Did Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed jump the queue with her speedy resettlement to Canada?

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Did Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun jump the queue over other refugees when Canada quickly opened its doors to the Saudi teen who was fleeing an allegedly abusive family?

Not according to Canadian immigration officials and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

While Rahaf’s plea for help on social media got her international headlines and drew the attention of the UNHCR to her plight, the emergency rescue effort was by no means unique — though the warm embrace by a foreign minister at the airport may be.

According to immigration officials, some 200 people are processed under Canada’s Urgent Protection Program each year, with about 50 resettled within the rapid timelines seen in Rahaf’s case. The 18-year-old arrived in Toronto Saturday — accompanied by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland — after a tumultuous week that began with Rahaf escaping from her family during a trip to Kuwait. Rahaf then flew to Bangkok, where she was detained by Thai authorities who prepared to deport her to Saudi Arabia, where she feared for her life.

“Canada has the flexibility to respond quickly to individual emergency situations for a small number of refugees,” said immigration department spokesperson Beatrice Fenelon. “These individuals are resettled on an expedited basis due to their particular circumstances.”

“I know that there are unlucky women who disappeared after trying to escape or who could not do anything to change their reality,” she told reporters.

People in need of protection cannot apply directly to the special Canadian program and requests must be made by referral organizations, such as the UNHCR.

Since Rahaf’s speedy resettlement to Canada — less than a week after she started a Twitter campaign while barricaded inside her hotel room — she has faced backlash not only from internet trolls criticizing her as a disgrace to her family and Islam but also from refugee supporters accusing her of being a queue jumper.

“A Syrian refugee from a war zone who lost everything is not welcome in the west. But a person from a golden palace in Saudi-Arabia who says ‘I am not a Muslim anymore’ is a hero and very welcome. Can someone explain this to me?” Arnoud van Doorn, a member of The Hague City Council in the Netherlands, asked on Twitter.

In Rahaf’s case, the UNHCR dispatched a team to her hotel room in Bangkok for an emergency resettlement assessment after learning from media reports that the teenager was going to be handed over to her family, who were en route to Thailand and planned to take her back to Saudi Arabia.

Among the 25.4 million refugees worldwide, less than 1 per cent end up being resettled, many of them after years in limbo.

“Emergency resettlement is extremely rare,” noted Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the UNHCR representative to Canada. “Based on agreed-upon criteria, we refer these cases to the 30 countries that offer resettlement programs. There are many situations. It could be for the lack of medical care or the fear of torture if someone is returned to the country of origin.”

At her hotel in Bangkok, Rahaf was given a formal interview where she was asked to provide the details and evidence to substantiate her claims of mental and physical abuse by her family. After she got her UNHCR refugee designation, she underwent a thorough security and criminal check, as well as a medical exam, before being admitted to Canada.

“Rahaf met those criteria and we referred her case to several countries. Canada was the fastest to respond. Rahaf can’t choose her destination. She didn’t jump any queue. It’s a different process with different criteria,” said Beuze. “It’s not a unique case, but it’s only unique because of all the media and social media attention.”

While some critics fear Rahaf’s case may set a precedent and open the floodgates for other Middle Eastern women to claim gender oppression, experts say resettlement is only available to those who make it outside their country of origin.

“The assumption is your country can protect you. You become a refugee because you don’t get the protection and other countries need to step in,” said Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees. “Due to the notion of sovereignty, you can’t be a refugee in your own country.”

While praising Canada’s quick response to Rahaf’s situation, Dench said government officials must not politicize the refugee resettlement process by only prioritizing cases of those “who have the ears of the Prime Minister or Immigration Minister and are the favourite of the month of the media.”

According to the UNHCR, 1.4 million refugees have been identified for resettlement in 2019, but only 80,000 spots are available, including 11,000 in Canada.

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

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Auto workers rally in Windsor as GM predicts jump in profits

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Premier Doug Ford, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and even Warren Buffett came under fire at a rally in Windsor Friday in support of Oshawa auto workers, but it was GM CEO Mary Barra who drew the harshest criticism from union leader Jerry Dias.

“We are absolutely disgusted at not only your corporate greed, but also your personal greed,” fumed Dias, the president of Unifor, which represents the 2,600 GM workers who’ll be out of a job by next year. The rally brought together auto workers and leaders of other unions from across the province.

In November, GM announced plans to close five North American factories and get rid of 14,000 workers, including roughly 2,600 in Oshawa.
In November, GM announced plans to close five North American factories and get rid of 14,000 workers, including roughly 2,600 in Oshawa.  (Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star File Photo)

Dias blasted Barra’s $22-million salary, and claimed the GM CEO is also the company’s biggest non-institutional shareholder, meaning her own net worth had risen while jobs were being cut.

Dias, whose harsh words were cheered and brought cries of “shame” from the crowd — estimated by union sources as “in the thousands” — was speaking on the heels of a GM meeting with institutional investors, where the company said the fourth quarter of 2018 was a stronger one than expected for the company.

Shares jumped nearly 9 per cent in midday trading.

Barra said the company doesn’t foresee any further job cuts through 2020. In November, GM announced plans to close five North American factories and get rid of 14,000 workers, including roughly 2,600 in Oshawa.

The company predicted Friday that 2018 pretax, per-share profits would be higher than the $5.80 to $6.20 range it forecast in the third quarter. For 2019, it expected that to increase to $6.50 to $7.

The rosy profit forecast comes despite declining sales for the company in the U.S. and slowing sales in China. GM also plans to exit several car lines in the U.S. in the coming year.

The outlook exceeded Wall Street’s expectations for both years. Analysts polled by FactSet expect pretax earnings of $6.24 for 2018 and they predict a decline for this year, to $5.92.

“I bet they didn’t tell investors that in Canada, sales dropped by 30 per cent in December, compared to 2017,” Dias said to hoots from the crowd in Windsor.

Among GM’s investors is Berkshire Hathaway, the financial behemoth run by Buffett.

Referring to one of Buffett’s favourite sayings that it takes 20 years to build a reputation but 5 minutes to destroy it, Dias warned the so-called Sage of Omaha that he could be hurting his own reputation by sticking with GM.

“This is your five minutes,” said Dias, who also demanded a meeting with Barra, Trudeau and Ford to discuss ways to save the Oshawa plant.

“The ship hasn’t sailed.”

With files from Star wire services

Josh Rubin is a Toronto-based business reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @starbeer

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Feeling fidgety in class? Go stomp, jump or hop down this school’s sensory hallway

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In many Canadian schools, recess and phys-ed class may be the only activity students get in their day, but a school in rural Manitoba is trying to change that.

« This is our Sensory Path, » says Roland School principal Brandy Chevalier, as she points to a colourful activity map on the floor of the school’s main corridor.

« We are very focused on making sure our kids are learning both numeracy and literacy but also being mindful of their whole bodies and wellness, and wellness as a whole being. »

The path instructs them to hop, squat, do pushups and crawl.

They follow the path every morning and after lunch, on their way to class in this community about 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.

Kindergarten student Elizah Wall likes stomping on the bugs. Classmate Everly Semograd likes crawling on the flowers.

« Some parts are challenging, some parts are easy, » says 11-year-old Addison Elias.

If teachers notice students fidgeting, they will send them to the path for a couple of rounds.

Students Ethan Dyck and Caleb Mitchell say it’s making a difference.

 « Really helps me calm down when I’m in a very active position … It’s just helps me burn some energy, » Caleb says, adding his favourite activity is the frog jump.

« Helps me focus, » Ethan ​adds.

Principal Brandy Chevalier and her staff created a Sensory Path for students in the main hallway. She says more schools are developing a strong physical literacy focus. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Roland School’s Sensory Path is the first of its kind in Manitoba, Chevalier says. It was inspired by an Alberta initiative called Don’t Walk in the Hallway, launched in 2015.

Chevalier says she’s been approached by schools across Canada since her school installed the path in November.

Her students’ comments are music to her ears. 

She explains how this helps the students. « They feel like they burned some energy. They feel ready to sit down and to get down to work. They can focus a little bit better. »

She hopes such exercise can become « a preventative measure for some behaviour issues that might happen by a child who cannot regulate themselves to sit in class. »

The benefits aren’t just academic. Doing exercises like this every day increases physical competence, which boosts confidence, making people more likely to move and be active.

That has health, social, environmental, and economic benefits.

But Canadians are just not moving enough. We got a C– in a recent study of activity levels in 49 countries.

It’s not how much you move. It’s not whether you’re fit or not. It’s do you have the ability to move on land, air, ice, snow, water?– Dean Kriellaars , University of Manitoba

According to Health Canada

  • Just 13 per cent of preschool children and 9.5 per cent of children and teens are meeting Canada’s 24-hour Movement Guidelines.
  • Only eight per cent of Canadian adults are doing 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week.
  • Adults over 65 are doing a little better — 14 per cent of them are meeting those guidelines.

« There’s two returns on investment here, » says Dean Kriellaars, with the department of physical therapy at the University of Manitoba. He has practised, researched and taught physical literacy for more than a decade.

« First is the health-related equity that happens if you increase they physical literacy of the population. And then safety and activity levels, you then get dramatic reductions in costs. »

In 2013, the World Health Organization estimated the global cost of physical inactivity was approximately $54 billion US in direct health care, plus another $14 billion in lost productivity.

It accounts for up to three per cent of national health-care costs, and that doesn’t include mental health and disorders such as repetitive strain injury, carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis.

More than 40 non-communicable diseases including breast cancer, Type 2 diabetes and strokes can be related to what Kriellaars describes as a global physical inactivity epidemic.

« Our society has to change. Our valuing of movement has to change, in our workplace, in our schools, where movement will be as important as reading and writing, » he says.

« Physical literacy has a physical component, a social component and a psychological component. It’s really about creating that holistic picture of a child and saying we need all three of those working together. »

Exercise physiologist Dean Kriellaars hops in one of his movement labs at the University of Manitoba. He trains athletes of all ability levels, educates health-care professionals, coaches, trainers, and educators about physical literacy and healthy lifestyles. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Chevalier sees a strong future for mpvement programs in schools. « I think a lot of schools are embracing opportunity for choice in seating in the classrooms, and this just directly complements that concept. »

Her advice for education profesionals?

« You need to do your homework. You need to sit down with your occupational therapist. You need to sit down with your experts in the building from phys-ed background and really chat about what your students need, » she says.

Students travel the Sensory Path at Roland School. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

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CSIS sees ‘significant’ jump in far-right activity online

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In a three-part series, the Star looks at the rise of white nationalist and right-wing extremist groups in Canada, and what authorities are doing to identify and suppress these threats. This is part 3. To read the first part, click here and to read the second part, click here.

OTTAWA—One month after the deadly shooting rampage at the Grande mosquée de Québec, Canada’s spy agency quietly put together a “preliminary assessment” of the threat far-right extremists pose in Canada.

The report, heavily censored and stamped “SECRET,” noted right-wing extremism and violence is nothing new in Canada — in fact, it was present in the earliest days of colonization.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) traces far-right violence back to race riots in Nova Scotia in the 1780s, racial segregation in Ontario schools in the 1840s and violence against Chinese and Japanese immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, “not to mention” generations of discrimination against Indigenous peoples.

“At the heart of all right-wing extremism is hatred and fear,” CSIS wrote in an analysis obtained by the Star under access to information law.

The attack at the Quebec mosque in January 2017, which left six people dead and many others injured, prompted CSIS to reopen an ongoing investigation into far-right extremism, just one year after declaring the far right a “public order threat” to be dealt with by police, rather than a national security threat to be handled by intelligence agencies.

The agency’s assessment recognizes that Canada’s far-right movement is changing. Hate crimes have been steadily rising, primarily targeting Jewish and Muslim communities. While many of the far-right groups identified by CSIS a decade ago have disbanded, “numerous” incidents of right-wing extremist violence have been recorded since then.

And there has been a “significant growth” of online groups “focusing on a broad range of extreme right-wing positions, including white supremacy.”

CSIS declined multiple interview requests over the past three months, and did not specifically address a number of questions provided by the Star in September.

But the agency’s findings come as little surprise to researchers and experts who have long warned about a more active and emboldened far-right movement in Canada, the United States and Europe.

“There is a misconception that the far right is not a threat anymore, and that these groups don’t have power anymore,” said Ludovica Di Giorgi, an expert on the far right with Moonshot CVE, a U.K.-based counter-extremism and research outfit.

“These groups have influence and the far right is very much a threat still.”

For two weeks in September, Moonshot tracked far-right web searches in Canada using the company’s own proprietary software, which tracks the internet’s seamy underbelly.

The data, provided exclusively to the Star, provides for the first time a quantitative snapshot of online interest in the far right in Canada. The numbers suggest there’s cause for greater attention.

Between Sept. 11 and Sept. 25, Moonshot tracked a total of 5,214 far-right searches in Canada. The vast majority — roughly 88 per cent — focused on neo-Nazi (55 per cent) and white supremacist websites (33 per cent). Search terms included David Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States; popular neo-Nazi phrases and code words; extreme right bands; and tattoos of swastikas or other white supremacist imagery.

Over the weeks Moonshot tracked, Ontario had the most far-right searches in Canada relative to the population — almost 18 searches per 100,000 people.

Di Giorgi cautioned that two weeks is a relatively small sample, but said Canada had a higher number of far-right searches per capita over that period than Moonshot typically sees in the U.S.

Even after the deadly violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 brought the far right under mainstream scrutiny, Di Giorgi said right-wing extremist groups have had a largely uncontested platform on the internet.

“On the jihadist side (of extremism), you have no controversy over the fact that their content must be taken down. On the far right, there is controversy over whether that content classifies as content that should be taken down and should not be consumed by audiences across the world,” Di Giorgi told the Star in an interview.

“Their content is still available. It’s easy to find. They still have a presence on social media platforms. They’ve even created their own platforms … They use them to co-ordinate; they use them to organize, to spread their propaganda.

“It becomes even more problematic when these spaces are uncontested.”

What to do about these platforms has become a key question for Canadian law enforcement and intelligence agencies that, even if they acknowledge the threat right-wing extremism poses, have differing opinions on how to counter it.

James Malizia, the RCMP’s assistant commissioner of federal policing, suggested that encryption — a digital tool that lets citizens, businesses and governments secure their messages, transactions and sensitive data — is also providing cover for extremist groups.

While police agencies have long argued they must be able to bypass encryption, that may be impossible due to the proliferation of sophisticated encryption programs. Civil liberties advocates and technologists have also argued it would make everyone less safe by creating a back door for hackers or hostile governments. But encryption also undoubtedly makes police investigations more complicated.

“I think the issue of online activity, where some of it is either conducted on closed chats or encrypted … it certainly does not allow us the opportunity to be able to monitor what’s going on within those areas,” Malizia told the Star in a recent interview.

Beyond the technical issues is a broader, philosophical question: Do we really want police and intelligence agencies monitoring civilian conversations online? Should far-right — or far-left — groups be subjected to that level of scrutiny, however odious their beliefs?

On the other side of that question is the fact that two of the worst mass killings in recent Canadian history — Alexandre Bissonnette’s attack on the Quebec City mosque, and Alek Minassian’s van rampage in Toronto in April this year — involved some connection to the darker corners of the internet.

Bissonnette’s anti-immigration sentiments appear to have been stoked by far-right figures in the United States. Minassian reportedly identified as “involuntarily celibate,” or “incel,” a misogynistic and nihilistic subculture that lives on the same kind of message boards as the extreme right.

If radicalization is happening in those spaces, and people are being killed as a result, is that not a national security concern?

Canadians “need to think long and hard about what we want our national security services to do in this space,” said Stephanie Carvin, who researches national security and law at Carleton University.

“Because I personally am uncomfortable with CSIS patrolling the internet,” said Carvin, who previously served as a terrorism analyst at CSIS.

“That being said, there is no question that the internet does seem to be a necessary but insufficient ingredient in these radicalization and mobilization-to-violence cases. I think going forward, we need to really think about what are the costs of greater national security (presence) in these spaces.”

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

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