‘We’re holding up a floodgate’: B.C. fights off superbugs brought home by medical tourists

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The risks involved in medical tourism aren’t just personal. Having surgery abroad could also mean bringing back a drug-resistant superbug and putting people in this country at risk, B.C. officials warn.

That alert comes after the recent discovery that two patients at New Westminster’s Royal Columbian Hospital had been colonized with the multidrug-resistant yeast Candida auris. Though neither patient is infected with the bug, the two join just a handful of cases that have been identified in B.C. since 2017.

Dr. Linda Hoang, medical co-director for the Provincial Infection Control Network (PICNet), said most of these cases have come from travellers who have had treatment overseas, including medical tourists.

It means patients need to do serious research on the facilities they’re considering for surgeries or other treatments abroad, including looking for objective information about the presence of any drug-resistant microorganisms.

« It’s not only a problem in India or Southeast Asia. It is endemic in parts of the U.S. and parts of Europe, » Hoang told CBC News.

« It [antibiotic-resistant superbugs] is a global problem, and the only way to to be aware of them is to make sure that health-care professionals are informed and our residents are informed when they’re seeking health care outside of British Columbia. »

It’s a sobering reminder for those who travel abroad for medical treatments, whether it’s to skip the surgery wait list in B.C., access therapies that aren’t approved in Canada or save money on cosmetic therapy. Some of the top destinations for medical tourists from around the world include India, Mexico, Southeast Asia, Brazil and Turkey, according to the Medical Tourism Association.

But facilities in other countries can sometimes take a more haphazard approach to prescribing antibiotics, and overuse can trigger the evolution of resistance to these crucial drugs.

India a major source of bug

The two colonized patients at Royal Columbian were isolated after the bug was discovered, and the hospital has been aggressively cleaning all areas they had visited, using UV light for disinfection, according to Fraser Health.

C. auris was first identified in Japan in 2009, but it has popped up since then in countries around the world.

It acts much like any other yeast species, causing infections in wounds, the bloodstream and the ears, but the real problem is how to treat it.

« The only real reason why we’re concerned or interested in monitoring Candida auris is because of that potential resistance profile, making it difficult to treat with the anti-fungal agent that we have, » Hoang said.

The biggest risk of infection right now seems to come from Indian facilities, Hoang said.

A microscopic image, at left, shows Candida auris cells. At right is a culture of the yeast in a petri dish. (The Journal of Infection in Developing Countries)

The bug was confirmed for the first time in B.C. in July 2017 in a patient who’d been treated in India. As it turned out, that traveller also came back with infections from multiple other drug-resistant organisms.

B.C. doesn’t track whether infected people travelled abroad as medical tourists or simply required medical treatment because of an emergency during their voyages.

But patients who have had medical treatment outside B.C. for any reason are a major source of these superbugs, she said.

They include so-called CPOs — carbapenemase-producing organisms like Klebsiella, E. coli and Pseudomonas that have become resistant to broad-spectrum antibiotics, which Hoang describes as the « last resort » for treatment.

In 2017-2018, PICNet recorded more CPO cases than ever before, and more than half of them were from people who had accessed health care overseas, Hoang said.

‘There’s only so much we can do’

The key for anyone who chooses to have surgery abroad —​ and anyone who needs medical attention while travelling —​ is to let your B.C. doctor know when you return. That way, the doctor can check you for any drug-resistant bugs you may have picked up and give you the appropriate medication if you get sick.

Being open with that information protects everyone around you.

« If you require health care in British Columbia, you are running the risk of spreading that into our facilities. And that’s not a good thing for your neighbouring patients, who might be very sick and vulnerable, » Hoang said.

She said B.C. is aggressively monitoring returning travellers for drug-resistant superbugs, but the real key to stopping their spread will be eliminating the excessive use of antibiotics that allows these micro-organisms to evolve resistance.

« We’re basically holding up a floodgate, and unless the problems are addressed in these countries where antibiotics are used with minimal regulation and control, there’s only so much we can do, » Hoang said.

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Ontario is holding a lottery for cannabis stores on Friday. Here’s what the rest of the country tried and how it turned out

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However, there’s one major outlier: British Columbia. The entrenchment of black- and grey-market cannabis operations in B.C., as well as the sluggish rate of legal cannabis store openings, means the province has a chimera of private and public sale systems that’s been difficult to leverage.

“They have a quasi-legal illegal market,” Osak said. “They have a couple of publicly owned stores and now, recently, a couple of private (ones). So they have a mixed bag of everything.”

A lot of questions about Ontario’s cannabis licensing system remain unanswered, Osak said, especially when it comes to late penalties.

Retailers are required to submit a $50,000 letter of credit as part of their application. If they aren’t open by April 1, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario can take $12,500 of that. Retailers who still aren’t open by April 15 will lose another $12,500. What isn’t clear is whether stores that have passed all of the necessary inspections and trained their staff appropriately could suffer these penalties if they’re faced with an unreliable supply of weed and are forced to close.

“This whole process is clouded in uncertainty,” Osak said.

Here’s a look at how the rest of Canada has handled brick-and-mortar cannabis stores and how they’ve fared since legalization:

Read more:

Ontario’s cannabis retail lottery will have just 25 winners. But is it a smart approach, or a golden ticket to nowhere?

N.B. cannabis retailer lays off staffers as ‘operational needs’ become clear

Toronto council opts in on pot shops just as Ontario limits number to 25 because of supply shortage

British Columbia

The process: While B.C. isn’t limiting the number of private cannabis retailers, applicants must go through several steps in order to officially obtain a licence, including paying an application fee of $7,500 and receiving approval from their local government or Indigenous nation.

What worked: In B.C., most cannabis users who couldn’t go to the only provincially owned store in Kamloops had to buy from the provincially operated online store in the first two weeks of legalization. It proved immensely popular, with reports that the province was low on stock just 24 hours after launch.

Private retailers came a few weeks later, with Tamarack Cannabis Boutique in Kimberley being the first out of the gate.

What didn’t: Regulations have limited stores to selling products exclusively from the provincial wholesaler. As a result, stores cannot carry cannabis-based creams and edibles; Tamarack owner Tamara Duggan said those were some of the most popular items at her Kimberley store.

The roll-out of stores in other municipalities has been much slower, with businesses complaining that the licensing process is overly complex. In Vancouver, a hub of cannabis use where several illegal stores are still in operation, three months passed before the first two private retailers opened their doors — to long lineups from enthusiastic customers.

Jaclynn Pehota, a regulatory consultant for Evergreen Cannabis, said the process for private licensing is “not particularly intuitive or user-friendly,” and many small businesses may not have had the resources to get through.

Alberta

The process: Alberta has taken a relatively hands-off approach to selling weed, similar to their privatized system for liquor stores. Applicants looking to open a storefront must secure approval from municipal authorities and submit to an application process (which includes background checks) from the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission (AGLC).

There is no cap on the number of stores allowed within the province, although the AGLC expected to see around 250 store applications within the first year of legalization. However, privatization doesn’t extend to the internet: The only legal website to buy weed in Alberta is the AGLC-run albertacannabis.org.

What worked: Alberta had 17 storefronts open on Oct. 17. The Edmonton area alone had a dozen ready to go on legalization day, while Calgary had two. There are several possible reasons why the provincial capital outpaced Cowtown so quickly, including an existing medical cannabis industry (Aurora’s headquarters are based in Edmonton) and relaxed public consumption laws. Albertans also have a healthy appetite for bud: Nova Cannabis, a chain with stores across the province, pulled in $1.3 million in sales within the first five days of legalization.

What didn’t work: As with other provinces, Alberta’s brick-and-mortar stores and albertacannabis.org found themselves starved of weed just a month after legalization. In late November, the AGLC announced a moratorium on granting new store licences until supply issues could be resolved, saying it had only received 20 per cent of the cannabis it had ordered from licensed producers.

Several stores, including Numo Cannabis in northern Edmonton, had to close for weeks due to a lack of weed, while Urban Canna, a small chain in Calgary, found itself unable to open at all during the first month of legalization. Some Alberta municipalities have also vetoed pot stores, and Calgary has found itself bogged down with appeals against cannabis stores within city limits.

Atlantic Canada

The process: In Nova Scotia, the government-run Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation (NSLC) is the only authorized pot seller. On legalization day, the crown corporation opened 11 cannabis boutiques inside existing liquor stores, one stand-alone cannabis shop in Halifax and online sales.

What worked: When the shops opened in cities and towns around the province on Oct. 17, there were long lines as clerks handled almost 13,000 transactions and sold more than $660,000 in products. Those lines persisted at some locations for several days.

NSLC spokesperson Beverly Ware said in an email that the corporation was “very pleased with the implementation” and that it answered the public’s demand for local producers shortly after legalization. There weren’t any local licensed producers in the province on Oct. 17, but two have since received the green light from Health Canada.

What didn’t work: Several NSLC cannabis stores closed early because of shortages.

As in Nova Scotia, the rest of Atlantic Canada opted for government-run cannabis retailers. New Brunswick’s retailer, Cannabis NB, faced similar supply challenges to the NSLC and recently laid off more than 60 employees from its 20 stores.

Cannabis NB spokesperson Marie-Andrée Bolduc told The Canadian Press that it was difficult to say whether the supply problems were linked to the layoffs.

“The decision is representative of normal new retail industry operations and long-term fiscal responsibility,” Bolduc said in an email.

Quebec

The process: The Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC) runs 12 stores across the province, including three in Montreal and two in Quebec City. Customers can also purchase cannabis from its website.

What worked: The 12 stores were open by legalization day, and the website was live. The province’s website reported 53,300 online transactions and 84,850 in-store transactions in the first week of operation.

What didn’t work: Plagued by supply shortages, the stores are now only open Thursdays to Sundays. In addition, some customers reported receiving products with a unit weight lower than what was indicated on the packaging, according to the SQDC’s website.

Saskatchewan

The process: Operators for 51 retail cannabis stores were selected through a two-step process that combined an open request for proposals and a lottery.

Applicants that made it through the first screening phase, which looked at financial and inventory systems, were entered into the lottery to be eligible for a permit. Independent consulting firm KPMG monitored the process, according to the province’s website.

What worked: The advance planning meant a few stores were open on legalization day, The Canadian Press reported at the time.

What didn’t work: Not all of the 51 stores were open by then. Currently, only 17 are in operation; the rest are working through the permit process, and more should be issued in the coming weeks, according to a government spokesperson.

Manitoba

The process: A request for proposals went out in November 2017, looking for four initial companies. The province announced the successful retailers in February 2018.

The Liquor, Gaming and Cannabis Authority of Manitoba (LGCA) regulates, licenses, inspects and audits the industry, while the Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corporation (MBLL) is in charge of processing and distribution, according to the province’s website.

The private sector operates all 16 retail locations across the province, including two in First Nations communities and 10 in Winnipeg, according to the government’s website.

What worked: In December, the province announced the private retailers were largely playing by the rules so far and none had been fined since legalization, The Canadian Press reported.

What didn’t work: MBLL said in October it expected supply shortages to last at least six months, as the province, along with others, is not receiving as much cannabis as it needs.

In December, the RCMP seized all cannabis from the Winnipeg-based company Bonify, saying they believed illegal cannabis had entered the market.

Nunavut

The only way to buy is to order online from private retailer Tweed, which doesn’t have any stores in Nunavut. The government did not immediately respond to a request for more detail.

Yukon

The government operates one cannabis shop in Whitehorse, as well as an online store. The government did not immediately respond to a request for more detail.

Northwest territories

The Northwest Territories Liquor and Cannabis Commission regulates the distribution of alcohol and cannabis through mail order, an online store and five brick-and-mortar locations. The government did not immediately respond to a request for more detail.

With files from Joseph Hall, Kevin Maimann, Omar Mosleh, Taryn Grant, Cherise Seucharan and May Warren

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She was handcuffed for not holding an escalator’s handrail. Ten years later, she’s headed to Canada’s Supreme Court

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The court will also rule on whether Kosoian’s lawsuit for damages is valid.

“It’s not about money,” says Kosoian, who sued for $69,000, split between the officer and Montreal’s transit commission. “I did not commit any crime. I did not do anything wrong. It was abuse of power on the part of the police.”

Kosoian lives in a cosy bungalow in London, Ont., with her husband and two teenage children. She says she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the escalator incident in 2009, and decided it was best to leave Quebec.

“I was afraid to go outside. I had trouble sleeping. I was shaking. I was afraid of police. I always wanted to sit in the dark.

“I said, ‘I have to go somewhere where there is no métro,’ she adds, referring to Montreal’s subway. “And every time I see a policeman I’m thinking, ‘They’re going to arrest me.’ ”

“It’s about principles. It’s about the rule of law,” she says, nervously fingering court documents on her dining table. “It’s not just about me.”


Kosoian was born 47 years ago in Russia. She grew up in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, where she would meet her Canadian husband, Richard Church, an information technology specialist. She showed promise in chess by the age of 9, and played at semi-professional levels in France when she moved there in her 20s.

She came to Canada with her family in the early 2000s, settling in Quebec to pursue her studies in French. For years she worked as the “women’s co-ordinator” for the Canadian Chess Federation, organizing tournaments and corralling sponsors.

“In chess, if you don’t follow rules, you’re dead,” Kosoian says, emphatically. “I’m a person who followed more rules than anybody else since childhood.”

At about 5 p.m. on May 13, 2009, Kosoian stepped on the down escalator at a subway station in Laval. She was heading to her history class at a university in downtown Montreal.

Kosoian had used that same escalator almost every day for four years. She knew that at the front of the escalator, as well as at a spot halfway down, were yellow pictograms that said, “Caution … hold handrail.”

She deemed the pictogram nothing more than a warning or recommendation. Besides, the H1N1 virus was making the rounds, and Kosoian considered the handrail a cesspool of microbes.

The escalator takes 59 seconds to get to the bottom. Kosoian’s backpack was at her feet. She reached down to get a $5 bill from her wallet for subway fare and placed the pack on her back.

A police officer with the Laval force walked past her on the escalator and continued until he stepped off. A second officer in uniform then stopped in front of Kosoian on the step below when the escalator had taken her about halfway down.

The officer, Fabio Camacho, said something Kosoian didn’t hear. Two years later, during testimony at a municipal court hearing, Camacho said he saw Kosoian bent over at a 90-degree angle and told her to be careful. He claims Kosoian responded in an aggressive tone that he should go outside and do some real police work.

Camacho then ordered her to hold the handrail. Kosoian says she responded: “It’s my right to hold the handrail or not to hold it.”

According to Camacho, he warned Kosoian he would issue her a ticket and she responded by crossing her arms. Kosoian insists Camacho never warned her about a ticket. She insists he asked her for ID out of nowhere.

“I told him, ‘What have I done for you to ask for documents?’ ”

Camacho says he never asked her for ID on the escalator.

What isn’t disputed is that when Kosoian reached the bottom of the escalator, Camacho and his partner, the officer who initially walked past Kosoian, grabbed her by the arms and took her to a nearby locked room that also contained a jail cell.

In the room, Kosoian said she reached for her cellphone and announced she would call a lawyer. “They started to push me and shove me and took my bag and took my (identity) documents and handcuffed me at once.

“It was shocking for me,” Kosoian says. “We’re in a country of laws, no?”

Camacho testified that he immediately asked for Kosoian’s identification when they entered the room so he could write her a ticket for not holding the handrail. Kosoian insists that even then she was never told what she allegedly did wrong.

Camacho says she repeatedly refused to produce ID, so he placed her under arrest. He handcuffed her, he says, when she refused to hand over her bag so he could search for ID.

“I know that’s taking matters pretty far,” Camacho said, according to a transcript of his testimony. “I didn’t want to get to that point either. We had reached a point where I explained things to her but I wasn’t getting through at all.”

Camacho and his partner cuffed Kosoian’s hands behind her back and sat her in a chair. He searched her bag, found her driver’s licence and began writing her two tickets: a $100 fine for not holding the handrail, and a $320 fine for obstructing the work of a police officer.

Kosoian tried to get up to see the tickets they were writing. Camacho told her a camera in the room was recording the events and Kosoian calmed down. She says she was relieved to learn there would be evidence of what transpired.

The officers removed the cuffs, gave Kosoian her tickets, and let her go. She had spent about 15 minutes in the room.

She went to her history class in a state of shock. She told her husband of the arrest and took pictures of the red rings around her wrists made by the handcuffs.

The next day, she went to a doctor, who noted Kosoian “is in a state of shock and cries profusely,” according to court evidence. Another doctor diagnosed PTSD and put her on medication.

Also that day, Kosoian’s husband called the transit agency, Société de transport de Montréal (STM), and asked to see recordings of the incident captured by subway cameras. His request was noted by STM officials on a form dated May 14.

On May 16, a Saturday, Kosoian’s story hit the news. Camacho was off work, but received a call from his boss that weekend ordering him to get the videos. Camacho waited until he got back to work, on May 18, before making the request.

He learned the next day that the subway cameras record on a five-day loop and evidence of the incident — both on the escalator and in the locked room — had been taped over, according to court testimony.

Kosoian and her lawyer, Aymar Missakila, are incredulous.

“How can it be that the STM didn’t find it necessary to keep the tape?” Missakila asks, noting Church’s official request and the extensive media coverage. “Wasn’t it their duty to make sure the tape was preserved, given how contested the incident was and the threat of a lawsuit?”

“Do you think if I did something wrong police would not show those videos?” Kosoian says. “Of course they would.”

Public reaction wasn’t kind, either. “Surely our resources could be put to better use instead of harassing citizens going about their business,” said a complaint received by the STM, and obtained by Church through a freedom-of-information request.

“Does this ‘peace officer’ carry a gun?” the complainant added. “I hope not, as anyone who demonstrates such poor judgment should not be armed.”

The Laval police force and the transit agency defended Camacho’s actions, while acknowledging in media reports at the time that Kosoian was the first to be issued a ticket for not holding an escalator handrail. They pressed for the fines to be paid, and Kosoian’s refusal triggered a municipal court hearing in May 2011.

In March 2012, Judge Florent Bisson acquitted Kosoian of the tickets, citing numerous contradictions between the notes the police officers made immediately after the event and their testimonies in court.

“The tribunal had the impression that adjustments were made to the evidence to justify the failure of this intervention which, initially, should have been banal,” Bisson wrote.

Kosoian, on the other hand, “is credible and is believed,” he added. The judge noted that under the Criminal Code, a person can refuse to identify themselves “so long as he is not informed of the offence against him.” And Bisson wasn’t convinced the pictogram obligated subway passengers to hold the handrail.

By then, Kosoian had launched a lawsuit against Camacho, the STM and the City of Laval. In August 2015, the Quebec Court dismissed it with a legal tongue lashing.


Justice Denis Le Reste described Kosoian’s behaviour during the incident as “inconceivable, irresponsible and contrary to the elementary rules of civism in our society.”

Kosoian, the judge added, “illegally and obstinately refused to comply” with Camacho’s orders to hold the handrail and to identify herself. He blamed everything on Kosoian’s “gratuitous aggressiveness.”

Le Reste said police officers were fully justified in arresting and handcuffing Kosoian. He noted that Camacho’s actions rested on an STM regulation — R-036 — which states that no one in a building or on “rolling stock” shall “disobey a directive or pictogram posted by the Society.”

“The court concludes that the work of officer Camacho, given all the circumstances of this matter, was exemplary and irreproachable,” Le Reste wrote. “He showed very great patience and acted in accordance with the standards any other reasonable police officer would have applied in the same situation.”

Kosoian describes the ruling as an attempt to assassinate her character. She appealed and, on Dec. 5, 2017, the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled against her in a 2-1 decision.

The majority judges described Kosoian as “the author of her own misery” because she refused to co-operate with police officers “who were doing their job.”

It’s not up to police officers to determine whether a regulation is valid, the justices wrote. Camacho was trained to enforce the handrail regulation, and therefore had “reasonable motives to believe that an infraction had been committed.” That justified writing a ticket and arresting Kosoian because she refused to identify herself, the judges ruled. The STM, meanwhile, is immune from civil responsibility because it’s a public body exercising its regulatory powers in good faith.

Their dissenting colleague, Justice Mark Schrager, could not have disagreed more — on all counts.

Escalators come with the handrail pictograms already stuck to them when they’re bought. Schrager argued the transit agency’s regulation about obeying all pictograms is therefore invalid because the STM is in effect delegating its regulatory powers to the company that makes pictograms and sticks them on the escalators.

Besides, the pictogram is nothing more than a warning to hold the handrail, not an obligation, Schrager argued. That’s made clear by the word “caution” in bold letters across the top and the pictogram’s yellow and black colours. The colour of prohibition and obligation is red.

“A reasonable person looking at the pictogram would conclude that she should follow its instructions to act prudently, but that she was certainly not subjected to an obligation to hold the handrail under penalty of receiving a ticket,” Schrager wrote.

Schrager agreed with his fellow judges that, in principle, police officers are subject to the standard of how a reasonable officer would act in the same circumstances. But that doesn’t justify Camacho’s actions, he added.

“The arrest and detention of the appellant, as described, were illegal since the infraction that could have justified them was non-existent,” Schrager wrote in his dissent.

It’s not good enough for Camacho to have honestly believed that the STM’s regulation was valid, Schrager argued. The absence of malicious intent is not a defence against civil responsibility.

“The infraction did not exist. The appellant’s refusal to identify herself was therefore justified … since no infraction was committed,” Schrager wrote. And since the arrest was illegal the search of Kosoian’s bag was also illegal, he added.

Still, Schrager believed Kosoian’s “inflammatory behaviour” made her partly responsible for her misfortune. He described Camacho’s request to hold the handrail as “common sense.”

Schrager said Kosoian should be awarded $15,000 in moral damages, plus legal costs and interest. The City of Laval, Camacho and the STM are all responsible. But only the STM should pay the award because of its faulty regulation, the inadequate training it gives to police officers, and for insisting on pursuing Kosoian in municipal court, Schrager wrote.

Kosoian and her lawyer again appealed, this time to the Supreme Court. They asked four questions: Does the pictogram legally oblige people to hold the escalator handrail? Can a police officer be sued if his actions against a citizen, including use of force and arrest, are not supported by an existing law? Is the STM responsible for Camacho’s actions? Did Kosoian contribute to the damages against her by refusing to identify herself when Camacho acted on a non-existent regulation?

A spokesperson for the City of Laval, which employs Camacho, refused to comment or make Camacho available for an interview. Their legal brief urged the Supreme Court not to grant the appeal, arguing that the STM regulation governing the pictogram is valid. They added it can’t be left to citizens to decide whether they’ll co-operate with police officers based on their personal interpretation of a regulation being enforced. “You can imagine the social chaos that would ensue,” they argued.

In the last decade, the Supreme Court has only granted about 10 per cent of the 500 or so requests for appeals it receives each year. So Thomas Slade, a lawyer who is not involved in the case, says he was initially surprised when the court agreed to hear Kosoian.

“Almost every year the Supreme Court grants at least one case that’s sometimes a little bit of a head-scratcher at first,” says Slade, a partner at Supreme Advocacy, an Ottawa-based firm that specializes in appeals to the highest court.

In hindsight, Slade believes the ruling will determine the validity of pictograms across the country, and decide whether police officers can be held responsible for acting on the fictitious belief that a law or regulation exists.

“If you’re punishing someone for an offence that doesn’t exist, that seems pretty far beyond what you can actually call reasonable,” Slade says in a phone interview.

If she is successful, the money Kosoian might win will not begin to cover the costs of the multiple court battles and the Supreme Court appeal. Missakila, her lawyer, is considering how he might raise funds to help cover the costs.

Slade did “a double take” when he realized Kosoian’s battle dates back to 2009: “The wheels of justice turn quite slowly, but this is definitely going at a bit of a snail’s pace.” He doesn’t expect the court to rule until at least next fall.

For Kosoian, a Supreme Court ruling can’t come soon enough.

“I want to get on with my life,” she says. “I don’t want to become obsessed.”

Sandro Contenta is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @scontenta

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Toronto police board holding final 2018 meeting at police headquarters

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The civilian board overseeing the Toronto police is set to hold its final meeting of 2018 Tuesday at police headquarters.

The Toronto police board will discuss a request from Toronto Community Housing Corporation to increase the number of special constables approved to work on its properties and will hear an update from the board’s Anti-Racism Advisory Panel.

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I want to thank the world for holding my hand as my father, Harry Leslie Smith, died

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At 3:39 a.m. on Nov. 28, as daybreak prepared to be born, my father, Harry Leslie Smith, at the age of 95, died in my arms.

Politicians, journalists and ordinary folk knew him as “the world’s oldest rebel.” But he was much more than that to me — not only my father but my friend, my political comrade and my mentor, who I had the great fortune to accompany on a spiritual and political odyssey that spanned the last nine years of his life.

Harry Leslie Smith, the “world’s oldest rebel,” and his son John, who will pick up where his father left off and travel by bus to the Mexican border in California to document “the injustice, the cruelty, the inhumanity that is being shown to the caravan of migrants.”
Harry Leslie Smith, the “world’s oldest rebel,” and his son John, who will pick up where his father left off and travel by bus to the Mexican border in California to document “the injustice, the cruelty, the inhumanity that is being shown to the caravan of migrants.”  (Family photo)

Harry, a survivor of the Great Depression and veteran of the Second World War, was on a mission to warn younger generations not to make his past — one filled with politically driven austerity, private health care and raging, intemperate populism — our future.

Driven by the poverty of his childhood that had seen him scavenge through rubbish bins in Depression-ravaged Britain, we travelled the world, much of it at our own expense, so he could speak to both the ordinary and the mighty, to make a last stand for a return to a decent society in the 21st century.

Now, at 55, I am alone, faced with rebuilding my life and preserving the legacy of Harry Leslie Smith. It is why I will resume his refugee tour and complete his Last Stand. This holiday season, I will travel across America by bus to the Mexican border in San Diego to document — on Harry’s enormous social media platform — the injustice, the cruelty, the inhumanity that is being shown to the caravan of migrants by a Trump government intent on ruling by fear and intimidation rather than by compassion, pragmatism and good governance.

Harry feared that humanity was at a juncture in history just as dangerous as Hitler’s rise to power and if we didn’t change course we would spiral into war and economic mayhem.

Over these last years, as he approached the eventide of his life, his intellectual and emotional vitality never seemed to tire, despite many health issues. It’s why it didn’t seem possible to me, even at his deathbed, that he could die.

"With a smile and a joke that it was best to enjoy yourself because it's later than you think, my dad, who had protected and loved me as child, teenager and adult, lost consciousness and never returned," writes son John.
« With a smile and a joke that it was best to enjoy yourself because it’s later than you think, my dad, who had protected and loved me as child, teenager and adult, lost consciousness and never returned, » writes son John.  (Paul Hunter/Toronto Star File Photo)

When I kissed his hands and cheek while telling him how much I loved him, I thought this must be a nightmare, because I felt he had so much left to do and contribute.

But Harry knew. I am sure he knew that only the briefest of moments were left to him because days before his death, Canada’s immigration minister, Ahmed Hussen, came like a pilgrim to his bedside in the ICU of the Belleville hospital to thank him for his advocacy to help stop the refugee crisis.

With a machine pumping compressed air into his lungs, a PICC line in his right arm and bags of IV fluids dripping into his left arm, my dad, in a weak but prophetic voice, told the minister that time was running out for him and for a compassionate solution to the refugee crisis.

John Smith travelled the world with his father, Harry, "so my dad could thunder like a warning from history."
John Smith travelled the world with his father, Harry, « so my dad could thunder like a warning from history. »  (Family Photo)

Still, it just didn’t seem conceivable to me that since we had set out on this journey together nearly a decade before, covering tens of thousands of miles so my dad could thunder like a warning from history, that he would not complete his Last Stand.

But he didn’t. He couldn’t because his body was just too damaged by age and the strain of our travels and advocacy.

My dad’s body, nearing 100 years, didn’t stand a chance against the pneumonia, sepsis, congestive heart failure and weakened kidneys that were killing him. It’s why he gave permission to his doctor and nursing staff to discontinue the medical treatment that was prolonging his life but stripping it of all quality and dignity.

He did it with the words “no more” and a final demand that he be given a beer as he’d been starved of food and fluids for a week because doctors were afraid he’d aspirate.

Author and columnist Harry Leslie Smith and his son John in younger times.
Author and columnist Harry Leslie Smith and his son John in younger times.  (Family Photo)

And with a smile and a joke that it was best to enjoy yourself because it’s later than you think, my dad, who had protected and loved me as child, teenager and adult, lost consciousness and never returned.

Harry held on to life for 12 hours after medical supports were removed, and I did not leave his side for one moment of it. I sat by his bedside in the ICU and played for him his speech to the Labour party conference in 2014, where he galvanized Britain with his reminiscence of the brutal, short and cruel life the working class endured before public health care was introduced.

I read to him from the books he’d written and I’d helped research, five in total — 1923: A Memoir; Love Among the Ruins; The Empress of Australia; Harry’s Last Stand; Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future — stories about the rich working-class canvas of his youth in Depression-era Yorkshire, his experiences during the Second World War and his search for love in the rubble of postwar, Allied-occupied Hamburg, where he was redeemed through his marriage to Friede, my mother.

Author and political activist Harry Leslie Smith at the Calais migrant camps in France in 2016.
Author and political activist Harry Leslie Smith at the Calais migrant camps in France in 2016.  (Family Photo)

I thanked him for teaching me how to be a decent human being while hearing his last breaths. It hurt me so much to feel his body grow cold as death approached. Then I heard, while I whispered to him that it was time to join history, his breathing grow faint, as if he were an exhausted swimmer, too far from shore to reach the safety of land, before sinking beneath the cold, dark waves.

I hovered over his corpse and stroked his cheek, knowing that after that moment, I’d never again have the opportunity to touch my dad. And something lingered in me, still lingers in me — and that was the enormous love, respect and understanding that we had shown each other for my entire life, but especially during the last years of his life when we dared to change the world for the better.

After placing one last kiss on my father’s cold brow, I placed in his hands a picture of my beloved mother and walked from the hospital out into the morning air. Too tired for tears, in the frigid indifference of late November, I made a quiet promise to my father, and to myself. “Dad, I will finish what we started. I will use the example of your life to teach others that a better society can be built on the foundations you and your generation laid at the end of the Second World War. You will not be forgotten, judging by the grief expressed by tens of thousands of people across the world at your death. A new tomorrow is possible.”

"There are no words to express my gratitude to all those people who ... became our friends during our journey of the heart toward a more decent world," writes Harry's son John, seen in an undated photo with his father.
« There are no words to express my gratitude to all those people who … became our friends during our journey of the heart toward a more decent world, » writes Harry’s son John, seen in an undated photo with his father.  (Family Photo)

What Harry accomplished could not have happened without this love and commitment to him. Each time we travelled, both Harry and I were moved by the simple kindness of strangers. I’ve cried many times over the thousands of tweets from people all over the world expressing their condolences and love for my dad. It has made this walk of mourning less lonely. Thank you.

My dad was an ordinary man, born into extreme poverty, then raised out of it by the creation of the welfare state after the Second World War — his generation’s hard-won legacy for future children of this planet. It is truly humbling that his efforts in later life to make society better have been recognized by so many as noble and heroic acts.

However, now, to preserve his legacy, I must conclude his travels to the world’s refugee hot spots, finish his book on the refugee crisis, write my own book about life with my dad, continue his advocacy on social media and begin speaking to anyone who will listen about the life history of this remarkable man, Harry Leslie Smith — my dad.

Harry Leslie Smith, a survivor of the Great Depression and veteran of the Second World War, with a copy of one of five books he wrote in the last years of his life.
Harry Leslie Smith, a survivor of the Great Depression and veteran of the Second World War, with a copy of one of five books he wrote in the last years of his life.  (Facebook)

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Tanya Talaga talks about her Indigenous heritage and why holding the first Massey lecture in Thunder Bay was so important

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For the last two years, Tanya Talaga has barely had a moment to catch her breath. Since the publication of her 2017 book, Seven Fallen Feathers, the Toronto Star reporter has been on a professional tear, winning numerous writing prizes, completing a public policy fellowship with the Atkinson Foundation, and making history as the first Indigenous woman to give the prestigious CBC Massey Lectures.

Talaga’s lecture series, All Our Relations, examines the legacy of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples and has already been heard by sold-out crowds everywhere from Vancouver to Halifax. Starting Monday, it will be heard by the rest of the country, too, with the broadcast of her Massey lectures on the CBC radio show, Ideas.

Ahead of the first broadcast on Nov. 12, the Star spoke with Talaga about her Indigenous identity, her evolution as a journalist, and why she insisted on holding the first Massey lecture in the northern Ontario city that started it all: Thunder Bay.

I’d like to start by talking about your personal history and identity. You’re Polish on your dad’s side and Anishinaabe on your mom’s side. What kind of relationship did you have with the Indigenous side of your identity as a young girl?

I grew up in Toronto and I would spend some summers in northern Ontario with my mother in Raith (an hour northwest of Thunder Bay). She would pack us up in the car and we would head out for the two-days drive north, and in Raith, we would stay with her grandparents, who were residential school survivors that raised her. That, to me, was very much my link with my family, with my Anishinaabe side, because we were in the bush.

Growing up in Toronto — it’s weird, especially in the time I grew up. I would tell people, “My dad’s Polish, but my mom’s mom is Ojibwe,” and they would look at me like I had six heads. Nobody really got that and from my appearance, everyone always thinks I’m Italian or Greek.

But when I was a girl up north, I felt like I belonged.

As you mentioned, your great grandparents were residential school survivors. What has been the legacy of that trauma in your own family?

It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I found out I had a sister that was given up for adoption, and that my mother had three brothers that were put into the children’s aid system. So it was then that everything started coming together: “Oh, right. Right! This is because of the residential school system.” This is the fractured nature of my mother’s family. We’re all close and we’re all lucky because all the kids came back to us, except for one, and that was my uncle Alvie, who died. He spent most of his life as a carnival hand and he never reunited with my grandmother.

It’s the same legacy that everyone’s had, and that’s part of the reason why I write what I write. It’s hard because all Indigenous families have so much to overcome because of history, because of colonization. It sounds ridiculous when you talk about intergenerational trauma but it’s not; its very real and it goes from generation to generation. And those stories are hard to bring forward sometimes and hard to talk about.

I was a slave to the assignment desk, writing general city news, for years. And sometimes I would bring up story ideas concerning First Nations issues, specifically health issues, and there wasn’t too much interest. I think you could ask any Indigenous journalist that and they would say the same thing; there was no appetite in the mainstream media because the mainstream media was run for a long time by a lot of British people.

It’s getting better … but once Indigenous editors are making decisions about what’s covered, and how it’s covered, that’s when you’re going to see changes too. It’s the editors who are still in control and making decisions.

Nowadays, mainstream outlets are covering Indigenous issues more than ever before. When did you first notice a real shift underway in newsrooms in terms of their interest in these stories?

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report came out, for sure. Once that came out (in 2015), once it hit the media, it was everywhere. You couldn’t look away, right — 6,000 dead children, 150,000 people went to residential school, all of these survivors that were interviewed. Those truths, once they’re exposed and out there, you can’t put them back. The country had to hear them.

The report coming out, and the commission coming out, also coincided with the rise of social media, the rise of the Internet, and the rise of APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network), which was out there broadcasting and becoming more and more popular. CBC Indigenous was formed and that’s really helped add to the landscape. Those are just mainstream outlets, though; there was always an Indigenous media, it just wasn’t really noticed.

Five years passed between your first reporting trip to Thunder Bay and your decision, at the urging of your editor at House of Anansi, to write your first book about the “seven fallen feathers,” the Indigenous kids who died in Thunder Bay. Why did so much time pass before you considered turning this story into a book?

To be honest with you, I was a single mom; I divorced in 2010. So, I was a working full-time journalist and I had two small kids. At the time, I couldn’t mentally and physically devote what I knew I needed to without completely killing myself.

It wasn’t just about the time; this book would also be occupying places in my mind and my heart, right? I always knew I would write about the seven kids, but I had to be in the right place and time. And Alvin Fiddler (Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation) said that to me: “You weren’t meant to write the book before, but you’re meant to do it now.”

You did eventually get to a place where you could write this book. But you’re still the mother of two children, albeit older now, who share your Indigenous heritage. What was it like to be a parent reporting these painful stories about Indigenous children dying of neglect, murder and suicide?

I write about resiliency and I write about love. All the stories of the kids, of the losses that have happened in our communities, also show an incredible love and honouring of the kids and the youth. Everyone has gone through so much and I try and tell my kids, “You know, you come from strong stock. You come from many cultures; your father was Irish, I’m Polish as well, and you’re Indigenous. So you come from this incredible background, but on your Indigenous side, we’re still here. The effects of colonization and genocide didn’t work.”

And it’s going to be the youth that will carry us forward. I really believe that.

It’s such difficult emotional territory to immerse yourself in, especially when you have a personal connection to the subject matter. What did you do to protect yourself emotionally and psychologically?

I am very lucky to speak almost daily with Sam Achneepineskum. He is an elder from Marten Falls First Nation; he was actually the elder for the families during the inquest for the seven fallen feathers, and he’s become my elder. And I keep in touch with many families and leaders in northern communities frequently. I wouldn’t be able to do this work without that strong sense of community that’s behind me.

Last year, you were chosen for the 2017-2018 Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy to write about youth suicides in Indigenous communities; this work became the basis of your CBC Massey Lectures. What was your reaction when they asked you to do the lectures?

It was pretty shocking. I had no idea that was the reason why my editor and publisher wanted to see me. So I met them for dinner and they said, “You’re going to be asked to be the CBC Massey lecturer and I went, ‘What?!’” I just didn’t really believe it. When I think of who has been asked to be a Massey lecturer in the past; it’s a lot of older people, people who are academics or very well-known in Canadian culture and politics and arts and letters. Names like Martin Luther King Jr., Willy Brandt — Nobel Prize laureates. I’m like, really? I don’t have much in common with these people.

But this is sort of one of those times in life where you have to buck up and do it, because this is a platform and an honour, and you can spread the message. You can get out there and tell the stories that need to be told. But I’m not joking when I say that I honestly spent the next four days hiding under my bed, because I couldn’t believe I said yes.

Were there any rules from the CBC around how you should approach the lectures, or were you given free rein?

Free rein. I worked with Philip Coulter, he’s the producer of the Massey lectures for the CBC show Ideas. He carried a printer with him in his bag to all the cities we were in and he printed up my lecture right before I went on stage. So that’s when he (would first see) it.

I think they were panicking a little bit with the first lecture thinking, “Oh my God, I can’t believe she’s writing her lecture right up until the last minute.” But then they realized, oh, that’s how she works, and then everyone sort of settled into my rhythm of pushing it to the last minute.

There were five Massey lectures altogether, with the last one in Toronto. But tell me about the first one in Thunder Bay.

We agreed that if I’m going to do the Massey lectures, I wanted to start in Thunder Bay, which has never had a Massey lecture before. For me, it’s where my mom’s family is from, it’s the city of the seven fallen feathers, it’s a place where children have come to die. There’s been heartache but also hard work at trying to make things better. This whole entire colonial project in Canada; it’s all here in Thunder Bay. It’s almost a mirror of Canada, what’s happening in the rest of the country.

I also told the CBC I wanted to indigenize the lectures. I’m not going to just stand up at the lectern and lecture; that’s not who I am. I’m not an academic, I’m a storyteller, and this is going to be told through an Indigenous lens and this is about community. That means I want my community up there and I want every single community that I go into represented on stage when I do these lectures.

So we had a push for that and Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) stepped up right off the bat and helped us secure the largest theatre in Thunder Bay, which seats 1,500 people. They opened all the seating up for free, so they invited everybody from the Thunder Bay community to come see the Massey lectures, which means people didn’t have to pay for tickets for $40 or $50 … not only did we have every single seat filled, there were also 400 people standing.

Also, my grandmother Margaret was there, who is 93, her sister … family came in from Winnipeg, North Bay. My mom was there, my kids were there, and my mother’s brother. Sitting in front of my family were some of my friends from Nishnawbe Aski Nation. Also in the front row were some of the families of the seven girls from Wapekeka and Poplar Hill First Nation who died by suicide.

It was so emotionally loaded and weighted. And, you know, this is the first time somebody like me had done the lectures and had done them in this way. I knew this was our opportunity to show Canada: This is how we do it. This is unity, this is resiliency. And honestly, I carry that night with me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jennifer Yang is a Toronto-based reporter covering identity and inequality. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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