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Olympic fever takes hold

The Olympics get underway, despite an embarrassing handbook leak. Canada has lost prestige on the world stage. Fox gloats as Newfoundland's premier flies to the U.S. for cardiac care. A military commander is charged with murder and sexual assault. The economy adds 40,000 jobs. Canada changes its trade laws in response to the stimulus' "Buy America" provision. And Brendan Burke, the son of the Maple Leafs' General Manager who championed being gay in the famously homophobic sport, is killed in a car accident.

Top News: After years of planning and months of hype, including a torch relay that covered almost every corner of Canada, the Vancouver Winter Olympics get underway this weekend in what many Canadians hope will be one of this country’s brightest moments.

Canada’s well-funded athletes are more ready than ever, their supporters have been assured by politicians looking to bask in their anticipated reflected glories. And, despite little snow and soggy, foggy weather that is par for the course in Vancouver, local officials are eager to get the show on the road.

But the news and reviews are not all good. The Times of London got hold of a 128-page employee and volunteer handbook that it says makes the hosts appear “cold, aggressive and overcompetitive.

There have also been major glitches with tickets, including what police fear might be a massive international fraud. There have been numerous reports of people buying tickets online only to not receive tickets in return. There is also concern about forged tickets, but officials admit there is no way of knowing the extent of counterfeit event tickets until spectators show up at the gates.

The Olympic glow has been dimmed by a recent poll that shows  the country has lost considerable prestige on the international stage largely due to its intransigence on efforts to reach a deal to curb climate change in Copenhagen late last year. One leading European columnist branded Canada a “corrupt petro state” and Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Environment Minister Jim Prentice were branded as main obstacles to a significant deal.

Opponents to President Barack Obama’s healthcare plans got an unwitting ally in Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams, who flew to the United States to undergo heart surgery using a technique that is not available in his small province.  The treatment for the undisclosed ailment is, apparently, available in Toronto and perhaps other major centres, but since he was already getting in an airplane, the premier of the easternmost province in Canada opted for an undisclosed cardiac care center in the U.S.  Conservative pundits, particularly on Fox News, jumped at the decision as a tacit admission that the Canadian system doesn’t work. Others more familiar with the geography of Canada and the specific make up of the provincially administered health care systems, were quick to point out that Newfoundland has just 505,000 people scattered across an area larger than California, which means most of the public system’s resources are devoted to providing primary care in remote areas and that critical cases are often referred to larger medical centers in Canada and, yes, the U.S.

Canada’s military was reeling last week after a high-profile commander at one of the country’s most important airforce bases was charged with two counts of first degree murder and two other counts of sexual assault. The bizarre case of Col. Russell Williams, who commanded CFB Trenton, east of Toronto on the shores of Lake Ontario, appears to have been a escalation of what had otherwise been some years of odd behavior, including stealing women’s underwear, cataloguing it and storing it in the home he shared with his wife.

The Harper government, which came to power on a wave of populist anger over allegations of corruption against the Liberal Party of Canada, appears to be doing its utmost to avoid facing the same degrees of scrutiny that toppled their predecessors.  Aides to the Minister of Public Works and Government Services last year blocked the release of potentially damaging information about sales of Crown-owned lands but have since refused to justify their actions.  Opposition parties are expected to add this log to the fire of what they believe is the public’s growing distrust over Harper’s penchant for secrecy and abuses of power.

Money: The Canadian economy unexpectedly added more than 40,000 jobs in January, dropping the unemployment rate to 8.3 percent. The news was not all good, in that many of the jobs were low paid and/or part time, but compared to a year ago when the economy shed 130,000 in January 2009, economists said the news had to be seen as positive.

The simmering trade spat between Canada and the U.S., it’s largest trade partner, over the latter’s restrictive Buy America regulations that were linked to the stimulus funds, appears to be over. Canadian officials announced last week that Canada would change its own trade laws to allow American firms to compete for provincial and municipal contracts, which in turn requires reciprocity under World Trade Organization rules.  Canada’s provinces and municipalities had previously balked at opening up to foreign competition when the original North American Free Trade Agreement was being negotiated, but the lessons of the ensuing decade showed that Canadian firms generally fare better in more open trade environments.  

Canada’s realtors are about to come under the heavy hand of government regulators after Canada’s competition bureau determined, following a three-year investigation, that the Canadian Real Estate Association’s monopoly over the internet-based multiple-listing service, or MLS, is anti-competitive. The Competition Bureau has filed suit with the Competition Tribunal to force the Canadian Real Estate Association to open the MLS system to all Canadians, not just member-brokers, and to allow individual brokers and sellers to negotiate their own commissions, rather than have to adhere to a rigid schedule of fees.

Elsewhere: Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke’s 22-year-old son, Brendan, died in a car accident during a blizzard in the American Midwest. Burke’s son, who was openly gay and was the manager of the hockey team at the University of Miami-Ohio, had become an iconic figure in hockey circles and in the media for bucking the sport’s aggressive homophobia. His father, who is known as one of the sport's gruffest men, earned the grudging respect of many Canadians when he openly supported Brendan’s lifestyle.

The tragic situation was eerily similar to one Montreal Canadiens General Manager Bob Gainey faced three years ago when his daughter, Laura, was swept overboard by a rogue wave and lost at sea while working on a tall ship. Admitting he wanted more of his own time to enjoy life, the Hall-of-Fame player, and former captain, coach and general manager of the Canadiens retired this week, handing the reins of the venerable franchise to his colleague, Assistant General Manager Pierre Gauther.