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Inside Canada's largest COVID-19 outbreak in a federal prison – CBC.ca

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During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Alex Doyle was doing his best to follow public health orders and keep himself and his young family free of infection.

But last November, Doyle ended up back in Manitoba’s Stony Mountain Institution north of Winnipeg after violating parole conditions for a drug trafficking and break and enter conviction. 

And that’s where he may have inadvertently become a superspreader in Canada’s worst outbreak so far in a federal penitentiary.

Doyle’s story, and the experiences of other Stony Mountain inmates who became infected, is part of the testimony being gathered in a class-action lawsuit against the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) on behalf of federal prisoners across the country.

“The whole range, everyone was mad at me like it’s my fault and it wasn’t my fault,” Doyle, 33, said recently in a series of telephone interviews with CBC News.

Alex Doyle, right, seen in an undated photo from inside Stony Mountain Institution. Doyle says he became infected with COVID-19 in prison and then may have inadvertently passed it on to other inmates because he was moved and wasn’t tested immediately after developing symptoms. (Supplied by Jade Doyle)

Doyle arrived at Stony Mountain on Nov. 6. He was segregated in an isolation cell known by inmates as the hole. 

He was tested for COVID-19 nearly a week later and when it came back negative, he was moved to another area of the prison where he said one of the inmates had already tested positive for COVID-19. 

The first inmate at Stony Mountain tested positive on Nov. 10. Four days later, public health officials declared an outbreak.

Inmates were locked down. They were allowed only 30 minutes out of their cells each day — just enough time for a quick shower and maybe a call home, if the lineups weren’t too long.

On Nov. 20, when his 14-day quarantine was up, Doyle said he was moved to yet another medium security unit. Despite having a cough, he wasn’t immediately tested for COVID-19, he said. It was a Friday and Doyle said he was told he would have to wait until Monday. 

During that weekend, Doyle said he socialized with other inmates during the 30 minutes they were allowed outside of their cells. They were all wearing masks, but in close quarters.

“I thought I was good because [penitentiary staff] cleared me to come here and, you know, I was talking to my friends and stuff. That’s probably how it got passed around,” he said.

Two days later, Doyle said his test came back positive. But by then, he said, he may have directly infected at least three people, and they, in turn, infected others.

Les Bisson says he believes COVID-19 spread in Stony Mountain Institution after an infected inmate was moved to his unit. He says the prison was negligent in its duty to care for prisoners. (Supplied by Acacia Bisson)

Les Bisson is one of the men who claimed to have developed symptoms within days. He started coughing up blood and had problems breathing, he said. His COVID-19 test on Dec. 2 came back positive.

“I literally thought I was going to die a month ago. I sat there, looking at pictures, thinking how I’ll never be able to be a father to my kids again,” Bisson, 40, said with a break in his voice. He is serving eight years for drug trafficking. 

“We thought that was just on our range. Now, I know that that’s happened on at least two of the ranges.… If it was once, it would be an accident. But to do something over and over and over again, you can’t say that’s an accident.”

‘I feel like they failed miserably’

At its worst, nearly half of the 744 inmates at Stony Mountain had COVID-19, making it the largest outbreak at any federally run correctional facility in Canada.

In December, an inmate died of COVID-19 complications, one of four deaths so far in prisons across the country.

CBC News spoke with eight inmates over the past several weeks who said they believe the outbreak may have been caused by Stony Mountain relaxing the 14-day quarantine rules for new inmates and not testing frequently enough.

“I feel like they failed miserably. Our range was green, which means no COVID, and they moved a COVID-positive inmate to our range,” said 30-year-old Grayson Wesley, who is serving an eight-year sentence for unlawful confinement.

Wesley said he was infected at the end of November and sent to hospital because he couldn’t breathe. He still has trouble with his memory and worries about getting sick again, he said.

“There’s a new COVID variant out there. If that comes into the jail, it’s going to spread like wildfire,” he said.

Mike Bourget also started feeling symptoms shortly after Doyle arrived on his unit, but said he wasn’t tested for three days. When the results came back, he was positive.

“My symptoms were not that bad, not compared to my fellow inmates here…. It is more of the mental aspect right now,” said Bourget, who is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. “My emotions and anxiety is like a roller-coaster.”

Inmates at Stony Mountain Institution say they were locked down for 23.5 hours a day to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but the outbreak continued. (Justin Fraser/CBC News)

No officials at Stony Mountain were available for an interview, but a spokesperson for the CSC said inmates and staff are tested regularly, even those who are asymptomatic.

“All inmates at Stony Mountain Institution were tested as they left isolation cells and before they were moved to a different range,” Kelly Dae Dash wrote in an email to CBC News.

“All inmates that tested positive for COVID-19 were immediately moved to a separate area of the institution which operated under single cell movement and was specifically designated for COVID-19 cases.”

Throughout the outbreak, inmates have also had wellness checks by health services staff.

Oldest prison in Canada

Part of the challenge in containing the virus is the age and layout of the institution. Of the four federal prisons built in the 19th century, Stony Mountain is the only one still operating.

Unlike newer facilities where a door with a tiny window separates an inmate from the hallway, most cells at Stony Mountain have only bars opening into a long hallway. It makes physical distancing difficult and there is constant air flow between cells.

Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert is of the same vintage and layout, and has had similar problems with COVID-19. There have been 247 cases and one death, although there are currently only seven active cases. 

Bronson Gordon is currently serving time at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert. In a recent phone call shared with CBC News, he detailed how conditions at the federal facility worsened for inmates since a COVID-19 outbreak was declared in early December. (Supplied by Sherri Maier)

Inmates in SaskPen’s medium security units say they were putting blankets on the bars of their cells, but the correctional officers removed them.

“They’ve ripped down all of our curtains and everything that would protect us from the airborne virus from the guys out there … sick on the unit,” Bronson Gordon, 36, said in a phone call several weeks ago with prisoner advocate Sherri Maier, who shared a recording of the conversation with CBC News in Saskatchewan. Gordon is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.

He said they asked the guard how long they’d have to live under such conditions, without access to mental health services or elders. 

“But he was just like, ‘All you guys are going to be locked down 23½ hours for a … long time, because until you guys have no COVID-19 on the unit, this unit is going to be run like this,'” Gordon told Maier.

Gordon was recently sent to a maximum security unit after a confrontation with a guard. He said conditions there are significantly better because it’s a newer part of the prison and cells have doors with windows instead of bars.

The CSC said it is looking into Gordon’s allegations.

Class-action lawsuit alleges negligence

Inmates at federal institutions including Stony Mountain and SaskPen are now preparing written statements for a class-action lawsuit launched initially on behalf of an inmate at Mission Institution east of Vancouver.

That lawsuit has since expanded to include the whole country except for Quebec, which operates under a different civil law system. A certification hearing is scheduled in Vancouver for January 2022.

“Prisoners who are known to have COVID are put with prisoners who don’t have COVID. That’s by definition negligent,” said Jeffrey Hartman, one of the lawyers involved in the suit.

Lawyer Jeffrey Hartman is part of a legal group launching a class-action lawsuit on behalf of federal prisoners in Canada. The suit alleges the federal government has failed in its duty to protect inmates from COVID-19. (Hartman Law)

Hartman says there is no question the federal government has failed in its duty to protect inmates despite having adequate time to prepare for the second wave.

Those systemic failures resulted in loss of life, widespread illness and unprecedented restrictions of inmates’ rights, he said.

A similar class-action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of inmates at Joliette Institution for Women north of Montreal. There are also two lawsuits launched by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society, alleging the federal government violated prisoners’ charter rights by locking them down for so long as part of COVID-19 restrictions.

None of the allegations in any of the lawsuits has been proven in court.  

Lockdown lifted

Meanwhile, range representatives from Stony Mountain’s inmate welfare committee said they were called to a meeting last week with senior prison management.

They were told that with no active COVID-19 cases right now, some of the lockdown restrictions are being lifted.

“The point of the meeting wasn’t to apologize,” said Mulata Ibrahim, 35, a unit rep who is serving a seven-year sentence for drug trafficking. “It was that they’re trying to move forward and saying, ‘What can we do now to make it easier for you guys?'”

After the meeting, inmates started receiving food three times a day instead of just two, and many were able to go outside for the first time in months, Ibrahim said.

In a statement, the CSC said it has put in place extensive infection prevention and control measures in its 43 institutions.

They include:

  • Mandatory mask-wearing for inmates and staff. 
  • Physical distancing measures. 
  • Active health screening of anyone entering institutions. 
  • Increased and enhanced cleaning and disinfection at sites. 
  • Training 250 employees to conduct contact tracing.
  • Carrying out significant testing among inmates and staff, including asymptomatic individuals.

The CSC has also completed its first phase of 600 COVID-19 vaccinations, which includes an unknown number of older, medically vulnerable inmates at Stony Mountain.

The department had no comment on the class-action lawsuits.

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Firing Bank of Canada head would spark global ‘shock wave’: ex-budget watchdog – Global News

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If any Canadian government were to fire the head of the Bank of Canada, the result would be a “global financial shock wave,” warned the country’s former budget watchdog.

In an interview with The West Block guest host Eric Sorenson, former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page said the Bank of Canada’s reputation is one as a “strong” and “transparent” institution.

“We’ve gotten used to, over the past three decades, having an independent central bank that is independent — making decisions on these policy interest rates that is divorced from the political environment,” said Page, now president and CEO of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa.

“It would be quite a shock wave, a global financial shock wave, to have a government literally remove a central banker who, by all intents, seems to be doing a fine job — but is doing a very difficult job.”

Page had been asked what the effects could be if a Canadian government were to fire a central banker.

That comes as Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre has been leading a campaign of criticism centring on the Bank of Canada’s handling of rampant inflation, which sits at 6.7 per cent.

The domestic target is two per cent per year.

Read more:

Canada’s treasury ‘depleted’ as budget weans COVID spending, eyes uncertainty

As part of his criticism of the central bank, Poilievre has vowed that he would fire Tiff Macklem, governor of the Bank of Canada, if elected prime minister. That comment triggered rapid criticism over concerns it signalled an intent by the perceived leadership frontrunner to interfere with the bank.

Long-standing tradition is that the Bank of Canada operates independently of political decisions, with governors appointed on seven-year terms.

Officials have emphasized that those longer terms are what allows them to operate with a “measure of continuity over economic cycles — not electoral cycles — and allows for decision making that considers the long-term economic interests of Canadians.”

The Bank of Canada has opted to keep interest rates at rock-bottom during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is among the factors experts say have fuelled skyrocketing home prices. And as inflation keeps pushing the cost of living higher and higher, critics of the central bank like Poilievre have pointed the finger and argued its low rates are powering domestic inflation.

Canada, however, is far from alone.

Read more:

Conservative leadership hopefuls debate future of party, trade Netflix suggestions

Inflation is rampant around the world right now, with no clear end in sight.

High consumer spending amid the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions has combined with supply chain shocks worsened both by factory closures caused by the reality that the virus is still circulating in high numbers, as well as the sharp shortages in supplies caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


Click to play video: 'Bank of Canada forecasts nearly 6% average inflation outlook in 1st half of 2022'



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Bank of Canada forecasts nearly 6% average inflation outlook in 1st half of 2022


Bank of Canada forecasts nearly 6% average inflation outlook in 1st half of 2022 – Apr 25, 2022

“I think it’s a very simplification to assume that if we just change the leader, that somehow this sort of global environment — and inflation truly is a global issue — just somehow disappears,” Page said.

Sorenson asked: “Can the Bank or the Canadian government on their own bring inflation down in this country?”

Page said: “No.”

“This is a global phenomenon. A lot of it is supply-related, and it’s because of those very strong supports that went in 2020 to help during the lockdown,” he added.

“The economy’s come back really fast and eventually markets will adjust.”

So when might Canadians expect to see inflation back in a more normal range?

Page said the Bank of Canada’s moves to raise interest rates will play a role in helping slow the economy.

“I think over the next couple of years we could see inflation back maybe in that three per cent range.”


Click to play video: 'Sticker Shock: Coping with the rising cost of inflation in Canada'



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Sticker Shock: Coping with the rising cost of inflation in Canada


Sticker Shock: Coping with the rising cost of inflation in Canada

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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David Milgaard, who advocated for justice after he was wrongfully convicted of murder, has died

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David Milgaard, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent more than 23 years in prison, has died. Milgaard was only 17 when he was arrested for the rape and murder of Gail Miller in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He was released from prison in 1992 after DNA evidence proved his innocence. In 1999, Milgaard was awarded $10 million in a wrongful conviction lawsuit against the Canadian government. Milgaard and two friends had been on a road trip, driving through the city when the murder happened.

Milgaard, who was born in Winnipeg, had been living in Calgary with his son and daughter.

Milgaard maintained his innocence throughout his time in prison. His mother Joyce Milgaard, who died in 2020, tirelessly advocated on her son’s behalf. In the decades since his release, Milgaard had spoken publicly, calling for changes in how Canadian courts review convictions.

His picture is now included in the Canadian Journey’s gallery at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Isha Khan, the museum’s CEO, said Milgaard was a human rights defender.

“He is someone we know, and the reason we know is that he was able to tell his story, and it takes a special kind of person to continue to try to connect with people,” she said, adding his work is not over.

“There are people across this country in correctional institutions who have been wrongfully convicted, who need a voice and don’t have a voice that David Milgaard did for whatever reason it may be, and it is our job to listen and to look for those stories.”

Milgaard had recently been pushing for an independent review board to prevent miscarriages of justice.

“David was a marvellous advocate for the wrongly convicted, for all the years he’s been out since 1992. We’re going to miss him a lot. He was a lovely man,” James Lockyer, a Toronto-based lawyer, told CTV News Channel on Sunday.

Lockyer, a founding director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, joined Milgaard’s case following his release in 1992 and helped him through the process to get DNA testing done. Lockyer said as a result of the DNA evidence, a man named Larry Fisher was arrested, and charged with the rape and murder. Fisher died while serving a life sentence.

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Ontario international students, families making 'massive sacrifices' for the Canadian dream – CBC.ca

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The death of an Indian student in Toronto last month made international headlines, but while Kartik Vasudev’s story ended in tragedy, his parents’ sacrifices offer a glimpse into the hardships that many international students and their families face to achieve the dream of a future in Canada.

Vasudev’s father, Jitesh Vasudev, told CBC News he and his wife spent their entire life savings and mortgaged their house to take out a loan of $50,000, just to afford the first year of his son’s education in Canada, before he was shot and killed. 

“The only mistake of my innocent child was that he dreamt big of studying in a foreign country, and he wanted to make a name of himself while representing India,” said Vasudev’s mother, Pooja Vasudev, in a video posted to Instagram. “We had a lot of dreams and expectations with our child, he was going to be our support in our old age.”

International students who spoke to CBC News say those kinds of sacrifices are common, and can take a major toll. 

They say international students can pay almost four times more in tuition fees than domestic students, and are calling for change.

An Ontario Auditor General’s report from last year highlighted the reliance of Ontario colleges on international student tuition.

The report showed that while international students represented only 30 per cent of the total enrolment in public colleges, they accounted for 68 per cent of tuition fee revenue at a total of $1.7 billion. A majority of students — 62 per cent — were from India.

According to a 2020 report from Global Affairs Canada, international students contributed $16.2 billion and $19.7 billion to Canada’s GDP in 2017 and 2018.

A better future in Canada

Students and advocates told CBC News that many international students from India come to Canada to become permanent residents and build a better future for themselves as well as their families.

They say there are limited employment opportunities in India compared to Canada, leading their parents to go to great lengths to send them abroad.

Jobanpreet Singh knows that struggle firsthand.

Jobanpreet Singh, left, says his family spent all their savings, took out massive loans and also sold assets just to pay for his first year of college. (Submitted by Jobanpreet Singh)

“[Vasudev’s family] sacrificed a lot to send their child to Canada for a brighter future,” the 22-year-old international student said. “I can’t imagine how painful it must have been for them.”

Born and raised in a farmer’s family in Punjab, India, Singh came to Canada as an international student in August 2021, where he is studying at the Academy of Learning Career College in Toronto. 

For his first year in Canada, his family spent around $30,000 on his tuition and living expenses.

Singh said his family spent all their savings, took out massive loans and sold assets just to be able to pay for his first year of college.

“[International students] have work stress, school stress, and we have extremely high tuition fees, which is topped off with the fact that we can only work 20 hours a week,” he said.

Singh said it is very difficult to handle expenses and living costs in Toronto while working those limited hours.

According to a statement from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), “limiting off-campus work to 20 hours per week reflect the fact that the focus for international students in Canada is on their studies.”

Tuition gap between domestic and international students

Sarom Rho from advocacy group Migrant Students United says international students who come to Canada also face rising costs of tuition fees, which are already three to four times more than domestic tuition.

“The majority of current and former international students and their families have made massive sacrifices for them, for example by selling lands, taking out massive educational loans, selling assets, just to pay for these extremely high tuition fees,” said Rho.

Rho added that because of these financial burdens, international students also face significant mental health issues.

Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities said in a statement that it understands that as newcomers to Canada and Ontario, international students can face unique challenges. 

“Student wellbeing is paramount, and we support the steps taken by Ontario’s colleges and universities to ensure that international students are well supported before and after their arrival in Ontario,” said James Tinajero, spokesperson for the ministry.

Gurpreet Singh, a 22-year-old Seneca College student, came to Canada in September 2020. His parents mortgaged their entire agricultural farmland to send him to Canada.

Gurpreet Singh has completed half of his education and the remaining two semesters of his studies will cost him about $16,000. He says he is paying for the rest of his studies on his own. (Submitted by Gurpreet Singh)

He said because of his international student status in Canada, he can’t apply for scholarships and bursaries at his college.

“That’s a huge drawback for us,” said Gurpreet. “If we’re not getting anything extra [over] the domestic students and we pay the same taxes, then why do we pay this huge amount for our tuition?”

The ministry says college and university boards of governors have the full authority to set tuition fees for international students.

“Colleges and universities are allowed the discretion to establish tuition fees for international students at levels the institutions deem appropriate,” said Tinajero.

Gurpreet has completed half of his education, and the remaining two semesters of his studies will cost him about $16,000. But instead of asking for help from his family, Gurpreet is taking the responsibility on himself.

According to the IRCC, international students can work full-time when they are on a scheduled break, like during winter and summer holidays, or during a fall or spring reading week. 

Gurpreet is currently on a summer break from his college. He says this is his last chance to work full-time before he begins his third semester in the fall.

For the next four months of summer break, Gurpreet says he’ll be working in two different warehouses doing long days of general labour.

“Right now I’ve [got] to concentrate on my work to pay off my fees, so I’m willing to compromise for the next four months,” he said.

“I know this is going to be hard, but these hardships are temporary, and there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

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