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Conservative MP calls for nationwide three-digit suicide hotline

As health professionals warn that the pandemic is taking a heavy toll on many Canadians’ mental health, a Conservative MP is calling on the federal government to set up a national hotline for suicide prevention.

Todd Doherty, MP for Cariboo-Prince George, recently tabled a motion in Parliament to bring together existing suicide prevention services under one national, three-digit phone number: 988.

“I believe that we must do everything in our power to prepare for that onslaught of mental health issues and challenges that we’re going to face due to COVID,” said Doherty.

“When they’re at that point where they want to ask for help, a simple, easy, three-digit number to remember could make the difference between a life saved and a life lost.”

Mental health professionals have been pushing for a nationwide hotline as well. Dr. Allison Crawford is the chief medical officer of the Canada Suicide Prevention Service, which operates a national 10-digit, 24-hour hotline for suicide prevention services.

‘A barrier that doesn’t need to exist’

Since COVID hit, she said, the service has seen a 200 per cent increase in demand. A three-digit hotline would be easier for people in distress to access, she said, while a national program would signal to them that the federal government sees helping them as a priority.

“In a crisis, looking for a 10 digit number is a barrier — a barrier that doesn’t need to exist,” said Dr. Crawford, who is also a psychiatrist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Establishing a single, nationwide suicide hotline would involve linking together existing crisis services that now operate locally or regionally. The Canada Suicide Prevention Service hotline, which receives federal funding, is currently connected to roughly 10 of Canada’s more than 200 local distress centres — something Dr. Crawford said she and her team are working to improve.

The United States is in the midst of adopting an 988 hotline, but that process is expected to take four years and cost more than half a billion dollars in its first year of operation.

Canada could get it done faster, said Dr. Crawford, as long as the federal and provincial governments come together.

“I’m optimistic we can hopefully get that done within the next one to two years,” she said, adding that the project will require support from multiple political parties.

“I think there’s growing support and there are very willing and enthusiastic partners in creating this.”


Conservative B.C. MP Todd Doherty: (Todd Doherty/Youtube)

Doherty said he is convinced a national hotline would spare some others the pain he experienced when his best friend at age 14 died by suicide.

“All these years later, I still have so many questions,” said Doherty, who was named special adviser to Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole on mental health and wellness.

“I was probably one of the last ones to see, if not the last one to see, my friend alive. I just wish I could see them again and — I’ve said it publicly — tell them that I love them …”

In the years since his friend’s death, Doherty has devoted time to suicide prevention and working with at-risk youth. Five years ago, he began pushing a private member’s bill on establishing a federal framework to recognize the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. That work  connected him with many Canadians in distress and a lot of first responders.

‘The grief … only grows greater’

He described speaking at the funeral of a young woman who committed suicide last year — how the looks on the faces of the young people gathered to mourn their friend reminded him of his own anguish at the same age.

“The grief one feels and experiences from suicide, I think it only grows greater as the years go by, because that sense of loss grows greater,” he said. “You understand what you’ve really, truly lost in terms of friendship, in terms of loved ones.”

Doherty said he hopes to see his motion come up for debate in Parliament in the coming weeks. His preliminary conversations with other political parties have been encouraging, he added.

“We have to be better. We have to be better not just [in] creating hope but [also] breaking down that barrier and breaking down that stigma so people feel comfortable coming forward,” he said.

Hajdu open to ‘exploring’ hotline idea

In a media statement, Health Minister Patty Hajdu’s office offered no clear commitment to a national hotline but said the idea is worth studying.

“Our government is committed to exploring how a three digit prevention number can be implemented,” the statement reads.

Hajdu’s office also pointed to other federal efforts to support Canadians’ mental resilience during the pandemic. The government set up an online portal — Wellness Together Canada — which offers mental health and substance use supports, individual counselling, monitored support groups and mental wellness programs. Hajdu’s office said that, as of last month, more than 530,000 Canadians had accessed the portal.

The United States has committed to putting a national 988 hotline in place by 2022.

U.S. Congress and President Donald Trump began a push for the hotline in 2018, when they launched a study of options to replace the country’s 1-800 suicide prevention hotline with an easy-to-remember, three-digit option.

Trump signed the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act into law in October. The project will cost approximately $ 570 million US in the first year, according to a report by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Almost half of that sum is a one-time outlay to replace switches in the phone network, while some of the money will go to boosting call centre capacity and a public awareness campaign.

The FCC concluded the service would be worth the money, saying the life-saving benefits would outweigh the cost of implementation.

Dr. Crawford said the Canada Suicide Prevention Service is working with the Mental Health Commission of Canada to survey Canadians on the idea of a three-digit national hotline. She said they hope to release a white paper on the subject in the new year.

“Suicide is preventable,” she said. “It’s important to say that every time.”


Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (Phone) | 45645 (Text) | crisisservicescanada.ca (Chat)

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre


If you’re worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. Here are some warning signs: 

Suicidal thoughts.
Substance abuse.
Purposelessness.
Anxiety.
Feeling trapped.
Hopelessness and helplessness.
Withdrawal.
Anger.
Recklessness.
Mood changes.

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Belarusians strike nationwide in latest push to oust president

Factory workers, students and business owners in Belarus on Monday began a strike to demand that authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko resign after more than two months of continuing mass protests following a disputed election.

Most state-run enterprises continued to operate despite the strike, which was called by opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. But analysts said it helped mobilize opposition supporters for a new round of confrontation with authorities, posing a significant challenge for Lukashenko, who has run the country for 26 years and until recently has been able to successfully stifle dissent.

Students in some universities refused to attend lectures and marched in Minsk in protest. Hundreds of small private companies declared Monday a nonworking day, and shops and cafes closed, with their owners and employees forming human chains all over the capital.

Several divisions of large plants in Minsk said they were halting work, and employees of two plants in the western city of Grodno gathered in front of buildings there.

The authorities responded by detaining protesters in the streets and outside factories, threatening workers with jail or being fired if they went on strike, said Alexander Yaroshuk, leader of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Unions, an association of independent labour unions.


A worker flashes a V-sign in support of those striking in Minsk on Monday. (AFP via Getty Images)

Several thousand retirees also marched in Minsk in their regular Monday protest to demand Lukashenko’s ouster. They chanted for him to “Go away!”

“We don’t see, hear or run well, but we understand perfectly well that Lukashenko lost,” read one of the banners carried by the pensioners.

In the evening, large crowds marched in Minsk as well. Protests also continued in Grodno, Brest and other cities. Police broke up the rallies in the capital, detaining and injuring dozens. The Viasna human rights centre said more than 300 people were detained in different parts of Belarus throughout the day.

Near-daily protests were unleashed in the former Soviet country of 9.5 million after officials said the Aug. 9 election gave Lukashenko a landslide victory over Tsikhanouskaya, whose supporters refused to recognize the results. Early in the turmoil, authorities detained thousands and violently dispersed the crowds, but the marches and rallies have continued.

Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania for fear of her safety, urged the strike if Lukashenko did not resign, release political prisoners and stop the police crackdown by Monday. She gave the go-ahead for the strike to begin in a statement Sunday night after police in Minsk and other cities once again dispersed demonstrators with stun grenades and tear gas.


Opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya is seen in Copenhagen on Friday. (Emil Helms /Ritzau Scanpix 2020 via AP)

Sunday’s rally in Minsk was one of the largest in weeks and drew nearly 200,000 people. Smaller protests also took place in other cities, and the Interior Ministry said it detained over 500 people across Belarus.

“A strike is the next step towards freedom for Belarusians, towards the end of violence and new elections,” Tsikhanousksaya said in a statement Monday. “The main goal is to show that no one will work for the regime.”

Government officials said that all state-run plants, factories and enterprises continued to operate as usual.


Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko takes the oath of office during his inauguration ceremony in Minsk on Sept. 23. (Andrei Stasevich/BelTA/AFP/Getty Images)

In August, the government stemmed a strike at dozens of plants and factories in several cities. Lukashenko, who at one point was booed by workers when he visited a plant, is trying to avoid a repeat through repressions against plant workers, Yaroshuk said.

“People have things to lose, so the majority remains intimidated and continues to work under pressure,” the activist added.

Still, the opposition managed to mobilize its active supporters, said Minsk-based political analyst Valery Karbalevich.


Protesters rally in Minsk on Monday. Demonstrations also took place in Grodno, Brest and other cities. (Reuters)

“Even the threat of a strike makes Lukashenko nervous, and growing mass rallies show that the protest is not dying down, and the pressure on the authorities and officials within the country will continue to mount,” he said.

In a statement later Monday, Tsikhanouskaya thanked Belarusians for their solidarity and encouraged them to keep protesting. “We have irrevocably defeated the fear that the regime might suppress the protest,” she said.

“The protest will be over only when we achieve our goal. We’re together, there are many of us, and we’re prepared to go all the way to victory,” she said.

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George Floyd’s Brother Calls for ‘Positive Change’ Amid Nationwide Protests

George Floyd’s Brother Calls for ‘Positive Change’ Amid Nationwide Protests | Entertainment Tonight

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Union launches nationwide appeal for long-term care reform in wake of COVID-19

The union backing Canada’s public employees is launching a nationwide effort to transform long-term care into a publicly funded, universal health care system in the midst of a pandemic it says has exacerbated problems in facilities across the country and led to the deaths of thousands of residents.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees — which represents 65,000 long-term care nurses, aides and dietary, cleaning and administrative staff — is ramping up previous calls to overhaul Canada’s system in a new campaign intended to educate the public and capture the attention of federal politicians.

“Right now, long-term care in Canada is a patchwork system with no national standards,” said CUPE national secretary-treasurer Charles Fleury in a news release. “It’s time to fix that.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hit long-term care facilities across Canada, with approximately 80 per cent of deaths related to the disease occurring in seniors’ homes. Some employees are dealing with shortages of protective equipment and low wages, while others have contracted the disease themselves. 

The Canadian Armed Forces has also sent more than 1,250 personnel to assist seniors’ homes in Quebec and Ontario, which have experienced significant outbreaks.

The crisis has prompted federal and provincial politicians alike to confront the state of elder care in Canada.

In April, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the country was “failing” its older population, while Ontario Premier Doug Ford called Canada’s existing system “broken.”

WATCH | Trudeau on federally regulating long-term care:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters on Thursday. 1:12

Members pushing for national standards of care

CUPE is planning to ask its members working in care homes to send their appeals directly to the federal government and hopes to target the prime minister and individual MPs through a letter-writing campaign.

The impetus behind effort is the union’s belief that improving elder care will be top of mind for voters in the next federal election.

In a letter addressed to Trudeau and other federal party leaders last week, CUPE National president Mark Hancock called for long-term care to be regulated under the Canada Health Act, the federal legislation responsible for publicly funded health care insurance. 

The union also implored leaders to set aside dedicated funding to the provinces and territories through the Canada Health Transfer and wants to see the implementation of national standards of care. 

Long-term care is a provincial responsibility, and the majority of facilities are public, non-profit or a mix of the two. Less than 40 per cent of residences are privately owned, which operate on a for-profit basis.

Eliminating the for-profit ownership of homes is another element of CUPE’s strategy.

“We believe long-term care should be a core, publicly delivered health care service, like visiting a family doctor or staying in a hospital, in part because the profit motive negatively impacts working conditions and quality of care,” the union said in a statement to CBC News. “Valuing profitability of care over quality of care is what got us into this situation.”

For-profits not the problem, private home owner says

But the pandemic caught all types of residences off guard, said Paul Arbec, the vice president of the association representing Quebec’s private long-term care residences.

Arbec, who also leads a health care group that owns 16 private care centres across Quebec, said the lack of testing in his province and reduced access to protective equipment was largely responsible for the outbreaks that have devastated some of Quebec’s facilities.

He also rejected the notion that residences built on for-profit models result in lesser conditions for residents and staff. 

“Profit is made on the real estate and room and board side of things and does not in any way hinder direct care to the residents,” Arbec said.

However, he added that he was not opposed to private homes receiving subsidies, stating that both models work better in tandem.

“Having private partners in a public system has managed to keep the public system as efficient as possible, as there remains a healthy competition,” Arbec said.

CUPE plans to launch its campaign Monday.

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Coronavirus: Cases in China slow dramatically as Italy begins nationwide travel ban

The latest:

Starkly illustrating the global east-to-west spread of the new coronavirus, Italy began an extraordinary, sweeping lockdown Tuesday while in China, the diminishing threat prompted the president to visit the epicentre and declare: “We will certainly defeat this epidemic.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to the central city of Wuhan — his first since the start of the outbreak — was the latest sign that China is edging back toward normalcy after weeks of extreme quarantine measures. China reported just 19 new infections Tuesday, down from thousands each day last month.

The visit also was likely to be seen as an attempt to bolster views of the ruling Communist Party’s handling of the crisis. Xi was conspicuously absent from the public eye during the early days of the outbreak and alarms were not sounded until late January.

“Things are slowly returning to normal,” said Yang Tianxiao, a finance worker in Beijing, where the city government is gradually easing restrictions that kept many office workers at home.

Xi addressed patients and medical workers via a video link. He also strolled through an apartment complex where residents are still quarantined.

“Wuhan must prevail, Hubei must prevail, all of China must prevail,” Xi said.


A discharged COVID-19 patient carries luggage while departing Wuchang Fang Cang makeshift hospital, which is the latest temporary hospital being shut down in Wuhan, China’s Hubei province. (Getty Images)

With patient numbers falling, Wuhan closed the last of 16 temporary hospitals used mainly to house those with mild symptoms.

Authorities in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, stepped up preparations for resuming business production, reopened some roads to restore agricultural production and announced the launch of a colour-coded app-based system that will allow people who are deemed healthy to travel freely within the province.

But disruptions spread elsewhere, upending life in Italy in particular.

Travel restrictions previously limited to the country’s north were extended everywhere. Teams of Italian police patrolled cafes to make sure owners were keeping customers one metre apart. The streets of the Italian capital were as quiet as they are during the annual mid-August vacation shutdown.

“We’re only at the beginning,” said Dr. Massimo Galli, head of infectious disease at Sacco Hospital in Milan, where people at the city’s main train station were required to sign forms certifying the necessity of their travel.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The World Health Organization says people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while severe cases may last three to six weeks. In mainland China, where the outbreak emerged in December, almost three-quarters of its more than 80,000 patients have recovered. 

But with more than 110,000 cases in reported  in countries around the world, WHO and local health officials are emphaszing the importance of educating the public about how to avoid infection, and preparing health systems to deal with a surge in cases.

Here’s a look at what’s happening in Canada, the U.S. and some of the hard-hit regions around the world.

Here’s what’s happening in Canada

A flight carrying Canadians who were aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship landed at CFB Trenton early Tuesday morning. The chartered plane, which departed from California, ferried the Canadian travellers to Ontario, where they will complete a 14-day quarantine period. 

Speaking after the plane landed in Canada on Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said 228 people were on the flight. He said a “limited number” of people who had other medical conditions that are not related to COVID-19 will stay behind to be treated in California.

Champagne said there are also some Canadian crew who were on the Grand Princess who tested positive for COVID-19 who will stay in the U.S. for treatment. He did not specify how many Canadians tested positive.

Some of the Canadians who were aboard a cruise ship off the coast of California have arrived in Ontario and will spend 14 days in quarantine. 4:51

Officials had previously said there were 237 Canadians among the 3,500 passengers and crew on board the Grand Princess cruise ship.

The repatriated travellers arrived a day after Canada reported its first COVID-19 related death. A man in his 80s who lived at a long-term care facility in B.C. died on Monday, provincial health officials said.

Ontario health officials announced on Tuesday a new case of the novel coronavirus — a man in his 40s who had travelled to Switzerland. 

As of 11 a.m. ET on Tuesday, 80 presumptive and confirmed COVID-19 cases had been reported in Canada, including:

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, reiterated on Monday that the risk from the coronavirus to the general population in Canada is low, but she cautioned that the situation could change rapidly. 

“We are most concerned for Canada’s vulnerable populations,” Tam said.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said some provinces have indicated they don’t have all the supplies they might need to respond to COVID-19 cases.

“We are gathering that information — and we have said all along that we will be there as a federal government to support them with the resources they need, whether those are financial resources or practical resources.”

Here’s what’s happening in the U.S.

Fear has been rising in the United States, where more than 750 people are infected and even some top political leaders were quarantined.

President Donald Trump was planning to announce proposals Tuesday aimed at curbing the economic fallout from the outbreak. He said the measures would include payroll tax relief.

WATCH: Weighing the risks of mass gatherings during the coronavirus outbreak

A look at what risks are taken into consideration when deciding where a mass gathering, like a conference, is cancelled. 1:59

After days of questioning about testing capacity, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Tuesday that about 4,900 people have been tested for the coronavirus in U.S. labs as of Monday. That number does not include Americans who have been tested in clinical or private labs, Robert Redfield said. 

Redfield said that as of Monday, private companies Laboratory Corp of America and Quest Diagnostics have enough coronavirus tests available that any U.S. doctor’s office who uses those companies can have their patients tested.

People living in the U.S. also got some information on how private insurance companies will respond to COVID-19. Speaking at a White House meeting with insurance company executives, Vice-President Mike Pence said the companies have agreed to cover coronavirus treatment and waive co-payment fees for coronavirus testing

The companies have also agreed to cover telemedicine for patients to get care without having to leave home, Pence added. 

Here’s what’s happening in Italy and Europe

The Italian government is assuring its citizens that supermarkets will remain open and stocked after panic buying erupted after broad anti-virus measures were announced nationwide, sparking overnight runs on 24-hour markets.

Some 9,172 people were infected in Italy and 463 have died, and there was a growing sense the numbers would only worsen.

Shoppers lined up overnight outside a Rome Carrefour to stock up after the government extended restrictions on movement from hard-hit northern Italy to the rest of the country. Some shoppers wore masks as they waited with their carts to be allowed into the store a few at a time.

Premier Giuseppe Conte’s office issued a clarifying statement after he signed the new decree late Monday, stressing that movement outside homes for “normal necessities” such as grocery shopping will be allowed, as well as for work or health reasons.

WATCH: Canadian describes life under lockdown in northern Italy

Don’t panic and stay calm, says Canadian living under virus lockdown in Italy. 6:15

The statement said runs on supermarkets were contrary to the intent of the new decree, which aims to prevent Italians from congregating. The government assured citizens that markets would be regularly supplied.

However, hard-hit Italy got a reminder that most patients ultimately recover from the illness: a 38-year-old man who was Italy’s first coronavirus patient was moved out of intensive care for the first time since testing positive.

In France, the death toll from COVID-19 has risen to 30. Poland, which is reporting 17 cases, moved to cancel all mass events. The number of people testing positive for coronavirus in the U.K. has risen to 373, up from 319 the day before, health officials said on Tuesday.

Earlier, the health ministry said a sixth person had died in Britain after acquiring the virus.

The Czech Republic, which has 40 confirmed cases, is banning all public events with more than 100 people and is closing schools.

Austria is introducing border checks and will deny entry to people arriving from Italy, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Tuesday.

Here’s what’s happening in Iran and the Middle East

Iran said Tuesday the coronavirus has killed 54 more people, raising the death toll to 291 amid 8,042 reported cases in the Islamic Republic. Many experts fear the scope of the illness there is far wider than reported.

Lebanon recorded its first death from coronavirus on Tuesday, local broadcasters said, adding that the patient had been in quarantine since returning from Egypt. The government has halted flights for non-residents from epicentres of the virus, shut schools and warned against public gatherings as the total number of cases rose to 41 this week.

Here’s what’s happening in South Korea and Japan

A downward trend in new coronavirus cases in South Korea raised hope on Tuesday that Asia’s biggest outbreak outside China may be slowing, but officials urged vigilance with new clusters of infections emerging from a call centre and a dance class. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported 35 new coronavirus cases, down from a peak of 909 on Feb. 29.

The new figures brought the national tally to 7,513, while the death toll rose by eight to 59. The fall in the daily tally of new infections to its lowest level in 11 days coincided with the completion of testing of most of the roughly 200,000 followers of a fringe Christian church at the centre of South Korea’s epidemic.


Workers at a building where 46 people were confirmed to have COVID-19 wait in line for a coronavirus test at a temporary facility in Seoul on Tuesday. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

Yoon Tae-ho, director general for public health policy at the health ministry, urged businesses to do what they could to help stem the outbreak after the discovery of 64 new cases among call-centre workers and their relatives. “The rate of increase is declining but there are still many new cases,” Yoon told a briefing.

The vast majority of South Korea’s cases have been in the southeastern city of Daegu, where the church at the centre of the outbreak is based, and the nearby province of North Gyeongsang. But alarm has been raised in the capital, Seoul, with the new cases there linked to the call centre, operated by an insurance company.

Japan, which has been dealing with both domestic patients and hundreds of people who were infected while living under quarantine on a cruise ship, passed an emergency bill that allows the prime minister to declare a state of emergency, if needed.

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T-Mobile’s Nationwide 5G Rollout Will Start on December 6th

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T-Mobile has been talking a big game when it comes to 5G, but we haven’t seen what it can really do yet. That’ll change next month, though. The carrier will light up its nationwide 5G network on December 6th, promising coverage for 200 million Americans in over 5,000 cities and towns at launch. It’s also announcing several new initiatives most likely aimed at increasing support for its upcoming acquisition of Sprint which some states are still fighting. 

T-Mobile’s 5G numbers sound impressive compared to the 5G rollouts we’ve seen so far, but that’s because it’s focusing on coverage rather than speed. Verizon has only rolled out 5G in a handful of cities, and coverage is middling even in areas with 5G antennas on every street corner. Meanwhile, AT&T’s network is smaller and it won’t even sell a 5G phone to consumers yet. 

T-Mobile is leapfrogging the larger carriers in coverage because it’s starting its 5G deployment on its existing 600MHz spectrum. Both AT&T and Verizon use super-high-frequency millimeter wave spectrum to deliver very fast data with very poor range — T-Mobile toyed with millimeter wave in a few cities, but that’s not the backbone of its “real” 5G network. T-Mobile’s 5G will cover much larger areas, but the peak speeds will be far below the 1-2Gbps possible with millimeter wave. 

The carrier also promises its recently approved acquisition of Sprint will allow it to provide free 5G service to first responders via its Connecting Heroes Initiative. It promises first responders will have access to this free 5G service for at least 10 years. T-Mobile also pledges to roll out reduced cost 5G service to 10 million low-income households (it calls this Project 10Million) over the next five years. 

A 5G millimeter wave cell site in Minneapolis on a light pole.

Finally, T-Mobile has a new entry-level plan called T-Mobile Connect. For $ 15 per month, you get unlimited talk, text, and 2GB of data. It includes 5G service, but 2GB of 5G data is, well, almost nothing. The included 5G is just a way to show off — this plan is only useful for people who are very light users. 

Of course, this all assumes there are no further issues with the Sprint deal. The FCC has given the green light for the merger, but several state Attorneys General still object to the deal. The carrier’s plan is to fully integrate Sprint’s 2.5GHz 5G spectrum into its network next year, giving it more 5G speed to go along with its expansive 600MHz coverage.

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Ottawa rejects plea for nationwide conversion therapy ban

The federal government has rejected a public effort to ban something that many Canadians may have assumed was already illegal.

"We're disappointed that we don't have legislation at this point," says Alberta activist Devon Hargreaves. "But we will continue to advocate for those who don't have a voice."

Hargreaves, who works with the LGBTQ community, is talking about the controversial practice known as conversion therapy. It's a widely discredited approach of trying to counsel someone who is gay into being straight, either through talk therapy, medication or a combination of the two.

He started a petition in late 2018 asking the federal government to ban conversion therapy, particularly with regard to minors. Garnering more than 18,000 signatures, it urged the Liberals to outlaw the act of coercing or counselling minors to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, and to prohibit taking minors outside the country for that purpose.

"[Conversion therapy] should not be happening in Canada in 2018 or 2019," says Hargreaves, 24. "But we know it is still happening, and it's happening to minors."

The World Health Organization issued a statement in 2012 saying this type of therapy poses a "severe threat to the health and human rights of the affected persons."

The Canadian Psychological Association echoed that stand in 2015, saying: "Conversion or reparative therapy can result in negative outcomes, such as distress, anxiety, depression, negative self-image, a feeling of personal failure, difficulty sustaining relationships, and sexual dysfunction." The CPA adds that it, "opposes any therapy with the goal of repairing or converting an individual's sexual orientation, regardless of age."

While Canada doesn't have a national ban on the practice, some provinces have restrictions:

  • Ontario has made the practice illegal by initiating an outright ban.
  • Manitoba has outlawed health professionals from offering conversion therapy.
  • Vancouver has passed a law restricting businesses from offering it.
  • Nova Scotia has made it it illegal for health professionals to provide conversion therapy for minors.

Hargreaves says the patchwork of provincial prohibitions is problematic, and he believes a federal ban is essential.

"If there isn't a federal ban, we have a hard time tracking where this is still happening, and it shouldn't be happening anywhere," he says.

The petition was presented in the House of Commons on Feb. 1 by NDP MP for Saskatoon West, Sheri Benson.

On March 19, the government responded to it by saying that, "conversion therapies are immoral, painful, and do not reflect the values of our government or those of Canadians."

But it added that the governance of conversion therapy is largely a provincial and territorial issue, since it is sometimes carried out by members of the health profession, and said the practice can be addressed through existing portions of the Criminal Code.

"Certain Criminal Code offences may apply to situations involving conversion therapy, depending upon the circumstances," reads the federal government's statement.

"For example, Criminal Code offences such as kidnapping, forcible confinement and assault may apply where a person is forcibly compelled to undergo conversion therapy … we continue to work with provincial and territorial governments to address these practices."

'I'm scarred from it'

Hargreaves says he's disappointed by the federal government's response, and he doesn't plan to stop campaigning for a formal ban on conversion therapy in Canada.

He's running as an MLA in Alberta's upcoming election to continue to bring attention to the issue.

"We will continue to push for that legislation," he says.

Devon Hargreaves of Lethbridge, Alta., is running for provincial office in the upcoming election to call attention to the practice of conversion therapy. (Cody Kapscos)

Although Hargreaves hasn't experienced conversion therapy himself, he says he knows others who have, and he's witnessed the effects on their lives through his work at YQueerL Society for Change in Lethbridge.

Conversion therapy these days happens mostly informally in churches on a one-on-one basis rather than in larger, more organized groups, Hargreaves says, but he stresses that the impact on people is the same.

Matt Ashcroft, 29, of Belleville, Ont., is someone who knows about that impact first-hand, and he's gone public about his experience.

"I'm scarred from it," Ashcroft says. "I will never be able to forget what happened to me on that weekend, it's still so hard to process."

Ashcroft is referring to the first time he attended a conversion therapy retreat six years ago. He went voluntarily after he came out to his father and was shunned for being gay. Although his mother was supportive of him, Ashcroft says he felt pressure to try to be "normal."

"I was still sorting myself out and I wanted to try to do it to get the love of my father back," he admits.

Matt Ashcroft, 29, of Belleville, Ont., has gone public about the effects of his experience with a conversion therapy program. (Matt Ashcroft)

Ashcroft attended the weekend retreat when he was 23 with a friend. This particular program was in the U.S., and he paid $ 600 for it. He also had to sign a waiver saying he wouldn't talk about it, something he has now chosen to ignore.

He describes the weekend as traumatizing. Activities included walking down a long path while being berated by organizers for his lifestyle, having to simulate being violent towards his father by hitting a bag with a baseball bat to get his "feelings out," and watching others re-enact their own painful experiences with sexual abuse.

"The goal was to diminish our homosexuality as much as possible," explains Ashcroft. "Sometimes the goal was to change us, and sometimes it was just to convince us not to act upon our desires."

The weekend culminated in a ceremony Ashcroft describes as a kind of graduation, where participants spread seeds around to symbolize their masculinity.

Only after he left the retreat and spoke about his experience there with others did he realize how damaging it had been emotionally. He says it has taken years to work through it — Ashcroft now lives as a gay man and says he still has nightmares about the therapy.

Jonathan Brower, 33, who lives in St. Catharines, Ont., also experienced conversion therapy.

Brower is originally from Calgary, where conversion therapy is not prohibited by the provincial government, and was raised in an Evangelical church. He says he realized he was gay at age 9 and was bullied throughout elementary and high school because of it.

"I was picked on by older kids, called names, kicked in the playground," says Brower.

He says the bullying only intensified in high school and culminated in Grade 12, when he was outed by classmates before he was ready to do it himself. Although his parents were supportive of him, Brower says he struggled for years to reconcile his desires as a young gay man with his faith and identity as a Christian.

"I had intense feelings of depression about that," he says. "I felt like I was choosing between the two, I felt like I was going against God if I was choosing my sexuality."

Jonathan Brower of St. Catharines, Ont., tried conversion therapy in his late teens and early 20s. He's now in favour of banning it in Canada. (Riley Brandt)

His first encounter with conversion therapy was when he was 16. Brower says that he sought help for his depression by seeing a Christian counsellor, who introduced the idea of changing his sexuality. He says the counsellor told him he wasn't born gay, and that he could therefore be "rehabilitated."

Brower enrolled in a conversion therapy program through a Christian organization in Calgary.

"It was emotional abuse, rather than physical," says Brower. "The message was that I wasn't created this way, that perhaps I was abused as a child, that God doesn't accept this."

Brower paid $ 400 for that year-long program and he says it nearly drove him to suicide.

"It really did a number on me," he says. "It contributed to my feelings of shame about my sexuality, the idea that God couldn't accept me if I was gay … I felt oppressed and like I was fighting through a fog against myself."

He tried the program three more times in his desperation to feel accepted by his church, until he turned 26 and realized he couldn't continue. That year he finally came out publicly through a post on YouTube.

Subsequently, Brower did find acceptance in the more liberal United Church and was able to reconcile his faith with his sexual orientation. He eventually became so comfortable in his sexuality that he proposed to his partner on stage at a Jann Arden concert.

"I'm engaged now and planning to marry in 2021, and I finally feel at peace."

After coming out, Brower founded a Queer theatre company in Calgary that ran for six years, and produced a play about conversion therapy called Oblivion that he has toured throughout the country in small venues.

"I wrote the play to confront the havoc this type of therapy caused me," explains Brower. "It was such an important part of processing what happened to me and to bring light to it."

Like Hargreaves, Brower says he is disappointed in the government's failure to enact a federal ban on conversion therapy.

"It's a sad day. The federal government has let us down."

Hargreaves and others who supported the petition say they plan to regroup and continue to push Ottawa for a nationwide ban.



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