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Syria says possible drone attacks hit 3 oil, gas facilities


BEIRUT (AP) — Near-simultaneous attacks believed to have been carried out by drones hit three government-run oil and gas installations in central Syria, state TV and the Oil Ministry said Saturday.

No one claimed responsibility for the attacks, which targeted the Homs oil refinery — one of only two in the country — as well as two natural gas facilities in different parts of Homs province.

Syria has suffered fuel shortages since earlier this year amid Western sanctions blocking imports, and because most of the country’s oil fields are controlled by Kurdish-led fighters in the country’s east.

State TV said it believes the attacks were carried out by drones and happened at the same time. It said a fire at the Homs oil refinery was soon put under control. The report said the Rayan gas facility and a third installation, also in Homs province, were hit.

Syria’s Oil Ministry said the attacks damaged some “production units” in the facilities. It said fires were being fought, and that repairs were already underway in some places.

The city of Homs and its suburbs have been fully under Syrian government control since 2017. However, some parts of the province near the border with Jordan remain in rebel hands.

In June, sabotage attacks damaged five underwater pipelines off the Mediterranean coastal town of Banias in Tartous province.

Syria’s oil imports dropped in October 2018 and shortages began in early 2019, largely the result of tighter Western sanctions on Syria and renewed U.S. sanctions on key Syrian ally Iran.

Before the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, the country exported around half of the 350,000 barrels of oil it produced per day. Now its production is down to around 24,000 barrels a day, covering only a fraction of domestic needs.

In September, a drone and missile attack in Saudi Arabia hit the world’s largest crude oil processing plant, dramatically cutting into global oil supplies. Saudi Arabia says “Iranian weaponry” was used. Iran denies its weapons were involved.



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Bank of Montreal hikes dividend but takes hit for job cuts


The chief executive of the Bank of Montreal vowed Tuesday that there will be “ongoing accountability” in the wake of another restructuring charge that the Canadian lender was forced to take in connection with job cuts.

BMO reported on Tuesday net income of nearly $1.2 billion for the three months ended Oct. 31, down from about $1.7 billion a year earlier, due in part to a $484-million pre-tax restructuring charge that Canada’s fourth-largest lender took for the quarter.

The fourth-quarter charge was tied to severance and some small real estate-related costs, BMO said, “to continue to improve our efficiency, including accelerating delivery against key bank-wide initiatives focused on digitization, organizational redesign and simplification of the way we do business.”

BMO CEO Darryl White told analysts during a conference call that the decision was made “with serious consideration,” and was in line with its strategy.

“All areas of the bank contributed to the charge, and there will be ongoing accountability throughout the organization for the decisions that have been made,” White said.

BMO’s chief financial officer, Tom Flynn, said the restructuring charge would affect around five per cent of the bank’s employees. He added that they expect their measures to create savings of approximately $200 million in its fiscal 2020 and to achieve run-rate savings of about $375 million by the first quarter of fiscal 2021.

The comments came after the Toronto-based bank also reported it had cut the number of full-time equivalent employees by 810 from the previous quarter, to 45,513 total for the period ending Oct. 31.

However, the restructuring costs have been a recurring theme for BMO, which recorded similar charges in recent years, including hits of $260 million in 2018 and $59 million in 2017. There was also a $120-million severance expense for the second quarter of 2019, which was attributed to the bank’s capital-markets unit.

“It is difficult for us to credit good expense control in the face of yet another restructuring charge from this bank, this time approaching $500 million,” CIBC World Markets analyst Robert Sedran wrote in a note. “However, the underlying segment performance was solid with improving volume growth, positive operating leverage, and stable credit quality. A decent result.”

White, though, suggested that the restructuring costs could be coming to an end.

One of BMO’s key targets has to do with what is known as its efficiency ratio, which is a percentage calculated as non-interest expense divided by total revenue. BMO’s adjusted efficiency ratio was 60 per cent for the quarter, down from 62.2 per cent a year ago, but the bank has set the goal of achieving 58 per cent by 2021.

White said that the latest charge would help BMO in reaching its efficiency target, “while continuing to optimize efficiency beyond that without the need for additional charges.”

In response to an analyst question, the CEO noted it was a “sizable move” affecting five per cent of the bank’s workforce, that the bank was “holding the line a lot more tightly” on expense growth and that the discipline they expect from managers going forward does not include a “reliance on this technique and the assist of a charge.”

“And so that’s a very sort of clear message to the entire organization in terms of how we expect to manage ourselves going forward,” White said. “So when I put all those together, in addition to the real benefits that we’re starting to see from technology and digitization, we’re confident in telling you that we’ll retire this play from our playbook.”

Affecting BMO’s latest results as well were some acquisition-related assets and costs and a $25-million reinsurance “adjustment” connected to the impact of claims from Japanese typhoons, which hit the bank after its previously announced decision to wind down the reinsurance business.

With the latest restructuring charge removed, BMO’s profit for the quarter was $1.6 billion, up five per cent from the same three months of 2018. Adjusted earnings per share were $2.43, an increase of five per cent and slightly above the $2.41 that analysts were expecting.

The bank said its results were boosted by good showings from its retail businesses and greater earnings out of its wealth management unit, offset somewhat by a drop in net income from its capital-markets operations. The previous year’s results also included a “favourable tax item” in the U.S.

BMO’s stock price fell Tuesday morning, and was around 2.5 per cent lower as of 10 a.m., at $98.22.

“We do not expect the slight beat to drive the stock; however, the news on the restructuring charge is likely to drive some near term upside in BMO shares given our expectation that management will suggest that this restructuring positions the bank well to deliver on its 58 per cent efficiency ratio target for 2021,” Eight Capital analyst Steve Theriault wrote.

For its fiscal 2019, which wrapped up at the end of October, BMO reported earnings of almost $5.8 billion, up six per cent from the previous year.

In addition to the earnings, BMO announced it was hiking its quarterly dividend payment by three cents to $1.06 per common share.

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Keefe, Leafs a hit at home


The Maple Leafs chose the low-key approach to Sheldon Keefe’s first home game, but Frederik Andersen hogged all the Hogtown screen time anyway.

Keefe can hang his first Scotiabank Arena win on Andersen’s 29 saves, including an eye-popping snare in the second period in an eventual 2-1 win over Buffalo on John Tavares’ overtime goal.

With his parents leading a clan gathering of Keefe Nation, the new coach improved to 4-1 with a difficult home-and-home split with the Sabres.

“I’ve been in this environment before (the farm team Marlies play a few times at SBA), but never quite like this, so full, as much emotion and energy,” Keefe said. “I’m hoping it’s better from here.”

Keefe’s replacing of Mike Babcock was only mentioned briefly in a pre-game in-house broadcast before many fans had arrived. Much like his predecessor, Keefe was grateful Andersen was there to save the day when his team lagged or was pushed off the puck.

“Nice to have a guy capable of that,” said Keefe, whose team lost the only game Andersen didn’t start for him, Friday in Buffalo. “You’re going to need that at certain times and it gives is confidence. It wasn’t the prettiest at times, but we found a way to get two points.”

The Leafs also won the second of back-to-back games for the first time this season, Keefe switching the rotation with Michael Hutchinson opening and Andersen closing.

“We’ve talked a little bit about how to do this scenario,” said Andersen, who seemed leery of not starting the first game. “We have a middle man in our goalie coach (Steve Briere), a little buffer there. But we talked to Sheldon as well and thought we’d try to do it this time. We started out great yesterday (Hutchinson struggled later in the 6-4 loss). It would’ve been nice to get all four points, but I’ll take two.

“When you’re seeing the puck well, you get in good position and that leads to a few more saves when you’re out of position. That’s the key to my game to track the puck around.”

Another back-to-back debate looms next week, with Toronto playing in Philadelphia on Tuesday and home again to face Nazem Kadri and the Avalanche on Wednesday.

GAME ON

After Andersen made two stops in OT, Tavares beat Carter Hutton glove side at the 1:45 mark. Hutton was tough on the Leafs, making 41 saves but has gone without a win for five weeks.

Andersen recorded his seventh victory against Buffalo as a Leaf and broke a tie with Curtis Joseph for the second most against the Sabres, who have been a prickly foe for Toronto going back to their birth in the early 1970s.

William Nylander scored on a power play, with Auston Matthews assisting, and though the latter has just one point the past three games he nearly had the winner in the final seconds of regulation when he went five-hole on Hutton and Marco Scandella swept it off the goal line.

For Nylander, his 10th goal came almost a year to the day he ended his damaging contract spat with the club, returning to double figures for the first time since 2017-18.

After a scoreless first period, in which Andersen had to be alert for teammates getting out-hustled to pucks and the Leafs survived a Nic Petan penalty, they hit on their own power play. Matthews braked by the boards and dished to Nylander, who was given too much room by an otherwise tight Sabres defence. Tavares and Matthews had their hands full with Jack Eichel, who won five of his first six draws and pressed the duo all night.

Buffalo thought it tied the game midway through the second as Conor Sheary ripped a wrister from the slot that Andersen coolly snagged. But the Sabres quickly pointed for a review and indeed most of the goalie’s glove was behind the line — but not the puck.

On another Leafs clearance collapse in that period, Andersen gloved a Jeff Skinner shot on his knees with no stick. Rasmus Ristolainen, one of seven defencemen deployed by the Sabres in this game, burst in through the left side of the Leafs and beat Andersen early in the third period.

BEST FOOT FORWARD

Keefe was glad to have Alexander Kerfoot back in the lineup after a two-game league suspension from an illegal hit in the game a week ago against Colorado. Kerfoot flew off the bench in the first period on a long change to keep a puck in during the first period.

His return meant Jason Spezza sat after being one of Keefe’s best players in the first four games. But the coach said the 36-year-old Spezza wouldn’t necessarily sit every portion of a back-to-back, citing the Leafs being on the ice six straight days for resting him Saturday.

LOOSE LEAFS

Tavares had his 400th NHL assist on the Nylander goal … The Marlies are 4-1 under co-coaches A.J. MacLean and Ron Davison, but as Elliotte Friedman reported on Hockey Night In Canada, many unemployed minor pro and former NHL bench bosses would love the gig … In a touching pre-game Hockey Fights Cancer ceremony, young survivor Khanya Solano and her family rang the bell to signify the end of her chemo treatments. The Leafs will auction off their purple warm-up sweaters and sticks … Leaf defenceman Cody Ceci apologized to referee Ian Walsh whom he surprised by hitting about 15 feet away from the net in open ice with a wild third period wrist shot … For the first time since mid-October, the Leafs have gone two games without allowing a power play goal.

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Canadian telecom complaints hit record high, with Bell leading the pack


Complaints about poor wireless, internet and TV service reached a record high this year as consumers expressed increasing frustration over issues such as billing and disconnection notice periods.

In its annual report released Thursday, the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services (CCTS) disclosed that the number of accepted complaints jumped 35 per cent during the 12 months ended July 31, to 19,287 — the largest volume in the organization’s history.

Most of the complaints related to billing surprises and non-disclosure of contract terms, issues that have made up the majority of complaints to the CCTS since its inception.

“It’s concerning that the numbers are going up,” said Howard Maker, head of the Commission of Complaints for Telecom-television Services (CCTS).

He said that some telecom service providers may be testing the limits of the Wireless Code as they develop new product offerings in a dynamic communications services market. But he expressed surprise nevertheless that providers continue to run afoul of rules in areas such as disconnection, where notice requirements are explicitly detailed.

The report shows that customers complained most often about their wireless service, followed by internet, TV and landline phone. Bell, Rogers, Telus, Virgin, Freedom and Cogeco were the primary targets.

Montreal’s Bell Canada accounted for by far the largest number of complaints, responsible for 30 per cent of the total with 5,879 accepted complaints. Bell’s confirmed breaches of the Wireless Code doubled to 29 per cent on a wireless customer base of 9,834,380, as of the end of its third quarter.

Toronto-based Rogers Communications, which had just under 10.8 million wireless subscribers at the end of the first quarter, came in second with 1,833 complaints.

Both Bell and Rogers saw their share of overall complaints decline, with Bell dropping from a 33-per-cent share to 30 per cent, and Rogers dropping from 10 to 9 per cent.

The share for Vancouver-based Telus, however, increased by 1.5 per cent to 8 per cent, with the number of complaints jumping by 71 per cent to just over 1,600 — partly due to the company’s interpretation of the code regarding new contract terms when a customer changes wireless plans.

Overall, the CCTS saw a 42 per cent increase in the number of service provider violations of the Wireless Code, with the most common involving the failure to provide documentation to customers and to provide proper notice before disconnection of service.

Billing was again the predominant irritant for phone, internet and TV customers, with complaints typically arising after fees for monthly services were higher than expected, for example when a promised discount wasn’t honoured. Next common were complaints related to disclosure of information and a lack of clarity about service contracts, followed by service delivery and credit management issues. Just over 900 complaints came from small business customers.

Billing issues have increased by more than 144 per cent over the past five years to 20,000, with Bell accounting for more than 37 per cent, the report says. TV complaint issues were more than three times higher than in 2017-18 in part due to the fact that 2018-19 was the first full year of accepting TV complaints.

Maker said the overall increase in complaints can likely be partly attributed to consumers being more aware of their rights.

“Now that you have rules and minimum standards, customers are better informed,” he said, media coverage of telecom sales practices may have made more consumers aware that they can file a complaint online any time for free at ccts-cprst.ca.

“Record numbers of complaints, rapid industry change, and our own desire for continuous improvement have motivated us to focus on our dispute resolution process, and we’re looking at ways to improve our service to make it more efficient, effective and transparent,” Maker said.

The volume of complaints has been ratcheting up following a decline with introduction in 2013 of the Wireless Code, leading the CCTS to add regulatory personnel and refine its dispute resolution process. The CCTS accepted 14,272 complaints in 2017-18, a 57-per-cent annual increase over the 9,097 total in 2016-17, although issues resolved have also risen, to 91 per cent in the latest period.

On Jan. 31 the CCTS will begin to administer a fourth code, the Internet Code, which was issued by the CRTC earlier this year. The new code will apply to large internet service providers and is intended to make it easier for customers to understand service contracts, plan prices and promotions.

Wireless, TV and internet service complaints reach an all-time high

Below are the telecommunications companies that received the most complaints, ranked by the number of complaints received.

Bell Canada: 5,879 accepted complaints, 30.5 per cent of total

Rogers: 1,833; 9.5 per cent

Telus: 1,610; 8.3 per cent

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Virgin Mobile: 1,253; 6.5 per cent

Freedom Mobile: 1,147; 5.9 per cent

Cogeco Connexion: 1,039; 5.4 per cent

Michael Lewis

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Upcoming bus, SeaBus shut down will hit harder than in 2001


The last major transit strike in Metro Vancouver was 18 years ago, and those who had a front-row seat say that with more people using transit now, the impact could be much worse if bus and SeaBus workers walk off the job next week.

Picketing is expected to begin on Wednesday, an escalation of job action that started on Nov. 1, with bus drivers refusing to wear uniforms and overtime bans for maintenance workers and later bus drivers.

Contract talks between Unifor, which represents the 5,000 transit workers, and their employer, Coast Mountain Bus Company, broke off for the second time last week, and no bargaining sessions are scheduled.

SkyTrain workers, who operate and maintain the Expo and Millennium lines, will return to bargaining with B.C. Rapid Transit Company this weekend ahead of planned mediation sessions next week.

As spokesperson for TransLink in 2001, Ken Hardie has clear memories of the last strike, which started when bus drivers and mechanics put up picket lines on April 1. That job action lasted for 123 days, until they were legislated back to work.

“It was a long one,” said Hardie, who is now a Liberal MP starting his second term. “There’s a significant loss in productivity when a major part of your transport network goes down like that, not only the fact that some people can’t get to work easily, but everybody else who will drive are going to see a lot more company out on the roads.”

Delta Coun. Lois Jackson was almost two years into her first term as mayor in April 2001, and recalls people walking, biking, carpooling and foregoing unnecessary trips during the strike.

“I think in the beginning it was kind of a shock to everybody, but as the days wore on, people found other alternate methods,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t easy, but people found their way, any way, to get to work.”

She said a lot more people will be affected and the weather and school breaks certainly won’t be in their favour this time around, but she believes, like before, people will adapt if the buses and SeaBus are shut down.

Metro Vancouver’s population has grown by about half a million people since 2001, and the transit system has seen double-digit increases in ridership in recent years, with 439.5 million boardings on the conventional system in 2018.

According to the 2001 Census, 11 per cent of people in Metro Vancouver used public transit to commute, and in 2016, the last Census, 21 per cent of commuters in the region took transit.

The bus system accounts for almost two-thirds of all transit journeys in the region.

Since the last strike, the number of daily bus boardings has increased by more than 60 per cent, from 570,000 in 2001 to an average of 931,000 each weekday in 2018.

The number of boardings for SeaBus has also increased, from 18,240 each day in 2001 to 19,690 on an average weekday in 2018.

Since the 2001 strike, TransLink has added three SkyTrain extensions: the Millennium Line, which opened in January 2002, the Canada Line, which opened in August 2009 and the Evergreen extension to the Millennium Line, which opened in December 2016. It has also since added about 500 buses and one SeaBus.

“Every year that goes by there’s more people relying on transit, and it’s always a real shame when the system doesn’t deliver to people who have come to rely on it,” said Hardie. “That’s very counterproductive because now people are going to be eyeing using the car again a little bit more if they can’t count on the bus or the SkyTrain to work.”

Ridership took a big hit thanks to the strike, with the number of boardings system-wide dropping to 160.9 million for 2001, compared to 229.7 million the previous year and 255.7 million the year after the strike.

Ujjal Dosanjh, who was the NDP premier when the strike started, remembers feeling helpless. Just two weeks after picket lines went up, a provincial election was called and his government was powerless to do anything. He said those who were hurt the most were those who could least afford it — students and workers with lower incomes.

“I don’t know why the new government didn’t deal with it quickly,” Dosanjh said.

His advice is to make sure this labour dispute doesn’t drag on as long as the 2001 strike.

“I know the rote response from any government, particularly from a social democratic government, is let the free collective bargaining work. There is some sense to that, there is no question, but if you have a much larger number of users now dependent on transit, then it becomes a lot more difficult to see it going longer than a few weeks,” he said.

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