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How parts of Canada are going about vaccinating teachers against COVID-19

This weekend, teachers and school staff in Ontario’s Niagara region are getting their first chance at a COVID-19 vaccine, thanks to the recommendation of the area’s vaccination co-ordination task force. 

The group had previously flagged education workers as a priority and now the timing just made sense, said task force chair Dr. David Dec, a family physician based in Niagara Falls, Ont.

Many educators are under the age of 55 and cannot access mass clinics still aimed at older populations, nor can they receive the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine rolling out in pharmacies and some doctors’ offices. But now prioritized, Niagara-area teachers off for the April break next week can easily attend daytime vaccination clinics, Dec said.

As provinces and territories move into the next phase of their coronavirus vaccination campaigns, educators and school staff are starting to join the priority groups becoming eligible for shots. While different approaches are being used thus far, some emerging trends may offer lessons for bringing this immunization drive to all education workers.

Our thinking has thus far been to vaccinate the most at-risk populations first, Dec said, starting with long-term care and nursing homes, because “we knew that if you’re in that congregate setting, and if you bring that virus into that setting, then it can transmit like wildfire.”

Yet, we don’t seem to appreciate that classrooms are also congregate settings, he said. “They’re a bunch of people bunched-in close together.” 

A push to vaccinate school staff in Ontario’s Niagara Region now makes sense, since being off for April break next week makes it easier to attend daytime vaccination clinics, says Dr. David Dec, chair of the region’s vaccination co-ordination task force. (Regional Municipality of Niagara)

This push to prioritize educators is a “proactive approach,” according to Dec. “Everybody wants the schools to stay open, so if this is a small part of doing that, then I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Here is a look at how some jurisdictions are approaching the challenge.

B.C. starts in Surrey 

Annie Ohana recalls feeling “absolute elation” upon learning at her union’s annual general meeting in March that school staffers in Surrey, B.C., would be prioritized next in the vaccine rollout, with officials citing how hard the Fraser Health region has been hit by COVID-19.

“I remember lining up for the shot on that Sunday and all of us smiling ear-to-ear — behind our masks, of course — and very much [feeling] just relief,” Ohana said of getting her first dose two weeks ago.

Teacher Annie Ohana says she was elated when she learned teachers and school staff in Surrey, B.C., were being prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine. But she says she’s concerned about colleagues in other regions that haven’t had a similar rollout. (Mike Zimmer/CBC, Submitted by Annie Ohana)


Yet the L.A. Matheson Secondary School teacher recognizes that it’s only a first step, since students, families and other B.C. education colleagues are still waiting for their chance.

“I got an exposure notice Sunday [for] my classroom. About half my class was missing yesterday. It’s good to feel that, ‘OK well, at least I had the first dose and so hopefully that can help me.’ But the reality is my kids don’t and many of their family members don’t yet,” Ohana said.  

The campaign hasn’t moved as quickly as she’d anticipated out to educators in other B.C. regions, who haven’t yet been prioritized. The province’s teachers continue to push for safety measures like mask mandates and improved ventilation as well, she said.

“The more protected we are, the more we can keep the schools open.”

WATCH | Amid a third wave, educators are beginning to get priority for COVID-19 vaccines: 

Most Ontario schools are staying open during an emergency stay-at-home order and education workers in COVID-19 hot zones will be prioritized for vaccinations, something already being done in Quebec and British Columbia. 1:45

New Brunswick blitz

Last month, New Brunswick high schools were also put on the priority list. Beginning March 22, the province launched a campaign offering vaccinations to all in-school secondary staffers, which took just over a week. It came ahead of a return to full-time in-person learning for high schoolers that was set for Monday, but later cancelled amid a rise in cases.

“In the region where the vaccination clinics were happening, they closed the school down completely [for the day]. All of the school staff had the opportunity to go to the vaccination clinic, get the vaccines done,” said Rick Cuming, president of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association and co-president of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Federation.

The clinics were very well attended, according to Cuming, who is based in Fredericton. However, one major lesson that emerged, he said, was the need to account for the fact that some people will inevitably experience mild-to-moderate vaccination side-effects such as fever, fatigue and muscle pain — also among the symptoms listed for COVID-19 screening at schools. This was something Ohana, the teacher in Surrey, also noted.

“We have a supply teacher shortage … we certainly feel that effect here in the best of times, and then under this COVID situation, anybody that’s showing symptoms can’t show up into the school,” Cuming said.

“Our schools certainly noticed that in the days that followed the vaccine clinics.”

One lesson that came out of New Brunswick’s vaccination blitz for high school staffers was to be aware that some will experience post-vaccination symptoms such as fever, fatigue and muscle pain — which are also among the symptoms listed for COVID-19 screening at schools, says Rick Cuming, co-president of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Federation. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Similar to Ohana, Cuming noted that the education workers not yet vaccinated — New Brunswick’s elementary and middle school teachers, administration and support staffers in those schools, as well as bus drivers and supply teachers — are anxiously awaiting their chance to get a shot.

Quebec, Ontario target hot spots

Following Niagara Region’s announcement this week about accelerating education sector vaccinations, the Quebec and Ontario governments also took a step in that direction, but primarily focusing on hot spot regions. 

In late March, a vaccination blitz targeting two Montreal neighbourhoods seeing rapid spread of the coronavirus variant first detected in the U.K. expanded to include teachers. On Wednesday, Quebec announced plans to start vaccinating Montreal’s essential workers — including school and daycare staff — as of this weekend.

Educators in Montreal are now being considered essential workers and prioritized for a COVID-19 vaccine, but that ‘should have been the case a while ago,’ says teacher Andrew Adams. School and daycare staffers in the city could book their appointments as of Friday. (CBC)

“I’m ecstatic to hear that teachers are finally being considered essential workers. That should have been the case a while ago,” said Andrew Adams, who teaches Grade 7 and 8 English at Montreal’s LaurenHill Academy.

The same day, as Ontario declared a third state of emergency and a new stay-at-home order, it also announced it was opening vaccination access to special education workers provincewide along with school staff in at-risk Toronto and Peel region neighbourhoods, starting next week during the April break. Officials in both Quebec and Ontario said the plan is to scale up vaccination in other regions of concern as soon as supply allows in the coming weeks. 

Though the Ontario government’s announcement means some educators will soon get their first injections, union leader Harvey Bischof is looking for a more robust rollout beyond Toronto and Peel, which is located west of the city. Those two public health regions closed schools and shifted to remote learning this week.

“If it doesn’t reach face-to-face educators in [other provincial] hot spots where there are significant reasons for concern … then it’s potentially a case of too little, too late,” said Bischof, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, from Brantford, Ont.

Halton, the region northwest of Niagara, announced Friday it is also moving ahead to prioritize school-related workers and child-care staff among the essential workers able to get a COVID-19 vaccine as of April 16.

A more robust vaccination rollout must quickly reach school staff in the many hot spot regions of Ontario, says Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Bischof said he also wants to see schools in high-risk regions remain in remote learning until three weeks after educators can receive a shot, so the vaccine has time to take effect.

He’s heartened to see some regions and local public health units “striking out on their own” beyond decisions being made at the provincial level, like Niagara’s move to vaccinate all school staffers and Peel and Toronto shuttering in-person learning this week.

“We’ve had quite a few school boards across the province now call for the priority vaccination of educators. We’ve seen some medical officers of health and public health units take really important steps,” he said. 

Back in B.C., high school teacher Ohana recognizes the pandemic is complex, “a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” but she wants politicians and decision-makers to be more willing to pivot their vaccination rollout strategy. 

“It was great to see [officials] kind of re-tinker things and say, ‘OK, it’s not just about age. We need to consider positions and jobs.'”

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CBC | Health News

Bianca Andreescu brings ‘fighting spirit’ into Miami Open final against Barty

Bianca Andreescu admits she sometimes surprises herself with her ability to chase down tough shots.

“Sometimes I literally feel like I’m an octopus out there, running side to side,” the Canadian tennis star said early Friday morning. “I feel like I have eight legs. It’s insane, sometimes I don’t even know how I get to some shots. It’s that fighting spirit that I’ve always had in me, never giving up.”

That competitive drive has been front and centre this week with Andreescu back in the spotlight in a hurry following 16 months off.

The 20-year-old Andreescu, in her third tournament back after the layoff, has won four three-set matches in a row to reach the final of the Miami Open. She will play top-ranked Ash Barty of Australia on Saturday in the championship of the WTA 1000 event — the level directly below Grand Slams in women’s tennis.

In her return after a knee injury and a decision to stay off the courts later in the pandemic, the 2019 U.S. Open champion was well off top form and exited in the second round of the Australian Open in February. A trip to the semifinals of a smaller event in Australia followed, but Andreescu injured her leg there and didn’t play again until starting in Miami last week.

Now, the native of Mississauga, Ont., is producing a run that has similarities to her journey to the title at the Rogers Cup in Toronto in 2019. Andreescu won four three-setters in a row at her hometown event, too.

A day off Friday was a nice break for Andreescu after 12 hours 12 minutes of court time in five matches over seven days in Miami. The third-set semifinal tiebreaker against Greece’s Maria Sakkari ended at 1:35 a.m. ET and Andreescu didn’t wrap up her press conference until close to 3 a.m.

“I found a way somehow and I’m super proud of myself with how I dealt with everything,” she said. “It was very up and down, but I did it.”

WATCH | Andreescu to play in Miami Open final: 

Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont., defeats Greece’s Maria Sakkari 7-6 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (4). The Canadian will face world No. 1 Ash Barty in the Miami Open final. 3:11

Andreescu, who will move up three spots to No. 6 in the rankings next week, will face Barty for the first time on Saturday.

The champion at Miami and the French Open in 2019, Barty also is coming off a long break. After the pandemic hit last March, she did not play for the rest of 2020.

Barty won a tournament in Australia before the Grand Slam and now has a shot to win back-to-back titles in Miami (the event wasn’t held last year).

Both Barty, 24, and Andreescu won their first and only Grand Slam to date in 2019.

“It’s going to be great. Definitely have wanted to play her,” Andreescu said. “I have my chance on Saturday. I know it’s going to be really tough. She’s playing great tennis. I hope I can be on my A game.”

Barty says she doesn’t watch a ton of tennis when she’s not playing, but is well aware of what Andreescu brings to the table.

“Bianca has shown in big tournaments that she’s got the ability to beat the very best,” Barty said. “I know from the little that I have seen that she’s got a way of moving around the court that is extremely physical.

“She’s got great hands and got options off both sides. She’s got a chisel off both sides. She has the ability to flip the ball up or hit through the court. That’s what makes her game exceptionally challenging. She’s got so many different assets and so many different things she can go to to ultimately let the competitor in her figure it out.”

Andreescu is one of many Canadian athletes or teams to be competing in Florida this spring. She has played her best tennis in North America, going 33-1 since the start of 2019.

Andreescu says it helps having familiar faces watching her. Her parents and her dog, Coco, have received plenty of television time in the stands this week.

“My parents are putting her up and making her dance to the music, which is super cute,” Andreescu said. “It’s nice to have that during these tense moments because I’ll throw a little smirk in there and things will be better.”

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CBC | Sports News

Canucks game against Flames called off with 2 players, coach in COVID-19 protocols

The NHL’s Canadian-based North Division has been impacted by COVID-19 for the second time in less than two weeks.

The league postponed Wednesday night’s game between the Canucks and Flames after a second Vancouver player and a member of the team’s coaching staff were added to the league’s COVID-19 protocol list.

Canucks forward Adam Gaudette, who was pulled from Tuesday’s practice following a positive test result, was added to the list that afternoon.

Vancouver and Calgary were preparing as if Wednesday’s game would still go ahead — both teams held morning skate’s and virtual media availabilities at Rogers Arena — but the league announced its decision in a press release roughly 90 minutes before puck drop.

The NHL, which said it would provide a further update Thursday, added the call was made by medical teams from the league, NHL Players’ Association and Canucks.

A player on the COVID-19 protocol list has not necessarily tested positive.

The Montreal Canadiens had four games postponed — the first contests scratched in the North this season — last week when forwards Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia were added to the protocol list.

Those postponements, which included the shuttering of the Canadiens’ practice facility, forced the rescheduling of 11 games.

Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin said at the time one of his players tested positive for a coronavirus variant, which precipitated the shutdown. Kotkaniemi was removed from protocol Tuesday when the Canadiens returned to the ice against the Edmonton Oilers, but Armia remains on the list.

Canucks head coach Travis Green would not say following Wednesday’s morning skate if Gaudette had tested positive for a variant.

“I’m not going to get into personal stuff with Adam Gaudette,” he said. “We’re preparing to play, and planning to do so.”

Green added his club felt they were in the clear with just one positive test following some nervous hours.

“[Tuesday] when you get the news, you’re always wondering about it,” he said. “Last night we had a pretty good idea we were good to go this morning.

“We’ve tried to just stay focused on that task, and let the people that advise us on the protocols let us know if there’s anything else changing.”

42 games now postponed

The NHL’s truncated 56-game schedule has now seen 42 contests postponed because of COVID-19.

The league’s protocols require players and staff to be tested daily. Any time an individual’s initial test comes back positive, the lab does a second test on the initial sample.

If the second test is negative, a second sample is collected. But if that sample returns a positive result, it’s considered to be a “confirmed positive.”

The league requires individuals with positive tests to self isolate for 10 days, and for close contacts to self isolate for two weeks.

The 24-year-old Gaudette has seven points (three goals, four assists) in 33 games this season. The Canucks were also missing winger Jake Virtanen at Tuesday’s practice, who Green said “wasn’t feeling well so he stayed home.”

Vancouver and Calgary are tied for fifth in the division with identical 16-18-3 records, five points back of Montreal for the fourth and final playoff spot, although Montreal has a big advantage with five games in hand.

The Flames are scheduled to visit the Edmonton Oilers on Friday before opening a four-game homestand against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Canucks beginning Sunday.

The Canucks were coming off a six-day break heading into Wednesday before getting ready to embark on a seven-game road trip set to begin Saturday in Edmonton.

That’s all now very much up in the air.

Vancouver forward J.T. Miller and defenceman Jordie Benn missed multiple games in January after being placed into protocol.

“It’s not ideal,” Miller said Wednesday morning. “Everybody’s trying to do the right things to not have this situation happen.

“Hopefully we can minimize the damage here, and hopefully Gauds isn’t feeling too poorly.”

WHL Kelowna in 14-day quarantine

Also Wednesday, the Western Hockey League announced the Kelowna Rockets have had all activities suspended for a minimum of 14 days following six additional positive COVID-19 tests, taking the total to seven within the club after a positive test one day earlier.

The WHL says the positive COVID-19 test results belong to two staff members and four players.

In accordance with the WHL’s return-to-play protocol, the Rockets have immediately isolated and are being tested, and anyone with close contact has been instructed to self-quarantine and monitor symptoms for 14 days.

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CBC | Sports News

Osaka’s 23-match win streak ends against Sakkari in Miami

No. 2 Naomi Osaka’s 23-match winning streak ended Wednesday when she lost to Maria Sakkari of Greece in the quarter-finals of the Miami Open, 6-0, 6-4.

The defeat was Osaka’s first since February 2020, and it ended any chance of reclaiming the No. 1 ranking this week from Ash Barty, who is in the semifinals.

Osaka won her fourth Grand Slam title at the Australian Open last month, but in five Miami appearances she has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals.

Against the No. 23-seeded Sakkari, Osaka lost 15 consecutive points on her serve to fall behind and blew a 4-1 lead in the second set. She faced a break point on seven of her eight service games.

WATCH | Sakkari stuns Osaka in Miami:

No. 23 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece needed just 66 minutes to end No. 2 seed Naomi Osaka’s 23-match winning streak, defeating her 6-0, 6-4 in the quarter-finals of the Miami Open. 1:53

Sakkari earned her sixth career win over a top-five opponent. She’s still in the tournament only because she saved six match points in the fourth round before beating American Jessica Pegula.

Osaka took a 40-0 lead in the opening game but didn’t win another point on her serve until the second set. When she ended the drought, she received a big ovation from the small crowd, which she followed up with her best stretch of tennis.

But Sakkari rallied. From 40-0 down she won five consecutive points, hitting one last thunderous return to break for a 5-4 lead. She then served out the victory.

Canada’s Bianca Andreescu plays for a spot in the semifinals tonight as she faces Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain. 

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CBC | Sports News

UN confirms Saudi threat against official investigating Khashoggi murder

The UN human rights office said on Wednesday it confirmed the accuracy of published remarks by the independent expert who led an investigation into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi alleging that a senior Saudi official had made a threat against her.

The Guardian newspaper on Tuesday quoted Agnes Callamard, UN expert on summary killings, as saying a Saudi official had threatened she would be “taken care of” if she was not reined in following her investigation into the journalist’s murder.

Saudi officials did not respond to a request for comment. Callamard did not respond when contacted by Reuters.

“We confirm that the details in the Guardian story about the threat aimed at Agnes Callamard are accurate,” UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said in an email reply to Reuters.

The UN human rights office had informed Callamard about the threat as well as UN security and authorities, he added.

Reported threat conveyed in Geneva

Callamard told the Guardian the threat was conveyed in a January 2020 meeting between Saudi and UN officials in Geneva. She said she was told of the incident by a UN colleague, the newspaper reported.

Jamal Khashoggi, seen above in a 2014 photo, was killed after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. (Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images)

Callamard led a UN investigation into the October 2018 killing of Khashoggi by Saudi agents at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate. She issued a report in 2019 concluding there was “credible evidence” that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and senior Saudi officials were responsible for killing the Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident.

She subsequently called for sanctions against Prince Mohammed’s assets.

The prince denies any involvement in the killing but has said he bears ultimate responsibility because it happened under his watch.

Understood as ‘a death threat’

The alleged threat was made during a meeting between Geneva-based Saudi diplomats, a visiting Saudi delegation and UN officials, the Guardian reported. After the Saudi side criticized Callamard’s work in the case, the newspaper reported, one senior Saudi official said he had spoken to people prepared to “take care of her.”

“A death threat. That was how it was understood,” Callamard was cited as saying. “People that were present, and also subsequently, made it clear to the Saudi delegation that this was absolutely inappropriate.”

WATCH | U.S. intelligence report released:

A now-unclassified U.S. intelligence report blames Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for approving the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul in 2018. The Biden administration says that’s unacceptable and won’t be tolerated, signalling a shift in the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. 1:52

Callamard has criticized a Saudi court’s ruling in September to jail eight people for up to 20 years for the murder, accusing the kingdom of making a “mockery of justice” by not punishing more senior officials.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, which has taken a tougher stance on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, last month released an intelligence report that said Prince Mohammed approved an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi.

The Saudi government rejected the findings and reiterated that the murder was a heinous crime by a rogue group.

Callamard, whose replacement was announced on Wednesday, is taking up a new post as secretary general of Amnesty International.

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CBC | World News

Key allies watching closely to see how Canada handles sexual misconduct claims against Vance, McDonald

It’s a uniquely Canadian conundrum.

The political, institutional and social meltdown in the Canadian Forces over misconduct allegations involving the country’s most senior military commanders has piqued the interest of experts in allied nations — particularly legal scholars.

And they’re all wondering the same things. How would you try a current or former chief of the defence staff? What happens if charges are recommended against Gen. Jonathan Vance or Admiral Art McDonald?

Both Vance and McDonald are facing allegations of sexual misconduct. The top military commander is usually the ultimate disciplinary authority for those in uniform. Serving members of the military at that level tend not to face charges themselves — in fact, experts in military law told CBC News they can’t recall it happening anywhere else.

“I’m not aware of any country that’s had this senior of a leader facing these potential charges,” said retired U.S. Army lieutenant-colonel Victor Hansen, a professor of law at the New England School of Law, in Boston.

“So you guys are going to be the leaders, I guess, in charting the path for what to do or what not to do.”

‘It’s very difficult to hold them accountable’

Every military justice system, he said, is “premised on the fact that your leaders don’t do bad things. And so when they do do bad things, it’s very difficult to hold them accountable because the system doesn’t really anticipate that that’s what’s going to happen.”

Only a few U.S. military generals or admirals have gone to trial since the Second World War — and none of them were the highest-ranking officers at the time.

The U.S. Army has conducted courts martial for fewer than half a dozen major-generals. One U.S. Air Force general was charged recently with sexual offences but has not yet been tried — it’s the first case in the service’s 73-year history. The U.S Navy has conducted a court martial for just one admiral since 1945.

Then-chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance watches the ceremony at the National War Memorial on Wednesday, November 11, 2020. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

As is the case in Canada, the court martial process in the U.S. military justice system starts by convening a jury or panel to weigh the facts of the case — a jury composed of people with rank equal or senior to that of the person accused.

“You know, three, five or four star generals don’t just fall from the trees. There’s not that many,” said Hansen.

“I think it’s even worse in [Canada’s] situation, because we have, frankly, a large enough military that we can probably cobble together a panel of senior officers.”

Can you court-martial a CDS?

The question of how a court martial would work in a case involving high-level commanders becomes pertinent if charges are preferred against Vance or McDonald under the Code of Service Discipline. The military usually handles such charges through its separate justice system. Very serious criminal cases tend to end up in civilian courts.

CBC News asked the Canadian military’s Judge Advocate General’s Office (JAG) how a case against a current or former defence chief could be prosecuted within the military justice system, and whether it was considering any new mechanism to handle such a trial. The JAG did not respond.

Retired Canadian lieutenant colonel Rory Fowler, a military lawyer now in private practice in Kingston, Ont., said the JAG has a duty to ask and answer tough questions of itself behind closed doors and in public. 

“The first question that has to be asked is — can you actually try the CDS, or a senior general, by court-martial? I think the answer is no,” he said.

“The second question — and you only get to the second question if you’re willing to ask the first question publicly and discuss it — is, if you can’t prosecute them via court-martial, what are the alternatives?”

Fowler said the military could set up a mechanism to transfer disciplinary offences against the most senior officers to a civilian superior court.

“That’s entirely feasible,” he said. “In fact, you could do it now without amending the [National Defence] Act.

“But you only get to that second question if you’re willing to ask the first question and discuss it publicly, and the JAG and the director of military prosecutions clearly are not willing to ask that first question. So we’ll never get to the second question.”

The Americans don’t have that particular problem, said retired U.S. Navy commander Phil Cave, president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

Under the U.S. military justice system, the president, the secretary of defence and the civilian heads of the services have the authority to convene a court martial, if necessary.

“So the problem you’re having — who can prosecute this guy — I don’t think would exist here,” said Cave, who also noted that prosecutions of high-ranking military members are rare in the U.S.

The Pentagon in Washington. Commanding officers in the U.S. military have a remarkable amount of authority over courts martial. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

The decision to court-martial a high-ranking American officer “would be purely political and up to the civilian administration.”

That doesn’t mean the American armed forces are immune to the reckoning taking place over sexual misconduct in the military. But there’s an added wrinkle in the American context: the remarkable power commanding officers there can wield over the court martial process itself.

Commanding officers in the U.S. can, in some cases, overturn court martial verdicts. The ability is a little-used prerogative of command — one that many say is outdated.

There was an uproar in 2013 when a U.S. Air Force lieutenant-general used the power to upend the sexual assault prosecution of a subordinate.

The U.S. Congress is seriously contemplating removing, or severely limiting, the authority of commanders under the uniform justice code — and instead leaving such cases entirely in the hands of military lawyers.

Many here in Canada have called for a reform of the military justice system that would take it out from under military authority.

Both U.S. lawmakers and the American military as an institution will be watching what happens in Canada very carefully, Cave said.

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CBC | World News

Netanyahu tries to inoculate himself against defeat as Israel’s voters head to polls in pandemic

Elbow to elbow in Jerusalem’s old market, they pick through strawberries and Jaffa oranges. Diners jam Tel Aviv’s sunny seaside restaurants and partygoers without face masks fill its nightspots. Across Israel, fans have returned to cheer on soccer teams in newly reopened stadiums — up to 5,000 spectators at a time.

Israel is “back to life,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared at a campaign stop this month. “We’re coming out of it, and there’s not much more,” he said.

Netanyahu has fought to bring an air of post-pandemic normalcy to Israel in time for the country’s fourth trip to the polls in two years. Chief among his government’s promises is a vow that after multiple national lockdowns due to COVID-19, there won’t be any more.

He’s taking credit for a vaccination program that has led the world — already fully inoculating about half the Israeli population and triggering a sharp drop in infections — hoping that the country’s win over the novel coronavirus will bring him victory on Tuesday.

But Israel’s vaccine rollout hasn’t been without controversy. Some Palestinians have argued that Israel neglected its obligations as an occupying power by not including them in the mass vaccination program.

The prime minister personally negotiated a deal to deliver millions of doses of the vaccine in a series of phone calls that Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla called “obsessive”.

“Netanyahu’s done a lot,” Gaby Nissanov told a freelance CBC News crew as he waited for his turn at a vaccination centre in Jerusalem on Thursday. “He deserves credit for this.”

Still, it might not be enough to keep Israel’s longest-serving prime minister in power — or out of jail — after 12 years.

WATCH | Challenges and success of Israel’s vaccine rollout:

Israel is leading the world with its COVID-19 vaccine rollout and it’s already seeing results, but the campaign has been met with some hesitant demographics and criticism for not vaccinating Palestinians. 6:05

Election a matter of political, legal survival

Netanyahu is currently on trial in three separate cases involving fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. This election is as much about his effort to avoid prison as it is about his political survival, say his critics, who expect Netanyahu to try to pass legislation giving himself immunity if he stays on as prime minister.

And it’s been emotional. On Saturday, tens of thousands of Israelis protested against Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, the largest of 39 weekly demonstrations denouncing political corruption.

Protesters in Jerusalem take part on Saturday in a weekly demonstration against Netanyahu’s alleged corruption and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, ahead of Tuesday’s general election. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

The last spate of opinion polls suggests Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party is in the lead but is currently expected to win only about half the 61 seats required for a majority in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Even counting likely coalition partners, his conservative and religious bloc may be just short of the support it needs to govern — an inconclusive result, as in the previous three elections.

It’s not that Israelis don’t appreciate the “amazing” vaccination effort, said shopper Clil Levin, “but we need a change” from Netanyahu. She hasn’t decided who will get her vote, but it will be “someone new,” she said.

“As a democracy … it’s essential for us to be switching the system and the characters,” said Dean Graubard, a student drinking coffee in the cobblestone lanes of the Jerusalem market.

Indeed, the election has become a polarized referendum on Netanyahu’s continued leadership, his character and his policies supporting ultra-religious groups and settlers, says political and public opinion analyst Dahlia Scheindlin.

An Israeli woman receives a shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a medical centre in Dimona, southern Israel, in February. About half of the Israeli population has been inoculated, bringing a sharp drop in infections. (Tsafrir Abayov/The Associated Press)

The vaccination issue is having only a marginal impact on voters’ views, she told CBC News in a Skype interview from Tel Aviv.

“What it really does is make people who were already voting for Netanyahu feel more strongly about it and those who were already voting against him feel more passionately about it,” said Scheindlin, a fellow at the U.S.-based Century Foundation.

Netanyahu courting Arab voters

There are three other main candidates campaigning to replace him, though Israel’s fragmented proportional representation system depends as much on post-election wheeling and dealing among more than a dozen parties as it does on voter desires.

Netanyahu — nicknamed “Lord of Pulling Strings” by critics — has proven a wizard at managing the system, co-opting some of his most dangerous rivals while playing others off against each other to ensure his own political survival. Still, it hasn’t taken long for his last three coalition governments to tumble from gridlock and instability.

The strongest opposition party is Yesh Atid, led by former TV anchorman Yair Lapid. It represents much of Israel’s large secular centre and includes some social activists of the left who feel they have few other options. But so far, the party has failed to find enough allies in the Knesset to take power.

Former TV anchorman Yair Lapid, shown in May 2020, leads Yesh Atid, the strongest opposition party in Israel. It represents much of Israel’s large secular centre and includes some social activists of the left who feel they have few other options. (Oded Balilty/The Associated Press)

In this campaign, Lapid has warned against Netanyahu’s “illiberal” impulses. If he wins again, Lapid said in an interview with the Times of Israel, the country is in danger of becoming more authoritarian: “Not a dictatorship [but] an in-between, a hybrid, anywhere between Hungary and Turkey.”

Two other potential leaders are on Netanyahu’s political right: Naftali Bennett of the Yamina party, supported by religious Zionists who don’t accept a Palestinian state, and Gideon Sa’ar, Netanyahu’s former interior minister who split off from Likud to form his own business-oriented party, New Hope.

Israeli Arabs have never had a place in Knesset coalitions, but this time these voters have become an unlikely target for Netanyahu. In the 2015 election, he outraged many Arabs in a now-infamous campaign video by warning Likud supporters that “the Arabs are voting in droves” and that he needed Jewish Israeli votes to protect the Israeli state.

Palestinians hold a protest against Netanyahu’s visit to the heritage site of ancient Susya as Israeli soldiers stand guard in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on March 14. (Mussa Qawasma/Reuters)

Now, Netanyahu is seen touring Palestinian villages in Israel, urging Arab citizens to vote for him. In Nazareth in January, he was greeted by demonstrations and denunciations from Arab members of the Knesset. “Netanyahu came like a thief to try to scrape together votes from the Arab street,” said Aida Touma-Suleiman.

But he has managed to attract prominent supporters, such as the mayor of Nazareth, and the Islamist party United Arab List says it’s open to co-operating with Likud in the Knesset.

‘The master of doing the unexpected’

Whether that actually happens or not, Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says Netanyahu’s “dramatic” overtures to a group his Likud supporters have frequently vilified — and even centrist parties have avoided — may now open the door to greater political participation for Israeli Arabs.

“That means he gave legitimacy to all the other players on the political scene to actually say, ‘Yes, it might be a viable option to have a government with support of the Arab parties,'” she said at a forum organized for foreign media.

It’s also the kind of political surprise Netanyahu is known for pulling on voters, the media and his opponents. He almost threw in another twist in the dying days of the campaign — an unprecedented official visit to an Arab state.

Netanyahu, who likes to showcase his connections to foreign leaders like Donald Trump when he was U.S. president or Russia’s Vladimir Putin, planned to jet to Abu Dhabi for high-profile talks with Emirati leaders.

Netanyahu, right, and then-U.S. president Donald Trump arrive to deliver joint remarks on a Middle East peace plan proposal at the White House in Washington, D.C., in January 2020. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

It was to be the first visit to the United Arab Emirates since Israel and the Gulf state established official ties last year. That is, until the itinerary was leaked to Israeli media, and officials in Abu Dhabi balked at being drawn into Netanyahu’s campaign. They had expected low-key talks instead.

“The UAE will not be a part in any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever,” tweeted Anwar Gargash, an adviser to the country’s president, in a stinging official rebuke that also saw other meetings cancelled and cold water thrown on a $ 10 billion US investment fund to be established between the two countries.

“Netanyahu is the master of doing the unexpected, and he is not shy about it,” said analyst Scheindlin. “It shows an incredible level of confidence on his part, which is well earned.”

It’s not at all impossible that there could be more surprises in the dying hours of this campaign — or indeed after, once the haggling for coalition support is likely to begin.

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AstraZeneca says U.S. trial data shows 79% efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19

AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine provided strong protection against disease and complete protection against hospitalization and death across all age groups in a late-stage U.S. study, the company announced Monday.

AstraZeneca said its experts also identified no safety concerns related to the vaccine, including a rare blood clot that was identified in Europe. Scientists found no increased risk of clots among the more than 20,000 people who got at least one dose of the shot, which was developed with Oxford University.

Although AstraZeneca’s vaccine has been authorized for use in more than 50 countries, including Canada, it has not yet been given the green light in the U.S. The U.S. study comprised more than 30,000 volunteers, of whom two-thirds were given the vaccine while the rest got dummy shots.

In a statement, AstraZeneca said its COVID-19 vaccine had a 79 per cent efficacy rate at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 and was 100 per cent effective in stopping severe disease and hospitalization. Investigators said the vaccine was effective across adults of all ages, including older people — which previous studies in other countries had failed to establish.

“These findings reconfirm previous results observed,” said Ann Falsey of the University of Rochester School of Medicine, who helped lead the trial. “It’s exciting to see similar efficacy results in people over 65 for the first time.”

Julian Tang, a virologist at the university of Leicester who was unconnected to the study, described it as “good news” for the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“The earlier U.K., Brazil, South Africa trials had a more variable and inconsistent design and it was thought that the U.S. FDA would never approve the use of the AZ vaccine on this basis, but now the U.S. clinical trial has confirmed the efficacy of this vaccine in their own clinical trials,” he said.

The early findings from the U.S. study are just one set of information AstraZeneca must submit to the Food and Drug Administration. An FDA advisory committee will publicly debate the evidence behind the shots before the agency decides whether to allow emergency use of the vaccine.

Study may clear up questions about product

Scientists have been awaiting results of the U.S. study in hopes it will clear up some of the confusion about just how well the shots really work.

Britain first authorized the vaccine based on partial results from testing in the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa that suggested the shots were about 70 per cent effective. But those results were clouded by a manufacturing mistake that led some participants to get just a half dose in their first shot — an error the researchers didn’t immediately acknowledge.

Then came more questions about how well the vaccine protected older adults and how long to wait before the second dose. Some European countries including Germany, France and Belgium initially withheld the shot from older adults and only reversed their decisions after new data suggested it is offering seniors protection.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine development was rocky in the U.S., too. Last fall, the Food and Drug Administration suspended the company’s study in 30,000 Americans for an unusual six weeks, as frustrated regulators sought information about some neurologic complaints reported in Britain; ultimately, there was no evidence the vaccine was to blame.

Last week, more than a dozen countries, mostly in Europe, temporarily suspended their use of the AstraZeneca shot after reports it was linked to blood clots. On Thursday, the European Medicines Agency concluded after an investigation that the vaccine did not raise the overall risk of blood clots, but could not rule out that it was connected to two very rare types of clots.

France, Germany, Italy and other countries subsequently resumed their use of the shot on Friday, with senior politicians rolling up their sleeves to show the vaccine was safe.

WATCH | Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says the benefits of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine outweigh the rare risks:

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says the benefits of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine outweigh the rare risks. 1:53

French Prime MInister Jean Castex, 55, received his first dose of the AstraZeneca jab last week live on TV, as did 56-year-old British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In Quebec, Health Minister Christian Dubé, 64, also got a dose of the vaccine last week. 

Health Canada said in a release last week that based on an assessment of the available data, it believed that the benefits of the vaccine outweighed the risks.

“As the vaccine rollout continues in Canada, Health Canada will continue to monitor the use of all COVID-19 vaccines closely,” the agency said.

1 of 3 ‘viral vector’ vaccines

The U.S recently agreed to send 1.5 million doses to Canada and another 2.5 million doses to Mexico. When those vaccines will arrive in Canada wasn’t immediately clear, but it could be this week, Procurement Minister Anita Anand said.

AstraZeneca said Monday it would continue to analyze the U.S. data in preparation for submitting it to the FDA in the coming weeks. It said the data would also soon be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is what scientists call a “viral vector” vaccine. The shots are made with a harmless virus, a cold virus that normally infects chimpanzees. It acts like a Trojan horse to carry the spike protein’s genetic material into the body, which in turn produces some harmless protein. That primes the immune system to fight if the real virus comes along.

Two other companies, Johnson & Johnson and China’s CanSino Biologics, make COVID-19 vaccines using the same technology but using different cold viruses.

The AstraZeneca shot has become a key tool in European countries’ efforts to boost their sluggish vaccine rollouts. It is also a pillar of a UN-backed project known as COVAX that aims to get COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries.

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‘We are not the virus’: Hundreds rally against anti-Asian racism in Atlanta

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Saturday in support of the Asian American community after a shooting at three local day spas this week left eight people dead, six of them Asian women.

The killings followed a year of mounting anti-Asian violence in the United States, which community leaders say is due to Asian Americans being blamed for the coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.

Crowds of people wearing masks, waving American flags and carrying posters that read “We are not the virus” and “Stop Asian Hate” stood in front of the golden-domed Georgia State Capitol building on Saturday.

“I want to make sure the world and the people know that I am here and I am visible,” said rally-goer Sunghee Han from Georgia.

“The women who perished, … I see my family in them,” Timothy Phan from Port St. Lucie, Fla., who drove eight hours to attend, told CNN. “I feel like far too often, we’re just erased.”

A demonstrators in Atlanta holds a sign on Saturday displaying the names of Tuesday’s shooting victims. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, both Georgia Democrats elected in January, led the demonstrators in a moment of silence for the victims, video on Twitter showed.

“Let us build a state and a nation where no one lives in fear because of who they are or where they or their family come from,” Ossoff said.

Georgia authorities have yet to determine what drove the suspect, a 21-year-old white man, who was charged with the killings at spas in and around Atlanta on Tuesday. Robert Aaron Long told investigators sex addiction led him to violence, but lawmakers and anti-racism advocates have said anti-Asian bias could have been at least part of the motivation.

“I’m not interested in whether or not he had a bad day,” said Warnock, criticizing a comment by an Atlanta-area sheriff’s department spokesman about Long’s state of mind.

“No matter how you want to spin it, the facts remain the same,” Georgia State Rep. Bee Nguyen told the crowd. “This was an attack on the Asian community.”

Demonstrators rally outside the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Saturday. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Some of the women killed were immigrants and mothers, described by family and friends as hard-working, loving and beloved.

Hyun Jung Grant was among those killed at Gold Spa in Atlanta. Her son, Randy Park, set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for himself and his brother, who are alone now in the United States while the rest of their family is in South Korea.

“She was a single mother who dedicated her whole life to providing for my brother and I,” Park wrote.

The shootings prompted an outpouring of grief, from the local community in Georgia to the halls of U.S. Congress. Since Tuesday, mourners have piled flower bouquets and signs, lit candles and said prayers outside the spas where the victims were killed.

U.S. lawmakers decried the spike in anti-Asian violence in a congressional hearing on Thursday, where Democratic Rep. Grace Meng, who is of Taiwanese descent, testified that the “community is bleeding.”

On Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris met with Asian American community leaders in Georgia to express condolences and implore Americans to stand together against hate.

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IBM Built an AI Capable of Holding Its Own Against Humans in a Debate

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Over the past few years, AI has gone from a niche topic to an exploding field. AI can improve audio and video quality, animate still images of long-dead people, and identify you from an analprint. One thing it hasn’t been able to do? Argue effectively within the context of a formal debate.

To overcome this problem, IBM created Project Debater, an AI development program focused on exactly what it sounds like. Many AI projects, especially those focusing on gaming, have a clear winner and a loser based on the evaluation of numerical criteria, such as pieces captured, lives lost, or the ratio between kills and deaths. Effectively debating a human requires a vastly different skill set.

A recent paper in Nature describes the results of a 2019 test between Project Debater and globally recognized debate champion Harish Natarajan. The AI and individual debated whether preschool should be subsidized. Each side was given 15 minutes for prep time without additional internet access, which Project Debater used to sort through its own internal database of content. Both sides gave a four-minute speech, followed by a two-minute closing statement.

Ultimately, Natarajan was judged to have won the debate, but Project Debater held its own, forming logical statements and arguments over the course of the discussion.

The researchers that developed Project Debater can’t compare it with other systems of its type. There aren’t any. Instead, they used PD to generate a single opening speech and compared it against various other methods.

In the graph below, “Summit” is a multi-document summary system, Speech-GPT2 is a “finely tuned language model,” and Arg-GPT2 was generated using concatenating arguments. Arg-Search refers to speeches extracted using ArgumenText. Arg-Human1 and Arg-Human2 refer to a hybrid approach that tested Project Debater’s argument mining module alongside human authorship and verification. Finally, speeches were included from human experts.

The graph above shows the baseline score where a score of 5 indicates “Strongly Agree” and a score of 1 means “Strongly Disagree.” Readers were asked to answer the following question: “This speech is a good opening speech for this topic.” This graph is not a full test of Project Debater’s capabilities — it only evaluates opening speeches — but it demonstrates that the system is capable of producing coherent arguments. IBM has a website for the project with links to the whitepaper, podcast, and the 2019 debate on preschool subsidies if you’d like to see more of how the system performed in action.

The question of who wins a debate will always be subjective, and humans still clearly outperform IBM’s Project Debater. For now, we’re still a long way from Data — but we’ve come a long way from Eliza, too.

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