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RBC profit up 24%

Royal Bank of Canada, the country's largest lender, reported stronger-than-expected first-quarter results Friday on the back of solid earnings from its Canadian banking, wealth management and capital markets businesses.

RBC, the second of the five big banks to report quarterly earnings, had $3.03 billion of net income during the quarter, up 24 per cent from a year ago.

That amounted to $1.97 per diluted share, up 39 cents from the same quarter last year.

"Credit quality across our portfolios also improved, benefiting from stable economic conditions in Canada and higher oil prices," CEO David McKay said during a conference call to discuss the bank's results.

RBC reduced the amount of money it has set aside for bad loans to $294 million, down 18 per cent from the previous quarter thanks in part to recoveries in the oil and gas sector.

Total gross impaired loans came in at $3.56 billion, down $344 million from the fourth quarter of last year.

The Toronto-based bank shuffled its management ranks, moving Jennifer Tory, the sister of Toronto mayor John Tory, to the role of chief administrative officer.

For the past three years Tory has served as group head of personal and commercial banking at RBC, a role that will be taken over by Neil McLaughlin, currently the executive vice-president of business financial services.

The lender cautioned that it's keeping an eye on its portfolio of mortgage loans in Toronto and Vancouver, two markets that some economists have cautioned could be in a bubble.

"Given accelerated house price appreciation in both of these markets we continue to closely monitor this portfolio with extra due diligence for higher value mortgages," chief risk officer Mark Hughes told analysts.

"Overall, we remain comfortable with our residential mortgage portfolio given our clients' ability to repay and the strong underlying credit quality of this portfolio."





Spill cleanup cost $107M

Husky Energy says efforts to clean up a major oil pipeline spill last year in Saskatchewan have cost $107 million.

About 90,000 litres of heavy crude and diluent leaked into the North Saskatchewan River last July, jeopardizing drinking water supplies for thousands of people downstream.

Husky Energy said ground movement was to blame for the pipeline rupture.

The Saskatchewan government is also investigating.



Whistler inks 60-yr deal

The Colorado-based company that owns Whistler Blackcomb ski resort has announced a 60-year renewal of the resort's master development agreements with the B.C. government.

Vail Resorts, Inc. says the renewal also includes approval of Whistler Blackcomb's associated master plans.

That is one of the key requirements before a three-phase, $345 million facelift can proceed at the mountain home of the 2010 Winter Olympics, 125 kilometres north of Vancouver.

A news release from Vail Resorts says execution of the long-term agreements provides future certainty for Whistler Blackcomb's operations and a positive benefit for the local communities and British Columbia.

Whistler Blackcomb operates on the traditional territories of the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations, and Vail Resorts says agreements have also been reached to ensure the First Nations participate in the success of the ski area.

Vail Resorts says the Squamish and Lil'wat will become partners through economic and cultural commitments, jobs, contracting and development opportunities, and recreational opportunities for First Nations youth.

"This is a significant milestone for Whistler Blackcomb and our local communities as it provides us with the long-term certainty for the capital investment required to maintain our position as a premier mountain resort destination in the world," Whistler Blackcomb chief operating officer Dave Brownlie said in a joint release with Vail Resorts.

Rob Katz, chairman and chief executive officer of Vail Resorts, says execution of the master development agreements and master plans is a major accomplishment that has taken years to achieve.

"With this step now complete, we look forward to a strong partnership with the local First Nations, the Province of British Columbia, the Resort Municipality of Whistler, and all of the community stakeholders over the course of the next 60 years," he said in the release.



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Austerity over, says Greece

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras says the era of austerity is over for his country, painting a positive picture Friday of reforms the country has agreed to take after its latest bailout program ends in 2018.

Speaking in parliament, Tsipras described the deal reached Monday as an "exceptional success" and said it showed the country's creditors accepted Greece's insistence that it could no longer bear any further budget austerity.

"I am fully convinced we achieved an honourable compromise," Tsipras said, adding that all sides at the eurozone finance ministers' meeting in Brussels had agreed for the "first time after seven years ... to leave the path of continued austerity behind us."

On Monday, Greece agreed to legislate new reforms to come into effect in 2019, but said these will be fiscally neutral: for every euro's worth of new burdens on the Greek taxpayer, an equal amount of relief will be granted.

In return, Greece's creditors agreed to send their bailout inspectors back to Athens next week for further talks to complete a long overdue review of progress made in Greece's bailout.

Tsipras said both creditor-requested new measures and government-proposed relief measures will be legislated at the same time, and that therefore there was no conditionality for the relief measures.

The prime minister's left-led coalition government, trailing in polls, has presented the deal as a decisive, positive step forward for austerity-weary Greeks hammered by seven years of a financial crisis that plunged the country into an economic depression.

No details have been provided of what the new reforms will entail, although there is widespread speculation they will include a broadening of the tax base and further pension and labour reforms.



China buys film studio

China's footprint in Hollywood is expanding following a wire and cable maker's purchase of a controlling stake in independent studio Millennium Films, which produced "Rambo" and "The Expendables."

Recon Holding said Thursday it is taking a 51 per cent stake in Millennium for $100 million.

The company, based in Yixing near Shanghai, is controlled by Tony Xia, who was a little-known businessman until last year, when he bought struggling English soccer club Aston Villa with ambitious plans to turn it around.

The terms of the deal, which is expected to close in the second quarter, give Recon majority ownership of Millennium and its library of 300 films.

The studio is known for its action titles, which include 2008's "Rambo," the fourth installment of the Sylvester Stallone action franchise, "The Expendables" series, and "London Has Fallen."

Chinese investors and Hollywood studios have been in a frenzy of deal-making in recent years as both sides seek to expand in each other's movie industries.

Chinese companies are hoping to gain filmmaking expertise as well as beef up the country's global cultural influence, also known as "soft power." Hollywood, meanwhile, covets China's strong box office revenue growth as domestic earnings stagnate.

In the past year, Chinese companies have sealed deals with entertainment companies including Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Amblin Partners and Dick Cook Studios.



Inflation climbs to 2.1%

A surge in gasoline prices helped push Canada's annual inflation rate well beyond expectations in January to 2.1 per cent — an increase that coincided with the implementation of new carbon-pricing policies in Ontario and Alberta.

Statistics Canada said Friday the 6.3 per cent increase in transportation costs was the main contributor to the higher inflation rate, with gas prices experiencing a 20.6 per cent boost across the country compared to the year before.

The report also found that year-over-year inflation rates were higher in every province last month compared to a year earlier.

In Alberta, the annual inflation rate hit 2.5 per cent last month after an increase of one per cent in December. Gas prices in Alberta climbed 33.9 per cent last month, a gain that Statistics Canada says was partly attributable to a new carbon levy in the province.

The agency said Ontario, which introduced a cap-and-trade program in January, saw a 20.4 per cent year-over-year increase last month in gas prices.

Overall, a consensus of economists had predicted 1.6 per cent inflation for January, according to Thomson Reuters.

Statistics Canada says consumers paid 2.1 per cent less for food last month compared to a year earlier.

In B.C., the inflation rate was 2.3 per cent, up from 1.9 the previous month.



Cover your ears, boy!

The organization that regulates health and safety in British Columbia workplaces reports almost one in four young construction workers is not doing enough to protect against hearing loss.

New data from WorkSafeBC shows 24 per cent of construction workers aged 21 or under don't wear hearing protection.

That compares with 13 per cent of construction workers who don't use hearing protection over the age of 50 and 11 per cent in all other age groups in the industry.

WorkSafe says young workers in construction are also less likely to wear hearing protection than young employees in other industries, such as manufacturing and primary resources.

The data was collected last year from more than 160,000 hearing tests conducted by B.C. employers as part of hearing loss prevention programs required by WorkSafeBC.

Occupational audiologist Sasha Brown says noise-induced hearing loss can be caused by a single loud noise or by repeated exposure to consistent noise, and it must be taken very seriously.

"While the damage may be painless, it is irreversible and may go unnoticed for years or even decades until it reaches a point where it has a significant effect on one's quality of life," Brown says in a release.

According to WorkSafeBC, there have been more than 37,000 accepted claims for noise-induced hearing-loss in B.C. since 2006.



Fracking too low for profits

The two largest publicly traded Canadian oilfield fracking companies say prices for their services continue to be unsustainably low despite rising activity spurred by higher oil and gas prices.

Calfrac Well Services (TSX:CFW) and Trican Well Service (TSX:TCW), both based in Calgary, say they don't expect a return to normal pricing levels until the second half of this year.

The companies work for oil and gas producers to provide well completion services such as fracking, where liquids and chemicals are injected under high pressure to break up tight underground formations and allow oil and gas to be produced into a well.

Calfrac and Trican laid off thousands of workers over the past two years and now report they are having trouble finding staff to man equipment as it returns to the field.

Calfrac says it experienced a 33 per cent plunge in revenue to $193 million in the fourth quarter ended Dec. 31 compared with the same period of 2015, while Trican says its revenue fell 27 per cent to $115 million.

Both companies say revenue for all of 2016 fell by 50 per cent compared with 2015.

Calfrac reported an operating loss of $18 million in the fourth quarter of 2016 versus an operating gain of $5.7 million in the fourth quarter of 2015. Trican had an operating loss of $7.4 million versus the year-earlier gain of $15 million.

Trican said it had net income of $57 million in the fourth quarter and a loss of $16.5 million in the same period a year earlier.

Calfrac posted a fourth-quarter net loss of $61 million versus a loss of $141 million in the same period of 2015.



Flying fat goes to court

The Supreme Court of Canada has granted Delta Airlines leave to appeal a ruling that found a Halifax passenger rights advocate could stand up for obese people even though he isn't overweight himself.

The court ruled Thursday that it would look at an earlier Federal Court of Appeal ruling involving Gabor Lukacs and a complaint he had originally filed to the Canadian Transportation Agency in 2014.

The complaint was over Delta's practice of bumping obese travellers from flights or making them relocate or buy two seats on a plane, which Lukacs argued discriminates against large passengers and should be banned. The agency dismissed the complaint because it found that Lukacs had no private or public standing in the matter because he wasn't directly affected by it.

The federal appeal court disagreed in a ruling last September and ordered the agency to take another look at Delta's policy.

Lukacs said Thursday he was disappointed the top court had granted the leave to appeal, but said it might provide some needed clarity to the issue.

"This protracts the process of dealing with the substance of my complaint, which is whether this policy is discriminatory," he said. "But at the same time, I'm very pleased that the Supreme Court recognizes that this is a matter of national importance and that finally there will be some legal certainty created here."

Delta and the agency did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

In its decision, the federal appeal court unanimously agreed that the fact that someone may not be directly affected by a practice should not prevent them from filing a complaint.

"There is no sound reason to limit standing ... to those with a direct, personal interest in the matter."

While the decision addressed a particular case, Lukacs said it could open the door to more people being able to file complaints with the agency — a quasi-judicial tribunal mandated to provide consumer protection for air passengers and ensure accessible transportation.

The complaint stemmed from a 2014 email from a Delta customer care agent to a passenger who felt he was "cramped" on a flight by a large passenger. The passenger notified Delta, which provided him with an explanation of the airline's guidelines.

Delta said it sometimes asks large passengers to move to an area of the plane where there is more room, "purchase additional seats" or take another flight.



GM bill 'self-driving'

With states seizing the initiative on shaping the future of self-driving cars, General Motors is trying to persuade lawmakers across the country to approve rules that would benefit the automaker while potentially keeping its competitors off the road.

The carmaker denies trying to freeze out other brands, but legislators in four states say GM lobbyists asked them to sponsor bills that the company's competitors contend would do just that. The bills set a blueprint for the introduction of fully self-driving cars that are part of on-demand, ride-sharing fleets, but they must be owned by an automaker.

Competitors working on self-driving technology like Uber and Alphabet's Waymo fear the measures could shut out their companies because they don't manufacture cars. And some automakers that are developing autonomous cars say they could be shut out, too, because their vehicles still rely on having a driver ready to step in.

GM began by getting a bill passed last year on its home turf, in Michigan. In response to complaints from Waymo, a compromise bill was also passed to allow participation by technology companies. But Bryant Walker Smith, a leading legal expert on self-driving cars, said the compromise was poorly worded and that it's unclear what it would do.

This year, bills similar to the Michigan law, but without the compromise language, have been introduced in at least five states: Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and Tennessee. GM lobbyists have also urged lawmakers in other states to introduce versions of the bill.

Prospects for passage of the bills are uncertain. But the state-by-state lobbying by the powerful automaker and its competitors shine light on the behind-the-scenes fight to determine how self-driving cars will operate on American roads and which companies will have the competitive edge.

With no federal regulations for self-driving cars in place, states are assuming responsibility for ensuring the benefits of the technology can be reaped without sacrificing safety. Federal regulators provided safety guidance to states and automakers last year, but stopped short of issuing binding rules. Key members of Congress say they also are exploring legislation. Eight states have self-driving car laws, and bills have been introduced in 20 states this year, according to tracking by Volvo.



CIBC will remain patient

CIBC will remain disciplined and patient on its efforts to buy Chicago-based lender PrivateBancorp as it looks to expand its business in the U.S. amid slowing loan growth at home, CIBC's CEO said Thursday.

Victor Dodig made his comments after CIBC (TSX:CM), Canada's fifth largest bank by market capitalization, reported first-quarter results that surpassed expectations, with net income of $1.41 billion, up from $982 million a year ago. The earnings amounted to $3.50 per diluted share, up from $2.43 per diluted share during the same period last year.

Analysts had expected earnings of $2.96 per diluted share, according to an estimate compiled by Thomson Reuters.

"Our U.S. strategy continues to remain intact and that is to grow our footprint in the U.S. to be able to better serve our clients, as well as to have exposure into a market that we see growth in over the long term," Dodig told analysts during a conference call to discuss the bank's results.

A shareholder vote scheduled for December was postponed after shares of PrivateBancorp rose above the value implied in the proposed deal, which was announced in June. PrivateBancorp said its shareholders needed more time to consider the transaction.

The deadline for both to walk away from the deal is June 29.



Crop insurance going up

Crop insurance premiums and coverage levels are going up in Saskatchewan.

Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart says premiums will average $8.51 an acre — up 67 cents an acre from last year's average — because of the need to insure higher value crops such as lentils and canola.

Stewart says coverage levels will increase by $1 to $217 an acre.

The province will also pay out an estimated $650 million in crop insurance claims from 2016 because storms and excess moisture delayed harvest.

About 1.3 million acres of crop is still on the fields.

Stewart says the challenge will be getting that harvested before seeding this year.

The $650 million is not a record loss: That was in 2002 when crop insurance paid out just over $1.2 billion because of a drought.



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