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Canada boosts Arctic marine vigilance against US, Russia and China

Harper retools his cabinet, appoints new senators, hosts a conference on Haiti, and watches his approval numbers drop. The military will more closely guard the Northwest Passage waters. Research shows that heart disease is reaching epidemic levels in younger people. The Supreme Court rules that the Harper government violated the rights of a Gitmo detainee. Canada stands by its banking sector. An Olympic flagbearer is selected. And the war against hockey headshots takes another step forward.

Top News: Stephen Harper used his down time after proroguing Parliament on Dec. 30 to prepare for a big economic push while also shutting down the opposition inquiries into allegations of torture in Afghanistan of prisoners who had been turned over to local authorities by Canadian soldiers. Harper retooled his cabinet last week, promoting some of his most solid ministers while demoting former natural resources minister Lisa Raitt, who had embarrassed the PM and his government last year.

Harper also appointed  five new senators, wresting control of the senate, the so-called “place of sober second thought” from the Liberals and setting in motion plans for a flurry of get-tough-on-crime legislation due in the coming session.

Harper even had the challenging, but politically fortuitous, role of  playing host to the donors conference on Haitian relief in Montreal last week, which afforded him a splendid international platform to raise Canada’s profile and to undo some of the public relations damage done by what most viewed as his obstructionist stance at the recent Copenhagen conference on climate change.

Yet, through it all, Harper was once again a target of the Yes Men and other satirists. His party’s popularity has dropped to its lowest point since he became Prime Minister in 2006 and is now  in a dead heat with the opposition Liberals. On the positive side for Harper and his Conservatives, the Liberals and that party’s effete leader Michael Ignatieff have not benefitted much from the crumbling support for Harper, with the result being that thoughts of a spring election have for the most part been quelled… at least for the time being.

The Canadian military unveiled plans to greatly increase its watch over the contested boundary waters of the Northwest Passage, which it shares with the United States in some places and which European and Asian leaders argue is international waters. Canada currently monitors its northern waters with satellite and aircraft surveillance, but now plans to install sensors on the floor of the ocean to detect submarine traffic as well. There is growing unease in Canada that American, Russian and Chinese submarines are becoming more active — as the pack ice of the arctic thins and recedes — with an eye to ignoring Canada’s claim that much of the passage belongs wit is territorial waters and not open to commercial shipping.

Research unveiled last week showed that we’re getting old before our time — at least that’s the case for our arteries. A few weeks back, studies determined that kids are getting too fat and sedentary to be able to lead long and healthy lives. Now, there’s growing evidence that heart disease is reaching epidemic levels in younger age groups sooner than ever before. Doctors believe this is the result of a convergence of poor nutrition habits, very low levels of exercise, and increased stress and job demands.

The Supreme Court of Canada left many Canadians scratching their heads last week when it ruled that the Harper government is violating the human rights of accused terrorist Omar Khadr, who has been held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility since the early days of the Afghan War in 2001-02, but at the same time overturned an order to repatriate him. The court ruled that as a citizen, Khadr's right to life, liberty and security under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been breached, but added it could not interfere with the government's jurisdiction over foreign relations. The unanimous decision by the nine justices stated simply: “We … leave it to the government to decide how best to respond to this judgment.”

Money: Canada is not about to join in on the bank bashing underway in Washington and European capitals, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said last week on the eve of the G7 Finance Ministers’ summit in Iqaluit, a frigid port city in Canada’s arctic. Flaherty’s comments were seen as a ringing endorsement for Canada’s banking system. He said Canadian banks didn’t cause the financial meltdown, weathered it with very little trouble, and should not be subject to new taxes and restrictions.

While the Canadian economy gunned its engine in November, it’s likely going to have trouble getting out of first gear for a while, so interest rates will remain at record lows until at least June, Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney said last week. Carney indicated he will keep an eye on inflation and will move to raise borrowing rates if it’s warranted in the second half of the year. Carney has been outspoken in his concern that Canadians are taking on far too much debt, which is leading to unsustainable spending habits and another housing bubble.

Elsewhere: Canada has it’s flagbearer: Clara Hughes, the cyclist-turned-speedskater who has won five medals for Canada in both the summer and winter Olympics, will be Canada’s standard-bearer at the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, which get underway Feb. 12. The beaming 37-year-old redhead has long been one of Canada’s most popular athletes, but nonetheless beat out an impressive cast of competitors, among them hockey stars Martin Brodeur and Scott Niedermeyer, who were members of Canada’s gold medal-winning team at Salt Lake City in 2002, Hayley Wickenheiser, who led Canada’s women’s hockey team to gold in 2006, and mogul skier Jennifer Heil.

Acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood sent a message to the world’s political and business leaders: the arts are not a luxury to be indulged in only when times are good. Atwood was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week to receive the Crystal Award for her contribution to the arts, but was unable to deliver her speech due to a technical glitch. Unbowed, she posted her speech online and made her case through the assembled media.

The war against head shots in hockey took a big step forward last week when former Team Canada junior star Patrice Cormier was  banned for the rest of the year after he elbowed an opponent squarely on the jaw in a horrifying mid-ice hit. Mikael Tam, the victim of what Quebec league officials termed a flagrant and reckless hit, went into convulsions on the ice and was hospitalized. He has since made a strong recovery, though his playing career remains in doubt. The Cormier incident occurred only days after Windsor Spitfire’s player Zach Kassian’s vicious mid-ice hit on Matt Kennedy, which led Ontario league officials to hand Kassian a 20-game suspension. Kassian’s hit left the 16-year old Kennedy with a concussion, as well as a fractured skull and orbital bone. The response by Quebec league officials to the Cormier hit was the strongest sign yet that the National Hockey League’s reluctance to outlaw headshots is not being followed by its feeder leagues, and that vicious, potentially career-ending hits will be met with stern, potentially career ending suspensions.