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Travel restrictions inspiring co-operation in border communities

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed the Canada-U.S. border to non-essential travel, Donna Peter suddenly lost access to her nearest source of bulk groceries.

Peter is among about 100 residents of Beaver Creek, Yukon, who would drive two hours to Tok, Alaska, for much of their staple shopping.

“They have a grocery store there, a restaurant, a hardware store, a lumber yard. So, it’s very convenient for us,” she said.

“Usually that was our place to get away. Being on the border, where are you going to go? You go to Tok.”

Beaver Creek holds the title of Canada’s most westerly community and —  just 20 minutes from the border — it usually serves as a friendly stop for travellers to take a break along the Alaska Highway.

Like other border towns forced to respond to a rapidly changing world, residents have rallied around one another with generosity and co-operation.

Early in the pandemic, the local White River First Nation offered to buy groceries for the whole town, whether an individual was a member of the First Nation or not, Peter said.

In co-ordination with the Beaver Creek Community Club, they planned a five-hour trip to Whitehorse and collected shopping lists from residents, prohibiting only cigarettes and alcohol, she said.

“They went to Whitehorse, they put themselves out there, they were wearing masks and loaded up truck after truck after truck of groceries. And they brought them back, took them all to the community club, sorted them by name and then delivered it to your home,” Peter said.

“We, of course, the town people, thanked them profusely.”

No one from the First Nation was available for an interview but executive director Sid Vander Meer said in an email that members have now done six or seven supply runs.

As a pitstop for many tourists, Beaver Creek’s businesses are also hurting during the pandemic.

Carmen Hinson, owner-operator of multi-service stop Buckshot Betty’s, said her business is down 90 to 95 per cent.

“We have a restaurant, a takeout liquor gift shop, cabins, campground, a little bit of everything,” she said.

“For us on the highway I mean it’s affecting us a lot.”

The town of Stewart, B.C., is also doing what it can to help neighbours in the smaller, more isolated Hyder, Alaska.

Stewart Mayor Gina McKay said residents of Hyder don’t even have a gas station and are allowed to cross into Stewart once a week for essentials like groceries.

“We really do see ourselves as one big community and I think actually this situation we’re all in right now with COVID has actually made us stronger because we’re doing everything we can to help them, whether that be bringing fuel to the border, groceries to the border, any essentials they need,” McKay said.

After McKay made similar comments at the outset of the pandemic, she said she got calls from media as far away as Abu Dhabi looking for a good news story, as gloom swept the globe.

“I don’t think when I made those comments in March any of us thought we would still be here at the end July,” McKay said.

Since then, she said residents on both sides of the border have formed a Stewart-Hyder COVID Action Committee petitioning both countries to allow locals to freely roam between the two communities.

McKay said her council passed a motion this week to support the petition and ask the Canada Border Services Agency and their local member of Parliament to make an exception for Hyder.

The CBSA did not respond to questions in time for deadline.

McKay said the kindness has gone both ways. She and her partner were “devastated” to lose their dog in March. They soon ordered a puppy from a breeder outside Seattle that wouldn’t be ready until June, not realizing the borders would close.

The Chow Chow, named Harper, made it thanks to an American breeder who put her on a charter float plane flight, a pilot who kept her for three days due to bad weather and a man in Hyder who brought her from the dock to the border.

“So that’s all of us working together. It took a lot to get that puppy here, but we got her,” McKay said.

This report by The Canadian Press was published Aug. 3, 2020.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press


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Pandemic motivating more parents to get their kids the flu shot, UBC study finds

VANCOUVER — A new study from the University of British Columbia suggests the COVID-19 pandemic may be motivating more parents to get their children a seasonal flu vaccine.

Published in the Journal of Pediatrics last week, the study surveyed 3,000 families from Canada, the United States, Japan, Israel, Spain and Switzerland.

The researchers found that 54 per cent of parents planned to vaccinate their children — up 16 percentage points from the previous year.

The study determined parents were more likely to get their child the flu shot if they thought there was potential for the child to catch COVID-19, and if their child was already up-to-date on other vaccinations.

Dr. Ran Goldman, the study’s lead author, notes that public health officials around the world are concerned about the potentially harmful combination of COVID-19 and flu season.

In a phone interview with The Canadian Press, Goldman says immunizing children will be “critical” in protecting the population from both infections.

He said his team was “very encouraged” by the results of the study, but still would like to see a slightly higher proportion of parents willing to give their children the flu shot.

Goldman said the magic threshold for a vaccine to be highly effective is about 70 per cent.

Although he believes that goal can be reached, Goldman said the media and the scientific community must work harder to help dispel myths and disinformation about vaccine use.

“Vaccination is the world’s greatest public health achievement,” Goldman said, stressing the impact vaccines have had on global mortality rates over the last century.

“If we reach 70 to 80 per cent of the population — not even 100 per cent — I’d be really thrilled.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published August 13, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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Crews prepare for strong winds as they battle fire, storm near Red Lake, Ont.

Firefighters and emergency workers prepared for a vicious storm while battling a massive wildfire on the doorstep of the northwestern Ontario community of Red Lake on Thursday.

The municipality has been almost entirely evacuated this week, with about 4,000 residents dispersed to numerous communities — the vast majority of them able to drive south along the highway.

But with the fire just two kilometres away and forecasters tracking a severe thunderstorm in the area, Red Lake Mayor Fred Mota said his community was bracing for the worst.

“Today the community is going to have some difficulties,” said Mota, noting the storm will bring with it much needed rain, but also lightning, nickel-sized hail and strong winds.

“The worrisome piece is that the wind gusts are going to be up to 110 kilometres per hour,” Mota said. “So we’ve got very, very strong wind gusts coming and that’s going to pose some challenges and difficulties for the firefighters.”

Jonathan Scott, a fire information officer with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, said crews have made “great progress” on the fire, dubbed Red Lake 49, over the past two days.

As smoke dissipated Wednesday, investigators were able to get a better handle on its size, which is now 552 hectares, down from the earlier estimate of 750 hectares, Scott said.

“For today, winds will be out of the southeast and south, similar to yesterday, and it will put pressure on the northern flank, the head of the fire, the most active part and where we’re focusing most of our efforts,” he said.

Mota said officials have also spent time talking to residents about the COVID-19 pandemic, but noted there are currently no active cases in the entire northwest region, according to the local health unit.

“With the COVID-19, some people are very aware of it and we’re reminding people to remain socially distanced, to wear their face masks, to clean their hands regularly,” he said.

About 3,800 people have registered as having self-evacuated, according to the provincial Ministry of the Solicitor General, which is co-ordinating the relocation efforts.

He said 65 people were flown out of the area and the province has planes at the ready should they be needed.

Mota said about 100 residents remain in the Red Lake area, and most say they do not plan to leave their homes.

Chantal Cole-Fitzpatrick is among those who’ve stayed, although she is about 10 kilometres from the fire in nearby Balmertown, Ont., where she runs a pet store.

“If the power goes down, our fish will die, so we’ll stick around for them to start generators and that,” she said. “We’ll leave when we absolutely have to.”

In the meantime, Cole-Fitzpatrick and her family are doing their part to help out. They spent about 10 hours Wednesday looking after all the pets that were left behind by evacuees.

“There’s everything from turtles to hamsters, ferrets, chickens, pigeons, ducks — all kinds of animals,” she said.

“Lots of cats were left outside because the owners couldn’t find them in time, so we’ve been breaking into people’s houses and letting them in. As long as people need help, we’ll absolutely help them.”

Colin Hodgson said he was at a fly-in fishing lodge about 30 kilometres east of Red Lake on Monday night with his partner and some friends, when they spotted flames in the distance near his home in Balmertown.

Planes were grounded that day due to the smoke, but they were able to fly home on Tuesday.

“We got in our vehicle, ran home, grabbed our cats and whatever we could, just five minutes in the apartment and rushed out,” he said.

“We were worried we’d be trapped in, but the road was open.”

He, his partner and their kittens are now safe with family in Winnipeg.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 13, 2020.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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Common law partner of Nova Scotia mass shooter sues his estate for trauma, injuries

HALIFAX — The common law spouse of the man who carried out the mass shooting in Nova Scotia in mid-April is suing his estate, alleging he caused her to suffer psychological, physical and emotional injuries.

In a statement of claim filed Wednesday in Nova Scotia Supreme Court, the woman’s lawyer, Peter Rumscheidt, doesn’t provide a precise figure for the damages being claimed.

The woman says she was in a long-term relationship with Gabriel Wortman, a denturist based in Dartmouth, N.S., before he was killed by police after going on a shooting rampage April 18-19. Wortman had killed 22 people and set fire to a number of properties.

The former spouse says she and Wortman were together at his property in Portapique, N.S., on the night of April 18. She said she was the victim that night “of an assault and battery perpetrated against her by Mr. Wortman.”

She also says she was held against her will by Wortman and suffered from “intentional infliction of mental suffering.”

RCMP investigators have said the woman escaped into the woods on the night of April 18 and after taking refuge in a neighbour’s home, she spoke to police at about 6:30 a.m. on April 19 about her spouse owning a replica police vehicle and illegal firearms.

Wortman murdered 13 people in the coastal community about 40 kilometres west of Truro before escaping to kill nine others in several other Nova Scotia towns. He was finally shot and killed by police at a service station in Enfield, N.S., on the morning of April 19.

The woman has already renounced her right to be the executor of the will for Wortman’s estate, initially valued at more than $1.2 million, requesting it be administered by the public trustee.

In his will, the mass killer’s assets are listed as including six properties in Portapique and Halifax worth a total of $712,000 as well as $500,000 in personal belongings. The will was dated March 29, 2011, and is written on four pages.

The public trustee is responsible for paying the debts and outstanding taxes of the killer and is charged with providing a full inventory of assets within three months.

Truro lawyer Robert Pineo has said most family members of Wortman’s victims have already joined in an application to certify a class action to sue the estate for compensation for their losses and suffering as a result of the mass shooting.

Wortman had specified in his will that a “female companion/friend,” was to have full control over his funeral. He instructed that his body be wrapped in a Hudson’s Bay blanket and buried in a concrete vault at the cemetery in Portapique with no service or public notice of his death.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 13, 2020.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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