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Canada reignites abortion debate

Canada's abortion debate is reignited when Conservatives in Parliament vote against an aid bill. Ann Coulter is muzzled by the University of Ottawa's administration. Quebec's separatist leader compares his movement to the World War II-era French resistance. A mafia turf war flares in Montreal. The Olympic torch goes out in Vancouver. A report says Harper wasted billions on his stimulus package. And maple syrup is found to contain compounds that prevent cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Top News: While the U.S. Congress grappled with anti-abortion amendments to its healthcare legislation, Canada reopened its own debate on the subject in a move that did damage to political parties on both the left and the right.

Abortion ceased being a major hot-button topic in mainstream politics in Canada in the early 1990s, with the Supreme Court ruling strongly in favor of a woman’s right to choose. While it has never sat well with Christian conservatives, there has been very little appetite for rekindling the issue. However, in recent weeks, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been saying Canada’s foreign aid will be more directly tied to promoting women’s health in developing countries. That prompted opposition parties to demand whether any federal funding would be available for birth control and for safe, medical abortions. Harper said nothing. His own caucus began seeking clarity too.

The issue came to a head this week when the opposition Liberals tabled a motion in Parliament stating that abortions would be an allowable use for the aid funds in countries where abortion is not illegal. The Conservatives, as a bloc, voted against the measure and were joined by some Liberals, who either voted against the measure or simply skipped the vote altogether.

The Liberals never expected to win the vote, which was intended to smoke out the government’s true plans. However, the spectacle of having some members break ranks rather than simply abstain was another embarrassing black eye to party leader Michael Ignatieff, a fact the media-savvy Conservatives managed to spin into the main story.

Another major victory by the conservative spin cycle was the muzzling of America’s “Rush Limbaugh in a miniskirt,” Ann Coulter, who was forced to cancel a public appearance at the University of Ottawa in the face of massive protests and ensuing security concerns.

While Coulter’s views were bound to be profoundly unpopular at the bilingual university known for its deeply liberal traditions, the announcement of her appearance touched off a wave of protest after the university administration sent Coulter a letter warning her that Canada’s free speech guarantees are not as limitless as they are in the U.S. and that she should be careful to adhere to Canada’s hate-speech legislation. Coulter did manage to make her appearances at the University of Western Ontario and is still scheduled to appear this evening at the University of Calgary.

It wasn’t just Coulter making outlandish comments in and about Canada this week. Gilles Duceppe, leader of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, made one of the oddest statements in nearly 15 years of relative calm between Quebec and the rest of Canada when he likened his political movement to the French resistance that fought the Nazis in World War II. The statement was immediately denounced by the governing Conservatives, the federal Liberals, and the federalist Premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, all of whom sought to pull in puzzled nationalists.

While Duceppe was rehashing old wars, an on-going gang war continued to play out on the streets of Montreal. The turf war flared with what police say was another high-profile Mafia hit in a high-end clothing store in the touristy Old Montreal that killed two, but apparently missed the main target. Police are girding for a long, bloody summer.

The summer got a lot less bloody for polar bears in Canada’s arctic, but not bloodless enough for animal welfare advocates. The government of Nunavut, one of Canada’s three northern territories, announced it would cut the quota for polar bear culling to 65 from the previous 105. The allowable harvest will continue to drop by 10 bears over each of the next four years. The move did little to quell condemnation by conservationists, who maintain the bears are in grave danger of extinction.

The torch went out on the Winter Paralympics last weekend, bringing to a full and official close Vancouver’s tenure as an Olympic host city. While the hangover is profound, organizers said they expect the Games to break even financially. Critics question the accounting, noting that many of the facilities were paid for by the debt-laden municipal and provincial governments.

Money: The proposed $3.2-billion deal between Hydro Quebec and New Brunswick Power is off. New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham announced he was pulling out of the deal after talks became bogged down on a technicality. Political observers said Graham was making the only move he could in the face of elections that are expected in the fall. For its part, Quebec claimed it was they who walked out on the deal.

A conservative think tank said the Harper government has wasted billions of dollars on its vaunted economic stimulus package. The C.D. Howe Institute released a report this week suggesting the government’s economic action plan, which resulted in a $56-billion budget deficit, did little to help Canadians through the recent recession and has weakened the country’s ability to cope with future economic shocks.

Canada’s broadcast regulator took a swipe at the monopoly cable operators, giving private over-the-airwaves broadcasters the right to withhold their services from cable operators. Network television audiences, while dwindling, remain one of the largest components of the cable viewership and are highly profitable, since there was previously no charge for carrying their signals. The issue has been the subject of dueling multi-million dollar public awareness ads for the past year. Now, based on the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruling, cable companies will have to negotiate a fee for carriage, a charge almost certain to be passed along to consumers, who already pay among the highest cable bill in the developed world.

Elsewhere: It was sweet news out of Providence, R.I., for Canada’s sugar bush operators. Researchers at the University of Rhode Island found that maple syrup contains at least 20 compounds that are known to battle cancer, heart disease and diabetes. The latter was already well known, as proponents of the sweet elixir had been championing its low glycemic index rating, which results in a lower insulin reaction by the body. Canada is the largest producer of maple syrup in the world, and Quebec is the largest producer in Canada.