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Amber Alerts work. So why are people complaining about them?

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By phone, email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and yes, even 911, Ontarians have been contacting the Peel Regional Police by the hundreds to complain about Thursday’s late-night electronic Amber Alert.

Constable Akhil Mooken, who works in media relations for the department, said the calls started as soon as the organization issued the alert at 11:36 p.m. and kept coming well into Friday morning. He said Peel’s 911 dispatchers received 124 calls—mostly complaints—in the first hour alone, logging 383 total calls by 9:30 a.m. the next day.

“It’s certainly a large amount. It’s something I’ve never experienced,” Mooken said. “While I understand it’s an inconvenience to people, I hope they realize the purpose of the Amber Alert.”

Tragically, Riya Rajkumar, the missing 11-year-old girl, was found dead in this case. But the Amber Alert served at least part of its purpose. Within a few minutes, a driver spotted the car mentioned in the alert and used 911 the way it was intended. He stayed on the phone to provide dispatchers with the vehicle’s location 110 kilometres away in Oro-Medonte until the Ontario Provincial Police arrived and made an arrest.

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Still the whole episode sparked a huge reaction on both sides, with many Canadians angrily taking to social media to denounce those angrily taking to social media to denounce the alert. Hamilton Bean, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver and an expert on electronic alert systems, said the backlash is part of the growing pains of a relatively new system.

“These alerts can save lives, but we have to give public safety officials a little more grace in perhaps over-alerting the public,” Bean said. “It looks like perhaps that was done in this case with the Amber Alert.”

Of those who called to complain, Mooken said most were simply expressing anger they were woken up on a work night despite turning their ringers off or putting their phones in Do Not Disturb mode. Some had more legitimate complaints, such as that they were hours away from the crisis with little realistic chance of offering any help.

Canada implemented its system for mobile electronic alerts last April, requiring cellphone carriers to distribute the messages to consumers in emergencies. It’s impossible to opt out of the loud, persistent warnings, which include both messages warning about imminent disasters and Amber Alerts to help locate missing children.

Thursday’s Amber Alert was only the second ever to be sent to Ontario cellphones since the system was implemented last April. The other alert occurred during the day, resulting in fewer complaints from people over sleep disruption.

Designated government agencies and police services have the ability to log into software provided by the Oakville, Ont.-based company Pelmorex and specify who they want the alert distributed to and by what means. In Ontario, Amber Alerts are always distributed to cellphone customers throughout the entire province.

RELATED: We need to stop worrying and just let our kids play

Martin Belanger, director of public alerting with Pelmorex, said the company was investigating complaints from cellphone customers in Manitoba who said they received the Ontario alert. “We’re currently working with all our partners, including the distributors, to determine the cause,” he said.

In the U.S., cellphone customers can opt out of Amber Alerts. Bean said he thinks it would be reasonable to allow Canadians to opt out of the missing child alerts but not warnings about things like natural disasters or terrorist attacks, which are broadcast through the same system.

“If Canada is going to continue to issue these Amber Alerts or they’re going to be issued with more frequency, I think you’re going to see a public debate about whether Amber Alerts should, in fact, be conflated with these imminent threat alerts for the public,” Bean said.

Mooken, the Peel Police constable, disagrees. “The more eyes we have out there looking for a vehicle or the individuals involved in an Amber Alert, the sooner we can try to resolve it and potentially reunite a child with a parent,” he said.

Something that seems beyond dispute is that 911 is not the appropriate place to complain about the electronic Amber Alerts.

“Nine-one-one is meant for emergencies. When people have a life-threatening emergency that affects themselves or someone else, that’s what it’s designed for,” Mooken said. “Being woken up for an Amber Alert is, in my opinion, not a good reason to call and complain.”

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‘Too soon to celebrate’ Ottawa’s low case count, says Etches

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Ottawa Public Health (OPH) logged just 11 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the lowest daily total since Sept. 1.

Because of the lag between testing and reporting, the low number could simply reflect low turnout at the city’s testing sites on weekends — all month, new case counts have been lower on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 

During a virtual news conference Tuesday, the city’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said she doesn’t read too much into a single day’s report.

“I don’t think we can make too much of 11. Actually, it could be a lot higher tomorrow — I would expect that, on average,” she said. “It’s too soon to celebrate.”

Provincewide, public health officials reported 1, 249 new cases Tuesday.

OPH also declared 62 cases resolved Tuesday, lowering the number of known active cases in the city to 462. Two more people have died, both in care homes currently experiencing outbreaks, raising the city’s COVID-19 death toll to 361. 

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Santa Claus isn’t coming to Ottawa’s major malls this year

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Santa Claus may still be coming to town this Christmas, but he won’t be dropping by any of Ottawa’s major malls, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Friday, Cadillac Fairview said Santa won’t be making an appearance at any of its 19 malls across Canada, including Rideau Centre in downtown Ottawa. On Tuesday, Bayshore and St. Laurent shopping centres confirmed they, too, are scrapping the annual tradition.

“Due to the evolution of the situation in regards to COVID-19, we have made the difficult decision to cancel our Santa Program and Gift Wrap Program this year,” Bayshore spokesperson Sara Macdonald wrote in an email to CBC.

Macdonald said parent company Ivanhoé Cambridge cancelled all holiday activities “due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the country.”

Macdonald said families that had already booked an appointment to visit Santa will receive an email with more information.  

Virtual visits with Santa

Rideau Centre said based on customer research and discussions with public health officials, its North Pole is going online this year.

“Children will be able to have a private chat with Santa,” said Craig Flannagan, vice-president of marketing for Cadillac Fairview. “You’ll also be able to join a 15-minute storytime with Santa over Facebook Live.” 

At Place d’Orléans Shopping Centre, visitors are invited to take a “selfie with Santa” — actually, a life-size cutout of Santa Pierre, the man who’s been playing Santa at the east end mall for years.

“We understand that this is not ideal, but in lieu of this tradition we will be doing what we can to maintain and encourage holiday cheer,” according to a statement on the mall’s Facebook page.

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Ottawa Bylaw breaks up two large parties in Ottawa over the weekend

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Bylaw is investigating social gatherings of more than 10 people in private homes across Ottawa last weekend.

Mayor Jim Watson tells Newstalk 580 CFRA that Ottawa Bylaw broke-up two house parties over the weekend, with 20 to 25 people at each party.

“That’s the kind of stupidity that angers me, that’s where the bulk of the transmissions are taking place, if we exclude the tragedy of the long-term care homes; it’s these house parties with unrelated people,” said Watson on Newstalk 580 CFRA’s Ottawa at Work with Leslie Roberts.

“The message doesn’t seem to be getting through, particularly to some young people who think they’re invincible.”

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Bylaw and Regulatory Services Director Roger Chapman says, “There are still ongoing investigations from this past weekend that could result in charges.”

Chapman says recent investigations led to two charges being issued for social gatherings of more than 10 people in a private residence in contravention of the Reopening Ontario Act.

“In one case, up to 30 individuals were observed attending a house party in Ward 18 on Oct. 24,” said Chapman.

“The second charge was issued following a house party in Ward 16 on Oct. 31, where up to 16 individuals were observed to be in attendance.”

The fine is $880 for hosting an illegal gathering.

Alta Vista is Ward 18, while Ward 16 is River Ward.

Ottawa Bylaw has issued 24 charges for illegal gatherings since the start of the pandemic.

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