Peacemaking through film and pastrami: Caplansky's signs on to sponsor Toronto Palestine Film Festival

Thu, 24 Jul 2014 17:48:02 EDT

As public opinion on the war in Gaza becomes increasingly polarized, Zane Caplansky, the owner of Toronto’s consummate Jewish deli, is trying to carve out some space in the middle.

The popular College St. eatery has signed on to sponsor an upcoming screening of the Toronto Palestine Film Festival. Caplansky, 46, hopes it is a powerful statement, conveyed with smoked meat and rye.

“I want to make it known that my business, which is identified as a Jewish business, is absolutely supporting Palestinian causes,” he said. “That would maybe make Palestinians understand that it’s not black and white, and maybe make Jewish people understand that it’s not black and white.”

The intensifying conflict in the Middle East has recently ratcheted up tensions in Toronto, which is home to large Jewish and Palestinian communities.

This week in Thornhill, police were twice called to the scene of hateful graffiti, which included a swastika and “F--- Israel” in one location, and the words “F--- Gaza” and “Arabs go home” in another.

Caplansky, who describes his position as “anti-war,” said he has been struck by the “disgusting” and “brutal” nature of status updates on Facebook, which has become a magnet for extreme views.

“There’s a war going on. Hundreds of people have been killed,” he said. “You can’t tell me something positive is going to come out of it.”

Seeking to inject some calm into the discussion, he chose this week to announce his support for the film festival’s outdoor screening in Christie Pits Park on Aug. 8.

“Caplansky’s Deli is sponsoring the Palestinian Film Festival,” he posted on the social media site on Wednesday.

Within 24 hours, his matter-of-fact post had garnered more than 150 “likes” and dozens of positive comments.

“The path to peace is through breaking bread … with spicy mustard and pastrami,” one friend offered.

Others simply called him a “mensch.”

Dania Majid, a programmer for the Toronto Palestine Film Festival, said she is touched by Caplansky’s public display of support.

“It’s a heartwarming gesture, and I know it’s coming from a good place,” she said. “Palestinian solidarity is not based on religion or ethnic background. It’s based on the principle of human rights for all … Everyone who supports that universal principle is welcome and part of this, whether they be Jewish or other.”

Caplansky’s desire to find common ground traces back to high school, when as president of York Mills Collegiate, he visited the home of the school’s vice-president, who was Palestinian.

“He had a map of Israel on the wall, and it said, ‘Palestine,’” he recalled. “I realized he has a different perspective, and we can still be friends.”

He said he made the decision several months ago to supply the film festival with one of his signature blue-and-white food trucks, emblazoned with the slogan, “Sometimes you just have to Jew it up.” (“I’m not sure how well that’s going to go over,” he said, with a laugh.)

On offer during the screening of Laila’s Birthday, a dark comedy by Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi, will be a selection of the Caplansky classics: smoked meat sandwiches; barbecue brisket; smoked meat poutine; maple beef bacon doughnuts.

“I hope they eat. I hope they enjoy,” Caplansky said. “I hope they understand that we’re in this together. This isn’t us and them. This is just us.”

Judge deeply affected by meeting shooting victims’ families — and cops who pulled the trigger

Thu, 24 Jul 2014 20:00:28 EDT

When the call came last August, retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci knew the task that lay ahead was challenging, highly complex, and laden with controversy.

He knew examining the issue of police use of force against people in crisis was going to be, at times, emotional — but underestimated just how much meeting all affected parties would, in turn, affect him.

“You can read about a death, and you can read about tragedy,” Iacobucci said in an interview with the Star Thursday afternoon. “But when you hear it from those who are directly affected, the impact is just much greater. It really made an impact on me.”

A 77-year-old judge with a reputation for fairness and balance, Iacobucci outlined his much-anticipated report Thursday, advocating a broad range of changes including improved training, more emphasis on de-escalation techniques, a pilot project increasing the availability of Tasers, and cameras worn on officers’ bodies.

The list of 84 recommendations was based on nearly a year’s worth of research, consultation of 1,200 documents, and more than 100 interviews, including with four families of people killed by police and three officers involved in a fatal encounter.

Iacobucci and members of his Toronto legal firm, Torys, also participated in ride-alongs with the Toronto police Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams, Iacobucci spending several hours with a unit in East York.

“I thought, ‘These are good people, they are experienced people,’” he said of the Toronto police officer and psychiatric nurse on the team.

Near the end of his address to a packed room at police headquarters Thursday, Iacobucci’s emotions began to show through, his lip curling and voice strained when he acknowledged the relatives of those killed by police.

“For those killed, and their families, nothing can take away their loss,” he said at the press conference.

Iacobucci stressed that the research process revealed an equally detrimental effect on an officer involved in a fatal encounter. Self-doubt and guilt are just some of the consequences, he said, alongside their mental health being put in “significant jeopardy.”

“The life that is lost, and the lives that are affected, is the real humanity aspect of all this,” he said. “And that was an eye-opener.”

Ban Ki-moon condemns shelling of UN-run school in Gaza

Thu, 24 Jul 2014 22:32:42 EDT

It was a scene of panic, bloodshed and death that sent shock waves through the international community.

On Thursday at least 15 people who were seeking safety in a UN-run schoolhouse died in an attack Gazan authorities and eye witnesses described as Israeli shelling. Israel’s military said that Hamas rockets could have been responsible, and that “we do not target UN facilities.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack, saying “many have been killed — including women and children as well as UN staff,” and adding that “circumstances are still unclear.”

But the toll of Israel’s assault on Gaza has caused a growing outcry, as numbers of Palestinian dead rose to more than 750 in the past 17 days, while Israel has lost at least 32 soldiers in clashes with Hamas, whose fighters have also tunneled their way beneath the closed border into Israel.

Related stories on

Three responses to Gaza: despair, cynicism, (maybe) hope: Salutin

Peacemaking through film and pastrami: Caplansky's signs on to sponsor Toronto Palestine Film Festival

Air Canada resumes operations to Israel as U.S. lifts ban on flights to Tel Aviv

Two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker have also died in over 1,000 rocket attacks by the militant group since hostilities began. Israel says its assault on Gaza was aimed at eliminating the rocket attacks and tunnels that threaten Israeli security.

But the bloody scene at the schoolhouse at Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza has underscored the plight of more than 140,000 Palestinians who have fled the fighting within a narrow battleground from which there is virtually no escape. Gaza’s densely populated territory is sealed by Israel and tightly controlled by Egypt. The sea is patrolled by the Israeli military.

“All of us sat in one place (in the school courtyard) when suddenly four shells landed on our heads,” Laila Al-Shinbari, a survivor of the school attack, told Reuters. “Bodies were on the ground (there was) blood and screams. My son is dead and all my relatives are wounded, including my other kids,” she said, weeping.

Kamel al-Kafarne, another survivor, told the Associated Press that the UN was putting people on buses to evacuate the school when three tank shells hit. “We were about to get out of the school, then they hit the school,” she said. “They kept on shelling it.”

Israeli army spokesman Capt. Eytan Buchman told the Washington Post that Hamas may have fired the rockets during a battle in Beit Hanoun, and said the military was “very carefully reviewing the incident.” He accused Hamas of “using civilian infrastructure and international symbols as human shields.”

The UN reported earlier in the week that it had found Hamas rockets hidden in a vacant school that lies between two others where 3,000 refugees were seeking shelter. But senior Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said that although there was a “possibility” that shells that hit the Beit Hanoun school were fired by Israel, “the school was not a target in any way.”

On Twitter, Christopher Gunness, an UNRWA spokesman, said the agency had contacted the Israeli army over the course of the day to try and co-ordinate a window for civilians to leave, but “it was never granted.” And he said, “precise co-ordinates of the UNRWA shelter in Beit Hanoun had been formally given to the Israeli army.”

It is the fourth attack on UN facilities since hostilities began, as frightened Palestinians seek shelter in any space they believe to be safe.

As the fighting continued Thursday, Hamas, which rules Gaza, dampened hopes of an early truce and its political leader Khaled Mashaal said that “more patience” was needed for a breakthrough in ceasefire talks. Hamas has demanded that Israel first end its blockade of Gaza.

Egypt, which is helping to broker the ceasefire — and has cracked down heavily on its own Islamist opposition — is “setting out a formula that is difficult for Hamas,” said Uzi Rabi, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University, in a phone conference.

“Hamas wants a ceasefire first, negotiations later. Israel, (Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas) and Egypt want the opposite. They are trying to come up with a deal that marginalizes Hamas, because its agenda could destabilize the region.”

In a statement to the UN Tuesday, Israel said “we are fighting in Gaza, but we are not fighting the people of Gaza.” Entering the impoverished strip of land, it said, was a last resort against Hamas.

Each hour of diplomatic wrangling is costing Palestinian civilians dearly.

Since the incursion began, there have been reports of attacks on residential areas, one killing some 25 members of an extended family in Khan Younis. Dozens of children have died, including four who were playing on the beach Wednesday.

More than 500 residences have been damaged or destroyed, and 12 human rights organizations including Jerusalem-based B’Tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights, wrote a joint letter to Israel’s defence minister protesting a “pending humanitarian and environmental catastrophe” caused by collapsing infrastructure and lack of access to clean water.

Israel has responded sharply to criticism, accusing Hamas of rejecting ceasefire offers, constructing at least 23 “terror tunnels” to attack Israelis, and ruthlessly building them over civilian homes and schools.

On Wednesday, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay condemned both Israel and Hamas for disregard of civilians, and said that “both Palestinians and Israelis deserve better than a life of chronic insecurity and recurring escalation in hostilities.”

For Gaza’s civilians, peace could not come too soon.

“We escaped from our houses after they told us to evacuate,” Sobheye al-Kafarna, an injured elderly woman, told Bloomberg. “We went to this school and they also shelled us.”

Iacobucci report calls for a ‘zero deaths’ police culture

Thu, 24 Jul 2014 10:17:25 EDT

Frank Iacobucci spelled out, in no uncertain terms, the aim of his much-anticipated report on police use of force: zero deaths.

“No death of the subject, no death of the officer involved, or of any member of the public,” the retired Supreme Court Justice told a packed news conference at Toronto police headquarters Thursday.

Though that may seem a self-evident goal, Iacobucci infused his broad-ranging, 300-plus page report with another objective he admits was not, strictly speaking, part of his stated mandate: the improvement of police culture.

All 84 of his sweeping recommendations depend on a shift in police thinking, Iacobucci said. That includes the abandonment of “unhelpful” attitudes that, while not universal, are somewhat pervasive — including the belief that deaths are inevitable.

“You can do all the training you want,” Iacobucci said in an interview following the release of the report. “But if culture is inconsistent with the training, then you’ve got a real problem.”

The comprehensive report, titled “Police Encounters with People in Crisis,” includes some controversial suggestions, including increasing the use of conducted energy weapons (CEWs), or Tasers, and the introduction of body-worn cameras for officers.

Echoing recommendations repeatedly made in coroner’s inquests into police shootings, Iacobucci also advocates for training that emphasizes de-escalation techniques and communication, in place of force.

Iacobucci’s review came just three days before the anniversary of the event that provoked it: the death of Toronto teenager Sammy Yatim. Last July, the teenager was shot and killed by Const. James Forcillo, who is now charged with second-degree murder.

The rare move to commission an independent review was made by Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, who vowed to move on the recommendations with “urgency and resolve.”

“This is not a report that will gather dust,” Blair said, hoisting the hefty report in the air, shaking it for emphasis. “This is a report that will gather momentum.”

Blair announced he had already acted on a central recommendation Iacobucci makes to improve police culture: a formal statement setting out the force’s commitments to people with mental health issues.

“Members of the Toronto Police Service are committed to preserving the lives of people in crisis if reasonably possible. Our goal is the safety of every citizen, and we aspire to preserve every life,” Blair said, reading from the statement.

He has also already moved on forming an advisory board to monitor implementation — another report recommendation that forms part of the aim to prompt action. Iacobucci also suggests the police chief issue an annual report on implementation, and that a follow-up review be conducted in five years.

Among the most contentious recommendations is the suggestion to launch a pilot project to make conducted-energy weapons (CEWs), known as Tasers, available to front-line officers.

The recommendation is made with several caveats, including limiting the time of the pilot, closely monitoring officers, and advocating for an interprovincial study of the medical effects of CEWs, including on people in crisis.

But opponents of Tasers — many of whom believe that their increased use would impinge on efforts to use de-escalation techniques — were disheartened by Iacobucci’s stance on the issue.

Peter Rosenthal, a Toronto lawyer who has represented numerous families of police shooting victims, called the recommendation “disappointing.”

He raised questions about the report’s reasoning that, historically, there have been incidents where the deaths of people in crisis could have been avoided if the officer had the option of a Taser.

“I wonder how much analysis was done of any such purported incidents,” Rosenthal said in an email.

Former Toronto mayor John Sewell, now a leader of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, called the Taser suggestion the “wrong approach,” saying no more money should be spent on use-of-force options.

“Mr. Iacobucci had a real opportunity to make change which would ensure our police force could respond well to those in mental crisis, but he seems to have not taken the opportunity,” Sewell wrote in a statement.

Iacobucci’s report also suggested that body cameras be worn by all Toronto police officers who may encounter people in crisis, in hopes of increasing accountability and transparency. Along with that, Iacobucci writes, Toronto police should develop a protocol intended to protect the privacy of the recorded information.

In an aim to increase the availability of the much-lauded Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams — composed of a Toronto police officer and psychiatric nurse — the report also recommends a complementary program, called Crisis Intervention Team, be created, with the aim of providing the service 24 hours a day. The teams are currently not available overnight.

Other recommendations include: making officers complete a mental health first aid course; considering additional mental health training for sergeants; emphasizing de-escalation in police training; and creating a comprehensive police and mental health oversight committee.

Though suggesting several changes with substantial costs attached, the report does not address in detail any funding options — something that concerns Toronto Police Association President Mike McCormack.

“Who is going to pay for the Tasers? Who is going to pay for the body-worn cameras?” he said. “I’ve got 55,000 officers that you want more training from … who is going to be giving us the numbers we need to adequately staff and make sure there’s people on the street to respond to calls?”

Julian Falconer, the lawyer representing the mother and sister of Sammy Yatim in a lawsuit against police, said the recommendations could prompt a “sea change” — if they are implemented.

While stressing there is “every reason” to take Blair on his word that he intends to implement them, Falconer points out that some of Iacobucci’s recommendations have been made in previous coroner’s inquests into police shootings.

For instance, the recommendation that MCITs be more widely available throughout the city was made in the 1992 coroner’s inquest into the death of Lester Donaldson.

“I’m absolutely convinced Sammy Yatim would be alive today if the right people had been on the scene, and that would have happened if these recommendations had been implemented at the time of the Donaldson case,” Falconer said.

Members of Yatim’s family did not respond to the recommendations Thursday, and did not attend the press conference.

But Marianne MacIsaac, whose husband, Michael, was killed by Durham Region police last year, spoke out in support of Iacobucci’s report, urging that other police forces adopt its proposed changes.

“It has to be addressed across the province, it has to. It’s not just Toronto, it’s an issue everywhere,” she said outside police headquarters.

At Queen’s Park, Premier Kathleen Wynne said the report is “very comprehensive.” While admitting she had not reviewed it yet, she maintained “it is very important to me that we have the right training protocols in place.”

“People who are having to interact with people with mental health issues (need to) have the ability to approach those people in the right way.”

From the opposition benches, Progressive Conservative MPP Christine Elliott, an advocate for mental health issues, said she was “very encouraged” to hear Blair promise the report will “gather momentum” and not dust.

The government has not moved quickly enough, she said, on a 2010 report from an all-party legislative committee on mental health and addictions, which pushed for more mobile crisis intervention teams, mental health court workers and more mental health training for police.

“The progress on that has been too slow, and I would urge the government to redouble its efforts,” Elliott said.

“This is a significant problem … it is something that needs to be taken seriously,” Elliott added. “It’s tragic it has taken another young person’s death to have caused some action to be taken on this file.”

With files from Rob Ferguson

Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman nearly unhittable in win over Red Sox

Thu, 24 Jul 2014 15:47:01 EDT

Cocky and assured despite his diminutive stature, Marcus Stroman has never seemed to want for extra motivation.

But you had to wonder if watching his pal Aaron Sanchez throw two perfect innings in his big-league debut on Wednesday night got the Blue Jays’ rookie right-hander a little extra-jacked for his start against the Boston Red Sox Thursday afternoon.

“Yeah, he kind of set the tone,” Stroman said afterward. “He’s one of my best friends. I’m happy to have him here, just looking forward to being with him and winning some ball games.”

If Stroman’s performance on Thursday was any indication, the Jays would do well to stoke the fires of this friendly rivalry.

The 23-year-old took a no-hitter into the seventh inning on Thursdaybut watched it fall in the form of a leadoff bloop single into shallow centre field by Shane Victorino. Aside from a pair of walks, that dinky duck snort was Stroman’s lone blemish, as he threw seven shutout innings in his second straight start to lead the Jays to a dominant 8-0 series-clinching victory over the Red Sox in front of a soldout Camp Day crowd of 46,683.

While the capacity crowd was deflated by Victorino’s hit, which came on Stroman’s 94th pitch, manager John Gibbons was relieved from a particular pickle. No longer did he have to weigh protecting his prodigy’s arm against the possibility of his joining Dave Stieb in the franchise record books.

“I can’t say that I’m glad he gave up a hit, but . . . ” Gibbons said, trailing off. “I don’t know if relieved is the word, but it didn’t hurt.”

And what if the no-no kept going?

“You’ll never know,” Gibbons said, smirking coyly.

In the end, it didn’t matter, as Stroman was dominant either way. Not only was Victorino’s lofted fly Boston’s lone hit, it was the first ball they sent into the outfield against the Jays young righty, who struck out seven and saw just a single batter above the minimum. Combined with a pair of hitless relief innings by Todd Redmond and Rob Rasmussen, Thursday marked just the eighth multi-pitcher one-hitter in Jays’ history.

Meanwhile, Melky Cabrera hit three doubles and oft-maligned masher Juan Francisco drove in four runs while falling just a double short of hitting for the cycle. (Granted, Francisco’s triple was a little generously awarded, coming as it did on a high fly ball that clanked off Jackie Bradley Jr.’s glove in centre field). Jose Reyes, Dioner Navarro and Ryan Goins also had multi-hit games as the Jays’ offence continues to reawaken from its mid-season slumber.

But the story was Stroman, who since joining the Jays’ rotation at the end of May has been the team’s best starter, posting a 2.21 ERA in his 10 starts.

“He’s pitching like a veteran,” Gibbons said, comparing his competitiveness to Mark Buehrle, the cagey lefty who could not be more different in style, but — at least to Gibbons’ eyes — shares a similar substance. “They compete, that gives them a little edge.”

Stroman said he’s not surprised by his success.

“I knew if I came up here and got settled in I knew I could pitch well and help out the team win every game. But yeah, it’s definitely been a ride so far.”

The Jays are hoping Stroman can be what Michael Wacha or Sonny Gray were for the St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland A’s last season — rookie starters who joined the rotation mid-season and made a major impact down the stretch.

So far, he has proved that possible, never more than over his last two starts. But beyond this year’s playoff race, Sanchez and Stroman give fans something to be excited about for years down the road as potential lynchpins of a formidable rotation.

“Where their futures end up, who knows,” Gibbons said. “But I’d be excited about them.”

For now, however, they have injected a youthful enthusiasm into a club that has needed a boost as it tries to weather key injuries while hanging in post-season contention.

As go the quick-shifting tides of the baseball season, the Jays are all of a sudden riding high again after winning three straight against a division rival to cap a 5-2 homestand.

They now head out on the dreaded 10-game road trip, beginning with a pivotal three-game series against the New York Yankees, with whom they are currently tied for the American League’s second wild-card spot.

Iacobucci use of force report recommends Taser study

Thu, 24 Jul 2014 21:41:10 EDT

There are 17 recommendations surrounding conducted energy weapons in former justice Frank Iacobucci’s use of force report, “Police Encounters with People in Crisis.”

One says the Toronto force should consider a pilot project allowing a “selection” of front-line officers to test the weapons, commonly known as Tasers, for a “limited” time period and that the results be “closely monitored.” The recommendation has a number of caveats as well, including a call for cameras or audio devices to record the use of CEWs and extensive reporting and analysis.

The other 16 recommendations made by Iacobucci ensure the use of the weapon as a last resort.

Iacobucci calls for an inter-provincial study on the medical effects of CEWs, a shared database between police forces on their effects and how they are deployed, enhanced and standardized reporting, monitoring of the technology, disciplining officers who misuse the weapon, a report on what de-escalation measures were used first, and more extensive training for officers using CEWs.

“The report does not advocate for an automatic expansion of Tasers but recommends an examination of a number of issues on which there is a dearth of good research,” said Toronto Police Services Board chair Alok Mukherjee. “It asks for inter-jurisdictional research that would be national in scope. This is very consistent what the board has been saying.”

The board has considered Tasers a number of times, the most recent being in September, after the province opened up the rules to allow front-line officers to carry CEWs.

Then, Police ChiefBill Blair asked the board to earmark funds for the weapons in the 2014 capital, a request that was denied not only because of the expense but because board members felt they needed time to take the issue to the public.

Currently, only Emergency Task Force officers and platoon sergeants carry Tasers.

Mukherjee says the board will look at the issue of CEWs once again in light of Iacobucci’s report.

“I expect there will be interest in these recommendations.”

Three responses to Gaza: despair, cynicism, (maybe) hope: Salutin

Thu, 24 Jul 2014 19:30:00 EDT

Writing in these pages, Dr. Gabor Maté expressed the sense of despair around Gaza exquisitely. That’s exquisite as in painful. Speaking as a writer who’s written on this for 35 years, and still hopes to find lifelong Jewish friends among my readers, I’ve never found communication so hard. I don’t mean agreement, I mean the simple ability to engage among people of goodwill.

This despair is greater regarding Jews in Canada than in the U.S., where a limited but perceptible critique of Israeli policy has emerged not just on the “left” but in the mainstream. There’s nothing parallel here. Stephen Harper seems to have recruited the self-identified Jewish vote (which doesn’t mean all Jews) with a blanket call to support anything Israel does. I have no idea why that works so effectively in Canada.

Our local despair obviously pales compared to despair in Israel/Palestine. It’s been a cliché to say Jewish criticism thrives in Israel, compared to here. But that’s now less true. When Jewish vigilantes kidnapped an innocent Palestinian teen and burned him alive, there was wide disapproval but not the stark horror one might expect given the images that come to mind (Jews burned at the stake by the Inquisition, or gassed). Something has shifted in Israeli discourse. Dehumanization sets in insidiously, not just of the Other but of oneself.

It’s also a cliché that anyone’s who’s lived the experience of many Palestinians could easily (though not necessarily) become a terrorist in response. Israeli leaders like Moshe Dayan and Ehud Barak said it explicitly. This week a 17-year-old Gazan emerging, literally, from the rubble, told Reuters, “I once dreamt of becoming a doctor. Today I am homeless. They should watch out for what I could become next.” What I find amazing in his words is they aren’t just a threat, they sound like a plea: Please don’t let this happen to me.

Cynicism comes readily. When the U.S. Senate voted unanimously, 100-0, to back Israel’s version, was there no one — Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders — who knew it was idiotic? But rather than deal with electoral threats from the Jewish-Israel lobby that would follow, plus charges of anti-Semitism, they cynically went along. Like Secretary of State John Kerry on Fox News one-sidedly condemning Hamas, but on a live mike before the show sarcastically mentioning Israel’s “pinpoint” targeting and saying “we’ve got to get over there” to stop it.

I actually see this as “constructive” cynicism, which may simply show how desperate you can be for positive signs. Kerry and Obama seem to feel there’s no point arguing with Israel, so just agree with what they say and try to improve things anyway, ignoring your own words. Hamas, too, has their somewhat cynical calculation: they reject an immediate ceasefire, which Israel accepts. For Israel a ceasefire means “quiet for quiet”: back to normal life and no more rockets. For Gaza it means back to the “slow death” of blockade, insufficient medicine and food, no free movement — so they say No, which means continuing slaughter under Israeli attack. It’s a horrible choice but it’s not insane — or totally cynical. It’s the kind of decision you might make in an insane situation.

For hope, maybe, there’s Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Gaza doctor whose three eldest daughters were killed by Israeli shells during the 2008-9 invasion. He’s now in Toronto with his five surviving kids. He lives by the words, I Shall Not Hate. (It’s his book’s title.) You go to his house for dinner and there aren’t just strong-willed Palestinians. There are proud Jewish Zionists, some of whom accompanied Stephen Harper on his solidarity trip to Israel. You think: this is the recipe for a train wreck. But somehow, due to Izzeldin’s fierce, almost intimidating commitment to non-violence and dialogue, people do talk.

This may matter beyond just being nice to see. Israel isn’t apartheid South Africa: a clearly unjust situation to almost everyone. Here, the “sides” are equal in numbers and the moral balance doesn’t tilt as self-evidently as it did there. So finding a way to talk may be a practical necessity. It won’t solve the impasse; that’ll require other pressures. But it could, surprisingly, play a crucial role.

Rick Salutin's column appears Friday.

Liberals pass budget as Ontario legislature breaks until October

Thu, 24 Jul 2014 12:57:53 EDT

Summer has finally come to Queen’s Park after the provincial budget passed allowing the legislature to rise until after Thanksgiving.

Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals got their spending plan through the legislature Thursday, six weeks after being re-elected with a majority government.

With Finance Minister Charles Sousa’s July 14 fiscal blueprint enacted after an extended spring and summer session, the legislative assembly rose until Oct. 20.

“I wish all of you a safe and happy summer with your families. We all know that you work very hard in your constituency offices during the times in which the house is not sitting,” Speaker Dave Levac, a former high school principal, told weary MPPs from all three parties who appeared as giddy as students on the last day of school.

Sousa’s $130.4-billion budget, identical to the one he tabled May 1 that triggered the June 12 election, launches the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan (ORPP) and raises taxes on 220,000 people earning between $150,000 and $514,090 a year.

It passed by a vote of 56-37 in the 107-member house with both the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats opposing a left-leaning program promising $130 billion for infrastructure projects over the next decade.

“I’m pleased that a progressive, positive plan endorsed by the people of Ontario in the last election is being implemented,” Sousa told reporters.

Despite a $12.5-billion deficit that has credit-rating agencies wary about Ontario balancing the books by 2017-18, the plan combats gridlock with $29 billion for public transit, roads, highways and bridges — $15 billion for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and $14 billion for the rest of the province.

There’s also $11 billion to repair and build elementary and secondary schools over the next 10 years and $11.4 billion for hospital improvements.

The cornerstone of Sousa’s blueprint is the ORPP, designed to complement the Canada Pension Plan that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has refused to bolster even though it only pays a maximum of $12,500 in annual benefits.

Ontario’s mandatory pension plan, which takes effect in 2017, would force the two-thirds of the province’s workers who do not have an employer’s pension plan to set aside 1.9 per cent of their pay.

For someone making $45,000 a year, that will mean an additional $788 deduction with their employer also contributing. It would eventually pay up to $25,000 annually to future retirees.

Conservative MPP Vic Fedeli said it was a “tax-and-spend budget” that is bad news for Ontarians.

Still, Fedeli (Nipissing) conceded his party’s recent election campaign was in part to blame for voters not realizing what the Liberals had in store.

“People didn’t vote for this budget. We were busy shooting ourselves in the foot during the campaign. Quite frankly, we’ve run out of feet,” he said, referring to former Tory leader Tim Hudak’s unpopular campaign vow to scrap 100,000 public-service jobs over four years, including teachers, nurses, and firefighters.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who had triggered the election by opposing the May 1 budget, insisted she had no regrets about voting against “an austerity budget” that will lead to cuts.

Five Canadians, including father and his children, on board plane that crashes in Mali

Thu, 24 Jul 2014 06:21:00 EDT

Four people from the Montreal area, including a father and his two children, are among 116 passengers were aboard an Air Algerie flight from Burkina Faso to Algiers that crashed in Mali.

Gen. Gilbert Diendere says the wreckage was located about 50 kilometres (31 miles) from the border of Burkina Faso near the village of Boulikessi in Mali.

Diendere is a close aide to President Blaise Compaore and head of the crisis committee set up to co-ordinate research for the plane that vanished Thursday in a rainstorm over northern Mali.

He says searchers found human remains and burned and scattered plane wreckage.

A member of the Association des Burkinabé du Grand Montréal, a group for expats from Burkina Faso, who identified himself as the president of the group but declined to provide his name, said they had decided not to release the identity of the affected Canadian family for the moment, but he did say that the mother of the children had stayed behind in Montreal and was not aboard the flight.

“For the moment we don’t want it to become very public or published in the news,” the man told the Star. “We’re not revealing the identity of the family, but there is one family affected and that’s the only one we’ve been able to identify from the Montreal region. But we’re continuing the process of trying to identify everyone because we know that normally there are many people who come over on that particular flight.”

The MD-83 vanished about 50 minutes after takeoff from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, the official Algerian news agency APS said.

Two French fighter jets scoured the rugged north of Mali for the plane, which was travelling from Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, to Algiers, the Algerian capital.

More than 50 French passengers were on board the plane along with 27 Burkina Faso nationals as well as citizens of a dozen other countries, including the five Canadians. The flight crew was Spanish.

Tweets from the account of Lynne Yelich, Canada’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said the government is aware of the reports of Canadians on board and that they are seeking more information, but that consular officials are ready to provide assistance.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of all those on board Air Algerie Flight AAH 5017,” said one of the tweets.

The flight was being operated by Spanish airline Swiftair, which owns the plane.

Before vanishing, the pilots sent a final message to ask Niger air control to change its route because of heavy rain in the area, Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo said.

A resident who lives in a village in Mali about 80 kilometres southeast of the town of Gossi said he saw a plane coming down early Thursday, according to Gen. Gilbert Diendere, heading the crisis committee set up in Burkina Faso.

“We think that it is a reliable source because it corresponds to the latest radar images of the plane before it lost contact with air controllers,” Diendere said.

Radar images show the plane deviated from its route, Diendere said. Gossi is nearly 200 kilometres southwest of Gao. The vast deserts and mountains of northern Mali have been the scene of unrest by both Tuareg separatists and Islamist radicals.

The Air Algerie plane crash comes after a spate of aviation disasters. Fliers around the globe have been on edge ever since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in March on its way to Beijing. Searchers have yet to find a single piece of wreckage from the jet with 239 people on board.

Last week, a Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down by a surface-to-air missile while flying over a war-torn section of Ukraine. A Canadian was among the almost 300 who perished in that disaster. The back-to-back disasters involving Boeing 777s flown by the same airline were too much of a coincidence for many fliers.

Then this week, U.S. and European airlines started cancelling flights to Tel Aviv after a rocket landed near the city’s airport. Finally, on Wednesday, a Taiwanese plane crashed during a storm, killing 48 people.

It’s easy to see why fliers are jittery, but air travel is relatively safe.

There have been two deaths for every 100 million passengers on commercial flights in the last decade, excluding acts of terrorism. Travellers are much more likely to die driving to the airport than stepping on a plane. There are more than 30,000 motor-vehicle deaths in the U.S. each year, a mortality rate eight times greater than that in planes.

Mohamed Hersi jailed 10 years on terror charges

Thu, 24 Jul 2014 10:53:24 EDT

In sentencing Mohamed Hersi in a landmark Canadian terrorism case Thursday, the judge not only gave the 28-year-old the harshest penalty possible, but also delivered a scathing rebuke in her hour-long address to the court.

“How do you rehabilitate an already privileged man for whom neither love nor learning has any meaning?” Superior Court Justice Deena Baltman asked in handing down the 10-year sentence.

At one point she compared the University of Toronto graduate to Canadian serial killer Russell Williams, saying both had deceived their families about their crimes.

Hersi is the first Canadian convicted of attempting to fight with a terrorist group abroad.

A jury found him guilty on May 30 of two terrorism offences — attempting to participate in terrorist activity and counselling another to do the same.

Baltman also issued stringent parole conditions, ruling that Hersi must serve half of his sentence before being eligible for parole. Normally, inmates can apply after serving a third of their sentence.

“The message needs to be loud and clear that it brings severe consequences,” Baltman said.

Hersi was arrested at Toronto’s Pearson airport with a ticket to Cairo on March 29, 2011. He maintains he was going to Egypt to study Arabic, but prosecutors say he it was a stopover on his journey to Somalia, where he planned to join Al Shabab, the East African Al Qaeda group.

Hersi and his family deny the allegations and claim he was set up — “entrapped” — by the undercover police officer who had befriended him and provided the bulk of the Crown’s evidence.

Hersi sat either shaking his head or holding it in his hands Thursday morning, with his mother, uncle and other family members sitting behind him.

Paul Slansky, Hersi’s lawyer, denounced the prosecution and sentencing as a “Western show trial” that amounted to a conviction for “thought crime.” He is planning an appeal.

“The authorities are very happy, I’m sure, that they can now get convictions for someone merely speaking their thoughts,” Slansky said outside court.

“I don’t think it’s an accident that judgment on sentencing was read aloud,” Slansky said.

Baltman at times appeared to mock the defence offered in the case by Slansky, who had described Al Shabab’s roots as a nationalistic insurgency in Somalia. “It is ludicrous to suggest that an aspiring member is signing up for any type of legitimate or conventional warfare,” Baltman said.

“Clearly, he was not joining Al Shabab to stuff envelopes or help out on a bake sale.”

The Shabab’s popularity spiked during Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2007 and 2008, but by the time it is alleged Hersi was going to join it had been designated a terrorist group in Canada and claimed responsibility for devastating bombings on civilians.

This case began in September 2010 with the discovery of a USB stick at a dry cleaner, where Hersi was having his security guard uniform cleaned. An employee became concerned about the contents on the memory drive — including a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook — and contacted police.

Much of the case was based on what Slansky called a “credibility battle” between the undercover officer and Hersi, who provided, as Baltman said Thursday, “diametrically opposed versions of what they discussed” during unrecorded conversations (prior to a court order allowing a wiretap).

“I accept beyond any reasonable doubt the evidence of the (undercover officer) as to what was said in the pre-recorded conversations,” Baltman said Thursday, noting that the wiretapped conversations were “highly consistent” with prior conversations.

Canada’s spy service and the RCMP have closely watched Hersi’s prosecution as they dealt with the threat of Canadians who have been drawn to conflict zones abroad — and tracked them as they returned home.

One high-profile case involved Mahad Dhore, a Somalia-born York University student who left Canada in 2009 and didn’t publicly surface again until last year, when he led a group of suicide bombers on an attack at a Mogadishu courthouse, killing more than 30.

More recently, the fear has been that Canadians are involved in fighting in Syria, where a new generation of Al Qaeda militants has overpowered the Western-backed groups struggling since 2011 to topple the Bashir Assad regime.

New Canadian legislation was introduced last year that criminalized travel for the purpose of terrorism — broadening the law under which Hersi was charged.

Civil rights groups argued at the time it gave the police too much power. Security services, however, welcomed the addition to the criminal code, saying they had lacked the legal tools needed to deal with a growing problem.

Last week, the RCMP laid their first charges against Burnaby, B.C., resident Hasibullah Yusufzai, which will test the new law.

Little is known about the 25-year-old and the federal police force’s allegations that Yusufzai left Canada in January to fight with Syrian jihadists. The suspect’s sister, Katya, told CTV on Wednesday that he had changed in recent years from the outgoing fitness buff portrayed in the photos of his old Facebook profile to an introvert — “going to work, going to mosque,” and saying little.

His family, who had fled to Canada from Afghanistan more than two decades ago, believed he was in Turkey.

While his whereabouts remain unknown, Yusufzai could be arrested if he returns to Canada, or extradited to face charges here if apprehended abroad.

MPPs in commuter towns spending thousands on Toronto accommodations

Thu, 24 Jul 2014 20:41:25 EDT

MPPs living within relatively easy driving distance of Queen’s Park are spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars a year to live in Toronto.

Annual members’ expenses for travel and Toronto accommodation (2013-14) that were released Thursday show MPPs from places as close as Barrie, Hamilton and Cambridge are spending as much as $22,000 each a year on housing allowance so they don’t have to drive or take the GO train to work — the same trip that thousands of commuters do every day.

Who’s collecting a housing allowance

The regulations allow MPPs to collect a housing allowance for lodging when they live more than 50 kilometres from the legislature, but some MPPs are now suggesting it may be time to review the distance requirement — especially since night sittings are rare.

Tory MPP Christine Elliott (Whitby-Oshawa) could claim for a downtown apartment — as 16 of her legislative colleagues in a similar situation do — but refuses to be any different from her constituents.

“I recognize that most of my constituents take the GO train everyday and they commute so I should be no different,” Elliott, who charged just over $5,000 for travelling between home and the legislature, told the Star.

MPPs living within commuter distance are spending about $500,000 on Toronto accommodations.

Liberal House Leader Yasir Naqvi said he looks forward to the legislature’s Board of Internal Economy discussing whether the allowance rule should be reopened. The board is responsible for money spent by the legislature and by the MPPs.

“Perhaps this issue will come up to be discussed.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath (Hamilton Centre), who has a Toronto apartment, noted that there are seldom night sittings, which was one of the reasons in past years to justify the home away from home paid for by taxpayers.

“I think it important to look at these things and see if they are still relevant,” she said.

Veteran Progressive Conservative MPP Ernie Hardeman (Oxford) drives 330 km round trip from his home near Woodstock each day when the house is sitting. However, he charged more than $17,000 for travelling between his home and Queen’s Park.

“I enjoy being home every night,” said Hardeman, who leaves home at 4:45 a.m. to beat the traffic.

The housing allowance made headlines last fall when it was reported that then Thornhill MPP Peter Shurman was charging for a Toronto residence because he had moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake. The issue ended when Shurman, who insisted he had followed all the rules, later decided to quit and the Ontario government closed a long-standing loophole that enabled MPPs to receive housing allowances even if their ridings were close to Queen’s Park.

Tory house leader Steve Clark (Leeds-Grenville) said whether an MPP needs to have a place to stay in Toronto depends a great deal on what extra duties they might have.

The 107 MPPs spent $2.7 million on travel and Toronto accommodation expenses for 2013-14 and another $28 million on office and support staff expenses, according to the annual report.

Liberals urged to ensure key witnesses testify at gas plants probe

Thu, 24 Jul 2014 15:04:49 EDT

Refusing to let go of the $1.1 billion power plant scandal, Progressive Conservatives are pressing for a former Dalton McGuinty staffer and her computer-savvy boyfriend to testify before a legislative committee.

Conservative MPP John Yakabuski called on Premier Kathleen Wynne to use her new majority power to ensure Laura Miller and Peter Faist tell MPPs anything they know about deleted documents in the former premier’s office.

“If Perry Mason found out that there were two eyewitnesses to the case, they would be heard,” Yakabuski said in the legislature’s final question period before its summer break.

Wynne had poured cold water on that idea after the June 12 election and was even cooler to it Thursday, saying it’s time for the committee to stop hearing witnesses and write its report on lessons learned in the cancellations of two plants in Mississauga and Oakville before the 2011 election.

“You are not Perry Mason, but your performance was worthy of Perry Mason,” the premier retorted to Yakabuski in a reference to the famous TV defence lawyer from decades ago.


Why the OPP is a police and political force unto itself: Cohn

Dalton McGuinty returns to the spotlight — relaxed, renewed, redeemed

Liberals accused of trying to stack committees at Queen’s Park

Both Miller and Faist had offered to testify before the legislature’s justice committee in May, but their appearances were short-circuited when both the Conservatives and New Democrats refused to support the minority Liberal government’s spring budget, forcing the election in which voters returned the Liberals to power with a majority.

Ontario Provincial Police have alleged that former McGuinty chief of staff David Livingston obtained a special computer password that enabled the holder to wipe clean computer hard drives, and claimed it was given to Faist, a non-government employee and former Liberal contractor who is the partner of Miller, once a deputy to Livingston.

Livingston is the subject of an OPP investigation into breach of trust. Livingston has maintained he did nothing wrong, as have Miller and Faist. No charges have been laid.

With the legislature’s belated summer break continuing until October 20, the justice committee is not expected to meet until then at the earliest.

While opposition members enjoyed a majority on the committee under the minority government, upon its return there will be six Liberals, two Conservatives and one New Democrat.

Toronto police to keep sharing non-conviction records

Thu, 24 Jul 2014 14:14:29 EDT

Toronto Police Service will continue to share non-conviction records with employers and volunteer organizations while it reviews new recommendations calling for the practice to stop, deputy chief Michael Federico said in an interview Wednesday.

The volunteer guidelines issued last week by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) asks police forces to keep unproven allegations, withdrawn charges and mental health calls to 911 from being released except under exceptional circumstances.

RELATED: Presumed guilty

Most forces contacted by the Star say they already have or likely will adopt those recommendations.

While the Toronto police force is studying the new rules, Federico says the police will continue releasing non-conviction incidents in so-called vulnerable sector checks issued to those seeking employment or volunteer work with the elderly, the young and the mentally challenged.

“The mere fact that a charge wasn’t prosecuted doesn’t mean there isn’t a risk,” said Federico. “People with encounters with police may, in the mind of the employer, provide a risk indicator for their clients.”

A theft charge against a prospective employee that didn’t result in a conviction, for example, may still be relevant to an employer who serves clients vulnerable to theft, said Federico.

“We can’t presume that there isn’t a risk to the employer,” he said.

Federico said the force supports the OACP guidelines in general.

The OACP guidelines were issued amid an ongoing Star investigation documenting how the professional and personal lives of innocent Ontarians have been undermined by routine disclosures of non-conviction records.

Everything from internal police surveillance notes on suspects to allegations dismissed in court have turned up on the police background checks of Canadians seeking employment, volunteer positions and educational opportunities.

In many other cases, innocent Canadians never convicted of a crime have been turned back at the U.S. border for arrests and charges never proven true, the investigation has found.

OACP is calling on the government of Ontario to introduce legislation that would compel all of the province’s 57 police forces to follow clear rules about what they can — and cannot — disclose.

The Star reported last week that Premier Kathleen Wynn has expressed concerns about the release of non-conviction records and has asked Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi to investigate the issue.

Federico said Toronto Police face unique challenges because of the volume of background checks — more than 100,000 a year — and memorandums of understanding with more than 3,000 employers and volunteer agencies requiring them to confirm the information is relevant to a bona fide job requirement and adhere to the Human Rights Code.

“Toronto is a case study that stands separate from the normal practices in the province.”

If the employer requires an applicant to have a vulnerable sector check, “we’ll disclose it to the applicant and invite them to have a conversation with us and, with their consent, we have a conversation with the employer,” he said. “We’ll make sure the applicant and employer understand the need for the information and the nature of the information if it’s still needed.”

Lawyers, privacy advocates and citizens have criticized Toronto police for its release of non-conviction records which, they say, undermines the presumption of innocence.

“That’s a public policy discussion,” said Federico. “We’re just custodians of that information. . . But since the government has insisted that those whose clients are vulnerable must do some for a risk assessment for their employees, one element of that risk assessment is the information that police possess.”

Spokespeople with Peel Regional Police, Durham Regional Police and Hamilton police said they are already in compliance with the new guidelines and do not release non-conviction records.

“(The new guidelines) are very congruent with our practice,” said Durham police spokesperson Dave Selby. “We’ve been one of the leaders in Ontario in calling for changes in this area.”

A spokesperson with York Regional Police and Waterloo Regional Police said they will be signing on.

Several others contacted by the Star said they are reviewing the new policy including the Ontario Provincial Police, Ottawa and London police services.

“The Ottawa Police Service will review the OACP Record Checks Guideline and examine how it may differ from our current process,” the agency said in a statement. “We will also explore how changes could potentially impact our community, volunteer organizations and employers."

London Police Chief Brad Duncan said that while the force continues to review the new rules, “I anticipate that we will support the (new) recommendations inclusive of those pertaining to the disclosure of non-conviction records.”