In a past political life, working for a long-ago premier of Ontario, Gerald Butts helped usher in a new provincial holiday called Family Day.
Little did Butts know that he’d be marking Family Day in 2019 stepping down from a job at the very top of a government led by his old university friend, Justin Trudeau.
Many people step down from political life to spend more time with their families, but this professional parting of the ways between Butts and Trudeau will be as tumultuous as a family breakup — not just in the lives of this duo, but for the government as a whole.
It’s a question that has come up periodically throughout Trudeau’s rise to power and the past three and a half years of Liberal governance: could Trudeau exist without Butts at his side?
The short answer is yes, of course: life and government does go on, as Butts himself said in the no one is indispensable part of his public statement Monday. Note too that Katie Telford, chief of staff to Trudeau, remains in the PMO and while her personal history with Trudeau is shorter and less high-profile, the tight, inner circle around the PM hasn’t totally left the building.
Butts travelled with Trudeau; he sat in caucus and cabinet (along with Telford.) He spoke for the prime minister, on Twitter and social media, and on deep background to reporters. When Trudeau dined with foreign leaders, Butts and Telford were often at the same table. When cabinet ministers or MPs requested a private meeting with the PM, they could usually count on the presence of Butts or Telford in the room if the request was granted — and that’s if they weren’t just told to meet with Butts instead.
This dynamic, incidentally, could be crucial to the ongoing questions about what led to the demotion and departure of Jody Wilson-Raybould from cabinet, which precipitated Butts’ resignation. She spoke to Butts on a number of occasions before the now-infamous January cabinet shuffle; Butts was at Trudeau’s side in the conversations the ex-minister held with the PM before she quit her new job as veterans’ affairs minister. That’s how things worked in this government.
That’s how things worked with Trudeau. He and Butts met at McGill University when they were both studying English literature and on the debating team. Their friendship endured after university, even as Trudeau moved to B.C. to teach and Butts went on to work in politics — first, briefly, as an aide in the Jean Chretien years, and then on to Queen’s Park, to serve as senior adviser to premier Dalton McGuinty.
It’s there that Butts met Telford, then a chief adviser to then education minister Gerard Kennedy. Trudeau surprised some people by supporting Kennedy in the 2006 federal Liberal leadership — not the people who knew of his friendship to Butts, and through him, then to Telford.
By 2012, when he was working at the head of the World Wildlife Fund in Canada, Butts was helping his friend get into the Liberal leadership race and amassing the team around him. Butts has a huge network of friends in politics. One of his early mentors was James Coutts, the man who served as principal secretary to Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau. Just a few months ago, Butts was one of the keynote speakers at an event to donate Coutts’ diaries to Trinity College at the University of Toronto.
Traditionalists in the Liberal party — indeed in Canadian politics — often balked at Butts’ large public profile while serving with Trudeau. While the prime minister himself grew more cautious in public life, speaking increasingly through careful statements and behind talking points, Butts was very much a personality on social media, sparring with critics of the government, often impolitically.
Two speculative conclusions arose: either Butts was saying what the PM couldn’t, or worse, that Butts was the real voice behind the power at the centre. Neither is likely correct: it’s probably more accurate to say that the two spoke — and thought — in tandem.
Back in 2013, in those early days while Trudeau was running for the Liberal leadership, we sat down for a long interview for an ebook I was writing for the Star. I asked Trudeau to talk about his inner circle of advisers and his relationship to each of them. Here’s what he said to me about Butts:
“Thinking objectively about Gerry is like thinking about myself and that’s a really challenging thing to try and figure out. We bounce off each other really well,” Trudeau said.
Now Trudeau speaks alone, at least for his government. It’s not entirely clear how and when and where we’ll be hearing from Butts again, but those who have known him for a long time know that he’s unlikely to disappear into obscurity.
For a while, Butts was posting instalments on his Facebook page from a favourite book called “The Daily Stoic.” The book contains meditations for each day and the instalment for Feb. 18 is called “Prepare for the Storm.” Butts is gone from the PMO, but the storm isn’t over, for Trudeau or his old friend.
Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt
Lapointe is now recovering in Kelowna General Hospital, hoping to return home soon. He credits the quick response of people in the Facebook group with playing a big role in helping him get help so quickly.
“I knew somebody would help. I didn’t know who. I didn’t care who. But I knew somebody would help. And I think that’s a miraculous thing,” Balaam said.
Lapointe said he blamed smoking for his heart attack.
“And I’m done. Never again will I ever put a cigarette on these lips,” he said. “Because this is the scariest thing I’ve ever been through in my life.”
The judge has just said he believes it would be fair to sentence Bissonnette to live in prison, without parole eligibility for 35 to 42 years. He says it would be cruel and unusual to not give the prisoner some hope that he could one day be free.
“[It was] a premeditated and gratuitous act,” he told the court, adding that it was “a tear of our social fabric.”
“Despite the time passed, it will remain forever engraved in our collective memory.”
Huot noted Bissonnette was not working in January 2017 because of an anxiety disorder. Doctors had prescribed him Paxil.
Judge Huot says he has a 246 page sentence. Won’t read it entirely today. Bissonnette is moved to the witness stand… and is now standing up as the judge begins to read. Huot says this crime will be forever written in blood in the history of Quebec City, the province and Can.
The judge summarized Bissonnette’s internet search history, which included looking up the 2015 San Bernardino attack, information on how to prepare his guns and research on other possible targets — including feminist groups, schools, malls and airports.
He mentioned an incident two months before the mosque attack when Bissonnette loaded his weapons and went to a local mall in Quebec City intending to commit mass murder, but changed his mind.
He noted Bissonnette acted with “calculation, determination and in cold blood,” adding he held racist beliefs and the crime was precipitated by a “visceral hate for immigrants.”
Judge Huot went over the run up to the crime from Bissonnette’s POV — now he’s explaining how the victims came to be at the mosque. He just told the story of one man, and how he kissed his daughter before leaving to pray… and never made it home.
Bissonnette’s defence team had previously stated consecutive sentencing should be declared unconstitutional and invalid as it contravenes Article 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects citizens from cruel and unusual treatment.
Children who are afraid to go back to the mosque, men seriously injured from gun wounds who still have physical pain, families in financial ruin, and the terror and deception of those who moved to Canada for the purpose of escaping violence in their home countries… https://t.co/pc6Na2bC4P
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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_
“Our mission was very much alive in this house for 100 years,” said Sister Aurore Larking, superior general with the Grey Nuns. “It became too small at a certain point, and we moved.”
The nuns own the building, and in conjunction with the Université de Montréal, they now want to revitalize their old home.
“In a time when numerous heritage buildings in Quebec find themselves in a position of fragility, we want to not only protect this historic space, but give a a new life to the Youville Mother House,” said Larking.
“It’s important for to actively contribute to the sharing of our history and our heritage.”
The museum would show off an extensive collection of artifacts, many of which have never been seen by the public.
“Right now, it’s almost impossible for somebody who’s not a university professor to have access to these artifacts,” said Frédéric Bouchard, dean of Arts and Sciences at the Université de Montréal.
The space would also be home to a new state-of-the-art Université de Montréal architecture laboratory.
“This is the right place and the right time for us to train better archaeologists and to make sure all Montrealers have access to their findings,” said Bouchard.
Exhibits would also include the “Room for the Poor,” basically unchanged since the congregation used it to distribute food to the needs in the 17th century. Marguerite Youville’s old room would also be on display. The vaulted cellar, used for storage hundreds of years ago, would be home to artifacts.
The proposed new modern museum and educational centre, called “Espace Marguerite Youville,” is a $35-million project that would rely on government funding. Governments, however, have not yet committed to help funding it.
“We’re ready to move and we’re waiting,” said Larkin.
“It’s something that should be on the list of projects to support,” said Dinu Bumbaru of Heritage Montreal.
Without government support, for now the ambitious project will have to wait.
Crown attorneys said Tuesday that « sexual predator » and serial killer Bruce McArthur should be sentenced to six consecutive life sentences with no chance of parole for 50 years.
McArthur, 67, pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder last week.
However, two of the killings took place before 2011, when federal laws were introduced that allow for consecutive life sentences. For offences committed before the law went into effect, all life sentences and related parole ineligibility periods are served concurrently.
The murders of Skandaraj Navaratnam, 40, and Abdulbasir Faizi, 44, happened in 2010.
Crown attorney Craig Harper argued that McArthur’s decision to plead guilty should not be considered a sufficient mitigating factor in the sentencing « when you take the enormity of McArthur’s crimes » into account. The fact that McArthur revisited images and « trophies » from the killings shows a lack of shame or remorse, he argued.
He also told Justice John McMahon that granting McArthur a parole hearing after 25 years means the families of McArthur’s victims may have to face him again in court.
« There are no similar offenders to Mr. McArthur, » Harper said to the court. He added that McArthur’s killing spree stoked widespread fear in Toronto’s LGBT community, forcing people to compromise how they lived their lives.
The Crown has avoided using the term « serial killer » during the trial, saying that it is « woefully inadequate » to describe his killing spree.
In addition to the murders of Navaratnam and Faizi in 2010, McArthur has also admitted to the killings of Andrew Kinsman, 49, Selim Esen, 44, Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, 37, Dean Lisowick, 47, Soroush Mahmudi, 50, and Majeed Kayhan, 58.
I think we can all agree that, more often than not, a bowl of soup, a hearty stew, or a saucy braise is only improved by the addition of bread. Sometimes that’s a hunk of freshly baked baguette. Other times a buttery dinner roll. Bread is the staff of life, as they say.
But lately it feels like that phrase should be amended to “fried bread is the staff of life.” Everywhere I look somebody (myself included) is frying a thick slice of sourdough bread in a slick of olive oil until crunchy and golden brown on one side, soft and doughy on the other, and serving it alongside any saucy concoction worthy of soaking. If you’re not one of those people, I urge you to become one. Immediately. Fried bread for life.
But, as I recently discovered, fried bread is not necessarily the end-all, be-all of carb-on-soup situations. One day recently, while working on a Basically recipe for ribollita—a thicccc Tuscan vegetable, bean, and bread stew—it occurred to me that there may in fact be a future beyond fried bread. Don’t get me wrong: I love the stuff. But perhaps the lone slice of fried bread, riding shotgun in most cases, could take center stage. An exploration seemed in order, and that already-bready ribollita seemed like the perfect place to start.
Traditionally, Ribollita is made thick and hearty by cooking leftover stale bread directly into a broth-y combination of stewed tomatoes, beans, and other veggies. The bread falls apart and enriches the soup, adding stick-to-your-bones body to the final dish. I like that idea—bread as stew thickening agent. But I was missing the crispity-crunchity quality that fried bread lends, and I didn’t see any reason why I should have to choose one or the other.
Thus, the concept of torn-croutons-baked-directly-into-the-top-of-a-soup was born. Once my glorious, soggy bread-enriched ribollita was almost finished, I covered the entire surface of the stew with irregularly-shaped hunks of crusty sourdough bread and drizzled the whole thing with pleeeeenty of good olive oil. Then I popped the whole Dutch oven into a 450° oven until the the stew is thick and burbling, the tops of those craggy croutons were deeply golden and crisp, and the undersides are soaked in thick tomato-y deliciousness. It’s the best of both worlds—super-crunchy and soggy-rich at the same time—and you don’t even need to dirty another skillet or sheet pan to make it happen. Now that’s living!
Even better? This same technique can be applied to literally anything stewy and thick enough to support the bread. Beef stew. Creamy tomato soup. Minestrone. Lentil soup. Split pea. The crout’-on-soup possibilities are truly endless.
So go on: Crack into that crust like it’s a savory crème brûlée, and tell me you’d rather eat regular ol’ fried bread on the side.
Go forth and bake croutons right the hell into your soup:
VANCOUVER—Standing with a slouched posture, dressed in a black hoodie and jeans, he looks no different from anyone else in Surrey, B.C. — but nearly five years ago, this husband and father found himself stranded, beaten and alone in Mexico.
After a fraught journey from Honduras with his wife and son, where the family had been separated by Mexican authorities, the man was about to be put on a bus that would ship him back to the Honduran border — back to mortal danger — for the fourth time.
So he made a run for it.
With nothing but the clothes on his back, he ended up wandering through farming towns, where he talked to local families who showed him the way to the border.
“It was 10 days without any food, drinking water from those animal troughs,” the former refugee said. The migrant has been granted anonymity by StarMetro due to the risk that his remaining family in Honduras could be targeted.
Eventually, he made it into the U.S. and later journeyed to Canada, where he was reunited with his family and given refugee status. He’s now a construction worker in Surrey, B.C., with a side job driving a delivery truck.
But his worries aren’t over. His brother, sister-in-law and several friends are back at the U.S.-Mexico border, part of the so-called “migrant caravan”: large groups of people travelling together to claim asylum. Several thousand more Central American migrants arrived at the border earlier this week in the midst of a government shutdown.
The mass of asylum seekers has been maligned by U.S. President Donald Trump and conservative media outlets as a mob attempting to bully its way to status in the U.S. But migrant advocates say the movement should be rightly considered an “exodus” of victims fleeing poverty and extreme violence in their home countries — and as the Honduran man knows, they are safer travelling in numbers than making the journey alone.
Less than a decade ago, he was trying to make it as a taxi driver in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. His wife’s job with the government paid little or sometimes not at all due to political instability. With her and a young son to think of, he took on many routes and even ran a delivery service.
Then the extortion began.
“It’s really difficult. When I talk about it I get chicken skin,” he told StarMetro.
“One of my taxis was on a specific route,” he explained, describing a path many taxis took between two popular points in the city. “One day this crew showed up. They said, ‘OK, if you guys want to continue working this specific point, you have to pay 400, 500 bucks every week, and if you don’t you’re going to get killed.’”
He said crime ran rampant in Honduras, suggesting police officers were co-operating with the gangs in their extortion schemes. There was little he could do to prevent the threats, despite filing multiple complaints with local police.
A report by the Immigration & Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) on a 2017 information-gathering mission to Honduras found high levels of criminal activity in the country and a “lack of police presence on the streets” in Tegucigalpa, specifically.
It said gang turf is “defined by … invisible borders” and that anyone attempting to cross those borders could be killed. The IRB report also found that the high price of extortion fees is one of the central reasons people are being displaced from their homes and neighbourhoods.
The former driver described how the gangs would employ innocent-looking decoys, such as pregnant women or senior citizens, to hail taxis and then direct them to locations where gang members would grab the car for their own purposes, like delivering drugs or weapons.
“They pulled me out of my car and put me into the trunk,” he said. “They drove around, they left the car whenever they felt like it. I was there for hours.”
Luckily, someone walking by heard him and opened up the trunk. But after the first incident, it happened all over again: He was forced into the trunk and left there for hours until he could be rescued.
It happened “many more times,” he said — after five, he lost track — over the course of nearly six years as a taxi driver. Even so, he felt “lucky” that he wasn’t significantly hurt.
“There are many people killed that way,” he said. The IRB report found that gangs used women as “bait to kill targeted persons.”
The man tried to get into other types of work but had already been watched and targeted by the gangs, who were set on extorting him for money whenever he passed through their turf checkpoints. One day, he said, a gang member came to his house and fired bullets near his legs — a way to instill fear in him and other taxi drivers, and maintain control over the neighbourhood.
Finally, he took his family and fled to the Mexican border with less than $100 between them.
But his troubles were not over. After attempting to make an asylum claim in Mexico, the family was rejected and deported back to the Honduran border on buses filled with other hopeful refugees. Undeterred, the man and his family went back to Mexico — and were then deported by bus a second and finally a third time.
Byron Cruz, an organizer with migrant-rights organization Sanctuary Health in Vancouver, said the man’s story is not uncommon among migrants from Honduras and other countries in Central America.
“Ninety per cent of stories I hear from people coming from Honduras are like this,” he said. “Most people will think it’s like a movie.”
He said that gangs have “complete control,” and violence, kidnapping and extortion are common.
Jerry Flores, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, said the man’s experience in Mexico was normal as well.
“It’s very typical for Central Americans to have to go through Mexico and to have to navigate life undocumented,” Flores said.
On their third attempt in 2013, the man said he was separated from his wife and son by Mexican authorities and targeted again by a Mexican gang for extortion. He said that, after being beaten near death and managing to escape, he started out on foot to the U.S. border in Arizona.
But with the ongoing detainment and deportation of migrants encouraged by Trump, the man didn’t feel safe in the U.S. and found it difficult to find work, often picking up recycling on the side of the road to exchange for small change.
While he had no direct communication with his wife and son, he heard from family members still in Honduras that they had made it into the U.S., up to Washington State and then into Canada. So he set off on the same journey in 2014.
Less than a month later, he walked across the Peace Arch park to get to Canada. That allowed him to exploit a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement, which compels asylum seekers in Canada or the U.S. to apply for status at the first port of entry of the first “safe” country they arrive at. By crossing over the park, he avoided going through U.S. or Canadian customs and was able to claim asylum in Canada.
The agreement has been widely criticized by migrant advocates, due to the differences in the way Canada and the U.S. handle asylum claims. A report from the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. in 2017 found that a majority of refugee claimants in the province had crossed over the Peace Arch border in the same way.
Now reunited with his wife and son and having recently obtained permanent resident status, the man still worries for family and friends who travelled with the new wave of migrants to the border and are stranded in Mexico, like he was. Every week or so, he gets a phone message from them, updating him on what’s happening at the border.
He said that with the levels of violence and poverty on the rise in Honduras and elsewhere in Central America, travelling with other migrants seems like the best option to many — something news stories don’t necessarily communicate.
“There is safety in numbers,” he said. “Some people might not want to go alone, but if there are lots of people with them then it is safer.”
He predicts more people will arrive in 2019, with many eventually claiming asylum in Canada due to the political climate in the United States.
Cruz said that there will “almost definitely” be more waves of migrants from Central America seeking asylum in Canada over the next several months.
But Cruz insists that the language around the “caravan” be changed in order to better communicate the purpose for their journey. On a recent trip to Toronto, he met with other representatives from migrant support organizations who agreed that the word “exodus” is more appropriate to the situation.
“Instead of calling it a caravan, we are calling it an exodus, because a caravan has a connotation of people who are coming happily,” he said. “But people have been pushed by extreme poverty and the environmental situation in the country.”
The conservative news media in the U.S. and comments from the American president have also contributed to widespread misunderstandings of why migrants have arrived en masse at the border, said Flores, the University of Toronto professor.
“The U.S. president has been arguing people coming to the border are gang members … These are alternative facts, if you will,” Flores told StarMetro.
He said right-wing media outlets are pushing the same narrative.
“There was this huge uproar from the U.S. media … framing them as criminals and terrorists,” Flores said.
What those stories miss is that there are few options for Honduran migrants at this point, he said. After a 2009 coup removed then-president Manuel Zelaya, the ruling party suspended a number of civil protections, leading to a rise in human-rights violations, according to the Center for the Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture.
Flores said such events have occurred throughout Central America over the past few decades, resulting in widespread political instability, poverty and violence.
He said that humanitarian outreach, instead of harsher border protection, would be a better way to address the issue. Instead of arms, the U.S. should focus on sending aid.
“For example, when there were stories of Donald Trump sending down 5,000 soldiers … they could have sent 5,000 troops to process applications instead,” Flores said, adding that special attention should be paid to people coming from marginalized groups, like LGBTQ people, who experience additional discrimination and violence.
Flores added that the United States’ involvement in the situation, by refusing to condemn the Honduran coup, adds to its responsibility.
In the meantime, the Honduran man keeps checking his phone, waiting for a call from his brother’s family. He’s hopeful that someone, somewhere, will come to help them.
“The Honduran government doesn’t take responsibility, Mexico doesn’t take responsibility, the U.S. doesn’t take responsibility … They are stuck there.”
Cherise Seucharan is a Vancouver-based reporter covering health and safety/youth. Follow her on Twitter: @CSeucharan
Does everyone need to know how to whip up a pie crust from scratch, or build a towering, elaborately decorated layer cake? Absolutely not. But every cook should have at least one good dessert up their sleeve, and this classic, lightly glazed lemon pound cake should be yours. Rich and tender, not too sweet, and fragrant from tons of lemon zest, it’s the kind of baked good you can just as easily serve with coffee in the afternoon or as the finale to a sit-down dinner party. (Nobody will get mad if you top each slice with a scoop of ice cream, a dollop of homemade whipped cream, or even just a spoonful of good Greek yogurt.) You will need a couple of pieces of equipment, namely a loaf pan and a hand mixer, but both are kitchen essentials and not very expensive—consider this your excuse to invest.
The tiny remains of an extinct bug-like creature discovered at British Columbia’s 500-million-year-old Burgess Shale fossil deposit add a new branch to the evolutionary tree of life, says a student researcher who tracked down the organism’s development.
The discovery of fossilized soft tissue, including the unique digestive tract, antennae and appendages of extinct agnostids, help solve a long-standing evolutionary riddle about the agnostids’ family tree, says Joe Moysiuk, an ecology and evolutionary biology PhD student at the University of Toronto.
The discovery of agnostid fossils like this one that preserve soft tissue, including the unique digestive tract, antennae and appendages, help solve a long-standing evolutionary riddle about the agnostids’ family tree. (Jean-Bernard Caron/Royal Ontario Museum)
« Agnostids appear to be what we call the sister group, sort of like a distant cousin of trilobites, » he said. « They are more closely related to other trilobites than other anthropods, like say, crustaceans or like arachnids, spiders and such. »
Trilobites, which are also extinct, are similar to today’s horseshoe crabs, Moysiuk said.
Moysiuk and paleontologist Jean-Bernard Caron, an associate evolutionary biology professor at University of Toronto and a senior curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, conducted the research.
Moysiuk said their work also helps answer questions about the origins of agnostids, which lived between 520 million and 450 million years ago.
The work emphasizes the importance of continued exploration at Burgess Shale to trace the evolutionary process of other species, Moysiuk said in an interview.
‘Big mystery’ solved
« This is an animal that’s been a big mystery in terms of where it fits into the tree of life for a very long time and so it’s always nice to fit in a little piece of the puzzle. »
Researchers Joe Moysiuk and Jean-Bernard Caron pose for a photo at the new Marble Canyon locality of the Burgess Shale, where the best fossil specimens were found. (Joe Moysiuk)
Agnostids are typically less than a centimetre long, with armour plates on their backs, a circular head shield and a similar looking tail shield, he said.
Moysiuk said finding the agnostids in the Burgess Shale area is important because not only is the hard, shell-like part of the creature preserved, but so are the soft tissues, such its nervous system and digestive tracts, sometimes even containing the last meal of the animal.
« These fossils really give us this unparalleled insight into what life was like back in the Cambrian period. »
He said the discovery of the crustacean-like soft tissue was « even weirder than what we would have imagined. »
They found a pair of sensory antennae at the front of the animal’s body and two pairs of swimming appendages, which it would have used like oars to paddle its way through the water, he said.
« They have lots of segments and these strange sort of club-like outgrowth coming off of them, which we hypothesize may have been used for respiration in these animals. So they were breathing through their legs, potentially. »
Moysiuk said he’s been at the Marble Canyon site at Kootenay National Park where the fossils were found, but spends much of his time at the Royal Ontario Museum, where there’s a huge collection of fossils from the Burgess Shale.