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‘It’s like walking in darkness’: One year since Flight 752

THE BIG STORY | posted Friday, Jan 8th, 2021

In today’s Big Story podcast, at the time it seemed like it might be the worst disaster of 2020. When Flight 752 was shot down in Iran, 176 passengers and crew, including 55 Canadians, were killed. In the months to come, the cries for answers would be drowned out by the rise of COVID-19, leaving the victims’ loved ones still searching for answers and justice.

What can be done to get them the concrete information that might give them closure? What does justice look like? What’s it like when the world forgets a tragedy that you live with every day?

GUEST: Hamed Esmaeilion had family on Flight 752

You can subscribe to The Big Story podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle and Spotify.

You can also find it at thebigstorypodcast.ca.

Discovery of two-million-year-old tools shows human adaptability: scientist

BOB WEBER, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Thursday, Jan 7th, 2021

To the uninitiated, they look like chipped rocks.

To Julio Mercader of the University of Calgary, they look like two-million-year-old messages from the dawn of human technology.

“It is really the beginnings of technological dependence,” said Mercader, lead author of a paper published Thursday in the journal Nature.

“The tools are from an early phase of that period that is marking a new relationship between humans and the environment.”

The paper presents the combined work of 29 scientists from three continents. They analyzed a few dozen stone tools found at Oldupai Gorge, an African site considered by many to be where humans first appeared. Dating back two million years, the hand axes, quartz flakes and rock cores are among the oldest tools ever found.

They are so old they predate Homo sapiens. They may have been the work of Homo habilis (“handy man”), whose remains have been found nearby.

Any artifacts of that antiquity are precious. Mercader said what makes these especially valuable is that researchers from a wide variety of disciplines have been able to place them in an environmental context that shows just how adaptable humans have been since the start.

The tools span a time period of about 235,000 years. “It maybe sounds like a lot,” said Mercader, “but in human evolution it is not a lot.”

Over that time, the site’s environment changed rapidly and often. It was a woodland, a lakeshore, a grassland, a meadow.

Those unimaginably ancient humans were at home in them all.

“No matter the change in the environment, the moment there is a disruption, a drastic change in the local ecology, humans move in right away,” Mercader said.

“There was a huge volcanic eruption that really blanketed the landscape with a solid mass of molten rock. The moment that cools down and there are new plants and animals coming in, humans are doing the same.

“What it shows is the huge versatility and flexibility of behaviour that allows early humans to exploit whatever environment that happens to be in their proximity. This has deep roots.”

The tools themselves are made from rocks that were found immediately adjacent or nearby. The makers seem to have carried around preferred stone cores they could use to knap a fresh flake when needed.

The tools didn’t change much over time, said Mercader.

“The technology is kept flexible enough and general enough so that no matter what, you can still exploit the environment. It’s like a Swiss Army knife.”

The discoveries are the result of years of work in the area.

Researchers — trained to know the difference between a tool and a naturally chipped rock — first walk the landscape, looking for exposed bits of fossil bone. Lots of bone fossils suggest other artifacts may be nearby and a test dig ensues.

“If we like what we see, we open more space.

Mercader said the research is a textbook example of how scientists from different disciplines can collaborate to shed light on the far distant past.

“Working together with geoscientists and chemists and paleoecologists and paleogeographers, there is a lot we can infer from stone tools and the context in which they are found.”

And there’s nothing quite like holding in your hand a stone that some ancient toolmaker also held, Mercader said.

“That is the excitement that makes you want to become an archeologist.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2021.

— Follow @row1960 on Twitter

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Quebec to impose 8 p.m. provincewide curfew until Feb. 8

THE CANADIAN PRESS, NEWS STAFF | posted Thursday, Jan 7th, 2021

Quebecers need to be jolted into recognizing the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, Premier Francois Legault said Wednesday, before announcing a provincewide 8 p.m. curfew for the next four weeks.

Legault said despite the fact schools, retail stores and many other businesses have been closed since December, COVID-19 infections and related hospitalizations continue to rise. Too many seniors are ending up in hospital after becoming infected in private homes, he added.

“We are obliged to provide a type of shock treatment so that people reduce their visits,” he told reporters. Quebec will become the first province in the country to impose such a drastic measure to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Beginning Saturday and until at least Feb. 8, Quebecers will be under a curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., Legault said, adding that anyone caught breaking the rules is liable to a fine between $1,000 and $6,000. The government is considering creating a document for people who have to be out after the curfew, which they can show police.

“When we say we are giving an electroshock it’s really for four weeks, a period that should make a difference,” Legault said.

“The police are important allies in the fight against the virus,” he added. “I need the police and Quebec needs the police to be able to succeed with this shock treatment during the next four weeks.”

The premier said all non-essential businesses that he ordered closed in December will remain closed until at least Feb. 8, when the curfew is scheduled to be lifted.

Legault, however, said primary schools will reopen as scheduled, on Jan. 11, and high school students will return to in-person learning the week after, on Jan. 18. “Our children have to be able to continue to learn,” he said.

Speaking before Legault’s news conference, Dr. Donald Sheppard, chair of the microbiology and immunology department at McGill University, said the government needed to explain the logic behind a curfew because the majority of outbreaks documented by public health have been in workplaces and schools.

Public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda said the curfew is part of a series of measures aimed at reducing the possibility of gatherings and of contact between people. “There’s no science that can tell you what measure will have what percentage effect,” he told reporters.

Arruda said he believes many small gatherings around Christmas led to the large number of COVID-19 cases being reported in Quebec.

Earlier on Wednesday, Quebec reported 2,641 new COVID-19 infections and 47 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. The Health Department said hospitalizations jumped by 76, to 1,393 – the largest number since late May – and 202 people were in intensive care, a rise of eight.

Despite calls from some health experts to shut down the manufacturing and construction sectors, Legault said the government won’t close factories or order work sites to stop operating. Factories, he said, have been asked to postpone “non-essential” manufacturing. The type of production that will be designated “essential” will be decided, he explained, following discussions between manufacturers and government officials.

The majority of people in hospital with COVID-19 are over 65 years old and are unlikely working in the manufacturing sector, Legault said, in an attempt to explain his decision. Arruda said many factories are producing essential products such as food and can’t be closed.

Quebec’s health-care system is under heavy strain, Health Minister Christian Dube said, adding that some kidney transplants have been cancelled. That sort of strain is worrying for experts like Sheppard who said surgeries and cancer screenings are being put off and intensive care units are filling up,

“The biggest worry is, eventually, if we don’t do anything, we’ll get to the point where it’s going to be the decision where we have two patients, one ventilator and someone has to decide,” Sheppard said in an interview Wednesday.

He said the impact of cancelled procedures is already being felt: breast cancer patients are presenting with larger tumours than they were before the pandemic, a sign that they’re being diagnosed late.

Quebec’s INESSS institute, a government-mandated health-care think tank, warned on Dec. 31 that hospitals in the Montreal area are likely to run out of dedicated COVID-19 beds within three weeks.

Much of Quebec, including the province’s largest cities, has been under partial lockdown since October, when bars, restaurant dining rooms, gyms and entertainment venues were closed. In December, Legault closed all “non-essential” retail stores and extended the winter break for elementary and high school students.

Quebec has reported an average of 2,597 new cases a day over the past week, Health Minister Christian Dube said on Twitter Wednesday.

That figure represents 300 cases a day per million people – more than any province in Canada. The next highest is Alberta with 233.8 cases per million, followed by Ontario with 221.9, according to a report released Wednesday by National Bank Financial Markets based on data from Johns Hopkins University.

Officials said 6,221 doses of vaccine were administered Tuesday, for a total of 38,984. Quebec has reported 217,999 COVID-19 infections and 8,488 deaths linked to the virus since the beginning of the pandemic.

Teachers are doing their best, but they’re at the breaking point

THE BIG STORY | posted Thursday, Jan 7th, 2021

In today’s Big Story podcast, the past year has been hard on all of us—but especially for those to whom we entrust our children. From a rush to online learning with schools closed, to a hasty back-to-school plan that was followed by rising COVID-19 numbers in schools, to the uncertainty of not knowing when or how they’ll be able to teach their students this winter…many educators are close to giving up.

How can we keep our education system functioning while also protecting our kids, our families and the people we need to teach them? What have we learned about our education system that could help us adapt in the future? And what happens to it if enough teachers decide they simply can’t take it anymore, and leave the public system for private schools?

GUEST: Inori Roy

You can subscribe to The Big Story podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle and Spotify

You can also find it at thebigstorypodcast.ca.

People’s Party leader and former MP Maxime Bernier travelled to Florida last fall

STEPHANIE LEVITZ, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Wednesday, Jan 6th, 2021

OTTAWA — The one-time Conservative cabinet minister and MP who broke ranks to form his own political party is among the Canadians who’ve headed south in recent months.

Maxime Bernier, who leads the libertarian People’s Party of Canada, went to Florida in November with his wife for a vacation.

A spokesman says the pair did quarantine for the full 14 days required when they returned.

Bernier has been vocal in his disagreement with COVID-19 lockdown measures, including restrictions on travel.

In recent days, he’s used social media to berate the politicians who’ve been caught flouting public health warnings and heading abroad, accusing them of being hypocrites.

Bernier says the issue shouldn’t be that they travelled but that they agreed with the restrictions in the first place, and then broke them.

Several federal members of Parliament, at least one senator, and provincial politicians have been outed for taking trips outside Canada in the last few months despite the fact public health and government leaders have been urging everyone to stay home.

The senator, Conservative Don Plett, was a longtime caucus colleague of Bernier’s, but that didn’t stop the former MP from the Quebec riding of Beauce for castigating him on social media this week.

“Another moron,” Bernier wrote.

“Let me make this very clear: The problem is NOT that they travelled abroad. It’s that they publicly agree with the silly authoritarian rules imposed on Canadians AND THEN FLOUT THEM.”

Bernier was a Conservative MP from 2006 until he quit the party in 2018, following his razor-thin loss in the party’s leadership race the previous year.

He then formed his own party, arguing the conservative movement in Canada was moving too far to the centre.

While the People’s Party ran candidates across the country in the 2019 federal election, none — including Bernier — was elected.

He tried again in a federal byelection earlier this year in a Toronto riding, but lost to the Liberals.

Bernier’s approach to the pandemic has mirrored that of other populist, right-wing politicians around the world.

He’s been strongly against lockdowns, arguing they are a violation of people’s rights and do more harm than good, and he also attended at least one anti-mask rally, though photos from the event show him with a mask, just tucked under his chin.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2021.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

Canadian fashion mogul Peter Nygard to apply for bail in Winnipeg

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Wednesday, Jan 6th, 2021

WINNIPEG — Canadian fashion mogul Peter Nygard is expected to seek bail today following his arrest in Winnipeg last month over charges he faces in the United States of using his influence to lure women and girls for sex.

Nygard, who is 79, was arrested in December under the Extradition Act and faces nine counts in the southern District of New York, including racketeering and sex trafficking.

Documents from the U.S. Attorney’s Office allege Nygard frequently targeted women and underage girls from disadvantaged economic backgrounds with promises of modelling and other financial opportunities.

They allege the criminal conduct occurred over 25 years and involved dozens of women in the United States, the Bahamas and Canada, among other locations.

Nygard’s lawyer, Jay Prober, has said his client denies all the allegations.

Prober had said he would pursue bail because of concerns over Nygard’s health behind bars.

The U.S. indictment alleges Nygard forcibly sexually assaulted many women and girls, some who were between 14 and 17 years old. It alleges others were forcibly assaulted by Nygard’s associates or drugged to ensure their compliance with his sexual demands.

Nygard stepped down as chairman of his company after the FBI and police raided his offices in New York City in February.

The fashion mogul is also the subject of a class-action lawsuit in the U.S. with similar allegations involving 57 women, including 18 Canadians. It alleges Nygard used violence, intimidation, bribery and company employees to lure victims and avoid accountability for decades.

The lawsuit was put on pause in August. While reasons for the stay in the suit were sealed, the court docket said it resulted from a government motion that named three federal prosecutors — an indication the criminal investigation was proceeding.

Two of Nygard’s sons filed a separate lawsuit against him months later claiming they were statutorily raped at his direction when they were teens. The sons allege Nygard arranged for a woman to have sex with them.

Nygard has said through his lawyer that he denies all the allegations in the lawsuits. He has blamed the accusations on a feud with his billionaire neighbour in the Bahamas.

Nygard came to Canada as a child from Finland with his parents in 1942. He founded his fashion company in Winnipeg in 1967 and it grew to become a brand name sold in stores around the world.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 6, 2021.

The Canadian Press

New Brunswick RCMP issue alert warning residents about armed man wanted for shooting

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Wednesday, Jan 6th, 2021

MONCTON, N.B. — Police in New Brunswick are warning residents about a man carrying firearms who is wanted for a shooting Tuesday near a high school in Riverview.

The RCMP have distributed an Alert Ready message to the greater Moncton area, saying 24-year-old Janson Bryan Baker intends to use the firearms.

Baker is described as 5-foot-9, 145 pounds, with short brown hair, brown eyes and tattoos on his neck, right cheek and forehead.

The Mounties say he is believed to be driving a black 2020 Hyundai Elantra with black tinted windows.

Police say Baker should not be approached.

Shortly after the shooting near Riverview High School was reported Tuesday at 5:15 p.m., a man was taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 6, 2021.

The Canadian Press

How the Georgia Senate runoffs could impact Canada

CARYN CEOLIN | posted Tuesday, Jan 5th, 2021

Political observers are casting Georgia’s Senate runoff elections as pivotal to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to make decisions that will affect the entire United States, and in some cases, the entire world.

“It’s about literally life or death for communities all across this country,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “Because if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris do not have a collective Congress to help them pass necessary legislation that will move this country forward, what are we going to be able to do?”

On Tuesday, Georgians will cast their ballots for the state’s two outstanding Senate seats. The outcome will decide which party will have the upper hand in the upper chamber.

Seawright tells 680 NEWS the stakes include whether laws get passed, potentially boosting Biden’s policy priorities, both domestic and foreign.

“That’s why you see so much attention around Georgia and making certain people understand how high the stakes are,” he said.

Democrats have a president in the White House and run the House of Representatives. Republicans currently control the Senate. A Democratic sweep in the runoffs would lead to a 50-50 split, in which case, tie-breaking votes would go to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

Sarah Goldfeder, a former U.S. diplomat under two American ambassadors, is in favour of a gridlocked Congress.

“I do think having a tight government, having very tight margins in the House and very tight margins in the Senate are better for government and better for America overall,” she said.

Whoever wins will hold only a slim Senate margin, says Goldfeder, now an Ottawa-based consultant. That will make it harder to implement significant legislative changes.

“In many ways you can think of it like a minority government here in Canada. They have to negotiate,” she said. “If the Republicans want something or the Democrats want something, they’re going to have to win over their more moderate members.”

Regardless of what happens Tuesday, Seawright says these races will shape the coming years in U.S. politics.

“This election in Georgia is about who will be able to govern effectively and get things done for the collective United States of America,” he said.

Nearly half of Canadians visited friends, family over holidays, new poll suggests

STEPHANIE LEVITZ, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Tuesday, Jan 5th, 2021

A new survey suggests nearly half of Canadians visited with family or friends over the winter holiday period.

The Leger/Association for Canadian Studies poll found 48 per cent of those surveyed visited with people outside their households, compared to 52 per cent who said they did not.

Public health officials had pleaded with Canadians to sharply limit their contacts during the holidays to avoid massive spikes in COVID-19 cases.

But it appears something gave for Canadians, said Leger vice-president Christian Bourque.

“Usually we Canadians are sort of much more, I would say, disciplined when it comes to going by what governments are recommending in terms of our behaviour, but over the holidays, apparently, it was sort of tougher on Canadians,” he said.

Of those who did visit with friends or family outside their homes, 34 per cent did once, 12 per cent did two or three times, and two per cent did it often.

COVID-19 case numbers are rising, and the poll suggests 62 per cent surveyed have little to no confidence in Canada’s ability to limit the spread of COVID-19 over the next few weeks.

That pessimism is notable, considering that before the holidays, polls suggested Canadians were feeling optimistic about 2021, Bourque said.

But stories in the waning days of 2020 about delays in vaccine rollouts, climbing case counts and news that many politicians left the country over the holidays despite limits on travel, seem to be turning Canadians’ moods, he said.

“I think it’s gotten people to be more skeptical about how much we can do in the short term,” he said.

Throughout the pandemic, Leger has asked Canadians about their mental health, and Bourque said the latest round of responses reflect a downturn: in the most recent survey, only 33 per cent rated their mental health as good, the lowest figure yet, he said.

“January is set up to be a bit gloomy,” he said.

Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies carried out the survey of 1,506 Canadians between Dec. 30, 2020 and Jan. 3, 2021.

The poll was conducted online, and cannot be assigned a margin of error as online surveys aren’t considered truly random.

As pollsters were asking the questions, news reports surfaced of politicians, including Ontario’s finance minister, several federal MPs and provincial politicians in Alberta, among others, taking trips outside the country in recent months.

That’s in spite of repeated warnings from local and national governments, as well as public health officials, that travel should be limited only to essential trips.

In the survey, 87 per cent of those asked said they would support a total ban on international travel until there are several consecutive days of reduced numbers of COVID-19 cases

Bourque said that number is consistent with similar questions asked throughout the pandemic, but also reflects a growing desire by Canadians for governments to take concrete action to try to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The federal government has said only a small fraction of the active cases in Canada can be directly linked to recent travel, though it did ban incoming flights from the United Kingdom after a new variant of COVID-19 that is believed to be more contagious surfaced there late last year.

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