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Teens feeling disconnected, hopeless due to COVID-19 raises alarm for parents, experts

Ten months into the coronavirus pandemic, Toronto teen Serena Sri is sorely missing all the “amazing” things about adolescent life, from spirit days, intramural sports and learning in-person at her high school in the city’s west end to hanging out with friends and attending her beloved hip-hop dance class.

“I’m really a social person and I love being around people. With the pandemic, we can’t do that,” she said.

“I kind of feel more alone and I kind of… shut down in a sense. And I lose my motivation to do anything, even simple things in my daily life.”

The pandemic has also had a negative effect on Edmonton student Quinncy Raven-Jackson, who says a more solitary life under COVID-19 restrictions has exacerbated the anxiety disorder he’s been dealing with.

“I have difficulty with social interaction sometimes, so not seeing people, I sometimes forget how much these people care about me and stuff like that. So it was very lonely,” said the 19-year-old University of Alberta freshman. 

“I have a good relationship with both my parents and a great therapist, so I had some safe adults to speak to, fortunately. But even when you have those kinds of help, it doesn’t always really resonate.”

‘I have difficulty with social interaction sometimes, so not seeing people, I sometimes forget how much these people care about me,’ said Edmonton student Quinncy Raven-Jackson, ahead of a bit of cycling with his dad, Mark Jackson. (Peter Evans/CBC)

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many teens and young Canadians feeling disconnected, hopeless and unmotivated to navigate school and daily life — and this sentiment is causing concern for parents and experts alike.

“Everyone’s normal has now changed into something completely different from what it was 10 months ago,” said Sadia Fazelyar, a post-secondary student and youth mental health advocate for Jack.org, a national charity focused on young Canadians.

“The biggest thing I hear from youth is it’s this whole new thing that nobody really knows how to navigate properly.”

Many young people aren’t comfortable speaking up about difficulties, feelings or mental health struggles they’re facing, so they look to sports, the arts, clubs or social groups as a form of support, Fazelyar says. “Now it’s all been taken away from them and it really hits them hard.” 

WATCH | What would young Canadians tell their pre-pandemic selves?

Canadian teens and young adults on mental health challenges and thoughts about living through the pandemic. 4:40

Seeing classmates, friends or family through a screen, even regularly, doesn’t offer the same opportunity for connection, added the 21-year-old Ryerson University student.

“Youth feel alone. And it’s kind of hard to have that conversation or even to bring it up … because it feels like they shouldn’t be alone. They get to talk to their classmates five days a week on Zoom in the classroom. They can call their friends. They get to be with their family, but it’s just not the same.”

Concern about the mental well-being of Canada’s youth is rising. A child mental health research team spearheaded by Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children is currently conducting a study into the effect COVID-19 is having on the mental health of young Canadians. Ottawa clinics and support groups are seeing a spike in demand for mental health resources, while medical officials in Calgary have noted a rise in cases of eating disorders

Wanting to explore what kids and teens are thinking and feeling about COVID-19, Nikki Martyn, program head of early childhood studies at the University of Guelph-Humber, launched a research project analyzing artwork created by youngsters in response to the pandemic.

Though submissions came from children as young as two years old, the majority were by 14- to 17-year-olds, says the educator and child psychology researcher. “It shows how much teenagers really want to be heard and have so much to say.”

The artworks include illustration, painting, sculpture, mixed-media creations, even musical compositions, and the message within them is clear, according to Martyn: It’s a painful time and young people are struggling.

WATCH | Social isolation, school closures take a toll on mental health of teens:

Teenagers are struggling with mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, even more than usual. A few of them share their struggles and a psychologist shares an art project that helps teens express themselves. 6:45

“They’re feeling sad and alone and isolated and worried and scared. They feel lack of motivation and distress and failure,” she said.

“What I worry about is the helplessness or the disillusionment about their own future. Sometimes even anger, which we all understand. It’s the same things in some ways that we’re feeling as adults, but it’s different because of where they’re at developmentally at this time of their life.” 

The writing and phrases included within some of the artwork — “What’s the point? No one cares. This is too much. I am not OK. Broken’ — speak volumes, Martyn added.

“The teens were able to share this perspective and their experience very clearly. I think it’s really important that we listen to it.”

The majority of artworks submitted to her new research project were from 14- to 17-year-olds, showing ‘how much teenagers really want to be heard and have so much to say,’ says child psychology expert Nikki Martyn, seen with her 15-year-old son Carson Capobianco in Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

‘It’s OK to not be OK now’

Martyn says she believes these pandemic-inspired feelings go beyond the already powerful emotions and stresses teens have in regular times, but that this moment also presents families with an opportunity to normalize open discussion about mental health.

She suggests parents open up to their kids and teens about their own vulnerabilities, sharing when they themselves are feeling drained, that they’ve had enough or that they also can’t wait for this all to be over.

“It’s OK to not be OK now,” she said.

Right now, small steps like getting outdoors and talking to a counselor are helpful, says Serena Sri, seen here with her mother Ashanty. ‘Making sure that I’m still like going outside for walks, even though it’s only with my mom.’ (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

Ashanty Sri is worried about the toll the pandemic is taking on her daughter Serena, who has also been diagnosed with anxiety. She wonders about what longer term effect there may be on today’s teens, who are navigating growing up without the social, classroom and even part-time job experiences they’re used to. 

For now, the mother-daughter duo are putting the focus on mental wellbeing by taking small steps, noted the Toronto elementary school teacher. Getting active outdoors has helped, added Serena. 

“Making sure that I’m still like going outside for walks, even though it’s only with my mom… Also a great outlet is talking to somebody like a counselor or a therapist, because I feel like it helps releasing everything.”

Maintaining connections with peers is another recommendation from Fazelyar, the youth mental health advocate — things like regular phone or video calls with friends, online game nights, watching movies together via apps or, if local restrictions permit, physically distanced time outdoors.

“You should still be ‘being social,'” Fazelyar said. 

“When you’re thrown into this or you feel like you’re kind of alone because you don’t have your friends or social network, it’s just best to find new ways to adapt.”

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CBC | Health News

Children, parents separated on arrival despite CBSA directive

Jean used to call Canada his “dream country,” but his family’s journey and eventual arrival here two years ago was nothing short of a nightmare.

After Jean arrived here seeking asylum, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) detained him and took away his children.

“I didn’t want to leave my children. I said no. I cried, I cried,” he said.

After fleeing violence in their home country, Jean, his wife Anna, their four-year-old son and two-year old daughter embarked on the long trek from Brazil to seek asylum in this country. A particularly arduous portion of that 20,000-kilometre migrant trail between Colombia and Panama is known as Death Road.

Radio-Canada has agreed to withhold their real names and country of origin because their asylum application is still being processed, and they fear reprisals if they’re deported from Canada.

The family walked for days through the jungle without food or a compass. They lost everything when their personal belongings, including their travel documents, were washed away in a flash flood.

“There are no words to describe the fears we felt. We slept on the ground,” Anna said.

Different receptions

When they finally reached Mexico, authorities there were giving priority to the most vulnerable heading to the U.S. and Canada. Jean convinced Anna, who was then more than seven months pregnant, to go on ahead, promising to join her in Canada with the children as soon as possible.

Anna finished the journey alone, arriving in Montreal 10 days before the rest of her family reached the Canada-U.S. border.

“When I arrived at the [Canadian] border I was afraid,” Anna said. “I saw some women. They asked me if I had warm clothing for the cold weather. They gave me something to eat. The policeman was calm, nice. I said to myself, ‘Wow, that’s Canada. I made it.'”

The welcome her husband and children received at Roxham Road at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., was very different. 

Jean and Anna speak with Radio-Canada’s Brigitte Bureau. (Michel Aspirot/Radio-Canada)

‘How can I leave my children?’

Because he lacked identity papers, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers sent Jean to the immigration holding centre in Laval, Que., where he was detained. The children were sent to separate foster homes.

“The children were crying. They didn’t want to go. It was torture,” Jean recalled.

With no papers, Jean said CBSA officers didn’t believe he was the children’s father. He beseeched them to do a DNA test.

“How can I leave my children? I have travelled 20,000 kilometres with them,” Jean told them. “I cried all night. I didn’t know where my wife was, I was stressed out by the journey — imagine, my dream country!”

Asylum seekers arrive at temporary housing facilities at the border crossing at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., in May 2018. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

In Montreal, Anna soon learned what had happened to her family.

“It was like the ground was collapsing,” she recalled. “I said, ‘No, not my children. No, no, no, please give me back my children. You cannot kidnap a child.”

2017 directive forbids separation

These events took place in 2018. According to a 2017 document titled National Directive for the Detention or Housing of Minors, CBSA must not separate or detain families except in extremely rare cases.

Yet according to new data from the group Action réfugiés Montréal, at least 182 children were separated from a parent detained in Laval last year alone. The organization, one of very few groups with rare access to the detainees at the Laval immigration centre, believes there are many more, because its numbers are based solely on families that requested its services.

Children were separated from their parents for weeks, sometimes longer.– Jenny Jeanes, Action réfugiés Montréal

“We were shocked to see children abruptly separated at the border,” said Action réfugiés Montréal’s Jenny Jeanes. “Children were separated from their parents for weeks, sometimes longer.”

CBSA doesn’t keep such statistics, a gap criticized by international organizations including Human Rights Watch.

Jeanes said Action réfugiés Montréal started keeping track of family separations when it became obvious that the 2017 CBSA directive, adopted by the Trudeau government to comply with international law, wasn’t always being observed.

Minors also detained

Family separation takes different forms. Jeanes said she’s witnessed many cases where the mother and children are released but the father is detained.

“Authorities seem to think it’s better to do that than to house more children,” she said. “But that doesn’t take into account the suffering that separation can bring, and it goes against the national directive that puts emphasis on preserving the family unit.”

The 2017 CBSA directive also says children shouldn’t be kept in immigration detention centres, except as a last resort. 

However, according to CBSA figures, that’s exactly what happened to 138 minors during the 2019-2020 fiscal year. Most of the minors were accompanying a detained parent at the immigration centre in Laval.

‘It was torture,’ Jean says about being separated from his son and daughter when they arrived in Canada in 2018. (Michel Aspirot/Radio-Canada)

Child welfare ‘our top priority’

“The welfare of children has to be our top priority,” said the office of Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, who oversees CBSA, in a response to Radio-Canada. “CBSA does not systematically separate children from their parents or legal guardians.”

When CBSA does separate families, Blair’s office said agents release children into the care of a parent, extended family or child welfare authorities. However, his office did not explain why so many children were separated from their parents last year.

Jean and Anna’s children spent one night in foster care. With the help of different organizations, Anna, who had been staying at a YMCA in Montreal, was reunited with them the next day.

But Jean was kept in detention for close to a month, during which time Anna gave birth to their third child, alone.

“We started out our life here with fear in the pit of our stomach,” she said.

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Parents welcome asymptomatic COVID-19 tests in schools, even if news isn’t always good

It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster weekend for Toronto father Yaser Nadaf, after Ontario’s new asymptomatic testing for schools in COVID-19 hot spots turned up 19 new positive cases at his children’s school.

While his daughter and her Grade 3 class were cleared to return to school on Monday, his son’s Grade 2 class must self-isolate for 14 days, even though the youngster himself was among those who tested negative.

The weekend’s testing blitz at Thorncliffe Park Public School — the first Toronto District School Board (TDSB) location selected for the voluntary testing pilot announced last week — saw 14 classes affected and sent home for two weeks. However, the rest of the school will remain open, according to direction from Toronto Public Health.

Nadaf is rolling with it, saying he believes teachers and staff have been trying their best to maintain health and safety precautions and protocols.

“What can we do? This is going on everywhere in the world,” he said. “They try their best, but at the same time they cannot prevent it completely.”

Testing asymptomatic students and staff is currently being offered at designated schools in Toronto, Peel and York regions and Ottawa — four Ontario regions with a high number of active COVID-19 cases.

Thorncliffe Park Public School was the first Toronto District School Board location selected to participate in a new voluntary asymptomatic testing program at schools in four COVID hot spots in Ontario. The testing found 19 positive cases, and 14 classes were sent home to self-isolate. (CBC)

The goal is to improve tracking of the coronavirus and prevent transmission within schools, as well as to inform future public health decisions. While parents and health experts seem to be applauding the pilot, some are also highlighting shortcomings in how it’s being rolled out.

Over the weekend, testing also began in Ottawa at Manordale Public School, part of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. Amber Mammoletti, an occasional teacher working at two schools this fall, dropped by on Sunday to be tested with her son, Flynn.

“I think there’s people walking around not realizing they have it — no symptoms — so it’s just better to keep everyone safe: Get tested if you can and see what happens,” she said.

WATCH | How testing helped Cornell University become a model of COVID-19 prevention:

At the start of the school year, Cornell University implemented a strategy of regular testing and robust contact tracing on campus. The plan was expensive, but it’s prevented any major COVID-19 outbreaks at the New York institution. 8:19

School boards are working with local public health authorities to determine which schools to target over the next four weeks, but the expectation is that new positives will undoubtedly emerge, TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said.

“The 19 cases we’ve learned about over the weekend [at Thorncliffe Park PS] as a result of the testing is a concern, but it’s not unexpected,” he said Monday.

“While this information is concerning, it really is the information that our public health officials need to know, because it gives them a better snapshot of how many of those asymptomatic people are positive cases of COVID.”

Despite the batch of positive cases arising from this first weekend, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce reiterated his assertion that “99.9 per cent of Ontario students are COVID-free” during a press briefing on Monday afternoon.

Acknowledging that “we still have work to do” in tracking COVID-19 cases in communities, he characterized the new testing initiative as an extension of the existing safety measures his ministry had announced.

“The fact that hundreds of children, students and staff have gotten tested [at Thorncliffe Park PS] in conjunction with the local public health unit I think underscores that the plan in place is … working hard to mitigate any further spread: identifying COVID cases, isolating them or moving them from the school, so we don’t have spreaders within the school.” 

‘Canaries in the coal mine’

A targeted campaign of testing in schools — which in most neighbourhoods are considered trusted, known places — is a welcome tool that adds to the barometer of what’s happening in the communities they’re located in, said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician and assistant professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“Parents who may not be encouraged to go get tested in their local communities will readily take their kids to the school, which is a place they know,” he said.

“Things like this are going to be canaries in the coal mine. You kind of get a better sense of what’s happening in the community by doing these local testing strategies.”

Manordale Public School in Ottawa was also among the schools selected for the pilot project. Students and staff lined up on Sunday for testing. (CBC)

He added the caveat, however, that the type of test being used will likely cause more chaos for families and schools.

For the pilot, Ontario is using PCR testing, which detects the genetic material of a virus. Although considered the gold standard, it’s also so sensitive it would “pick up kids who are infectious, as well as kids who were infectious two, four, six weeks ago,” Chagla said.

He suggested that they could have chosen rapid antigen tests, which flag active infections by identifying proteins on the surface of infectious virus particles.

The rapid antigen tests may offer a more precise picture “of who is really a threat to the community versus who had COVID six weeks ago, where they’re not really a threat,” Chagla said.

WATCH | Nova Scotia offers rapid COVID-19 tests in Halifax for asymptomatic cases:

Health officials in Nova Scotia offered rapid COVID-19 testing in Halifax to reduce the virus’s spread in the province by catching asymptomatic cases. 2:01

Though Toronto parent Jessica Lyons welcomes the introduction of asymptomatic testing, she said it comes months late and should be offered more widely.

“This is desperately needed,” said the mother of two school-aged children and an organizer with the Ontario Parent Action Network.

“Much more testing in schools — to make it accessible, to make it easy for parents and families and students to do — is really essential. So we support this pilot, obviously, but we think that it should have come … weeks and weeks ago, and it needs to be expanded.”

PCR testing being used in the pilot project is considered the gold standard, but it’s also so sensitive it would ‘pick up kids who are infectious, as well as kids who were infectious two, four, six weeks ago,’ said Dr. Zain Chagla. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Back in Thorncliffe Park, among the Toronto communities hardest hit by COVID-19 this year, parents in the neighbourhood expressed concern about the new positive cases found through the testing initiative. But they’re also adamant about one thing: their schools staying open.

Remote learning last spring was “really hard for kids. We’ve seen the mental stress on our child and other kids,” said Osamah Aldhad, father of a second grader who he said really missed being at school.

“When we were kids, you know, we used to run away from school,” Aldhad noted.

“Now they’re actually really wanting to go to school, which is really important for them.”

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CBC | Health News

Sisters cross Canada-U.S. border, camp in parents’ backyard to be with dying father

Carmen and Lara Messerlian only have one more sleep to go until they can finally squeeze their dad simultaneously in a giant bear hug. 

The two sisters travelled from the United States, where they live with their families, to be with their father, John Messerlian, in New Brunswick.

He has stage four cancer of the kidneys and is dying.

The sisters crossed the Canada-U.S. border almost two weeks ago and have been self-isolating in a tent about nine metres behind their parents’ home in Rothesay. 

“We’ll be able to go onto the patio and actually give our dad a proper hug,” said Lara, the younger of the sisters. 

John Messerlian didn’t want to spend the final days of his life in palliative care at the Saint John Regional Hospital. He wanted to be home with his family in Rothesay. (Submitted by Carmen Messerlian)

Messerlian has renal cell carcinoma and was sent to hospital in an ambulance at the beginning of June when his symptoms worsened.

He spent 10 days at the Saint John Regional Hospital. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, he was allowed one brief visit from his wife, Heleni. Eventually, the medical team suggested their dad stay in palliative care, where he could receive better treatment. 

Instead, the family decided to bring him home, so he wouldn’t be in isolation.

Driving to the border ‘no matter what’

The sisters have two tents in their parents’ backyard in Rothesay, one for sleeping and one for work and leisure. (CBC)

This isn’t the first time the sisters received a call like this about their father. His health has been deteriorating for five years.

So the sisters, who are only one year apart, did what they normally do — jumped in a vehicle and headed home to New Brunswick. 

Carmen’s dog, Daisy, spends time outside near the backyard tents. (Submitted by Carmen Messerlian)

Only this time, they had to try to cross the international border that has been closed since the end of March because of COVID-19.

“There was no doubt, no matter what was happening, I would drive to the border,” Lara said. 

“And if they turn me away, they’ll turn me away. But I would rather just get there and hope that I’ll be able to see my father.”

Sister recovered from COVID-19

Serge Messerlian, with Heleni, Carmen, Lara and John. Serge, the eldest of the siblings, couldn’t make the trip this time from San Francisco to Saint John to visit his father. (Submitted by Carmen Messerlian)

Before they left, Lara travelled from Pennsylvania to her home in New York City. She was in quarantine at her in-laws’ home because she had tested positive for COVID-19 in early April, but has now recovered.

From there, she travelled to pick up Carmen in Boston. Then the duo set out for the border crossing at St. Stephen. They arrived at 2 a.m. on June 13, and were the only ones in line.

The sisters had to give an oath they would follow public health guidelines. If not, they were told, they could be fined up to $ 1 million and possibly face jail time.

The process took a total of 12 minutes.

“It was kind of scary for that moment,” Lara said. “We kind of had a moment of, are we doing the right thing? We don’t want to put anyone at risk and we don’t want to bring anything into the country.

“We certainly don’t want to be patient zero in New Brunswick.”

As a professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, Carmen said she’s a strong believer of mitigation measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Daisy also keeps John company throughout the day. (Submitted by Carmen Messerlian)

“My sister and I took this very seriously.”

Lara, who works in public relations in New York City, said the border scene was intimidating, but she respected the patrol officers because they “had a serious job to do.”

“But we also had a serious situation and a family emergency we needed to tend to,” she said.

Once they arrived in New Brunswick, the sisters began their search for a place to stay in isolation.

The two sisters stand in their parents’ backyard and chat with their father, who’s standing on his deck. (CBC News)

Without any luck, they had to choose between spending a night camping for the first time in their lives or sleeping in Carmen’s van.

They chose camping.

“It was easy to choose this as opposed to an Airbnb,” Carmen said. “We could be close to my dad, which was a big factor.”

Camping for the first time 

The Messerlian sisters have been celebrating being together with their father, while living in an outdoor tent over the past two weeks. This is their first time camping. (Submitted by Carmen Messerlian)

But they had to get some camping supplies. Just before Canadian Tire closed, the sisters were on the phone with a staff member in Rothesay. He was picking out all the supplies they would need. Then the items were picked up by a family friend.

“We [had] never pitched a tent, but we were going to do this even if it’s dark,” said Lara. “There was no light at the time,  and there were mosquitos everywhere.”

He’s the perfect package of a person and he’s been unmatched in my life.– Carmen Messerlian 

For the next two weeks, the sisters had two large tents, one for sleeping and one for work and leisure. They had lanterns, a makeshift sink, toilet and shower, which offered only cold water in the mornings from a hose. They also had an inflatable bed, which they said allowed them to have the best sleep of their lives. 

“Everything, you would need for backyard living,” said Lara.

Throughout their camping experience, they were also checked on by police to make sure they were following the rules.

John teaching his grandson, Mateo, music theory, during one of his hospital visits. (Submitted by Carmen Messerlian)

During their stay, the sisters said they were able to enjoy New Brunswick’s fresh air, eat chips and hang out as they did as teenagers.

“We could be like sisters again, sharing a room,” Carmen said. “It’s a tent, but it’s a room to us.”  

But most important, they were able to be near their dad. 

Celebrating dad 

John sports a ‘Still Grooving at Eighty-Five’ T-shirt he received from his family for his birthday. (Submitted by Carmen Messerlian)

The sisters have spent the last two weeks talking with their father about everything, including the weather and childhood stories, and singing old songs he taught them when they were kids.

In his checkered pyjama pants and black T-shirt, he often sits or stands, gripping the deck railing, as Lara and Carmen chat on the lawn. 

They’re looking forward to snuggling under the covers with their dad and listening to his heartbeat, which they have been doing during their visits since he was first diagnosed with cancer five years ago. 

And although he might be a little slower and 25 pounds slimmer since the last time they saw him, he’s still their dad.

The Messerlians took their last family trip to Greece in 2018. (Submitted by Carmen Messerlian)

Their father grew up in Lebanon and moved from Europe to Canada in 1969, where he continued to chase his dreams as a musician. He is known by many as the Golden Sax of Spain.

The sisters described him as a feminist, human rights activist and a good cook, who made everything from scratch.

They said he’s also a fighter. And has escaped death more than once. 

Carmen and Lara Messerlian returned home from the U.S. and are counting the hours until they can hug their father. Carmen is an epidemiologist at Harvard University. Lara works in public relations in New York City and had COVID-19 this spring. 16:43

Although they’re grateful for the time they’ve had together with him over the past two weeks, time might be running out.

A few years ago, Carmen said, she and her father made a pact that he would live at least until he turned 90.

He turns 87 at the end of August.

Carmen snuggles up with her father while he was in hospital over Christmas in 2019. (Submitted by Carmen Messerlian)

“He said to me, ‘I don’t want to break our pact. We made this goal together,’ ” Carmen said, trying to hold back tears. 

“I said even if you’re not here at 90, we’re still here. We’re together. Nothing separates us.”

Not even a major border closure in the middle of a pandemic.

And no matter what happens, the two women promised they would throw a 90th birthday bash for their father in three years.

“He’s the perfect package of a person, and he’s been unmatched in my life,” Carmen said.

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CBC | Health News

British PM’s top adviser called on to resign over 400-km trip to parents’ house during lockdown

The British government dug in Saturday to defend Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top adviser, Dominic Cummings, for travelling more than 400 kilometres to his parents’ house during a nationwide lockdown at a time when he suspected he had the coronavirus.

Opponents demanded Cummings’ resignation after The Guardian and Mirror newspapers revealed he had driven from London to the property in Durham, northeast England, with his wife and son at the end of March. A lockdown that began March 23 stipulated that people should remain at their primary residence, leaving only for essential local errands and exercise, and not visit relatives. Anyone with symptoms was advised told to completely isolate themselves.

Johnson’s office said in a statement that Cummings made the trip because his wife was showing coronavirus symptoms, he correctly thought he was likely to also get sick, and relatives had offered to help look after the couple’s 4-year-old son. It said Cummings stayed in a house “near to but separate from” his extended family.

“The prime minister gives Mr. Cummings his full support,” said a visibly uncomfortable Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who was peppered with questions about Cummings’ trip during the government’s daily coronavirus news conference.

Shapps said Cummings had followed lockdown rules by “staying in place with his family, which is the right thing to do.”

Britain’s Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, shown here on May 14, said Cummings has the full support of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street via AP)

“This wasn’t visiting a holiday home or going to visit someone,” he said. “This was going to stay put for 14 days, to remain in isolation.”

The two newspapers later reported that Cummings was spotted again in the Durham area on April 19, after he had recovered from the virus and returned to work in London.

Critics of the government expressed outrage that Cummings had broken stringent rules that for two months have prevented Britons from visiting elderly relatives, comforting dying friends or even attending the funerals of loved ones.

The main opposition Labour Party wrote to the head of the civil service to call for an official investigation.

Cummings is seen with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson as they leave 10 Downing Street in London in October 2019. (Matt Dunham/The Associated Press)

“The British people have made important and painful sacrifices to support the national effort, including being away from family in times of need,” Labour lawmaker Rachel Reeves wrote in the letter. “It is therefore vital that the government can reassure the public that its most senior figures have been adhering to the same rules as everyone else.”

Durham Police said that officers went to a house on March 31 and “explained to the family the guidelines around self-isolation and reiterated the appropriate advice around essential travel.” Police did not mention Cummings by name.

Asked about the trip by reporters outside his house in London on Saturday, Cummings said “I behaved reasonably and legally.”

“It’s a question of doing the right thing. It’s not about what you guys think.” said Cummings, who also berated the journalists for failing to keep 2 metres (6 1/2 feet) apart in line with social distancing rules.

Influence at 10 Downing

Cummings is a self-styled political disruptor who has expressed contempt for the civil service and much of the media. He was one of the architects of the successful campaign to take Britain out of the European Union, and later was appointed Johnson’s top aide.

He is one of a slew of senior British government figures to contract COVID-19, including the prime minister, who spent three nights in intensive care at a London hospital.

Britain’s official death toll among people with the coronavirus stands at 36,675 after 282 more deaths were reported Saturday. That is the second-highest confirmed total in the world after the United States.

A social distancing sign is seen in West Kirby, U.K., on Saturday. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

Several senior government ministers defended Cummings’s actions. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove tweeted: “Caring for your wife and child is not a crime.” Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who was sick for a week with the coronavirus, said “it was entirely right for Dom Cummings to find childcare for his toddler, when both he and his wife were getting ill.”

Cummings, 48, is one of several senior U.K. officials who have been accused of flouting the lockdown rules that they advocated for the rest of the country.

Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson stepped down as government scientific adviser earlier this month after a newspaper disclosed that his girlfriend had crossed London to stay with him during the lockdown. In April, Catherine Calderwood resigned as Scotland’s chief medical officer after twice travelling from Edinburgh to her second home.

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CBC | World News

Parents unsure about future of minor hockey with COVID-19

There are two black hockey bags sitting in the office of Mike Baumgartner’s home, and he wonders if they will be used again.

Minor hockey associations across Canada have had to cut their seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of them are trying to determine when they will resume and how to make the game safe for children.

Through a statement, Hockey Canada said it will decide when minor hockey will return with the guidance of public health officials. Until then, they “cannot provide an accurate or fair comment on the state of minor hockey.”

It means hockey parents like Baumgartner, who has a son and daughter who play in Laval, Que., nearly 30 minutes north of Montreal, are left wondering if it will be safe to put their children back on the ice.

“I’m on the fence about that. We live with my mom, who’s an older woman. I’m asthmatic, my kids are asthmatic,” Baumgartner said.

Hockey Quebec will send an action plan for minor hockey to the Quebec government at the end of the month.

Hockey Montreal president Yves Pauze confirmed some rule changes that were being discussed, such as teams playing each other at 3-on-3 or 4-on-4, as well as teams playing locally and not participating in tournaments outside of their region.

‘Maybe we won’t even have the numbers’

“As long as we don’t have a vaccine, there won’t be hockey played like how it’s normally played,” Pauze said.

Some local associations, such as one in Kahnawake, 15 minutes away from the Island of Montreal, are bracing for huge drops in enrolment once hockey returns.

Kahnawake Minor Hockey Association board member Lou Ann Stacey said there are over 100 children enrolled annually in her organization. She said parents have indicated through social media that they would rather see no hockey being played than to have their kids play with fewer children on the ice, and some levels might be cancelled altogether as a result.

“What if some parents choose not to send their kids or not to register?” Stacey said. “Maybe we won’t even have the numbers.”

In Ontario, the Peterborough Hockey Association is awaiting news from Hockey Canada, the Ontario Hockey Federation, and the Ontario Minor Hockey Association before proceeding.

PHA president James Bradburn is also keeping an eye out for organizations in other sports such as the Ontario Soccer Association, which recently cancelled sanctioned activities for the month of June. With summer sports like soccer being postponed, it means fall and winter sports will be next to have their fate determined.

“We’re just in a holding pattern,” Bradburn said.

Physical distancing measures off the ice?

Bradburn also anticipates a drop in participation, partially because families might not be able to afford letting their children play.

“You have people who’ve lost their jobs, can they afford it?” Bradburn said. “Hockey’s not cheap. Registration is $ 600. Throw in the equipment, if you need new equipment, you’re up to $ 1000. It’s a lot of money that may not be on the table for families this coming season.”

While associations determine the best course of action for on-ice play, Baumgartner says he is more concerned with what can be done to enforce physical distancing measures off the ice.

“I’d be more comfortable just getting [my kids] dressed at home, going to the arena, playing the game, and then coming home,” he said. “No interaction, you just play your game and leave.”

Jordan Bateman, an executive with the Langley Minor Hockey Association in British Columbia, suggested ideas for minor hockey in an online article that has circulated around associations across the country.

He feels there will need to be reconfigurations of dressing rooms and entrances to ice surfaces, more hand sanitizers in arenas, limits to physical contact on the ice and having only team officials as spectators in order for minor hockey to safely return.

Even if it means hockey won’t be the same for parents and children as it once was.

“Hockey is a really social sport,” Bateman said. “You get to know the families on your team really well. You become a little team for that year that you’re together. It’s difficult to express how different the sport will be for a year or two if kids can’t be in dressing rooms, if you can’t travel for tournaments, if you can’t have your full team come back because of money issues.”

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The soccer dreams of hundreds of kids have been dashed after Canadian company BCN Sports Services, which operated the popular Barca Academy in six cities across the country, closed up shop after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Closure of Barca Academy leaves Edmonton soccer parents out thousands of dollars

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Closure of Barca Academy leaves Edmonton soccer parents out thousands of dollars

The soccer dreams of hundreds of kids have been dashed after Canadian company BCN Sports Services, which operated the popular Barca Academy in six cities across the country, closed up shop after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

CBC | Soccer News

Why a lack of oversight of surrogacy in Canada leaves some parents feeling taken advantage of

Cuddling a child of her own was something cancer survivor Anna Camille Tucci feared might never be possible.

In 2017, the Toronto woman had a full hysterectomy as part of treatment for ovarian cancer — but not before doctors harvested her eggs and created embryos with her husband’s sperm.

“Since I can remember, I wanted kids….That’s just something that was in my heart since I was tiny,” she said. “Even the thought of not being able to carry [a baby] — that was really difficult.”

But in December 2019, the 30-year-old’s dream of being a mom came true. A surrogate gave birth to Tucci’s healthy baby boy.

Motherhood has been “bliss,” Tucci says, yet she can’t shake lingering questions she has about the thousands of dollars she and her husband paid through the surrogacy agency they’d hired to help them navigate the delicate process.

A surrogate gave birth to Anna Camille Tucci’s baby boy last December. She used a surrogacy agency to help her navigate the process and was left with serious questions about the payments she made. 9:43

In Canada, it is illegal to pay a surrogate, but it is legal to reimburse her for pregnancy-related expenses such as additional food, clothing, vitamins and any transportation costs she incurs travelling to her medical appointments. In some cases, the transactions are handled using a trust that is set up and managed by a surrogacy agency.

Over the course of a three-month investigation, CBC News spoke with dozens of people involved in surrogacy in Canada, including parents, surrogates and lawyers; their experiences reveal a burgeoning industry in which agencies lack oversight and mandatory transparency.

Five different families raised concerns about money that was paid to surrogates through their trust accounts.

Tucci wanted to know how nearly $ 2,000 a month was being spent, but the agency’s policy was that receipts aren’t released until after the birth.

In another case, an Ontario father demanded his agency send him his surrogate’s receipts. He found many didn’t have dates, some were duplicates, others were from before he’d met his surrogate, and one had a lottery ticket listed.

“I think people have found a way to pull the parents’ heartstrings,” Tucci said. “I think the industry as a whole — everyone that’s involved in it — I think they’re all there to make money in the end.”

Growing demand for surrogates

The most up-to-date data from Statistics Canada shows roughly one in six couples in Canada experience infertility — a figure that has doubled since the 1980s. Infertility combined with an increase in same-sex couples starting families means the demand for surrogates has boomed.

No public health agency tracks surrogate pregnancies, but data voluntarily provided by Canadian fertility clinics shows at least 816 surrogate births were reported between 2013 and 2017.

Once couples factor in fees for agencies, lawyers and fertility clinics, the cost can quickly reach $ 100,000 per pregnancy.

Introduced in 2004, Canada’s reproductive legislation was meant to prevent the exploitation of women and the commercialization of surrogacy.

The maximum penalty for paying a surrogate for things that aren’t pregnancy-related is a $ 500,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison.

Parents shocked by cost of reimbursements

Tucci and her husband selected a surrogate through an agency and paid the company nearly $ 10,000 in fees for consultation and to manage their surrogate’s monthly reimbursements through a trust fund. They negotiated a legal contract with their surrogate that allowed her to claim expenses up to a maximum of nearly $ 2,000 a month during the pregnancy.

“We thought she would never actually meet that max that we had in the contract. But we found out that that’s not true,” Tucci said.

The surrogate would submit her receipts to the agency every month. The agency would then review them and reimburse her through the trust fund.

When the couple realized the surrogate was claiming the maximum every month, they were shocked and began asking the agency to provide the actual receipts.

“We loved our surrogate. We trusted she was doing everything she could be doing to the best of her abilities, so it was more we were questioning [the agency’s] process of going through those receipts and what might be approved.”

The agency told Tucci she’d get the receipts but only months after the baby was born.

In the meantime, the agency sent the couple monthly expense breakdowns, showing money reimbursed in categories such as groceries, takeout meals, clothing and communications.

More than $ 700 a month was approved for groceries.

“The two of us together, I don’t think we spend that much on groceries and this is supposed to be for one person,” she said.

“This kind of made us think, even more of, ‘Wow, where is all this money coming from?'”

Tucci said she feared rocking the boat and turning the pregnancy into a “bad experience,” but she also knew paying a surrogate for anything beyond pregnancy-related expenses could land her in trouble with the law.

“No one wants to be in a situation where they’re caught doing things that they weren’t supposed to be doing without even knowing,” she said. “I am worried.”

Surrogate’s receipts include duplicates, lottery ticket

In another case, an Ontario father’s trust account was billed $ 5,000 worth of expenses last year, despite the fact his surrogate miscarried within the first month.

CBC News agreed not to publish his name because he fears backlash from the surrogacy community.

When he demanded to see the receipts his agency had reimbursed, he was sent digital images of receipts his surrogate had submitted.

CBC News reviewed them and found a lottery ticket, duplicates, more than $ 600 worth of expenses from before the father met his surrogate, and nearly $ 1,700 worth with no visible date.

Fertility lawyer Sherry Levitan says she’s suspected for years agencies coach surrogates to maximize their reimbursements. (Darek Zdzienicki)

“We have to play within the rules, and this is not playing within the rules, so it’s putting everybody at risk,” said his lawyer, Sherry Levitan.

“Perhaps give [the surrogate] the benefit of the doubt that she made a mistake. But it’s the kind of thing that should have been caught by the agency. So, it certainly looks like no one is being tasked with the job of looking at [the receipts] critically.”

Surrogate considered an abortion over expense fight

CBC News spoke with more than a dozen surrogates, many of whom said they were motivated by a desire to help families in need.

But one of the women we spoke with confirmed it’s not just legal ramifications couples have to worry about when questioning expenses.

The four-time surrogate described her experience carrying a baby for a New Brunswick couple last year. She isn’t named in this story to protect the privacy of the parents.

“They nickel and dimed for everything,” she said in a phone interview. “It was just bullshit after bullshit.”

During the first three months of her pregnancy, she said, the parents were “nit-picking” over expenses she had routinely claimed in previous surrogacies, such as car payments.

“I was like, ‘OK, I’m done.’ I was going to abort the baby. It was at that point; I was so done,” she said.

“They breached [our contract] by not paying me. So, I figured, ‘Oh, I’m not going to follow the rules.”

She said the arguments with the family were never resolved and ultimately she miscarried near the end of the first trimester.

“Oh my goodness, that’s terrible,” Toronto fertility lawyer Sara Cohen said when told of the dispute. “I think a lot of times people only see the surrogate as being very vulnerable, but the intended parents are very vulnerable, too, because someone’s carrying their baby.”

Cohen said some lawyers draft surrogacy contracts to cover a portion of car payments and car insurance, but she does not.

She said expenses that are incurred before and after the pregnancy should not be considered pregnancy-related.

“Is this an expense she would have incurred but for the fact that she’s pregnant as a surrogate or not?”

Agency says it is ‘extremely diligent’

The five families who shared their stories with CBC News were clients of the same agency — Canadian Fertility Consulting (CFC).

CFC says it is the largest agency in the country. It has roughly 400 ongoing surrogate-couple relationships and oversees some 300 surrogacy births every year.

Leia Swanberg owns and operates Canadian Fertility Consulting, a surrogacy agency based in Cobourg, Ont. Swanberg says her agency overseas about 300 surrogacy births every year. (Canadian Fertility Consulting)

Owner Leia Swanberg is the only person who’s ever been charged for paying surrogates in Canada.

RCMP raided Swanberg’s Cobourg, Ont., offices and she was charged in February 2013. Later that year, she pleaded guilty to regulatory offences for paying surrogates without receipts and was fined $ 60,000.

In a recent interview with CBC News, Swanberg said that after the court case she started requiring receipts for all expenditures.

“It was a very relaxed system, and now it is not,” she said. “I will not take that risk for any client or any surrogate, and so I am extremely diligent with my team.”

Swanberg said her agency currently has a finance team of six people who count receipts and reimburse surrogates. CBC News requested a followup interview to address the specific concerns this investigation uncovered, but she declined to comment.

Surrogate feels ‘absolutely treacherous’

In the past two decades, at least a dozen private agencies have opened across Canada. Surrogacy agencies are unlicensed and compete to recruit and retain women they can connect with clients.

While many surrogates told CBC News they tried to keep expenses low to help families, others said they were encouraged by CFC to collect as many receipts as possible to ensure they hit their monthly maximum allowance.

CBC News has agreed not to name these women because they fear legal ramifications.

“It’s a little shady, like a lot shady,” one surrogate said of how she was encouraged to save all receipts so she would reach her monthly limit. “They don’t question it apparently.”

Another surrogate said it wasn’t until she switched from CFC to another agency that she realized some of her reimbursements were probably inappropriate.

“Now I feel absolutely treacherous. It’s not that I regret my last two [surrogacy pregnancies], but it definitely pulls at the heartstrings,” she said.

Another former CFC surrogate, who is now employed at a rival agency, showed CBC News a 2013 message exchange she had with Swanberg’s personal Facebook account.

The exchange is from after Swanberg had been charged but before the court case was finished.

In the exchange, Swanberg’s account encourages her to save receipts “from everyone” in her household.

The surrogate expressed doubt she would be able to reach her monthly expenses limit because she didn’t make enough money at her job to pay for so many things.

Swanberg’s account replied: “If you live w your parents they can start saving receipts now to, we just need them to add up to 18 plus thousand, so if you start now, getting receipts from everyone.”

Below is an image of the Facebook Messenger exchange

Swanberg told CBC News she would search her message history to see if she’d sent the message, but never replied. She also declined to comment on the surrogates who said they were encouraged to maximize their reimbursements.

Fertility lawyer Sherry Levitan says her clients have complained about other agencies as well.

“I don’t want to paint all the agencies with the same brush, because there are some that are doing a stellar job,” Levitan said.

“There are some agencies that I know coach their surrogates so that they are able to submit the maximum every month and that aren’t vetting them the way that I would have hoped that they are.”

New regulations coming

In June, Health Canada will introduce long-awaited regulations on surrogate reimbursements, but some legal experts say they likely won’t fix the problems.

The new regulations provide broad categories of what could be considered a pregnancy-related expense, so there is still room for interpretation.

While the rules also introduce a new form to declare expenses, they do not require that parents see the receipts prior to money being reimbursed to their surrogate.

“That’s clearly problematic and the regulations don’t actually help you with that,” Cohen said.

Since 2012 Health Canada has received seven complaints related to surrogacy, but the lawyers who spoke with CBC News suspect some parents don’t report their concerns.

According to Cohen, Canada should decriminalize paying surrogates so parents feel empowered to speak out against suspected wrongdoing without fear of legal consequences.

She also says the agencies should be regulated and licensed like adoption agencies.

“I just think that kind of oversight would be safer for everybody — safer for the parents, safer for the surrogate.”

Send tips on this story to chelsea.gomez@cbc.ca or call 416-475-5778 

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Olivia Culpo Shares Photo with 16-Year-Old Lexi Altobelli After Losing Parents and Sister in Kobe Bryant Crash

Olivia Culpo Shares Photo with 16-Year-Old Lexi Altobelli After Losing Parents and Sister in Kobe Bryant Crash | Entertainment Tonight

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The Youth Olympic Games aren’t your parents’ Olympics

The 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games begin this week in Switzerland. Not familiar with the event? Here’s what you should know about it:

What are the Youth Olympic Games?

They’re a multi-sport event for athletes between the ages of 15 to 18, organized by the International Olympic Committee. Just like the regular Olympics, there are both summer and winter versions — each held every four years, but in a reverse seasonal cycle (these Games are winter events, ahead of Tokyo’s Summer Games.) The first summer Youth Olympics were held in 2010 and the first winter edition in 2012.

When does this one take place?

The opening ceremony is Thursday at 2 p.m. ET in Lausanne. Competition begins the next day and runs until the closing ceremony on Wednesday, Jan. 22. There are 13 days of competition.

How big is it?

Around 1,900 athletes from more than 80 countries will be in Switzerland. They’ll compete in 81 medal events in 16 disciplines across eight main sports.

Are the events the same as in the regular Olympics?

Yes and no. You’ll recognize Winter Olympic staples like figure skating, speed skating (long and short track), skiing (alpine, cross-country and freestyle), sliding (bobsleigh, luge and skeleton), snowboarding, curling, ski jumping and biathlon.

There are also two versions of hockey. For the standard game, there’s a men’s and a women’s tournament. Each country can enter only one of them, and Canada is once again in the men’s. The team is made up of 15-year-olds, and it’ll try to win Canada’s first gold medal after bronze and silver showings the previous two times.

There’s also a very quirky 3-on-3 (plus goalies) version of hockey. It’s cross-ice, meaning games are played on half the rink, with the nets placed at the side boards and two games going on at once, separated by a temporary wall. If you have kids in minor hockey, you may be familiar with this. If not, here’s how it looks:

And there’s another twist: each team is made up of players of different nationalities. Organizers say the idea is to promote “integration and understanding between cultures.” There’s both a men’s and a women’s 3-on-3 tournament.

The weirdest sport you’ll see is ski mountaineering — “skimo” for short. It’s basically a blend of cross-country skiing, alpine skiing and winter hiking. Athletes have to go both downhill and uphill. Sometimes they’re on their skis, other times they’re climbing a hill by foot with their skis strapped to their back. It actually looks pretty awesome.

Is there anything else that makes the Youth Olympics unique?

For one, there’s a different spirit. Athletes still compete for gold, silver and bronze medals, but the emphasis is on inclusiveness, friendship and respect (for each other and for the environment) as much as competition.

In keeping with the vibe, athletes will take public transportation to their events. And long track speed skating is being held outdoors on a “sustainable” frozen lake at St. Moritz. The scene is pretty breathtaking:

Also, these Games are being billed as “completely gender equal,” with the same number of male and female athletes. For the first time at any version of the Olympics, women will compete in the Nordic combined event. Several events are mixed gender, including both curling competitions — mixed doubles and the traditional version of the game, which here will feature two men and two women per team. That’s a trend the regular Olympics are embracing too. Mixed doubles curling made its Olympic debut in 2018, and mixed-gender swimming and track relay races will join the program at this year’s Summer Games in Tokyo.

The Youth Olympic Games, though, are taking the concept of mixed events to another level by putting athletes from different countries on the same team in some events. We already mentioned 3-on-3 hockey. There are also mixed-nationality team competitions in figure skating, short and long track speed skating and ski mountaineering.

The Youth Games are also ahead of the curve when it comes to bobsleigh. The only event being held is the single-rider monobob, which will be added to the regular Olympic program in 2022.

Has anyone famous competed in the Winter Youth Olympic Games?

American snowboard sensation Chloe Kim won two gold medals in 2016 in Norway before becoming one of the biggest stars of the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Suzanne Schulting went medal-less at the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games in 2012, but six years later she became the first Dutch athlete to win Olympic gold in short track speed skating and has also won four world titles.

A few NHL players have competed in the Youth Games, including Buffalo Sabres star Jack Eichel and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Kasperi Kapanen. He actually scored the gold medal-winning shootout goal for Finland in 2012.

What about Team Canada?

This year’s squad is bigger than ever — 78 athletes. Canada’s flag-bearer for the opening ceremony is Lauren Rajala, a 17-year-old curler from Sudbury, Ont. She played lead on a rink that won gold at both the Canadian U18 curling championships and the Canada Winter Games last year. She’ll be with a different squad at the Youth Olympics, where curling is a mixed sport and the Canadian team was selected with athletes from different parts of the country.

Canada is hoping to improve on its eighth-place finish in the medal standings at the last Winter Youth Olympics, where it won three gold medals and six total. In 2012 Canada won nine medals, but only two were gold so the team placed 15th in the standings.

How can you watch and/or follow the Games?

CBCSports.ca is streaming events live all day, every day, starting with the opening ceremony Thursday at 2 p.m. ET. The CBC TV network will also have coverage on Saturday, Jan. 25 from noon-2 p.m. ET. For more details, here’s the link to CBC Sports’ full streaming and TV schedule.

Also, CBC Sports reporter Devin Heroux will be in Switzerland for the Games. You can read his stories on the website and follow his updates on Twitter.

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, the CBC Sports daily newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing below.

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