Rallying together

A rally in support of Alberta's oil industry drew hundreds of supporters who cheered as speakers delivered a message that the rest of Canada needs to be thankful for the prosperity the province provides.

"We aren't just a monumental cash cow for the government. We provide opportunities for families across the country," Bernard Hancock, known as Bernard the Roughneck, told the crowd at a park in Grande Prairie, Alta., on Sunday.

"It puts chicken in the pot in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. It puts a roast in the oven in Miramichi, New Brunswick. It puts tortiere on the fork in Granby, Quebec. And it puts tofu on the table in Toronto and Vancouver!"

The event was organized by the pro-oilsands groups Oilfield Dads and Rally4Resources, which say government regulations are suffocating the Canadian oil and gas industry.

Grande Prairie is a hub for oil production in northwestern Alberta, known as Peace Country. Like the rest of the province, it has felt the pinch as the province's oil industry struggles from a price differential that's in part due to a lack of capacity to transport its oil to markets.

Many who attended Sunday's rally held signs denouncing the federal government's Bill C-69 to revamp the National Energy Board, which opponents say will make it impossible to build new pipelines.

RCMP estimated more than 1,500 people attended the rally. Afterward, a convoy of over 600 vehicles drove through the city with their horns blasting.

Alberta's Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous, who spoke at the event, slammed the federal government for not doing more to help.

"There is not a road, a bridge or hospital that does not owe something to the Alberta energy sector and we need the prime minister to wake up to that," he said.

Bilous also made a dig at a recent call by the council of Whistler, B.C. for the oil industry to share in covering the costs associated with climate change.

"The people of Whistler need to tell the truth: that they are using Alberta gas for their cars for their petrochemical products, and they're using our oil and it's time to smarten up," he told the rally.

Whistler's mayor, Jack Crompton, apologized in a Facebook video last week.

Alberta's Opposition Leader Jason Kenney, who typically criticizes the NDP government's carbon tax during public appearances, limited his salvos mostly for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and what he called "foreign money" that opposes Canada'e energy sector.

While Quebec Premier Bernard Legault, speaking about the proposed Energy East pipeline, recently said there's no "social acceptability" for a pipeline that would carry what he called "dirty" energy through his province, Kenney blamed Quebec politicians rather than Quebecers.

"The vast majority of Quebecers are hard-working women and men who support our resource industries. They work in the forestry sector, they work in mining, they understand the people of the Peace Country," Kenney told the rally.

"But they have political leadership that is saying they will take $13 billion in equalization money, largely from your industry, largely from this province."


Coach creates 'gear library'

Nicola Froese says she has always loved playing sports, but hockey was never on her radar because there are so many upfront costs to just trying it out.

That changed last week, when the Vancouver teen stepped on the ice for her first practice with a new team that aims to remove any barriers for girls wanting to play the game.

"I had never really thought about it as an option mostly because getting gear is so expensive, so I never wanted to make the commitment of buying all the gear if I didn't know how far it would go," Froese said.

"When the opportunity came about to play without having to buy all the equipment that seemed like a really good option."

Froese is one of the Tupper Tigers, a team of girls in Grade 8 through 12 at Sir Charles Tupper Secondary School in east Vancouver that recently formed.

Coach Todd Hickling created the team with a particular idea in mind: cost shouldn't be a barrier to trying out Canada's national winter sport.

Hickling put out calls through his network asking for donations of used hockey gear so that any girl at Sir Charles Tupper Secondary School could join the team.

"One of the reasons that a lot of players don't get to experience what it's like to play hockey is the cost," he said.

Hickling said he has been overwhelmed by the support of the community, which has made enough donations to create a "gear library" and ensure the fees are covered for the fledgling team.

"Girls come in who don't have equipment, we fit them with used hockey gear that's just right for them, and that removes one of the large barriers," he said.

The school's parent advisory council raised enough money to cover the team's fees and Abbie's Sport Shop also donated new "jills," which are groin protectors and cost $50 each alone, he said.

The Tigers had their first two practices last week in preparation for their first game in January as one of eight teams in a high school league.

Hickling, who has two kids at the school, said he believes there should be more opportunities for "late beginners" to try out the sport, especially girls who often have fewer opportunities to play.

"I'm excited to get the season started and see what we can do. We've been on the ice twice and it was fantastic, the girls who can play can mentor the girls who are just learning," he said.

"Some are learning basic skating skills, others can skate a bit and are learning stick and puck skills. It's nice to see everybody working together."

Ella Ryan-Thompson said she had figure skated a few times in her life, but never used hockey skates before borrowing them from the gear library.

She was nervous getting on the rink, she said, adding that it took half an hour just to get all the gear on and trying a new sport at age 16 came with some anticipated social pressure.

But Ryan-Thompson said she only fell once and her teammates are helping one another out.

"It was better than I expected. I was stressing out about getting to know the other girls on the team and not being the best, but once I stepped on the ice, I realized no one really cared about that. They just cared about having a good time," she said.

It can be hard to start a new sport at her age, because beginner sports teams are typically geared toward either younger kids or adults, she said. But she's already hooked.

"I've only had two practices but I've already gone to the rink with my friend with my hockey skates," she said.

"I'm getting close to obsessed with it, it's a really fun sport."

Gift hits the right note

Two famous Newfoundlanders have stepped in to help an elderly veteran whose guitar went missing earlier this month.

Eighty-two-year-old Edward Sheppard was devastated after his guitar — a gift from his late wife — was stolen from his home in Stephenville Crossing, N.L.

But after his story received media attention, comedian Mark Critch sent out a tweet Friday asking if any of his musician friends had a guitar they could spare for the elderly vet.

Alan Doyle of the band Great Big Sea responded to say he had one, and Saturday morning he delivered the guitar to Sheppard, who was staying at his son's home in St. John's.

Sheppard's daughter Yolanda says she's grateful for the quick responses, but she isn't surprised that fellow Newfoundlanders stepped in to help, saying "it's what we do."

She says she still hopes the original guitar finds its way back to her father, since her mother saved up for a long time to buy it and it holds a lot of sentimental value.


Largest diamond ever

A Canadian mining firm says it has unearthed the largest diamond ever found in North America.

Dominion Diamond Mines says the 552-carat yellow diamond was found at its Diavik mine in the Northwest Territories in October.

It says the stone "far surpasses" the previous record-holder, known as the Diavik Foxfire, which was found at the same mine in 2015.

Dominion, which owns 40 per cent of the Diavik mine, says in a statement that the find "is completely unexpected for this part of the world and marks a true milestone for diamond mining in North America."

It says the gem will not be sold in its rough form, and the company will find a partner in the coming weeks to cut and polish the stone.

The company says it's too early to determine a value for the giant diamond, but the Diavik Foxfire eventually yielded two stones that sold for US$1.3 million.

"The colour and texture of the diamond are a unique example of the journey that natural diamonds take from their formation until we unearth them," Kyle Washington, chairman of Dominion Diamond Mines, said in a statement Thursday.

"Our Diavik Mine has produced some of the most beautiful diamonds in the world, and this one certainly tops the list."

Blaming the media

Seven years after it was created, Quebec's anti-corruption unit is having difficulty recruiting members and filling a number of positions.

Frederick Gaudreau, the interim head of the agency known by its French acronym, UPAC, admits unflattering coverage in the media hasn't helped.

"Yes, it's a reason, I don't want to deny it," Gaudreau said at a recent news conference during the presentation of the unit's annual report. "I won't hide from you that it's a challenge to recruit people."

The report also revealed that there was a 30 per cent rate of voluntary departures among permanent employees at UPAC.

The unit, which has about 350 employees, was created by former premier Jean Charest in 2011 amid allegations of corruption in Quebec's construction industry and the alleged illegal financing of political parties.

Gaudreau recently took over as the unit's director after his predecessor, Robert Lafreniere, tendered his resignation on Oct. 1 — the day of the last provincial election.

No reason was given for Lafreniere's decision to step down. He had been at the head of the unit since it was created. He was reconfirmed in the job in 2016 and his mandate was supposed to end in 2021.

However, Quebec media have been reporting on turmoil within the anti-corruption unit for months, and the reports suggest the unit has a difficult work environment with low morale.

Documents leaked to the press also revealed UPAC has for years been investigating Charest and Liberal party treasurer Marc Bibeau on illegal electoral financing suspicions.

No arrests have been made in either investigation and Charest has denied any wrongdoing.

Gaudreau was coy when asked on Thursday if the two men are still being investigated.

"If we talk about an investigation that's underway, we could put the investigation at risk," he said. "It's important not to comment on an investigation that's underway."

A Liberal member of the Quebec legislature, who says he was "destroyed" after being targeted by UPAC, is suing the provincial government for $550,000.

In October 2017, Guy Ouellette was arrested by the anti-corruption unit on suspicion he was responsible for leaking sensitive information about the investigation into Charest and Bibeau.

Ouellette, a former provincial police officer, denied the claims and was never charged.

Gaudreau admitted that the negative media coverage has affected the recruitment of officers to join the unit, but it's something he hopes to change.

"My objective, I would say, is to assure the population that the work is being done properly in the field (and) remove any uneasiness and any preoccupation that people have had in the past," he said.

An internal report in December 2017, which was leaked to the media, talked of palpable tensions and a lack of confidence in management among the unit's employees.

Quebec's public security department announced in October that the province's independent police watchdog, known as BEI, will investigate leaks of confidential information apparently coming from UPAC.

Gaudreau said about a dozen positions for investigators and several support staff positions now need to be filled.

He noted that there's little interest among the younger generation of police officers to fight against corruption because of the complexity of the inquiries, which take a lot of time.

"People who have a tendency to work on short-term dossiers are not necessarily motivated by our inquiries," he said.

Gaudreau said that, while he didn't have exact figures, a large portion of the police being hired by UPAC don't have any experience handling investigations.

"It's clear to me that we need to evolve the model into UPAC 2.0," he added.

Gaudreau also said he hasn't excluded the possibility of going outside Quebec to look for investigators.

"We're open to considering anything," he said. "What we are looking for are highly-motivated people who are best qualified to do this type of an inquiry."

Kitty hitches plane ride

A Halifax-area pet who nestled into a box for a catnap ended up 1,200 kilometres from home after his owner unknowingly sealed him inside and shipped it away.

Anita Kapuscinska, communications director for the Montreal SPCA, says the organization got a call from Purolator on Dec. 7, saying a cat had been discovered in a package originating from Dartmouth.

The SPCA tracked down the owner, who realized her pet must have snuck inside a box of tire rims while she was preparing it for shipment.

Despite his 17-hour ordeal, the cat, named Baloo, was found in good health, and Kapuscinska describes him as "extremely affectionate."

She says Baloo is on his way home and has been microchipped so the family will be able to find him if he takes any more impromptu vacations.

Kapuscinska recommends that anyone with a cat double check any packages before sending them out since cardboard boxes are a favourite spot for furry felines to crawl into.

Light at the end of tunnel

A deal on the rules that govern the Paris climate accord appeared within grasp Saturday, as officials from almost 200 countries worked to bridge remaining differences after two weeks of U.N. talks in Poland.

The 2015 Paris Agreement was a landmark moment in international diplomacy, bringing together governments with vastly different views to tackle the common threat of global warming. But while the accord set a headline target of keeping average global temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) — or 1.5 C (2.7 F) if possible — much of the fine print was left unfinished.

The meeting in Poland's southern city of Katowice was meant to finalize how countries report their emissions of greenhouses gases — a key factor in man-made climate change — and the efforts they're taking to reduce them. Poor countries also wanted assurances on financial support to help them cut emissions, adapt to inevitable changes such as sea level rise and pay for damage that's already happened.

"We've come a long way," Canada's environment minister, Catherine McKenna, told The Associated Press ahead of a planned plenary meeting Saturday afternoon. "There's been really late negotiations, there's been big group negotiations, there's been shuttle diplomacy all through the night, and now we are coming to the wire."

One major sticking point during the talks was how to create a functioning market in carbon credits. Economists believe an international trading system could be an effective way to drive down emissions and raise large amounts of money for measures to curb global warming.

"We want billions to flow into trillions. And I'm someone who believes that it's not just about national governments," McKenna said. "Ultimately the market is going to play a huge role in the cleaner solutions that we need, supporting countries and being efficient and how we do this."

Emerging economies such as Brazil have pushed back against rich countries' demands to cancel piles of carbon credits still lingering from a system set up under the 1997 Kyoto accord.

"There are still a range of possible outcomes and Brazil continues to work constructively with other parties to find a workable pathway forward," said the country's chief negotiator, Antonio Marcondes.

The talks in Poland took place against a backdrop of increasing concern among scientists that global warming is proceeding faster than governments are responding to it.

A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that while it's possible to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial times, this will require a dramatic overhaul of the global economy including a shift away from fossil fuels.

Alarmed by efforts to include this in the final text of the meeting, the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait blocked endorsement of the report mid-way through the talks, prompting uproar from vulnerable countries and environmental groups.

While some officials questioned the format of the meeting, which has grown to a huge event with tens of thousands of participants, the head of Greenpeace International, Jennifer Morgan, stressed how important it was to bring all countries of the world together on the issue.

"We need a multilateral process especially for the poorest and smallest countries that don't go to G-20," she said, referring to the Group of 20 major and emerging economies that met recently in Argentina. "But the lack of ambition by some rich countries, like the European Union, is worrying, especially as we are staring the 1.5 report in the face."

19 million-dollar winners

There was no winning ticket for the $60 million jackpot in Friday night's Lotto Max draw.

There were also 46 Maxmillions prizes of $1 million each up for grabs, and 19 of them were won by ticket holders across the country.

The jackpot for the next Lotto Max draw on Dec. 21 will remain at approximately $60 million, but the number of Maxmillions prizes offered will increase to 50.

Weed shortage to last

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the biggest challenge associated with the legalization of cannabis has been the supply shortage — but he expects it to disappear within a year.

In an end-of-year interview with The Canadian Press Friday, Trudeau predicted the problem would be resolved "during the coming months and perhaps the coming year." He noted the scarcity of cannabis was most pronounced in Ontario and Quebec.

Trudeau said he remains unhappy with Quebec legislation introduced this month that would raise the legal age for cannabis consumption to 21 from 18.

The province's restrictive approach could prevent it from attaining one of the chief objectives of legalization, in particular curbing organized crime, he said.

"If young people aged 18 to 21 are forced to buy pot from criminals, it will not help us eliminate the black market," Trudeau said.

Rather, he continued, it will sustain "a black market that is going to sell to 18-to-21-year-olds, but that is also maybe going to sell to youth of 17 or 16."

Duffy can't sue Senate

An Ontario judge has delivered a blow to Sen. Mike Duffy in his bid for financial restitution over his dramatic and protracted suspension without pay five years ago, removing the Senate as a target in his multimillion-dollar lawsuit.

Justice Sally Gomery said in a ruling Friday that the Senate's decision to suspend Duffy is protected by parliamentary privilege — a centuries-old right designed to protect legislators from having to answer to judges for doing their jobs — meaning Duffy can't take the Senate to court over its actions.

Gomery is striking the Senate from Duffy's lawsuit, which sought more than $7.8 million from the upper chamber, the RCMP and the federal government.

In a statement after the ruling, Duffy said he'd "take the time needed to review the decision, and consider options."

Duffy is seeking damages in the wake of the high-profile investigation of his expense claims, which culminated in his acquittal on 31 criminal charges in 2016.

He filed his claim in August 2017, claiming "an unprecedented abuse of power" when a majority of senators voted to suspend him without pay in November 2013, before any criminal charges had been filed.

In January, the Senate sought to be struck from the lawsuit and the two sides spent two days in court in June making arguments.

Duffy's lawyers argued that Stephen Harper's staff aimed to quash a rising political scandal over Duffy's housing claims and the upper chamber gave up its privilege when Conservative senators allowed the Prime Minister's Office to dictate decisions about the case.

The Senate argued otherwise, saying executive interference doesn't neuter the institution's privilege.

Gomery, in her ruling, said allowing a court to review the Senate's decisions on Duffy would damage the upper chamber's ability to function as an independent legislative body. She said she had to "respect constitutional imperatives" and suggested Duffy should do the same.

"Parliamentary privilege immunizes all of the decisions and conduct underlying Sen. Duffy's claim against the Senate. As a result, this court has no role in judging their lawfulness or fairness," Gomery wrote. "Since the actions at issue fall within those actions protected by parliamentary privilege, I cannot give any consideration to whether they were wrong or unfair or even contrary to Sen. Duffy's Charter rights. All of these are determinations that the Senate, and the Senate alone, can make."

On the run for 23 years

A convicted drug trafficker who vanished while on leave from a Canadian prison more than 23 years ago has been returned by American authorities.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement that removal officers sent fugitive Laveaux Francois, 56, a Haitian national with Canadian citizenship, back to Canada on Dec. 4.

Francois had served four years when he disappeared while on a furlough granted by Correctional Services Canada on May 31, 1995.

He had been convicted in Florida of conspiracy to import cocaine into the U.S. and sentenced to 15 years after being arrested attempting to unload a large quantity of cocaine from a boat docked in Miami in 1990.

He was transferred back to Canada in September 1994. After eight months behind bars he was granted a furlough, and he never returned, fleeing instead to Haiti.

The U.S. authorities say Francois continued to smuggle large amounts of cocaine into the United States from Haiti before being arrested in Haiti by Drug Enforcement Administration agents in July 2007 and extradited back to the U.S.

He was convicted the same year on conspiracy, importation and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and sentenced to 33 years behind bars.

Last October, his sentence was reduced to 13 years and he was released from a Pennsylvania prison. He was promptly arrested in Philadelphia and ordered removed from the country. At that time, authorities noted an outstanding warrant in Canada.

The agency that oversees Canada's prisons confirmed Friday that Francois is back in its custody.

New icebreaker launched

The first of three new Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers refitted at Quebec's Davie Shipyard will be named after a female maritime pioneer.

The Coast Guard took possession today of CGCS Captain Molly Kool at a ceremony at the shipyard across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City. Federal officials also announced another $90 million in work for Davie.

The ship, one of three bought from Norway in August, is the first new icebreaker floated by the Coast Guard in 25 years.

Myrtle "Molly" Kool was the first woman in North America to become a licensed ship captain. She was born into a family of mariners in Alma, N.B. in 1916 and earned a reputation as a fearless mariner transporting cargo on the Bay of Fundy.

The government cited the cost for the three icebreakers as $610 million in August when it announced its plan to buy them and have them refitted at the Davie Shipyard.

Budget documents later revealed that with tariffs, brokerage fees, engineering work and other costs, the total cost had risen to $827 million.

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