Ryerson’s student union removes president amid questions over $700K in spending

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Ryerson University’s student union has impeached its president and suspended its vice-president of operations while it waits for the results of an audit of nearly $700,000 in spending.

The union’s board voted Monday night to remove president Ram Ganesh, and elected Maklane deWever as his replacement.

Ram Ganesh was removed as president of the Ryerson Students’ Union at a board meeting Monday night.
Ram Ganesh was removed as president of the Ryerson Students’ Union at a board meeting Monday night.  (Ryerson Students’ Union)

DeWever, a business major in his final year, told the Star he “reluctantly accepted” the appointment.

“Over the next two months, we will be starting the long and slow process of earning back students’ trust through real and meaningful action,” said deWever, 23, a student union board member who has been publicly pushing for transparency and accountability after he helped bring the questionable expenses to light.

The audit will review payments and credit card charges made over the past nine months by the union’s executive committee members. The student union’s operating budget is nearly $3 million, which comes from mandatory student fees — now a hot-button political issue as Premier Doug Ford recently moved to make such fees optional, claiming they bankroll “crazy Marxist nonsense.”

Despite protests from student groups, the provincial government announced last month that most student fees, which can add as much as $2,000 annually to post-secondary costs, would become an optional expense. Student leaders fear the decision could jeopardize a variety of programs that rely on union support, including mental health and sexual assault services as well as student newspapers like The Eyeopener, which uncovered the spending scandal at Ryerson.

Credit card statements in the name of Ryerson Student Union president Ram Ganesh.
Credit card statements in the name of Ryerson Student Union president Ram Ganesh.  (Eyeopener)

“What happened at Ryerson’s Student Union undermines the 52 years of hard work that our employees and student leaders have devoted to uplifting the Ryerson community,” DeWever wrote in a statement to the Star. “It is unfair to call our food bank, 96 student groups, centres for marginalized communities, legal aid and the voice we provide … Marxist nonsense. The Student Choice Initiative will kill student life and prevent us from providing services to the most vulnerable members of the Ryerson community. This does not mean that important financial reform is not needed.”

DeWever confirmed to the Star that a formal audit will “begin very shortly.” He said he’s not sure how long it will take.

During an emergency meeting earlier this month, the student board heard that Ganesh “chose to be” the executive’s “main point of contact” with a company hired to stage a concert at a nightclub that cost more than $400,000 in January. The union’s professional accountant told the group she had received no information about ticket sales for the event or any of the $350,000 she said she was told the union would receive in sponsorship money.

When the Star called Ganesh’s cellphone for comment Tuesday, a man answered. When a Star reporter identified herself and asked to speak with Ganesh, the man said, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk,” and hung up. A followup text to the same number received no response.

Ganesh’s student status was not immediately clear. Some board members told the Star he has graduated from the school’s engineering program while others believe he is still attending classes. Ryerson University’s spokesperson was not immediately available for comment. In an earlier statement, Johanna VanderMaas said the school takes allegations of financial mismanagement very seriously but “has no ability to conduct an independent investigation” because the union is a separate entity with its own governance structure.

Ganesh attended Monday’s impeachment. He abstained from voting on the motion, according to The Eyeopener. Reporters not affiliated with campus media were barred from the meeting.

Savreen Gosal was suspended from her role as the union’s vice-president of operations until an accounting firm completes its audit.

The Eyeopener reported that Ganesh and Gosal were responsible for the student union’s credit card and may have charged more than $270,000 in unusual purchases.

Ganesh told student reporters that the union’s credit cards could be used by any part-time or full-time union staff member. Credit card statements provided to the student newspaper showed more than $2,500 spent at a Cineplex theatre, $2,300 at a bar and nearly $800 at an LCBO.

The Toronto Star has not received copies of these statements to verify the accuracy of these expenses.

Diana Zlomislic is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @dzlo

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Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs calls out ‘racist and sexist’ treatment of Wilson-Raybould

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A group of First Nation leaders is calling on the prime minister to quash what they view as  « racist and sexist innuendo » dogging Veterans Affairs Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould

The former justice minister is at the centre of recent claims that the Prime Minister’s Office pressured her to help Quebec -based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution.

Over the weekend, The Canadian Press ran a story quoting anonymous sources who described Wilson-Raybould as someone who had « become a thorn in the side of the cabinet » before she was shuffled to her new role last month. She was also called « someone … [who] was difficult to get along with, known to berate fellow cabinet ministers openly at the table, and who others felt they had trouble trusting. »

A source, described as an « insider who didn’t want to be identified, » told the news agency that Wilson-Raybould has « always sort of been in it for herself » and « everything is very Jody-centric. »

Those comments « cowardly low blows, » says a statement released Tuesday by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

« They perpetuate colonial-era, sexist stereotypes that Indigenous women cannot be powerful, forthright and steadfast in positions of power, but rather confrontational, meddling and egotistic, » says the news release from the group, which has been critical of the Liberal government in the past on pipeline issues. 

« These comments from your staff must be recognized for what they are — blatant sexism. »

Investigation launched 

Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes also leapt to her caucus colleague’s defence online, tweeting Sunday that Wilson-Raybould is « fierce, smart, and unapologetic. »

« When women speak up and out, they are always going to be labelled. Go ahead. Label away. We are not going anywhere, » she wrote.

« It has been reported by insiders of your government that she was someone ‘who others felt they had trouble trusting’ and has reportedly ‘been in it for herself’ such that « everything is very Jody-centric. »

The B.C. group — headed by Grand Chief Stewart Phillip —  urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau « to take responsibility for your behaviour and that of your government, » and called into question his commitment to the Crown-Indigenous relationship.

« If you do not condemn these harmful statements and apologize … you not only reaffirm a colonial belief system that Indigenous women are inferior and disposable, but the hypocrisy of your professed feminism and ‘most important relationship’ with Indigenous people will be laid bare for all Canadians to see, » the group’s release concludes.

On Monday, federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion launched an investigation into allegations the PMO wanted Wilson-Raybould to direct federal prosecutors to make a « deferred prosecution agreement » (DPA) — a deal akin to a plea bargain — to avoid taking SNC-Lavalin to trial on bribery and fraud charges.

Dion informed the NDP MPs who requested the investigation that there is sufficient cause to proceed with an inquiry.

Watch the Power Panel discuss the latest developments in the SNC-Lavalin controversy

The Power Panel – Rachel Curran, Brad Lavigne, Yolande James and John Paul Tasker discuss the federal ethics commissioner’s announcement that he’s looking into the SNC-Lavalin controversy. 11:58

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Union calls for binding arbitration to end Saskatoon Co-op contract dispute – Saskatoon

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The union representing striking workers at Saskatoon Co-op is calling on the company to agree to binding arbitration to settle a contract dispute.

UFCW Local 1400 made the request after talks between the two sides broke down on Friday.

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READ MORE:
Judge dismisses petition to remove Saskatoon Co-op board of directors

At issue between the two sides is Saskatoon Co-op’s desire to introduce a second-tier wage scale.

“In the spirit of true negotiation, (we) started to bargain a second tier,” the union said in a press release.

“It provided proposals allowing for a second tier that included a bridge that provided a limited number of employees who had been working at Co-op for four years, to finally move to the main wage grid.”

Co-op said the offer made by the union substantially reduced the wage difference between new and current employees in key positions.

“We came to (Friday’s) discussions ready to make compromises because we wanted to get another offer for our employees to vote on and, hopefully, end the labour dispute,” said Saskatoon Co-op CEO Grant Wicks in a statement.

‘It was disappointing to see the union go back on an understanding we’d already reached, refuse to consider our counter-proposal and then walk away from the negotiations.”


READ MORE:
Striking Saskatoon Co-op employees reject latest contract offer

UFCW said the next step is to submit to binding arbitration, with both sides presenting their last offer.

“Management’s excuse that they would rather bargain is no longer credible,” the union said.

“Their repeated refusals to bargain once again leads us to invite management to participate in the process of binding arbitration.”

Co-op said UFCW has negotiated other contracts that include wage tiers.

“The union continues to push binding arbitration, but they have bargained multiple wage tier agreements with our competitors in Saskatoon without arbitration or labour disputes,” Wicks said.

“Because the proposal we wanted to share with the union is strong and includes compromises that employees have asked for, we’re still optimistic that we can work with the union to share our proposal with employees and give them a chance to vote.”


READ MORE:
UFCW picketers rally outside FCL in downtown Saskatoon

Co-op said current employees are still being offered a two per cent annual raise, back pay, signing bonuses, and industry-competitive benefits.

Roughly 900 UFCW members walked off the job Nov. 1, 2018, after the two sides failed to reach an agreement on a new contract.

Co-op said the retail landscape has changed and a second-tier wage scale will help ensure the long-term vitality of the company.

Sixty per cent of UFCW members who voted rejected an offer by the company at the beginning of January.

Co-op said roughly 200 union members have returned to work since the strike started.

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

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Ryerson’s student union facing forensic audit of $700K in questionable expenses

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The dollar figure at the heart of a spending scandal at Ryerson University has now soared beyond half a million.

During an emergency meeting at the downtown Toronto campus on Friday night, the board of directors for Ryerson’s student union passed a motion approving a forensic audit that will review nearly $700,000 in questionable spending over a nine-month period.

The board of directors for Ryerson’s student union have approved a forensic audit that will review nearly $700,000 in questionable spending over a nine-month period.
The board of directors for Ryerson’s student union have approved a forensic audit that will review nearly $700,000 in questionable spending over a nine-month period.  (Chris Young / THE CANADIAN PRESS file photo)

In addition to thousands of dollars charged to the student union credit card at a Toronto nightclub and other potentially problematic expenses totalling $273,000, the audit will also review $415,000 paid to stage a music concert at a nightclub on January 19, 2019.

“I was told we would get $350,000 in sponsorship,” Dharshini Jay, the student union’s financial controller, said to the board. “Nothing came through.” She said the “$50,000 to $60,000” promised in ticket sales also never materialized. Student union executives had been expected to submit all receipts related to credit card charges on Friday. Jay, a professional chartered accountant hired to work for the union in June 2016, told the meeting she has not yet seen the receipts, which are expected to detail how the expenses relate to line items in the approved budget.

Ryerson’s student union has an operating budget of $2.7 million. The group is run by a five-member executive elected from the student body that oversees more than 90 campus groups and runs various programs, including free legal aid and tax clinics. The money the union uses comes from mandatory student fees.

Daniel Lis, chair of the meeting, began the session by addressing the hundreds of students who waited outside of the auditorium for more than an hour to hear what the board and executive members had to say. Lis explained that the executive’s elected president, Ram Ganesh, refused to attend the meeting because he feared for his safety.

“I understand that many of you are frustrated … and angry,” Lis said, but “there is absolutely no justification for death threats or threats of violence. None of that will be tolerated today.”

Another student executive resigned before the meeting, leaving three elected representatives to address concerns raised by board members and students. For the most part, they had little to say.

Edmund Sofo, vice-president of student life and events, told the audience he had no idea how many tickets were sold for last month’s Loud Fest concert at Rebel nightclub in the industrial Port Lands.

Sofo said Ganesh “chose to be” the executive’s “main point of contact” with the company, which is within his scope as president.

Ganesh’s lawyer and the student union did not respond on Saturday to the Star’s requests for comment following this board meeting.

A campus newspaper, The Eyeopener, reported that Ganesh had explained the union’s credit cards can be used by any part-time or full-time union staff member.

The board said it recognized that the student union’s events committee and full-time events planner were not involved in organizing the concert. It voted to obtain a breakdown of concert expenses and revenues, as well as an overview of free tickets distributed.

Ryerson spokesperson Johanna VanderMaas told the Star the school takes allegations of financial mismanagement “very seriously.” She noted the union is a separate corporate entity from Ryerson with its own governance structure and board of directors so the university “has no ability to conduct an independent investigation into RSU finances.” She said the school’s president, Mohamed Lachemi, has requested a meeting with the union’s executive members.

On Friday, the student union’s board voted to give itself “clear jurisdiction” to review the executives’ financial documents, including credit card statements and receipts.

Earlier this week, Jay showed the union’s student group director Maklane deWever union expenses dating back to May. DeWever’s role is to represent students’ voices to the board. He said all the credit card bills have been paid. He had told the Star “many of the expenses” were legitimate but others sparked concern.

The statements, obtained by Ryerson student newspaper The Eyeopener, showed thousands of dollars spent by the union on food, alcohol and places like clubs and shisha bars. Photos of the credit card statements were published on the Facebook page of a political student group called the Rhino Party, as well as The Eyeopener. The Star has not verified the authenticity of these photos. The statements have not been provided to the Star.

Raneem Alozzi, a Ryerson student and reporter at The Eyeopener, described Friday’s meeting as “tense.”

Reporters not affiliated with the university were not permitted to attend the meeting. Toronto Star reporters viewed livestream and recorded broadcasts of the meeting posted to Facebook.

“I think students want answers, and they want answers overnight,” Alozzi said. “But it’s going to be a much longer process.”

With files from Isabel Teotonio and Premila D’Sa.

Diana Zlomislic is an investigative reporter working the weekend shift covering breaking news. Follow her on Twitter: @dzlo

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Class size, teacher hiring part of new education consultations, leaving one teachers union wary

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Class sizes and hiring rules could be in for changes under the Ford government, which has just launched consultations with education unions and trustee associations.

However, the head of Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario called the talks “concerning and disturbing.”

Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario.
Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.  (Jim Rankin / Toronto Star)

The government began discussions with teacher unions on Wednesday by “highlighting the $15-billion deficit, the need to reduce that deficit and … leading to potential cuts in education,” said ETFO president Sam Hammond.

“Make no mistake, they are talking about removing” class-size caps in elementary school and especially for full-day kindergarten.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson said in a statement that the government is “modernizing the way we fund education in a responsible manner and we are eager to hear the innovative ideas of educators and sector partners.”

Read more:

Sex-ed curriculum ‘doesn’t talk about consent enough,’ Thompson says

Sex-ed rollback, launch of snitch line, created ‘chill’ among teachers, court hears

Violence in Ontario schools prompts call for more front-line staff

Also up for discussion is the rule known as “Regulation 274” — the bane of principals and school boards that argue they can’t hire the best fit for any position because the rules force them to choose supply teachers with the most seniority for long-term and permanent positions.

Put in place to curb nepotism and liked by the unions, it has nonetheless caused troubles for members who lose seniority as they move from board to board.

Minister of Education Lisa Thompson during question period in the Ontario Legislature, July 18, 2018.
Minister of Education Lisa Thompson during question period in the Ontario Legislature, July 18, 2018.  (Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star)

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, struck a more conciliatory tone than his elementary counterpart, saying “We are absolutely prepared to engage in consultation with this government and can offer, as we have in the past, solutions to some outstanding problems with the hiring regulation.

“Understandably, we remain committed to protecting locally negotiated class size limits that respond to local circumstances and support student achievement as well as the staff complement that provides for excellent and unique programming around the province.”

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

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Union wants Canada Post to start low-income bank and green shift. Sounds nice, but who pays?

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As arbitration grinds on at Canada Post following back-to-work legislation passed in November, the union has made a series of proposals beyond standard contract negotiations on wages and benefits: they want the Crown corporation to open a new bank for low-income people and turn the post office into a hub for green technology

With one of the country’s largest vehicle fleets that could be converted from gas to electric power, 6,000 distribution outlets where electric car-charging stations for consumers could be built, and old buildings ready to be retrofitted with solar panels, the post office is well positioned to help Canada transition to a greener economy, said the union’s president.

There’s one major problem with the ambitious proposal, according to critics: Who’s going to pay for it?

Debates over how institutions should reduce their carbon footprint — and how the changes should be financed —  are playing out across the public and private sectors as leading scientists warn the world has just 12 years to drastically reduce emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change. 

« Climate change is the biggest challenge facing humanity, » Mike Palecek, president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) said in an interview. « We have to address it … Canada Post is the biggest piece of federal infrastructure, it has the largest vehicle fleet in the country, it would be a good place to start. »

He couldn’t say how much the proposals would cost.

Canada Post declined to comment on demands for a postal bank and the green retrofit. « With the arbitration process now underway, it would be inappropriate to comment on specific negotiations issues, » a spokesperson told CBC News by email. « We are committed to the process and are fully engaged with the union and the arbitrator. »    

A government-appointed arbitrator is expected to announce a deal for a new contract in March, after workers on rotating strikes were legislated back to work in late November amid long delays for packages amid the Christmas delivery rush.

Banking on change

The proposed postal bank is aimed at rural residents, including First Nations, who often don’t have easy access to a bank branch, said John Anderson, researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a think-tank whose advocacy areas include reducing income inequality. It would also benefit low-income Canadians, including pensioners and the working poor who often depend on payday lenders for loans, cheque cashing and other financial services.

Popular in France, the U.K., Italy and other countries, postal banking in Canada would almost certainly be profitable, he said, citing a 2016 survey that suggested three million Canadians and about one-third of businesses would use financial services from the post office.

Management at Canada Post — including president and CEO Jessica McDonald, at the podium, and CFO Wayne Cheeseman, left — has not been receptive to demands for a green retrofit or postal banking, the union says. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The post office already handles financial transactions, and the federal government runs other successful banking organizations, such as the Export Bank of Canada and Farm Credit Canada, Anderson added.

Canada’s federal pension plan even invested in China’s postal bank, he said, indicating that such plans are financially viable. 

« The federal government — through its ownership of Canada Post —  is the only body that could bring modern financial services to every community in Canada, » Anderson said. « That would be great competition for the big banks, which are profitable partially because of the high service fees they charge compared to other banks worldwide. »

Taxpayer interests

Canada Post hasn’t been receptive to demands for the green retrofit or the postal bank, according to CUPW’s president.

That’s a good thing, said Alex Whalen, vice-president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based think-tank that supports reducing government spending.

« I don’t think taxpayer interests would be served by those proposals, » Whalen said. « The concern has to be that there are public dollars involved. »

As a Crown corporation, Canada Post is required to be financially self-sustaining. With more than 60,000 employees, the company made a pre-tax profit of $74 million in 2017, largely due to increased parcel delivery thanks to Amazon, according to its financial statements. Investing in projects outside of its core mandate of delivering mail could jeopordize its profitability, Whalen said.

« If there were good returns in this kind of business, the private sector would already be doing it, » Whalen said of the proposed postal bank. « If the union thinks this is a great idea, are they going to be an investor in the bank? »

Pension financing?

To finance the union’s proposals, there is one obvious source of funds outside of asking taxpayers or the company: workers’ pensions.

With about $25 billion under management, stocks in the big Canadian banks and oil companies — some of the very industries the union’s proposals are trying to tackle — make up some of the largest investments for postal workers’ pensions, according to 2017 financial statements

The workers, however, have no say over how their pensions are invested, Paleck said. « We have no decision-making power whatsoever. »

Canada Post workers seen here during the last hours on the picket line in Montreal on Nov. 27, 2018, before returning to work, ordered by the government to end their rotating strike. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press )

That situation isn’t unusual for Canadian workers, said Tessa Hebb, a researcher at Carleton University’s Centre for Community Innovation who specializes in responsible investing.

« Some representation from employees would be really beneficial, both for the positive components for adjusting to a low-carbon economy and also for the basic protections for workers, » from bad decisions by pension fund managers, she said.

However, she cautions against the idea of using pension funds from CUPW to finance new initiatives at Canada Post like the postal bank or green retrofit.

« You don’t want the pension funds to be constrained in investing in their own business, » Hebb said. « The legal term for that is self-dealing. »

Such moves have often hurt workers when the companies themselves face financial trouble and look to their employees’ pension funds as a source of capital, she said, citing the examples of Sears and Nortel Networks.

In the U.S., pensions under union control — or funds jointly managed by workers and management — have made a series of profitable investments in green technologies or urban renewal projects like affordable housing, she said. And there’s no reason why similar successes couldn’t be replicated in Canada. 

« Ten years ago, if you were a pension fund in California and you were an early investor in Tesla, you certainly made your money back and then some, » Hebb said. « The shift to a low-carbon economy is going to bring forward some really interesting investment opportunities. »

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Attempt to engage Manitoba’s civil service with garden gnome mascot insulting, tone-deaf: union

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An attempt by the Manitoba government to better engage with its employees — using a ceramic garden gnome — has come up short, says the president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union.

Just before the holiday break, government employees were sent an email from the head of the province’s civil service, introducing them to Gerome G. Gnome — a garden gnome billed as the government’s « engagement champion. »

« The purpose of Gerome is to facilitate engagement, through sharing stories and highlighting the inspiring work of our public servants in a fun and light-hearted way, » reads the Dec. 21 email to government employees from Fred Meier, clerk of the executive council.

The email also included an introduction from « Gerome » — written in the first person.

« I come from a long line of gnomes who have been featured in European myths and legends, » the introduction reads.

The email included photos of the garden gnome at various locations across Manitoba.

The Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union says the government’s use of a ceramic garden gnome as a way to engage with the civil service is poorly timed. (Government of Manitoba illustration)

« Now that social media is a ‘thing,’ families are taking their gnomes on vacations and taking photos of them in unique and memorable locations, » Gerome’s introduction reads.

« This is a great way to appreciate gnomes, as we do love seeing the world. »

The email also promises that Gerome will be visiting government workplaces.

« I can’t wait to meet you and help you share your stories about what you do, how you do it, and why it’s so cool and important, » the email says.

‘Insensitive’ in light of cuts: MGEU

Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, calls the move « insensitive » in light of the Progressive Conservative government’s pledge to cut 1,200 civil service jobs and the coming expiration of a no-layoff clause that has protected government jobs.

The clause expires March 29, when the government’s agreement with the public sector lapses.

« Timing is everything, » said Gawronsky of the gnome’s appearance.

« We are all for meaningful engagement and strong communication … but right now, when the people who deliver our public services are facing so much uncertainty … sending a ceramic statue around to government offices feels a little tone-deaf, » she said.

Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, calls Gerome G. Gnome a ‘tone-deaf’ engagement tactic. (Travis Golby/CBC)

« The vast majority of our members are looking for something a bit more meaningful — stability in their jobs, ensuring that they have the ability to make their mortgage payments and feed their children, » said Gawronsky.

« These are adults that are providing needed services to Manitoba.… It just feels so, so wrong in my book. It just feels so insulting. »

MGEU officials have said they know of around 150 government jobs that will be cut through privatization and contracting out, including about 50 each in special operations and Manitoba Government Air Services, 30 positions at the provincially run tree nursery, eight jobs in French translation services and up to 11 jobs in the government’s real estate services division.

‘We are trying to increase dialogue’

In the email sent to employees, Meier said the idea for Gerome came from a group of public servants, and the campaign was launched after an employee engagement survey was conducted.

The survey saw response from over 7,000 employees — a participation rate of just slightly better than 50 per cent.

In a statement to CBC News, Meier said the gnome was introduced as a way to spur communication while changes are implemented to the public service through the government’s civil service transformation strategy, launched last February.

« The public service is in the midst of significant change. In past surveys, we have heard from employees that they want more communication from leadership, » reads the statement.

« The gnome is one of several ways that we are trying to increase dialogue within the public service regarding engagement, allowing department leadership and employees to use it as a way to encourage dialogue and share achievements within their departments and beyond. »

While she appreciates the effort to open lines of communication between employees and the government, Gawronsky said Gerome G. Gnome isn’t the way to go about it.

« We don’t need a ceramic statue to sit in between us while we communicate. » 


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Postal workers delivering parcels 7 days a week ahead of Christmas, union says

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Postal workers in Canada are delivering parcels seven days a week to ensure they will be in time for the holidays, says Canada Post’s largest union.

Mike Palecek, national president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), said in an email on Monday that union members are working every day of the week following weeks of rotating strikes across the country. The union was legislated back to work on Nov. 27.

Palecek said the union cannot confirm a claim made by Canada Post in a statement on Saturday that the company has a backlog of six million parcels. Canada Post has said it cannot guarantee packages will be delivered in time for the holidays because of the backlog.

« If a six-million parcel backlog exists, it has nothing to do with CUPW rotating strikes, and sounds more like poor planning from Canada Post to deliver the holidays, » he said.

Minister names mediator-arbitrator

In a statement on its website on Monday, the union said federal Labour Minister Patty Hajdu has appointed Elizabeth MacPherson as mediator-arbitrator in the dispute. The government indicated in legislation that it would do so.

« Your negotiating committee did everything possible to avoid this legislation, » the union said.

« However, because of the legislation, we will work with the mediator-arbitrator to attempt to negotiate good collective agreements and avoid arbitration. We believe in our right to free collective bargaining but we will reluctantly participate in this legislated process. »

The Canada Post logo is seen on the outside a processing centre. Two weeks after the federal government legislated an end to rotating strikes by Canada Post employees, it has appointed a mediator-arbitrator to bring an end to the labour dispute. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Palecek said CUPW negotiators are still at a downtown hotel in Ottawa, where they have been since July, to work out collective agreements for their members. 

Canada Post negotiators leave, union says

He said Canada Post negotiators have left the premises.

« Canada Post moved out of the hotel over the weekend, giving us the impression that they have given up on collective bargaining and will simply wait for the arbitrator-mediator to impose agreements on our members, » he said.

« CUPW remains fully committed to achieving negotiated settlements that ensure the health and safety of our members and equality for all workers. »

Since the strikes officially ended, protests have taken place outside some Canada Post facilities. Palecek said the pickets have been organized by other unions in support of postal workers.

« CUPW has not organized any pickets. Our members are back at work. We do not know when or where our allies may demonstrate solidarity with postal workers being legislated back to work, » he said.

Inventory nearly triple last year’s

On Saturday, Canada Post said in a statement that the backlogged parcels are in postal yards and off-site locations across the country.

« Our employees are doing excellent work, but backlogs and heavy incoming volumes of parcels and continued illegal picketing is impacting our ability to keep up, » the corporation said.

« Our inventory is almost three times the level it was last year, with only three weeks until Christmas. »

It said parcel deliveries are continuing but will be delayed during the holiday season and into January.

Canada Post said there are delays of up to several weeks for parcels arriving from other countries, with the delays expected to diminish throughout December, and there may be « modest delays » for some parcels leaving Canada for other countries.

As for letter mail, the corporation said the backlog should be cleared and deliveries made in time for Christmas.

According to CUPW, the union wants better pay and job security, guaranteed hours for its 8,000 rural and suburban carriers, and equality for those workers with the corporation’s 42,000 urban employees. It also wants Canada Post to adopt rules that would address workplace injuries.

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TTC union warns Presto too unreliable for agency to end Metropass program next month

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The union representing TTC workers is warning that the Presto fare card system is still plagued by reliability issues and isn’t capable of handling the influx of users expected when the agency discontinues the Metropass program next month.

In a Dec. 4 letter sent to Premier Doug Ford, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 recounts a litany of problems with Presto devices he says have been observed by union members. He argues TTC workers rather than contractors hired by Presto should take responsibility for upkeep of the fare devices in order to improve reliability.

“Unfortunately, Presto is not ready,” reads the letter, which is signed by ATU Local 113 president Frank Grimaldi and was obtained exclusively by the Star.

“It is critical that Metrolinx, the TTC, and the Ontario government take immediate and urgent action to fix the Presto fare card system’s failures to ensure a smooth transition of Metropass users to the Presto fare card system.”

Both TTC management and Metrolinx, which oversees the Presto system, counter the union’s assertion, saying the system is prepared for the switch.

On Jan. 1, the TTC plans to end its Metropass program, which currently accounts for about 40 per cent of all trips on the system. Customers will be able to buy a monthly pass on their electronic Presto card instead, and about 200,000 customers are expected make the switch.

Quoting anonymously from statements purportedly made by some of the union’s 11,500 transit workers, the letter says that malfunctioning fare card readers can mean that between 10 and 20 per cent of fares aren’t being paid during a typical bus driver’s shift.

The union also asserts that it can take up to an hour for Presto fare readers to go live once a driver starts their vehicle, and reload machines at subway stations sometimes take customers’ money without putting any funds on their cards.

The union also says it can take hours, days, or even weeks for Presto to send someone to fix a faulty device, during which time vehicles can be taken out of service.

Presto is responsible for maintenance of most fare card devices. The main exception is fare gates at subway stations, which are owned by the TTC. However, the software that operates the gates is Presto’s responsibility.

Metrolinx contracts out the maintenance of the Presto system to private firms, including the devices’ manufacturer, a German company called Scheidt & Bachmann.

The union argues that Presto reliability would improve if TTC workers, who already operate and maintain transit vehicles, were also authorized to handle repairs to the fare card machines.

Grimaldi’s letter calls on the province to “end the privatization and contracting out” of work on the TTC.

TTC spokesperson Heather Brown said the agency has procedures in place with Metrolinx to ensure “Presto contractors are on site within a timely manner” to address any malfunctions.

“Presto carries out first and second line maintenance activities every night at all garages and streetcar houses. Card readers are repaired within 24 hours” except if the vehicle is in service or undergoing repairs, she said.

Brown said the reliability of Presto readers on buses and streetcars is above 98 per cent, and the devices take an average of only three to five minutes to go live once a bus driver starts the vehicle. She acknowledged it could take longer if Presto has performed a recent software update, but the TTC has no record of it taking up to an hour.

“We are confident that Presto is ready for the transition away from Metropasses,” Brown said.

Annalise Czerny, executive vice-president for Presto at Metrolinx, also said the agency is ready to take on former Metropass users. She noted that last month 800,000 TTC riders per day used Presto.

She acknowledged the “mixed accountabilities” that result from Presto being responsible for maintenance of fare card devices on vehicles controlled by the TTC can cause challenges, but the two agencies work together to resolve any issues.

“To be fair, it’s taken the organizations a bit of time to get those processes in place because that is part of the change,” she said.

“I think we’re getting better and better. Compared to where we were a year ago, we’re improving. We’re seeing our stats consistently getting better.”

The Presto system was intended to modernize fare payment on Toronto’s transit network but has been controversial ever since the provincial government imposed it on the TTC in 2011.

Presto devices initially experienced high failure rates, and the system’s full implementation on the TTC has repeatedly been delayed even as costs exceeded original estimates. Despite initial assurances it would save the TTC money, the agency now believes Presto will cost more per year than its outgoing system of tickets, tokens and passes.

This week the TTC announced the debit and credit payment options will be removed from the Presto fares and transfer machines on its new streetcars. It said the function, which made it easier for riders to pay their fares, was causing the machines to be unreliable.

As the Star reported in October, an internal TTC document said that Presto devices continued to perform below reliability targets and at levels “not sustainable over the long term given the impact on customers, revenue, and reputation.” The TTC has billed Metrolinx for $4.2 million in lost revenue it says it incurred as a result of faulty Presto devices over two years.

The TTC plans to stop accepting tickets and tokens in favour of Presto at the end of next year.

A spokesperson for the premier didn’t return a request for comment Thursday.

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

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As politicians blame pipelines for Alberta’s oil woes, labour union says past governments ignored upgraders and refineries

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CALGARY—Alberta’s energy minister was on the defensive Monday, fending off accusations the NDP government ignored or downplayed warnings as early as this spring about the price-differential crisis now gripping the oil industry.

Shortly after Premier Rachel Notley announced on Sunday a temporary cut in oil production of 8.7 per cent — a bid, starting in January, to reduce the price gap and increase revenue — Alberta Party Leader Stephen Mandel accused the government of sitting idly by as the differential widened.

“I’m not sure why any government wouldn’t have a program in place that allowed the changes and the reduction and curtailment to happen earlier rather than wait for as long as they have,” Mandel told reporters.

While opposition parties took aim at the NDP and the federal government, political observers and industry watchers say the current crisis was decades in the making. They argue successive Alberta governments are to blame for ignoring advice to pace oilsands development and encourage energy companies to upgrade and refine bitumen into higher-valued petroleum products.

In recent months, the price differential between Alberta crude, known as Western Canadian Select, and West Texas Intermediate has grown due to an oversupply of oil and lack of pipeline access. The differential is costing the Canadian economy an estimated $80 million a day, according to the province.

Energy Minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd told reporters Monday she wasn’t sure when the provincial government learned about the impending differential crisis but maintained the NDP took action immediately.

“I don’t know the exact timeline,” McCuaig-Boyd said. “We’ve known that this has been an ongoing issue, this differential. Not sure of the timeline, but it’s certainly not like we sat back and did nothing.”

The mandatory curtailment would see the production of raw crude and bitumen slashed by 325,000 barrels a day in the New Year, with a 10,000 barrel per day exemption for smaller producers. The province expects the reduction to fall to an average cut of 95,000 barrels per day by the end of 2019.

Notley said she expected the move to reduce the price gap by $4 US per barrel and add about $1.1 billion to government coffers.

At a news conference Sunday, United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney called it a “difficult moment for Alberta” but said the premier’s announcement was needed to stem the differential. Still, the opposition leader slammed the federal government for failing to build pipelines in recent years.

“We never should have been in this position,” Kenney said.

The differential — while impacted by many factors — is being dealt with by government curtailment because there are currently 35 million extra barrels in storage in Alberta that can’t be moved out due to a lack of pipeline capacity.

The government is cutting production in the hopes this number goes down. However, most political leaders agree the province needs more pipelines as an ultimate solution.

Kenney criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s veto of the Northern Gateway pipeline in 2016. First proposed in the mid-2000s, the pipeline could have been operational in 2019, moving an estimated 500,000 barrels per day.

He also called out former U.S. President Barack Obama for his 2015 veto of the Keystone XL pipeline, first proposed in 2008.

TransCanada’s Energy East was another pipeline that never saw the light of day. It would have moved hundreds of thousands of barrels per day to Eastern Canada in the hopes it replaced foreign-bought oil, Kenney said.

And most recently, in August, the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion was quashed by a Federal Court of Appeal because the federal government had not consulted with Indigenous groups properly and not fully considered coastal tanker traffic. The increase would have allowed around 600,000 additional barrels per day to be sent from Edmonton to Burnaby on the B.C. coast.

Kenney said that Alberta produces around four million barrels per day, with three million being shipped through pipelines and by rail. Alberta refineries use about 600,000 for domestic consumption in Western Canada, he said, leaving 400,000 extra every day to fill the growing backlog.

Both Kenney and Notley are calling for more pipelines as a solution to the differential and in the hope it boosts the energy economy. Even though the premier has said she would buy around 7,000 rail cars to ship 120,000 more barrels per day beginning in late 2019, it’s not an ideal situation.

“You might want to think of that next time you’re held up at a rail crossing,” Notley said to activists who oppose pipelines.

But this predicament was decades in the making, says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. McGowan points to the blueprint laid out by former premier Peter Lougheed: ensuring each approved oilsands project came with an upgrader attached.

“The policies pursued and promoted by the conservative governments that followed Lougheed amounted to nothing short of gross negligence,” said McGowan.

“If we had built more upgraders, if we had more refineries, we wouldn’t be in the mess that we’re in today because the supply glut could have been drawn down.”

He took aim at the talking point often raised by Kenney and other politicians that the Energy East pipeline would replace foreign-bought oil, noting the biggest refinery in Eastern Canada, owned by Irving Oil, can’t refine heavy crude from Alberta.

Further, he added, “Energy East wasn’t going to go to the Irving refinery; it was going to go to an export terminal owned by Irving right next door, and it could be shipped out of Canada.”

Duane Bratt, a professor of political science at Mount Royal University, said Alberta has been subjected to the price differential for decades, once referred to as the bitumen bubble by former premier Alison Redford.

While the NDP strongly advocated for additional upgraders and refineries when it was in opposition, that talk waned after the party took office in 2015 and realized how much those projects cost, said Bratt.

Refineries require billions of dollars in capital, he explained, and companies, particularly those with facilities in other jurisdictions, are understandably reluctant to invest in new projects.

“People often talk about upgrading and refineries, except for those experts in the sector and people once they get into government,” Bratt said.

Kieran Leavitt is an Edmonton-based reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @kieranleavitt

Trevor Howell is an urban affairs reporter with StarMetro Calgary. Follow him on Twitter: @tshowell

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