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Putin foe describes 'crazy' investigation into his Canadian citizenship after police search –



As an activist with an intense dislike for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pyotr Verzilov says having his Moscow apartment searched and his life turned upside down by police is something he’s grown used to.

But three weeks ago when the latest knock came at his door, Verzilov was caught off-guard after being accused of an unexpected crime: failing to officially declare himself a Canadian.

“I got a special notice saying that a criminal case has been opened up against me for not declaring my Canadian passport,” he told CBC News in an interview at his home.

Verzilov, 33, is the publisher of an opposition website called Mediazona that bills itself as a watchdog on Russian police and law enforcement.

Verzilov gives an interview to CBC News in his Moscow apartment. (Alexei Sergeev/CBC)

Police search for Canadian ‘evidence’

When CBC News visited, his natural-brick walled apartment in a fashionable Moscow neighbourhood was still strewn with belongings that investigators had pulled out of his drawers and cupboards.

And the federal police sent in one of their crack teams to do the search — members of the anti-extremism unit, who are usually reserved for only the most serious crimes, such as terrorism.

“It seems quite crazy — and funny,” Verzilov said, noting that even the police doing the search appeared embarrassed that he was being harassed for what amounts to a minor paperwork technicality.

“The investigators were joking about these things — about [finding] hockey sticks and that maybe you have a beaver living in a compartment somewhere.”

The only beaver they found was a stuffed toy that’s now on his couch.

Members of Russia’s anti-extremism police stand outside Verzilov’s Moscow apartment building during a recent search. He’s accused of failing to officially declare himself a Canadian. (Courtesy of Pyotr Verzilov)

Verzilov said he’s never tried to hide “evidence” of his Canadian-ness.    

He’s been arrested more than 50 times in Russia, and most of the accompanying news articles on the internet refer to his dual citizenship.

Still, he said investigators appeared to be looking for “proof.”

“They seized several photocopies of letters sent by the Ontario government that were documents related to OHIP,” the province’s public health plan, Verzilov said.

“They seemed very interested in that.”

Security services cracking down on opposition

But coming under the scrutiny of the country’s security services for being part of Russia’s liberal, Western-leaning opposition has never been something to laugh at, especially now.

The days since the Kremlin stage-managed a resounding victory for the “yes” side in a July 1 referendum to reform the constitution have been punctuated by the arrest of government opponents and journalists.

The vote, which had been moved back by several months because of the coronavirus pandemic, was the mechanism used by Putin to ensure he can remain as Russia’s president for essentially as long as he wants.

Last week, prominent defence journalist Ivan Safronov, who had just recently taken up a new position with Russia’s space agency, was arrested and charged with treason in a move journalists’ organizations claim is meant to deter critics from publishing negative stories about the government.

Police officers in Moscow detain a man with a press badge during a protest against amendments to Russia’s constitution and the results of a nationwide vote on constitutional reforms, on July 15. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

Nineteen other journalists who protested Safronov’s arrest outside of Russia’s Federal Police building were also taken into custody.

Then, a few days later, another Putin foe — Sergei Furgal, the right-leaning governor of Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East — was hauled into court and charged with more serious crimes: murder and attempted murder in cases going back to 2003.

All week long in the city, thousands of supporters have taken to the streets shouting “Putin is a thief” and calling for Furgal to be released.

Verzilov had just finished serving a 15-day jail term on what he claims was another trumped-up charge of “hooliganism”  after a man confronted him outside his home and the pair engaged in a yelling match.     

He said he believes both incidents are the security service’s way of sending him a warning.

“Russian authorities are very scared that something new will happen, and they will basically have to answer for that … to their superiors and to Putin directly.”

Verzilov is detained by police after storming into a courtroom in Moscow on July 12, 2010, and letting out dozens of cockroaches from a bag as the court prepared to hear the verdict in the case of two Russian curators for their 2007 Forbidden Art exhibit, which mixed religious icons with sexual and pop-culture images. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

Activist formed punk group Pussy Riot

As a child and teenager, Verzilov said, he moved around with his father — who was a “distinguished nuclear scientist” and held many overseas positions, including a four-year stint in Toronto. When his father, who still lives in Canada, became a Canadian citizen, he did as well.

It was after university in Moscow that Verzilov started getting noticed for his political activism — including the time in 2008 when he engaged in public sex acts with with his then-wife Nadezhda Tolokonnikova at a Moscow museum as part of an anti-government protest.

Yekaterina Samutsevich, left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, three members of the Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot, sit behind bars in a Moscow courtroom on July 20, 2012. The women were arrested after an anti-Putin performance at Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral in February 2012. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

He went on to form the punk group Pussy Riot, which became synonymous with political protest in Russia after it staged an obscenity-laced anti-Putin performance in Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral in February 2012.

Putin himself has never directly mentioned either Pussy Riot or Verzilov by name, though his criticisms of their actions have been widely reported.

“We have red lines beyond which starts the destruction of the moral foundations of our society,” Putin said in 2012, Reuters reported. “If people cross this line, they should be made responsible in line with the law.” 

A poll taken by the independent Levada Center in the aftermath of the cathedral incident also showed wide popular support for the two-year sentence in a penal colony that was handed down to the three band members, including Tolokonnikova. 

Verzilov gestures during a court hearing in Moscow on July 16, 2018, after he was arrested with other Pussy Riot members for storming the pitch during a World Cup soccer match in Moscow between Croatia and France as Russian President Vladimir Putin watched from the stands. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

In 2018, Verzilov and other Pussy Riot members were arrested after storming the pitch during a World Cup soccer match in Moscow between Croatia and France as Putin watched from the stands. That stunt landed him 15 days in jail and earned him the wrath of many players and fans.

“Obviously, the protest culture gradually rises and falls — and we believe that there will definitely be a tipping point when that will hit the “enough is enough” point that will force the regime to adopt the political freedoms we are fighting for,” Verzilov told CBC News.

Canadian Embassy has been ‘helpful’

Global Affairs in Ottawa said it could not comment on Verzilov’s passport case out of privacy considerations. 

While the Canadian Embassy in Moscow has been “helpful,” Verzilov said he doesn’t expect the issue of his Canadian citizenship to be resolved until later this summer after a trial and a guilty conviction.

He said he expects that as punishment, he’ll have to perform many hours of community service.

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What Canadians need to know about COVID-19 before gathering over the holidays –



This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.

Canadians considering gathering with loved ones over the holidays this year need to come to terms with some harsh realities. 

The country faces a perfect storm: record rates of COVID-19 amid a growing sense of pandemic fatigue at a time when we typically travel to see loved ones and spend time together indoors.

But COVID-19 is insidious, an unwanted guest that can slip in unnoticed and wreak havoc despite our best efforts to control it. 

“We have to ask ourselves honestly, must we socialize? And the answer is probably no,” said Raywat Deonandan, a global health epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

“There is no way to eliminate risk except not to do it in the first place.”

But we’ve learned a lot more about how COVID-19 spreads since it first emerged at the beginning of this year, which can help inform us on where we’re most at risk. 

Confusion over holiday guidelines

There’s understandably a lot of confusion about what sorts of holiday gathering might be reasonable to consider this year, especially since depending on where you live in this country the rules and recommendations differ.  

The official advice from Canada’s chief public health officer is to avoid large gatherings, non-essential travel and to keep things as small as possible within your household. 

Certain provinces, like Ontario, recommend skipping extended family gatherings altogether and taking precautions like self-isolating for 10 to 14 days for those travelling home from away, including colleges and universities.

While others, like Quebec, have put a lot of faith in their population by allowing gatherings of up to 10 people for four days over the holidays after a seven day period of self-imposed quarantine.

But Deonandan says we can’t necessarily rely on people to completely self-isolate on their own — that requires not leaving home for groceries, essential items or even to walk the dog. 

WATCH | Dr. Theresa Tam advises no large gatherings or non-essential travel

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, says it’s clear that Christmas this year is not going to be like other years. She recommends against any gatherings but has some advice if people choose to forgo the public health guidelines. 0:48

“You’re also going to have outliers who have infectious periods longer than two weeks,” he said.

“If enough people do this, you’re going to get a sufficient number of people who do not fall under that umbrella who are indeed infectious and who start outbreaks.” 

Silent spread a ‘key driver’ of outbreaks

While we weigh whether it’s even possible to gather safely with friends and family in a pandemic, it’s important to keep in mind the unseen dangers we could be inviting in — even in parts of the country that have low rates of COVID-19.

“The problem with this virus is that it’s like many other viruses,” said Dr. Allison McGeer, a medical microbiologist and infectious disease specialist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai hospital who worked on the front lines of the SARS epidemic in 2003. “You shed virus before you get sick and some people who get infected don’t develop symptoms.” 

“That’s why what has worked is everybody wearing masks and everybody maintaining social distance, because you can’t tell who the next infected person is going to be.”

McGeer says viruses like influenza, chickenpox and measles typically present symptoms in the body before people are infectious — but the virus behind COVID-19 is different. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated scientific guidance this week that acknowledged asymptomatic or presymptomatic individuals account for more than half of all COVID-19 transmissions. 

“Silent transmission is one of the key drivers of outbreaks,” said Seyed Moghadas, a professor of applied mathematics and computational epidemiology at Toronto’s York University. 

“There is an incorrect notion in the general population that if someone feels fine then they are not infected. A person can certainly be infected, infectious, and feel completely fine.” 

Seyed Moghadas at York University says because of high rates of asymptomatic COVID-19 infections, silent transmission is one of the ‘key drivers’ of outbreaks. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Moghadas, the lead author of a study published in the journal PNAS on the silent spread of COVID-19 that was cited in the CDC guidelines, says this underscores how difficult the virus is to control, a challenge “magnified” in close quarters.

In Nova Scotia, which has successfully contained the spread of COVID-19 throughout the pandemic despite the bursting of the Atlantic bubble this week, catching those silent spreaders before they unknowingly infect others is key. 

Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease specialist at Dalhousie University, has partnered with public health authorities in a pilot project to use rapid COVID-19 tests on people without symptoms in high-traffic areas of Halifax. 

It’s only been a few days, but what they’ve found was surprising. 

On the first day they tested 147 people and found one asymptomatic case, the second day they tested 604 more and found another one, and on the third day they did 804 tests and found five more. 

“We recognized that there are a lot of people out there, even if they’re doing the right thing, that don’t know they’re infected, don’t know they’re infectious and could be spreading to other people,” said Barrett.

“When there’s community spread of a virus that has a long period of time when you can be infectious without symptoms, you have to test broadly in the community or you have no idea what’s going on.” 

‘A negative test is not a license to socialize’

One novel approach to avoid meeting with loved ones while unknowingly infectious that has emerged is to get a COVID-19 test beforehand to pre-emptively detect it. 

But the timing of that test is incredibly important and there’s a lot of room for error, so it may be a less effective strategy than it first appears.

A new study in the journal Science looked at 1,178 people infected with COVID-19 and more than 15,000 of their close contacts to determine when people were most infectious. 

It found most of the transition — 87 per cent — happened in a fairly wide window of time, up to five days before or after symptoms appeared, while 53 per cent was in the pre-symptomatic phase.

“It’s possible to be early in the disease cycle such that you won’t detect any viral presence. But in two days suddenly you’re infectious and now we’re screwed,” said Deonandan, at the University of Ottawa.

“So a negative test is not a license to socialize.”

Still, Deonandan says there will be people who are going to socialize anyway, so it’s better they do so with precautions in place like testing and self-isolating than nothing — even if those precautions aren’t perfect.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or the winter solstice, Canadians are being told to consider meeting virtually, avoid risky indoor gatherings without masks and instead find ways to connect while still physical distancing.

“I think the pitch to people is that yes, we’re used to having time off school and we’re used to seeing everybody,” said McGeer. “But this is the year to delay.” 

WATCH | Tam on the holiday season and how the pandemic won’t go on forever

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam talks to The National’s Andrew Chang about the holiday season and getting to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. 6:31

“The best advice this year is maybe not to go too far from home,” said Barrett. “Is it worth it to lose control of the virus?”

“We’re hanging on by a thread here. Please don’t let that thread break.” 

To read the entire Second Opinion newsletter every Saturday morning, subscribe by clicking here.

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Trudeau expects most Canadians could be vaccinated by September 2021 – CP24 Toronto's Breaking News



Cassanda Szklarski, The Canadian Press

Published Friday, November 27, 2020 12:34PM EST

Last Updated Friday, November 27, 2020 1:32PM EST

Beset by ongoing questions about Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine strategy, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to assuage the public with assurances most Canadians could be inoculated by September 2021, with distribution led by a former NATO commander.

Trudeau faced a barrage of questions about when and how such a rollout would unfold at a morning press conference on Friday, acknowledging public anxiety amid alarming infection rates and hospitalizations that have already scuttled holiday hopes for much of the country.

But while promising vaccine news offered “light at the end of the tunnel,” Trudeau said “we must hold on a little longer.”

“What really matters is when we get across the finish line … The fact that the doctors highlighted that if all goes according to plan, we should be able to have the majority of Canadians vaccinated by next September, puts us in very good stead,” he said, offering the government’s most specific timeline yet.

“We’re going to continue to do everything we can to deliver for Canadians, listening to experts working with top people to make sure that we’re doing this right, and quickly and safely.”

Trudeau said Canada has turned to Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin to lead distribution and handle logistics that include cold storage requirements, data sharing, and reaching Indigenous communities. He insisted Ottawa was committed to working with the provinces and territories on securing safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines as quickly as possible.

That wasn’t good enough for Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who later Friday roasted Trudeau for failing to give provinces and territories specific information they need for a potential vaccine launch.

Ford said a conference call Trudeau held with premiers Thursday night was sorely lacking.

“I didn’t get the answer we wanted to hear, none of the premiers got the answer they wanted to hear,” said Ford, who appeared at a Friday press conference alongside the new head of the Ontario’s vaccine distribution task force, retired Gen. Rick Hillier.

“I can’t emphasize enough to the prime minister: The clock is ticking. We’re going to be hopefully getting these vaccines sometime – again, hopefully – in January. I asked him the three simple questions: When are we getting it? What type of vaccine are we getting? And how much of that vaccine are we getting? To have Gen. Hillier make a proper plan, we need to know.”

Ontario called on the federal government to immediately disclose its allocation plan, noting reports that other countries have already announced plans to receive doses.

U.S. officials have said 6.4 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine could reach some priority citizens within 24 hours of regulatory clearance, while Moderna’s vaccine could be available by the end of the year, although the general public likely wouldn’t get doses until the spring.

No matter when a vaccine arrives in Canada, Hillier said Ontario’s vaccine distribution plans would be ready on Dec. 31.

In Ottawa, Procurement Minister Anita Anand also faced questions over a precise delivery date but insisted she is in constant contact with suppliers to make sure they can be deployed as soon as they are approved for use.

“This is a complex process. This is an uncertain environment. But we are on top of it,” said Anand.

“I personally will make sure that we have vaccines in place in Canada when Health Canada has provided the regulatory approval.”

Trudeau‘s September timeline was echoed by deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo, who had last week suggested the possibility of a fall goal line for vaccinating the majority of Canadians.

Njoo said Friday the Prime Minister’s prediction is “in the same ballpark” as previous rollout plans, and a good target to work towards.

But he cautioned there are still “a lot of unknowns.”

“Certainly we’ve always been sort of optimistic, cautiously optimistic, about what the vaccination rollout will look like,” said Njoo.

“Right now it’s a bit of a moving target. We have two vaccines which are very promising but they’re still in the process of going through the regulatory process. If all goes well, and they are approved, then they’re the first two out of the pipeline.”

The news follows more alarming daily COVID-19 case numbers from Ontario, which reported a record 1,855 new cases, and 20 more deaths on Friday.

Quebec reported 1,269 new COVID-19 infections and 38 more deaths linked to the virus, including nine that occurred in the past 24 hours.

Ottawa has finalized agreements with five vaccine makers and is in advanced negotiations with two more.

The deals would secure 194 million doses with the option to buy another 220 million, according to Public Services and Procurement Canada.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2020.

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'The clock is ticking': Ontario calls on federal government to provide clear timelines for COVID-19 vaccines – CTV Toronto



Ontario Premier Doug Ford is calling on the federal government to provide a clear timeline on when the province will receive the first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, saying that is “impossible” to plan distribution without that critical information.

The premier made the comments on Friday afternoon alongside Health Minister Christine Elliott and retired Gen. Rick Hillier, the new head of the province’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution task force.

“Make no mistake, this will be a monumental effort,” Ford told reporters. “When you look at a province the size of Ontario, with as many variables as we’re facing, without proper planning or the proper information, this can be a logistical nightmare.”

“That’s why, as we continue planning, we need certainty from the federal government. We need to know which kind of vaccines we’ll be getting, because each vaccine will come with unique requirements and potential challenges. And we also need to know how many vaccines we will receive each week. We need a clear line of sight into the timelines of the shipments.”

Ford said it is “impossible” to plan distribution of the vaccine, including staffing and storage of doses, without that timeline and “the clock is ticking.”

“I asked (the prime minister) three simple questions. You know, when are we getting it, what type of vaccine are we getting, and how much of that vaccine are we getting,” he said. “To have General Hillier make a proper plan. We need to know.”

Doug Ford, Rick Hillier

The comments come hours after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to provide a clear timeline for when Canadians will have access to a vaccine, saying only that he hopes to have more than half of Canadians vaccinated by September 2021.

“We have continued to work with the provinces on vaccine delivery and logistics since last spring,” Trudeau said.

“I can understand the eagerness with which people want to know, ‘When is this going to be over? When are we going to get the vaccines?’ What we can say is, we are working extremely hard to deliver as quickly and as safely as possible… if all goes according to plan, we should be able to have the majority of Canadians vaccinated by next September,” Trudeau said.

Elliott has previously said the province is likely to roll out the first doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine between January and March of 2021, followed by a second batch from March until “about” July.

But since then the government has rolled back their vaccine rhetoric, saying that it is not clear if those targets will be achieved.

The COVID-19 vaccines have not yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but they could receive the stamp of approval as early as two weeks from now.

Doug Ford and Rick Hillier

Hillier said that while questions remain, the COVID-19 vaccine distribution task force is working to be ready for the new year.

“Our mission is clear,” Hillier said while speaking publicly for the first time since being named head of the task force. “The team is being built. It is largely present and in place and they’re building on the work that’s been done.”

“I’m not an over-the-top optimist, I’m the pragmatic person, but we’re going to be ready on 31 December for what the people of Ontario will need from us.”

Ontario health officials reported a new single-day record of COVID-19 cases on Friday, logging 1,855 new infections and 20 more deaths.

The total number of lab-confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus now stands at 111,216, including deaths and recoveries.

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