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How a Degrassi child star became a leading academic voice on legalizing weed

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When Rebecca Haines-Saah was 13, she saw an ad in the Toronto Sun looking for teenagers to star in what would become a cult classic Canadian TV show. Having experience in dance and theatre — she already had an agent — she showed up to the audition with a pink, cable-knit sweater and loads of teenage ambition.

The show was Degrassi Junior High, the drama that dealt with teen pregnancy, underage drinking and drug use. For many children growing up in the 1980s, it would become a cultural treasure.

Haines-Saah didn’t get the part of Melanie Brodie, whom she had auditioned to play, but the show’s writers were so enamoured with her acting chops that they created a new role for her: Melanie’s best friend, Kathleen Mead. The so-called Wicked Witch of Degrassi.

While Haines-Saah played the character for five seasons, she didn’t go on to become a professional actor. Instead, she reinvented herself as an academic. But the parallels between her childhood job and her career as an adult are all the more striking.

This episode of Degrassi Junior High is the first appearance for Kathleen Mead (blue sweater), played by Rebecca Haines-Saah. Joey Jeremiah ends up selling them vitamins as drugs. 1:08

The woman who played a teen experimenting with drugs, dealing with anorexia and coping with a mother addicted to alcohol now researches youth substance use and mental health at the University of Calgary.

The child star whose character once brought pot to a birthday party, grew up to become a leading academic voice in Alberta on the value of legalizing cannabis, arguing that jailing users created more harm than the drug itself.

“It’s that approach to engaging youth voices and putting youth stories at the centre, that really shapes my work,” says Haines-Saah, who teaches in the department of community health services and works with youth on video and photo projects to help share their stories.

Youth have something valuable to say

“That’s really a Degrassi-style approach to storytelling and to thinking youth have something valuable to say. If we want to help youth in any way, we need to talk to them and understand how they see the world, not our adult-centric perspective on life.”

Haines-Saah grew up in Toronto’s Regent Park, where she saw the rise of the crack epidemic, with people using and selling drugs, and engaging in sex work around her doorstep. She left that same stoop every morning to film on set, but she couldn’t get a taxi to drop her off close to home at day’s end, because of the way her neighbourhood was viewed.

Kathleen Mead had a streak of mischief. In this episode, she brings 2 joints to a birthday slumber party. 0:30

“I had this dual experience growing up, and it really did inform how I approach people who use drugs, the compassion that I think we need and why I challenge stigma,” she says.

There are some notable contrasts between her and the character she played for most of her teenage years.

Haines-Saah is warm and engaging. To be charitable, Kathleen was cold. A harsher assessment might peg her as a snooty mean girl. But her hostile demeanour was often a defence mechanism against her peers prying into her personal life, especially her troubled home.

She was a trivia master who wanted to excel at school and, most of all, make her parents proud. She once produced a science project with her bestie Melanie about the dangers of pollution and acid rain, and was crushed when it didn’t win at the school science fair.

Character could be mistaken for a nerd

Kathleen could have been mistaken for a nerd if it weren’t for her streak of mischief. In one episode, she finds a pair of cannabis joints and shares them with friends during a birthday party sleepover. The drama takes a turn when Melanie gets so high she reveals some of Kathleen’s deepest, darkest secrets, including that she’s in counselling.

“Kathleen, I don’t see what the big deal is,” her best friend blurts out. “You had anorexia. Your mom is an alcoholic. And your boyfriend beat you up. Most people would need counselling for even one of those things.”

Kathleen Mead had a reputation for being cold, including in this episode about a trivia contest. Haines-Saah says she sometimes had a hard time convincing fans she’s not the “evil character” she played on TV. 0:44

Despite her hard exterior, the character resonated with Haines-Saah, given that Kathleen’s home life “isn’t that far off from what many kids experience,” and given her “remarkable resilience” to all those challenges. Still, the actor sometimes got heckled on the streets of Toronto over her character’s harsh disposition.

“The male castmates had fun,” she says. “They had teenage girls chasing them around, trying to get into their hotel rooms and date them.

“I just got yelled at and called names.”

Haines-Saah starred in Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, along with a single appearance on Degrassi: The Next Generation. As a young Canadian actor, she didn’t lead a lavish life of luxury.

Awkward moments, worst hairstyles forever captured

“I don’t think I ever really experienced that type of uber celebrity that child stars have now, and in many ways I’m thankful for that,” she says. “But I have some of my most awkward teenage moments and worst hairstyles forever captured on film for everybody to see.”

While she played a young student, she missed three or four months of school a year. Her mom told her if her average fell below 80 per cent, she had to quit the show.

Rebecca Haines-Saah argues cannabis prohibition and scare-tactic campaigns like the poster hanging in her office did not stop youth from smoking pot. She says the policy did more harm than the drug itself. (Reid Southwick/CBC)

“I literally had a tutor driving me around on geography field trips around Ontario to look at granite outcrops and all kinds of other ridiculous things on the weekends,” she says. “I’d be writing a chemistry exam on set at 7 a.m. supervised by a production assistant and then sending it over to the school.”

Academics were always important. She had read somewhere “if you could picture yourself being happy doing anything other than acting, you should go and do that thing.” So she enrolled at McGill University. She was initially in communications, thinking she’d get into journalism or film production, but she fell in love with research and writing papers, later shifting her focus to youth drug use.

Putting youth at the centre

“It’s no accident that I became a youth substance use researcher,” she says on a University of Calgary video about legalizing cannabis, “because I started out as an actress on the Canadian television series Degrassi.

“What was so unique and different about Degrassi, compared to other television for young people is that, in the Degrassi storylines, youth always solved their own problems … and that’s definitely the approach I take in my research, is amplifying youth voices and putting youth at the centre.”

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Ottawa unveils funding for poultry and egg farmers hurt by free-trade deals

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Canadian egg and poultry farmers who’ve lost domestic market share due to two recent free-trade agreements will soon have access to $691 million in federal cash, Canada’s agriculture minister announced Saturday.

Marie-Claude Bibeau shared details of the long-awaited funds in a virtual news conference.

“Today we position our young farmers for growth and success tomorrow,” she said.

The money follows a previously announced $1.75 billion for the dairy sector linked to free-trade deals with Europe and countries on the Pacific Rim, one that came into effect in 2017 and the other in 2018.

The dairy sector funds were to flow over eight years, and the first $345 million payment was sent out last year.

But on Saturday, Bibeau announced a schedule for the remaining payments that will see the money flow over three years — beginning with $468 million in 2020-21, $469 million in 2021-22 and $468 million in 2022-23.

Bibeau said the most recently announced funds for dairy farmers amount to an average farm of 80 cows receiving a direct payment of $38,000 in the first year.

Payments based on formulas

David Wiens, vice-president of the Dairy Farmers of Canada, said the money will help farms make investments for the future.

“I think particularly for the younger farmers who have really struggled since these agreements have been ratified, they can actually now see opportunities, how they can continue to make those investments on the farm so that they can continue on,” he said.

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Employee of Ottawa Metro store tests positive for COVID-19

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Metro says an employee of its grocery store on Beechwood Avenue in Ottawa has tested positive for COVID-19.

The company says the employee’s positive test result was reported on Nov. 25. The employee had last been at work at the Metro at 50 Beechwood Ave. on Nov. 19.

Earlier this month, Metro reported several cases of COVID-19 at its warehouse on Old Innes Road.

Positive test results were reported on Nov. 2, Nov. 6, Nov. 11, and Nov. 19. The first two employees worked at the produce warehouse at 1184 Old Innes Rd. The other two worked at the distribution centre at the same address.

Metro lists cases of COVID-19 in employees of its stores and warehouses on its website

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Tinseltown: Where 50-year-old ‘tough guys’ become youngsters again

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Audy Czigler wears glitter like a Pennsylvania miner wears coal dust. It’s on his face and hands, in his hair and on his clothing. It’s an occupational hazard that he says he just can’t get rid of.

And when he’s sifting through job applications from people wanting to work at his Tinseltown Christmas Emporium on Somerset Street W. in Hintonburg, the glitter is a consideration. For he’s not looking for people who can simply endure it; no, he’s screening for people who revel and carouse in glitter, for those for whom the 10,000th playing of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus is as refreshing as the first, for those who believe that the 12 days of Christmas last 365 days a year. The believers.

Sure, he has heard the voices of skeptical passersby on the sidewalk outside his shop, especially in the summer months when visions of sugarplums have receded from many people’s minds.

“I hear them out there a few times a day,” he says, “wondering how a Christmas store can possibly survive year-round.

“I want to go out and tell them,” he adds, but his voice trails off as a customer approaches and asks about an ornament she saw there recently, of a red cardinal in a white heart. Where is it?

There’s scant room for sidewalk skeptics now, crowded out by the dozens of shoppers who, since October, have regularly lined up outside the store, patiently biding their time (and flocks) as pandemic-induced regulations limit the shop to 18 customers at a time.

Once inside, visitors will be forgiven for not first noticing the glitter, or even the rendition of Baby, It’s Cold Outside playing on the speakers. For there’s no specific “first thing” you notice. The first thing you notice is EVERYTHING — a floor-to-ceiling cornucopia of festivity, reminiscent perhaps of how the blind man in the Gospel of John may have felt when Jesus rubbed spit and mud in his eyes and gave him sight for the first time.

https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/tinseltown-where-50-year-old-tough-guys-become-youngsters-again

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