'Precious' musical instruments removed from Montreal heritage building after fire

Instruments saved after fire

A pair of valuable musical instruments have been removed from a Montreal heritage building that caught fire last week, raising hopes that they can be saved to play again.

Simon Blanchet, program director at the Chapelle du Bon-Pasteur, says a Fazioli concert grand piano and a 1772 Kirckman harpsichord were both removed on Saturday from the concert venue inside the chapel of the 19th century former monastery.

He said both instruments sustained some moisture damage and will have to dry out before they can be fully assessed.

But he said both were protected by covers and he's hopeful technicians will be able to restore them.

Blanchet said the instruments' survival is a small bright light in a devastating week that has seen Montreal musicians lose one of their most important concert venues.

The blaze broke out Thursday at the 19th century building, which also includes a residence for seniors, a housing cooperative and a daycare centre in addition to the concert hall.


Credit unions trending towards greater unity as tech pressures mount

Credit unions' tech pressure

From the Tobacco Workers' Credit Union in Guelph to the New Community Credit Union in Saskatoon, the names tell part of Canada's history even as they’re now history themselves.

The two credit unions are part of a growing number that have been bought, merged or shut down over the years as a combination of pressures push increasing consolidation in the sector.

While credit union numbers have been on the decline since the 1960s, insiders say rising technology demands, which ramped up during the pandemic, have led to a spike in the trend.

"Over the pandemic, we've seen a massive shift in use of digital technology, mobile technology, not just for younger people, but through all demographics," said Jeff Guthrie, chief executive of the Canadian Credit Union Association.

The increasing technology demands of customers, whether it's improved smartphone apps or faster money transfers, combined with rising regulatory expectations, have helped drive increased consolidation, he said.

"It is a scale business, where you need scale to make investments in future technologies."

The pressures have helped drive six credit unions to merge with Winnipeg-based Access Credit Union in the past two years or so. 

Access chief executive Larry Davey said consolidation started to pick up with the advent of smartphones, but has increased pace as credit unions look ahead and make tough decisions on whether they have the resources to adapt and survive.

"For the sake of their members, they're being more aggressive in those decisions and saying, you know, we want to pick our dance partner now."

Demographic trends and rising competition also mean some of the credit unions being absorbed are quite small.  

Amaranth Credit Union, which will complete its technical merger with Access in June, had 1,200 members and $18 million in assets when the deal was struck. The credit union was incorporated in 1960, back at the peak of credit unions in Canada, when they numbered around 3,200.

At the time, many credit unions were closely linked to employers or ethnic groups, but as that closed system largely wound down, institutions like the Peek Frean Employees’ Credit Union and the Latvian Credit Union have been folded into larger unions over time.

There are still some so-called closed bond credit unions linked to an employer, notably for teachers and police, but others continue to fall away. Airline Financial Credit Union, open to anyone in the airline industry, announced on May 14 that it had approval for its merger into Luminus Financial.

Affinity-based credit unions are also dwindling. New Community Credit Union was the first for Ukrainians in Canada when it opened in 1939, but it merged into Synergy Credit Union last year. 

The trend has meant that in the 10 years leading up tolate 2022 the number of credit unions fell by 129, or 37 per cent, to 219, according to a report last year from the C. D. Howe Institute.

As credit unions go beyond local communities, there are risks of lower member participation rate and board capture by management, said report authors Marc-André Pigeon and Murray Fulton, noting the need for clarity of purpose and good communication.

However, consolidation doesn’t have to mean a disconnect with members, even as smaller credit unions get absorbed into larger ones, said Annette Bester, national credit union leader at professional services firm MNP. 

"It just becomes a little bit more of a diversity of cultures," she said.

While consolidations can sometimes come with bad connotations around losing community roots, she said there’s still a local link and the alternative can be much more severe.

"If a credit union isn't sustainable, it closes its doors. If it closes its doors, there's no one that's supporting that community financially anymore by making those donations to the rink."

Credit unions have long co-ordinated on many aspects of technology without needing to merge, such as through a linked network of ATMs and pooling resources to secure online banking platforms, but there are still aspects that require individual bank resources, Bester said.

"They have to integrate it with their banking system, so that's where it gets costly for credit unions to do it themselves. That's where scale starts to matter."

The challenges of meeting the technological demands can be seen in the size of some of the mergers going on. 

Servus Credit Union and connectFirst Credit Union, Alberta’s two largest, announced in March that they would merge to create a single credit union with more than $31 billion in assets under administration. 

"They're two of the largest coming together. They're still looking at it and saying, you know, we still need more scale to be able to do everything we know we're going have to do for our members," Bester said.

In announcing the deal, board members emphasized the need to respond to competitive pressures, and to have the resources to invest in digital innovation and prepare for open banking.

The deal will leave the merged union with a similar level of assets to Vancity, while Desjardins, the first successful credit union in Canada after opening its doors in 1900, is the clear giant in the space with around 7.5 million members and $407.1 billion in total assets. 

But while the trend is towards larger and fewer credit unions, there are those pushing against it, finding such models don't always fit their needs. 

Lighthouse Credit Union launched in 2022 as one of the few new credit unions created in Canada in recent decades. 

Chairman Harley Gold said in a release announcing the launch that Lighthouse was grateful the provincial regulator approved the credit union and that it recognized the need for a Jewish credit union. 

"A credit union fits well within Jewish principles of community and giving back, and we hope that Lighthouse Credit Union can serve as a financial beacon for the community."

Landlord barricaded after alleged tenant homicides no longer threat to public: police

Killed in landlord dispute

UPDATE: 7:40 a.m.

Hamilton police say an engaged couple embroiled in a landlord-tenant dispute were shot dead as they fled their attacker on Saturday and “are truly innocent victims.”

Sgt. Steve Bereziuk says a 27-year-old female educational assistant and a 28-year-old male electrician were shot dead just outside the home they shared in the neighbourhood of Stoney Creek. Their names have not been released.

Bereziuk says the 57-year-old suspect is a landlord who barricaded himself in the home for hours after the couple died while police negotiators tried to resolve the situation peacefully.

Bereziuk says he later fired shots from the home, prompting an unspecified interaction with city police.

The suspect ultimately died and his death is now being probed by the Special Investigations Unit, Ontario's police watchdog.

Bereziuk says none of the people involved were known to police, a factor he says makes the situation a little more shocking.

“These are not people that this should happen to,” Bereziuk said of the victims on Sunday in a televised press conference from the scene.

“They're not involved in any level of criminality or lifestyle that may lead to an incident like this. They are truly innocent victims, hardworking people, young people. They were engaged to be married. And this is a very tragic incident."

Bereziuk says there were several registered handguns and rifles in the house. He said police expected to be on scene for much of the day.

The SIU is an independent civilian agency which investigates incidents in Ontario involving police that result in death or serious injury.

ORIGINAL: 6:50 a.m.

Hamilton police say there is no longer a threat to public safety after a landlord allegedly shot and killed two tenants, barricaded himself in their home for hours and fired shots at police.

Police say officers responded to a home on Jones Road in the east-end neighbourhood of Stoney Creek at approximately 5:40 p.m. on Saturday evening and found a 27-year-old woman and 28-year-old man, both tenants at the residence, shot dead.

The force says the tenants' 57-year-old landlord barricaded himself in the residence with registered firearms. Police blocked off the area and negotiators were in talks with the man throughout the night in attempts to "peacefully resolve the incident."

Shortly before 10:30 p.m., police notified the public that the barricaded man had fired shots and advised nearby residents to shelter in their basements as a precaution.

Police say he fired at an armoured police vehicle and later fired additional rounds, which "resulted in an interaction with police," but did not clarify if the suspect was deceased or taken into custody.

Hamilton police spokeswoman Jackie Penman says the Special Investigations Unit has been contacted and have invoked their mandate.

The force says it has notified families of both victims, though their names will not be released.

Their Homicide Unit has interviewed several witnesses and are appealing for more. Anyone with information is being asked to contact police.


Early snowmelt in Western mountains means drier summers, more wildfire risk: study

Early melt, higher fire risk

Leaner snowpack in Western Canada and United States mountain ranges is causing drier summers and increasing wildfire risk, says a new study from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Lead author Kate Hale said her team analyzed mountain snow data and found snowpack water storage decreased more than 25 per cent from 1950 to 2013. This, she said, can be attributed to earlier snowmelt, less snowfall and more rain.

“We actually saw some of the strongest signals up in the Canadian Rockies, by way of this decrease in snowfall and then earlier snowmelts and rainfall generation,” Hale said in an interview.

Snowmelt serves as the primary water resource in western mountain regions, the study says. The ranges store snow throughout the winter, which then melts during spring and summer months when demand for water peaks.

Hale said snow in these regions typically wouldn't start melting until late May or June, but has begun showing signs of snow thawing as early as March.

Such a shift in snowmelt may pose challenges for residents as much of the infrastructure in these regions were designed to adapt to when water becomes available, Hale said.

“The snowmelts are providing most of the downstream water resources, such that if there is more snowmelt occurring earlier in the year, that means there will be less available for later in the year,” she said.

Holly Chubb, a climate researcher at the University of British Columbia, agreed, saying a serious decline in the snowpack would cause "cascading issues" for energy security in B.C.

“We rely on hydroelectric power as a major source to power our businesses, our homes and our schools, and the hydroelectric power is generally fed from the glacier, which fills our reservoirs,” she said in an interview.

“We may have to really adjust our usage, our consumption, and think about actually how we are utilizing hydro power in B.C."

She said changes in snowmelt may impact soil and lead to an increase in the size and duration of wildfires.

It could also disrupt wildlife, she added. For instance, she said early snowmelt could shift the volume and temperature of rivers, which could prevent fish from spawning and reduce the province's salmon population.

"All of this information about the timing of snow melting is really, really essential to our cultural, economic and general energy security in British Columbia," she said.

She suggested governments follow advice from Indigenous leaders.

“They have seen the changes in this landscape for thousands of years," she said. “They have a deep knowledge and relationship with the land, with salmon, with bears that we do not have and that knowledge system is incredibly valuable."

Inflation is changing the way Canadians are spending

Inflation changing spending

Julie Cyr loves to eat fish, fresh produce and good quality cheeses. But when she goes grocery shopping these days, what fills her cart is not decided by her appetite.

As prices for basic necessities have shot up, Ms. Cyr is buying fewer items overall, and planning her meals around whichever ingredients she finds on sale. And the 42-year-old Montrealer, who works as a project manager, is cutting back on other things, too: beauty products, hair care and clothing are all categories in which she is keeping a sharp eye on her budget.

“I’m more careful with my spending,” she says. “I just buy what I need now.”

Consumers across the country are making similar decisions. Inflation has been eating into Canadians’ buying power for the past two years, causing people to shop more at discount grocery stores, or make the switch to private-label products over name brands. More recently, consumer sentiment has taken a sharper turn down.

Your personal inflation rate: Calculate how you compare to the Canadian average

In the past two weeks, retailers including Target Corp., Home Depot Inc. and Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. CTC-A-T have all noted that customers are pulling back on discretionary purchases. It’s not just about higher prices. Fears of a recession are creating caution and dampening spending on non-essential goods, as are higher interest rates for people who hold mortgages and other loans.

That is a lot of Canadians. This week, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. warned that Canada’s household debt has surged to the highest level of any Group of Seven country.

“Consumers are almost at this breaking point,” said Carman Allison, vice-president of thought leadership for North America with NielsenIQ. In April, the research firm surveyed roughly 10,000 Canadian households and found that, while the country is not technically in a recession (defined as a decline in gross domestic product over two successive quarters,) 53 per cent of respondents think we are already there. And they do not anticipate relief any time soon: 55 per cent believe it will last for more than a year, hardly a soft landing.

“That means there’s a lot of uncertainty for the months ahead,” Mr. Allison said. “And Canadians are probably going to hold on tighter to their dollars.”

After stocking up on tech during COVID-19 – to study or work from home, and to upgrade entertainment systems – it stands to reason that many people are not in the market for laptops or big-screen TVs right now.

Vancouver-based London Drugs Ltd. is, in part, a major electronics retailer, and while it has seen waning demand for those items, another arm of the business is up slightly: repair.

“Anecdotally, the comments are, ‘I’ve got to make this last longer,’” chief executive officer Clint Mahlman says of customers bringing in items such as laptops and iPhones to be fixed.

Mr. Mahlman has seen changes in behaviour “in almost every category” as shoppers have felt inflation’s sting. Most recently, he has noticed smaller-format items moving off store shelves – lower-count bottles of pain reliever, for example – faster relative to larger sizes that offer better prices per millilitre or per pill.

“It tells me that the consumer, even though they recognize there may be value, they’re trying to make their dollar stretch farther,” he says.

While the cost of everyday necessities has been rising for months, retailers across North America have noted further shifts lately.

Last week, Target reported continuing sales declines in non-essential products such as clothing and home goods in March and April. During a conference call to discuss the company’s quarterly earnings, chair and CEO Brian Cornell referred to “a deterioration in consumer confidence, reflecting recent events such as the banking crisis that emerged in March” with the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and the near-meltdown of Credit Suisse.

Also last week, Home Depot HD-N reported falling sales for big-ticket discretionary purchases, with pressure across its business intensifying in the past few months. In addition, executives said people are scaling back on big renovations in favour of smaller home improvement projects.

“If you’re in the retail business right now selling extremely discretionary stuff – anything that was flying off the shelf during the pandemic, for your backyard, renovating your home, exercise, all those categories … you’ve got to watch your inventory levels and how much you buy, watch how you price it, be sharp on promotions,” said Marty Weintraub, national retail consulting leader at Deloitte Canada. “Because a lot of that money is going to go to food and housing.”

The cumulative stress of interest rate increases is also taking a toll, Bank of Nova Scotia chief risk officer Phil Thomas said on a conference call Wednesday to discuss the bank’s quarterly earnings.

For example, he noted that among bank customers with variable-rate mortgages, discretionary spending in categories such as retail and entertainment fell 10 per cent in the second quarter compared with the same period last year. “Our customers are managing through this period of heightened interest rates by making trade-offs,” Mr. Thomas said.

Where consumers do have some money left over, much of that spending is shifting away from discretionary products to experiences, such as travel and restaurant dining, that were severely limited during COVID lockdowns, Canadian Tire CEO Greg Hicks said during an earnings call earlier this month.

“I think people are looking for more affordable options,” Aldo Group CEO David Bensadoun said in an interview. Globo, the company’s store chain that focuses in family footwear, is particularly attuned to a price-sensitive consumer, he added. “Our job there is to keep prices as sharp as we can, because families are not in a position to splurge right now.”

Not surprisingly, discount retailers are faring well in this environment. Canada’s largest grocer, Loblaw Companies Ltd. L-PR-B-T, has noted the strength of its discount banners such as No Frills. Last week, Walmart Inc. WMT-N boosted its sales and profit targets for the year as it draws in shoppers looking for lower-priced essentials – even as it also noted weak demand for discretionary goods.

Grocery prices are a major strain on households. While the pace of food inflation has slowed – grocery prices rose 9.1 per cent in April compared with a year earlier, down from a 9.7 per cent annual increase in March – it is still more than double the general rate of inflation in Canada. Last year, visits to food banks rose by 35 per cent compared with 2019, according to Food Banks Canada.

But rising sales mask a larger trend: Canadians in many cases are actually buying, and eating, less.

According to NielsenIQ, which tracks consumer packaged goods using point-of-sale data it gets from major retailers, many categories are moving a lower volume of products. For example, bakery sales rose by 11 per cent on a dollar basis in the first quarter, but were down 1 per cent in volume; produce was up 4 per cent on a dollar basis, but down 3 per cent by volume.

NielsenIQ has been tracking buying behaviour to look for signs of a “consumer recession,” which means people have shifted their habits significantly enough that they are acting as though a recession has arrived. Those habits include buying items on promotion, buying less, and favouring store brands and discount stores.

The company compiles these in a “sensitivity score”: Anything above 80 out of 100 indicates a consumer recession is in effect. That score has now reached 77 out of 100 in Canada, up from 71 six months ago.

The one disconnect in this picture is the job market, which remains strong in Canada. But even for people with a steady job, the erosion in the buying power of each paycheque is a persistent concern.

“We’re a long way from any relief, because incomes are not keeping pace with inflation,” Mr. Allison said. “Consumers are really, really being pressured right now.”


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Drying conditions return in Alberta, crews see more intense fire activity

Drying conditions return

As more wildfire evacuees are being allowed to return home in Alberta, provincial officials warn that warm, dry conditions are returning this weekend in some areas.

Melissa Story with Alberta Wildfire says the elevated fire conditions were anticipated and that crews on the ground are seeing more intense fire activity on the perimeters of wildfires.

But she says most fires haven't grown substantially and she doesn't believe any have jumped their containment lines.

The number of evacuees as of Saturday afternoon stood at 5,257, down from over 7,200 on Wednesday, following cooler and wetter conditions in the last week.

Nearly 50 wildfires in Alberta's forest protection area are burning, with 14 of those listed as out-of-control.

Cyndee Evans, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, says the situation remains serious despite recent positive news.

"While we can take heart that more Albertans are starting to return home, we cannot afford to drop our guard. Now is not the time for complacency. Please continue to do your part and help prevent the spread of wildfires and further damage from occurring," Evans told a news conference Saturday.

Story noted that showers were forecast for some parts of Alberta later Saturday, reducing fire danger, but also cautioned they bring the risk of lightning. 

Federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said in a tweet Saturday that an extension for the deployment of Canadian Armed Forces personnel to assist in firefighting efforts has been approved.

Story said firefighters from New Zealand were welcomed to the province Friday and that nearly 200 firefighters and support staff from Australia would be arriving this weekend.

Alberta remains under a provincewide state of emergency, although some bans on fires, ATVs and off-highway vehicles have been relaxed in recent days.

Parkland County west of Edmonton lifted a state of local emergency on Friday that had been in place since April 29, and downgraded a fire ban to a fire restriction. It said that meant "safe fires in approved fire pits with a screen are allowed and do not require a permit."

Fires without screens still required permits, however, and open fires in the county are still banned.

The High Level Forest Area wildfire update noted the Pasqua fire located in the community of Fox Lake saw an increase in fire activity after warm and dry weather on Friday, and that temperatures and fire behaviour was expected to pick up on Saturday.

Fox Lake remains evacuated, but residents are being permitted to sign up for tours of the community on Monday to view damage. A statement from the Little Red River Cree Nation said priority will be given to people who have lost their homes.

"Tours will be visual only, as it is still not safe for members to walk around the community or house sites due to hot spots as well as possible toxins and hazards in the areas that have been burned," said a statement posted online by the First Nation on Friday.

Mexican authorities make arrest in mid-May killing of Quebec man in seaside town

Arrest after Canadian killed

UPDATE: 2:10 p.m.

Mexican authorities have made an arrest in the killing of a Quebec man earlier this month in the Pacific coast beach town of Puerto Escondido.

The Oaxaca state attorney general issued a statement on Friday saying an arrest warrant was executed for a man in Puerto Escondido identified only by his initials in connection with the homicide of Victor Masson.

The statement did not outline any specific charges and said that a judge would decide next steps for the accused.

Prosecutors said Masson was found dead in his car on May 15 in a neighbourhood where few tourists stay.

A few days after the slaying, authorities said in another statement that Masson's killing stemmed from an altercation with people he had met the previous night over an unpaid bar tab at a local establishment.

A senior prosecutor for the region said Masson had been visiting Oaxaca with his Mexican girlfriend, arriving just a day before the killing.

Prosecutor Bernardo Rodriguez Alamillo said Masson went to a restaurant-bar in a zone known as “El adoquin” in Puerto Escondido by himself while his girlfriend attended an event with people she knew.

Rodriguez Alamillo said the investigation revealed that Masson met four people — two men and two women — at the establishment. When it came time to pay the bill, there was an altercation between the victim and the people he'd met.

The prosecutor said after leaving, Masson called 911 to report he had been robbed. He was found dead the next day.

Masson, 27, hails from the province's Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region north of Quebec City.

His family confirmed his death in a statement after the killing.

"You will understand that Victor Masson's family is in shock and that members learned of the death through the media," the statement read, adding relatives would refrain from any comment so as not to harm the investigation.

A spokesman for the family did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.

ORIGINAL: 11 a.m.

Mexican authorities say they've made an arrest in the killing of a Quebec man earlier this month in the Pacific coast beach town of Puerto Escondido.

The Oaxaca state attorney general says in a statement issued Friday that an arrest warrant was executed for a man in Puerto Escondido identified only by his initials in connection with the homicide of Victor Masson.

Prosecutors said Masson was found dead in his car on May 15 in a neighbourhood where few tourists stay.

A few days after the discovery, a senior prosecutor for the region said Masson's killing stemmed from an altercation with people he had met the previous night over an unpaid bar tab at a local restaurant.

Masson, 27, hails from the province's Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region north of Quebec City.

Mexican authorities said Masson was a tourist who had arrived in the port town the day before the killing with his Mexican girlfriend.

Firefighters put out Montreal heritage building fire over 24 hours after it ignited

Heritage building burns

Montreal fire department says a fire that swept through a heritage property in the city's downtown core was brought under control today, more than 24 hours after it began.

The fire broke out late Thursday afternoon at the Monastère du Bon Pasteur, a 19th century former monastery, and quickly became a five-alarm blaze requiring the intervention of 150 firefighters.

They spent more than 24 hours battling the fire, which was difficult to tame because of the construction and materials used in the building.

An investigation into the cause is set to begin on Monday and the full extent of the damage is unknown.

Firefighters are still on site today to ensure a new fire doesn't start, and authorities are also inspecting the building to see whether it is safe to enter.

The monastery was built in 1846 and maintained its religious vocation until the 1960s. Quebec officially recognized It as a heritage site in 1979 and it now serves as a mixed use building that includes a residence for seniors, a housing cooperative, a daycare centre and condominiums.

The chapel, located in the centre of the complex, is now a concert hall and the city calls it one of its most prestigious venues, known for exceptional acoustics in a historic and intimate atmosphere.

Quebec toddler dies after falling into grain mixer in farm accident

Child killed in farm accident

Quebec provincial police say a two-year-old girl has died after falling into a grain mixer on a farm north of Montreal.

They say the accident occurred Friday at a family farm in St-Lin-Laurentides, about 85 kilometres from the city.

Sgt. Audrey-Anne Bilodeau says emergency services were called at about 3:30 p.m. after the child fell into an industrial mixer.

The girl's parents also intervened quickly but she had already died.

The young victims relatives were transported to hospital to be treated for shock.

Police are investigating the death as is the case when a child is involved, but authorities say there is no indication of negligence.

'More connected': Researchers looking at growing food under solar panels

Growing under solar panels

Lawns, backyards and roofs could be used to produce both solar power and fresh vegetables, University of Alberta researchers say.

Guillermo Hernandez, a soil scientist, and Camila Quiroz, a research intern from Peru, are looking into growing crops under solar panels to improve the use of space in cities and farms. 

"We know how to generate electricity from sunlight. We also know how to grow crops," says Hernandez. "But the question is, can we do the two things in the same space?" 

Crop harvesting under solar panels is called agrivoltaics, a relatively new concept to improve land-use efficiency by producing energy and food in the same spot. 

In a 25-day experiment, Hernandez and Quiroz grew batches of spinach under three systems — thick solar panels, thin solar panels and without solar panels. 

The researchers used simulated sunlight in a small room at the university during the Alberta winter. 

Quiroz, who is studying energy engineering in Peru, says there weren't any significant differences in taste or nutrition between the spinach grown under solar panels and the batch grown under simulated sunlight. 

"I ate some of the solar panel-grown spinach," Quiroz says. "They were sweet. The taste was perfect."

However, the solar panel-grown plants were smaller than the batch grown without the panels.   

Quiroz says a "little more time" under the panel would help them mature better.

The researchers are conducting a lab analysis to determine the exact nutritional composition of the three batches, and will be publishing the results in the coming weeks.  

Quiroz says agrivoltaics is about more than just optimizing land area. 

Solar panels create a microclimate underneath them, shielding plants from direct sunlight and fostering the right temperatures. Greens, berries and broccoli are among the foods that grow well under solar panels.  

Quiroz says solar panels could also contribute to higher crop production for certain foods and improve water efficiency.   

"Another benefit is the increase the solar energy generation," Quiroz says.

An International Energy Agency report this year said investors are increasingly gravitating towards solar-powered projects, outpacing the spending on fossil fuel projects for the first time. 

Hernandez says even though the initial cost of installing solar panels could be high, agrivoltaics has the potential to become a part of the urban landscape in Canada. 

"The connection with food is missing in some urban areas." 

He says agrivoltaic farming would teach people to grow fresh produce while harnessing solar energy on balconies, backyards and smaller areas.  

"People will be able to witness growing their own food, and they will feel more connected to where their food is coming from."

Some provincial governments have been giving rebates and grants to households and institutions for installing solar panels.

Other countries, including South Korea and France, are also experimenting with agrivoltaics. 

Hernandez says the next step is to secure funding for research on other vegetables and explore how solar panels work outdoors and at differing heights and angles.

He is also working on a guide for agrivoltaic farming, which would include a list of crops that can be grown under solar panels.   

StatCan report casts clouds on claims of a widespread labour shortage in Canada

Widespread labour shortage

A new report is casting doubt on the idea that Canada is facing a widespread labour shortage and bolsters the arguments by some labour economists that high job vacancies aren't due to a shortage of workers.

The Statistics Canada analysis finds there are no labour shortages for jobs that require high levels of education, suggesting other factors, such as a mismatch in skills and pay, might be to blame for a high number of empty positions.

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, labour shortages have grasped headlines from coast to coast as businesses have advertised more job openings than ever. Job vacancies skyrocketed to more than one million at one point last year.

The perceived countrywide labour shortage has put pressure on governments to help businesses find workers, including by increasing Canada's immigration targets.

But the report published this week compares unemployment and job vacancies by education level and paints a more nuanced picture of the labour market.

"Things look really different depending on whether you look at vacancies that require a high level of education, versus those that require a high school diploma or less," said René Morissette, the assistant director of social analysis and modelling division at the federal agency.

The report, which looked at labour data between 2016 and 2022, found for jobs requiring a bachelor's degree or higher education, there were always fewer jobs available than people to fill them.

For example, there were 113,000 vacant positions requiring a bachelor's degree or higher education in the fourth quarter of 2022, but 227,000 individuals who held such an education were unemployed during the same period.

But for positions that required a high school diploma or less, the shortage of workers only started in the third quarter of 2021.

Morissette said the findings don't mean that there are no labour shortages in some markets, but shortages may not be as extensive as previously assumed.

"It's certainly conceivable that there are local shortages in some in some positions," Morissette said. "What we're saying is that the shortages may not be as widespread as initially assumed in the early discussions about the high vacancy rates in Canada."

For employers trying to fill vacancies that require a post-secondary education, the report says their hiring challenges cannot be attributed to a lack of workers available with those qualifications.

Instead, the difficulties may be the result of a mismatch in skills required for the job and those possessed by candidates. Another factor could be that employers aren't offering wages that are on par with what job seekers expect.

The report also casts doubt on the hiring challenges facing firms trying to recruit workers with lower levels of education.

"The degree to which these job vacancies can be attributed to labour shortages in specific low-skilled occupations instead of relatively low-wage offers and fringe benefits or other factors remains an open question," the report says.

Jim Stanford, an economist and the director of the Centre for Future Work, says the report from Statistics Canada busts "long-standing myths" about labour shortages in the country.

"If you were really short of labour, and you couldn't find someone to do that minimum wage job at a McDonald's restaurant, then why aren't they either increasing the wage or trying to replace the work with machinery?" Stanford said.

"Neither are happening, which suggests to me that employers in general are quite happy with the current state of affairs, no matter how much they complain about labour being in short supply."

So what explains the high number of job vacancies?

Morissette said for low-skilled industries, businesses may be choosing to keep wages low and accept higher vacancy rates.

"For employers that have negligible training costs, a human resource strategy that combines relatively low wages with high worker turnover and some vacancies might actually … maximize profits," he said.

The federal government has kept an open ear to business groups raising alarm bells about labour shortages.

In the fall, Ottawa announced new immigration targets that would see the country welcome 500,000 immigrants annually by 2025. Immigration Minister Sean Fraser has touted the new plan as a solution to the country's labour woes.

Canada has also experienced a surge in the number of temporary foreign workers brought into the country to help businesses fill vacant positions.

The apparent shortage of low-skilled workers could push policymakers to think that even more temporary workers are needed, but Stanford said that would be a "disastrous" conclusion to draw from the report.

Many economists have reservations about temporary foreign worker programs that they worry can suppress wages domestically, if used excessively.

"The goal of immigration policy should not be to solve the recruitment problems faced by low-wage employers, or any employers for that matter," he said.

Lifted Canadian pandemic restrictions help pump tourist spending

Tourist spending takes off

Spending by international travellers soared in the fourth quarter of 2022, after Canada lifted pandemic-era travel restrictions, according to Statistics Canada. 

The nation's number cruncher today unveiled data showing that international visitors to Canada spent about $3 billion in the fourth quarter of 2022, up about 87.5 per cent from the $1.6 billion that those visitors spent in the same quarter in 2021.

The fourth quarter of 2022 started on Oct. 1, when visitors stopped having to show proof of being vaccinated and no longer needed to use the country's ArriveCan app in order to enter the country. Passengers on planes and trains on that date no longer needed to wear masks, and cruise passengers on that date stopped having to provide pre-boarding tests that proved that they were negative for COVID-19.

Tourism sector executives had been calling for the government to remove those pandemic-era travel restrictions for many months in the lead-up to Oct. 1.

Americans dominated international-visitor spending in Canada in the fourth quarter of 2022, with about $1.7 billion, or 57 per cent of money spent in the three-month period. 

For both U.S. visitors and non-U.S. international visitors, spending was approximately double that seen during the fourth quarter of 2021, and slightly more than three-quarters of the spending seen in the same quarter in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic virtually halted travel.

While the fourth quarter of 2022 was the first one in years without any COVID-19 restrictions, there were some hurdles to travel. Severe winter storms in Vancouver and across the country disrupted air travel in December 2022.

Spending by U.S. residents was concentrated in four provinces: Ontario, B.C., Quebec and Alberta. Together, those provinces accounted for 88.9 per cent of total international-visitor spending, according to Statistics Canada.

Major expenses for U.S. travellers included accommodation ($611.8 million), food and beverages ($475.5 million) and transportation within Canada ($262.9 million). Together, these expenses accounted for 80.4 per cent of all U.S. visitor spending.

The $1.3 billion that international visitors spent in Canada in the fourth quarter of 2022 was up from about $752.7 million spent in the fourth quarter of 2021. Approximately 92.4 per cent of that spending was in Ontario, B.C., Quebec and Alberta, according to Statistics Canada.

Residents of Asia and Oceania spent approximately $621.5 million in Canada in that quarter while people who live in Europe spent $514.0 million, according to Statistics Canada. That spending amounted to about 84.7 per cent of total spending. 

About 37.3 per cent of the spending was on food and beverages, while accommodation ate up about 29.5 per cent of the spending. Transportation costs generated 12.4 per cent of the spending, according to Statistics Canada. 

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