Blackened lives in Philippine charcoal field shows persisting income inequality


A sinewy man covered in thick soot stands in a grey cloud of smoke, watching over a slow-burning pile of wood that sustains his life but may also eventually kill him.

Nearby, emaciated children with their bones visible through their skin bet over a game of dice using charcoal instead of money.

More than 1,500 people live in this makeshift charcoal factory in one of the sprawling slums that dominate chunks of Manila.

They mine a neighbouring garbage dump for scraps of wood, which they place into crude furnaces. After a week the charcoal is placed into sacks and hauled off to market.

While the country’s rich enjoy electricity and gas delivered into their homes, charcoal remains an important source of fuel for the poor.

The Philippines, for decades one of the Asia’s economic laggards, has attracted global attention for remarkable growth since President Benigno Aquino came to power in 2010.

The stock market has hit record highs, credit agencies have upgraded the country’s risk ratings and skyrises are being built with speed reminiscent of China’s construction boom.

Yet that has done little to change a huge rich-poor divide that sees roughly a quarter of Manila’s 12 million people surviving on a dollar a day or less.

Nowhere can the chasm be felt as deeply as Ulingan, the squatter community whose residents make their living from charcoal. Among them is Rose Mingote, 34, the creases in her tired face filled with black powder after a night of filling sacks.

“I am not sure if I can bring a child into this kind of world,” says Mingote, who has been married for four years. “This is as good as it gets for me.”

On a nearby broken bench that alternates as a sleeping space, a mother and her three children share a plate of rice. The youngest of the three stares blankly into the distance, with only a ripped tarpaulin providing shade.

Everyone is forced to inhale the smoke that billows from the charcoal pits, turning the dire landscape into an eerie monochrome.

Those who toil here risk contracting a range of health problems, from respiratory illness to skin disease.

Juan Villa, an outreach worker with local charity group Project Pearls, says asthma, bronchitis and lung cancer are major problems at Ulingan.

Project Pearls has helped some of the slum dwellers relocate, but most are reluctant to go.

Despite the daily torture, making charcoal can return up to 2,000 pesos (HK$400) a week, providing a better existence than for many others in the slums.

“To everyone else, this is dirty, but to poor people like me, it’s our source of life,” says mother-of-three Madelyn Rosales, 33.

“We’ve had different jobs and different homes but it’s only through working here that my children have been able to taste meat and hotdogs.”

This article was first published in June 2013 through Agence France-Presse.

Churches converted to condos as congregations shrink

From her usual spot on the last pew beside the centre aisle, 88-year-old Lily Anthony watched as Rev. Bill Elliott stood below the pulpit and declared the deconsecration of their century-old congregation.

“Today as we leave this house of worship, accepting that it will be removed and replaced, may we feel a sense of fulfillment and completion … and be able to depart in peace,” said Elliott, looking intently at some of the tear-stained faces of his congregation’s 60 members.

The day was Dec. 31, 2012, the last time members of Glebe Presbyterian Church gathered in the midtown church where Anthony had been baptized, married and laid her husband to rest.

“Everyone was asking me if I was sad about the move but I told them I wasn’t,” Anthony said. “It was time to look onto the future.”

Built in 1914, the church joins a handful of places of worship in Toronto being reformed into residences. This year alone, at least five are being transformed into condominiums and townhouses. Just recently, St. Clement’s Anglican Church in Leslieville was approved to be turned into 18 two-storey condo units with an extension of 20 loft-style units to be built in a nearby vacant land.

“This is by no means a new phenomenon,” said University of Toronto professor Brian Clarke, who specializes in Canada’s church history. “But the reason why there seems to be an increase in churches being turned into things like condos is that memberships in congregations are shrinking and aging.”

Clarke said that “mainline churches,” which are mostly affiliated with Christianity, make up about 57 per cent of Toronto’s religious population, according to the voluntary 2011 National Household Survey (NHS). They haven’t been growing since the 1970s.

According to figures provided by the churches, membership in the United Church declined by almost 10 per cent from 24,210 in 2008 to 21,573 in 2011, while Presbyterian attendance decreased by 24 per cent from 7,500 in 2001 to 5,700 in 2011. The Anglican Church has experienced a steep 29 per cent decline from 321,580 in the 2001 census to 227,925 in the 2011 NHS.

Only the Roman Catholic Church reported growth from 1.6 million in 2001 to 1.8 million in 2011, mostly due to immigration, said spokesperson Bill Steinburg. The church has built four new parishes in the outskirts of the GTA over the last four years.

Unable to shoulder the financial strain of maintaining decades-old buildings, however, others haven’t been as lucky.

The United Church has closed six churches in the last three years while the Presbyterian Church has closed eight, three of which were turned into residences.

“If you look around, a lot of the older churches are built near each other in the general downtown area so people could walk there on Sundays,” Clarke said. “But immigrants tend to settle in the suburbs where there’s more affordable housing so there are no people to offset the amount of people unable to go to church because of age.”

The west end in particular has seen a surge in development in recent years, said senior city planner Sarah Phipps, who oversees Ward 18, which stretches from Parkdale, the Junction to a part of Roncesvalles.

“Ward 18 is feeling the pressure right now as the city continues to grow and everything towards the east has been developed,” Phipps said.

Churches are especially highly sought after by developers, as they are mostly located in large, prime city lands, Phipps added.

Ward 18 is currently home to two church-condo developments. Perth Avenue Methodist Church at 243 Perth Ave is being turned into Cornerstone Lofts, a 22-unit four-storey condo, while The Anglican Church of St. Mary the Virgin and St. Cyprian is being converted into a 17-unit condo called West40.

On its last stages of construction, West40, a city-designated heritage site built in 1912, is close to being sold out, said architect Asen Vitko.

“There’s a demand for owning a piece of genuine real McCoy history rather than recreating a structure so it looks like something from previous eras,” Vitko said.

Heritage buildings in Toronto are particularly popular since the city “doesn’t have much history left” after several historical buildings got demolished between the ‘50s to ‘70s’, he added.

But owning a sliver of history doesn’t come cheap.

Conversions are usually priced higher than new constructions due to repairs that require recreating old water and century-old construction techniques originally used when the building was first constructed.

A two-bedroom unit at West40 costs around $750,000 while a new condo unit of the same size at Roncesvalles is priced at around $575,000.

Since most churches in Toronto are heritage buildings, the process of conversion is much more tedious, Phipps said.

Instead of only consulting city planners, developers also have to work with heritage architects to ensure that additions still preserve the building’s history.

The complexity of church to condo conversions, however, does not deter Vitko, who calls the “marrying of new construction to original construction” a labour of love.”

Phipps agreed, saying the conversions are a good use of the old churches and the space they have.

“These conversions keep Toronto’s history intact and provide unique solutions to extend the life of these buildings.”

This article was first published in the May 26, 2013 issue of Toronto Star

Ampatuan massacre clan enjoys massive election wins

MANILA, Philippines – A clan whose chiefs are on trial for the Philippines’ worst political massacre secured big wins in local elections this week, results showed Friday, deepening fears that justice may never be served.

Leaders of the Ampatuan family and their gunmen are accused of killing 58 people, including 32 journalists, in the southern province of Maguindanao more than three years ago in a bid to quash a rival’s challenge to become governor.

Wives of three senior clan figures who are on trial for the murders were re-elected for town mayor posts in Maguindanao in Monday’s mid-term elections, according to the official results website.

At least 16 other members of the Ampatuan family were elected or re-elected as town mayors, vice mayors and councillors, according to the Commission on Elections website.

“This could really crush the people’s hopes that those responsible for the massacre will be punished,” Noemi Parcon, whose journalist husband died in the massacre, told Agence France-Presse.

Another of those re-elected as a town mayor in Maguindanao was Benzar Ampatuan, 27, a grandson of Andal Ampatuan Snr, who is the patriarch of the family and is among those detained in Manila while on trial for the massacre.

Local rights groups and election monitors said the powerful performance of the Ampatuans was not a surprise, citing the well-known clan power structure in the Muslim-dominated southern provinces such as Maguindanao.

“It doesn’t matter that the massacre happened… as long as you’re the leader of the municipality, the respect is still there even if you are doing wrong,” said Bobby Taguntong, spokesman for a local election monitor.

Andal Ampatuan Snr was the governor of the province at the time of the massacre. Then president Gloria Arroyo helped fund a personal army for him that was used as a proxy force against Muslim separatist rebels.

Aside from Ampatuan Snr, five of his sons and two of his grandsons are on trial. In total 93 people, many of them alleged gunmen, are on trial.

But the justice proceedings are expected to take years to complete and victims’ relatives, as well as rights groups, fear the Ampatuans are using the time to sabotage the case by killing or intimidating witnesses.

Three witnesses and three more potential witnesses have been killed since 2010, according to local police.

The Ampatuans deny all charges against them.

This article was first published in May 2013 through Agence France-Presse

Map: Saskatchewan challenged in recruiting forensic pathologist to join only specialist

The province is struggling to recruit a second forensic pathologist to take some of the workload from the only specialist in Saskatchewan holding that position.

Based in Saskatoon City Hospital, Dr. Shaun Ladham is Saskatchewan’s first and only forensic pathologist probing sudden and unnatural deaths. This means that bodies have to be transported to Saskatoon if they require forensic examination.

“It’s certainly inconvenient,” chief coroner Kent Stewart told Metro, “but … we have someone with the best skill and knowledge, and it also depends on scheduling.”

The province had another forensic pathologist based in Regina, though that person left the job last year.

“We’ve been recruiting for an additional one in Regina since 2013, but it’s a very difficult position to fill for a number of reasons,” Stewart said.

According to Stewart, Canada has a significant shortage of qualified forensic pathologists. And Saskatchewan has to compete with larger jurisdictions that could offer different lifestyles and more varied cases.

Alberta has 10 forensic pathologists based in Calgary and Edmonton, according to a government spokeswoman.

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“They have state-of-the-art facilities too,” Stewart said. “And those are certainly very attractive.”

Unlike Saskatchewan, Alberta follows the medical examiner (ME) system in which death investigations are conducted by physicians trained in forensic pathology. Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador also use the ME system.

Saskatchewan, on the other hand, uses a system in which the forensic pathologist assists a coroner. The coroner is not required to be a physician, but generally has a legal, medical or investigative background.

All other Canadian provinces and territories also run on the coroner system.

Ladham works on about 200 to 250 cases a year, Stewart added, noting that only a small number are homicides.

The availability of only one pathologist has not been a significant problem for RCMP, spokesman Sgt. Craig Cleary said, adding that “we haven’t experienced any unusual delays that affected any of our investigations.”

Despite the challenge, Stewart said his office will continue to try to find the right candidate.

“It’s tough,” he said, “but I know there’s somebody out there.”

This article was first published in the June 24, 2014 issue of Metro News

Regina begins clean-up following days of devastating rainstorms

City of Regina crews have started cleaning the wreckage left by heavy rainstorms.

Raw sewage spilled out of manholes as water seeped into basements and underpasses flooded after torrential downpours — which also hit several eastern Saskatchewan communities — overwhelmed Regina’s sewer system.

Around 9.7 centimetres of rain fell on Regina between Saturday and Monday, Mayor Michael Fougere told reporters at the city’s waterworks office on Tuesday.

“We’re now primarily on the clean-up mode, which is a good sign … after the rain over the past 48 hours, which is significant,” Fougere said.

Sewer and drainage crews have begun cleaning streets and decontaminating areas where sewage has overflowed, according to sewer and drainage operations manager Helene Henning-Hill.

They aim to finish cleaning within the next week, she added.

In most Regina neighbourhoods, storm water and sewage are usually deposited into separate water systems. A few areas, however, have cross-connected systems.

“Everyone knows that our infrastructure is aging … and as a result of this significant rain event, we had both systems impacted and at full capacity,” Henning-Hill said.

The city will analyze the storm’s aftermath to plan changes to the two water systems.

“Over the next year, we’ll have a better plan in place on how we move forward with our system improvements,” Henning-Hill said.

In the meantime, city council will consider Regina’s application to the Provincial Disaster Assistance Program (PDAP) on Wednesday.

PDAP compensates residents for uninsurable damages sustained through natural disasters. Eligible claims can include clean-up costs, structural repairs and restoration and preventative measures.

The city received more than 500 calls on the weekend regarding basement water, plugged catch basins and flooded intersections, according to Henning-Hill.

“Based on preliminary calls, 50 homes have been impacted with actual flooding and more with seepage,” said emergency manager Jay O’Connor.

The last time the city applied to PDAP was in 2013.

“I would estimate that this has been worse than 2013,” O’Connor said. “But we’re hoping by the weekend to have PDAP begin.”

This article was first published in the July 2, 2014 issue of Metro News

Pasqua First Nation sues Saskatchewan government over treaty land agreements

Pasqua First Nation is suing the Saskatchewan government in federal court for an alleged failure to comply with treaty land agreements.

In 2008, to resolve stipulations of Treaty 4, Pasqua and the government reached a settlement entitling the First Nation to purchase more than 6,600 acres that would be turned into reserve property, a news release stated on Wednesday.

According to the band, the province said at the time that it would make Crown land available for sale.

In 2012, Pasqua selected 13 quarter-sections in the Rural Municipality of Dufferin and two quarter-sections in the RM of Edenwold. The lands in Dufferin and Edenwold are near a K+S Potash and Vale mine, respectively.

Their request was denied by the government.

“Five quarter-sections of the land we chose in Dufferin were also sold to K+S when they should have been in discussion with Pasqua about the sale of those lands,” Pasqua Chief Todd Peigan told Metro.

“It’s a violation of the agreement.”

The province’s denial prevents the band from earning revenue to support various community initiatives, he added.

“We could have leased those agricultural lands to farmers, acquired the minerals in those lands and made an agreement with the potash mines … and benefit from the potash sharing act,” Peigan said.

“We met with the province … but they felt that there was no basis for our claims.”

A government spokeswoman declined to give details on the province’s position.

“Since the case is in front of the courts right now, it would be inappropriate for the Ministry of Justice to comment and give our perspective,” said Linsay Rabyj.

This article was first published in the June 25, 2014 issue of Metro News


Corner Gas: The Movie a boon to Saskatchewan economy, producer says

Corner Gas: The Movie is well into filming in Regina — and while the activity is a treat to residents, it’s also a boon to the economy.

That’s according to executive producer Virginia Thompson, who said on Wednesday that the production is “spending approximately $4 million over the next eight weeks, so that’s a good economic influx to Regina.”

The cast and crew of Corner Gas: The Movie will film in southern Saskatchewan until July 23. So far, they have recorded scenes at Regina’s Ukrainian Hall and at several sites in the Cathedral area, such as the Mysteria art gallery and Holy Rosary Cathedral.

Thompson said she’s blown away by the public’s enthusiasm for the film.

“Our (casting director) has so many people interested in participating that he has to figure out how to deal with the onslaught,” she said.

Cast members Lorne Cardinal and Fred Ewanuick, who play veteran police officer Davis Quinton and community deadbeat Hank Yarbo, respectively, are equally delighted with the attention they’ve received.

“I had a drive-by shouting the other day, ‘Hey Davis, love you,’” Cardinal told reporters.

“I love Saskatchewan for that.”

Ewanuick said it’s always been pleasant to work in Saskatchewan, going back to the beginning of the Corner Gas television sitcom in 2004.

“You can see it with the crew,” he said. “Regina crew are like, ‘Yeah, yeah we’ll get that for you,’ and back in Vancouver and Toronto it’s very like, ‘Oh no, that’s not our department.’ “

Cardinal said it wouldn’t hurt if they’re ever back in the province for a sequel with star actor Brent Butt.

“Brent says this is the ‘one and done thing,’ ” he said, “but I think success can change his mind.”

This article was first published in the June 25, 2014  issue of Metro News

Gallery: Saskatchewan Roughriders Grey Cup ring for sale online

A die-hard Saskatchewan Roughriders fan can now own a piece of the team’s most recent championship after a 2013 Grey Cup ring was recently put on Kijiji.

The white gold, diamond and emerald-encrusted ring is being offered on the buy-and-sell website for $35,000 by an anonymous seller. It was posted on Regina’s Kijiji site on Wednesday, less than a month after the rings were awarded to Riders players, staff and directors on May 30.

“A lot of people have been calling about it and I’m looking for the best price,” said the seller, who did not give his name during a short phone interview.

According to him, some fans have offered as much as $25,000.

“I’ve had some people ask for a lower price but if I can’t find the right price, I’ll keep it,” the seller said, calling from a Maryland area code.

“It looks like the real ring, from what I’ve seen,” said Michellea Sorensen, manager of Royalty Goldsmiths in Regina.

“But $35,000 is probably overpriced when it’s fairly new and you don’t know which player this is from. Without being able to see the gold weight and the cut, colour, clarity and karat of the diamond and emerald, it’s hard to give an appraisal cost but we estimate it to be $10,000 to $15,000.”

Sorensen added that most jewellers including their shop wouldn’t make replicas as they don’t have copyright over the CFL and Roughriders logos.

Other CFL championship rings have been sold in the past. Former Riders player Tristan Clovis put his 2007 ring up for sale.

“Championship or team rings don’t normally come up in the market,” Sorensen said, “and when they do, they usually go to private markets for private collectors because they’re priceless and can’t be duplicated.”

The Roughriders defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 45-23 to win the Grey Cup last November. The winners were given rings weighing 78 grams and made of 10-karat white gold and more than two-karat diamonds and emeralds, according to the Roughriders website.

By Thursday afternoon, the Kijiji advertisement had garnered more than 10,000 page views.

The Roughriders declined to comment.

This article was first published in the June 27, 2014 issue of Metro News

Instagram: Saskatchewan-born artist breathes life into province’s ghost towns

Saskatchewan-born graphic designer Nigel Hood is breathing life into some of the province’s ghost towns, one illustration at a time.

Originally from Weyburn, Hood, who lives in Edmonton, recently started creating logos — or would-be town crests — for 121 of Saskatchewan’s small ghost towns.

“The towns haven’t been touched by town logos, so I try to give them one to make them ‘real,’” Hood said.

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The project came to him during long drives he takes around three times a year from Alberta to Saskatchewan.

“I always see these dilapidated towns that have so much history … and I just wanted to tell the story that they were there, and have them remembered,” he explained.

Most of the towns were built around railways. According to Hood, they were gradually abandoned in the 1920s after the advent of motor vehicles when travelling became easier and residents moved to bigger cities such as Regina, Saskatoon and Moose Jaw.

Some of the towns he has tried to immortalize include those with names such as Yonkers, Romance, Robinhood, Old Wives and Canuck.

He pinpoints the ghost towns by researching them online and consulting geography enthusiasts and leads from families and friends.

Hood works on one town logo every day, and posts them on Instagram. Once he’s finished all 121 towns, he plans to compile them into one poster and sell it through the Etsy online shop.

“Some people seem to want to look back into these things to reminisce,” he said.

“And I feel like through this project, I get to learn a little bit more about Saskatchewan — and that’s always great.”

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This article was first published in the June 27, 2014 issue of Metro News

Map: Seniors request crosswalk while jaywalking on busy Regina road

A 69-year-old woman and some of her senior neighbours are requesting a signalled crosswalk near a busy south Regina intersection after years of being forced to jaywalk due to what she calls “poorly placed” pedestrian corridors.

“The traffic lights at Gordon Road and Rae Street are very dangerous to cross because of high traffic coming from Ring Road and Lewvan Drive,” said longtime resident Dorothy Shackleton, who lives at a high-rise building near the intersection.

Her building, Shackleton said, is home to many seniors and disabled people.

“People from my building have trouble crossing there, even (after) the city … extended the pedestrian crossing countdown,” she added.

Shackleton has asked the city for a signalled crosswalk on Gordon Road between Rae Street and Lockwood Road near a bus stop and Southland Mall.

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According to her, residents have opted to jaywalk to get to the bus stop and a grocery store faster.

Shackleton’s request, however, might not be warranted, said Regina traffic manager Ravi Seera.

“The traffic signals are too close to each other, and putting a corridor in the middle creates driver frustration — and that’s not good for traffic safety,” Seera said.

The city will look into whether the street is eligible for its annual corridor addition program. This year, four pedestrian corridors will be installed in Regina.

“In the meantime,” Seera said, “it probably makes sense to walk 200 feet longer to have a safer crossing.”

Shackleton and her neighbours are still hoping for a crosswalk.

“It’s been a long-running problem,” she said. “And if they want us to remain safe, we need something before someone gets killed.”