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Premier confirms chief of staff eyeing leadership run

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Premier Stephen McNeil says he only found out last week his chief of staff, Laurie Graham, was interested in taking his job as leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party.

Graham has worked for McNeil in the premier’s office since March 2016, first as principal secretary. She has been chief of staff since January 2019.

“I knew that people had called her thinking that she should run, and then I think last week she told me she owed it to them and to herself to consider it and that’s what she’s doing,” he said following a ribbon cutting event in Kentville for a new hospice.

McNeil saw no problem with her continuing to be his top staffer despite her seeking support for a possible candidacy.

“Just as a cabinet minister may be considering it today, I have all the faith and confidence that she would not be using her position as the chief of staff in my office and she knows, as cabinet ministers know, that if they enter the race they will have to step down from their current positions.”

Sources have told CBC News that Graham could step down to launch her bid as early as this week.

Laurie Graham left her job as a reporter in Ottawa to come home to Nova Scotia to work for Premier Stephen McNeil in 2016. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

With the rules for the leadership campaign coming out today, the field is starting to narrow.

Municipal Affairs Minister Chuck Porter told CBC News on Monday that he’s decided against making a run. Porter said he made the decision on the weekend.

Business Minister Geoff MacLellan and Health Minister Randy Delorey have also said they’re out.

Their cabinet colleague, Labi Kousoulis, is considering a bid, he said Monday.

The Halifax Citadel-Sable Island MLA was first elected in 2013 and has served in several cabinet portfolios, most recently as labour and advanced education minister.

“I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me,” said Kousoulis, a certified management accountant who said people he’s talking with appreciate his financial background and the fact he spent time working in rural Nova Scotia.

“I don’t take these decisions lightly. I will be talking to Liberals and Nova Scotians and moving forward.”

Regan, Kousoulis mulling leadership bids

All signs also point to Community Services Minister Kelly Regan jumping in the race. The MLA for Bedford was first elected in 2009.

A statement from the “Kelly Regan Campaign” on Monday said the minister would announce her intentions at a formal event next week, and that she “continues to engage with party members around the province as she works toward this announcement.”

Education Minister Zach Churchill and Immigration Minister Lena Diab have both said they’re considering leadership runs.

Central Nova MP Sean Fraser, who is also the parliamentary secretary to the federal finance minister, and Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin have said they are weighing their options.

Asked about his thoughts on Graham’s possible candidacy, McNeil suggested anyone taking over the party would be carrying on the work he started in the fall of 2013 when he led the Liberals back to power after almost 15 years on the opposition benches.

“Listen, I’m thrilled that Nova Scotians want to continue the work that we’ve had,” he said. “The fact that we’ve had strong people stepping forward, I think it’s a good idea that people outside of government are looking at it.”

Premier plans to remain neutral

McNeil says he has spoken to other possible contenders about the job and offered them his advice and insight. He doesn’t think Graham has an unfair advantage by being his chief of staff.

“No, I don’t. I believe when the race starts, those who put their names forward will be at the same footing.”

The premier said he plans to stay neutral in the upcoming campaign, as tradition dictates.

“Every one of them [has] called me, asked me my opinion [and for] my thoughts.”

McNeil laughed when asked if he had dissuaded or asked any of the potential candidates to hold off throwing their hats in the ring.

“Not at all,” he said.

“I’ve said to everyone my job will be to keep this team together as we go through a leadership process.”

The Liberals will elect their new leader on Feb. 6. Candidates have until Oct. 9 to officially enter the race.

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Saskatoon businesswoman Heather Abbey won $21,500 US on Wheel of Fortune. Now people want her to pay her debts

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Heather Abbey, a controversial Indigenous entrepreneur from Saskatoon, appeared on a Halloween-themed episode of Wheel of Fortune Tuesday night and walked away with $21,500 US after solving a puzzle with the phrase, “The Horror, The Horror.”

Indigenous artists who watched the game show say the real horror is that Abbey still owes them thousands of dollars for a failed trade mission to Tokyo in July 2019, on top of the $62,000 of public money she owes Creative Saskatchewan, a provincial arts agency.

Abbey said she is making monthly instalment payments on her debt to Creative Saskatchewan. The arts agency confirmed that to CBC News.

But it’s little consolation to the artists who say they’re owed money. 

“It kind of drains me emotionally to see her doing things like [appearing on Wheel of Fortune] still with no remorse for the artists and entrepreneurs she used and harmed,” said Cree fashion designer Agnes Woodward, who lives in North Dakota, but is originally from Kawacatoose First Nation, about 115 kilometres north of Regina.

To take part in the trade mission, Woodward and her husband Whirlwind Bull, a painter, spent more than $6,000 on flights, hotel, food, transportation and a delegate fee of $400 each. The trip did not go as Abbey promised it would. Afterward Abbey sent the couple messages — provided to CBC News — in which she pledged to repay them $3,000.

“If you owe a lot of money to people and you’re on national TV? Like, she has no remorse and no conscience,” said Bull. 

Agnes Woodward and her husband, Whirlwind Bull, said they spent more than $6,000 on flights, hotels, food, transportation and a delegate fee of $400 each to go on a trade mission to Japan. They said they had no idea that trip organizer Heather Abbey received a substantial grant from the province of Saskatchewan for the trip. (Submitted by Agnes Woodward)

Bull said they paid $1,300 to cover hotel rooms, only to have Abbey check the Canadian delegation into a $20/night Airbnb at the last minute. CBC confirmed that a hotel in Tokyo is trying to collect $15,000 in cancellation and no-show fees after Abbey confirmed the group’s reservation just hours before arrival, but failed to show up.

Bull said he made a joke of Abbey’s appearance on the game show. ” ‘Oh good, now she’s going to pay us back.’ But I know she’s not going to.” 

Abbey was prepared for backlash

Abbey, a Cree woman from Little Pine First Nation, located 200 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, has won numerous awards and government grants for empowering Indigenous artists and for her much-lauded website Indig Inc., an e-commerce platform that allows Indigenous artists to sell their homemade products. It is now offline.

She now lives in West Hollywood, Calif., studies at Los Angeles Film School and delivers food part-time.

“I’m passionate about creating authentic Native American content for the big screen and the small screen,” she told Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak on the show.

In an article posted to West Hollywood Times, Abbey said she was hoping to win enough money to help pay for her education and take her family on a trip to Paris. 

WATCH | Heather Abbey’s Wheel of Fortune win:

Saskatoon entrepreneur Heather Abbey won $21,500 on Wheel of Fortune. In January she promised to repay Creative Saskatchewan $62,000 in grant money. 0:16

However, in an email to CBC News, Abbey said that when she receives her winnings, she will spend the money in three ways: repaying Indigenous delegates that weren’t able to attend the Tokyo trip, repaying Creative Saskatchewan and buying a new bed set for each of her two children.

“I knew that everything would flare up again if I made it on the game show, but I also knew it was an incredibly long shot in the first place — from application to audition to being selected onto the show to the actual game show itself!” she wrote.

“All in all though, I’m pretty proud of how I played, and that I have actual money coming to make my payments — delivering food isn’t exactly keeping me in the money!”

Government audit

After a CBC News investigation last year, Creative Saskatchewan decided to audit five projects undertaken by Abbey and her e-commerce company Indig Inc., that received more than $160,000 total in taxpayer money between 2015 and 2019. 

The audit concluded that Abbey met expectations for three grants — worth nearly $100,000 combined — that helped to fund, among other things, website design and training for Indigenous artists to create leather mittens and beaded earrings.

The two failed projects included a trade mission to Japan for Indigenous artists from Saskatchewan and a retail space for Indigenous artists in a Saskatoon shopping mall.

“I plan to repay every debt I have,” Abbey told CBC News in January, when asked about her outstanding debts.

Abbey also said none of her actions were malicious or fraudulent, rather that some business gambles didn’t pan out.

Abbey, who recently won big on Wheel of Fortune, said she made rookie mistakes when she organized a trade mission to Tokyo for Indigenous artists. (ABC TV)

Creative Saskatchewan spokesperson Craig Lederhouse said the arts agency has an agreement with Abbey to collect the money owed over time.

“To date, Ms. Abbey is honouring that agreement and has been making monthly payments,” he said. “Financial details of the agreement are confidential.”

Abbey has outstanding debts with more entities than the Saskatchewan government. Public records and court documents show two credit unions and two landlords are seeking $64,000 from Abbey for unpaid loans and rent.

Abbey told CBC in January that she plans to repay all her outstanding debts. (Alicia Bridges/CBC)

Abbey still maintains that some of the delegates are also responsible for the lack of sales on the Tokyo trip, insisting they treated it like a “vacation.” A half dozen artists interviewed by CBC News deny that.

As for her life now, Abbey said, “after the storm comes the rainbow. Cliché, but true.”

“Last year I was cancelled, and in retrospect it was probably the best thing to ever happen to me,” she said. “Aside from these payments that I still plan to make, I’m free.

“So yeah, did last year destroy me? Hell yeah it did, but it also rebuilt me into someone that is stronger, and has even more empathy and life experience. Trying to better the world for a few people broke me completely, but it also gave way to being truly happy.”

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Premier Ford speaks as Ontario confirms 834 new COVID-19 cases

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Premier Doug Ford is scheduled to hold a news conference beginning at 1:30 p.m. at Queen’s Park. Ford’s office says he will be joined by several members of cabinet, including the ministers of municipal affairs and housing, long-term care, education and infrastructure. 

You can watch it live in this story.


Ontario reported another 834 cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, driving the seven-day average up to a new high while the number of tests being processed stayed well below capacity for a third day. 

Consistent with recent months, most of the newly confirmed cases in today’s report were found in four public health units:

  • Toronto: 299
  • Peel Region: 186
  • York Region: 121
  • Ottawa: 76

The seven-day average of new daily cases, a measure that helps limit noise in the data to provide a clearer picture of longer-term trends, rose to 886. That’s the highest the average has been at any point in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ontario’s labs processed just 30,010 tests for the novel coronavirus, despite capacity for around 45,000 daily. 

The relatively low number of tests means there was, roughly, a 2.8 per cent positivity rate, down from yesterday’s record high of about 3.45 per cent but still above the threshold for serious concern (2.5 per cent), according to Ontario’s own public health standards.

More positively, however, after several consecutive days of a markedly lower number of samples being collected for processing, some 41,000 were taken since the last provincial update. That suggests that the level of tests being processed could potentially rebound by tomorrow. 

Meanwhile, the number of people in Ontario hospitals with confirmed cases of COVID-19 stayed steady at 312. Those being treated in intensive care dropped by four down to 71, and the number of patients on ventilators fell slightly to 51.

Five more COVID-19-linked deaths were added to the province’s toll, which now stands at 3,108.

Ontario has now seen 72,885 confirmed cases of the illness since the first was reported on January 25. About 85 per cent of all cases were resolved.

There are currently 7,474 confirmed, active infections of the novel coronavirus provincewide, a new record high.

(Note: All of the figures used in this story are found in the Ministry of Health’s daily update, which includes data from up until 4 p.m. the previous day. The number of cases for any particular region on a given day may differ from what is reported by the local public health unit, which often avoid lag times found in the provincial system.)

Ontario’s labs processed just over 30,000 tests, still well below the total capacity of about 45,000 daily. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

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CBU to honour Donald Marshall Jr. with new research centre

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A new research institute planned for Cape Breton University will honour the legacy of Donald Marshall Jr., who fought for the Indigenous right to fish for a moderate livelihood.

The Mi’kmaw man’s name has been invoked in recent weeks by Indigenous fishermen in southwest Nova Scotia who have launched self-regulated lobster fisheries. 

“I think it’s very timely in terms of the need for knowledge sharing, for advocacy and for action,” said Janice Tulk, a senior researcher in the university’s development department. 

The idea for the institute has been in the works for a couple of years, sparked by one of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which emphasized the need for education about Indigenous law and Indigenous rights.

Donald Marshall Jr. addresses a crowd in Sydney, N.S., after leading a peaceful protest over Indigenous fishing rights, on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2000. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

“We started thinking about what could we do at Cape Breton University that would respond to that call,” said Tulk, whose areas of expertise include Mi’kmaw history and culture, as well as Indigenous economic reconciliation.

Tulk said the university has partnered with Cape Breton’s Mi’kmaw communities over the past 40 years to provide higher education in a variety of fields, with the creation of Mi’kmaw studies programs, Mi’kmaw science programs and more recently, Indigenous business and mentorship programs. The university saw the research institute as a next opportunity, said Tulk.

‘I think it’s amazing’

Cape Breton University will work with members of the Marshall family over the coming months to solidify the vision for the institute.

“I think it’s amazing,” said Crystal Bernard, Donald Marshall Jr.’s daughter.

“We’re so humbled and honoured that they would do this for him, in his name. And I know he would be very proud, as well.”

The idea was made public Monday as the university unveiled plans for a proposed, $80-million Centre for Discovery and Innovation. The project has yet to receive funding, but should it go ahead, it will house the Marshall Institute.

“We need a space where community collaboration can occur,” said Tulk, noting the institute will proceed with or without the new building.

Janice Tulk’s expertise includes Mi’kmaw history and culture, as well as Indigenous tourism development and economic reconciliation. (cbu.ca)

That collaboration will involve university researchers, faculty members and students, as well as community members and organizations such as the Bras d’Or Lakes Collaborative Environmental Planning Initiative and the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources, as well as various levels of government.

“I think we’re going to have some really valuable conversations that will advance our understanding of environmental justice and Indigenous approaches to climate change, and hopefully start to make some progress on those things through those dialogues, through advocacy, through policy change,” said Tulk.

Asked what role the institute might play in situations such as the current unrest over the Indigenous moderate livelihood fishery in Nova Scotia, Tulk said it would serve to help educate people about treaties and Indigenous rights.

“I would imagine that there would be advocacy as well,” said Tulk. “Certainly the institute could play a role in bringing stakeholders together to have honest conversations and collaboratively come up with solutions.”

Bernard said she believes her father would be disappointed by the ongoing situation in southwest Nova Scotia.

“I think it would be very upsetting to him that we’re having to go through this again,” she said.

“On the other hand, I think he’d be on the front lines, fighting with our people, trying to get people to understand that the treaty rights are not up for debate.”

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