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Toronto shoemaker crafting custom footwear for Hollywood’s biggest hits

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You’ve likely seen Jeff Churchill’s handiwork all over big and little screens, or perhaps at a musical or ballet. Maybe even during a live show in Las Vegas or Macao or Sydney.

From his fourth-floor workshop in a century-old factory space in Parkdale, Churchill designs and crafts some of the most exclusive bespoke footwear in the world.

His innovative creations have the biggest forces in entertainment coming back again and again, from Hollywood studios to Cirque du Soleil.

This year alone, Churchill and his team made shoes and boots for four of the five films nominated for best motion picture (musical or comedy) at the upcoming 2020 Golden Globes: RocketmanJojo RabbitOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood and Dolemite is my name.

 

Actor Taron Egerton — playing Elton John in the film Rocketman — wearing shoes designed and made at Jitterbug Boy in Toronto. Elton John was so taken with the various shoes and boots for the film that he asked for his own personal pair. (David Appleby/Paramount)

 

They’ve also worked on a laundry list of other big-name films, including Marvel blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnorok and the Oscar-winners The Shape of Water and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

He’s even made boots for a personal hero, American musician and actor Tom Waits, to wear in the film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Churchill is such a big fan of the acclaimed songwriter that he named his shoemaking company after Waits’ 1976 song Jitterbug Boy.

He’s a bit blasé about what seem, to any reasonable observer, like impressive accomplishments.

“Seeing our stuff on the screen is great, but it’s just a bonus really,” Churchill said in his workshop. “Developing something that has never existed before in the world — that’s the addiction for me.”

 

Jeff Churchill says he hasn’t bought a new pair of shoes in at least 15 years. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

 

The 45-year-old started Jitterbug Boy nearly 15 years ago, when it was just him in a small studio in a building that no longer stands.

Now he has a team of about 20, working at a break-neck pace to produce footwear for between 50 and 60 films each year. On top of that, there are the shoes and boots for television, live performances, and even for theme parks.

“Everything is made here, in Parkdale, completely by hand for shows literally all over the world,” he said.

 

The team works with a kind of synergy as they navigate the busy workshop. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

 

Churchill’s professional background is in theatre set and costume design, experiences that he says helped him develop the shrewd aesthetic and creativity he now brings to this pursuit.

And it’s a good thing — the workshop often finds itself pushing the limits on design, under tight deadlines for unforgiving clients in far-away places.

“A lot of the time, you have one chance to knock it out of the park. That’s because the actors need to put the shoes on and say, ‘Yep.’ And then do their thing,” he said.

 

The workshop is filled with foot molds made for famous people. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

 

“We have to anticipate all kinds of problems that the actors may encounter before each pair of shoes or boots goes out the door.”

He sees three basic challenges when making footwear for the arts: working effectively with a costume designer; ensuring actors are comfortable for long days on set; and, as Churchill describes it, “the more technical aspect.”

“They’ll say, ‘OK, we’ve got to have these really nice dress shoes made for this actor. And, oh yeah, he’s got to hang on the outside of a plane at 5,000 feet,'” he said laughing. “And they need it in three weeks.”

 

Churchill says his crew typically has between 15 and 18 projects on the go at once for customers from film, television (Lucas Powers/CBC)

 

It’s an allusion to a real life example. Churchill and his team made shoes for Tom Cruise to wear in the 2015 film Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. In one memorable action sequence, Cruise dangles off the side of a military cargo plane several thousand feet in the air as he tries to sneak his way into the fuselage.

Churchill credits his team for the workshop’s ability to turn out thousands of pairs of shoes, boots and everything in between every year.

 

Many of the employees at Jitterbug Boy started in the design world. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

 

He estimates that each pair takes at least 20 to 30 hours to make, and some take much longer. They start at about $950 per pair, up to a few thousand dollars.

Most of Jitterbug’s staff did not begin with any experience cobbling shoes. Many come from the design world and learned the craft over time.

 

Churchill estimates that he and his team have made about 15,000 pairs of shoes so far. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

 

“Fortunately I have a kick-ass team in here who can take everything and just fly with it, because it’s constant pressure and it’s not easy,” he told CBC Toronto, adding that there’s often no “prototype” they can work from.

“We’re reinventing the wheel 20 times a week, from the perspective of how to make shoes.”

 

Almost every possible space in the workshop gets used. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

 

Sometimes, after all the work, Jitterbug Boy’s shoes are almost entirely cut from a film before its final release. But that’s just part of the gig, Churchill said.

Despite the workshop’s success, he has no immediate plans to make shoes for retail.

“I prefer being hands on, creating something for a person,” Churchill said. “I want to make shoes, and I want to send something out the door that I’m passionate about.”

 

The team works out in a shop on the top story of an old factory in Parkdale. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

 

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Immigration slowdown could prove costly for Atlantic Canada, economist warns – CBC.ca

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Hanlyn Barlomento speaks with her husband, Cedric Fuentes, every day by video conference, lifting up their baby girl, Celeine, so her father can talk to her.

With the family separated due to the pandemic, Fuentes hasn’t yet been able to hold his eight-month-old daughter.

“It’s very, very difficult. I’m very emotional,” said Barlomento.

“I remember when I found out about the pandemic and how everything is going on lockdown all over the world. I was crying for weeks because, you know, I’m a first-time mom and I need him to be here with me.”

Barlomento is a Canadian citizen who met her husband on a trip to visit family in the Philippines. They married and began the process for him to immigrate, anticipating he could have his permanent residency this year. 

But she’s still waiting for the immigration paperwork to be processed, and she’s been unable to get any kind of time estimate from immigration staff. 

“I can’t even explain the loneliness that I feel right now,” Fuentes said. “My family is away from me, especially now that my daughter is growing up without me.” 

Cedric Fuentes speaks to his infant daughter by video conference from the Philippines. (CBC/Patrick Callaghan)

Barlomento hoped to return to work or school after her husband arrived to help care for the baby, but those plans are on hold for now.  

According to a senior economist at RBC, this scenario is a common one and concerning for Atlantic Canada. 

“This might be a temporary thing, we might be seeing a rebound in the fall or in the spring, depending on what … happens with the coronavirus and the federal government’s response. However, if this keeps up, we’re in danger of falling off track,” said Andrew Agopsowicz. 

Agopsowicz studies immigration and labour trends for RBC and has analyzed the latest numbers released by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. He saw what he described as a “complete shutdown” of immigration between late March and June due to border closures. 

Andrew Agopsowicz is a senior economist with RBC who studies immigration and labour trends. (CBC/Patrick Callaghan)

Days before the border shutdowns, the federal government put forward a goal of bringing in 341,000 new permanent residents in 2020. Based on permanent resident admissions so far, Agopsowicz predicts the country will reach about 70 per cent of that goal. 

“It doesn’t look like, from the recent data, we’re in a position to catch up from the last quarter,” he said. 

Agopsowicz said even if the loss is temporary, it could still translate to a “very costly” year.

“The Atlantic provinces, it could hit particularly hard,” he said, adding because the region is aging overall it relies heavily on immigrants to grow its labour force, particularly in areas like health care and support for the elderly. 

The Canadian government closed its borders to most international travel in March, shortly after releasing new targets for taking in 341,000 new international immigrants in 2020. (Nam Y. Huh/The Associated Press)

“The Atlantic provinces are less prepared, I think, to handle that shock than say, central Canada or the West,” he said.  

Meghan Felt, a St. John’s, N.L.-based lawyer who specializes in immigration law, said many of her clients are frustrated with the slowdown they’ve seen during the pandemic. 

“It’s making a problem that was already there, worse, really,” said Felt, a partner with the law firm McInnes Cooper. Felt does a lot of work for employers trying to bring in health-care workers and other critical infrastructure workers. 

In her experience, applications from people deemed non-essential workers are at a standstill, and even essential worker applications that might have previously taken a couple of days are taking upward of six weeks. She said some clients are trying to speed up the process by appealing to local politicians. 

She thinks some applications could be abandoned. 

Meghan Felt is a partner with McInnes Cooper in St. John’s, N.L., who specializes in immigration law. (Rob Antle/CBC)

“You have employers who are working really hard to get people here and want them here yesterday. And then they’re afraid they’re going to lose these people to move to maybe a different country or just decide that they’re going to stay put,” she said. 

“And then individuals I’ve seen many times, time and time again, just a complete frustration with the process and with the timelines. And so a lot of them will give up.” 

On Prince Edward Island — a province still leading the way on population growth — the head of the Charlottetown chamber of commerce said her members are monitoring the immigration situation, but it’s not time to sound the alarm.

Penny Walsh-Maguire said immigration has been a big part of P.E.I.’s “social story” and economy recently, but given the pandemic, some restrictions had to be expected. Some of her members are re-examining their hiring practices and even reporting a small increase in people arriving interprovincially instead of internationally.

Penny Walsh-Maguire is the CEO of the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce. (CBC/Kirk Pennell)

“P.E.I. and the Atlantic provinces are seen as a very safe destination,” she said. “What I am hearing from members is when they do post a job, they are seeing a little bit of an increase … of applications coming from other [places in] Canada, particularly Alberta and Ontario.”

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino plans to deliver an update on Canada’s immigration targets in November. He said there’s no doubt that COVID-19 has had an impact on the immigration system.  

“But I am very optimistic and confident that as a result of a number of innovations that we’ve introduced and technologies that we’re taking full advantage of, that we will make actually quite remarkable progress despite the interruption that has been caused by COVID-19.” 

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino takes part in a press conference during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on June 8, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Mendicino said those new innovations and technologies include putting more services online, such as virtual citizenship ceremonies. He did not say whether Canada is likely to meet its current targets, or whether the targets would change, but emphasized that immigration will be part of the COVID-19 recovery plan. 

As for Hanlyn Barlomento and her family, IRCC said it’s increased the number of people able to make decisions on spousal applications and hopes to process almost 50,000 applications by December. 

For now, she remains hopeful that IRCC will be able to respond to the situation. 

“I really want them to actually understand what we’re going through,” she said.

“If they have to triple the workforce or get people to actually speed things up, then that’s what I want them to do.” 

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Think-tank urges China to release Canadian employee Michael Kovrig – CBC.ca

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The president of the International Crisis Group used a high-level U.N. Security Council meeting attended by China’s foreign minister Tuesday to appeal for the release of the think-tank ‘s northeast Asia expert, Michael Kovrig, who has been held by Beijing for nearly two years as part of a diplomatic dispute with Canada.

Robert Malley told the council at the end of his briefing on security in the Persian Gulf that the Crisis Group strives to be “an impartial conflict resolution organization” and its staff tries to understand the perspectives of all parties.

“That’s what our colleague Michael Kovrig was doing in his work on China’s foreign policy,” Malley said.

He said it wasn’t the time or place to discuss Kovrig’s case, “but I cannot conclude without appealing to the Chinese authorities, if they are listening, to understand the mission he was pursuing, end his almost two-year detention, allow him at long last to be reunited with his loved ones and continue his work toward a more peaceful world.”

Diplomats speak up

The participants at the virtual council meeting were shown on the screen, and when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi heard China mentioned he looked up and paid attention. But he made no mention of Kovrig in his speech to the council.

German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen did, echoing Malley’s appeal “to liberate Michael Kovrig.”

“He is not only a member of the International Crisis Group, but a former colleague of ours, a former diplomat,” Heusgen said.

Britain’s acting ambassador, Jonathan Allen, echoed Heusgen, saying Kovrig’s case “causes us deep concern.”

On Oct. 10, China granted consular access to Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, both Canadians, for the first time since January.

The following day, the Canadian government expressed serious concern at their “arbitrary detention” and called for their immediate release.

China’s Foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, denied on Oct. 12 that the two Canadians had been arbitrarily detained in response to Canada’s arrest of an executive of Chinese technology giant Huawei. He said Kovrig and Spavor were “suspected of engaging in activities that endanger China’s national security.”

Despite its disavowals of any connection, Beijing has repeatedly tied the detentions to the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and the daughter of the company’s founder. The U.S. is seeking her extradition on fraud charges and the case is before Canadian courts.

“What Canada did in the case of Meng Wanzhou was arbitrary detention,” Zhao said.

Bilateral ties have suffered as China has upped its demands that Canada release Meng, who was detained during a stopover in Vancouver in December 2018 and is currently living in one of her mansions in that city while fighting extradition. Kovrig and Spavor were detained days later.

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As U.S. presidential election enters final days, Canada braces for the fallout – CBC.ca

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The federal government is preparing for the weeks of uncertainty that might follow a U.S. presidential election day with no clear winner — by drawing up contingency plans for the border and other issues that might erupt between the Nov. 3 vote and inauguration day in January.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has signalled already that his government has been monitoring the election more closely in the final weeks of the campaign because of its potential impact on the Canadian economy.

“I think we’re certainly all hoping for a smooth transition or a clear result from the election like many people around the world,” Trudeau told a news conference earlier this month. “If it is less clear, there may be some disruptions and we need to be ready.”

The cabinet committee on global affairs and public security has been preparing for various scenarios: President Donald Trump’s reelection, a victory by Democrat Joe Biden, or a lengthy period of uncertainty coupled with multiple court challenges to decide the outcome.

We can’t rely on the good-neighbour, best-friend status anymore. And that remains regardless of a Trump or a Biden victory.– Sen. Peter Boehm

A government official (who asked not to be identified because the person is not authorized to speak publicly on the plans) said the cabinet committee is worried about security at the border, the prospect of even higher COVID infection rates in the U.S. and the possibility of Trump taking harder lines on international issues that could affect Canada.

Trump has refused on a number of occasions to say he will guarantee a smooth transition of power if he loses and has been pushing unsubstantiated claims about massive voter fraud during the pandemic as an unprecedented number of Americans mail in their ballots.

Sen. Peter Boehm is an experienced former Canadian diplomat who was posted to Washington during the disputed 2000 election result in Florida between George W. Bush and Al Gore. He said the Canadian government has worked hard since Trump’s election to develop contacts at all levels of the government in the United States.

A more ‘sophisticated’ approach to Washington

Boehm said those contacts, honed during the prolonged negotiations to renew NAFTA, should help Canada navigate any challenges that emerge after Nov. 3.

“What we’ve seen over the last four years is a greater utilization of the tools we have. What that means is not just discussions at the head-of-government level but with Congress, on Capital Hill and with state and local government,” he said.

“And what that tells us is that we have had to become more sophisticated in our approach, that there has to be consistent contact and a network, because we can’t rely on the good-neighbour, best-friend status anymore. And that remains regardless of a Trump or a Biden victory.”

The Trump presidency has proven to be an unpredictable dance partner for Ottawa. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement and imposed national security tariffs on Canadian exports of steel and aluminum.

Trump called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “very dishonest and weak” in tweets following the troubled G7 summit hosted by Canada in 2018 — while on other occasions he’s declared that he likes the prime minister very much.

A protectionist tilt on both sides

Biden is less volatile and more in line with Canada on issues such as climate change. But he would cancel the Keystone XL pipeline project — which is still viewed by Alberta as a vital prop for the troubled oilpatch — and his platform emphasises the same sort of Buy American and protectionist procurement pledges championed by Trump.

Either way, Canadian officials will need to remain vigilant in protecting this country’s interests — particularly the bilateral trade relationship and the millions of jobs that depend on it, and especially if pressure mounts from the U.S. side to re-open the border for non-essential travel.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden delivers remarks at a Voter Mobilization Event campaign stop at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S., October 12, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

“The past four years created real frictions,” said Andrew McIntosh, a Canadian-born lawyer in Florida who heads the Canada-Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce.

“You can’t be a Canadian living in the States and not recognize that the relationship has been challenged, not just in business terms but as neighbours, the value we place on the relationship. I don’t think anyone can look at the Canada//U.S. relationship and not feel that there’s been a disregard for the history and close ties between the two countries.”

Donald Trump unbound

Scotty Greenwood is the CEO of the Canadian-American Business Council and a partner with Crestview Strategy in Washington. She said Canada will have to tread carefully if no clear winner emerges on Nov 3.

“Everyone is holding their breath to see if it’s four more years of Trump or a new administration,” she said.

Greenwood said that she believes Trump would be further emboldened by winning a second term.

“You would need to worry a lot about tariff wars. The expectation is that the United States would get into more and more of a transactional relationship,” she said. “Canada developed a playbook that was reasonably successful in dealing with the Trump administration during the NAFTA negotiations and they will need to keep that.”

Boehm said the Canada/U.S. relationship has to be built around more than personal connections to the person in the Oval Office.

“What this relationship comes down to is not whether you like the chief executive but what’s in your own nation’s best interests,” he said.

“That’s how the U.S. works and that’s how Canada has to work.”

That means Canadian political leaders need to refrain from making any comments or endorsing either Trump or Biden — especially if the process of counting mail-in ballots, or deciding on court challenges launched over the results, leaves the outcome uncertain for days or weeks.

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