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Who benefits from rescuing Rahaf? Questions linger after whirlwind story of Saudi teen’s asylum

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It was a whirlwind affair that began with a Saudi teen barricaded in a Thai hotel room bravely defying the laws of her country and against long odds, refusing to return to her allegedly abusive family.

Just days later, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun was on Canadian soil flanked by smiling officials and local service providers amid the flash of cameras — a swift resolution to a story that could have had a very different ending.

“I believe in lighting a single candle, and where we can save a single person, where we can save a single woman, that is a good thing to do,” Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, the memory of recent mudslinging with Saudi Arabia over detained women’s rights advocate Samar Badawi hanging in the air. 

Now, as al-Qunun begins a new life in a new country, questions are being raised about the reasons for Canada’s speedy decision to grant her asylum, the message it sends and its implications for the future of the country’s already-frosty relationship with Saudi Arabia, where an estimated 17,000 Canadians currently live.

An ‘impossible’ situation

“Canada and Saudi Arabia are in a political battle currently, so because this woman is Saudi, my sense is that there was some political motive in promoting the ‘rescuing’ of a Saudi girl,” said Ryerson University professor Mehrunnisa Ali. 

“Of course, the rescuing of oppressed people is a Western narrative in many different ways but the securing of a Saudi woman being oppressed by her family and her country sharpens this narrative in ways that may not have been possible otherwise.”

Mehrunnisa Ali, a professor specializing in immigration at Ryerson University, said Canada’s speedy decision to grant al-Qunun asylum raises questions. (CBC)

The exact details of the 18-year-old’s plight aren’t known. After her arrival in Canada, al-Qunun was whisked to an undisclosed location out of concerns about what her dissent from the kingdom might mean for her safety.

Speaking to the New York Times before being granted asylum, al-Qunun described life in Saudi Arabia as “a prison.” The country’s highly restrictive guardianship laws require women to be granted permission from a male relative to work, travel, marry and receive certain kinds of medical treatment. It was a life of constant abuse, she told the paper — once she said she was locked in a room for six months over a hair cut to which her family took objection. 

“They can’t even leave the home without the permission of their guardian,” B.C.-based activist Yasmine Mohammed who identifies as an ex-Muslim told CBC News. “Many times, it’s the guardian himself that’s abusing her, so it puts women in an absolutely impossible situation.”

International rights monitors consistently rank Saudi Arabia among the world’s worst nations for women’s rights and gender equality. In its annual report on gender equality in 2018, the World Economic Forum ranked it 141 out of 149 countries. 

Thai immigration police Chief Surachate Hakparn told The Associated Press al-Qunun’s father denies physically abusing her or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, which were among the reasons she gave for wanting asylum. 

An ‘exceptional’ case

So why was it that al- Qunun’s case was processed so speedily?

Lauren La Rose, a spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency, told CBC News al-Qunun’s case was an “exceptional” situation, a designation determined by the UN on a case-by-case basis. Examples of high priority cases include those where someone is very ill or violence against women or girls. 

“While it may be new information for the public, it is something that UNHCR does in terms of facilitating fast-track resettlements in situations when individuals may be facing immediate life-threatening situations or at risk of being threatened in their home country,” according to an international principle known as non-refoulement. 

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, seen holed up in room in Bangkok, Thailand, on Jan. 6, 2019. (@rahaf84427714/Reuters)

Out of an estimated 25.4 million refugees worldwide, less than one per cent are resettled because the need simply outweighs the number of spaces available globally, said UNHCR senior resettlement officer Michael Casasola.  

But at least one former diplomat said Canada’s privileging of al-Qunun’s case could set a “dangerous precedent.” 

“The Australians were prepared, as I understand it, to accept her as a refugee claimant. What we did is go one step further and accept her not as a claimant but as a refugee. And that’s a process that in Canada typically requires an assessment of the claim, a vetting of the individual and a decision that typically can take as much as two years,” said David Chatterson, Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2009-2011.

“What happens the next time a teenage girl or adult woman from Saudi Arabia flees her family and declares herself to no longer be a Muslim, does that mean automatic sanctuary?” In Saudi Arabia, leaving Islam is treated as a crime punishable by death. 

Watch as Canada’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia speaks with CBC News:

Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia David Chatterson speaks with CBC News about Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun being granted asylum in Canada 6:58 

Asked on Sunday about how and why al-Qunun’s claim was processed so quickly, Global Affairs Canada was tight-lipped.

“When the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) made a request of us that we grant Ms. Rahaf al-Qunun asylum, we accepted. Out of concern for her safety, we ask that her privacy be respected,” said spokesperson Stefano Maron.

‘A prop for our disputes’ 

For some, including senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue Amarnath Amarasingam, it’s concerning how al-Qunun’s case is being celebrated by figures that often push an anti-Islam or anti-immigration message.

The message that we may be giving is that rather than go through the system, reach a powerful person.– Mehrunnisa Ali, Ryerson University professor

“Many on the far-right love ex-Muslims, and many ex-Muslims on the far-right often present themselves as so-called native informants presenting to the mainstream the real ‘truth’ about Muslims,” he said.

“It’s perhaps not surprising that many of these individuals on the far-right encouraged Canada to accept Rahaf after it was rumoured that she had abandoned Islam. To be clear, I’m very happy that Canada let her in but … I’m going to go out on a limb and say there are some ulterior motives there.”

Dennis Horak, who served as Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia until he was expelled from the country last year, said the next few days could make a big impact on diplomatic relations between Canada and the kingdom.

“I would hate to see us use this to keep trotting her out and have meetings with the Prime Minister … various photo-ops things like that [and] that become the mallet with which we bash Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Watch as Dennis Horak discusses the implications for relations with Saudi Arabia:

Dennis Horak, former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, speaks to CBC’s Wendy Mesley about how Rahaf al-Qunun’s warm welcome in Toronto from Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland could further antagonize Canada’s relationship with the Saudis. 3:04 

“Does she become a prop for our disputes and our concerns with Saudi Arabia? I don’t think that’s fair to her and I don’t think it’s valuable in trying to rebuild our relationship.”

Meanwhile Ali, who was herself involved in sponsoring two Syrian refugee families — of which one case took almost two years to process — remains concerned with the message she said this high-profile case sends, including that winning public attention could make a claim more likely to proceed than another.

“That’s the biggest risk of power being exercised in a way the prioritizes some refugees versus others,” she said. 

“The message that we may be giving is that rather than go through the system, reach a powerful person.”

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Canadian Tech Calling: Moon and Mars and Mobile Phones

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Canadian technological know-how is helping develop reliable mobile communications for next-generation space missions, including manned missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

With many eyes here on Earth now focused on Mars, following the successful journey of ‘Percy’, the roving space exploration vehicle more formally known as Perseverance that is now cruising the Martian landscape, the continued role of Canadian researchers and technologists in space exploration has also drawn more attention.

A team of researchers at Simon Fraser University is working to make LTE/4G and Wi-Fi communications systems on the Moon a reality, along with others in the U.S. and Canada, under the umbrella of the Artemis Program at NASA.

That project will see the return of human beings to the Moon by 2024, and then to the surface of Mars after that.

As part of those efforts, NASA selected Nokia Bell Labs to build a test network and communications infrastructure to build interoperability standards among future cellular and Wi-Fi networks, so that all types of devices can be connected and support Artemis.

The network must provide critical communication capabilities for many different data transmission applications, including command and control functions; real-time navigation and remote control of surface rovers; as well as the streaming of high definition video, applications that are all vital to long-term human presence on a lunar or planetary surface.

“It sounds like far-out stuff, building networks on the Moon, Mars and even further out in our solar system,” says Stephen Braham, the director of the PolyLAB for Advanced Collaborative Networking at SFU. “But we’re actually testing Nokia’s technology right now.”

SFU’s PolyLAB for Advanced Collaborative Networking is doing some of that work at its Exploration Wireless Communications testbed at Vancouver’s Harbour Centre, in collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

“(This is) what will allow us to build the ladder of technology standards needed to get cellular networks off Earth and into the solar system,” Braham said in a statement.

NASA and the CSA handed that critical testing to Braham and the scientists at PolyLAB, the Canadian component of what’s called the Exploration Wireless Communications (ExWC).

“Before space agencies can adopt these technologies, we need to prove we can operate between multiple vendors and different agencies, which is why NASA and CSA supports the ExWC testbed,” he continued.

The ExWC testbed launched back in 2018, testing high-speed wireless communications systems for space use, including 5G-forward LTE solutions and advanced Wi-Fi.

The SFU radio transmission systems, in the lab and on masts in the mountains in B.C. and the Yukon, are tested with various vendors and leading telecom providers, such including Vancouver-based Star Solutions and Sierra Wireless, another local company, as well as international telecommunications firms like Nokia.

Braham and associate professor Peter Anderson, who directs the SFU Telematics Research Laboratory that includes PolyLAB, both have extensive track records working on communication systems for NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

It includes extensive research on very early cellular and Wi-Fi networks in the Canadian High Arctic, where advanced field communications systems were set up to support the SETI Institute and Mars Institute-lead NASA Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) up on Devon Island. 

That’s where Braham and his team tested the technology (developed in Canada) that became a big part of modern Wi-Fi, LTE, and now 5G technology, in order to meet up-front needs on human lunar missions if not all manned space flights.

From those early beginnings, the SFU team has now worked with other collaborators for the ongoing design and development of Canada’s prototype lunar/Mars surface communication networking systems, specifically the ExoMars rover, including Canadian space technology company MDA and the Canadian Communications Research Centre.

Braham is also an Associate Member on the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSDS), supporting CSA during discussions and development of international standards for computing, networking, and communications in space. He also worked for many years as a member of the CSA’s nine-member Space Exploration Advisory Committee (SEAC), providing community leadership and representation in aspects of human space exploration in Canada.

But, when space agency officials announced recently that a Canadian will be aboard when NASA returns to the Moon in 2023, well, Braham was not named as that astronaut.

Nevertheless, with his and his team’s help, that astronaut will make Canada the second country in history to have someone travel into deep space and fly around the Moon.

And maybe use a mobile phone to call us and tell us all about it.

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Canadian Consumer Coalition Calls for Affordable Internet on National Day of Action

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Tomorrow, Tuesday, March 16, a national day of action will be staged by Canadian consumer advocates, social justice groups, telecom policy experts, digital activists, and independent ISPs, or Internet Service Providers.

In a series of scheduled virtual events, there will be calls for the federal government and telecom regulators to take action and ensure affordable Internet and wireless services are available to all Canadians.

The free online event is open to the public, and planners and scheduled participants in the Day of Action for Affordable Internet hope consumers themselves will them in urging a range of actions be taken by the federal government, the CRTC and the country’s Competition Bureau.

Advocating for a more affordable Internet will be: ACORN Canada; Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship; activist and author Cory Doctorow; Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law Michael Geist; The Internet Society Canada Chapter; OpenMedia; Public Interest Advocacy Centre; Ryerson Leadership Lab; Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic; and TekSavvy Solutions.

And while a lack of competition has long been cited as a reason for high prices in Canada, the fact that a majority of subscribers stick with the ‘Big Three’ is also a stumbling block to leveling the playing field, at  least price-wise.

Canada’s Competitive Network Operators, a trade organization made up of Internet and telecommunications service providers that own/operate telecommunications networks across the country, is also fighting for a fair Internet pricing and accessibility structure.

Pandemic Pressures

Affordable Internet activists point out that, throughout the current COVID-19 crisis, reliable and affordable connectivity became even more essential. So did many things, in fact: many we had never deemed as so important, relevant or even as noteworthy as high speed Internet.

“The affordability and accessibility of the [I]nternet has never been more critical,” says Franca Palazzo, one of the event participants and the executive director of the Internet Society, Canada Chapter. “More than ever, we are being asked to work, learn and connect online.”

While it is true that many of our fellow Canadians are struggling to make ends meet during this pandemic, and they struggle, the coalition says, to pay some of the highest telecom bills in the world (while others can’t even get high-quality reliable connections), it is also true that many of us are using our high-speed connections more than ever with no increase in cost or decrease in service as a result of our pandemic-related stay-at-home, work-at-home or school-at-home activities.

The big three providers in Canada – Bell, Rogers and Telus – are among those companies that lifted data caps on cable and fibre-based residential Internet services; it’s a corporate goodwill gesture made as a result of pandemic and public pressures. The caps have been lifted until the end of June, where and when possible. (The Liberal government has directed the country’s largest telecom providers to cut specific cellphone prices in general.)

Not everyone is eligible for the pandemic discounts, however: some folks still using cellular (where, for example, high speed networking is not available) for their Internet connections are unable to get discounts because, the telecoms say, bandwidth and capacity would be threatened if caps were removed from cellular service.

“The digital divide in Canada is sometimes portrayed as exclusively a rural-urban divide,” says Sam Andrey, the director of policy and research at Ryerson Leadership Lab, where research and analysis into Internet usage is conducted. “But even in Canada’s largest cities, there are persistent gaps in access to digital services, devices and affordable [I]nternet at sufficient speeds that map onto other socioeconomic inequities, including income, age, race and ability,” he adds.

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Brim Financial Raises $25M Series B to transform the way people bank and shop

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TORONTO, March 16, 2021 /PRNewswire/ – Brim Financial (Brim), a Canadian next-generation Fintech company and certified credit card issuer, today announced the close of a $25M Series B, co-led by Desjardins Group and US-based EPIC Ventures with strong participation from Canadian and US based investors including goeasy Ltd., White Owl and Impression Ventures.

Brim’s state-of-the-art technology stack and credit cards infrastructure leverages the company’s ability to directly access the payment rails as an issuer, enabling Brim to deliver a fundamentally transformative ecosystem of financial products for consumers and businesses.

The Series B financing will bolster Brim’s Platform as a Service (PaaS). Brim’s B2B2C strategy enables any bank, credit union, fintech or large commercial partner to seamlessly roll out Brim’s financial products platform, credit cards and integrated buy-now pay-later solutions, mobile and digital banking, and behavior-driven customer engagement, all embedded with a best-in-class globally open loyalty and rewards ecosystem available in real-time at all merchants worldwide. With Brim’s Platform as a Service, partners have the ability to customize every element of the platform and leverage Brim’s end-to-end services, on a modular and turnkey basis.

Our technology stack powers banking, loyalty and integrated e-commerce on a single platform, with the customer experience at the center of it all” said Rasha Katabi, CEO and Founder of Brim Financial. “Today’s digital environment has brought a new sense of urgency for institutions to assess how they will interact with their customers. We are well positioned to be at the forefront of this transformation that’s shaping the way we live, connect and engage for decades to come, and we’re excited to be working with investors who share the same vision.”

Brim has expanded beyond the direct-to-consumer space enabling large partners to leverage their digital first platform, suite of credit cards and financial products, and a globally open rewards and e-commerce ecosystem. Brim seamlessly integrates buy-now pay-later capabilities in all of its revolving consumer and business credit card products, providing ultimate flexibility for customers with a uniquely and strongly differentiated ecosystem.

“We’re thrilled to be part of Brim’s next chapter. There is tremendous potential in the industry, both in Canada and in the US, and Brim is uniquely positioned to deliver a significant and much needed transformation.” said Ryan Hemingway, Managing Director at EPIC Ventures. “Brim is combining banking and commerce like we haven’t seen in North America.”

Merged with its scalable technology platform, Brim has the largest open loyalty and rewards ecosystem as Brim’s technology stack directly leverages the global payment network. Brim’s Loyalty and Rewards are live at all points of sale globally, both in physical stores and online.  Any merchant can be live and part of the ecosystem in less than 3 minutes.

“Brim’s platform delivers industry-leading payments technology to their customers at an astonishing pace,” Martin Brunelle, Vice-President, Growth, Acquisitions and Development at Desjardins Group.  “Desjardins has earmarked $100 M to invest in technology companies and investment funds who can support our different business units in their digital transformation needs.  We’re very excited to be partnering with Brim.”

With its platform built entirely from the ground up and directly on the global payment network, Brim is positioned to transform the future of the credit card industry and digital banking products with the world’s largest open loyalty and rewards ecosystem. Brim has notably on-boarded hundreds of merchants to its rewards ecosystem since its launch, and rapid expansion will continue to be a key focus for the company going forward.

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