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Canada  

B.C. MP promoted

UPDATE 6:15 a.m.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has filled a cabinet vacancy with British Columbia MP Joyce Murray, who is becoming president of the Treasury Board.

The move to promote Murray comes after Ontario MP Jane Philpott quit the cabinet over the SNC-Lavalin controversy.

Murray, 64, was elected in 2008 and served previously as a minister in B.C.'s provincial government. She was also one of a handful of MPs to make a run for the Liberal party leadership in 2012.

In January, Trudeau moved Jody Wilson-Raybould to Veterans Affairs from the justice portfolio, which went to David Lametti, in a medium-sized shuffle sparked by minister Scott Brison's retirement from politics.

Then the prime minister made changes to fill the void left by Wilson-Raybould after she quit cabinet and said she had been pressured to stop the trial of SNC-Lavalin on bribery and fraud charges related to contracts in Libya.

A few days after that mini-shuffle, Philpott resigned as Treasury Board president, saying she had lost confidence in Trudeau's handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Murray was first elected in Vancouver Quadra in 2008. Her appointment to cabinet is a promotion from her role as parliamentary secretary to the president of the Treasury Board. It also allows Trudeau to maintain a gender balance around the cabinet table.

Treasury Board is a less visible ministry concerned with the nuts and bolts of government operations, but it has the potential for scandal if it falters in its stewardship of federal spending.

Last month, Murray and her family dealt with a personal ordeal when her son had to be medically evacuated from Mexico to Vancouver after suffering severe injuries during his honeymoon in Cancun.


ORIGINAL 5:19 a.m.

Justin Trudeau will shuffle the federal cabinet today for the third time in recent months.

This latest adjustment comes after the prime minister moved Jody Wilson-Raybould to veterans affairs from the justice portfolio in January.

In that move, David Lametti became the new minister of justice.

Trudeau made a few more changes earlier this month to fill the void left by Wilson-Raybould after she resigned from cabinet amid the ongoing SNC Lavalin controversy.

Jane Philpott also quit the cabinet, saying she'd lost confidence in the government over its handling of the SNC Lavalin affair.

Philpott had served as president of the Treasury Board.



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Fire fallout at Pearson

Travel at Toronto Pearson International Airport was still being snarled this morning after a fire caused smoke to fill part of the sprawling structure, leading to an evacuation and major flight disruptions.

The airport said on its Twitter feed early today that both Terminal 1 and 3 were operating normally, though U.S. departures at Terminal 1 where the fire started were expected to see continued delays.

Travellers were advised to check their flight status today before heading to the airport, which is Canada's busiest.

All U.S.-bound flights from Terminal 1 were cancelled Sunday night after the fire broke out near a security checkpoint around 6:30 p.m. The fire was quickly extinguished, however, there was no immediate word on how it started.

Photos posted on social media Sunday, as well as television footage, showed thick smoke in parts of the airport and frustrated passengers crowding the terminal's main concourse.

Paramedics said one woman was taken to hospital in stable condition, while another was treated at the scene and released.



FB changes to political ads

Facebook is launching a new advertisement library that will capture detailed information about political ads targeted at voters in Canada, including who pays for them and whom they target.

The move is part of the social-media giant's response to changes the Trudeau government has made to Canada's election laws aimed at stopping bad actors — foreign or domestic — from interfering with Canada's upcoming federal election through advertising.

Bill C-76, which received royal assent in December, bans the use of money from foreign entities to conduct partisan campaigns.

It also requires online platforms, such as Facebook and Google, to create a registry of all digital advertisements placed by political parties or third parties during the pre-writ and writ periods and to ensure they remain visible to the public for two years.

Google recently said the demands of the new law are too onerous for its advertising system, which auctions ad space on the fly. It's simply refusing to take political advertisements in Canada around the upcoming election.

Kevin Chan, head of public policy in Canada for Facebook, says the company is trying to exceed the standards the Canadian law sets.

"C-76 is, in fact, very important and consequential legislation. It actually regulates online platforms, including Facebook," Chan said. "In order to comply we actually need to build new systems and new products to be able to do this, so right now we have our product-engineering teams working very, very hard between now and the end of June to ensure that we will be in compliance with what C-76 requires."

Advertisements that refer to political figures, political parties, elections, legislation or issues of national importance will have to go through an authorization process. This will capture the information of the entity or group buying the ad and ensure the buyer is based in Canada.

Political ads that appear on Facebook during the pre-writ and writ periods will be labelled with a "paid for by" disclosure. People will be able to click the disclosure and see the ad library. This library will include information on the ad's reach — who saw it, their gender and location, as well as a range of its impressions.

Information in the library will be viewable and searchable online for up to seven years, which exceeds the period required in the new election laws.



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Ministers testify on canola

A pair of federal cabinet ministers have been called on to testify before a parliamentary committee on China's move to reject canola shipments from one of Canada's largest grain producers.

The House of Commons trade committee voted today to hear from Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and International Trade Minister Jim Carr on the Canada-China canola issue during the week of April 1.

Beijing recently suspended canola imports from Richardson International Ltd. for what one Chinese official alleged was the detection of hazardous organisms in the company's product.

In an interview last week, Carr said Canada is pushing to solve the economically important matter — but he added that China had yet to provide evidence to back up the claims.

China's decision to block shipments of one of Canada's key exports comes with the two countries locked in a diplomatic dispute related to the December arrest of Huawei senior executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver — where she's now fighting extradition to the United States.

China has since arrested Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on allegations of engaging in activities that have endangered Chinese national security — moves viewed as an effort to pressure Canada into releasing Meng.



Election irregularities?

The staffer at the centre of a spreading scandal over Alberta's United Conservative leadership race says party leader Jason Kenney's team did not direct and prop up a bogus candidate to attack Kenney's main rival.

In a letter obtained by The Canadian Press, Matt Wolf says that when he worked on Kenney's campaign, he shared policy and research ideas with the campaign of Jeff Callaway — but Callaway was his own boss.

"To be clear, this was not a 'puppet'-type operation," Wolf wrote in an email to the UCP caucus Sunday morning.

"Mr. Callaway made his own decisions for his own reasons. And while communicating with the Callaway campaign was hardly my preoccupation during the leadership (race), I did, at times push things like research materials to Mr. Callaway's team."

Wolf also said he is not aware of anyone on Kenney's team illicitly funding Callaway's campaign.

Such funding would violate Alberta's election finance laws. Alberta's elections commissioner has already fined one UCP member for making such an illegal contribution to the Callaway campaign, and the CBC has reported that the RCMP has now taken over the funding aspect of the investigation.

"Our leadership campaign did not in any way funnel donations to the Callaway camp — an act that would clearly be in violation of the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act," wrote Wolf, who is currently Kenney's deputy chief of staff for the UCP caucus.

"I am very confident that even a suggestion of doing so would firmly be rejected by our campaign's leadership team at the time, and rightly so."

Wolf could not immediately be reached for comment on Sunday.

He wrote the letter just hours after CBC published a story and supporting documents late Saturday night detailing communications between the two campaigns.

In those documents, later obtained by The Canadian Press, Wolf is shown in emails and other exchanges giving Callaway's organizers talking points, speech and policy advice on attacking Kenney's main rival in the race, Brian Jean.

One piece of correspondence discussed when Callaway should drop out of the race — something he eventually did three weeks before voting day on Oct. 28, 2017, throwing his support to Kenney.

Callaway was one of three rivals for the UCP leadership. The party was created after Kenney's Progressive Conservatives and Brian Jean's Wildrose party voted to merge.

Jean was seen as Kenney's main rival in the race. Kenney defeated Jean and candidate Doug Schweitzer handily, with 61 per cent of the vote. Jean garnered 32 per cent.

Callaway, who had worked with Jean in the Wildrose party, repeatedly attacked Jean during the campaign in speeches, events and media scrums, questioning his policy ideas and financial management of the Wildrose.

Callaway could not be reached for comment.

The UCP did not make Kenney available Sunday, but the party's executive director, Janice Harrington released a statement.

It read: "Communication between leadership campaigns is perfectly normal in a preferential ballot election and was within the rules of the 2017 UCP leadership election."



Fire forces flight delays

International flights are on hold at Pearson, Canada's busiest airport after a fire.

The airport says no injuries have been reported after the fire at Terminal 1 on Sunday evening.

Peel regional police say the blaze has been extinguished, although there's still significant amounts of water and smoke in the terminal.

The airport says passengers were evacuated from the affected area, and all international and U.S. aircraft are "holding at their gates."

It's urging passengers to check their flight status before coming to the airport.

There's no word on what caused the fire.



Singh sworn in as MP

New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh has been sworn in as a member of Parliament.

The NDP says Singh becomes the first racialized party leader to sit in the House of Commons.

He won a byelection in the British Columbia riding of Burnaby South in February, taking roughly 39 per cent of the vote.

The win means Singh can finally go toe-to-toe in the House of Commons with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — something he hasn't been able to do since taking over the party reins from Tom Mulcair in October 2017.

In a statement, Singh says he will use his new position to pressure the Liberal government to take action on affordable housing and bringing down prescription drug costs.

He says as a kid, he never would have imagined being in this position.

"I would've never imagined that someone who looks like me could ever run to be prime minister," Singh said in a statement issued by the party on Sunday.

Singh said he is committed to building on late NDP leader Jack Layton's message of love, hope and optimism with courage.



Budget's housing focus

The Trudeau government will take steps in Tuesday's federal budget to make home-buying more affordable with changes affecting supply, demand and regulation, The Canadian Press has learned.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has promised the budget will focus on ways to help improve housing affordability for Canadians, and particularly for millennials, who are now in their mid-20s to late-30s.

The changes, along with expected measures on adult skills training, pharmacare and supporting seniors, will be included in the Liberals' fourth and final budget before the October federal election.

The budget's housing measures could grab a lot of attention. Polls have suggested affordable home ownership is a key concern for millennials and could be a vote winner with the increasingly critical demographic.

Morneau has heard housing-policy recommendations from numerous sources, including academic, real estate and mortgage experts, on how best to help more people buy homes.

The budget will respond to issues in the housing-related areas of supply, demand and regulation, says a government source, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the plan ahead of its release. They declined to provide specifics on the measures.

The government, however, faces a delicate task of introducing changes that avoid destabilizing housing markets, driving up prices or enabling already overstretched households to pile on more debt.

Internal briefing documents show Morneau was warned in November that Canadians' heavy debt loads are a key risk that have made abrupt shocks to incomes, house prices or interest rates a "significant concern." The memo was obtained by The Canadian Press through access-to-information law.

Morneau has been feeling pressure to act on housing.

On the demand side, the real estate, mortgage and home-building industries have urged Ottawa to ease or eliminate stress tests that have tightened mortgage qualification rules and, as a result, cooled once-scorching markets in cities like Toronto and Vancouver.

The federal changes, combined with provincial and municipal guidelines, were brought in to improve the quality of mortgage debt and to lower risks to the broader economy.

Morneau has insisted the stress tests were needed as a way to keep prices in some markets from rising at an unsustainable clip. He's shown no signs that he's prepared to dial them back.

There have also been industry calls for the reintroduction of insurance on 30-year amortization mortgages as a targeted way to help people at the lower end.

But Paul Kershaw, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, said many experts, himself included, have discouraged the government from weakening the stress tests or extending amortization out of fear such moves would only encourage people to borrow more.



March Break flight impact

Two Canadian airlines dealing with the grounding of Boeing Max 8 jets say they have re-assigned other planes to accommodate travellers returning home from March Break vacations.

Both Air Canada and WestJet say they shifted planes to focus on north-south routes as travellers return from vacations in Mexico and the Caribbean.

The airlines say the loss of the Boeing jets still caused the cancellation of a number of domestic flights over the weekend, as well as delays on customer support lines.

West Jet says the changes resulted in the cancellation of 14 flights today affecting approximately 1,600 passengers, with the majority re-booked on flights today or tomorrow.

Air Canada did not say how many of its flights had been cancelled but acknowledged "capacity challenges" on domestic flights where some customers were delayed.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau grounded the planes on Wednesday as a precautionary move, three days after the Ethiopian Airlines disaster that killed all 157 people on board, including 18 Canadians.

Air Canada has 24 Max 8s and WestJet has 13 — six per cent and seven per cent of their fleets of 400 and 175 aircraft, respectively.



Can AI predict wildfires?

Researchers and forest managers are turning to artificial intelligence in the hope it can help them predict the risk of catastrophic wildfires as climate change continues to rewrite the rule book.

It's been the subject of more than 150 recent academic studies, said Mike Flannigan, director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta.

"It is definitely front and centre in terms of the research agendas in terms of wildland fire and will continue to be for the next years," he said.

One insurance company says it has already developed an artificial intelligence program that can assess fire risk well in advance.

Fires are fought before they start, by getting equipment and crews to the right place to fight them early. Once well and truly ablaze, they're tough to stop.

"Once the fire gets to be a crown fire and it's two football fields or larger, it's nearly impossible to put it out until the weather changes," Flannigan said. "You're spitting on a campfire."

The occurrence and severity of wildfires are hard to foresee, said Balz Grollimund of insurance giant Swiss Re. Droughts or forest conditions can be easily considered, but ignition depends on near-random events such as lightning strikes or the presence of roads.

"All these things are very tricky with wildfires," Grollimund said. "We're trying to anticipate where wildfires will occur."

Artificial intelligence is well-suited to find order in a chaotic mass of data, he said.

"You start with your observations. What have you seen in the past decades in terms of where wildfires have occurred and how big they got? And you look for correlations with any factor that might have any impact.

"The question is which data really does have any correlation. That's where the AI comes in play. It automatically figures those correlations out."

Grollimund said he's helped develop an artificial intelligence program that can predict fire risk as far as six months out.

He tested the program by feeding data from November 2015 from across Canada. Working with scientists and computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he determined where the highest risk for fires would be in the spring of 2016.

"It gives you a seasonal prediction for points on the map in terms of how likely it is to get a small fire or a large fire," he said. 

The vast majority of fires that did occur in April and May of that year happened in the high-risk zones identified by Grollimund's program.

Both men agree current methods depend on the future being much like the past. Climate change threatens that assumption.

"With climate change, we're seeing conditions and situations that have no real analogue in the recent past," Flannigan said.

"A lot of the factors that foster wildfire risk seem to increase — longer, hotter, dryer summers; wetter winters; more vegetation; more lightning.

"There's a lot of reasons why we think, if anything, (fire risk) is going to be increasing."



Use it or lose it rule for dads

The federal government says more families than expected are taking advantage of the new ability to extend a year's worth of parental leave benefits over 18 months.

Since the extension was made available in December 2017, more than 32,000 parents have availed themselves of the option — well above the anticipated 20,000 claims federal officials expected to get each year.

On Sunday, a new use-it-or-lose-it leave for non-birthing parents — most often targeting fathers — will come into effect for parents of children born on or after March 17. The leave will also be available to parents of children placed for adoption beginning Sunday.

Parents will get five additional weeks if they opt for the traditional 12-month parental leave, or eight weeks under the new 18-month option, so long as the couple agrees to split the time off to care for a new child.

That option will only be available to parents who qualify for employment insurance benefits, which some experts fear could act as a barrier for parents who don't or can't work enough to meet the minimum requirements for hours worked.

Over the next 12 months, federal officials expect 97,000 families to take advantage of the measures, which are designed to encourage non-birthing parents to take more time to care for a newborn and allow mothers to get return to the workforce sooner.

The vast majority of parental leave claims come from women, who comprise about 85 per cent of the total.

Quebec has had its own program since 2006, and take-up has steadily increased over time. In 2017, about 81 per cent of spouses or partners in Quebec took time off to care for a new child, compared to 12 per cent in the rest of the country.

Quebec's parental leave system provides up to five weeks of paid leave to new fathers, covering up to 70 per cent of their income.

The federal benefit would cover 55 per cent of earnings for those taking 12 months of parental leave, or 33 per cent for those opting for an 18-month leave.



Off-duty cop found boy

Police are crediting an off-duty officer from Calgary with spotting an Edmonton boy at the centre of an Amber Alert that spanned two Alberta cities.

Edmonton police say the Calgary officer saw the boy and his mother thanks to the Amber Alert, and that RCMP from Okotoks took the woman into custody.

"It was without incident," Edmonton police Staff Sgt. Ashley Emerson said of the arrest.

Police say the boy's mother has been charged with one count of abduction, and the eight-year-old boy has been returned to his father.

When they issued the alert Friday night, police said they believed the boy was abducted from school by his mother that afternoon, and that he was believed to be in danger.

Emerson said police were alerted by a parent at around 3:50 p.m. that a boy was walked out of the building by a woman, without his coat or his outdoor footwear. The school had notified the parent, Emerson said, who then called police.

After leaving Edmonton, the pair were believed to be travelling in the Calgary area.

Emerson said investigators didn't know at first who the woman was. They then learned there was a parenting order in place and suspected the woman might be the non-custodial parent.

He explained it was several hours before an Amber Alert was issued because police needed to be satisfied that the child's safety was at risk.

"It was only at that point that we utilized that system. We don't use it sort of as an investigative tool to help us resolve the matter quickly. We use it when we're satisfied that it's met the criteria and that the child is in fact in danger," Emerson said.

Emerson said he didn't know details of how the Calgary officer knew an alert had been issued for the boy. He said the officer spotted the vehicle that was described in the alert heading east out of the town of Black Diamond on Highway 7 and followed it.

RCMP from Okotoks pulled the vehicle over on Highway 7 about halfway between Black Diamond and Okotoks, he said.



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