Czech junior party to quit coalition, leaving government’s future shaky

PRAGUE – The Czech Republic’s three-party coalition government appeared to be heading toward collapse after a junior partner said it would quit.

The Liberal Democrats announced the move Thursday shortly after Prime Minister Petr Necas fired Karolina Peake from the post of defence minister, just eight days after she was appointed. Necas said the major reason for him to dismiss Peake was “clearly a loss of confidence.”

Peake chairs the centrist Liberal Democrats, the smallest member of the thee-party coalition government. She said the party’s leadership called on its ministers to resign from their government posts Jan. 10.

“Our ministers have been given a clear task to leave the government,” Peake said.

The coalition rules with the help of independent lawmakers, but its future without eight Liberal Democrats in Parliament looks uncertain.

Lubomir Zaoralek, deputy head of the major opposition Social Democrats called on Necas to resign. He said his party’s leadership planned to discuss whether to ask for a parliamentary confidence vote in the government Friday.

The remaining two conservative parties, Necas’ Civic Democrats and TOP 09, have only 90 lawmakers in the 200-seat lower house of Parliament.

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Despite its weakness, the government pushed through the Parliament unpopular tax hikes on Wednesday that aim to bring the budget deficit below 3 per cent of GDP next year.

Peake was appointed Dec. 12 to replace Alexandr Vondra who resigned earlier this month. She angered President Vaclav Klaus and Necas when she immediately fired three senior ministry officials, including her first deputy Gen. Vlastimil Picek. Picek is a former Czech military chief of general staff who previously also served as the head of Klaus’ military office.

Necas said he wanted the three to resume their posts again and decided to fire Peake after she refused to accept it.

“This is absolutely essential for me,” Necas said.

Picek is currently the chief negotiator for the Czechs with the Swedish side in ongoing talks to extend a lease on 14 JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets for the Czech air force.

Peake also appointed several controversial people at the ministry, including Ales Klepek as the head of her office. Klepek served in the same post under one of Peake’s predecessors, Martin Bartak.

Bartak has been under police investigation since 2010 when former U.S. Ambassador William Cabaniss accused him of asking for money to solve a problem with a supplier that threatened a $150 million deal for Czech truck maker Tatra AS, where Cabaniss was chairman of the supervisory board.

Ring of Fire mining prospects empower Canada’s most disenfranchised natives

MARTEN FALLS, Ont. – For Christmas, Chief Eli Moonias received a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey autographed by Wendel Clark.

His remote northern Ontario community of Marten Falls got 50 turkeys and a visit from Santa, laden with children’s gifts.

And in March, the 61-year-old chief will be granted his wish of travelling to China ­– if he can get his passport in time.

They’re all gifts from mining companies who need the chief’s support to develop what could be a world-class base-metal discovery.

Moonias’s community sits next to what has become known as the Ring of Fire. Marten Falls is a small, fly-in reserve – just three streets of houses for about 300 people at the junction of the Albany and Ogoki rivers. It’s in the middle of one of the only forests in the world that has never been touched by industry, an area that hosts six of Canada’s biggest rivers.

When trapping for furs lost its lustre several decades ago, nothing replaced it in Marten Falls.

Unless the residents are working for the band office or a government-run social service, they’re almost certainly unemployed – and more often than not, addicted to prescription painkillers at the expense of putting food on the table for their families.

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Never have they felt more empowered.

“If you don’t reassure me, that’s when I say No,” Moonias says in an interview at the band’s resource office, wallpapered with maps and surveys.

About 130 kilometres to the north of the reserve, multinational miner Cliffs Natural Resources wants to develop a huge chromite mine to make a key ingredient in stainless steel. The firm brought Marten Falls the Christmas turkeys.

Next door, Toronto-based Noront Resources wants to mine nickel and other base metals. Noront employees chipped together to bring the Leafs shirt, Santa and an entertainment troupe of breakdancers.

Co-operation from First Nations is essential for both companies, and for anyone else wanting to do business in the remote James Bay lowlands.

“The leverage is there because it’s our territory,” Moonias says bluntly. “The industry needs us on side to go ahead.”

Demand for commodities is expected to stay relatively strong over the coming 20 years, reflecting the growth of the middle class in emerging markets, especially China. But the super-cycle can’t last forever, so the companies want to get their permits and workforces lined up within a few years.

Politically, the stakes are even higher. The Ontario government is dealing with a shrunken manufacturing base. The province wants to diversify its economy and envisions tens of thousands of jobs from many mines in the James Bay lowlands.

Ottawa is equally invested. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made “responsible resource development” a central tenet of his government, completely overhauling legislation and government operations to spur investment in extractive industries.

At the same time, public pressure to improve the standard of living on reserves is soaring. Native activists are taking to the streets to demand a larger say in natural resource development and government policy-making.

Harper’s reputation depends on him pulling it off. He has just put cabinet minister Tony Clement in charge of the Ring of Fire file to make sure it happens.

For the first time in modern history, some of the most isolated, destitute First Nations communities in Canada have something that the rest of the world wants. Badly.

“This is the only chance we will have to make history right,” says Charlie Okeese, a counsellor and former chief of the Fort Hope First Nation, a community larger than Marten Falls but farther away from the prime mining targets.

“If we don’t get this right, we can never correct it.”

First Nations don’t have an official veto over resource development. But as controversy over the Northern Gateway pipeline to the West Coast and opposition to some oilsands development shows, winning their consent makes for a much smoother ride.

For Noront, the Christmas presents are a gesture of goodwill from the company’s employees to possible future employees. It’s a fraction of the social outreach Noront has taken on to promote education, training and mining, says Kaitlyn Ferris, the company’s corporate responsibility manager, as she wrapped up a Christmas trip to Webequie, Ont., another aboriginal community.

So far in the Ring of Fire, no one has issued a flat-out No. But aboriginal communities haven’t said Yes either.

The Webequie First Nation is probably closest to saying Yes, although it didn’t start out that way.

“We’ve always lived peacefully in a remote community. There was no industry. Suddenly, there was a staking rush in our community,” said Chief Cornelius Wabasse, attending a Christmas feast for band members living in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Dozens of exploration companies flooded to the area about five or six years ago, staking claims, setting up camps, even building airstrips without informing First Nations who consider the vast land theirs.

After the companies were reined in by the Ontario government, Webequie had time to take a deep breath.

“At first we didn’t want them here. But as time went by and we understood, we started to realize there may be opportunities,” Wabasse said.

Given the unemployment and severe social challenges of his reserve, Webequie First Nation needs to give serious consideration to anyone who may bring a solution, the chief said.

That does not mean a green light for the miners, at least not yet.

“We’re trying to figure out how we’re going to fit into this.”

On the other side of the spectrum, the community of Neskantaga has spoken out against the miners. Last summer, Chief Peter Moonias said he would sacrifice his own life if need be, to block construction of a bridge over the Attawapiskat River.

But he was opposing the proposed route of a road to the mining site and the lack of consultation with First Nations, and has not opposed the mines themselves.

In Marten Falls, band members are on the fence, assuming they will see substantial economic benefits but worried about the environmental effects of mining.

“I feel OK with it,” says Paul Achneepineskum, a 61-year-old father of 12 and a band counsellor in Marten Falls.

He was actually born in the Ring of Fire and spent his childhood trapping and hunting for years in that area. He is wistful for that lifestyle – but doesn’t wish it on his children.

“I think about it sometimes,” he says, hesitating. “The reason I think about it is, we were always hungry when we were kids.”

The Ring of Fire won’t do him much good, he says. But if his children can figure out a way to get a decent education, then the mining development should help them.

Asked if he has a Christmas wish, he says: “I want all our children to finish their education and go work in the Ring of Fire area.”

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Wendel Clark’s first name.

Public safety minister returns fire following NDP MP Martin’s Twitter tirade

OTTAWA – There are clearly no tidings of comfort and joy between Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and the NDP’s Pat Martin, two decidedly unmerry gentlemen from Manitoba after a bitter yuletide war of words.

Neither man is known for beating around the bush with opponents, but Martin sparked the battle late Wednesday with a sudden and abusive Twitter tirade against Toews and his Conservative government.

By the following day, however, Martin’s Twitter account – known as an occasional forum for sharp words and casual profanity – was no longer in service.

“I apologize for my regrettable and inappropriate language,” he tweeted just prior to pulling the plug.

“It seems some people shouldn’t tweet so with this, I sign off.”

Martin was upset about not being invited to attend a Canada Mortgage and Housing announcement on low-cost immigrant and refugee housing in his riding earlier in the week.

“Next time I’m bringing my own folding chair if the minister ‘forgets’ to invite me to his spending announcements in my riding. Arrogance,” he wrote.

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Martin also called the Conservatives “rat-faced whores” and “bad people” who cheated during the 2011 election using “American style dirty tricks.”

But what really drew the ire of Toews were Martin’s negative tweets about a drop-in centre in Winnipeg run by Youth for Christ Canada. The centre had been partly funded by the federal government.

Martin suggested some in the aboriginal community had rejected the centre because of its overtly Christian mission, and that the centre had not been a success.

He also referenced Toews’ divorce, the messy details of which were spread across Twitter earlier this year.

Toews responded Thursday in a blistering written statement.

“For a sitting member of Parliament to attack an organization with blatant mistruths is both irresponsible and disgraceful,” he wrote.

“The new facility that Youth for Christ operates from better serves the Winnipeg region and allows it to expand its reach and capacity.”

Toews also responded to Martin’s lament that he had not been invited to the CMHC event by saying the MP had never asked him for help with funding in his riding, unlike other opposition MPs in Winnipeg.

He also noted that the announcement this week also involved the provincial NDP government.

“Clearly even his own party doesn’t want him at events,” said Toews.

At the very least, the NDP appears not to want Martin on Twitter any longer. At about the same time Martin announced he was giving up the microblogging service, Leader Tom Mulcair’s principal secretary was putting a fine point on it.

“These comments were simply inappropriate and unacceptable,” Karl Belanger said in a statement. “Mr. Martin agrees and we understand that he has decided to stop using his Twitter account.”

It’s not the first time that Martin’s penchant for intemperate language has garnered controversy.

He’s used the f-bomb a number of times on Twitter, including during an angry tirade last year about the Conservatives curtailing debate on their budget bill.

Martin is also embroiled in a defamation suit after he alleged wrongdoing by a call centre company that had done work for the Conservatives during the last federal election. Over the past year, Martin has had a much lower profile in the Commons than in previous years.

But Toews, too, has been known for the occasional personal barb.

In 2008, he called former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour and former UN High Commissioner for human rights “a disgrace” during an exchange in the Commons.

In 2010, he took on Ottawa-based Winnipeg Free Press reporter Mia Rabson in a missive to supporters, suggesting she was committed to advancing a partisan Liberal agenda.

“…this is the kind of conspiracy theory story that Mia Rabson regularly engages in because they don’t involve a great deal of thought or work,” Toews wrote of a story involving former Tory MP Rahim Jaffer.

Earlier this year, he suggested MPs who did not support a Conservative bill giving police more surveillance powers online could “either stand with us or with the child pornographers.”

Manitoba deficit now forecast to jump by $107M to $567M

WINNIPEG – The Manitoba government revised its deficit forecast Thursday, adding another $107 million in planned red ink for the fiscal year that ends March 31.

The deficit is now projected to reach $567 million, not the $460 million initially forecast in the spring budget, according to the second-quarter fiscal update released by Finance Minister Stan Struthers.

“The costs are really being driven by family services pressures – kids in protection issues – public safety costs … (and) we had some challenges in terms of forest fires this year,” Struthers said.

The report shows the government is set to take in a little more money than expected – $45 million more, mostly from corporate and individual income taxes. But the extra cash is being dwarfed by $123 million in extra spending, most of it on front-line programs that the NDP says it will not sacrifice.

“Some have suggested that we should be cutting deeply into services in order to balance the budget quickly. We prefer to take a more balanced approach to that.”

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The government has found $115 million in savings this year by putting off some construction projects, reducing advertising campaigns and taking other measures. It also recently sold off the provincial property registry to a private firm for $75 million.

Opposition Leader Brian Pallister accused the NDP of avoiding making tough choices to rein in spending.

“This government’s got a spending problem … it’s got a debt problem. But that’s our debt problem and most importantly, it’s our children’s debt problem.”

The NDP is in the midst of a string of annual deficits, and had promised before last year’s election to balance the books by 2015. Last week, Premier Greg Selinger announced the target date was being pushed back to 2017. He said the sluggish global economy has made all governments revise their budget plans.

The quarterly report shows Manitoba’s export sales decreased by 3.4 per cent in the first 10 months of 2012. Exports to the United States were actually up by 5.1 per cent, but exports to all other countries dropped by 17 per cent.

Manitoba Tory leader denounces racist online comments, but won’t apologize

WINNIPEG – Manitoba Opposition Leader Brian Pallister has denounced racist comments from his party’s former youth president, but he is refusing to apologize for them.

The stance may add more fuel to a controversy that has dogged the Progressive Conservatives for the last week.

Pallister said Thursday that comments posted on two social media sites last Friday by Braydon Mazurkiewich, which included a reference to “freeloading Indians,” are abhorrent.

“What he said was wrong. What he said was unacceptable to any thinking Manitoban. It was dealt with immediately,” Pallister said.

But he rejected a call from aboriginal leaders for an apology on behalf of the party.

“These are an individual’s comments. These were never opinions of the party … nor of mine, so that request would not be in order, in my estimation.”

Mazurkiewich said last week that was upset about a planned urban reserve in Winnipeg and he expressed his thoughts on Facebook and Twitter. In one post, he wrote that the proposed reserve site, which sits on a former military base, was “built for hardworking men and women of the military, not freeloading Indians.”

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The post created an online furor and within hours party president Ryan Matthews asked for and received Mazurkiewich’s resignation as youth president.

Some aboriginal leaders demanded more. Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs called for a Tory apology and cancelled a planned meeting with Pallister.

Some party officials also want the party to strip Mazurkiewich of his party membership. Aside from his former post as youth president, Mazurkiewich was in charge of 10 so-called “Blue Blitzes” – pamphlet distributions in NDP and Liberal constituencies

“I would like to suggest that a board of directors meeting be called for this Friday to deal with this matter immediately,” Clay Purves, a Tory regional director, wrote in an email obtained by The Canadian Press to other board members.

“I did not join to advance hate speech or to propagate racial stereotypes. I am disgusted that somebody would believe the things Mr. Mazurkiewich believes in the 21st century.”

Under the party’s constitution, the board can ask a credential committee to revoke an individual’s membership. Pallister would not take a position on the idea.

“That is certainly a responsibility that volunteer members of our party have – to deal with who should be accepted as a member of the party – and they will deal with that.”

Mazurkiewich admitted last week that his comments were racist and has issued apologies on a couple of occasions that appear to fall short of a full turnaround.

“December 14th I made a statement that does not reflect my view on all aboriginal people,” Mazurkiewich said in a written statement Wednesday.

“First I would like to apologize to the P.C. Party of Manitoba for the negative media they’ve been receiving over the past few days. This is not at all P.C. party attitude or policy. My misguided comments were my own. Secondly I’d like to apologize to all aboriginal people who work hard and pay taxes and help make this country a better place.”

The urban reserve planned for the Kapyong Barracks site is intended to be a mix of residential and commercial development to create jobs for First Nations who are still owed land from Treaty One which was signed in 1871.

The continuing controversy overshadowed a Friday news conference by Pallister on public subsidies for political parties.

The NDP government has appointed Paul Thomas, a political science professor, to examine ways in which parties could receive taxpayer funding for their day-to-day operations. Pallister called on Manitobans to boycott the process and instead tell the government there should be no subsidies.