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Santa is on social media

A 10-year-old boy will hear back from Santa thanks to a plea on social media for his address.

Canada Post put out some online feelers after it received a letter from 10-year-old Michael Johnson, apparently from southwest Ontario.

The post office says the boy didn't put a return address on his letter, which came with a package of hot chocolate.

Canada Post put a picture of the letter on Twitter and Facebook on Friday accompanied by an appeal for Michael and his family to get in touch.

A few hours later the post office tweeted that it had heard from Michael and got his address.

Canada Post says it expects more than 1.5 million letters to be mailed to Santa this Christmas and it has a team of "postal elves" busy at work to make sure the man in the red suit's replies are sent in time for Christmas.

The post office used this case to remind those wanting to send their Christmas wishes to Santa to properly address the envelope.

"Golden rule of writing to Santa: Always include a return address! The elves need it!" read the post office's note on Facebook.


Bullied for being named Isis

A nine-year-old Winnipeg girl whose parents named her after an Egyptian goddess says she's feeling a lot better after a Canadian Forces soldier apologized for getting upset at her during a Grey Cup event for children.

Isis Fernandes was on a school trip Thursday and was supposed to get a certificate for completing an obstacle course, but when she told the soldier filling out the certificates her name, he didn't believe her.

"He said, ‘I'm not writing your name. I don't think this is your real name. This is not funny.' ” recalled the little girl. “He got all mad and stuff.”

Major Cindy Pettitt with 17 Wing didn't witness the exchange but said the member approached her following the incident.

Pettitt said it was loud in the sports complex, and the member asked for clarification on the name several times, but did not intend to bully the student.

“I think it was a misunderstanding at the time,” said Pettitt. “He is sorry and is willing to meet with the child and her mother to express his apologies."

That apology took place on Friday, and Isis and her family say they are satisfied.

The little girl's mother, Amanda Fernandes, said her own grandfather was in the Armed Forces so "it showed respect and I appreciate it." She said Isis has been teased about her name before, but she has always told her daughter it is a name that represents beauty, not a terrorist group.

She said the military plans to send Isis a gift at a later date but more importantly they feel the incident is an opportunity to educate people and raise awareness.

"I just want to make sure others don't get treated like I got treated," said Isis. "So if you’re being a bully, stop being a bully."

Photo changed it all

The now-iconic photograph of the body of a young boy washed up on a Turkish beach sparked a remarkable change in Canadian interest in the Syrian refugee crisis, says an expert tapped to provide advice to the government.

While refugee and aid workers had long recognized the looming crisis, no one seemed to be paying much attention. Not even months ago, when the UN refugee agency reported that 42,500 people were being forcibly displaced every day, half of them children.

Front-line workers in places like Belgrade, perhaps accustomed to dealing with a few hundred refugees a day, were being overwhelmed by tens of thousands a day, but headlines in Canada were few and far between.

Jennifer Bond, now an adviser to Refugee Minister John McCallum, said the beginnings of a shift in public sentiment began in June, when the "European crisis" started to find its way into Canadian news reports.

The photograph of three-year-old Alan Al-Kurdi in September changed everything.

"Suddenly, people had a human face to a huge disaster," Bond said in an interview.

Those who had been warning for years about what would become a tsunami of desperate people were being heard.

Bond, a professor at the University of Ottawa, said her inbox was flooded.

"All of these people...were reaching out, wanting to know what they could do to help," she told a refugee conference this week.

The situation demonstrated that a single photo can galvanize public sentiment, Bond said.

Prominent community members began speaking in support of refugees, chatter around kitchen tables led to fundraisers, lawyers sought information on the legalities of sponsoring newcomers, people started knitting toques, others offered to house refugees.

Bond found herself speaking across Canada, but now the rooms were full.

"It was no longer a small group of specialists talking about the need to protect vulnerable people," Bond said. "It was really a remarkable change, an important shift that could not be overstated."

Another profound change would soon take place as well: the ascendancy to office of the Liberals under Justin Trudeau.

For years, the Conservatives under Stephen Harper had introduced a succession of laws that made it harder for refugees to settle in Canada. Those changes went beyond legislation, Bond said.

"All of those legal changes were accompanied by a very pronounced rhetorical change," Bond said. "Canadians were told that refugees were people to be feared, they were bogus, they were queue-jumpers."

The government's messaging had a significant impact on public sentiment that was difficult to counter, she said.


$2.65B to climate fund

Canada is making a five-year, $2.65 billion contribution to help developing countries tackle climate change.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the announcement Friday at the summit of Commonwealth leaders in Malta, where the battle against global warming is becoming the dominant issue.

The money is part of Canada's commitment towards an international climate fund seeking to raise US$100 billion annually by 2020.

"Canada is back and ready to play its part in combating climate change and this includes helping the poorest and most vulnerable countries in the world adapt," Trudeau said in a statement.

The announcement comes ahead of next week's international climate change summit in Paris.

French President Francois Hollande is to deliver an unusual address on climate issues to the Commonwealth meeting in advance of the Paris talks.

Trudeau is also rubbing shoulders with royalty at the Malta summit.

Trudeau took part in a lunch with Queen Elizabeth, the 89-year-old monarch who royal watchers say may be attending her last Commonwealth meeting.

The summits are only held every two years and the next two are scheduled to be far from Europe.

In recent years, the Queen has avoided long-distance travel.

Trudeau met outside the conference with Prince Charles and the prime minister is to deliver the toast to the Queen at the Friday night leaders' dinner.

Eager to send refugees

The governments of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are all jockeying to be the main source of the 25,000 Syrian refugees to be selected for Canada's new resettlement program.

Close to four million Syrians are currently living in UN refugee camps, informal settlements, on the streets and in crowded apartments in those three countries, straining the resources of each.

But Michelle Cameron, Canada's ambassador to Lebanon, said the eventual breakdown of how many refugees are selected from each of the countries will depend on one thing — who needs resettlement most.

It's not a skilled worker immigration program, where technical points or quotas are in play, she said in an interview with The Canadian Press from Beirut.

"We have to let the files dictate," she said.

"It's the most vulnerable, who pass our medical screening, that pass our security screening, that want to be resettled."

Cameron said she'd like to see between one-third and one-half of the total come from Lebanon.

Meanwhile, UN officials in Jordan had originally been working on a plan to submit 7,000 files from that country but that number could climb to 10,000.

Turkey currently hosts the highest number of Syrian refugees at about 2.2 million, but selection procedures there are more complex, as the Turkish government, not the UN, controls the process directly.

Beyond the UN, private groups are also working to identify and select refugees, whose files are then handed over to the Canadian government for review. Cameron said Beirut has a few thousand privately sponsored cases in their inventory.

She said she expects flights out of Lebanon to begin within the next two weeks, once there are enough files cleared to actually fill an entire plane. Most of these refugees are expected to be privately sponsored.

Among other things, she's working with the Lebanese government to try and speed its side of the process, which involves reviewing files for potential domestic security issues before exit visas can be granted.

Lebanon currently hosts about a million Syrian refugees, overwhelming its population of less than five million. In May, the country stopped registering new refugees altogether.

About 70 per cent of Syrians in Lebanon live below the poverty line. A survey in August revealed only one in five adults reported earning any money in the previous month and 94 per cent of families are in debt. Half the children aren't in school and many have begun missing meals as their families can't afford food.

There are no formal refugee camps and about a fifth of the displaced people live in informal settlements.

Cameron said she recently took a visitor to see one. As they walked away, her companion remarked on the smell of sewage and suggested it was coming from fertilizer in nearby farmers' fields.

It wasn't. Many of the settlements depend on international aid agencies to set up water and sanitation, and not all have access to them.

Between 15 and 50 families are in each settlement, Cameron said, living in shacks with muddy floors, the walls covered with plastic to keep out the rain and snow.

"Can you imagine living in that plywood box, covered in plastic, you have a few children and they look up at you and say 'I'm hungry'?"

"It's difficult for the average Canadian to comprehend that kind of scenario. This is really about protecting the most vulnerable. Saving, if you will."

Panda cub cuteness

The Toronto Zoo says the two giant panda cubs born about six weeks ago are doing "very well" and have outgrown their incubator.

The zoo says the cubs have been moved to a larger incubator and alternate spending time with their mother, Er Shun, who is on loan from China.

It says Er Shun is feeding her cubs and staff have been increasing her bamboo intake to maintain her milk production. The zoo says the cubs' diet is being supplemented with formula.

Photos released by the zoo show the cubs have grown their trademark black-and-white fur.

Giant pandas are born blind and the cubs are pink with short, thin white fur. The cubs are about 1/900th of the size of their mother, making them among the smallest newborn mammals compared to their mother.

The zoo says it is still a critical time for the cubs and they remain in the maternity area of the panda exhibit, which is hidden to the public.

Staff have said the cubs, if they survive, will live at the zoo for about two years and will likely return to China once they are weaned from Er Shun.

Er Shun and a male panda named Da Mao arrived from China in 2013 and are slated to move to the Calgary Zoo in 2018.

Studying lung cancer risk

Alberta researchers have launched a new study to figure out how to identify and treat lung cancer before it's too late.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among men and women in Canada.

The pilot study will try to identify smokers and ex-smokers who are most at risk for lung cancer and screen them annually using low-dose CT scans over a three-year period.

Dr. Alain Tremblay, the Calgary-based principal investigator in the study, said by the time people start to experience symptoms, it is often too late.

He says screening has the potential to reduce the number of deaths, but the challenge is to determine who is most at risk.

Scientists say that between 85 and 90 per cent of all lung cancers occur in current smokers or ex-smokers and that the number of cases among ex-smokers is rising as more people kick the habit.

Researchers will take a look at a number of factors to determine a person’s risk of developing lung cancer including: smoking history, family history of cancer, educational level, demographic information and ethnicity.

“We want to create a screening program that will enable us to catch the disease at its early stages, when it’s potentially curable,” said Dr. Eric Bédard, AHS Edmonton Zone section head for thoracic surgery.

“Identifying those most at risk for lung cancer is one of the key tasks ahead of us. We don’t want to expose Albertans at no or low risk to unnecessary diagnostic testing. This research is helping us to refine that criteria.”

Scientists started recruiting participants for the study earlier this year and so far, screening found one patient with an early stage lung cancer called adenocarcinoma, which was successfully removed with surgery.

“We know the importance of being able to detect cancer at an early stage and have committed to raise $2.5 million for this pilot research project so we can implement a sustainable program in Alberta,” said Myka Osinchuk, CEO of the Alberta Cancer Foundation.

“The fact these researchers have already detected lung cancer this early into the project shows the immediate impact this investment is having on Alberta cancer patients.”

$100M to UN refugee relief

The Liberal government's long-awaited $100 million contribution to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help fleeing Syrians is destined for a half-empty international aid bucket.

The UN refugee agency has only raised 45 per cent of the $4.5 billion it sought for 2015 to assist the 4.3 million refugees who have fled Syria for Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, according to its latest statistics.

Canada's contribution, announced Thursday, fulfils a Liberal campaign promise from the federal election, a contribution that includes $10 million for the UN refugee agency to help it select eligible Syrians for settlement in Canada over the next few months.

"Canada is coming out very strongly, not only with this exceptional program of resettling the 25,000 Syrian refugees, but the financial support to UNHCR is absolutely crucial," Furio de Angelis, the UN agency's Ottawa representative, told The Canadian Press.

"Unfortunately our programs are underfunded and not only UNHCR programs but in general humanitarian programs (are) underfunded. This is another sign that Canada is on the side of refugees, it is on the side of humanitarian assistance."

Government officials in the newly re-named Global Affairs Department acknowledged the vast international funding shortcoming, but said Canada was doing its part because it was still among the top 10 international donors.

"That's why this money is so important," said one official, who briefed journalists on the condition of anonymity.

International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the government will move quickly to disburse the funds that it has already announced, but was noncommittal about whether more might be pledged in the future.

"Our officials are in constant discussions with UNHCR and we will make sure that they will get the money as soon as they need it," she said.

"It will be a quick release."

The government also said it is honouring a commitment made by the previous Conservative government to match donations by Canadians to the international relief efforts. People have until Dec. 31 to make donations, which will be matched to a ceiling of $100 million, officials said.

"Those funds will be matched to where those needs are greatest. If an organization raises a dollar, it might not be that organization that needs another dollar to respond based on their position in the field and the services they deliver," said a department official.

UN staff in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are working tirelessly to help select the 15,000 Syrians who will be brought to Canada by the end of February directly by the government.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion said Canada has received a positive reaction from most of those countries, as well as requests to take more refugees.

"If you add up all the requests, it will be much more than 25,000," Dion said after arriving in Malta for the Commonwealth summit.

Dion noted the strain on Lebanon, which has a population of 4.5 million and has absorbed more than a million refugees.

"For Canada it would be about 11 million refugees — 11 million refugees! That's what Canada would have to absorb," said Dion.

"So we are certainly able to welcome 25,000 human beings in the coming weeks and to welcome them well."

In an email Thursday, Citizenship and Immigration said Minister John McCallum put the number of permanent residence visas that have been processed for Syrian refugees at just over 900, but said that in some cases exit visas have not been obtained.

It said McCallum said likely the first group will travel to Canada on a Canadian Air Force plane and the government will also look into the option of leased planes thereafter, but that logistics are still being finalized.

The government is also giving the UN money to help deal more broadly with the effect of the Syrian crisis in neighbour countries which have taken in refugees.

"We know that Syrian refugees are cutting on meals, taking on debt to meet their basic daily needs and risking their lives to leave Syria," said Bibeau.

"This funding to UNHCR will help to make these decisions a little less difficult by helping to meet basic needs."

Thursday's announcement brings to $969 million the total amount of humanitarian assistance from Canada in response to the Syrian crisis.

Political parties get richer

Reforms aimed at ending the influence of big money on the federal political process have resulted in parties raking in more than 10 times as much dough.

But a lot less of it is coming from wealthy individuals.

Those are the findings of an Elections Canada analysis of financial trends for political parties between 2000 and 2014.

The reforms went into effect in 2004, capping annual donations from individuals at $5,000 and severely restricting contributions from corporations and labour unions.

Further reforms in 2007 capped individual donations at $1,000 (adjusted annually for inflation) and prohibited corporate and union contributions altogether.

Despite the reforms, Elections Canada found that the net assets of political parties and their riding associations grew from $7.8 million in 2004 to a whopping $81.7 million in 2014.

However, since 2006, just one per cent of the money collected by parties has come from a tiny percentage of individuals (less than one per cent of all contributors) who could afford to donate more than $1,200.

Prior to the reforms in 2004, more than half (54 per cent) of the money raked in by parties came from donors who gave more than $1,200, even though they accounted for only two per cent of all contributors.

The huge increase in parties' net assets since 2004 includes the public per-vote subsidy given to parties as a way to compensate them for the restrictions on donations. The previous Conservative government phased out that subsidy, scrapping it entirely last spring, while increasing the individual donation cap to $1,500.

However, the subsidy does not entirely account for the improvement in parties' finances.

The analysis found that total donations to parties from 2012-14 were 13 per cent higher on average than in 2001-03. Even small parties that were not eligible for the subsidy improved their financial situation following the reforms, although the cash gap between them and the bigger parties increased.

In non-election years since 2004, the agency says annual contributions to parties have increased by an average of seven per cent, despite the restrictions on donations.

In election years, however, donations have actually declined by more than 40 per cent compared to the $125 million parties raked in during 2000, the last election year in which there was no limit on donations.

No release for Black Widow

The Parole Board of Canada says an elderly woman known as the "Black Widow" who was convicted of spiking her newlywed husband’s coffee with tranquilizers has been denied an early release.

Melissa Ann Shepard, now in her early 80s, was sentenced in Sydney, N.S., in June 2013 to two years, nine months and 10 days for administering a noxious substance and failing to provide the necessities of life to 76-year-old Fred Weeks.

The board says in a recently released decision that Shepard was found to be in possession of six bottles of eye drops and although she has a diagnosis requiring the medication, the amount that was found was excessive and could have been used to cause harm.

The agency said Shepard has a tendency to fabricate and deny events to correctional staff, and is unable to link consequences to actions.

"The board must highlight its apprehension with file information that shows you continue to involve yourself in behaviours that are part of your offence cycle, such as your tendency to fabricate events to staff, and hoarding medication since your last detention hearing," says the decision from the board in Moncton, N.B.

"The board is of the opinion your lack of progress in this matter has not effectively addressed your risk of reoffending."

The board determined her risk of reoffending in a violent way was unchanged and ordered that she remain in custody.

While on their honeymoon, witnesses noticed that Weeks's motor skills were decreasing, the decision says. When he was admitted to hospital, it says Lorazepam and Temazepam were found in his blood. Police found that Shepard was in possession of those drugs, the board says.

The decision says Shepard's criminal history dates back to 1970. Since 1990, it says she has been convicted in three incidents involving death or serious physical or psychological harm to the victims.

Shepard, who acquired the moniker of the “Black Widow” and the “Internet Black Widow,” was convicted of manslaughter in 1992 in the death of her second husband, Gordon Stewart, whom she drugged and ran over twice with a car.

She was also sentenced in 2005 to five years in prison on seven counts of theft from a man in Florida she had met online.

Can't catch me, I'm in a tree

Police in Edmonton say it took four hours to talk a suspect down from a tree where he had perched in an attempt to evade officers.

They say police had approached the man on Wednesday night because he was walking erratically on the side of a busy road in the city's southwest.

Police say he discharged bear spray at an officer and police then fired a shot.

The man was not injured but fled into a wooded area.

Officers, a canine team, a tactical unit and the police helicopter located him 40 minutes later, about 10 metres up a tree.

Frederick Andrews, 27, faces three charges, including assaulting a peace officer with a weapon.

Andrews also had fourteen outstanding warrants against him for aggravated assault, assault and possession of a weapon.

Single male refugees OK

The federal government has not slammed the refugee door shut on single men who might want to come to Canada as part of its large Syrian resettlement program, the bureaucrat in charge of the effort said Thursday.

Instead, the government has made its priority helping the most vulnerable Syrians and its primary aim is to help complete families make the move, Deborah Tunis said.

Tunis disputed reports that single men would be excluded, citing a technical briefing from David Manicom, the assistant deputy minister with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

Manicom, she said, directed that families, women, children and sexual minorities at risk take precedence.

"Those are where priorities are but we haven't said that we're not taking any single men, it's just that those other cases are going to the top of the list," Tunis told The Canadian Press in an interview.

"Single males will be coming as part of this population."

Tunis, a longtime employee with the federal government, came out of retirement to become the government's special co-ordinator on Syrian refugees.

It was an opportunity to participate in an important national project, make a contribution, and make a difference in people's lives, Tunis said.

"Our assistant deputy ministers this week said this is the most exciting, exhilarating thing they've worked on," she said.

"For many people in the department, they've been wanting to work on this kind of a project for a long, long time — it's why people come to work."

Indeed, that kind of excitement was evident as Tunis and hundreds of other people devoted to helping refugees gathered for the start of a national three-day conference.

In the following days and weeks, the first wave of 10,000 Syrian refugees will begin arriving in Canada — the government has said by the end of the year — dominating discussions at the fall consultation of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

The logistics, however, of welcoming them is a daunting challenge — even for organizations that have spent years helping refugees.

"This is truly an incredible mobilization," said Jennifer Bond, an Ottawa professor providing expert advice to the new refugee minister.

At the same time, she stressed, Ottawa needs significant support and co-ordination from other levels of government and local groups.

Initially, housing will be a priority — for example, some hotels and schools may offer immediate shelter — but the list of tasks, from providing health care and language lessons to schooling and social supports, is long.


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