Big city mayors seek new relationship with Ottawa amid provincial-federal tensions

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OTTAWA—The mayors of Canada’s big cities have launched an election-year appeal for a new relationship with the federal government in the face of rising tensions between Ottawa and some provinces, a reality that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admits has created “challenges.”

The big city mayors’ caucus of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities met with Trudeau and three key cabinet ministers Monday in Ottawa to lay out requests for the coming federal budget.

On the list was a call for an enhanced relationship meant, in part, as an insurance policy against municipal needs getting lost in provincial-federal tensions, something that Trudeau suggested may already be happening.

“We all serve the same citizens. We need to be doing it in a smart, strategic way,” he said.

“I think we all know how the political context is changing right now. We’re having sometimes certain challenges with the provinces in various ways,” Trudeau said at the start of the meeting.

Trudeau’s Liberals are odds with several provinces, including Ontario, notably on the issue of its climate change strategy. Municipal leaders fear those tensions could impair progress on initiatives, such as refugee settlement, that require discussions among all three levels of government.

“We need to be also thinking about scenarios where provinces are not co-operating. Unfortunately we’re seeing more of that than we’d like,” said Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, chair of the mayors’ caucus.

That’s why the mayors want the next federal budget — the Liberals’ last before the October election — to announce a “clear federal intention and timeline” to create an intergovernmental forum for federal-municipal discussions that would also be open to provincial and territorial leaders.

The mayors say the forum would recognize that the issues facing cities, such as refugees, opioid addictions, are increasingly complex.

“When it comes to almost everyone of these issues, transit, community safety, housing, the people who deliver the actual product … are cities. They’re just not at these tables where these kind of decisions are being discussed,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory, who was at the meeting.

The appeal for a new relationship stirs memories of former prime minister Paul Martin’s “new deal for cities,” which sought to give cities better funding and a better relationship with Ottawa.

Yet federal politicians have generally been reluctant to formalize relations with municipalities, which under the Constitution are the direct responsibility of the provinces, a concern the mayors are trying to put to rest.

“This does not require a constitutional amendment,” Iveson said. “This is just common sense and it requires political will,” .

But the mayors’ proposal for a new forum got a decidedly cool reception in the private meetings with ministers and later in public.

“I think we have to be respectful of the provinces and the reality that provinces do work directly with municipalities,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau told reporters after his meeting with municipal leaders.

And Dominic Leblanc, the minister of intergovernmental affairs, refused to speak to reporters at all about the municipal requests.

The mayors might have better luck with their other budget demands. Those include a request to make permanent federal funding for public transit, beyond the existing 10-year, $3.4-billion commitment that began in 2016. The promise of funding would facilitate planning for these long-term projects, the mayors say. In the meeting with Trudeau, Tory said he cited the example of plans for a new relief subway line — on accelerated time line, it would be finished in 2029, two years after the current federal funding expires.

Also on the wish list is $2 billion more to help municipalities adapt to climate change.

Trudeau struck a more hopeful note on the topic of infrastructure spending.

“From our particular perspective, investing in infrastructure in our big cities is one of the best ways to create jobs in the short term but also meaningful growth and support for our citizens in the long-term,” he said.

Tory used the session with Trudeau to add another priority to the list — federal funding to build new housing across the country to support people with mental illness and addictions.

The failure to provide adequate support now is taking a heavy social and financial toll, Tory said, estimating that it costs each Toronto resident $50 a year.

“That is for the cost of emergency services, policing, homeless shelters that are trying to cope with people,” he said.

“That’s just the monetary side. The other side of it is that these people who are suffering from these illnesses are not getting proper care,” Tory told the Star in an interview.

A city-led survey of some 2,000 people who have been homeless found that 32 per cent reported a mental health issue and 27 said they had an addiction issue.

Last year, Toronto city council asked the federal and provincial governments to fund up to 1,800 new units of supportive housing a year for 10 years. “We have to be looking at that kind of ambition on this,” Tory said.

Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier

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U.S.-China trade tensions deepen with Meng extradition request

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OTTAWA—The head of the U.S. China Business Council says he is concerned about China’s “nationalistic response” to the extradition arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

Craig Allen, a former U.S. diplomat and now president of the Washington-based group that promotes bilateral trade with China, said in an interview with the Star that China’s threats against the U.S. and arrests of two Canadians are especially worrying.

“I think President Trump really muddied the waters when he said he’d be willing, essentially, to link the two issues, that is the trade issue and allegations (against Meng) of criminal activity. And I think that was very unfortunate because it opened the door for allegations that this has been done for trade negotiating purposes.”

“And I think it behooves us, really, to keep legal and criminal types of issues separate and divorced from trade policy negotiating issues.”

Trump told Reuters in December he wouldn’t hesitate to intervene with the Justice Department in the Meng case: “Whatever’s good for this country, I would do.” He said, “If I think it’s good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made — which is a very important thing — what’s good for national security — I would certainly intervene if I thought it was necessary.”

As the deadline looms next week for the U.S. to submit its formal request, there is a lot of speculation in U.S. business circles about deep divisions within Trump’s chaotic White House over whether to proceed with the Meng extradition, with some suggestions of a split between administration “hawks” on China and those who want to drop the Meng case in order to secure a trade deal with China. Those rumours have reached industry circles in Canada as well, according to a source who spoke to the Star on condition of anonymity.

Allen told the Star he too has heard talk of differences of opinion within the Administration but had no direct knowledge of any discussions.

Nonetheless, the U.S. justice department through a spokesman said Tuesday publicly what it has conveyed privately to its Canadian counterpart, as the Star reported last week: it is going to press ahead with charges against Meng and will file necessary documents to support its extradition request with Canada’s justice department before the Jan. 30 deadline.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told a Bloomberg interviewer on Tuesday the Canadian government has not and will not ask the U.S. to drop its extradition request, saying it would be “absolutely wrong” to politicize the case.

Yet in Beijing, the Chinese government made clear Tuesday there would be an impact on the high-stakes U.S.-China trade talks if the extradition were to proceed.

“This case is a serious mistake and we urge the U.S. to immediately correct its mistake,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters.

“What the U.S. has done, with its egregious nature, severely infringes upon the legal and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens. China is firmly opposed to that. We urge the U.S. side to take seriously the solemn position of the Chinese side, take measures to correct its wrongdoings and withdraw its arrest order for the Chinese citizen. China will make further response in view of the actions taken by the U.S.”

Allen said many American businesses are concerned about the latest developments including China’s detention of Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor on unspecified allegations of violating national security laws.

“We’re waiting and watching to see what happens with Meng Wanzhou because there is absolutely a connection here. You’d have to be deliberately blind not to notice that,” he said.

The Trudeau government has protested Kovrig’s and Spavor’s arrests as “arbitrary” — the same word it used to describe a Chinese court’s ruling last week that converted a Canadian man’s 15-year jail term into a death sentence.

Beijing rejected Canada’s call for clemency, saying it will not interfere with “judicial sovereignty.”

“We’re thinking and praying for our Canadian friends who are in a difficult circumstance in China,” Allen said.

It has all made U.S. businesses, especially tech company employees who work in China, nervous about travel and determined to “scrupulously” follow local laws and regulations, he said.

A U.S. China Business Council survey of its members in 2018 showed American companies are worried about the “increasingly rocky” U.S.-China relationship.

The survey found 73 per cent reported their business is affected by bilateral trade tensions, with “political risk” in the bilateral relationship cited as the top concern. “And their political risk has risen as a result of the confrontational attitude between the two countries, and the threat of additional tariffs being imposed on March 2 if no accommodation is reached is a real threat,” said Allen.

Washington and Beijing have set a deadline to reach a trade agreement of March 1 but the two governments are at loggerheads over what the other regards as protectionist measures, especially when it comes to intellectual property, and forced technology transfers.

Both countries have imposed significant tariffs on the other, and Trump has threatened to double rates on Chinese exports if no deal is reached.

“I believe that could happen,” said Allen. “We all believe that that could happen and it would have quite large implications on bilateral trade and it would have negative implications on economic growth in the United States and probably China too, not to mention regional and global supply chains.”

“Business hates uncertainty,” he said.

So does Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau.

Morneau told the Star the day before Beijing stepped up its criticism of the U.S. that while the Canadian economy is doing well overall, the uncertainty created by U.S.-China trade tensions is “the bigger unknown” that could have an impact on global growth.

“The Canadian discussions, the diplomatic challenge we’re having with China, of course there will be impacts,” Morneau said Monday. “Our sense is that those impacts for some businesses could be something they’re considering, but more broadly for the economy they’re not the first thing we’re worried about, we’re looking more at the global trading situation as a bigger challenge.”

Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc

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Ottawa offers $1.6B backstop for energy sector as political tensions with Alberta fester

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The federal government is promising more than $1.6 billion — most of it in commercial loans —  to support the ailing energy sector, as political tensions in the Ottawa-Alberta relationship simmer.

Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi and International Trade Diversification Minister Jim Carr made the announcement in Edmonton this morning.

The bulk of the money, $1 billion in commercial support, comes from Export Development Canada’s coffers, the national export credit agency. It’s meant for oil and gas exporters who want to invest in new technologies and diversify their markets.

The funding package also includes $500 million over three years from the Business Development Bank of Canada, a Crown corporation, to help smaller companies increase operational and environmental efficiency, buy new technology and equipment or expand into new markets.

The government first made an official request to the EDC and BDC about making targeted money available this fall, said a senior government source.

An additional $150 million is pegged for clean growth and infrastructure projects — $50 million of it coming from Natural Resources Canada’s current Clean Growth Program, a $155 million investment fund for clean technology research and development.

Sohi said the money will be available immediately.

Concerned oil field workers watch as Canada’s Minister of International Trade Diversification Jim Carr, left, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources Amarjeet Sohi, centre and Randy Boissonnault, Edmonton M.P. speak during press conference to announce support for Canada’s oil and gas sector, in Edmonton on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

The price for Alberta’s crude tumbled to $11 a barrel in late November, inciting panic among industry players and politicians.

« When Alberta hurts, so does Canada, » said Sohi. 

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, who was not on hand for today’s announcement, has called on Ottawa to help the province buy new rail cars to ship two additional tanker trains full of Alberta crude out of the province every day.

Today’s funding announcement didn’t mention rail cars.

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney called the investment « too little, too late. » In a news release, Alberta’s opposition leader said if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government was serious about helping Alberta energy workers, it would nix Bill C-69 — legislation overhauling Canada’s energy project assessment system — and Bill C-48, which would ban oil tankers from the northern B.C. coast.

« Alberta’s NDP government made a critical mistake in putting all their faith in their alliance with the Trudeau Liberal government, and today Albertans are facing the consequences, » said Kenney.

Watch Sohi speak about aid for the energy industry

Federal Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi spoke to reporters in Edmonton on Tuesday 2:55

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Tensions high after fire set at refugee hotel

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Community advocates are alarmed that a Toronto hotel housing hundreds of asylum seekers appears to have become the target of anti-refugee sentiment after a fire was deliberately set in a hallway.

The Radisson Hotel in the city’s north-east, which is the temporary home to 570-plus so-called irregular migrants from the United States, was the scene of a blaze that sent all guests out onto the streets at around 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 2.

Community advocates have raised concern over right-wing radicalism after an attempted arson at a Toronto hotel where hundreds of recent irregular migrants are being housed.
Community advocates have raised concern over right-wing radicalism after an attempted arson at a Toronto hotel where hundreds of recent irregular migrants are being housed.  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

Toronto police say the fire was started in the third-floor hallway after a gasoline container was allegedly set alight. Police released a photograph Friday of a woman they are seeking in connection to the blaze, which is being investigated as arson. No injuries were reported.

The fire follows an online anti-refugee campaign involving postings on right-wing websites and included a video taken by trespassers showing what they claimed was vandalism by refugees staying at the hotel.

“It hits me as a Canadian how sad and disturbing it is. It’s not what we had expected of each other,” said Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI, an agency responsible for the irregular migrants. “Political leaders have a great influence on public opinions. The last thing we want is to see these far-rights nationalists be emboldened by virtue of our elected officials being silent and not dealing with these kinds of issues.”

Ten days after the incident, elected officials responded to requests for comment from the Star, offering the first public condemnation of the attack that has rattled refugees and their advocates.

“I can’t imagine how cruel and evil a person has to be to knowingly light a fire inside a hotel while people are sleeping. It is deeply concerning to even contemplate the possibility of this being a hate-motivated, targeted act aimed at innocent refugees,” Mayor John Tory said Friday.

“I know the vast majority of Toronto residents and Canadians wish them absolutely no harm. Every person in Canada has a right to feel safe and should not fear for their safety.”

Police released this image Friday of a woman wanted in an alleged arson attempt at the Radisson Hotel Oct. 2.
Police released this image Friday of a woman wanted in an alleged arson attempt at the Radisson Hotel Oct. 2.  (TORONTO POLICE)

Border Security Minister Bill Blair told the Star Ottawa has remained committed to orderly migration while protecting the safety and security of Canadians.

“Our government firmly believes that there is no place in Canada for intolerance and hatred and … we will continue to speak out against these cowardly acts,” he said.

There are currently 2,600 irregular migrants staying in Toronto’s shelter system and four hotels in the GTA are contracted to accommodate the overflow. The hotels will still be needed in the new year if the arrival of migrants continues at the same rate. The city is also planning to add 1,000 new shelter beds by the end of 2019.

Between January and August, 14,125 asylum seekers arrived in Canada through unguarded border crossings. After a brief dip in arrivals in May and June, the number rose again in July and August. Although almost all irregular migrants come in through Quebec, many are destined for English-speaking Ontario.

A recent Star series found a 20 to 25 per cent jump in the number of white nationalist and right-wing extremist groups operating in Canada over the last three years, estimating there are anywhere between 100 and 125 active groups from coast to coast. The growth has caused police and security agencies to reassess the threat the movement poses.

“The xenophobic and racist discourse that has been amplified over the past months must stop,” said Debbie Douglas of OCASI, an umbrella group that represents 200 immigrant settlement agencies in Ontario. “There must be a clear and unequivocal condemnation of these sentiments and actions from our political and civic leaders.”

Although the influx of irregular migrants from the U.S. started as early as late-2016 when Donald Trump was elected president and threatened immigration bans, the anti-refugee sentiment north of the border only began brewing this summer with concerns of irregular migrants flooding the city’s shelter system.

Officials had refused to disclose the location of the refugee shelters, but in June online comments began appearing on TripAdvisor, a hotel review website, with people outing the Radisson and trashing it as a “refugee holding centre.” The website suspended commenting on the hotel after it found some posts were unsubstantiated and not based on first-person experiences. The hotel management declined to comment when contacted by the Star.

Scorch marks were left in the third-floor hallway of a Radisson hotel in north-east Toronto after a gas can was allegedly set alight set alight there on Oct. 2.
Scorch marks were left in the third-floor hallway of a Radisson hotel in north-east Toronto after a gas can was allegedly set alight set alight there on Oct. 2.  (JULIE CRYSLER / CBC’S THE CURRENT)

“We’re living in a different dark world now,” said Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. “We have a premier who posed with a far-right mayoral candidate and wants people to believe that this (irregular migration) is a big problem and calls it illegal migration. It stokes the fire among people who are already leaning towards hating refugees and immigrants.”

According to COSTI’s Calla, three trespassers filmed refugees at the hotel in September and posted a degrading video showing the words “free money” and what they claimed was human excrement in the hallways.

Three other trespassing attempts by camera-wielding strangers were reported since then, after COSTI boosted security at the hotel with around-the-clock guards at all entrances.

“Now our clients are frightened and anxious. They are afraid to even go to the bus stop fearing people will seek them out,” said Calla, adding that refugees at the hotel have done nothing to vandalize the building as described in the video.

“These racist white nationalists intend to destroy our social cohesion. Canadians need to be aware of them and not tolerate these kinds of attitudes and ideology that are rooted in racism.”

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

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