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TOPSTORIES

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    Five teenaged boys sit in silence on a curb under the Trull Funeral Home sign, their shoulders slumped, hands clasped and heads down. 

    Others walk down Danforth to join them, holding Iced Capps from Tim Hortons in one hand and visitation cards with Isaiah Witt’s smiling face in the other.

    Witt was killed by a stab wound on Oct. 7 at Stan Wadlow Park. Four were arrested and two men, aged 18 and 19, face a charge of second degree murder. Witt’s death comes less than a month after Toronto police warned of parties in parks that turn violent.

    On Friday, hundreds of mourners gathered for a visitation at Trull Funeral Home and a service at Stan Wadlow Park in East York, where the stabbing took place.

    Inside the funeral home, hundreds of mourners lined up, weaving through rooms and hallways and up a spiral staircase to his open casket and weeping family. Teal and purple backpacks stood out against black suits and dresses.

    A slideshow shows a young Isaiah pushing a wheelbarrow, running across a lawn and unwrapping gifts under a Christmas tree. He has a mischievous grin in all of the photos, like he’s about to tell a joke. 

    Stephanie Witt spoke at the funeral service at Stan Wadlow Park. She talked about becoming a parent to Witt when she was just 16, and raising him as a single parent.

    She said before he died Isaiah had written about his life, saying “it wasn’t easy throughout it all, but I’ve stayed strong and learned to keep my eyes on what’s right and wrong.” 

    “Our lives were getting better,” Stephanie said, crying. “He always took the high road in life and he always chose to spread love no matter what he was dealing with.” 

    It was a sentiment widely echoed.

    Tom Lazarou, principal at Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts, described Witt, a Grade 10 student at the school, as “a wonderful boy.”

    “He had an energy about him that, you know, he attracted a lot of people that wanted to be friends with him,” Lazarou said.

    Witt — who his principal described as caring, outgoing and generous — played rugby and guitar. He had a passion for music, Lazarou said.

    “But you know what, I probably could see him up on stage because he had so much charisma,” Lazarou said. “And who knows, you know, maybe down the road in his senior years, maybe he would have been on stage.”

    Lazarou said grief counsellors have attended the school every day this week to support students.

    Hogan Cacciatore, a friend of Witt’s, characterized the evening of Witt’s death as “just some people hanging out.”

    Parents speculated in a Facebook group that Witt’s death may have been linked to a party in the park.

    In September, Toronto police warned of “multiple parties” resulting in “swarming-style robberies, stabbings and assaults.”

    On Sept. 16, police say eight to 10 teenagers, their faces covered with bandanas, robbed and assaulted victims aged 14 to 16.

    The event, dubbed ‘Rosedale Jam’, was advertised “through social media sites such as Snapchat and various webpages, resulting in hundreds of people showing up to these events, many of them strangers to each other,” police said.

    Police say people appear to be attending the weekly events in various public places for the “sole purpose of carrying out robberies and other forms of criminal activity.”

    Nuria Cano Ortiz’s stepdaughter attends Wexford Collegiate.

    “What I’ve heard in the past is that they do advertise these parties on, I think it was Snapchat, because the information goes away and quickly disappears,” Ortiz said.

    Rosedale Heights School of the Arts principal Barrie Sketchley sent parents a streetproofing tip street “in light of recent and apparently ongoing weekend student ‘jams’ at night in city parks,” he wrote in a Sept. 21 email.

    “It is clear that these events are not safe spaces and we encourage you to make this very clear to your child.”

    Streetproofing helps children identify and respond to uncomfortable, unwelcome or dangerous situations, the tip sheet says.

    Recommendations for secondary students include avoiding shortcuts through parks and fields, walking in well-lit and well-travelled areas and to be aware of suspicious behaviour (and to remember what cars and people looked like so descriptions can be reported to authorities).

    The tip sheet suggests that parents get to know their children’s friends, keep a recent colour photograph of their kids and know their weight, height, medical and dental history and other detailed personal information.


    Community mourns boy fatally stabbed in Stan Wadlow ParkCommunity mourns boy fatally stabbed in Stan Wadlow Park

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    Cobourg’s former Kraft plant is about to be transformed into a multi-million-square-foot medical marijuana facility that could generate as many as 1,200 jobs in five years.

    FV Pharma Inc. secured a licence from Health Canada to legally grow medical marijuana on Friday, said founder and CEO Thomas Fairfull. The Whitby-based company wants to harvest its first crop, 4,000 kilos of marijuana, as early as February 2018. It aims to employ 150 people by the end of next year and “keep going as we add space,” said Fairfull.

    FV Pharma intends to purchase the entire 15-acre property, now called the Cobourg Innovation Centre, and has a closing date set for December.

    “I don’t like leasing, it sounds temporary,” Fairfull said, adding he’s here to stay.

    “I got some investors involved, brought more money in and thought, ‘we will make this operation the biggest and best marijuana facility in the world.’”

    Read more:

    Wynne promises to work with mayors on marijuana legalization

    Ontario considers price of $10 per gram in government stores for marijuana once it's legalized next summer

    The plan is a long time coming. FV Pharma has been leasing space in the former Kraft plant, 520 William St., for five years. It has 25,000 square feet ready for production and in the next year will expand by an additional 300,000.

    In next five years, Fairfull envisions equipping the facility with four million square feet of growth space across five levels.

    “The plan is to convert the whole facility into medical marijuana production,” he said.

    Kraft Canada closed its Cobourg plant in 2008, cutting about 250 jobs. In 2009, the new owner converted the facility into a business park, with space for up to 15 businesses.

    Currently, tenants occupy “a very small portion of the property,” but they will move out once their leases expire, Fairfull said.

    Cobourg Mayor Gil Brocanier declined to comment on FV Pharma’s plans until the official announcement is made on Monday.

    Fairfull was drawn to the property because of its location — right off Hwy. 401 and only 120 kilometres from downtown Toronto — and became interested in producing medical marijuana because of his personal experience managing the symptoms of his Type 2 diabetes.

    He’d suffered negative side effects, including suicidal thoughts, when taking a prescription drug to help with neuropathy occurring in his feet, but experienced pain relief and no “ridiculous” side effects when ingesting medical marijuana.

    “Medical marijuana can be lucrative, but it can also help a lot of people,” Fairfull said.

    He wants to create a lecture hall in the facility to host presentations and conferences for the medical community to educate them on the health benefits of marijuana.

    When the federal government legalizes marijuana for recreational use as early as July 2018, FV Pharma plans to produce “some” marijuana for that market, but concentrate most of its efforts on the medical side, said Fairfull.

    FV Pharma is among 37 licensed Ontario medical marijuana producers. Ontario has the most out of all the provinces and territories, followed by B.C., which has 15.

    Another Canadian cannabis producer, Aphria, is in the process of expanding its facility in Leamington to one million square feet worth of greenhouse space, tripling its production capacity.


    Marijuana company to breathe new life into Cobourg’s former Kraft plantMarijuana company to breathe new life into Cobourg’s former Kraft plant

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    WASHINGTON—Even as he took action against a nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran, President Donald Trump on Friday stoked concern over military threats from North Korea, a rival nation that actually has an advanced nuclear arms program.

    “We’re totally prepared for numerous things,” Trump told reporters who asked about North Korea’s latest threats as he left the White House for an event. “We’re going to see what happens.”

    North Korea has repeatedly threatened U.S. territory, including Guam, and Trump has responded in kind, with talk of “fire and fury” and of “totally” destroying the country. But other senior administration officials have advocated for diplomacy and negotiations.

    Trump, who has recently complained that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is “wasting his time” in trying to talk to the regime in Pyongyang, told reporters he would be “open” to negotiations if plausible.

    “But if it’s going to be something other than negotiation, believe me, we are ready — more so than we have ever been,” he added.

    Tensions with North Korea have soared even as Trump has said the 2015 international agreement that put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program is seriously flawed. On Friday, he refused to certify Iran’s compliance with that deal, though senior advisers acknowledge Tehran is complying, and he asked Congress to consider new sanctions.

    Read more:

    As Donald Trump talks tough with North Korea, is his military getting ready for all-out war?

    Europe is scrambling to save the Iran nuclear deal from Donald Trump


    U.S. ‘totally prepared’ to handle North Korea, Trump saysU.S. ‘totally prepared’ to handle North Korea, Trump says

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    An Ontario family has launched a human rights complaint against a school board in an effort to get a popular form of therapy for autistic children provided to their son in class.

    Beth Skrt of Mississauga, Ont., alleges the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board has consistently refused to allow her five-year-old son Jack to receive Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) in class.

    She says Jack has been receiving and benefiting from the therapy at an off-site facility he attends multiple days a week. Her son is also supported by education resource workers in class but she argues they are not equipped to provide the same level of therapy.

    Read more:Parents battle for son’s right to autism services in school

    Skrt says her family offered to cover the cost of private ABA professionals to work with her son at school, but she says the board won’t allow it.

    The family has brought the issue before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, seeking the right to provide ABA for Jack in his classroom.

    The lawyer representing the board at the tribunal — which began hearing the case this week — did not indicate what arguments she planned to make, but says Dufferin-Peel supports providing appropriate educational services for all.

    “We are confident that our evidence will demonstrate that we have fulfilled our commitment to students,” Nadya Tymochenko said in a statement.

    But Skrt, who works as an education resource worker for the board, said she believes the system is letting her son down.

    She said her family initially balked at the prospect of a long and costly battle before the tribunal, but said the alternative was compromising Jack’s future.

    “There’s so much potential there,” Skrt said in an interview. “He is verbal. He is able to learn. He reads. He talks. He’s friendly. He tries to play. It doesn’t always work out, but he’s just a really good kid. And I thought to myself, ‘how do I live with myself? How can I just let him fall through the cracks of the system?’”

    ABA is a type of treatment meant to teach autistic children to regulate behaviours that are believed to be socially significant.

    In Jack’s case, such behaviours currently include “finger-spelling in the air,” as well as making clicking or humming sounds when he gets overwhelmed or anxious.

    Although some members of the autistic community have written at length about negative experiences with ABA, saying it hampers their natural way of understanding the world, an opening statement filed with the tribunal on behalf of the Skrt family said Jack’s care team have consistently indicated he would benefit from the approach.

    The statement said Jack began receiving ABA at the age of three, at which time he was not toilet-trained and was highly withdrawn. It said the ABA program he accessed outside school helped him make significant progress and argued the therapy is needed in class to help him fully access his education.

    According to the statement, proper ABA can only be administered by a Registered Behaviour Technician (RBT) working under the supervision of a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst.

    According to the statement filed on behalf of the Skrt family, the Dufferin-Peel board currently has such an analyst on staff and employs education resource workers who interact directly with Jack. But those workers have not received training as RBTs and are not qualified to provide proper ABA, the statement said.

    “The board has suggested it provides Jack with ‘ABA methods.’ With respect, ‘ABA methods’ is not a recognized term. One either provides ABA, or provides something that may loosely resemble ABA,” the statement reads.

    “The science behind it must be understood and it must be performed in a rigorous manner. Without the proper training, the (education resource workers) working with Jack are unable to provide such programming despite their best efforts.”

    Skrt said she and her husband offered to cover the cost of an RBT to accompany Jack to class, but said the request was denied. She said the board gave her many reasons for the rejection, ranging from citing Ministry of Education policy to claims that resource workers were equipped to provide the necessary level of service.

    Nicole Bardikoff, senior researcher at Autism Ontario, said ABA has long been seen as the “gold standard” for behavioural interventions, adding it has been well studied and found to yield positive results.

    “One of the main components you’re looking at with ABA is how to generalize behaviour from different settings,” she said. “Children spend most of their time at school, so it makes so much sense to be able to meet children where they are ... to really help with behaviour there.”

    However another group, Canadian Autistics United, does not favour ABA, saying it supports therapies that “work with unique autistic strengths, instead of ones that fight against them and force normalization.”

    “ABA may make us look normal, but that is an illusion,” group spokeswoman Vivian Ly said in an email to The Canadian Press. “The outward appearance of improvement comes with internal, emotional harm and increased anxiety.”

    The Ontario government has a policy requiring school boards to offer special education accommodations for children with autism, which Bardikoff said can include ABA.

    But Bardikoff said the ABA field is not currently regulated, and even terms such as “board certified behaviour analyst” are misnomers as there is currently neither a board nor a certification in place.

    That is likely to change in the coming months, according to a new provincial program set to be implemented by next spring. Minister of Children and Youth Services Michael Coteau has announced that ABA practitioners will be regulated in the future, though few details are currently available.


    Family battling for son’s right to autism therapy in school launches human rights complaintFamily battling for son’s right to autism therapy in school launches human rights complaint

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    One winter night in December 2016, Ghulam Faqiri answered a knock at the door to see two police officers in his driveway. It had been 11 days since he had seen his second-born son, Soleiman who had been arrested on Dec. 4 for charges of aggravated assault, assault and uttering threats.

    His older brother, Yusuf, said Soleiman, whohad suffered with schizophrenia for the past 11 years, was the Faqiri family’s “gentle giant.” He was his mother’s best friend, his father’s helper, his two younger brothers’ mentor, his sister’s protector, his own idol. Soleiman wanted to be the greatest scholar in the world.

    But he was sick. He had gotten sicker and needed help, and, seeing the police officers at his doorstep, Ghulam had a feeling of dread. In his broken English, the 53-year-old Afghan-Canadian man asked police: “Is my son dead?”

    Read more:

    Family of mentally ill inmate who died in Ontario jail looks for answers

    Human Rights Commission calls on province to end segregation for prisoners with mental health disabilities

    Family of mentally ill inmate who died in Ontario jail still waiting for answers

    He translated their answer in Farsi for his wife of more than three decades, Maryam, with help from Yusuf. The police told them there was an “altercation” between Soleiman, 30, and correctional officers on Dec. 15 in the Lindsay, Ont., jail where he was being held on remand, awaiting a mental-health assessment.

    It’s been 10 months since Soleiman died and two months since a coroner’s report found he suffered more than 50 physical injuries from a three-hour long confrontation with prison officers before dying in a segregation cell.

    That is all the family knows.

    That night, Yusuf said he sat in the living room with his father and younger brothers for an hour, asking — begging — for more information from the two police officers. Maryam, he said, paced back and forth in the next room, crying. She hadn’t slept properly since her son had been taken to prison — and hasn’t since he died. “My son, my beautiful son is dead,” she kept repeating. “My baby, my baby, I miss you so much.”

    Since that night, the police have conducted a forensic examination of the death scene; interviewed the responding paramedic and dozens of correctional staff members and inmates; reviewed the transcript of the 911 call; reviewed video footage; established a timeline of events; and spoken to the coroner.

    Despite these investigative steps, the family is still waiting, desperately, for answers: Who killed Soleiman? Why did they kill him? When will they know?

    In emails to the Star, both the police and the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS) offered their deep condolences to the family. They did not say when the investigation will conclude.

    “The safety and security of our inmates and staff is our top priority,” said an MCSCS representative, who couldn’t comment further because of the ongoing investigation.

    “I am unable to estimate how long this may take,” said Sgt. Tom Hickey of the Kawartha Lakes Police in an email. “We are committed to conducting a full, frank and fair investigation, but the trade-off is the length of time in which it takes.”

    “It has been a priority to conclude this investigation in a professional and completely thorough manner,” Hickey wrote, “with the secondary priority of concluding this investigation as quickly as possible.”

    The ongoing police investigation is also a factor for Dr. David Eden, regional supervising coroner for inquests, who is still considering an inquest into Soleiman’s death.

    “(The police) have been responsive,” said Edward Marrocco, the family’s lawyer, “They just haven’t told (us) anything substantive.”

    At the last update, on Sept. 26, Marrocco was told the police were waiting for a legal opinion from the Office of the Crown Attorney regarding criminal charges. The police said they would know in a few weeks. The delay in the investigation, they explained in an email to him, was “due to the complexity of the case, and the thoroughness of the review.”

    “If there’s complexity here I wish someone would explain to me what it is,” Marrocco said.


    In the spring of 2005, Soleiman was in a car crash and diagnosed with schizophrenia soon after. Medical research suggests there is an increased risk of developing schizophrenia after a traumatic brain injury, but there are many other factors that could trigger the condition in a 19-year-old male.

    “He was not himself. He became more anxious, less focused,” said Sohrab, 29, the middle brother. “He became not the brother we grew up with.”

    Maryam’s three sons say that Soleiman had a special relationship with his mother, which became even stronger after his illness, but on the afternoon that he was arrested, Maryam and Soleiman had a disagreement. He had been struggling with his illness — he had refused to take his medication since March 2016 and had started to have hallucinations — a common symptom of schizophrenia, along with delusions, disorganized thinking and apathy. That day, he was confused — he didn’t recognize Maryam.

    According to Durham Regional Police, he allegedly pushed and spat on a female neighbour—he was on his own at the time, said the family. When another woman came out to confront him, he allegedly stabbed her, which resulted in minor injuries.

    From the onset, his fitness to face the charges was questioned because of his mental illness.

    In the course of 10 days, Ghulam and Maryam tried to visit their son three times in prison and each time they were denied access to their son. Yusuf, 33, and Sohrab went to both court and jail, too.

    On Dec. 12, Soleiman appeared in an Oshawa courtroom via a video link from jail. It was the first time Yusuf had seen Soleiman in a week; he could see his brother was not doing well. He told the court the family had struggled to place him in a health-care facility and get him the medical attention he needed — Soleiman needed help in a medical institution, he said, not time in a jail.

    A nurse told the presiding justice that Soleiman wasn’t speaking to anyone, refusing his medicine, not eating properly, and lying on the floor, making no eye contact.

    When the Crown attorney asked him if he had ever seen Soleiman like this in the 11 years of his illness, Yusuf replied “This is much worse.”

    Three days after that hearing, before his mental-health evaluation could be performed, Soleiman died.

    On Dec. 18, 2016, the Faqiris brought Soleiman’s body home. They buried him that same afternoon at Pine Ridge Cemetery in an unmarked grave, in the shadow of a giant tree.

    Today, there’s a profound emptiness in the Faqiri’s suburban family home in Whitby, Ont. — a house they moved into five months after Soleiman died. The house Soleiman had grown up in, a short distance away, was too difficult to live in anymore.

    Ghulam came to Canada early 1993 as a refugee from Kabul, Afghanistan, to escape the violence and uncertainty of the Afghan Civil War that began after the Soviet Union withdrew from the country. His family joined him several months later; they became Canadian citizens a decade later.

    “We did not expect to come to this country as refugees and bury our brother” said Yusuf, the oldest Faqiri sibling.

    Soleiman was an intelligent kid — a straight A-student who was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering from the University of Waterloo. He was a good athlete, too, captain of his high school rugby team and a strong football player — he’d race his brothers every chance he’d get and tease them every time he won, which, Sohrab said, was almost always.

    Now he exists in just memories: A late night out, just the brothers, at a restaurant in Pickering, eating wings; a water gunfight that still makes them laugh; the shoes he bought their nieces and nephews a month before he died.

    “Without him, it’s different. I lost a big muscle out of this family,” said Ali, the youngest sibling. “It’s hard to explain.”

    His mother visits his grave everyday. The tombstone that will be placed there next month says, “You are loved beyond words and missed without measure.”

    “After his death, I don’t work, I don’t know what to do,” said Ghulam, his voice breaking. “In the streets, at the mosque, I’m always looking for him. Where is he? In every room, I just look for him.”

    “He shouldn’t have died like this,” Maryam said.


    ‘My beautiful son is dead’: Family still searching for answers after Whitby man’s 2016 death in prison‘My beautiful son is dead’: Family still searching for answers after Whitby man’s 2016 death in prison

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    Canadian women are joining those who have accused disgraced Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, of sexual harassment after a New York Times investigation revealed he’d received dozens such accusations— ostensibly avoiding consequences — over the course of decades.

    A spokesperson for Weinstein has denied that any of the allegations constitute sexual harassment, saying that all of his contact with his named accusers was consensual.

    Montreal actor Erika Rosenbaum told CBC’s The Current Friday that she experienced both “inappropriate” meetings with Weinstein and a sexual assault since she first met the producer as a young actress in L.A.

    Read more:

    Beauty meets the many beasts of Weinstein: Mallick

    Conventional responses to Harvey Weinstein scandal just don’t cut it: Timson

    A timeline of allegations against Harvey Weinstein, starting in 1984

    The assault, she said, took place in a Toronto hotel room during the Toronto International Film Festival, years after they first met.

    “He grabs me by — he holds me by the back of the neck and faces me to the mirror and very quietly tells me that he just wants to look at me and he starts to masturbate standing behind me,” she said in the CBC interview.

    She said she never told anyone what happened because she felt ashamed.

    A TIFF spokesperson said they were unable to immediately respond to the Star’s questions.

    Mia Kirshner, a Canadian actor and activist, also spoke out about Weinstein Friday, saying she went through an “ordeal in a hotel room where he attempted to treat me like chattel that could be purchased,” in a Globe and Mail op-ed.

    She didn’t go into detail of the incident, saying the problem of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry runs deeper than one man and must be addressed with leadership by unions like the Screen Actors Guild and the Alliance of Canadian cinema, Television and Radio Artists.

    ACTRA released a statement on Twitter Friday pledging to “build on what we are already doing” to keep members safe from “prevalent… predatory behaviour” in the industry.

    The Weinstein allegations have been a catalyst for Canadian women in the entertainment industry to speak out about their experiences with sexual harassment in the entertainment industry as a whole.

    Liona Boyd, whose long career as a classical guitarist was marked by unwelcome sexual advances by predatory men, has also been speaking out. She has never made an allegation against Weinstein.

    “The thing that strikes me as strange is there must have been people who knew what was going on. They were the enablers in a way but they were probably also fearing for their jobs,” she said in an interview with the Star Friday.

    The “casting couch” mentality she described, where male producers in Los Angeles “dangled” opportunities before her to lure her into private meetings where they suggested sex, echo many of the accounts of Weinstein’s behaviour, and add to a picture of Hollywood as a cesspool for sexual exploitation of women.

    The experiences “sickened” Boyd, and drove her to return to Toronto in the eighties.

    Boyd said that while Toronto was an improvement on L.A., she still faced sexual harassment in this city.

    She described one occasion in the 80s where a “well known television” host she declined to name invited her to his hotel room for a meeting.

    “Sure enough he grabbed my hand and put it, you can imagine where, and I said “there’s no way.” I left and never spoke to him again,” she said.

    Boyd said it’s “high time” for people to be talking about sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, and that it likely occurs in other industries too.

    “This behaviour just has to change,” she said. “It’s disgraceful.”


    Canadian women speak out in the wake of Weinstein allegationsCanadian women speak out in the wake of Weinstein allegations

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    Finance minister Bill Morneau is headed back to the House of Commons on Monday with a target on his back and much of the burden of his government’s declining popularity on his shoulders.

    On Friday, an Angus Reid poll on voting intentions confirmed the ongoing erosion of Liberal support. It is no accident that Justin Trudeau’s government mid-term slump comes at a time when Morneau is taking a prolonged public relations beating over his plan to tighten the rules that govern private corporations.

    Over the past two years, other ministers have been left twisting in the wind as a result of poorly conceived and/or poorly executed policies without the government taking a corresponding hit in voting intentions.

    Read more:

    Bill Morneau’s French villa controversy couldn’t have come at a worse time: Editorial

    Six facts you need to know about Ottawa’s tax reforms: Olive

    Morneau grilled at town hall meeting in Oakville over tax changes for small businesses

    Think of ex-democratic reform minister Maryam Monsef’s electoral reform fiasco or, more recently, of House leader Bardish Chagger having to walk back her talk about overhauling the rules of the Commons.

    But when it is the finance minister who is being wounded in battle day in and day out, it is the government’s core managerial reputation that takes a licking.

    For if politics were a game of chess, the finance minister would be one of two pieces — the other being the prime minister — that is not disposable or at least not at less than prohibitive cost.

    Morneau cannot be shuffled off to some other portfolio or quit without the move sending a loud signal that something big is amiss within the government.

    Liberal strategists are hoping the imminent release of a revised set of proposals for private corporation taxation rules will take the pressure off the finance minister. There is a fiscal update in the pipeline that will feature some better-than-expected economic numbers.

    The remainder of the fall sitting should also see the nomination of a new chief justice for the Supreme Court. Who knows, a government in search of diversions may get around to filling some of the many vacant parliamentary watchdog posts.

    Morneau’s team has been shored up. Senior PMO adviser Justin To has moved to the finance minister’s office. Former broadcaster Ben Chin, who most recently was in charge of communications for former B.C. premier Christy Clark, has joined his inner circle.

    A special “mandatory” Liberal caucus meeting featuring a briefing by the finance minister has been called for Monday morning.

    But whether a rewritten policy, a bolstered palace guard and new marching orders for a nervous government caucus will reverse the tide or just make things worse, remains to be seen. In politics, the line between healthy flexibility and weak-kneed vacillation is a thin one.

    At this juncture, the public perception is that Morneau is beating a retreat under his critics’ fire either out of lack of fortitude and/or lack of fiscal foresight.

    For the many Canadians who actually back his tax reform, the minister’s increasingly apologetic tone is not conducive to confidence. Ditto, of course, for those incensed by his initial proposals.

    Whispers that Morneau is already disillusioned with politics have not helped. Nor does speculation that Trudeau could kill two birds with one stone by promoting economic development minister Navdeep Bains — who like incoming NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is a Sikh — to the finance post.

    In the circumstances, the news reported by the CBC on Friday that Morneau omitted to disclose the private company that owns his villa in Provence for the better part of two years could not have come at a worse time.

    It is unlikely to cause him lasting ethics-related wounds, but raising the existence of the villa itself will reinforce the opposition narrative that the minister is a wealthy political dilettante who is out-of-touch with the reality of ordinary Canadians.

    At this juncture, it is hard to see a probable scenario that would not have Morneau emerge from the fall’s travails as, if not a spent force, at least a weaker one.

    He is hardly the first finance minister to be forced to change tack on a policy. In their days in the finance hot seat, Ralph Goodale and Jim Flaherty had to scramble to avoid the demise of their respective minority governments. But both were seasoned politicians, well-versed in the cut and thrust of partisan duels.

    Morneau is the first parliamentary rookie to hold the post of finance minister in modern federal history. Two years ago there were questions as to the wisdom of appointing an untested politician to the second-most powerful post in the government. The jury is just about no longer out on that.

    Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.


    Bill Morneau feels the heat as Liberal support slips: HébertBill Morneau feels the heat as Liberal support slips: Hébert

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    The Trump administration has made another demand that could destroy NAFTA talks, this time unveiling a protectionist auto manufacturing proposal considered outlandish and unpalatable by Canada, Mexico, unions and car companies.

    The new U.S. proposal creates yet more pessimism about the chances for a successful renegotiation of the continental free trade pact. It is the second major U.S. proposal in two days that Canada and Mexico are unlikely to even consider endorsing.

    The latest proposal has experts wondering again whether the Trump team is making unrealistic demands as a bargaining ploy or whether the president who has threatened to terminate NAFTA is deliberately trying to sabotage the negotiations.

    “I think it’s one of these poison pills. I just think there’s no way, at all, ever, not-no-how, that Mexico and Canada can accept it. I don’t know what they’re thinking. The auto industry hates this,” said Jon Johnson, a C.D. Howe Institute senior fellow who worked on auto issues during the negotiation of the original North American Free Trade Agreement.

    The long-rumoured proposal, discussed at NAFTA renegotiation talks on Friday, would make a car need to be composed of 50 per cent American content to avoid tariffs. At present, there is no American-content rule: NAFTA requires only that a car include 62.5 per cent content from North America as a whole.

    The U.S. also proposed to raise that North American requirement to 85 per cent. This, too, is considered an unreasonable threshold by the industry given the importance of Asian electronics and other elements found overseas.

    Further, the timeline proposed by the U.S. was extraordinarily aggressive. Companies would have just one year to meet the 50 per cent U.S. requirement, two years to meet the 85 per cent North American requirement — an unusually rapid implementation period for an industry in which it takes years for companies to turn an idea into a product.

    The proposal for 50 per cent U.S. content was described as “madness” by Flavio Volpe, president of Canada’s ‎Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, and “completely ridiculous” by Jerry Dias, president of the Unifor union representing Canadian autoworkers. The Canadian government views it as so bad and so important that Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office issued its first written denunciation of a U.S. demand.

    “On NAFTA, we are working for a good deal, not just any deal. That means that we will continue to defend our national interest and stand up for Canadian values. We will not accept proposals that put Canadian jobs at risk,” said Freeland spokesperson Adam Austen. “We will continue to make clear, reasoned arguments based on fact and to put forward pragmatic, mutually beneficial proposals.”

    Trump’s negotiators formally unveiled the proposal late Thursday at the fourth round of NAFTA talks in a suburb of Washington. It came a day after the Trump team proposed a “sunset clause” that would automatically terminate the deal in five years if all three countries did not approve it again.

    Experts say the proposal is unwise since it would likely lead carmakers to simply choose to get their components from outside the NAFTA zone, killing jobs throughout North America, rather than attempting to meet the overly onerous thresholds.

    The tariff on cars that do not meet NAFTA thresholds is a mere 2.5 per cent — hardly enough to compel carmakers to stay put in North America, industry players said Friday.

    “They’ll just say, ‘You know what, I don’t need to comply with NAFTA. If my price advantage of sourcing out of South Asia is 7 per cent, why wouldn’t I pay the 2.5 per cent tariff?’” said Volpe.

    For that reason, Volpe said, a proposal supposedly designed to protect U.S. jobs would actually hurt them.

    “The only ones who are going to win are non-North American suppliers,” he said. “Never mind Canada and Mexico — I know (Trump officials) don’t care. But if you game it out for U.S. industry? Anybody who’s making cars or car parts right now under this scenario, if it was accepted, would be hurt, including workers.”

    Johnson said the content proposals are particularly confusing because U.S. demands for auto trade are usually in line with the wishes of the U.S. auto industry. In this case, the industry is aghast.

    “Any increase in the rules of origin would add complexity, burden and cost, thus reducing Canada’s competitiveness as well as the competitiveness of the trade bloc as a whole,” the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association, which represents General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler, said in a statement.

    Dias said the auto proposal, like the sunset clause proposal, is evidence the U.S. is not really interested in making a deal.

    “I spend a lot of time with the Canadian team. They view the U.S. proposals as as foolish as I do. So they’re not going anywhere. This deal is falling apart,” he said. “There’s not going to be a NAFTA.”

    The U.S. team also proposed Thursday to include steel, for the first time, on the list of components that count toward the content threshold, an idea designed to boost the U.S. steel industry.

    Speaking to the media at a meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada remains committed to the talks and “will not be walking away from the table based on proposals put forward.”

    In a speech to the Mexican Senate on Friday, Trudeau promoted gender equality and warned of a rising tide of isolationism.

    “Isolationism is taking hold in too many corners of the world, but our people must not succumb to fear. We, as leaders, must not succumb to fear,” he said.


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    Rescued hostage Joshua Boyle lashed out at his kidnappers, calling for the Afghan government to track down those members of the Haqqani network who raped his wife, Caitlan Coleman, and ordered “the murder of my infant daughter.”

    He made the statement to journalists gathered at Pearson International Airport just hours after landing in Toronto. His hands shook as he read the script he had carefully written in a small notebook.

    While Boyle did not take questions, his comments confirmed what the couple had darkly hinted at in the letters home and “proof-of-life” videos his captors released during their five years in captivity.

    Coleman said in one video that her children had seen her “defiled.” Boyle suggested cryptically in a letter that Coleman had a forced abortion.

    While he spoke to the press, the rest of his family was loading into an RCMP van — with baby seats bought by Boyle’s mother already installed — and preparing to drive to their Smith Falls, Ont., home.

    Read more:What we know about the rescue of Canadian Joshua Boyle and his family in Pakistan

    Joshua’s parents, Linda and Patrick Boyle, along with Boyle’s three sisters, who had brought their nephews cellophane balloons with Canadian flags, had a chance to meet the young couple and the children privately in a small room inside the airport shortly after they landed.

    Boyle told journalists that one of his children had required medical attention during this time.

    It is hard to fathom the shock Friday must have been for the children — Jonah, Noah and Grace — who know no other life than being held hostage. Just the plane rides from Islamabad to London to Toronto would have been one of the many firsts they will now experience.

    Their arrival in Toronto ended a five-year-long kidnapping ordeal that has captured international attention.

    But even before their plane touched down, questions already had been raised.

    What were the exact circumstances of their rescue?

    How will these children cope?

    Why did the couple go backpacking in Afghanistan in the first place?

    Friday night, Boyle told journalists he was there to help “the most neglected minority group in the world, those ordinary villagers who live deep inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.”

    Earlier Friday, Coleman’s father, Jim, told ABC News that he was angry with his son-in-law: “Taking your pregnant wife to a very dangerous place, to me, and the kind of person I am, is unconscionable.”

    Coleman, 31, and Boyle, 34, were travelling across Central Asia when they crossed into Afghanistan in October 2012 and were kidnapped. Their families did not know Afghanistan was part of their itinerary.

    The powerful Taliban-linked Haqqani network held them captive until Wednesday’s dramatic rescue by Pakistani forces, which was reportedly based on intelligence provided by the U.S. All three of their children, boys aged 4 and 2, and an infant daughter, were born in captivity.

    Boyle spoke to the Star Thursday from a guesthouse in Islamabad and again briefly at the airport Friday night. He said his family was “psychologically and physically shattered,” but they were looking forward to “restarting.”

    Read more:‘We’re looking forward to a new lease on life,’ Joshua Boyle tells the Star after five-year kidnapping nightmare

    But if the Boyle and Coleman story follows the narrative of other hostage cases, then moving on means looking back, and public celebrations about their freedom will quickly turn to recriminations about their character.

    An eight-part Star investigation, titled Held Hostage, found that hostages are either hailed as heroes, derided as foolish, or worse.

    And rescues are always political, while determining the facts about them is always difficult.

    The most detailed account so far of what happened Wednesday in Pakistan, near the border of Afghanistan, comes from Boyle earlier this week.

    He told his parents in a Thursday morning phone call that he was in the trunk of the car with his wife and children when shooting began.

    He said he was hit by shrapnel and five of the kidnappers were killed. The last words he said he heard his captors yell were: “kill the hostages.”

    Later Thursday, when speaking with the Star, he said some of the captors fled and he was desperate to help investigators find them so they could face justice.

    *

    Boyle and Coleman will have quite a story to tell.

    But so do their relatives — stories that include the years of negotiations that moved from Ottawa to Washington and New York to Doha, Kabul, Islamabad and a few places in between.

    Linda and Patrick Boyle say they have met people over the last five years they never thought they would now have on speed dial.

    Just this year Ambassador Omar Zakhilwal, the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, became an important member of an unofficial team of advisers, which included diplomats, security consultants, government officials, journalists and other professions more difficult to categorize.

    Zakhilwal, who is also a Canadian citizen, reached out to the Boyles after watching a December “proof-of-life” video that showed their grandsons for the first time while Joshua and Caitlan pleaded for release.

    “I was surprised that women and children were held hostage for so many years and I had not even heard about it,” Zakhilwal told the Star. “I wanted to help with their release if I could, or if not, at least better treatment of them.” On his visits back to Canada, he met with the Boyles to discuss what could be done.

    In January, back in Pakistan, he quickly helped get letters and videos from the Boyles and Colemans to the kidnappers. In reply, Coleman and Boyle sent a video in which Coleman says it will be a “miracle” if her family is freed and Boyle praises the speed with which the letter was delivered. Whoever this “Zakhilwal” is, Boyle said, he puts Canada Post to shame.

    Boyle’s parents believed at that time there could be a miracle, clinging to a New York Times report that suggested a rescue could be former U.S. president Barack Obama’s parting act.

    It was under Obama that U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release was negotiated with the Haqqanis; a politically unpopular deal that set Taliban detainees from Guantanamo free, in exchange for a soldier who had deserted his post.

    Donald Trump, on the other hand, had called Bergdahl “a dirty rotten traitor” on the campaign trail, falsely claiming “six young beautiful people were killed trying to find him.” He even lamented the “old days” and pretended to fire a gun twice. “Bing bong,” he said.

    As the inauguration neared, officials from Global Affairs Canada and the RCMP flew to Qatar — always a big player in hostage negotiations — then on to Kabul.

    Read more:Why the rescue of the Boyle-Coleman family is no cure for the troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship

    Then on Jan. 20, Trump became the 45th president. And there was no news.

    “We’re just hanging on,” Patrick Boyle told me when we met a few weeks later. “It’s so hard when you get your hopes up.”

    “We had never felt closer to getting them home. And we’ve never been more scared of losing them.”

    Flash forward to Friday and Trump heralding their rescue as a sign of Pakistan’s new respect for America.

    “I have openly said Pakistan took tremendous advantage of our country for many years, but we’re starting to have a real relationship with Pakistan and they’re starting to respect us as a nation again and so are other nations,” he said.

    Details beyond what Boyle has said about the rescue are slowly emerging in media reports — although some are conflicting and most are from unnamed sources.

    There was much speculation Friday as well about reports that Boyle had refused to board a U.S. flight once freed. Boyle’s father said he believed his son was fearful of getting on a flight that was bound for the U.S. base at Bagram.

    But Boyle appeared Friday to dispute the claim that he turned down any transportation.

    “I assure you I have never refused to board any mode of transportation that would bring me closer to home, closer to Canada and back with my family,” he said.


    Joshua Boyle lashes out at kidnappers after returning to CanadaJoshua Boyle lashes out at kidnappers after returning to CanadaJoshua Boyle lashes out at kidnappers after returning to CanadaJoshua Boyle lashes out at kidnappers after returning to Canada

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