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Thousands march in silence in Serbia after mass shootings

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Thousands marched in silence on Monday in Serbia in a major outpouring of grief and anger against the populist government and how it reacted after two mass shootings last week that left 17 people dead and 21 wounded, many of them children.

The gatherings in Belgrade and the northern city of Novi Sad were dubbed “Serbia against violence.” They were called by opposition parties, which demanded the resignations of government ministers and the withdrawal licenses to the state controlled mainstream media that promote violence and often host convicted war criminals and crime figures on their programs.

After the protest officially ended, some of the protesters chanted slogans against Serbia’s increasingly autocratic president, Aleksandar Vucic, demanding that he step down, as they passed by government headquarters in Belgrade.

The president later dismissed the protest as “shameful” during an interview on pro-government Happy television. He accused the opposition of abusing people’s grief for their political ends and inciting violence.

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“It’s pure politics,” said Vucic, also describing the organizers as “vultures.”

The shootings — on Wednesday in Belgrade at an elementary school, and on Thursday in a rural area south of the capital — left the nation stunned. They triggered calls to encourage tolerance and rid society of widespread hate speech and a gun culture stemming from the 1990s wars.

Education Minister Branko Ruzic submitted his resignation on Sunday and authorities launched a gun crackdown, but opposition said this was too little, too late.

There were no official estimates of crowds that streamed into central Belgrade streets on Monday evening, but observers described the gathering as the biggest in years against Vucic and his government. In Novi Sad, participants held a banner reading “Everything has to stop” and threw flowers into the Danube River to commemorate those killed in the shootings.

“We have to learn anew how to speak to each other and how to create a healthy future … to nurture the beauty of living, of art, science and humanity,” said Biljana Stojkovic, a leader of the leftist Zajedno, or Together, party. “The worst among us have been in power for an entire decade, and they imposed the norms of aggression, intolerance, crime and lies.”

One of the largest anti-government protest in recent years in Serbia also reflected how rattled the nation has been by the shootings.

The school shooting on Wednesday was the first in Serbia’s recent history. A 13-year-old boy took his father’s guns and opened fire at the school he attended in the heart of Belgrade, shooting at his peers and killing seven girls, one boy and a school guard.

A day later, a 20-year-old man used an automatic weapon in a shooting rampage in two villages in central Serbia, randomly killing eight people and wounding 14. Prosecutors said that he has confessed to the killings and said he wanted to spread fear among residents, state media have reported.

Earlier on Monday, police deployed in schools throughout Serbia in an effort to restore a shaken sense of security as children largely returned to classes. Teams of experts have been sent with the backing of U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, offering support and guidelines for children, their parents and teachers.

Thousands have lit candles and left messages, toys and flowers to commemorate the victims. On Monday, a police officer stood in silence at the entrance of Vladislav Ribnikar school, where students are set to gradually start returning on Wednesday.

Also Monday, people who own unlicensed guns can start handing them over at police stations without punishment. Other new gun-control measures include a moratorium on new licenses, strict control of existing ones and the tightening of rules for gun possession, which officials say will leave many current gun owners without weapons.

Independent international surveys have put Serbia among the top countries in Europe for gun ownership per capita. Gun control has been loose since the 1990s Yugoslav wars, when many brought back weapons from battlefields.

Vucic has said there are around 400,000 registered gun owners in Serbia, but many more own guns illegally.

Serbia has never faced up to its role in the conflict against other ethnic groups of the former Yugoslavia. Right-wing and nationalist sentiments have been on the rise and war criminals are regarded as heroes rather than villains, with many retaining public roles after serving their sentences.

On Monday, a group of activists painted a red heart over a mural honoring wartime Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic, who is serving life in prison for genocide in Bosnia on a U.N. court conviction. The mural, located just a few blocks from the school where the shooting took place, surfaced months ago and previous attempts to remove it were thwarted by masked thugs.

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Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report.

 

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‘Abnormally dry’ conditions causing farmers concern in Atlantic Canada

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Farmers in Atlantic Canada are growing increasingly worried about drought, as many regions on the east coast have been classified as drier than usual for this time of year, with little rain in the forecast.

According to the Canadian Drought Monitor, as of the end of April, numerous parts of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador were “abnormally dry,” with some areas in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. marked as experiencing “moderate drought.”

The lack of rain is having an effect: in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, food producers are using their water reserves two months earlier than expected.

William Spurr has been doing what he can to keep his fields from drying up, with much of his crop still in the ground. But he says a hot, dry spring and unusually cold nights have made growing conditions difficult.

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“We’ve just been irrigating non-stop,” Spurr, president of Horticulture Nova Scotia, told CTV National News. “The last two and a half weeks, we’ve been irrigating probably as much as we normally would in like July and August, and it’s not even June yet.”

Spurr says he planned to install a costly irrigation system later this summer but was forced to do it now to ensure he wouldn’t lose a batch of young apple trees.

“I’m a little worried about what could come if we don’t get any rain,” he said. “If this keeps up, then we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Greg Donald, potato board general manager for P.E.I., says many potato producers in the province only got a quarter of the rain that they usually get in both April and May.

“If we get rain, like good rain, over the next couple weeks, we’ll be fine, but if we don’t, it will be very concerning,” Donald said.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, parts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia experienced the driest April on record.

A mild winter followed by a sudden cold snap that plunged temperatures to -20 also took its toll on many farms, including those in Wolfville, N.S.

“That killed all the blossoms in the peaches and nectarines — 90 per cent of the cherries and 80 per cent of the plum blossoms are affected,” Andrew Bishop, of Noggin’s Farms, told CTV National News.

Researchers continue to point to climate change as the leading cause of these unpredictable weather events.

Increasingly, extreme weather events have become more erratic as the planet heats up, with weather events swinging from one end of the pendulum to the other, experts say.

“It’s either the coldest June temperature — in 2018 we had that frost — or its the coldest winter temperature we’ve had in the last 25 years, or its been one of the warmest winters we had,” Harrison Wright, Agriculture Canada researcher, told CTV National News.

Farmers say they’re relieved to see that there is some rain in the forecast, but they will need a lot more in the coming weeks to improve growing conditions on the surface.

With files from CTVNews.cas Alexandra Mae Jones

 

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Canada’s banks are guarding against bad loans. What this means for your money

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Nestled in the balance sheets of Canada’s biggest banks are fears that the economy is set for a rough patch that could see more Canadians defaulting on their loans.

While some experts say the country’s banks are just “being prudent,” they say that move signals choppy waters ahead for Canadians with outstanding loans as interest rates continue to put pressure on household budgets.

Canada’s five biggest banks — RBC, Scotiabank, CIBC, BMO and TD Bank — moved in lockstep this past week to increase their loan loss provisions as they reported second-quarter earnings. All except for CIBC missed earnings expectations in the period.

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Loan loss provisions, or provisions for credit losses, are essentially money that banks set aside in case the loans they’ve given out to clients go sour.

Laurence Booth, finance professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, says banks always try to put aside more money to cover these losses if they think their clients — be they everyday consumers, commercial customers or homeowners with a mortgage — are more likely to default on their loans.

With fears of a recession rumbling for much of the past year, Canada’s banks are building up their reserves in case the economy takes a hit and Canadians or businesses aren’t able to pay down their loans.

“This is (as) regular as clockwork. Whenever we get a slowdown in the economy, or a forecast of a slowdown …(the banks) increase their provisions,” Booth tells Global News.

Booth notes, as well, that just because banks are raising their provisions doesn’t mean they’ll need them if a pronounced recession doesn’t come to pass.

The last time Canadian banks raised their loan loss provisions by significant magnitudes was at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when they feared consumers would be out of work and without steady income for an uncertain period of time.

Gregory Taylor, chief investment officer at Purpose Investments, says banks quickly lowered those provisions again once the federal government stepped in with COVID support programs in the early months of the pandemic.

“Now we’re seeing them reverse that, put them back on and try to be a little bit cautious heading into what could be a volatile period,” Taylor says.

“The banks are being a little prudent, from this point of view.”

 

Canadian banks not immune to U.S. turmoil

Canadian bank loan provisions also extend to lenders’ activities in the U.S. market, Booth notes, where the financial system has faced turmoil in recent months over the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and other regional players.

While Canada’s large and well-capitalized banks have been well-insulated from the specific vulnerabilities that spurred uncertainty south of the border, Booth says banks such as TD have been pushing more into the U.S. market in recent years and have to adjust their risk profiles accordingly.

“The strength of the Canadian banks has allowed them to move into the U.S. with acquisitions, but that then exposes them to the risks of the U.S. market, which generally has higher provisions for credit losses,” he says.

TD Bank’s planned $13.4-billion acquisition of U.S. regional bank First Horizon was scuttled earlier this month after regulators denied the necessary approvals for the deal.

While the acquisition’s collapse was a factor in TD’s earnings miss last quarter, the extra capital the bank now has on hand because of the failed deal is helpful given the dour economic outlook, said CEO Bharat Masrani on an earnings call.

“We are going through an uncertain period here from an economic perspective … so to have the level of capital we have, that is a good thing,” he said.

Taylor agrees that it was probably good for TD overall that it didn’t have to pay the original price it offered for First Horizon as regional banks in the U.S. go through a revaluation.

Some analysts have said TD should take the opportunity to pause and rethink its U.S. expansion strategy.

“TD should revisit the idea of whether or not they should be pursuing aggressive growth in United States banking through acquisitions,” Veritas analyst Nigel D’Souza told Reuters this week.

What do higher loan loss provisions mean for consumers?

Canada’s banks are battening down the hatches on the loan side of their businesses at the same time as Canadians’ debt levels, particularly mortgage debt, continue to climb.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) said this past week that the country has the highest household debt in the G7, with the bulk of that held in mortgage loans.

Total residential debt surpassed $2 trillion in January, CMHC said on Thursday, up six per cent year-over-year.

Canada’s economy is heavily reliant on the health of the housing market, which Taylor says means any signs of stress in banks’ mortgage books are “something to monitor” if they start to appear.

“It’s probably too soon to say whether it’s going to be a really big issue or not, but it’s definitely one of the reasons the banks were increasing their provisions going into the quarter,” he says.

Booth notes that mortgages are one of the last things Canadians’ tend to default on as they’re willing to make most sacrifices before losing their home and the equity they’ve built up in it, which helps keep rates of mortgage delinquency relatively low in Canada.

From a macro perspective, both Booth and Taylor say there’s not much cause for concern for the banks themselves as they’ve put aside more money for loans going bad.

But on an individual level, Canadians should take the higher loan loss provisions as a sign that they might need to tighten their belts in the months to come.

“While Canadians don’t have to worry about their banks, they do have to worry about whether they can afford higher interest costs and that means that they have to cut back other spending,” Booth says.

More on Money

Messaging from the Bank of Canada and U.S. Federal Reserve in recent weeks that interest rates might need to remain higher for longer — or even rise further — means that Canadians should plan for an elevated interest rate environment, Taylor says.

One way to do that, he says, is by keeping less money in chequing accounts and putting it in investment vehicles that are showing higher rates of return. Taylor says that’s a solid approach for anyone worried about their finances through an expected period of “turbulence.”

“For Canadian consumers, it’s something that everybody should be looking at to make sure you’re getting the most for your money with higher interest earned on your cash.”

— with files from The Canadian Press, Reuters

 

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Evacuation orders mount as fire rages in Upper Tantallon, Hammonds Plains area

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Nova Scotia RCMP have ordered residents of subdivisions in the Upper Tantallon/Hammonds Plains area to leave their homes in the face of a fast-moving wildfire.

The Westwood Hills subdivision in Upper Tantallon, N.S., was the first to begin an evacuation as the fire consumed at least 10 homes.

Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency District Chief Rob Hebb said dozens of crews were at the site attempting to control the fire. One helicopter was at the scene and another was on the way.

 

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Nova Scotia RCMP sent a tweet prior to an emergency alert being issued telling residents of the area to evacuate their homes immediately via Winslow Drive to Hammonds Plains Road.

 

Fast-moving wildfire burning in Nova Scotia

 

Crews in Nova Scotia are working to contain a wildfire that has forced the evacuations of two subdivisions and sent thick plumes of smoke into the sky, leading to an air quality alert for the Halifax area.

RCMP corrected an earlier tweet that indicated evacuation was via Windsor Drive.

Subsequent emergency alerts at 6:11 p.m. and 7:41 p.m. said the evacuation order was extended to residents of the Highland Park subdivision in nearby Yankeetown, Haliburton Hills, Glen Arbour, Pockwock Road, White Hills subdivision and Lucasville Road to Sackville Drive.

Residents were told to take their pets with them.

Photo of smoke over a wooded area with a Hammonds Plains and Bedford road sign in the foreground.
Fire officials said the fire had already consumed at least 10 homes and was spreading rapidly. (Katy Parsons/CBC)

People are being asked to stay away from the area to allow the evacuations to take place.

An emergency alert sent earlier said a comfort centre was open at the Black Point community centre.

A map shows areas of Tantallon and Hammonds Plains area where power has been cut
Power is out in much of the evacuated areas due to fire, according to Nova Scotia Power’s outage map. As of 8 p.m. AT on Sunday, more than 3,000 people had lost their power due to fire in the areas of Upper Tantallon, Stillwater Lake and Yankeetown. A further 1,372 people in the areas of Upper Hammonds Plains and Glen Arbour had lost their power because the outage was requested by authorities, according to the utility. (Nova Scotia Power)

Area resident Cynthia McKenzie said she left her home with her family and pets. She said they are safe and sheltering in a pet store in the area.

She said she was cooking dinner when her husband said they had to leave immediately.

“It just happened so fast,” she said. “I grabbed my animals as quick as I could and my photos and albums as best I could and got in the truck and headed out.”

She said the smoke and flames were so bad that they had to turn around and take another route to get out of the subdivision.

“You couldn’t see your hand in front of you,” she said.

Smoke from a wildfire is shown in the background of a photo of a strip mall.
A photo taken Sunday shows smoke from fire in the area. (Dave Irish/CBC)

Shawn Beaulieu, another resident of the area, said he and his son were out shopping and were told to turn around when they tried to return to the subdivision where his wife was.

He said he and his son are taking temporary shelter at a restaurant in Upper Tantallon that opened its doors to evacuees.

“It’s frustrating, but it’s better to be alive,” he said. The three were reunited later in the day.

A long distance shot of smoke seen from Citadel Hill over downtown buildings in Halifax.
Smoke from the fire could be seen from Citadel Hill in Halifax on Sunday. (Celina Aalders/CBC)

Taylor Martin, who lives about a seven-minute drive from the fire said she and her partner, Kirk Jessome, were preparing for a possible evacuation order.

“We’re getting things together,” she said. “Packing up necessities, getting the crate for our cat ready, getting all our important documents ready. Making sure everything is set to go if we have to leave.”

She said she is lucky that she has family who will make room for them.

A view of flames over a forested areas with a lake in the foreground.
Residents of Westwood Hills and Yankeetown subdivisions were ordered to evacuate Sunday. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

He said that with the fire spreading, people are outside the subdivision and waiting for what is next. The area is packed with people and he said roads are jammed.

Environment Canada issued an air quality alert for Halifax Metro and Halifax County West shortly after 6 p.m. Sunday. It said smoke from the fire in Upper Tantallon has reduced visibility and air quality in the area downwind of the fire.

It said people respond differently to smoke and mild irritation and discomfort are common.

The alert said people should take a break from the smoke at a community location with cool, clean air.

A line of cars with a sign that says Westwood Boulevard at the side of the road.
Residents are seen leaving the area on Sunday afternoon. Evacuatation orders were issued for two subdivisions. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

CBC meteorologist Ryan Snoddon said firefighters have a number of challenges.

“Halifax firefighters are not only battling the fire, they are also battling the wind,” he said. “Gusty west/southwest winds are fanning the flames right now.

“Winds shift to northerly this evening, but unfortunately, will remain breezy through the day on Monday. Winds look set to become lighter Monday night and Tuesday.”

Snoddon said there was a chance of isolated showers later Sunday, but they wouldn’t be of much help to the firefighters. He said there isn’t another significant chance of rain until Friday.

 

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