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In The News for Dec. 15 : Canada’s banking regulator to set mortgage stress test

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The Bank of Canada has hiked its key interest rate seven consecutive times since March, bringing it to 4.25 per cent – the highest rate since January 2008.

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Before the central bank’s aggressive rate hike cycle, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI) said on Dec. 17, 2021 that the minimum qualifying rate for uninsured mortgages would remain the greater of the mortgage contract rate plus two percentage points or 5.25 per cent.

At the time, OSFI said in an environment characterized by increased household debt and low interest rates, it is essential that lenders test borrowers to ensure that they can pay their debts under more adverse conditions.

Last week, OSFI Superintendent Peter Routledge responded to calls to lower or eliminate the minimum qualifying rate, saying the regulator sees great risk in speculating on the mortgage rate cycle and does not consider the stress test to be a tool to manage the demand for housing.

Also this …

Efforts by Canada’s financial intelligence agency over the last three years uncovered activity related to homegrown terrorism, the bankrolling of international terrorist groups and attempts by Canadians to take part in extremism abroad.

Those are the themes that emerge from the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada’s review of its intelligence disclosures to police and security agencies from January 2019 to October 2022 related to the funding of terrorist activity.

The federal agency, known as Fintrac, is drawing on the analysis to help banks and others that handle large sums to better spot shady transactions linked to terrorism.

Fintrac says in a newly published operational alert that transaction details might include references to words, phrases or numbers linked to violent extremist groups or symbols.

The centre zeroes in on cash linked to terrorism, money laundering and other crimes by sifting through data from banks, insurance companies, securities dealers, money service businesses, real estate brokers, casinos and others.

In turn, Fintrac discloses the intelligence to police and security partners.

What we are watching in the U.S. …

NEW YORK _ A report by environmental group Oceana has found that plastic waste from Amazon packages went up by 18 per cent last year, but Amazon says it has reduced its use of single-use plastic across its network.

According to the Oceana’s estimates, released Thursday, Amazon’s plastic waste jumped from 599 million pounds in 2020 to 709 million pounds last year _ an amount that can circle the planet more than 800 times in the form of air pillows, the group said.

For years, the advocacy organization has been pushing the company to release more data around its plastic footprint and commit to reducing any harmful environmental impacts that might stem from it. That idea was put up for a vote two times at Amazon’s annual shareholders meetings during the past two years. The last vote, held in May, got support from 48 per cent of shareholders.

But the e-commerce behemoth had resisted calls to release more data until Tuesday, when it disclosed in a blog post that it used 97,222 metric tons of single-use plastic last year to ship orders to customers. Amazon also said it was able to reduce the average weight of plastic in a shipment by over seven per cent but it did not disclose if its overall plastic footprint grew between 2020 and 2021, when it was seeing a boom in sales due to the pandemic.

“While we are making progress, we’re not satisfied,” the company said in the blog post. “We have work to do to continue to reduce packaging, particularly plastic packaging that’s harder to recycle, and we are undertaking a range of initiatives to do so.”

Matt Littlejohn, Oceana’s senior vice president for strategic initiatives, said it was good that Amazon released some data, but the figures it released don’t tell the whole story.

The company’s total data includes plastic used in shipments Amazon fulfils through its warehouses and other parts of its business, such as Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh. But it leaves out what’s used by third-party merchants who sell items on Amazon but don’t use the company’s fulfilment services.

Saige Kolpack, an Amazon spokesperson, said the company’s data reflect most of the plastic used to ship orders to customers because the “significant majority” of items shipped are fulfilled by Amazon. Kolpack declined to say how many of the nearly two million merchants who sell on Amazon use its fulfilment services.

The company has also said it offers incentives to get third-party sellers to ship items to customers in the manufacturer’s original packaging, instead of using additional packaging.

What we are watching in the rest of the world …

BEIJING _ A week after China eased some of the world’s strictest COVID-19 containment measures, uncertainty remains over the direction of the pandemic in the world’s most populous nation.

While there are no indications of the massive case surge some had feared, the government says it is now essentially impossible to get an accurate picture of the actual numbers nationwide.

In Beijing and elsewhere, pharmacies are running out of medications and testing kits and many hospital staff are staying home.

Downtown Beijing was largely empty on Thursday and those businesses and restaurants that remained open or had not cut back radically on operating hours saw few customers.

Some lines formed outside pharmacies and fever clinics _ the number of which has more than tripled in Beijing to over 300 despite government appeals for those with mild symptoms to recuperate at home without taxing health resources.

China’s “zero-COVID” policy of lockdowns, quarantines and mandatory testing was blamed for throttling the economy and creating massive societal stress, and the effect of the Dec. 7 relaxation of measures has yet to come into focus.

Elsewhere in the economy, the news has been mixed. The National Bureau of Statistics on Thursday said China’s value-added industrial output rose a modest 2.2 per cent year-on-year.

“The industrial output remained stable in November despite the short-term impact of the pandemic,” bureau official Tang Weiwei was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.

China’s urban unemployment rate rose slightly to 5.7 per cent in November, from 5.5 per cent the month before, the NBS said. China does not survey unemployment outside of major cities.

On this day in 1964 …

In 1964, the House of Commons voted 163-78 to adopt the red and white maple leaf design as Canada’s flag.

In entertainment …

LONDON _ Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, are expected to vent their grievances against the British monarchy on Thursday, when Netflix releases the final episodes of a series about the couple’s decision to step away from royal duties and make a new start in America.

After the first three instalments of “Harry & Meghan” focused on the British media’s coverage of the couple and the way it was influenced by racism, California-based streaming giant Netflix promoted the latest episodes with a trailer in which Harry alleges the couple were victims of “institutional gaslighting.”

“They were happy to lie to protect my brother,” Harry says in the trailer, referring to Prince William, the heir to the throne. “They were never willing to tell the truth to protect us.”

While it is unclear who “they” are, the trailer suggests a combination of the media and palace officials are the most likely alleged culprits. The quote is delivered over a shot of Buckingham Palace and video of William and Harry walking side-by-side during the funeral of their grandfather, Prince Philip, in April 2021.

The potentially explosive new episodes come at a crucial moment for the monarchy as King Charles tries to show that the institution remains alive and vibrant after the death of Queen Elizabeth, whose personal popularity damped criticism of the crown during her 70-year reign. Charles is making the case that the House of Windsor can help unite an increasingly diverse nation by personally meeting with representatives of the ethnic groups and faiths that make up modern Britain _ trying to show that whatever the allegations against him, the reality is different.

Pauline Maclaran, author of “Royal Fever: The British Monarchy in Consumer Culture,” said the royal family are likely to be awaiting the final three episodes with “bated breath” after the first three contained few direct attacks on the institution.

“It’s very provocative and looks like there’s kind of a war being declared,” she said ahead of the release. “But let’s wait and see.”

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MONTREAL _ The Yukon and federal governments have signed a new agreement to advance nature conservation and protection across the territory.

The governments announced the Canada-Yukon Nature Agreement on Wednesday at the COP15 global biodiversity talks in Montreal.

They say it’s the first of its kind in Canada.

The agreement aims to support Indigenous leadership in conservation and support recovery of at-risk species like the north mountain caribou and grizzly bears.

It has set a target to protect or conserve an additional six per cent of Yukon’s wilderness to reach 25 per cent by 2025.

The Canadian government has pledged to invest $20.6 million to implement the agreement.

“The Yukon is on the front lines of climate change and nature conservation. Our northern way of life depends on the land, and protection of the land is in our hands,” Yukon Liberal member of Parliament Brendan Hanley said in a statement. “The Canada-Yukon Nature Agreement marks a new chapter in the protection and conservation of the North and all the abundant life it supports.”

The territory says it has already conserved about 19 per cent of its area.

The federal government has committed to conserve 25 per cent of land and water across Canada by 2025, and 30 per cent by 2030.

“The Government of Canada is taking bold action to protect the natural environment that is our best ally in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss,” federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said in a statement. “Together with the Government of Yukon, we’re protecting more sensitive habitats, supporting the recovery of species at risk, and restoring ecosystems across the territory.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 15, 2022.

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Congressman wants Canada, U.S. to use video teleconferencing for Nexus interviews

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A New York congressman wants to add some Zoom to the sluggish effort to clear a bilateral backlog of Nexus trusted-traveller applications.

If passed, the “Make Nexus Work Act,” introduced by Democrat Rep. Brian Higgins, would require U.S. Customs and Border Protection to rely on video teleconferencing instead of in-person interviews.

Higgins says that thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, a 2021 pilot project showed the agency is already well-equipped to use remote interviews to handle Nexus renewals.

The Nexus enrolment process in Canada has been slowed to a crawl by a dispute between the two countries over what sort of legal powers and protections U.S. agents would have on Canadian soil.

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A new workaround, announced earlier this month, splits the joint interview process into two separate meetings — one with Canadian border officials, the other with their U.S. counterparts.

Air travellers bound for the U.S. from certain Canadian airports can make that second interview part of their travel plans, provided the first interview has already taken place.

Both agencies are also experimenting with a process that allows separate in-person interviews to take place on opposite sides of selected Canada-U.S. land entry points.

“The technology, training, and procedures are already in place,” Higgins said in a statement Monday after introducing the bill in the House of Representatives.

“Let’s expand the program to break down existing barriers and backlogs getting in the way of efficient cross-border travel.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2023.

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Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet set to retire after overseeing Vatican’s bishops’ office

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Marc Ouellet, the Quebec cardinal who oversaw the Vatican’s powerful bishops’ office and has been recently accused of sexual misconduct, is retiring.

Pope Francis on Monday named American-born Bishop Robert Francis Prevost, who has been ministering in Peru since the 1980s, to take over the Vatican’s Holy See office from the retiring Canadian.

At 78, Ouellet is three years past the normal retirement age and his successor has been the subject of rumours for months.

Ouellet was one of the few Vatican prefects Francis retained from the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI in a clear sign of trust.

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Earlier this month, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Quebec City confirmed it had received a second complaint of sexual misconduct made against Ouellet, who has denied the allegations against him.

The first allegation against the cardinal surfaced last summer in a lawsuit against the archdiocese of Quebec, in which a woman accused Ouellet of several incidents of sexual assault between 2008 and 2010.

The allegations have not been tested in court and Ouellet countersued the woman for defamation in Quebec Superior Court.

Ouellet’s successor, Prevost, will also head the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Latin America and is set to assume the office on April 12.

The Holy See office helps vet bishop nominations and also investigates allegations of abuse or negligence against bishops.

— With files from The Associated Press.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2023.

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Quebec calls for resignation of federal government’s anti-Islamophobia representative

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Quebec calls for resignation anti-Islamophobia representative

The Quebec government is calling for the resignation of the federal government’s special representative to combat Islamophobia.

Quebec Secularism Minister Jean-François Roberge says Ottawa should fire Amira Elghawaby immediately if she chooses not to resign.

The journalist and activist were appointed to the role last week by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Elghawaby co-wrote a 2019 opinion piece in the Ottawa Citizen linking “anti-Muslim sentiment” to Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans certain government employees from wearing religious symbols at work.

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Roberge says Elghawaby needs to apologize for those comments.

Elghawaby said last week on Twitter that she doesn’t believe Quebecers are Islamophobic and that her opinion piece was about a poll indicating a strong majority of Quebecers with negative views of Islam supported Bill 21.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2023.

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