New tactics, old scam: CRA fraud scheme still making the rounds

A St. John’s woman who fell for a scam by someone claiming to be from the Canada Revenue Agency is warning others not to let the same thing happen to them.

‘They kind of make you panic. They’re like, ‘there’s an investigation started into your account,’ and you kind of jump a little bit.’
– Becky McHugh

Just hours after checking the CRA website to see if her HST rebate was available, university student Becky McHugh got a text message on her cellphone notifying her that an “investigation” had been started.

“They kind of make you panic. They’re like, ‘there’s an investigation started into your account,’ and you kind of jump a little bit. That’s how they get you.”

McHugh clicked on the link in the text message, which took her to a website where she started filling in a form with personal information.

Variation of a common scam

“Everything looked exactly the same as what was on the CRA web page, so I entered my social insurance number and I clicked ‘Submit.'”

After she answered a few more questions, the website address caught her eye and she realized it didn’t look legitimate after all.

She said it looked more like the web address for a home decor website.

The texting scam McHugh fell for is a variation on a common scam that’s been circulating for a few years involving an email or phone call from someone claiming to be from the Canada Revenue Agency.

Becky McHugh is a post-secondary student in Newfoundland and Labrador who shared personal information, including her social insurance number, after being targeted by a CRA texting scam. (Submitted)

The scam asks people to provide personal information and even goes so far as to make outright demands for payment of one form or another.

But the Canada Revenue Agency doesn’t use text as a way to get in touch with clients so, if you receive a text like McHugh did, you can know immediately that it is something that should be ignored.

Now McHugh is concerned that her social insurance number, name and home address are all in the hands of a scammer. She said the risk of identity theft is her biggest worry.

“I don’t want anyone using my social insurance number, because who knows what they can do with that?”

‘Through the use of the internet and now cellphones, they’re able to reach consumers that they were never able to reach before.’
– Jessica Gunson

McHugh reported the scam to the police, but she was told authorities can’t do much unless she has proof someone has actually used her personal information to defraud her. She found that frustrating and said there should be more that police and other agencies can do.

Ron O’Connell of Corner Brook, N.L., also said not enough is being done to stop the CRA scam.

O’Connell was contacted through a call to his cellphone instead of a text. He recorded the call, which was threatening and menacing.

In the recording, a male voice says, “This call is from Canada Revenue Agency. The reason we are trying to contact you is to inform you that there is a lawsuit filed against you by the Canada Revenue Agency. And there is a warrant of arrest issued under your name.”

This is the text message Becky McHugh received which, at first glance, appeared to her to be legitimate. (Submitted)

O’Connell told the Corner Brook Morning Show that he knew immediately that the call was a scam, but he says others could be fooled.

“Some people may get duped. Someone is saying they’re going to issue a warrant for your arrest. Someone might panic and call this number back and give the scammers their data, but they should never do it.”

He can’t understand why the scam calls can’t be traced and the perpetrators stopped.

However frustrated victims of the scam might be, police say there’s not much they can do if a person hasn’t lost any money.

Police say, ‘Don’t call us’

Earlier this month, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary issued a press release to ask people not to call them unless there’s been a financial loss.

RNC in Corner Brook say they’ve had a high number of calls lately about the CRA scam, and they’re asking people to call the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre instead.

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre says a common scam this time of year involves a text message from fraudsters posing as Canada Revenue Agency workers. (CBC)

The centre is like a clearing house for all of the reports of fraud across Canada, including reports of attempted extortion, which is how the CRA scam is classified.

Anti-fraud centre gets calls every day

Jessica Gunson, acting call centre and intake unit manager with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, told CBC the centre has been inundated with complaints about the CRA scam, and gets calls every day from Canadians who’ve been targeted by scammers.

“Through the use of the internet and now cellphones, they’re able to reach consumers that they were never able to reach before.”

In 2017, that added up to more than 12,000 complaints and 965 people who actually lost money — nearly $4.7 million.

CRA urges caution

The Canada Revenue Agency says it takes a lot of time and effort to keep people informed about the risks of scam calls.

But the agency’s Dawn Kennedy isn’t optimistic the scam will end any time soon.

“It’s very difficult for us to know who’s doing it. And you may see from time to time certain groups of people have been arrested or charged or the scheme has stopped, only for another one to pop up again. So we do try to stop it but, unfortunately, scam artists are scam artists; they’re going to keep trying.”

Kennedy’s advises people who want to verify a call or email to contact the CRA directly at 1-800-959-8281 or to login into the CRA’s website securely with the My Account service.

Wind wreaks havoc, leaves thousands without power in B.C.

Thousands of British Columbians woke up without power Sunday morning after strong winds knocked out hydro across the South Coast.

According to BC Hydro, around 65,000 customers woke up in the dark in Metro Vancouver, the Sunshine Coast and across Vancouver Island. 

“The high winds have caused significant damage to our system, including downed power lines and damaged power poles,” said BC Hydro spokesperson Tanya Fish.

Strong wind gusts have caused multiple power outages across the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. (GP Mendoza/CBC)

Fish is advising anyone who comes across a downed power line to keep a distance of 10 metres away from it and to call 911.

Environment Canada has issued a wind warning for Metro Vancouver, the Sunshine Coast, the Southern Gulf Islands and much of Vancouver Island.

Environment Canada is asking drivers to watch out for loose debris and to exercise caution on the roads.

Wind speeds could reach up to 100 kilometres per hour along the west coast of Vancouver Island Sunday.

“There is potential for more power outages,” said Fish.

“Crews have been working through the night on repairs and will continue until all power is restored.”

U.S. House could accept bill extending government funding for 3 weeks

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Sunday that the House of Representatives would accept a bill funding the government through Feb. 8 and ending the current shutdown of federal agencies, if the Senate can pass the measure.

“We’ve agreed that we would accept that in the House,” Ryan said on CBS’s Face the Nation. “So we will see sometime today whether or not they have the votes for that [in the Senate].”

Senate Republican leaders have said the chamber will vote on the measure to fund the government through Feb. 8 at 1 a.m. ET on Monday, unless Democrats agree to hold the vote sooner.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, speaks during a news conference on Saturday after U.S. President Donald Trump and the U.S. Congress failed to reach a deal on funding for federal agencies. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday that if the government shutdown stalemate continued, Republicans should ensure that funding by changing Senate rules, which currently require a super-majority for appropriations bills to pass.

“The Dems [Democrats] just want illegal immigrants to pour into our nation unchecked. If stalemate continues, Republicans should go to 51 per cent (Nuclear Option) and vote on real, long term budget,” Trump said on Twitter.

Trump’s proposal was almost immediately rejected by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

Senate Republicans oppose changing the chamber’s rules so that legislation to fund the government and end the current shutdown could pass with a simple majority, the spokesperson said.

“The Republican Conference opposes changing the rules on legislation,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Current Senate rules require a super-majority of three-fifths of the chamber, usually 60 out of 100, for legislation to clear procedural hurdles and pass.

Funding for federal agencies ran out Saturday with Trump and Republican lawmakers locked in a standoff with Democrats.

Democrats have said short-term spending legislation must include protections for illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children, known as “Dreamers.” Republicans, who have a slim 51-49 Senate majority, said they would not negotiate on immigration until the government was reopened.

Prospect of yearly federal beer tax hike has brewers up in arms

If beer commercials are anything to go by in Canada, having a cold one is just as much a staple as watching hockey.

But according to new figures released this week by a brewers’ association, Canada’s once-booming beer economy is facing growing challenges as consumers down a glass of beer that the industry says is “already half empty.”

Beer Canada says almost half of what consumers pay right now for the average price of beer is tax, and as the federal tax on beer increases annually starting next April, consumers will have to pay even more for their suds. 

The federal tax on domestic and imported beer rose by two per cent last year as part of the 2017 budget. It will continue to increase every year in line with inflation starting this April.

“The federal tax on beer right now is $31.84 per hectolitre, and it will increase to $32.32 per hectolitre, and this will drive up liquor board markups, PST and GST,” said Beer Canada spokesperson Brittany Moorcroft. The scheduled 2018 “escalator” tax amounts to a 1.51 per cent increase.

Beer Canada, which represents the brewers that account for 90 per cent of the beer made in Canada, has launched a campaign this week asking consumers to sign a petition calling on Finance Minister Bill Morneau to scrap the tax increase.

“Imagine being stuck on an escalator going up and up and up, and you cannot get off, and you cannot make it stop — that’s what beer lovers in Canada are facing with this escalator tax,” said Beer Canada chair George Croft.

The group says tax on beer in Canada is already among the highest in the world.

Canada ranked third of 28 countries for taxing beer in 2012, according the market research firm Impact Databank.

Drinking less

The question of taxes comes at a time when Canadians are already drinking less beer than they used to.

Beer consumption per capita has fallen by 10 per cent over the past decade, according a new study released by the Conference Board of Canada.

A number of factors such as demographic changes, more competition from other alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages and rising prices have contributed to the decline, the study suggests.

But even with a declining consumer base, the beer industry contributed $13.6 billion to Canada’s economy in 2016, the study showed.

“No matter where Canadians buy beer, they support jobs across the country in a wide range of industries, including accommodation and food services, wholesale and retail trade, transportation and agriculture,” said Pedro Antunes, economist at the Conference Board of Canada.

The study also found that:

  • Beer is still the most popular alcoholic beverage in Canada, making up over 41 per cent of alcohol sales.
  • Beer supported nearly 149,000 jobs, generating labour income of about $5.3 billion.
  • Almost 85 per cent of beer sales in Canada were from a local brewery.

Revenue generator

For federal, provincial and municipal governments, the beer industry generated $5.7 billion in tax and other revenues in 2016, according to the study.

Defending the move to increase the tax, Finance Ministry spokeswoman Chloe Luciani-Girouard told Reuters that small brewers pay decreased rates on the first 7.5 million litres of beer.

“It’s worth remembering that the last effective increase to the federal excise tax was over 30 years ago,” she said, adding that the annual inflationary adjustment would provide brewers with greater certainty in the future and is in line with actions taken by many provinces.

Provincial taxes on beer have increased by 58 per cent in Quebec since 2012, 18 per cent in Ontario and 28 per cent in Alberta, according to Beer Canada.

Employment

But Luke Harford, president of Beer Canada, said brewers are telling him that higher taxes will make it harder for them to sell beer and make it less likely for them to invest in their people, plants and community.

“We want to hold on to the big economic footprint that we have in this country, because it employs a lot of people,” he said, referring to the market share that local brewers hold over importers.

 “There aren’t that many food industries that could say that 85 per cent of what is sold in Canada is actually made in Canada. But, because of higher taxation, they [brewers] will have less resources to put toward that,” he added.

Insurers say Canadian weather getting weirder

If it seems as if the weather’s getting weirder, you’re not wrong.

An index of extreme weather in Canada compiled by the insurance industry backs that up.

“Yes, we see definite trends that can’t be explained by normal variability,” said Caterina Lindman of the Canadian Institute of Actuaries.

The institute compiles what it calls the Actuaries Climate Index, a joint effort by insurance organizations across North America. It recently released its latest quarterly update — up to spring 2017.

The index begins with a 30-year average taken from 1961 to 1990 of everyday weather conditions such as temperature, precipitation, wind speed and sea level. Thresholds are set for each of those based on the top 10 per cent of readings.

Vehicles drive on a road in Iqaluit, Nunavut, on Jan. 5. (Frank Reardon/Handout via CP)

For an average month, for example, about three days would be in that 10 per cent.

Using data provided by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — one of the top American government science organizations — the index then counts how many days actually exceed that threshold. The index plots the results for every three-month period since 2016.

The method reveals a slow, gradual increase in extreme weather.

The overall Canadian index indicates that during the entire three decades between 1961 and 1990, extreme weather fell outside the range of normal variability only five times. In the last 10 years, however, that happened 12 times.

‘Concerned for the sustainability of our planet’

Temperatures have been climbing.

Across Canada, hot days have exceeded the normal number every quarter since the winter of 2015. The number of cold days hasn’t exceeded normal for nine years.

It’s getting wetter, too. Across Canada, the average number of days with heavy rain or snow has been outside the norm since spring 2013. In Ontario and Quebec, it’s been since winter 2008.

It’s harder to draw conclusions about wind for Canada as a whole. Likewise for sea level — unless you live in the Maritimes, where sea level has been higher than the normal range for the last 12 years.

The findings correspond with data from Environment Canada, which suggests average summer temperatures have climbed one degree since 1970 and precipitation has increased about five per cent.

Actuaries use the information in their calculation of risk as they insure lives and property, said Lindman. But they also assess the climate to contribute to public debate.

“There’s a lot of political angst around the issue of global warming and we’re trying to be neutral sources,” she said. “We’re just adding our voice.

“We’re in it for the long haul, so we are concerned for the sustainability of our planet.”

Should we let the crowd fund Canadian science if no one else will?

Hello and happy Saturday! Here’s this week’s round-up of eclectic and under-the-radar health and medical science news.

If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.

Asking the ‘crowd’ to pay for Canadian science

Catherine Scott studies black widow spiders at the University of Toronto. She needed a field assistant because it’s dangerous studying venomous spiders at night. But the lab’s science grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council didn’t cover it. So she launched a campaign on a science crowdfunding site and raised the $6,000 she needed.

“We traveled to Victoria B.C. where we worked on the land of the Tsawout First Nation at Island View Beach (with their kind permission) for about 4 months,” she told CBC News in an email.

Over at the University of Winnipeg, Prof. Richard Westwood is trying to save the last surviving populations of a rare Manitoba butterfly called the Poweshiek skipperling which can only survive in the rapidly diminishing tall grass prairie.

Catherine Scott, a PhD candidate in Professor Maydianne Andrade’s lab at U of T Scarborough, is exploring how male black widow spiders use chemical to communicate in nature. (Sean McCann)

He doesn’t have enough funding to send researchers into the field to study the butterfly habitat so he’s crowdfunding to raise $35,000 which will pay for several summer students and a graduate student.

“We need people to work on this and trying to raise money for research is always challenging,” Westwood told CBC News. His ultimate goal is to breed the butterfly in captivity and reintroduce it into new habitats.

Scientific crowdfunding is springing up all over the world. It’s a departure from the way science is traditionally funded, with public sector institutions awarding research money using rigorous evaluation by experts — a process known as peer review.

But those public funding sources are shrinking. A national report last April warned that Canadian research is seriously underfunded and called on Ottawa to dramatically increase support for basic science.

In the meantime, scientists, especially young researchers are struggling to launch their careers.  And that’s a gap Eric Fisher is hoping to fill, through his made-in-Canada science crowdfunding platform called Labfundr.

University of Winnipeg researchers examine host plants for the larvae of the Poweshiek skipperling. (Courtesy Richard Westwood)

“We have these really major questions and challenges facing society and there’s not always the funding available to make the incremental steps forward,” said Fisher. He has a PhD in biochemistry but instead of doing his own research he’s decided to support other scientists and run a business at the same time. Like other crowdfunding platforms, Labfundr takes a percentage of the funds raised in successful campaigns.

The idea of going to the crowd to fund science makes Jeremy Snyder nervous. He’s a medical ethicist at Simon Fraser University and he’s researching the ethics of using crowdfunding to finance medical treatments. Snyder is concerned about a lack of oversight and peer review as science crowdfunding takes off.

“The Labfundr people I’m sure are trying to do a good thing,” he said, “and I think there are probably ways it can be done really well, but I think there’s also a lot of danger of turning it into a popularity contest, hijacking public funding and really hyping new treatments that aren’t well supported by the scientific community and providing an alternate way of funding those.”

Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, applauds the initiative but is also concerned about the lack of oversight and peer review.

“How do you identify what is the most likely to be useful or most likely to be scientifically valid? Peer review does provide some quality control but it also sets a pretty high bar whereas crowdfunding has in essence no bar.”

Fisher said Labfundr requires researchers to be affiliated with academic institutions.

“We’ve launched one project to date,” said Fisher. “[We’ve had] quite a few leads and a lot of interest but it’s been a challenge to get projects launched.”

Crowdfunding science made headlines recently when 1,700 online donors gave money to  campaign to study whether a dimming star is being caused by aliens. A crowdfunding campaign raised more than $100,000, which the researchers used to book time on telescopes. So far the data suggests the dimming light is being caused by space dust — not aliens.

Exposing hidden data  

This week a Toronto family doctor was finally able to answer the question a patient asked him seven years ago. Back then, Dr. Nav Persaud routinely prescribed a popular morning sickness drug, Diclectin, to women who suffered from nausea and vomiting during pregnancy.

But when a patient asked him if the drug worked, Persaud realized he didn’t know. And he was shocked to learn that Health Canada wouldn’t give him access to the files they had about the drug, calling it confidential business information.

Persaud fought the ruling, and finally got his hands on the original clinical trial data, publishing his findings on Wednesday.

The answer to his patient’s question? No. His analysis suggested the drug did not work better than placebo in relieving morning sickness. And he also discovered the results fell short of the company’s own targets for proof.

Health Canada is not changing its labelling on the drug, and the company said in a statement that it stands by its tests and its products.

Dr. Nav Persaud, a family doctor and researcher in Toronto, spent seven years trying to access confidential industry data to determine the efficacy of the popular morning sickness drug Diclectin. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

In hunting down and exposing old industry trial data, Persaud was participating in an international scientific initiative called RIAT — restoring invisible and abandoned trials. RIAT was launched by a group of researchers in 2013. So far five old trials have been brought to light.

In the Diclectin case, Persaud was unable to release the raw data because Health Canada forced him to sign a confidentiality clause ordering him to destroy the 9,000 pages without showing them to anyone. But he’s applied once again to make that data public.

Health Canada is revising its rules so that industry data will be made public when new drugs are approved. Persaud says that could make it possible to find industry studies that were never reported.

“We’ll see when and how many [Health Canada] actually makes available. But if they’re going to do that it opens the door for more of these re-analyses,” Persaud said.

Meanwhile, the RIAT initiative is setting up a support centre to help other researchers recover old trial data and bring it to light, Peter Doshi, University of Maryland pharmacy researcher and leader of the RIAT initiative told CBC News in an email.

What about the animal studies?

It’s hard enough to get access to industry data on clinical trials in humans. But it’s even more challenging for researchers to see the original animal studies that happen before drugs are tested in people.

Yet that animal data is critical in understanding whether there was enough evidence to go forward with human studies, according to McGill University biomedical ethicist Jonathan Kimmelman.

“There’s a lot at stake any time you put humans in a clinical trial,” Kimmelman told CBC News. “You’re exposing them to risks, and burdens and inconveniences, and you want to be really confident that those are going to be redeemed by some kind of medical advance. And the only basis you have for making that estimation or calculation is the quality of the animal evidence that stands behind the product that you’re testing.”

This week, the BMJ published an investigation into the animal research behind a failed trial of a tuberculosis vaccine tested in 2,800 South African infants, suggesting that a close look a the animal studies could have predicted the ultimate failure of the trial. No infants were harmed but the investigation raises questions about whether their parents were properly informed and whether there is sufficient oversight in pre-clinical research.

Animal data is critical in understanding whether there was enough evidence to go forward with human studies. (shutterstock)

Kimmelman said that story is not unique. He has warned about the need to look carefully at pre-clinical animal studies for proof of efficacy before starting drug trials in humans.

“They’re looking at the animal evidence for safety, and toxicology but not the animal evidence that’s suggesting that the drug is likely to be effective.”

Kimmelman is calling for pre-clinical research to be made available to independent researchers. And he says both regulators and research ethics boards should look more carefully at evidence that the drug is likely to be effective before approving human trials.

Flu and commuting  

If there was a serious influenza epidemic in the region where you live, you’d be understandably tempted to ask your boss if you can work from home for a while. After all, common sense tells us that staying close to home will reduce our chances of catching an illness.

But a study published in the journal Nature Physics this week found that the opposite was true: isolating ourselves in our own neighbourhoods may actually increase our chances of contracting an infection disease and worsen the outbreak locally.

The team of researchers from the University of Rovira i Virgili and the University of Zaragoza, both in Spain, developed a mathematical model to study mobility patterns — the kind associated with commuting to work — and their effect on the spread of epidemic illness.

Researchers Alex Arenas, left, Jesus Gomez, middle, and David Soriano developed a mathematical model that found daily commuting reduces the spread of epidemic illness, rather than increases it as expected. (©CC0)

“What we found is pretty astonishing,” said Alex Arenas, a professor in the department of computer science and mathematics at the University Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, who headed up the research.

Using real travel and public health data, the group discovered that daily commuting reduced the spread of epidemic illness, rather than spreading it, as expected.

How can that be? It turns out that since commuting takes many of us out of densely populated suburbs and moves us to business centres where few people live, it reduces rates of infection by spreading us around more evenly.

“What happens is that you homogenize the population in terms of density of people moving back and forth,” said Arenas. In other words, if we didn’t commute, we’d be bunched up in our own neighbourhoods infecting each other at the post office and grocery store.

A team of researchers has created a mathematical model that found commuting to work doesn’t increase the spread of epidemic illnesses, as expected, but instead reduces the rate of infection. (©CC0)

Part of our misconceptions around travel and the spread of disease comes from high-profile news stories that mark, for instance, the first case of Ebola in North America. These tend to give us an inflated sense of travel’s role in spreading illness, Arenas told CBC News. He points to an avian flu outbreak that started in Mexico as another example. “Cases were lower than expected compared to other strains of the flu.”

Arenas said mathematical models “will help to make better predictions, and better predictions means economic and political consequences will be lower.”

U.S. government shutdown underway amid blame game

Republicans and Democrats are blaming each other for the congressional failure to pass a short-term bill to continue funding for U.S. federal agencies and prevent some of them from shutting down.

Results from the final Senate vote on the Republican bill aimed at thwarting a shutdown were announced around midnight and it was 10 votes short.

Friday’s late-night vote means a government closure is underway after the two parties showed no clear signs that they have significantly narrowed their disputes over immigration and the budget.

Democrats had insisted that any bill to renew government funding also contain permanent protections for approximately 700,000 young, undocumented immigrants who were brought illegally into the United States as children.

U.S. President Trump held a face-to-face meeting with Chuck Schumer around midday Friday. Schumer called it a ‘good meeting’ but described talks with other Republicans that followed as ‘chaotic.’ (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Last week, President Donald Trump rejected a bipartisan Senate deal that would have accomplished that as well as hand the White House $2.7 billion in new money for immigration enforcement at America’s borders.

Minutes before Friday’s midnight deadline for a funding deal, Trump’s White House issued a statement blaming Democrats for the shutdown.

“We will not negotiate the status of unlawful immigrants while Democrats hold our lawful citizens hostage over their reckless demands,” it said.

White House blames ‘obstructionist losers’

In reading the statement, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said “Senate Democrats own the Schumer shutdown,” adding, “This is the behaviour of obstructionist losers, not legislators.”

The shutdown was cemented when the Senate, meeting late into Friday night, blocked a bill to maintain the federal government’s funding through Feb. 16.

The vote was 50-49, short of the 60 needed in the 100-member chamber to vault the bill over a procedural hurdle.

The House approved the measure Thursday over Democratic opposition. It would have kept agencies afloat for four more weeks, but Democrats wanted a package lasting just days in hopes of intensifying pressure on the Republican party to compromise.

Minutes after the shutdown went into effect, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer blasted Republicans and Trump from the Senate floor.

‘This will be called the Trump shutdown’

“The blame should crash entirely on President Trump’s shoulders,” he said.

“This will be called the Trump shutdown because there is no one, no one who deserves the blame for the position we find ourselves in more than President Trump. he walked away from two bipartisan deals, including one today, in which I even put the border wall on the table. What will it take for President Trump to say yes and learn how to execute the rudiments of government,” Schumer said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined Trump in attacking Democrats in the chaotic close to Trump’s first year as president.

“What we’ve just witnessed on the floor was a cynical decision by Senate Democrats to shove aside millions of Americans for the sake of irresponsible political games,” McConnell said.

Trump sarcastically tweeted on Saturday morning about the Democrats giving him a “present” on the one-year anniversary of his presidency.

Not the first funding impasse

The U.S. government has officially shut down 18 times since 1976, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Some lasted a few hours, but the 1996 shutdown under Bill Clinton lasted the better part of a month, the longest in history.

Many of the immediate effects of the government shutdown will be muted for most Americans.

Federal employees deemed essential will be expected to report to work. Social Security and most other safety net programs should be unaffected by the lapse in federal spending authority. Critical government functions will continue, with uniformed service members, health inspectors and law enforcement officers set to work without pay.

But if no deal is brokered before Monday, hundreds of thousands of federal employees are set to be furloughed, or placed on an unpaid leave of absence

The White House and Capitol Hill will be working with skeleton staffs, but some government agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, have said they were able to shift funding around to keep most workers on the job. National parks and federal museums will be open, but with potentially reduced services.

As Republicans and Democrats heatedly blamed each other for the shutdown, Congress scheduled a Saturday session to consider a three-week version of the short-term spending measure.

1 year after Women’s March, Canadians rally with a new focus on women in politics

One year ago Sara Bingham was part of a caravan of Canadians on buses heading to Washington, D.C., for the historic Women’s March in protest of Donald Trump’s inauguration as U.S. president.

An emergency phone number was written on her forearm with black marker. The travellers were unsure what to expect when they arrived and were prepared for conflict, just in case.

That’s not what they found as they spent the day mingling around the protest site, which was crammed with an estimated 500,000 people, many sporting pink hats.

“It was really a feeling of being at a festival,” Bingham, who lives in Kitchener, Ont., said in an interview this week.

At the march, she waded through the tightly packed crowd toward the stage and heard Madonna and other celebrities, activists and elected officials rally the jubilant crowd.

“It was exhilarating,” said Bingham. “It will be one of our remember-when moments.”

Bingham was one of thousands of Canadian women who participated in the Washington march and solidarity marches across Canada last Jan. 21.

Concrete actions

What was next for Bingham was becoming executive director of Women’s March Canada, one of the global chapters of the U.S.-based Women’s March, to fight for women’s rights and social justice.

A separate organization was also created: March On, whose members describe themselves as more grassroots than Women’s March.

Sara Bingham, wearing a red scarf, went to Washington for the 2017 march. She became executive director of Women’s March Canada. (Sara Bingham)

Despite some discord over the last year, the groups are working together to organize rallies across Canada on Saturday to mark the anniversary. At least 40 are planned from coast to coast to coast.

Bodil Geyer, a March On organizer in Vancouver, and other activists interviewed said Trump’s election and the Women’s March spurred Canadians to get involved in their local communities.

“It created this massive groundswell of everyday people who wouldn’t normally be political to get involved,” said Geyer.

That interest has not let up, according to Geyer. There is a rally every month, fighting for one social justice issue or another, and people have remained active on social media and kept the conversations going.

“We’ve kept the ball rolling,” said Geyer.

‘This isn’t about Trump’

Ottawa resident Catherine Butler had never been politically active. But when she heard about the Women’s March in Washington she was keen to express solidarity with American women.

She organized a local rally instead that attracted thousands in Canada’s capital. Butler said this year’s event on Parliament Hill will have a different focus.

“This isn’t about Trump,” she said. “We have a lot of things we can focus on at home.”

Supporting Indigenous women, particularly throughout the troubled inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, is a priority, said Butler. People are being encouraged to talk to Indigenous women in their communities to understand how to help.

Protesters take part in the Women’s March in Ottawa last year following the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Another priority for the Women’s March and March On is getting more women into politics.

Butler said with an Ontario election in June and municipal elections across the province in October, their message to women is either run or join a campaign for a woman candidate.

After Saturday’s march in Ottawa there is a workshop focused on women in politics. Campaign schools are also being organized in various cities to prepare women to run.

Butler said last year’s march was organized quickly in reaction to Trump, and the organizers had to take a deep breath and decide where to go next.

‘Renewed optimism’

“What we are going to be when we grow up is now well established,” she said.

Organizers of Saturday’s marches say the #MeToo movement that emerged at the end of last year and put a spotlight on sexual harassment and abuse has helped their cause.

Kavita Dogra, an organizer of Toronto’s march, said #MeToo has prompted even more women to speak up and get involved.

Protesters in Toronto march in support of the Washington Women’s March on Jan. 21, 2017. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

“There’s renewed optimism that change can happen, and I think people want to show their support for that,” said Dogra.

The Toronto event is emphasizing young women leaders on its speakers list. The idea is to support future leaders who will help shape the city, Dogra said.

Toronto organizers, like those in other cities, are also focused on educating men and women on how to be politically active. 

“We are hoping to keep people inspired to take action, to keep the movement going forward, trying to build a city that is great for everyone,” she said.

Janelle Hinds, a 25-year-old engineering graduate, is one of the young women speaking Saturday. She said the Women’s March and #MeToo provided openings for her work in advocating for more women in science and technology.

She’s been doing that for two years, and “I’m starting to feel it now,” said Hinds. “I think there is a lot of momentum.”

Hinds said the inaugural Women’s March helped women feel more empowered, and #MeToo has carried on the feeling.

“One hundred per cent, I do not think it fizzled out, if anything it’s only gotten stronger,” said Hinds.

Janelle Hinds, from Mississauga, Ont., poses within an iron ring, a symbol of the engineering field. Hinds, 25, is an engineering graduate who is working to advance women and racial diversity in science and technology. (Mobolaji Adeolu)

2 Canadians, 2 Americans freed after kidnapping in Nigeria, police say

Two Americans and two Canadians have been freed after being kidnapped in the northern Nigerian state of Kaduna, a police spokesman said on Saturday.

Mukhtar Aliyu, a spokesperson for Kaduna state police, said they were released Friday night after being kidnapped on Jan. 17. He said no ransom was paid.

He said the four were taken to the capital, Abuja, where they were undergoing medical observation because of the trauma they experienced. Aliya said they are in good condition.

State police commissioner Agyole Abeh said one suspect has been arrested and police are searching for other suspects.

The four were abducted while travelling near Kagarko on their way from the city of Kaduna to the capital Abuja. During the ambush, their two police escorts were killed in a gun battle.

The Abuja-to-Kaduna road in Nigeria has long been a haunt for kidnappers. Last February, two German archaeologists were abducted in the region, though were later freed. In October, kidnappers took four Britons in Delta state in the south. Three were released after negotiations, but the other, Ian Squire, was killed. (Google)

At the time, Global Affairs Canada said it could not release further information about the Canadians due to privacy concerns.

Aliya said the kidnapped foreigners are investors who were setting up solar stations in villages around Kafanchan, a town in southern Kaduna State.

Kidnapping for ransom is common in Nigeria, especially on the Kaduna-to-Abuja highway.

Two German archaeologists were seized at gunpoint last year less than 100 kilometres northeast of Abuja and later freed unharmed. Sierra Leone’s deputy high commissioner was taken at gunpoint on the highway in 2016 and held for five days before he was let go.

Victims typically are released unharmed after ransom is paid, though security forces have rescued a few high-profile abductees. A number of bandits, including herdsmen, have been arrested.

Barry and Honey Sherman were murdered by multiple killers, private investigators believe: source

Private investigators believe that the billionaire Toronto couple found dead at their home in December were murdered by multiple killers, a source with direct knowledge of the parallel probe into their mysterious deaths told CBC Toronto.

The new information contradicts a widely circulated theory that Barry and Honey Sherman died as a result of a murder-suicide — a notion that is regarded as fiction by those who knew the Shermans well.

Barry, 75, and Honey, 70, were found dead by a real estate agent in the basement of their Toronto mansion on Dec. 15. The source said their bodies were in an upright seated position on the floor near an indoor pool. Police deemed the deaths “suspicious” but have said little else since their investigation began. 

The Sherman family has hired a team of experts, which includes a number of former Toronto homicide detectives, to conduct a separate, independent investigation.

The private investigators have found evidence that both Barry and Honey Sherman had their necks wrapped with leather belts that were then knotted around a handrail that runs adjacent to the pool, the source told CBC Toronto. A coroner previously ruled that the couple had died from “ligature neck compression,” or strangulation.

Their wrists showed evidence that they had been, at one point, bound together. No rope or other materials that could have been used to tie their wrists were discovered, the source told CBC Toronto.

Their bodies were otherwise limp and their arms unbound when they were discovered, the source said. 

The team of private investigators believes that the Shermans were, in fact, killed on Dec. 13, two days before they were found. This conclusion is based on the fact that Honey was wearing the same clothes she was last seen in, on Dec. 13, according to the source.

Private investigators also believe that Honey struggled with her killer or killers. She had cuts on her lip and nose, and was sitting in a pool of her own blood when she was discovered. However, there was comparatively little blood apparent on her upper-body clothing, suggesting that she had been face-down on the tile, bleeding, for some time before being bound to the handrail in an upright position, the source said.

Various media outlets have reported that Toronto homicide detectives are probing the deaths as a possible murder-suicide. The couple’s four children, who plan to have their parents’ North York home demolished once a team of private forensic investigators have had time to scour it, have soundly rejected that theory. So have close friends of the Shermans. 

Barry Sherman is the founder of Canadian pharmaceutical giant Apotex, and both he and his wife have been recognized internationally for their generous philanthropy. The couple, who were quite socially active among the city’s gala class, was believed to have amassed a fortune of some $4.77 billion before their deaths. 

The day the Shermans were found dead, police said that there was no evidence of forced entry into the home.