Higher drunk driving fines, static minimum wage: These are the changes taking effect in Ontario in 2019

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Fines for drunk driving are going up starting New Year’s Day while the minimum wage holds steady at $14 and politicians will once again be allowed to attend their fundraising events under Ontario law.

Other changes taking effect Jan. 1 under Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government include a tax credit for low-income families, higher political donation limits and new rules for collection agencies.

New requirements for unpaid leave days under Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government, which repealed the previous Liberal government’s mandatory paid leave days, also take effect Jan. 1.
New requirements for unpaid leave days under Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government, which repealed the previous Liberal government’s mandatory paid leave days, also take effect Jan. 1.  (Graham Hughes / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE)

Impaired drivers with blood alcohol concentrations in the “warning range” between .05 per cent and .08 per cent will now face fines of $250 for a first offence, $350 for a second offence and $450 for third and subsequent offences.

The same penalties apply for failing a roadside sobriety test or violating “zero tolerance” rules for new and commercial drivers.

Police will also be able to issue $580 fines to drivers who refuse to take a drug or alcohol test, whose blood alcohol hits .08 per cent or who are determined to be impaired by an officer trained as a drug recognition evaluator.

While the government said in a statement these measures will “ensure Ontario’s roads are safe for everyone,” Andrew Murrie, president of the lobby group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, told the Star that increasing fines isn’t much of a deterrent.

He called on Ford’s government to pass a law that vehicles be impounded for three days if drivers are caught with a blood-alcohol level in the warning range, as several other provinces do.

“That makes an incredible difference in driver behaviour,” Murrie said. “People do not want to lose their car at roadside.”

B.C., for example, saw drunk driving-related deaths halved and Saskatchewan has seen a 40-per-cent reduction, he added.

On minimum wage, Ford is keeping a campaign promise to hold it steady at $14, axing the previous Liberal government’s plan for a $1 raise to $15.

The move, widely applauded by business groups and criticized by anti-poverty advocates, comes with other measures to tone down Liberal labour law reforms Ford said would cost employers too much and hurt job creation.

“When business succeeds, workers succeed, families succeed, communities succeed,” he said this fall in touting his “open for business” strategy.

Mandatory paid leave days have been repealed and replaced with requirements that employers allow a minimum of three unpaid days for personal illness, two unpaid bereavement days and three unpaid leave days for family emergencies.

The minimum wage will be frozen until 2020 and then increase by the annual rate of inflation, meaning the $15 level won’t be reached for another four or five years.

To offset the impact of the static minimum wage, the PCs are bringing in a new tax credit called LIFT — short for low income individuals and families.

“It will provide low-income and minimum wage workers up to $850 in Ontario personal income tax relief and couples up to $1,700 when they file their 2019 tax returns,” the government said in a year-end statement.

Critics say low-income workers would be better off with a minimum-wage increase because the money comes right away in their pay — instead of waiting another year to file their 2019 tax returns — and that many low-rate workers don’t pay income tax.

As Ontario’s political parties recover from expenses incurred in last spring’s election campaign, allowable donations are being increased to match the federal maximum of $1,600.

The previous Liberal government’s ban on MPPs and prospective candidates attending fundraisers is being lifted, raising the spectre of “cash for access” events where donors get to lobby politicians.

Donors will no longer have to certify their contributions are being made from their own funds — a move criticized as a “back door” way for unions and corporations to bankroll political parties.

In a measure aimed at discouraging collection agencies from using unsavoury tactics in recouping funds, agencies employing more than 10 people will be required to record all telephone calls and to keep them for one year.

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

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Canadian wireless prices down, still higher than most G7 countries

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An annual snapshot of telecom services taken for the federal government shows a year-over-year decline in Canadian wireless prices but, as usual, concludes that most G7 countries had less expensive packages.

« While progress is being made, prices in Canada remain expensive compared to other nations, » the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED), which commissioned the study, said in a statement.

For example, Canadian plans with two gigabytes per month of data cost an average of $75.44 per month when the 2018 survey was conducted in June and July, down from $81.61 per month in 2017.

The study also compares higher and lower levels of service, but wireless plans with 2 GB of data are a good benchmark because they reflect the usage patterns of many Canadians.

The report found the average price in four midsized American cities was nearly 20 per cent lower than the Canadian average, at $61.26 for plans with 2 GB of data on a currency-adjusted basis.

Prices for 2 GB plans were even lower in Berlin ($45.80), Paris ($30.91), London ($26.56), and Rome ($21.11). Only Tokyo was more expensive at $81.52 — the only city studied that showed a year-over-year increase.

In Australia — the only non-G7 country covered by the annual study — the currency-adjusted price of $24.70 in Sydney was less than one-third the Canadian average price for a Level 4 service that includes 2 GB of data.

The study segmented the wireless market into six levels of service. Level 1 — with only talking time and no text or data — cost an average of $25.73, and Level 6  — feature-rich family plans with at least 10 GB of shared data — costing an average of $227.87 per month.

Wireless industry outlines study’s shortcomings

Key players in Canada’s wireless industry, however, argue there have been serious shortcomings with the annual study, prepared for the federal government since 2008.

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, which represents most of the country’s major carriers, said that it’s pleased that ISED recognizes that prices for wireless services are coming down in Canada.

« We remain concerned, however, that this study doesn’t provide an accurate comparison of wireless services between countries given it doesn’t take into account the many, many different promotions offered by Canada’s service providers as they vigorously compete for customers, » CWTA said in an email statement.

While the study also compares higher and lower levels of service, wireless plans with 2 GB of data are a good benchmark because they reflect the usage patterns of many Canadians. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

Similarly, a report from NERA Economic Consulting, commissioned by Telus Corp., which isn’t a CWTA member, argues that the official Canadian study is poorly designed and subject to incorrect interpretations.

« It really makes very little sense because it compares [the prices of] entirely different plans, » NERA managing director Christian Dippon said in an interview, prior to ISED’s release of this year’s report.

Dippon reached that conclusion after examining earlier reports prepared from 2008 through 2017 by either Wall or the Nordicity Group, using parameters set by either the government or the federal telecom regulator.

The NERA study proposes an alternative methodology that compares Canadian plans to a benchmark that purports to measure how much international providers would charge for the same level of service.

According to NERA, 89 of 111 Canadian mobile wireless plans in its sample were below their international benchmark.

The press secretary for ISED Minister Navdeep Bains said he wasn’t available to comment on the report Friday.

In a statement, Bains said: « We’re working hard to bring down the cost of cellphone plans. And while we’re making progress, our government remains focused on promoting greater competition in the telecom sector to drive down prices for Canadians, while making sure they can also benefit from the latest technology and high-quality services. »

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Children of Grassy Narrows have higher reported rates of health problems, learning disabilities

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Though it has been 50 years since a mill dumped mercury upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nation, the reserve’s children are showing troubling signs that the neurotoxin is still poisoning the community.

Children whose mothers ate fish at least once a week while pregnant are four times more likely to have a learning disability or nervous system disorder that is slowing their efforts in school, says new research led by a leading mercury expert. Those kids were compared to Grassy Narrows children whose mothers hardly ever ate fish.

Dr. Donna Mergler and a team of scientists surveyed the families of 350 children ages 4 to 17. The research is part of an ongoing, comprehensive study that has already revealed the adults of Grassy Narrows report higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts compared to other First Nations adults.

During the 1960s, the Dryden pulp and paper mill, operated by Reed Paper, dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River that feeds Grassy Narrows downstream. The mill was using the mercury to bleach paper. The mercury contaminated the walleye downstream and poisoned the people who ate the fish. They developed tremors, slurred speech, impaired hearing and tunnel vision, and lost muscle co-ordination.

The robust fishing tourism industry, especially at famous Ball Lake Lodge, was decimated. The commercial fishermen and guides went on welfare.

Over the past two years, the Star and scientists have revealed that fish downstream near Grassy Narrows remain the most contaminated in the province, that there is mercury-contaminated soil and river sediment at or near the site of the old mill, and the provincial government knew in the 1990s that mercury was visible in soil under that site and never told anyone in Grassy Narrows or nearby Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations. Scientists strongly suspect that old mercury still contaminates the mill site and is polluting the river.

Parents or caregivers responded to the lengthy survey about their kids between December 2016 and March 2017.

The effort was spearheaded by community leaders and Mergler, a mercury expert at Université du Québec à Montréal. It was funded by Health Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-term Care.

The adult survey was supported by records of mercury levels in hair, blood and umbilical cord blood. Those same adults answered questions about their children for this survey.

It shows that Grassy Narrows children age four to 11 have a higher reported rate of ear infections, speech problems and learning disabilities compared to that reported by parents of other First Nations children. Grassy teens are struggling in school, with shorter attention spans than other First Nations teens, the research found.

This comparison is possible because the adult and children surveys were adapted from an older 2008 and 2010 survey that had been given to 12,000 people in First Nations communities across Canada.

Mergler has told the Star that the Grassy Narrows surveys were significant because “it’s the first time that there has been a population-based study of the community that links fish consumption to health outcomes and that looks at the difference between Grassy Narrows and other First Nation communities.

“Grassy Narrows, of course, has all the other issues of the other First Nations, such as residential schools, poverty, poor access to health care, poor access to food and, in addition to that, they have the legacy of mercury poisoning.”

She has said that the survey shows the river must be remediated to protect future generations and that the community needs bolstered health care and education resources.

A report on the survey’s findings recommended that a learning centre be set up to give information on mercury’s impact on a developing fetus and child. It also called for more supports for children, including a full-time child psychologist and speech therapy programs, as well as a community kitchen that serves uncontaminated food. Finally, the report urged officials to revisit the current guidelines on walleye consumption as damage could be occurring at levels lower than previously believed.

Indigenous Services Canada said it welcomes the new survey and will carefully review the results. A spokesperson also said the government “acknowledges that the best health outcomes for Indigenous peoples will be achieved through programs, supports and the identification of required infrastructure that are designed, developed and led by Indigenous communities.”

The research also found:

  • At least 10 per cent of all Grassy Narrows teens have anxiety or depression.
  • The children of mothers who ate fish at least once a month during pregnancy are twice as likely to have visual problems and three times more likely to have chronic ear infections, compared to children of Grassy Narrows mothers who hardly or never ate fish during pregnancy.
  • Two-thirds of children and youth eat bannock and walleye, traditional foods, with half eating walleye at least a few times during the past year.
  • 92 per cent of the children whose pregnant mothers ate fish at least once a week had a grandfather who was a fishing guide.
  • The likelihood of these grandchildren of fishing guides having been in the care of child and family services is five times greater than those whose grandfather was not a fishing guide.

“The tradition and culture of fishing and fish consumption have been passed down from one generation to the next,” the report said. “However, since the 1970s, so, too, has the loss of the traditional economy, unemployment and sickness. Fishing guides and their familes were the most highly exposed to mercury and the first to lose their jobs.

“The legacy of mercury compounds and exacerbates the legacies of colonialism and residential schools on the health and wellbeing of the next generation.”

Last year, the provincial government committed $85 million to clean up the river and the federal government has pledged to help build a mercury care home that will help some of the sickest residents. The clean-up work has not yet begun, though experts are conducting research to determine how to best remediate the river.

And this year the province retroactively indexed payments from the Mercury Disability Board to inflation. The board, which was set up during the 1980s to compensate those who can demonstrate symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning, had long been criticized as being inadequate. Roughly 70 per cent of applicants had been turned down for compensation. Earlier this year, the board’s longtime neurologist quit after an allegation of bias. The doctor said he had done no wrong and wanted an apology, and when he did not get one, he said, he quit.

“We are proud of our kids. They amaze me every day with their humour, their pride, and their strength,” said Judy Da Silva, a Grassy Narrows mother and community activist. “They should not have to fight again and again for basic justice that others in Canada take for granted. They should not have to overcome hunger, poverty, and poison in order to succeed.”

The new research also found signs that the children of Grassy Narrows are active despite their significant challenges.

More than two-thirds of all children and youth participate in community-organized cultural events, and 88 per cent of children swim, jog or mountain bike.

Many of the teens of Grassy Narrows have participated in logging blockades and marches to protest governmment inaction on the mercury contamination. Their song “Home to me” has more than a quarter-million views on youtube, the website says.

“Our youth are brave and talented people who have overcome great obstacles to leave their mark on Canada,” said Chief Rudy Turtle. “But every day they face the legacies of mercury, colonialism, and residential schools, so it is an uphill battle for them. They deserve to have a good life and to enjoy themselves like other youth do, without having to fight again and again for basic fairness.

David Bruser is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidBruser

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Police-related deaths in Nunavut nine times higher than in Ontario

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IQALIUT—There have been 14 police-related deaths in Nunavut since the territory’s creation in 1999, all of them Inuit and all of whom died in RCMP custody or after an interaction with the Mounties.

The RCMP is the only police force here and runs jails in all 25 Nunavut communities. After a police-related death, RCMP usually hires an outside police force to investigate the incident.

The RCMP detachment in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
The RCMP detachment in Iqaluit, Nunavut.  (Thomas Rohner)

Between 1999 and 2016, the last year for which there was complete coroner data, the rate of police-related deaths in Nunavut was more than nine times higher than Ontario’s rate.

While there is no evidence the RCMP committed any wrongdoing in the 14 deaths, the alarming trend – with four of the deaths occurring since 2016 — is fuelling calls for greater and more independent police oversight and the creation of an agency such as Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit.

Four members of Nunavut’s Legislative Assembly (MLAs) are demanding the territory’s justice department take action.

“A civilian oversight body is definitely needed for policing in Nunavut,” Iqaluit MLA Adam Lightstone told the Star. “The ideal situation would be to have Nunavummiut sitting on that civilian oversight body.”

In Nunavut’s consensus-style government, MLAs are not considered part of an opposition party, though, if they are not in cabinet, they are free to criticize government.

Nunavut’s lack of such an oversight agency to review serious incidents is an “outlier,” says Paul McKenna, former deputy director of the Ontario Provincial Police Academy.

MLAs Cathy Towtongie, Joelie Kaernerk and Pat Angnakak are echoing Lightstone’s call.

“Who are the police accountable to? There’s no oversight,” said Towtongie. “I support the idea of an independent oversight body.”

In most Canadian jurisdictions, an independent civilian-led body investigates serious incidents or allegations of police misconduct. In Ontario, the SIU investigates interactions with police that result in serious injury, death or allegations of sexual assault.

In Nunavut, where the government contracts the RCMP to provide policing services, serious incidents are investigated by the RCMP themselves or by another police force hired by the RCMP. Deaths automatically trigger an outside police force to probe the incident. After the outside police agency investigates, it can lay a charge — though this has never happened in Nunavut — and then it reports back to the Mounties.

“The RCMP and the (Government of Nunavut) do not make those reports public. To this day, we still don’t know what the outcome of those reports are, just what the RCMP or department tell us,” Lightstone said. “This status quo is unacceptable. Something has to be done about it.”

Adam Lightstone, an elected member of Nunavut's Legislative Assembly, is calling for greater oversight of the RCMP.
Adam Lightstone, an elected member of Nunavut’s Legislative Assembly, is calling for greater oversight of the RCMP.  (Thomas Rohner / Toronto Star)

Those unsatisfied with an investigation can make complaints to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP, an independent body created by federal Parliament. The commission will review that investigation and issue a report outlining whether they agree or disagree with the Mounties. The commission says its chair may also conduct its own “public interest” investigation but none have been completed in Nunavut.

One option for Nunavut would be to hire another jurisdiction’s civilian-led agency, Lightstone said. The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, an agency similar to the SIU, is under contract to the Yukon government to investigate serious police incidents.

“I don’t think the (RCMP’s complaint) commission is adequate for Nunavut’s needs. I think we need our own independent oversight body so that every single occurrence can be reviewed.”

The Nunavut RCMP did not respond to two requests for comment.

In August, a Star investigation revealed the story of Bernard Naulalik, an Inuk man from Iqaluit who was beaten by RCMP officers in his holding cell on three separate occasions between 2014 and 2016 — all of which were captured on video. Naulalik’s was one of about 30 cases in legal aid’s files alleging injuries to clients sustained during police arrest or detention across the territory, the Star found.

“I shared the cellblock video footage published with (the Star’s) article with all of the members during one of our committee meetings…All of the MLAs were alarmed and shocked,” Lightstone said.

In this story, “police-related deaths” refer to deaths occurring in police custody, detention, or while or after interacting with police. The Star obtained data on police-related deaths from both the Ontario and Nunavut offices of the chief coroner.

Read more:

Video shows officers punching and kicking this Inuk man on three separate occasions. Advocates warn his case is part of a trend

Opinion | Health care in Inuktut would save lives in Nunavut

Of the 14 Inuit who died since 1999, five were shot by police, two died during standoffs with police and at least three died in custody, including one hanging death. Thirteen of the deaths have occurred in the last 10 years.

When adjusted for population, Nunavut’s rate is 17 times higher than Toronto’s between 1999-2016. Nunavut’s rate is six times higher than Thunder Bay.

In response to the MLAs’ demands, the Nunavut justice department said, “Like several jurisdictions in Canada, Nunavut utilizes policing agencies from outside the territory to investigate major incidents.”

Even civilian-led agencies rely on officers trained in policing, the department said, adding it is “confident of the impartiality and professionalism outside police forces bring to their investigations. … That said, the department is also reviewing the viability of other potential options … including civilian oversight.”

Concerns about investigations into Nunavut RCMP conduct have been raised in the past.

During a 2014 coroner’s inquest into the death of Solomon Uyarasuk, found dead in RCMP cells in Igloolik in 2012, the jury heard testimony from Ottawa Police investigators. Sgt. Dan Brennan testified that the investigation scene had not been sealed until six hours after the death, that the RCMP officers involved had been left alone at the investigation scene, and that the involved Mounties were not considered suspects.

Joelie Kaernerk, another elected member of the MLA, is also calling for greater police oversight in Nunavut.
Joelie Kaernerk, another elected member of the MLA, is also calling for greater police oversight in Nunavut.  (Thomas Rohner / Toronto Star)

Brennan testified that his investigation would have benefited from knowing expectations for his own role and responsibilities. He had never seen a Memorandum of Understanding between the RCMP and the Ottawa Police. The Ottawa Police report then went to the Mounties, Brennan said.

In Ontario, the SIU issues a public report after its investigations. While critics argue the SIU should make more information public, its reports offer far more information than the Nunavut RCMP or justice department.

The jury heard testimony that Uyarasuk was terrified he would die or get beaten up in police cells, screaming on the way to the detachment that it had happened before. The jury recommended the Mounties reopen the investigation to “fill in the missing information” but that has never been done.

The Ottawa Police investigation was not good enough, Joelie Kaernerk, MLA for the communities of Hall Beach and Igloolik, told the Star.

“Family members really wanted answers, but the Ottawa Police Service (investigation) didn’t provide a whole lot of answers to the family. To this day, I believe there’s still questions from the family,” Kaernerk said. The Ottawa Police report was not made public at the inquest.

“Something’s gotta be done, something needs to be done. We need more answers from the police,” said Eva Qirngnirq, 61, whose grandson Charles died after being shot by police in 2016 in the community of Gjoa Haven, about 2,000 kilometres due north of Winnipeg.

Eva said Charles had difficulty managing his anger, and she tried but couldn’t stop him from taking the rifle from the attic and heading to the airport, where he wanted to stop his girlfriend from leaving town.

Naytanie Atadjuat died after being shot by RCMP in the north Baffin community of Pond Inlet in 2002. He was in mental distress, had cut his girlfriend's neck and threatened an elementary school child before being shot, police reports said.
Naytanie Atadjuat died after being shot by RCMP in the north Baffin community of Pond Inlet in 2002. He was in mental distress, had cut his girlfriend’s neck and threatened an elementary school child before being shot, police reports said.  (Family Handout)

“I don’t know if it surprises me — 14 —but it’s very shocking. When you went through it before, and having to hear it again, another person was shot by RCMP, all of your body and heart is shaking,” said Louisa Atadjuat, 40, whose brother Naytanie Atadjuat was shot by police in the north Baffin community of Pond Inlet in 2002.

Naytanie had cut his girlfriend’s neck and threatened an elementary school child before being shot, police reports said.

Police reports said that both Charles and Naytanie were going through episodes of mental distress at the time of their shootings.

The move towards civilian-led oversight of police hinges on the notion that police investigating police is inconsistent with public confidence and accountability, according to McKenna, the former deputy director of the OPP academy.

“Under certain circumstances, virtually every police service has, or could, avail themselves of the investigative services of another police department for certain issues. This, however, does not extend to serious incidents … It would seem that the approach in Nunavut is an anomaly.”

A 2007 study conducted by McKenna and a colleague found blending civilian with police expertise to be a best investigative practice, instilling confidence and trust in policing services.

Trust and confidence is low within the territory’s government-funded legal aid agency, according to correspondence obtained by the Star under freedom of information legislation.

“Nunavummiut … are being abused by members of the RCMP, and…absolutely nothing is being done about it by the RCMP, the (Public Prosecution Service of Canada) or the (Government of Nunavut),” Jonathan Ellsworth, Chief Operating Officer of Nunavut’s legal aid wrote in an April email.

In the last three years, legal aid has filed 25 civil cases against the RCMP for clients alleging police brutality, the email said. Seventeen of those cases are ongoing.

“The real question that everyone should be asking is: on whose behalf do the (Government of Nunavut,) the Crowns (office,) and the RCMP act, and why are they allowing this violence against Inuit to continue?” Ellsworth wrote.

One of the biggest issues facing Inuit during police interactions is a language barrier, Kaernerk said. About 90 per cent of Nunavut Inuit speak Inuktitut.

“When English is their second language, it’s difficult for Inuit to make themselves understood to RCMP,” he said, adding he supports Lightstone’s call for civilian oversight.

MLA Pat Angnakak said she also supports Lightstone’s call for civilian oversight, to ensure “all cases are heard in a fair and transparent way.”

Such oversight and transparency is crucial, MLA Towtongie said, as “we’re dealing with marginalization within the system, where a minority is sent to control the majority, and a lot of Inuit are tense and stressed.”

Charles Qirngnirq died after being shot by RCMP in Gjoa Haven, about 2,000 kilometers north of Winnipeg. A relative said he had difficulty managing his anger and she could not stop him from taking the rifle from the attic and heading to the airport, where he wanted to stop his girlfriend from leaving town.
Charles Qirngnirq died after being shot by RCMP in Gjoa Haven, about 2,000 kilometers north of Winnipeg. A relative said he had difficulty managing his anger and she could not stop him from taking the rifle from the attic and heading to the airport, where he wanted to stop his girlfriend from leaving town.  (Family handout)

Neither Louisa Atadjuat nor her mother remember details of any investigation into Naytanie’s death in 2002, Louisa said.

This is the first time Louisa said she is speaking about Naytanie’s death since it happened. She remembers it was a beautiful sunny day in September, plenty of boats and narwhals in the bay. She remembers crying in a health centre room with her parents, her brother’s body lying on a bed.

“I always think about those two RCMPs…Both the victims and the RCMP need to have counselling, in the same room, and try to have closure to it. For me, it would be helpful.”

Eva Qirngnirq said she wonders why so many institutions and services failed Charles.

“Charles had such a difficult life. I talked to the mental health workers and social workers and they just turned to the RCMP instead of sitting down with us and asking what kind of life he had … The (RCMP) didn’t even talk to me,” after Charles died, she said.

Tobi Qirngnirq, Charles’ aunt, said she knew he had an anger problem and it scared her. That’s why she would check in with the local RCMP every week or two, to keep tabs on Charles. “That year (Charles died,) they switched over to new RCMP,” so it was new RCMP officers in town whom the family didn’t know and who didn’t know the family, she said.

After losing his father at a young age, Charles struggled with alcoholism and starting a young family. “I could see that he was frustrated, and he just wanted a place to call home.”

Neither Tobi nor Eva have heard anything about an investigation into the RCMP’s shooting of Charles. They remember how Charles loved to go out on the land, camping with family and helping others. “He did so much for me. That was so hard when he was gone,” Charles’ grandmother, Eva said.

Louisa Atadjuat recalls fond memories of her brother Naytanie, two years older, who taught her to ride a bike and went rabbit hunting with her. “He taught me a lot of stuff, like any brother would do, to teach his little sister.”

Data analysis by Andrew BaileyThomas Rohner is a freelance journalist based in Iqaluit, Nunavut. He can be reached at Thomas.rohner@gmail.com and on Twitter @thomas_rohner

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Number of injured from Irving refinery explosion higher than initial reports

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The number of workers injured in the explosion and fire at the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John on Monday is higher than the four initially reported.

Family doctor Mike Simon says he treated five workers that day alone, including two who were thrown by the blast.

He expected to see at least six more injured by the explosion or fallout by the end of the day Wednesday.

And there could be many more with psychological scars, Simon said.

« It’s almost like you’re being in a war zone, right? Because suddenly, the explosion, a lot of guys are running for their life.

« It’s extremely scary ’cause you’re in a situation, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Big bang, the force knocking you over, you know, blowing your … hard hat off your head, blowing your desk around, throwing you off a chair. You know, it’s significant. So these are real-life events. »

Irving Oil and Saint John Emergency Measures Organization officials have said four workers were treated at the Saint John Regional Hospital for minor injuries after the 10:15 a.m. blast that sent flames shooting an estimated 30 metres high and left a plume of black smoke billowing over the city’s east side for hours.

The Horizon Health Network has said the hospital treated five people for non-life-threatening injuries that day, but declined to elaborate, citing patient confidentiality.

The flames and plume of black smoke towered over the stacks at the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John Monday morning. (Submitted by Doug McLean)

Officials have not provided any updates on injured workers since Tuesday, but WorksafeNB’s assistant director of investigations suggested Wednesday « the number seems to be growing. »

Eric Brideau, who visiting the site Tuesday and met with employees, said he could not confirm the total number of workers injured.

The cause of the explosion has not yet been determined, but officials believe it stemmed from a malfunction in the unit that removes sulphur from diesel.

Brideau described the investigation as « technical and complex. » He expects it will take two to three months to complete.

The Irving Oil refinery is the largest in Canada. It employs about 1,400 people and is capable of producing more than 320,000 barrels per day at the sprawling site, which covers more than 300 hectares.

Close to 3,000 people were working at the time of the holiday Thanksgiving explosion because of a massive turnaround maintenance project that’s underway. About 100 of them were the normal operations crew, while the rest were contracted tradespeople from across New Brunswick and other provinces.

Variety of injuries

Simon, who’s the go-to doctor for some of the contractor companies, says they called him about an hour after the fiery explosion, asking him to open his office in the city’s north end for incoming patients.

« There was a fellow [who] hurt his ear because the blast sort of hit him on the side. There was a guy who was blown off a ladder and twisted his ankle.

« There was a guy, who again, was blown off his desk, and fell into a railing and he had some contusions, injuries on his arm.

« Another guy, a little bit of inhalation injury because of the smoke and the dust and stuff from the explosion, he was very close to the blast. And he hurt his shoulder as well. Mostly musculoskeletal things like that. »

Boilermaker Terry MacEachern was rattled by Monday’s blast at Irving Oil facility, but is ready to return to the job. 1:31

Simon said treating less serious injuries at his office helped free up the emergency room to deal with anything more serious that came up and saved the workers from facing long waits.

The Saint John Regional Hospital went into « code orange » after the explosion was reported, meaning it was prepared for a possible mass casualties influx.

« They plan for these events well in advance » and run mock drills, said Simon, who has worked in the emergency room over the years.

There are protocols about calling in extra doctors and nurses, if necessary, as well as administrative and janitorial staff, and surgical specialists would be on-call, he said.

It takes a while for that shock to sort of percolate through somebody.– Mike Simon, family doctor

Trauma rooms would be prepped, patients discharged to clear beds, and medications readily available.

« So you’re going to get the best care available in the 21st century. »

Simon said it could take a few days for workers to even realize they’re injured after such a traumatic incident.

« It happens so quick. And it’s shock effect. And so it takes a while for that shock to sort of percolate through somebody. »

As their experience sinks in, some might find they’re having nightmares or struggling with worries, he said, calling it « normal human nature. »

« You get hit in the arm, you get a contusion or a cut, that’s the way the arm heals. You get a shock value like this, it takes a while for your brain to bounce back too. » 

He encourages the affected workers to seek counselling or at least find someone they can talk to as they work their way through any issues.

With files from Rachel Cave

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