Springsteen’s E Street Band loses key figure with death of Clarence Clemons

NEW YORK, N.Y. – E Street will never be quite the same.

The death of saxophone player Clarence Clemons ripped a hole in Bruce Springsteen’s music and onstage life, taking away a figure who had served him loyally for decades and never failed to add joy to the E Street Band’s epic performances.

Clemons died Saturday at age 69, about a week after he suffered a stroke at his home in Singer Island, Fla.

It’s not the first loss for the rock world’s best-known and most accomplished backup band. Keyboard player Danny Federici died in 2008 of melanoma. Steve Van Zandt, Springsteen’s youthful friend and closest partner, left for several years in the 1980s and was replaced on guitar by Nils Lofgren. When Van Zandt returned, Lofgren stayed.

Yet Clemons’ loss cuts deeply into the soul of the band. His importance was acknowledged whenever Springsteen performed “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” when he sang, “We made that change uptown and the Big Man joined the band,” inevitably followed by a wail of Clemons’ sax and a roar from the crowd. The two men met in 1971 on the New Jersey bar band circuit, and when Springsteen released his debut album two years later, Clemons left a more successful outfit for a new Boss.

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Inevitably Clemons’ introduction was the climax every night when Springsteen presented the individual band members to the audience, accompanied by a variety of regal nicknames like “Master of the Universe” and “King of the World.”

“Do I have to say his name?” Springsteen would shout to the crowd.

“No!” came the roar back. He did anyway.

Last fall’s release of “The Promise,” which included a DVD of a 1978 Springsteen concert performance, underscored the central role of Clemons in the act. The two men were a marked physical contrast: a bedgraggled, slightly scrawny white guitar player and a 6-foot-5-inch, 270-plus-pound black man with a sax – known simply as the Big Man -who would be intimidating if he didn’t so often carry a smile.

They would stalk each other on the stage, staring with ferocious eyes, and play their instruments as they stood back to back, leaning on the other for support. They’d even kiss, their relationship sending a message of brotherhood, family and – given racial undertones – tolerance and respect for all.

The relationship was captured memorably with a giant photo of the two men on the cover of Springsteen’s “Born to Run” album.

Clemons was musically vital, too, particularly given the longer, structurally ambitious songs Springsteen was writing in the 1970s, a potent mixture of rock, soul, jazz and folk. Clemons’ sax kicked “Born to Run” into overdrive, and his solo was a key moment in the majestic “Jungleland.” He had a deep, booming voice not often displayed, although he added hearty “ho-ho-ho’s” during seasonal renditions of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”

Truth be told, Clemons’ role in the E Street Band diminished as the years went on. Springsteen’s simpler song structures left less space for the sax, and the instrument competed to be heard in a dense wall of sound anchored by three electric guitar players. Clemons would add maracas or tambourines to some of Springsteen’s compositions.

Clemons’ physical ailments also made him a less active presence onstage. He underwent spinal surgery last year after many years of back pain and spent time in a wheelchair after double knee replacement surgery.

Springsteen generously made accommodations for the ailments, installing an elevator on the stage set for when Clemons couldn’t negotiate the stairs, according to Caryn Rose and Glenn Radecki of the Springsteen website Backstreets. A throne-like golden chair was placed onstage for when Clemons needed his rest.

Clemons’ death is unlikely to bring an end to the E Street Band, which Springsteen alluded to in a statement posted on his website Saturday announcing the death.

“We are honoured and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly 40 years,” he said. “He was my great friend, my partner and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.”

But the loss leaves Springsteen with a real challenge moving forward. While Federici’s contributions were valued and respected, he was a back bencher, tied to the shadows of the stage and his replacement not a major issue for the casual fan.

Clemons was different, and his loss will inevitably change the onstage dynamic. The saxophone is such a major presence in Springsteen’s music that it’s difficult to imagine many of his songs being performed without it. They will be big shoes for anyone to fill.

“As long as we tell the stories, as long as we play the songs, the Big Man will always be with us,” Rose and Radecki wrote on Backstreets following Clemons’ death.

Florida Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez resigns with team on long losing streak

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Through it all, Edwin Rodriguez kept his sense of humour. The Florida Marlins’ manager talked about ghost stories and the team’s hotel. He joked about moving the calendar ahead to July in hopes of escaping an awful June.

As it turns out, that long losing streak hurt more than he showed.

Rodriguez, the first Puerto Rican-born manager in major league history, unexpectedly resigned Sunday after less than one year on the job.

Bench coach Brandon Hyde managed the last-place Marlins as they dropped their 10th straight game, 2-1 to the Tampa Bay Rays. But the club will begin a search for an interim manager and potential candidates include 80-year-old Jack McKeon, the special assistant to the owner who led Florida to a World Series title in 2003.

Rodriguez said it was difficult to leave, given the “positive way the organization is moving, a new ballpark next season and the young core of players.”

“I can’t say enough about the effort that this staff and these players have put into this season,” he said in a statement released by the team. “I could tell that they continued to give 100 per cent effort each and every day on the field. I wish this organization and players nothing but success in their futures.”

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Rodriguez became interim manager June 23 of last year after Fredi Gonzalez was fired. He was given the job permanently five days later.

“It’s been extremely frustrating for everyone,” Florida president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest said. “I think everyone here knows what is going on – the way we’ve played, the way we’ve performed. It’s tough on everyone, especially him.

“He communicated with me early this morning that this was something he was thinking about, and when I got to the ballpark we accepted his resignation.”

Florida went 46-46 under Rodriguez, who opened the 2010 season as the Marlins’ Triple-A manager in New Orleans.

“This was an extremely frustrated, proud man,” Beinfest said. “This kind of caught us a little off guard. I know there’s been a lot of speculation, everything, but this is not something I thought was going to happen today.”

The Marlins fell to 1-18 in June with Sunday’s loss to the Rays. Ace pitcher Josh Johnson is injured and star shortstop Hanley Ramirez, struggling through a miserable slump all season, also had been sidelined during a stunning skid that left the team 32-40 and last in the NL East.

Beinfest said the club would act quickly on an interim manager.

“So we can move ahead with the business of playing baseball and trying to win games,” he said. “When you have a change like this, with a popular person, I think it’s tough on a lot of people. You just need to go play baseball, and that’s first and foremost.”

Beinfest informed the players of Rodriguez’s decision during a team meeting before Sunday’s game.

Rodriguez was at the ballpark and talked with individual players in the manager’s office. He didn’t speak with reporters.

“It was surprising, I guess, but I think it’s more shocking,” infielder Wes Helms said. “Right now, nothing is going right for us. Right now, it’s all negative with the Marlins, that’s the way it is. It’s tough to swallow, it really is. I do know he did everything he could. We didn’t do our job as a team.

“I’m sure he had a lot of sleepless nights,” Helms added. “I can’t speak for him. … I’m sure it was just killing him or he wouldn’t have done it. There’s only so much you can take mentally and physically in anything in life. I’m just sure he had enough and couldn’t do it anymore.”

First baseman Gaby Sanchez said the players have to respect the decision.

“It’s definitely difficult,” Sanchez said. “We have to continue to play hard, go out there and keep fighting. The season is not over. It’s just one of those things where we have to move forward.”

The Marlins became the second big league team to change managers this season. Oakland fired Bob Geren on June 9 and replaced him with Bob Melvin for the rest of the season.

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon believes Rodriguez was thinking about what was best for his team.

“He’s one of the nicest, most decent men I’ve met in this game, and it’s unfortunate that he has to feel the weight of this whole moment because it’s not his fault,” Maddon said. “He’s worked so hard to get to this point. They were doing so well a couple weeks ago. That’s the strange part about it. We just played them down there and they beat us two out of three. They were playing good baseball.”

Beinfest did not rule out additional changes.

“When you go the way we’ve been going, I think everything is on the table,” Beinfest said. “I’m probably on the table as well, and rightfully so. It’s been a very difficult period and I think when you go through these things you can’t rule anything out.”

Boeing strikes orders, commitments worth more than $11B at Paris Air Show

LE BOURGET, France – Boeing Co. announced more than US$11 billion worth of orders and commitments for 56 jets Monday as the Paris Air Show, the industry’s main event of the year, got under way.

The Chicago-based aerospace and defence giant opened a day of one-upmanship with traditional rival Airbus by announcing Qatar Airways had ordered six 777 jets in a US$1.7-billion deal.

The European plane-making consortium wasted little time in announcing its own deals, racking up orders and commitments for 142 aircraft valued at US$15 billion.

Boeing also said it had received commitments and orders from two undisclosed buyers for 17 of its hulking 747-8 passenger planes – with a book value of $5.4 billion – and said Los Angeles-based Air Lease Corp. had agreed to buy up to 33 planes in a variety of models worth over $4.2 billion.

Qatar Airways, an upstart, fast-growing Gulf carrier, plans to buy extended versions of the long-range 777-300, CEO Akbar al-Baker told a news conference alongside Boeing’s commercial aircraft chief.

Boeing has now delivered 25 777s to the Qatari flag carrier, and expects to deliver another 15, making the double-aisle plane “the backbone of our long-range aircraft,” al-Baker said.

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The order comes after Airbus recently announced it has delayed the first delivery of two modified versions of its A350 – a 777 rival – by two years, to 2016 and 2017, so engine supplier Rolls Royce can develop a more powerful motor for an extended-range version.

Qatar Airways is the launch customer and largest single buyer for the A350, and is due to receive the first one in the second half of 2013. Half of the 80 A350s it has ordered would be affected by the delay; the other half is for the 350-900, which is not being delayed.

Al-Baker didn’t hide his frustration about the “significant delays” with the A350 program, saying they “will dent our expansion and fleet placement program.”

Separately, Al-Baker said he hopes to finalize this week an order with Airbus on the A320 neo, a revamped A320 that has been re-engineered to be 15 per cent more fuel efficient.

“We are interested in that airplane, but we still have some more work to do,” al-Baker said. “It’s a very fine airplane.”

Meanwhile, the aerospace division of Canada’s Bombardier Inc. (TSX:BBD.B) announced at the show that an unnamed “major network carrier” had ordered 10 of its new CSeries planes in a contract valued at $616 million. The value of the order could rise to about US$1 billion if the airline exercises six options for the CS100, the smaller of the two CSeries variants.

However, Qatar Airways, which had been seen as the most likely buyer during the show, announced Monday that it was not yet ready to place an order.

Boeing has also faced pressure to come up with its response to the A320 neo. Jim Albaugh, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said the company will not rush into a decision – expected in the coming months. Boeing is considering whether to re-engine the current 737s, or develop an entirely new plane.

“Now, I know the one that many of you probably came to hear an announcement on today, and are going to be disappointed, is what we are going to do with the small airplanes,” said Albaugh. “We have a very deliberate process in determining what we are going to do.”

“Our view is that the neo will just provide an airplane as capable as the current NG,” Albaugh said of the “next generation” variant of the single-aisle 737.

Boeing said one undisclosed customer had made commitments for 15 747-8 Intercontinentals, and another placed an order for two – in deals that would fetch $5.4 billion at list prices.

In a statement, Albaugh called the orders “a major milestone” in the program. Commitments are not as solid as firm orders in the parlance of the aviation industry.

Boeing’s deal with Air Lease Corp. involves 14 firm orders and four options for Next-Generation 737-800s, and five 777-300 extended range planes and four 787-9 Dreamliners, Boeing said. The leasing company agreed to exercise options on six planes from its order of 60 737-800s last year. At list prices, those planes would be worth more than $4.2 billion.

– With files from The Canadian Press

Wife visits prominent Chinese activist in jail days before scheduled release

BEIJING, China – The wife of a prominent Chinese dissident who was jailed for sedition more than three years ago said she visited her husband Monday, days ahead of his scheduled release.

Activist Zeng Jinyan saw her husband, Hu Jia, at the Beijing Municipal Prison on Monday, Zeng told The Associated Press in an online conversation. Her mobile phones were switched off.

A major figure in China’s dissident community, Hu was active in a broad range of civil liberties issues before he was imprisoned in 2008. His 3 1/2-year jail term is set to end Sunday.

But his scheduled release comes amid one of the Chinese government’s broadest campaigns of repression in years as Beijing has moved to prevent the growth of an Arab-style protest movement.

There are concerns that, like other dissidents released recently from jail, Hu and his wife might be kept under house arrest.

Zeng, 27, would not discuss the visit or Hu’s condition, saying she was not accepting interviews at the moment. She did not provide an explanation but it likely stems from concerns that speaking to the foreign media might jeopardize Hu’s release.

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On her Twitter page, Zeng said eight people escorted her away from Beijing’s airport on Sunday after she arrived from southern China. “I think this is going to be the normal state of life from now on. I will read more books and get more mental and physical rest,” she wrote.

In a posting last week, Zeng said that upon his release, Hu, who suffers from a liver ailment, would be deprived of his political rights for one year and will not be able to speak to the media. “For this one year the focus should be on treating his cirrhosis, caring for parents and child, to avoid being arrested again,” she wrote.

Hu, 37, is known for his activism with AIDS patients and orphans. The sedition charge stems from police accusations that he planned to work with foreigners to disturb the 2008 Olympic Games.

In late 2008, Hu won the European Parliament’s top human rights award, the 50,000 euro ($72,000) Sakharov Prize. Hu was honoured in Strasbourg, France, where because he was in prison, his name was placed in front of an empty seat. He received a minute-long standing ovation from the Parliament.

China’s government heaped scorn on the European Parliament’s award, with Beijing calling Hu a criminal and the award interference.

Initially an advocate for the rights of HIV/AIDS patients, Hu expanded his efforts after the government gave little ground and he began to see the country’s problems as rooted in authorities’ lack of respect for human rights.

Hu used the Internet and telephone to chronicle the harassment and arrests of other dissidents and also published a series of articles criticizing the authorities for using the Olympics to mask serious human rights abuses. He was detained in December 2007 and sentenced in April 2008.

In recent months, hundreds of lawyers, activists and other intellectuals have been questioned, detained, confined to their homes or simply disappeared in the wake of online appeals calling for peaceful protests across the country. Though no protests took place, the calls spooked the Chinese government into launching the clampdown.

China’s rights environment has “considerably deteriorated” since Hu was arrested, said Human Rights Watch senior Asia researcher Nicholas Bequelin.

“This cycle of repression is cutting deeper than previous ones because it was marked by the deliberate use of extra-judicial tactics such as enforced disappearances, longtime house arrest, and arbitrary harassment by the security organs,” Bequelin said.

“Whether Hu Jia will be genuinely free upon his release from prison remains to be seen. The recent record does not give ground for optimism,” he added.

Another activist Chen Guangcheng and his wife have been kept under an unofficial house arrest in their village in eastern China since he was released from jail last fall, and reporters trying to visit them have been kept away by thugs who patrol the village.

Chen angered authorities after documenting forced late-term abortions and sterilizations and other abuses in his rural community, but was sentenced for instigating an attack on government offices and organizing a group of people to disrupt traffic, charges his supporters say were fabricated.

Oil falls to below $92 in Europe as US dollar rises, euro battered by Greek crisis

Oil prices fell to below $92 a barrel Monday as Greece’s deepening financial crisis continued to reverberate around markets.

By early afternoon in Europe, benchmark oil for July delivery was down $1.09 to $91.92 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract lost $1.94, or 2 per cent, to settle at $93.01 on Friday.

In London, Brent crude for August delivery was down $1.45 to $111.76 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

A strengthening U.S. dollar has helped drag crude down from almost $115 early last month. A rising dollar makes commodities such as oil more expensive for investors with other currencies.

Talks between eurozone finance chiefs on Greece’s troubled finances ended early Monday without the ministers signing off on a vital instalment of rescue loans needed to avoid bankruptcy next month.

“An expected short-term agreement will likely enable markets to breathe a little easier and allow commodity complexes to stage a respectable bounce on account of a stronger euro,” said Edward Meir of MF Global in New York.

The euro fell to $1.4243 on Monday from $1.4307 late Friday.

If the euro drops below $1.40, crude will likely fall to below $90, energy consultant The Schork Group said.

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While U.S. crude demand continues to slip – driven miles fell 2.4 per cent on the year in April – analysts said the climbing use of fossil fuels for electricity generation in Japan, the world’s third largest consumer of oil, would help sustain prices.

“Japan’s higher oil demand should also prevent a further fall in oil prices,” said analysts at Commerzbank in Frankfurt, citing data showing that Japan’s crude imports rose an annual 6.9 per cent in May.

In other Nymex trading in July contracts, heating oil fell 3.54 cents to $2.9479 a gallon while gasoline dropped 3.67 cents at $2.9093 a gallon. Natural gas futures slid 2.3 cents at $4.302 per 1,000 cubic feet.

___

Alex Kennedy in Singapore contributed to this report.

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Japanese exports drop 10.3 per cent in May as impact from quake and tsunami lingers

TOKYO – Japan’s exports dropped for the third straight month in May, hit by massive production losses in the auto sector following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disasters, the government said Monday.

Exports fell 10.3 per cent year-on-year to 4.76 trillion yen ($6 billion). Imports rose 12.3 per cent to 5.61 trillion yen, resulting in a trade deficit of 853.7 billion yen – Japan’s second-biggest after a 967.9 billion yen deficit in January 2009, the finance ministry said.

“Exports were down again as auto shipments tumbled in the month. Automakers struggled with parts shortages after the quake, and did not see a recovery in production in May,” said economist Hajime Inoue at the Japan Research Institute Ltd.

The March disasters, which left more than 23,000 people dead or missing in northeastern Japan, destroyed hundreds of factories, forcing automakers – a pillar of this nation’s economy – and manufacturers to suspend production.

Toyota Motor Corp. says the supply crunch cost it production of 550,000 vehicles in Japan by the end of May. Toyota’s car production in May was half of normal levels.

Honda Motor Co. also produced vehicles in Japan at half of its usual level in May due to parts shortages.

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Overall Japanese auto exports in May plunged 38.9 per cent and shipments of auto parts dropped 18.5 per cent, the ministry said.

Among key regions, U.S.-bound auto exports nosedived 43.5 per cent, and auto exports to China – Japan’s biggest trading partner – tumbled 40.1 per cent. Vehicle shipments to Asia and the European Union were down 27.6 per cent and 35.8 per cent respectively.

Economist Inoue said Japanese exports would likely rebound later in the year as auto production was expected to be back at pre-disaster levels in the coming months.

Japan’s exports to the United States fell 14.6 per cent in May, the ministry said. Exports to China declined 8.1 per cent. Asia-bound shipments were down 8.7 per cent, while exports to the European Union fell 8.8 per cent.

EU overhauls rescue funds to keep worsening Greek crisis from spreading to Ireland, Portugal

LUXEMBOURG – Europe has tried to set up a firewall between the financial turmoil ravaging Greece and the destinies of Ireland and Portugal, the two other bailed-out eurozone countries, and increased pressure on Athens to pass new austerity measures in exchange for saving it from default.

Eurozone governments on Monday agreed to reinforce their bailout funds to boost confidence in their ability to stop the crisis from taking down other countries and to help Ireland and Portugal emerge from their debt holes.

Greece’s financial life support from Europe, meanwhile, depends on it taking new deficit-cutting measures.

After days of political chaos, the government in Athens has to survive a confidence vote and then get its austerity plan through parliament. To make sure that happens, eurozone ministers have delayed crucial new loans until after the parliamentary vote.

“Times are difficult, the reform fatigue is visible in the streets of Athens, Madrid and elsewhere, and so is the support fatigue in some of our member states,” said Olli Rehn, the European Union’s Monetary Affairs Commissioner.

But he urged countries to press on with the austerity. “We are about to complete a decisive response to the worst crisis since the Second World War,” he added.

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If the Greek parliament approves the austerity measures – worth about €28 billion ($40 billion) on top of an unpopular €50 billion privatization program – then eurozone finance ministers will gather again on July 3 to approve the next, critical €12 billion installment of Greece’s bailout loans.

The country’s European creditors and the International Monetary Fund are also pushing for the main opposition party to support the measures, which have already sparked violent street protests and forced Prime Minister George Papandreou to reshuffle his Cabinet.

“The greatest weight of responsibility lies on the shoulders of the new Greek government” as well as the other main political forces in the country, said Rehn.

Beyond that, much more remains to be done, as officials conceded Greece will probably need a second bailout of about the same size as the €110 billion ($160 billion) it got from the eurozone countries and the IMF last year.

Many economists question whether Greece can get out of its crisis without restructuring its €340 billion debt load by making creditors take less than they are owed. That’s an option EU officials so far ruled out for fear of the potentially disastrous impact on financial markets.

EU officials acknowledged the political difficulty of meeting the bailout requirements, which are aimed both at forcing Greece to fix its finances and at convincing voters in countries like Germany, who are skeptical of putting up money for others’ mistakes, that progress will be made.

With the tentative deal set on the loan payout, the finance ministers also signed off on important changes to their bailout funds, which they hope will reinforce confidence in the eurozone’s struggling economies and protect them from the market panic afflicting Greece.

Investors were clearly nervous on Monday, with borrowing rates in Portugal, for example, hitting record highs.

To boost market confidence, ministers agreed to raise their guarantees for bailout loans from the current rescue fund to €780 billion ($1.1 trillion) from €440 billion, said Klaus Regling, who manages the Luxembourg-based fund.

That will allow the fund to lend out a total of €440 billion, up from about €250 billion currently.

The European Financial Stability Facility, as the fund is known, requires significant over-guarantees to get a good credit rating and raise cash.

The increase had been agreed to in principle in March, but putting it into force required states to almost double their commitments to the fund – an unpopular move at a time when citizens in rich countries are increasingly frustrated with the cost of helping their weaker neighbours.

On top of that, the ministers also made an important change to their future rescue fund, which they hope will help already bailed-out countries regain access to debt markets.

The so-called European Stability Mechanism, which will come into force in mid-2013, when the EFSF expires, will not have preferred creditor status when it helps countries that have already been bailed out, said Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg prime minister who also chairs the meetings of eurozone finance ministers.

That means the fund would not be repaid before any private creditors. Giving the fund preferred creditor status had been criticized for discouraging private investors, who would be last in line to be repaid in the case of a default.

The ESM will kick in at a time when Ireland and Portugal have to start raising money again by selling long-term bonds. However, investors will be reluctant to buy these bonds if they have a high risk of not being repaid if the economic situation in the two countries worsens again.

The ESM will keep preferred creditor status for bailouts for countries that have no previous support programs.

The IMF said in a statement that bigger changes to the fund – such as giving it the power to buy bonds of struggling countries on the open market – were necessary. “Failure to undertake decisive action could rapidly spread tensions to the core of the euro area and result in large global spillovers,” warned the IMF, which funds about one third of the existing eurozone bailouts.

In talks that lasted into the early hours of Monday morning, the finance ministers also agreed to ask banks and other private creditors to share some of the burden of a second bailout for Greece.

However, the ministers stressed that any private-sector involvement would have to be strictly voluntary and could not be considered a partial default by rating agencies.

Greece’s newly appointed finance minister Evangelos Venizelos said the eurozone’s decisions showed that urgent action was necessary in Athens. “We have plenty to do, on a daily basis,” he said in a statement.

Reports: Japan’s prime minister under pressure to resign next month over tsunami, budget

TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, criticized for his handling of the tsunami disaster and the country’s sluggish economy, is under pressure to resign next month after budget bills are passed by parliament, reports said Monday.

Kan is being pushed by senior members of his party to step down after the passage of a second extra budget for the current fiscal year, which ends in March 2012, according to the Kyodo News agency and public broadcaster NHK.

Passage is expected in mid-July.

Kyodo and NHK said Kan is expected to announce details of his intentions soon, after meeting with the party leadership. NHK said it is not clear whether he will agree to step down next month or try to hold on longer.

Kan has said he is willing to resign after the country’s recovery from the disaster takes hold, but has not specified when.

No clear successor has pulled away from a pack of potential replacements, though the Japanese media have focused on Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, a fiscal expert who shares many of Kan’s policies.

Kan’s resignation would be an embarrassment to his ruling Democratic Party of Japan, but his rivals in the party apparently believe it would be better off without him at the helm.

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Kan has been under increasing pressure to resign because of his perceived lack of leadership following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country’s northern coastline and left about 23,000 people dead or missing.

Damage is estimated at $300 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster in history.

He has also been hammered for his handling of the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which was severely damaged by the tsunami.

But Kan was deeply unpopular even before the disasters as he struggled to find policies to boost the economy, lower unemployment and deal with the public debt.

Kan assumed office just over a year ago. Japan has had five prime ministers in the past four years, and its parliament is mired in gridlock.

The disasters have been a major test for Kan.

Factories throughout the region were damaged, leading to shortages of parts and components for automakers and other manufacturers. Consumer spending has plunged and the crippled nuclear power plant has caused widespread power shortages that could worsen in the months ahead.

Last week, the International Monetary Fund slashed its outlook for Japan, predicting its economy will shrink 0.7 per cent this year instead of growing 1.4 per cent.

Half of workers and managers have faced mental health issues, study suggests

OTTAWA – Susan Jakobson, of all people, might reasonably have been expected to recognize and act on the signs of mental illness.

A nursing supervisor with a long history in managing human resources, Jakobson nonetheless was slow to seek help when cancer treatment and a suicide in her family combined to send her spiralling into depression.

“I think when you’re actually the person who has the illness, you might have all the academic knowledge around it and all the things you think you should know – but when it’s about you, it’s a totally different situation,” Jakobson said in an interview.

“It’s different being the patient than being the health-care professional in these situations.”

Mental illness in the workplace is a huge issue hiding in plain sight, a situation made clear in a new report by the Conference Board of Canada released Monday.

The report, “Building Mentally Health Workplaces,” is based on a national survey of more than 1,000 employees – including almost 500 front-line managers, with follow-up interviews for some. The findings bookend a new initiative by the Mental Health Commission of Canada to establish national standards for psychologically healthy workplaces.

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“When it comes to mental health, misinformation, fear and prejudice remain far too prevalent,” says the Conference Board report. “It is time for a change.”

The report says that in 2009-10, “78 per cent of short-term disability claims and 67 per cent of long-term disability claims in Canada were related to mental-health issues.”

The personal and financial cost is staggering.

Jakobson, a Toronto-based health professional who is the principal of Healthy Minds at Work, says she was 53 and at the top of her game – “going strong, working at a job I absolutely loved” – when things began to unravel.

A breast-cancer diagnosis which coincided with the suicide of a beloved niece turned her life upside down.

“The problem was my symptoms actually got worse because of the way my situation was managed at work by one particular senior manager,” she told a news conference in Ottawa last week.

“Unfortunately this person didn’t recognize that there was an impact of my physical illness and the loss of a loved one on my mental health, and that – even though I was back at work – I was still trying to recover.”

Jakobson was “increasingly disorganized” and unable to concentrate, and worked longer hours in a fruitless effort to compensate. She became short-tempered with co-workers and family, couldn’t sleep and lost her appetite.

“I started believing I was incompetent,” she said.

“I remember actually having to bargain with myself to get out of bed in the morning.”

Hers is hardly a unique situation.

The Conference Board found that 12 per cent of its survey respondents were currently experiencing a mental-health issue and another 32 per cent said they’d faced one in the past.

The report found “a significant disconnect” between the perceptions of executives and employees about how well their workplaces deal with mental illness. Four fifths of executives felt their companies promote mentally healthy work environments, yet just 30 per cent of employees felt the same way.

Almost half of all managers – 44 per cent – had no training in managing workers with mental-health issues.

The report states that despite the challenges, “most solutions are relatively inexpensive to implement, but require flexibility and creativity on the part of employers.”

For Jakobson, it took her the better part of a year to come to terms with her mental illness and “accept treatment.” After switching jobs within her company and getting support from friends, family and senior managers her health improved “fairly quickly.”

“My situation has brought home the need for supports for both employers and employees,” she said.

“If I’ve learned anything to help employers it is this: That an actual important part of recovering is being at work, is going to work. But don’t expect the employee to be 100 per cent when they get back.”

Jakobson said “you need a thoughtful, supportive, planned way to return someone to work.”

The Conference Board report suggests changing corporate culture is one of the more difficult challenges in this regard.

“Like any successful venture within an organization, the full support and involvement of senior leaders is required for change to occur …. It is still relatively uncommon in organizations for senior management to openly discuss the importance of mental health.”

But the report doesn’t spare co-workers or unions.

The survey found some employees returning from a mental illness “felt isolated, ignored or shunned by colleagues,” a reception that increased feelings of shame and embarrassment.

The survey also found that “somewhat surprisingly, employees are no more comfortable disclosing a mental-health issue to a union representative or shop steward than they are to their supervisor.”

Louise Bradley, the president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said publicly airing workplace mental-health issues is the place to start ending the stigma.

Bradley compares it to the early years of AIDS “and even around breast cancer, for Pete’s sakes, people didn’t talk about.”

Jakobson is doing her part, putting a public face on an illness that too often lurks behind the cubicle next door.

“It still is about a three-year journey for me, but I’m in a good place now,” she said.

Disasters, economy top agenda as western premiers gather in Yellowknife

YELLOWKNIFE – Disasters, such as spring flooding and forest fires, will be on the agenda when Canada’s western premiers hold their annual meeting.

The political leaders from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C., Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories start a three-day meeting Monday in Yellowknife.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger want to talk about how the provinces can press Ottawa for a new national disaster strategy.

“Most disaster damage and rebuilding costs are entirely preventable,” said Wall.

“Investments in prevention provide a four-to-one return on investment and they limit the misery and anguish these disasters cause our families.”

Both Saskatchewan and Alberta have faced serious flooding this spring.

In fact, Wall’s arrival at the conference will be delayed because he’ll spend Monday touring communities in southern Saskatchewan that have been flooded by a deluge of rain. Up to 75 millimetres of rain fell on southern parts of the province between Friday and Saturday, causing significant swelling of the Souris River.

Selinger said the serious challenges facing the agricultural economy on the Prairies, such as the amount of unseeded land, will also be discussed.

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The Canadian Wheat Board said last week that somewhere between 2.4 million and 3.2 million hectares of farmland will go unseeded in the West, mostly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. That could suck $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion out of the prairie economy.

Tapping into new economic markets and trade will top the agenda for Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.

“Our future prosperity will be determined by our ability to tap into rapidly growing Asian economies,” Stelmach said in a news release.

“If we’re going to sell our products in countries like China or India, we need to be able to get those products to market. It’s critical that we in the West work together to ensure the infrastructure we need – the pipelines, the ports, the railways – is in place and up to date.”

This is Stelmach’s last western premiers conference before he steps down from office in October.

Some of the other faces around the premiers’ table have already changed – this is the first meeting for British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski.

Trial begins of Indonesian militant accused of procuring weapons, setting up terror camp

JAKARTA, Indonesia – One of Indonesia’s top terrorism suspects went on trial Monday on charges of helping set up a terrorist training camp for a group that plotted attacks on foreigners and assassinations of the country’s moderate Muslim leaders.

The trial of Abu Tholut began days after a hard-line cleric was sentenced to 15 years in prison for supporting the same jihadist camp.

Tholut, 50, is accused of procuring M16 assault rifles and other weapons for the camp, which was raided early last year in westernmost Aceh province, prosecutor Bambang Suharyadi told the West Jakarta District Court. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Arrested in December, Tholut is one of more than 120 alleged members of the “Tanzim Al Qaeda in Aceh” group to have been captured or killed since the camp was uncovered. More than 50 of those men have been sentenced to prison.

Radical Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, co-founder of the al-Qaida-linked Islamist movement Jemaah Islamiyah, was last week sentenced to 15 years for supporting the camp.

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Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, was thrust onto the front lines of the battle against terrorism in 2002, when Jemaah Islamiyah militants bombed two crowded nightclubs on the resort island of Bali, killing 202 people, many of them foreign tourists. There have been several attacks since then, but all have been far less deadly.

Police have said the Aceh group was plotting Mumbai-style gun attacks on foreigners at luxury hotels in the capital of Jakarta and assassinations, including of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to punish the government for supporting the U.S.-led anti-terrorism fight.

Tholut, also known as Mustofa, became one of Indonesia’s most wanted fugitives after master bomb-makers Noordin M. Top and Dulmatin were gunned down early last year in police raids.

He was convicted for involvement in a 2001 bomb blast at a shopping plaza in central Jakarta that wounded six, and he served five years of an eight-year sentence after getting remission for good behaviour. Like dozens of other convicted Indonesian extremists, he returned to his terror network after he was released.

Nasir Abas – a former militant who has helped police track down and arrest several members of his network – said Tholut had been a combatant in Afghanistan and an “excellent instructor” who helped train Islamist militants in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao.

Judges adjourned the trial until next week, when Tholut’s lawyers are due to respond to the charges.

EU harshly condemns worsening violence in Syria, threatens new sanctions against regime

LUXEMBOURG – The European Union condemned in the strongest terms Monday the worsening violence in Syria and said it was preparing to expand its sanctions against the regime.

But it stopped short of announcing new penalties, and it did not call for President Bashar Assad to step down. Any new sanctions would be an effort to bring about “a fundamental change in policy by the Syrian leadership without delay,” it said.

The sanctions in place so far have not had that effect. In late May, the EU expanded sanctions to include Assad himself after earlier travel bans and asset freezes on 13 people with links to the regime failed to stop the killing of anti-government protesters.

Monday’s statement gave no indication of who might be targeted next, other than to say that they would “target individuals and entities responsible for, or associated with, the violent repression against the civilian population.”

The statement made no mention of Assad’s televised speech Monday, in which he said his regime would consider political reforms but also said that “saboteurs” were exploiting legitimate demands for reform.

On the way into the foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg, British foreign secretary William Hague said Syria’s leader had to reform or go.

Hague also said he hoped that Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbour, would play an influential role in conveying to Assad the will of the international community.

“I hope our Turkish colleagues will bring every possible pressure to bear on the Assad regime with a very clear message that they are losing legitimacy and that Assad should reform or step aside,” Hague said.

The opposition estimates more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Assad unleashed his military, pro-regime gunmen and the country’s other security forces to crush the protest movement that erupted in March, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

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