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Quebec politicians denounce rise in online hate as Ottawa prepares to act – Toronto Star

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MONTREAL – Death threats over an animal control plan, personal insults over stop signs, social media attacks targeting spouses — these are examples of what politicians in Quebec say has become an increasingly difficult reality of their jobs during COVID-19.

From suburban mayors to the premier, politicians in the province have been raising the alarm about the rise in hateful and occasionally violent online messages they receive — and some are calling for stronger rules to shield them.

On Saturday, Premier Francois Legault denounced the torrent of hateful messages that regularly follow his online posts, which he said has worsened “in the last months.”

“Each time I post somethingnow, I’m treated to an avalanche of aggressive and sometimes even violent comments, and to insults, obscenities and sometimes threats,” Legault wrote on Facebook.

Several Quebec municipal politicians have announced they won’t be running again in elections this fall, in part because of the hostile climate online. Others, including the mayors of Montreal and Quebec City, have spoken in the past about receiving death threats. In November, police in Longueuil, Que., arrested a man in connection with threats against the city’s mayor and other elected officials over a plan to cull deer in a municipal park.

Philippe Roy, the mayor of the Town of Mount-Royal, an on-island Montreal suburb, says he’s leaving municipal politics when his current term ends, partly because of the constant online insults directed at him and his spouse.

While taking criticism is part of the job, he said he’s seen a shift in the past two years toward more falsehoods and conspiracy theories, which he said are undermining the trust between elected officials and their constituents. After 16 years in politics, he said he’s tired of the constant accusations directed his way.

“When people are questioning your integrity, you start saying, ‘Well, maybe I have better things to do somewhere else,’ ” he saidin a recent interview.

The problem is serious enough that the group representing Quebec municipalities has launched an awareness campaign and drafted a resolution denouncing the online vitriol.It has so far been adopted by some 260 municipal councils.

Suzanne Roy, the group’s president, says the campaign was launched in response to a “flood of testimonials” from mayors and councillors about an increase in abuse and hate speech during the pandemic.

She attributes the phenomenon to a rise in “stress and frustration.”

“People, without having the proper tools to manage their stress, will let off steam on social media and write inappropriate statements towards decisions taken at city council about a stop sign at the wrong place, a hole in the road, everything,” she said in a phone interview.

Roy, who is mayor of Ste-Julie on Montreal’s South Shore, said she experienced the perils of social media firsthand earlier this year when someone stole her identity online and posted anti-COVID conspiracy theories from her Facebook account.

She is among those pushing for stronger rules to combat hate speech, and for platforms such as Facebook to take quicker action to remove hateful comments or restore someone’s identity when it’s stolen. She said the platforms need to take down the messages as soon as they appear to ensure debate remains respectful and false messages aren’t spread.

“It’s a question of debate and a question of democracy,” she said.

Federal Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has promised to introduce new legislation to combat hate speech this spring.

In an interview Tuesday, he said the legislation will define five categories of illegal online activities and create a regulator. The regulator’s job would include pushing online platforms to respect the law and to remove hateful messages within 24 hours.

He said the bill’s goal is to take stronger actions against hate speech, child porn and non-consensual sharing of intimate images. He was careful to say that it would not tackle misinformation, saying it’s not the government’s job to “legislate information.”

Guilbeault said his government has also had to contend with critics who accuse the government of wanting to limit free speech, a charge he denies. Rather, he says the aim of the legislation is to ensure that laws, such as those against hate speech, are applied online as they are in the real world — something he argues will protect free speech rather than stifle it.

“Right now in the virtual world and, I’m sad to say, in the physical world, we’re seeing the safety and security of Canadians is being compromised, that freedom of speech is being affected online,” he said in a phone interview.

“We’re seeing it now with Quebec politicians who say, ‘No, no I don’t want to run for politics, it’s so violent.’” He said the chilling effect extends to equity-seeking groups and racialized Canadians, many of whom avoid the platforms because they’re constant targets of abuse.

“How does that protect free speech?” he asked. “Well, it doesn’t.”

Suzanne Roy says her group, the Union des municipalities du Quebec, gives new councillors some training on how to manage social media accounts, including advice on handling adversarial situations. She says the advice generally includes not getting into debates online and instead steering people to more formal channels to express their opinions, such as city council meetings and public consultations.

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Philippe Roy, the soon-to-be ex-mayor of Mont-Royal, says that while there appear to be strong candidates to take his place, he’s already met people who have been discouraged from running by the prospect of online hate — something that bodes poorly for the future if the problem isn’t tackled.

“We’re losing people who could give back to the community, and that’s one of the threats that comes from this situation,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2021

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Biden offers tax credits for COVID-19 vaccination and paid time off

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By Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) –President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced tax credits for certain businesses that pay employees who take time off to get COVID-19 shots, a new effort to involve corporate America in his vaccination campaign.

“I’m calling on every employer, large and small, in every state to give employees the time off they need with pay to get vaccinated,” the Democratic president said.

The tax credits will apply to businesses with fewer than 500 employees, he said.

In a speech, Biden also said he expects the United States to reach his 100-day goal of getting 200 million coronavirus vaccine shots in arms by the end of the day, even as the nation faces an increase in infections.

“Today we hit 200 million shots,” Biden said. “It’s an incredible achievement for the nation.”

Biden said the vaccine effort is entering a new phase with everyone over age 16 becoming eligible to be vaccinated. Biden said 80% of all seniors have received at least one shot, leading to a dramatic decline in the deaths of elderly Americans.

“If you’ve been waiting for your turn, wait no longer,” Biden said.

Biden administration officials said the government plans to reimburse businesses for the cost of giving workers as many as 80 hours in paid time off to get their shots or recover from any side effects.

The tax credit is for up to $511 per day for each worker, through September. Businesses with fewer than 500 employees employ roughly half of U.S. private-sector workers. The tax credits were authorized under Democratic-backed COVID-19 pandemic relief legislation passed by Congress and signed by Biden over Republican opposition.

The administration’s chief problem in its response to the pandemic is now shifting from securing enough vaccine supply to persuading enough Americans to seek out the available shots.

More than half of American adults have had at least one vaccine dose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A third of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, as well as 26% of the population overall.

The U.S. COVID-19 death toll of more than 568,000 leads the world. The coronavirus is still killing hundreds of Americans daily and many Americans have shown a reluctance to get vaccinated.

Countries around the world with less successful vaccination campaigns than the United States are dealing with a spike in infections.

Biden, who has loaned some unused vaccines to Canada and Mexico and donated funds to a multilateral vaccination effort for poor countries, said the White House is still looking at its options for eventually sending vaccines to Canada, Central America and elsewhere. Biden told reporters after his speech that he spoke with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier on Wednesday.

“We don’t have enough to be confident to send it abroad now, but I expect we’re going to be able to do that,” Biden said.

“We’re looking at what is going to be done with some of the vaccines that we are not using. We’ve got to make sure they are safe to be sent.”

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Steve Holland; Editing by Will Dunham and Jonathan Oatis)

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The Liberal Government rolls out post-pandemic spending plan ahead of likely election

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By Julie Gordon

OTTAWA (Reuters) -Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government on Monday lined up billions in new spending to provide emergency support during a virulent third wave of COVID-19 and to help launch an economic recovery ahead of an election expected later this year.

The budget, the Liberal government’s first in two years because of the pandemic, is aimed squarely at boosting near-term growth and includes a long-promised national daycare plan.

It also follows through on stimulus promised late last year, outlining a C$101.4 billion ($81 billion) “growth plan” over three years, with nearly half of that spending coming in the first year.

“We have to finish the fight against COVID – and that costs a lot of money,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters, adding that hundreds of thousands of Canadians remain out of work because of the pandemic.

Liberal insiders expect Trudeau to seek an election later this year to try to secure a majority in parliament. The Liberals currently need the support of at least one other party to pass legislation, including the budget.

Opposition lawmakers were unimpressed with the budget. But the leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party said he was not prepared to bring down the government over it.

“It is clearly irresponsible to have an election or in any way to trigger an election while we are in the midst of this third wave,” Jagmeet Singh told reporters. “The impact on people would be devastating and we are not going to do that.”

Erin O’Toole, who heads the official opposition Conservatives, said: “This is an election budget and a poor one at that.” His party trailed the Liberals by 37% to 29% in an Abacus Data poll published last week.

Business groups were pleased with the added certainty of finally having a full budget, but remained unsold on the need for a massive stimulus plan with the economy already set to surge later this year as pent-up demand is unleashed.

“There’s a lot of spending in a lot of programs. But the effects of all of those combined together for me is just a bit unsure,” said Robert Asselin, senior vice president of policy at the Business Council of Canada.

The deficit for the fiscal year that started on April 1 will be the second largest in recent decades, with the closely watched debt-to-GDP ratio hitting 51.2%, although Freeland promised a return to restraint as the economy gets back to normal.

“I think the key here is the debt-to-GDP (ratio) is expected to peak this year … and it’s expected to come down in the years ahead,” said Doug Porter, chief economist at BMO Capital Markets. “I think that’s a credible plan if they can stick to it.”

THIRD COVID WAVE

Trudeau’s Liberal government has been buoyed in opinion polls by its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But a third wave of infections is pounding the country’s largest city, Toronto, and its suburbs – a key Ontario region for securing an electoral majority – and the coronavirus vaccine rollout has trailed other wealthy countries like the United States and Britain.

Of the nearly C$50 billion in new spending this year, C$27 billion is set aside to extend pandemic recovery measures like wage and rent subsidies for businesses and for a new program to help transition companies back to hiring.

The budget also aims to create a national childcare program and to make a more aggressive effort to reduce carbon emissions, both measures that polls show are important to Liberal voters.

While Freeland said historically low interest rates allowed significant investment, she also pledged to unwind deficits and reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio over the medium term. A senior government official said, however, that a fiscal anchor should not be seen as a “straitjacket.”

The official also said that the government had run stress tests on the accumulating debt and was confident of its abilities to service that debt even as interest rates rise in the future.

“It’s hard for us to draw a conclusion that we’re out over our skis. We don’t believe we are. We think we’re in very solid terrain,” the official told reporters.

Surging growth should also increase revenues, with 5.8% growth forecast for this year, after a 5.4% contraction in 2020.

The deficit in the current year is projected to hit C$154.7 billion, less than half that of the previous fiscal year, with total national debt soaring to C$1.23 trillion this year, up from C$1.08 trillion in the previous year.

The Canadian dollar steadied at about 1.2530 to the greenback, or 79.81 U.S. cents, after the budget was released. Canada‘s 30-year yield extended its rise, up 7.5 basis points at 2.060%.

($1 = 1.2526 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Julie Gordon; Additional reporting by David Ljunggren, Steve Scherer, Fergal Smith and Moira Warburton; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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Beijing huddles with friends, seeks to fracture U.S.-led ‘clique’

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By Gabriel Crossley and Yew Lun Tian

BEIJING (Reuters) – China is shoring up ties with autocratic partners like Russia and Iran, as well as economically dependent regional countries, while using sanctions and threats to try to fracture the alliances the United States is building against it.

Worryingly for Beijing, diplomats and analysts say, the Biden administration has got other democracies to toughen up to a rising, more globally assertive China on human rights and regional security issues like the disputed South China Sea.

“China has always resolutely opposed the U.S. side engaging in bloc politics along ideological lines, and ganging up to form anti-China cliques,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement to Reuters.

“We hope relevant countries see clearly their own interests…and are not reduced to being anti-China tools of the U.S.”

After last month’s stormy talks between top U.S. and Chinese diplomats in Anchorage, Beijing also appeared to engage more urgently with countries like Russia, Iran and North Korea, which are also on the wrong end of U.S.-led sanctions.

COLD COMFORT

“China is very worried about U.S. alliance diplomacy,” said Li Mingjiang, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, pointing to what he calls attempts to “huddle for warmth” with governments shunned by the West.

Days after the Alaska meeting, the Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, received Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who called for Moscow and Beijing to push back against what he called the West’s ideological agenda.

A week later, Wang flew to Iran and signed a 25-year economic pact, which Renmin University professor Shi Yinhong said “effectively exposes every Chinese company participating to direct or indirect U.S. sanctions.”

President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, exchanged messages with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, calling for a deeper partnership with another country whose ambitions for nuclear arms has drawn sanctions.

China is also wooing its economically dependent neighbours. Wang hosted foreign ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and South Korea in China’s southeastern Fujian province in recent weeks.

Li said Beijing will be holding out promises to help these countries revive their economies after the COVID-19 pandemic, making them think twice about siding with the United States.

After Philippines diplomats and generals accused China of sending militia-manned vessels into their waters, President Rodrigo Duterte said he was not going to let territorial disputes in the South China Sea get in the way of working with China on vaccines and economic recovery.

BUILDING BLOCS

Biden has continued to pressure Beijing on many of the same issues the Trump administration did, but with a more alliance-focused strategy.

At a meeting between Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday, the two countries presented a united front against China’s assertiveness, on issues ranging from the disputed East China Sea islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, to rights issues in China’s Hong Kong and Xinjiang region.

Last month, the United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada imposed coordinated sanctions over reports of forced labour in China’s western Xinjiang region, while over a dozen countries jointly accused China of withholding information from an investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Canada and France all recently joined the United States in sending warships through the disputed South China Sea, or announced plans to do so.

Washington also said it wants a “coordinated approach” with allies on whether to participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, amid concerns over human rights violations, particularly related to the treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

BREAKING THE ‘CLIQUE’

China has responded angrily to shows of unity by Washington’s allies, with its diplomats dubbing Japan a “vassal” and Canada‘s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a “running dog” of the United States.

China’s strategy to weaken this unity revolves around encouraging U.S. allies to engage independently with Beijing, and put the economic benefits first, while punishing them if they engage in joint-action against China.

Beijing responded to the EU’s sanctions of Chinese officials over Xinjiang with disproportionately harsh counter-sanctions, analysts said, potentially torpedoing a long-awaited investment agreement.

Janka Oertel, director of the Asia Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, believes Beijing is prepared to sacrifice economic benefits for core interests if they are threatened by the U.S.-EU alliance.

Xi drove home the message in a recent phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, telling her that he hoped “the EU will make a correct judgment on its independence”.

But China still needs European technology and investment, said Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China.

“They still talk to us, despite the sanctions, business keeps going, and that’s very reassuring.”

Beijing has not given up persuading Washington that cooperation is better than competition, as demonstrated last week when it assured U.S. climate envoy John Kerry of support for Biden’s virtual climate summit this week.

“China hopes Washington can appreciate that it is in U.S. interests to have China as a friend rather than as a foe,” said Wang Wen, a professor at the Chongyang Institute of the Renmin University of China.

 

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley and Yew Lun Tian; Editing by Tony Munroe & Simon Cameron-Moore)

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