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Russian invasion of Ukraine forces Arctic defence back onto Canada’s agenda

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CAMBRIDGE BAY, Nunavut — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will attend the Canadian Armed Forces’ largest Arctic training exercise today in what experts say is a clear signal that defending Canada’s North is now a priority for his government.

This is the first time that Trudeau will be present for Operation Nanook, the military’s annual exercise in the Far North, which was first conducted in 2007 and was a stop for Stephen Harper when he was prime minister.

Trudeau is attending with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg as Canada and its allies wrestle with the upheaval caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

That includes a changed security situation in the Arctic, where long-standing hopes of settling differences through diplomacy and co-operation now seem much more remote.

Experts say the prime minister’s visit to Operation Nanook is one of several indications that the Liberal government is shifting its approach, which also previously emphasized social and environmental concerns in Canada’s Far North.

They also suggest Canada doesn’t really have a choice but to pivot toward a more defensive focus given the importance of the region to its closest allies, including the United States and NATO.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2022.

 

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Former Conservative senator Don Meredith charged with three counts of sexual assault

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OTTAWA — A former senator who resigned from the upper chamber amid a sexual misconduct scandal is now facing criminal charges.

Don Meredith, 58, has been charged with three counts of sexual assault and one count of criminal harassment, Ottawa police said Saturday.

A source confirmed to The Canadian Press that the man in question was the former Conservative senator.

The charges relate to incidents that allegedly took place in 2013 and 2014 and were reported by an adult woman, police said, offering no other details.

Meredith has been released on a promise to appear in court.

A lawyer who represented him in the past did not immediately respond to request for comment on the charges. Alison Korn, a spokeswoman for the Senate’s Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration, declined to comment on the matter as it is now before the courts.

Meredith — an ordained minister — was appointed to the senate on the advice of former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2010, but resigned in 2017 after a scathing report from the Senate’s ethics officer.

The report from Lyse Ricard, who held the position at the time, concluded Meredith had violated the chamber’s code of ethics by engaging in a relationship with a girl when she was just 16 and recommended the upper house take the unprecedented step of expelling him.

Meredith resigned from the Senate weeks later just as the upper chamber was believed ready to expel him over the relationship. He also acknowledged the sexual relations outlined in the report but said nothing took place until she turned 18.

A second Senate investigation, released in 2019, found Meredith had repeatedly bullied, threatened and intimidated his staff, as well as touched, kissed and propositioned some of them.

Saturday’s announcement marks the first time Meredith has faced criminal charges related to sexual misconduct.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2022.

 

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Jaded, cynical, disillusioned: report says federal whistleblowers fear reprisal

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OTTAWA — Federal workers are increasingly cynical, skeptical and disillusioned about the idea of reporting wrongdoing in the public service, says a recent survey.

That pessimism is more “palpable and widespread” now than it was before the pandemic, and bureaucrats have become more likely to fear reprisals for whistleblowing.

Research firm Phoenix Strategic Perspectives Inc. delivered the report in March to the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, which investigates serious abuses within the federal government.

Commissioner Joe Friday says there is a maze of oversight mechanisms available to public servants and it can be discouraging or exhausting to figure out where to lodge a complaint.

He says he thinks public servants are feeling more isolated and disconnected during the pandemic, making it more difficult to feel confident in coming forward — let alone to gather the sort of documentation that whistleblowers require.

Chris Aylward, the president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, says the protections in place for whistleblowers are inadequate and the regime must be strengthened.

“It’s discouraging to see that federal workers have grown more cynical about whistleblowing and reporting wrongdoing in the public service, but it is not surprising,” Aylward said in a statement.

“It can be intimidating to come forward as a whistleblower, and our members are right to fear retaliation. Strong measures are needed to protect workers that speak out. Instead, there are too many conditions on whistleblowers that unnecessarily restrict disclosure.”

The report, based on nine focus group sessions held in March, found that workers feared a wide variety of hypothetical repercussions, many of which are premised on the fear that confidentiality could be compromised.

These included a negative impact on the physical or psychological well-being of the whistleblower, a lack of support, the idea that they would acquire a reputation as a troublemaker, diminished trust and division among co-workers and “damage to the image or reputation of the public service.”

Some said they feared their careers would be derailed — that they’d be given poor evaluations, be taken off projects, be assigned less challenging work or have their workloads increased.

Compared to a similar report undertaken in 2015, public servants were more likely to say that their attitudes toward whistleblowing had changed over time. This time around, they described themselves as having become “less naive,” “more pessimistic,” “more cynical,” “more jaded,” “less bright-eyed” and “more disillusioned.”

Workers tended to see whistleblowing as a good thing and described whistleblowers as brave people who should be encouraged and supported. But they emphasized that prospective whistleblowers “need to understand what they are facing”: a process that is “long, arduous, stressful and uncertain as to the outcome.”

And while participants reported an increase in awareness and education about the process of reporting wrongdoing, they didn’t trust it.

“Many held the view that such changes amount to ‘virtue signalling’ or ‘window dressing’ as opposed to constituting real cultural change,” the report says.

A little over half of the focus group attendees were unaware of the existence of the office that commissioned the research in the first place.

That’s not necessarily such a bad thing, Friday says.

“I think if every public servant woke up every morning and first thing on their mind was, ‘How do I bring wrongdoing to light,’ that might suggest that there’s more wrongdoing than anybody thinks there is,” he says.

Still, it’s apparent that many don’t know how the whistleblowing process works, or don’t have trust in it if they do. “Clearly, there’s more to do,” he says.

It can be frustrating to push for cultural change on the margins of a 300,000-person organization, Friday says — and with no influence or authority over the internal, department-specific procedures that govern most of the whistleblowing system.

Still, his office of 35 people has reached thousands of public servants with events and presentations over the course of the pandemic, he says, in an attempt to demystify the process.

In the seven years he’s been commissioner — and during his time as deputy commissioner and legal counsel before that — Friday says he’s never given a presentation that didn’t result in a followup with someone in the audience who was considering reporting wrongdoing.

“We’re talking about something very personal, very often something that someone has not yet spoken to anybody about,” he says, lamenting that the pandemic has resulted in fewer opportunities to have face-to-face conversations.

“We’re trying our damnedest to continue with our outreach efforts.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2022.

 

Marie-Danielle Smith, The Canadian Press

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What will become of Canada's empty offices? – CTV News

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The COVID-19 pandemic has generated significant short- and long-term changes to the way people live, play and, especially, work.

While some aspects of pre-pandemic life – like socializing indoors without a mask and travelling – have made a comeback, offices across the country have yet to return to their pre-pandemic occupancy rates.

Whether companies will abandon the remote and hybrid workplace models that became popular during the pandemic is to be determined. But two things are clear: Office vacancy rates have been rising since the beginning of the pandemic and office-to-residential conversions are becoming more common in mid-size and large Canadian cities.

In its latest National Market Snapshot, investment management company Colliers took stock of office vacancy rates in 12 Canadian cities during the third quarter of 2022. According to the report, the average office vacancy rate across Canada is 13 per cent, compared to just over 8 per cent at the start of the pandemic.

Calgary has the highest vacancy rate, with 27.5 per cent of offices sitting empty. Edmonton’s rate sits at 19 per cent, Regina’s at 17.5 per cent, Montreal’s at 14.7 per cent, Saskatoon’s at 14.5 per cent, Halifax’s at 14.1 per cent, Waterloo’s at 13.3 per cent, Winnipeg’s at 12.7, Ottawa’s at 10.6 and Toronto’s at 10.1. Vancouver boasts the lowest vacancy rate, at 5.8 per cent.

Penny Gurstein is a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning who specializes in real estate and housing. She believes what’s happening is the acceleration of a trend that began before the pandemic.

“I think COVID really just sped up the trend toward more flexible working arrangements that’s been going on for a while,” she told CTVNews.ca in an interview over the phone on Wednesday. “Businesses that are trying to attract a younger workforce have recognized that something their employees want is more flexibility, so they don’t need as much office space.”

As office vacancy rates creep, building owners, developers and city planners are increasingly warming to the idea of converting empty and outdated office spaces into homes. This saves them from needing to demolish and rebuild underused assets, and fills demand for housing.

This concept isn’t new either.

For decades, developers have transformed banks, schools, factories and churches into condominiums and apartments, and there are several examples of office conversions in Canada prior to the pandemic.

An advantage of repurposing existing buildings is that it reduces some of the environmental impact of construction. Between three office-to-residential conversion projects completed since 2019 and an upcoming fourth project, Alberta-based Strategic Group estimates it will have saved 56,000 tonnes of building materials and 17 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

A photo from Strategic Group shows the kitchen and living room of a unit in the Cube housing development, which saw an empty office building in downtown Calgary converted into a residential building with 65 one- and two-bedroom apartments. (Strategic Group)

“That’s the equivalent of taking 37,000 vehicles off the road each year,” Ken Toews, Strategic Group’s senior vice president of development, said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca on Wednesday.

Toews explained that construction accounts for 11 per cent of global climate emissions, according to the World Green Building Council, so part of the appeal of repurposing existing buildings is to help bring that number down.

Of course, there are also financial considerations.

Once a building’s vacancy rate creeps up to 20 per cent, it starts to lose money, explained Steven Paynter, principal at Gensler Architecture and Design.

“There’s a lot of buildings at that point now,” he told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Wednesday. “In the last six months, as the vacancy rates have climbed up and people are not renewing their office leases, all of a sudden everyone wants to talk about it and wants to get these projects moving.”

Gensler saw this coming at the beginning of the pandemic and created a scoring system to help developers determine which buildings are well suited for conversion and which aren’t.

Buildings with a small floor plate are ideal because it’s easier to design residential units in a space with an elevator-to-window depth of around 35 feet than, for example, 80 feet. Buildings from the 1970s tend to have these smaller floor plates. Buildings with plenty of windows and pre-existing parking are also an asset, since it’s difficult and costly to retrofit these features.

“We’ve done a lot of work on this,” Paynter said. “We’ve studied over 350 buildings around North America now, and what we’ve found is, if you’re lucky. About 30 per cent of the time these projects will make economic sense.”

Nevertheless, Paynter expects to see office-to-residential conversions in every major North American city before long, though it’ll take more time to happen in some cities than others, mostly due to municipal zoning and approval policies.

Cities need to approve applications for office-to-residential conversions, and some cities have zoning rules that protect office space. For example, Paynter said Toronto has designated employment zones where the amount of office space is protected. This adds another barrier to making conversions.

“At the moment it’s hard to do these types of conversions in Toronto because of the city rules,” Paynter said.

The federal Liberals are aware of this barrier, and in the 2021 election, campaigned on a promise to commit to $600 million to support office- and retail-to-housing conversions, and to work with municipalities to create a fast-track system for permits to allow faster conversions.

Paynter said he hasn’t noticed any movement on those promises yet, but in the meantime, some municipalities have taken up the mantle.

Through its Downtown Calgary Development Incentive Program, the City of Calgary offers a grant for office-to-residential conversions of $75 per square foot. The program launched in August 2021 and has approved five conversions, with two more likely to receive approval soon.

Calgary has also made progress speeding up the zoning approval process for office-to-residential conversions, said Toews.

Since 2019, Strategic Group has completed three office-to-residential conversions in Edmonton and Calgary, creating more than 200 new residential units, and is about to break ground on a fourth.

A photo from Strategic Group shows the kitchen of a unit in the e11even housing development, which saw an empty office building in downtown Edmonton converted into a residential building with 177 rental units. (Strategic Group)

“We’ve been pretty excited about conversions for quite a while,” he Toews said. “I knew we were on the right track when we were working on adaptive reuse for buildings, but I didn’t realize it was that big a deal.”

Toews said it took only a month to receive zoning approval for one of its Calgary conversions.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “Calgary has taken a different approach and it’s refreshing because a lot of developers get disenchanted with low approvals.”

Calgary’s city council sees office-to-residential conversions as a solution to excess office space and a way to develop more vibrant downtown neighbourhoods. The federal government sees them as an opportunity for property owners and communities to trade excess space for market-based rentals.

Gurstein sees them as a potential opportunity to create affordable housing, one she hopes won’t be wasted.

“If they ensure at least some affordable units geared-to-income, those kinds of things, I think that’s totally reasonable,” she said.

“But unless there is sort of something in place to ensure there would be affordability in there, I don’t really see it as addressing affordability.” 

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