National News for Jan. 12: Quebec no-vax tax, improved addictions services for inmates

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Published January 12, 2022 at 4:15 am

In The News is a roundup of stories from The Canadian Press designed to kickstart your day. Here is what’s on the radar of our editors for the morning of Jan. 12 …

What we are watching in Canada …

With COVID-19 cases putting Canada’s hospitals at or near capacity, Quebec’s unprecedented plan to tax adult residents who refuse to be vaccinated is coming under fire.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association says the tax plan is deeply troubling, noting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes individual autonomy over our bodies and medical decisions.

In an emailed statement Tuesday night, Cara Zwibel, acting general counsel for the association, says the tax penalty is a divisive measure that will end up punishing and alienating those who may be most in need of public health supports and services.

She says Quebec Premier Francois Legault’s government should abandon what she calls a “constitutionally vulnerable proposal.”

Quebec reported 2,742 COVID-related hospitalizations Tuesday, with 255 patients in intensive care, along with another 62 deaths.

Omicron’s fast-moving spread has led to staff shortages across the country, prompting Ontario’s health minister to announce that internationally educated nurses will be allowed to work in the province’s hospitals, long-term care homes and other health settings.

In Nova Scotia, a legislative committee heard that 25 of the province’s 133 nursing homes have stopped accepting new admissions because of staffing issues partly caused by the pandemic.

Also this …

Correctional Service Canada says it is working to provide faster access to treatment for inmates addicted to opioids and promises to eliminate the waiting list that is hundreds of people long.

The service says the changes were made in response to the opioid overdose crisis, and are part of the settlement of a human rights complaint that said prisoners were being denied treatment or were cut off their medications as punishment.

As part of the settlement, the government agreed to publish wait-list figures.

Its most recent data from September shows almost 2,700 inmates were receiving treatment, while 351 remained on a wait-list.

Nicole Kief, a legal advocate with Prisoners’ Legal Service in B.C., which launched the complaint, says her group still has concerns about prisoners who are addicted and being released without services.

Dr. Nader Sharifi, the national medical adviser for the correctional service, says they realize inmates have a high risk for overdose in the first 30 days after their release.

But he says steps have been taken to ensure there are no gaps in care.

What we are watching in the U.S. …

ATLANTA — U.S. President Joe Biden is challenging senators to “stand against voter suppression,” urging them to change Senate rules in order to pass voting rights legislation that Republicans are blocking from debate and votes.

Biden, who has been criticized by some in his own party for the Senate’s inaction, declared in a speech in Atlanta on Tuesday that “I’m tired of being quiet” — pounding his fist for emphasis. Two voting-rights bills are currently stalled, and Biden hopes a change in Senate rules could at least free them for votes.

Current rules require 60 votes to advance most legislation — a threshold that Senate Democrats can’t meet alone because they only have a 50-50 majority with Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties. Republicans unanimously oppose the voting rights measures.

Not all Democrats are on board with changing the filibuster rules. Conservative West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin threw cold water on the idea Tuesday, saying he believes any changes should be made with substantial Republican buy-in.

And even if Democrats clear the obstacles to passage of the voting rights laws, it could be too late to counter widespread voting restrictions passed in 19 states.

With Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N. Y., setting next Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a deadline to either pass voting legislation or consider revising the rules around the chamber’s filibuster blocking device, Biden is expected to evoke the memories of the U.S. Capitol riot a year ago in more forcefully aligning himself with the voting rights effort.

Biden told his audience: “The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation.”

“Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch,” he declared. “I will defend your right to vote and our democracy against all enemies foreign, yes and domestic! And so the question is where will the institution of the United States Senate stand?”

What we are watching in the rest of the world …

BRUSSELS _ Senior NATO and Russian officials are meeting to try to bridge seemingly irreconcilable differences over the future of Ukraine, amid deep skepticism that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s security proposals for easing tensions are genuine.

The meeting comes during a week of high-stakes diplomacy and a U.S.-led effort to prevent preparations for what Washington believes could be a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Moscow denies it is planning an attack. Still, its history of military action in Ukraine and Georgia worries NATO.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin will lead Moscow’s delegation at the NATO-Russia Council, the first time it’s convened in over two years. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will also be at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

The meeting is due to run for about three hours. The NATO-Russia Council, their chief forum for talks, was set up two decades ago but full meetings paused when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. It has met only sporadically since, the last time in July 2019.

Putin says Russia’s demands are simple, but key parts of the proposals contained in the documents that Moscow has made public _ a draft agreement with NATO countries and the offer of a treaty between Russia and the United States _ won’t pass muster at the 30-country military organization.

NATO would have to agree to halt all membership plans, not just with Ukraine, and scale down its presence in countries like Estonia close to Russia’s borders. In exchange, Russia would pledge to limit its war games, as well as end aircraft buzzing incidents and other low-level hostilities.

Endorsing such an agreement would require NATO to reject a key part of its founding treaty. Under Article 10 of the 1949 Washington Treaty, the organization can invite in any willing European country that can contribute to security in the North Atlantic area and fulfill the obligations of membership.

On this day in 1984 …

A snow storm in southern Ontario created a massive 200-car pileup on the Queen Elizabeth Way, which skirts the western end of Lake Ontario. The storms caused 89 injuries and $1 million in damage.

In entertainment …

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Grand Ole Opry, country music’s most historic and storied stage, is getting heavy criticism for an appearance by country star Morgan Wallen.

Wallen’s surprise performance has been interpreted as the institution giving the star its blessing and a path to reconciliation after he was caught on camera last year using a racial slur.

Performers ranging from Yola, Allison Russell, Rissi Palmer, Noelle Scaggs of Fitz and the Tantrums, Joy Oladokun, Chely Wright, as well as Grammy winners Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell, weighed in on how the Opry’s decision could have troubling consequences for artists of colour in country music.

“Morgan Wallen’s thoughtless redemption tour is the nail in the coffin of me realizing these systems and this town is not really for us,” wrote Oladokun on Sunday.

Wallen was caught on camera last year using a racial slur and while some organizations banned him temporarily, he has returned to the airwaves and remained the most popular artist of 2021 across all genres. He resumed touring arenas last year and has been releasing new music, including collaborations with rapper Lil Durk, who is Black, and country artist ERNEST.

Wallen made an unannounced appearance on the Opry, which has been broadcasting for nearly 100 years, to sing with ERNEST.

This time the criticism centred more on the silent signalling by the Opry than Wallen himself.

“It’s the idea of a young Black artist walking into that venue and wondering if ANYBODY is on their side,” wrote Isbell. “What a lot of us consider to be a grand ole honor can be terrifying for some.”

A publicist for the Opry did not return a request for comment from the Associated Press, and Holly G said she also had not received a response to her letter as of Tuesday morning.

Soon after the video of Wallen was published on TMZ, the country singer apologized and told fans not to defend his racist language. A publicist for Wallen did not return a request for comment from the AP.

ICYMI …

FREDERICTON _ Farmers on Prince Edward Island say there’s no justification for a suspension of exports of Island potatoes to the United States and it needs to be lifted now, but Canadian officials say the U.S. is demanding more information.

“It’s our own government that has the suspension in place. We need that suspension lifted,” P.E.I. Potato Board general manager Greg Donald said in an interview Tuesday. “There’s no science that says our fresh potatoes cannot go.”

Canada banned shipments of P.E.I. fresh potatoes to the U.S. on Nov. 22 following the discovery of potato wart in two fields. The fungal parasite spreads through the movement of infected potatoes, soil and farm equipment. It poses no threat to human health but leaves the potatoes disfigured and can greatly decrease crop yields.

“We are in week eight,” Donald said. “We are at approximately the $20-million mark in terms of lost business to the U.S. Our growers are getting extremely anxious and frustrated that there hasn’t been a resolution yet.”

At the time of the suspension, federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said if Canada had not issued the suspension voluntarily, the Americans would have imposed their own ban.

A news release issued by the minister’s office last week says the U.S. is blocking imports and Canada must provide the technical data to show the potatoes are safe.

A technical meeting between the CFIA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is set for Wednesday to discuss the situation, but officials in the minister’s office say it could take until 2023 to provide all the information the United States is requesting.

The CFIA completed a national survey for potato wart in December and no potato wart was found. The survey involved soil testing across Canada in areas that grow seed potatoes.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2022

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