CRTC May Not Enforce Basic Internet speed or Service levels

Update: see previous post – April 11, 2016 Fight for affordable internet to take centre stage at CRTC hearing today

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CRTC Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais says there are no guarantees Canada’s telecom regulator will enforce minimum internet speeds and service levels across Canada, even if it comes up with new target levels.

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Canadians may want fast internet access everywhere in the country but that doesn’t mean it will be guaranteed by Canada’s telecom regulator.

Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission chairman Jean-Pierre Blais says any speed or service level his agency finds ideal won’t automatically mean regulatory action to ensure it’s accessible to everyone.

Blais opened exhaustive hearings Monday into whether high-speed Internet access should be a basic service and what that could mean. But he said it will be up to participants to demonstrate why the CRTC should act and why market forces are not enough to ensure the public’s need for Internet services is being met.

“As it is crucial not to confuse “wants” with “needs”, the CRTC is asking parties to take a fact-based and objective approach to these discussions,” Blais said in an opening statement to the hearings.

Since 2011, basic telecommunications services in Canada have been defined by the CRTC as touch-tone phone service, low-speed Internet, access to long distance, directory assistance, enhanced calling and privacy protection features, emergency services and voice mail.

The regulator also mandates that Canadians be provided with a printed version of their local phone book on request.

By the beginning of last year, 96 per cent of Canadians had access to the internet at download speeds of at least 5 megabits per second, according to the CRTC.

About four per cent of the population — still hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses — had no access at those speeds.

Affordability an issue

Many cannot afford it, say advocacy groups.

A study released in February by ACORN Canada indicated many low-income Canadians are forced to choose between internet services and putting food on the table or paying the rent.

Curbing Kids Online

By the beginning of last year, 96 per cent of Canadians had access to the internet at download speeds of at least 5 megabits per second, according to the CRTC. But about four per cent of the population — still hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses — had no access at those speeds. (The Associated Press)

“The internet plays an important role in the everyday lives of low-income earners,” said the study.

“The high costs of obtaining high-speed home Internet connections can lead to unnecessary hardship,” said the organization, which represents low- and moderate-income families and claims 70,000 members in nine cities.

The group wants the CRTC to mandate $10-per-month high-speed home Internet for families and individuals living below Statistics Canada’s low income threshold, which in 2013 was set at $20,933 for an individual and $41,866 for a family of four, after taxes.

Some of the country’s Internet service providers already offer service for $9.99 per month, on a limited basis, to low-income households.

Rogers Communications, Compugen and Microsoft Canada began offering the cut-rate high-speed internet service in 2013 to some Toronto Community Housing units and Rogers since expanded availability to other parts of its service area.

Before the hearings began, the CRTC received more than 26,000 comments from individuals and businesses concerned about access to telecom services. More than 30,000 Canadians also answered a questionnaire on the subject.

The federal government’s recent budget included money to improve the availability of broadband Internet in isolated communities.

Saskatchewan drunk driver who killed 3 friends sentenced to prison

Update: see related post – March 29, 2016 Ontario: Convicted Impaired Driver, Marco Michael Muzzo, Sentenced To 9 Years & 4 Months

Lisa Johnson kept vigil at the bedside of her son, Cody, who spent two months in a coma after a drunk-driving crash in 2013.
Lisa Johnson kept vigil at the bedside of her son, Cody, who spent two months in a coma after a drunk-driving crash in 2013. (Submitted by Lisa Johnson)

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Jesse Taylor also gets concurrent 18-month sentence for causing bodily harm

When Cody Johnson woke up from a coma after surviving a drunk-driving crash near Moose Jaw, Sask., he discovered three of his friends were dead and he couldn’t walk or talk.

Two and a half years later, he lives in a rehabilitation home for people with brain injuries.

Johnson’s entire life has changed since September 2013, but one thing remains the same: he doesn’t blame the drunk driver — his friend Jesse Taylor.

“It could have been me driving. I could be doing the time. I could have killed my friends,” Johnson, 28, told CBC News.

Cody Johnson

Johnson suffered a traumatic brain injury and had to be spoon-fed after he awoke from a coma. (Submitted by Lisa Johnson)

Drunk driver faces prison time

At the end of March, Taylor, 24, pleaded guilty to driving with a blood alcohol level over .08 and causing the deaths of three young fathers — Josh Patterson, Jason Friesen and Justin Kowalski, all 24 at the time — and causing bodily harm to Johnson.

Only Taylor and another back-seat passenger were wearing seatbelts. They escaped with minor cuts and bruises.

The Crown and defence lawyers made a joint proposal for a four-year prison sentence. On Tuesday morning, Taylor was sentenced to four years in prison, as well as an 18-month concurrent sentence for causing bodily harm.

Jesse Taylor victims

Josh Patterson, Jason Friesen and Justin Kowalski died in the September 2013 crash involving drinking and driving.

Families divided over sentencing

The families of the six friends were torn over how strict a sentence Taylor deserved. Some submitted victim impact statements, while others wrote letters of support for Taylor.

Friesen’s parents, Ken and Melonie Karmarznuk, accept that their son chose to get into the vehicle with a drunk driver and didn’t wear a seatbelt, but said it should not excuse Taylor from serving time in prison.

“I do not hate Jesse Taylor,” Melonie Karmarznuk told CBC News. “[But] we have all known since the day we got our licence, ‘You play, you pay.'”

The family said after the sentencing they were “disappointed” but unsure what “justice” they wanted.

“We wanted him to pay, but … we don’t want to ruin the kid’s life. An accident is an accident, it wasn’t on purpose,” said Ken Karmarznuk. “But, I don’t know, it’s just tough. It’s just tough waking up every day.”

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Ken Karmarznuk (left) is Jason Friesen’s father. He, his wife Melonie (centre) and Friesen’s older brother Steven (right) spoke to reporters outside of court after Taylor’s sentencing. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

In his victim impact statement, Patterson’s father said he wanted Taylor to receive the steepest punishment available for the crime, saying one day Taylor would be able to continue his life while his son and family cannot.

“I cannot help but feel that Josh was given a death sentence and I was given a life sentence,” he wrote.

Johnson disagrees that time behind bars is necessary. “Knowing you killed three of your friends. Whoa. In my mind, that’s enough jail time right there.”

Senior Crown prosecutor Curtis Wiebe was asked after sentencing how the families’ varying opinions factor into the sentencing submission.

“Some people may view this as being an accident, and that he should get no time. Others may feel that he should get life imprisonment. So you’ve got quite a range,” he said. “We certainly talk to the victims, but we also want to look at what the case law says and submit it as a proportionate sentence.”

Booze, drugs and driving

Johnson and his five buddies liked to work hard and play harder. On Sept. 15, 2013, they decided to spend the day fishing and drinking beer. As it often did, the partying stretched into the evening and the young men added some cocaine to the mix.

Jesse Taylor

The defence lawyer of Jesse Taylor says his client, a young father, is preparing for prison time. (Facebook)

Johnson said they had all been willing to drive impaired in the past, and that day was no different.

“By the end of the night, all six of us were arguing over who was going to drive home,” Johnson remembers. “For whatever reason, Jesse [Taylor] decided he would drive.”

Johnson said he was sitting on his friend’s lap in the front seat of the truck. The two started arguing over which radio station to listen to and that’s when Taylor looked over at them and lost control, he said.

The truck flipped and rolled down a steep embankment on Highway 2. Johnson flew out the window and landed in a barbed wire fence 30 metres away.

No grudge

Johnson’s mother, Lisa, rushed to her son’s bedside in Regina General Hospital intensive care unit after the crash. Doctors told her that even if Cody survived, his brain had been seriously damaged in the crash.

The doctors didn’t think he’d make it out of the coma. “And if he did, he’d be a vegetable the rest of his life,” Lisa said. “They all questioned me if I wanted Cody to live like that … their advice was to let him go.”

Cody Johnson crash site

Cody Johnson returns to the crash site with the driver and an uninjured passenger to visit a memorial for their three dead friends. (Submitted by Lisa Johnson)

Taylor arrived at the hospital to join her at Cody’s bedside.

“He was very quiet. But he still had the courage to tell me what happened and he apologized,” Lisa said.

She didn’t know whether her son would survive, but said she never felt anger toward Taylor.

“They were all adult men who chose to put themselves in that position. I never have, and never will, have resentment towards Jesse [Taylor] for that.”

Lisa would have preferred to see Taylor perform community service rather than spend time in prison.

Painful recovery

Cody woke up from the coma after two months, unable to feed himself, walk or talk. He spent another three months in hospital back home in B.C. before  transferring to a rehab community in Nanaimo for brain injury patients.

“It all got shook up so bad, it all got hurt,” he said about his brain. ”

[The doctors] never thought I’d make it this far.”

Cody Johnson

Johnson has spent more than two years learning to walk and talk again. (CBC)

He spent months undergoing painful physical therapy and arduous speech therapy. Even when he could form clear thoughts, he couldn’t get his lips to form the words.

“Some days I would just freak out and just start punching things,” he said.

Johnson has quit drinking, smoking and doing drugs. He does yoga. His goal is to move out of the rehab home, share his story with school children, and find work doing “something simple.”

Like many people coping with a brain injury, he needs to keep things simple to avoid confusion or stress.

That’s why he’s chosen a simple message to share: Don’t drink and drive.

Privacy commissioner investigating complaint on RCMP use of ‘stingrays’ for surveillance

Update: see previous post – March 14, 2016 Surveillance Device Used in Prison Sets Off Police Probe

The StingRay II, manufactured by Harris Corporation, is a cellular site simulator that scoops up cellphone data.
The StingRay II, manufactured by Harris Corporation, is a cellular site simulator that scoops up cellphone data. Photo by U.S. Patent and Trademark Office / AP

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Commissioner has opened an investigation into the use of International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers, otherwise known as stingrays, by law enforcement.

Canada’s privacy watchdog says it will investigate a privacy complaint about the use of “stingrays” by the RCMP.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner had planned to sit down with the RCMP in January to discuss the top-secret surveillance devices known as stingrays, the Star learned through documents obtained using the Access to Information Act.

But OPC spokesperson Valerie Lawton says the meeting was cancelled because the commissioner has opened an investigation into the use of International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers, otherwise known as stingrays, by the RCMP.

“That meeting was delayed and before it could be re-scheduled we opened an investigation into a related complaint. Therefore, the issue is now being handled via our investigations process. Due to confidentiality provisions in the Privacy Act, we are not able to offer further information at this time,” Lawton said in an email.

The RCMP did not immediately return the Star’s request for comment.

In December, privacy advocacy group OpenMedia called on the OPC to investigate the RCMP’s silence on “stingrays,” which enable police to obtain cellphone information such as identifying data, text messages and phone calls.

Stingrays electronically mimic cellphone towers, and trick cellphones within their range into connecting to them. Once a phone makes the connection, the stingray can grab data from it, including phone numbers, texts, phone calls and websites visited, in real time.

Both the RCMP and the OPP have remained silent on whether they use the devices, while in the U.S.s the F.B.I. has admitted to employing them and drafted a guidance document restricting how law enforcement should use the surveillance technology.

In December, when the Star used the Access to Information Act to request policies related to the RCMP’s use of the technology, the RCMP wrote back that those records were exempt from disclosure.

Documents from the privacy commissioner reveal that the office has been following media reports about the device for some time, and had hoped to get clarity from the RCMP.

The privacy commissioner is already conducting an investigation into Correctional Services Canada for the alleged use of stingray technology at Warkworth Institute.

“We have not been made aware by the RCMP of their use of the technology,” OPC spokesperson Tobi Cohen wrote in an email to another media outlet, obtained by the Star using the Access to Information Act.

“If they are using this technology, we expect to be consulted.”

Canada: Genetic-Testing Bill Will Soon Become Law

Update: see previous related posts – May 22, 2011 Genetic Discrimination Continues, June 11, 2009 Insurance Companies exercise discrimination due to “perceived genetic risks”.

Parliment Hill. Canada is the only G7 country without any form of protection for people based on their genetic makeup. This new law would prohibit that practice.
Parliment Hill. Canada is the only G7 country without any form of protection for people based on their genetic makeup. This new law would prohibit that practice. photo by fightyourtickets.ca

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Proposed law would bar insurance companies, employers from requesting genetic testing or asking for results

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Brynne Stainsby knows what it’s like to be discriminated against based on her genes.

That’s why she’s keeping a close eye on a Senate bill up for final debate this week.

Bill S-201 — also known as the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act — would make it illegal for insurance companies or employers to request genetic testing or ask for test results.

Insurer asks for Genetic Test

Canada is the only G7 country without any form of protection for people based on their genetic makeup.

Stainsby’s father has the genetic mutation that causes Huntington’s disease, a degenerative brain disorder, giving her a 50/50 chance of having it too.

At 25, on the verge of starting her chiropractic career, Stainsby didn’t give much thought to her possible diagnosis until she tried to get insurance.

‘What they were saying was, until I tested myself I was sort of guilty until proven innocent.’ –Brynne Stainsby, whose father has Huntington’s disease

She was shocked to learn she’d be denied coverage unless she underwent genetic testing to prove she didn’t have the genetic mutation.

“It was really devastating and infuriating, actually,” said Stainsby.

“Basically, what they were saying was, until I tested myself I was sort of guilty until proven innocent.”

She’s never forgotten the sting of that rejection.

“I love that our citizens are protected on so many levels, but it’s devastating that this isn’t one of them yet,” said Stainsby. “This should be another of our basic human rights.

Nearly 35,000 genetic tests

The bill proposes amendments to the Canada Labour Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act to make it illegal to discriminate against people based on their genetic characteristics.

Liberal Senator James Cowan

Senator James Cowan first introduced Bill S-201in early 2013.

Right now, there are nearly 35,000 tests that can identify a person’s risk of developing thousands of conditions and diseases.

“There’s an increasing number of genetic tests for an increasing number of conditions, and as the tests become more precise, the issue becomes more important,” said Senator James Cowan, who has championed Bill S-201 since 2013.

With this kind of personalized medical information, people can make lifestyle changes, choose to be monitored more closely, participate in clinical trials and even opt for pre-emptive treatments for some conditions.

But many people forgo the tests for themselves or their children, worried they will be denied insurance coverage, face inflated premiums or risk losing their jobs.

Insurance premiums could rise

The bill will have its third and final reading this week in the Senate.

If it passes, it will be added to the list of proposed new laws to be considered by the House of Commons.

Rob Oliphant, MP

MP Rob Oliphant says a proposed law to prohibit discrimination based on genetic characteristics ‘should promote better health’ by encouraging people to get genetic testing. (CBC)

So far, the bill’s most outspoken critic is the Canadian insurance industry, which predicts premiums will go up for everyone if companies are denied access to genetic test results.

Rob Oliphant, the Liberal MP from Toronto who is sponsoring the bill if it moves into the House of Commons, said he’s heard the industry’s protests but doesn’t understand its reasoning.

“If anything, this should promote better health among people,” said Oliphant, who predicts lower insurance payouts if the bill becomes law.

“People will actually be able to be proactive about their health.”

Blacklisted for insurance

Without proof that she was free of the mutated gene for Huntington’s, Stainsby said she was blacklisted by the majority of insurance companies.

It didn’t matter to the insurance industry that she was a non-smoker, an active runner or yoga instructor.

It zeroed in on the one thing she didn’t have control of — her genes.

“That was the first time that I really realized the impact Huntington’s was having on me,” said Stainsby.

Stainsby’s father was in his 40s when he got tested for the gene. His test was positive, but Stainsby said he remains symptom-free almost 20 years later.

“My dad has been able to work. He’s already retired, he’s had this wonderful career,” said Stainsby. “So if we’re looking at genetics, I could be going down basically the same path.”

However, the insurance company wanted cold, hard proof.

She settled for less coverage than she wanted with a smaller insurance company that only asked about her personal health history.

A few years later, Stainsby finally went to get tested. The results came back negative for the Huntington’s mutation.

She was able to upgrade her insurance policy right away, but she resents having been discriminated against in the first place.

Stainsby said the federal government has recognized “just about every other major issue we’d hope to be protected from — our race, our religion, our skin colour, sexual identity.”

“Everything is protected, except genetics,” said Stainsby. “We have to have that protection.”

Canada: Enormous Court Legal Costs Force People to Self-Represent

Update: see previous post – April 11/16 Ontario: Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

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Gold Scales of Justice. The threshold for eligibility for Legal Aid financial assistance varies depending on household size and whether your case involves domestic violence, but the general qualification limit is an income of $12,000 to $14,000 for a one-person household and $31,000 to $40,000 for a family of five or more. Most people who need it, don’t qualify.

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Windsor law professor says more than half of family law litigants now in court without a lawyer

A few years after her divorce, Jana Saracevic owed her lawyers more than $100,000. She was still fighting her ex in court and had drained her savings and borrowed thousands to keep it up.

Tapped out, she found herself challenging her legal bill at a special hearing in Milton. Unable to afford counsel, Saracevic, like an increasing number of Canadians in her situation, chose to represent herself.

“I actually froze,” she recalled in an interview with the Star. “I was sweating, I was hyperventilating, I couldn’t speak … I had to fight against my whole body shutting down.”

The experience was part of a years-long nightmare dealing with immense legal bills and representing herself when she couldn’t afford them. Her divorce file finally closed last year, but she says she is still paying off that big fee she challenged (the matter was settled in mediation and she’s barred from discussing the result).

Saracevic is now an advocate for supporting people, like her, who must turn to self-representation in times of legal trouble. With legal fees on the rise—the most recent survey from Canadian Lawyer Magazine shows bills for civil and family cases have jumped markedly since the global recession — there’s an increasing number of people who can’t afford a lawyer, according to studies by Julie Macfarlane, a law professor and researcher at the University of Windsor.

“The number of people who are going to court without lawyers has gone up enormously,” Macfarlane said in an interview this week. “We know around half of the people that represent themselves begin with a lawyer. And they run out of money.”

Macfarlane added that, according to her research, more than 50 per cent of people going to family court this year will not have a lawyer.

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People who can’t afford to retain their own counsel for a family matter or a criminal matter can apply for legal aid; but most people will find that their application is rejected.

Cole Webber, with the Parkdale Legal Clinic, said there is a wide swath of people who can’t afford legal bills, but don’t qualify for Legal Aid assistance. The threshold for eligibility varies depending on household size and whether your case involves domestic violence, but the general qualification limit is an income of $12,000 to $14,000 for a one-person household and $31,000 to $40,000 for a family of five or more.

“You basically have to be on social assistance to even qualify,” Webber said.

Macfarlane agreed, and called it an impediment to universal access to justice.

“This isn’t any longer, ‘there’s a group we have to assist because they’re the poor and vulnerable.’ It’s most people, and it’s certainly the middle class,” she said.

Her ongoing study, called the National Self-Represented Litigants Project, consists of hundreds of interviews with Canadians who have chosen to forgo paying a lawyer so they can shepherd their own cases in court. She said she’s gathered that people seem to feel more entitled to challenge legal bills than in the past, based partially on what she believes is a cultural shift toward more willingness to challenge authority.

Self-represented litigants have also told her they get “seduced” by what appears to be widely available legal resources on the Internet and believe they might not need to fork out the cash for a lawyer.

The monument in square outside Law Society of Upper Canada proclaiming that we are all equal before the law. photo by fightyourtickets.ca
It is generally perceived that it is those with deep pockets that receive the best results in court. photo by fightyourtickets.ca

This may be a mistake, Macfarlane said. According to her research, between 2004 and 2014, 95 per cent of applications by a represented party to settle a court matter — called summary judgments — were successful against litigants without lawyers.

But the most common reason for self-representation is that people involved in lengthy court battles — whether it’s civil litigation or divorce drama — often don’t have enough money to foot their legal bills, Macfarlane said.

That probably won’t surprise you, given how average legal fees for a two-day civil trial in Canada jumped 43 per cent to $31,330, from 2014 to last year, according to Canadian Lawyer magazine’s most recent national survey. Hourly rates for lawyers with a decade of experience also jumped 12 per cent, the survey found.

This forces people to make difficult choices, Macfarlane said. People she’s interviewed frequently talk about how legal bills creep into the logic of their lives, sucking up resources and forcing them to contemplate cancelling vacations, taking out a second mortgage or closing the college fund for the kids.

“People start to make choices here. They just can’t go on paying,” she said.

Maia Bent, president of the Ontario Trial Lawyers’ Association, practises personal injury law in London, Ont. She said it’s not clear why legal fees change; many factors come into play, from inflation to office overhead. In her practice, she’s noticed that it’s costing more to hire medical and engineering experts to give opinions on aspects of her cases, spending that gets passed on to clients in the form of higher fees.

But regardless, she said, self-representation is an increasing problem in the legal system. “It’s unfortunate when people have to represent themselves,” she said, adding that schemes such as “contingency billing,” which involves withholding legal charges unless the lawyer wins the case, can help low-income people get legal representation. But that means the lawyer assumes the risk of losing the case and getting paid nothing.

“People who are shut out of the legal system because they can’t afford lawyers could enter into these arrangements,” Bent said.

Saracevic is hopeful things can get easier. Legal Aid recently started offering 10 free mediation sessions for divorcing couples — if one of them earns less than $50,000 per year — to avoid going to trial. And there are studies like Macfarlane’s to bring people together for support. Macfarlane added that better-trained court staff that can help people familiarize with the procedures of the system, including lawyers on hand who can help with “legal coaching,” could benefit people like Saracevic.

“We don’t know the procedures. The learning curve is steep. And it’s kicking our butt,” Saracevic said. “You need access to justice.”