More than 500 days after New Brunswick’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed, the province enters the green phase of recovery Saturday, without any Public Health restrictions.
Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province’s chief medical officer of health, has warned cases will increase, but because of vaccination rates, she expects they will be less serious and result in few hospitalizations.
A total of 66.7 per cent of New Brunswickers aged 12 and older are fully vaccinated, and 82 per cent had at least one dose, as of Friday.
More than a million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca-Oxford have been administered.
A year-and-a-half ago, health experts predicted it might take until now just to develop a vaccine.
New Brunswick officials anxiously watched as COVID-19 swept across other parts of the globe, with emergency rooms over capacity and under-equipped, death rates rising and lockdowns increasingly commonplace.
They said it was only a matter of time before the coronavirus reached the province.
But students and teachers from several New Brunswick high schools were about to leave for week-long trips to Europe, including Italy, one of the hardest-hit countries. Hundreds of families were also about to go to Florida, among other destinations, for March break.
The government acted swiftly, ordering those returning from international travel not to attend school for two weeks, but the virus did indeed find its way into the province.
It has infected 2,365 people, claimed the lives of 46, many of whom died alone because of COVID restrictions, and the livelihoods of thousands.
It has shut down borders, kept families separated, and seniors in long-term care homes isolated, longing for human touch.
Saturday marks a new chapter. The emergency mandatory order has ended and all restrictions are lifted, including mandatory masks, gathering limits and provincial border checks for travellers within Canada.
Here is a look back at some of the key events along the province’s winding and sometimes bumpy pandemic journey:
March 11, 2020: First presumptive case
Public Health announces the first presumptive case of COVID-19 in New Brunswick. It is also the first case in Atlantic Canada.
The woman in her 50s, who has returned from France, was “minimally symptomatic” and self-isolating.
The news comes just hours after the World Health Organization deems the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, infecting more than 100,000 people in more than 100 countries.
March 12, 2020: First case confirmed
The national laboratory in Winnipeg confirms the presumptive case, which was considered “probable,” is positive.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell won’t say which part of France the woman was travelling from or what airports she travelled through, citing privacy. She says she doesn’t know how many people came into contact with the woman, but those who have been traced are in self-isolation.
Russell recommends people avoid mass gatherings because they can increase the spread and create additional strain on the health-care system.
Premier Blaine Higgs announces an all-party cabinet committee will help manage the outbreak.
Toilet paper starts to become scarce because some people begin stockpiling in a panic.
Princess Cruises, one of the main cruise lines with ships scheduled to visit Saint John, announces it will suspend its global operations for 60 days after passengers on two of its ships — Diamond Princess and Grand Princess — become infected, both abroad and in North America.
March 13, 2020: Schools closed
Late on a Friday, Premier Blaine Higgs announces all public schools will close for two weeks, possibly longer, to minimize the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak. Earlier in the week, Ontario and Quebec also closed public schools.
Universities and community colleges also close.
The closure will not affect daycares, which Higgs says are an essential service. (Three days later, they too are ordered to close, along with a long list of public places, including arenas and theatres.)
The province’s Tele-Care 811 line is “pretty much jam-packed” with people calling about their health, officials say.
March 19, 2020: State of emergency declared
Premier Blaine Higgs declares a state of emergency, giving the government broad powers to enforce business closures and Public Health measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
“These are unprecedented actions, but these are necessary as we are in unprecedented times,” Higgs tells reporters, as the number of confirmed cases jumps to seven, and probable cases stand at four, with no hospitalizations.
Too many people are not following Public Health advice to stay home if possible and to maintain a social distance of six feet, or about two metres, he says.
“Before this was a recommendation, today it’s a requirement.”
All businesses are ordered to close, except those deemed essential, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, banks, repair garages and automotive parts stores, post offices, convenience stores, hardware stores, animal and fish feed providers, NB Liquor and Cannabis NB. Restaurants can remain open as takeouts.
Asked if it’s possible someone could go to jail for disobeying, Higgs says the declaration does provide authorities with such powers. “But that is not our intent. Nor do we hope that we get there.”
Air Canada reduces flights into New Brunswick until April 30.
March 25, 2020: Border checkpoints announced
New Brunswick sets up screening checkpoints at the Quebec, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. borders as the provincial case count jumps to 26.
“Unnecessary travel is no longer permitted,” says Premier Blaine Higgs, citing non-residents entering the province to socialize or shop.
Anyone allowed in must self-isolate for 14 days. Anyone who doesn’t comply is to receive a warning, followed by a fine of up to $10,000.
New Brunswick could be dealing with the effects of COVID-19 for another 18 to 24 months before a vaccine or other treatments are available, says Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell.
Health-care students and retirees offer help to combat the spread of the virus.
April 2, 2020: Schools to remain closed
Education Minister Dominic Cardy announces public schools will likely remain closed for the rest of the school year and lays out a plan for students to spend from one to 2½ hours a day working at home on material to be available online.
The province could run out of testing supplies within one week with ramped-up testing, and personal protective equipment (PPE) within three to four weeks, Premier Blaine Higgs says. The global competition for scarce supplies is “very concerning.”
Higgs has already called on the federal government to declare a national state of emergency, saying Canada needs a consistent, national approach to stop the spread of the virus.
April 6, 2020: COVID task force created
Premier Blaine Higgs announces a four-person task force to oversee the health-care system’s response to the pandemic.
The task force’s decision-making authority over all aspects of the system, including health authorities, ambulances, extramural care, special care homes and nursing homes, will allow the government to move more quickly, he says.
Ted Flemming, the health minister at the time, compares the approach to a military structure required to act quickly in a war.
The move comes after it took two weeks to get the required sign-offs from 23 different officials across the health-care system to change a protocol.
April 9, 2020: Up to 1,750 deaths predicted
Provincial projections suggest COVID-19 could kill 550 to 1,750 New Brunswickers over the next 18 to 24 months, until a vaccine is available, depending on compliance with Public Health measures.
“To put those numbers in perspective, 1,800 New Brunswickers died in the Second World War,” Premier Blaine Higgs tells reporters during the daily COVID briefing in Fredericton.
Had the government taken no action, such as closing schools and non-essential businesses, as many as 5,600 New Brunswickers could have died during the pandemic, says Ted Flemming, the health minister.
The province has 111 active cases of COVID-19, with five people in hospital, including four in intensive care.
April 24, 2020: 4-phase recovery plan begins
Premier Blaine Higgs announces the “hard work” of New Brunswickers to follow Public Health measures to flatten the COVID-19 curve has allowed the province to take the first step toward recovery.
A four-phase recovery plan begins immediately with allowing one household to bubble with another, modelled after success in New Zealand.
“Welcome to the new normal,” Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health, says of the first phase, which also includes reopening businesses, educational facilities, the health-care system, recreational activities, and cultural events.
It comes as New Brunswick marks its sixth straight day with no new cases of COVID-19. There are 11 active cases, including four people in hospital, one of whom is in intensive care
The goal of the first phase is to balance the reopening of social and economic settings while preventing a major resurgence of transmission, Higgs says.
There won’t be any concerts or festivals for at least the rest of the year, he says, and bars and organized sports may not be able to start up again until a vaccine is available, which could take 12 to 18 months.
April 28, 2020: Foreign temporary workers banned
Premier Blaine Higgs announces foreign temporary workers will be banned from entering the province to work on farms or in fish plants.
“Right now the risk of allowing more people to enter the province is simply too great,” he says.
Although Higgs pledges to work with producers to shift some of the 1,500 foreign workers already in the province to fill gaps, Murray Tweedie, owner of M & S Wild Blueberry Farms, says he could face closure.
Twenty-four workers are due to arrive from Jamaica on May 4 to help prepare his fields for pollination by 700 hives of bees coming from Michigan nine days later.
Federal cabinet minister Dominic LeBlanc says the Trudeau government disagrees with the decision because COVID-19 has already brought enough economic uncertainty in the agricultural and seafood sectors.
May 8, 2020: Orange phase of recovery begins
New Brunswick has entered the orange alert phase of recovery. Here are the measures that are now in effect. For more information please visit <a href=”https://t.co/PdhJJAI1B9″>https://t.co/PdhJJAI1B9</a><a href=”https://t.co/aqU30aNBXL”>https://t.co/aqU30aNBXL</a> <a href=”https://t.co/ZvvyJRFDEK”>pic.twitter.com/ZvvyJRFDEK</a>
The closure of non-essential services to slow the spread of COVID-19 has devastated the economy and forced businesses to close temporarily.
New Brunswick’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose 4.4 percentage points from March to April, after the province lost 27,900 full-time jobs and 6,400 part-time jobs.
The new phase, the orange phase, allows thousands of non-essential businesses, such as retail shops, restaurants, museums, libraries and campgrounds to welcome back patrons, but they must develop an operational plan to meet Public Health measures. These include physical distancing, hand and respiratory hygiene, screening for symptoms, cleaning and disinfecting practices, signage, facial coverings and enforcement.
Inspectors from Public Health, WorkSafeNB and the Department of Public Safety will be visiting workplaces.
A mask is required in public when one cannot maintain a distance of two metres, and workplaces can require the public to wear a mask to gain entry.
May 21, 2020: Surplus turns to deficit
The Department of Finance says it’s now projecting a $299.2-million deficit for 2020-21, rather than the $92.4-million surplus announced when the budget was presented to the legislature March 10.
“The impacts of the pandemic are only beginning to be understood, and it will take more time to fully comprehend the effects on our economy and our finances,” Finance Minister Ernie Steeves says.
Earlier, the Royal Bank of Canada estimated New Brunswick was headed for a $600-million deficit based on the trajectory of the economy, and the Bank of Nova Scotia suggested the budget shortfall would reach $1.19 billion.
May 22, 2020: Yellow phase begins in stages
New Brunswick moves into phase three of its COVID-19 recovery plan, the yellow phase, but it will take several weeks to implement.
Among the immediate changes, New Brunswickers can extend their two-household bubbles to include other family and friends, with physical distancing and a 10-person limit recommended for indoor gatherings.
Barbers and hairstylists also reopen, allowing many people to get their first haircut in months.
Premier Blaine Higgs announces foreign temporary workers will be allowed back in, starting May 29.
“We are still prioritizing the safety of New Brunswickers but as we restart our economy, we have to find the ways to meet the needs of agriculture and seafood sectors.”.
May 27, 2020: ‘Irresponsible’ medical professional blamed for outbreak
Premier Blaine Higgs blames an “irresponsible” medical professional for two other confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Campbellton region, Zone 5, and forcing that northern part of the province back into the more restrictive orange phase of recovery.
The medical professional in their 50s travelled to Quebec for “personal reasons, was not forthcoming about their reasons for travel upon returning to New Brunswick and they did not self-isolate as a result,” Higgs says.
The person then treated patients for two weeks at the Campbellton Regional Hospital and possibly other locations.
The hospital’s emergency department was forced to close for 24 hours and all non-urgent or elective health-care services were cancelled “due to the high risk of transmission of COVID-19,” the Vitalité Health Network says.
The other two cases include a person in their 90s and a child who attended two daycares.
Mobile testing is to be set up and everyone in the region is encouraged to get tested.
After two weeks with no active cases in the province, the region is at a higher risk “due to the actions of one irresponsible individual,” Higgs says. “If you ignore the rules, you put your family, your friends and your fellow New Brunswickers at risk.”
June 2, 2020: Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola breaks silence
Premier Blaine Higgs never publicly identifies the medical professional who travelled to Quebec, but Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola, a family physician, is quickly named on social media and his photo circulated.
On June 2, Ngola confirms in an interview with Radio-Canada‘s La Matinale, his first since being labelled by some as “patient zero” in the resurgence of cases, that he was the doctor.
He says he drove overnight to Montreal to pick up his four-year-old daughter because her mother had gone to Africa for a funeral. He returned to work at the hospital the next day without self-isolating for 14 days.
“Maybe it was an error in judgment,” he says, pointing out that workers, including nurses who live in Quebec, cross the border each day with no isolation period required.
Ngola, who is from Congo, faces racist threats, is suspended by the Vitalité Health Network, and criminally investigated by the RCMP.
June 4, 2020: First COVID-related death, restrictions eased
COVID-19 claims its first New Brunswick victim. Daniel Ouellette, 84, was a resident at the Manoir de la Vallée, a long-term care home in Atholville.
“He couldn’t beat it. He tried, but it’s a difficult disease,” says his son Michel Ouellette.
On May 29, the care home asked if they could test his father, along with other residents and staff. Two days later, a doctor called saying his father was COVID-positive, unconscious and being transported to the Campbellton Regional Hospital.
It was difficult for the family not to be able to say good-bye to him because of COVID restrictions. “That we couldn’t go see him … comfort him, hold his hand … I wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” Ouellette said in French.
The 15 active cases in the province include five residents of the Manoir and four employees.
Officials link the outbreak to a medical professional travelling to Quebec and returning to work without self-isolating.
More than 300 people are self-isolating as a result of contact tracing, including six health-care workers.
A record 4,293 people were tested over three days — more than 10 per cent of the population of Zone 5. None tested positive.
The premier announces plans to open the borders to Canadians with immediate family in the province or who own property, starting June 19, provided they self-isolate for 14 days.
Cabinet and the all-party COVID-19 committee also deem attending funerals and burials for an immediate family member in New Brunswick essential travel.
Indoor gatherings of up to 10 people in private homes will be permitted everywhere but the Campbellton region. Outdoor gatherings of up to 50, and religious services, wedding and funerals of up to 50 will also be permitted with physical distancing.
Residents in long-term care homes will be allowed to have up to two visitors outdoors.
Elective surgeries and other non-emergency services will increase, and low-contact team sports will be permitted.
Dr. Jennifer Russell says the “unintended consequences” of isolation during the pandemic include damage to mental health, income and the timely access to medical treatment.
June 5, 2020: Masks mandatory to enter public buildings
New Brunswickers must wear a face covering to enter buildings open to the general public, starting June 9, the province announces.
“Once inside the building and if you are able to maintain physical distancing of two metres, the mask can be removed,” the government clarifies nearly four hours after the announcement.
Previously, face coverings were required only in locations where maintaining a physical distance of two metres, was not possible.
June 6, 2020: Province reverses mandatory mask order
Just one day after making masks mandatory to enter public buildings, the province scraps the new rule.
“It was not the intent to place an additional expectation on businesses or the public regarding wearing a face covering in a public space,” it says.
People do have to wear masks if they are in a public space where social distancing cannot be maintained.
July 3, 2020: Atlantic bubble begins
The Atlantic bubble opens, allowing residents of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador to travel in the region for any reason with no need to self-isolate for 14 days.
There are many smiling faces at the Aulac checkpoint, excited to be travelling to New Brunswick and be reunited with family and friends.
With hundreds of vehicles waiting to cross, the delays are frustrating for some.
Aug. 10, 2020: Proposal to delay provincial election
BREAKING: in letter to Liberal leader Kevin Vickers, Higgs asks for agreement on no election until 2022 or official end of pandemic; deal would involve formalization of all-party committee & policy input from all parties. <a href=”https://t.co/3tRtCNL6oS”>pic.twitter.com/3tRtCNL6oS</a>
Premier Blaine Higgs asks the three opposition party leaders to agree to a deal that would avoid forcing an early provincial election. He pledges to listen to their policy ideas if they agree to keep his Progressive Conservatives in power until the scheduled election in October 2022 or until the pandemic is over.
Aug. 14, 2020: Liberals reject election deal
The Opposition Liberals pull out of negotiations to delay a provincial election.
Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers says Premier Blaine Higgs wants unlimited powers for two years while insisting that other parties sign on for major reforms.
Higgs says he will take the weekend to think about next steps.
Aug. 17, 2020: Higgs calls election for Sept. 14, doctor faces charge
Premier Blaine Higgs calls a provincial election for Sept. 14, despite the COVID-19 outbreak — the first to be held in Canada during the pandemic.
The doctor accused of being at the centre of the COVID-19 outbreak in the Campbellton region in May faces a charge under the provincial Emergency Measures Act. Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola is issued an appearance notice for allegedly failing to quarantine when he returned from Quebec.
Ngola’s trip was the week of May 10. The COVID-19 outbreak began May 21. A total of 41 people in the Campbellton region became infected, and two of them, who were in their 80s, died.
Oct. 8, 2020: Masks mandatory, regardless of distancing
Masks will be mandatory in most indoor public spaces in New Brunswick, regardless of whether physical distancing can be maintained, as of midnight, Premier Blaine Higgs announces.
Only children under age two and people with a valid medical excuse are exempt.
Higgs says he had hoped the majority of people would “do the right thing” to protect the people around them after he raised the mandatory mask issue last week.
But enforcement officers surveying public spaces across the province have found the average number of people wearing a mask is 36 per cent. In major urban centres, the number is as low as 16 per cent.
Nov. 23, 2020: Atlantic bubble bursts
The Atlantic bubble bursts when P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador announce they are withdrawing for at least two weeks because of rising case counts in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
New Brunswick reports 15 new cases and another death, the province’s seventh.
Dec. 15, 2020: 1st shipment of COVID vaccines arrives
The 1,950 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are in a white carton packed with dry ice to keep the vaccine near minus 80 degrees.
The valuable cargo is driven to the Miramichi Regional Hospital, where the province’s first vaccination clinics will take place.
The vaccines arrive 279 days after New Brunswick reported its first COVID-19 case. More than 550 other people have tested positive for the respiratory virus. Eight people have died.
Dec. 19, 2020: 1st New Brunswicker receives vaccine
Pauline Gauvin, 84, of Miramichi, becomes the first New Brunswicker to get immunized against COVID-19. She says it was a piece of cake.
Everyone getting a dose from the first shipment is from a high-priority group, which includes long-term care residents and staff, health-care workers and seniors 85 or older.
The province’s strategy is to vaccinate New Brunswickers from the oldest to the youngest.
Jan. 17, 2021: Record daily high of cases
New Brunswick reports 36 new infections, the highest number of cases in a single day since the start of the pandemic.
Many of the cases identified are at the Nadeau Poultry plant in Haut-Madawaska, west of Edmundston.
Jan. 22, 2021: Edmundston region lockdown
The Edmundston region, Zone 4, will go into full lockdown Jan. 23 at midnight, amid climbing case numbers and a series of outbreaks, the chief medical officer of health announces.
The evolution of the pandemic in the region is “extremely worrying,” says Dr. Jennifer Russell, with the highest active case count in the province at 129 and cases reported in schools, workplaces and residences for the elderly.
“At the current rate, that number will exceed 200 active cases early next week and potentially 400 active cases before the month is over,” she said.
Businesses are told to close or reduce operations to essential activities. Residents are told to stay home and keep to their one-household bubbles.
The next day, Saint John, Fredericton and Moncton are also bumped back to the most restrictive red COVID alert level.
New Brunswick has now recorded 1,087 confirmed COVID cases and 13 people have died.
Feb. 2, 2021: Variant first reported in U.K. detected
The dreaded COVID-19 variants arrive in New Brunswick. Dr. Jennifer Russell, the chief medical officer of health, confirms three cases of the variant first reported in the U.K., now referred to as the alpha variant. Two are in the Saint John region, one in the Miramichi region.
Two of the cases are related to international travel and one is related to travel in Canada. All three individuals are self-isolating.
“It is a very fast-moving strain, it infects quickly and in higher numbers, and it will be difficult to get ahead of it,” Russell says.
April 26, 2021: Variant first recorded in India confirmed
A case of COVID-19 previously reported in the Fredericton region, Zone 3, is confirmed as the more aggressive variant first recorded in India, now known as the delta variant.
All variants of concern are highly contagious, cause more severe symptoms, require more people to be hospitalized, result in more ICU admissions and ventilation, and cause more deaths.
But this variant has two mutations that make it “more concerning than all the others,” says Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell.
Public Health declares an outbreak at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton after six cases are confirmed at Magee House, an apartment-style residence with 101 units for mature students, some of whom have children.
The outbreak involves the delta variant.
The lockdown extends to St. Thomas University and the New Brunswick Community College because of the potential for exposure.
May 5, 2021: AstraZeneca-linked death
The chief medical officer of health confirms the province’s first death linked to the Astra-Zeneca-Oxford vaccine.
A person in their 60s died after developing blood clots following vaccination, says Dr. Jennifer Russell, declining to release other details.
This is the second serious case of adverse effects from the vaccine. Two other cases are under investigation.
Blood clots and low platelets are “a very rare side effect of this vaccine,” Russell stresses.
Health Minister Dorothy Shephard says the risks of dying from COVID-19 are “far greater than the risks associated with receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine.”
June 4, 2021: Charge against doctor dropped
The Crown drops a charge against the family doctor accused of breaking COVID-19 rules and being the source of an outbreak in Campbellton, 11 days before his trial was set to begin.
Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola was charged with violating the provincial Emergency Measures Act for failing to quarantine when he returned from Quebec, but the prosecutor says there is no longer a reasonable prospect of conviction.
His lawyers call on Premier Blaine Higgs for a third time to apologize. Higgs says he has nothing to apologize for.
June 11, 2021: Doctor plans to sue
Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola plans to sue the province and the RCMP, his lawyers announce.
The draft statement of claim alleges “institutional anti-Black systemic racism,” abuse of power, negligence, defamation, malicious prosecution and a breach of the doctor’s charter rights.
Premier Blaine Higgs, who is not named as a defendant, says he does not regret his comments.
He has challenged Nogla to waive his privacy rights so he can reveal what he says he knows about the doctor.
June 23, 2021: N.B.-N.S. border blockade
Tempers flare at the New Brunswick-Nova Scotia border when the highway is blocked by dozens of protesters demonstrating against restrictions that require most travellers from New Brunswick to self-isolate upon arrival in Nova Scotia.
July 11, 2021: 50% of eligible population fully vaccinated
The vaccination campaign reaches a milestone. The COVID-19 dashboard shows 50.4 per cent of New Brunswickers aged 12 and older have received two doses of a vaccine. In other words, half the eligible population is now fully vaccinated.
July 23, 2021: Going green
Premier Blaine Higgs tells New Brunswickers the province is going green. Effective July 30 at 11:59 p.m., all remaining COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted, regardless of whether the province meets vaccination targets.
No more masks in public spaces. No more limits on gatherings. No more checks at provincial borders.
With so few cases, vaccination rates so high, and no one in hospital, he says it’s a tough sell to keep the emergency order in place.
28 Percent Of Gulf Of Mexico Oil Production Still Offline Following Ida – OilPrice.com
Crude oil production in the United States had fallen sharply over the last two weeks in the wake of Hurricane Ida, but production for the next reporting period is on track to be down as well, as 28% of all crude oil production in the Gulf of Mexico still remains shut-in after the hurricane.
Meanwhile, WTI prices have risen from $69.21 per barrel as the hurricane hit, to $72.62 today—a nearly 5% rise.
Initially, the hurricane wiped out nearly all of the oil production in the Gulf of Mexico. Today—weeks later—28.24% of Gulf of Mexico oil production is still shut in, according to BSEE, along with 39.4% of all gas production on the Gulf.
For oil, this is still more than 500,000 bpd shut in.
According to the EIA, US oil production fell from 11.5 million bpd before the hurricane to 10 million bpd for week ending September 3. Production rose a mere 100,000 bpd in the next week, ending September 10. But the next reporting period, which ends tomorrow, will also be depressed, with half a million barrels per day still offline as of Thursday.
As for when production should be back in full swing, the Energy Department anticipates that this won’t be until October—with refinery resumption taking even longer.
The supply problems are creating upward pressure on oil prices, which until very recently were concerned more with demand problems due to the coronavirus pandemic—and this fear of a lack of demand has dogged oil prices for over a year.
It seems, however, that Hurricane Ida has cured that problem for the industry—at least for now.
According to the IEA, oil supplies won’t be high enough until early next year to replenish what has recently been depleted.
By Julianne Geiger for Oilprice.com
More Top Reads From Oilprice.com:
Julianne Geiger is a veteran editor, writer and researcher for Oilprice.com, and a member of the Creative Professionals Networking Group.
Opinion: Activist shareholder's bid to oust CN Rail executive, board members is misguided – The Globe and Mail
Imagine for a moment that activist investor Christopher Hohn owned the Montreal Canadiens.
Picture the billionaire British founder of TCI Fund Management telling hockey fans he is firing the Habs’ general manager and coach, and sending the NHL team’s three best players to the Calgary Flames. And Mr. Hohn also owns the Flames.
That’s the sort of misalignment that exists with fellow shareholders in Canadian National Railway Co. as Mr. Hohn presses ahead with a proxy fight at the Montreal-based railway.
TCI owns 5.2 per cent of CN Rail. TCI also owns eight per cent of Calgary-based Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.
Over the past four months, Mr. Hohn steadily ramped up a campaign against CN executives. He wanted them to end the pursuit of Kansas City Southern (KCS), the U.S. railway that ranks as the corporate equivalent of the Canadiens’ Hall of Fame goalie and two young forwards who lit it up in last year’s Stanley Cup run. Mr. Hohn now wants four of 14 directors replaced, including chair Robert Pace, and chief executive Jean-Jacques Ruest ousted.
Mr. Hohn’s approach since May effectively has conceded KCS and its coveted southwestern U.S. and Mexican network to CP Rail.
The fact that Mr. Hohn has two horses in the race for KCS, one of which is his clear favourite, means his goals differ from those of fellow CN Rail shareholders. His bare-knuckles approach to such fights has been labelled as “poison,” and Mr. Hohn has been compared to a “locust” by executives at past targets, which include Deutsche Boerse and railway CSX Corp.
Mr. Hohn makes two arguments to support TCI’s activist campaign. In letters and presentations to the CN Rail board, he showed the railway’s results lag those of rivals. Mr. Hohn also said: “The bid for KCS exposed a basic misunderstanding of the railroad industry and regulatory environment.”
The first point is true. For a number of reasons, some outside the railway’s control, CN Rail currently trails other North American railways in efficiency. However, CN Rail executives have made it clear they are on top of the problems. Operations are going to improve, no matter who is on the board.
Mr. Hohn’s second argument is self-serving nonsense. If anything, the CN Rail board and CEO should have been canned if they lost their nerve and failed to take a shot at KCS, the smallest of North America’s seven large railways, and the player with the strongest growth prospects.
For two decades, U.S. regulators at the Surface Transportation Board (STB) made it clear that any consolidation among major railways would face intense scrutiny on competition concerns. In March, when CP Rail kicked off the battle for KCS by striking a friendly, US$29-billion deal, it was universally acknowledged that if the STB was going to approve any takeover, KCS would be the target and no further deals were likely.
KCS represented a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a network that seamlessly links Mexico’s industrial and agricultural centers to U.S. and Canadian markets. In April, CN Rail tabled a richer offer, and for a few weeks, seemed likely to win KCS.
In early July, U.S. President Joe Biden effectively changed the rules of the takeover game by signing an executive order aimed at limiting corporate concentration across all sectors. The next month, the STB nixed a key element of CN Rail’s takeover strategy on competition issues, while CP Rail raised its offer.
With CP Rail now poised to win KCS – the STB still needs to give final approval – consider what CN Rail accomplished.
Mr. Ruest came close to building the dominant player in an industry that rewards scale. He saw the landscape shift mid-deal, yet still will walk away with US$1.4-billion in termination fees – a hefty consolation prize – and the satisfaction of forcing an arch rival to pay more on an acquisition.
It’s not the outcome CN Rail’s CEO wanted. However, it’s no reason to replace Mr. Ruest and four directors. Unless you are TCI’s Chris Hohn, and your nose is out of joint because the Montreal team ignored your advice, and the Calgary team had to pay a higher price to win the prize.
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Summer travel surge has WestJet and Air Canada asking for volunteer help – CBC.ca
A surge in summer travel across the country has forced Canada’s two biggest airlines to ask staff to help volunteer at airports to overcome staffing challenges — a move that is creating pushback from unions.
In an email to all employees, WestJet described how the rapid growth in passenger numbers is causing operational problems at several airports, including its flagship airport in Calgary.
The “growing pains of recovery requires all-hands-on-deck,” read the message, which included an open call for any staff members to sign up to volunteer to help guests requiring wheelchair assistance at the Calgary International Airport.
Meanwhile, Air Canada has needed extra personnel at Toronto’s Pearson airport since “airport partners are stretched beyond their capacity, which led to significant flight cancellations and missed connections,” read an internal memo.
In late August and early September, air passenger traffic reached its highest point since the pandemic began. The increase in business is critical to the aviation industry, which was devastated early on in the crisis as many countries restricted international travel.
The industry is not immune to the staffing challenges faced by many sectors as lockdowns started to lift; airlines continue to cope with changing government restrictions, while also following a variety of COVID-19 protocols at domestic and international airports.
At Toronto’s Pearson, the international arrival process can take up to three hours, as passengers are screened by Canada Border Services Agency and Public Health Agency of Canada agents, collect bags and possibly take a COVID-19 test.
“As the technology for sharing and displaying vaccine documents improves, passengers become more comfortable with the new process and vaccine-driven changes in border protections take effect, we hope to see further improvement in wait-time conditions in the terminals,” a Pearson spokesperson said in an email statement, which highlighted other steps to reduce delays.
But several unions have advised their members to avoid volunteering for a variety of reasons.
CUPE, which represents flight attendants at WestJet, declined to comment. However, in a letter, it told members that “the company is imploring you to provide free, volunteer and zero-cost labour. THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE.”
The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents WestJet’s pilots, also declined to comment. But in a message to members, it highlighted how “if you are injured doing this work, you may not be covered by our disability insurer.”
Unifor, which represents customer service agents at both of Canada’s major airlines, said its members were upset about the call for volunteers and the union wasn’t happy that there wasn’t any advanced warning or conversation.
“Take a group of workers that is already very stressed by the kind of operation that’s going on, the quantity of passengers, the amount of extra processes that are in place because of COVID in order to travel — and then adding these pieces on is not helpful,” said Leslie Dias, Unifor’s director of airlines.
During the pandemic, WestJet decided to outsource the work of guest-service agents, who would help passengers that require wheelchairs, assist with check-in kiosks and co-ordinate lineups.
But the contractor is struggling to provide enough workers, said Dias, and that’s why there was a call for volunteers.
After flying more than 700 flights daily in 2019, WestJet flew as few as 30 some days during the pandemic. Currently, there are more than 400 flights each day.
“WestJet, as is the case across Canada and across many industries, faces continued issues due to labour hiring challenges as a result of COVID-19,” said spokesperson Morgan Bell in an emailed statement.
“As WestJet looks ahead to recovery, we continue to work toward actively recalling and hiring company-wide, with the current expectation we will reach 9,000 fully trained WestJetters by the end of the year, which is more than twice as many WestJetters as we had at our lowest point in the pandemic some five months ago,” she said.
Air Canada said it only asked salaried management to help volunteer at Pearson airport.
Unifor said the airline was short of workers because the company didn’t have enough training capacity to accommodate recalled employees and couldn’t arrange restricted-area passes on time.
Thousands of airline workers lost their jobs, were furloughed or faced wage reductions last year, although the carriers are bringing back workers as travel activity increases.
At WestJet, its customer service agents have been recalled, according to Unifor. Many employees in other positions, though, remain out of work, including about 500 furloughed pilots.
Air Canada said it has been continually recalling employees since last spring, including more than 5,000 in July and August.
Asking for volunteers is an “unusual” occurrence in the industry, said Rick Erickson, an independent airline analyst based in Calgary. But he said it’s not surprising since cutting a workforce is much easier than building it back up.
Airlines have to retrain staff, secure valid certification and security passes, and find new hires as well.
Erickson said he even spotted WestJet CEO Ed Sims helping at the check-in counter in Calgary in recent weeks, as passenger activity was at its peak so far this year.
“This has been the most challenging time, honestly, in civil aviation history; we’ve never, ever seen anything approaching 90 per cent of your revenues drying up,” said Erickson, noting that airlines still have to watch their finances closely.
Asking employees to volunteer isn’t illegal, but it does raise some questions, said Sarah Coderre, a labour lawyer with Bow River Law LLP in Calgary.
“Whether or not it’s fair, and the sort of position it puts the employees in, if they choose not to volunteer, that would be concerning for me from a legal standpoint,” said Coderre.
Air Canada is currently operating at about 35 to 40 per cent of its 2019 flying capacity, but said one bright spot on the horizon is bookings for winter getaways toward the end of this year and the beginning of 2022.
“When looking to the sun leisure markets, we are very optimistic about our recovery,” a spokesperson said by email. “We are currently observing demand growth that is above 2019 levels.”
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