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The pols cool off

After making headway in economic reform, the current Conservative government averts a summertime election. Closure of an Ontario nuke facility leads to global medical isotope shortage. Health worries escalate after two swine flu deaths. Exporters pressure NAFTA drafters on a spending loophole. And hockey battles heat up off the ice even as summer approaches.


Top News: It appears Canadians have been spared a summer election after Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal opposition leader Michael Ignatieff worked out a deal to ease restrictions on Canada’s Employment Insurance program, the first tier of Canadian social assistance. A confidence motion on the government’s handling of the economy is scheduled for Friday.


For most of the past two weeks, the election war drums have been beating as both parties began posturing to call Canadians to the polls this summer. Harper had been elected with a second consecutive minority government in October 2008, and his political fortunes have flagged since.  


Despite an easing of recession fears in recent weeks, Harper’s government is still having difficulty commanding confidence in the economic crisis, which has been exacerbated by low demand from the United States. The rocketing Canadian dollar has also eroded the ability of Canadian exporters to compete internationally. To add to the headache, Harper also has a high-profile cabinet minister, Lisa Raitt, Minister of Natural Resources, caught in a spiraling series of blunders and indiscretions that has made her a punch line in Canadian political circles.


By contrast, the Liberals have emerged from scandal with a rise in opinion polls since replacing Stephanie Dion with former journalist and Harvard University professor Michael Ignatieff. While Ignatieff seems to have steadied the Liberals in the polls, there is little sign he stands any better shot of forming a majority government than Harper. And, even as the Liberals gain strength, two other political parties hold the balance of power: The New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois. Both are considered centre-left parties and any gains made by the Liberals likely come at their expense, dampening their enthusiasm for another election anytime soon.


As for Raitt, she shows little sign of emerging from the political barrens anytime soon. She is the minister responsible for the critical worldwide shortage of medical isotopes last week. The shortage was caused by the abrupt closure of a federal nuclear facility in Chalk River, Ontario, following the detection of a leak. The lucrative facility, which produces an array of isotopes needed for medical tests, will remain closed until at least the late fall and could be shutdown altogether. Critics charge that shoddy oversight by the penny-pinching government led to the problems and that Canada’s standing as a leader in nuclear medicine has been damaged as a result.


Raitt’s colleague, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, announced a $6 million plan to begin sourcing much-needed nuclear materials elsewhere.


Isotope-gate wasn’t the only health worry on Aglukkaq’s agenda last week. Canada’s relatively light brush with the swine flu epidemic took a dramatic turn for the worse when an outbreak on two remote First Nations reserves in northern Manitoba escalated sharply and turned lethal. The deaths of two residents and the infection of 226 has prompted concerns that the disease might have mutated into a more virulent form, and could be gearing up for a second wave, much like the devastating 1918 flu outbreak.


Canada’s navy appears to have been forced to retreat from ambitious plans to deploy a fleet of new small “ice capable” ships to assert Canada’s claims to the Arctic. That plan was already a step down from a previous announcement by Harper for three large, well-armed icebreakers to patrol the north.


Money: Canadian exporters ratcheted up pressure on Canada and the United States to include in the North American Free Trade Agreement a chapter that allows local spending authority. The loophole was exposed last fall when U.S. lawmakers began including “buy American” provisions in their economic stimulus legislation. Current trade rules dictate that foreign firms from NAFTA countries can bid as equals on federal and state projects and contracts, but local spending was not covered.


The woes confronting media companies continue to spread north. Canwest, the largest owner of daily newspapers in Canada and owner of the third largest television network, announced it is seeking $20 million in salary rollbacks from unionized employees in Vancouver. The demand is seen as a test for the Newspaper Guild, which has long battled with management in Vancouver. Canwest is betting that the unions will capitulate, paving the way for across-the-country cuts by Canwest and other companies as well.


Elsewhere: With the Stanley Cup safely ensconced in Pittsburgh and the Toronto Blue Jays downshifting into their usual win-one-lose-one summer routine, Canadian sports fans have turned their attention to … business.


The sale of the Montreal Canadiens, one of the world’s most famous sports franchises, appears to be going ahead with a reported five bidders in the hunt.


The end is near in the pitched battle between the National Hockey League and Jim Balsillie, the co-founder of Research in Motion (of Blackberry fame), over the latter’s efforts to buy the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes and to move them back to southern Ontario. Balsillie suffered a defeat in an Arizona bankruptcy court, making any relocation almost impossible. The pyrrhic victory for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman leaves him with an insolvent team in a city that won’t support it.


The upcoming NHL entry draft pits Canadian phenom John Tavares against Swedish giant Victor Hedman. Alas, while they are the consensus first and second picks in the draft, they are almost sure to be plying their trade in the U.S. — Tavares for the New York Islanders and Hedman for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The draft is scheduled for June 26 in Montreal.


For visitors to Ottawa this summer, a way to escape the city’s infamous humidity is to drop in for a drink or a meal at Play Food and Wine. Like previous Stephen Beckta eateries, Play boasts an unparalleled selection of wines and bright, cheerful décor.