Ford government autism program overhaul met with outrage by some parents who fear kids will lose out

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Parents of children with autism will be given the power to choose what services they want — but there will be a total family budget of $140,000 and high-earners will no longer be eligible.

In an announcement Wednesday in Toronto, Lisa MacLeod, the minister of children, community and social services, also said the government is doubling funding for diagnostic hubs and planning to clear the 23,000-child wait-list within the next 18 months.

Waiting for a diagnosis — which currently can take more than two years — can “throw a family into crisis,” said MacLeod.

“This is the best approach and the most fair approach to make sure every single child” is well-served,” she added.

The amount of funding will depend on the length of time a child will be in the program, and support will be targeted to lower- and middle-income families. Families with annual incomes above $250,000 will no longer be eligible for funding, MacLeod said.

“It ignores the fact that there are some kids on the severe end of the spectrum requiring tons of support and time and those on the mild end” who don’t, said Kirby-McIntosh.

“I’m diabetic and so is my husband, but it doesn’t make sense to give us the same amount of insulin.”

She said she’s “terrified” about means testing. Just because families are making more than $250,000 “doesn’t mean they have $80,000 lying around in the couch cushions.”

She said she was “devastated” by the direction the government is headed.

In her announcement, MacLeod said the government is doubling funding for five diagnostic hubs to $5.5 million a year for the next two years to address the diagnosis waiting list of 2,400 children, who currently wait on average for 31 weeks.

“Today, almost three out of every four children who require autism supports continue to be stranded on wait-lists, due to the cynicism and incompetence of the previous government,” MacLeod told reporters at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, one of diagnostic hubs.

“The parents of these children have told me they are feeling abandoned. We cannot, in good conscience, continue treating these parents and children like lower-class citizens, so we are introducing reforms to provide them with the fairness and equality they deserve.”

Parents of children with autism launched protests against the previous Liberal government in the spring of 2016 when it announced that kids over age 5 would be cut off from funding for intensive therapy.

The Liberals ultimately backed down and installed a new minister — Michael Coteau — to roll out a new program, which proved to be much more popular with parents.

Coteau announced more funding, a quicker start date, no age cut-offs, and a direct funding option to allow parents to either receive funding to pay for private therapy or use government-funded services.

Wednesday’s changes announced by the Progressive Conservative government include establishing a new agency to help families register for the program, assess their funding eligibility, distribute the money and help them choose which services to purchase.

Clinical supervisors will have to meet program qualifications by April 1, 2021 and the government will be publishing a list of verified service providers.

With files from The Canadian Press

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

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Some Toronto officials will lose their free-parking passes, but city councillors keep theirs

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Some Toronto officials and former agency directors are losing unlimited free parking at Green P lots and on-street parking, but many more politicians, officials and retirees are being allowed to keep the controversial perk.

The board of directors of the Toronto Parking Authority voted Tuesday to cancel parking passes for a handful of officials including Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg and Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health.

The reforms approved Tuesday cancel about 10 current free-parking passes, but city councillors and Toronto Parking Authority retirees with 20-plus years service will keep theirs.
The reforms approved Tuesday cancel about 10 current free-parking passes, but city councillors and Toronto Parking Authority retirees with 20-plus years service will keep theirs.  (Colin McConnell / Toronto Star file photo)

Also stripped of the unlimited free parking will be ex-TPA board members who left after the start of 2014, including Peter Leon, appointed as city councillor for 11 months to replace Etobicoke representative Doug Holyday, and Darius Mosun, chief executive of an architecture firm.

Future TPA directors will not keep the freebie after leaving the board, nor will 20-year-plus TPA staff who leave the city agency but do not officially retire from it.

Mayor John Tory was among those who criticized a list of more than 160 people who were slated to get routine renewal of passes, in addition to TPA staff and contractors hired to do work in the lots.

Tory questioned the agency’s reasons for giving the freebie to so many people and asked for a review of who should continue getting it.

“I think it aggravates the citizens who we represent, when they see these people on what look like fairly flimsy reasons (getting) free parking and everyone else doesn’t,” he told reporters in December.

The mayor, who is often chauffeured and does not get a parking pass, questioned why city councillors need free parking. Two of the 25 city councillors — Michael Ford and Gord Perks — currently refuse the passes.

The reforms approved Tuesday by the TPA board, in line with the recommendations of Rob Oliphant, the agency’s acting president, cancel only about 10 current passes, costing the city about $6,778 a year, while preventing more passes from being issued in the future.

Oliphant said in a report councillors should continue getting free parking and the board concurred.

City councillors got a total of $15,822 worth of free parking last year “primarily for work,” TPA staff said, and should keep the passes because removing them would just force councillors to charge the parking costs to their office expenses, and not save the city any money.

“A very limited number of passes are issued to other (city agency) and City of Toronto staff, for business travel purposes,” that would also likely be expensed, staff said. The board voted to have councillors’ use of the pass detailed in their office expenses made public.

Also keeping the passes are TPA retirees with 20-plus years service, to “honour and reward their longtime commitment” to the agency, a practice “not inconsistent with other transit organizations.”

The board — currently three city staff, soon to be replaced by a mix of city councillors and public appointees — also approved rate increases of 50 cents per half-hour at eight Green P lots.

The hikes are aimed at generating a total of $3 million in annual revenue from the following lots: 21 Pleasant Blvd.; 30 Alvin Ave.; 37 Queen Street E.; Nathan Phillips Square; 20 Castlefield Ave.; 30 Roehampton Ave.; 40 York St.; and 20 St. Andrew St.

The parking authority’s mandate is to give Torontonians “high turnover, low cost, short term parking, especially in commercial areas.” To help achieve that TPA tries to set rates no higher than 75 per cent of the average price charged by nearby private parking lots.

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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Saudi teen who fled her family and risked her life says she had nothing to lose

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A Saudi teen who arrived in Canada Saturday after fleeing her family says she needed to risk her life in order to live freely and be independent, and is very happy to be in Canada.

« I felt that I was reborn, especially when I felt the love and the welcome. »

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, told the CBC’s Susan Ormiston in an interview on Monday that she never thought there was even a one per cent chance that she would be able to come to Canada, or that people would be talking about her story around the world.

Mohammed — she has dropped « al-Qunun » from her name because her family has disowned her — claims she was physically and mentally abused by her family since she was 16 years old, and that she thought about escaping for years.

« I was exposed to physical violence, persecution, oppression, threats to be killed. I was locked in for six months, » she said, in Arabic, describing what happened after she cut her hair.

« I felt that I could not achieve my dreams that I wanted as long as I was still living in Saudi Arabia. »

Mohammed told the CBC’s Susan Ormiston she had since been disowned by her family. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

When she turned 18 she felt able to try to escape, she said, because she would be treated as an adult around the world, and that she would be able to make her own decisions.                           

She knew a family vacation to Kuwait in early January was her chance. « From a while ago I was trying to convince my parents to go to Kuwait because as long as I’m in Saudi Arabia, I cannot leave. But once I’m in another country I can travel and it’s allowed, » she said. 

My greatest fear was if they [my family] find me, I would disappear.– Rahaf Mohammed

Mohammed said she waited until her family went to sleep early one night, the very last day of their trip, and then bought her ticket to Thailand and left the hotel room at 7 a.m.

But she was stopped at the airport in Bangkok. Mohammed was denied entry and had her passport seized. With the threat of being sent back to her family, she barricaded herself in a hotel room and used Twitter to plea for help.

Mohammed used Twitter to get her message out from her hotel room in Bangkok, Thailand, on Jan. 6, 2019. (@rahaf84427714/Reuters)

« My greatest fear, » she said, « was if they [my family] find me, I would disappear and I wouldn’t know what would happen to me after that. » She even wrote a letter to her friends, because she says she was prepared to end her life in the hotel room before she would let herself be taken. 

« I wrote it and I sent it to my female friends, should I disappear they would publish it to the whole world. »

Her tweets and her case drew international attention, and Thai officials eventually agreed to let her stay in Bangkok under the protection of United Nations officials.

Mohammed said when the UN officials showed up at her hotel, she didn’t believe at first that it was true, that her pleas had been heard. She feared the Thai and Kuwaiti authorities « would lie and pose as the UN, so I wanted some sort of proof that they are actually the UN.

« So they showed me the proof. After that, I opened the door and I welcomed them, » she said, smiling at the memory. 

Mohammed speaks with Thai Immigration Police Chief Surachet Hakparn, right, and an unidentified UN official at a hotel inside the Suvarnabhumi international airport on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand, on Jan. 7. (Thai Immigration Bureau/EFE/EPA)

Still, as happy as she is to be free, to be in Canada (despite the cold, she said), Mohammed is clearly upset that it has meant losing her family. She said she received a message from them, telling her she was disobedient and now disowned. She started to cry during the interview, saying she didn’t expect that. She said she is very sad, so sad that she can’t even talk about it. 

Saudi Arabia ranks among the worst countries for women’s rights and equality. The World Economic Forum ranked it 141 out of 149 in its 2018 report on gender equality. Mohammed said she endured daily oppression and violence from her mother and brother. Her father, she said, did not live with the family, but still exerted control over her in terms of what she could study and where she could work. 

She has been accused of not telling the truth — that things aren’t as bad in Saudi Arabia as she says. She rejects that. 

« These people, maybe their families are more understanding and they don’t know the real life. But there are a lot of women imprisoned and there are a lot of stories that they can read to know the situation of women. » She calls herself an example of how bad it can be.

« Why would I escape from this life if the conditions were good? »

In this photo released by Thai officals, Mohammed is seen before leaving the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok on Monday. (The Associated Press)

Now that she is in Canada, Mohammed feels safer. Not 100 per cent, she said, because everyone knows her now and knows where she is. Still, she is looking forward to continuing her education, exploring, learning English and living a normal life.

Watch Rahaf Mohammed tell Susan Ormiston about her plans now that she’s in Canada. 

Rahaf Mohammed, the Saudi teen who fled her allegedly abusive family, talks to CBC’s Susan Ormiston about what’s next for her life in Canada 0:32

She also wants to continue to be a voice for the women still in Saudi Arabia, but she also hopes that they will fight for changes themselves. She said she knows many women who have fled Saudi Arabia, but added she wouldn’t encourage women to do it, as they would be putting their lives at risk. She wants them to fight. 

But if nothing changes, she added, « escape. »

Watch Susan Ormiston’s interview with Rahaf Mohammed from The National: 

A Saudi teen who arrived in Canada after fleeing her family says she needed to risk her life in order to live freely and be independent, and is very happy to be here. Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, says she never thought there was even a one per cent chance that she would be able to come to Canada, or that people would be talking about her story around the world. 4:35

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Students to lose jobs after Ford government axes school programs

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Nearly 100 students will be laid off from their part-time jobs at the Toronto Catholic school board because the programs they work for are being axed by the Ford government as part of the province’s $25 million funding cut to school boards.

Those job losses are just the “tip of the iceberg” because all of Ontario’s 72 school boards are being impacted by funding cuts or reductions to specialized grants.

“It’s deplorable and despicable,” said Toronto Catholic District School Board chair Maria Rizzo. “Kids will suffer in the long run (by the cuts).”

A report by the board’s staff to its trustees outlines which of its programs have been impacted by the cuts and reductions because of the 2018-2019 funding changes to EPO (Education Program-Other). Cancelled programs include the Focus on Youth’s after-school program, which operates in high-needs urban neighbourhoods and employs about 60 part-time students, mostly from high school. Also on the chopping block is the Tutors in the Classroom program, which will impact about 35 university and college students.

“Those kids are going to be laid off,” said Rizzo, adding the government is impacting students who rely on those jobs to pay for tuition and gain valuable work experience. And those job losses are just at that one board, she said, adding she assumes hundreds will be impacted provincewide.

Dallin said students were “blindsided” by news of the funding cuts and reductions, saying the programs “are extremely important to maximize the potential of youth.”

Other cancelled programs include ones that help support Indigenous students, the physical activity needs of elementary and secondary students, and projects such as SpeakUp, which encourages students to lead projects in their schools. According to the report, the TCDSB estimates the cancelled programs amount to about $655,000 in EPO funding. But because these programs are being cut in the middle of the school year, the report notes that the board has already spent about $255,000 on them.

Other programs will receive reduced funding, but it’s unclear how much less. The province is expected to provide more details by the end of the week.

New Democrat MPP Marit Stiles called the cuts a “slap in the face” to parents who took part in the government’s public consultations on changes to the education system, which wrapped up Saturday — a day after the government announced the $25 million funding loss. For this school year, EPO funding will be $400 million.

“They are causing utter chaos in our school boards and in our schools,” Stiles, the NDP’s education critic and a former Toronto school board trustee said Tuesday in the legislature. Stiles accused the government of “taking an axe to programs” that help vulnerable students.

“Overwhelmingly, the programs affected are designed to help at-risk youth. The government has yet to share what actual research they have conducted that shows that children getting physical activity or children getting programming to help them succeed if they are at risk or providing leadership opportunities for children are programs that need to be cut.”

Education Minister Lisa Thompson noted the government will continue to spend $400 million in EPO funding this school year — even though $425 million was promised by the previous government last March.

“We’re moving forward with thoughtful investments that make a difference in the classroom environment,” Thompson said during question period.

She has previously said that following a line-by-line audit of spending, the changes were “responsible.” Her spokesperson has previously said some of the EPO spending was “wasteful.”

Thompson also said “tens of thousands of people responded” to the government’s education consultations.

“I can’t wait to start diving into that data, it’s so rich,” she said. “That consultation was based on informing our direction for the next school year of 2019 … that’s what our consultation was based on.”

Speaking with reporters, Premier Doug Ford revealed that the government received about 35,000 responses as part of its public consultation process, calling it “the largest consultation in Ontario’s history.”

And when asked whether the cuts in EPO funding are responsible because they impact vulnerable children, he said, “we’re reviewing everything right across the board … we have to go line-item-by-line-item.”

With files from Robert Benzie

Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

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Senneville residents block condo development but could lose trees to house construction – Montreal

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It’s back to the drawing board for a residential real estate developer in Senneville, Que.

Residents in the small, rustic municipality on the western tip of the Island of Montreal recently stopped a proposed housing project from being approved.

More than 160 signatures were registered to oppose a developer who planned to build condominiums off of des Anciens-Combattants Boulevard.

The developer then withdrew the plan, which would have allowed more than 60 condominiums to be built in a village that is solely made up of single-family homes on large plots of land.


READ MORE:
Senneville council votes to rezone area slated for controversial condo project

“Senneville is not a condominium community. It really isn’t,” Bill O’Brien, a longtime resident of the area, told Global News.

O’Brien lives on Elmwood Avenue, and his house backs onto the wooded area where the housing project was proposed.

“In the event that the condos had gone through, it could have set a precedent for the rest of Senneville so in the future, if a big piece of property had come up for sale, somebody might be able to say, ‘Hey, look, it’s been done before. Why can’t we do it again?’” he said.

WATCH: New Senneville Residential development proposal has residents voicing their disproval






The land is now zoned for eight single-family houses.

But the construction of single-family houses would risk cutting down even more trees than the proposed condominium project.

“This forest behind us acts as a climatic regulator for this town. It also shields this town from noise pollution (and) light pollution,” Senneville resident Martin Gauthier told Global News.

Though it’s a smaller town now, there used to be 1,400 people living in Senneville in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and the mayor argues the town could have handled an influx of people had residents supported the condo project.


READ MORE:
‘I want nothing at all’: Senneville residents unhappy with potential housing project

“The town could absorb more citizens and still keep with the small-town feel,” Senneville Mayor Julie Brisebois told Global News.

Brisebois says the original project would have saved a majority of the trees, while the single-family home proposal puts a lot more of them at risk.

“I think it’s too bad,” she said.

“I think we were saving 80 per cent of that wooded area without having to spend a dollar.”

It’s now up to the real estate developer to decide whether to go ahead with the single-family home project, which would maintain the look of the village but potentially come at a huge environmental cost.

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

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Why the U.S. could lose the next big war – and what that means for Canada

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It was more than the usual sky-is-falling rhetoric we’re used to seeing in national security reports out of Washington.

It came from some pretty sober, respected voices in the defence community.

A special commission report, presented to the U.S. Congress this week, delivered one of the most stark — even startling — assessments in the last two decades of the limits of American military power.

The independent, nonpartisan review of the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defence Strategy said the U.S. could lose future wars with Russia or China.

« This Commission believes that America has reached the point of a full-blown national security crisis, » reads the 116-page document written by 12 leading defence and security experts and released Wednesday.

« If the United States had to fight Russia in a Baltic contingency, or China in a war over Taiwan, Americans could face a decisive military defeat. »

Those are sobering words for Canada, in light of this country’s contribution of over 450 troops to the NATO-led deterrence mission in Latvia.

Time for a defence policy rewrite?

And it has prompted a call from at least one Canadian defence expert for a re-assessment — perhaps even a full-blown rewrite — of the Liberal government’s own defence policy.

More than simply another rote, boilerplate plea for fatter U.S. defence budgets, the commission’s report lays out in precise detail the kind of geopolitical threats Washington — and, by extension, other Western capitals — are facing from rivals and enemies at many levels and in multiple spheres.

« The security and wellbeing of the United States are at greater risk than at any time in decades. America’s military superiority — the hard-power backbone of its global influence and national security — has eroded to a dangerous degree, » says the report.

« America’s ability to defend its allies, its partners, and its own vital interests is increasingly in doubt. If the nation does not act promptly to remedy these circumstances, the consequences will be grave and lasting. »

The report acknowledges that the U.S. and its allies may be forced to fight a localized nuclear war in the future, given how Russia has restored the once-unthinkable concept to its military planning and training exercises.

The commission also paints various grim scenarios that could confront western allies between now and 2022, including an invasion of the Baltics under the guise of a « peacekeeping » mission to protect Russian minorities:

« As U.S. and NATO forces prepare to respond, Russia declares that strikes against Russian forces in those states will be treated as attacks on Russia itself — implying a potential nuclear response.

« Meanwhile, to keep America off balance, Russia escalates in disruptive ways. Russian submarines attack transatlantic fiber optic cables. Russian hackers shut down power grids and compromise the security of U.S. banks. »

The consequences, said the report, would be severe: « Major cities are paralyzed; use of the internet and smartphones is disrupted. Financial markets plummet as commerce seizes up and online financial transactions slow to a crawl. The banking system is thrown into chaos. »

While the report doesn’t mention U.S. President Donald Trump by name, it notes the effect of his bruising rhetorical fights with world leaders and criticism of international institutions, such as NATO.

« Doubts about America’s ability to deter and, if necessary, defeat opponents and honor its global commitments have proliferated, » said the report.

Cautious optimism

At this weekend’s Halifax International Security Forum, Canada’s marquee defence conference, some leading experts struck a less pessimistic note and suggested that the West still has a major technological lead on Moscow.

« Russia is a great country. It is a great country, historically. But Russia is also a failing country, » said Peter Van Praagh, president of the Halifax Security Forum, at the opening of the event on Friday.

« Russia does not have the same advanced tools that NATO has, that Canada and NATO and the American alliance (have). »

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan also expressed cautious optimism about the threat.

« In NATO we’re taking this extremely seriously. We’re learning from the various missions that are ongoing, » he said.

The Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, sails into Hong Kong for a port call on July 7, 2017. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

A former military adviser to one of Sajjan’s predecessors said Canada could learn from the commission exercise, which was meant to challenge the Trump administration’s defence plans.

« It’s certainly something we don’t we have, » said Richard Cohen, an ex-army officer who served as former defence minister Peter MacKay’s adviser. « Our government would never dream of inviting anyone to come and criticize its defence policy. »

The current government sought extensive input before the new Canadian policy was presented 18 months ago.

The U.S. commission report calls on NATO and its allies to »rebuild » substantial military forces in Europe, among things.

Cohen said that, if anything, should trigger a fresh look at the Liberal government’s own defence policy.

« Our defence policy is predicated on the kind of asymmetric warfare we have faced since the end of the Cold War and it really ignores the looming strategic threats that Russia, China and maybe some others pose as well, » he said.

« At least the United States realizes this growing strategic threat, » Cohen added, noting that the current Liberal defence policy makes only passing mention of China « in very gentle terms » and limited references to Russia.

« If the United States is in a national security crisis, then we’re in a national security crisis. »

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