Posts Tagged "CBC"

19Oct

People with invisible disabilities face constant struggle to be recognized, advocate says | CBC News

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Eileen Davis was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when she was 29 — but it wasn’t apparent to anyone who saw her. 

“I kept hearing, ‘Oh, but you look fine. You look great. It’s just arthritis. Oh, you’re young, it’s OK,'” Davis said. 

Davis said the fact that her illness wasn’t apparent made her delay getting care. 

“I actually denied care for a bit because I felt like I didn’t need it … It took a while for me to actually accept that I was living with a debilitating condition,” she told host Gloria Macarenko on CBC’s On The Coast.

Today, Davis advocates on behalf of people suffering from invisible disabilities — which include rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder, autism, fibromyalgia and epilepsy, among others.

“There are so many [conditions] where you can’t tell somebody might be living with them just by looking at them,” she said. 

This week marks Invisible Disabilities Week, which was started to address some of the barriers people with such disabilities face — like not being believed they have a disability in the first place.

“When people can’t see [the issue], they tend to diminish the severity of the disability. That can be really difficult for somebody who’s actually going through it because research suggests that those who have a strong support network actually have better outcomes,” said Davis.

The pandemic has in some ways made the issue more important, Davis says. It’s often the people who downplay these disabilities who also downplay the risk of COVID-19, she says.

“When I’m out and about and I need to keep my social distance and make sure those people around me are vaccinated or wearing a mask, sometimes they may downplay the severity about catching COVID-19, or even just the flu or any respiratory illness,” she says. 

Davis says the most important thing she wants people to take away from her experiences is not to make assumptions about what someone might be going through, despite their outward appearance. 

“Any time you see somebody sitting on a bus or a SkyTrain and they’re in a seat for seniors or people with disabilities, even if they’re young, they may still be dealing with a disability,” she said.

On The Coast6:47National Invisible Disabilities Week

Arthritis advocate Eileen Davis on National Invisible Disabilities Week. 6:47

17Oct

Vandalism inspired by TikTok challenge forces closure of Okanagan park washrooms | CBC News

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Public washrooms in an Okanagan community park have closed early for the season due to vandalism similar to that seen in schools amid a social media trend known as the “devious licks” TikTok challenge.

On Wednesday, the District of Lake Country announced the washrooms in Swalwell Park were closing earlier than their scheduled closure at the end of October because of repeated vandalism. 

Karen Miller, communications officer for the District of Lake Country, believes the vandalism is connected to the social media challenge.

“We’ve heard people have different philosophies about what this could be … but we’ve heard a lot about a ‘devious licks’ trend on TikTok, and it’s become such a problem all over Canada in every kind of washroom,” she said Thursday to host Sarah Penton on Radio West.

A TikTok challenge called ‘devious licks’ has students across North America filming and uploading videos showing vandalism and theft on school property, often in washrooms. These screenshots give a sense of the destruction. (@hayderr/@trentzalitach03/@devious.sink/TikTok)

Schools across Canada and the United States have been plagued by the TikTok challenge, which encourages people to damage school property and post the aftermath on the video-sharing platform.

“We’ve seen an increased amount of really disgusting vandalism [in the park bathrooms],” Miller said.

“The hardware, the doors for the stalls were torn right off the wall and destroyed, the soap dispensers burned and then even more disgusting, feces spread all over the walls and washrooms — in both male and female washrooms.”

The District of Lake Country had to spend about $2,000 to remove graffiti and fix other damage in the washrooms at Swalwell Park. (District of Lake Country/Facebook)

Miller says the mischief went on for a month, but the damage done last weekend was the worst.

The district had to pay about $2,000 to replace the broken hand dryers, soap dispensers and partitions, and to remove the graffiti on cubicles and bricks.

Miller says the park’s washrooms were only open during the day, and were frequently used by park visitors and heavily patrolled by security guards, so she wonders how the vandals were able to sneak into the facilities.

“The washrooms are checked frequently. The parks are monitored. But obviously, you know, it can’t be 24-7,” she said.

Miller says the park bathroom closure will be an inconvenience to seniors and mothers with young children.

“It does impact a wide segment of the community.”

Last month, TikTok removed all videos, hashtags and search results related to the “devious licks” challenge.

Miller urges young people to have a conversation with their friends who indicate they want to do the social media challenge.

“It doesn’t make you a rat to protect the community that you live in.”

13Oct

City of Vancouver plan would more than triple the number of homes in False Creek South | CBC News

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Plans for the future of 32 hectares in Vancouver’s False Creek neighbourhood are slowly, but surely, coming together, as city staff put forth a proposal Tuesday. 

About 80 per cent of False Creek is owned by the City of Vancouver, and with leases on that land expiring in the next 15 to 25 years, the report says the city has the opportunity to renew the original plan for the neighbourhood first developed in the ’70s. 

The report proposes that development in the area happen over two phases. Their preferred plan for new sites and open space could begin as early as next year — and would be developed into 2040.

There are currently approximately 5,500 people living in False Creek South in a total of 1,849 housing units. City-owned land in the False Creek South area spans from the Burrard Street Bridge to the Cambie Bridge, running along Sixth and Fourth avenues. It doesn’t include Granville Island. 

The south shore of False Creek has changed drastically since redevelopment efforts began in the 1970s. (City of Vancouver)

Staff believe that by the end of the Phase 1, the number of housing units in the area could more than double. Phase 2 could potentially add a further 2,875 units. 

The report says the development would be funded by the Property Endowment Fund and the Vancouver Affordable Housing Endowment Fund. 

A citywide engagement session held earlier this year found that residents’ priorities vary. There was broad support for increased density, housing for families, accessibility and development of vacant lands in a phased approach to minimize disruption in the neighbourhood.

False Creek residents, specifically, wanted their current leases extended.  

The city will enter lease extension negotiations and redevelopment discussions with co-op housing stakeholders later this year.

Environmental and social concerns are a high priority, the report says. 

Staff are now looking for direction from city council for the next planning steps which will involve all city departments and further public engagement. 

8Oct

IHIT says deadly Surrey shooting was targeted, linked to gang conflict | CBC News

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Police identified the victim in Tuesday night’s fatal shooting in Surrey as Sharnbeer Singh Somal and said they suspect the violence is linked to the Lower Mainland gang conflict.

The incident happened at around 9:56 p.m. PT near 124 Street and 80 Avenue in Surrey.

Surrey RCMP officers responded to reports of shots being fired and found a man suffering from gunshot wounds on a driveway. Paramedics were called but the victim died of his injuries.

The Integrated Homicide Investigation Team said Somal, 28, who is from Surrey, was known to police.

Investigators released this image of a black Ford pickup truck, which is suspected to be linked to the shooting. (Integrated Homicide Investigation Team)

Police said the shooting was targeted.

IHIT Sgt. David Lee said the violence highlighted the danger to the public.

“This shooting happened in a residential area. It was a total disregard for the safety of others,” said  Lee.

Shortly after the shooting, a black Ford pickup truck was found on fire near 129A Street and 72A Avenue, which investigators believe is connected to the shooting.

Police said the black Ford pickup truck was found on fire in the area of 129A Street and 72A Avenue. (Shane MacKichan)

Homicide investigators are canvassing the area for witnesses and CCTV footage. They ask anyone with dash cam footage from vehicles in the area between 8 p.m. PT to 10:30 p.m. PT to contact them.

The public is being asked to contact police through the IHIT Information Line at 1-877-551-IHIT (4448), by email at ihitinfo@rcmp-grc.gc.ca, or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.

22Sep

Vancouver’s temporary summer patio program is here to stay | CBC News

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Though it started as a temporary project during the pandemic, the City of Vancouver’s temporary expedited patio program [TEPP] will now operate annually.

City council voted unanimously to approve the program after staff presented a report recommending its continuance.

TEPP was introduced in June 2020 in response to social distancing and indoor dining restrictions amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Through the pandemic, patios have been shown to support economic recovery and a vibrant public life,” wrote city staff in the report.

In 2021, the popular program saw almost 700 patios approved throughout the city on both private and public land. There were 516 patios built on public land, with 388 on city curbsides and 128 on sidewalks.

“Discussion with BIAs and the hospitality industry indicated that TEPP helped the restaurant industry survive at a critical time, and many residents felt a vibrant patio culture was created on many streets,” the report said.

The program will run annually from April 1 to October 31. It will allow for increased occupancy for restaurants during the summer. Breweries and distilleries are also eligible.

Accessibility issues

While the program was popular, it wasn’t without its critics.

The Vancouver city planning commission, which advises city council on planning and development issues, took issue with the lack of accessibility over the past two seasons.

“The addition of patios has added to and worsened the existing level of inaccessibility in the city overall as well as in specific areas,” wrote the commission.

The commission pointed to elevated dining areas without ramp access, chairs and tables crowding sidewalks and forcing people to step out onto the road to pass and seating that didn’t allow for wheelchair users.

The issue was also raised by Coun. Christine Boyle.

“We know there were a lot of competing pressures on these patios and thus far the accessibility of these patios hasn’t been great,” said Boyle.

Scott Edwards, manager of street activities for Vancouver, confirmed that accessibility is a requirement for permit approval.

“Over the past year, we’ve been focusing on trying to support the businesses and enforcement has more been along the [lines of] education and engagement with businesses,” said Edwards. “

“We’ve been trying to use carrots more so than sticks.”

But moving forward, Edwards says the city will focus on enforcement.

Workers building a restaurant patio on the side of the street are pictured along Yew Street in Vancouver, British Columbia on Friday, April 9, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Privatization of public space

The commission also raised concerns about turning public spaces usable by all into private spaces that can only be accessed by those able to pay.

It warned that the privatization of public space can have a gentrifying effect and can unfairly impact vulnerable people.

“Privatization of public space contributes to increased surveillance of public space and harassment of people around those spaces, which disproportionately impacts unhoused, poor and racialized people,” said the report.

Lisa Parker, director of public space and street use for Vancouver, agreed it’s a balancing act that city staff will focus on as it continues consultations on the program with the public and stakeholders.

“We take that very seriously, the balance of those uses. And really have a handle and an understanding of that when we do start to change uses there are people who are impacted by that,” said Parker.

City staff has been directed to review the patio program and to report back with “strengthened guidelines to balance demands on public space and to ensure and enforce accessibility.”

Earlier in September, the City of Port Coquitlam also moved to make its outdoor spaces program permanent.

22Sep

Vancouver and province disagree on whether advisory committees can keep meeting virtually | CBC News

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Advisory committees in the City of Vancouver might be forced to either start meeting in person or go on hiatus due to a disagreement between the city and provincial government.

Emergency provincial regulations that allowed for virtual municipal meetings expire on Sept. 29, and the city has told its advisory bodies they must comply. 

The city believes the province would need to amend the Vancouver Charter to explicitly allow committees to continue meeting virtually, but the Ministry of Municipal Affairs believes the city can hold virtual or hybrid meetings for all committees. 

The issue is being closely watched by the many volunteers who make up the city’s advisory committees, some of whom either face accessibility issues in getting to city hall, are immunocompromised, or are concerned about gathering in person while the fourth wave of the pandemic continues. 

“We need to feel that we’re appreciated,” said Laura Mackenrot, co-chair of the Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee.  

And if … our members are going to be volunteering their time, we don’t want to risk ourselves, or our family members in our lives, to be going into city hall.”

Under the former rules, people attending virtually could not vote and did not count toward quorum. Mackenrot said the pandemic regulations had made her committee more productive. 

“We’ve had the best numbers for participation,” she said, adding it had helped both people who faced physical accessibility challenges and parents who had difficulties finding childcare. 

Councils across B.C. are beginning to meet in person more often after 18 months of meeting virtually or with a single person chairing meetings from council chambers. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Councils can keep meeting virtually 

While Vancouver says it is stymied for its volunteer committees, it’s among many municipalities to have passed a bylaw allowing virtual council meetings after Sept. 29 — or hybrid meetings, in which councillors can choose where they participate.  

In addition, many municipalities have tweaked regulations allowing the public to continue phoning in comments instead of having to attend physically. 

“In the past you … would have to sit around and wait for your item to come up and then wait for your speaking spot to come up. And it could take hours out of the day,” said Vancouver Coun. Pete Fry.

On Tuesday, Vancouver council met in person for the first time in 18 months, but it will allow councillors to attend virtually should they choose. 

Fry hopes a similar solution can be found for committees, but says there will be challenges.  

“If [most people] are there physically, virtually it’s difficult to sort of read the cues around the room, it’s difficult to get a word in edgewise,” he said. 

“So, there’s work to be done to figure out how a hybrid really does operate and function.” 

20Sep

Vancouver driver says he’s set a new record for fastest Trans Canada Highway journey by electric car | CBC News

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A Vancouver man says he has set a record for the fastest drive of the entire Trans Canada Highway in an electric car.

Harvey Soicher, 68, and co-driver Kent Rathwell took the 7,000 kilometre-plus journey from St. John’s to Victoria in four days and 19 hours, which included taking ferries and charging up his vehicle.

Soicher said he undertook the adventure in honour of his late wife and to show that electric-vehicle technology is more reliable and far ranging than ever.

He also said electric vehicles must be more widely adopted to help curb climate change.

“Transportation done by fossil fuels is a high percentage of carbon emissions,” Soicher told CBC News. “This summer, with all the fires, people are really realizing that we have to make some changes, quickly.”

Harvey Soicher (left) and Kent Rathwell talk to CBC News hands free in the electric Audi they drove across Canada. (Harvey Soicher)

Soicher made the trip in his electric Audi with co-driver Kent Rathwell, who is from Calgary. The pair relied on fast-charging stations on the Trans Canada Highway.

They set off from Newfoundland for Victoria on Aug. 13.

The trip was made possible, Rathwell said, thanks to Newfoundland and Labrador’s newly installed fast-charging station network. Before that, slower chargers would have added many hours to the trip.

There is no known record for travelling the length of the Trans Canada Highway the fastest in an electric vehicle. Prior to the installation of the fast-charging network in Newfoundland, it would have been impossible to do the journey within five days within legal speed limits.

Dan Halmo, founder of Fever World Record Setting, which maintains timing and scoring for various world records organizations, believes the pair set a record, though it’s the first attempt he’s aware of.

“Nobody else has ever done it that we know of,” said Halmo, who established Fever to measure records for electric vehicles. A previous team in a Tesla drove Highway 1 from White Rock, B.C., to Halifax faster, but that’s not the full length of the highway.

Mary Ann’s Electric Drive

Soicher says it’s the second time he’s driven across Canada in an electric car.

He had originally planned to make the journey with his wife Mary Ann, but she died of cancer in June 2018. Soicher went ahead with the trip in her honour a year later, taking 63 days across July and September 2019.

Emblazoned on the side of Soicher’s car is his wife’s name and the charity set up in her memory, Mary Ann’s Electric Drive.

In the two years since his last road trip, Soicher said the fast-charging infrastructure has improved tenfold, if not more.

Soicher and Rathwell recalled driving through northern Ontario passing gas station after gas station with their lights out — but the lights were on at all the charging stations. 

“Electric charges don’t need an attendant: you just pull in, plug in and flip them on,” Rathwell said.

Charging at home vital for electric mobility: professor

University of B.C. associate business professor Werner Antweiler said fast-chargers are playing an important role in boosting emission-free travel.

But even more important is increasing accessibility to low-cost charging at motorists’ homes without extra fees or surcharges.

“The charging network density is improving [but] we’re far away from dealing with the essential issues of charging at home as convenience,” Antweiler said. “Overnight charging is the key to making electric mobility work.”

Because electric vehicles are more expensive than their gasoline counterparts, Rathwell said government rebates offer effective incentives for people to make the switch from vehicles that run on fossil fuels.

He pointed to a 2020 report by Electric Mobility Canada that found that the sale of electric cars in Ontario fell 44 per cent in the quarter after the province scrapped its zero-emission rebates.

Fast-chargers are becoming more common across Canada, opening up longer trips for electric vehicle users. (Nova Scotia Power)

On Sunday, Soicher and Rathwell held a celebratory event in Vancouver to mark their achievement.

Talking to CBC News hands-free from their electric car, the pair laughed when asked if they still get along after spending nearly five days on the road together.

“We didn’t kill each other, that was great!” said Soicher as he pestered Rathwell repeatedly about changing lanes to get onto the Burrard Street Bridge.

“That wasn’t the reason we went so fast,” Rathwell replied. “We got along awesome.”

20Sep

It’s voting day! Here’s what British Columbians need know about the federal election | CBC News

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After a snap election was called on Aug. 15, Canadians will finish voting today to elect a new federal government.

Up for grabs in the 44th general election are 338 seats in the House of Commons, 42 of which are in B.C.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is trying to win back a majority government that he captured in the 2015 election. In the 2019 election, Trudeau and his party lost their majority and the popular vote, but still had enough seats to form a minority government with the Conservative Party as Opposition.

By virtue of being cast in the western-most time zone in Canada, B.C. votes are the last to be counted on election night and often influence the final make-up of the House of Commons.

Millions of Canadians have already voted in advance polls, or by mailing in their ballot.

Here’s what you need to know in B.C. on election day.

How to vote

If you’re a Canadian citizen who is 18 or older, you can vote in this election.

Polling stations are open between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. PT in British Columbia.

To register and/or to vote at a polling station, which are listed here, you will need proof of your identity and address.

There are three ways to do this, which are listed here.

Voters line up outside Trinity United Church in Prince George, B.C., on Sept. 13 to cast ballots in advance voting. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

If you are concerned about the accessibility of your assigned polling station, read or listen to our article about how accessible voting is for people with disabilities.

Elections Canada will not ask for proof of vaccination at polling stations, but masks are required in B.C.

Any Canadian voter who is required to self-isolate due to a positive COVID-19 test, or close contact with someone who has tested positive, in accordance with their provincial or territorial rules, will have no way to cast a ballot on Sept. 20.

Will you vote?

Voter turnout in the 2019 federal election was 67 per cent according to Elections Canada. In 2015, it was 68.3 per cent.

Political watchers say that number will most likely be lower for this snap election due to voter apathy and the fact it was called during the summer and during the fourth wave of the pandemic.

“I don’t know if this will be the lowest in Canadian history, which was a smidgen under 60 per cent, but it is going to be a low turnout election,” said Hamish Telford, an associate professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley.

The party leaders, from left: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O’Toole, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul. (CBC, Erin O’Toole/Creative Commons, CBC, CBC, Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

About 54 per cent of registered voters cast a ballot in B.C.’s provincial election on Oct. 24, 2020, down from 61 per cent in the 2017 election.

Nearly 5.8 million Canadians voted over the four days of advance polling, and more than 1.2 million Canadians requested special voting kits, far more than in previous years.

WATCH | What people in Vancouver are saying about voting in the federal election:

Voters in Vancouver talk about the 2021 federal election

Some voters questioned why the election was called and explained what issues matter to them 2:44

How will B.C. figure in the results?

Telford says B.C.’s influence on the election hinges on how many seats the Liberals and Conservatives are able to secure in densely populated Southern Ontario.

It’s possible that one of those parties could gain enough seats there to form government, but results from B.C. could help determine if it’s a majority or minority.

There are some close races in B.C., including the riding of Port Moody-Coquitlam, which was won by the Conservatives by just 153 votes over the NDP in 2019. The Liberals finished third, but only by around 1,000 votes.

The Vancouver-Granville seat, held by former Liberal cabinet minister-turned Independent Jody Wilson-Raybould since 2015, is also projected to be close between the three parties.

On Vancouver Island, the Greens are hoping to hold on to two of the three seats they had before the election was called.

Of the nine electoral districts in British Columbia’s North and Interior, six have stayed with the same party in every election the past 20 years. The other three have only changed parties once in that time. 

What British Columbians need to know about the federal election

B.C. residents are heading to the polls for the second time during the pandemic. How might federal seats change in the province? And what are the hot-button issues and ridings? CBC News breaks it down. 4:31

Telford says a stronger showing by the People’s Party of Canada in this election could eat into votes for Conservatives, but despite the chance for upsets and changes, he’s not expecting to see results much different from 2019.

“It seems to be déjà vu all over again,” he said.

Here’s more on the races and issues in B.C. this federal election.

How to watch the election

CBC News will provide election coverage on radio, TV and online.

See here for a full listing of ways to follow election results, with coverage beginning live at 4 p.m. PT.

18Sep

Amid federal election promises and perks, more than 6 million voters with disabilities feel ignored | CBC News

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Michelle Hewitt can’t contain her frustration.

The co-chair of Disability Without Poverty, a national movement dedicated to securing a federal disability benefit for low-income Canadians with disabilities, is discouraged that important issues have been ignored during the federal election campaign.

That’s despite the fact that the disability community represents more than 20 per cent of the Canadian population — more than six million potential voters.

Financial inequality is at the top of their list of concerns.

“Ten per cent of all Canadians live in poverty,” Hewitt said. “And of those 10 per cent, four of them are disabled. It’s been frustrating to see that CERB payments were set at $2,000 as a living wage, while welfare payments to disabled Canadians were well below that — $700 less in B.C. alone.”

“We’re fed up,” Hewitt continued.

Bill for disability benefit shelved

Disability Without Poverty has analyzed the major parties’ platforms for how they would support Canadians living with disabilities.

There was a glimmer of hope in June, when the government tabled Bill C-35 that set out the framework for the creation of a monthly Canada Disability Benefit for low-income people with disabilities. But then Parliament was dissolved for summer, and the election was called. It left the community discouraged and unsure of what would happen next. 

“I think all of us are sitting here with our heads in our hands with great worry for what’s going to happen,” Hewitt said. “People who live in poverty cannot wait any longer.” 

Neil Belanger agrees that poverty is at the root of all of the issues that confront people with disabilities. He’s executive director of B.C. Aboriginal Network on Disability Society. And for his community, issues like employment equity are compounded by systemic racism.

“Each of the parties talk about the importance of employment, but they don’t talk about what’s necessary for persons living with a disability,” Belanger said.

“We already know that there is systemic anti-Indigenous racism. We already know there’s discrimination against persons with disabilities. So it’s a huge barrier for the individuals that we serve to actually get a job.” 

Neil Belanger is the executive director of B.C. Aboriginal Network on Disability Society. (Submitted by Neil Belanger)

Belanger noted that change has been a long time coming.

“Persons with disabilities should be running in every election, and in leadership roles within government,” Belanger said. 

“Who better than them to talk about accessibility? Who better than them to talk about what it’s like to live in poverty? And who better than them to talk about their experiences of racial discrimination and discrimination based on disability? No one.” 

Wildfires, heat waves

The lack of a living wage can also impact Canadians in emergency situations.

Jewelles Smith is coordinator of communications and government relations with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. The organization is challenging the incoming government to ensure that people with disabilities are not forgotten during the planning processes for future emergencies or left out when disasters occur. 

“I think it’s important to think about when we talk about climate response and emergency preparedness is the fact that many people with disabilities don’t have the extra income to purchase fans and air conditioners at a moment’s notice like we saw happen in the summer,” Smith said. 

Jewelles Smith and her service dog DaVinci. She is the communications and government relations coordinator with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. (Submitted by Jewelles Smith)

There’s also a significant gap when it comes to accessible information.

“This past summer, when we had the emergency evacuations related to the wildfires in the West, I was hearing that information wasn’t being shared with people with disabilities in an accessible manner, including no ASL or SQL interpreters,” Smith continued. 

‘Do better’

She added that people didn’t always know how to access things that they might need, including accessible transportation, or where to access medications, plug-in equipment or oxygen, or how to take care of their service animals. 

Although all of the major parties did reference disability in their platforms, Smith noted that words aren’t enough.

“We need to do better in so many areas,” Smith said. “There’s not a single election issue that doesn’t directly affect the lives of people with disabilities.”

Listen to Cathy Browne talk with CBC’s Stephen Quinn on The Early Edition about how the federal campaign is addressing the needs of people with disabilities:

9:25Voters with disabilities frustrated about being largely ignored during the Federal election campaign

During this snap election campaign, BC voters with disabilities say their needs have been largely ignored. Coming up, our story producer Cathy Browne shares what she’s heard from three concerned voters in the latest installment of Access Denied. 9:25

16Sep

Surge in travel has WestJet and Air Canada asking for volunteer help | CBC News

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A surge in summer travel across the country has forced Canada’s two biggest airlines to ask staff to help volunteer at airports to overcome staffing challenges — a move that is creating pushback from unions.

In an email to all employees, WestJet described how the rapid growth in passenger numbers is causing operational problems at several airports, including its flagship airport in Calgary.

The “growing pains of recovery requires all-hands-on-deck,” read the message, which included an open call for any staff members to sign up to volunteer to help guests requiring wheelchair assistance at the Calgary International Airport.

Meanwhile, Air Canada has needed extra personnel at Toronto’s Pearson airport since “airport partners are stretched beyond their capacity, which led to significant flight cancellations and missed connections,” read an internal memo.

In late August and early September, air passenger traffic reached its highest point since the pandemic began. The increase in business is critical to the aviation industry, which was devastated early on in the crisis as many countries restricted international travel.

The industry is not immune to the staffing challenges faced by many sectors as lockdowns started to lift; airlines continue to cope with changing government restrictions, while also following a variety of COVID-19 protocols at domestic and international airports.

In the U.S., American Airlines and Delta Air Lines also asked staff to volunteer at airports this summer.

At Toronto’s Pearson, the international arrival process can take up to three hours, as passengers are screened by Canada Border Services Agency and Public Health Agency of Canada agents, collect bags and possibly take a COVID-19 test.

“As the technology for sharing and displaying vaccine documents improves, passengers become more comfortable with the new process and vaccine-driven changes in border protections take effect, we hope to see further improvement in wait-time conditions in the terminals,” a Pearson spokesperson said in an email statement, which highlighted other steps to reduce delays.

Union objections

But several unions have advised their members to avoid volunteering for a variety of reasons.

CUPE, which represents flight attendants at WestJet, declined to comment. However, in a letter, it told members that “the company is imploring you to provide free, volunteer and zero-cost labour. THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE.”

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents WestJet’s pilots, also declined to comment. But in a message to members, it highlighted how “if you are injured doing this work, you may not be covered by our disability insurer.”

Unifor, which represents customer service agents at both of Canada’s major airlines, said its members were upset about the call for volunteers and the union wasn’t happy that there wasn’t any advanced warning or conversation.

“Take a group of workers that is already very stressed by the kind of operation that’s going on, the quantity of passengers, the amount of extra processes that are in place because of COVID in order to travel — and then adding these pieces on is not helpful,” said Leslie Dias, Unifor’s director of airlines.

During the pandemic, WestJet decided to outsource the work of guest-service agents, who would help passengers that require wheelchairs, assist with check-in kiosks and co-ordinate lineups.

But the contractor is struggling to provide enough workers, said Dias, and that’s why there was a call for volunteers.

After flying more than 700 flights daily in 2019, WestJet flew as few as 30 some days during the pandemic. Currently, there are more than 400 flights each day.

“WestJet, as is the case across Canada and across many industries, faces continued issues due to labour hiring challenges as a result of COVID-19,” said spokesperson Morgan Bell in an emailed statement.

“As WestJet looks ahead to recovery, we continue to work toward actively recalling and hiring company-wide, with the current expectation we will reach 9,000 fully trained WestJetters by the end of the year, which is more than twice as many WestJetters as we had at our lowest point in the pandemic some five months ago,” she said.

Air Canada said it only asked salaried management to help volunteer at Pearson airport. 

Unifor said the airline was short of workers because the company didn’t have enough training capacity to accommodate recalled employees and couldn’t arrange restricted-area passes on time.

Thousands of airline workers lost their jobs, were furloughed or faced wage reductions last year, although the carriers are bringing back workers as travel activity increases.

Officials at Toronto’s Pearson airport say they are trying to reduce delays and wait times by bringing back the international-to-domestic connection process, which helps some arriving international passengers that are connecting onward in Canada to complete the customs process faster and go directly to their next flight. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Returning staff

At WestJet, its customer service agents have been recalled, according to Unifor. Many employees in other positions, though, remain out of work, including about 500 furloughed pilots.

Air Canada said it has been continually recalling employees since last spring, including more than 5,000 in July and August.

Asking for volunteers is an “unusual” occurrence in the industry, said Rick Erickson, an independent airline analyst based in Calgary. But he said it’s not surprising since cutting a workforce is much easier than building it back up.

Airlines have to retrain staff, secure valid certification and security passes, and find new hires as well.

Erickson said he even spotted WestJet CEO Ed Sims helping at the check-in counter in Calgary in recent weeks, as passenger activity was at its peak so far this year.

“This has been the most challenging time, honestly, in civil aviation history; we’ve never, ever seen anything approaching 90 per cent of your revenues drying up,” said Erickson, noting that airlines still have to watch their finances closely.

WestJet CEO Ed Sims is shown at the airline’s headquarters in Calgary. He’s been helping at the check-in counter at the Calgary airport in recent weeks. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Asking employees to volunteer isn’t illegal, but it does raise some questions, said Sarah Coderre, a labour lawyer with Bow River Law LLP in Calgary. 

“Whether or not it’s fair, and the sort of position it puts the employees in, if they choose not to volunteer, that would be concerning for me from a legal standpoint,” said Coderre.

Air Canada is currently operating at about 35 to 40 per cent of its 2019 flying capacity, but said one bright spot on the horizon is bookings for winter getaways toward the end of this year and the beginning of 2022.

“When looking to the sun leisure markets, we are very optimistic about our recovery,” a spokesperson said by email. “We are currently observing demand growth that is above 2019 levels.”

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