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Putin's popularity plunges as Russian voters rage over pension reforms

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: Putin's approval rating hits five-year low in new poll; migrants in Tijuana face mix of hostility and hospitality; CBC News examines funeral home business practices.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a conference on Syria in Istanbul on Oct. 27. A new poll says his government's approval rating among Russians has dropped to a low not seen since 2013. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.

TODAY:

  • Vladimir Putin's popularity has hit a low not seen since 2013, the latest negative news in a rough week for the Russian president.
  • Tonight's At Issue panel looks at the fallout from Canada's fiscal plan to give tax breaks to businesses.
  • The arrival of migrant caravans in Tijuana, Mexico, is stirring a mix of generosity and anger among  locals in the town that borders the U.S.
  • Some business practices in the funeral industry have changed in the wake of a CBC News investigation, but others haven't.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.


Putin's popularity

Vladimir Putin's popularity is plummeting as Russian voters rage over government pension reforms.  

A new poll, published today by the independent Levada Center, finds the Russian president's approval rating at 56 per cent, a five-year low. And the survey makes it clear that the public is increasingly unhappy with the direction the country is heading in.

Sixty-one per cent of respondents told Levada that they hold Putin "fully" responsible for Russia's problems, with another 22 per cent saying the president is "somewhat" to blame.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a reception in Moscow on Nov. 4 to mark National Unity Day. A poll released Thursday says that if an election were held today, just 40 per cent of Russians would vote for him. (Akexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

If an election were held today, just 40 per cent said they would cast a ballot for the man who has led them since 1999.

Putin doesn't have to go to the polls until 2024, but the level of dissatisfaction is notable given that he won 77 per cent of the vote — his biggest-ever victory — in the March election.

The last time Putin's popularity fell below 60 per cent was in 2013, when the Russian economy began to stall as oligarchs moved their money offshore and oil prices declined.

This time, however, it is all his own doing, as voters lash out over his reforms to the country's crumbling pension system which have added five years to the retirement age.

Russian police officers block demonstrators in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Sept. 9 during a rally protesting retirement age hikes. The poster reads: 'Putin's plan is genocide of people.' Nearly 300 people were reported arrested in protests across the country that day. (Roman Pimenov/Associated Press)

It hasn't been a good week for Putin on several fronts.

Alexander Prokopchuk, the Kremlin's nominee for the presidency of Interpol, suffered a surprise election defeat yesterday as other nations threw their support behind Kim Jong Yang, the South Korean candidate.

Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, placed the blame squarely on the United States this morning.

"The pre-election period was accompanied by an unprecedented campaign of misinformation, pressure and defamation," she said, referring to fears that Prokopchuk would use the powers of the international police body to punish Putin's critics. "Unfortunately, it was launched against the candidate for this position from Russia at the United States' instigation."

Now comes news that the head of the secretive GRU, the Russian military intelligence group that has been implicated in the British Novichok poisonings, has died.

Igor Korobov, 62, reportedly passed away last night after a "lengthy and grave illness."

He took over the job in early 2016, after his predecessor Igor Segun died suddenly at 58.

Gen. Col. Igor Korobov, head of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, speaks during a news conference in Moscow in August 2017. The Defense Ministry says the 62-year-old died Wednesday of 'a lengthy and grave illness.' (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

But at least Putin can still count on the state media to put a positive spin on things.

TASS, the official Russian news agency, doesn't have a story on today's Levada Center survey, but it is covering another new poll.

The government-run All-Russia Public Opinion Research Centre reports that the level of happiness among Russians is still high, with 84 per cent of people reporting that they are "content," and even 66 per cent of those in "dire" fiscal trouble saying they are "optimistic."


At Issue

Tonight's At Issue panel looks at the fallout from Canada's fiscal plan to give tax breaks to businesses, writes Rosemary Barton.  

Turns out deficits aren't really so bad after all.

At least not for the Liberal government, and not when you're using them to respond to Trump's corporate tax rate cut.

It was clear Canada could not afford to reduce taxes as drastically as the Americans, so it decided instead to find ways to encourage investment by Canadian businesses by allowing them to write off pieces of equipment or what are called capital costs.

It's a big deal for businesses looking to buy new things. And it's a big deal for government expenditures, given that the plan is expected to cost more than $16 billion over the next six years.

The issue is that they are doing it by going deeper into the red. That is not what the government promised taxpayers.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau speaks to the media about the fall economic update in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

But the Finance Minister told me that it's worth it. Canada leads G7 nations in economic growth, so the government believes it can afford to make an investment to see if it sparks more growth.

Of course, that's just his take.

Find out what At Issue has to say about that and tax credits for journalism later tonight. Chantal Hébert, Andrew Coyne and Althia Raj will be there.

- Rosemary Barton


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Hostility and hospitality in Tijuana

Reporter Kim Brunhuber is covering the arrival of migrant caravans in Tijuana, Mexico, and the anger that newcomers have stirred among some locals in the town that borders the U.S.

Brandon Garcia is convinced: the migrants swamping Tijuana are crooks and thieves.

"They've come here to create disorder and to steal, nothing more," he tells me, looking up from his seat under the shade of the umbrella from which he sells elotes y vasitos (corn with cheese sauce).

Garcia points to the wall about 100 metres from the border fence with San Diego.

"They're up there, doing drugs against the wall," Garcia says.

Brandon Garcia at his outdoor food stand in Tijuana, Mexico. He's upset by the behaviour of some of the newly arrived migrants who've been massing in the town along the U.S. border. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

His friend Francisco Juarez disagrees.

"It's not only them, in Tijuana there's plenty of drugs anyway," Juarez says. "They're not doing anything they're not supposed to. They've come here because they have needs, that's it."

This encapsulates the debate raging across Tijuana, as thousands of migrants have arrived in several large "caravans" — with many more on the way.

I'd seen reports of rock-throwing Tijuana residents yelling at the migrants to go home, but I wanted to see for myself: just how widespread and how deep is the hostility?

I was surprised at the number of people who told me they were angry that the migrants had showed up at their doorstep.

People are always coming and going through Tijuana, like the thousands of Haitians who began arriving a year or so ago, Garcia says. But the sheer number right now seems to bother many, as does their conduct.

"The Haitians came quietly," Garcia says. "These guys didn't."

Tijuana police say they have arrested a few dozen migrants for various offences.

Even so, I didn't see any virulent hatred in the community. Indeed, one well-known anti-migrant activist called for protesters to show up at the toll booth leading into Tijuana where the next caravan was supposed to enter the city, but I waited there at the appointed time and no-one beyond a few other journalists showed up.

And there's plenty of goodwill on display from Tijuana residents as well.

Outside the baseball stadium that more than 1,000 recently arrived migrants now call home, a woman was handing out coffee and cups of frozen rice treats to migrants lined up along the street.

"There are only a few bad apples," she says.

Inside the stadium at the makeshift camp, it seems about half of the inhabitants are men under the age of 40 seeking work. The other half are families, many led by young mothers seeking a better life.

Some members of migrant caravans that have arrived in Tijuana recently are being housed in tents and makeshift shelters at the community's baseball stadium. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Most of those with whom I spoke weren't escaping any specific persecution, but were spurred north by the general poverty, unrest and violence endemic in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Few were able to articulate why the U.S. should let them in beyond the fact that, as many told me, they weren't troublemakers but rather "hard workers."

Migrant Wilmer Ramirez, however, had an interesting answer. He maintains the U.S. has a duty of care to Central American migrants because of environmental exploitation by the West.

"There are only African palm trees, palm trees, palm trees, palm trees…," in Latin America, he says, which are used to make palm oil that's sent overseas by multinational corporations. "And the palm trees are drying the earth."

And then, he says, there is the issue of past neo-colonial wrongs inflicted on Latin America by previous Cold War-era American governments, which have supported various brutal regimes and have led to the current instability.

"It's the problem of the United States, because the U.S. brought this on our country. We don't own any of our land. They've invaded our land and now own it all."

Wilmer Ramirez, part of a migrant caravan that arrived recently in Tijuana, says the U.S. has a responsibility to help Latin Americans who seek asylum due to the damage its political and corporate activities have done to the region and its people. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

It's not clear either of those arguments will sway U.S. border officials tasked with assessing their asylum claims.

Many migrants I spoke with are still hoping U.S. president Donald Trump, who has gone to unprecedented and — according to a recent ruling, illegal —  lengths to prevent the migrants from entering and claiming asylum status, will have a spontaneous and miraculous conversion.

"All of us here who walked here, [we] walked hoping that God would touch the heart of stone of Donald Trump," says migrant Nolvia Navarro.

And if their asylum claims are denied?

No-one would tell me on the record that they'd try to cross illegally. But neither did any of them rule it out.

Watch Kim Brunhuber's story on the migrants in Tijuana from The National:

Migrants camped in Tijuana, Mexico, after travelling in a caravan to reach the U.S. are weighing their options after a California court blocked U.S. President Donald Trump's asylum ban Monday for people who cross the border illegally. 2:54

Buyer beware

Some funeral industry practices have changed but others haven't in the wake of a CBC News investigation, reporter David Common writes.

We'd heard enough complaints to know something was going on.

Canadians who'd arranged a funeral and who were left feeling taken advantage of. People who'd paid way more than they had planned to and ended up buying things they neither wanted nor needed.

We first took our hidden cameras into the largest Canadian-owned funeral chain two years ago. What we found would disappoint Ontario's funeral regulator — and lead to new rules.

The commission-earning sales staff would push to upsell, and insisted that optional items — like embalming — were actually required. Caskets were marked up by as much as 400 per cent, but try to buy one cheaper at Costco or Amazon and the funeral chain would charge a $600 handling fee. Salespeople also refused to sell inexpensive caskets to our undercover producers, deeming them inappropriate.

Ontario's regulator was shocked when he saw the video. He asked for the outside handling fee to end and insisted all funeral homes sell any casket in their showroom to a customer.

CBC News visited funeral homes in Ontario earlier this year with hidden cameras to see if changes had been made to sales operations in the wake of a 2017 investigation. (CBC)

We took our hidden cameras back inside five Arbor Memorial funeral homes in the Toronto area recently to see whether the new rules were being followed.

All five homes welcomed outside caskets. But at one, the salesperson repeatedly refused to sell a cheaper casket, even when the undercover team asked for a simple service with immediate cremation.

So we went back to the same regulator. And again, he was disappointed and promised action.

Arbor Memorial also responded to us saying it has significantly enhanced the training programs for its staff over the past year, and that its priority now is to listen to customers.

Across Canada, some funeral homes are using a business model where they charge a professional fee but don't make money from the products they sell. Want a gold plated oak casket, it's yours, and some homes will make no more than if they had sold you a plain pine box.

But at others, selling products as well as service is how they make a profit.

The lesson in all of this: arranging a funeral may be an unusual buying experience, but it's still a transaction between a customer and a business. And as a customer, you should be aware of how the salesperson is making money.

- David Common

  • WATCH: David Common's story about business practices at funeral homes tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

A few words on ... 

A global cyber-vigil for a 95-year-old refugee advocate from Canada.


Quote of the moment

"The conditions were terrible and that makes it a challenge to get good estimates of how many seabirds might be killed. It becomes kind of a hand-waving exercise and doing our best guess."


- Gail Fraser, a biologist at York University, on the after-effects of Newfoundland's biggest-ever offshore oil spill last Friday, a 250,000 litre discharge from a Husky Energy platform.

The pipe connection that, according to Husky Energy, is responsible for a spill of a quarter of a million litres of oil into the ocean off Newfoundland. (Husky Energy)

What The National is reading

  • Climate change: warming gas concentrations at record high (BBC)
  • EU and U.K. agree on post-Brexit relations (CBC)
  • First plane with no moving parts takes flight (Guardian)
  • Cars separate on Montreal-to-New York train (CBC)
  • Guatemala sentences ex-soldier to more than 5,000 years in prison (Al Jazeera)
  • God is gender-neutral, says Archbishop of Canterbury (Daily Mail)
  • The mystery font that took over New York (NY Times)
  • Lost Charles Dickens portrait found after 174 years (Telegraph)

Today in history

The Cape Breton songstress discusses the path that took her from Eaton's Toronto accounting department to singing for a living, in this interview taped in the kitchen of her Big Pond home. She had just one album at the time, 1975's feminism-inspired Born to Be a Woman. Twenty-four more, including several international chart toppers, would follow by her untimely death in 2013.

The 35-year-old Cape Breton native describes her evolution from shy housewife to liberated woman, and how it influenced her music career. 16:19

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.