academic support.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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Calgary lawyer challenging gay-straight alliance bill compares pride flags to swastikas

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The United Conservative Party needs to remove a member that compared rainbow pride flags to swastikas, says an LGBTQ advocate.

On Saturday, Calgary lawyer John Carpay with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms spoke at a conference organized by Rebel Media, a far-right media organization that has been criticized for sympathetic coverage of white supremacy.

« How do we defeat today’s totalitarianism? You’ve got to think about the common characteristics. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a hammer and sickle for communism, or whether it’s the swastika for Nazi Germany or whether it’s a rainbow flag, the underlying thing is a hostility to individual freedoms, » Carpay said. 

CBC News has reached out to Carpay to ask him to clarify his comments.

Other speakers at the event included Conservative Saskatoon MP Brad Trost and People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier.

Carpay is the lawyer behind a lawsuit challenging the Alberta government’s bill that protects students from being outed by teachers if they join a gay-straight alliance.

The claim states that gay-straight alliances — peer-support groups that are meant to tackle bullying and provide supportive environments for LGBTQ students — are « ideological sexual clubs. »

« I thought the comments were absolutely offensive and require immediate action, » said Kristopher Wells, an LGBTQ advocate and associate professor at MacEwan University specializing in sexual and gender minority youth.

« The true motivations are crystal-clear now of the kind of hate and homophobia behind this kind of opposition. I think Jason Kenney needs to immediately suspend this person from the UCP party and denounce this kind of homophobic hatred. »

UCP is ‘big-tent party’: Kenney

Christine Myatt, a spokesperson for UCP leader Jason Kenney provided the following emailed statement in response to Carpay’s comments: 

« Of course we do not believe the rainbow flag has any equivalency to fascism and communism — ideologies that have been responsible for the deaths of well over 100 million people.

« The UCP is a big-tent party that supports the rule of law, equality of all before the law, and protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms of all. In that light, the UCP hosted Pride breakfasts in both Edmonton and Calgary this year. »

Carpay is a UCP member who spoke to resolutions at the party’s policy convention this spring.

In 2017, Kenney spoke at a Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms event, comparing Carpay’s work to that of civil-rights activist Rosa Parks and asking people to donate to Carpay’s organization.

Last month, Kenney disavowed a former campaign worker with ties to white supremacy and cancelled his UCP membership.

The leader said at the time he was looking to create a database to screen out extremists from seeking party memberships.

Kenney’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether or not Carpay’s views about the LGBTQ flag would qualify him as an extremist member of the party.

« To equate the Nazis with the movement for equality for LGBTQ people is abhorrent, » said Duncan Kinney, the executive director of left-leaning advocacy group Progress Alberta.

« Jason Kenney was just in the media last week talking about how he’s going to create a database to keep extremists out of the UCP. This is an extremist in his ranks … Kenney has spoken warmly about the human rights work Carpay has done. »

Wells said he’s worried homophobia is on the rise, and called on all parties to denounce anti-LGBTQ hate speech.

« I think all parties and leaders should be denouncing this kind of homophobia, it just has no place in our society, in fact I believe the Alberta bar association should look at revoking this individual’s membership to practice law in Alberta with these kind of hateful and discriminatory attitudes, » Wells said. 

« Some of the rhetoric we’re hearing from UCP party members and candidates, it emboldens people to come out with these hateful attitudes and start to dehumanize and attack minority groups who are very vulnerable in our society. »

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