House GOP plans vote on fiscal cliff ‘Plan B’ despite Obama veto threat

WASHINGTON – The Republican-controlled House pushed ahead Thursday with a bill that would raise taxes on people earning over $1 million a year as hopes faded for a pre-Christmas deal between President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said lawmakers would return to the Capitol on the Thursday after the holiday as a grand bargain to avoid the automatic tax hikes and spending cuts proved elusive.

Across the Capitol, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the GOP has the votes for a bill, dubbed “Plan B” by Boehner, aimed at upping the year-end pressure on Capitol Hill Democrats and Obama.

“We, as Republicans, have taken concrete actions to avoid the fiscal cliff,” Cantor insisted at a news conference. He expressed confidence the GOP leadership will have enough votes to pass the bill.

But the legislation looked to be a dead letter in the Senate and earned a White House veto threat.

The possibility of a ruined holiday and the absence of a deal left hard feelings all around. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell blamed the president and Democrats.

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“They’ve been playing Lucy and the football with the American people for months,” said the Kentucky lawmaker. “They’ve said no to every single proposal that’s been offered to avoid this tax hike – including their own. They’re running out the clock. Moving the goal posts. Sitting on their hands. They aren’t doing anything.

“Well, I say, ‘Enough.’ Enough. The time for games is over,” he said in remarks on the Senate floor.

On Wednesday, a confident Obama dismissed the GOP bill, telling reporters that he and Boehner were just a few hundred billion dollars apart on a 10-year, $2 trillion-plus deficit-cutting pact.

Republicans should “peel off the partisan war paint” and take the deal he’s offering, Obama said sharply at the White House. He noted that he had won re-election with a call for higher taxes on the wealthy, then added pointedly that the nation aches for conciliation, not a contest of ideologies, after last week’s mass murder at a Connecticut elementary school.

Obama continued to press for a comprehensive budget pact with Boehner to replace an economy-jarring set of automatic tax hikes and sweeping spending cuts to the Pentagon and domestic agencies set to take effect in January.

Boehner countered that the president will bear responsibility for “the largest tax increase in history” if he makes good on his veto threat.

But to a remarkable extent, the two sides have flip-flopped.

Republicans have for years argued that voting to renew most Bush-era tax cuts on income, investments and elsewhere, but allowing upper-end tax cuts to expire, would be a debilitating blow to the economy and small businesses. Now, they point to the 99-plus per cent of taxpayers who wouldn’t be affected by their latest plan.

For their part, Democrats who supported the million-dollar threshold not too long ago – including such lawmakers as Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. – have lashed themselves to Obama, who carries great leverage into the battle about the fiscal cliff, the price to pay for Washington’s chronic inability to address the deficit.

GOP leaders have also set a vote on a companion bill to replace across-the-board cuts in the Pentagon and some domestic programs with targeted reductions elsewhere in the budget, an attempt to satisfy defence-minded lawmakers and conservatives eager to vote for spending cuts.

That measure, which passed the House in May only to be ignored by the Senate, would cut food stamps, benefits for federal workers and social services programs like day care for children and Meals on Wheels for the elderly. It would spare the military from a $55 billion, 9 per cent automatic budget cut next year that is punishment for the failure of last year’s deficit-reduction “supercommittee” to strike a deal. It also would protect domestic agencies from an 8 per cent cut to their day-to-day operating budgets next year, but would leave in place a 2 per cent cut to Medicare providers.

With Christmas approaching, Republicans also said they were hopeful the tax measure could quickly form the basis for a final bipartisan “fiscal cliff” compromise once it arrives in the Senate.

Democrats, in the majority in the Senate, gave no indication of their plans.

On paper, the two sides are relatively close to an agreement on major issues, each having offered concessions in an intensive round of talks that began late last week.

But political considerations are substantial, particularly for Republicans.

After two decades of resolutely opposing any tax increases, Boehner is seeking votes from fellow Republicans for legislation that tacitly lets rates rise on million-dollar income tax filers. The measure would raise revenue by slightly more than $300 billion over a decade than if all of the Bush-era tax cuts remained in effect.

Boehner won a letter of cramped support from anti-tax activist Grover Norquist during the day. Norquist’s organization, Americans For Tax Reform, issued a statement saying it will not consider a vote for the bill a violation of a no-tax-increase pledge that many Republicans have signed.

The talks have stalled even though Obama and Boehner have each made concessions that would seem to bring them to the brink of agreement. Obama is now seeking $1.2 trillion in higher tax revenue, down from the $1.6 trillion he initially sought. He also has softened his demand for higher tax rates on household incomes so they would apply to incomes over $400,000 instead of the $250,000 he cited during his successful campaign for a new term.

He also has offered more than $800 billion in spending cuts over a decade, half of it from Medicare and Medicaid, $200 million from farm and other benefit programs, $100 billion from defence and $100 billion from a broad swath of government accounts ranging from parks to transportation to education.

In a key concession to Republicans, the president also has agreed to slow the rise in cost-of-living increases in Social Security and other benefit programs, at a savings estimated at about $130 billion over a decade.

By contrast, Boehner’s most recent offer allowed for $1 trillion in higher taxes over a decade, with higher rates for annual incomes over $1 million. His latest offer seeks about $1 trillion in spending cuts.

Some facts about northern Ontario’s massive Ring of Fire mining deposits

MARTEN FALLS, Ont. – Some facts and figures about a massive mining deposit in northern Ontario known as the Ring of Fire.

Location: An area 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont., in the James Bay lowlands, in the traditional territories of several First Nations. Chromium is the Ring of Fire’s main claim to fame, but there are also proposals to mine nickel there, and hopes for copper, zinc, gold and palladium. There are about 100 mining companies with holdings in the Ring of Fire, but only 35 of them are actively exploring, and just two of them have actually proposed mining.

Chromite: Ore containing chromium used to make ferrochrome, the “stainless” in stainless steel. It has a very high melting point, high corrosion resistance, and when exposed to air it reacts to form a thin protective oxide surface layer that prevents rusting.

Demand: Growth in emerging markets such as China has ensured that the market for stainless steel is somewhat stable for the coming years. China buys about half the world’s ferrochrome. About 14 per cent of the world’s chromium is consumed in the United States, although there is almost no domestic production, making the Ring of Fire deposit look attractive.

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Supply: About 70 per cent of the world’s chromium reserves are in South Africa and Zimbabwe, with additional resources in Finland, Kazakhstan, Turkey, India and Brazil. The global market for ferrochrome is dominated by South Africa, Kazakhstan and India. It is also supplied through recycling. The earth is rich with chromite, and world resources of shipping-grade chromite are already sufficient to meet world demand for centuries.

Environment: The Ring of Fire area is pristine, having never experienced industrial development before, making it one of the last intact, original forests on the planet. Its muskeg – sponge-like ground cover that frequently gives way to lakes and rivers – is notoriously difficult to build on. The wetlands are home to half of Canada’s largest rivers. The area supports many species at risk, including lake sturgeon, bald eagles, yellow rails, black terns, woodland caribou and wolverines. The massive expanse of peat is a major carbon sink for Canada.

Potential: Stainless steel in North America has long been produced with imported ferrochrome. The Ring of Fire deposits represent the most significant chromite discovery made in North America, and possibly one of the largest chromite discoveries in the world.

Sources: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada; Government of Ontario.

Latin jazz musician Bobby Sanabria, who led protest against Grammys, feels like a winner

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Bobby Sanabria already feels like a winner.

The Latin jazz musician, who led the protest against the Recording Academy when it downsized from 109 to 78 categories last year, is nominated for best Latin jazz album – one of the awards that had been eliminated but returns at the awards show next year.

“We’re very proud,” Sanabria said in a recent interview. “It just places emphasis on the importance of this uniquely American art form. … Of all the forms of music that are still getting recognition from the Grammys, this is one of the most disenfranchised forms because it isn’t part of mainstream culture.”

The Recording Academy announced in June that it would reinstate the best Latin Jazz album award and added two others, bringing the total number of awards 81.

Sanabria’s nomination in the category for “Multiverse,” along with his Big Band, is his third time competing in the field. His band’s song, “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite for Ellington,” is also nominated for best instrumental arrangement; the nomination goes to arranger Michael Philip Mossman.

Bronx-born Sanabria said he’s excited that the best Latin jazz album was restored, but he hopes the others come back as well.

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“CD sales are down, so the more categories we have, it’s just good business,” he said.

The Academy shook up the music industry when it announced in April 2011 that it would downsize its categories to make the awards more competitive. That meant eliminating categories by gender, so men and women compete in the same vocal categories. Artists like Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon and Bill Cosby complained, and Sanabria led the group that filed a lawsuit, which was dismissed.

The 55-year-old drummer and percussionist said that the Grammys cut is a sign of the dying appreciation of jazz and blues music in American culture.

“We live in age now where DJs are more respected than musicians and I have nothing against DJs . but there’s something to be said for the artistry of a human being taking a musical instrument and performing at a virtuosic level on it, and it takes years of dedication,” he explained. “I read something that in New York City they’re having trouble filling the demand for DJs for New Year’s Eve, and that used to be the night all musicians worked. That isn’t the case anymore and something needs to be changed in the culture, and the Grammys can help in that respect with categories like (best Latin jazz album) . and the classical music categories.”

Sanabria’s latest album is a mixture of sounds, and he said he has his parents to thank for diversifying his musical exposure. He wants to win the Grammy so that they can witness it.

“(They are in) their eighties now and they’re not in good health (and) they were the impetus for me,” he said.

Among his competition for best Latin jazz album, Sanabria will battle one of his students from New York’s The New School, Manuel Valera of the New Cuban Express. He said he’s excited to see his student get this kind of recognition, and hopes other young adults will learn to appreciate jazz music’s importance. On Feb. 8 and Feb. 9, a day before the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Sanabria is performing a concert special – “Family Concert: What is Latin Jazz?” – at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.

“Without blues and jazz, you have nothing. There’s no Beyonce, there’s no Jay-Z, there’s no Katy Perry, there’s no Aerosmith,” he said. “It’s the foundation of American music and it’s sad that it isn’t being taught as part of the history curriculum at every public school.”

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Minister blasts bridge firm after ice pelts down on cars, injures two people

COQUITLAM, B.C. – British Columbia’s transportation minister has slammed the international contractor that built the newly-opened Port Mann Bridge, saying the forced closure of the span, only weeks after it opened, is an intolerable situation and that the firm should have been aware of potential problems.

More than 100 insurance claims were filed after chunks of ice pelted down onto vehicles from the bridge’s suspension cables during a snowstorm on Wednesday. Two people were injured and the bridge, which links the Vancouver area to populous southern suburbs, was closed for several hours.

“We will not live with the bridge in that way,” Mary Polak told a news conference.

“When you purchase a product in a store, when you build a bridge for $3.3 billion, you believe that it will work. You expect it will work. When it doesn’t work you seek for redress to that. You seek for someone to refund your money or you seek for someone to resolve the problem.”

Polak said that’s what the province will be doing.

“Taxpayers will not be on the hook for this and we will ensure that we have a bridge that is safe for the travelling public to use and that an event like this has a permanent solution to see that it doesn’t happen again.”

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Polak said her ministry was “alive” to snow and ice being a potential problem on the bridge before it was built and there were specifications in the contract to address the concern.

“Clearly, what we saw yesterday shows that they did not meet those requirements.”

The bridge was built by Kiewit-Flatiron General Partnership. The company said in a statement it was working to figure out where the problem is and find a solution quickly.

“We’re very concerned about the recent weather issues impacting motorists on the Port Mann Bridge,” said the statement from Thomas Janssen, director of external affairs for the company.

“With the recent severe weather conditions, it’s evident there is an issue that needs to be closely reviewed and addressed.”

The Crown agency that operates the bridge will pay the deductibles of drivers whose vehicles were damaged in the incident. Tolls for travellers who crossed the bridge between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Wednesday will also be waived.

Prof. Tom Brown, an engineering professor at the University of Calgary known to his students as Dr. Ice, said he’s confident the problem can be fixed.

Brown has worked on offshore oil rigs and Prince Edward Island’s Confederation Bridge and said sometimes, problems slip through despite the best work by experts.

“This is certainly a concern because I would kind of imagine that the conditions under which it occurred, the atmospheric conditions in Vancouver, could well occur again,” he said in an interview.

“I don’t know what the fix will be, but it’s certainly a fixable problem.”

Brown said cold weather, high humidity, precipitation and wind all play roles in allowing ice to form on the bridge cables and eventually fall off. The ice bonds to the cold cables and when the wind whips up, it starts a vibration on the cables that eventually knocks loose the ice.

Brown said Vancouver’s rapid temperature fluctuations from cold to warm can also break off heavy ice chunks as they begin to melt.

Last January, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge near Seattle was shut down due to falling ice from bridge cables on a Kiewit-built bridge.

Alice Fiman, a spokeswoman at the Washington state Department of Transportation, said the problem was called “weather-related” at the time.

Fiman said Kiewit completed construction on the twin suspension bridges in 2007, and since then the span has been closed only once due to falling ice.

Mike Proudfoot, CEO of the Transportation Investment Corporation which operates the bridge, said the bridge is a significant crossing, the second-longest cable-stayed bridge in North America.

Building it required a “certain expertise.”

“We have the best firms in the world engaged in the design and delivery of this project, both as the original designers and as the independent checkers.”

Proudfoot said provisions had been made to prevent such snow accumulations.

“It hasn’t transpired as expected,” he said.

Possible solutions to the problem include heating the cables, the use of vibrations or coatings, as well as manual and mechanical methods for removal.

“We expect some answers on that very shortly.”

The Port Mann Bridge opened eight lanes Dec. 1 and was touted to slash commute times of up to an hour for some people.

Cars and small trucks crossing the Port Mann are electronically assessed an introductory $1.50 toll, but the levy will rise to $3.00 per crossing by next December, with varied rates applying to larger trucks and motorists using special passes.

– With files from Dirk Meissner in Victoria

‘Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol’ returns to the air this holiday season

TORONTO – For many families, watching classic TV specials like “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Rudolph-the Red-nosed Reindeer” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” have become as much a part of the annual holiday tradition as putting up the tree.

Saturday night, NBC re-broadcasts a program that actually pre-dates that trio of ’60s specials: “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.”

The hour-long holiday offering premiered on Dec. 18, 1962 and featured the voice of Jim Backus – a veteran character actor best known as wealthy castaway Thurston Howell III on “Gilligan’s Island” – as nearsighted cartoon curmudgeon Mister Magoo.

The character first appeared in a 1949 theatrical cartoon produced by United Productions of America, an independent film house that ushered in a new, starker graphic style in the 1950s. UPA went on to produce cartoons featuring Gerald McBoing-Boing. The two UPA stars were teamed in “Magoo’s Christmas” as Scrooge and young Tiny Tim.

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Like the Charlie Brown and Grinch specials, Magoo took advantage of a conflux of talent available for such an undertaking. Theatrical shorts had all but disappeared from movie theatres, putting talented animators and background artists out of film work and into the still relatively new world of television. Abe Levitow, who worked with Chuck Jones at Warner Bros. in the ’50s on Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner cartoons, directed the Magoo Christmas special.

Besides Backus, the voice talent on “Magoo’s Christmas” included TV veteran Morey Amsterdam (Buddy on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”) and Jack Cassidy, a busy actor who was the father of “Partridge Family” pop star David Cassidy. Veteran cartoon voice-over star Paul Frees, who did everything from Boris Badenov to the Little Green Sprout in the Green Giant commercials, can also be heard as Fezziwig and others.

Critics praised the special when it was first released, especially the songs by the Broadway team of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, whose next hit was “Funny Girl.”

“Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” established the formula that made the other animated ’60s specials such perennial hits. Besides being a collaboration of great musical and artistic talent at mid-century, it was based on a classic work, in this case, being “freely” (and actually quite faithfully) adapted from Charles Dickens’ novel. “Charlie Brown,” of course, took its lead from Charles Schultz’ “Peanuts” newspaper strip. “The Grinch” was the brainchild of children’s author Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss).

“Rudolph” had more commercial roots. It was written as a poem in the “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” tradition by Robert L. May for the U.S. department store Montgomery Ward. May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, adapted the poem into a song. Singing cowboy Gene Autry recorded it and it went on to sell over 25 million copies.

The network broadcast revival of “Magoo” after 50 years begs the question as to why something newer hasn’t replaced all these chestnuts. Why is Christmas on TV still analog in a digital world?

Perhaps all these specials – like repeated airings of even older movies such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” -are cherished as reminders of a simpler, more innocent time. Another factor may be that today’s animated icons – “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “South Park” – are more apt to deconstruct Christmas than celebrate it. Perhaps irony doesn’t go down as well as eggnog at this time of year.

“Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” may have been the first animated special created for television but other TV offerings came first. “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners” both did black-and-white Christmas-themed episodes.

One of the very first series to air a Christmas episode may never be seen on TV again. “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was a huge hit on radio in the ’30s and ’40s but was eventually criticized for being racist. A folksy tale about African Americans, it was written and performed on radio by white men – Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll.

By the time it came to television in the early ’50s, black performers Alvin Childress, Spencer Williams and Tim Moore portrayed central characters Kingfish, Amos and Andrew H. Brown.

The Christmas episode – in which Amos sits by his daughter’s bedside and explains the Lord’s Prayer – was first performed on radio in the early ’40s. When it aired on television in 1952, Andy played a department store Santa. Thus when Santa was first seen on an American TV series, he was an African American.

“Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” airs Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC and Global.

Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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.