14 of the week’s best long reads from the Star, July 24 to 30, 2021
From COVID’s disproportionate effect on working women to a vaccine-hesitant mom’s change of heart, we’ve selected some of the best long reads of the week on thestar.com.
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Paola Girotti was on the cusp of big things, back in February 2020.
For 18 years she had been pouring her energy into a beauty business that started with one small shop and grew to three salons and a line of products with her sleek Sugar Moon brand. That month, she went to the North American franchise expo in New York and found a bevy of would-be partners keen to buy in and take her model across the continent.
But on March 15, Girotti found herself sitting on the blue leather sofa in the airy reception area of the Sugar Moon salon on the Danforth. She drafted three versions of an email on her laptop. In one, she told clients the salon was closing for two weeks. In the next, she said four weeks. And in the last version, that it would be closed, indefinitely. “I said, ‘Probably we’re sending the two-week one, right?’ ” Girotti laughed a few months later, recalling the moment, still almost disbelieving.
Today, Sugar Moon is a battered shadow of its former self. Over the past 16 months, Girotti has tried a whole series of pivots — “God, I hate that word” — to save what she had built.
The women she employed have been on Employment Insurance or other income assistance for most of this time. Girotti has abandoned the franchise plan and written off the $180,000 she had spent on legal fees and manufacturing to prepare for it.
She has closed one store, opened (and then quickly closed) another. Thrown away $22,000 worth of products that expired with the salons still closed. Hustled to try to reinvent Sugar Moon as an online retailer.
Scrambled to keep up the morale of her team, bringing them together for Motivational Monday Meetings on Zoom. And then at night at her kitchen-table-turned office, after her kids were in bed, she looked at the account books. And wept.
Part one of a five-part series, What COVID Reveals.
Toronto’s street drug supply is being increasingly contaminated with a new category of “ultra-potent” opioids as overdose deaths soar.
The presence of these synthetic opioids — some far more powerful than fentanyl — has quadrupled in tests of street drugs in the city, from less than one per cent before the COVID-19 pandemic to four per cent, a Toronto Star and Investigative Journalism Bureau (IJB) investigation has found.
“It’s hugely meaningful,” said Dr. Daniel Beriault, who tests the contents of Toronto street drugs at St. Michael’s Hospital and heads the biochemistry division at Unity Health Toronto. “It’s life and death.”
When the 26-year-old woman was admitted to the early psychosis unit at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, doctors observed she was often seen clutching a beloved teddy bear and appeared younger than her stated age.
Her older sister by three years describes her as an “eternal child” — gullible, innocent and trusting — due to an intellectual disability. At the time her favourite movie was Disney’s “Frozen” and she would soothe herself by listening to Taylor Swift. She had to be reminded not to talk to or go with strangers.
The woman was admitted to the psychiatric hospital in downtown Toronto on Sept. 6, 2017, when the symptoms of her schizophrenia, which had manifested in her late teens, became worse and she started hallucinating, hearing voices and becoming paranoid. For the first time, she had started referring to herself in the third person when she spoke, as if what was happening to her was happening to someone else.
According to the woman’s medical records, a male patient on the co-ed unit was seen two days later “making sexual advances toward her and gesturing that they have intercourse.”
As businesses reopen across the country with increased capacity, many say they’re having trouble finding hourly workers, and some are blaming it on federal income supports like the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) or Employment Insurance, saying people need more incentive to go back to work.
Larry Isaacs, president of the Firkin Group of Pubs, said he believes the CRB is “definitely hurting” the company’s ability to bring workers back, both in the front- and back-of-house roles.
“When we’re reaching out to some of our employees to come back, they’ve got a lot of excuses,” he said.
A July 25 tweet by CKNW reporter Janet Brown suggested restaurants and retailers are having a hard time hiring, and are blaming the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). CERB ended last September, replaced by a trio of recovery benefits and an amplified version of EI; however, the term CERB is often used in discussion of the current federal COVID-19 income supports.
The tweet was a divisive one.
Many users said the issue isn’t with the income supports, but with the jobs available, which they say don’t offer good hours or wages.
A few months before the birth of her fourth baby, Tara Hills, then a 29-year-old mom living in suburban Ottawa, made a decision she would come to regret. She chose to stop vaccinating her children. Hills can’t point to any one event or encounter that swayed her.
“It was more like a trickle,” she said. A collection of uncertainties that grew from things she read on the internet or conversations on park benches with other moms, and left her with a vague but growing sense of alarm. “The doubts just kind of settled there and piled up.”
Like many young mothers, Hills spent a lot of time connecting with other parents on Facebook. During her late-night scrolling, she sometimes encountered blog posts that made frightening claims about childhood vaccines. The stories had headlines like “My baby was never the same again” or “If only I had known what would happen.” The anecdotes were not verified or backed with evidence, but they made an impression on Hills, who was deep in the trenches of new motherhood, and whose primary concern was protecting her children from harm.
Decades of research has demonstrated that vaccines are effective and safe for most people. The data supporting immunization is clear, but the stories shared by anti-vaccination groups can be more powerful than charts and numbers. “They use a lot of effective storytelling,” Hills said. “It may not be true, or data-based or supportable. But it’s effective.”
In 2015, three factors came together to change her mind: a close call, the rhetoric that developed around a surge in measles outbreaks and a conversation with an empathetic stranger.
Toronto’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout is starting to pay off, with the overall rate of eligible fully vaccinated residents approaching 70 per cent. But several hard-hit neighbourhoods continue to lag, which could jeopardize the city’s chances of meeting thresholds to move past Step 3 of the province’s reopening road map.
While some of the most affluent neighbourhoods are at or approaching the threshold of 75 per cent of residents 12 and up fully vaccinated, gaps in vaccination rates between these and the city’s poorest neighbourhoods — in many cases double-digit differences — have community leaders stressing the need to redouble efforts.
“The real heavy lifting starts now,” said Safia Ahmed, executive director of Rexdale Community Health Centre, “getting to those pockets” of people who, for whatever reason, still haven’t received a first or second shot.
Chrisie Servanez had been told what to expect of her new home in Canada.
It was remote. There would be no public transit. Stores close by 7 p.m.
Still, it couldn’t be that bad, thought the migrant worker; it’s Canada, after all — it’s a first-rate, developed country.
But as she took the four-hour car ride with her employer from the Winnipeg airport to the rural town of Russell, Man., she was shocked to see the endless farms and open fields that reminded her of the countryside of her native Philippines.
“There were no (tall) buildings. It was all farms. I didn’t even see a single bus,” says the 35-year-old of the day in August 2017 that she arrived in Canada for a job as a restaurant server.
All day Juan Luis Mendoza De La Cruz worked surrounded by dancers: that’s how he thought of them.
The work was hard, and hot, but when his back ached or his mouth was parched, he would sit back on his heels and watch the sunflowers dance, so tall, their faces raised to the sun, turning so slowly through the day to follow the warmth and the light.
Mendoza farmed flowers. He was imported labour on an industrial flower farm in southern Ontario. For 29 years, he came to Canada early each spring, to work for eight months and then take his earnings back to his family in Mexico. It was a lonely, alienating, physically debilitating life, and it was also the best of his options as he assessed them. He thought periodically about stopping, but life in Mexico grew only more expensive. So he kept coming. Until the pandemic began. With the borders sealed, it seemed he might not get to work a 30th year.
Then, in late April, word came from the agency that arranged his annual employment in Canada: exceptions would be made, and Mendoza and his fellow agricultural workers would be flown to Ontario in time to get another season’s harvest in the ground. The Canadian government had deemed their labour too critical to a reeling economy to let the closed border and virus fears keep them out.
The house sold in two days. On a Wednesday late last November, 122 Woodfield Dr., a bungalow off the shore of Lake Simcoe, emerged on the real estate market at an asking price of $355,000. By Friday, it had sold for $365,000.
The buyer? A realtor and local politician who would resell it at a profit two months later.
Grace Simon, a real estate agent with eXp Realty and the city councillor for Ward 1 in Newmarket, Ont., bought the home with her husband before listing it at a higher price in January. The couple made some minor additions to the space: freshly painted walls and kitchen cabinets, new lighting, a new toilet and a new bathroom sink. In January, they put it on the market again at $399,000.
This time, the property sold for $450,000, almost 25 per cent more than what the couple had paid for it.
If you’re looking to own a home in Toronto for under $400,000, you’re either going to end up in a small condo, a storage locker (illegal) or, if nautical living be something you wish, a houseboat.
A “charming houseboat with all the comforts of a condo,” according to the listing, is on offer for $339,000 in the Bluffer’s Park Marina in Scarborough. The monthly maintenance fee is $860 and property tax is $700 annually.
Realtor Denise Doucet, who represents this and other aquatic properties, said the houseboat would have sold instantly were it not for a bureaucratic impasse putting houseboat ownership, and the fantasy lifestyle it offers, in peril.
For reasons that confound owners, it has become impossible to insure houseboats in Toronto in the past year or so. Houseboat owners told the Star they have spent months calling dozens of brokers in and outside Ontario pleading for fire, theft and collision insurance only to be declined left and right, often with little to no explanation.
Maggie Mac Neil’s Instagram stories from her day of days and night of nights need to be saved somewhere. Call Archives Canada. Or someone at the Museum of History. Whoever. Just don’t let them fade into the digital ether.
In the hours after she triumphed in the women’s 100-metre butterfly final and became the first Canadian gold medallist of the Tokyo Olympics, the 21-year-old did what most 21-year-olds would do — processed the gravity of it all through the ’Gram.
There were dozens of ecstatic messages of congratulations — from illustrious Team Canada colleagues, friends, fierce rivals and from family. Scroll further and there’s a message from Ryan Reynolds. But hold up, thumb back a couple. Just a click from Hollywood royalty, it’s the Optometrists on Colborne. “For all of your eyewear needs in London, ON.” “Deadpool” and the eye docs. That kinda night.
The people behind Emma’s Acres are used to setbacks. There’s judgment, disappointment, and hoops to jump through when running a prison-to-table farm in Canada.
Their most recent setback — the rejection of a proposal to buy some land near Victoria for a new farm — is one they will not take lying down. Bringing Emma’s Acres to Vancouver Island means taking the idea back to the home of its namesake, and its founder.
And it means expanding a model for prison farming unlike any other in Canada.
Under their proposal, prisoners do the bulk of the farming while victims of violent crime benefit from the fruits of the labour — either by getting produce for free, or getting counselling support paid for by the sale of the veggies.
One of the keys to being a great sprinter, Donovan Bailey was saying recently, can seem like a paradox, writes Star sports columnist Dave Feschuk.
While the amateur’s urge is to try to run faster by trying harder, all clenched fists and gritted teeth, the wisdom of the great coaches demands the enlightened athlete take it easier. In a sport where tension is the enemy — because the mechanics of efficient sprinting rely more on natural reflex than grinding effort — the secret isn’t harder labour. It’s relaxation.
“In the middle of the heat, in the middle of all the crazy stuff happening around you, it ultimately comes down to your ability to relax,” Bailey said.
It is a detail that makes a look back on Bailey’s seminal win in the 100 metres in Atlanta in 1996 seem all the more remarkable.
From Tom Thomson’s iconic Canadian landscapes to the evocative aerial photographs of Edward Burtynsky, many have attempted to capture the essence of this vast and diverse country in a static image.
In Little Canada, Jean Louis Brenninkmeijer has tried the impossible — representing the entire country in miniature in a 45,000 square-foot former GoodLife Fitness at Yonge and Dundas.
The first impression after passing through Little Canada’s passport control and entering the first destination, Little Niagara, is that Brenninkmeijer, the attraction’s founder, president and primary funder, has succeeded.
Visitors are immediately immersed in a world of perfect replicas of perfectly Canadian icons: Niagara Falls thunders with roiling digital water and sound; at a sugar shack in Quebec, tiny diners tuck into pancakes at picnic tables draped with red and white checkered tablecloths; and the rising din of crickets and sirens signals the arrival of dusk in Toronto.
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