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Visa denials denounced at Montreal AIDS conference, federal minister cancels speech



MONTREAL — The International AIDS Society will re-evaluate how it organizes international conferences as a result of visa denials by the Canadian government, the organization’s president said Friday in Montreal.

The comments came as International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan cancelled a planned appearance at the conference.

Adeeba Kamarulzaman told attendees at the opening ceremony of the AIDS 2022 conference that she is “deeply upset by the high number of denials and pending visas that prevented many registered delegates, including IAS staff and leadership, from entering Canada.”

She said the International AIDS Society, the association of HIV/AIDS professionals that organizes the conference, wants to ensure its conferences include the communities most affected by HIV.

“We know that underlying the difficulty experienced by many attendees of AIDS 2022 to enter Canada, lies a broader problem of global inequity and systemic racism that significantly impacts global health,” she said. “HIV, in particular, has always disproportionately affected the most marginalized.”

Other speakers had strong criticism for Canada’s visa policies. Activist and writer Tim McCaskill told attendees that if countries like Canada aren’t up to allowing “all stakeholders” to attend, “then we need to hold these conference in places that are.”

At one point during the opening ceremony, a group of protesters took the stage, condemning the visa denials and inequalities in the global response to HIV. “No more AIDS conferences in racist countries,” one woman said as she made a short speech.

Sajjan had been scheduled to speak at the conference opening, but he cancelled and was not replaced by another Canadian government representative. He had also been scheduled to participate in a conference session later in the day.

Sajjan’s office said “operational issues” prevented him from attending. “We remain steadfast supporters of UNAIDS, the Global Fund and our trusted partners,” Haley Hodgson, a spokeswoman for the minister, said in an email, referring to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Omar Sharif Jr., the master of ceremonies of the opening event, said Sajjan had notified organizers of the cancellation “a short while ago,” drawing boos from the crowd.

Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of UNAIDS, said she was “sad the government of Canada isn’t here.”

In her speech, she called for a more just world, where everyone has access to quality health care and where those living with HIV don’t face stigma, “including a world where people from the global south are not denied entry into wealthy countries to bring their expertise,” she added.

Friday afternoon, Sajjan announced in a news release that the Canadian government will provide $15 million in funding to UNAIDS for 2023 to 2025.

“Far too many continue to die at an unacceptable rate because of HIV/AIDS,” he said. “We need to all re-engage to benefit our communities and nations, and our world. No one should be left behind.”

The conference, which draws researchers, medical practitioners, activists and people living with HIV, focuses both on scientific progress in the fight against AIDS and the need for increased funding for HIV response.

UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, has said that millions of lives are at risk due to disruptions in HIV care caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and declining funding for HIV response.

“As new infections are rising in many regions and access to treatment is slowing, how can it be right also that funding is declining?” Byanyima said to reporters earlier on Friday.

One of the messages of the conference is that if treatment has rendered the viral load undetectable, the virus is no longer transmissible.

That applies both to sexual partners and to pregnant HIV-positive women who could pass the virus on to children, said Maurine Murenga, the director of the Lean on Me Foundation. Her Kenyan organization works with adolescent girls and young women living with HIV or affected by tuberculosis.

“When I was diagnosed with HIV 20 years ago, I was given six months to live because there was no treatment. I didn’t know I would live long enough to come to a point where people living with HIV, on effective treatment, cannot pass HIV to our partners,” she told reporters.

The conference runs through Tuesday, and more than 9,000 delegates are expected to attend in person, with another 2,000 registered to participate remotely.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 29, 2022.


Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press


Reaction to destruction caused by post-tropical storm Fiona across the East Coast



HALIFAX — Post-tropical storm knocked out power to more than 500,000 customers in the Maritimes and forced towns in Cape Breton and on Newfoundland’s southwestern coast to declare states of emergency on Saturday. Officials in Port aux Basques, N.L., say homes were washed into the sea. Here is some of the reaction:

Rene Roy, editor of the weekly newspaper in Port aux Basques:

“Lower Water Street is devastated with damage …. There are homes gone. There are homes in the street …. The RCMP are actively investigating whether people have been swept away.”

P.E.I. Premier Dennis King:

“It seems that few communities, large of small, have been spared It was billed as one of the most severe storms to ever hit our province, and by all accounts hurricane Fiona has lived up to that billing …. The devastation looks to be beyond anything that we have witnessed before in Prince Edward Island.”

Brian Button, mayor of Port aux Basques:

“So anybody that’s being told to leave their homes, you need to leave …. There are no ifs, ands or buts, you need to leave …. A house can be replaced but you can’t be, so you need to go and … we’ve already had houses and things that have been washed away, so we need you to go now.”

Tim Houston, Nova Scotia premier:

“Hurricane Fiona is now making its way through areas of Cape Breton. We are asking Nova Scotians to stay close to home if it is safe. Please check in on your family, friends and neighbours. Together we’ll weather the storm. Stay safe everyone.”

Christina Lamey, spokeswoman for the Cape Breton Regional Municipality:

“The first responders are really stretched right now. We want people to stay off the roads …. Most of the roads have hazards on them, with power lines down and trees down as well.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau:

I’m thinking of everyone affected by hurricane Fiona — I want you to know that we’re here for you. I convened an Incident Response Group meeting with (Emergency Preparedness) Minister Bill Blair and officials this morning. Our government stands ready to support the provinces with additional resources.

Arlene Grafilo, resident in Sydney, N.S.:

“We heard a lot of noise outside and then we realized that there are a lot of cracks in the house and we looked outside and saw the tree had fallen …. We were trapped and we couldn’t open the doors and the windows, so that’s when we decided to call 911. The children were scared.”

Caralee McDaniel, resident in Cow Bay, N.S.:

“We’re watching the wild waves crashing …. We have candles and several devices fully charged …. We have buckets of water and some boiled water in a Thermos so we can make coffee.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2022.


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Family says Bill Blaikie, who served as NDP MP for nearly 30 years, dies



WINNIPEG — Manitoba politician Bill Blaikie, who spent nearly 30 years as a member of Parliament with the federal New Democrats, has died.

His son, NDP finance critic Daniel Blaikie, posted a family statement on social media saying his father died Saturday at home in the presence of his wife, Brenda.

Bill Blaikie had announced publicly earlier this month that he was entering palliative care.

“We thank everyone for their kind words and gestures over the last week since Bill publicly announced he was transitioning to palliative care,” the family’s statement said.

“Street-side pipers, food, flowers and especially stories of how Bill inspired and entertained people over the years were a comfort to him and us in his final days.”

Blaikie was first elected to the House of Commons in 1979 representing a Winnipeg riding for the NDP, and at one point was the longest-serving MP in the House of Commons.

He left Ottawa in 2008, won a seat in the Manitoba legislature the following year and was named the province’s minister of conservation before leaving politics in 2011.

The family statement says funeral details will follow in the days ahead.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, in a condolence message to Blaikie’s family, called the former MP a “giant” in the party.

“His unwavering commitment to social and economic justice, his legendary knowledge of Parliament, and his sense of humour will be missed by all,” Singh posted to social media.

“Rest in power Bill.”

Blaikie, an ordained United Church minister, also held a position as an adjunct professor in theology at the University of Winnipeg.

He was voted Parliamentarian of the Year by his fellow MPs, due largely to his reputation as a hard worker who avoided partisan cheap shots in debates.

In 2003, he lost his bid for leadership of the federal party to Jack Layton in a contest that pitted Layton and the trendy new left against Blaikie and the traditional, Prairie populist wing.

Blaikie finished his parliamentary career as deputy Speaker of the Commons, explaining he retired from federal politics because he did not want to continue commuting between Winnipeg and Ottawa.

His switch to provincial politics caught many off guard, some party insiders remarked at the time. He said he sought the nomination after former Manitoba NDP premier Gary Doer asked him to consider it when a member of Doer’s caucus quit to run for Blaikie’s vacated federal seat.

Former NDP MP Pat Martin lauded Blaikie as the first to raise the issue of climate change in the House of Commons back in 1983.

Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew called Blaikie a “lion” of the party.

“He fought with passion, intelligence and faith for working people in Transcona and across the country,” Kinew posted on Twitter.

“The Blaikie family has been so good to us, on behalf of our movement we send you our deepest condolences.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2022.


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Fiona hits Newfoundland: Houses collapse, resident rescued after she is swept to sea



CHANNEL-PORT AUX BASQUES, N.L. — Neighbours pulled a woman from the waters off southwestern Newfoundland early Saturday after a storm surge caused by post-tropical storm Fiona enveloped her home, causing it and several others to collapse into huge waves driven by hurricane-force winds.

RCMP Cpl. Jolene Garland said police were also investigating reports that a second woman had been swept into the Gulf of St. Lawrence under similar circumstances, but the Mountie said the status of that woman had yet to be confirmed.

Garland said the first woman, who she did not name, was given medical treatment and is believed to be fine. As for the second woman, police have yet to confirm reports that the rising waters pulled her from her basement in Port aux Basques, N.L.

“It’s too dangerous for us to enter into a search for that woman at this point,” Garland said in an interview. “We can’t substantiate her current location.”

Meanwhile, Garland confirmed that other homes in the coastal community were evacuated as Fiona closed in on Newfoundland’s west coast.

Both incidents were reported between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. local time, when a storm surge raised water levels at Port aux Basques to a record level. At the time, two peak gusts were recorded at 133 kilometres per hour, according to the weather office in Gander, N.L.

“We’re all used to wind and rain here, but this is not a normal amount of wind and rain,” Garland said. “The ocean waves that surged onto residential properties is abnormal. It has caused a lot of electrical fires … and many are without power as a result. And there’s a lot of flooding.”

Earlier in the day, the town of 4,200 declared a state of emergency.

Rene Roy, editor of the weekly newspaper in Port aux Basques, said he saw evidence that nine homes, including a two-storey apartment building, had been washed out to sea as wind-driven waves hit the rocky shoreline and soared about 25 metres into the air.

“Lower Water Street is devastated with damage,” said Roy, who is also sales director at Wreckhouse Press Inc., which is named after an area in southwestern Newfoundland where howling winds are common. “There are homes gone. There are homes in the street.”

Roy said the small island at the head of the town’s harbour, which includes the Channel-Head lighthouse, usually protects Water Street East from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But that didn’t happen early Saturday as the waves broke over the island.

“The water was smashing in, 80, 90 feet high,” he said. “It just took that apartment building.”

He said it was unclear what happened to the building, but recalled it backed on a 10-metre-wide lawn that once stood about two metres above the water in the town’s bay. It had about a dozen units, he said.

From his cousin’s home on Mouse Island, Roy said he could see three houses “now a pile of rubble in the ocean.”

Powerful gusts are common in Port aux Basques, which is at the island’s southwestern tip and is home to a busy port that includes daily visits from ferries that link Nova Scotia with Newfoundland.

The homes in the low-slung, coastal community are built to withstand the worst that the ocean has to offer, Roy said, adding he once used a device known as an anemometer to measure gusts reaching 130 kilometres per hour on his street.

Born in Port aux Basques, Roy moved away but returned home seven years ago. The former firefighter said a 52-year-old neighbour who has lived in the community his entire life confirmed that he had never before witnessed such a powerful storm.

“It’s one for the ages,” Roy said.

David Neil, a meteorologist at the Gander weather office, said Fiona’s extraordinarily low barometric pressure — which set a Canadian record when the storm made landfall in Nova Scotia between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. — would have been responsible for raising water levels at Port aux Basques to a record 2.73 metres at 10 a.m.

The low pressure at the centre of the storm acts like a suction cup, lifting the water well above its normal level. When coupled with the high tide, the result can be disastrous. It’s called the “inverse barometer” effect.

As well, Neil said the waves were reaching 12 metres high close to shore.

“This storm was extreme, even for that area,” he said. “It was a perfect combination to hit that area hard.”

— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2022.


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