Sunday, September 14th13.9°C

Ministers jockey for extra cash

Like a fresh-baked pie on the window sill, the sweet smell of a surplus has mouths watering — but which ministers will get a piece in this critical pre-election period, and how will it trickle down to Canadians?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper must decide how best to spend the excess dollars in the next couple of months and there's active lobbying for the bucks, government insiders say.

All the decisions will be evaluated through the lens of the 2015 election, which looms large over what is likely the last fall sitting before the writ is dropped.

As if to put a fine point on where heads are at, Harper will hold a campaign-style rally at a convention centre off of Parliament Hill Monday to kick-off the legislative season with his caucus and invited party supporters.

"I think it'll help to underline the importance that our government is actually placing on the economic side of the agenda," Government House Leader Peter Van Loan said of Harper's planned remarks.

"That economic focus...will come across loud and clear and it'll help to set the tone for the sitting ahead and the extent to which job creation and economic growth will be our priority."

Several government sources say ministers are doing their best to persuade the prime minister's office that their programs or initiatives should get some love. Many departments have seen no genuinely new money since before the 2008 economic crisis, asked to find money in their existing budgets even when unveiling new activities.

The Conservatives have dropped a few hints on the direction they're likely to take. One happened on Thursday, when Finance Minister Joe Oliver announced cuts to Employment Insurance premiums — a measure directed at small-business owners.

Michele Austin, a former chief of staff to cabinet minister Rona Ambrose, is betting that tax cuts and tax credits will be the favoured route for spending a large portion of the surplus.

The Conservatives have found success with relatively inexpensive but popular tax measures such as the children's fitness credit and deductions for tradespeople who purchase tools.

"What you're seeing here is the struggle that is a happy one to have — what kind of tax breaks do we offer that is the most politically expedient?" said Austin, a senior advisor with Summa Strategies.

"I think the bulk of the surplus will be given back in terms of tax cuts, but there will be some healthy sprinkling of programming."

Tom Mulcair has already started talking about how a NDP government would set spending priorities. At a caucus meeting in Edmonton last week, he promised to institute a national childcare plan and to raise the minimum wage for federal workers to $15 per hour.

As far as the surplus goes, he said he's got a specific recommendations for where the Conservatives should be spending it.

"If there's any surplus, it should be used to reinstate any money cut from the health-care system," Mulcair said in an interview Sunday, noting the premiers have pegged the amount of the funding cuts at $36 billion over 10 years.

"We'd reinstate the veterans offices the Conservatives cut, and return the age of eligibility for Old Age Security to 65."

Mulcair will be tackling a spending debacle of another kind on Parliament Hill. He's fighting a decision by a Commons committee that the NDP must repay millions associated with mail-outs and satellite offices paid for through MPs' parliamentary budgets.

The NDP leader said his party is preferring the option of fighting the issue in the courts, rather than the "kangaroo court" of the Board of Internal Economy.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who continues to garner the derision of both Mulcair and Harper as lacking in experience, has indicated he will continue to spend the lion's share of his time off Parliament Hill at a myriad of meet and greets.

Trudeau has so far revealed little of his specific ideas for how a Liberal government would manage the surplus dollars or set a new budgetary course.

The Canadian Press


Shooting near wildlife area

A heavy police presence descended on a quiet farming community in southwestern Ontario on Sunday after a man was fatally shot near a wildlife conservation area, leaving some residents bewildered and looking for answers.

The man died in a shooting around 5 p.m. Saturday on the outskirts of Clinton, in the municipality of Central Huron, Ontario Provincial Police said in a release issued Sunday afternoon.

Jamie Stanley, a spokesman for the Huron OPP, said residents should "be aware of their personal safety at all times."

Investigators also set up a command post at the scene, Stanley said in an email.

"We have numerous resources involved in trying to determine who is responsible for this shooting," he said, adding it was too early in the investigation "to discuss specific details related to the victim or other involved persons."

Central Huron Mayor Jim Ginn said police cordoned off a large area outside on the outskirts of town.

In the ensuing confusion, some residents and some media outlets reported that residents were ordered to stay inside with their doors locked, but both Ginn and police said that was never the case.

"They're not asking people to stay indoors at this point, but to be a little more cautious," Ginn said Sunday.

He explained that a town siren that went off Saturday night, which some residents took as a signal to remain indoors, was connected to an unrelated fire.

Yvonne McLean, who lives on a hobby farm close to the Hullett Wildlife Conservation Area, said she watched as police cruisers sped past through the night on Saturday.

She said many officers remained on watch on Sunday.

"I feel safe with the officers out there," she said.

"They were out there keeping an eye out."

Diane Proper, another resident, said she went to the cordoned off area on Sunday and saw dozens of police vehicles and a few ambulances.

According to Proper, the wildlife site is popular with hunters and horse riders, and there was bird-dog training held there over the weekend.

She added that rumours and speculation were rampant as residents tried to figure out what was going on.

"Everybody is just scouring what they can to get some confirmation... why the silence? Why the mystery surrounding this?"

"Give us something. Should we be in fear of our lives or have they got everything under control?"

Clinton, a community of 3,100, is about 200 kilometres west of Toronto. Ginn said he expects police to remain in the area for several days.

"It is a crime scene so it is a restricted area," he said.

"You hear it all the time, but you don't expect those types of things to happen in an area like this."


The Canadian Press

Viagra on Harper's list of secrets

Sexual dysfunction in the Canadian military is such a sensitive topic for the Harper government that federal officials have stamped all information related to it as a cabinet secret, something not to be revealed to the public.

And there are other subjects the federal Conservatives don't want to talk about: Why their planned $2-billion purchase of armoured vehicles was cancelled, for instance. Or how Canada feels about the proliferation of chemical weapons. Or what Transport Canada thought about rail safety criticism from the auditor general.

Those are just a few subjects on a growing list of seemingly routine reports, memos and documents caught up in an enhanced dragnet of so-called cabinet confidences — imposed, The Canadian Press has learned, by way of a stealthy Treasury Board directive in the summer of 2013.

That quiet policy change required bureaucrats to ask departmental lawyers to decide what constitutes a secret, a decision that used to be made by the Privy Council Office, which oversees cabinet matters.

PCO — as it's known — is asked for guidance in "complex cases only."

As a result, the government's blanket of secrecy has grown ever more broad.

The Canadian Press has found dozens of cases from various departments in which reports, briefing materials and emails have been excluded entirely under Section 69 of the Access to Information Act, which gives officials the power to withhold records because they are meant to be seen only by the federal cabinet.

In the case of National Defence, CP was asking for information related to planned cuts in 2012 to the program that provides free Viagra to the military.

There were 61 complaints last year to Suzanne Legault, the country's information commissioner, about the cabinet confidence clause, almost twice the number in 2012. Figures from the commissioner's office show it used the exclusion 2,117 times in 2012-13, a 20 per cent increase over the year before.

More recent data won't be available until the end of 2014, Legault told The Canadian Press in an interview.

She is concerned, however, about how wide-ranging the definition of a cabinet secret has become, especially since once the exclusion is declared, not even she can see the documents in question.

"When you look at the scope of the exclusion, it is extremely broad," Legault said.

"It's very, very broad. It basically catches anything that mentions a record that's a cabinet confidence. In my view, the actual scope of this does not respect fundamental tenets of freedom of information."

Media outlets aren't the only ones for whom the flow of information in Ottawa has slowed to a trickle. Watchdog agencies like the auditor general, the military ombudsman and the parliamentary budget officer are also complaining.

Auditor general Michael Ferguson said last spring that his attempts to audit the long-term health of public pension plans had been stymied by bureaucrats at Finance and Treasury Board.

Ferguson said he was "surprised" at the scope of information officials refused to disclose.

Kevin Page, who took the Harper government to federal court when he was parliamentary budget officer, said the law needs a major overhaul.

"Under my time as the budget officer we were told on numerous occasions — from crime bills to elements of the government's economic forecast to departmental spending restraint plans (post budget 2012) — that Parliament (and the PBO) could not get access to information because it was a cabinet confidence," Page said.

"The stakes were high. The government was asking Parliament to vote on bills without relevant financial information and were hiding behind the veil of cabinet confidence. This undermined accountability for Parliament and the accountability of the public service."

MPs and senators, who are subject to parliamentary privilege, have found their formal written inquiries — known as order paper questions — are also being run through the filter of cabinet confidence by the Privy Council Office.

"Cabinet confidence is invoked so often these days, everything is secret including the colour of the minister's dress on any given day," said Liberal MP John McKay, who held up several examples of his questions — on both defence and the environment — that have been denied.

"To pry information out of these guys that is actually real, useful and meaningful — so people can make independent judgments — has become an such exercise in frustration as to result in a high level of cynicism even when they are telling the truth."

The Harper government has long had a reputation for secrecy. But few have explored in any detail just how many avenues of information are being choked off and what the potential consequences might be.

How much of it is political? How much is bureaucratic?

In responding to the auditor general's complaints last spring, Treasury Board president Tony Clement said the decision to invoke cabinet confidence falls to civil servants, not politicians.

What he didn't say was that the Harper government has made it easier for bureaucrats to say "no," thus burying forever their own mistakes and those of the political masters.

"What I think is starting to happen now is the realization that they can basically shut down any democratic debate to anything that could be embarrassing to the government," said Errol Mendes, a constitutional expert at the University of Ottawa.

"That is the way an authoritarian government behaves."

A Treasury Board spokeswoman said late Friday that the intention of the policy change was "to streamline administrative processes," and noted that only 4 per cent of all access to information requests have been subjected to the cabinet exclusion.

Mendes said it really speeds up the process when everything is withheld.

A cabinet confidence is loosely defined as something that has been prepared for — or seen by — the federal cabinet; protecting those secrets is considered a cornerstone of the parliamentary system.

The old procedure, which had been in place since the mid-1980s, saw each department flag information that might be a cabinet secret and then ask the Privy Council Office to review and confirm the decision.

Once the exclusion is invoked, the records remain sealed off from public scrutiny for 20 years.

Under the new system, in which departmental officials and federal lawyers get to decide what constitutes a cabinet confidence, PCO is only consulted in "certain circumstances," according to an internal memo dated June 26, 2013, and obtained by CP.

The exclusion of the Privy Council Office, which would know for certain what information cabinet has and has not seen, is outrageous, said Mendes, who worked in that office under Paul Martin's Liberals.

Oddly enough, the Conservatives promised in their 2006 election platform to give the information commissioner the power to see the excluded documents, as opposed to receiving a summary report of the justification for the decision.

But that was back when former auditor general Sheila Fraser was being stymied through cabinet confidence declarations in her efforts to investigate the Liberal sponsorship scandal.

Conservatives, at the time, deemed the obstruction so egregious that after being elected they ordered the bureaucracy to release the documents to the auditor, according to former Tory insiders.

The Canadian Press


Call for CRA to end political audit

More than 400 academics are demanding the Canada Revenue Agency halt its audit of a think-tank, saying the Conservative government is trying to intimidate, muzzle and silence its critics.

In an open letter, the group defends the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a left-leaning think-tank that was targeted for a political-activity audit partly because it was deemed by the agency to be biased and one-sided.

The letter says the centre is internationally respected, conducting its research in a "fair and unbiased way," and that its frequent criticisms of government policies does not make it a partisan organization.

The group is calling for a moratorium on political-activity audits of think-tanks until the tax agency adopts a neutral and fair selection process.

One of the group's organizers, economist Mario Seccareccia at the University of Ottawa, says the letter tapped into enormous frustration with the Conservative government's hostility toward academic research.

"It's an environment that has been rather stifling when it comes to intellectual work," he said in an interview. "There's a real malaise. ... They've been irritating a lot of people."

Earlier this month, The Canadian Press reported on an internal tax agency document that outlined the rationale for auditing the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, registered as an educational charity.

The document said the research and education material on its website appears to be "biased" and "one-sided," triggering a political-activity audit in October last year.

The centre is among 52 charities currently targeted in a $13.4-million program launched in 2012 to determine whether any are violating a rule that limits their spending on political activities to 10 per cent of resources.

Auditors also want to see whether any charities are engaging in forbidden partisan activities, such as endorsing candidates for public office.

The first wave of such audits included environmental groups that have been critical of the Conservative government's energy and pipeline policies, but the net was later widened to include poverty, international aid and human-rights groups who are also often critical of policy.

The new audit program has led to what has been dubbed "advocacy chill," as some groups self-censor to avoid aggravating auditors. The audits are also draining scarce resources, especially through spending on legal fees.

Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Findlay has said the tax agency's political-activity audits are conducted at arm's length, without her input, and agency officials say their targeting decisions are neutral, non-partisan and balanced.

The open letter, addressed to Findlay, says the government appears to have singled out a think-tank that frequently criticizes the Conservative agenda.

"We are therefore left with the conclusion that the decision to audit the CCPA is politically motivated to intimidate and silence its criticisms of your government policies," says the text, endorsed by 421 academics by mid-day Sunday.

"Instead of trying to muzzle and impede sound and legitimate research, it is now time for you to try to promote more effectively the public good in the form of sound critical research for which Canadian researchers are respected internationally."

Organizer Louis-Philippe Rochon, an economist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., says endorsements for the letter arrived quickly.

"This was a powder keg waiting to happen," he said, noting the support was broad-based.

"Mostly from the social sciences and humanities, but some from the sciences. We have Canada Research Chairs, heads of departments, younger faculty, more established faculty, and from almost every university in Canada."

"It hit a raw nerve amongst academics," he said in an email. "The idea that if we reach a conclusion other than the official doctrine of the government, our research is somehow biased and political."

Most think-tanks in Canada are registered as educational charities to allow tax breaks for their donors.

Two right-leaning think-tanks, the C.D. Howe Institute and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, have confirmed they are not currently undergoing CRA political-activity audits. Two others — the Fraser Institute and the Montreal Economic Institute — have declined to comment. The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax has not responded to questions.


The Canadian Press

Separatists learn from Scots

Quebecers who've spent decades fighting without success to form their own country are now finding themselves living vicariously through the Scots.

As the Scottish referendum nears, the strong push by Scotland's separation movement has been a source of inspiration for Quebec's sovereigntist cause at a time when it finds itself battered and fragmented.

The Parti Quebecois suffered an historic electoral defeat last spring and some prominent secessionists have even been openly debating whether to temporarily shelve their referendum ambitions.

Looking at Scotland, separatist warriors defeated in Canada's referendum battles of 1980 and the nail-biter in 1995 have been reflecting on what could have been.

"We should have done it before the Scots," said Daniel Turp, a senior member of the pro-independence forces during the '95 campaign.

"Obviously they're doing very well. I just hope they win."

The Scottish Yes campaign will even have a cheering section from Quebec for Thursday's referendum. Turp, as well as members of the PQ and Bloc Quebecois, will be among the Quebecers who plan to be in Scotland on voting day.

Quebecers have also been taking notes from Scotland's separatist movement at work.

"They have led a very, very positive campaign," said Turp, a constitutional law expert and retired politician who has represented the Bloc and the PQ.

"I think we have to learn from that. If Quebec wants to be a country, it has to put more emphasis on what it will mean to Quebecers rather than just saying that it's only about separating from Canada."

Scottish independence leader Alex Salmond's team has acquired more than words of encouragement from Quebec.

Turp believes the stay-positive approach may have been inspired by direct Quebecois advice.

In recent years, prominent sovereigntists like Turp and former PQ premier Bernard Landry have met with Scottish National Party officials.

Turp said he and other Yes camp members closely involved in the '95 campaign met with SNP delegates in Montreal in 2011. The Scots, he added, asked for the series of meetings to take place without media exposure and for participants' names to be kept secret.

Despite the exchanges, Salmond has tried to keep his distance from Quebec sovereigntists in public.

In 2013, he declined an offer by a visiting Pauline Marois, Quebec's premier at the time, to send him documents from the 1995 referendum. He also avoided being seen with her and his staff prevented news photographers from taking photos of the leaders together.

"Obviously, they want to win, we didn't win," Turp said when asked about the snub. He said the SNP has sought to do its own thing and avoid being compared to other independence movements.

But behind closed doors in Quebec, the Scots inquired on a range of subjects, including how sovereigntists organized their campaign, made their pitches and planned to acquire international recognition in the case of victory.

Turp, who presided over the Bloc's policy committee during the '95 campaign, said he remembers recommending they maintain a positive campaign — even if the No side resorted to last-minute dirty tricks.

Quebec sovereigntists have long argued the '95 vote was stolen from them by the No camp at the 11th hour thanks to ploys like campaign overspending, empty promises of additional powers and a "love-in" unity rally in Montreal three days before the referendum.

"We told (the SNP) to be very aware that those kinds of tactics might be used," said Turp, who noted he's also had personal meetings with Salmond in Edinburgh.

Salmond provided evidence last week that Quebec's messages had been heard.

Montreal La Presse reported that he mentioned Quebec's '95 campaign at a news conference in Edinburgh. Scotland's first minister said he thought of Canada's pro-unity supporters when he accused the UK's No side of resorting to a negative campaign.

But Quebecer sovereigntists like Jean-Francois Lisee say they've been impressed by London's "fair play" during the campaign when compared to Ottawa in the 1990s.

Lisee, a key Yes side strategist in '95, said he believes the Westminster have respected referendum spending laws and was pleased to see London agree to accept a 50-per-cent-plus-one vote result.

After the '95 referendum, he said, Quebecers discovered then-prime minister Jean Chretien would have denied such a close margin of victory by the Yes side.

"There would be more fair play if Quebec were trying to separate from the British than from Ottawa," said Lisee, now a potential PQ leadership candidate.

"I'm jealous of the British and I hope that in some important ways this process could be used as a template for next time around we go through these waters."

Landry, who was deputy premier under PQ leader Jacques Parizeau in '95, said he's impressed by the "simplicity" and "clarity" of the question that will be put to Scots on Thursday. He hopes a similar absolute question will one day be presented to Quebecers.

Landry believes Ottawa stole Quebec's referendum victory in '95. He hopes the Scots succeed.

"If the Scottish nation arrives, I will be delighted," said Landry, who added he's also advised visiting Scots about referendum campaigns as recently as last year.

To slow the momentum of pro-independence Scots, the British have recently highlighted the economic risks of separation.

During a recent visit to Scotland, British Prime Minister David Cameron begged Scots to stay, saying he would be "heartbroken" if the United Kingdom split apart. Cameron made the trip north with his political rivals — an uncommon display of unity across party lines.

Some of those strategies may very well have been inspired by Canadian federalists.



The Canadian Press

Former cop new premier

Newfoundland and Labrador's Progressive Conservatives broke a deadlock Saturday night by selecting a former police officer to be the province's next premier after an extraordinary leadership convention that saw Paul Davis win two ballots before he was declared the victor.

The convention in St. John's went to a surprise third ballot when the party said neither Davis or John Ottenheimer had won a clear majority of the votes cast on the second ballot.

Davis won the third ballot with 351 votes to Ottenheimer's 326.

On the second ballot, Davis received 340 votes and Ottenheimer 339, with one spoiled ballot. The party determined a clear majority of the votes cast hadn't been achieved by either candidate.

That left the two camps scrambling to find delegates who had already left the convention to get them to return to vote again.

Steve Kent, 36, was knocked out of the race after the first ballot, but backed Davis, his former cabinet colleague.

The outcome of the second ballot on was the latest odd twist in the party's attempt to find a new leader to replace former premier Kathy Dunderdale.

A leadership convention scheduled for earlier this summer was cancelled when businessman Frank Coleman unexpectedly quit for unspecified family reasons. He was the only candidate left in the race after the party disqualified one challenger and the other contender dropped out.

Davis will become the province's 12th premier and must call an election within 12 months of taking office.

Ottenheimer, 61, left politics in 2007 due to health issues and later served as chairman of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.

The Tories have held majority power since 2003 and were a potent force under former premier Danny Williams, but they are hoping Saturday's old-style leadership convention will help revive the party from a slump in its popularity.

Dunderdale won re-election in 2011 after Williams retired from politics but she quit in January amid questions about her leadership and after Newfoundland-wide power blackouts.

The party has lost four straight byelections — three of them in districts that were held by senior cabinet ministers, including the one held by Dunderdale.

Davis, 53, who was a member of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary before getting into politics, is promising to rejuvenate the party.

"Don't count us out," he told delegates to roars and chants of "Davis!" from his camp before the first ballot.

Pundits who've written the party's death warrant aren't always right, he said. Pollsters wrongly predicted election results in B.C., Alberta, Quebec and Ontario, he said.

"And mark my words, they'll be proven wrong again right here in Newfoundland and Labrador."

Davis was diagnosed in 2011 with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma but has since recovered.

He said as premier he would work to ensure offshore oil wealth — $19 billion in royalties since 1997 — is better shared around the province, including a revamped fishery.

The Canadian Press

Another loss for Trinity Law

A controversial law school proposed in British Columbia hit another hurdle Saturday after members of the Law Society of New Brunswick passed a resolution directing its council not to accredit it.

The members voted 137 to 30 in favour of the resolution in a special meeting held in Fredericton.

The meeting was organized under the society's rules after it received a petition with more than 200 names opposing a decision in June by its governing council to recognize future graduates of Trinity Western University.

The Christian school requires all students and staff to sign a covenant barring same-sex relationships.

Law society president Helene Beaulieu said the result of Saturday's vote will be taken to the next council meeting on Sept. 26 to discuss the implications of the resolution.

"Council values the opinion of all the membership," said Beaulieu. "I am confident that council will work through this difficult and controversial issue with openness and transparency."

She said if the resolution is adopted, students from the university will not be eligible for admission to the bar in New Brunswick.

However, it is unclear whether the outcome of the vote is binding on the law society, which has said it will need a legal opinion.

Earl Phillips, Trinity Western's executive director, expressed concern with the members' resolution.

"Difficult decisions involving fundamental rights and freedoms should not be decided by popular vote," said Phillips. "There is no evidence to suggest that the religious beliefs that guide TWU would affect the ability of its law graduates to serve all clients."

To date, bar associations in Alberta and Saskatchewan have approved accreditation — although Saskatchewan has put its decision on hold along with Manitoba.

Law societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia voted against accreditation, which caused the school to challenge those decisions in the courts in both provinces.

Separate judicial reviews will be held in December in the Ontario Superior Court and in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

The school's accreditation as a teaching institution by the B.C. government is also the subject of a lawsuit by a group of lawyers in the school's home province.

The law school is scheduled to open in the fall of 2016.

The Canadian Press

Support a reservist, drive a tank

Special to Castanet by Tara Panrucker

An all-expenses-paid trip to Eastern Canada's largest military facility brought more than 40 business executives out to get acquainted with Canadian reservists in New Brunswick at the end of August.

The CFLC began over thirty years ago and is comprised of senior executives within the public and private sectors. Every year these individuals volunteer their time to encourage employers to hire and support employees who are in the reserves. Reservists receive leadership training and acquire valuable skills (such as learning to focus under stress) that can transfer to the work force and benefit businesses.

This year the invitation was extended to attend an Executrek in Gagetown, New Brunswick, the largest military facility in Eastern Canada.

One of the main objectives of Executrek is for visitors to witness firsthand how reservists may serve businesses as future employees.

The trip usually takes place over the course of one day during Canada’s Reserve Force training exercises. Executives are able to speak with reservists directly about what they are doing and why, and get a feel for their goals and motivations.

Reserves include men and women who have joined Canada’s Army, Royal Canadian Navy or Royal Canadian Air Force Reserve as a part-time career. Approximately one-third is high school or university students.

Peter McDougall is the New Brunswick Chair of the CFLC and associate vice president of human resources and organizational development at the University of New Brunswick.  

“Our citizen-soldiers in the reserve are an essential but often misunderstood part of Canada’s defence strategy. It is vitally important that employers understand what they do, why they do it and how employers can support them," he said. 

"There is no better way to achieve this than by having employers get up-close and personal with reservists as and where they train whether on land, at sea or in the air.”

Canada’s reservists also serve a vital role in domestic emergencies (such as wildfires) and are intrinsic to missions abroad.

The Executrek held Aug 26 to 27 of this year packed a lot of action into two days of training exercises.

Attendees were instructed to wear casual dress for outdoors, bring a hat, long sleeve shirt, long pants, rain jacket, good footwear and sunglasses. All were welcome to snap pictures.

Accommodations for overnight visitors comprised a block of enhanced rooms on the Gagetown base, similar to a hotel room. Transportation included a white school bus, the back of a green army transport truck, and walking.

Training activities ranged from driving a tank to flying in a Griffin helicopter. Classroom visits for rehydration (temperatures soared into the humid 30s), snacks, and brief Power Point presentations were interspersed throughout the day. All attendees signed waivers prior to activities.

August 26 was day one, which began with breakfast in the mess hall and learning the intricacies of navigating a large cafeteria. The tank exercise began at 13:00 and was a without a doubt a highlight of the trip for many participants.

After transport to the training grounds, an intimidating 70-ton tank came roaring down the gravel road. Most took advantage of the chance to drive a TLAV (Trac Light Armored Vehicle) ‘Creeper’ that goes up to 60 km/hour, and be a passenger in the even faster Leopard 2A4, flies bouncing off of faces throughout. 

A lot of dust was consumed and a cool shower at the end of the day never felt so good. Everyone relaxed with a meet and greet that evening.

Day two saw over 40 guests outfitted with a field kit for transport by one of many Griffin helicopters from Gagetown base to Petersville.

Items provided in the kits were bug spray, hearing and eye protection, sunscreen, flak jackets (camouflage vests), and helmets. Various speakers and presenters kept everyone informed and moving from one training station to the next. They also observed a Fire Reserve Demolition and the Ex Strident Tracer Collective Training Event, where reservists fired a crater some distance up the hill.

Approximately 700 reserves partook in the exercises.

McDougall says reservists require flexibility to leave for training, and the CFLC advocates employers support that. In return, businesses reap the benefits of skills reservists bring to the workplace.

“Canadian Forces reservists dedicate significant time and effort to their military careers on top of the time that they spend in their civilian occupation," he said. "They always appreciate the interest that their employer is demonstrating by attending an Executrek to see them train so that they better understand both the role of the reserves and the added value that a reservist brings to the workplace.”

Reservists foster dedication, time management, overcoming obstacles, and strategic problem solving. Visitors observed them as passionate and eager to share their particular knowledge, from tank tracks to artillery specs. They displayed camaraderie and a strong work ethic – one reservist described spending 36 hours in the small space of a tank. 

Businesses, educators, and employers may offer support to reservist employees in a variety of ways.

For example, signing a statement of support that shows your community your business values their service or making military-friendly leave a company policy. Employer support awards are also offered from the CFLC.

Home Depot of Canada Inc. and Ledcor are past BC award recipients.

The links below lead to further information about joining the reserves, how employers can help hire and support a reservist, how you may attend an Excecutrek, along with other CFLC programs:


Terry Fox's cancer now curable

At the time Terry Fox was treated for the bone cancer that claimed his leg and eventually led to his death in 1981, few patients survived that kind of malignancy, known as an osteosarcoma. But advances in treatment over the last few decades have dramatically altered that grim prognosis, with the majority of patients today not only keeping their limbs, but many also surviving the cancer.

When the B.C. 18-year-old was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in his right leg in 1977, doctors immediately amputated the limb above the knee — the standard treatment then — and he embarked on a 16-month marathon of chemotherapy, a drug regimen for this kind of bone cancer that was still somewhat experimental at the time.

For many Canadians, the heroic runner's name has become synonymous with osteosarcoma, the most common form of primary bone cancer to affect children and teens, and one that also occurs rarely in older adults.

"And that's always a good and bad analogy because they know who he is but that he had his leg cut off and died — and that's not the typical scenario now," says Dr. Jay Wunder, an orthopedic surgeon at Mount Sinai in Toronto who specializes in sarcomas.

"Most bone sarcoma patients now don't have amputations. Most get limb-sparing or limb-reconstructive surgery," says Wunder. "Now the cure rate's almost up to 80 per cent in younger patients. In older patients it's more like 70 per cent.

"So that's a pretty big turnaround in a couple of decades."

When Dave Lambert, 63, was diagnosed with sarcoma in his left knee almost two years ago, he was initially unaware of the connection to Fox, nor that the path he would follow had been made so much easier by the determined teen who set out in 1980 to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research.

The businessman from Aurora, Ont., just north of Toronto, had developed a bump on his left knee, which rapidly grew into a large mass and burst open when he tripped and fell.

His doctor told him a biopsy had confirmed it was a sarcoma.

"He just looked at me and said, 'Remember Terry Fox?'"

"I'm an older man and when I was growing up anybody who had cancer, they just died," says Lambert. "And when you heard the word 'Terry Fox,' the immediate vision I remember, all that flashed in front of my face, was Terry Fox losing his leg and I could picture him running and then being dead. That's all I thought of when he said that word to me and then I just went into shock, total shock."

But during a referral appointment with Wunder the following week, Lambert learned his cancer was no longer considered an automatic death sentence.

Surgery did not mean losing part of his leg; instead the tumour was removed and tissues in and around the joint were reconstructed.

"It was a very humbling experience," says Lambert, who was up walking within weeks of the operation and says his knee "looks great."

While much progress has been made in treating osteosarcoma, there is still much work needed to advance treatment for most of the 50 or so other sarcomas, which in overall cancer terms are still considered rare.

Sarcomas are tumours that arise in connective tissues, such as bone. But most types develop in soft tissues like muscle, nerves, skin, fat and blood vessels. The cancer can spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs, which occurred in Fox's case and ended his Marathon of Hope on Sept. 1, 1980 just outside Thunder Bay, Ont.

"They're harder to treat," Wunder says of soft-tissue sarcomas. "If we do good local surgery for those patients, we can cure a fair percentage, but a lot of those patients relapse and there's no effective curative chemotherapy for them."

"In fact, if we had effective chemo, (these tumours) would probably be transformed the way osteosarcoma was and we could treat those people very differently."

In 2010, 1,175 Canadians were diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcoma; about 470 died of the disease in 2009, according to the Canadian Cancer Society, citing the most recent years for which statistics are available.

The cause of sarcoma is unknown, although genetics may make some people more susceptible to the cancer. Various research groups around the world are investigating whether aberrant stem cells might give rise to these tumours, but that still to be determined.

Much of the research focus is on finding new drugs to treat various types of sarcomas, and there has been modest progress in that area. For instance, a once "uniformly fatal" abdominal sarcoma called GIST, is now being treated with a molecular drug that specifically targets a genetic mutation found in these tumours, leading to "an overnight change in outcome," says Wunder.

His colleague at Mount Sinai and the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, oncologist Dr. Albiruni Razak, says before the drug's discovery, GIST patients had an average life expectancy of nine months; survival for some patients now is measured in years, and for some it can be as long as 15 years.

Drug development is a key goal of the sarcoma research team at Mount Sinai, which includes genetic studies using samples of patients' cancerous tissues that are frozen and stored in the hospital's tumour bank — a collection of innocuous-looking metal containers.

"This is the whole critical path of the future, because if you don't do this, you can never improve anything," Wunder says of storing tumours for study.

Cell lines grown in the lab from tumour samples are used to look for potentially effective drugs. Tiny quantities of the cells are put in "dishes," then mixed with candidate drugs by robotic equipment in a so-called high-throughput lab at the hospital. The technology can test thousands of compounds at one time.

"That's kind of a needle-in-a-haystack thing, but we have the opportunity, we have the tissue, and so if you don't try you never know," he says. "And lots of new drugs get found that way. For cancer especially, it's amazing how often people are finding new, potentially active drugs through that."

Razak says chemotherapy has for many years been given using a "blunderbuss approach," trying different combinations in the hope of killing a patient's cancer.

That's increasingly giving way to a more focused strategy, called personalized medicine, in which oncologists hope to match particular drugs to an individual, based on their genetic profile or that of their tumour.

"Another way to look at it is to try to individualize per person, not to individualize per disease," he says.

"The whole idea that just because you have sarcoma ... we give you a standard chemo, that approach is not scientific enough now."

Lambert attributes his survival to Fox, and the scientific advances spurred by the millions of dollars raised by his marathon and the annual events run in his name.

"If they could really understand the true good this money has gone to achieve. I'm walking now. I have my leg now. I'm alive now because of people like Terry Fox and the people who have supported the Terry Fox run over the years.

"Without that, I'm not here."


The Canadian Press

Dummy prank in Edmonton

A jokester who placed a mannequin over a power line so it looked like a body hanging down hasn't tickled any funny bones in an RCMP detachment east of Edmonton.

Mounties in Strathcona County say a citizen who alerted them to the situation wasn't quite sure whether the "body" was real or fake.

Officers quickly determined it was a hoax and called in emergency services to bring the mannequin down.

It was dressed in red coveralls, a black balaclava and work gloves.

Police say it was a "dummy" move because the culprit or the responders could have been seriously injured around the power lines.

The Canadian Press

Opioid prescriptions on rise

Prescriptions for high-dose formulations of opioids like oxycodone and morphine jumped significantly in Canada between 2006 and 2011, despite guidelines advising doctors against giving such elevated doses to most patients, a study has found.

Researchers at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences found the rate of high-dose opioid dispensing across Canada increased 23 per cent during the six-year study, from 781 units per 1,000 people in 2006 to 961 units in 2011.

Put another way, that's almost one high-dose opioid pill or patch for every person across Canada, say the researchers, who reported their findings Friday in the journal Canadian Family Physician.

"We found that high-dose prescribing was widespread across the country, but the prevalence differed considerably between provinces," said lead author Tara Gomes.

Dispensing rates in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador spiked dramatically, rising almost 85 per cent and 54 per cent, respectively; Alberta, up six per cent, and British Columbia, rising eight per cent, remained relatively stable.

Ontario had the highest dispensing rate at 1,382 units per 1,000 people — more than one per resident — while Quebec had the lowest rate at 368 units per 1,000 people.

Provinces also differed in which opioids were most often prescribed. In Alberta and Ontario, oxycodone was the top choice, while B.C. doctors most commonly prescribed morphine.

Gomes said there are a couple of factors likely driving the provincial differences in which of the highly addictive painkillers doctors choose to prescribe.

"One could be variations in how these drugs are covered on public drug programs," she said. "We know that in some provinces like Ontario and Alberta, they didn't have very many restrictions on access to oxycodone at the time of the study ... and those are the provinces where we see the higher rates of prescribing of high-dose oxycodone."

In B.C. and Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, hydromorphone was a restricted product and those provinces have some of the lowest rates of that drug at high doses.

Different marketing strategies by manufacturers may also have fed into increased dispensing rates of certain products in some provinces, Gomes suggested. For instance, Ontario's large population may have led to more aggressive promotion of newer opioids like oxycodone compared to jurisdictions with smaller populations.

"So in those provinces you might see older agents where clinicians historically have been more comfortable prescribing an older drug like morphine, for example, and they passed that on through training of residents and newer clinicians," she said.

The study found the per capita rate of high-dose opioid dispensing increased steadily in Canada between 2006 and 2008 before plateauing in 2009-2010, coinciding with the release of Canadian guidelines and a study showing that the rate of fatal opioid overdoses had increased dramatically in Canada.

Those guidelines designate opioid doses equivalent to 200 milligrams of morphine per day as "watchful doses," and doctors are advised to carefully consider the potential risks of addiction and overdose before prescribing a dose that exceeds that threshold.

"The evidence shows that these drugs can be effective for treating acute pain conditions for a short period," said Gomes, citing pain suffered by cancer patients as an example.

"Where the evidence is not as clear is whether these are really an effective pain-management option for long-term use" for treating such problems as chronic low back pain or knee pain, she said.

Research has shown that high-dose opioids can lead to overdoses and death, motor vehicle accidents and falls that cause serious fractures.

"These are the very potent, high-dose pills," said Gomes. "If somebody who's never taken an opioid before ingests one of these high-dose tablets, they could overdose just by taking one or two of these tablets because of the strength of the product."

Their potency is a risk for both patients prescribed the medications and recreational users who procure them on the street, she said.

Canada and the United States have the highest levels of prescription opioid use in the world. On average, more than 30 million high-dose tablets or patches are dispensed in Canada each year.

More than 180 million units were dispensed across Canada from 2006 to 2011, the study found. Almost half were oxycodone, followed by morphine, hydromorphone and fentanyl patches.

"On a national front, I think that we likely need a unified response to this opioid issue because we're seeing that across Canada there are high rates of use of these products," said Gomes.

But variations in the provinces, particularly in the type of these drugs being dispensed, suggests that a unified approach must be tailored to individual jurisdictions because a program that works in one province may not work in another, she said.

Follow @SherylUbelacker on Twitter.

The Canadian Press

Rob Ford quits mayoral race

An ailing Rob Ford registered to run for Toronto city council today after abruptly dropping out of the mayoral race.

At the same time, his councillor brother, Doug Ford, registered to run for mayor.

Doctors had discovered the mayor had a "fair sized" abdominal tumour after his admission to hospital on Wednesday.

It remains unclear whether the tumour is cancerous.

Ford has faced a series of drug, alcohol and other scandals over the past 18 months but had remained a viable contender for the October 27th vote.

The Canadian Press

Priest guilty on sex charges

A Nunavut judge has found a former Roman Catholic priest guilty of 24 of the more than 70 sex-related charges he faced involving Inuit children more than 30 years ago.

Defrocked Oblate priest Eric Dejaeger had already pleaded guilty to eight counts of sexual assault when his trial began in December.

In his written decision, Justice Robert Kilpatrick noted that the time that had passed between when the assaults were alleged to have happened and the trial weakened the case.

"Judges and juries do not possess divine insight into the soul of witnesses who testify in a legal proceeding. Decisions must be made on the basis of evidence alone, not intuition or guesswork," Kilpatrick wrote.

"The quantity and quality of the evidence available to the court in this case has been substantially weakened by the passage of time. The reliability of the Crown’s evidence on many counts is suspect. This is reflected by the results of this trial."

The trial was marked by high emotion and lurid tales.

Witness after witness told court that Dejaeger used his position as Igloolik's missionary to lure and trap them into sex, threatening them with hellfire or separation from their families if they told.

Dejaeger's lawyer questioned the credibility of many of those accounts.

He pointed to the length of time that had passed since the alleged offences and the inconsistencies between different accounts.

He also suggested witnesses may have met to hone their testimony.

One thing that neither side questioned was the emotional pitch of the trial. It was common to hear witnesses howling and weeping outside court after their testimony.

Prosecutor Doug Curliss argued that enough common themes emerged from the testimony that the stories from the victims held together.

He said the accusations were similar to those Dejaeger pleaded guilty to in Baker Lake, Nunavut, where he was sent after leaving Igloolik. Dejaeger eventually served a five-year sentence on those charges.

The 67-year-old priest was initially slated to face his accusers from Igloolik in 1995, but instead left Canada for his Belgian homeland. Oblate officials have said that Canadian justice officials turned a blind eye to his leaving the country.

He was eventually returned to Canada when Belgian officials realized he was living in that country illegally.

The Canadian Press

$300M Aga Khan museum

A $300-million showcase complex that includes the first North American museum devoted to Islamic art opens Friday, an initiative of the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili Muslims.

The complex, designed by some of the world's top architects, aims to foster knowledge and understanding among Muslims as well as between Islamic societies and other cultures.

Located on 6.8-hectares, the museum building with its open-air, glassed-in courtyard is linked via a landscaped park featuring five granite reflecting pools to a cultural religious centre dominated by a towering glass roof over its prayer hall.

"You can see that the play of light throughout the building has different nuances and just creates an incredible ambience," said Farid Damji, a volunteer with the Aga Khan Council for Canada.

The Aga Khan, the community's 49th hereditary imam, is also a wealthy philanthropist who, along with members of the faith, bankrolled the new complex.

Despite the close association with Ismailism — part of the Shia branch of Islam — the museum intends to reflect the diversity of cultural expressions within Islam, Damji said as workers put the final touches to the interior and exterior elements this week.

"It's not an Ismaili museum," he said.

"It's a museum of Islam and Muslim civilization, so it's really meant to display that diversity."

Designed by award-winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, the museum building has at its centre a "courtyard of light," with heated floor tiles to help snow drain, and a 350-seat auditorium.

The exhibition space itself contains more than one-thousand objects and pieces of art — manuscripts, drawings, paintings, tapestries, metalwork, ceramics — from the 8th to 19th centuries.

In the centre of one display area sits a 16th-century fountain made of marble and sandstone in geometric formations that would have been in the reception hall of a palatial residence in Cairo. Nearby, a large 12th century copper candlestick from eastern Iran fills a display case.

Ruba Kana'an, a historian of Islamic art and head of education at the museum, called the collection special.

"It's a significant collection of the art of Muslim societies from different parts of the world," Kana'an said. "It has a variety of masterpieces — works that are unique in either their beauty or their historical significance."

Paris-based museologist Adrien Gardere designed the interior of the museum and the multimedia elements that are part of the permanent and temporary displays.

The pieces are not meant to be seen in isolation, he said in an interview, adding that the days of a single artifact floating in space in a beam of light are over.

"The world of artifacts is a world of connection and dialogue," Gardere said. "We're in a place where the artifacts dialogue in a transversal way."

The Ismaili Centre is part of a global network of such facilities, including one in Vancouver.

The latest addition to the network — the handiwork of renowned Indian architect Charles Correa — features a lounge, library, classrooms and administrative offices as well as the prayer centre with its glass roof and its Arabic-calligraphy reflective wood.

The Swiss-born Aga Khan, an honorary Canadian Citizen, is slated to be on hand for Friday's official opening of the complex.

About 100,000 Ismailis, part of an estimated 15-million strong community in 30 countries, live in Canada.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had an incorrect spelling of Gardere

The Canadian Press

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