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Soldier not guilty

A Canadian soldier has been acquitted of sexually assaulting a female subordinate.

A five-member military jury announced the verdict at Andre Gagnon's court martial in Quebec City this morning.

The 48-year-old Gagnon was on trial for the alleged sexual assault of then-corporal Stephanie Raymond in December 2011 at an armoury near Quebec City.

Gagnon's lawyers said the sex was consensual, while the Crown argued that Gagnon used his superior rank to coerce Raymond into sex acts.

The Canadian Press




Armoured truck robbery

Nearly half a million dollars has been stolen in an armoured truck robbery in the Montreal suburb of Brossard.

Police say two men wearing Halloween masks attacked two employees of the Garda security firm at a Royal Bank branch in a mall at about 11 p.m.

Longueuil Police spokesman Sylvain Stringer says the thieves hit the guards with pepper spray before making off with $431,000.

Stringer says police will be checking security camera footage to learn more about the robbery, such as the kind of vehicle the robbers used to flee.

The Canadian Press


Millions spent hunting dope

The RCMP and the Canadian military have spent nearly $11.5 million in the last eight years on a national search-and-destroy mission for illicit marijuana crops.

Federal figures show the annual Mountie-led effort, known as Operation Sabot, has led to tens of thousands of pot plants being wiped out each year.

Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray, who uncovered the data, says she's stunned at the amount spent on the project.

Last year the military spent more than $360,000 on helicopter support for the operation, which resulted in eradication of over 40,000 plants.

The military put more than $2.5 million toward the project in 2009 — the highest annual tally among the figures disclosed to Murray through a parliamentary order paper question.

The RCMP says the goal is to target outdoor marijuana growing operations and reduce the supply of pot available in Canadian communities.

The Canadian Press


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Double homicide

The RCMP say they have arrested a man after a double homicide at a home in rural P.E.I.

The Mounties say the man was arrested without incident at about 7:40 a.m. today in Montague.

Sgt. Leanne Butler said two people were found dead around 9:15 p.m. Wednesday inside a residence on St. Mary's Road south of Montague in Kings County.

Officers responded to the scene after a member of the public called 911.

Butler declined to disclose details about the victims or how they died, saying police would need permission from the coroner's office before doing so.

She would also not confirm reports that a shooting had taken place.

Roadblocks were in place at both ends of St. Mary's Road as police continued their investigation.

The Canadian Press


Bazinga! Laughter & obesity

Dr. Arya Sharma, one of the leading experts on obesity in Canada, doesn't make fat jokes.

But he still pokes fun at the science, stereotypes and struggles of being overweight.

The 54-year-old is the chair of obesity research at the University of Alberta, the scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network — and a budding comedian.

Two years ago, Sharma began touring the country with what he describes as a half-comedy-routine, half-motivational-speech called "Stop Being a Yo-Yo." The show, which continues in the fall, bills itself as "a light-hearted look at the ups and downs of weight loss."

Last week, after trying out at some open mic comedy nights in Edmonton bars, the funny physician joined the city's Fringe festival in a one-man show titled "Weighty Confessions of an Obesity Guru."

His seven shows have sold out, and he says there has been demand for more.

So far, he says, a large part of his audience seems to consist of people who are bringing friends and family members with weight problems.

"If this was just a pure talk on obesity, it would be very hard to get those people to come out. But the whole thing is a show and we promise them humour."

Sharma says there's a fine line between being funny and informative, without being insulting.

"In the end, I don't think that obesity is a laughing matter. It is a very serious health problem that we need to know more about," he says.

"But I think comedy can actually be a good way to get people to think and talk about a topic that you're uncomfortable with."

Sharma says he was the class clown as a kid but had no experience on stage.

Edmonton's Fringe can be a bit daunting. It's known as the second-largest fringe festival in the world, behind the one in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Being a researcher, Sharma hit the books to prepare for his show, reading up on how to tell the best jokes. He also sought advice from some stand-up comics.

Some of his colleagues have told him he's courageous, he says.

Others just think he's crazy.

During his 45-minute performance, he gets about 20 good laughs and another 20 chuckles, he says. The other lines that get only silence mean he still has work to do.

For instance, when chatting with the audience about cheese, he wonders aloud why manufacturers can't make it more healthy without changing its great taste and texture.

"Why don't you guys just make the holes bigger?"

(Ba dum tsh.)

Sharma says his next show may actually take him back to the classroom. He's thinking of creating a course in comedy and science communication.

About this, he's serious.

"It would be: How do you take your scientific fact that's totally boring and is going to put people to sleep and turn that into a punchline that people will actually remember?"

The Canadian Press


Pro-Israel stance leads MP to quit

A New Democrat MP has quit the caucus over what she felt was an excessively pro-Israel stance on the current conflict in Gaza and demeaning party demands to keep quiet and toe the line.

Sana Hassainia, who represents the Montreal-area riding of Vercheres-Les Patriotes, was specifically critical of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair in a blog post that appeared online Wednesday.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Hassainia said her unhappiness with the leader and party began after the 2012 leadership race. She says she was removed from a Commons committee and relegated to the backbench because she had supported Mulcair's rival Brian Topp.

But "the straw that broke the camel's back" Hassainia says was Mulcair's distinctly pro-Israel stance, despite the heavy civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip this summer. She said she could no longer remain silent in the name of loyalty to the leader and electoral strategy.

"I said to myself, my God, we're a social democratic party, and we're saying that Israel has the right to defend themselves against a people that are completely powerless," said Hassainia, suggesting she was not alone in that viewpoint.

"When there's such a huge difference of opinion between MPs and their leader, are they supposed to support that position or are they going to evolve with the situation?"

Hassainia, a Tunisian-born Muslim, underlines that she recognizes Hamas is a terrorist organization, but feels it is civilians and not Hamas that are bearing the brunt of the conflict.

NDP sources fired back saying Hassainia has never before voiced concern over Mulcair's position on Israel and accused her of simply looking for an excuse to cover the fact that she rarely shows up for work.

Mulcair, speaking at a news conference in Toronto, said the party has never made a secret of its position on the Middle East.

"The NDP has a long-standing position in favour of the two state solution in the Middle East — a safe, secure state within negotiated borders for Israelis and a safe, secure state within negotiated borders for Palestinians," he said.

"Sana in her note made it clear she doesn't agree with that. That's been our position for many years, it was Jack's position, it's mine, and so she's decided that she doesn't want to sit with us. That's her choice."

So far this year, Hassainia has the worst voting record of all MPs, showing up for only 8.7 per cent of votes in the House of Commons.

Since winning election in 2011 as part of the so-called "orange wave" that swept Quebec, the 39-year-old has given birth to two children.

A source close to Mulcair said the party bent over backwards trying to accommodate Hassainia's need to be with her young children, even letting her use the leader's office to breastfeed. But still the party's whip, Nycole Turmel, was frustrated in her efforts to get Hassainia to show up for votes and perform other parliamentary duties.

Hassainia acknowledges she refused to attend evening votes in the Commons after her second child was born in June 2013, feeling she was no longer ready to sacrifice her family life. She accuses the party of doing next to nothing to help her balance the demands of Parliament and the two toddlers at home.

"For them to come out with my attendance record, I find that petty," said Hassainia. "A party that talks about work-life balance and wants to recruit new women candidates for 2015, and young women who could have children, if you want that to happen you have to given them tools to also bloom at home."

Hassainia has not made a decision whether she will run in 2015.

Mulcair has been more unequivocal in his support for Israel than previous NDP leaders but he's walked a fine line on the conflict in Gaza.

He has supported Israel's right to defend itself against Hamas missile attacks but has simultaneously pushed the federal government to help Palestinian children injured by Israeli missiles.

— With files from Jennifer Ditchburn

The Canadian Press


Harper to tour the North

Stephen Harper will tour a local college and make an announcement about northern research in Whitehorse on Thursday as he begins his annual trek to the North, his ninth time doing so since becoming prime minister.

The Prime Minister's Office says this year's trip is meant to showcase the science, technology and research that are underway in the North.

Before he began his trip, Harper made a pit stop in British Columbia, first to meet business leaders in Chilliwack and later to speak at a $35-a-head summer barbecue for the Conservative riding association in Langley.

Following his Thursday visit to Yukon College, where he'll tour the Cold Climate Innovation Centre, Harper will make an appearance at another Conservative party event. The Whitehorse Daily Star reports the Yukon Conservative Association has sent out around 3,000 invitations to its members and others.

The Conservative party website says the Yukon event will be held Thursday evening at an undisclosed location. Buses will shuttle people from an old Shell gas station on the Alaska highway to the site.

Then he's off to Fort Smith, N.W.T., to make announcements about developing agriculture in the North before heading to Nunavut, where he'll visit Cambridge Bay, Pond Inlet, Iqaluit and York Sound. He'll also take part in the military's Operation Nanook exercise aboard HMCS Radisson.

"During the prime minister's ninth annual northern tour, the prime minister will build on our record in the North, showcasing the science, technology and research that is transforming the North, improving living standards and creating jobs as he travels to Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut," Harper spokesman Jason MacDonald wrote in an email.

Harper's trip comes as the federal government is being sued over funding for a land-use plan that would guide resource development in Nunavut.

The Nunavut Planning Commission has filed a lawsuit in Federal Court, accusing Ottawa of trying to interfere in the plan's development and to block its final steps.

The Nunavut Planning Commission was created out of the 1993 Nunavut Land Claim Agreement. The commission was charged with designing legally binding plans that would lay out which lands would be protected, which would be open for development and how they would be managed to encourage local control and economic progress.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt's office says the government has provided $3 million a year to the commission for the last 18 years.

Follow @steve_rennie on Twitter

The Canadian Press


A "disgusting" terror campaign

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says the murder of American journalist James Foley by Islamic State militants in Iraq is part of a "disgusting" terror campaign being carried out across the entire region.

It's a campaign that threatens more and more countries, he said.

"And frankly, this terrorist caliphate in our judgment represents an increasing long-term threat to the security of our own country. It is that serious," Harper said Wednesday during a brief stop in British Columbia on his annual trip to the North.

"We have been in ongoing contact with our principal allies, and we will be announcing some additional steps that we will be able to take with them in the days ahead."

Harper made the comments during what was to be a photo op at a business in Chilliwack, B.C.

Islamic State militants beheaded Foley and posted a grisly video online entitled "Message to America."

Foley was killed in retaliation for air strikes ordered by Obama against the the Islamic State militants in Iraq. The group has undertaken a brutal campaign in both Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

In Washington, American President Barack Obama denounced the group earlier Wednesday as a "cancer" threatening the entire region, affirming that U.S. will not scale back its military presence despite the threat from IS to kill another American hostage.

Foley, 40, went missing in northern Syria in November 2012 while freelancing for Agence France-Presse and the Boston-based media company GlobalPost. He had not been heard from since.

The video of his murder was posted online on Tuesday and drew international condemnation.

Germany announced it would supply the Kurds in Iraq with weapons to fight the insurgents. Italy's defence minister said the country hopes to contribute machine-guns, ammunition and anti-tank rockets.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called the Islamic State a "caliphate of barbarism."

British authorities are investigating to determine whether the man who killed Foley was a British citizen.

The journalist's mother, Diane Foley, said her son was courageous to the end and called his death "just evil."

Since Aug. 8, there have been nearly 90 U.S. airstrikes in Iraq on targets of the advancing Islamic State, including security checkpoints, vehicles and weapons caches.

- With files from the Associated Press

The Canadian Press


Minks hijinks: animals freed

 

As many as a few thousand minks could be on the loose in Quebec after someone broke into a fur farm and released animals.

The farm is at the heart of allegations of animal mistreatment.

Provincial police say they are investigating after the overnight release of the minks.

Spokeswoman Joyce Kemp says the owner noticed this morning that the minks had been released from their pens.

A spokesman for the Forests, Wildlife and Parks Department says the exact number of minks on the lam is unclear but that there could be a few thousand.

Animal advocates like the Montreal SPCA and Humane International Canada had called on the government last week to seize the animals because of their poor health and substandard living conditions.

The province chose to keep the animals under close supervision at the facility and work with the owner.

Police are meeting with the farms owner in a municipality near St-Hyacinthe, Que.

The Canadian Press


Search continues for missing man

Police have found the car belonging to a missing Ontario journalist but continue to search for the man himself.

Provincial police in Brockville, Ont., got a call Tuesday night from a resident in the township of Elizabethtown saying a vehicle matching the description of the car driven by Steve Pettibone had been found.

Const. Joel Doiron says the vehicle had been abandoned in a field off a rural road.

After confirming that it was Pettibone's car, police began to search the rural area surrounding the vehicle.

Doiron says a canine unit, officers on ATVs and a police helicopter are part of the effort.

Pettibone was last seen at 7:30 a.m. on Monday when he left his home in Belleville, Ont., to go to work at the Brockville Recorder and Times, where he is the sports editor.

His colleagues say he never arrived.

Police say Pettibone is 39 years old, about five foot 10, has brown eyes, balding hair and a goatee.

The newspaper's managing editor, Derek Gordanier, has written a column appealing for assistance in locating the journalist, saying the disappearance is "out of character" and has left the newsroom "incredibly concerned."

The Canadian Press


Alberta tightens rules

The Alberta government is tightening rules for government aircraft following a harsh report that outlined inappropriate use of the planes by former premier Alison Redford.

Finance Minister Doug Horner said that guests or family members on the planes will have to be preapproved and commercial flight options considered.

A quarterly update with details of all flights and their costs is also to be done, he said Tuesday.

A ban on using the planes for out-of-province travel remains. Redford brought in the restriction after questions arose last spring about her travel habits, including a $45,000 trip to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's funeral.

Horner said it will be up to whomever is chosen Alberta premier next month in the Tory leadership race to make any further changes.

Earlier this month, auditor general Merwan Saher found that Redford and her office used government aircraft for personal and partisan use.

He said there was an "aura of power" surrounding Redford and her office, along with "a perception that the influence of the office should not be questioned."

Dave Hancock, who took over from Redford when she resigned as premier in March, apologized for the misuse of the planes. But he also pointed out that Saher made clear that the blame falls squarely on the former premier and her office.

"He takes pains to say that his findings should not be extrapolated out to others across government," Hancock said. "But, even so, there's no question that Albertans feel let down by their government and that means all of us," he said.

"Each of us knows the rules and it is up to each of us to make sure that we are adhering to those rules at all times — whether we're taking planes, we're talking travel expenses or anything.

"We know what is appropriate and we know what isn't."

Hancock also defended his finance minister, who has been criticized since the report was released for not keeping a closer eye on what was going on. There have also been calls from the opposition for Horner's resignation.

"Ultimately, the oversight and management of the use of planes is the responsibility of the minister in charge of them," Hancock acknowledged. "In practice and in reality, the responsibility is that of members of cabinet who use the planes.

"Minister Horner trusted each of us to be responsible for our use of the planes and reminded us of the rules a number of times."

Saher found that Redford's office block-booked "false passengers" on government planes to make it look like flights were full and to ensure she could fly alone. The names were removed at the last minute.

He also said Redford's daughter flew with her on the planes at least 50 times. Some of those trips were for private reasons.

The Canadian Press


Helmets trump turbans

Ontario won't allow turban-wearing Sikhs to ride a motorcycle without wearing a helmet, a decision the Canadian Sikh Association called "deeply" disappointing.

Premier Kathleen Wynne wrote to the organization last week, saying she had struggled with striking the right balance between public safety and religious accommodation.

"After careful deliberation, we have determined that we will not grant this type of exemption as it would pose a road safety risk," she wrote in the Aug. 14 letter.

"Ultimately, the safety of Ontarians is my utmost priority, and I cannot justify setting that concern aside on this issue."

The mandatory helmet law is based on extensive research that shows the high risk of injury and death for motorcyclists who ride without a helmet, she added. Mortality rates have gone down 30 per cent and head injury rates down 75 per cent in jurisdictions with such laws.

Courts have also found that Ontario's law doesn't infringe on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the Ontario Human Rights Code, she said.

The association has been a strong advocate for an exemption and presented "compelling arguments," Wynne wrote.

"However, the Ontario government has carefully monitored, and considered, the soundness of accommodating your position, drawing on relevant academic research, key legal decisions, and consultations with caucus and the community."

The organization said it felt let down by the Liberal government, which had promised to bring in legislation that would provide the exemption.

"In all our discussions and meetings and consultations, we were given the understanding, assurances, commitment that we will be moving forward on this," said Manohar Singh Bal, secretary of the association.

Members of all three parties as well as other high-profile Canadian politicians, such as former premier Bob Rae, all support the exemption, he said. Former transportation minister Glen Murray promised to introduce a bill sometime in March or April this year.

"The premier has reversed her position, I will say, or has not followed through on the understandings and commitments that she gave," Bal said.

British Columbia, Manitoba and the United Kingdom have all enacted legislation that allows turban-wearing Sikhs the right to ride a motorcycle, he said.

Wearing a turban is part of their religion and dress code, he said. They can't go out in public without wearing one.

"It's part of their very being as a person," Bal said.

Ontario Provincial Police allowed its uniformed officers to wear turbans long ago, but the province won't grant Sikhs equality when it comes to the helmet law, he said.

"It's mindboggling how they pick and choose where they want to accommodate Sikhs and where they don't want to accommodate Sikhs," he said.

"It's just like we're at the mercy of the majority that they will pick and choose which rights we are entitled to and which rights we are not entitled to, and this is a classic example of that."

Almost a year ago, Wynne spoke out against Quebec's controversial "values charter" which aimed to impose restrictions on religious clothing and symbols on public servants.

Her government introduced a symbolic motion promising to oppose any bills that would restrict people's freedom of expression and religion in public places, which was passed unanimously in the legislature.

NDP MPP Jagmeet Singh, who introduced a private member's bill to support the helmet law exemption, said he's also disappointed in the Liberals and will continue his efforts to protect all articles of faith.

"While the Wynne Liberals are happy to pay lip service to civil rights, when the rubber meets the road, this so-called activist premier is quick to deny the Sikh community rights recognized elsewhere," he said in a statement.

The Canadian Press


Idol contestant not guilty

A former "Canadian Idol" contestant was acquitted on Tuesday of conspiring to facilitate terrorism, with the judge finding insufficient evidence that he intended to join a plot.

Khurram Syed Sher, an Ontario doctor whose 2010 arrest got international attention because of his appearance on the contest show, had pleaded not guilty to the charges. Prosecutors had accused Sher of agreeing with two other men to raise money, send cash abroad, take paramilitary training, make and use explosives, and scout targets in Canada.

Superior Court Justice Charles Hackland said that while Sher probably harboured jihadist sympathies, he was not convinced the doctor genuinely intended to join a conspiracy.

Prosecutor Jason Wakely said it was the first time someone was found not guilty after going to trial on charges under Canada's Anti-Terrorism Act, which was introduced in 2001 in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, according to prosecutor Jason Wakely. The prosecutor said he was disappointed and an appeal would be considered.

During the investigation, police seized terrorist literature, videos and manuals, along with dozens of electronic circuit boards allegedly designed to detonate homemade bombs remotely.

Sher, 32, has been free on bail for years, under strict conditions.

"It feels great," he said outside the courthouse after the verdict.

His defence lawyer, Michael Edelson, said Sher will now focus on rebuilding his life.

"His career has been ended, he's lost over a million dollars in income, prestige in the community, and it's been a very, very tough four years," Edelson said. "His family has left, he's had reduced access to his children — it's been tragic."

Sher appeared on the singing-contest show in 2008, singing a comical version of Avril Lavigne's "Complicated."

A graduate of Montreal's McGill University, the Quebec-born Sher worked as an anatomical pathologist at St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital in St. Thomas, Ontario before his arrest.

At the trial, the prosecution cited evidence gathered through wiretaps of phone calls, intercepted emails and covertly installed listening devices.

Prosecutors played six segments of sometimes sketchy audio culled from electronic surveillance of a July 20, 2010, meeting in Ottawa between Sher and the two other men charged in the case. One has been convicted and the other is awaiting trial.

Prosecutors had portrayed the meeting as a pivotal moment for the purported plotters. But Sher's lawyers characterized the visit as a friendly stopover en route from Montreal to his new job in southern Ontario.

Defence arguments painted Sher as an avid hockey fan who gave thousands of dollars to charity and helped with earthquake relief efforts in Pakistan.

Sher testified that he doesn't believe in violence, but rather in community service.

The Canadian Press


TSB releases report on train crash

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada says many factors contributed to the Lac-Megantic train derailment in 2013, including lax safety measures at the company that owned the runaway train.

The TSB says Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway had a weak safety culture and did not have a functioning system to manage risks.

The agency is also pointing a finger in its final report at Transport Canada, saying the department did not audit MMA often and thoroughly enough to ensure it was effectively managing the risks in its operations.

Agency officials held a news conference in Lac-Megantic this morning to release the report into the tragedy, which killed 47 people.

TSB chair Wendy Tadros says 18 factors played a role in the accident, including the fact that about one-third of the derailed tanker cars had large breaches which rapidly released vast quantities of highly volatile petroleum crude oil.

The disaster destroyed a swath of the community's downtown and spewed millions of litres of crude oil into the environment.

It was sparked when the train careened into the town shortly after 1 a.m. on July 6, 2013, and jumped the tracks, exploding into fireballs that were spotted by satellites in space.

People are still being treated for post-traumatic stress, while efforts to rebuild are still underway in the aftermath of what the safety board described as potentially the worst disaster of its type in Canadian history.

In May, the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Canada Co. and three of its employees were charged by Quebec prosecutors with 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death.

The accused are train engineer Thomas Harding, railway traffic controller Richard Labrie and Jean Demaitre, manager of train operations.

Class-action lawsuits are pending and there are also demands for an independent inquiry.

The TSB said at the time of the derailment it would take months to investigate but took the unusual step about two weeks later of recommending immediate changes to rail safety.

It urged that dangerous goods should not be left unattended on a main track and that rail equipment be properly secured.

Transport Canada issued directives on July 23, 2013, that at least two crew members must work on trains that carry dangerous goods and that no locomotive attached to one or more tank cars carrying dangerous goods can be left unattended on a main track.

The Lac-Megantic train had been left unattended by its sole crewman, its engineer, while he rested for the night at a nearby hotel. Early reports said the train's brakes became disabled, allowing it to roll into the town.

The TSB said last year as its investigation progressed that the crude oil carried by the train was as volatile as gasoline but had been labelled as a less-dangerous product similar to diesel or bunker crude.

Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, which had filed for bankruptcy protection, was sold in January in a closed-door auction for $15.85 million. The buyer was later revealed to be Railroad Acquisition Holdings, an affiliate of New York-based Fortress Investment Group.

Government and industry have continued to tighten rail regulations since the tragedy.

The federal government pledged in April to pull all old, rupture-prone tank cars, known as DOT-111s, off Canada's rails in the next few years.

Millions of dollars have been pledged to rebuild Lac-Megantic. The federal and Quebec governments have said they will split the cost.

The Canadian Press




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