The much-maligned construction work underway on the Gardiner Expressway will be completed up to two months ahead of schedule, weather permitting, Toronto Mayor John Tory announced Thursday.
“It’s going to get done faster by increasing crews and equipment resources and of course what goes with that is a cost of the project,” Tory told a news conference at city hall.
The city will spend an additional $2 million to accelerate the work, but that’s a relatively small price to pay when compared to the estimated $1 million a day that the Gardiner construction causes due to increased travel time and lane closures, Tory said.
“I believe this is a very sound investment that people across Toronto would say ‘go ahead and do that we think that’s what you should be doing.’”
Tory credited the revised timetable to public servants sitting down with the contractor, after being “given a push …by elected political leadership.”
The lanes on the western portion of the expressway are now expected to re-open in May 2015, ahead of the busy summer driving season and the Pan Am Games. This will not mean an end to construction on the Gardiner, which is in need of extensive repairs.
Tory has already announced a six-point plan to battle traffic congestion, which includes greater enforcement of no-stopping rules and a strategy to get public sector construction projects completed faster.
Royal Bank of Canada Chief Executive Officer David McKay said U.S. moves to normalize relations with Cuba present an opportunity for the lender to return to the Caribbean nation.
“We see a very attractive, long-term marketplace in Cuba,” McKay, 51, said Thursday in an interview at the bank’s Toronto headquarters.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro said yesterday they’d begin normalizing relations between the two nations, a deal brokered by Pope Francis and aided by the generational shift in Florida’s Cuban-American community. The action would involve lifting some of the restrictions that have limited travel and commerce for more than five decades.
“We’ve been anticipating this for quite some time,” McKay said. “It’s not a surprise, and it’s played into some of our recent strategic moves.”
Royal Bank, Canada’s second-largest lender by assets, first opened an office in Cuba in 1899. The lender shut its retail banking operations on the island in 1960 and five years later closed its representative office there, according to the company website. While the bank no longer operates in Cuba, McKay said there’s still a building in Havana bearing the Royal Bank of Canada name.
Cuba is the third-most visited country for Canadians after the U.S. and Mexico. About 1.1 million Canadians traveled to the island in 2012, staying an average of eight nights and spending a total of $748 million, according to Statistics Canada figures for that year, the most recent available. By contrast, Canadians spent $17.5 billion in the U.S. and $1.6 billion in Mexico in 2012, the data show.
Royal Bank, which has operations in about 18 Caribbean nations, spent about 18 months reorganizing its Caribbean retail banking business by cutting jobs, streamlining head-office operations, combining branches and selling its Jamaica unit for a loss in June. A stronger U.S. dollar, lower oil prices and improved U.S. economy may help revive tourism in the Caribbean, and thawing American-Cuban relations may play a key role in the region’s future.
“Part of our thought process around exiting Jamaica was not only did we not have scale and market presence and the capability to compete in the market, but we saw Cuba presenting a long-term competition for the U.S. tourist dollar to Jamaica,” McKay said.
Cuba has always held a certain allure for the traveller: the music, the food, the beaches and even the cigars.
While the United States is moving toward relaxing rules on travel to the island nation only 150 kilometres off the coast of Florida, it is not opening the floodgates for U.S. tourists just yet.
More trips will be permitted, for family visits, research, professional meetings and athletic competitions, but travel for tourism will still be against the law unless Congress moves to lift a longstanding economic embargo.
Many believe that will eventually happen, and the idea that Americans might soon flood the popular vacation spot could spur more Canadians to visit now.
“I think there will be an uptick of Canadians who are thinking about going to Cuba, or haven’t been, thinking this is our last chance to get a great deal,” said Allison Wallace, a spokeswoman for Flight Centre Canada.
Cuba has long been a destination of choice for Canadians and Europeans, who especially target all-inclusive resorts near Varadero that are considered affordable, Wallace said.
“As soon as it opens (to Americans), whenever that is, we would certainly expect the prices to go higher since it’s all about supply and demand,” she said.
Cuba has always been attractive to Canadians for its history and culture, but an added bonus was that Americans couldn’t go, keeping prices down.
McGill University business professor Karl Moore said that while Canadian sun seekers won’t likely feel an immediate impact from the news, he expects U.S. companies will begin to think about investing there.
“Back in the day, Havana was one of the great spots of the world,” Moore said. “I think there will be a lot of people thinking it will happen eventually. Let’s get ready for it.”
A handful of international companies already operate in Cuba. Spanish hotel chain Melia has 26 properties on the island.
U.S. companies such as Hilton Worldwide and Marriott International — the two largest chains by rooms — say they welcome any future opportunities to include Cuba in their rapidly growing global footprint.
“We will take our cues from the U.S. government, but look forward to opening hotels in Cuba, as companies from others countries have done already,” Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson said via an emailed statement.
“Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean, so there’s some exciting possibilities,” said Roger Frizzell, spokesman for Carnival Corp. He said “some infrastructure for cruising already exists in the country,” although other issues “need to be taken into consideration if this market opens up.”
With files from the Star’s wire services
For nearly a year, Ontario’s new superjail has been operating without an infirmary or a promised 26-bed unit for inmates with mental illness.
The health facilities at the state-of-the-art Toronto South Detention Centre were shown off in a media tour months before the jail began accepting inmates in January, but those units have never opened.
The Star has learned that sick inmates — including those with physical injuries, infectious diseases and mental illnesses — are instead being housed in solitary confinement, held for up to 24 hours a day in cells alongside prisoners segregated for violent behaviour.
“We have all these facilities there that are supposed to make things better for the inmates and for the staff and that hasn’t happened because nothing has opened,” said Dave Graves, a Toronto South correctional officer and representative for Local 5112 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.
“A year and it has sat empty. It makes no sense to us.”
A spokesman for Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services confirmed that the infirmary and mental-health unit at the new jail are not open and said 21 inmates with medical issues are currently being kept in the segregation unit “to ensure a private location for them to recover.”
“The health and well-being of inmates and staff is our top priority,” ministry spokesman Brent Ross said in an email. Whether they are in segregation or the regular prison population, inmates “continue to receive the medical care and medications they require,” Ross said.
In a followup email, another ministry spokesman said “inmates are assigned or removed from medical segregation solely at the discretion of medical staff.”
Ross said the health-care units are expected to open in early 2015. The ministry was vague on the reason for the delay, with Ross citing “commissioning activities, including recruitment of new staff.”
Graves, the Toronto South correctional officer, said the ministry has told union representatives that the jail has not been able to hire enough nurses. He said nurses currently working in the institution have told him they are understaffed and cannot keep up with daily demands.
Gordon Cobb, another Local 5112 union representative and correctional officer, said seriously ill inmates are sometimes transferred from segregation to an off-site hospital, which can be a burden on the system because guards must be stationed with hospitalized inmates.
Cobb said sick prisoners have routinely been housed in segregation in other Ontario jails he has worked in. “Would it be better to have those inmates out of those areas? Yes it would,” he said. “But procedure-wise that’s nothing new.”
While calls are growing for the use of solitary confinement to be limited or banned, the practice is still used widely in Canadian jails, federally and provincially, as a form of punishment and as a means to deal with prisoners whose illnesses make them difficult to manage.
A United Nations Special Rapporteur has said solitary confinement should be used only in exceptional circumstances and never for more than 15 consecutive days or it could amount to torture, citing several scientific studies that have suggested even a few days in social isolation can cause lasting mental damage.
Federal prison watchdog Howard Sapers has pushed for the use of segregation to be banned for inmates with the diagnosis of a serious mental illness, a history of self-injury or a previous suicide attempt. Last week Ottawa rejected key recommendations from the Ashley Smith inquest to limit the use of solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates in federal prisons.
Prison guards in Ontario and elsewhere have repeatedly expressed concerns about not having the proper training to deal with prisoners who have mental disorders.
The Toronto South is meant to have a 26-bed mental-health unit, as well as a forensic early intervention service staffed by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Announced in June 2013, the forensic program — the first of its kind in Canada — was lauded as a means to improve safety and access to mental-health intervention for inmates. CAMH has hired and trained staff to run the service, but the Toronto South is not ready to launch it.
“We are hopeful that we will be up and running in the Toronto South Detention Centre early in the new year,” CAMH spokeswoman Kate Richards said in an email, referring questions about the delay to the ministry.
As of Tuesday, there were 51 inmates in the Toronto South solitary confinement unit — seven for disciplinary segregation, 21 for medical segregation and 23 for administrative segregation. Inmates can be placed in administrative segregation for their own protection or for the safety of others. The ministry denies that the administrative label is used for inmates with mental or physical illnesses.
One Toronto South correctional officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of workplace reprisal, told the Star that inmates with addictions have been forced to go through drug withdrawal in solitary confinement. “It’s not very pretty to see them being put in segregation ... and I’m not a bleeding heart, believe me,” the guard said.
“There are times when, as part of their treatment and upon medical advice, an inmate undergoing withdrawal from drugs or alcohol may need to be placed in segregation to ensure their well-being and recovery,” ministry spokesman Greg Flood said in an email.
The correctional officer also said mentally ill prisoners have been placed in cells next to violent inmates who sometimes provoke them to the point of breakdown by shouting, banging on cell walls and encouraging them to kill themselves.
Defence lawyer Daniel Brown said he was shocked to get a call earlier this fall from a Toronto South inmate who was told he would be placed in segregation to recover after an ankle fracture. Brown said the inmate protested and was ultimately sent to another institution.
“It was surprising to think that they would open a jail without those facilities being in place,” Brown said. “And it was even more surprising to learn that someone would be held in segregation as a substitute for appropriate medical facilities.”
The Toronto South Detention Centre, a 1,650-bed adult male jail, was built to replace overcrowded and crumbling old institutions such as the Don Jail.
The institution is meant to be a model for future jails. “Our goal,” the ministry website says, “is to ensure that the province has an efficient and effective correctional infrastructure plan that keeps Ontario’s communities safe and to ensure that individuals in our custody are held in safe, secure and humane conditions.”
Construction wrapped up in 2012, but the new jail — the largest in the province — sat empty until 2014. The ministry cited commissioning activities and staffing issues for that delay as well. The Toronto South opened on Jan. 29 this year.
The centre holds offenders serving sentences of less than two years and inmates awaiting trial on charges ranging from minor property offences to murder, any of whom can end up in solitary confinement for various reasons at the discretion of jail staff.
The wife of alleged fraudster Dr. Arthur Porter has pleaded guilty to her role in an elaborate kickback scheme involving the construction of a state-of-the-art Montreal hospital.
Arthur Porter — the infamous former hospital administrator, Canadian spy watchdog and alleged fraudster — has written on a family blog that Pamela Porter, 54, “is only guilty of being my wife.” But after being voluntarily extradited from Panama in June 2013, she has now acknowledged her role in what has been billed as Canada's largest corruption case.
On Thursday, she pleaded guilty to two counts of transferring the proceeds of crime. The Crown dropped a third charge of conspiracy.
She occupies a minor role in a complex fraud case with a cast that includes the former head of Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, another company official who kept close ties to the family of deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, and Arthur Porter, the head of one of the country's leading health care institutions.
There is a pre-existing publication ban on some of the details of the case, as the criminal cases of seven others alleged to have participated in the kickback scheme are ongoing.
Arthur Porter is fighting his extradition back to Canada, claiming that he was travelling on a diplomatic passport on official business for the government of Sierra Leone and that he was illegally arrested on an Interpol warrant. Diplomatic officials say the African nation has no record of him being asked to carry out official business at the time of his arrest.
An oncologist, Arthur Porter has also written on a blog publicizing his plight that he is fighting Stage 4 lung cancer from the ill-suited confines of the Panamanian prison.
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