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Finance Minister Toews suggests 2020-21 budget year wasn't as bad as it seemed. It was – CBC.ca

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This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years.


Alberta might be sweltering through a brutally hot and blindingly sunny week but there’s a cloud hanging over the provincial government that keeps raining on Premier Jason Kenney’s parade.

We got a good look at the ominous spectre Wednesday morning when Finance Minister Travis Toews released the province’s final fiscal report on the 2020-21 budget.

This was the overly optimistic budget the government unveiled at the end of February last year that predicted solid economic growth, higher employment and a balanced budget by 2023. It was unrealistic even by pre-pandemic standards. 

This was the budget that forecast a $7-billion deficit and $88-billion accumulated debt – but also predicted rosy economic growth in 2020 that would help the government to wipe out the annual deficit in a few years and start to pay down the debt.

Well, according to the final accounting, that deficit turned out to be almost $17 billion and the debt hit $93 billion. Plans to balance the budget were tossed out the window.

The 2020-21 fiscal year will go down as the worst in Alberta history, so far.

Of course, the pandemic was responsible for shredding the Alberta economy, at one point helping drive oil prices into negative territory and forcing the government to spend $5-billion on various pandemic safety nets for individuals and businesses.

However, the government added to the fiscal wreckage by reducing revenue thanks to fast tracking a multi-billion corporate tax cut and increasing spending by losing $1.3 billion on the Keystone XL pipeline gamble.

The government would dearly love to put 2020 behind it or at least manipulate the miserable numbers to its advantage.

And that process started Wednesday with a fiscal sleight of hand by Toews.

Instead of comparing the final 2020-21 budget numbers to last year’s original budget numbers — as is the normal measurement — Toews is comparing the final numbers to those in a third-quarter budget update last November.

Those November numbers projected a $20-billion deficit and almost $100 billion in debt.

But by slyly using those dismal figures as his baseline, Toews can say the budget actually ended up better than expected.

Here’s how it works.

The original budget deficit of $7-billion, for example, ended up being $17 billion, an increase of $10 billion.

However, by using that $20-billion deficit number forecast in November’s update as his baseline, Toews can say the final $17-billion deficit number is actually good news because it’s a $3-billion drop.

That allowed the government to issue a news release Wednesday touting a “smaller deficit” than forecast.

The numbers are undergoing such deep manipulation under Toews, the final 2020-21 budget document should have been issued with massage oil.

Predictably, Toews also tried to blur the past by focusing on a more rosy future bolstered by a steep rise in oil prices and by strong economic growth anticipated to lead the country.

“Last year was very difficult for many Albertans, but the province is emerging stronger than expected,” said Toews.

But it’s all relative.

This year’s budget numbers are as troubling in some ways as last year’s. The 2021-22 budget forecast a $20-billion deficit and $110-billion debt. Those numbers will likely drop thanks to a recovering economy but they have created a nightmare for Kenney and the UCP government that promised Albertans a balanced budget in their first term.

Another awkward bit of fiscal reality for Kenney is just how much the federal Liberal government did to help Alberta deal with the pandemic.

Not only did Ottawa deliver $10.5 billion in direct transfers to the Alberta treasury last year, it sent an estimated $23 billion to individual Albertans and businesses via programs such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy.

That might be good news for Alberta but it’s not good political news for the Alberta government that is cranking up the anti-Ottawa rhetoric in advance of the provincial referendum this fall against the federal equalization program.

Kenney wants to get Albertans riled up at the federal government instead of being chronically riled up at him.

And perhaps he can deflect attention away from the fact that even with higher oil prices, Alberta’s fiscal picture is so dismal that Albertans are still facing the “fiscal reckoning” that Kenney kept warning them about last year.

The reckoning has apparently been postponed for now. Toews sidestepped questions about it during a news conference on Wednesday.

It’s not something he wants to discuss now, not while he’s trying to paint an optimistic picture of Alberta’s future that isn’t all in red ink.

Interestingly, he did suggest once again the government will be looking at its revenue options in the next few years. Translation: higher taxes.

Not that Toews would dare be that blunt but introducing tax hikes, even going as far as implementing a provincial sales tax, is something the government will have to consider if it truly wants a sustainable budget.

Toews wants to convince Albertans that better days are ahead — and no doubt they are if the pandemic is truly beaten – but the province’s precarious fiscal situation is a cloud that hovers over Alberta today with a “fiscal reckoning” storm cloud awaiting just over the horizon.

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What you need to know about COVID-19 in Ottawa on Thursday, July 22 – CBC.ca

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Recent developments:

  • Ottawa reported nine more COVID-19 cases on Thursday.
  • Ontario reported 185 new cases of COVID-19, the most on a single day in two weeks.
  • Does your doctor or dentist have to tell you if they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19? Technically, no.
  • Escapade festival holds pop-up clinic to vaccinate concertgoers before show.
  • Volunteers share how it feels to administer 200,000 doses.
  • State of emergency has ended in Ottawa.

What’s the latest?

Ottawa Public Health reported nine more cases of COVID-19 Thursday, and no new deaths, but key indicators are on the rise.

Thursday’s provincial case count is up somewhat from one week ago when the province logged 143 further infections.

Some health-care workers may choose not to tell their patients their vaccine status because they value their privacy or have a medical condition that’s preventing them from getting vaccinated, and they don’t want to face stigma, a bioethicist told CBC.

Escapade Music Festival is holding a pop-up vaccine clinic this weekend with Ottawa Public Health, to make sure its concertgoers will be fully protected before attending its September event.

A team of volunteers shared their experiences administering 200,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Horticulture building at Lansdowne as the clinic closed this week.

After nearly sixteen months, the municipal state of emergency in the City of Ottawa has lifted as of 12:01 a.m. today.

WATCH | ‘It’s been wonderful’: Retired nurse reflects on going back to work at vaccination clinic:

Karen Wallace-McFaul, a retired nurse, says coming back to work at a vaccination clinic has “filled a void” by allowing her to help with the fight against COVID-19. 1:04

How many cases are there?

As of Thursday, 27,761 Ottawa residents have tested positive for COVID-19. There are 34 known active cases, 27,134 cases considered resolved, and 593 cases where people have died.

Public health officials have reported more than 50,300 COVID-19 cases across eastern Ontario and western Quebec, including more than 49,200 resolved cases.

Elsewhere in eastern Ontario, 197 people have died. In western Quebec, the death toll is 215.

Akwesasne has had nearly 700 residents test positive and 10 deaths between its northern and southern sections.

Kitigan Zibi has had 34 cases and one death. Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory has had 11, with one death. Pikwakanagan hasn’t had any.

CBC Ottawa is profiling those who’ve died of COVID-19. If you’d like to share your loved one’s story, please get in touch.

What are the rules?

Eastern Ontario:

Ontario is in Step 3 of its reopening plan.

The latest step allows for indoor dining, with capacity limits based on everyone being able to keep an acceptable distance.

Gyms, movie theatres and museums are able to reach a capacity of 50 per cent inside.

Larger general gathering limits have risen to 25 people inside and 100 people outside. Those limits are even higher for organized events, leading to the resumption of summer festivals and professional sports.

A detailed plan for the next school year is in the works, according to the education minister.

Ottawa pharmacy owner Jordan Clark says that as the rules around travel continue to loosen, he’s seeing more and more customers requiring COVID-19 tests. (Olivier Plante/CBC)

Western Quebec

Western Quebec is now under green zone restrictions, the lowest on the province’s four-colour scale. Its distancing length is now one metre.

Ten people are allowed to gather inside private residences and 20 people outdoors — which increases to 50 if playing sports. Organized games are permitted outdoors again and gyms are open.

People can eat both indoors and outdoors at restaurants and bars.

Personal care services and non-essential businesses can open. As many as 3,500 people can gather in a large theatre or arena and at outdoor festivals.

What can I do?

The novel coronavirus primarily spreads through droplets that can hang in the air.

People can be contagious without symptoms, even after getting a vaccine. Coronavirus variants of concern are more contagious and are established.

This means it is important to take precautions now and in the future like staying home while sick — and getting help with costs if needed —  keeping hands and surfaces clean and maintaining distance from anyone you don’t live with, even with a mask on.

Vaccines curb the spread of all types of the coronavirus.

WATCH | What the end of the pandemic could look like:

As Canada sees declining COVID-19 case counts and rising vaccination rates, experts say the pandemic could end either with changes to the virus or enough immunity in the population. 2:17

Masks, preferably ones that fit snugly and have three layers, are mandatory in indoor public settings in Ontario and Quebec and recommended in crowded outdoor areas.

There’s federal guidance for what vaccinated people can do in different situations.

Fully vaccinated Canadians and permanent residents can now skip the 14-day quarantine. People have to show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test to enter Canada by land without a fine.

The federal government has announced fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents living there would be able to visit Canada without having to quarantine starting Aug. 9, while tourists from all other countries would be allowed as of Sept. 7.

Health Canada recommends older adults and people with underlying medical conditions get help with errands.

Anyone with COVID-19 symptoms should self-isolate, as should those who’ve been ordered to do so by their public health unit. The length of self-isolation varies in Quebec and Ontario.

Vaccines

Four COVID-19 vaccines have been deemed safe and approved in Canada. Three are in use, with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine the only one approved for children aged 12 to 17.

Canada’s task force says people can wait up to 16 weeks between doses. There are factors pushing provinces to drastically speed up that timeline, including supply and the more infectious delta variant.

That same task force says it’s safe and effective to mix first and second doses.

There is evidence giving a second dose of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine offers better protection for people who got a first AstraZeneca-Oxford shot. Both Ontario and Quebec are giving people who got a first AstraZeneca dose the option to get a second of the same kind.

More than 2.8 million doses have been given out in the Ottawa-Gatineau region since mid-December, including more than 1.36 million in Ottawa and more than 450,000 in western Quebec.

Eastern Ontario

Ontario is vaccinating anyone age 12 or older.

People can look for provincial appointments opening up online or over the phone at 1-833-943-3900. Pharmacies continue to offer vaccines through their own booking systems, as do some family doctors.

Local health units have flexibility in the larger framework, including around booking, so check their websites for details. They offer standby lists for doses on short notice and recently, more walk-in options.

Campaigns are shifting to target those who are eligible to get their a second shot sooner or who haven’t yet got their first. Some mass clinics have closed.

Vaccine bookings depend on the supply being sent to health units, which generally aren’t reporting the supply problems of previous months.

Western Quebec

Quebec is vaccinating anyone 12 and older. Its goal is to provide second doses four weeks after the first.

People who qualify can make an appointment online or over the phone or visit one of the province’s permanent and mobile walk-in clinics.

People may have to show proof of being fully vaccinated to access certain services if there is an autumn surge of cases.

Symptoms and testing

COVID-19 can range from a cold-like illness to a severe lung infection, with common symptoms including fever, a cough, vomiting and loss of taste or smell. Recently, a runny nose and headache have become more common.

Children tend to have an upset stomach and/or a rash.

If you have severe symptoms, call 911.

Mental health can also be affected by the pandemic, and resources are available to help.

In eastern Ontario:

Anyone seeking a test should make an appointment. Check with your health unit for clinic locations and hours.

Ontario recommends only getting tested if you fit certain criteria, such as having symptoms, exposure or a certain job.

Staff, caregivers and visitors who have been fully-immunized and show no symptoms of the coronavirus no longer need to be tested before entering a long-term care facility.

People without symptoms but who are part of the province’s targeted testing strategy can make an appointment at select pharmacies. Rapid tests are available in some places.

Travellers who need a test have a few more local options to pay for one.

In western Quebec:

Tests are strongly recommended for people with symptoms and their contacts.

People can make an appointment and check wait times online. Some walk-in testing is available.

Call 1-877-644-4545 with questions, including if walk-in testing is available nearby.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis:

First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, or someone travelling to work in a remote Indigenous community, are eligible for a test in Ontario.

Akwesasne has COVID-19 vaccine clinics, with information online or at 613-575-2341. Anyone in Tyendinaga who’s interested in a test can call 613-967-3603 and should watch the website for dedicated vaccine clinics.

Inuit in Ottawa can call the Akausivik Inuit Family Health Team at 613-740-0999 for service, including testing and vaccines, in Inuktitut or English on weekdays.

The last day for Ottawa’s Indigenous vaccination clinic is July 29.

For more information

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Wildfires are causing the price of lumber to spike again – CBC.ca

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The price of lumber rose at its fastest pace in more than a year on Thursday, after timber companies warned that wildfires in Western Canada are hurting their business.

The price of a lumber futures contract jumped by more than 10 per cent, triggering circuit breakers designed to halt trading. Late in the day on Thursday, a contract for 1,000 board-feet of lumber was going for $647 US, up by more than $60 from the previous day’s close.

Prices are spiking because lumber companies in B.C. and elsewhere are scaling back operations because of wildfires.

Vancouver-based Canfor said it will produce about 115 million fewer board-feet of product this quarter because wildfires have damaged the rail network on which it depends. CN lost the use of at least one rail bridge on its line into Vancouver, and CP is facing similar bottlenecks.

“Canadian rails will … face pressure from wildfires in British Columbia as volumes may take several more weeks to fully recover,” Bloomberg Intelligence railway analyst Adam Roszkowski said in a note to clients on Thursday.

That means it’s harder to move just about anything to market, so Canfor is going to take its foot off the gas.

Canfor’s anticipated production drop of 115 million board-feet of wood is less than 1 per cent of what the industry normally cranks out every quarter. But Bank of Montreal analyst Mark Wilde said he expects more companies will also have to reduce production in the next little while.

“We expect more announcements of reduced shifts/hours over the next two to three weeks,” he said in a note to clients Thursday.

Lumber boom

Like many industries, the lumber business slowed down at the start of the pandemic as workers were sent home and facilities idled. But demand for lumber unexpectedly exploded, mainly due to booming demand for home renovations.

At one point in May, the price of lumber hit an all-time high of more than $1,600 US per 1,000 board-feet or about five times what it was at the start of the pandemic. Builders reported that higher lumber prices were adding as much as $30,000 to the cost of constructing a standard home and lumber yards across the country were selling out.

WATCH | Why high lumber prices are going to make everything more expensive:

The pandemic has disrupted supply chains so much that the price of lumber has gone through the roof. 1:58

But things changed in a hurry. Those astronomical prices caused demand to crater once again, leading to inventory piling up at lumber yards as people shelved their do-it-yourself construction plans. Big box retailers in the U.S. such as Home Depot have reported that demand for lumber is down by almost half since May.

After feverish demand a few months ago, lumber is starting to pile up as consumers balked at astronomical prices. (Robert Short/CBC)

“After a year of chasing inventory, the market is now struggling with bulging inventories at many mills in the U.S. and Canada,” Wilde said.

The see-saw went so far in the other direction that Wilde said a number of B.C. sawmills were likely recently selling lumber for less than the cost of production.

“At those levels, some B.C. mills may need a snorkel,” he said of when the price dipped as low as $435 US. “It would be crazy to simply return all that cash to the market by overproducing during a weak market.”

TD analyst Sean Steuart also thinks that more shutdowns in Western Canada’s lumber industry are coming.

“We believe that production curtailments in this region are inevitable, but they have been slow to arrive so far,” he said in a note to clients.

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Global outage affecting websites of airlines, banks, tech firms now fixed – Globalnews.ca

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Several airlines, banks and technology websites were coming back online on Thursday afternoon after a brief outage, the third such widespread incident noted in just a span of two months, raising alarms across social media.

Websites of Delta Air Lines, Costco Wholesale Corp , American Express and Home Depot were down, displaying domain name system (DNS) service errors.

Some Canadian companies also said that their websites and services were fully operational again after they experienced technical difficulties or outages this afternoon.

Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of Montreal and PC Financial all told customers on Twitter that their websites are back up after earlier informing people that they were aware of technical issues and working to resolve them.

Monitoring website Down Detector showed a sharp increase in reported technical difficulties on the three companies’ websites after 12 p.m. Eastern time, along with Bank of Nova Scotia and Air Canada.

Cloud services provider Akamai Technologies had given an alert on its “Edge DNS” service incident, noting a “partial outage” on its website.

Read more:
Massive internet outage hits websites including Reddit, Amazon

“We have implemented a fix for this issue, and based on current observations, the service is resuming normal operations,” it said later in a tweet.

Oracle Corp said it was monitoring the global issue related to a cloud-based DNS solution provider impacting access to many internet resources, including its own cloud services.


Click to play video: 'Rogers, Fido service outage impacting many Canadian customers'



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Rogers, Fido service outage impacting many Canadian customers


Rogers, Fido service outage impacting many Canadian customers – Apr 19, 2021

DNS is a service that translates readable domain names to machine readable IP addresses, connecting it to a server and delivering the requested page on the user’s phone or laptop.

In June, multiple outages hit social media, government and news websites across the globe, with some reports pointing to a glitch at U.S.-based cloud computing service providers.

About 3,500 users reported issues with Airbnb’s website, while nearly 1,500 Home Depot users reported problems, according to outage tracking website Downdetector.

— With files from The Canadian Press 

© 2021 Reuters

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