14 of the week’s best long reads from the Star, Feb. 4 to Feb. 10, 2023

From Jamie Salé’s hard pivot to Ontario’s pop-can tax, we’ve selected some of the best long reads of the week from thestar.com.

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1. Jamie Salé was Canada’s sweetheart on ice. Now the Olympian is championing something darker

When it comes to greeting a crowd of adoring fans, Jamie Salé’s still got it.

She shakes hands and hugs, she smiles wide and, if you’re lucky, leans in close to whisper a few words.

The crowd this day mills in front of her, the carbonated vibe of a high school reunion bubbling just below the surface.

To the extent that Salé has aged since her iconic skating performance at the Winter Olympics two decades ago — after which a presumed gold medal was snatched away, so the story goes, by a corrupt French judge — the effects are subtle. The big brown eyes and the tightly coiled earnestness remain, as does her gravitational pull.

People come up for photos — someone pulls their cousin forward, then it’s the turn of the “Saskatchewan crew” — and the chatting pauses just for a moment as someone aims a smartphone, and Salé, always the shortest in the group, beams that megawatt smile.

2. Who’s really in charge at Rogers? On the cusp of the Shaw merger, CEO Tony Staffieri speaks out on the massive outage and the infamous ‘butt dial’

Early on the morning of July 8, 2022, about an hour after Rogers’ networks collapsed, throwing more than 10 million Canadians offline, snarling debit and credit card machines and blocking access for many to 911, Tony Staffieri, Rogers’ still new CEO, put on a playlist, stepped on a treadmill and prepared for a pre-dawn run in his multimillion-dollar waterfront home on the south end of Lake Simcoe.

Staffieri, who is 58 years old, wakes up between 4:30 and 5 a.m. during the week. He tries to run three miles every morning before checking his phone or returning emails. It’s a habit he picked up in September 2021, after Rogers fired him as chief financial officer and before Rogers rehired him as chief executive officer in a fittingly strange coda to the messy family drama that consumed the company that fall.

Staffieri was only out of work for about six weeks in 2021, but it was the longest stretch he’d gone without a job since he graduated from York University in 1986. He spent the time at home considering job offers, ignoring media requests and, for the first time in a long time, running.

On the lake that morning in July, Staffieri finished his run, did a quick weightlifting session, then turned on his phone. His emails wouldn’t load, he said, so he flipped to a newspaper app; it was stuck on stories from the day before, July 7, when Boris Johnson announced his resignation as prime minister of the U.K.

Staffieri didn’t panic right away. “First reaction is, ‘Is it me?’ ” he said, in a recent interview at Rogers headquarters in Toronto. He turned on the radio and when the news came on, he found out like everyone else: Rogers Communications, the company he fought an ugly battle to run, was in the midst of a catastrophic network meltdown.

3. Ontario consumers to pay new recycling fee on pop cans and other beverages starting April 1

An organization backed by some of the largest food and beverage companies in Canada is set to impose a new recycling fee on Ontario consumers, according to documents obtained by the Star — a move made possible by a new recycling system introduced by Doug Ford’s provincial government.

Beginning April 1, shoppers across the province can expect to pay a new levy of between one cent and three cents per container every time they buy a non-alcoholic drink. The planned charges are part of a sweeping transformation of Ontario’s recycling system and come even as consumers are grappling with record food prices, high interest rates and crippling inflation.

“It’s a complete and utter ridiculous move. And frankly, some even question whether or not it should be allowed,” said Clarissa Morawski, a Canadian environmental consultant now working in Europe. “It’s a non-refundable fee. You can almost call it a tax.”

The Container Recycling Fee (CRF) is the brainchild of the Canadian Beverage Container Recycling Association (CBCRA), an industry-funded group that counts representatives of Coca-Cola, Tim Hortons and bottling giant Refresco, among others, on its board of directors.

The “pop can tax,” as one industry insider has dubbed it, will likely be applied by retailers at checkout and appear on receipts as a separate charge, like the HST.

4. Cigars with Doug Ford. Coffee with François Legault. The inside story of what broke Canada’s political stalemate on health-care funding

The political stalemate over health-care spending in Canada began to ease one warm August day on a New Brunswick cottage porch 20 minutes north of Shediac.

It ended six months later in chilly downtown Ottawa, as the premiers weighed a 10-year, $46.2-billion proposal by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that fell short of provincial demands but was still described as “a step in the right direction.”

In the long-running saga of federal-provincial tensions over health-care spending — a political blame game that has spread over the past three decades — it finally signals a détente that could lead to better health-care services for Canadians.

This is the inside story of how the tense federal-provincial dynamic ebbed and flowed in the past six months to finally reach that turning point, based on conversations with federal and provincial officials, many of whom spoke confidentially in order to discuss private conversations.

In August, Premier Doug Ford drove to the Gulf of St. Lawrence at the invitation of federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc to visit his family cottage in Grande-Digue.

5. Pierre Poilievre called it ‘hell on earth.’ Here’s what people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside want him to see

The skies over Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside threaten rain as they darken and release the odd drop to the bustling sidewalks of the country’s most controversial neighbourhood.

Under a black fold-up canopy at the corner of Columbia and East Hastings, volunteers of the Overdose Prevention Society sit, somewhat safe from any impending downpour.

Canopies like this one dot the DTES and serve a function: saving lives. Volunteers keep their eyes peeled for anyone who could be having an overdose so they can administer life-saving treatment, such as naloxone.

Within view from here are dozens of DTES residents. Some sit on the pavement outside tents, some walk, some sell things, some are disoriented, some lie on the sidewalk.

“This area here gets a lot of action,” says a man named Scotty, who won’t give his last name and is keeping an Overdose Prevention Society volunteer company on his watch. Munching on a bagged salad, Scotty keeps an eye out for those in distress.

6. The strongest nine-year-old in the world: How a Canadian girl is breaking records and misconceptions about weightlifting and kids

She may be the shortest participant, but there’s no missing Aurora (Rory) van Ulft at a weightlifting competition. That’s what happens when you’re nine years old (10 on Sunday), carry a stuffed reindeer called Lucy Moosey — and set an astonishing world record.

Rory became the youngest person to lift double their body weight in Olympic-style weightlifting during the Variety Village Open in Toronto two weeks ago. Standing four-foot-four and weighing 32.8 kilograms, the Ottawa preteen lifted 66 kilograms in the clean and jerk, bringing the barbell to her shoulders before thrusting it overhead.

American Olympian Clarence Cummings had been the youngest to lift double their weight, doing it a decade ago when he was 11 years old. Spencer Moorman, Rory’s coach and a two-time U.S. champion, has done it once in a lengthy career.

“To see her do it within four years of lifting says a lot about the hours and effort that she’s put in,” Moorman says. “That’s one of the major things that separates Rory from almost every other child lifter: She puts in the effort, she puts in the hours.”

There are many outdated beliefs about the dangers weightlifting poses to children. So, despite the many accolades and overwhelmingly positive comments on her Instagram page, there is still criticism about Rory lifting at such a young age.

7. Doug Ford government interfered in Metrolinx tree removal communications, emails show

Doug Ford’s government directed Metrolinx to leave two Toronto New Democrat MPPs off a notice sent to city and federal politicians about tree removals in their jurisdictions, according to internal emails obtained by the Star that cast doubt on the independence of the transit agency.

In a series of emails between the province and the transit agency, Ministry of Transportation staff overrode Metrolinx’s recommendation to include New Democrat MPP Kristyn Wong-Tam and then official Opposition leader Peter Tabuns — two vocal critics of Metrolinx — on notices about the need to remove trees in their ridings to allow construction of the new Ontario Line subway, with staff saying the order came from minister Caroline Mulroney’s office.

Communications staff at the ministry also ask Metrolinx in the emails to remove from construction notices the estimated number of trees that will be taken down, at the request of Ford’s office.

The emails shed light on behind-the-scenes communications between the province and Metrolinx, which has been positioned as an arm’s-length agency since its creation in 2006, but which has increasingly been criticized for its apparent cosiness with Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative administration. Previous reporting from the Star’s Ben Spurr revealed Metrolinx is not permitted to communicate with the public about key issues without government approval.

“This is the public’s money, and the public would expect public accountability and public notice,” said Wong-Tam, MPP for Toronto Centre and a former city councillor.

8. When it comes to cataract surgery, is there more to Ontario’s private clinics than meets the eye?

Will that be on your OHIP card or your credit card?

Premier Doug Ford’s controversial plan to move more surgeries out of hospitals and into independent clinics to clear a pandemic backlog has fuelled concerns about the “upselling” of medical services not covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan.

The issue has been on the radar since auditor general Bonnie Lysyk’s 2021 annual report said cataract patients — who suffer blurred vision from the aging lenses Mother Nature provides — are the most prone to “misleading sales practices” in some circumstances.

While Ford repeatedly insists patients will pay “with their OHIP card, never their credit card,” the credit card option legitimately comes into play if you want artificial lenses that do more than the type covered by provincial health insurance.

The question is simple: if you require eyeglasses or contact lenses now, do you want to keep wearing them?

9. Those sheltering in the transit system worry about their safety amid the recent spate of TTC violence

Last October, for the first time in his life, Dan Watson was “nameless.”

He was sleeping on Toronto subway cars and in coffee shops. For one whole month, nobody called him by his name. “You don’t feel like you belong,” he said this past week, bundled in a beanie and a winter coat during a drop-in program at All Saints Church.

Watson, who hesitates to say his age but offers with a grin that he’s “getting there,” had come to Toronto hoping for a fresh start. He had been pushed out of his eight-year home in Ottawa by a landlord who wanted the unit for themselves, which sent him into a depression. It was a familiar sadness — one he first experienced years earlier when his wife died suddenly.

But in the city that he hoped would reinvigorate him, he fell through the cracks. He couldn’t find a shelter bed, so he started sleeping on subway cars between loud announcements, then migrating into 24-hour coffee shops once service ended. He’d do his best to stay discreet, scared by the sight of other seemingly homeless people being kicked, hassled and spat on.

10. Here’s why some Ontario schools don’t love Valentine’s Day anymore

Some Ontario schools are falling out of love with Valentine’s Day.

One principal in Kitchener has already informed parents not to expect any Feb. 14 celebrations, and the board says others may follow suit. Some Peel schools may also be considering alternatives to students exchanging cards and candy in class.

The change of heart follows a similar move by a handful of schools in the U.S. that in recent years have cancelled Valentine’s Day festivities, citing equity issues or arguing that kids don’t need the distraction. While lauded by some as being responsive to students and their families, others say it is an overreaction that has left kids disappointed.

“There are many opportunities for celebrations in schools that reflect society and the world, but we recognize we are not able to celebrate all things,” said Estefanía Brandenstein, communications officer with the Waterloo Region District School Board.

11. The unspoken message of Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech was hard to miss

Even if you were only half listening to U.S. President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, it was tough to miss the refrain, writes Allan Woods.

Twelve times, Biden said it.

“Let’s finish the job.”

With a to-do list that spanned job creation, cutting health-care costs, enacting gun control and police reforms, transitioning to green-energy and lowering shipping costs, Biden charted a course Tuesday night that would be ambitious even for a president with double the two years that remain in his first White House term and half his 80 years on earth.

He knows this, of course, having served most of his lifetime in more tranquil and collegial iterations of the U.S. Congress before returning to speak as president.

That’s why the subliminal message in Biden’s annual speech seemed to contain quite a different refrain.

12. When the Taliban ask for your hand in marriage

Khatira was born in the last year of the Taliban’s first round of rule over Afghanistan.

She was a journalist in the northern province of Kunduz when the Taliban reclaimed power in 2021.

Khatira, 22, lost her job after the regime’s return. But her problems were just beginning. A 40-year-old local Taliban official, a relative of her mother’s, proposed to her. He had done so earlier but Khatira (not her real name) had said no.

But this was a new era in Afghanistan, and not being able to work made her more vulnerable.

She said her mother could not refuse his request, and she told him to come the next day and accept a flower from Khatira’s family — a traditional sign of engagement.

Khatira said that she ran away from home that night and went to Kabul. After 22 days she reached Pakistan, far from her parents, sister and two brothers. After nine months out of Afghanistan, she fears for her future.

“Because of my escape, the Taliban had beaten my family members, including my mother, and this was the darkest time of my life,” Khatira said via WhatsApp.

13. For 50 days she stood vigil at a Winnipeg landfill. An alleged serial killer is charged in her mother’s death

The red dress trembles in the wind as it clings to a chain-link fence.

The symbols of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls are draped all along the perimeter of the Brady Road landfill south of Winnipeg, an almost ghostly presence bound to the steel caging that blocks off a site haunted by what has been found there already, and what may yet be found.

The dresses are intertwined with red ribbons affixed to the fencing, leading to a small campsite directly outside the entrance of the landfill. A tent with an upside-down Canadian flag, red and orange handprints and the words “No Pride in Genocide” greets visitors.

Across from it is a flag bearing the name of the four Indigenous women for whom this camp was created, and who police allege were victims of a serial killer: Morgan Harris, 39, Marcedes Myran, 26, Rebecca Contois, 24, and an unidentified victim who police believe was an Indigenous woman in her 20s. She is being referred to as Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman.

This is Camp Morgan, where community members have now been camping out for more than 50 days in protest of police’s initial refusal to search the site for the remains of the unrecovered three women after Contois’s partial remains were found here in June.

14. ‘The government was banning the use of a language that didn’t exist’: Why some descendants of an ethnic minority in Greece still keep their identity secret

Eugenia Natsoulidou, 67, introduces herself as a Greek citizen.

She was born and still lives in Edessa, a city in northern Greece, but has worked all around the country in the hotel industry. Her best friend is Greek, and like many Greeks, she speaks impeccable English — in her case, due to living in Chicago for three years in the early 1980s.

But she always had questions. “ ‘Why doesn’t grandma speak a word of Greek? Why does grandpa struggle to speak a few words in Greek? Did they come from another country?’

“My mother told me, ‘No, no, they are from here, but don’t ask. You’d better not ask.’”

Natsoulidou spent her teenage years in Italy, and kids there had questions. She was tall, blond, and blue-eyed: Was she really Greek? Of course she was — that’s what she’d been told all her life. When someone told her she looked Slavic, she said, she almost cried. She had to be Greek.

Shortly before she turned 30, she finally learned the truth: She might be a Greek citizen, but ethnically, she was Macedonian.

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