Friday, February 24, 2017

Windsor school board cancels trips to the United States

The Greater Essex County District School Board in Windsor, Ontario, Canada has decided to cancel all student trips to the United States for the rest of February.

The board expressed uncertainty over whether all students would be allowed to cross the border. Board officials said that Trump's ban on travellers from seven nations meant that the board could not guarantee that every student could be able to go with the group. Board spokesperson Scott Scantlebury said:
"Our priority is the safety and well being of students. Having to, for whatever reason, have a student travelling on a field trip be barred from entry or be left behind ... we're not going to proceed if that is the possibility."Scantlebury noted that the decision is not permanent policy but will be reconsidered after Trump's orders are resolved in US courts. Scantlebury also said: “Where one person doesn’t go, nobody goes … we want to make sure nobody is excluded." Windsor has multicultural schools with students from many countries.
Clara Howitt, a superintendent with the Board said that field trips were being cancelled to the U.S. because the current U.S. political climate was considered too "unsafe" and unpredictable to permit cross-border trips. She said: “Paramount for us is student safety … we really don’t know what will happen to our students at the border.” Ottawa has begun monitoring the situation, particularly that of dual citizens who have been denied entrance at the border. Among the trips cancelled were to the Metro Detroit Holocaust Memorial Center.
Windsor West MP Brian Masse says he has already heard of Canadians turned back. He says he has even heard of Americans not coming to visit Canada because they fear what could happen at the border when they try to return. Superintendent Howit consulted with U.S. border officials before the board made its decision. The reply was that any students who were citizens of the seven listed countries would be barred from crossing. This was before the recent court ruling staying the order but the board still felt the situation was uncertain.
Another casualty of the new ban is the W.F. Herman Academy award-winning concert bands. The group raise funds and organize a big festival trip every couple of years. The junior and senior bands planned to travel to a music festival in Washington this April but the public school board rejected the trip when it was discovered that students would be in the capital on the same day as a massive social justice rally that is expected to draw up to half a million protesters. W.F. Herman, has more than 1,200 students from all over the world according to principal Josh Canty who said: “If this were a regular school trip, it would be a great trip, but it’s not a safe time for us to be there" There is hope an alternate festival can be found on the Canadian side of the border.
A truck driver from one of the countries on Trump's list who had clearance to use FAST lanes that provide expedited access to the U.S. has had his trusted traveller documents revoked. The driver showed the letter revoking his clearance to MP Brian Masse. The driver is a permanent resident of Canada and obviously had to go through considerable vetting to get the documents. Several school boards in Alberta have also cancelled all international trips for now and that includes the United States.

Liberal billl that would reduce pension benefits frozen for now.

Bill C-27 An Act to amend the Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985 was introduced into the Canadian House of Commons on October 19th last year.

The bill was introduced without any notice or consultation with pensioners or unions. It contains measures that directly contradict election promises made by the Liberals. As a Digital Journal article last November noted: "The Liberal government's Minister of Finance, Bill Morneau, tabled a bill this week that would allow Crown corporations and federal private-sector employers to back out of defined-benefit entitlements they agree to." The Liberals in their election campaign vowed that they would improve retirement security for Canadians. They do this by replacing a defined benefits plan(DBP) that ensures that a certain benefit be paid. Wikipedia says of a DPB:
A defined benefit pension plan is a type of pension plan in which an employer/sponsor promises a specified pension payment, lump-sum (or combination thereof) on retirement that is predetermined by a formula based on the employee's earnings history, tenure of service and age, rather than depending directly on individual investment returns.
The bill would allow a type of "shared risk" pension plan(TP) with the target a specific benefit and defined contributions. But there could be reduction of accrued benefits if the plan ran into financial problems because of market conditions. The employees enrolled with the plan share the risk and could be subject to reduction of pension benefits rather than having a guaranteed pension as under the defined benefits plan. The former Conservative Harper government proposed such a plan in April 2014. There was so much opposition from pensioners and retirees that the government withdrew the planned legislation.
Nevertheless, the Liberals Bill C-27 is the same type of plan and contains much of the original Harper plan. If the bill were to pass it could have effects on all pensions not just those who work for the government:" It will set the new standard for pension reform across the country, and it will accelerate the erosion of decent pensions in both the private and public sectors. Employers and the pension industry are paying close attention to Bill C-27 for this very reason. If the federal government signals that employers in one sector are no longer legally required to live up to their pension promise to workers and retirees, employers everywhere will demand the same treatment."
Bill C-27 would do away with the legal protection of the present DBP pension that guarantees pensioners accrued benefits to be replaced by a Target benefit (TB) pension. Under the TB plan accrued benefits can be retroactively reduced. The bill would remove all the legal protection of such benefits. Employers would be allowed to persuade active and retired members to surrender their earned DB benefits in exchange for the TB plan benefits. The legislation does not require that individual workers give up their DB plan but would encourage them to do so and employers would reap large benefits by persuading them to do so.
Employers can use various carrots and sticks to persuade employees to switch plans, including potential job losses, reduced benefits, restructuring processes or even bankruptcy as a means of avoiding obligations under a DBP pension. New Brunswick in 2012 introduced a TB plan. Plan conversions have resulted in class action lawsuits, constitutional challenges, and plummeting membership in defined-benefit plans. The appended video promotes the plan as a plus and a rational solution to pension deficits. No drawbacks are mentioned.
In conclusion:The Target Benefit "Shared Risk" pension plan proposal contained in Bill C-27 is not the solution to create a secure and sustainable pension for retirees. Target benefit plans will have the effect of watering down existing DB plans. Governments and companies that currently offer DB plans will be encouraged to adopt TB plans that will cost employers less while offering workers less and taking all the risks.
The opposition to the bill has finally moved the Liberal government to "freeze" the bill pending consultations on it. A recent tweet claims: "Because workers made their voices heard, government has agreed to freeze the anti-pension Bill #C27 and hold consultations. #cdnpoli #canlab " The Liberals are supposed to be progressive and far to the left of the reactionary former Harper Conservative government yet even in the face of strong opposition they are not withdrawing the bill as Harper did. They are holding consultations. There will need to be a concerted effort to ensure that the interests who will benefit from changes to the pension law do not drown out the opposition. Only clear evidence that passing the bill would be too costly in political terms will lead to its withdrawal. It will have nothing at all to do with keeping Liberal election promises.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Refugee claimants face dangerously cold conditions crossing Manitoba border

(February 7) Over last weekend almost two dozen refugees walked over the border from the U.S. into Canada. Officials in the municipality of Emerson-Franklin directly south of Winnipeg worry about dealing with the rising numbers as they seem to be increasing.

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Doug Johnston a councilor for the municipality said:"This is right off the scale for us." The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) confirmed that 22 people had crossed the border from Noyes, Minnesota into the Emerson area in Manitoba Canada. Johnston said that this is more than he has ever seen within such a short period. Rita Chahai, director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council said that last week another 10 refugee claimant files had been opened. Chahai said: "What we notice when they are in our office is that they are just extremely grateful and happy they have a chance at a fair hearing.To us, that's what is really important; that they are out of harm's way."

Most of the refugees come north to Manitoba through Minneapolis Minnesota. They are originally from such places as Somalia, Ghana and Djibouti. Four who arrived this weekend were from Somalia. Many of the refugees have no clue about weather conditions in Manitoba at this time of year and are not properly dressed. Johnston said he fears that some refugee is going to die if the number trying to get in increases while it is dead winter still.
Christmas eve, two Ghanians came by bus and then taxi to a large field that straddles the border. After wading through deep snow they finally reached the main highway to Winnipeg HIghway 75. It took some time to flag down a truck who phoned 911 when he realized how badly frozen the two were. They went by ambulance to Morris and then to Winnipeg as they were so badly frozen. The weather was quite cold even without considering the effect of the wind: "Environment Canada records show the temperature in the Emerson, Man., area on the morning of Dec. 24 was hovering around the –18 C mark before the windchill. CBC meteorologist John Sauder said skin can freeze within 30 minutes in that temperature." The two will suffer serious consequences but both are fortunate to be alive: "A Ghanaian refugee who almost died during a trek to cross the U.S.-Canada border into Manitoba on Christmas Eve will lose all of his fingers, a toe and possibly his arms." It appears from the appended video that neither will lose an arm.
Johnston thinks that when the weather warms up the influx could even be greater and he along with other officials and the local MLA want to meet with the federal and provincial government to devise a plan to deal with the situation. The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) reports that 410 asylum seekers entered Canada near Emerson in just nine months last year. That is up from 340 in the year 2015-16 and only 68 in 2013-2014. Reeve of the municipality Greg Janzen said: "They are coming at all hours of the night, in the dark. We don't know if they're really bad criminals … if they're into drugs or into crime, and that's a scary thing."
Border staff were under pressure over the weekend but were able to get emergency officials in Emerson to house refugees in a local community hall. Sometimes the hall is opened for drivers stranded in snowstorms but volunteers said they had never had to deal with so many refugees.
Emerson is about 100 kilometers directly south of Winnipeg the capital. Refugees are usually picked up by fire crews or the RCMP and taken to the CBSA where they are processed. Volunteers provided the refugees blankets and warm clothes. They stayed at the hall about 12 hours. Usually refugees are not provided food but the group were hungry and were given bread with Nutella.
The Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. requires asylum seekers to claim refugee status in the "first safe country they arrive in" Any claimant trying to enter Canada from the U.S. via customs at U.S. land borders will be turned away. The deal was signed in 2004. However, there is a loophole that enables those who cross the border outside of official crossing points to be able to claim refugee status.
Janzen said: "I personally don't think they should be considered refugees. The United States is a safe country, and yet we're giving them refugee status." However, a growing number of critics including Amnesty International have called for scrapping the deal. Trump's recebt executive order is thought to have contributed to the recent influx into Manitoba. Ahmed Hussen, Federal Minister of Immigration defended the agreement claiming it allows Canada to "better handle the asylum system":"It's supported by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to prevent asylum shopping."
A CBC article interviews a number of refugees in Winnipeg about the refugee situation. One, Abdikheir Ahmed, who came to Winnipeg as a refugee in 2003 from Kenya, said Trump's ban is scary for Muslims like himself."We might avoid the U.S. forever. The U.S. is not a safe country for refugees anymore."

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Trudeau refuses to keep promise on electoral reform

During the last federal election campaign Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised reform of the federal election system. Trudeau wrote in a letter to Karina Gould, Minister of Democratic Institutions, that electoral reform would not be in her mandate.

In his letter to Gould, Trudeau said:
​"There has been tremendous work by the House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform, outreach by Members of Parliament by all parties, and engagement of 360,000 individuals in Canada through, A clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus, has not emerged. Furthermore, without a clear preference or a clear question, a referendum would not be in Canada's interest. Changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate."The former minister Maryam Monsef was able to avoid being involved in the issue as she was replaced by Gould last month. Gould defended the government position saying:Our view has always been clear. Major reforms to the electoral system, changes of this magnitude should not be made if they lack the broad support of Canadians. It has become evident that the broad support needed among Canadians for a change of this magnitude does not exist."
Trudeau had committed the government to replacing the present first-past-the post system back in June 2015 just before the federal election campaign. In the first throne speech he also promised that 2015 would be the last election under the first-past-the-post system. The former Minister of Democratic Institutions conducted a national tour and there was an on-line survey about the Canadian political system. A special committee of the House of Commons was struck in June 2016 and there were numerous town hall meetings on electoral reform. A majority of the committee recommended that a referendum be held on some form of proportional representation. Some of the alternatives to the present system are discussed in the appended video. Gould claimed that the government was moving forward with a plan that respected all contributions Canadians had made in discussing the issue. She concluded: "It is a difficult conversation to talk about how we govern ourselves. But we have listened to Canadians and this will not be part of my mandate."
New Democratic Party critic Nathan Cullen said that the move was a cynical display of self-serving politics. Cullen said to reporters:"I was a bit surprised that it wasn't Mr. Trudeau out here, somehow lacking the courage and fortitude to make this announcement himself. He certainly had no problems making the promise, but not the courage to break that promise in front of all of you here today.. What Trudeau proved himself today was to be a liar, was to be of the most cynical variety of politician. Saying whatever it takes to get elected, then once elected seeking any excuse, however weak, however absent, to justify that lie to Canadians."
The interim leader of the main opposition Conservative Party, Rona Ambrose, said that Canadians should think twice before believing what Trudeau says. The leader of the Green Party, a member of the special committee, and sole Green Party member of parliament, said she felt shocked and betrayed by the government decision and that it could have significant ramifications. The Green Party would in all likelihood gain more members if there were proportional representation of some sort. May said:"I am deeply afraid that this betrayal will strike much more deeply in the hearts of Canadians than Prime Minister Trudeau realizes, particularly among young people. We are in a time of dangerous politics. You must never do anything as a politician who understands what's at stake that feeds cynicism. Cynicism has enough to feed itself. It is work to feed hope. It is work to feed faith. And when you break faith you will reap what you sow."
Thomas Mulcair called Trudeau's action a "massive political deception". Trudeau pointed out that there were differences of opinion among the major parties. He pointed out that he preferred a preferential ballot while the NDP wanted proportional representation whereas the Conservatives wanted a referendum. There was no consensus and hence no clear path forward. It would be irresponsible to act he claimed and the country should be moving forward to grow the middle class.
The momentum for reform slowed last December as then Minister of Democratic institutions Maryam Monsef dismissed the report in which a majority had recommended some form of proportional representation and recommended a referendum on the issue. This obviously did not sit well with Trudeau. Trudeau did not think a referendum was necessary and also wanted a preferential ballot. Critics claim that Trudeau is less enthusiastic about changing the present system now he has been elected with a majority government. The present system allowed Liberals to win 184 or 338 seats in the parliament with just 39.5 percent of the vote.
Critics point out that even a majority of residents in Trudeau's own riding of Papineau recommended electoral reform. Trudeau's office said that in general most of those who attended an event hosted by Trudeau himself favored a proportional and mixed-proportional system. Even Karina Gould had been still advocating reform last September. Speaking to a TV station in her riding she said:"The first-past-the-post system that we have is pretty good at producing majority governments but it's often considered to be a false majority because our government and the previous Conservative government didn't really go above 39%, 42% of the vote yet would have much more than 50% of the seats in the house."
Trudeau also referred to data from the 380,000 individuals who had filled out the government's quiz. The site was widely ridiculed and was even thought to be an attempt to sabotage electoral reform. Even the company that designed the quiz said it was modelled after personality quizzes that "command little if any credibility". Trudeau himself referred to the quiz as a "fun little questionnaire".

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Winnipeg doctor maintains he was fired from his job for criticizing Israel

Dr. Hussam Azzam, claims he was fired as chief medical officer for St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg for his criticism of the Israeli government.

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A spokesperson for the hospital confirmed that Azzam had left the hospital but said that it was hospital policy not to comment about personnel matters. Azzam took on the role of chief medical officer and executive director of the clinical programs in November of 2016. His name has been removed from the staff directory.
In recent posts on social media, Azzam clained that he was let go for criticizing actions of the Israeli government against Palestinians. In a tweet Azzam said: Shocked & stressed for losing my job just because of who I am, what I represent & exercising my #FreedomOfSpeech in Canada, in 2017 @CJPME
Bernie Beltan, who edits and published the Jewish Post and News, said he received a short message from Azzam on Linkedin in which the doctor told him he is not an anti-Semite. Beltan said: He sent me a very nice message. It was short and polite and it told me nothing because he said he can't talk." Azzam said he is under instruction from his lawyer not to talk to the media. The news media does not appear to be doing much to follow up on this story in spite of--or perhaps because of--the seriousness of Azzamès charges. Beltan broke the story on Azzam apparently.
Azzam is listed an an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Manitobaès Rady Faculty of Health Science and also a clinical instructor at the northern Thompson General Hosptai on the U of M website.
The series of tweets in which Azzam claimed he had been released because of his anti-Israel pro-Palestinian views have been deleted. Several 2014 tweets supported boycotts of Israel and had suggested that the Israeli government had engaged in terrorism. Azzam said that his tweets expressed only his own views and he had no formal ties to any anti-Israel groups after he posted links with photos to the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheidm and Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.
Azzam is Jordanian born. He has practised in Manitoba since 2008. He was trained in obstetrics and gynaecology in Quatar and England. He worked in Thompson in northern Manitoba until last June. He was vice-president of medical services and chief medical officer of the Northern Regional Health Authority from 2012 until last September. He had also been a councillor of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba but resigned when he he took on his new job in St. Boniface last November 25.
St.. Boniface spokesperson Helene Vrignon would say only that Azzam was no longer at the hospital: “As you can appreciate, this is an HR matter, and our policy is to respect and protect the privacy of current and former employees."
Harold Shuster, a member of Independent Jewish Voices in Winnipeg, who say they are in solidarity with the Palesitinian struggle for self-determination, said: "This should send a chill down every Canadian's spine. This is a real threat to our freedom of speech..Your place of employment should not dictate whether or not you can express your freedom of speech." Ranah Abdullah with the Canadian-Palestinian Association of Manitoba who informed Shuster of the firing said she was not prepared to comment. Azzam too continues to refuse to comment on the basis of legal advice. No details of the firing have been made available leaving the public unable to understand how this event happened or whether it was justified.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Canadian PM Trudeau says he is will to renegotiate NAFTA with Trump

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that he had a brief but good phone call with president-elect Donald Trump. Trudeau said that Trump "expressed warmth" towards Canada.

Trudeau said he congratulated Trump on his becoming president and expressed his willingness to discuss NAFTA with the Trump administration. Trudeau also extended an invitation to visit Canada.Trudeau said of the phone call: "It was a strong beginning to what will be a constructive relationship".
During his election campaign, Trump had stressed that he would renegotiate trade agreements to get a better deal for Americans. He has already signed an executive order withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Obama had favored but was unable to have ratified in Congress. Trump also criticized NAFTA as a bad deal for America that needed to be renegotiated or dropped altogether. When reporters asked Trudeau what he hoped to gain by agreeing to reopen NAFTA before Trump had even asked to do so he said: “If Americans want to talk about NAFTA, I’m happy to talk about it." Trudeau said that the U.S. and Canada would work together constructively on renegotiating NAFTA as that is what people expect.
Canadian critics of the NAFTA agreement see renegotiation as an opportunity to reform the agreement. The Council of Canadians has always been critical of the agreement. The group even lists five main reasons why it thinks NAFTA should be renegotiated. Maude Barlow head of the Council has been actively tweeting about the renegotiations. A sample tweet: "NAFTA renegotiation must remove Chapter 11 that gives corporations the right to sue governments." Trump claims that he wants to open up NAFTA to create a better deal for Americans. Just as certainly, Canadians and Mexicans will be trying to get a better deal for them. The deal is in the interests of giant global corporations many with headquarters in the U.S. They may be quite unhappy about any attempt to benefit Americans which threatens their profits. Canadians and Mexicans may also be unwilling to accept any changes that hurt their citizens.
NAFTA went into effect on January 1 1994. There was considerable opposition in all three countries at the time. It is the largest agreement of its kind in the world. Critics point to NAFTA as helping to increase the profits of multinational corporations, and causing an increase in inequality in North America. They claim that NAFTA weakened labor rights and environmental protections.
Rabble claims that since 2004 500,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in Canada many of which were well-paid, permanent, and unionized. A Rabble article argues that Trump changes will not help reform NAFTA in the interest of workers:People should be angry that NAFTA has served the interest of multinational corporations and pushes policies of deregulation and privatization. Power and privilege is being used to skew the economic system to increase the gap between the richest and poorest people. People in all three countries should be under no illusion about Trump's rhetoric of renegotiating NAFTA, which seeks to pit workers against workers while giving tax-dodging big businesses more tax breaks, benefiting the corporate elites in the U.S. and further entrenching economic inequality.In part, Trump won the election because his plans to renegotiate NAFTA appealed to workers in rust-belt areas who were hurt by the terms of the deal. If Trump does nothing to improve their condition they may soon turn against him. However, so far Trump's team is filled with billionaires and people from Wall Street of the very type that he has constantly criticized. It will be interesting to see how Trump manages to change NAFTA in the interests of U.S. workers rather than multinational corporations. Alternative facts will probably play a significant role.
One issue that many critics will try to change are the investor-state dispute settlement provisions (ISDS) that gives corporations the right to sue governments for introducing regulations that could have a negative effect on their investments or expected future profits:These anti-democratic, supra-national corporate tribunals override the national court systems, eliminating government ability to regulate in the public interest by supporting industries that create good local jobs and by protecting the environment. Canada is already the most sued developed country in the world because of NAFTA's ISDS process.
NAFTA has had a devastating effect on more than two million small-scale Mexican farmers as the provisions of NAFTA favor the interests of large agri-business. Many Mexican farmers were forced off their land and some joined the many immigrants crossing the U.S. border searching for work. NAFTA does not recognize indigenous rights. Opening up NAFTA for renegotiating presents an opportunity to remove some of the worst aspects of the deal. Given the makeup of Trump's administration it seems highly unlikely that we will see any movement in that direction. However, pressure can be put on him to make some positive changes. Pressure will be needed by people in all three countries to make this happen. Trump is trying to circumvent this by his appeal to put Americans first thus creating divisions among Mexican, Canadian, and American workers.