Federal government eases rules on Syrian refugee claims

OTTAWA – The Conservative government says it will speed up the processing of Syrian refugee applications in an effort to issue “thousands more” visas before the end of this year.

Syrians fleeing the civil war and sectarian conflict will no longer have to prove they are convention refugees under the United Nations Refugee Agency, but will be presumed to be refugees by Canadian authorities for the purposes of vetting their applications.

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The government will also put more diplomats on the ground overseas to screen refugees, more than double the number of staff working to process sponsorship applications here in Canada, and appoint a special co-ordinator to handle the overall file of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

READ MORE: ‘Old-stock Canadians’ are those already here, says Harper spokesman

“Security screening will remain the top priority,” Chris Alexander, the minister of citizenship and immigration, said Saturday at a news conference in east Toronto where he’s campaigning for re-election on Oct. 19.

Alexander stressed that the government is “accelerating our existing commitment” to refugee resettlement, not increasing the actual target numbers.

But the new measures, which are expected to cost $25 million over two years, could speed up the movement of some 10,000 Syrian refugees to Canada from the current three-year timetable by about 15 months, he said.

A campaigning Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also proposed to bring in an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees if re-elected.

The humanitarian crisis spreading from Syria into Europe has sideswiped the election campaign and put Harper’s Conservative government on the defensive ever since it emerged that the extended family of a drowned Syrian toddler aspired to come to Canada.

The aunt of dead three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose photo galvanized international attention, lives in the Vancouver area and had failed in a refugee sponsorship bid for the young boy’s uncle earlier this year.

One of the roadblocks to the Kurdi family’s reunification was their lack of convention refugee status from the overwhelmed UN body.

WATCH: New Syrian refugees in Toronto feel safe after years of turmoil

That hurdle, which the Conservatives imposed in a previous round of refugee reforms, has been removed.

“We did not make up this plan on the back of a napkin or pull it out of thin air,” said Alexander.

“We looked carefully at our capacity. We looked carefully at the steps and procedures to keep Canada and Canadians safe. And we’ve come up with a much accelerated plan that will bring 10,000 Syrian refugees here by September 2016.”

Harper, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau are back out on the campaign trail Sunday after a down day Saturday to regroup.

Opposition parties who have been clamouring for faster government handling of the Syrian refugee crisis – and for accepting increased numbers of refugees – gave only grudging approval.

While Canadians, from individual sponsors to city mayors and provincial premiers, have been acting, Harper has been stonewalling, Liberal candidate John McCallum said in a release.

“Today he recognized that the Conservative government’s policies were failing,” said the Liberal. “He has refused to provide leadership on this issue, continually hiding behind fear mongering and bureaucratic roadblocks.”

Earlier Saturday, Harper announced in a press release that a re-elected Conservative government would create something called a “Maple Leaf” designation, to be awarded to no more than five to seven individuals per year.

READ MORE: Harper makes campaign appeal to new Canadians with promise of ‘Maple Leaf’ award

The release from the prime minister says new Canadians are great ambassadors, while noting that one in five Canadians – some 6.8 million – are foreign born.

Harper created something of a social media storm during an election leaders’ debate Thursday in Calgary when he referred to “old stock” Canadians while defending his government’s cuts to refugee health care. New Democrats and Liberals jumped on the comment, alleging Harper is dividing Canadians by suggesting citizens can be characterized in separate categories.

“We’re lucky to have millions of people who come to Canada to build a new life and also maintain close ties with their birth country,” Harper said in Saturday’s news release.

The Conservative party said in a background release that recipients of the proposed award must have “a track record of promoting strong links between Canada and their home country as exemplified by business investment, arts and cultural exchanges, and international development work.”

©2015The Canadian Press

Summer construction projects come to a close in Saskatoon – Saskatoon

SASKATOON – Director of public works Pat Hyde summarizes the City of Saskatoon’s progress on annual summer maintenance and infrastructure programs by saying it may not be glamorous, but civic crews have been working through the season fixing roads and infrastructure.

“The spring blitz program for sweeping and potholes. Then we carry on to our city-wide street sweeping program. We did multiple other programs such as bridge sealing, bridge cleaning, guard rails, blade leveling, as well as back lane maintenance programs,” said Hyde.

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On the contentious issue of potholes, the city says it got a good handle on the situation thanks to the popularity of the online report a pothole app.

“We’ve had about 2,800 potholes reported on the pothole app and we have about 60 per cent of those completed,” said Hyde.

READ MORE: Lane twinning cuts off Hampton Village residents

Mother Nature was on the city’s side. The nice weather was an essential to keeping most maintenance plans on schedule.

“We’ve had a very good start to the programs because it has been unusually dry. For both spring and early summer conditions, which really helped us kick start the programs. It made a huge impact,” said Hyde.

As the summer months come to a close crews are beginning to wind down their construction season.

However, in preparation for the first snowfall a tentative final street sweep is scheduled for Oct. 18.

2 top Mexican prison officials among 13 arrested in drug kingpin Guzman’s prison escape – National

MEXICO CITY – The former head of Mexico’s federal prisons and the ex-director of the Altiplano penitentiary that drug capo Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped from are among 13 additional people arrested in the jail break, an official with the federal Prosecutor’s Office said Saturday.

A statement from the Prosecutor’s Office on Friday said 11 men and 2 women had been arrested, but didn’t name them.

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Celina Oseguera Parra, who oversaw the country’s federal prisons, and Valentin Cardenas Lerma, the Altiplano prison director, were among those arrested, said an official with the Prosecutor’s Office. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be quoted by the press.

Oseguera Parra and Cardenas Lerma were both forced to resign after the July 11 escape.

READ MORE: Tour of El Chapo’s tunnel shows audacity of drug lord’s escape

The suspects in the latest batch of arrests also included Leonor Garcia Garcia, head of the prison’s legal department and top official on duty the night of the July 11 prison break, the official said. The other 10 suspects also worked in the penal system.

A federal judge this month began proceedings in the case against four officials, including two intelligence service members and two prison control room employees. They were accused of aiding Guzman’s escape through a tunnel dug to his cell.

Proceedings were already under way against the person in charge of the penitentiary’s control room and two prison guards.

Guzman, head of the Juarez Cartel, also escaped from another maximum security prison in 2001.

How Mexican drug lord El Chapo escaped a maximum security prison


How Mexican drug lord El Chapo escaped a maximum security prison


Take a walking tour of tunnel ‘El Chapo’ used to escape prison


Security video shows moment ‘El Chapo’ disappears

©2015The Associated Press

Paralyzed Edmonton man takes part in charity walk thanks to the help of robotic exoskeleton – Edmonton

EDMONTON — An Edmonton man who was paralyzed from the chest down after a car accident five years ago was able to participate in a five-kilometre walk thanks to the help of technology.

Denny Ross used the ReWalk robotics exoskeleton to take part in the N.E.R.D. Run/walk at Hawrelak Park Saturday morning. The device powers hip and knee motion; leaning from side-to-side triggers a step.

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“It was just a game-changer for me,” Ross said of the first time he used the exoskeleton.

After breaking his back in 2010, Ross said he went through a period of depression and didn’t know what to do.

“Having something that you take for granted so easily as walking just taken away from you, it’s devastating,” he said. “It took months for it to even set in, maybe even years for me to realize the full magnitude of it. And then it took probably a couple more years for me to stop fighting the fact that I thought I would never walk again.”

Wanting to do something to better himself and others in his situation, Ross joined a pilot study at the U of A that looks at how people benefit from the ReWalk. Since joining the project last year, Ross has made incredible progress with the exoskeleton and can now walk more than one kilometre.

“Being able to put on a robot suit and actually stand up and take a step on my own, it was an amazing feeling. It still amazes me every time I get to get up and go for a rip.”

READ MORE: Step-by-step, Edmonton man continues pursuit to walk again

Dr. Jaynie Yang, with the U of A’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, said training with the ReWalk is intense; those using it train five days a week for three months.

“You don’t just put the suit on and walk. It’s a lot of work,” said Yang.

Yang is part of the research team studying how the ReWalk affects the nervous system to help Ross and others with paraplegia. Karim Fouad, director of operations at the U of A’s Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute, said while the ReWalk is just a start, he hopes continued research will help improve people’s quality of life.

“To do that, you actually have to meet these people and learn what they really need and want,” Fouad explained. “You cannot just live in your ivory tower. It’s really important to talk to the community and to break down barriers.”

And that’s why having Ross participate in events like the one in Edmonton Saturday is so important, Fouad added.

“The goal is to have people here to raise awareness of our institute, to raise awareness of neurological disorders and all those things our institute actually addresses.”

Ross was happy to help because he too knows this is only the beginning for him.

“This is just the beginning of the technology, right? Who knows where it’s going to go.”

The ReWalk was purchased by the Spinal Cord Injury Treatment Centre in 2014 and then leased to the U of A for $1.

All money raised at the N.E.R.D. run goes towards research at the U of A’s Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute.