Missionaries land safely in Calgary after fleeing unrest in Haiti

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A dozen missionaries working in Haiti landed safely at the Calgary airport on Sunday after violent riots centred in the country’s capital stranded them for days.

Working for the aid group Haiti Arise, the missionaries had been stranded at a compound near Grand Goave, about 65 kilometres west of the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

« I was sad to leave because I have family down there and friends. And it was different because I hadn’t been in that kind of situation before in all the times I’ve been to Haiti.… It is scary because I know a lot of people in the general area where the riots are happening, » said 12-year-old Miesha Honorat, whose parents co-founded the group and whose father remains in Haiti.

« He didn’t want to send the wrong message, that anytime there’s something wrong we just all leave, » said Lisa Honorat, Miesha’s mother.

Around two dozen Haiti Arise missionaries, who had planned to return on Wednesday, were airlifted by helicopter to Toussaint Louverture International Airport in three waves on Saturday. From there, the group flew to Miami, where they spent Saturday night.

While 12 missionaries returned to Alberta on Sunday, at least a dozen other members of the group are still waiting for flights out of the U.S.

The cost of the evacuation for the whole group is about $6,900, which they are paying themselves.

They were originally scheduled to leave the country on Wednesday, however the ongoing protests meant ground travel was impossible as several of the main streets and roads are blocked or damaged.

Honorat said the family remains committed to their humanitarian work and plans to return once circumstances are safer.

« They always bounce back somehow. So we just try to be there and support and help in any way we can, » she said. 

Most of last week’s demonstrations occurred in Port-au-Prince, with protesters demanding the resignation of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse over skyrocketing inflation and the government’s failure to prosecute embezzlement from a multi-billion dollar Venezuelan program that sent discounted oil to the country.

Protests are expected to resume this week.

A group of missionaries from Alberta wait for a helicopter to take them to the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince on Saturday. (Haiti Arise/Facebook)

On Tuesday, Global Affairs Canada issued an advisory warning against all non-essential travel to the country. On Thursday, it advised against all travel.

The Canadian Embassy in Haiti was also closed on Wednesday due to the unrest.

Working in the country since 2002, Haiti Arise has three compounds near Grand Goave.

Among the Canadians trapped in Haiti were missionaries, medical personnel, tourists and students. Many have been slowly making their way to the airport via helicopter or, in some cases, dangerous road journeys.

Demonstrators run away from police who are shooting in their direction, as a car burns during a protest demanding the resignation of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in Port-au-Prince on Tuesday. The protests have blocked access to the airport. (Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press)

Some 113 Quebec tourists who had been trapped at a Haitian resort by the protests were also evacuated to the airport by helicopter and were flown to Montreal Saturday night on a chartered commercial flight.

Air Transat also said a group of high school students from Victoriaville, Que., and their chaperones, who had been on a humanitarian trip, were on a flight that was expected to land in Montreal on Sunday evening.

Also travelling home on Sunday were another group of Christian missionaries based out of Montreal, who had been staying in a village some 200 kilometres west of Port-au-Prince.

Michel Bougie, a spokesperson for La Bible Parle, said the group had to hire a Florida-based plane service to get its 26 members to the airport after the Canadian government didn’t step in to offer any practical help.

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Settled in a strange land: What life is like in Canada for Syrian refugees

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CALGARY—Fatima Alsaleh’s living room holds just two long cushions on the floor, and a TV on a stand in the corner that casts a glow on the washed-out beige walls. The wooden floors are bare but for a tan, brown and white geometric rug. By any Canadian measure, the decor is spare, sparse even.

Alsaleh spends most of her time inside the two-bedroom townhouse, cooking meals in the dilapidated kitchen for her two boys and two girls, ages eight to 13.

Fatima Alsaleh spends most of her time at her home in Calgary, although she ventures out for English classes and shopping when the children are at school. After three years in Canada, the single mother still yearns to go back to the refugee camp in Lebanon where the rest of her family lives.
Fatima Alsaleh spends most of her time at her home in Calgary, although she ventures out for English classes and shopping when the children are at school. After three years in Canada, the single mother still yearns to go back to the refugee camp in Lebanon where the rest of her family lives.  (Christina Ryan / Star Calgary)

When her phone buzzes, she plugs in her earbuds and wanders into the kitchen, where she is instantly connected to the familiar voices of the family she reluctantly left behind in a refugee camp in Lebanon. At night, Alsaleh sleeps in one bedroom with her daughters; her sons take the other.

After waiting 18 months for English lessons while the kids were in school, the single mother now leaves home four times a week to go to a newcomer’s centre for class. But learning the language has not been easy for Alsaleh, who left school in Syria when she was 12. Three years after coming to Canada, her proficiency is still Level 1—the most basic—of four levels.

Alsaleh speaks mostly in Arabic: to neighbours in what Calgarians call Little Syria, which is home to around 30 refugee families; on frequent calls through What’sApp to her family in Lebanon; and to her children at home. When her government support ran out in January 2017, she went on welfare and doesn’t see herself ever getting a job.

Read more:

After initial euphoria fades, the stress of resettlement triggers trauma in Syrian refugees

The struggles and successes of five Syrian refugee families

“I’ve never worked. Not in Syria, not here. So what would I do?” Alsaleh said in interview in Arabic.

This is life in Canada for Alsaleh. She was part of the first wave of 25,000 Syrian refugees who arrived in Canada three years ago. As of Sept. 30, 2018, the latest data available, a total of 59,875 refugees call this country home.

The Star spent four months talking to dozens of settlement workers and Syrian refugees across the country, who described ongoing language barriers and mental health struggles, as well as child-care, employment and housing woes. With a $1-billion price tag, there is a dearth of comprehensive data to show whether resettlement has been the unprecedented success the government says it is.

Like Alsaleh, around 28,000 Syrian refugees were sponsored by the federal government, 27,000 were sponsored privately by friends, family and community groups, and around 5,000 arrived through a combination of private and public sponsorship. Government-assisted refugees were chosen by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) because they were deemed most vulnerable and in need of safe harbour. Most have little education or are even illiterate, belong to large families and have complex health issues.

“This is a group that is going to have a lot of challenges to find themselves,” said Fariborz Birjandian, executive director of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, an organization responsible for much of the Syrian refugee resettlement efforts in the city.

Their arrival was part of a government-led humanitarian effort that gathered political steam after the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. A photo of the boy—who drowned as his family fled Syria trying to reach Canada—sped around the world and right into the middle of the one of the longest federal election campaigns in Canada.

During the 11-week campaign, Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, Thomas Mulcair’s New Democratic Party, and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals each made a commitment to save Syrian families from what has been called one the bloodiest civil wars in recent history. Amnesty International estimates the death toll of the seven-year conflict to be more than 400,000, with more than 11 million people displaced from their homes.

Naomi Alboim, a political science professor at Queen’s University, recalled the three parties trying to “outbid” one another. Conservative MP Michelle Rempel, the official opposition critic for immigration, described it as “an auction of sorts.”

After winning the Oct. 19 election, Trudeau swiftly fulfilled a promise to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015. The deadline was extended to February 2016, but it was still a humanitarian effort the country hadn’t seen since the late 70s and early eighties, when more than 60,000 Southeast Asians fleeing oppression and war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos arrived in Canada.

The estimated price tag for the Syrian resettlement initiative stands at more than a billion dollars. $1,023-billion, to be exact. Despite the amount of taxpayer’s money poured into the relief effort, the country still has no comprehensive information to show how Syrian refugees are faring.

With a dearth of data to show whether resettlement has been the unprecedented success the government says it is, Star reporters spent months talking to 20 refugees from Saint John, N.B. to Vancouver, B.C., who told stories of ongoing language barriers, mental health struggles, as well as child-care, employment and housing woes.

These are all key metrics that can be used to measure integration, but the problem is Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has released exactly one report on how Syrian refugees are faring, and that Rapid Impact Evaluation only covered the first year.

The challenges faced by government-assisted Syrian refugees raise questions about whether the expeditious way they were ushered into the country, coupled with a big data gap that doesn’t allow for a quick policy response, is leaving a glaring hole in their future.

Alsaleh’s nightmare began on Oct. 16, 2011, when her husband went out to buy bread in their hometown of Homs and never came back. He was killed, seemingly at random, by snipers who lurked on the rooftops or hid around street corners. For several months, she and her children—the youngest was three when they left home and the oldest was eight—travelled from city to city in Syria, sometimes on foot, staying with friends and relatives.

In 2012, they crossed the border into Lebanon and found refuge in the Zahle camp, where two of her sisters were waiting. The camp was within sight of the Eastern Lebanon mountains; on the other side, just 11 kilometres away, lay Syria. Life there was harsh. There was no school for the children, vouchers to exchange for food and they had to live in ramshackle tents.

In December 2015, Alsaleh got the call so many camp residents coveted: A UNHCR officer was on the phone, offering Alsaleh and her children a home in Canada.

“I couldn’t picture in my mind what Canada even was, how people live here,” Alsaleh said.

The only catch: She would have to leave the rest of her family—her parents, six sisters and five brothers—in Lebanon. She felt pressured to make an impossible decision in just a few months. Alsaleh would have to leave her family, the only connection to her past, in order to secure her children’s future.

“I told my sister I didn’t want to travel to Canada,” she recalled. “It’s true that life was difficult in the refugee camps, but it was easier than being all alone with no family.”

Alsaleh eventually resolved to move 10,000 kilometres from the place she had lived nearly all of her 35 years. It was a decision she made for her children, especially for six-year-old Ahmed, who was born deaf in one ear. “People told me health care in Canada was better, and that they would take care of my son.”

Alsaleh left school at 12 in Syria and married at 18. When her government support ran out in January 2017, she went on welfare and doesn't see herself ever getting a job.
Alsaleh left school at 12 in Syria and married at 18. When her government support ran out in January 2017, she went on welfare and doesn’t see herself ever getting a job.  (Christina Ryan/Star Calgary)

Every refugee’s story is different—some families have put down roots and built new lives, starting their own businesses and even buying houses. But, like Alsaleh, many government-sponsored refugees are on welfare, living in social housing, and struggling to make ends meet as they try to make sense of their new Canadian reality.

After three years in Canada and more than $1-billion spent on the resettlement initiative, there is little known about how many refugees are doing well, and how many have fallen through the cracks. Beyond the first report on year one, the IRCC has yet to release comprehensive information on basic metrics like employment outcomes or language proficiency. They cite a two-year lag between the collection of data from federal agencies like Statistics Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency, and the synthesis and summary of that information as the reason for the delay.

“We know far, far more about his cohort than any arrival cohort in Canadian history,” said David Manicom, the assistant deputy manager for settlement and integration at the IRCC. “But that hard data requires a certain period of time for peoples’ tax filings to flow through data systems.”

The same unknowns surround the number of Syrian refugees who have transitioned from their first year of federal financial assistance to provincial social-assistance programs. Those numbers, Manicom said, are subject to the same time lags in data collection.

The data gap is “problematic” according to Rempel, the Conservative immigration critic. “If we wait that long for data, we can’t evaluate whether or not programs are working.”

And while the new data may help IRCC to evaluate future resettlement efforts, it may not make much of a difference to resettled families, said York University health researcher Michaela Hynie, the lead investigator on a five-year, $1.3-million project to examine how integration affects the health of Syrian refugees. “Many of them are no longer eligible for rapid services, many of them have moved on,” she noted.

The data may tell us how Syrians refugees are settling in, but “it’s not going to tell you who needs help and where they are, and what you can do to help them,” said Hynie.

Some settlement agencies have collected and analyzed their own data, like Toronto-based COSTI, which surveyed 351 government-assisted Syrian refugee families in the Greater Toronto Area during the fall of 2018, and found them doing better than expected: 33 per cent were currently employed, 63 per cent were attending English classes, and 87 per cent reported feeling happy. A similar 2018 survey of 241 government-assisted refugees in B.C. found 69 per cent were attending English classes, 27 per cent were working on a full-time basis, and 56 per cent were relying on local food banks weekly for meals.

The IRCC conducted its own survey of 1,250 adult Syrian refugees, a mix of government-assisted, privately sponsored or a combination of the two. That survey is part of a more detailed report coming out in a few months, but Manicom revealed some of its findings, telling the Star that 88 per cent of respondents had accessed IRCC-funded language training, 96 per cent reported feeling a sense of belonging to Canada and 86% said they had access to a health-care professional. Just under half of government-assisted refugees — 43 per cent — had a job. It did not ask specific questions about mental health.

Manicom acknowledged that a two-year gap between official data collection and reporting is not ideal. “They (the data) arrive a little later than one would like, from the point of the view of how to deal with very specific issues of very recent arrival,” he said. But he pointed out that the federal government is also funding about 60 research projects in partnership with universities across the country, including Hynie’s at York, and will now survey Syrian refugees annually to gather information on key measures of integration.

The federal auditor general pointed out that the IRCC fell short of a July 2017 commitment to measure key indictors of integration in a 2018 report, stating the IRCC had only collected data on seven of 16 indicators it was supposed to measure. Metrics on chronic health care issues, how many children were in school, and how many children had special needs, were missed, among other things.

Meanwhile, people like Alsaleh continue to struggle. “I told [the settlement workers] I wanted to go back, I didn’t want to stay in Canada,” she said, remembering the first few months in Canada. “I felt like a stranger. Life was difficult, I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know anyone.”

Sam Nammoura, a volunteer who has helped Alsaleh and other Syrian families settle in Calgary, said some government-sponsored refugees feel trapped, with no work prospects and limited language skills. He believes settlement initiatives for government-sponsored refugees “need to be completely revisited,” with closer ties to local business owners and work programs linked to financial aid.

The Star talked to families that use child benefits to pay the rent, parents who can’t leave the house to learn English because they can’t afford child care, refugees who can’t get a job because of the language barrier, victims of torture triggered by the stress of settlement and, in almost every city, people struggling to navigate the bureaucracy to try to sponsor family members left behind in refugee camps.

Manicom said IRCC recognizes that “social integration is a challenge across Canadian society,” and Syrian refugees are no different. “We know they’re people, and some of them will do really well,” Manicom said. “Some will be traumatized and depressed and continue to struggle.”

In 2011, Alsaleh's husband went out for bread in Homs and was shot by a sniper. After three years travelling from city to city, sometimes on foot, with four young children, she ended up in a refugee camp in Zahle, Lebanon.
In 2011, Alsaleh’s husband went out for bread in Homs and was shot by a sniper. After three years travelling from city to city, sometimes on foot, with four young children, she ended up in a refugee camp in Zahle, Lebanon.  (Christina Ryan/Star Calgary)

IRCC Minister Ahmed Hussen deemed the Syrian refugee initiative a success in 2017, a pronouncement echoed by a department spokesperson in October 2018. But Manicom said both success stories and heart-rending histories like Alsaleh’s are part of the bigger picture, and it’s difficult to deliver services to fit the needs of every family. His conclusion is more realistic. “They’re doing at least as well as average government-assisted refugees, in spite of the very large family size and the low levels of education.”

When Reham Abazid arrived in Saint John, N.B., with her husband and two children in early 2016 after witnessing the horrors of the Syrian war and being displaced in a Jordanian refugee camp, she did not speak any English. Now she works as a translator for the YMCA, after picking up the language by practicing English with anyone who would listen.

“When I saw how the local YMCA was helping people, my primary goal was to learn English so I can work with them,” Abazid said. “Hamdillah,” she added, Arabic for being thankful to God. “I’m really comfortable here—a lot, not just a little.” Her two young children, who escaped airstrikes and destruction in their home town of Daraa, are now enrolled in French immersion school. Soon they will be fluent in Arabic, English and French.

In Calgary, Alsaleh’s children are flourishing, too. They’re all in school, and Ahmed had surgery and got an aid to restore his hearing, all free of charge. “They love going to the swimming pool, they love playing around,” said Alsaleh. “They love life here.” Her children spend down time on weekends playing video games, and when neighbourhood friends come over, they chat excitedly in a mix of English and Arabic in front of the living-room TV.

But a sadness lingers in Alsaleh, whose most fervent wish is for a sister in the Zahle camp to join her in Canada, but settlement workers have repeatedly told her there isn’t much she can do.

“I lost hope,” Alsaleh said.

She knows it could be years, even decades, before she sees her family again. The future is bright for her children, but as a single mother who left school at the age of 12 and married at 18, family is all she knows.

“I wish I could go back if there weren’t any airstrikes or any war,” Alsaleh said of Syria.

Calgary volunteer Sam Namourra, who has worked with Alsaleh for a year and a half, said she is one of his most difficult settlement cases. “So many times, she has asked me to go (back) to the camps.”

The despair lodged in Alsaleh’s heart, the feeling of living in one place and belonging to another, is at the crux of integration. Canada can offer shelter and food and education and medical care, but some refugees will never be able to call this country home.

“You still feel like you’re in a strange land,” Alsaleh said. “Like you’re in a country that isn’t yours.”

Nadine Yousif is a reporter/photographer for Star Edmonton. Follow her on twitter: @nadineyousif_

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City of Toronto land transfer tax revenues miss target for first time

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The City of Toronto’s budget-balancing golden goose — the land transfer tax — is sick.

For the first time since the tax on real estate exchanges was introduced in 2008, revenues that used to gush into Toronto’s operating budget will miss the target — $818 million this year — recommended by city staff and approved by city council, staff acknowledged Monday.

In fact, those revenues are expected to fall short by $99.2 million, or 12 per cent, “primarily driven by lower residential market activity,” says a finance update going to city council this Thursday.

Luckily for residents and the services they expect, other underbudget expenses and overbudget revenues are expected to propel the city to a year-end overall budget surplus of $14.7 million.

But the missed target is proof, says Councillor Gord Perks, that warnings were justified from him and Toronto’s former city manager about the perils of leaning so hard on land-tax revenues.

“For the last eight years, in order to keep (property) taxes low, Mayors (John) Tory and before him (Rob) Ford relied on the land transfer tax to get them through, and now we can’t do that any more,” Perks (Ward 4, Parkdale—High Park) said in an interview.

“Looking ahead we will face a stark choice between keeping taxes low to protect the interests of people who own their own homes and cutting services, or keeping services at good levels and increasing taxes.

“Luckily we didn’t lose big time this year but it should be a very sobering reminder to all. If we don’t have healthy finances, you will not be able to get a seat on the bus, you will not be able to get your kid into a (city-subsidized) daycare, your pothole will not get fixed, the library hours in your neighbourhood will get cut.”

City staff forecast, when the tax was introduced, a very modest boost to Toronto finances. But by 2015, with a roaring real estate market seemingly eager to best every target set by city council, annual revenues had jumped to a half-billion dollars.

Council escalated expectations every year, more than quadrupling the original target to help pay for increased demands on city services while keeping property tax hikes at or below the inflation rate.

City manager Peter Wallace, who left his post earlier this year, repeatedly warned city council against relying too heavily on such an unpredictable revenue source, urging either an increase in property taxes or new revenue sources to avoid future service cuts or big hikes in user fees.

Toronto’s ability to keep “kicking the can down the road” were ending, he said.

Councillor Gary Crawford, budget chief during Tory’s first term that recently ended, said he knew land transfer revenues had “softened” but was surprised by the size of the dip.

Last May a finance official told councillors that increased commercial real estate transactions should make up for the slumping residential sector and “we think we’ll be able to meet” the target.

Crawford said he needs to learn what’s behind the big drop. City council faces, in deliberations for the 2019 spending blueprint to be set in February, “a much tighter budget cycle — we will have to look at expenses and different ways of income generation,” he said.

He rejected Perks’ criticisms, saying the situation is not so dire and there are signs of a real-estate rebound. But he agreed with the frequent critic of the Tory administration that “we have to ween ourselves off the land transfer tax.”

Council has looked at new revenue sources, or “tools,” in the past. Facing a need for transit funding in 2013, council looked at a host of options, including reviving the car tax killed in 2011, a levy on owners of parking spots at malls and other businesses, and a gas tax, but rejected them all.

In late 2016 council backed Tory’s plan to toll the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway, only to have then-premier Kathleen Wynne say no in the face of complaints from 905-belt MPPs.

Ford and his councillor brother Doug, now Ontario premier, wanted to kill the land tax altogether.

Tory aide Don Peat on Monday noted the overall budget surplus, adding the mayor is determined to keep his re-election promise to limit property tax hikes to the inflation rate or below.

“Every year, Councillor Perks routinely predicts budget calamity and calls for sky-high tax increases — while he is entitled to expressing that opinion, voters have endorsed the Mayor’s fiscally responsible approach that invests in key areas, like transit, while keeping taxes low,” Peat said in an email.

Enid Slack, an internationally renowned expert on municipal finance at the University of Toronto, said of the revenue reckoning: “Land transfer tax revenues can be very volatile but municipal expenditures tend to be stable over time. For this reason, it is difficult to rely too heavily on land transfer taxes to pay for municipal services.”

The Toronto Real Estate Board has long criticized Toronto’s tax. Von Palmer, who speaks for the board, said the city can reduce its reliance by bringing rates in line with inflation, meaning buyers of many homes at or below average price would no longer be hit with the top rate, and by raising the threshold at which first-time homebuyers pay no land transfer tax.

David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering Toronto politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider

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Alberta’s Lubicon Lake First Nation to ink land deal Tuesday with feds, province

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Alberta’s Lubicon Lake First Nation expects to mark the end of a decades-long fight for recognition on Tuesday.

But Chief Billy-Joe Laboucan says the real work will begin after the band signs off on its land claim with the province and the federal government.

He says the $113 million included in the deal will allow the band to get to work rebuilding the community of Little Buffalo.

READ MORE: Treaty signing marks start of real work for Alberta’s Lubicon, says chief

Money in the settlement is already tagged for essentials such as decent housing, a new school and an elders care facility.

Laboucan says the 246 square kilometres included in the claim are in good shape and relatively unaffected by industrial activity.

Laboucan credits former chief Bernard Ominayak for that, saying his advocacy work let companies know the Lubicon had an interest in that land and discouraged them from working there.

READ MORE: Lubicon band settles long-standing land claim for $113M and swath of land

In the late 1800s, British officials missed the Lubicon as they negotiated Treaty 8 with other Indigenous groups. Canada agreed the Lubicon deserved title to their land in 1939, but a deal was never reached.

The issue stagnated until the 1970s when oil and gas companies began carving through local traplines. By then, the Lubicon were so poor that diseases such as tuberculosis were a problem.

In 1988, Ominayak staged a protest at the Calgary Olympics and blockaded roads into the disputed area. The dispute went global as a United Nations committee criticized Canada for its treatment of the Lubicon.

“If that hadn’t been the case, we wouldn’t be here,” said Laboucan. “A lot of credit has to go to previous chief Bernard Ominayak and council, and all the chiefs before him.”

Alberta Indigenous Relations Minister Richard Feehan says signing the deal will feel a little like history.

READ MORE: Prentice welcomes new federal negotiator for stalled Lubicon treaty talks

Feehan says everyone at the negotiating table sat down with the knowledge that the time had come to settle the dispute.

Ominayak has been invited to the ceremony, although it’s not clear if he’ll attend.

Laboucan said the band can finally focus on it’s future, not its hard-luck past.

“Up until this point, we haven’t had our own land base. It’s pretty hard to do what you need to do without a land base.”

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Alberta band settles long-standing land claim for $113M and swath of land

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After decades of failed negotiations, broken promises, standoffs, arrests and global condemnation, Alberta, Canada, and the Lubicon Lake Band have announced a landmark land settlement and compensation deal.

Premier Rachel Notley said the deal sets aside 246 square kilometres of land in the area of Little Buffalo, in northern
Alberta.

The federal government is delivering $95 million in compensation, and Alberta will add $18 million.

There will also be money to pay for roads, housing, utility services and other infrastructure for 682 residents who have long struggled with poverty and substandard housing.

« This is truly a momentous day for the Lubicon Lake Band, for the province of Alberta and for all of Canada — one that has been decades and decades in the making, » Notley said Wednesday at the Federal Building on the Legislature Grounds.

Notley was flanked by Lubicon Lake Chief Billy Joe Laboucan and Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister responsible for Indigenous Relations. 

Laboucan said the deal provides renewed hope for the band, but acknowledged it came after his people lived in squalor as billions of dollars from oil, gas, and timber were extracted from their land in recent decades as they worked to resolve the issue.

« I realize some things will never get resolved, » said Laboucan. « I know there have been a lot of resource extraction in our area … but it’s no use lamenting the past. »

‘We’re moving forward’

He said the plan now is to build on the work of their forebears.

« We’re moving forward. We always look seven generations ahead. That’s what we’ve been taught, » he said.

« We’re speaking and preparing for the unborn and hopefully that they will have a better future, better homes, good livelihood, good peace of mind and still be able to look after our land and our resources. »

Bennett said the deal demonstrates the federal government’s dedication to honour commitments to Indigenous peoples.

« The band has been a landless First Nation, » said Bennett. « While the region around them flourished, Lubicon members were without clean running water or proper sewage disposal in their homes that recent studies have deemed 100 per cent condemned and irreparable.

« The agreement we’ve concluded today will change this reality for so many. »

Another group called the Lubicon Lake Nation said it was not part of the latest negotiations and wants to study the details before commenting on the deal.

Wednesday’s announcement was the culmination of a protracted, often heated, dispute that has its roots in the late 1800s when British officials missed the Lubicon as they negotiated with Indigenous groups in the area to complete Treaty 8 in 1899. 

By 1939, the Canadian government agreed that the Lubicon deserved legal title to their land but never followed through.

The issue, and negotiations, stagnated but took off in the 1970s when oil and gas companies carved through the traplines and landscape of Lubicon land to develop the resource, damaging the ecosystem and the hunting culture critical to the Lubicon.

Poverty, tuberculosis

The community suffered from poverty, and health issues like tuberculosis.

By 1988 the Lubicon, under then Chief Bernard Ominayak, staged a protest at the Calgary Olympics and blockaded roads into the disputed area.

That blockade led to arrests and prompted then-Alberta premier Don Getty to set aside lands for the Lubicon under what became known as the Grimshaw Accord. The deal never materialized, but the lands set aside then are the lands stipulated in the current agreement.

In the late 1980s, the dispute went global as a United Nations committee criticized Canada for its treatment of the Lubicon. 

Negotiations continued to falter into the 1990s but were rebooted in 2014 by then Alberta premier Jim Prentice, ultimately leading to the deal.

The Lubicon Lake Nation is about 450 kilometres north of Edmonton.

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‘We are more than mercury’: The youth from a place known for poisoned land and water are sending a message

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The Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation, also known as Grassy Narrows, is an Indigenous nation in northwestern Ontario, an hour north of Kenora, Ont.

It’s an Anishinabek community with a rich history of multicultural hunters, trappers, fishers and harvesters of the land. But in recent history, it’s been launched into the national spotlight as the First Nation poisoned by mercury.

Song written, recorded and filmed in Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Media coverage of the dumping, which began in the early 1960s, has exposed the world to the community’s incredible suffering caused by contamination of the land, water and fish, the consumption of which has made many of its members sick. (About 1,000 people live on the reserve.)

In April 2016, with support from N’we Jinan, youth in Grassy Narrows — including Darwin Fobister and Hailey Loon — released an original song called “Home to Me,” which draws attention to the community’s struggle with deforestation and contamination, but also highlights the strength they draw from their deep connection to the environment. N’we Jinan is a nonprofit organization that brings a mobile recording studio into communities across North America to help youth express themselves through song with professional guidance.

Today, the youth have a message for the public: “We are more than mercury.”

DARWIN FOBISTER, 21: ‘I decided to work with Grassy’s youth because they saw me as a leader’

Darwin Fobister on the Grassy Narrows reserve. He writes about working with youth: "I can't say kids here have everything, but I see everything in them."
Darwin Fobister on the Grassy Narrows reserve. He writes about working with youth: « I can’t say kids here have everything, but I see everything in them. »

I didn’t find out until the age of 5 about the mercury poisoning. I started having seizures — my mother’s umbilical cord had a high amount of mercury in it. The doctors knew when I was born that I wasn’t a normal baby.

When I was 8, my grandma and my dad told me everything. They said my parents ate a lot of fish, and explained about the pulp mill, which dumped mercury into the river system in the 1960s.

They told me we were sick.

Every day I have headaches, and I can’t feel my hands sometimes. They get numb. My speech was way off, too — I had to take special education.

But I never let mercury bother me too much. We need to move forward.

Now, I’m the recreational activator at the community’s multi-purpose complex. I put on activities for the kids to give them a brighter future and an active life.

Eight-year-old Patience Fobister takes a swing during a home game against the Whitedog Thunderhawks last summer.
Eight-year-old Patience Fobister takes a swing during a home game against the Whitedog Thunderhawks last summer.

I decided to work with Grassy’s youth because they saw me as a leader. They looked up to me because I never turned to alcohol and drugs.

I can’t say kids here have everything, but I see everything in them. They’re involved in their culture, they’re learning how to get the community back together instead of separated. They enjoy the moccasin game; they pick wild rice and learn how to process and cook it.

I see leaders around here. I don’t see mercury. When I think about our people, I think about our hunting, fishing and trapping — the cultural practices we still live today.

The media’s focus on mercury means we’re no longer alone. We have the world’s support and it makes everybody in Grassy feel stronger.

But our community is not all about mercury. We don’t want to think of a dying tree, we want to think of a living tree — healthy with growing green leaves. That’s the truth. I enjoy my life. I enjoy my fishing and my great-grandfather’s teachings.

Part of my happy story is filmmaking. I started taking pictures and videos as a teenager because I love nature and the beautiful sites around the reserve. I take them to bring out beauty in the community, so people don’t think that they have nothing.

Water rushes over the rocks near a waterfall in the Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation's traditional territory on a June day.
Water rushes over the rocks near a waterfall in the Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation’s traditional territory on a June day.

My friends from around the world like my videos. They start to see what’s really going on in Grassy, the positives and the negatives. My work is showing people that there are youth here who are interested in these kinds of things, and in honouring the land and the water the way our elders did — but with the new tools available to us.

HAILEY LOON, 17: ‘If I started a tourism business I would show people there’s so much more’

Grade 11 student Hailey Loon is a hiphop dancer and writer, seen here outside Sakatcheway Anishinabe School in Grassy Narrows. A friend had heard about her reserve. "I had to tell him it's not all about mercury; not everyone is affected by it. He just said, 'Wow.' "
Grade 11 student Hailey Loon is a hiphop dancer and writer, seen here outside Sakatcheway Anishinabe School in Grassy Narrows. A friend had heard about her reserve. « I had to tell him it’s not all about mercury; not everyone is affected by it. He just said, ‘Wow.’ «

My mom never ate fish when she was pregnant with me. I grew up mostly with my grandparents, and fish was a regular part of my diet.

But I don’t have any mercury symptoms. I’m lucky. It’s hard watching other people suffer from the symptoms.

There’s a lot more going on here than mercury problems though. I met a friend once from Ignace, Ont., and he was doing a school project on Grassy Narrows. He told me that all he could find online was mercury reports and news articles about it.

I had to tell him it’s not all about mercury; not everyone is affected by it. He just said, “Wow.” I told him my story and how I’m not really poisoned by the mercury.

This is my story: I play sports, walk around in the bush and hang out at home with my mom and we bead together. I play Scrabble at my kookum’s (grandmother’s) and we talk about life.

Last year, I joined a program called Outside Looking In (OLI) because I needed a high school credit. OLI brings dance education to Indigenous youth and their communities.

Rehearsals were tough, but I’m really glad I stayed because it was a new experience for me. I met a lot of people and it was amazing. I never thought I could dance until OLI came here. But I motivated myself to learn and try hard.

We went to Toronto in May and danced onstage in front of like 2,000 people. I feel really proud of myself and I know I inspired kids because they came up to me after I got back and asked me how my experience was, and how it was at camp, and how it felt.

I’ll probably do it again this year. If there’s one thing I would want people to know about Grassy Narrows, it’s that Grassy Narrows is a beautiful place with beautiful scenery. If I had to start up a tourism business, I would show people that there’s so much more.

DARCY WILLIAMSON, 27: ‘I want to become a paramedic or get into nursing, and bring that back’

Grass dancer Darcy Williamson performs at the Iskatewizaagegan First Nation (Shoal Lake 39) Summer Pow-Wow in August. "When people see me, I don't want them to see someone poisoned by mercury. I want them to see a culturally oriented community member."
Grass dancer Darcy Williamson performs at the Iskatewizaagegan First Nation (Shoal Lake 39) Summer Pow-Wow in August. « When people see me, I don’t want them to see someone poisoned by mercury. I want them to see a culturally oriented community member. »

I’ve been playing hockey since I was 4 years old, so I know what it’s like outside of the community and I know what’s going on inside the community.

I played in Kenora from Grade 9 to the end of high school, played for Team Ontario at the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships, and then played junior A in Sault Ste. Marie, Toronto and Thunder Bay.

And I did hear stuff about Grassy brought up in those cities. I heard about the mercury problem and the forestry, both good and bad. But sports brought me out of my shell — I gained more confidence and started to find out that mercury didn’t have to be a huge factor in my life.

I feel like the media only covers the bad stuff here. Why not talk about the powwows? The cultural camp that happened over the summer? The fish derbies? The way our community and school came together during the Humboldt Broncos tragedy?

I wish they could find a balance in coverage, just like life — life needs a balance between the good and the bad.

When people see me, I don’t want them to see someone poisoned by mercury. I want them to see a culturally oriented community member.

I’m also a grass dancer, and when I dance, I dance to feel good about myself. Or when someone is asking me for help or advice, when I enter the circle to dance I pray for them and for their healing. It’s a good path to go on.

I went to Lakehead University for a while and studied Indigenous learning. I did pre-health science, and ultimately, I think I want to become a paramedic or get into nursing, and bring that back to the community — something that’s really needed.

For now, I’m the phys-ed teacher at our community school. One of my goals is to bring all the hockey knowledge that I have to the students here and show them there’s a lot more out there than what they see here.

Published with support from Journalists for Human Rights and the Ontario Trillium Foundation

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Saanich tent city moves again, now back on provincial land

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Saanich’s controversial tent city has moved once again.

The encampment, known as Camp Namegans or Namegans Nation, originally set up in Saanich’s Regina Park back in April.

Since then, it has moved several times — first to a Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI) property next to Highway 17, then to Goldstream Provincial Park and finally to a piece of private property in the 5000 block of West Saanich Road.


READ MORE:
Saanich man says he’s powerless to remove homeless camp that sprung up on his property

The owner of the West Saanich Road property said he hadn’t given the campers permission, but one of his tenants had invited them and he didn’t know how to remove them.

WATCH: Saanich homeless camp moved again






Saanich police say the campers moved again to a new location, again on MoTI property, on Saturday. The new location is also adjacent to Highway 17 and directly behind the Saanich Fire Department.

Police said they had notified the ministry and will “provide them with support if/when requested,” according to a media release.

READ MORE: Homeless campers living in Goldstream Provincial Park must leave by October 2

Police also said that because the camp is on provincial land, Saanich’s Parks Management and Control Bylaw, which allows overnight camping in Saanich parks from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m., does not apply.

The department said a hygiene station that includes washrooms, showers and storage space remains open at Saanich Municipal Hall.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Declaring sovereignty over land, Grassy Narrows FN leaders ban clear-cut logging

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Industrial loggers are banned from clear-cutting the boreal forest near Grassy Narrows, leaders of the First Nation have declared in a land sovereignty claim meant to help the community recover from decades of pollution.

There is currently no ongoing industrial logging in the part of the Whiskey Jack Forest that sits in territory Grassy Narrows leaders say is their peoples’.

A local resident catches a fish in the Wabigoon River. Industrial loggers are banned from clear-cutting parts of the forest near Grassy Narrows, leaders of the First Nation have declared in a land sovereignty claim.
A local resident catches a fish in the Wabigoon River. Industrial loggers are banned from clear-cutting parts of the forest near Grassy Narrows, leaders of the First Nation have declared in a land sovereignty claim.  (Todd Korol / Toronto Star)

Though the provincial government has decided who can log and where, the community announced a moratorium in 2007 and there has been no harvesting since the company operating in the area agreed to leave shortly after. Then, in 2017, Ontario’s previous government promised no cutting for at least five more years.

Grassy Narrows leaders fear the new Doug Ford government will re-open the forest to business. A spokesperson for Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry Jeff Yurek said “we cannot comment on a document we ourselves have not yet received. »

“We are the Indigenous people of this land. … Industrial logging makes our ongoing mercury crisis worse,” said the declaration signed by Chief Rudy Turtle and council. “We will make our own decisions and there will be no industrial logging on our Anishinabe Territory.”

Between 1962 and 1970 a Dryden, Ont., paper plant dumped 10 tonnes of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, in the Wabigoon River. The site of the plant, now under different ownership, is upstream from Grassy Narrows. The mercury contaminated the fish and poisoned the people who ate the fish. They developed tremors, loss of muscle co-ordination, slurred speech and tunnel vision, and still suffer today.

Read more:

Landmark study reveals ‘clear evidence’ of mercury’s toll on health in Grassy Narrows

Opinion | Is Grassy Narrows poisoning a crime against humanity?

‘I started to have seizures at the age of 2.’ Ontario residents describe the ravages of mercury exposure

Logging could lead to more mercury being released to the environment, scientists have said, adding toxic insult to injury for a First Nation already devastated by industrial mercury dumping decades ago.

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.

Clear-cut logging threatens to add another source of mercury to the water. Here’s how it happens: Mercury gets released into the atmosphere from coal-fired power plants and incinerators and later rains down in forests where it gets trapped in the soil. When a forested area is clear-cut (a large number of trees in one area are uniformly cut down), mercury can run off into lakes and rivers, where its potency gets magnified in aquatic life and travels up the food chain.

Since 2002, some Grassy Narrows members have maintained a blockade of a main road that prevents industrial access to woodlots near their community.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde was in the community north of Kenora Tuesday and signed the declaration as a witness.

“I support their Declaration and their goals of reconciliation, restoration and reparations,” Bellegarde said in a prepared statement. “All governments must recognize, respect and honour our rights and responsibilities to our traditional territories. This includes the right to decide what happens in our territories.”

The Star obtained data from several individuals and it supports what the people here have been saying for decades: Residents have been exposed to dangerously high levels of mercury and younger generations have probably been affected as well. (The Toronto Star)

Top environment ministry officials had serious concerns about a plan to clear-cut near Grassy Narrows, the Star has previously reported.

“Yes, logging introduces Hg (mercury)!” one scientist wrote to a colleague in an internal email. In another email, the former director of the branch that oversees scientists charged with monitoring Ontario’s environment observed that “no one is tracking the downstream implications” of the province’s logging plan.

A logging, or forest management, plan determines how much and where tree harvesting can occur, where roads can be built and how much forest will be renewed. The plan is renewed every 10 years after consultations with stakeholders.

Despite the worries of environment officials, the ministry in 2014 rejected a request by Grassy Narrows for an environmental assessment of the potential impact of the 10-year logging plan in effect then. Grassy Narrows lawyers asked for a judicial review of the ministry’s rejection and the plan itself but then suspended their court fight when former natural resources and forestry minister Kathryn McGarry said there would be no logging in that area for the remaining five years of the plan.

Next year the provincial government is scheduled to begin discussions for the 2022-2032 plan, according to a 2017 letter from the provincial government to Grassy Narrows.

Levi Kokopenace, a Grassy Narrows resident, told the Star last year that he believes mercury caused his hearing problems. He says he was bullied as a child and has contemplated suicide. According to a government-funded health survey, Grassy Narrows residents report higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts than other First Nations residents.
Levi Kokopenace, a Grassy Narrows resident, told the Star last year that he believes mercury caused his hearing problems. He says he was bullied as a child and has contemplated suicide. According to a government-funded health survey, Grassy Narrows residents report higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts than other First Nations residents.  (Randy Risling / Toronto Star)

Meanwhile, more than four decades after mercury was dumped by the mill upstream, the physical and mental health of the people in Grassy Narrows is by many key measures “considerably worse” than that of other First Nations in Canada, according to a landmark government-funded survey that was released earlier this year.

While what Grassy Narrows is declaring “could at first glance seem like a radical demand — asserting their sovereignty over their traditional territories” — it is a reasonable and necessary step to take given the “more than half-century of neglect and destruction of their environment … as a result of failure of governments to respect their rights,” said Craig Benjamin of Amnesty International.

“Who’s in the best position to make the decisions for the future of Grassy Narrows?” said Benjamin, who is Amnesty’s campaigner for Indigenous rights. “(Government) failures are apparent. And it’s not just one failure. It has been decade after decade they have failed the people of Grassy Narrows.”

The land declaration also bans mineral staking and mining, hydro damming and oil and gas extraction.

“Our way of life has been under attack by residential schools, … mercury pollution, and racism,” the statement says. “Now our fish are unsafe, the moose and caribou are nearly gone, we have less marten, wild rice and blueberries. Our medicines are tainted.

“Our sovereignty and our rights have been repeatedly violated by harmful decisions forced on our people by government and industry.”

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 declaration demands compensation for the logging of roughly 20 million trees over a 20-year period.

The declaration will be enforced under Grassy Narrows “own authority,” though Grassy leaders invited the provincial and federal governments to recognize and enforce it through legislation that places similar restrictions on land use and management.

“Decisions forced on our people have poisoned our fish and degraded our forest through industrial logging,” said Chief Turtle. “Moving forward we will make our own decisions to protect what is left of our way of life.”

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Amazon to open 10-acre shipping warehouse on Tsawwassen First Nation land

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Amazon has announced plans to open a new Metro Vancouver shipping warehouse on Tsawwassen First Nation land in Delta, B.C.

Amazon spokeswoman Lauren Lynch said Thursday that the 450,000-square foot (10-acre) facility will create more than 700 full-time jobs and is expected to open in time for the Christmas holiday season next year.

The facility will be located within Delta iPort — a new industrial park developed by GWL Realty Advisors on behalf of the project’s owner, Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan — a news release from the First Nation said.

60-year lease

Tsawwassen First Nation and the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan signed a 60-year lease agreement on the nine-hectare parcel in 2017, it said.

Lynch said when deciding on a place, Amazon looks for a few things, in particular a talented workforce and proximity to customers so the company can fulfil its one- and two-day shipping promise.

« We found that with Tsawwassen First Nation, » Lynch said.

The Tsawwassen First Nation is located on the shores of the Fraser River delta, bordered on one side by the BC Ferries terminal at Tsawwassen and on the other by the Roberts Bank Superport. (Bryce Williams/Facebook)

This will be Amazon’s third so-called fulfillment centre in B.C., where employees will pick, pack and ship items such as books, toys, small electronics and home goods.

She said the centre will serve the rest of the country and all over the world, depending on the item selected.

Warehouse promising, chief says

Tsawwassen First Nation Chief Bryce Williams said in a news release that the warehouse is a promising advancement that will continue to unlock the potential of the nation as a key economic driver in Metro Vancouver.

In 2007, the nation ratified Canada’s first urban land-claim treaty, more than doubling the size of its reserve and providing members with millions of dollars in benefits that allowed it to develop its land.

The 372-member First Nation reached the agreement after more than 15 years of negotiations, giving it ownership of more than 700 hectares of some of the most fertile agricultural land in Canada.

The Tsawwassen First Nation is located on the shores of the Fraser River delta, bordered on one side by the BC Ferries terminal inTsawwassen, B.C., and on the other by the Roberts Bank Superport.

Read more from CBC British Columbia

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