In Afganistan’s only bowling alley, Canadian escapist inspiration

Muhammed Muheisen/The Associated Press

Monday, May 28, 2012 – Globe and Mail

There’s no shortage of strategies to improve life in Afghanistan. But this is the only one centred around rolling heavy neon balls down wooden lanes, sending white pins flying.

Faced with a hometown she couldn’t recognize, Meena Rahmani drew inspiration from her life as an immigrant in suburban Canada: She opened a bowling alley.

The Strikers is Afghanistan’s first and, so far, only bowling alley. If Ms. Rahmani has her way, it won’t be for long.

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Calls for supervised injection sites meet resistance in Ontario

Photo by John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Thursday, April 12, 2012 – Globe and Mail

TORONTO — The battle over whether to give addicts a safe place to inject has moved to Ontario from the West Coast.

When the Supreme Court of Canada handed Vancouver’s supervised injection site a legal victory late last year by denying the federal government’s attempt to shutter it, many observers expected the ruling to give rise to similar sites across Canada.

Not so fast.

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Poor prospects: Toronto’s impoverished are working hard and hardly earning

Armira Varga moved to Canada from Colombia 23 years ago, built a life for herself and her kids. Now, out of a job and juggling multiple new gigs, she's joined the growing ranks of Toronto's working poor.
(Photo by Moe Doiron / The Globe and Mail)

They’re often single and not originally from Canada. They work close to full-time hours but likely bring home less than $20,000 a year. In the first Canadian study of its kind, the growth of Toronto’s working-poor population has been charted, and the results are shocking: Even during times of economic prosperity the number of working people unable to make ends meets grew by 42 per cent in the GTA, a figure that shows no sign of stopping. Anna Mehler Paperny reports

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‘Support didn’t show up’: Toronto woman’s death comes as support services slashed

The Shahdady family home in Scarborough, where Shaher Bano Shahdady lived in the basement with her husband, Abdul Malik Rustam, before moving out with the couple's two-year-old son. Barely a month later, friends gathered here to offer her parents their condolences on Ms. Shahdady's death.
(Photo by Anna Mehler Paperny, Globe and Mail)

Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011 – Globe and Mail


After the ceremony, family and friends crowded into the Shahdady family’s Scarborough house, prayed and struggled to talk about anything – anything but the 21-year-old daughter they had just buried in a Pickering cemetery; or her son, the two-year-old who’d spent more than 15 hours in the apartment with her body; or the husband her father had chosen, now charged with killing her.

Abdul Malik Rustam, who she’d sponsored to join her in Canada just months earlier, faces a first-degree murder charge. He appeared briefly by via video feed in a Scarborough courtroom Monday, speaking with counsel through an Urdu translator. He was clean-shaven but for a small moustache and wearing a loose-fitting orange jumpsuit. He’s to appear again Tuesday.

Shaher Bano Shahdady’s death – in the apartment she’d moved into, having left her husband just weeks earlier – rocked the city’s close-knit Balochi community, an ethnic group from Pakistan’s largest province.

But the problem isn’t that cases like this are shockingly rare. It’s that they aren’t.

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Pharma giant’s expansion could be a prescription for a better economy

Friday, March 04, 2011 – Globe and Mail

The wannabe lifesaving vaccines of the future are being test-driven on a treed campus in Toronto’s north end.

Here, in Sanofi Pasteur’s Canadian headquarters near Dufferin and Steeles, serums vaccines go from painstaking prototypes to mass-produced doses ready to be shipped worldwide. It’s a good time to be in the inoculation business – even for a site that’s been doing it for a century.

The vaccine giant’s made-in-Toronto breakthrough, a five-component shot protecting kids from whooping cough, has proven a billion-dollar international hit – so much so that the company is building a new $180-million manufacturing plant to keep up with exponentially growing demand.

But that’s just the beginning: Over the next 15 years, Sanofi Pasteur hopes to develop now largely fallow areas of its campus, land currently occupied primarily by trees and a couple of storage facilities.

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Doug Ford’s big ambitions for his little brother

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Since he swept into office, Mayor Rob Ford and his older brother, Councillor Doug Ford, have established a highly centralized administration that holds the reins of power tightly.

Not tightly enough, Doug Ford said in an interview this week.

“I believe in a strong mayor system, like they have in the States. The mayor should have veto power … so he has enough power to stop council,” Mr. Ford said. “The mayor should be the mayor. At the end of the day … the mayor’s responsible for everything.”

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Man accused of killing officer was a trained snowplow operator

Richard Esber Kachkar (front, centre) was a diligently trained snowplow student, thanks to a program paid for by the Ontario government.
(Photo by Anna Mehler Paperny, courtesy of Cat Duly-Lisle)

Friday, January 14, 2011 – Globe and Mail

ST. CATHARINES, ONT. AND TORONTO — Richard Esber Kachkar, who police allege drove the snowplow that killed Sergeant Ryan Russell, would have been no stranger to that kind of heavy machinery.

For 10 hours a day, five days a week over three months, Mr. Kachkar trained to use heavy machinery at the St. Catharines campus of Transport Training Centres, a program his instructor said was funded by the Ontario government.

And, according to the woman who taught him how to control the heavy, complex machinery, the 44-year-old Mr. Kachkar was an able student.

“He was very conscientious,” Cat Duly-Lisle said. “He was so careful.”

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The death of Sergeant Ryan Russell: Owner of stolen snowplow haunted by officer’s death

Friday, January 14, 2011 – Globe and Mail

Toronto and St. Catharines, Ont. — A day after he watched his stolen plow-truck lurch away on an ill-fated path up Parliament Street, Daniel Da Silva can’t purge the memory or the guilt.

“I keep thinking about it,” he said, a day after the truck ricocheted through downtown streets with a troubled man behind the wheel, eventually crushing and killing 35-year-old Toronto police Sergeant Ryan Russell. “I don’t know what else I could have done to stop him.”

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Vermin, vandalism and the vertical slum: Toronto as city of high-rise poverty

Rebecca Pilgrim stands in the kitchen of her apartment on the 14th floor of a high rise building in Toronto's east end.
(Photo by Chris Young for The Globe and Mail)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011 – Globe and Mail

The apartment high-rise capital of Canada is increasingly becoming a city of vertical poverty. More than ever, Toronto’s low-income population is concentrated not only by neighbourhood but by building – in the 50-year-old concrete slab towers clustered around the inner suburbs, according to numbers provided to The Globe and Mail.

Many are decrepit and crumbling; their elevators are so unreliable that a United Way report coming out Wednesday calls for a task force specifically targeting their repair. Thousands of interviews with residents indicate these buildings have grown notorious for vermin and vandalism.

But the 1,000 privately owned rental towers scattered throughout the city are also home to a significant portion of Torontonians. And in a condo-heavy market where almost no one is investing in new purpose-built rental housing stock, the aging structures represent the bulk of affordable housing.

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Toronto’s manufacturing isn’t dead: We’re dining out on its success story

Friday, December 31, 2010 – Globe and Mail

The belly of Soham Ajmera’s business smells of warm garlic and sounds like a million motorized hamster wheels.

The factory floor hums and squeaks as a series of caterpillar-like, chain-mail conveyor belts roll, stretch and bake endless rows of teardrop naan. The This flatbread Rube Goldberg machine will churn out 20,000 pieces of the flatbread today, made to order under private labels for supermarket shelves.

Around the corner, dozens of a massive muffin operation is under way as trays of tins filled with morning-glory batter are transferred to slowly rotating vertical ovens before they’re shipped off to fancy coffee shops across the country.

The Ajmera family’s FGF Brands has grown since its 2004 inception as a maker of almond-flour muffins to a baking flatbread behemoth, provider baker of President’s Choice naan and Starbucks muffins.

Forget the struggling automotive industry: This is Toronto’s industrial heartland.

In 2010, Ontario’s manufacturing sector added jobs for the first time since 2004 and grew in GDP for the first time since 2005, according to a study released Dec. 29 Wednesday – turning a corner, economists said, after years of relentless decline.

But even Jim Stanford, a CAW economist and vice-chair of the Ontario Manufacturing Council, admits the hard-hit manufacturing industry has a long way to go if it hopes to return to pre-recession levels. The Centre for Spatial Economics predicts that won’t happen until 2020.

It’s an optimistic outlook, but also painfully slow.

Unless you count the food manufacturing industry, that is.

In 2010, Ontario’s manufacturing sector added jobs for the first time since 2004 and grew in GDP for the first time since 2005, according to a study released Dec. 29.

But even Jim Stanford, a CAW economist and vice-chair of the Ontario Manufacturing Council, admits the hard-hit manufacturing industry has a long way to go if it hopes to return to pre-recession levels.

The food manufacturing industry, however, seems an exception to the rule.

Southern Ontario may be better known for the cars it used to turn out by the thousands, but by 2008, Greater Toronto’s food-manufacturing sector had already eclipsed the area’s automotive industry: 58,460 employees to 45,830, according to Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey data.

The GTA’s food-processing sector is the second-largest cluster in North America, beating out Chicago but behind Los Angeles, which carries the continental title for greatest number of people employed slicing, pasteurizing, baking, juicing and packaging.

And it’s still growing – as it has been steadily over the past 15 years – even while many of the region’s blue-collar jobs have disappeared. Toronto’s proximity toprime location within easy driving distance of key markets in Canada and the U.S., combined with a renewed focus on local food and the home-team advantage when it comes to pumping out diverse cuisine, have helped keep companies competitive and profitable.

So while the hard-hit manufacturing industry struggles to return to its pre-recession levels, its food-sector cousin can savour a different success story.

Michael Wolfson, the city’s food and beverage sector specialist, says businesses are taking advantage of incentives to move back to Toronto. Long criticized for its disproportionately high commercial-tax rate compared to other municipalities, the city has been trying sweeten the deal for industrial developers with grants and waived fees: to reverse that ratio while offering other reasons for companies to set up shop: A tax increment equivalent grant in select areas of the city waives building permit and planning fees over a specified period; industrial developers who invest at least half a million dollars in new or expanded development or retrofits are eligible for rehabilitation grants.

And the city’s apparently counterintuitive planning tactics might be paying off. In an economy where housing development is in high demand, Toronto kept some sites zoned industrial, kiboshing condo development on land developers saw as prime residential real estate that would bring in more money than a factory in the midst of a manufacturing slowdown.

But Build Toronto spokesman Bruce Logan says the city has gotten “a lot of interest” in one city-owned property, a 10-hectare industrial-zoned piece of surplus land near Lakeshore Boulevard and Islington in Etobicoke they hope will go to a company developing it for food-processing purposes.

But Build Toronto spokesman Bruce Logan says the city has gotten “a lot of interest” in one of those designated properties, a 10-hectare industrial-zoned piece of land near Lakeshore Boulevard and Islington in Etobicoke they hope will go to a company developing it for food-processing purposes.

Even investors and private-sector giants are buying the hype: George Weston Ltd., owner of grocery giant Loblaw, bought artisan Ace Bakery for $110-million in November. And Premium Brands, based in Richmond, B.C., bought a majority share in Torontonian Maximum Seafood in July – the Richmond, B.C.-based company’s first Central Canadian acquisition.

The municipal government’s tax-break carrots aside, it makes sense (especially in an economy bracing for triple-digit oil) for businesses to set up shop nearby the people they’re selling to, the people they’re buying from and the people who are working for them.

“The food industry is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week industry. So you need access to labour, you need access to transit to get people to the midnight shifts,” Mr. Wolfson says, adding that the city’s reputation as being too stodgy and interventionist for businesses to grow isn’t entirely warranted.

When Quebec-based Lassonde Beverages wanted to expand elsewhere in Canada, a Toronto location was a must. Now more than six years old, their Toronto plant – the company’s largest outside Quebec – pumps out 53 million litres of juices and fruit cocktails a year. It boasts what plant manager Daniel Marcoux calls “the most modern aseptic bottling line in the world,” used to package juice for sterile environments such as hospitals.

“We’re located close to the airport and the highway system. … If you look at the corridor between Toronto and Niagara Falls, that’s 7 million people, roughly. So it’s a big chunk of our market,” Mr. says plant manager Daniel Marcoux says. “Your major suppliers are within driving distance.”

“And we’ve got the work force.”

“When you calculate in development fees and our costs of operating, we’re not as bad as people think in terms of the 905 region. We’re quite competitive.”

A University of Toronto study completed last month and provided to The Globe sheds light on a sector that’s maturing as it’s growing: While Toronto’s food manufacturers are still overwhelmingly small – with fewer than 50 employees – the number of small and medium-sized businesses has shrunk over the past decade, while the number of companies with more than 200 employees has grown. In that same time, the Toronto area’s total number of people employed in the sector went up, as well.

Robin Somerville, an economist with the Centre for Spatial Economics, notes it’s important to remember, when comparing food-industry and auto-industry jobs, the latter tend to pay better – way better. Even if the economy is adding food-sector jobs while shedding positions in auto plants, the payroll isn’t equivalent.

“But that’s a paradigm that maybe we just have to let go of,” he says. “Auto manufacturing is ongoing massive changes and restructuring. … These are not quite the gold-plated jobs we had in the ’80s and ’90s.

“Food manufacturing,” he adds, “does require an awful lot of people with various skills: There are engineers, scientists and chefs … and it’s got a large number of spinoffs in associated industries.”

The growth plays off the city’s desire, often viewed as a social-engineering anachronism, to use its planning prerogative to keep blue-collar jobs within city limits. Much of the city is zoned employment areas, left open only to industrial development in a city of flashy new residential projects. Condo-hungry developers thought the city was crazy when, as it began to sell off the first dozens among an estimated thousands of pieces surplus land, it designated some sites industrial when they could arguably fetch a better price if turned into high rises as the real-estate market soared and local manufacturing stalled.

“We are in discussions but it is very, very early so don’t have anything to report,” he said in an e-mail. “The market is very competitive.”

Lately they’ve been trying to develop that human capital: With 93 per cent of its 120 employees immigrants, Lassonde’s Toronto location has become involved in ESL and literacy programs with the school board and other local organizations. They’re also a member of Pearson International Airport’s “eco-business zone” Partners in Project Green, and are embarking on efforts to refurbish their lighting and refrigeration systems in favour of more energy-efficient models.

That isn’t to say things have been easy: The recession, a high dollar and renewed scrutiny on the food-processing industry thanks to such high-profile health scares as the 2008 listeria outbreak have meant it can be challenging to scare up enough capital to get started or expand, says Stewart Metcalfe, vice-president of Colliers Food Facilities Group.

Even when bakery and produce operations picked up initially, he says, “meat was almost a dirty word.”

“Producers trying to get capital in that sector were probably not seeing arms wide open from the banking system.”

Now that’s starting to change: Mr. Metcalfe says Super-Pufft, whose packaged snacks range from cheese curls to popcorn and potato crisps, recently bought a 400,000-square-foot former Goodyear site in Etobicoke that’s slated to become one of Canada’s largest food-processing plants.

And with global food security increasingly top of mind, Mr. Metcalfe argues, outsourcing food production becomes less palatable an option.

Mr. Ajmera relocated to Toronto for reasons both practical (to fill an unmet flatbread need) and sentimental: He says he fell in love with Toronto while passing through as a business student in Detroit. Toronto’s vitality reminded him of his native Bombay.

“We passed by the Don Valley, I saw all the apartment buildings. There what a sight: It was beautiful. I said, ‘That’s it.’”

He stays, he says, because it’s home: His Canadian-educated sons live here, as do his grandchildren. But there’s also a compelling business case to be made. If there weren’t, there’s no way FGF Brands, which he founded with friend Jim White, would be not only surviving but expanding in an increasingly competitive market.

“I’m in the baking business, and this is the best place to be based,” Mr. Ajmera says. So he learned to roll with the punches: When retailers seeking to target recession-weary consumers asked for cheaper products this year, he rolled out “tiers” of naan – some without expensive buttermilk and ghee – to keep prices down.

The latest challenge is parity, which makes it harder to target his primary market in the U.S. If the loonie stays high, he’ll consider opening another plant south of the border. But “my business is not currency trading. My business is manufacturing. If you’re going to talk globalization, then we’ve got to be competitive regardless of where you are. Right?”

FGF Brands has grown steadily after opening at his sons’ behest, a decade after Mr. Ajmera sold his first baking company, Dough Delight. And after upgrading three times to larger buildings, the company plans to add a second plant on the other side of Steeles, a few blocks away from their headquarters on the Concord side of the Vaughan-Toronto border. It’s a base he plans to pass on to his sons Tejus and Ojus Ajmera, who work with him now.

“They are the future. They are the business. And I’m the proud father.”