Connect to share and comment

Swine flu hits Canada

Most cases are mild, China bans Canadian pork, rare fungus strikes forests, elections in B.C. include proposal to raise the price of beer, possibility of federal elections fade, Brian Mulroney to be quizzed over allegations he took money, real estate prices still in the doldrums, top chef dies.

Top News: As it did in just about every corner of the globe, the looming specter of a swine flu epidemic dominated Canadian news over the past two weeks. Canada was only the third nation after Mexico and the U.S. to report a small outbreak among students in Halifax who had just returned from Mexico. But with vacationers returning by the plane load from Mexico, that number quickly grew. As of Tuesday, the tally of cases had risen to 165 in at least six provinces, up from 85 on Sunday.


While most of the cases have proved to be mild, with only one patient, a young girl in Alberta, requiring hospitalization, there were worrisome signs in that western province that the disease could be taking a dangerous turn. A herd of pigs in Alberta was quarantined after some of the animals were detected to have contracted the H1N1 virus, likely from a farm worker who had recently returned from a trip to Mexico. Pigs are considered the likely culprits for mutations, and public health officials are watching closely to ensure the disease does not emerge from Alberta in a far more deadly form.


That’s of little consolation to China, which immediately slapped a ban on all Canadian pork products. Chinese officials also detained and “quarantined” 22 Canadian students who were aboard a flight with a Mexican national who was hospitalized with flu symptoms. Many Canadians believe the Chinese reaction is payback for some of the finger pointing in 2003 over SARS, which killed 44 Canadians. China has been accused of trying to conceal the growing epidemic and of underreporting the number of dead.


The flu was not the only health concern to make the news in Canada. Public health authorities in British Columbia are trying to figure out how to deal with Cryptococcus gattii, a rare and deadly tropical fungus that appears to be taking hold in the old-growth forests along the Pacific coast. While traces of the organism were detected nearly a decade ago, warm and wet winters that many people are attributing to climate change have allowed it to flourish. Officials are worried that as it spreads, it will endanger local communities and the thousands of hikers who enjoy the West Coast Trail and Pacific Rim National Park.


Still in B.C., gun crime and gang warfare appears to be a more pressing threat to the health and stability of the areas in and around Vancouver. With just six days left until the provincial election, the spate of violence and targeted assassinations has become the dominant issue, with both major parties vowing a crack down. Both major parties are one-upping each other on who plans to get tougher on crime, and there appears little daylight between them. Instead, two other issues might tip the balance next week: Premier Gordon Campbell’s proposed carbon tax; and a plan by the New Democrats to increase the minimum wage, a move that one group of retailers said will raise the price of beer by $3 per six-pack.


B.C. isn’t the only province in the throws of an election. Nova Scotia’s governing conservatives lost a confidence vote on a budget bill this week, forcing the east coast province to the polls.


The possibility of a federal election in the autumn appears to be fading, despite polls showing that the Liberal Party under new leader Michael Ignatieff, is pulling ahead of the Conservative, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. While voters — particularly women — appear to have taken a liking to Ignatieff, a former Harvard professor, the same polls show there is very little desire among Canadians for an election, which would be Canada’s fourth in five years.


Before the flu pandemic seized the media’s attention, the news was dominated by the release of two Canadian diplomats who had been kidnapped in Niger by an Al Qaeda splinter group while on a United Nations mission. But as pictures emerged of Bob Fowler and Louis Guay, both sporting beards but otherwise looking well, the Canadian government was forced to go on the defensive after questions were raised over whether it had paid a ransom. Ottawa denies that it paid to secure their freedom.


Many Canadians are on tenterhooks awaiting the testimony of former prime minister Brian Mulroney at a public inquiry being held into allegations he took money from a German lobbyist while in office. Mulroney has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, but contradictory evidence and witness statements will likely make next week’s hearings must-see TV in Canadian political circles.


Mulroney is not the only politician under the klieg lights. Ottawa mayor Larry O’Brien is on trial for influence peddling after he allegedly coaxed a rival to drop out of the 2006 mayoral race in return for help getting a federal appointment. O’Brien, a former business leader in Ottawa’s high-tech sector, refused to resign when he was indicted and maintains he is the victim of a political smear campaign. The Crown prosecutors insist they will prove otherwise.




Exuberant Canadians should temper their expectations that real estate prices will soon rebound, a leading bank warned. While Canada’s real estate has not come close to the kinds of massive devaluations seen in parts of the United States, it has dropped markedly since its peak in 2007. Economists believe the mild uptick in property sales is due to Canadian equities having performed well in recent weeks and interest rates being set two weeks ago at all-time lows. They cautioned that there remains instability in the market and a risk of a renewed softening.


A Quebec court dealt bankrupt paper giant AbitibiBowater two serious blows in its efforts to put its financial house in order. Justice Clement Gascon of Quebec Superior Court first ruled that its plans to renege on early-retirement and pension obligations to unionized employees were illegal. He is also expected to rule Wednesday that the insolvent company will have to comply with provincial government demands for an outside auditor in return for a $100-million loan from the province.




Canadian hockey fans have had little to cheer about during the Stanley Cup playoffs with just three teams qualifying and just one making it past the first round. The Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames bowed out of the playoffs, leaving just the Vancouver Canucks to vie for bragging rights.


However, news that Research in Motion founder Jim Balsillie has tendered a $212 million U.S. offer for the Phoenix Coyotes, formerly the Winnipeg Jets, and plans to move them back to Canada has the country’s sporting community abuzz. The billionaire who made his money on Blackberry mobile devices had previously made failed bids to buy the Nashville Predators, with a plan to move the team up to southern Ontario. These very public efforts infuriated NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who, despite obviously poor attendance in many U.S. markets, has insisted that the expansion into the southern U.S. had been a success. Balisillie’s move to grab the Coyotes, which filed for bankruptcy protection on Tuesday, appears to have the league in a tizzy and it is expected the NHL will try to block any proposed move. Stay tuned.


Canada Post, one of the few remaining national Crown corporations, appears likely to be getting out of the business of delivering the mail. A consultant’s report commissioned by the federal government recommends eliminating door-to-door delivery of the mail and using community mailboxes instead. The report says Canada Post needs to invest $3 billion in new equipment over the coming seven years and that the best way it can save money is by cutting out home delivery.


One of Canada’s most celebrated chefs and a fixture in the Ottawa community, Kurt Waldele, died late last month at 61 after a two-year battle with lymphoma. German by birth, the long-time chef at the National Arts Centre was viewed widely as a pioneer of Canadian cuisine. Long before it was fashionable, Waldele was a strong proponent for cooking with locally grown ingredients and serving Canadian wines.