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Saturday, 31 December 2011

Britain torn apart by 'abused trust': Church leader

 The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, will Sunday use his Christmas Day sermon to blame "broken bonds and abused trust" for undermining British society.

The 61-year-old leader of the worldwide Anglican church will urge worshippers at Canterbury Cathedral in southeast England to contemplate the role of Christian morality in solving modern problems, according to extracts from the sermon released by his office.

"The most pressing question we now face, we might well say, is who and where we are as a society," he will say. "Bonds have been broken, trust abused and lost."

Britain is facing another year of economic hardship and public spending cuts and suffered major outbreaks of rioting and looting in its major cities in August.

"Whether it is an urban rioter mindlessly burning down a small shop that serves his community, or a speculator turning his back on the question of who bears the ultimate cost for his acquisitive adventures in the virtual reality of today's financial world, the picture is of atoms spinning apart in the dark," he will warn.

Williams spoke of his "sadness" during the summer riots, and also gave his support to the Occupy London protesters outside St Paul's Cathedral in the midst of internal church conflicts over how to handle the anti-capitalist camp.

The Archbishop will quote from to the 350-year-old Book of Common Prayer's Long Exhortation as he calls on citizens to reflect on their responsibilities to society.

"If ye shall perceive your offences to be such as are not only against God but also against your neighbours; then ye shall reconcile yourselves unto them; being ready to make restitution," he is to say.

Britain's Prince Philip spends Christmas in hospital

Britain's Prince Philip missed the royal family's Christmas Day celebrations for the first time as the husband of Queen Elizabeth II remained in hospital after having heart surgery.

Thousands of wellwishers gathered at the queen's Sandringham estate in eastern England to see the royals attend their traditional church service, with Prince William's new wife Catherine making her debut appearance.

Buckingham Palace said the 90-year-old Philip "remains in good spirits" after spending a second night at Papworth hospital near Cambridge, and family members were set to visit him after lunch on Sunday.

Prince Philip, who is the longest serving royal consort in British history and an outspoken pillar of the House of Windsor, was airlifted on Friday from Sandringham suffering from chest pains.

Tests showed a blocked coronary artery and doctors at Papworth, which boasts Britain's leading cardiac unit, inserted a tube-like device called a stent to restore healthy blood flow.

Palace officials refused to say whether he had had a heart attack but Iqbal Malik, a consultant at Imperial College London, said Philip "probably was having a heart attack" which was successfully aborted.

Around 3,000 people queued at the gates of the St Mary Magdalene Church on the royal estate at Sandringham on Sunday to see the royals walk the few hundred metres (yards) from the main house for the service, police said.

It was the first time that Catherine has attended the service. She wore a brown coat and walked alongside Prince William, whom she married in April, and his younger brother Prince Harry.

The queen and her four children, including heir to the throne Prince Charles and his second wife Camilla, were all present, along with the queen's granddaughter Zara Phillips and her husband, England rugby player Mike Tindall.

The 85-year-old monarch was also seen talking to the vicar at the church before the service, which Prince Philip is missing for the first time.

Lunch is served at 1300 GMT at Sandringham House following the church service and the family will reportedly tuck into a huge turkey reared on the estate.

The family will then gather around the television Ñ without the queen Ñ to watch her annual Christmas broadcast, in which this year she is set to stress the importance of family.

It was recorded before Prince Philip was hospitalised.

The prince is also set to miss the traditional Boxing Day shoot which he organises.

In an usual sign of concern from the usually stoic British royals, the queen and her children all visited Philip in hospital on Saturday as he recovered from the operation.

The Greek-born prince Philip married then Princess Elizabeth in 1947 and has become a national institution Ñ almost as much for his often brusque comments as for his support for the queen.

An active outdoorsman and former Royal Navy captain, he has been in largely good health and joined his wife on an 11-day tour of Australia three months ago.

But he pulled out of a trip to Italy in October nursing a cold.

The next year is a big one for the queen as she celebrates her diamond jubilee marking 60 years on the British throne.

In an interview to mark his 90th birthday in June, Prince Philip said he would scale back his workload.

"I reckon I've done my bit. I want to enjoy myself a bit now, with less responsibility, less frantic rushing about, less preparation, less trying to think of something to say," he told the BBC.

Thinking of things to say has sometimes landed him in hot water. On a visit to China in 1986, he warned a group of British students: "If you stay here much longer, you'll all be slitty-eyed."

British queen's husband spends third night in hospital

SANDRINGHAM, United Kingdom — Queen Elizabeth II's husband Prince Philip was to miss the royals' traditional Christmas pheasant shoot Monday after a third night in hospital recovering from heart surgery.

Philip, 90, was forced to miss the royal Christmas celebrations for the first time after he was rushed to hospital on Friday complaining of chest pains and had an emergency procedure to unblock a coronary artery.

He was given a festive boost on Sunday with a Christmas Day visit from grandsons Prince William and Harry and four other of his eight grandchildren.

Philip is said by aides to be eager to leave the Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire, eastern England, but no date for his release has been given.

He usually leads the royal family's shoot at their Sandringham country estate, held on December 26, or Boxing Day as it is known in Britain. The shoot is expected to go ahead as planned.

A Buckingham Palace spokesman said on Sunday: "The Duke is in good spirits and will remain in hospital under observation for a short period.

"The Queen will continue to be briefed on his condition. We do not have details of a release date at this stage."

The queen visited her husband of 64 years at the hospital on Sunday after the royal family's Christmas church service.

Later in the day, the prince's grandchildren swept into the hospital, which lies 80 kilometres from Sandringham, in a fleet of cars.

Although William's wife Catherine appeared at the church service for the first time following their wedding in April, she did not come to the hospital.

William, the 29-year-old second in line to the throne, was accompanied by Zara Tindall and Peter Phillips, the children of the queen's daughter Princess Anne.

Prince Harry, William's younger brother, drove into the hospital in a separate car which also carried Beatrice and Eugenie, the daughters of the queen's second youngest son Prince Andrew.

The royals told hundreds of wellwishers who had gathered on Sunday to see them attend the Christmas morning service in the St Mary Magdalene church at Sandringham that Philip's condition was improving.

William said his grandfather was "very well, thank you. Getting much better", while Charles added that Philip was "very well".

Philip earlier told doctors he felt "fine" and didn't want to "make a fuss", adding: "I just want to go home," according to reports.

The Greek-born Philip is the longest serving royal consort in British history and has become a national institution — almost as much for his often brusque nature as for his support for the queen.

Despite his age, he remains active and travelled with the 85-year-old queen to Australia in October. However, he has reduced his public engagements this year.

The operation he had involves fitting a mesh sleeve fitted over a sausage-shaped balloon into the artery.

The sleeve, or stent, remains fixed in position inside the body when the balloon is removed and opens up the artery to remove the blockage.

The prince is in good hands — Papworth is Britain's largest specialist cardiothoracic hospital and the country's main heart and lung transplant centre.

Next year is a big one for the queen as she celebrates her diamond jubilee marking 60 years on the British throne.

Calgary women's shelters fill up in unusual holiday spike

 Some of the women’s shelters in Calgary say they are nearly at capacity this holiday season - an unusual occurrence this time of year.

The YWCA Sheriff King House, which shelters victims of domestic violence, is housing more than triple the number of women and young children compared to the same period last year. Numbers are also up at the agency’s Mary Dover homeless shelter.

The Christmas season is a particularly tough time to leave home, and many shelters traditionally have lower numbers during the holidays, a shelter spokeswoman said.

The climbing number of domestic violence victims seeking helps shows they’re making the difficult choice to forgo a Christmas at home over fears for their own safety, said Jean Dunbar, YWCA of Calgary’s director of family violence prevention.

“It’s a really tough decision to make at this time of the year. Is it bad enough to leave? Because you’re leaving with nothing. Or can you just hang in there, get through and things will calm down.

“This year, people are making different decisions.”

The Sheriff King shelter, which took in 10 people at this time last year, saw a sudden spike Friday to 34, edging close to its 42-person capacity. The YWCA Mary Dover housed 98 people, compared to 72 last year.

The shelters have enough space — for now.

The week following Christmas, however, is generally when numbers begin to climb. It’s a worrisome scenario considering the already peak numbers.

“In my 18 years of working here, I’ve never seen it this high,” Dunbar said.

“We’re getting ready to start to say no.”

Volunteers at the Sheriff King scrambled Friday to ensure the influx of clients, many of them young children, each had a Christmas present under the shelter tree come Sunday. Christmas dinners planned for about 10 people had to quickly be tripled.

Volunteers and staff do everything they can to make the holiday less painful, Dunbar said.

Many of the women in the shelter are fleeing violence. Some are protecting their children, who’ve been physically hurt, too.

“As bad as it is to (have to) make the decision to come into a shelter, it’s best to be safe,” Dunbar said.

“They’re all here because they’re not safe at home.”

Alberta consistently has high domestic violence rates, but shelter staff are perplexed by the sudden surge in clients.

The recent high profile triple-murder suicide in southern Alberta that saw three young people shot to death and another wounded before the perpetrator took his own life may also have prodded some victims to take steps to protect themselves, suggested Dunbar.

The horrific shooting involved an ex-boyfriend targeting his former girlfriend after their relationship soured, police say.

“If you’re a mom in a situation with young kids, you may be thinking, it could happen to them, could it happen to me?,” said Dunbar.

The women seeking help also tell the story of the “other side” of Calgary’s prosperity, said YWCA of Calgary CEO Sue Tomney.

Many of them are considered “working poor,” toiling at low paying jobs where paycheques simply don’t stretch far enough.

“That’s something we all carry as a city. We get caught up in prosperity and forget there are others not keeping pace with the city.”

The city’s collection of family violence shelters work together to do everything they can to ensure each person seeking help has a place to go, Tomney said.

Canadians more trusting of museums than of the web: Survey

Even at the dawn of the digital age, Canadians are least impressed by Internet sites and most trusting of museums when judging the reliability of information about the country's past.

In responding to a nationwide survey of more than 2,300 Canadians — commissioned by the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies and carried out by the firm Leger Marketing — 84 per cent expressed either "very strong" or "somewhat strong" levels of trust in the way museums present historical eras, issues, people and events.

At the bottom of the ranking — behind museums, books, teachers and direct witnesses of the past — were Internet sources of historical content.

About 52 per cent of respondents said they trust websites when it comes to information about the past, and only five per cent conveyed a "very strong" faith in online sources.

By contrast, museums held the "very strong" trust of 25 per cent of those surveyed.

A little more than three-quarters of all respondents (75.6 per cent) considered history books somewhat or very trustworthy. Witnesses to history — such as Second World War soldiers recalling that era — were deemed reliable by 73 per cent, and history teachers earned the approval of 71 per cent of respondents.

ACS executive director Jack Jedwab said he believes respondents were expressing a belief that museums "have the best vetting process" for historical information placed in public exhibitions.

"People understand they've got more on the line, and are more objective" in presenting history to Canadians, he added. "They're going to do several checks and reviews of the accuracy of what they're presenting. I think people intuitively understand that."

At the same time, said Jedwab, Canadians seem to be raising questions about how "rigorous the process of fact-checking is" with historical content on the Internet.

The survey results appear to pose a conundrum for history institutions — including museums themselves, which are funded largely by governments — because they have been investing heavily in creating online content, developing mobile apps and otherwise exploiting digital technologies to reach more people and to give greater exposure to their collections and exhibitions.

"There's a big challenge, here, no question about it," said Jedwab. "Because on the other hand, the Internet is also the source where people can access historical information quickly and at the lowest possible cost."

Overall, he suggests, the survey results reflect a kind of "scrutiny scale" at work when people judge various sources of historical content.

"I think people are looking at that and saying, well, at the top of the scale — the most scrutinized — are museums, and at the bottom of the scale, the least scrutinized, is all of that information appearing on the Internet — even though that's where we're continually being directed to and where we're (publicly) investing."

A total of 2,345 Canadians were surveyed online in September and October. Results reflect a potential margin of error of two per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Christmas shooting leaves seven dead in Texas

Police in Texas found the bodies of seven people in a Dallas-area apartment on Sunday, all shot to death and surrounded by newly unwrapped Christmas presents, authorities said.

Police in the town of Grapevine said the dead included four women and three men, one of them the apparent gunman in what investigators believe was a murder-suicide, and that all appeared to be members of the same family.

Two handguns were recovered from the apartment, said Sergeant Robert Eberling of the Grapevine police department, who called it a “gruesome crime scene” and the worst massacre in that town’s history.

The middle income Lincoln Vineyards apartment complex is near Colleyville Heritage High School, one of the area’s most highly regarded schools.

A community of about 46,000 people some 20 miles northwest of central Dallas, Grapevine is known for its wine-tasting salons and was recently proclaimed by the state Senate as the “Christmas Capital of Texas” for its abundance of annual holiday-season events.

“This is obviously a terrible tragedy,” Mayor William Tate said in a statement to Reuters. “The fact that it happened on Christmas makes it even more tragic. This appears to be a family situation and anyone who has a family will be incredibly saddened by what happened.”

Police responding to a 911 emergency call late Sunday morning found the bodies in the first-floor living room of a two-story unit in the Lincoln Vineyards apartments, police said.

Eberling said he believed police had to kick in the door to enter the apartment.

The circumstances of the shooting remained unclear. However, the victims appeared to have been opening Christmas gifts when the shooting occurred, and there was no visible sign of forced entry or a struggle, police said.


“By all appearances, they’re all part of the same family,” Eberling said, adding that the victims were believed to have been “celebrating Christmas” when the shooting unfolded.

“It’s a gruesome crime scene to say the least, with that many victims in that area suffering gunshot wounds,” he said.

Two of the dead were believed to be in their 50s or 60s, while the others appeared to be young adults, about 18 to 20, according to police.

Authorities did not immediately identify the victims and did not speculate on a possible motive for the shooting.

Police said there were no survivors at the apartment when they arrived. Eberling said none had been dead for very long.

As of 7:30 p.m., all seven bodies remained in the apartment, and investigators were expected to continue processing the crime scene late into the night, Eberling said.

Several neighbors told Reuters that children frequently played in front of the apartment, and they regularly saw young adults leaving for work. They added that they did not know the residents personally.

Several apartment residents stood outside, visibly shaken, and one of them crying, while investigators gathered evidence from the crime scene.

Vanessa Barerra said the killings were especially disturbing in light of Grapevine’s reputation as a safe place to live.

“I did research and chose to live here because of the safety and the school district,” she said. “I’m glad my kids weren’t here. They’re with their dad.”

Friday, 30 December 2011

Economic gloom weighs down Harper's holiday cheer

As the holiday season brings 2011 to a close, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says his focus for the new year remains on the world's fragile economic situation and its potential fallout on Canada's economy.

Harper, in year-end remarks to Chinese-language broadcaster Fairchild TV, said the continuing debt crisis in Europe and problems in the United States are bound to affect Canada’s economic fortunes.

“These things continue to impact the Canadian economy, so I think the economy’s going to continue to have to be our No. 1 focus into the next year,” he said, in an interview that aired Friday evening, and will be rebroadcast Wednesday evening.

“We’re preparing the next budget, the next steps of Canada’s economic action plan to create jobs and growth, and also to continue seeing our own deficit decline,” Harper continued. “So, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”

Opening trade with Asia is one avenue Harper said he is looking to expand upon as Canada seeks to insulate itself from troubles in Europe and in the U.S. “Well, I think, given some of the problems in places like Europe and the United States, I think it’s more incumbent than ever that for our country, that we look at our wider trade opportunities, including our trade opportunities in Asia,” Harper told Fairchild in the interview conducted Dec. 19.

Harper’s Conservative government repeatedly has said it is looking to ease the country’s reliance on the U.S. market for its exports of resource-based commodities, such as oil and lumber.

With TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline project to ship oilsands crude to the U.S. facing legislative speed bumps south of the border, Harper’s government has made it clear that it will push to expand opportunities across the Pacific, through projects such as Enbridge Inc.’s proposed Northern Gateway pipelines from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C.

“I’m sure it’s important for the Chinese that they’re looking at markets where they can see potential growth and particularly, potential growth in their access to resources, which is very important to them, and which Canada obviously has an abundance of,” Harper said.

Harper said his government continues to monitor the situation in Europe, as the threat of a eurozone collapse continues to loom. “I do worry that the fundamental problems have not yet been fully addressed, and obviously, we’re working with them,” he said.

Harper also discussed the Occupy Wall Street protests and the continentwide demonstrations they inspired. He said many of the protesters’ grievances had little to do with Canada. “Well, you know, I don’t know what to make of it,” he said.

“In the United States, there was an understandable protest against the fact that the government seemed to have bailed out very large banks and financial institutions, and yet, you know, many of these continued to have large bonuses and obviously, paying their chief executives very well.

“I mean, none of this is relative to Canada, because we didn’t bail out our banks, so obviously, we have a different set of issues here.”

However, Harper said his government remains concerned that the middle class “remains under some pressure.”

“I think there’s a couple of things we have to do, individual things we can do to help the middle class, but I think also, we must realize as a nation that we’re in an extremely competitive world, not just competition with our traditional competitors in Europe and the United States, but from all the emerging economies.” Harper said.

European leaders, Vatican condemn Nigeria Christmas attacks

 European leaders and the Vatican on Sunday roundly condemned a wave of Christmas Day bomb attacks in Nigeria that killed at least 35 people amid spiraling violence claimed by Islamists.

"Even on Christmas Day, the world is not spared from cowardice and the fear of terrorism," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

"Tolerance ... and the willingness to resolve conflicts through peaceful means are not just the message of the Christian holiday of Christmas and other religions of the world. They can also be the key to peace, freedom and prosperity of entire regions."

Thirty of the victims died in the bombing of a church outside the Nigerian capital Abuja, an attack claimed by a purported spokesman for Islamist group Boko Haram.

In another attack, a suicide bomber sought to ram a military convoy in front of a secret police building in the northeastern city of Damaturu, killing the bomber and three security agents.

The church blast triggered more chaos after the explosion, with angry youths starting fires and threatening to attack a nearby police station.

"These are cowardly attacks on families gathered in peace and prayer to celebrate a day which symbolises harmony and goodwill towards others," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

"I offer my condolences to the bereaved and injured."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy also condemned the attacks, saying: "France addresses its condolences to the authorities and people of Nigeria and expresses its solidarity in their fight against terrorism and for the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law throughout Nigeria."

Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi said the attacks struck at "the universal principles of civility."

"I express my strongest condemnation of these vile attacks," he said.

"Italy, which has always been at the forefront in the defence of freedom of religion and the promotion of dialogue and tolerance between religions, will continue to do the utmost ... so that in Nigeria like elsewhere the principles of co-existence between religions and respect for freedom of religion are actively respected and defended."

The Vatican called the attack on the church an act of "blind hatred" that sought "to arouse and feed even more hatred and confusion."

Former S.Korean first lady heads North for condolences

The widow of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, the author of a now-jettisoned engagement policy with North Korea, crossed the fortified land border between the two sides on Monday to pay her respects to deceased dictator Kim Jong-il.

Ties between the North and South have been frozen since the election of conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in 2008, who cut aid in a bid to force the North to abandon a nuclear programme and bring it to the negotiating table.

A thirteen-member delegation, led by Lee Hee-ho, the widow of former president Kim Dae-jung who masterminded the so-called "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the North, crossed the border by car and will pay their respects at the bier of Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang.

"I hope my visit to North Korea will help improve South-North Korea relations," Yoon Chul-koo, an aide to Lee, quoted her as saying at an immigration office at the southern border of the De-Militarized Zone.

Lee, who met Kim Jong-il in Pyongynag in 2000 in the first inter-Korean summit since the end of the Korean War in 1953, will stay for two days and will not attend the Dec. 28 funeral.

Most South Koreans are banned from going to the North under the current government’s policy and South Korea, which remains technically at war with the North, is not sending an official delegation to mourn Kim, who died earlier this month.

Asked by reporters at the crossing point whether the delegation plans to meet North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, Yoon said the visit was for "pure condolence."

Kim Jong-un, who is in his late 20s, is the third of his line to rule the impoverished North, although he is likely to share power with a coterie.

A second group of mourners from South Korea led by the widow of one of South Korea’s biggest conglomerates that has investments in the North was also headed to Pyongyang.

Hyun Jeong-eun, the wife of the Hyundai business group’s late former chairman Chung Mong-hun, led a delegation of five people.

Hyun’s father-in-law was Hyundai founder Chung Ju-yung, who established Hyundai Asan Corp in 1999 as a major investor in North Korea’s Mt. Kumgang tourist resort busness.

The business has been suspended since the fatal shooting in 2008 of a South Korean tourist at the resort.

Hyundai Asan is also involved in the Kaesong Industrial Park project in the North, one of the impoverished North’s few sources of foreign currency.

Is Quebec's honeymoon with the NDP fading already?

Nycole Turmel admits the job is a lot harder then she thought.

Taking over, on an interim basis, the leadership of the New Democratic Party in the wake of Jack Layton’s death is not really what she thought she would be doing when she got into politics.

A former public sector union leader from Gatineau, Que., Turmel thought she was entering the political game as an ordinary MP representing her riding.

A portfolio as a critic in the NDP official Opposition was a good bet.

Instead, she was thrust into the limelight as the politician who daily has to tangle with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a man emboldened by the majority government Canadians gave him May 2.

“It’s a challenge, a very great challenge,” Turmel said in a year-end interview with the Montreal Gazette after admitting she’s anxious for the Christmas break from the House to get some rest.

“I can say honestly, it is not easy, and I recognize that.”

Turmel, 69, has been criticized for not being able to push the Harper government onto the ropes effectively enough. Some have said her English is not clear enough.

Bills such as those abolishing the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly grain marketing and ending the long-gun registry have been pushed by the majority with little debate. NDP amendments were often ignored.

As for Quebec’s interests in Ottawa, the NDP has had to juggle the competing interests of a nationwide caucus too, which has made the NDP a target for further criticism because Quebecers had grown used to the undivided attention of the Bloc Quebecois.

With no possibility of forming government and little else to do, the Bloc over the years mastered the art of slamming and complaining.

But it would be wrong to heap all the blame on Turmel who has had to face a government determined to impose its agenda after years of minority status.

The fact most of the NDPs A-team of veteran MPs are out campaigning for the leadership did not help either.

“A lot of the members of the first line were out travelling the country and that might have had an effect on our performance,” Outremont MP Thomas Mulcair — himself a candidate — said in an interview.

“It’s a very big country that’s required those of us who are running to be away.”

Mulcair added it was the party’s decision to ask candidates to step down from their parliamentary functions for duration of the campaign.

Mulcair normally is the NDP house leader, organizing opposition questions and firing a few salvos of his own across the floor himself too.

The NDP’s image has certainly slipped, particularly in Quebec which sent 59 MPs — the majority of the caucus — to Ottawa on May 2.

A Leger Marketing poll commissioned by the Gazette in early November showed that, for the first time since the election, the NDP had slipped six points.

Support for the NDP in Quebec was pegged at 37 per cent (down from 43 per cent in October) while the nearest competitor for the same pool of left-leaning voters, the Bloc Quebecois, was up by six (from 21 per cent to 27 per cent).

Turmel said she does not comment on polls but her opponents in the Bloc sure do — especially given the dire state of that party, reduced to a rump of four seats in the last election.

Elected the new leader of the Bloc on Dec. 11, Daniel Paille immediately leaped into the fray to attack the party that ravaged them so badly in May.

He said the NDP’s inability to defend Quebec’s interests in the same way the Bloc used to explains part of the NDP’s slide.

“The NDP house members from Quebec are there because they are truly Canadian first,” Paille said at his first news conference as leader. “If they have a question, if they have a problem, they have to go to the national caucus in Ottawa, wait to express their opinions about (issues related to) Quebec values in comparison to the (issues related to) Canadian values.”

He mentioned the awarding of $33 billion in federal shipyard contracts to British Columbia and Nova Scotia with nothing for the Davie shipyards in Levis, Que.

Nova Scotia NDP MP Peter Stoffer declared it “a great day for Canada,” but Quebec’s NDP MPs were dismayed.

“They are federalists, remember this,” Paille said. “NDP members are federalists.”

Turmel conceded some mistakes were made by the greenhorns. They overlooked the fact a candidate for the Supreme Court, Michael Moldaver, was a unilingual anglophone even if the NDP traditionally pushes for bilingualism.

“Yes, there was an error in fact there,” Turmel said.

It failed again to check the linguistic qualifications of the new unilingual auditor-general, Michael Ferguson.

Some things were likely beyond the NDP’s control, such as the Conservative government’s decision to pull out of the Kyoto climate change accord.

And the Liberal opposition experienced the same kind of frustration with the Conservatives as immortalized in the incident in which Liberal MP Justin Trudeau called Environment Minister Peter Kent a “piece of s—.”

Kent had chided opposition parties for not attending the latest international climate change conference in South Africa even though he blocked them from going.

Turmel got into the mudslinging too, complaining about the government’s arrogance.

“As a majority, they acted like dictators,” Turmel said in early December.

In the interview, Turmel said she is proud of the NDP’s performance and took credit for holding the government’s feet to the fire over its plans to eliminate the gun registry, standing up for the Quebec cabinet ministers who went to Ottawa — in vain — to ask for the data back before it is destroyed.

The NDP stated it believes the number of additional seats being offered to Quebec in the government’s voter re-distribution plan is sufficient.

And on infrastructure, Turmel said, the NDP pressed the government into doing something about the crumbling Champlain Bridge.

“They made an announcement but they have not taken any action yet,” Turmel said. “They made the promise but since then not a peep.”

But she argued many of Quebec’s problems are the same as those in the rest of Canada especially on things like employment.

“We consider we well represented Quebec,” Turmel said. “We are a party which can represent all Canadians.

“The Bloc can never get power. We can. We can take power to change things.”

Japan's PM heads to China amid North Korea worries

Beijing - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda arrived in Beijing Sunday on his first official visit to China focused on regional security following the death of North Korean strongman Kim Jong-Il.

Ties between the two regional powers have been dogged by economic and territorial disputes. Japan has repeatedly expressed concern over China's widening naval reach in the Pacific and what it calls the "opaqueness" of Beijing's military budget.

But Kim's death has shifted the agenda to worries about nuclear-armed North Korea, where Kim's untested son Kim Jong-Un appears to be taking the reins of power in the isolated communist state.

It has created a "new situation" in East Asia, Noda said as he met with Wen Jiabao, the prime minister of China, a country he said wields the "most influence" over Pyongyang.

"On this issue it is very timely to exchange views with the host of the six-party (nuclear disarmament) talks and the country with the most influence on North Korea," Noda said.

Analysts agree that China holds the key to handling North Korea, where Japan has few ties overall and fewer still to Kim's untested son.

Japan, having no ties with the North, can do little other than to support China's engagement with Pyongyang, said Takehiko Yamamoto, professor at Waseda University.

"You might call it an achievement if Japan and China only confirm their joint resolve to work together to protect peace and stability in northeast Asia including on the Korean peninsula," he added.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi this week held telephone talks with his counterparts in the United States, South Korea, Russia and Japan as Beijing seeks to ensure regional stability.

Efforts to revive six-party negotiations on scrapping the North's nuclear programme are also likely to be on the agenda after Seoul's chief nuclear delegate visited China Thursday and Friday for meetings with his counterpart.

The six-party talks, chaired by China and also involving the two Koreas, the United States, Russia and Japan, have been at a standstill since December 2008.

Negotiations to resurrect them appeared to be making progress before Kim's death last Saturday. Media reports said Pyongyang would agree to suspend its uranium enrichment programme in return for food aid from Washington.

In his comments, Noda also stated that "safeguarding the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula is in the common interest" of China and Japan.

"We also hope to have a frank exchange of views on how to overcome the kidnapping issue, nuclear issue and missile issue," Noda stated.

Japan has previously expressed outrage over North Korea's abduction of its nationals, and has viewed with concern Pyongyang's test-firing of its short-range missiles on the same day it announced Kim's death.

Noda's overnight visit was set for December 12 and 13, but rescheduled to Sunday and Monday at China's request, apparently for domestic reasons.

Some suggested the date change was tied to the anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, in which Japanese troops killed tens of thousands of Chinese civilians during 1937-38

The two countries are also expected to discuss issues including territorial disputes in the East China Sea.

Japan will urge China towards a framework dialogue to set rules for the development of gas fields in the East China Sea, near disputed islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.

The two are still trying to heal diplomatic wounds from a year ago when China reacted in fury over the arrest of one of its fishermen near the islands after he rammed his ship into Japanese coastguard vessels.

Noda is also expected to thank China for its assistance in the aftermath of Japan's March earthquake and tsunami, and to ask that Beijing send a pair of pandas to the hard-hit city of Sendai to boost morale.

Last U.S. troops out of Iraq make it home for Christmas

For Specialist Chancy Cotton, who was among the first US troops to invade Iraq in 2003 and the last to leave last weekend, four tours and nine years of fighting were more than enough.

The 31-year-old was among some 200 soldiers with the 1st Cavalry Division who were given a raucous standing ovation Saturday at their base in Texas, where they made it home in time for a Christmas Eve to remember.

"I’m glad that it’s over with, that the fact that everyone gets to come home and hopefully everyone did not sacrifice in vain, because a lot of people didn’t get to come home," he said.

Standing in a turret, he threw up his hands in jubilation last weekend as his armored column rolled into Kuwait at first light, ending a conflict that unleashed a vicious insurgency in Iraq and deeply divided Americans.

On Saturday he and his fellow soldiers marched through an icy rain at the parade field here as family and friends cheered and waved American flags.

After a brief ceremony in which the unit’s colors were unfurled after the long flight home, Colonel Phil Battaglia issued a single order: "Charge!"

Moments later, Cotton wrapped his arms around his wife Tia and their eight-year-old son Tyler.

Also attending the ceremony were Virginia Solis and her four children, who welcomed home Specialist Ismael Solis, 32, a three-tour Iraq veteran.

"It’s hard for me," she said. "I had to be a mother and father at the same time."

The celebration was tempered by the knowledge that while the United States is finally out of Iraq it is still at war in Afghanistan. The wives of some of the returning troops said they were already preparing for another tour.

"They said they’re going to redeploy in 2013, so it’s just another step we’ll have to take when we get there," said Tricia Joseph, who is 19 and four months pregnant.

"Either way, I’ll be standing by his side through everything."

The jubilation is also overshadowed by the knowledge that many soldiers never returned. The United States lost 4,484 troops in Iraq, while 32,000 others were injured, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.

The 1st Cavalry Division, which rotated through Iraq three times and has sent smaller units at other times, lost 283 soldiers there, a spokesman said.

"It’s scary not knowing if our loved ones are coming home, especially when he’s the father of your kids," said Amanda Tougas, mother of two.

Some soldiers expressed concern over whether Iraq will be able to defend itself in their absence. Cotton fears that a series of deadly bombings in Baghdad earlier this week could be a sign of things to come.

"I was expecting something to happen, but hopefully it gets stable over there for all the sacrifice that we’ve done, and hopefully it will work itself out," he said.

US President Barack Obama has been criticized by some Republicans for failing to convince Iraq to extend a 2008 Status of Forces Agreement in order to keep some US troops in the country.

But many veterans said they thought the United States had done as much as it could there.

The 2003 invasion toppled the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, who was tried and executed in 2006, and a "surge" of 20,000 additional US troops in 2007 helped to contain a rash of sectarian bloodletting verging on civil war.

US Army Captain Travis Pendleton, 30, of Yorba Linda, California, downplayed the withdrawal’s potential effects on Iraqi security.

"On my second tour in 2009 as an advisor to the Iraqi 6th Infantry Division, we felt by the end that they were so far along we would have a rather modest return on investment," he said.

"The war was over," said former Marine Corporal Wilson, 26, a Florida policeman and veteran of Iraq’s restive Anbar province, site of some of the heaviest fighting between US troops and the country’s Sunni insurgency.

"Iraq will flourish or fail, and that was going to be the same case if we stayed for another eight years," he said.

"Our war was about providing the opportunity to bring the horse to the water. The drinking part is up to the Iraqis."

Thursday, 29 December 2011

More than 4,000 B.C. pets looking for 'forever homes'

With more than 4,000 animals stuck in shelters and in foster care in British Columbia, the B.C. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other animal rescue groups are spending the holiday season trying to find homes for them.

The BC SPCA Home for the Holidays pet-adoption drive encourages people to consider providing a “forever home” to a dog, cat, kitten, puppy, rabbit or other small animal in SPCA care. The same is true of all the non-profit animal rescue groups.

The Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association (VOKRA), for instance, has more than 300 cats and kittens available now for adoption — a higher number than usual this time of year because a hot, late summer resulted in many feral cats breeding again, said VOKRA founder Karen Duncan.

She started the organization in 1991 to rescue wild kittens and trap and fix as many cats as they find could since the older ones are difficult to tame. The organization saves about 1,400 kittens and cats and neuters or spays about 300 feral cats annually.

“No one likes feral cats so if they go into a shelter they’re usually killed. You’re not allowed to bring in a raccoon and kill it so it’s not fair to kill a cat just because it was born on the street,” said Duncan.

She usually advises people who want to bring a cat or kitten home during the holidays to do it only if they know they will have the time to spend with the animal to help it adjust to its new surroundings.

“We like to suggest to buy the supplies (for a cat or kitten) and put those under the Christmas tree and say this (the cat or kitten) is what you’ll get after Christmas when it’s not so hectic,” she said, adding the SPCA makes an exception when individuals or families know their Christmas will be a quiet one and they have the time to spend with their new pet. However in those cases, the holidays can provide extra time to spend with a new pet.

“The SPCA strongly discourages giving pets as gifts. But if an individual or family has carefully considered their decision and the responsibility of a new pet, the holidays can be an optimum time to adopt,” said Lorie Chortyk, general manager of community relations.

“Families are more likely to be off work or school during the holidays and have more time to spend with each other and with their new companion animal.”

For animals at the SPCA waiting for homes, there is a new activity program. Dogs and cats are being taught how to do “high fives” and follow other training commands such as hitting a target or sniffing out a hidden treat.

Kim Monteith, the SPCA’s regional animal welfare supervisor, said the new program called Nosework is also fun for the volunteers and takes place on Thursday evenings indoors at the Vancouver SPCA shelter. They’ll bring dogs together with the volunteers and play games like hiding treats or musical chairs.

“It’s getting the dogs used to being around other dogs and it’s something different for them from just going on a walk with the volunteers. The volunteers also want to have fun with the dogs.”

Monteith said the extra stimulation provided also works with cats and even rabbits who respond to what is known as clicker training, where a volunteer uses a hand-held device that will make a clicking sound whenever the animal does the desired behaviour.

She demonstrated using a cat named Romeo at the shelter who was doing high-fives and jumping through a hoop.

“This training provides more enrichment,” she said.

Chortyk said while staff and volunteers are doing their best to improve the lives of the animals while they are in the shelters, it’s not optimum for them to have to spend the holidays there.

“There is no substitute for being part of a permanent, loving family,” she said.

New Canadians know more about Canada than those born here: Survey

Immigrants to Canada claim a stronger knowledge of the country's history than those who were born here, according to one of the surprising results of a nationwide survey probing Canadians' grasp on the past.

More than 2,300 people were polled this fall by the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies for a year-end report that explores respondents' perspectives on Canada's history, including how they assess their own command of the subject.

About 82 per cent of survey respondents who identified themselves as being born outside of Canada claimed to have "very strong" or "somewhat strong" knowledge of Canadian history.

In contrast, only about 70 per cent of respondents born in Canada rated their historical knowledge strong or very strong.

Notably, nearly twice as many immigrant respondents (27 per cent) as born-in-Canada citizens (16 per cent) described their history knowledge as "very strong."

ACS executive director Jack Jedwab suspects the reason immigrants are more likely to claim a solid command of Canadian history is that they have — in many cases quite recently — been required to familiarize themselves with highlights of the country's past as part of the process of gaining citizenship.

"Those people are exposed to our citizenship test, which has a historical dimension," said Jedwab, referring to the multiple-choice examination that immigrants must pass before becoming full-fledged Canadian citizens.

While native-born citizens get a Canadian history education during their elementary and secondary schooling, they don't get the "refresher course" newcomers receive in their quest to gain citizenship.

Jedwab also notes that polling repeatedly shows a correlation between high levels of education and knowledge of national history and that immigrants are — relative to average schooling levels among born-in-Canada citizens — better educated.

He also speculated that immigrants may be more attuned to the story of Canada's growth and evolution because of their direct connection to the country's multicultural identity, which Jedwab says "is becoming the dominant narrative in Canadian history. They see themselves as part of this."

Citizenship and Immigration Canada, under the direction of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, revised and updated the 63-page Discover Canada citizenship guide last year as part of an effort to underline the need for newcomers to learn about Canada's past.

"Whether we are citizens by birth or by choice, we should all learn about our history, heritage and citizenship," the federal department states on the website for the Discover Canada study guide, which is subtitled "The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship."

The department also raised the passing grade for the 20-question test to 75 per cent, from 60 per cent, and implemented a random-scramble system to ensure no two tests are identical and thus subject to copying and memorization by applicants.

Last December, Kenney argued that the changes wouldn't prevent earnest newcomers from passing the citizenship test.

"We reject completely," he said at the time, "the condescending notion that new Canadians aren't smart enough to learn some basic facts about the country's history and values."

The survey results suggest that — at least as far as they see themselves — immigrants are quite confident in their knowledge of Canadian history.

The polling was conducted for ACS in late September and early October by Leger Marketing.

A representative sample of 2,345 Canadians were surveyed online, and the results reflect a potential margin of error of two per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Nickelback helps B.C. band raise $110,000 for children's hospital

Canadian hard-rock outfit Nickelback has helped a band from Chilliwack, B.C. raise more than $110,000 in honour of a young girl fighting cancer.

That’s about $105,000 more than members of the band Pardon My Striptease set out to raise, when they released the song, Pray (for LJ), in support of their frontman’s one-year-old daughter, Lilee-Jean Putt, who is suffering from brain cancer.

The band decided to donate all the funds raised by the single to the BC Children’s Hospital, where Lilee-Jean has been getting treatment since she was diagnosed a few months ago with a form of brain cancer called glioblastoma.

Earlier in December, Pardon My Striptease challenged local rock stars Nickelback to match their donation if Pray passed Nickelback’s latest hit, When We Stand Together, on iTunes’ rock chart.

Sales of Pray skyrocketed after it was released on Dec. 5, passing not only Nickelback, but climbing to the top of the iTunes chart, where it stayed for several days.

Nickelback accepted the challenge and donated $50,000 to the hospital, which was matched immediately by their record company, Warner Music.

The donation wasn’t the only good news for the band and Lilee-Jean’s parents, Andrew Putt and Chelsey Whittle.

Lilee-Jean had an MRI on Dec. 9 to see if chemotherapy for her cancer was working. The results left her doctors in awe, Andrew Putt told The Sun last week.

“The tumour had shrunk by about 50 per cent,” he said. The hope was that the treatment would at least halt the tumour, but doctors were all amazed by what they saw.

The progress so far has taken “a huge weight of our shoulders,” Putt said, adding that Lilee-Jean is slated for more chemotherapy and may have to have additional surgery on the tumour.

For now, she’ll take a break from treatment while she recovers from the latest round of chemotherapy, Putt said, mentioning how nice it is to have a quiet Christmas at home in Chilliwack with Lilee-Jean.

More than 20,000 singles have sold since Pray went up, said Brendan Woodroff, a guitarist in Pardon My Striptease. “In our first week we sold just under 10,000 singles on iTunes,” he said, explaining that another online retailer reported an additional 10,000 in sales for the first week. Subsequent weeks have yet to be reported from 33 other online music sellers the song was listed with, so the numbers could be much higher, Woodroff said.

Those numbers would suggest that the band’s portion of the sales could total more than $10,000 — all of which will be going to the hospital, he said.

“We’ve broken the $10,000 mark, which was our revised goal,” he said. The band originally hoped to raise $5,000 for the hospital.

The money raised from Pray, combined with the contributions from Nickelback and Warner means “we’re looking at more than $110,000 now,” Woodroff said.

The band booked studio time in March and plans to release another album, but for now “we want to make sure that Lilee-Jean is taken care of first,” he added.

Nigeria probes Christmas carnage

 Nigeria on Monday probed a wave of Christmas Day bomb attacks that killed at least 40 and was blamed on Islamists, including one blast that ripped through a crowd of worshippers exiting mass.

The government blamed Islamist sect Boko Haram for three attacks on Sunday, including bomb explosions at two churches — the deadliest as Christmas mass ended near the capital Abuja — and a suicide attack in the northeast.

A third church was targeted in the northeast on Christmas Eve, but no one was reported killed. Residents reported another explosion near a church in the northeastern city of Maiduguri late Sunday, but an army spokesman denied it.

The attack at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla outside Abuja killed at least 35 and left a gruesome scene, with rescuers picking up body parts and putting them in plastic bags while emergency workers pleaded for ambulances.

Some of the wounded, including one man whose entrails protruded from his body, ran toward a priest for final blessings.

The attacks drew widespread condemnation, including from UN chief Ban Ki-moon, the United States and Britain.

Authorities and officials pledged to bring the attackers to justice, but the government in Africa's most populous nation has so far been unable to stop the Islamists, whose attacks have grown increasingly sophisticated and deadly.

President Goodluck Jonathan condemned the violence and his national security adviser called it "unnecessary bloodletting by a group whose objectives are not in consonance with any genuine religious tenants."

While the government blamed Boko Haram and a purported spokesman for the sect claimed responsibility for the violence, conflicting accounts emerged of both the investigation and the attack in Madalla.

A spokesman for police in Niger state, where Madalla is located, said on Monday that authorities had not yet determined who was behind the attack.

"We are looking beyond Boko Haram because other people bent on destabilizing the government might be doing these things in the name of Boko Haram," said Richard Oguche.

Describing the attack, National Security Adviser Owoye Azazi said attackers threw improvised explosive devices from a moving vehicle in Madalla, adding that "two of the criminals had been apprehended, caught in action."

Oguche said no one was arrested and the blast occurred after a minibus pulled up near the church. He added that three police officers were among those killed.

"It was just about the time people were leaving the church and there was a (minibus)," said Oguche.

"There were three police officers at the gate and they were trying to prevent those people from coming in. There was an argument and in the process the thing exploded."

The attack sparked further chaos in the area, with angry youths setting fires and threatening to rush a police station. Police fired into the air to disperse them and cleared a road for rescue workers.

Other explosions occurred in the central city of Jos, where a church was targeted and policeman was killed in a resulting shootout, and in the northeastern city of Damaturu, where authorities have clashed with Islamists in recent days.

A suicide blast occurred in Damaturu when the bomber sought to ram into a military convoy in front of a secret police office, killing himself and three security agents. Sporadic gunfire broke out in the city on Sunday afternoon.

In Damaturu on Monday, hundreds of residents were seeking to flee, lining up at taxi and bus stands, seeking to take advantage of the momentary calm in the tense and violence-torn city.

Boko Haram had also claimed responsibility for a deadly wave of attacks in the Jos region on Christmas Eve last year.

Violence blamed on Boko Haram has steadily worsened in recent months, with bomb blasts becoming more frequent and increasingly sophisticated and death tolls climbing.

There has been intense speculation over whether Boko Haram has links with outside extremist groups, including al-Qaida's north African branch. It is believed to have a number of factions with varying aims.

Nigeria, Africa's largest oil producer and most populous nation with 160 million people, is roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian south.

North Korea burnishes new ruler's credentials

 North Korea on Monday added an important title to the fast-growing credentials of its untested new ruler, referring to the youngest son of late leader Kim Jong-il as head of a key ruling party body.

In a move that experts said shows the anointed successor is on track to take full control of the secretive nation, the ruling party newspaper hailed Jong-un as head of its Central Committee.

"Let's stake our lives to safeguard the party's Central Committee led by dear comrade Kim Jong-un," Rodong Sinmun said.

Jong-un, in his late 20s, has already been touted as "great successor" and "supreme commander" of the military since his father died on December 17 of a heart attack at the age of 69.

Usually the head of the Central Committee — a top decision-making body — is also its general secretary, a position previously held by Kim Jong-il.

"Jong-un has not officially taken over as general secretary, but he is expected to inherit it and other posts held by his father," Dongguk University professor Kim Yong-hyun told AFP.

The late Kim also chaired the all-powerful National Defence Commission and headed the 1.19 million-strong military.

Officially, Jong-un's current highest post is vice-chairman of the party's Central Military Commission.

The North's official media heaped more praise on Jong-un, describing him as a "tender-hearted man" who sent hot, sweet drinks to mourners braving freezing conditions in the capital Pyongyang.

The isolated state is making final preparations for what is expected to be an elaborate funeral for Kim on Wednesday that will be closely watched for clues about the powers at the side of the new ruler.

Kim's death dominated a visit by Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to China, where he met President Hu Jintao on Monday, a day after talks with Premier Wen Jiabao.

China is North Korea's closest ally, and Noda has said safeguarding the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula is "in the common interest" of the two regional powers.

In South Korea, Lee Hee-ho, the 89-year-old widow of late president Kim Dae-jung, and Hyundai Group chairwoman Hyun Jung-eun left on a private visit Monday to express their condolences.

They crossed the world's last Cold War frontier and travelled overland to Pyongyang where they were to meet officials during their two-day trip. They will not stay for the funeral.

"I hope that our visit to the North will help improve South-North relations," Yonhap news agency quoted Lee as saying before she crossed over with her aides.

It was unclear whether they would meet Jong-un.

Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il held the first-ever inter-Korea summit in 2000 and Hyundai pioneered cross-border business projects.

A South Korean left-wing activist also left Saturday for North Korea via Paris and Beijing to pay her respects, her colleagues said, despite Seoul's ban on visits other than the trip by the former first lady and Hyundai chief.

The North on Sunday lashed out at South Korea for its response to Kim's death, warning of "catastrophic consequences" for relations unless Seoul eases restrictions on condolence visits by South Koreans.

The South blames its neighbour for two deadly border incidents last year, but has taken a generally conciliatory stance since the shock announcement on November 19 that Kim had died of a heart attack two days earlier.

But the authorities, who by law must approve all contacts with Pyongyang, are allowing only two private delegations to visit the North to pay respects and are not sending an official team.

The two Koreas have remained technically at war since the 1950-1953 Korean conflict ended only in a ceasefire.

A group of pro-North Korean activists said they planned to set up an altar in Seoul to mourn Kim's death despite conservative opposition.

They will display Kim's photo with flowers in downtown Seoul Monday to "share sorrow with compatriots in North Korea," said their leader Yon Ki-hor.

Ottawa police play Santa after family's gifts stolen

Thieves nearly dashed Christmas morning for an Ottawa family when they stole the gifts right from under their tree, but Ottawa police stepped in to play Santa Claus.

A Grinch broke in to an east Ottawa home Thursday night and made off with presents for the family’s three children and 10 grandchildren. The family’s car, TV and assorted electronic appliances also were looted.

The family had planned a large holiday get-together and dinner, and relatives had brought over their gifts before the theft.

In the spirit of Christmas, the police’s communications and patrol divisions spent Christmas Eve collecting donations and wrapping gifts. “We wanted to make sure that they didn’t miss Christmas,” said Ottawa police spokesperson Helen Harper.

She said “the family was in tears and very grateful” when officers dropped off about 20 wrapped gifts and about $600 Saturday afternoon.

Police are looking for one or more suspects.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Plea to Arab League to monitor Syrian flashpoints

Heavy gunfire killed 13 people in Syria's besieged city of Homs on Monday as opposition groups urged Arab League observers to head there immediately after they arrive in the country.

An initial group of 50 observers were due to land in Syria later Monday to oversee a deal aimed at ending a bloody crackdown on dissent, which has showed no signs of abating.

"The situation (in Homs) is frightening and the shelling is the most intense of the last three days," the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a Monday statement received by AFP in Nicosia.

"The rounds fired from heavy machineguns in the Baba Amro district caused 13 deaths on Monday morning and dozens of injuries," the group said.

On Sunday, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) said Homs is under siege and facing an "invasion" from some 4,000 troops deployed near the central city that has become a focal point of the nine-month uprising against President Bashar-al Assad's regime.

"The observers must head immediately to the martyrs' district of Baba Amro to stop the assassinations and meet with the Syrian people so that they witness the crimes being perpetrated by the Syrian regime" the Observatory said in its Monday statement.

A nine-member advance team of Arab monitors arrived on Thursday to pave the way for the observer mission to oversee the deal aimed at ending the crackdown, which the UN estimates has killed more than 5,000 people since March.

Syrian opposition groups have said that the observers must stop their work if they are blocked by the authorities from travelling to protest hotspots like Homs.

"We hold the Arab League and the international community accountable for the massacres and bloodshed committed by the regime in Syria," the SNC said on Sunday.

General Mohammed Ahmed Mustapha al-Dabi, a veteran Sudanese military intelligence officer who is heading the League's observer mission, arrived in Damascus on Sunday evening, a source told AFP.

In a meeting with AFP at his Khartoum mansion last week, the 63-year-old Dabi distributed a curriculum vitae that outlined a hardcore military background, including three years as chief of military operations against the insurgency in what is now South Sudan.

Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has said he expects the Arab League observers to vindicate his government's contention that the violence is the work of "armed terrorists."

Western governments and rights watchdogs blame Assad's regime for the bloodshed.

Opposition leaders charge that Syria agreed to the mission after weeks of prevarication in a "ploy" to head off a threat by the 22-member league to go to the UN Security Council over the crackdown.

Muallem met the advance team of Arab League officials on Saturday, in talks the ministry's spokesman called "positive."

The observer mission will eventually number between 150 and 200, according to Arab League officials.

The mission is part of an Arab plan endorsed by Syria on November 2 that calls for the withdrawal of the military from towns and residential districts, a halt to violence against civilians and the release of detainees.

But since signing the agreement, the Assad regime has been accused of intensifying its crackdown.

The SNC and human rights activists have charged that the Syrian government was behind twin suicide bombings in Damascus on Friday that killed 44 people.

Assad's regime has blamed the attacks on "terrorist organisations," including al-Qaida, although it has not said how it reached the conclusion.

The SNC said "the Syrian regime, alone, bears all the direct responsibility for the two terrorist explosions."

It said the government was trying to create the impression "that it faces danger coming from abroad and not a popular revolution demanding freedom and dignity."

Violence continued through the weekend, with security forces pounding Baba Amr with mortar and heavy machinegun fire on Sunday, killing an undetermined number of people and wounding 124, according to the Observatory.

The group said 26 people were arrested and tortured in public in nearby Rastan, and that one civilian was killed by security forces in eastern Deir Ezzor province and reported five civilians shot and wounded in the Sitt Zeinab neighbourhood of the capital.

The plight of Syrians was a focus of Pope Benedict XVI's Christmas Day prayers.

"May the Lord come to the aid of our world torn by so many conflicts . . . May he bring an end to the violence in Syria, where so much blood has already been shed," the pontiff told pilgrims in Vatican City.

Police seize getaway vehicle in B.C. student's slaying

Police have seized a vehicle involved in the brutal slaying of Surrey, B.C., student Maple Batalia.

Integrated Homicide Investigation Team spokeswoman Sgt. Jennifer Pound confirmed Friday that a white Dodge Charger, believed to have been used by suspects in the unsolved homicide, was impounded by authorities.

Pound did not say when or where the vehicle was seized or who the owner was.

Batalia, a health-sciences student, was shot several times in the open-air area of a parkade next to Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus at around 1 a.m. on Sept. 28, after a late-night study session.

Surveillance video released in October show a white 2011 Dodge Charger racing away from the area shortly after the 19-year-old was shot.

There has been no arrests in the case.

The announcement came a day after investigators released a 12-second video showing two possible witnesses to Batalia’s murder.

Police said the two young men shown in the clip are not suspects, but may have information that can help them crack the case.

Surrey is a suburb of Vancouver.

Pope prays for peace after Nigeria bomb blast

Pope Benedict XVI prayed for the victims of famine, floods and conflict around the world in his traditional Christmas message on Sunday, following a deadly explosion near a church in Nigeria.

"Let us turn our gaze anew to the grotto of Bethlehem. The Child whom we contemplate is our salvation. He has brought to the world a universal message of reconciliation and peace," he told thousands of pilgrims in the Vatican.

The pope urged the international community to aid those suffering from hunger in the Horn of Africa, called for an end to the bloodshed in Syria and said he hoped this year's Arab revolts would aid the "common good."

He also prayed for the victims of recent flooding in Thailand and the Philippines which he said were enduring "grave hardships" and said he hoped for increased dialogue in Myanmar "in the pursuit of shared solutions."

The pope's strongest words were against wars and in favour of reconciliation, particularly between Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land but also in the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the new nation of South Sudan.

"May the Lord come to the aid of our world torn by so many conflicts which even today stain the earth with blood . . . May he bring an end to the violence in Syria, where so much blood has already been shed,"he said.

"May he grant renewed vigour to all elements of society in the countries of North Africa and the Middle East as they strive to advance the common good," he added, following the revolts in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Concluding his message, the pope voiced Christmas greetings in 65 languages including Aramaic, Icelandic and Samoan to cheers from the crowd.

"God is the Saviour: we are those who are in peril. He is the physician: we are the infirm," he told them.

"To realize this is the first step towards salvation, towards emerging from the maze in which we have been locked by our pride."

At Christmas Eve mass in Saint Peter's Basilica, the pope had lamented the consumerism surrounding a holiday "whose bright lights hide the mystery of God's humility, which in turns calls us to humility and simplicity."

"Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light," the 84-year-old pope said.

He also rebuked "oppressors" and warmongers around the world.

"In this time of ours, in this world of ours, cause the oppressors' rods, the cloaks rolled in blood and the footgear of battle to be burned, so that your peace may triumph in this world of ours," he said.

Peace was also a central theme in Patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Twal's Christmas Eve homily delivered in Bethlehem, where hotels and guesthouses were packed to capacity with pilgrims.

"We ask for peace, stability and security for the entire Middle East," said Twal, the most senior Roman Catholic in the region.

In a midnight mass, he urged "the return of calm and reconciliation in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq and in North Africa".

"O Child of Bethlehem, in this New Year, we place in your hands this troubled Middle East and, above all, our youth full of legitimate aspirations, who are frustrated by the economic and political situation, and in search of a better future," Twal said.

Bethlehem, the biblical birthplace of Jesus saw some of its largest crowds of tourists in years for the Christmas festival, bringing cheer to the troubled West Bank, while celebrations also passed without incident in Iraq.

However a bomb went off near a Catholic church outside the Nigerian capital Abuja, killing at least 15 people, in the latest attack to rock the religiously divided country, also hit by deadly Christmas attacks in 2010.

Another explosion was heard later in the day in the central city of Jos near a church, but details were not immediately available, residents said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, although Nigeria has been rocked by bomb blasts and shootings attributed to Islamist group Boko Haram.

The group claimed responsibility for the August suicide bombing of UN headquarters in Abuja that killed at least 24 people. The string of bomb blasts in Jos on Christmas Eve 2010 were also claimed by Boko Haram.

In recent days in three cities in the northeast, where most of the violence attributed to Boko Haram has occurred, attacks blamed on the sect followed by a heavy military crackdown have killed up to 100 people.

Pope ushers in Christmas, decries commercialization

 Pope Benedict ushered in Christmas for the world's 1.3 billion Roman Catholics on Saturday, urging humanity to see through the superficial glitter and commercialism of the season and rediscover the real significance of the humble birth of Jesus.

The 84-year-old pope, celebrating the seventh Christmas season of his pontificate, also urged that those marking the holiday in poverty, suffering or far from home not be forgotten.

At the start of a Christmas Eve service, he was wheeled up the central aisle of St Peter’s Basilica standing on a mobile platform which he has been using since October.

The Vatican says it is to conserve his strength, allow more people to see him and guard against attacks such as one on Christmas Eve, 2009, when a woman lunged at him and knocked him to the ground. He is believed to suffer from arthritis in the legs.

But he seemed to be in good shape during the solemn service in Christendom’s largest church as choirs sang, cantors chanted and organ music filled the centuries-old basilica.

Benedict, wearing resplendent gold and white vestments, urged his listeners to find peace in the symbol of the powerless Christ child in a world continually threatened by violence.

“Today Christmas has become a commercial celebration, whose bright lights hide the mystery of God’s humility, which in turn calls us to humility and simplicity,” he said in his homily to about 10,000 people in the basilica and millions more watching on television throughout the world.

“Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light.”

The Christmas story of how Jesus, who Christians believe is the son of God, was born powerless “in the poverty of the stable” should remind everyone of the need for humility.

“... let us strip away our fixation on what is material, on what can be measured and grasped. Let us allow ourselves to be made simple by the God who reveals himself to the simple of heart,” he said.


The pope, who earlier placed a “candle of peace” on the windowsill of his apartments as the life-size nativity scene in St Peter’s Square was inaugurated, called for an end to violence, for oppressors to put down their “rods” and for all to become peacemakers.

“God has appeared - as a child. It is in this guise that he pits himself against all violence and brings a message that is peace,” he said.

“At this hour, when the world is continually threatened by violence in so many places and in so many different ways, when over and over again there are oppressors’ rods and bloodstained cloaks, we cry out to the Lord...” he said.

“...we suffer from the continuing presence of violence in the world, and so we also ask you: manifest your power, O God. In this time of ours, in this world of ours, cause the oppressors’ rods, the cloaks rolled in blood and the footgear of battle to be burned, so that your peace may triumph in this world of ours.”

Those celebrating Christmas in comfortable circumstances should remember those less fortunate.

“And let us also pray especially at this hour for all who have to celebrate Christmas in poverty, in suffering, as migrants, that a ray of God’s kindness may shine upon them, that they - and we - may be touched by the kindness that God chose to bring into the world through the birth of his Son in a stable,” he said.

On Christmas Day, the pope will deliver his twice-yearly “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) message and blessing from the central loge of St Peter’s Basilica.

He continues his Christmas and New Year’s celebrations on Dec 31 with a year-end Mass of thanksgiving known by its Latin name Te Deum.

On January 1 he marks the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Peace, on January 6 he marks the Epiphany and on January 8 will baptise several newborns in the Sistine Chapel.

He is due to visit Mexico and Cuba in March.

Prime Minister Harper's 2011 year-end interview

 Prime Minister Stephen Harper says it's up to the provinces to find the "solutions" to a better health-system that will be affordable for future generations.

Harper made the comment in a wide-ranging interview with CTV News to be broadcast Monday evening.

In the interview, the prime minister spoke candidly to CTV anchor Lisa LaFlamme on issues such as the continuing economic turmoil in Europe, the political instability in the Arab World, his increased power as head of a majority government, and aboriginal affairs in Canada.

As well, Harper and his wife, Laureen provided a joint interview in which they shared personal anecdotes about their family’s life at 24 Sussex Drive and at the official country estate, at Harrington Lake, just north of Ottawa.

They also spoke about their own relationship and the difficulties sometimes entailed in going out as a couple on a private date because of the “public spectacle” it can cause.

Throughout the interview, Harper did not shy away delivering some blunt messages — including on medicare.

Last week, Harper’s government stunned provinces by announcing that it will provide a long-term funding plan for health care that is non-negotiable.

The federal government will continue to increase federal health care transfers by six per cent until 2016-17. After that, increases will only be tied to economic growth including inflation — roughly four per cent — and never fall below three per cent.

“This government will ensure that there continue to be increases in health care transfers,” Harper told CTV.

“We’ll do it over the long term at a level that’s sustainable, but a healthy growth.”

“But that isn’t the only solution. The provinces themselves are going to have to — I mean they’ve got obviously an even bigger financial issue on health care. Some of them are already starting to restrict the growth in spending, and they’re the ones who are going to have to really come up with the solutions on health care delivery.”

The premiers will hold a special meeting in Victoria in mid-January to discuss the health care system. There are no immediate plans for them to also meet with Harper on the issue, although federal health minister Leona Aglukkaq has told her provincial counterparts she is prepared to “re-engage” in 2012 — including working on a common plan to measure how well the health system is performing.

“We’re obviously willing, you know, to be a partner and do what we can do to help,” Harper said in the interview.

“But I think we all understand that . . . the rate of growth of the health care system can’t be sustained and that somehow that’s going to have to be tackled, so that we, we keep a system that Canadians value, Canadians depend on, but can manage it in a way that it’s affordable and will continue to be available for future generations.”

When LaFlamme said Canadians are scared about health care, the economy and pensions and look to the prime minister for hope, Harper had a surprising response.

“I think it’s, in a sense, good that Canadians feel that way because we have some major challenges in front of us.”

Harper said his government will be tackling “key programs” on a wide range of areas over the next year to ensure their sustainability.

At the same time, he promised “major reforms” in various areas to assist economic growth, attract capital investment, and create jobs.

Among other highlights of the interview:

• Majority government:

He said it was a “great relief” to win a majority government in the May election after governing for five years with a minority.

“My only other consideration is I want to make sure that we use it. You know, I’ve seen too many majority governments — bureaucracy talks them into going to sleep for three years and then they all of a sudden realize they’re close to an election. So we’ve tried to keep busy and we’re going to try and keep busy through the whole four years.“

• Economy: He predicted it will be a “very challenging” year ahead for the global economy. Canada also faces economic uncertainty but is in better condition than many other nations with deep debts, he said.

• Europe: The debt turmoil in that continent still has not been resolved and is dragging down the economies of nations throughout the word, he said.

“This is one of the richest places in the world,” he said, urging Europeans to fix the problem. “We’re running out of road here.”

• The United States: It remains a “concern” although it won’t be the source of an “immediate crisis”, he said.

“But obviously the combination of debt, deficit, political gridlock, these are very troubling developments.”

• Syria: He doesn’t foresee a military intervention in the near future because there is not — as there was with Libya — a United Nations resolution authorizing such action.

“So I think we will continue to see stepped-up pressure through diplomatic and through other trade sanctions. And I don’t think it’s any secret that our expectation is that this regime will eventually be toppled. It may not be this year, but that time is coming.”

• Egypt: He is concerned about continued instability in the key country of the region.

“We’ve always been concerned that in Egypt, yes, there are obviously forces who want democracy and progressive change, but there are clearly some forces that would want something that’s probably worse than what we had before.”

• Kyoto Protocol: He defended his government’s decision to exit the accord, saying no one was surprised and that future efforts to control global warming will only work if nations that are large emitters of greenhouse gas emissions are involved in the plan.

“It doesn’t matter what Canada does. It doesn’t matter what, frankly, Europe does. Unless we get all of the major emitters to be part of an accord that has mandatory targets, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

• Free trade: He said trade talks with Europe are going well and his cabinet will be making decisions on the issue in the “very near future.”

“We’re getting down to the short strokes and the next couple months is where we’re going to have to decide what the very difficult trade-offs are going to be.”


Also on the CTV show, Harper and his wife spoke about their personal lives with their children, Ben and Rachel, in Ottawa.

They said they enjoy the country estate at Harrington Lake and spend their summers there with their children, adding that they try to keep their kids’ lives as normal as possible in Ottawa.

Asked if the couple go out on “date nights,” Laureen Harper said it’s hard to do that in a public place because of her husband’s instant recognition.

“We go out, it’s automatically kind of a public spectacle,” said the prime minister.

But he added that “we got to quite a few concerts, we love going to concerts.”

Laureen Harper said she agrees with her husband on most issues but doesn’t shy away from telling him if she thinks there is something he has missed.

“He loves his job and you know, it — and so that makes family life easier if your spouse is doing something — I mean if he came home very night unhappy because he hated his job, then I think that would be terrible. But he likes his job and the kids like their schools, they like their friends. So it just makes it like — it’s not stressful.”

She noted that the prime minister is originally from Toronto before moving to Calgary and that she is from rural southern Alberta. She said she makes her husband go camping once a year.

So, where is home? the couple was asked.

“Ottawa’s a great city,” said Laureen Harper.

“We have a nice family life here,” replied the prime minister. “I think it’s really home for the kids. But you know, I think for us, Alberta’s still home.”

Puppies and presents saved from Christmas Eve house fire

A Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., family of four was left homeless on Christmas Eve after fire destroyed their two-storey home Saturday evening.

Leasa Stanley was upstairs and wrapping presents in her home when she and her husband smelled “something” that was off.

Stanley’s husband ran down the stairs and found their Christmas tree on fire. He tried to dig up a fire extinguisher to douse the flames.

“Before he even had time to think, the ceiling started to catch on fire,” Stanley said.

The couple and their two sons, aged 10 and 12, made it out of the house safely before the fire spread. When they got outside, Stanley’s sons started yelling for the family dog.

The family’s Havanese dog had a litter of puppies about a week ago and Stanley went back into the house to save the family pets that were gathered in the master bedroom.

“When I got into the room I couldn’t see the puppies, it was so black,” Stanley said. She grabbed the box of pups and their mother, and ran back downstairs to safety.

Firefighters were called to the house fire shortly after 4 p.m. on Saturday. The house was engulfed in flames when crews arrived, said Bill Heesing, Fort Saskatchewan deputy fire chief. No one was hurt.

The front of the house was blackened with soot, and all of the windows were blown out. Water from the fire hoses turned to ice and covered the front lawn. It appeared that most of the roof was destroyed in the fire, and smoke continued to billow out from the house by the late evening. The area around the home smelled strongly of smoke.

The family had just moved into the house in June.

“We just finished getting it painted, the pictures were just up,” Stanley said.

Neighbours offered Stanley and her family help. One neighbour even offered to start working on rebuilding the house.

“People are bringing us clothes and offering a place to stay . . . it’s just overwhelming,” Stanley said.

While most of the home was destroyed, firefighters were able to save a special stash of presents from Santa for the two boys that were hidden in the basement. The boys were to open them on Christmas morning.

“Santa is coming,” said Stanley with a smile.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Queen Elizabeth praises strong family ties on Christmas Day

Queen Elizabeth lauded the importance of a strong family at times of crisis, in a poignant Christmas message broadcast on Sunday as her 90-year-old husband recovered in hospital from heart surgery.

Elizabeth, who recorded the annual address before Prince Philip was taken ill on Friday, will mark 60 years on the throne in 2012 with a full tour of Britain, although Philip’s condition may mean scaling back his share of the duties.

The spotlight has fallen on the royals this weekend after Philip was rushed to hospital following chest pains. He underwent a successful operation to ease a blocked heart artery late on Friday and was since said to be in good spirits.

“We’ve seen that it’s in hardship that we often find strength from our families; it’s in adversity that new friendships are sometimes formed; and it’s in a crisis that communities break down barriers and bind together to help one another,” the Queen, 85, said.

“Families, friends and communities often find a source of courage rising up from within.”

Philip is likely to miss most of, if not all, the royal family’s Christmas get-together at their rural Sandringham estate in eastern England as doctors monitor his recovery.

“The importance of family has, of course, come home to Prince Philip and me personally this year with the marriages of two of our grandchildren, each in their own way a celebration of the God-given love that binds a family together,” the Queen said.

Prince William’s marriage to Catherine Middleton and the wedding of Zara Phillips and England rugby player Mike Tindall marked high points in a busy year for the Queen that included a trip to Australia and a visit from U.S. President Barack Obama.

With fears growing over the global economy and rising unemployment and social tensions in Britain, the Queen’s address, watched by millions, was suffused with modest sobriety.

“As we all know, the world is going through difficult times. All this will affect our celebration of this great Christian festival,” she said.

“The bereaved and the lonely will find it especially hard.”

Tensions in economically hard-hit Britain have been evident this year. Riots and looting broke out in English towns and cities, while public anger against reckless behaviour in the highly-paid banking sector spilt over into protests.

The Queen touched on this friction, urging Britons to pull together and to be more thoughtful in their actions towards each other during tough times.

“Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves, from our recklessness or our greed,” she said.

Russia rocked by new mass anti-Putin rally

Russia on Sunday came to terms with its second mass opposition rally within a month which was even bigger and more sharply critical of strongman Vladimir Putin than the first such protest two weeks ago.

Organizers said 120,000 people attended the extraordinary rally in central Moscow Saturday where protesters chanted slogans against Putin and called for the annulment of disputed December elections won by his party.

Police put the numbers at 29,000, but AFP correspondents said the turnout was clearly bigger than the first rally two weeks ago which smashed the taboo in Russia against mass opposition protests.

The last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev also dramatically called on Putin to quit, just as he had done on December 25, 1991 when the USSR collapsed exactly two decades ago.

"This is not an outburst which will die down. This is not about the protests but about the mood," Yevgeny Gontmakher, head of the Centre for Social Policies at the Moscow-based Economics Institute, told AFP.

"There is a danger of a revolution. Authorities are making concessions but are not keeping up with the development of the events."

Russia's state television took the surprise decision to cover the rally hinting at an easing of a long-held taboo against direct criticism of Putin, who came to power 12 years ago and wants to stay at the helm until 2024.

"Sharply negative appraisals of Vladimir Putin have been voiced several times," said a report about the rally broadcast on the Channel One on Saturday night.

With opposition supporters stepping up their challenge to Putin in a campaign first triggered by claims of fraud in December 4 parliamentary polls, a growing public anger against Putin has become impossible to ignore.

"Channel One honestly speaks of the anti-Putin nature of today's meeting. That obviously cannot be pure coincidence," said Vladimir Varfolomeyev, a commentator with liberal Echo of Moscow radio.

Putin — who announced a plan to leave his current post as prime minister to reclaim his old Kremlin job in the March presidential polls — is struggling with the worst legitimacy crisis of his rule.

Mass protests were triggered by widespread claim of wholesale violations in the parliamentary polls this month that handed a reduced majority to Putin's ruling United Russia party.

Protesters called for the annulment of the ballot, sacking of the Central Election Commission chief and a re-run of elections.

Hoping to ride out a wave of protests, Putin ignored those demands and promised instead a return to direct election of governors and a simplified procedure to register political parties.

In defiance of protests, the newly-elected lower house of parliament convened for its first session earlier this week.

Incensed by the Russian premier's claims that opposition supporters were in the pay of the U.S. State Department and insults comparing them to an anti-AIDS campaign, protesters are now taking their anger out directly at Putin.

Most Russians lost their taste for street politics in the chaotic 90s and the scale of the current protests is a major boon for the fragmented opposition which had for years struggled to encourage Russians to take to the streets.

Many had also feared that the opposition would not manage to repeat the success of the first December 10 rally after the initial anger subsided and Russians would leave for warmer climes for the ten-day New Year's break.

The protest movement — which brings together a charismatic anti-corruption blogger, a detective story writer, musicians and a former finance minister — does not so far have a clear leader but is gaining momentum.

Santa Claus making his way around the world

His sleigh has been inspected, his bag of toys has been scanned, and his reindeer have successfully completed their takeoff and landing tests.

Santa Claus has been cleared for takeoff from the North Pole, Transport Canada announced Friday, and now eager present-seekers can track the man in red's flight through the skies.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad) is once again providing detailed updates on Santa's movements on its website, or by contacting 1-877-Hi-NORAD starting at 6 a.m. ET. Trackers also can send an email to noradtrackssanta(at)

Norad "Santa cams" are positioned around the world and this year, the command centre also is offering a Santa-tracking app for mobile devices. Tracking opportunities also are offered on Facebook, Google+, YouTube, and Twitter.

Like any pilot, Santa had to pass a series of flight and medical tests before Transport Canada cleared him for flight.

"I'm very happy Santa has passed these latest tests," Mrs. Claus wrote in a text message sent to Transport Canada. "I made sure he focused on his tasks, not emptying the cookie jar or surfing the web too much, lol."

Santa's journey is expected to be smooth as usual, said Norad Capt. Jeff Noel in an interview with Global News.

"In all the years and centuries that Santa's been on the go, there's been no responsibility whatsoever for him ever missing a Christmas Eve," Noel said.

Only Santa knows his route, so Norad can't predict when he'll hit any particular home, Noel said. But one important detail is known.

"He usually arrives only when children are asleep. So in most countries, it seems Santa arrives between 9 p.m. and midnight."

While the technology for tracking Santa evolved, the tradition is more than 50 years old.

In 1955 a Colorado Springs-based Sears Roebuck & Co., advertisement misprinted a telephone number for children to call Santa. The number put children through to Norad's predecessor's operations hotline. The director of operations at the time had his staff check the radar for indications of Santa so the children who called were given updates.

Sea Shepherd says drones find, photograph Japan's whaling fleet

Hardline whaling opponents attempting to stop Japan's annual whale hunt in the Antarctic said on Sunday they had intercepted and used pilotless drone aircraft to photograph the whaling fleet.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society said it located the Japanese factory ship Nisshin Maru off Australia's western coast on Saturday using the drones, the first time this season it has made contact with the whalers.

However, other Japanese ships shielded the vessel "to allow it to escape", Sea Shepherd said in a statement.

"We caught them due west of Perth," founder Paul Watson told Reuters by satellite phone from the ship Steve Irwin. "For the next few days we will be chasing them. We are heading south."

The two drones are equipped with cameras and detection equipment and allow Sea Shepherd to monitor the whaling fleet from a distance, he said.

Watson said Sea Shepherd's three ships were well outside Antarctic waters when the Japanese vessel was seen. The Sea Shepherd waited for the Nisshin Maru after hearing from fishermen it had sailed through the Lombok Strait in Indonesia on its voyage to Antarctic waters.

The Sea Shepherd society's annual attempts to stop the Japanese whale hunt by "direct action" have been widely criticized by other environmentalists and governments, particularly Japan. However, it also has influential supporters.

Watson said sympathizers in New Jersey in the United States contributed to the cost of the two drones.

An international moratorium on whaling has been in place since 1986, but Japan exploits a loophole allowing whaling for scientific purposes to justify its annual hunt.

Stranded skier rescued from B.C. mountainside

 Search and rescue volunteers carried out a dramatic 16-hour rescue mission spanning Christmas Eve and Christmas Day after a skier became stranded on a cliff in waist-deep snow on a Courtenay, B.C., mountainside.

The skier, a Courtenay man in his early 20s, called the Victoria Joint Rescue Coordination Centre around 12:30 p.m. local time on Saturday asking for help getting off a section of Mount Beecher dubbed Forbidden Plateau, just west of Courtney, according to air force coordinator Capt. Ray Jacobson.

A team of 16 Comox, B.C., ground search and rescue volunteers were deployed, eight trudging through the waist-deep snow on snowshoe and eight trying to get to the man on snowmobiles, said search and rescue coordinator Paul Berry.

“He had been skiing from Mount Washington to Forbidden Plateau and he managed to get himself lost,” Berry said. “He was out on a cliff, couldn’t go up, couldn’t go down.”

The man had a GPS device to provide his co-ordinates but the search and rescue team had trouble getting to him because of a treacherous combination of deep snow, steep terrain, 40 knot winds and heavy sleet, Berry said.

Darkness was approaching and rescuers feared the man could be hypothermic because he had been hiking for a day and a half.

“He was shivering significantly, did not have a change of clothes, no food remaining and he was unable to light his stove so he was unable to get dry,” Berry said.

The search team tasked two private helicopters to try and reach the man but thick clouds meant there was zero visibility to the ground below.

The rescue crew was able to communicate with the hiker by whistle and they estimated they were about one kilometre away, so they carried on their search in the dark of night.

By 9:40 p.m., the team on snowshoe reached the skier. He was cold but uninjured. Berry said it took more than five hours to hike to an area where they could meet up with the snowmobiles to take them down the mountain.

It wasn’t until 4:30 a.m. that the rescuers and the skier were back on solid ground, making for an exhausting 16-hour ordeal.

Three of the search and rescue volunteers were treated by B.C. Ambulance paramedics for exhaustion and dehydration.

“It’s a great team. There was a huge sense of pride in the group last night to have snowshoed through the night in very difficult terrain for over 12 hours to get to this young man,” Berry said. “It was just an incredible feat for the crew.”

Berry said the skier was grateful to be able to spend Christmas Day with his family in Courtenay.

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