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Vaughn Palmer: Bains spills beans on WorkSafeBC surplus taking huge hit due to virus

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This article was published in Vancouver Sun and authored by Vaughn Palmer

Image: Labour Minister Harry Bains had to backtrack a bit on his comments about WorkSafeBC losing its $3 billion surplus due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. POSTMEDIA NEWS FILES / PNG

VICTORIA — Labour Minister Harry Bains was nearing the end of a media briefing last week when he fielded a question that would cause him no end of trouble.

What did he think of the B.C. Liberal proposal that WorkSafeBC use its surplus to help businesses buy personal protective equipment for employees during the COVID-19 pandemic?

“Good question,” replied Bains. “Every business has their own suppliers, and they should work with them. And if they need support from WorkSafeBC, they should approach WorkSafeBC.”

The briefing moved on. But once it was over, Bains called Rob Shaw of The Vancouver Sun, who’d asked the question, to provide an important detail.

He disclosed that the WorkSafe surplus, the one referenced by the B.C. Liberals, had been pretty much vaporized by the novel coronavirus pandemic-driven downturn in the stock market.

“WorkSafeBC is not immune to COVID-19 either,” the labour minister told the reporter.

“Their investments have sunk to almost zero when it comes to the surplus money they are sitting on. Almost all of the surplus has been wiped out a couple weeks ago because of our stock market, and that’s where the money was invested.”

The WorkSafe surplus had been reported at about $2.9 billion in its last public report. Now, said Bains, it was “almost all gone.”

The news, when reported in The Vancouver Sun Saturday, caused a stir.

WorkSafe was the lead agency in overseeing the reopening of the provincial economy, providing guidelines and oversight to businesses on how to keep employees and customers safe.

Yet it was unable to help those same businesses help their employees because of the giant hole blasted in its own surplus accounts.

Never mind that the rules would likely have precluded the surplus being used for the purposes envisioned by the Liberals.

Or that the New Democrats wanted to tap the surplus to top up benefits for injured workers. The money was gone for those purposes as well.

The B.C. Liberals lost no time pouncing on what looked like a case of mismanagement.

“The people of B.C., and especially the people who paid premiums to WorkSafe, are entitled to know who lost $3 billion in a matter of weeks,” charged Opposition leader Andrew Wilkinson. “Where is the accountability? The NDP need to answer for this immediately.”

Though the news story made clear that the loss had been confined to WorkSafe’s surplus funds, the labour minister was forced to clarify that there was no effect on the reserves used to pay current and future claims.

“B.C. employers and workers should be absolutely confident that WorkSafeBC remains on firm financial footing, and are able to maintain operations, pay benefits, protect workers,” Bains said on Sunday. “I regret that my recent comments may have caused confusion about their financial position.”

Not content with the minister’s effort to clarify the waters he had muddied, WorkSafe put out a statement of its own.

“WorkSafeBC retains a reasonable level of assets over liabilities,” it read in part. “Prior to the pandemic, WorkSafeBC was in a very strong financial position, and we remain financially sound. Currently, WorkSafeBC continues to exceed its target funding level, despite the volatility.”

But having said that, the organization admitted the minister had not pulled his comment about the surplus out of thin air.

Rather, he’d seized on a worst-case scenario generated by WorkSafe actuaries in gauging the impact of “widely varying economic forecasts” on the surplus.

“Current year-to-date investment losses are estimated to be approximately five per cent or $1 billion on an asset base of approximately $20 billion,” the agency reported. But in the worst case, it could be three times as great.

“It is impossible to know at this point what the actual final results will be,” the statement continued. “We will not know the full impact of COVID-19 on our financial position for some time.”

But a decline of even $1 billion would constitute a significant hit on the surplus.

The multibillion-dollar gap between the labour minister and WorkSafe on the surplus prompted a follow-up letter from Opposition leader Wilkinson to Premier John Horgan.

“British Columbians urgently deserve a full and up-to-date financial accounting of the money they have entrusted to WorkSafeBC,” he wrote Tuesday. “Your government must engage the auditor general to promptly report on the financial position of WorkSafeBC and provide an explanation of the minister’s comments.”

Not likely. But it is worth noting that in neighbouring Alberta, the government-owned investment manager has enlisted outside experts to investigate a reported $2 billion loss attributed to pandemic-related fluctuations in financial markets.

Here in B.C., government-owned ICBC recently admitted the decline in its equity investments could “exceed $1 billion depending on the length and scope of the market downturn.”

All of which prompted reporter Shaw to request a status update from B.C. Investment Management Corporation, which manages public sector pension plans along with investments for ICBC and WorkSafe.

“BCI had been anticipating and prepared for a market downturn by defensively positioning and diversifying our clients’ portfolios,” said the statement in reply.

“Client portfolios entered 2020 in a solid financial position, and the (pension) plans remain well funded.”

As with WorkSafe and ICBC, BCI was only speaking of the situation up to the March 31 end of the financial year.

But thanks to labour minister Bains, the public has now been alerted to the possibility of more discouraging scenarios to come.

Michael GoodmanVaughn Palmer: Bains spills beans on WorkSafeBC surplus taking huge hit due to virus
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Ontario to take control of five long-term care homes after military report citing neglect, abuse

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The article was published in The Globe and Mail and authored by Karen Howlett, Laura Stone, Jill Mahoney and Tu Thanh Ha

The image is of a body is removed from Orchard Villa Care home in Pickering, Ont., on April 26, 2020.

 

The Ontario government is taking control of five long-term care homes, including four that the Canadian military says neglected and abused residents, while the Auditor-General launches a review into the province’s handling of the pandemic.

The government is facing mounting criticism for failing to discover deplorable conditions in seniors’ residences before the military stepped in. Premier Doug Ford announced on Wednesday that in addition to taking over the homes, his government is ramping up inspections and fast-tracking an independent commission to probe the sector.

“We need boots on the ground,” Mr. Ford said. “I want eyes and ears in the homes that we’re most worried about.”

A Canadian Armed Forces report released on Tuesday details horrific conditions in five of Ontario’s long-term care homes – including residents left in soiled diapers and crying out for help for hours.

The Ontario government is appointing temporary management at five private, for-profit homes where a total of 263 residents have died: Eatonville Care Centre in Etobicoke, Hawthorne Place Care Centre in North York, Altamont Care Community in Scarborough and Orchard Villa in Pickering, all named in the military report, as well as Camilla Care Community in Mississauga. The government is not taking over a fifth home cited in the report, Holland Christian, because the situation has stabilized.

A second report released on Wednesday contains the Armed Forces’ findings in Quebec homes. While devoid of the appalling examples in the first report, the military portrays a dysfunctional elder-care system in Quebec that buckled under when the pandemic struck.

The report describes orderlies in Quebec seniors’ homes disappearing during their shifts, boxes of surgical masks and narcotics that went missing, long-time employees quarrelling with newcomers and repeatedly ignoring safety instructions.

The coronavirus has killed 1,587 residents of long-term care homes in Ontario and 2,700 in Quebec, the two hardest-hit provinces. The virus has also caused thousands of workers sickened with the virus in these chronically understaffed homes to miss work, forcing the premiers of both provinces to ask for assistance from the Forces.

Mr. Ford said on Wednesday the military has agreed to stay on until at least June 12. Quebec Premier François Legault has requested that the army assistance be extended until Sept. 15.

Ontario will also expedite to July a previously announced independent commission to examine the pandemic’s impact on long-term care homes, which was set to start in September. Mr. Ford said the commission will include public hearings, witnesses and public reports. It will also have authority to investigate his office and he is willing to testify.

“We want this to happen,” he said, “100 per cent I’ll be a witness.”

The Premier also promised “expanded and rigorous” inspections of the five homes named in the military’s report, as well as a sixth home the province is taking over in Mississauga, west of Toronto. He said inspectors will monitor the facilities for two weeks, with at least one inspector remaining in the home for the entire time.

The plans to beef up scrutiny of the worst-hit homes raised questions as to why government inspectors did not flag problems earlier.

Jane Meadus, a lawyer at the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, said the announcement is “too little, too late.”

“This is something they should have been absolutely on top of and now they’re having to scramble,” she said.

Ms. Meadus noted that in late March, the Ontario Ministry of Long-Term Care said it was “redeploying” inspectors to support nursing homes as they dealt with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. She called on the government to reinstate comprehensive annual inspections of long-term care facilities, noting that only nine of the province’s 626 homes received in-depth inspections known as resident quality inspections last year.

Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton said her ministry inspectors have been “in contact” with struggling homes to provide support during the pandemic but she did not answer a question asking when the five homes in the military report were last inspected by the government. She said the province’s inspections system is rigorous and is not to blame for poor conditions in nursing homes, noting that the previous Liberal government decreased the number of resident quality inspections after a report by the Auditor-General.

“What we do know is that the homes that get in COVID-positive situations can spiral out of control very quickly,” she said.

Mr. Ford added that COVID-19 has “changed the game.” The newly announced inspections will be “a lot more rigorous than in the past,” he said.

Ontario Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk said in an interview on Wednesday that her office is taking a broader look at how prepared Ontario was to handle the coronavirus, and launched a special audit this month into, “the whole pandemic preparedness and management” in the health-care sector.

“The inspection role is key here, listening to residents, listening to families, going in checking,” Ms. Lysyk said. “We had some concerns on the way they did that.”

In her 2015 annual report, Ms. Lysyk found that while the government conducted comprehensive inspections of all long-term care homes that year, inspectors had fallen behind on responding to critical incidents, such as abuse or neglect, as well as to complaints.

Eatonville and Hawthorne are among 11 long-term care homes owned by Rykka Care Centres.

“We have worked tirelessly to ensure the homes that we manage have the resources and the tools they need to provide a safe and comfortable environment for the seniors who call our community their home,” said Linda Calabrese, a vice-president at Responsive Management Inc., Rykka’s operating partner. “Most of the homes that we manage have been successful at keeping COVID-19 at bay.”

Altamont and Camilla are both owned by Sienna Senior Living Inc. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Orchard Villa, which is owned by Southbridge Care Homes, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Armed Force’s 60-page report on Quebec summarizes the observations of more than 1,000 military personnel deployed at 25 seniors’ homes.

At Montreal’s Grace Dart Extended Care Centre, where 61 patients have died, some employees arrived late or would go missing during work for 30 minutes to two hours, the document said.

At Vigi Mont-Royal, a private Montreal facility where 70 residents died, the home had trouble controlling the distribution of personal protective equipment and medications. For example, a shipment of 20 boxes of surgical masks and one of narcotics disappeared.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he will speak with the premiers on Thursday about how to address concerns in long-term care facilities.

He said he would not “short circuit” that conversation by putting forward proposals for reforms.

“Of course, there will be many important discussions going forward on how we establish a better system in Canada,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Michael GoodmanOntario to take control of five long-term care homes after military report citing neglect, abuse
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After $2.1-billion trading loss, AIMCo board hires outside experts to audit fund manager

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The article was published on The Globe and Mail and authored by Andrew Willis

AIMCo announced that accounting firm KPMG LLP and former Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan chief risk officer Barbara Zvan, pictured here on April 17, 2009, have been brought on board.

 

Alberta’s government-owned money manager is launching a formal investigation into a recent $2.1-billion loss and promising to fix what ails a fund plagued by poor performance.

The board of directors at Alberta Investment Management Corp., known as AIMCo, announced that accounting firm KPMG LLP and former Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan chief risk officer Barbara Zvan were brought in to “to identify lessons learned and corresponding enhancements to AIMCo’s investment and risk management processes.”

In its first public comment on the loss, which came to light in early April, the board said a report is expected by the middle of June and will be shared with AIMCo’s clients and the provincial government.

Edmonton-based AIMCo oversees $119-billion on behalf of 31 clients, including pension plans for health care workers and police officers and the $18-billion Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund, the province’s war chest fund derived from oil royalties.

In late March, stock markets plummeted and then soared in reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak. AIMCo posted outsized losses when an investment strategy linked to volatility “performed particularly poorly,” the board said last Thursday in a press release. In the derivative-based strategy, now discontinued, AIMCo earned small returns when markets were calm, but suffered heavy losses when the economic collapse wrought by COVID-19 sent the S&P 500 and other stock benchmarks on a roller-coaster ride, putting it on the losing end of the trades.

In early April, AIMCo clients said the fund manager faced losses of up to $4-billion but AIMCo has subsequently revised the estimate.

After learning of the loss, many of AIMCo clients met with the fund’s executives and subsequently said they were frustrated with a lack of disclosure on who was responsible for the volatility-linked strategy and what, if anything, went wrong with risk management.

AIMCo’s board took ownership of the trading losses last week and committed to improving performance at the fund manager. “Oversight of AIMCo’s investment strategies and risk management is the responsibility of the board,” the directors said in a press release. “We deeply regret this result and are determined that the lessons from this experience will improve the corporation’s management processes and prevent any similar occurrences.”

AIMCo’s board is led by former Enbridge Inc. chief financial officer Richard Bird and includes retired executives from a number of financial institutions, including BlackRock Inc., Sun Life Financial Inc. and Manulife Financial Corp. The board said it hired senior partners from KMPG’s financial risk management team to conduct “an independent review,” in additional to an internal audit by the fund’s executives. Ms. Zvan, an actuary by training, volunteered to help the Alberta fund’s board after spending 24 years at the $201-billion Ontario teachers’ fund before leaving in January. She is known as one the country’s top risk management experts.

Last month, AIMCo executives also said the fund manager planned to change its approach. “Let me be clear, the performance of this investment is wholly unsatisfactory,” chief executive Kevin Uebelein said in an open letter to clients. “Please know I am fully focused on one thing: making any and all changes to ensure AIMCo is stronger and that we avoid a repeat of this outcome.”

AIMCo incurred its high-profile loss at a time when Alberta’s economy is reeling from the combined impact of the global pandemic and oil price war. The fund manager is a central player in the ruling United Conservative Party’s plans to revive the province.

Last year, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced the previously independent pension plan for the province’s teachers is moving into AIMCo next year, a plan the teachers’ union opposes. Mr. Kenney has also been considering moving the province’s contributions to the Canada Pension Plan into AIMCo.

Investment performance is a continuing issue at AIMCo. The firm’s biggest client is the $50-billion Local Authorities Pension Plan, known as LAPP, which oversees retirement savings for the province’s health care workers. Alberta regulations require LAPP to use AIMCo as its fund manager. The pension plan has flagged poor performance as a problem for many years, noting in its most recent annual report that “AIMCo has been short of LAPP’s value-added expectations for 46 consecutive quarters, or 11 years and six months.”

AIMCo is expected to release financial results for the first three months of the year by the end of May, and clients who have been briefed on performance say the fund manager lagged comparable funds across most sectors, in addition to taking a significant hit on the volatility-linked strategy.

The median pension plan return was a 7.1-per-cent loss in the quarter, according to data compiled by a division of Royal Bank of Canada. However, there was a wide range of results, with top fund managers down just 2.9 per cent and the poorest-performing pension plans off by 12.7 per cent, according to RBC Investor and Treasury Services.

“It has been an exceptionally difficult period for Canadian pension plans to navigate, as the markets have been experiencing an unprecedented amount of volatility across asset classes,” RBC executive David Linds said in a release. Canada’s stock benchmark, which is heavily weighted to energy companies, was one of the worst performing markets in the world, with the S&P/TSX Composite Index declining 21 per cent in the first three months of the year.

Michael GoodmanAfter $2.1-billion trading loss, AIMCo board hires outside experts to audit fund manager
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Bidding war erupts for Vancouver heritage home during the pandemic

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The article was published on Vancouver Sun and authored by John Mackie

Image: A 1906 house at 2120 East Pender in Vancouver was recently listed for $1.588 million and sold for $1.928 million. FRANCIS GEORGIAN / PNG

 

Real estate listings, and sales, have plunged during the COVID-19 crisis. But some properties are still selling.

Realtor David Richardson recently listed a handsome heritage home at 2120 East Pender for $1.588 million. Open houses have been nixed during the crisis, so his office set up private viewings by appointment on April 25 and 26.

So many people wanted to see it they had to extend the viewings for two days. They received 14 offers, and the buzz in the real estate industry is that the house sold for $1.928 million, $340,000 above the asking price.

Richardson wouldn’t confirm the price because the deal hasn’t closed yet. But he said there was a lot of action.

“We sent out 8,000 flyers (for the listing, noting it was) by appointment only,” said Richardson. “We lined them up every 20 minutes, and it took four days to show 75 people.”

The house was built in 1906, when its neighbourhood (Grandview) was vying to be one of Vancouver’s elite areas.

It’s big (four bedrooms, 2,500 square feet) and is brimming with character, with a turret on the outside, big open spaces on the main floor and lots of old growth wood and stained glass. It’s also on a large lot, 50 by 66 feet.

In short it’s the kind of home you might find in parts of Kitsilano or the West End. But you’d have to pay much more for a house like this on the west side, so Richardson said many of the people looking were west siders looking east.

“There’s a 20 per cent price difference (between the west and east sides),” said Richardson, who usually sells west side properties. “On a $2 million house, that’s $400,000.”

Richardson thinks one of the reasons the house attracted so much attention was a lack of listings during the pandemic.

“Normally a guy like me carries 12 to 15 listings at this time of year. I’m carrying one or two, and they’re being snapped up right away.

Realtor Les Twarog said things have been slow.

“The real estate board normally has 120 sales a day, and we’re doing about 40 or 50 sales a day,” he said.

But things are starting to pick up: Twarog has listed eight properties in the last couple of weeks.

“I listed a property on Kingsway and Boundary, $350,000, and I got eight calls in two days on it,” said Twarog. “I have another property I listed in Victoria yesterday at five o’clock, and I got 15 calls. The price is $500,000.”

Twarog said the two key factors in selling seem to be “a lack of inventory and the price point.”

“Things are happening, but most sales are under $1.2 million,” he said. “Five hundred, six hundred, seven hundred thousand, those are the hot price points.”

On Vancouver’s west side, there were 421 detached houses for sale in April, but only 37 sales, which is down from 699 listings and 64 sales in April, 2019. In east Vancouver, there were 349 detached house listings and 49 sales, down from 664 listings and 66 sales in April, 2019.

There were 647 condos and townhomes listed on the west side in April, and 78 sales, down from 977 listings and 137 sales a year ago. Fifty-seven of the 78 sales were for $1 million or less.

On the east side, there were 386 condos and townhomes listed and 67 sales, down from 583 listings and 141 sales last April. Thirty-three of the 67 sales were for condos $600,000 and under.

Selling a home is a bit different during the COVID crisis. Realtors have been using online tools like Zoom, Google Meet and Instagram to try and show listings.

To see 2120 East Pender, you had to book an appointment in advance, and not be late.

“Each appointment was individually booked at a time,” said Sarah Starling, who works with Richardson.

“So we had 11, 11:20, 11:40, 20 minute intervals. Everyone was required to wear a mask and gloves, and we provided booties. So everybody had to go with mask, gloves, booties, one group at a time.”

Michael GoodmanBidding war erupts for Vancouver heritage home during the pandemic
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Major lenders begin to cut fixed mortgage rates

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This article appeared in the Globe and Mail on April 16, 2020
Written by Mark Rendell, Rachelle Younglai & James Bradshaw
Image: Bruce Bennett (Getty Image)

Fixed mortgage rates are creeping lower this week, as the funding markets that banks and other mortgage lenders use to raise money for loans have begun to normalize after weeks of outsized volatility.

Toronto-Dominion Bank brought its five-year fixed rate down to 3.09 per cent from 3.24 per cent this week, and several other major lenders including Royal Bank of Canada and MCAP have also reduced their rates. Five-year fixed-rate mortgages ranged between 2.39 per cent and 3.19 per cent this week, according to mortgage brokers, which is lower than the beginning of April, although still up compared with early March.

Fixed rates are finally coming down in line with a decline in government bond yields, as the cost of raising money by mortgage lenders has begun to return to normal after significant interventions in credit markets by the Bank of Canada and an improvement in investor sentiment.

Over the past six weeks, fixed mortgage rates have moved in puzzling ways.

After the first Bank of Canada interest-rate cut on March 4, mortgage lenders reduced their rates on fixed-term loans. Mortgage lenders, however, raised their fixed-term rates after the Bank of Canada’s two subsequent rate cuts in March, despite a steep drop in government treasury yields that month.

The reason for the unusual divergence between the movement of government bond yields and fixed mortgage rates is that lenders price mortgages based on their own funding costs, which are driven by market forces. As COVID-19 crashed into the financial system in late February, their cost of borrowing money, in both short-term and long-term markets, went through the roof.

Institutional investors who typically buy bank debt flocked to more liquid instruments, such as government bonds. In turn, corporate issuers saw their cost of issuing debt balloon as investors demanded larger liquidity and risk premiums to invest in anything but the safest assets.

“Investors became so defensive in their portfolios that even though the Bank of Canada interest rates were going lower, and the Government of Canada interest rates were going sharply lower, people are actually demanding higher yields to hold investment-grade credit,” said Andrew Kelvin, chief Canada strategist with TD Securities.

In late February, Canada’s largest banks could sell five-year bonds – the bedrock of five-year fixed-rate mortgages – for around 75 basis points above Government of Canada five-year bonds. That spread widened to almost 300 basis points in mid-March, although it has since come down considerably. (A basis point is a hundredth of a percentage point.)

The spreads on mortgage-backed securities and Canada Mortgage Bonds, which lenders, especially non-bank lenders, use to raise money for new mortgage loans, also shot up, even though most mortgage-backed securities are guaranteed by the federal government.

Mortgage-backed securities compete for investor attention with investment-grade bonds, said Mark Chandler, head of Canadian rate strategy at RBC Dominion Securities. “So as corporate bond spreads widened out, spreads for those got pulled wider as well,” he said.

Short-term funding markets experienced a similar shock, which had an impact on the discounts being offered on variable-rate mortgages. Although variable-rate mortgages are typically offered close to a lender’s prime rate, the discounts to prime are based on prices in the short-term credit market.

The key gauge of liquidity in short-term credit markets – the spread between the rate at which banks lend to corporations on a short-term basis and their own overnight borrowing costs – shot up from around 30 basis points in February to more than 130 basis points in March.

This was driven by the fact that demand for short-term credit outstripped supply, said Charles St-Arnaud, chief economist with Alberta Central, which provides banking services to 16 credit unions in the province. “The problem we have had is that everyone has been on the same side of the trade,” he said.

Credit markets have improved in recent weeks, with spreads coming down on a range of fixed-income products, Mr. St-Arnaud said. “That has allowed banks to see their own cost of funding being lowered,” he said.

This has been driven in part by improving investor sentiment, but also by direct central-bank interventions in the market.

In mid-March, the Bank of Canada began buying a number of fixed-income instruments on the open market, including banker’s acceptances, which are used for short-term corporate borrowing, and Canada Mortgage Bonds. At the same time, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. began buying mortgage-backed securities directly from mortgage lenders.

These actions appear to be improving liquidity in several systemically important credit markets, which means the cost of issuing into these markets is coming down, Mr. Kelvin of TD said.

“By lowering the cost of raising funds … that ultimately makes it easier for them to offer mortgages at somewhat lower rates, which helps the Bank of Canada’s rate cut pass through to households,” he said.

Michael GoodmanMajor lenders begin to cut fixed mortgage rates
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Alberta pension manager loses $4-billion on investment bet gone wrong

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This article appeared in the Globe and Mail on April 21, 2020
Written by Andrew Willis & Jeffrey Jones

Alberta’s government-owned money manager has lost more than $4-billion on what clients are calling a wrong-way bet against sharp swings in stock prices, dealing a heavy financial blow to a province already reeling from falling oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alberta Investment Management Corp., known as AIMCo, suffered far larger losses than comparable funds after investing in contracts that pay off only if stock markets remain stable. It lost billions of dollars when the economic collapse wrought by COVID-19 sent the S&P 500 and other stock benchmarks on a roller coaster ride, putting it on the losing end of the trades, according to several senior pension plan officials and other sources who are familiar with the situation.

The Globe and Mail is not naming the people because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly about AIMCo’s investing strategies.

The Edmonton-based Crown corporation manages about $119-billion on behalf of 375,000 members of provincial public retirement programs as well as public accounts such as the province’s $18-billion Heritage Savings Trust Fund. With investment decisions that affect pension beneficiaries as well as Alberta taxpayers, the loss raises questions about whether the strategy was too risky.

The sources said that AIMCo now acknowledges its executives were not fully aware of the risks they were taking.

A $4-billion loss would equate to more than a third of AIMCo’s 2019 net investment income of $11.5-billion.

AIMCo’s hit on volatility-based investment strategies came on top of a sharp drop in the value of its traditional equity, bond and real estate investments in March, when virtually every investor lost money. The average Canadian pension plan lost 8.7 per cent of its value in the first three months of this year, according to consulting firm Mercer. When it formally reports quarterly results to clients later this month, AIMCo is expected to be down far more than this.

AIMCo declined to discuss details of its investing strategies. However, its director of corporate communications, Denes Nemeth, said it has not breached any internal or external rules or regulations related to the risk it can take on as a fund manager acting on behalf of pensioners and government accounts.

“The level of volatility that markets experienced in March, 2020, the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which volatility rose faster, and on a more sustained basis than at any other time in history, is exceptional,” Mr. Nemeth said in an e-mail. “AIMCo acknowledges that it is not immune to the challenges, unique as they may be, that institutional investors around the world have experienced.”

AIMCo executives have kept clients apprised of the market conditions’ impact on investment performance, he said.

Markets were relatively placid in recent years, and clients said AIMCo made consistent 6-per-cent to 7-per-cent returns on the volatility strategy, which is meant to be a low-risk way of generating dependable results that are not linked to the performance of public market investments such as stocks or bonds.

AIMCo’s past returns on the strategy are now overshadowed by losses on the unprecedented moves in stock prices that played out in March, when volatility reached all-time highs, exceeding records set in the 1929 stock market crash.

AIMCo told clients in early April it is terminating the money-losing approach. However, it some of its contracts with institutions such as global investment banks will not expire until June.

The sources said AIMCo already booked about $2-billion in losses in March on this one strategy, and expects $2-billion or more in additional losses as the remainder of its contracts expire, although calmer markets could reduce that. AIMCo’s results are known in the industry because it reports to clients every three months, while most other plans disclose performance numbers once a year, or semi-annually.

Sheri Wright, vice-president of the Edmonton-based Local Authorities Pension Plan, known as LAPP, would not discuss specific investments, but said plan officials were briefed on the impact of the market meltdown in early April.

AIMCo invests $50-billion on behalf of LAPP’s 275,000 members, who include Alberta’s hospital workers and other current and retired government employees.

“We have heard from AIMCo, in a preliminary reporting, that the first-quarter report is likely to show significant losses as a result of the severe market volatility that characterized the first few months of 2020, in reaction to COVID-19,” Ms. Wright said.

“AIMCo is fully aware, and we communicate to them on a regular basis, that our risk tolerances are as much a reflection of our pension obligations as the need for positive investment gains,” she said.

Alberta regulations require LAPP to use AIMCo as its fund manager. The pension plan has flagged poor performance as a problem for many years, noting in its most recent report that “AIMCo has been short of LAPP’s value-added expectations for 46 consecutive quarters, or 11 years and 6 months.”

Other clients gave AIMCo qualified support. The fund manager oversees $150-million for the city of Medicine Hat, and city controller Dennis Egert said AIMCo provided a recent update on its performance. In an e-mail, Mr. Egert said: “We appreciate the unique COVID-19 impact on the financial markets, however, we also appreciate the nature and behaviours of the capital markets.”

Early this month, AIMCo reported a return of 10.6 per cent for its 30 pension-plan, endowment and government clients in 2019. It warned in its report that 2020 would be “unparalleled” because of the impact of COVID-19 and the oil-price crash on all asset values. AIMCo warned it was dealing with “a period of sudden and unprecedented volatility” in investment markets.

“Our team is responding decisively in an effort to protect our clients’ liquidity and assets in the near and medium term, while still identifying longer-term investment opportunities that will come out of these challenging market circumstances,” chief executive officer Kevin Uebelein said in a statement announcing the 2019 results.

Investment industry experts are warning pension plan members to brace for a shock when they see recent performance numbers, and focus on their long-term goals. Andrew Whale, a principal at Mercer, said in a recent report: “There is no doubt that funded positions are down and almost every defined-benefit plan will feel this economic and public health crisis, but we’re optimistic that plan sponsors can avoid a pension crisis with smart and strategic decision-making.”

AIMCo has been at the centre of controversy over the past year. Union leaders and Alberta’s opposition NDP opposed legislation passed by Premier Jason Kenney’s UCP government in late 2019 that brought teachers’ pensions under the AIMCo umbrella. The government said the move was aimed at saving taxpayer dollars.

The Alberta Teachers’ Association has argued that its members have been well served by the Alberta Teachers’ Retirement Fund, which has managed their pensions for decades and has modelled itself on the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. The transition is not due to be completed until the end of 2021, so AIMCo’s loss does not affect Alberta’s teachers and retirees.

Michael GoodmanAlberta pension manager loses $4-billion on investment bet gone wrong
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BoC steps in to buttress financial system

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This article appeared in the Globe and Mail on March 17, 2020
Written by Matt Lundy & David Parkinson

Canadian policy-makers moved on Monday to shore up the financial system and cushion the economy against a downturn that is virtually without precedent as businesses close down, workers stay home and travel bans intensify.

The Bank of Canada said it will “backstop” institutions’ funding needs by broadening a program under which the central bank temporarily buys treasury bills from the country’s major securities dealers.

Meanwhile, the government said it will buy up to $50-billion of insured mortgage pools through the federal housing agency, a move aimed at providing stable funding to banks and mortgage lenders. Canada’s big banks reduced their prime lending rates to 2.95 per cent from 3.45 percent on Monday in response to Friday’s Bank of Canada rate cut.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged on Monday how quickly the economic situation is changing. He announced that the border will be closed to most foreign nationals, and later, Ontario moved to shut down restaurants and bars, save for takeout and delivery.

“The economic impact of this pandemic is shifting hourly,” Mr. Trudeau said. “We recognize the stress and anxiety that it is causing”.

Already, an increasing number of Canada’s biggest lenders project the country will take a steep drop into recession. But as the COVID-19 outbreak worsens, and as policy makers around the world shut down sectors in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, economic forecasts are being ripped up to reflect rapidly worsening prospects.

“It’s a bit like trying to put a price on your home when the kitchen’s on fire,” said Doug Porter, chief economist at Bank of Montreal.

“I can’t recall ever shutting down large parts of the economy for a material length of time”, said Avery Shenfeld, chief economist at Canadian imperial Bank of Commerce. “There are obviously countries that have gone through wars and other disruptions. But in terms of the developing world- in Europe and North America- this is quite unprecedented.

In a regular recession, Mr. Shenfeld noted, companies’ sales might drop by 10 per cent or 20 per cent.

“You don’t go into a blackout on your business”

“And that’s what we’re doing here,” he said. “How do you maintain solvency of both the household sector and business sector so that they can reawaken?”

How long the downturn lasts before the economy turns a corner, economists say, will depend on how quickly health authorities can reverse the growth of the COVID-19 spread and how long the enforced shutdowns of consumer and business activities continue.

“This is a case where the economic curve is going to depend on the coronavirus curve,” said economist David Rosenberg, head of Rosenberg Research.

The labor market is set to endure a brutal shakeup. CIBC projects Canada’s jobless rate will rise to 7 percent from its current 5.6 percent. In the event of a shutdown of non-essential services, the unemployment rate could immediately spike to 9 percent, said Vancouver-based labor economist Jim Stanford of the Centre for Future Work. The hospitality energy and airline industries look particularly vulnerable.

Quebec Primer Francois Legault pledged on Monday to provide non-taxable financial assistance worth $573 per week to workers who need to self-isolate but do not qualify for federal Employment Insurance or other programs offered by their employers. The Ontario government said on Monday it is drafting legislation to protect the jobs of those who are forced into quarantine or self-isolation because of the virus, along with parents affected by school and daycare shutdowns. Mr. Trudeau has also said that affected workers not covered by Employment Insurance will get money as part of an emergency economic stimulus package that could be unveiled as soon as Tuesday.

As it stands, many part-time and gig workers don’t qualify for EI benefits.  In a report released on Monday, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) said about one-third of the unemployed received EI benefits in 2018, with lower rates of access for the self-employed and part-time workers.

“You don’t want gig-economy workers coming to work sick,” said David Macdonald, senior economist at CCPA.” You don’t want to force them into an impossible situation, which is on the one hand protecting public safety, while on the other hand seeing a massive drop in income.”

Signs of financial distress are starting to trickle out. Scott Terrio, manager of consumer insolvency for Hoyes, Michalos licensed insolvency trustees in Ontario, said he’s receiving calls from people worried they’ll be unable to meet the terms of their insolvency payments.

“People are living so close to the edge,” he said. “If you’re living paycheque to paycheque, you can’t handle an income disruption.”

Michael GoodmanBoC steps in to buttress financial system
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Seniors’ home confines 94-year-old blind woman to bedbug-infested room for 2 weeks

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The author of this article is Erica johnson was published in CBC

Sienna Senior Living apologizes to family, admits actions ‘should have been better’

Rita Bedford, 94, was kept confined to her apartment in a Chilliwack, B.C., senior care home for two weeks last December over the holidays — while bedbugs multiplied on her mattress.

She is blind, and a staffer alleged in emails to provincial authorities that employees of The Cascades facility were ordered not to tell Bedford what was happening.

But, so disturbed by what she saw, the staffer took photos.

Another took video — capturing bedbugs scurrying across Bedford’s mattress, bloodstains, and bedbug carcasses on the floor. They sent the images to Bedford’s daughter in Ottawa, early in the New Year.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said Anne-Marie Burgon, recalling how she played the video several times, trying to absorb what she was seeing. “I’m so grateful that [the employees] were willing to stand up for their beliefs, for doing the right thing, the moral thing.”

An employee at The Cascades nursing home in Chilliwack, B.C., made a secret video of a bedbug outbreak on the mattress of a 94-year-old client. 0:32

“I could not believe that a facility in Canada … would allow something so hideous to happen.”

Infuriating, yes, but “not shocking,” said Amani Oakley, a Toronto-area lawyer who has battled nursing home chains for over two decades, and who currently has several lawsuits underway against Cascades owner Sienna Senior Living, formerly Leisureworld.

“I’m infuriated that we still are allowing these corporations to make money off our seniors … while delivering shoddy care,” Oakley said.

Burgon was first contacted on Dec. 20, 2018 by the Cascades head nurse, who was filling in for the vacationing executive director.

She says she was told that a resident living next to her mother had brought bedbugs into the facility and that a single bedbug had been found on Bedford’s bed.

“I assumed they knew what they were doing,” said Burgon. “I thought it would be not much of a big deal.”

But according to a timeline the home later provided to health authorities, employees had, on Dec. 19, found “10 small bite marks” on Bedford’s back and arms, “blood spots” on her bed and “five possible bed bugs” on her floor.

Staff were told to “wash and change” Bedford, and a pest control company was brought in, though only the apartment next to hers was heat-treated and vacuumed, according to the timeline. In Bedford’s apartment, an ant trap was placed between her mattress and box spring.

‘Please help’

After two weeks, on Jan. 2, a Cascades employee complained to regulators with the Ministry of Health, reporting she and her colleagues were being instructed to keep Bedford confined to her room.

“Please help,” the employee wrote in an email. “It’s inhumane.”

She claimed management told staff to lie to Bedford — that she was sick and couldn’t visit with friends or share Christmas dinner with other residents. She also alleged management threatened to fire any staff who spoke publicly or to other residents about the outbreak.

“I just can’t do it any longer,” the employee wrote, calling Bedford a “blood buffet.”

“This woman is 94 and blind. Locked in a room, being chewed up while management hides it.”

That same day staff moved Bedford and her neighbour to new suites. Management later claimed, in the timeline, that they didn’t have other rooms available until then.

‘I felt betrayed’

An employee secretly described what her mother had endured over the holidays, Burgon says.

“I was told of her crying and asking repeatedly, ‘Are these bugs crawling on my skin?'” she said. “It broke my heart … I felt betrayed.”

Around then, Cascades executive director Rob White returned from vacation.

Burgon says he told her that Sienna did not know how to handle the bedbug outbreak and says he repeatedly complained to her about the cost of dealing with it.

“I had to listen to his concerns about how expensive this was and how much time it was taking him away from his job,” Burgon said.

White did not respond to Go Public’s request for an interview.

‘Inspections tend to be announced’

Oakley, the lawyer, says she hears so many complaints of neglect and abuse involving Canada’s three largest for-profit seniors’ homes that last year, she filed a proposed class-action lawsuit involving 200 families.

The lawsuit named Extendicare, which runs 96 homes across the country; Sienna, which operates 83; and Revera, which runs 76.

Oakley alleged the companies were “systematically negligent” but the Ontario Superior Court of Justice discontinued the lawsuit, says Oakley, because the cases were too dissimilar.

She is instead pursuing dozens of individual lawsuits on behalf of the families.

None of the allegations has been proven in court and all three companies deny the allegations have merit.

Amani Oakley is a Toronto-area lawyer who specializes in cases of senior neglect. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Oakley says because privately owned chains receive provincial subsidies for some clients, government oversight needs to be rigorous.

“Part of the problem is that [government] inspections tend to be announced,” said Oakley. “So they [long-term care chains] know when the inspectors are coming, weeks ahead of time.”

Go Public asked several provinces whether their inspections are announced or unexpected.

Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario said some inspections are not announced, while others are and happen every one to two years — more often if a complaint is reported or a problem found. Nova Scotia said all inspections are unannounced and happen at least twice a year. Inspections in B.C. were previously only triggered by complaints. New legislation that takes effect Dec. 1 allows inspections at any time.

But even when problems are discovered — Oakley says many homes are understaffed, and she often hears of one nurse being in charge of 60 people at nighttime —  getting justice can be a challenge.

She says the courts don’t place much value on the lives of elderly people who are no longer working. “I’ve been told by a judge that I’m wasting his time because the case is [financially] modest,” she said.

Sienna Senior Living is a publicly-traded company worth $1.25 billion in 2018.

Seniors’ home ‘not in compliance’

Complaints to regulators from staff and Burgon led to an investigation and two reports in May and in June, which found Cascades violated regulations including not providing a “safe and sanitary environment” and not protecting residents by responding in a timely manner to allegations of “abuse and neglect.”

The site was also found to not have sufficient staffing levels.

As of last week, the home was still “not in full compliance” with health and safety standards, according to a Ministry of Health spokesperson, who added that officials had a recent meeting with Sienna to discuss outstanding issues and to ensure the company keeps working toward “full compliance.”

Cascades management apologized in a letter to the family for the “housekeeping inadequacies, miscommunications … and the overall experience.”

‘We have apologized’

Sienna Senior Living declined an interview request by Go Public, sending a statement that said the company regrets what happened.

“Our goal is to provide all tenants with the best possible quality service and overall retirement living experience through the warmth of human connection,” wrote a spokesperson.

“We recognized that there were actions that should have been better.”

“We have apologized and worked with the tenant and family to resolve their concerns.”

The spokesperson would not say why Bedford was left in her room for two weeks, nor comment on a staffer’s allegation that management threatened to fire any staffers.

Burgon decided it would be too disorienting to move her mother — who turned 95 in February — to another nursing home. She’s worried that speaking out about the care her mom received will bring repercussions, but says she wants Sienna held accountable.

“You trust that they’re [Sienna] going to uphold their part of — not even the legal contract, but the social and moral contract,” says Burgon. “I’m appalled at how callous they were.”

 

Michael GoodmanSeniors’ home confines 94-year-old blind woman to bedbug-infested room for 2 weeks
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Staff at Extendicare nursing home abused woman before her death from dehydration, says report

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The author of the article is Erica Johnson and was published in CBC

Seniors’ advocate says most provincial regulators lack power to issue fines

Josephine Ewashko died from dehydration and a urinary tract infection. An investigation found Extendicare Viking guilty of “failing to provide adequate nutrition, adequate medical attention or another necessity of life”. (Submitted by Miranda Ewashko)

An elderly woman who died from dehydration and a urinary tract infection — caused by sitting in wet diapers — was abused by staff at an Alberta nursing home who admitted they were too overworked to care for her properly, according to a scathing government report.

Josephine Ewashko had been a resident at Extendicare Viking in Viking, Alta. — southeast of Edmonton — since 2016.

She was rushed to hospital in November 2018 and died two weeks later, just shy of her 80th birthday.

“Sometimes I feel like a hitman, because we were paying to have our mother killed,” said her son, Dana Ewashko.

“It’s sickening, is what it is,” he said. “If somebody doesn’t get enough water? Somebody doesn’t get changed? They didn’t do their job.”

Shortly after his mother’s death, he complained to Alberta’s office of Protection for Persons in Care (PPC) , which recently issued a report, obtained by Go Public, describing Josephine’s slow deterioration due to the staff’s neglect.

As a result, says the report, she experienced “serious bodily harm” leading to her death.

“I used to work in the financial world and for a lot less than a life we would have our licenses stripped if we … didn’t follow protocol,” said Dana, 57. “Doesn’t seem like the health industry has any consequences to something like this.”

Markham, Ont.-based ​​​​​​Extendicare — one of the three largest nursing home chains in the country, with 96 homes in four provinces — has not been fined in this case.

Alberta and Nova Scotia are the only two provinces in the country where regulators can issue fines when nursing home operators don’t meet standards of care, although Go Public has learned that neither province has ever done this.

A prominent seniors’ advocate says financial penalties are the swiftest way to ensure nursing home operators keep residents safe, and she’s urging other provinces and territories to grant regulators the ability to hit nursing home operators in the pocketbook when they fail in their duties.

“We need to ensure that there is a quick and unequivocal system in place to bring operators into compliance,” B.C.’s seniors’ advocate Isobel Mackenzie told Go Public. “And I think that’s fines — a monetary penalty.” .

Josephine Ewashko’s son, Dana, filed a complaint against Extendicare Viking with the regulator following his mother’s death. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Repeated bladder infections

Dana says in the months leading up to his mother’s death, he and other family members spoke to Extendicare Viking staff many times about her repeated bladder infections, which he says exacerbated her dementia symptoms.

“Her cognitive ability was greatly affected. She would sleep a lot — even fall asleep mid-sentence sometimes,” he said. “It was a lack of care.”

He recalls helping his mother out of her wheelchair three months before she died and looking at its seat cushion.

“It looked kind of an odd shade of black,” he said. “I reached down and touched it and it was soaked in urine. It was as though you took a sponge out of the tub.”

He says when he and other family members asked staff to help their mother get to the bathroom, or change her foul-smelling diaper, it would often be hours before a nurse or aide responded.

An investigation by the Alberta government’s Protection for Persons in Care found that staff at Extendicare Viking failed to monitor Josephine Ewashko’s deteriorating health. (Terry Reith/CBC)

‘Extremely dehydrated’

Another nagging concern for the family — that Josephine’s water glass was often several feet away from her wheelchair.

“She couldn’t reach it,” said Dana. “We always thought Mother was thirsty.”

Family members raised their concerns two months before Josephine’s death, in an October 2018 meeting with nursing home staff. They later learned those concerns were never recorded in their mother’s care program.

“The nurse said he was just too busy to do that type of paperwork,” Dana told Go Public.

A month later, his mother became increasingly weak, was often incoherent and slept for long periods of time. On Nov. 22, 2018, he insisted that she be transferred to hospital.

The PPC investigation into Josephine’s death found:

  • She was “barely responsive” upon arrival at the hospital.
  • She was “extremely dehydrated.”
  • Blood work detected “critically high sodium levels” — an indication of dehydration and kidney disease.
  • The skin in her mouth “was sloughing off due to dryness.”

The report also noted that, in the weeks leading up to her death, a computer system at Extendicare Viking issued a dozen alerts, noting changes in her condition —  but none was reviewed by a nurse or care aide. Among other things, the alerts signalled:

  •  “New or worsening lethargy.”
  •  “New or worsening disorganized speech.”
  •  “New or worsening altered perception.”

The report does not include any details of interviews with managers, but a nurse told investigators: “We often don’t have time to read [the alerts] or review charting.”

Another nurse said: “We are supposed to check the alerts … but this is difficult [due to workload].”

Two aides also said they didn’t have time to check the alerts.

Josephine’s family doctor had concerns she put in a letter last February to Alberta’s Ministry of Health.

“I do believe …  that Josephine’s needs were neglected, not on purpose but due to staff shortages and lack in experience,” wrote Dr. Marna Hagan, who went on to say that her concerns about staffing were not new.

“This is not the first time I feel there was a lack in care and experience,” at the Viking location, wrote Hagan. “Shortage of staff and experience is lacking.”

The province’s investigation also reported concerns about staffing and training, noting that employees needed better education about nutrition, hydration and monitoring infections.

It also directed the facility to develop policies that ensure staff review and respond to computer alerts. It gave the facility until Feb. 29 to comply. If it doesn’t, it could potentially face fines.

Dana points out that Extendicare is a for-profit business that answers to shareholders. It is partly funded by Alberta Health Services (AHS).

“They’re caring about their profits … I don’t think you can have profit and care in the same sentence,” he says, adding that Extendicare’s CEO received total annual compensation of about $4 million last year.

According to AHS, there were 273 allegations of abuse at seniors’ homes it funds between April 2018 and March 2019. Most were determined to be unfounded, but many still prompted suggestions for improved care.

‘Pretty shocking’

Extendicare’s head office declined a request for an interview with Go Public, and would not comment on Josephine’s case.

Instead, a spokesperson for the Viking facility wrote that it is “very sorry” about her death and that she is “dearly missed by the team and residents.”

Spokesperson Darlene Thibault also said Extendicare Viking has “taken steps to address the situation” and is working “to provide the highest quality of care, dignity and safety to our residents.”

Thibault would not elaborate on what has been done to ensure other residents aren’t neglected, and would not address concerns that the home is not adequately staffed.

Outside of Alberta and Nova Scotia, the only options available to regulators when nursing home operators put residents at risk is to shut down the home — rarely done, as it can displace hundreds of people — or put it under government management — a lengthy and rare procedure, though it was recently done to three homes owned by Retirement Concepts in Victoria, B.C.

B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie speaks to CBC Go Public’s Erica Johnson in Vancouver. Mackenzie is calling for power for regulators to impose financial penalties. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

“It’s very frustrating,” said Mackenzie, the seniors’ advocate, who says it’s time to introduce financial penalties across the country so nursing homes don’t just focus on the bottom line.

“You need to ensure in publicly funded nursing homes that the contracted operators are operating in the public interest,” she said.

She points out that publicly funded nursing homes in the U.S. have been subject to fines since 2002.

“Just because something is unpopular with some people doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do,” said Mackenzie. “And we have to remember that our duty is to the protection of the people who we have entrusted to that care home.”

Dana says it’s hard to deal with the grief of knowing his mother’s death may have been preventable, and that Extendicare didn’t pay a financial price.

“People go to jail for treating their pets in the same way,” he said. “It’s pretty shocking that nothing has happened.”

 

Michael GoodmanStaff at Extendicare nursing home abused woman before her death from dehydration, says report
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B.C.’s population grew by 70,000 last year

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The author of this article is Susan Lazaruk and was published in Vancouver Sun

The population of B.C. continues to grow and it’s the city of Surrey leading the way.

B.C.’s population rose by more than 70,000 people last year, hitting 5,071,336 as of July 1, 2019 according to B.C. Statistics’ 2019 population estimates. This is an increase of 1.7 percent over 2018.

Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum said he wasn’t surprised to see that B.C. Stats had pegged growth at 2.9 percent in his city, which was the largest hike in the number of residents year over year of any single B.C. community, at 16,382 people.

“We thought we were growing at a rate of 1,000 a month but it’s more like 1,400 a month,” he said.

“We see growth as a good thing, as long as we keep up the infrastructure,” he said. “We recognized that we would have this growth and we got out in front of it.”

He said improvements in infrastructure includes the recently announced SkyTrain extension and the Pattullo Bridge repairs and, mentioning his pet project, the creation of “our own city police department.”

He said the city has three new ice rinks, a new community centre in Clayton and more than a dozen new schools. However, controversially, it has put some projects on hold to help fund the switch to a municipal police force.

The city has been building “a lot of affordable housing” and five to six modular buildings are in the works to provide housing for the homeless.

The Vancouver Island communities of Langford, Duncan and Colwood were the three fastest-growing large municipalities from 2018 to 2019. Langford grew 5.2 per cent between July 1, 2018 to July 1, 2019, or almost 2,100 people, Duncan by 3.7 per cent or 193 people, and Colwood by three per cent or 546 people, according to the provincial agency’s population estimates.

Half of the top 10 fastest-growing B.C. communities with a population of 5,000 or more were on Vancouver Island, including View Royal (2.5 per cent or 284 people) and Sooke (also 2.5 per cent or 357 people).

The other five in the top 10 growing communities were Whistler (2.9 per cent or 391), Surrey (also 2.9 per cent or 16,382), Chilliwack (2.6 per cent or 2,387), New Westminster (2.1 per cent or 1,631) and Merritt (also 2.1 per cent or 156).

The municipalities with the largest drops in population were Squamish, at a 2.9 percent drop or 614 people, Kitimat (2.1 percent, or 176 people) and Pitt Meadows, which lost 163 people (0.8 percent of its population).

“When we saw the numbers, we called B.C. Stats to understand their methodology,” said Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott. “The evidence we have on the ground would suggest that we haven’t shrunk.”

She said residential vacancy rates are close to zero and local businesses are doing well.

“The real estate market has slowed somewhat but the new buildings are still being built,” she said.

She said B.C. Stats explained that it changed the data collection that relies on income tax returns, which could skew the numbers by not recording dependents or spouses if only one person in the household works.

B.C. Statistics didn’t return a request for comment.

Similarly in Pitt Meadows, Mayor Bill Dingwall said he couldn’t understand the slight dip in population because “anecdotally, we’re seeing a lot more cars on our streets.”

He said the loss in residents could be explained by the temporary loss of 32 townhouses in a building that was closed and is being replaced by a building with 220 units.

And he said official population figures also wouldn’t necessarily capture children returning to live with their parents or elderly parents coming to live with their children.

“I’m not really worried about those numbers showing us down 0.08 percent,” he said. “By the end of 2020 (when the new townhouses get built), it will be a different story.”

Overall, almost 40,000 of new residents between 2018 and 2019 moved into the Metro Vancouver Regional District.

The fastest growing regional districts in the same time period were the Fraser Valley, at 1.2 percent, and the Central Okanagan, at 1.9 percent.

The biggest hikes, percentage-wise, were in the towns under 5,000, led by Sun Peaks Mountain (14.1 percent), Tahsis (8.6 percent) and Tofino (7.1 percent). The two smaller municipalities with the largest drops were Port Clements (down 7.1 percent) and Port Edward (down 4.7 percent).

Michael GoodmanB.C.’s population grew by 70,000 last year
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