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Harper shuts Parliament again

A prominent journalist is killed in a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Harper prorogues Parliament prior to the Olympics, triggering widespread outrage. The devastation in Haiti hits Canadians hard, including two Mounties. Organized crime escalates in Montreal. Canadian children are some of the fattest on earth. The government is in the red financially. The country's largest chain of newspapers is being auctioned off. And the U.S. beats Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships.

Top News: For eight years, Canadians have watched as the bodies of dead soldiers have returned home from the battlefields of Afghanistan with quiet reserve. But as news circulated New Year’s Eve that four soldiers and a well-respected rising star in Canadian journalism had died in a massive explosion in what was considered a safe part of the country brought with it uncharacteristic outpourings of emotion and renewed debate over whether Canada should still be there.


Michelle Lang, 34, a National Newspaper Award winner and a star health reporter for the Calgary Herald, had been in country just two weeks and was out on her first patrol when a roadside bomb destroyed the vehicle in which she and four soldiers were traveling. The popular and soon-to-be-married reporter was the first Canadian journalist killed in the war and added to the public’s growing cynicism over Canada’s role in Afghanistan, that has grown markedly over the past two years amid escalating casualties and evidence that prisoners turned over to Afghan authorities by Canadian soldiers were tortured.


In an effort to diffuse the growing tensions and ensure a feel-good environment heading into next month’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Harper quietly called Governor-General Michaëlle Jean on Dec. 30 to prorogue Parliament until March 3. What he clearly thought would go unnoticed by most Canadian revelers, wasn’t. The backlash against Harper, who had prorogued Parliament in December 2008 in order to avoid a no-confidence vote that would almost certainly have seen him replaced as Prime Minister, has been pronounced. The Economist issued a scathing editorial lampooning Harper and his ministers as “a bunch of Gerald Fords” who cannot walk and chew gum at the same time. The opposition Liberals, who had seemingly been beaten into submission after a terrible autumn session, came roaring out with an ad campaign ridiculing Harper’s penchant for taking two-month holidays.


Within a week, a commanding double-digit lead in national polls over the Liberals all but evaporated and angry grassroots petitions, including a 188,000-member Facebook group, Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament, sprang up. Not surprisingly, Harper has decided to lay low in the hopes both the Afghan torture scandal and public anger over prorogation will fade in the glow of the Olympic flame.


This week’s earthquake in Haiti hit close to home for many Canadians, particularly for Michaëlle Jean, Canada’s acting Head of State who was born in Port au Prince before emigrating to Canada. Jean issued an emotional call for Canadians to give generously to relief efforts.


Canada has a strong Haitian ex-pat community and many Canadians work on the Caribbean island as part of aid and development programs. Among the missing and dead after Tuesday’s earthquake were two members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who are there to train Haitian officers. Canadian military and civilian aircraft are being used to ferry supplies to Haiti and to bring out refugees. Canadian Jean-Pierre Tachereau, who runs emergency responses for the Canadian Red Cross, has been tasked with coordinating the international organization’s relief team, composed of 60 volunteers from 10 countries.


Montreal’s struggles with organized crime flared over the holidays when Nick Rizzuto, the 42-year-old son of convicted Mafia boss Vito Rizzuto, was gunned down in the middle of the day in a quiet Montreal residential neighborhood. The younger Rizzuto, who police allege was a gangster like his father but had never been charged with any organized criminal activity, is thought to be the latest victim of an escalating turf war between the traditional Mafia and new gangs from the Caribbean and Asia. 


Canadians kids are porkers and emerging among the fattest people on the planet, and a recent government report shows much of that “growth” has come in just one generation. Youth obesity has skyrocketed across the country and experts blame the availability of cheap, widely available, and poorly nutritious foods and the elimination of most school-based sports programs. Apparently, their parents don’t fare much better in studies that suggest the effects of gluttony can be expected to have a pronounced negative effect on 65 percent of women and more than half of men.


Money: The halcyon days of budget surpluses and generous government spending of the late 1990s and early 2000s are destined for the history books, Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page warned. A combination of ill-advised tax cuts by the Harper government, weaker-than-expected revenues in the wake of the economic downturn and a $56-billion stimulus plan has created a structural deficit that will put the federal government into the red for the foreseeable future. Page warned that regardless of whether the economy recovers fully, parliamentarians have some very difficult public policy choices as Canadian baby boomers retire, work less and demand more in government programs.  


After months of fending off the wolves from the door, Canada’s largest chain of newspapers is about to be auctioned off at bargain prices, against the wishes of its CEO Leonard Asper. Communications conglomerate CanWest Global Communications, which has been hobbled by debt since it bought the chain from disgraced news baron Conrad Black in 2000, filed for bankruptcy last year and bondholders are now seeking to sell off the newspapers as a way to recoup some of their investment. Asper said the break up of the company is an overreaction, that the situation has stabilized, and that the move being driven by the banks’ desire to earn deal fees from the sale.


Elsewhere: Team Canada’s five-year run atop the world of junior hockey came to an end last week as the mantle was passed, at least temporarily, to the United States. Canada was outgunned in the final of the World Junior Championships, held in Saskatchewan over the holidays, losing 6-5 in overtime. Team Canada had beaten the U.S. squad on penalty shots earlier in the tournament’s round-robin phase.