Trudeau pitches strong ties to Mexico’s new leader Claudia Sheinbaum amid U.S. tumult – Canada News

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press – | Story: 490571

Mexico’s election of its first female president could mean a stronger relationship with Canada, as analysts watch how Claudia Sheinbaum will approach civil rights and the possible return of former U.S. president Donald Trump.

“I think we’ll see a friendly relationship,” said Carleton University professor Laura Macdonald, who specializes in Mexican politics.

“And if Trump is re-elected, I think Mexico and Canada will really need each other more than ever, in order to confront the bully in the North American relationship.”

Sheinbaum will replace Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador in October. Both hail from the left-wing Morena party, which has focused on improving conditions for the poor while facing criticism over organized crime in the country.

A former climate scientist, Sheinbaum is the first Jewish leader of Mexico, and first came to prominence as mayor of Mexico City.

Trudeau spoke with Sheinbaum by phone Monday, and Ottawa’s readout says “they committed to working closely to strengthen North American competitiveness” and bilateral ties.

Sheinbaum wrote on the platform X in Spanish that both agreed on “the multiple common interests between Mexico and Canada and the great opportunities to strengthen our relationship.”

The election comes three months after the Liberals reimposed a visa requirement for Mexican visitors over concerns that the 2016 lifting of the requirement led to a rise in ineligible refugee claims and human smuggling into the U.S.

In her victory speech, Sheinbaum promised to continue many of Lopéz Obrador’s policies, but to “respect business freedom and honestly promote and facilitate national and foreign private investment” into Mexico.

“She’s probably less likely to engage in inflammatory rhetoric,” Macdonald said.

Duncan Wood, a vice-president at the Wilson Centre think tank in Washington and its senior Mexico adviser, said Sheinbaum’s pledge for stable trade will be of particular interest to Canada, which is a leading source of investment in Mexican industries such as mining.

López Obrador restructured mining operations to keep more profits within Mexico, and also put restrictions on the energy sector.

Wood said Sheinbaum might repeal some investment restrictions while boosting environmental regulations, which he said would be an opportunity for Canadian industry, particularly when it comes to natural gas and renewables.

He said he expects Sheinbaum will avoid policies that leave Mexico accused of breaching trade agreements.

“The relationship with Canada has been difficult over the last six years for a number of reasons, in part because of the bluster of Lopéz Obrador. But also, because there are real issues in the bilateral relationship to do with investment disputes.”

Along with the U.S., the two countries will be part of the 2026 review of the trade deal that replaced NAFTA.

Ahead of the election later this year, American President Joe Biden and his likely election opponent Donald Trump have both been proposing policies that would clamp down on trade.

On Monday, Trudeau called the existing agreement “the envy of the world, and the result of a strong, mutually beneficial relationship.”

Wood noted the North American deal is a way for Mexico to sell itself as a stable country for foreign investment.

He also said Mexico will find common cause with Canada over concerns with the current situation for the automobile sector, one of multiple industries for which Sheinbaum might demand better policies from the U.S.

“She has a long-standing attitude that the United States has been pushing Mexico around for far too long,” he said.

In addition to trade, Trudeau said in a statement that he wants to work with Sheinbaum on climate change, international security, gender equality and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

Canada is still aiming to host the next North American Leaders’ Summit this year, despite the U.S. presidential election in November and Mexico revealing earlier this year that Ottawa had arranged for the summit to take place in February before plans fell through.

Trudeau’s office said both leaders “expressed their desire to meet in person soon” during their Monday call.

Wood was in Mexico as an election observer and said the “huge victory” for Sheinbaum’s party surprised people, who expected her to win but not to have a possible supermajority in the Mexican congress.

The result could give her party wide berth to change Mexico’s constitution, following López Obrador taking steps to take powers away from independent regulators and decrying American funding for civil-society groups that are critical of the government.

Freedom House says Mexico’s defence department has used spyware to infiltrate the mobile phones of numerous activists, while Human Rights Watch says the government’s proposed legal reform threatens judicial independence.

“Behind the scenes, there are some concerns about what he might have been doing to restrict democratic institutions,” Macdonald said of Lopéz Obrador. “That will be a theme under the new president”

Still, Macdonald said Canada and Mexico are each other’s best hopes if the U.S. decides “it won’t be easy sailing” in continental trade.

“We have common interests, and we just have to keep working on developing the relationship.”

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press – Jun 3, 2024 / 12:32 pm | Story: 490570

The chief justice of the Supreme Court sent a warning Monday about the risks elected officials run by reacting to decisions from the court without first having read the rulings themselves.

Richard Wagner issued that call during his annual news conference on the work of the top court and other matters pertaining to the administration of justice.

Wagner said he is concerned about the spread of false information on court rulings, and politicians criticizing rulings based in part on which judge delivered them.

“It is one thing to express disagreement with a decision,” he said Monday.

“But it is another thing altogether to criticize it because of who the judge is or how they were appointed. Comments like this undermine public confidence in the justice system.”

One example of disinformation Wagner pointed to was a March ruling in a sexual assault case that at one point used the phrase “person with a vagina.”

Some columnists blasted that phrasing and Quebec legislators unanimously passed a motion denouncing the ruling, claiming it tried to make women invisible and underlining the importance of using the word “woman.”

But the ruling itself did use the word “woman” many times, and after the vote, the Quebec Liberal Party said it had regrets in going along with the motion. Québec solidaire also expressed that it wished it had handled the situation differently.

Speaking in French, Wagner said that had those commenting on the widely reported part of the decision actually read the whole things themselves, they would have seen the Supreme Court “never wished to devalue the notion of womanhood.”

“Disinformation did circulate,” the chief justice said.

At the federal level, Melissa Lantsman, one of the deputy leaders of the Conservatives, also waded in on the ruling after it came out.

She shared an opinion piece written about the decision on social media, saying, “there is nothing confusing about the word ‘woman,’ it’s common sense” — invoking the Conservatives’ frequent “common sense” rallying cry.

“It’s not hateful, bigoted, wrong or unfair in anyway. This is just complete nonsense that moves nothing forward. It’s not ‘progress,'” she posted on X.

Asked whether Lantsman had read the ruling herself, and about her thoughts pertaining to Wagner’s concerns about the spread of disinformation, a spokesman for Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s office said in a statement that “the deputy leader was commenting on a news piece from a major national media outlet.”

“Her comments speak for themselves,” Sebastian Skamski wrote.

During his news conference, Wagner also noted that he had seen improvements in terms of the speed at which the federal government is appointing new judges to fill outstanding vacancies.

He and others have long flagged the appointment process as a serious concern, noting that the delays led to some criminal charges being stayed because cases could not be heard in a timely manner.

Wagner said there are around 57 vacant positions, which is down from about 90 at the same time last year.

“I saw some improvements, and I am confident now that the situation can be corrected.”


The Canadian Press – Jun 3, 2024 / 10:17 am | Story: 490546

On the fifth anniversary of a national inquiry’s report into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is blasting all levels of government for what she calls slow progress to stop the crisis.

Only two of the more than 150 calls to action focused on First Nations people have been implemented since 2019, Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak says.

That’s despite constant calls from advocates for more funding from all levels of government for Indigenous housing, justice and programs for LGBTQ peoples that they say would keep women and girls safer.

The 2019 inquiry concluded Indigenous women are 12 times more likely to go missing or murdered than their non-Indigenous counterparts, and brought forward a total of 231 calls to action to help curb the epidemic.

Woodhouse says governments’ inaction is a failure that is “not acceptable to our people,” and says she hopes it’s not acceptable to Canadians either.

Woodhouse is calling on governments and their agencies to bring forward meaningful change based on justice and respect for human rights, with survivors and their families in mind.


Nojoud Al Mallees, The Canadian Press – Jun 3, 2024 / 7:17 am | Story: 490517

The Bank of Canada will announce its latest interest rate decision on Wednesday amid speculation that the central bank might start to cut rates.

On balance, financial markets expect the bank to cut its key lending rate by a quarter of a percentage point, but the view is by no means universal, with some expecting it to wait.

“Evidence has continued to build that the current high level of interest rates is no longer needed,” RBC said in a client note on Friday.

“Still, while the case for interest rate cuts in Canada is relatively clear — the BoC will likely maintain a cautious tone about the pace of additional cuts after next week.”

If the Bank of Canada opts to lower rates on Wednesday, it would mark the first rate cut since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the central bank to slash its key rate to near-zero.

Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem has said a rate cut is within the realm of possibilities, but that the decision will be guided by the economic data. He has said the central bank is seeing what it needs to see, but wants to see it for longer to be confident that progress toward price stability will be sustained.

Economists have been particularly encouraged by Canada’s marked slowdown in price growth.

The annual inflation rate for April came in at 2.7 per cent compared with 2.9 per cent in March.

Core measures of inflation, which strip out volatile prices, have also steadily eased in recent months.

The interest rate decision follows a report by Statistics Canada last week that showed economic growth in the first quarter fell short of the Bank of Canada’s expectations. The report also revised its reading for growth in the fourth quarter of 2023 lower.

However, the jobs report for April showed employment rose by 90,000 for the month and marked the largest employment increase in more than a year.

If the Bank of Canada does not cut interest rates on Wednesday, it’s widely expected to do so next month instead.


The Canadian Press – Jun 3, 2024 / 5:51 am | Story: 490507

Toronto police say one man is dead and four other people have been injured in a shooting.

Police responded to reports of a shooting just before 11 p.m. on Sunday night near Mount Olive Drive and Kipling Avenue.

Police say five people had been shot and paramedics confirmed they were all adults.

Police say one of those people, a man in his 50s, has since died in hospital and four others have serious but non-life-threatening injuries.

Police say a black truck was seen fleeing the scene.

Toronto District School Board says North Albion Collegiate, located at the same intersection as the shooting, will be closed due to a police investigation outside the high school.


The Canadian Press – Jun 3, 2024 / 5:47 am | Story: 490509

Former Calgary Flames co-captain and Hockey Hall of Famer Lanny McDonald surprised a Calgary police officer who helped save his life earlier this year by paying him a visit with the Stanley Cup in tow.

Const. Jose Cives performed chest compressions on McDonald at Calgary’s airport in early February after the 71-year-old collapsed while returning from the NHL’s all-star game in Toronto.

Cives had no idea that McDonald, who played with the team during its 1989 Stanley Cup win, was coming to a fundraising event on Friday put on by the Calgary Police Rodeo Association, nor did he know that McDonald would also be accompanied by his former teammates Tim Hunter, Colin Patterson and Rick Wamsley.

In a video posted online by the Calgary Flames, Cives says he got a call over his radio in February saying a man had collapsed, prompting him to race to the scene. He performed chest compressions and used an automated external defribrilator on McDonald until EMS arrived.

Cives and McDonald now go for coffee and share laughs these days, with Cives saying they get along “brilliantly.”

McDonald calls Cives, who is listed as a director with the rodeo association, a “local hero” in the video and says it was “extremely special” to bring the Stanley Cup to him and his fellow officers.

“We had given them a couple of auction items, but to be able to surprise them, be here, knowing they make such a difference in the community, is so rewarding, and what a great way to thank Jose,” McDonald said in the video.

The Flames legend also thanked “two beautiful nurses” who he said also jumped in to save his life.

Cives said he’s been told he was working on McDonald for ten minutes before emergency responders took over.

“There were many times when I thought that Lanny wasn’t going to make it through, but I wasn’t going to stop until I got some sort of result,” Cives recounted of that day in the airport.

“There isn’t a day that goes by where he doesn’t remind me that I’m the man that broke him — his ribs, his sternum — but on the flipside, he always tells me that he’s forever thankful that I was one of the people that saved his life.”

McDonald, originally from Hanna, Alta., was released from Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary two weeks after his cardiac event.

Friday’s fundraiser also raised money for the Missing Children’s Society of Canada.

“We’re all teammates, but they have a different kind of teammate challenge and it’s great to be able to support them here tonight,” McDonald said.


Bob Weber, The Canadian Press – Jun 3, 2024 / 5:44 am | Story: 490504

An Alberta ranching community is fighting a planned hearing on proposed coal exploration in the Rocky Mountains, saying the province’s arm’s-length energy regulator shouldn’t have heeded a letter from its energy minister suggesting an application from Northback Holdings be accepted.

The information is contained in documents released last week by the Alberta Energy Regulator. They outline the Municipal District of Ranchland’s request to appeal the regulator’s ruling that Northback’s plans for Grassy Mountain in southwest Alberta are exempt from an order blocking such development.

“(Ranchland) submits that the (regulator) abdicated its decision-making responsibilities in reaching the decision by improperly fettering its discretion in the face of a non-binding letter from the minister of energy,” say the municipality’s court filings.

Northback has applied for three licences on Grassy Mountain near the community of Crowsnest Pass. Northback wants approval for exploratory drilling and water diversion as part of the Australian company’s plans for an open-pit steelmaking coal mine.

The project, under the name Benga Mining, has previously been denied by federal and provincial environmental reviews. As well, Alberta has enacted a ministerial order blocking all coal development in the Rockies, save for those considered “advanced projects” that have submitted a project summary to the regulator.

However, Northback argues that the project summary submitted by Benga qualifies it as an advanced project, even though the proposal was rejected.

In a Nov. 16, 2023, letter to the regulator, Alberta Energy Minister Brian Jean sided with Northback. The regulator subsequently accepted Northback’s applications and promised public hearings on them.

But Ranchland, in documents filed March 21 with the Alberta Court of Appeal, argues Jean had no right to make that suggestion and the regulator was wrong to follow it.

It says the regulator, in effect, delegated its decision-making power to the minister, contrary to law.

“Relying upon, adopting or deferring to irrelevant or improper evidence in determining that the minister’s letter ‘carries significant weight,’ or in giving any weight to the minister’s letter at all … was (outside the minister’s power),” Ranchland’s letter reads.

Northback argues the regulator’s decision to accept its application is not appealable.

“A system whereby project opponents may complain about the fact that a public hearing has been granted, and then delay that public hearing by requesting regulatory appeals and stays before the public hearing has even been scheduled, does not provide for the efficient development of Alberta’s resources,” say its filings with the regulator.

The appeal request adds more uncertainty to Northback’s plans.

Northback has asked the regulator to schedule hearings in June, with a decision to follow within 30 days.

Opponents argue that not only is it far too tight a timeline, there should be no hearings scheduled at all until the appeal request is ruled on and, if necessary, heard.

“Irreversible loss of habitat, disturbance to wildlife, and sedimentation in adjacent watercourses (could occur) before legal determination of whether the project is considered an advanced project,” wrote the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

“This would further damage the trust and accountability of the (regulator).”

Regulator spokesman Renato Gandia said in an email that while no date for the hearings has been set, they are being planned.

“The panel is currently considering requests for participation and will address scheduling after participation is decided.”

Gandia said standing at the hearing would be granted to those directly affected or who offer useful perspective, have a tangible interest and won’t delay the process.


Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press – Jun 2, 2024 / 7:41 pm | Story: 490483

The Canadian and Chinese defence ministers met in Singapore this week, marking the first in-person meeting between those officials in years.

Bill Blair sat down with Admiral Dong Jun on Friday while attending the Shangri-La Dialogue, an international security conference.

In a statement issued after the meeting, Blair said he expressed concern about Beijing’s foreign interference in Canada and about its recent military exercises in Taiwan.

China staged a simulated blockade of the island after the election of a new government that does not accept Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China.

Blair’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart comes several months after Canadian military officials told members of Parliament they were working to open new lines of communication.

Diplomatic relations between the countries have been strained since 2018, when Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada and China responded by detaining Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

The final debate of the Alberta New Democratic Party leadership race saw the remaining four candidates give their last appeals for support, a day ahead of the start of voting to choose the successor of political heavyweight Rachel Notley.

Nearly 85,150 party members are eligible to vote beginning Monday for the new leader, who will be named on June 22. Leadership candidates signed up tens of thousands of new members by the April deadline bringing the tally to a historic high for the 62-year-old party. Ms. Notley received just 2,512 votes when she took the helm of the NDP in 2014.

Garett Spelliscy, the executive director of the Alberta NDP, said significant growth of the party is a symptom of Ms. Notley’s legacy. She brought the NDP from underdog to top dog in the 2015 provincial election, and, in opposition, has proved that the party remain a political force to be reckoned with, Mr. Spelliscy said.

“We really have an environment where anybody who feels like the UCP is taking us in the wrong direction, sees a home for themselves politically in the Alberta NDP,” he said in an interview on Sunday. “At the end of this race, we’re going to see a renewed excitement and enthusiasm to get ready for the next election.”

The race is considered former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi’s to lose. He is up against party mainstays Kathleen Ganley and Sarah Hoffman, both of whom held cabinet positions under the Notley government, and rookie Edmonton MLA Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse. Two other candidates – Edmonton MLA Rakhi Pancholi and Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour – have dropped out from the competition.

On Sunday, the final of three leadership debates took place in Edmonton, during which the remaining contenders focused on topics such as health care, affordability and housing. They also answered questions on the identity of the party, including how it should associate with its national counterpart, and plans to defeat the governing United Conservative Party.

Then candidates gave their final pitch. While Mr. Nenshi focused his closing remarks on beating out the UCP, Ms. Hoffman centred more on her NDP values and record in office. Ms. Ganley highlighted her vision for collaborative leadership, and Ms. Stonehouse concentrated on her plans to protect water and govern for the next generation.

“This government must be replaced. It must be replaced for the good of our province and for the future of our generations,” Mr. Nenshi said. “This is really about going out to all of our neighbours, building the movement, making our movement look more like Alberta, making sure that we are relevant from High Level to High Prairie to High River.”

Ms. Hoffman followed: “I know my values and you know them too. I can’t pretend to be something that I’m not,” she said to a crowd of hundreds. “I will be a bold, unapologetic NDP Premier.”

Ms. Ganley said the NDP has to go beyond criticizing the UCP and putting forward its own bold vision for the province and then stand behind it.

“I am offering you a very different type of leadership,” she said. “One that is based not on the strength of one person but all of us together.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Stonehouse, a member of Michel First Nation, said many have shared with her their fears of climate change, of drought, wildfires and the ability to farm. She said this is why the province must do better with water.

“Water is life,” she said. “Water is prosperity. Prosperity is our future and our future must be about our children.”

Mr. Spelliscy said the challenge for the coming leader will be to unite party members under a shared vision while paving a path to victory in the next provincial election. He added that the victor will “definitely be conscious” of Ms. Notley’s shadow but will need to chart their own path.

“Compare the Alberta NDP to other sections of the NDP or other political parties – the stability we’ve enjoyed because Rachel represents the ability to form government. Rachel represents the history and the roots of our party, and the ability to form a broad coalition,” he said.

“It’s up to the party and the next leader to retain members, and ensure that our coalition remains intact.”

Anja Karadeglija, The Canadian Press – Jun 2, 2024 / 10:30 am | Story: 490417

Just as the summer travel season gets into gear, Canadians and visitors could find themselves waiting in long lines at the border — delays that could also deal a blow to the economy.

It all depends on what happens with a potential strike by workers at the Canada Border Services Agency, which could start as soon as Thursday.

What’s going on?

More than 9,000 Public Service Alliance of Canada members who work for the CBSA, including border guards, have secured a strike mandate. The two sides go into mediation on June 3, and the union will be in a position to strike as of June 6.

The union says similar action three years ago “nearly brought commercial cross-border traffic to a standstill, causing major delays at airports and borders across the country.”

But the Treasury Board says 90 per cent of front-line border officers are designated as essential, which means they can’t stop working during a strike.

So how disruptive could a strike be?

Union members could use work-to-rule, a tactic where employees do their jobs exactly as outlined in their contracts.

Ian Lee, an associate professor at Carleton University’s school of business, said that means a border crossing could take much longer than it usually does. That wouldn’t just be a problem for tourists, but disrupt the economy, given $2.5 billion a day in goods crosses the border, he said.

The Treasury Board says “employees in essential services positions must provide uninterrupted border services. They cannot work to rule and they cannot intentionally slow down border processing.”

A spokesperson said the CBSA will discipline workers who “engage in illegal job action.”

But Lee noted border workers have broad discretion when it comes to asking questions. He said it’s unclear how the government can argue a guard is “breaking the law by using their full discretion and authority.”

Stephanie Ross, an associate professor of labour studies at McMaster University, said there is a logistical barrier to the government taking action. She pointed out that work-to-rule means following job duties to the letter.

“People would be doing their work, albeit very thoroughly. How can you discipline people for following procedure?”

Ross said work-to-rule can be very effective.

A border crossing where it might take an extra 10 minutes to get across because the officer is doing everything by the book can “have an enormous disruptive effect magnified by the thousands of individuals, semi-trailers, various kinds of transport coming into Canada,” she said.

What do CBSA employees want?

Mark Weber, the national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, which is part of PSAC, said work-to-rule could be disruptive, but the union is “not there yet.”

Weber said members want pay parity with other law enforcement agencies, with the union looking to how much first-level RCMP constables are paid for comparison.

CBSA is also short thousands of officers, and the union wants those openings to be filled with permanent employees, not contract replacements.

Other issues include pension benefits and protections around “heavy-handed discipline,” Weber said.

Another concern for the union is technology taking over jobs officers would be doing otherwise, like the kiosks that have popped up at Canadian airports.

Weber said the CBSA “are trying to almost create a self-serve checkout kind of system, like you see at grocery stores, at our borders.”

He said that amounts to “almost waiting for smugglers to self-declare with no officers present, which from a national security point of view is extremely concerning.”

And there’s the link to the public service unions’ fight over work-from-home arrangements.

What does the new public service in-office mandate have to do with border guards?

Ottawa recently announced that federal employees must work from the office at least three days a week, starting in September. Public service unions responded by pledging a “summer of discontent” over the new policy.

Then-PSAC president Chris Aylward indicated that includes the CBSA strike, saying in an earlier press conference the “government has to be prepared for a summer of discontent. Whatever that looks like, whether it’s at the borders, whether it’s at the airports.”

Weber said telework is a key issue for the union, and more than 2,000 of its members work remotely or did so previously, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. The union wants to see work from home enshrined in the collective agreement.

He said the government previously promised to set up panels and consult on work-from-home arrangements, and then broke its promise by announcing the three-day-a-week mandate for everyone.

That means the union would be skeptical if government only offers another letter of understanding. “What value does that have anymore?” Weber said.

How likely is a strike?

“We remain at the bargaining table, committed to negotiating a deal that is fair to employees and reasonable to the Canadian taxpayer,” Treasury Board spokesperson Martin Potvin said in a statement.

“With a shared commitment to good faith bargaining, we are optimistic that an agreement can be reached quickly.”

Weber said it’s in the government’s hands “to put a contract forward to avoid a strike. We’re always ready to sit down and negotiate a fair contract.”

Ross said in the lead-up to a strike, there is always an element of posturing, but the 96 per cent vote in favour of strike action was “very strong.”

Many of the problems are the same as when the union went on strike in 2021, she noted.

“If we take a bit of a longer-term view, there are reasons to believe that things have been festering at CBSA, and that makes the mobilization that we’re seeing in the union side more important to take seriously.”

The workers have been negotiating without a collective agreement for two years, meaning, Ross noted, “there’s a lot of built up frustration around their wages falling behind.”

She said this is the moment where the two sides are waiting to see which one is willing to blink.

The government might not believe the union “has enough organization and unity to pull off a work to rule that would be disruptive,” she said.

But they might find out. We all might find out.”

The Canadian Press – Jun 2, 2024 / 9:15 am | Story: 490414

Eight people, including four children, were taken to hospital with second and third degree burns after a fire and possible explosion at a home south of Montreal.

The operations chief for the regional fire service says a call came in about a building fire at about 10:15 p.m. Saturday in St-Constant, on Montreal’s South Shore.

Luc Lapointe says first responders found several people on the ground with serious injuries and a garage that had been damaged by fire.

He says it appears the people had been gathered around a bonfire, and neighbours reported hearing an explosion.

Lapointe says experts are investigating the cause of the fire, but notes there was a vehicle that uses propane in the garage.

The regional ambulance service says the injured people were seriously hurt but are all expected to survive.

Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press – Jun 2, 2024 / 6:25 am | Story: 490408

Plant biologist Marcus Samuel has been working for more than a decade to improve the climate resilience of crops.

At his research greenhouse at the University of Calgary, he uses cutting-edge gene editing techniques to produce hardier varieties of plants able to withstand temperature fluctuations, floods and frosts.

But while he has worked on canola, peas and other crops, perhaps the most elusive and exciting part of his work is the quest for drought-resistant wheat.

“It is definitely the Holy Grail. I think this has been one of the hardest things to crack,” Samuel said.

Samuel is just one of many scientists in Canada and around the world pursuing the development of a drought-resistant wheat strain.

It would be one of the biggest victories in agricultural research, if achieved.

Wheat is the most widely grown cereal grain, occupying 17 per cent of the total cultivated land in the world, according to the International Development Research Centre, a federal Crown corporation. It is a staple food for 35 per cent of the world’s population, and provides more calories and protein in the world’s diet than any other crop.

Yet wheat is a “thirstier” plant than other staple crops like maize, rice and soy, making it more vulnerable to water shortages. The Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute estimates that by 2040, nearly three-quarters of global wheat production will be under threat due to drought and climate change-induced water supply stress.

Santosh Kumar, a wheat breeder working on drought resistance for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Brandon, Man., said he sometimes feels like he is racing against time.

“When our world population is projected to be doubled by 2050, we need to feed people,” Kumar said.

“If we don’t grow enough wheat, there will be food shortages.”

While no wheat is ever going to survive in zero-water conditions, scientists have found that wheat plants with certain traits — such as longer, deeper roots — have a better chance of surviving in low-water conditions.

It’s possible, using traditional plant breeding methods, to isolate plants with these desirable traits and cross them with other selected plants to create new, more drought-resistant varieties.

Gains have been made — the wheat Canadian farmers plant today is tougher and hardier than the wheat of 100 years ago. But the process remains painstakingly slow, requiring years of field trials.

And truly drought-tolerant wheat remains elusive, even as the need for it becomes more urgent due to climate change. Canada, for example, saw its total wheat production decline almost 40 per cent year-over-year in 2021 due to extreme heat and drought on the prairies.

Drought walloped Canadian wheat production again last year, when farmers saw yields decline 12 per cent from 2022 levels, according to Statistics Canada.

One reason why science has yet to crack the problem is the sheer complexity of the wheat plant itself. The wheat genome is huge, containing five times more DNA than the human genome. Hunting for better wheat traits is infinitely more difficult than working with a crop that has a simpler genetic profile.

“It’s like doing a puzzle of 50 pieces versus 10,000 pieces,” Kumar said.

International scientists finally fully mapped the wheat genome in 2018, a breakthrough that has led to recent advancements using genetic research. The most dramatic of these was a 2020 announcement that Argentinian scientists had developed the first genetically engineered wheat, which incorporates a drought-resistant gene from the sunflower plant.

The Argentinian wheat has not been approved for growing or eating in Canada, and many markets around the world remain hostile to genetically engineered crops. But gene editing is less controversial than full-scale genetic modification, and it’s in this realm where Canadian scientists — such as the U of C’s Samuel — are making strides.

Unlike full-scale genetic modification, gene editing does not involve splicing genetic material from different species together. Instead, it’s a precision method that allows scientists to make small, targeted changes to DNA sequences.

In 2021, the Canadian government relaxed its rules around gene-edited crops, saying seeds that have been produced using the technology are safe and do not require special assessments by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Ellen Sparry, president of the industry group Seeds Canada, said that decision was a milestone that should speed up the quest for drought-resistant wheat.

But she said a promising strain discovered in a research lab tomorrow would still require several years of testing and regulatory work before it could end up in farmers’ hands.

She added that’s why it’s vital that scientists receive the public and private funding they need to work as quickly as possible, so that agriculture’s Holy Grail can be discovered before the climate crisis takes a heavier toll.

“It’s not a question of ‘Can we do it?’ It’s a question of how fast we can do it in order to face the challenges we’re facing,” Sparry said.

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