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Challenges of finding affordable housing in the North

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Aurora Rose Gellenbeck has been living out of a hotel in Yellowknife for the past month because she hasn’t been able to find anywhere suitable to rent.

She’s working two jobs but said she has also had to borrow from family to pay $6,000 to stay in a penthouse suite, the only room available.

“I’m just beside myself,” she said. “That could have been months of rent at an apartment.”

Finding an affordable place to live in the territories, where housing has long been a challenge, is getting even harder, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation suggested in a report released in December.

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In Yellowknife, the report said, the growing senior population, urbanization and strong labour market have pressured the housing supply. Rents have been ticking up, while vacancy rates fell to about two per cent in 2021, and 20 per cent of renters were unable to afford their homes.

Kim Hopland and her husband Brad also know the challenge of finding a place in parts of the North. It’s one of the biggest reasons they moved to Yellowknife from Whitehorse a few months ago.

Property prices in Whitehorse were “out of this world,” Hopland said, and it was difficult to find rentals that would allow pets. While they eventually found a place to live, she said there were few options if their landlord decided to sell.

“The insecurity of knowing that you’re one other person’s decision away from homelessness was more than I could stand,” she said.

In Whitehorse, the CMHC report said, a growing population and improving labour market are driving up demand, while the number of rental units has not significantly changed.

The median monthly rent for an apartment in a building with three or more units was 7.4 per cent higher in April 2022 than the previous year, while the vacancy rate was below one per cent. The average price of a single-detached home in Whitehorse reached a record high in the second quarter of 2022, up nearly seven per cent from the same period in 2021.

The Hoplands decided to buy in Yellowknife, where the housing market was only slightly better than in Whitehorse. Average monthly payments for mortgages in Yellowknife reached an all-time high in the second quarter of 2022, the CMHC report said.

“We just knew we weren’t going to find a place to rent so we had to buy something,” she said. “It was really hard … we put offers in on multiple places and were bid right out of it.”

She said they bid on their home sight unseen and believes they overpaid due to the amount of work the property has needed.

In Iqaluit, the rental vacancy rate excluding social housing was below one per cent in 2021, the fourth consecutive year of extremely low rates. The average price of a single-detached home reached a historical high in 2021, and there were significant price increases for row housing and rentals.

Northern residents who do find housing can face further challenges.

The territories have higher rates of households that don’t meet adequacy, accessibility or affordability standards than elsewhere in Canada, with Nunavut three times the national average. Issues such as overcrowding, mould and disrepair are common.

Lisa Thurber is working to develop a tenant’s association to better advocate for renters facing housing challenges in N.W.T., and to hold landlords and the territory’s housing corporation accountable.

She said it’s particularly needed as many people live in public housing and added the Northview Canadian High Yield Residential Fund is the biggest private landlord in Yellowknife.

Yellowknife residents and politicians have publicly raised concerns in recent years about ongoing issues in some Northview units, such as insect infestations and broken windows. In June, one tenant was awarded more than $2,300 after waiting nearly a year and a half for a water leak and resulting damage to be addressed.

“These tenants need a voice,” Thurber said.

Northview did not respond to a request for comment.

While the territory has a rental office, its latest annual report said 94 per cent of applications are filed by landlords while tenants rarely follow through with complaints due in part to the amount of work required.

Thurber said the association will help tenants work together to advocate for their rights using tools such as rent strike bargaining and will explore broader solutions such as rent caps and legislation.

The Yukon government introduced a rent cap in May 2021, tying residential rent increases to territorial inflation, under a confidence and supply agreement between the territorial Liberals and New Democrats. Other supports in the territories include rental subsidies and funding to help people become homeowners.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2023.

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Will winter end soon? Canadian groundhogs split on spring calls

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Groundhog Day didn’t go to script in Canada this year: one died before making a prediction, while others were divided over whether spring will come early this year.

Quebec’s Fred la Marmotte died before he was able to reveal his prediction Thursday, with volunteer children stepping in to take its place.

The organizer of the event, Roberto Blondin, said the famed groundhog had no vital signs when he went to wake it Wednesday night. Fred la Marmotte likely died during hibernation, Blondin said. Fred was honoured with a plush animal toy by organizers.

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The group of children predicted six more weeks of winter, joining the calls from other groundhogs across Canada – except for three.

Folklore states that if a groundhog sees its shadow on Groundhog Day, winter will drag on. If it doesn’t spot its shadow, spring-like weather arrive soon.

Ontario’s Wiarton Willie called for an early spring Thursday morning, as did Alberta’s Blazac Billy. Organizers chanted “Billy, Billy, Billy” to get Billy – a mascot – out of his burrow. In British Columbia, stuffed groundhog Okanagan Okie also called for an early spring.

Their furry counterpart in Nova Scotia, Shubenacadie Sam, saw her shadow as she emerged from a snow-covered enclosure at a wildlife park north of Halifax. In Manitoba, the stuffed groundhog Merv saw his shadow, as did Punxsutawney Phil in the United States.

 

Groundhog Day isn’t just for groundhogs

In Nova Scotia, Lucy the Lobster crawled out of the ocean at Cape Sable Island Causeway at 8 a.m. local time, and saw her shadow, organizers said.

In a playful, peer-reviewed study published by the American Meteorological Society, researchers at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., found groundhogs are “beyond a shadow of a doubt” no better at predicting spring’s arrival than flipping a coin.

— with files from Global News’ Alex Cooke, Brayden Jagger Haines and The Canadian Press

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Migrant worker secret menus in Canada expose exploitation | CTV News – CTV News Toronto

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Hundreds of customers who scan QR codes for restaurant menus across Canada are being surprised by secret menus instead, revealing the hidden costs behind the food they eat.

These secret menus were designed and distributed by Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, a national organization headquartered in Toronto, aiming to expose exploitative working conditions: low wages, unsafe labour, poor housing, family separation, and long days of backbreaking labour.

The organization plastered these QR codes in place of menus in hundreds of restaurants across the country to communicate a single plea – migrant workers need permanent resident status.

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“Because the current laws don’t protect our health, safety, and working status, those of us who speak up are ignored and many others decide to stay silent in fear of deportation and losing their livelihood,” Robert, a Jamaican migrant greenhouse worker, said.

Each menu item reveals a story about exploitation. The “To-Die-For Sweet Potato Fries” tells the tale of a potato harvester from Jamaica named Garvin Yapp who was killed in a farming accident in Norfolk County, Ont. last summer. Another, the “Bitter Strawberry Tart,” aims to spotlight the 18-hour days some migrant workers spend on their hands and knees harvesting strawberries.

Every year, more than 60,000 seasonal agricultural workers come to Canada from places such as Mexico, Jamaica, and other Caribbean countries. Between January 2020 and 2021, nine migrant agricultural workers died in Ontario.

“We are inviting [the public] to be a part of the struggle,” Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, told CTV News Toronto.

Migrant workers are purposely featuring their stories as food costs rise across the country alongside the profits of big box grocery store owners. Hussan says these profits are made on the backs of migrant workers.

“It’s important to know migrant farm workers are literally tied to their employers,” he added, noting that migrants can’t protect themselves because they don’t have permanent resident status. “What that means is if a worker speaks out about abuse, they become homeless.”

Migrant workers’ stories are featured on secret menus (Migrant Workers Alliance for Change).When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau outlined Canada’s immigration policy priorities in Dec. 2021, he said his government would expand pathways to permanent resident status for temporary foreign workers.

“Thirteen months later, no action has happened. With parliament returning, now is the time,” Hussan said.

At the bottom of the secret menu, migrant workers are asking restaurant patrons to sign a petition, pleading, “Tell PM Trudeau your food should come with fair working conditions.”

“It’s crucial to understand that if you eat in this country … you are implicated in this food chain,” Hussan said. “Each and every one of us is implicated.” 

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Canada sperm donation restrictions for gay men challenged

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A gay man is taking the federal government to court, challenging the constitutionality of a policy restricting gay and bisexual men from donating to sperm banks in Canada, CTV News has learned.

“[It’s] like you’re undesirable because of your gayness as a donor … It feels like such an arbitrary rule,” said Aziz M, the man who is pushing to change the rules. Out of concern for his privacy, CTV News has agreed not to use his full name.

Currently, a Health Canada directive prohibits gay and bisexual men from donating sperm to a sperm bank unless they’ve been abstinent for three months or are donating to someone they know.

For example, it stops any gay man who is sexually active from donating, even if they are in a long-term monogamous relationship.

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Under the “Safety of Sperm and Ova Regulation,” sperm banks operating in Canada must deem these prospective donors “unsuitable,” despite all donations being subject to screening, testing and a six-month quarantine before they can be used.

“Why I decided to take this to court is because of that feeling of discrimination,” said Aziz.

Aziz and his lawyers are challenging the directive—filed with the Superior Court of Ontario in January—on the basis that it violates the right to equality in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This case is seeking to strike out the provision in the policy that specifically applies to men who have sex with men, according to the application commencing litigation.

The case has caught the attention and has the financial backing of Canada’s Court Challenges Program, an independent organization that supports individuals bringing cases related to constitutional rights that are of national significance.

The filing alleges that the current policy “perpetuates stereotypical attitudes and prejudices against gay and bisexual men, including false assumptions about their health, their sexual practices, and their worthiness to participate in child conception.”

While the directive does not mention transgender or non-binary donors, the policy also applies to individuals who may not identify as male but would be categorized as men under the directive.

In an interview with CTV News, Gregory Ko, co-council on the case, said the policy goes to the heart of the many barriers that exists for LGBTQ2S+ Canadians looking to have children.

“It is not uncommon for a lot of gay and lesbian couples to rely on sperm donors within the community, and this directive explicitly puts a barrier, in addition to all the other barriers that exist for queer families, in having children,” Ko said.

MAN FIGHTING POLICY HAS DONATED BEFORE

Aziz M., the man who is taking the federal government to court. Out of concern for his privacy, CTV News has agreed not to use his full name.

In Canada, there are two streams for sperm donation. One involves sperm donations made to a sperm bank for general use, which is considered the “regular process.”

The other is known as the “direct donation process” and involves sperm donations between a donor to a recipient who are known to one another. In these cases, sexually active gay and bisexual men can donate so long as the recipient signs a waiver.

This case focuses on the first stream.

Aziz is uniquely positioned in bringing this constitutional challenge, as prior to coming out as a gay man, he donated to a sperm bank in Toronto several times between 2014 and 2015 without issue.

After undergoing the rigorous screening and testing that donors in Canada are subject to under the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, which includes pre- and post-donation infectious disease testing, his sperm was made available to the public.

As a result, a lesbian couple was able to have a daughter, whose life Aziz now plays a role in.

“We go out [to] museums and parks, and we play. There’s a lot of joy, a lot of meaning in it,” he said. “We’re kind of navigating this … family-like relationship, and what do we call each other?”

Because he found this past donation a meaningful experience, he encouraged his friends to donate, only to realize that their donations wouldn’t be accepted.

“It made them feel bad, and it made me feel embarrassed as well,” he said.

Aziz said his motivation in bringing this case is that he wants to be able to donate again, a desire compounded by his awareness of this country’s donor shortage.

“I would be really happy and honoured if this makes things move along and … makes people recognize the equality between … everybody, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation,” he said.

MINISTER HAS POWER TO CHANGE: LAWYER

Gregory Ko, co-council on the case and partner with Kastner Lam LLP. (CTV News)

The lawsuit argues that the federal health minister has the power to issue a directive to change the policy as it applies to men who have sex with men, just as the Liberal government did a few years ago.

The government brought forward the current policy in 2019—requiring gay and bisexual men to observe a three-month deferral period before being able to donate—and it came into effect in February 2020.

This change was a marked update from what had been a lifetime ban dating back decades stemming from concerns over HIV transmission.

“Our view is that the minister of health has discretion to amend this directive. It is a directive that comes from the minister’s office and from the ministry of health itself. And so, barring some internal processes, our view is that this is a policy that can be amended swiftly,” Ko said.

Ko, who is a partner at law firm Kastner Lam LLP and previously was involved in a case challenging the now-eliminated federal blood ban, says the sperm donation policy echoes the language used by Health Canada that long prohibited men who have sex with men from donating blood.

After years of successive updates, in April 2022 Health Canada approved the Canadian Blood Services submission to eradicate what was then a three-month deferral period. This allowed the national blood donation organization to begin using a behaviour-based screening system for all donors, where risk factors are screened on an individual basis, regardless of gender or sexuality.

This new policy came into effect across most of the country in September 2022, and Hema-Quebec followed suit in December 2022.

‘INDEFENSIBLE BASED ON THE STATE OF THE SCIENCE’

What is different about sperm donation, Ko says, is that there is no third party, such as Canadian Blood Services, involved that the federal government could point to and say that it has limited authority to rescind the policy or intervene. That was an approach the Liberals took during the blood donation saga.

“We sincerely believe that the courts will agree that this is a clear breach of the right to equality and is an indefensible based on the state of the science,” Ko said.

President of the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society Dr. Sony Sierra says that while the risk of transmission is “very small” given the screening and universal precautions in place, a risk still exists.

“It can be taken as stigmatizing. It is, but we have to also understand that our concern also involves the intended recipient, and therefore that intended recipient needs to be cared for and counselled regarding all risk. And that’s our intention in practicing in accordance with these guidelines,” Sierra said. “As our science improves with respect to transmission and actual risk as opposed to theoretical risk, I would hope that those guidelines become even more inclusive.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government faced considerable pressure from the LGBTQ2S+ community after pledging for years to end the blood ban. When it was lifted, he cheered the end of what he said was a “discriminatory and wrong” policy.

The New Democrats say the federal government has failed to follow up on the lifting of the blood ban with similar changes to the regulations for sperm donation.

“There’s never been any science behind the ban on gay men donating sperm, none whatsoever … People tell me they’re working on it, but they’ve been telling me they’ve been working on this for over five years,” said NDP MP Randall Garrison, the party’s critic for justice and LGBTQ2S+ rights.

“It’s this case in the queer community that we’ve always had to fight for our rights. We’ve never had anything handed to us on a platter,” Garrison said. “It’s just disappointing at this day and age that the government doesn’t recognize their need to act.”

Asked to respond to the court challenge, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos declined to comment. Justice Minister David Lametti’s office directed CTV News to the justice department, which directed questions to Health Canada.

In a statement to CTV News, the federal health agency said that it is committed to non-discriminatory policies, pointing to the direct donation process it said was ” specifically created” with the LGTBQ2S+ community in mind.

Tammy Jarbeau, senior media relations adviser for Health Canada, told CTV News that the purpose of the restrictions are to “reduce the risks to human health and safety,” and that that the current sperm donor screening criteria was informed by the available scientific and epidemiological data, as well as national standards.

Health Canada said it will look to ensure the regulations continue to reflect the latest advances in science and technology, and given the recent changes to the screening criteria for blood donors, it “will explore whether similar updates may be appropriate” in the context of sperm donation.

“Health Canada is aware that an application has been filed… and is currently reviewing the application,” said Jarbeau, adding that the agency’s response will “be provided in the course of the litigation. We cannot comment further at this time.”

With files from CTV National News producer Rachel Hanes 

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