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Today’s coronavirus news: Ontario reports 232 new cases of COVID-19; India’s coronavirus tally crosses 4.6M after record surge; Trump aides sought to meddle with CDC’s virus reports

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KEY FACTS

  • 10:26 a.m.: Ontario reports 232 new cases of COVID-19

  • 9:21 a.m.: India’s coronavirus tally crosses 4.6M after record surge

  • 6:41 a.m.: Trump aides sought to meddle with CDC’s virus reports: Politico

The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Saturday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

11:36 a.m.: The RCMP in Wolfville, N.S., have handed a $1,000 fine to a university student from outside the Atlantic region for failing to self-isolate.

The Mounties issued a statement Saturday saying the student violated the provincial Health Protection Act.

RCMP spokesman Const. Steeve Plamondon says the Mounties in the Kings District received a complaint on Thursday and the fine was issued later that day.

Plamondon couldn’t say where the student attended school or where they had come from.

11 a.m.: Your neighbour is having a party. There are cars parked down the block and people knocking on their door bearing steaks for the barbecue.

You reach for the phone. You know about the new city bylaws, the ones enacted to keep people safe from COVID-19, and the provincial orders banning indoor gatherings of more than 50 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 100.

You call 311. Maybe you imagine a SWAT team of bylaw enforcement officers showing up at your neighbour’s door. Or the police.

In fact, there is a good chance that, in Toronto, nothing will happen.

Although several new municipal bylaws and provincial orders have gone onto the books since March, when the city began taking aggressive steps to stem the spread of COVID-19, enforcing them has proven difficult.

The Star’s Francine Kopun reports on why there hasn’t been a tougher crackdown on rule-breakers despite the rising case numbers of COVID-19 in Toronto.

10:45 a.m.: Quebecers could face hefty fines starting Saturday if they aren’t wearing a mask in places the province has deemed it mandatory due to COVID-19.

Police will be able to hand out tickets ranging between $400 and $6,000 for those who don’t have a face covering in indoor public spaces or public transit.

The province announced its intention to introduce fines earlier this week, with a ministerial decree being adopted Friday.

The decree specifies that a face covering is understood as a “mask or tightly fitting cloth that covers the nose and the mouth.”

The fines are similar amounts to those that business owners faced when the province brought in mandatory masks for indoor spaces in July.

10:26 a.m.: Ontario is reporting 232 new cases of COVID-19 today, the second day in a row that the province has surpassed more than 200 new cases in its daily tallies.

“Toronto is reporting 77 cases with 62 in Peel and 27 in Ottawa,” Health Minister Christine Elliott said on Twitter Saturday morning.

“Like yesterday, 67 per cent of today’s cases are in people under the age of 40.”

She added that Ontario also completed more than 35,000 tests.

9:55 a.m.: Under the current COVID-19 pandemic, families are reluctantly sending their children back to school amid fear and sharp criticism of the Ontario government on whether it’s safe to do so — large class sizes have sparked questions on whether social distancing is physically possible, and outbreaks have been reported in schools in other parts of the country where students have already returned. Toronto public and Catholic classes will begin next week.

The pandemic has amounted to more than 134,000 cases and 9,000 deaths in Canada, with the impact of COVID-19 touching lives from coast to coast. Fears of a second wave and a recent uptick in Ontario case numbers just as schools are opening for the first time since March Break has some wondering: what happens if severe illness or death from COVID-19 touches a school community?

Read the full story from Nadine Yousif here.

9:21 a.m.: India’s confirmed coronavirus tally has crossed 4.6 million after a record surge of 97,570 new cases in 24 hours. India reported another 1,201 deaths Saturday, bringing total deaths to 77,472, the third highest in the world

9 a.m.: A town in the German Alps has stepped up coronavirus restrictions after a spike in infections that local authorities say was likely caused by a visitor from the United States.

The restrictions imposed in Garmisch-Partenkirchen on Friday include all restaurants to close at 10 p.m. for the next week and the number of people meeting in public limited to five.

The council says the 26-year-old, who wasn’t identified, arrived in Germany in late August or early September. It wasn’t clear whether she brought the virus from the U.S. or violated quarantine regulations. Authorities say 23 people tested positive at the accommodation where she stayed.

The U.S. is on a long list of countries classified by German authorities as “risk areas.” People arriving from those areas must have a coronavirus test after arriving in Germany and quarantine until the results are determined.

8:12 a.m.: There are growing fears that disadvantaged kids, who are disproportionately racialized, are falling deeper into existing cracks and slipping into new ones created by the pandemic. Many lower-income parents say they’ve been forced to choose between their health and their kids’ education.

In areas hardest hit by COVID-19, data shows high rates of families who’ve opted for remote learning — even though many of these families say virtual learning was catastrophic for them in the spring, and they have little faith the coming year will be much different.

Meanwhile, powerful shifts are underway. Stark inequality already existed within public education, but experts say the pandemic has led to new “tiering” within the system, as more affluent families create “learning pods” and hire tutors to give their kids a leg up in this experimental new world of remote learning.

Read the fully story from the Star’s Jennifer Yang and Brendan Kennedy on how wealthy parents are turning to learning pods and private schools while low-income families say they’re being forced to choose between their health and their kids’ education.

8 a.m.: COVID-19 test centres across the city are reporting a spike in demand over the past two weeks, with reports of long lines, and some people even being turned away.

The increase coincides with families gearing up to send their children back to school for the first time since March Break and others returning to work in person.

Jennifer Stranges, a spokesperson for the testing sites at St. Joseph’s and St. Michael’s hospitals, said that similar to other COVID-19 testing centres in the city, both sites have seen an increase in demand.

On Thursday, 424 people were tested at the St. Joseph’s location, Stranges said. This is in contrast to 242 people tested a month prior on Aug. 7.

“Anecdotally, more people are coming in for tests who are returning to work, people that have received alerts through the new app and people who are visiting the elderly, immunocompromised or new babies,” Stranges said in an email.

Read the full story on how centres across Toronto are seeing an uptick in testing and are, in some cases, even turning people away.

7:02 a.m.: The U.N. General Assembly has overwhelmingly approved a resolution on tackling the coronavirus pandemic over objections from the United States and Israel, which protested a successful last-minute Cuban amendment that strongly urges countries to oppose unilateral economic, financial or trade sanctions.

The world body adopted the resolution Friday by a vote of 169-2. It was a strong show of unity by the U.N.’s most representative body in addressing the coronavirus, though many countries had hoped for adoption by consensus.

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The resolution is not legally binding. It “calls for intensified international co-operation and solidarity to contain, mitigate and overcome the pandemic” and it urges member states “to enable all countries to have unhindered timely access to quality, safe, efficacious and affordable diagnosis, therapeutics, medicines and vaccines.”

7 a.m.: The New York City teachers union warns it won’t let the nation’s largest school district reopen for in-person classes this month if the city doesn’t issue protective equipment, conduct testing and clean schools properly.

Union leader Michael Mulgrew in a Friday video accuses the city of not acting with enough urgency on the pandemic.

The return of public school students to classrooms was delayed from Sept. 10 to Sept. 21 so coronavirus safety precautions could be worked on further.

Mulgrew says the city knows what it needs to do to make schools safe and, in his words, “if you can’t make that happen before the children come into schools, then we’re not going to let you open these schools.”

6:53 a.m.: Hungary has registered another record number of people newly infected with the coronavirus, with 916 new cases.

Saturday’s total is more than 25% higher than the previous record of 716 cases, reached Friday.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government is taking a less generalized approach to the pandemic during this second wave, with restrictions decided more on a case-by-case basis.

Orban said Saturday in a video posted on his Facebook page that the aim was not just to save lives but also to keep the country running. During the second quarter of the year, the Hungarian economy contracted by 13.6%, the largest fall in the region.

6:41 a.m.: U.S. health department spokesperson Michael Caputo and his aides asked for the right to read and suggest changes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly COVID-19 reports, Politico reported, citing emails and three people familiar with the matter.

Communications aides from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services complained to CDC Director Robert Redfield and other officials that the agency’s reports would undermine President Donald Trump’s optimistic messaging about the pandemic, according to the report.

CDC employees pushed back against changes but have increasingly agreed to allow political appointees review the virus reports, and have agreed to amend language in some cases, Politico said.

6:21 a.m.: The governor of Istanbul has banned boating companies from hosting weddings and similar gatherings as part of new measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 in Turkey’s most populous city.

The governor’s office also reintroduced a ban on concerts and festivals in open spaces. A statement from the office late Friday said the restrictions were needed because people were not adequately heeding precautions like physical distancing and confirmed virus cases have increased.

Coronavirus infections and deaths began increasing in Turkey after the government loosened restrictions on public activity in June, returning to levels last seen in mid-May.

On Friday, the Health Ministry announced 56 more deaths and 1,671 new cases, bringing the country’s total death toll in the pandemic to 6,951 and cases to nearly 290,000.

6 a.m.: Federal officials are ironing out the details of a program to help cities buy properties left vacant due to the pandemic so they can quickly create affordable housing.

The government has considered the property acquisition program for months as it looks to keep people falling into homelessness heading into the winter with temporary shelter measures set to expire.

That could lead to overcrowding in existing emergency shelters, or push more people onto the street and create the conditions for the novel coronavirus to spread among people who are already vulnerable.

4:01 a.m.: A guaranteed basic income for all Canadians has emerged as the top policy choice of Liberal MPs, just as the Trudeau government is crafting its plan to help people weather the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and rebuild the ravaged economy.

The Liberal caucus is calling on the government to adopt the idea in a priority policy resolution for consideration at the party’s upcoming national convention.

And MPs consider it so important that they’ve designated it their top resolution, guaranteeing that it will go directly to the Nov. 12-15 convention for debate and a vote.

It is among more than 50 priority resolutions from the governing party’s provincial and territorial organizations and its various commissions that will be the subject, starting today, of a two-week online discussion among registered Liberals.

Friday 5 p.m. Ontario’s regional health units are reporting the most new COVID-19 cases in more than a month, as the province’s daily average is now higher than any point since June, according to the Star’s latest count.

The health units are reporting another 237 COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours.

With the total — the most in a single day since July 15 — Ontario’s seven-day average for new cases is now up to 183 cases daily.

That’s the highest that measure has been since June 30 and double what the health units were reporting 23 days ago on Aug. 19.

Even with the increases, the rate of infection remains well below the worst of the pandemic; Ontario saw that seven-day case average reach a mid-April peak of nearly 600 cases daily.

As has been the case in recent weeks, most new cases continue to come in the GTA and Ottawa. On Friday, Toronto reported another 74 new cases; Peel added 58; Ottawa 36; and York Region 14.

No new fatal cases were reported Friday. Meanwhile, Toronto lowered its tally of deaths by one, citing routine data verification.

The province has now seen a total of 46,264 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19, including 2,855 deaths.

Click here to read more coverage from Friday.



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Back to school: When sniffles mean COVID-19 tests, self-isolation; how families are coping

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TORONTO —
The start of school is typically a stressful time for families, but none more so than this year as families try to adjust to a new reality in which even the slightest sniffle or minor headache could mean COVID-19 tests, days of isolation, and interruptions to education and work.

Now that schools and daycares across the country have reopened and welcomed students back, coronavirus cases numbers have crept back up in certain regions, forcing children and staff to return home to get tested for the virus and self-isolate.

In some cases, entire schools have shut down in response to rising case counts, such as in Montreal where one private high school, Herzliah High School, suspended in-person learning for two weeks after more than a dozen students and staff tested positive for COVID-19.

While medical experts have been warning the public for months there would be a second wave of cases in the fall, the practical implications for families are only just being realized.

Dr. Andrew Morris, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto and the Sinai Health system who contributed to a report by medical experts on the return to school, said public health authorities are working closely with school boards to find the right balance of teaching students while keeping them and their families safe.

“It’s really complicated. There aren’t, unfortunately, any simple fixes right now,” he told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview on Thursday.

SYMPTOM SCARES

The confluence of coronavirus, flu, and allergies has made identifying symptoms for each a tricky task with most schools and daycares erring on the side of caution and mandating that children who exhibit any symptoms, whether it be a cough or stomach ache or runny nose, to stay home and get tested for COVID-19.

While the guidance varies across provinces and regions, generally, families have been asked to asses their children’s symptoms before taking them to school or daycare and to keep them home if there’s any sign of sickness.

“The advice in many ways hasn’t really changed,” Morris said. “Sick kids shouldn’t be going to school.”

If the child develops symptoms during the day, most schools and daycares are asking families to take them home and have them tested for coronavirus or self-isolate for two weeks before they will be allowed to return.

That was the case for Denise Faubert’s 10-year-old daughter who was sent home from her Ottawa elementary school on Monday because she had developed a headache.

“My daughter was sent home for a headache because she was dehydrated because they’re in a portable and they don’t want to drink a lot because they don’t want to go into the school to go to the bathroom,” she explained.

“We got home, literally an hour-and-a-half later, after a little Tylenol, she was fine. Like literally fine, jumping, going on the internet, going outside.”

Despite her daughter’s improvement, Faubert said she was forced to pick up her 15-year-old daughter from a nearby high school and bring her home as well. The next day, she drove her younger daughter to a testing clinic in Casselman, Ont., located 50 kilometres outside of Ottawa, for the test because the lineups in the city were too long.

On Wednesday night, Faubert said her daughter’s test results came back negative and both of her children were allowed to return to school the next day after she sent the results to both schools.

“The schools are so paranoid,” she said. “The guidelines for what they’re required to look for…They’re just too afraid of keeping anyone at school.”

TESTING CONCERNS

Faubert’s concerns were echoed by other parents who spoke with CTV News about their worries for what the school year will look like if they have to keep picking up their child, getting them tested, or self-isolating every time they have exhibit a symptom.

Sharon Cheng-Ghafour said she felt most anxious about having to take her 20-month-old twins to a Toronto hospital for COVID-19 testing after one of them woke up on Monday morning with a dry cough. Even though she suspected it was only a minor irritation and not the virus, she decided to keep the twins home as a precaution and informed their daycare.

Cheng-Ghafour said the daycare operator told her the twins wouldn’t be able to return unless they received a negative test result or after 14 days. She said she wished there was a pediatric assessment centre where she could have taken her children instead of the ER, but the drive-thru testing centres don’t test children under the age of two.

“You don’t want the ERs to be loaded with these parents to try to prove that their kids don’t have COVID,” she said.

With long lineups and not enough sites in some regions, Morris said the testing backlog poses a risk to the school system because families may become more reluctant to report symptoms if they know they will have to go through an ordeal to have their child tested.

“The fact that we are having people wait in line for hours, the fact that we don’t have the capacity at the moment, and for a variety of means, to do all the testing that is being demanded, that’s a huge risk to our fight against COVID,” he said.

In an effort to respond to the increasing demand for tests, provinces are scrambling to introduce more testing sites, such as at pharmacies in Ontario and Alberta, mobile clinics in Quebec, and an easier method of testing using a “mouth rinse gargle” in B.C. to speed up the process.

INTERRUPTIONS

All of the parents CTV News spoke said they were concerned about how they would be able to manage their schedules if they’re required to pick up their children, take them for a test, stay at home with them, and work at the same time.

“I don’t know how it’s going to work in the future,” Cheng-Ghafour said. “If every time somebody has a sniffle or dry cough or something, we have to stay home for 14 days… I’m just in the process of opening a new practice and I’m thinking ‘I don’t know how it’s going to work.’”

Miriam Beamish said she’s having a particularly difficult time caring for her four-year-old daughter and making these decisions on her own after her husband died. The Toronto mother said she had to drop everything and pick up her son from his kindergarten class at a private daycare in the city after he developed a runny nose.

She said her son didn’t end up having COVID-19 and he always has a runny nose at this time of year so he was able to return a few days later, but it’s stressful to think she may have to go through this again.

“I don’t have somebody who to make these big decisions with. I have to make them all by myself and it’s really hard to know what the right thing to do is,” she said. “It’s just such a scary, scary time.”

In addition to the disruption in parents’ lives, Gilda Benhamou, whose son attends the Montreal private high school that paused in-person learning, said she’s concerned about the impact on his education.

“I’m more worried about my son’s education,” she told CTV News Montreal on Thursday. “I think the school is going above and beyond and has done everything in their power to make sure the kids are safe.”

Morris said families will have to try to be adaptable as they can as public health guidance and school policies evolve over the course of the school year in response to virus’ spread.

“Things are going to change. They [families] are getting used to changes. They’re about to have more changes,” he said. “We need to learn to adapt. When you get more information, you need to be adaptable.”

With files from CTV News Montreal  

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Finalists announced for 2020 Nature Inspiration Awards from Canadian Museum of Nature

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OTTAWA, Sept. 18, 2020 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — The Canadian Museum of Nature, Canada’s national museum of natural history and natural sciences, is pleased to announce the 23 finalists and the Lifetime Achievement recipient for its 2020 Nature Inspiration Awards.

These national awards, now in their seventh year, celebrate projects by individuals, groups and organizations whose leadership and innovation connect Canadians with the natural world. Due to COVID precautions, this year’s winners will be announced by the museum on November 25 through online means, rather than during an in-person gala ceremony.

The projects led by this year’s finalists, which were selected from among 85 nominations, address topics that include biodiversity and conservation, environmental education, and sustainable practices.

Among them are youth who advocate about the wonder of species diversity, as well as adults who galvanize others to conserve natural areas. Not-for-profits show leadership in education to preserve waterways and forests, engagement of citizen-scientists, and the protection of natural environments. The businesses being recognized show innovation with the development of “green” products, as well as environmental stewardship programs.

This year’s laureate of the Lifetime Achievement Award is spiritual leader, teacher and conservationist Father Charles Brandt, who lives in Black Creek, British Columbia. Now aged 97, the “hermit-priest” is best known for galvanizing volunteers and spearheading a campaign to successfully clean up the Tsolum River on Vancouver Island. This helped revitalize the river’s salmon population, which had declined due to pollution from an abandoned copper mine.

The shortlist for the 2020 awards comprises finalists in six categories: Youth (aged 17 and younger), Individuals (aged 18 and up), Not-for-Profits (small to medium), Not-for-Profits (large), Businesses (small to medium), and Businesses (large).

“Unlike past years, these 2020 awards are being announced at a time when access to nature, and a healthy connection with the natural world, seem more important than ever. Each of the finalists lead by example and inspire us in supporting a sustainable future,” says Meg Beckel, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Nature and Chair/ex-officio member of the selection jury. “We are pleased to recognize the efforts of our finalists, and even though we are forgoing our usual celebration gala, we look forward to acknowledging their achievements online through our website and social media channels.”

The Nature Inspiration Awards are supported by media partners The Globe and Mail and the Walrus. Category sponsors are the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) for the Youth Award, and Ontario Power Generation for the Not-for-Profits (small to medium) Award.       

The jury included Shelley Ambrose, former Executive Director/Co-Publisher, The Walrus; Caitlyn Baikie, Education Policy Advisor, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami; Carolynn Beaty, Director of Granting, The Sitka Foundation; Jack Cockwell, Chairman/CEO, Partners Limited; Philip Crawley, Publisher, The Globe and Mail; Dolf DeJong, CEO, Toronto Zoo; Marti Ford, Executive Director, Arctic Inspiration Prize; John Geiger, CEO, Royal Canadian Geographical Society; Danika Goosney, Vice-President, Scholarships and Fellowships, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council; Geoff Green, Founder and Executive Director, Students on Ice Foundation; and Erica Thompson, Senior National Director, Conservation Engagement and Development, Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Winners for each category receive $5,000 that they can designate to a nature-related program of their choice. The Nature Inspiration Awards are produced by the Canadian Museum of Nature. Full details, as well as profiles of the finalists, can be found at nature.ca/awards.                                                                                                                                      

Here is the list of finalists:
Youth category (aged 17 and under)

  • Vesa Barileva, youth scientist (biodegradable food packaging), Oakville, Ontario
  • Genevieve Leroux, environmental advocate for the Monarch Butterfly, Gatineau, Quebec
  • Grace Gong, founder of Greenshirt, not-for-profit that diverts used clothing from landfill, Mississauga, Ontario
  • Sophia Spencer, author, insect enthusiast and founder of #BugsR4Girls, Sarnia, Ontario

Individual category (aged 18 and up)

  • Nory Esteban, teacher and naturalist, coordinator of Wings over the Rockies bird festival, Port Coquitlam, British Columbia
  • Elin Kelsey, environmental activist and author, Victoria, British Columbia
  • Amanda McConnell, co-founder of Grassroots Albany, a community forum for environmental discussion and action, Toronto, Ontario
  • Gary Schneider, environmentalist and co-founder of the Environmental Coalition of PEI, Stratford, Prince Edward Island

Not-For-Profit category (small/medium organization)

  • International Conservation Fund of Canada, programs to conserve threatened tropical ecosystems, Chester, Nova Scotia
  • Tree Canada, community engagement for tree-planting, Ottawa, Ontario
  • Water Rangers, citizen-science efforts to collect water quality data, Ottawa, Ontario

Not-For-Profit category (large organization)

  • Beaty Water Research Centre, research, education and outreach about aquatic ecosystems, and clean water. Kingston, Ontario
  • David Suzuki Foundation, Butterflyway Project: planting local wildflower, plant and shrubs patches Vancouver, British Columbia
  • Goodwill Industries of Alberta, diversion and reuse of goods from landfill, Edmonton, Alberta
  • Nature-Action Québec, protection and preservation of natural areas in Montreal’s urban areas, Beloeil, Quebec

Business category (small to medium)

  • FireRein Inc, development of bio-based, non-toxic foams for use by firefighters, Napanee, Ontario
  • PBA Tundra Supply, Ltd., research and development of a maple hybrid to grow in adverse soil conditions, West Elgin, Ontario
  • Sans façon, integration of a stormwater treatment facility into the design of an urban public park, Calgary Alberta
  • ULAT Dryer Balls, invention, patent and development of wool dryer balls Parksville, British Columbia

Business category (large)

  • Fresh City Farms, Canada’s largest commercial urban farm, with a sustainable and locally focussed approach, North York, Ontario
  • Nutrien, use of a waste byproduct from the phosphate fertilizer industry to create soil and grow trees. Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta
  • Ontario Power Generation, implementation of biodiversity conservation programs and environmental assessments, Toronto, Ontario
  • TELUS, sustainable business practices towards 2030 carbon neutral goal, including tree-planting program to offset paper usage, Ottawa, Ontario

About the Canadian Museum of Nature
Saving the world through evidence, knowledge and inspiration! The Canadian Museum of Nature provides evidence-based insights, inspiring experiences and meaningful engagement with nature’s past, present and future. It achieves this through scientific research, a collection of 14.6 million specimens and artifacts, education programs, signature and travelling exhibitions, and a dynamic web site, nature.ca.

Information for media:
Dan Smythe
Head, Media Relations
Canadian Museum of Nature
613.698.9253 (cell)
1.800.263.4433
dsmythe@mus-nature.ca

John Swettenham
Chief Marketing Officer
Canadian Museum of Nature
613.868-8277 (cell)  
1.800.263.4433
jswettenhamnature.ca

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University education program still on hold for inmates across Canada

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As university and college students start school this month, inmates across the country will not have access to a program that offers university credits at no cost.

The Walls to Bridges program has been on hiatus at federal prisons and provincial jails since the start of the pandemic shutdown in March as a safety precaution. It’s not clear when it’ll start again, according to Shoshana Pollack, who founded the program in partnership with Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont. in 2011.

The program has been taught in five federal institutions across Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia, as well as several provincial jails. It’s even been expanded to a jail in Paris, France.

The university or college working with the facility helps fund the course for the incarcerated students with the help of community organizations and charities, and then the other half of the class is made up of students from the school.

“We’re the only post-secondary program in Canada that brings people from outside to study with people on the inside,” said Pollack, who’s also a professor in the Department of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University.

The program is an accessible option for students because it doesn’t require an internet connection, which inmates don’t often have access to, said Pollack.

‘Felt like I was a human being’

Rachel Fayter, who was incarcerated at Grand Valley Institution from 2014 to 2017, says she’s concerned for the students who are missing out on the program because of the pandemic.

“For those folks that are locked up, Walls to Bridges might have been their only opportunity to have an education,” said Fayter.

“There’s not very much access to [post-secondary] education, there’s not internet access, the computers are ancient … any kind of mail correspondence you have to pay for the courses yourself. So it’s very difficult for somebody in prison and has no income.”

Fayter, who’s now a third year PhD student in the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa, says the program changed her life.

It didn’t happen after the first class, but the confidence it gave her changed her outlook. She became hopeful again.

“In the Walls to bridges classroom, it was the first time in probably a year where I actually felt like I was a human being and my voice and experiences were valuable and respected,” said Fayter.

The classes are taught through a learning circle. The idea is to allow all perspectives into the circle, learn from one another and discover how students’ experiences have shaped how they view the world.

‘Don’t know where I’d be’

Since 2011, there have been 559 inmates across the country who have taken courses through the program.

Rachel Fayter (left) and Shoshana Pollack (second from left) with two other alumni of the program. Fayter says the program changed her life. (Submitted by Shoshana Pollack)

Melissa Alexander is another graduate. She was studying computer systems technology at Seneca College in Toronto before she became an inmate at Grand Valley Institution. 

“When you’re inside, you feel like you have no rights,” said Alexander. “Even when you get out you feel like there’s nothing you can do because you have a permanent record.”

Alexander took four courses over three years through the social work department at Laurier. 

Inmates who complete courses then become part of a collective, helping advise the program going forward. She describes that community as pivotal in helping her forge a path for herself after her release in 2017.

“Without this group, I don’t know where I’d be today,” said Alexander, who now is a peer support worker in Toronto and a carpenter apprentice. She also plans to get her degree in social work with a minor in law.

‘It’s a necessity’

Peter Stuart, chief of education at Grand Valley Institution, says when women come into the prison, they’re often hungry to learn. They want to further their education, he says, and post-secondary education is critical.

“This idea that post-secondary education is a perk for offenders, I think is an outdated concept. I think it’s a necessity,” said Stuart.

“In our society, a high school diploma is obviously essential, but it’s not really enough anymore. Especially if you have a criminal record as an obstacle, you need to have not only the same as what other people have, but if anything something more,” said Stuart.

He says the prison looked at different models such as video conferencing to keep the program going through the pandemic, but Walls to Bridges relies on having students from the outside and inside together in one space without barriers.

“The model that Walls to Bridges uses just couldn’t work while COVID protocols were in effect,” said Stuart.

The women have been taking part in literature exchanges and correspondence while the program is on hold, according to Stuart. He hopes the program will start running again in the spring of 2021 at the prison. 

“As soon as we get the go ahead from public health and provincial and federal authorities, we’ll bring it back in immediately,” said Stuart.

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