Job posting for city agency seeking former staff from mayor’s office prompts ‘cronyism’ complaint

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A posting for a senior position at the city’s new body overseeing its massive real estate portfolio appears tailored to former members of Mayor John Tory’s staff or that of previous mayors.

The job qualifications for CreateTO’s senior vice-president of stakeholder communications and relations included this line: “Experience at the highest level with regards to the City of Toronto’s political realm, ideally having had experience working in the Mayor’s office.”

None of the other more junior postings, including for a director of development, included that qualification. The deadline for applications is March 4.

After being contacted by the Star, CreateTO changed the qualifications to say: “Experience working within a political environment at either the municipal, provincial or federal level.”

CreateTO spokesperson Susan O’Neill told the Star on Friday the wording would be adjusted to the online posting to attract a larger pool of candidates. She said there was no involvement or influence from the mayor’s office.

In 2017, council voted to create a new super realty agency responsible for nearly 8,500 properties, representing more than $27 billion in public assets — which city staff reported then was one of the largest portfolios in Canada — as well as future real estate transactions.

As a public agency of the city, it folded together responsibilities from the city’s real estate division, as well as the former Build Toronto and Toronto Port Lands Corporation. It was called the Toronto Realty Agency and later branded CreateTO.

Several senior members of Tory’s staff left the mayor’s office shortly before or just after his re-election last year.

They include chief of staff Chris Eby, who is now an executive at Downsview Metro Development. Asked if the posting was intended for him, Eby noted his new job in a message and said, “Not for me.”

Siri Agrell, the mayor’s former director of strategic initiatives, is now the managing director for OneEleven Toronto, a startup accelerator where she confirmed Friday that she is “happily and productively employed.”

Amanda Galbraith, who left her post as the mayor’s director of communications in 2016, is now a principal at communications firm Navigator. “While I’m flattered you reached out, I’m happy in my role with Navigator,” she said in a message.

Tory’s former principal secretary, Vic Gupta, has remained “happily unemployed,” he told the Star’s David Rider last week. Gupta left the mayor’s office as the second most senior staffer at the beginning of the second term after co-chairing Tory’s re-election campaign.

Gupta, in an email, said: “I’ve just reviewed the job profile you forwarded and I can confirm that I have no intention of applying for that job.”

Tory was invested in the creation of the new agency to better oversee the city’s real estate portfolio, calling it one of the “most vital, strategic assets that we have in the city” and advocating for less bureaucracy in its governance.

“As long as I’m here, I will be watching this like a hawk,” he told city council in May 2017 when the new body was approved.

“Because I don’t want to have had responsibility for creating something that’s either a monster or that works worse, if there’s such an expression, than what we had there now with that entangled system.”

Tory spokesperson Don Peat said Friday that the mayor’s office had “no involvement in the posting” and referred questions to CreateTO.

City spokesperson Brad Ross said the city “does not provide recruitment support or advice to agencies, boards and commissions,” when asked about whether there are hiring guidelines. “Those matters are handled directly by the agencies themselves.”

Councillor Gord Perks said a posting specifying someone with experience in the mayor’s office was “outrageous.”

“It’s fine to say that you have to have experience in government,” Perks said. “The list gets a lot smaller and a lot more intimate when it’s people who have dealt with Mayor John Tory . . . That narrows it down to about five people and that’s the worst kind of cronyism.”

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags

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Critics call for ‘robust’ oversight of CBSA following CBC reports on staff misconduct

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Advocacy groups are again calling for « robust, independent and external oversight » of the country’s border service following reporting by CBC News on misconduct at the Canada Border Services Agency.

CBC News recently reported that the agency investigated around 1,200 allegations of staff misconduct between January 2016 and the middle of 2018. Alleged offences recorded in the records released to CBC News include sexual assault, criminal association and harassment.

« We were not surprised, » said Josh Paterson, executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. « My main reaction was, this just makes [it] even clearer why there needs to be independent oversight for this agency. »

The BCCLA is one of three groups behind a letter to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale asking when the government will introduce CBSA oversight legislation. The presidents of the Canadian Council for Refugees and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers also signed the letter.

The CBSA’s sweeping powers include the right to search travellers, use firearms and conduct deportations. It’s the only major federal law enforcement agency without external oversight of employee conduct.

The groups’ letter also cited a recent CBC News report that said the agency had lost a USB key containing a refugee claimant’s personal information.

« We have had our own experiences of bringing very serious complaints to the CBSA, and they go nowhere, because there is no independent accountability measure, » said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

The groups call in the letter for an oversight body that can « investigate complaints » and « conduct proactive assessments of CBSA policies and practices. »

Dench said the oversight agency also should be able to hear complaints from third parties, such as non-government organizations.

« Often, we are in a position to say, ‘Look, we’ve seen a pattern of disturbing behaviour, or we have heard from somebody who’s not in a position to complain themselves,' » she said.

Scott Bardsley, a spokesman for Goodale, sent CBC News a statement Thursday that was identical in some respects to a statement the department issued last month.

« CBSA officers processed 95 million travellers in 2017, and only a very small number of these interactions led to a formal complaint, » Bardsley said in an email.

Bardsley said in a statement last month that the government was « working on separate legislation to create an appropriate mechanism to review CBSA officer conduct and conditions, and handle specific complaints. »

But the government’s window to introduce legislation is closing, with a general election due this fall.

« The CBSA … does not have independent review of officer conduct, and that is a gap that definitely needs to be addressed, » Goodale told a Senate committee in 2016.

Following the recent CBC News story, Goodale said the government is preparing legislation that would create « another unit … that looks specifically at the issues of officer conduct or incident investigation.

« We continue to work at it as rapidly as we can. »

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N.S. family blames hospital staff for ‘hastened’ death

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The last morning Tracy Gilbert saw her father alive, she walked into his room at the palliative care unit in Truro, N.S., and noticed he was struggling.

He was pulling at the sheets and moving his arms, she says, and it was obvious something was wrong.

At first, Gilbert thought her father was itchy. But two hours later, she realized it was much more severe — the bedside oxygen machine her family had become used to hearing had gone silent.

« There is no way that anybody can look at us and tell us that they didn’t know he needed oxygen to live, » said Gilbert.

Donnie Taylor’s plan was to die at home, looking out at the lake. He ended up in the palliative care unit at the Colchester East Hants Health Centre one month before he died. (Submitted)

Donnie Taylor’s family alleges he went 13 hours without oxygen after he was returned to his hospital room following a family gathering down the hall.

The 69-year-old man died the next day — Aug. 23, 2017.

Taylor had a long battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) believed to be caused by asbestos exposure on the job. In his final months, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

But Taylor’s family claims the lack of oxygen « hastened » his death.

Hospital staff doesn’t agree. However, changes were made on the palliative care unit following Taylor’s death. 

« Instead of celebrating a birthday we were at a funeral home for his 70th birthday, » said Kelly Knox, Taylor’s daughter.

Donnie Taylor is remembered by his family as a loving great-grandfather. Despite his illness, he spent as much time with them as possible. (Submitted )

Health records obtained by CBC News confirm Taylor was prescribed five litres per minute of oxygen, but was only getting 10 per cent of that on the morning of his death. When the family notified a nurse about their discovery, the nurse immediately turned Taylor’s oxygen level back up to five litres.

Pushing for answers

Seventeen months later, the Taylor family continues to push for answers. They recently filed a complaint with the College of Registered Nurses of Nova Scotia, hoping it will lead to disciplinary measures.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) conducted its own quality review following Taylor’s death that resulted in several policy changes at Colchester East Hants Health Centre. The Department of Health also completed two investigations after the family filed a complaint.

The family has had several meetings with hospital officials, including at least one with senior management. The health authority has apologized to the family in writing and in person for their loss.

« It tells me that somebody said, ‘Uh oh, something wrong here. We need to check this out,' » said Taylor’s widow, Sandra. 

« And, in the hospital’s mind, they knew they were in trouble. »

Donnie Taylor died a few days before his 70th birthday. He suffered a long battle with COPD and lung cancer, following exposure to asbestos on the job. (Submitted)

As a result of the quality review, staff at Truro’s palliative care unit was ordered to « review documentation practices related to checking oxygen administration levels throughout each shift » and « provide intentional education regarding the role of oxygen on the Palliative Care Unit. » 

Staff were also trained on « development of communication skills. »

Hospital response

The health authority will not comment on the case. Because it was a « serious reportable event » that led to a quality review, the health authority said all details are confidential.

Dr. Dave Henderson, senior medical director of integrated palliative care at the health authority, said a lot of work is happening behind the scenes to improve palliative care in Truro and across the province.

He said more than 1,200 health professionals have received additional training through a program called Learning Essential Approaches to Palliative Care (LEAP) in the last few years.

« Often still in nursing schools and medical schools, we don’t get as much training as we would like in palliative care, » said Henderson. « So we’re working on that both provincially and nationally but also for those people that are out working already. »

Dr. Dave Henderson, senior medical director of integrated palliative care at the Nova Scotia Health Authority, says more training is needed for health care staff. (Robert Short/CBC)

In the last year, the health authority’s northern zone, which covers Colchester, Pictou County and Cumberland, received funding for three part-time palliative care social work positions. A full-time social worker has also been hired to focus on bereavement, grief and wellness counselling for the region.

One of those social workers has been working closely with the Taylor family.

Dying plan

Sandra Taylor said her husband knew he was dying and he had spent months preparing with palliative care staff for a comfortable death.

« He thought, you know, eventually, ‘I would just sleep longer, and one time I just won’t wake up.’ And it should have been that way. That was the whole plan, » she said.

Instead, his loved ones believe he spent his last day in pain.

Taylor’s hospital charts indicate he was not in distress the night before his death. Rather, that he had apnea and appeared « congested. » Sandra Taylor was called by staff around 6 a.m.

A review conducted by the Department of Health determined the family’s claims of neglect were unfounded. Although on the question of how the drastically reduced oxygen levels ultimately affected Taylor’s death, the report is inconclusive.

Donnie Taylor had an early birthday celebration in the palliative care unit with his family. His loved ones say he was no longer verbal but he was aware of his surroundings. (Submitted)

In her report, compliance officer Adele Griffith said: « It was reported by palliative care staff that it cannot be definitively determined that the affected patient did not suffer any discomfort because of the incorrect oxygen flow being administered; however, there is also no evidence to the contrary from staff. »

It was also not confirmed in Griffin’s findings that Taylor required continuous oxygen 24 hours a day.

Birthday party

The family strongly believes Donnie Taylor did require continuous oxygen.

They allege it was never turned back on following an early birthday party for Taylor the day before he died. Taylor was wheeled down the hall to a party room on portable oxygen, where his wife and daughters say he wasn’t verbal but was aware of his surroundings.

Once the party was over, the family left around 8 p.m. Sandra Taylor said when she was walking out the door, nurses were moving him back to his room. 

« When he didn’t get the oxygen turned on [on] the wall, when that happened that may have been a chaotic error, maybe, you know, it’s possible things like that can happen, » she said.

But Taylor said she got angry when no one owned up to the alleged mistake.

« He didn’t have oxygen and somebody didn’t give it to him. And in this case they were special palliative care nurses and doctors. »

Knox believes the « culture of acceptability » within the palliative care unit needs to change.

« It’s because you’re dealing with somebody who isn’t going to remember anyway. You know, they’re pretty much really not going to know, right? And that is not acceptable, » she said.

« Why would you say that about a man who spent his whole life caring about people and their rights. To have that happen to you and to your family … it’s just wrong. »

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Ontario casino regulator probing whether B.C. casino staff were connected to money-laundering suspects

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While the RCMP’s massive E-Pirate money-laundering investigation in B.C. has collapsed, Ontario’s gambling regulator is continuing to look into whether employees of Richmond’s River Rock Casino were connected to Chinese VIP gamblers and alleged loan sharks targeted in RCMP anti-gang investigations related to E-Pirate.

As Global News has reported, Crown prosecutors stayed charges in November in E-Pirate, a case against an alleged Richmond underground bank estimated by international anti-money-laundering officials to be laundering over $1 billion per year, when prosecutors mistakenly exposed the identity of a police informant whose life was judged to be at risk if the case proceeded.

However, related RCMP investigations into the alleged Chinese organized crime suspects at the centre of E-Pirate, continue.



Exclusive: Documents allege complicity in money laundering in major investigation of River Rock Casino

And documents obtained by Global News through freedom of information show these suspects are of interest to Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) investigators, who opened the investigation in 2017 after Great Canadian Gaming was awarded a number of lucrative contracts in Ontario, including a major gaming expansion at Toronto’s Woodbine casino.

AGCO investigators wanted to understand whether River Rock casino employees allowed suspect gamblers to launder money with casino chip purchases.

The AGCO regulatory review “remains open,” spokesman Ray Kahnert said.

WATCH: Charges stayed in Canada’s biggest drug-money-laundering investigation






Scope of Ontario regulatory probe

The “initial scope” of the Ontario investigation into Great Canadian Gaming, according to a 2018 memo, focused on two factors: a “share sell-off” of Great Canadian Gaming stock, and reports in the Vancouver Sun about a suspicious $200,000 cash transaction that allegedly involved a “banned patron,” a Chinese VIP gambler, and a River Rock “VIP salon” host.

Great Canadian Gaming executives were not available for interviews.

In a prepared response for this story, the B.C.-based gambling company stated it strictly complies with rules from all regulators, and “we are not aware of any investigation into our gaming registrations in any jurisdiction, outside of the normal registration and audit processes.”

“Great Canadian Gaming mandates strict compliance to prescriptive rules for the sale of shares by company insiders, and we advise that we are not aware of any inappropriate share trading activity in that regard,” the statement said.

The AGCO employed Ontario Provincial Police Det.-Const. Dan MacDonald for the regulatory probe and tasked him with investigating the River Rock VIP host transaction. He was also to liaise with “RCMP concerning the River Rock Casino [and] any other related investigation.”

“As you likely know, Great Canadian Gaming has bought a few casinos here in Ontario … now I am supposed to find out what is going on in B.C.,” MacDonald wrote to Kenneth Ackles of B.C.’s anti-gang and anti-illegal gaming unit. “I know there are massive restrictions on what you can advise me.”

B.C. gaming investigation of VIP program and targets identified by RCMP

One of the concerning factors highlighted in the River Rock VIP case that is under investigation by Ontario regulators is large amounts of high-value Lottery Corp. chips leaving the casino, without being bet — often an indication of money laundering.

Emails show MacDonald, the OPP detective, sought information from RCMP’s Joint Illegal Gaming Unit (JIGIT) and B.C. gaming enforcement special Const. Scott MacGregor, an intelligence expert with access to police files regarding the alleged organized crime networks that RCMP investigators believed were active at River Rock and illegal casinos in Richmond.

The JIGIT investigation was launched in May 2016 and focused on Chinese Triad suspects allegedly laundering drug and loan sharking proceeds through Metro Vancouver casinos, and running underground casinos in Richmond. Nine suspects were arrested and the case is now in the hands of Crown prosecutors. Court files on JIGIT investigation targets have been sealed, and it’s not known whether the nine suspects have been charged.

Emails between the B.C. special Const. MacGregor, and the Ontario Det.-Const. MacDonald, show that they communicated about the case. The details of what MacGregor and MacDonald discussed are not clear, due to redactions.

However, a B.C. gaming intelligence report obtained by Global News sheds light on how MacGregor viewed the River Rock VIP host case, and suspected connections with a network of players identified in the E-Pirate and JIGIT probes.

What the RCMP alleged in these investigations, is that loan sharks in Richmond with ties to China-based gangs, recruited ultra-wealthy Chinese gamblers from Macau, met them in parking lots near River Rock casino, and provided the high-rollers with hockey bags stuffed with cash from drug-trafficking and loan-sharking. The VIPs, including suspected gang bosses, bought chips with these cash “loans” that were later paid back to drug-trafficker bank accounts in China.


READ MORE:
Secret police study finds crime networks could have laundered over $1B through Vancouver homes in 2016

MacGregor’s 11-page gaming intelligence report is entirely redacted to protect police investigations, except for several paragraphs that explain MacGregor’s view that the River Rock VIP case was “highly suspect.”

“There was a large third-party buy-in this month where a brand new patron walked in with $200,000 in $100 bills and waited to receive chips. Once the chips were delivered the patron left the casino without any play,” MacGregor’s report states. “This incident is being investigated for regulatory infractions at the RRCR … This incident is highly suspect and the ongoing Gaming Policy Enforcement Branch investigation into this matter is the first step, in identifying the correlation of connections between service provider staff, local patrons, foreign patrons, and illicit activity.”

The case highlights concerns that unusually high numbers of $5,000 chips had flooded out of River Rock Casino since 2015, according to documents, and that JIGIT was investigating whether these chips that were connected to E-Pirate targets, were also used in Richmond’s illegal casinos.  And B.C. Civil Forfeiture case filings show that RCMP say they seized over $17,000 worth of River Rock casino chips from the alleged Richmond underground bank targeted in E-Pirate.

River Rock’s ultra-lucrative VIP gambler program — which relied on private high-limit betting rooms, large cash transactions, and cultivation of wealthy Chinese patrons — was developed and run by Great Canadian executive Walter Soo. Soo is reportedly no longer working at River Rock, but is in Toronto, working to set up Great Canadian’s new gaming programs at Woodbine Casino.

“We don’t provide details specific to any of our employees, but members of our corporate team have responsibilities that pertain to all 28 Great Canadian Gaming properties located across North America,” a company spokeswoman said, in response to questions about Soo.

Soo has not responded to interview requests from Global News, and his former LinkedIn professional profile appears to have been removed from public view. There has been no allegation that Soo himself has been involved in any unlawful activities or transactions.


READ MORE:
Calls mount for probe of Wynne government casino contracts that ‘smelled of backroom deals’

B.C. Lottery Corp. probe of casino employees and illegal casinos

Documents obtained by Global News in a request for information about E-Pirate raids, shed further light on the E-Pirate probe, and how B.C. Lottery Corp. investigators looked at potential connections between River Rock VIPs, casino staff and alleged loan sharks — the same nexus of potential connections that AGCO investigators are seeking information on.

The documents show that in August 2015, a Lottery Corp. casino investigator learned of suspicions that registered casino dealers may have been paid up to $8,000 per week by illegal casino operators in Richmond to work “on the side.”

The information was related to advertisements for casino dealers on a Vancouver-area Chinese-language website.

The investigator wrote, “no current dealers at RRCR have been named that I’m aware of … [but] wanted to forward the link and advise that current casino dealers may be working here on the side.”


READ MORE:
Alleged partnership of Canadian casino company with gambling tycoon could trigger new investigation

The documents are redacted, but point to suspects and addresses that were later raided by the RCMP.

The redacted documents says investigators also learned of “stories of unnamed players talking openly in River Rock VIP Salon about what a nice job ‘they’ did decorating their ‘high limit room.’ Apparently players are gambling amounts upwards of $500k.”

The intelligence suggested that B.C. Lottery Corp. had information in 2015, that some of River Rock’s highest rollers were running Richmond organized crime casinos on the side.

“Some good stuff here,” another Lottery Corp. investigator responded, in an email. “Somewhat confirms our other intel.”

The AGCO is aware of the “matters” revealed in documents obtained by Global News but is not currently investigating whether River Rock staff were found to be working “on the side” in alleged organized crime underground casinos, an AGCO spokesman said Friday.

Ontario looks for answers from B.C. investigators

The AGCO emails make clear that Ontario Det. MacDonald sought information from the RCMP. But it is not clear if he got any information in return.

In response to questions about whether RCMP is sharing information from E-Pirate and the related JIGIT investigation with the AGCO, Staff-Sgt. Tania Vaughan said, “We do not discuss ongoing police operations.”

Documents also show MacDonald was given access to some details from the B.C. gaming probe of River Rock casino staff, but there were limits.

A mostly redacted April 2018 message from B.C. investigator Richard Akin to MacDonald says: “I just want you to know that there is no issue at our end re: trust … [But] My police background tends to make me paranoid when it comes to these situations and any possible push back … I would rather have a high level summary as I believe it would address your outfit’s concerns and mine.”

“Ok man. You kind of scared me a bit,” MacDonald replied. “I will go with whatever you give me.”

sam.cooper@globalnews.ca

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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City of Toronto staff say $3 million cost overrun for shelter conversion won’t happen again

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Toronto learned lessons from mould and other problems that boosted the cost of converting a Kingston Rd. motel into a homeless shelter by $3.2 million, and it won’t happen again, city staff say.

City councillors on the new government services and licensing committee lightly grilled bureaucrats Monday over what inspections were done on a Comfort Inn before the city agreed to pay $7.8 million in 2016 for the property and commit another $8.7 million to covert it to a city shelter.

The city didn’t realize the expensive structural problems, and others related to mould and rodent damage, until crews took down walls, city staff told committee members. The extra costs pushed the total price tag of converting the 30,000-square-foot building near Bellamy Rd. to about $20 million.

Staff said they hired an engineering firm to do a building condition assessment, and another on soil conditions, but the owner would not allow them to do more invasive testing behind walls because it was a functioning motel with guests coming and going.

“There were no outward signs of these issues,” and past renovations might have helped make the significant problems less apparent, councillors were told.

Councillor John Filion said he still has questions about the ballooning cost and wondered if the city could have saved money by subdividing the 65,000-square-foot lot.

“Rebuilding a property at a total cost of more than $20 million, most of which is for construction, at this kind of density on Kingston Rd. doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” he said.

The shelter is being funded as part of a plan to open up beds as the city redevelops George St. downtown, including the razing and replacement of the Seaton House shelter.

The Kingston Rd. shelter is expected to open in early March, hold beds for 95 vulnerable people of all genders and to accommodate pets.

At the same meeting, committee members fast-tracked a licensing staff review of clothing drop-boxes, after one Toronto woman, Crystal Papineau, and multiple people in B.C. have been trapped and killed in the boxes.

The report with recommended changes slated to come in September will instead be ready in May, and look at multiple issues involving the bins where people drop old textiles to be sold offshore for resale and recycling.

“The largest city in Canada, having people sleeping on our streets … you look at the unfortunate circumstances of people going into bins,” to retrieve clothes or even sleep, said committee chair Councillor Paul Ainslie.

“I think we have a long way to go in this city dealing not only with these bins and make them safe but also the social aspect of why we even need these bins in the city in the first place.”

Toronto has issued 460 $100 drop-box permits to six charitable organizations and four for-profit firms, but has a “running battle” with others who illegally drop collection boxes on public and private property, committee members heard.

Councillors expressed other concerns, including garbage dumped around the boxes and even fires lit inside them.

Two representatives of Diabetes Canada told the committee their non-profit relies on more than 4,000 clothing bins across Canada to help fund research, advocacy and camps for diabetic kids.

All the Diabetes Canada bins are being retrofitted by the end of this week to eliminate “pinch points” where intruders can get stuck, they said. They encouraged Toronto to work with non-profits that use the boxes to develop a “textile diversion program,” like those in Markham and Newmarket, to regulate use of the boxes.

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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Leaked LCBO memo tells staff it is ramping up ‘theft protection tactics’

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The LCBO is scrambling to reassure staff it is ramping up deterrence efforts after a weekend expose showing the scale of theft at the Ontario liquor retailer, the Star has learned.

In an internal memo distributed to staff on Saturday following the Star’s revelation that Toronto LCBO outlets have been targeted more than 9,000 times by thieves since 2014 — often in broad daylight and sometimes using duffel bags, backpacks and suitcases to maximize their loot — a senior company executive acknowledged the problem but maintained LCBO management now is spending more on security to ensure the safety of workers and customers.

“There’s something broken here that needs to be fixed,” said one LCBO insider on the rampant thefts that take place at stores across Ontario.
“There’s something broken here that needs to be fixed,” said one LCBO insider on the rampant thefts that take place at stores across Ontario.  (Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star file photo)

“Shop theft is a reality we have to deal with at all of our stores across the province and much of what is reported in the article is accurate — we have seen increase in shop theft, with the majority happening in urban areas,” Rafik Louli, VP, Retail Operations, told staff.

“What is not included as thoroughly in the (Toronto Star) article is what we are doing about it … While we never encourage you to physically engage with a perpetrator when an active shop theft is taking place, however, we are reacting to shop theft with increased spending and theft protection tactics,” said the memo, which was leaked to the Star by an LCBO insider.

“We have increased our guarding and investigator expenditures, as well as CCTV technology, in-store deterrents, and always collaborate with local police on active investigations.”

Read more:

LCBO thefts surge in Toronto, often as staff stand and watch. ‘They’re literally just walking away’

‘Discouraging. Dumbfounded. A sad reality.’ Star story on LCBO thefts prompts readers to share their eyewitness accounts

Since Saturday’s article was published, the Star has been deluged with eyewitness anecdotes of LCBO theft from customers throughout Ontario, many sharing stories of shocking scenes in which teams of two or more bandits fill multiple bags before breezing out the door, laden with premium liquors.

That response now includes a growing number of LCBO insiders — as of 5 p.m. Sunday, 11 current and six former LCBO workers had reached out, confirming the thrust of the Star’s reporting and offering more stories besides. Each asked for anonymity, fearing reprisal.

One of the active-duty LCBO sources who emailed on Sunday, we now can confirm, is the original whistleblower — the author an of unsigned letter mailed to the Star via Canada Post weeks ago, conveying the morale-crushing desperation of front line workers who fear the surge in theft will spill over into outright violence. In an email exchange, the whistleblower, who asked to be identified as John Doe, expressed gratitude and urged continued vigilance.

“I am grateful for the story and the outpouring of people coming forward and telling their stories,” John Doe wrote. “I was at work yesterday and I saw the generic statement (from VP Louli). They say what they want you to hear and they do nothing. They do this and they think it will go away. Well not this time.”

Several of the LCBO sources who contacted the Star detailed a previously unreported dimension to LCBO theft in which thieves go beyond the display shelves, stepping directly into employee-only areas to help themselves to whole cases of liquor, sometimes in full view of stockroom staff. “This is a call for help by some employees who are afraid that someone might lose their life before anything is done,” wrote one.

Upon receipt of the leaked internal memo, the Star sought official comment from the LCBO, asking that the corporation quantify the increases in spending on security and theft-deterrance measures described in the note. As of Sunday night, the LCBO has not responded.

In other developments, the broader public reaction to the Star’s report — which included several firsthand accounts of LCBO customers intervening physically to halt thefts-in-progress, sparked across-the-board alarm among the front line workers who spoke to us.

Said one insider: “There’s something broken here that needs to be fixed — but it is absolutely not the public’s job to fix it. Any customer who tries to intervene is putting themselves and everyone else at risk. It’s the worst idea. Please don’t.”

Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites

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LCBO thefts surge in Toronto, often as staff stand and watch. ‘They’re literally just walking away’

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Two menacing thieves, four oversized backpacks — and zero worries, evidently, that this will end badly for them. This is what liquor theft in Toronto looks like today.

On a recent Saturday afternoon at a busy east-end LCBO, a brazen, broad-daylight heist begins. Two twentysomething men, faces shrouded beneath hoodies, hats and sunglasses, push their way through a crowd of customers to an aisle of premium vodka and proceed to strip the shelves bare.

The LCBO has confirmed “an increase in shop theft, with the majority taking place in urban areas.”
The LCBO has confirmed “an increase in shop theft, with the majority taking place in urban areas.”  (Keith Beaty / Toronto Star)

Clink, clink, clink go the bottles as the loot bags swell. And then, smash — a $75 bottle of Grey Goose slips sideways and shatters upon the floor in their frenzy to get the job done. One of the bandits shouts a warning, “Stay the f- away from us.” The pilfering continues.

The customers — some 40 eyewitnesses, including a Toronto Star reporter — are frozen in place, stunned by the close-up glimpse of high-volume larceny.

The staff — three on the checkouts, two more elsewhere in the store — are the only ones not watching. They’ve seen it before. Over and over. Now they avert their morale-battered eyes.

Tension rises as the thieves stumble toward the exit, each burdened by something close to their body weight in the people’s booze. So heavy is the bounty that as they pass within arm’s reach, even a slight nudge might send them tumbling, putting a stop to it. But then what? Already, the floor is littered with broken glass. Every single item in this store is a potential weapon for someone who wants badly enough not to get caught.

Nobody makes a move.

It all lasts barely three minutes. Outside, a stunned group of volunteer fundraisers with the nearby Crescent Town Swimming Club witnesses the final scene, as the bandits make their slow-motion escape west along the Danforth, toward Victoria Park Ave.

“They aren’t even running,” says one of the swim volunteers. “They’re literally just walking away.” The loot — at least $2,000 worth of premium liquor in this one instance — came straight out of your pocket, Ontario.


Inside the store, as the tension eases and business resumes, a clerk winces when asked whether he’d ever seen anything like it. “Every single day,” he fires back in frustration. “Sometimes twice a day.”

Is it really as frequent as that? The Star went looking for answers, and in a word, yes.

The sobering numbers look like this: more than 9,000 thefts at LCBO outlets in Toronto in the past four-and-a-half years (Jan. 1, 2014 to June 26, 2018), according to a crunching of Toronto Police Service data obtained by the Star.

That makes the Liquor Control Board of Ontario far and away the most targeted retail entity in the city. And though retailers as a whole have reported a major spike in shoplifting incidents in the city — 11,010 thefts in 2014, versus 16,667 in the first 10 months of 2018 — the spike in liquor theft appears to be the single biggest driver.

The LCBO declined a request for an interview on the Star’s findings. Instead, the provincially owned liquor retailer responded in writing to a summary of the troubling data, acknowledging, “We can confirm that the LCBO is seeing an increase in shop theft, with the majority taking place in urban areas.”

In response to Star questions, the LCBO said: "As is industry standard, we never encourage our employees to physically engage with the perpetrator when an active shop theft is taking place."
In response to Star questions, the LCBO said: « As is industry standard, we never encourage our employees to physically engage with the perpetrator when an active shop theft is taking place. »  (Keith Beaty/Toronto Star File Photo)

No single explanation unpacks the whole of the LCBO’s theft problem. And it is far from a Toronto-only phenomenon. Twitter is littered and Facebook is festooned with both Crime Stopper-style alerts from police and customer eyewitness accounts that reference thefts throughout Ontario.

But LCBO theft stings especially deep in Toronto, where some suggest overlapping policies — the LCBO’s “hands-off” instruction to staff never to intervene with thieves while they are in the building, coupled with the Toronto Police Service’s policy to rarely, if ever, dispatch officers to a low-priority theft scene after the thieves have left — has opened a pathway to friction-free larceny.

“The LCBO doesn’t want their staff getting into tussles with thieves inside the store, and I understand that,” said Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association.

“But when you couple that with a policing decision that says we just don’t have the resources to respond unless the thief is on the scene, you lose a lot of the deterrent.

“That’s where we are right now and it’s rampant, like a butterfly effect of unintended consequences. I’m hearing from LCBO people directly that they’ve seen guys come in and fill up duffle bags and walk right out the door and when they call 911, if these guys are not on the scene nobody is going to respond.”

What do actual LCBO workers say? One clue arrived recently at the Star’s doorstep — a typewritten, snail-mailed, anonymous plea for help purporting to be from a frontline liquor store staffer.

“What the public doesn’t know is the amount of theft that goes on and how our lives are in jeopardy because of it. Every day we lose thousands of dollars to theft and we can’t do anything about it,” the letter said.

“We have been threatened with knives, needles, guns, physical harm, we’ve been shoved into fixtures, our lives threatened to where they will wait for us after shift, and yet the public doesn’t know as it’s kept quiet from the media.

A scan of an anonymous LCBO plea the Star received via Canada Post. It purports to be from an LCBO worker talking about thefts/risks on job.
A scan of an anonymous LCBO plea the Star received via Canada Post. It purports to be from an LCBO worker talking about thefts/risks on job.  (Toronto Star Photo Scan)

“We are all fearful that something will happen to one of us and it’s scary. THE LCBO DOESN’T CARE. They barely support us and we barely see security once a month if we are lucky enough to have them in our store for a full shift.”

The Star has no way to independently authenticate the letter, which ended with “name withheld due to fear of retaliation.” But upon hearing its message, OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas, who represents LCBO’s unionized staff, responded: “That really disturbs me — but that is the mood of the workers and it captures it very well.

“I think most of the managers do care — but they feel as hamstrung as the front-line workers feel. They are telling us that theft has increased substantially in the past year especially. Verbal abuse is common, and while violence itself is rare, the threat of violence is there.”

OPSEU followed up with additional comment, noting that meetings between the union and LCBO to address surging theft are occurring “at various levels.

“We continue to advocate for greater security measures and do see improved measures of which our staff have been able to suggest,” OPSEU wrote. “Unfortunately, it seems the act of shoplifting has turned into a larger-scale enterprise as thieves are stealing higher-end products and larger bottles.”

Likewise, in response to a list of questions from the Star, an LCBO spokesperson sent a statement citing a series of measures it has taken to curb theft while maintaining a safety-first posture.

“Safe stores and the safety of our employees are our top priorities and the policies and procedures we have in place reflect that. The LCBO has taken appropriate steps to prevent shop theft through security investments and theft protection tactics. We have increased our guarding and investigator expenditures, as well as CCTV technology, in-store deterrents, and always collaborate with local police on active investigations,” the statement said.

A series of handout photographs of LCBO-theft suspects released by Ontario police forces in 2018 in Ottawa, top left, Burlington, top right, and Halton, bottom left and right. Despite more than 9,000 LCBO thefts in the past four-and-a-half years, Toronto police have a policy to rarely, if ever, dispatch officers to a low-priority theft scene.
A series of handout photographs of LCBO-theft suspects released by Ontario police forces in 2018 in Ottawa, top left, Burlington, top right, and Halton, bottom left and right. Despite more than 9,000 LCBO thefts in the past four-and-a-half years, Toronto police have a policy to rarely, if ever, dispatch officers to a low-priority theft scene.  (Handout)

“As is industry standard, we never encourage our employees to physically engage with the perpetrator when an active shop theft is taking place. Instead, the LCBO ensures employees are given shop-theft procedures and critical training.”

Stephen O’Keefe, an Ontario-based retail loss consultant, said that the LCBO is not alone in experiencing a theft surge. Companies across the Canadian retail spectrum, he said, are reporting rising rates of “shrinkage.”

Yet with no new studies of the issue since 2014, Canadian retailers have relied upon U.S. data to get a handle on the increase. O’Keefe’s company, Bottom Line Matters, is in the process of launching new research to gain a more comprehensive understanding of what’s behind the spike.

One factor, he suspects, is that with Canadian retailers now in a race to allocate resources to digital commerce, many companies simply can’t afford to obsess on the bricks-and-mortar reality with the intensity they once did. “This, unfortunately, means that the risk appetite for shrinkage due to theft has grown, and loss-prevention resources have been strained,” he told the Star.

The spike in liquor theft, if especially acute in Toronto, has also triggered a rash of headlines recently in Manitoba, where officials cite the opioid crisis as a factor driving increasingly brazen, violent and frequent heists. One stopgap solution being tried in Winnipeg that has yet to take hold in Ontario is the outright removal of premium liquors from display shelves.

The $26,000 bottle that walked out the door in 2013.
The $26,000 bottle that walked out the door in 2013.  (LCBO)

Instead, expensive vodkas and the like are kept in a more secure space out of public view, and retrieved upon request to customers one bottle at a time, in a bid to strip the “lowest-hanging fruit” from temptation, a spokesperson for the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union told the Star.

In April 2018, Toronto police sent a letter to the security sections of the LCBO, said police spokesperson Meaghan Gray. The letter indicated that unless there is a public safety risk, certain crimes could now be reported online.

“Calls that require an immediate police presence would still be responded to,” Grey said. “The online reporting allows the security personnel at the LCBO to enter the information for investigation by TPS. This is one of many initiatives the Service is undertaking through its modernization process of ensuring we are where the public needs us the most.”

At least one Toronto police jurisdiction, meanwhile, is trying something else. The Community Response Unit at 14 Division, in response to a rash of public complaints, last month launched a multifaceted pilot project that includes circulating plainclothes officers at several LCBOs in the area.

“I can’t speak to all of Toronto, but in our patch we’re trying hard to find a new way to deal with the LCBO theft problem,” said Sgt. Nelson Barreira, who is leading the effort.

“I don’t want to give too much detail but we’re raising our presence. We’re averaging about one arrest a day involving LCBO theft. Basically we’re seeing two types of theft — on one hand you see brazen repeat offenders coming in pretty much daily and taking a single bottle and those cases usually involve addiction issues, either alcohol or drugs and sometimes mental health issues,” said Barreira.

“And then we see the big-bag approach — large quantities are being taken and resold at a discount. Our team is predominantly on bicycle but we mobilize a police car for this project to transport suspects. The approach is intelligence-led policing, acting on what the community shares with us as smartly as we can.”

Do you have any stories of LCBO shoplifiting to share? Write Mitch Potter mpotter@thestar.ca or share stories on Twitter with the hashtag #LCBOtheft

On Dec. 19, Barreira’s team led a bust of two people involved in an alleged 12-person shoplifting ring that targeted Toronto LCBOs. Police estimate the value of goods stolen by the group at over $200,000.

One point of agreement for the LCBO and everyone else: whatever else you might say about liquor theft, the cameras never lie. In the store on the Danforth the day the Star bore witness to a four-backpack heist, 13 ceiling-mounted cameras caught it all.

Sgt. Barreira of 14 Division emphasizes those high-quality images “never blink and they are there forever — and once retrieved, the LCBO screenshots circulate to every officer in the division, often forming the basis for future arrests.

“In the short term they get away with the bottle,” he said. “But in the longer term, because every theft is captured on video, the chances are good they are not gonna get away with it.”

Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites

Patty Winsa is a Toronto-based data reporter. Reach her via email: pwinsa@thestar.ca

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Can you stand segregation? These researchers are using virtual reality to let hospital staff see through their patients’ eyes

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HAMILTON—Think virtual reality and you might picture a fantasy world to be explored and enjoyed. But researchers and staff at a Hamilton hospital are using the technology to better understand what it feels like to be in a seclusion room, the health-care equivalent of a jail segregation cell.

“We wanted to see what it was like to be on the other side of the door,” said Gary Chaimowitz, head of the forensic psychiatry program at St. Joseph’s Healthcare and a professor at McMaster University. “I think many of us can imagine, or recall times when you’ve been in places by yourself, when you didn’t want to be by yourself, left alone, but this puts you, as a staff person, in our rooms.”

A virtual reality prison solitary confinement room in a training scenario created by Ottawa-based company SimWave for the forensic psychiatry program at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton.
A virtual reality prison solitary confinement room in a training scenario created by Ottawa-based company SimWave for the forensic psychiatry program at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton.  (Courtesy of SimWave)

Using a VR headset and hand controllers, staff are transported into a room modelled after real seclusion rooms at the hospital, and another set in a jail cell.

SimWave, an Ottawa-based company, used photographs to recreate the experience.

In two of three VR training modules being used at the program, you try to get the attention of virtual staff on the other side of the door. The seclusion room has no bathroom, and your bladder is full. You can ask for help, pace the room and knock or even pound on the door.

Your call for help returns one of 10 programmed responses, ranging from, a polite, “Yes, we’ll get you something,” to “Hold on a sec, we’re a little bit busy right now,” to a little more pointed response, Chaimowitz said.

“The tone, if you’re on the receiving end of that, obviously it makes a hell of a big difference,” he said.

Sometimes, there is no response, or the “patient” hears laughter. In another scenario, you actually get to use the bathroom.

“We’re looking at how long you can be in there before you get anxious,” Chaimowitz said, “and what it’s like to have a different staff response, the idea being that we are going to try to sensitize staff to what it’s like to be on the inside, which might change the way they interact with patients, both in terms of their tone and also a recognition of what it’s like to be there.”

Some staff have had to remove the headset after a while because they feel so enclosed by being in the room, Chaimowitz said, adding no one has found the experience to feel fake. “People have acknowledged that this is very different than being on the other side of the door,” he said.

The artists and developers at SimWave paid close attention to the finest of details. “If you press your virtual nose against the walls you can really see the details,” said Matt Thomas, SimWave’s head of business development.

Many of the hospital’s patients come from jails and return after treatment. Chaimowitz said the hospital hopes to share this training experience with provincial and federal corrections systems, where the use of segregation is under intense scrutiny.

In federal and provincial jails, inmates are being held in segregation for great lengths of time, and often exceeding 15 consecutive days, a point beyond which the United Nations has called to be banned because of the proven psychological harm it can cause.

This fall, as part of a human rights case settlement, Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services released two months’ worth of data on inmates either awaiting trial or serving short sentences who had spent time in segregation.

Of 3,998 placements in segregation, 778 were for periods longer than 15 consecutive days, the data revealed.

Gary Chaimowitz, second from right, is the head of the forensic psychiatry program, at St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton. He and his team, including Brandon Sunstrum, left, Sebastien Prat and Heather Dunlop-Witt, are using virtual reality scenarios to help staff understand what it feels like to be in a seclusion room, the hospital equivalent of a jail segregation cell.
Gary Chaimowitz, second from right, is the head of the forensic psychiatry program, at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton. He and his team, including Brandon Sunstrum, left, Sebastien Prat and Heather Dunlop-Witt, are using virtual reality scenarios to help staff understand what it feels like to be in a seclusion room, the hospital equivalent of a jail segregation cell.  (Jim Rankin/Toronto Star)

Half of the inmates had mental health alerts on their files and more than a third had a suicide alert.

“The correctional system is behind,” says Chaimowitz, who gave expert testimony at the coroner’s inquest into the 2007 death of Ashley Smith, who spent more than three years in segregation.

He recalls his first visit, decades ago, to a Hamilton jail. “I could hear people screaming and recognized there were mentally unwell people.”

“I don’t think anybody there is being cruel,” he said. “But it is frightening, and it is one of those sort of things that I can’t believe, in our cities, that we house people like this.”

The VR training can’t replicate everything in a seclusion or segregation setting, such as the degree of noise, the clanging and the smells, but the idea is that “if we can walk in someone’s shoes, even if it’s the way you deal with people, that it will be a little bit more humane,” he said.

Another training module simulates a search for contraband in a psychiatry patient room complete with a full bathroom. A more complex simulation still in the works involves an educational night-shift scenario that begins with hearing a noise and escalates into a hostage-taking situation.

The hospital’s forensic psychiatry unit has 114 beds and will be adding four correctional beds, as part of a pilot project with the provincial ministry that overseas corrections. Those beds should cut down visits by mentally ill inmates to hospital emergency rooms, where staff are “uncomfortable” with corrections patients who are shackled and handcuffed, Chaimowitz said.

“We’ll be in a better position to treat them and get their mental illness under control,” Chaimowitz said. “The idea is to bring them in here and get them well enough” to return to the general jail population, he says. “I think it the potential for making a big difference is very, very high.”

As for more the potential for virtual reality, Chaimowitz and his team would like to see patients given the opportunity to use the technology to escape their rooms and units and explore.

“They are basically stuck in their unit and the perimeter around St. Joe’s and Hamilton. So, they can’t do a lot,” said psychiatrist Sébastien Prat. “We want to develop that kind of project, in order to make them able to travel to a beach or somewhere they want to go, so they can enjoy something.”

Jim Rankin is a reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @Jleerankin

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Jail medical staff gave Teresa Gratton methadone doses way above guidelines, and this caused her death

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Teresa Michelle Gratton’s first dose of methadone should have been no more than 10 milligrams.

But the medical staff inside the maximum-security jail where Gratton was being held indefinitely as an immigration detainee started her at 30 milligrams.

Teresa Michelle Gratton, pictured here in an undated family photo, was being held indefinitely as an immigration detainee at the maximum-security jail in Milton. She died of “acute methadone intoxication” after receiving two doses of methadone from the jail’s doctors. Provincial guidelines for methadone treatment say Gratton should have received a much lower dose than she did.
Teresa Michelle Gratton, pictured here in an undated family photo, was being held indefinitely as an immigration detainee at the maximum-security jail in Milton. She died of “acute methadone intoxication” after receiving two doses of methadone from the jail’s doctors. Provincial guidelines for methadone treatment say Gratton should have received a much lower dose than she did.  (Gratton family photo)

That’s what caused her death.

Gratton died of “acute methadone intoxication in the setting of ischemic heart disease,” according to the coroner’s report, which was given to the Star by Gratton’s husband.

Provincial guidelines for methadone treatment say someone in Gratton’s position should have received a much lower dose than she did. The coroner states in his report that other factors may have contributed to her death, including Gratton’s pre-existing high blood pressure. She ultimately died of a heart attack in hospital. Three doctors who reviewed the coroner’s report for the Star say it’s clear she died of a methadone overdose.

Gratton, a U.S. citizen and permanent resident of Canada who lived in London, Ont., was not serving a criminal sentence or awaiting trial, though she was treated the same as those who were. She had been sent to a maximum-security jail because the Canada Border Services Agency was contemplating deporting her and feared she would not show up for her deportation if it were ordered. The agency based its decision on Gratton’s criminal convictions from 2013, for which she was sentenced to six months of house arrest. Some have argued she should not have been detained in the first place.

The 50-year-old grandmother was found unresponsive in her cell at the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton just after midnight on Oct. 30, 2017. About 40 hours earlier she was given her first dose of methadone, a long-acting opioid often used to treat addiction to shorter-acting opioids. Gratton had depended on prescription painkillers for many years, but the jail’s medical staff was trying to wean her off them. She received her second dose of methadone the morning before she died.

“I suspect if the physician who prescribed this could do it over again, he or she would start on a lower dose,” said Dr. David Juurlink, a medical toxicologist and senior scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, and one of three opioid-specializing doctors who reviewed Gratton’s coroner’s report at the Star’s request. All agreed she should have been started on a lower dose of methadone or a different drug altogether.

Gratton’s death was ruled accidental. A coroner’s inquest has been ordered but has not been scheduled.

Read More:

Family of immigration detainee who died in jail still waiting for answers

The Star first reported on Gratton’s case last December, and again in March when two women who were incarcerated with Gratton came forward to raise concerns about her treatment in the jail. But this is the first time her official cause of death has been reported.

Herb Gratton, Teresa’s husband and partner of more than 30 years, said he is frustrated and angry, but he mostly just misses his wife. “The system had her,” he said in a recent interview. “They were supposed to be responsible.”

Herb, who is a Canadian citizen from the Caldwell First Nation, says this time of year is particularly difficult. His wife was the one who organized the family get-togethers and did most of the cooking.

“Christmas does not seem like Christmas,” he said. “I can’t find a reason to celebrate. I have my children, my grandchildren. But there’s a void. No matter who’s around or what’s around, I can’t fill it, you know?”

Herb Gratton, the husband of Teresa Michelle Gratton, says he is frustrated and angry about how his wife died. But he says he mostly just misses her. "Christmas does not seem like Christmas," he said. "I can't find a reason to celebrate."
Herb Gratton, the husband of Teresa Michelle Gratton, says he is frustrated and angry about how his wife died. But he says he mostly just misses her. « Christmas does not seem like Christmas, » he said. « I can’t find a reason to celebrate. »  (Anne-Marie Jackson)

A mother of three who had lived in Canada since 2003, Teresa Gratton suffered from osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, a long-term condition of the central nervous system that causes widespread pain. She relied on the opioid hydromorphone and was prescribed a high daily dose by her doctor months before she was incarcerated. When she couldn’t get her opioids from a doctor she got them on the street, her husband said. A month before her death she pleaded guilty to forging her doctor’s signature in an attempt to get an extended supply of hydromorphone. She also took several other prescribed medications, including ones for anxiety and depression.

The jail’s medical staff decided Gratton should not be on opioids. The coroner’s report references a physician’s note in Gratton’s medical file that reads: “SUD (substance use disorder), I agree, no indication for long-term opioid therapy.”

First they cut her dose by more than half. A week later they tapered her dose further and then withdrew her opioids completely for 10 days before giving Gratton her first dose of methadone.

Thirty milligrams, the amount Gratton received in each of her two doses, is the maximum starting dose for methadone treatment, according to guidelines published by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. However, the guidelines state that if a patient has been “recently abstinent from opioids,” as Gratton was, the maximum starting dose should be no more than 10 milligrams. The guidelines do not specify how many days qualify as recent abstinence, but they do say that patients who have not used opioids “even for a few days” are at a higher risk of overdose.

The guidelines also state that patients who are also on benzodiazepines or any sedating drugs, as Gratton was, should be considered at a “higher risk for methadone toxicity” and therefore should be given a lower starting dose.

Two doctors, Dr. Abraham Shedletzky and Dr. Laura Middlestadt, are among the medical staff who work inside the jail. It’s not clear who oversaw Gratton’s treatment or if either doctor administered the methadone. The coroner’s report doesn’t name any doctor as being responsible for Gratton’s treatment. Middlestadt declined to comment for this story. Shedletzky did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Juurlink said he didn’t understand why the jail’s medical staff, even if they believed Gratton should be on a lower dose of opioids, would have tapered her off the drugs entirely. “Her brain and body would have become accustomed to that amount of hydromorphone,” he said. “She would have been physically dependent on it, and when you take it away people get horribly sick.” Tapering should be done slowly and generally with the patient’s consent, he added.

Even if there were compelling reasons to reduce Gratton’s opioid dose and replace it with methadone, Juurlink said someone in Gratton’s position shouldn’t be off opioids for as long as she was. “That’s 10 days of putting this patient through hell.”

Gratton wrote her husband regularly during her time in jail. In her letter she describes the agony of her withdrawal symptoms, which included vomiting, diarrhea, severe muscle pain, constant sweating and depression.

“I’d rather be dead than to keep going through this pain,” she wrote in one letter. “These doctors … think I don’t need to be on any of my narcotics. If something bad should happen to me please sue the hell out of them.”

The coroner’s report says that Gratton filed a complaint to the Office of the Ombudsman of Ontario regarding the reduction of her opioids by the jail’s medical staff. A spokesperson for the ombudsman said that for confidentiality reasons she could not confirm whether a complaint had been filed.

Juurlink also pointed to Gratton’s concurrent use of clonazepam, which she took to treat panic attacks, as a reason she should have been started on a much lower dose of methadone. Clonazepam belongs to the benzodiazepine class of drugs. It is a tranquilizer that, when combined with methadone, increases the risk of overdose.

“You have a one-plus-one-equals-five kind of effect,” Juurlink said. “They’re both depressants of the central nervous system and it’s really quite dangerous to combine opioids with drugs like that, especially for a patient who, for all intents and purposes, is opioid naive.” Juurlink said Gratton would have lost whatever opioid tolerance she might have had during her 10 days without the drug.

A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, which is responsible for provincial jails, said no one from the ministry would be interviewed for this story. They also declined to answer specific questions about Gratton’s case, citing the pending inquest.

From the 2017 Star Investigation | Teresa Michelle Gratton died Oct. 30 while being indefinitely detained in a maximum-security jail by the Canada Border Services Agency. Her grieving family wonders why she was there at all.

The spokesperson provided a written statement, which reads, in part: “Decisions about health care matters are between inmates and medical staff. The ministry does not interfere with medical decisions or direct medical professionals.”

Dr. Ramesh Zacharias, the coroner, writes in his report that it’s unclear whether Gratton should be considered “a completely naive user in the context of methadone maintenance therapy.” Zacharias notes that although Gratton had not consumed opioids for 10 days before her first dose of methadone, “prior to that period she was a longtime user and abuser of hydromorphone.”

Dr. Meldon Kahan, medical director of the Substance Use Service at Women’s College Hospital, said it is “unusual” for just two doses of 30 milligrams of methadone to cause death. However, given Gratton’s recent abstinence from opioids and the fact she was on other sedating medications it “might have been more prudent” to start her on a different drug or a lower dose.

Kahan said it would have been better for the jail’s medical staff to prescribe buprenorphine, another long-acting opioid used to treat addiction, rather than methadone.

“It’s much safer than methadone,” he said. “It’s much safer than simply stopping the opioid, and it’s much safer than keeping them on the opioid that they’re already on.”

Juurlink agreed, calling buprenorphine “an infinitely safer medication.”

A ministry spokesman refused to say whether buprenorphine was available to doctors inside the jail.

Gratton died after suffering a heart attack in hospital roughly nine hours after she was found unresponsive in her cell. Zacharias writes in his report that he couldn’t attribute methadone intoxication as the sole cause of death because of uncertainties around Gratton’s tolerance, his inability to determine the peak concentrations of methadone in her blood when she lost consciousness, and because her body did not immediately respond to naloxone — a drug that can reverse the effects of opioids — when it was administered by paramedics. It’s not clear for how long Gratton had been unconscious when her cellmate, who had been sleeping, alerted jail guards.

Zacharias also notes that a methadone overdose can itself increase the risk of a heart attack.

The doctors who reviewed the report for the Star said it’s clear an overdose of methadone was the cause of death, whether or not she suffered other heart complications. Juurlink said that the vomiting and diarrhea Gratton experienced during her withdrawal would have left her with lower potassium and magnesium, which would have “amplified” the effects of methadone on her heart. “Methadone can kill you in more than one way,” he said.

Besides how she died, there are also questions about why Gratton was detained in the first place and why she was held in a maximum-security jail — questions that could be raised as part of the inquest.

The CBSA’s grounds for stripping her permanent residency were for “serious criminality,” which is defined in part as any conviction that leads to a “term of imprisonment” of more than six months.

Gratton came to be in police custody in September 2017 after she was arrested for shoplifting at Walmart, but the CBSA’s finding of “serious criminality” was related to convictions from 2013, when she pleaded guilty to forging a former employer’s signature on cheques for amounts ranging from $100 to $250. (Gratton admitted forging the signatures, but she believed the man owed her the money for house cleaning, according to a court transcript.) She also pleaded guilty to unlawfully being in the man’s house, although she did not break in. She was given a nine-month conditional sentence, which included six months of house arrest but no jail time.

The CBSA interpreted Gratton’s conditional sentence as a “term of imprisonment” of more than six months, meaning she would have no right to appeal her deportation. On Oct. 19, 2017 — 11 days before Gratton died — the Supreme Court of Canada struck down such interpretations, ruling it was unreasonable for immigration authorities to equate conditional sentences, such as house arrest, with jail time.

Immigration authorities have also not clarified why Gratton, who was not considered a danger to the public and had no history of violence, was classified as a “high-risk” detainee and sent to a maximum-security jail. By the CBSA’s own policies her minimal, non-violent criminal record should have made her eligible for the Immigration Holding Centre, a far less restrictive facility.

A CBSA spokesperson has said the agency decided maximum-security jail was a “better choice” for Gratton due to “various case-specific factors.” The spokesman would not explain the factors that led to their decision, citing a need to protect Gratton’s privacy.

The location of detention for immigration detainees is decided solely by the CBSA and not subject to any external oversight.

Brendan Kennedy is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @BKennedyStar

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Stony Mountain Institution inmates using drones to sneak in contraband, say staff

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The union that represents corrections officers at Stony Mountain Institution says its members are at risk due to the latest trick inmates are using to get contraband into the prison.

James Bloomfield, the prairie regional president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, says inmates and their contacts on the outside are taking to the skies and using drones to bring things like drugs, cell phones and weapons over the institution’s walls.

« It’s very easy to launch one of these and have them go over an exercise yard to drop off a package, » said Bloomfield, who says the problem is happening at prisons across Canada.

« The technologies are so accurate that in some cases they can have them go right up to a window and drop a package in a specific person’s hands. »

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers says staff at the Manitoba penitentiary have intercepted at least five drones over the prison in the last year. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

Bloomfield, who is a correctional officer at Stony Mountain, 23 kilometres north of Winnipeg, said staff have intercepted at least five drones flying over the prison in the last year.

He said the demand for contraband in Stony Mountain has created a multi-million-dollar underground economy in the prison and inmates use many techniques — including having packages literally thrown over the fence into the prison’s exercise yard — to get things in.

« Drones are just another tool that we have to work to stop, » said Bloomfield, who worries the technology could see a gun ending up behind the prison walls.

« With the amount that they can hold on a smaller drone these days, our concerns are very high. »

Risky business

As well as the dangers brought by the contraband that is getting into the facility, Bloomfield says officers are also facing risks from delivery system itself.

« If we have a drone come over that yard I can’t shoot it out of the air… If this thing comes over and drops a package now those officers are obligated to go and get that package in amongst 200 inmates, » he said.

« You can imagine the safety risks at that point when they’re dropping $60,000 or $80,000 worth of drugs into an exercise yard with 200 inmates, all of them looking to get that package and make sure that where it’s supposed to go is where it goes. »

Kelly Dae Dash from the Correctional Service Canada wouldn’t confirm the number of drone interceptions at Stony Mountain, citing security concerns, but did say drone sightings have increased over CSC airspace over the past several years.

Dash said the CSC is « continuing to research and introduce new technology including drone detection. » 

« Preventing the introduction of contraband and reducing the use of illicit substances by offenders in correctional institutions is a priority for us, » said Dash in an email.

« The use of drones as a method to introduce drugs into correctional institutions is one of many methods used by drug traffickers in an attempt to circumvent CSC’s drug interdiction efforts. »

Eyes on the sky

While prisons work to develop detection systems for the drones, Bloomfield says what’s really needed is more resources on the ground with their eyes on the sky.

« Really what it comes down to is we need appropriate detection systems and we need the right type of staffing to deal with this, » he said.

« Our staffing levels are very low and we don’t have the ability to have somebody walking around the yards watching and listening for this type of thing at night. »

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers says drones delivering contraband into Stony Mountain are putting corrections officers are at risk. (CBC)

Dash said the CSC currently has no plans to hire additional staff at Stony Mountain to monitor drone activity.

A lockdown and general search of the institution currently in place at Stony Mountain was planned in advance, said Dash, and has nothing to do with an increase in contraband material getting into the prison.

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