Sears Canada to close stores, cut jobs in restructuring

(Adds details on filing on pension payments and lawyer comment)

By Solarina Ho

Sears Canada Inc said
on Thursday it plans to cut jobs and close about a quarter of
its stores as it restructures its operations after a steady
decline in sales due to competition from big-box retailers and
online merchants.

Like many department stores, the Toronto-based company has
struggled for years to attract fashion-conscious shoppers who
have embraced apparel stores more adept at keeping up with
fast-changing clothing trends.

The company, which in 2012 was spun off from U.S. department
store pioneer Sears Holdings Corp, said it planned to
close 59 of its 225 stores and cut 2,900 of its 17,000 workers
as part of a restructuring approved by an Ontario bankruptcy
court on Thursday.

Sears Canada also plans to file a motion to request
permission to suspend certain monthly payments to its pension
plan because it is running low on cash, according to court
documents.

It also intends to stop payments to a post-retirement
benefit plan providing retirees with life insurance and medical
and dental benefits, according to the filing.

Retail experts said they were not convinced the company
would succeed in its effort to remain in business, but noted
that it could get more for its assets by winding down its
operations in several phases, rather than pulling the plug
through a liquidation.

“It’s just been baby steps toward the ultimate end,” said
Sally Seston, managing director at Retail Category Consultants
Inc. “A forced liquidation becomes a fire sale.”

“One way or another, it’s not going to be an easy road for
them. As is the case with all department stores,” said Maureen
Atkinson, a senior partner at retail consulting firm J.C.
Williams Group.

Existing lenders have agreed to provide up to C$450 million
($340 million) in interim financing to help the company
controlled by billionaire hedge-fund investor Eddie Lampert
focus on selling discounted designer labels and low-priced
clothing.

The plan shifts away from areas long associated with the
iconic Sears brand, such as home appliances, tools, electronics
and auto parts.

Lou Brzezinski, an attorney who represents several of the
retailer’s landlords and suppliers, said his clients were
relieved that the company had not given up.

“It’s a measured and a reasonable approach to continuing
operations in Canada and we’re happy to see that,” Brzezinski
said, but noted the fallout would hit employees and retirees the
hardest.

“It’s the older people who need the money for their medical
benefits and their dental benefits. They’re the ones that’s
going to have to pay the price.”

The company has total liabilities of C$1.1 billion as of
April 29, according to financial disclosures. That includes
outstanding loans, accounts payable, pensions and other debt.

Its shares tumbled 14.7 percent to 40 cents in Thursday
Nasdaq trading after touching a record low of 16 cents earlier
in the day. The stock did not trade in Canada, where it was
halted by the Toronto Stock Exchange.

About 78 percent of Sears Canada shares are held by Lampert
and others close to the company, according to Thomson Reuters
data.

Sears Canada named Bank of Montreal as its
financial adviser and the law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP
as its legal adviser. It said FTI Consulting would serve
as restructuring consultant.

($1 = 1.3249 Canadian dollars)

(Writing by Jim Finkle; Reporting by Solarina Ho in Toronto.
Additional reporting by Fergal Smith in Toronto, Jessica
DiNapoli in New York, Richa Naidu in Chicago, and Siddharth
Cavale, Yashaswini Swamynathan, and Gayathree Ganesan in
Bengaluru; Editing by Denny Thomas and Dan Grebler)

Sears Canada obtains court permission to pursue restructuring

(Adds details on filing on pension payments and lawyer comment)

By Solarina Ho

Sears Canada Inc said
on Thursday it plans to cut jobs and close about a quarter of
its stores as it restructures its operations after a steady
decline in sales due to competition from big-box retailers and
online merchants.

Like many department stores, the Toronto-based company has
struggled for years to attract fashion-conscious shoppers who
have embraced apparel stores more adept at keeping up with
fast-changing clothing trends.

The company, which in 2012 was spun off from U.S. department
store pioneer Sears Holdings Corp, said it planned to
close 59 of its 225 stores and cut 2,900 of its 17,000 workers
as part of a restructuring approved by an Ontario bankruptcy
court on Thursday.

Sears Canada also plans to file a motion to request
permission to suspend certain monthly payments to its pension
plan because it is running low on cash, according to court
documents.

It also intends to stop payments to a post-retirement
benefit plan providing retirees with life insurance and medical
and dental benefits, according to the filing.

Retail experts said they were not convinced the company
would succeed in its effort to remain in business, but noted
that it could get more for its assets by winding down its
operations in several phases, rather than pulling the plug
through a liquidation.

“It’s just been baby steps toward the ultimate end,” said
Sally Seston, managing director at Retail Category Consultants
Inc. “A forced liquidation becomes a fire sale.”

“One way or another, it’s not going to be an easy road for
them. As is the case with all department stores,” said Maureen
Atkinson, a senior partner at retail consulting firm J.C.
Williams Group.

Existing lenders have agreed to provide up to C$450 million
($340 million) in interim financing to help the company
controlled by billionaire hedge-fund investor Eddie Lampert
focus on selling discounted designer labels and low-priced
clothing.

The plan shifts away from areas long associated with the
iconic Sears brand, such as home appliances, tools, electronics
and auto parts.

Lou Brzezinski, an attorney who represents several of the
retailer’s landlords and suppliers, said his clients were
relieved that the company had not given up.

“It’s a measured and a reasonable approach to continuing
operations in Canada and we’re happy to see that,” Brzezinski
said, but noted the fallout would hit employees and retirees the
hardest.

“It’s the older people who need the money for their medical
benefits and their dental benefits. They’re the ones that’s
going to have to pay the price.”

The company has total liabilities of C$1.1 billion as of
April 29, according to financial disclosures. That includes
outstanding loans, accounts payable, pensions and other debt.

Its shares tumbled 14.7 percent to 40 cents in Thursday
Nasdaq trading after touching a record low of 16 cents earlier
in the day. The stock did not trade in Canada, where it was
halted by the Toronto Stock Exchange.

About 78 percent of Sears Canada shares are held by Lampert
and others close to the company, according to Thomson Reuters
data.

Sears Canada named Bank of Montreal as its
financial adviser and the law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP
as its legal adviser. It said FTI Consulting would serve
as restructuring consultant.

($1 = 1.3249 Canadian dollars)

(Writing by Jim Finkle; Reporting by Solarina Ho in Toronto.
Additional reporting by Fergal Smith in Toronto, Jessica
DiNapoli in New York, Richa Naidu in Chicago, and Siddharth
Cavale, Yashaswini Swamynathan, and Gayathree Ganesan in
Bengaluru; Editing by Denny Thomas and Dan Grebler)

Canadian sniper ‘kills IS militant two miles away’

A sniper in the Canadian special forces shot and killed an Islamic State (IS) fighter from a distance of 2.1 miles (3,540m) in Iraq last month.

Military sources told Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper that the gunman is a member of Joint Task Force 2, and made the shot from a high-rise building.

It took the bullet almost 10 seconds to hit its target, it reports.

The Canadian Special Operations Command confirmed to the BBC the sniper “hit a target” from that distance.

The shot, which sources tell the paper was filmed, is thought to be a record for the longest confirmed kill.

The sniper worked in tandem with an observer, who helps to spot targets, and used a standard Canadian military issued McMillan TAC-50 rifle.

“The shot in question actually disrupted a Daesh [so-called Islamic State] attack on Iraqi security forces,” a military source told the paper.

“Instead of dropping a bomb that could potentially kill civilians in the area, it is a very precise application of force and because it was so far away, the bad guys didn’t have a clue what was happening.”

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The source described the difficultly of the shot, which required the shooter to account for wind, ballistics, and even the Earth’s curvature.

Military experts believe the successful shot may have set a record.

The previous record was held by British sniper, Craig Harrison, who shot and killed a Taliban attacker from 2,475 metres in 2009 using an L115A3 long range rifle.

The government of Canada’s Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau halted air strikes against the so-called Islamic State in 2016.

But at the same time, Mr Trudeau announced plans to treble the number of special forces on the ground, as well as increase the number of Canadian Armed Forces members who are tasked with training and assisting local forces.

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Rise in Canadian retail sales bodes well for second quarter economic growth

By Leah Schnurr



OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canadian retail sales rose in April on higher gasoline prices and increased demand for home appliances and garden supplies, Statistics Canada said on Thursday in a report that lent support to the Bank of Canada’s recent hawkish monetary policy stance.



The value of retail sales rose 0.8 percent, exceeding forecasts for a 0.2 percent gain and providing a firm start to the second quarter. Stripping out the effects of price changes, April’s sales volumes were less robust, rising just 0.3 percent.



Canada’s economy is on track to grow at an annual rate of near 3 percent in the second quarter, said Brittany Baumann, macro strategist at TD Securities. The economy expanded at a 3.7 percent pace in the first three months of the year.



The report increases the odds the Bank of Canada will raise interest rates at its next meeting in July, though Friday’s inflation report will be key, particularly in regards to the central bank’s measures of core inflation, Baumann said.



“Further deceleration in core inflation is more likely to stay the bank’s hand in July, while some stabilization or uptick, which cannot be excluded at this stage, will put further pressure on the Bank of Canada to act,” she said.



Bank of Canada policymakers took a more hawkish turn last week, setting the stage for rate hikes. The central bank has held its policy rate at 0.50 percent since 2015 when it cut rates twice to offset the impact of cheaper oil, one of Canada’s main exports.



The Canadian dollar gained against the greenback and was trading at C$1.3253 or 74.45 U.S. cents after Thursday’s report. [CAD/]



Sales in the building material, garden equipment and supplies sector rose 3.5 percent, the biggest increase in nearly two years. Increased sales of home appliances and hardware have helped the sector rise for eight months in a row.
  Continued…


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Canada April retail sales up 0.8 percent on general merchandise, gasoline

By Leah Schnurr



OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canadian retail sales rose in April on higher gasoline prices and increased demand for home appliances and garden supplies, Statistics Canada said on Thursday in a report that lent support to the Bank of Canada’s recent hawkish monetary policy stance.



The value of retail sales rose 0.8 percent, exceeding forecasts for a 0.2 percent gain and providing a firm start to the second quarter. Stripping out the effects of price changes, April’s sales volumes were less robust, rising just 0.3 percent.



Canada’s economy is on track to grow at an annual rate of near 3 percent in the second quarter, said Brittany Baumann, macro strategist at TD Securities. The economy expanded at a 3.7 percent pace in the first three months of the year.



The report increases the odds the Bank of Canada will raise interest rates at its next meeting in July, though Friday’s inflation report will be key, particularly in regards to the central bank’s measures of core inflation, Baumann said.



“Further deceleration in core inflation is more likely to stay the bank’s hand in July, while some stabilization or uptick, which cannot be excluded at this stage, will put further pressure on the Bank of Canada to act,” she said.



Bank of Canada policymakers took a more hawkish turn last week, setting the stage for rate hikes. The central bank has held its policy rate at 0.50 percent since 2015 when it cut rates twice to offset the impact of cheaper oil, one of Canada’s main exports.



The Canadian dollar gained against the greenback and was trading at C$1.3253 or 74.45 U.S. cents after Thursday’s report. [CAD/]



Sales in the building material, garden equipment and supplies sector rose 3.5 percent, the biggest increase in nearly two years. Increased sales of home appliances and hardware have helped the sector rise for eight months in a row.
  Continued…


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Canadian sniper records longest kill shot, takes out ISIS terrorist from over 2 miles away

A kill shot against an ISIS terrorist in Iraq in May came from a Canadian sniper’s rifle over two miles away.

Canadian Armed Forces has confirmed an operation in Iraq that required one of its special operations forces to fire a McMillan TAC-50 sniper rifle from 3,540 meters away. The call was made to attempt a record-breaking shot as a means of avoiding civilian casualties.

“The Canadian Special Operations Command can confirm that a member of Joint Task Force 2 successfully hit a target at 3,540 meters,” officials told The Globe and Mail in a statement released Wednesday. “For operational security reasons and to preserve the safety of our personnel and our coalition partners we will not discuss precise details on when and how this incident took place.”

A military source told the website that the kill shot was independently verified by video and other equipment.

“The shot in question actually disrupted a Daesh [ISIS] attack on Iraqi security forces,” the source said. “Instead of dropping a bomb that could potentially kill civilians in the area, it is a very precise application of force and because it was so far way, the bad guys didn’t have a clue what was happening.”

The source said that such a feat is astonishing because the sniper must factor in the ballistics of the round, wind, gravity and other factors.

“You have to adjust for him firing from a higher location downward and as the round drops you have to account for that,” the source said. “From that distance you actually have to account for the curvature of the Earth.”

The previous record came from British sniper Craig Harrison in 2009, the website reported. He shot a Taliban gunner from 2,475 meters away.

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Can cod comeback keep a Canadian fishery afloat?

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A generation after Canada declared a moratorium on northern cod fishing off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, the species is making a comeback. But can the province’s troubled fishery survive to take advantage of cod’s resurgence?

The wharf in Petty Harbour is quiet, and Todd Chafe, a 46-year-old fisherman, is slicing up cod for a nearby family restaurant in a shack near the water.

“Some fellas like to point fingers: ‘Ah, this done it, foreigners done it’,” he says.

Chafe is talking about the collapse of northern cod off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador 25 years ago.

“We all done it, every single person that went fishing done it. Everybody fished for it so everybody had a hand in destroying it.”

On 2 July 1992, after decades of bungled fisheries management, Canada put an end to a cod industry that had supported rural Newfoundlanders for 500 years.

Stocks of the once mighty northern cod had fallen to an estimated 1% of 1980s levels. The government had overestimated how many cod there were and didn’t act when it first became clear the fish were disappearing.

That day, in a St John’s ballroom, federal cabinet minister John Crosbie announced a moratorium on cod fishing. Angry fishermen pounded on the barred doors trying to get in.

Overnight, 38,000 people were put out of work in Newfoundland and Labrador – the single largest layoff in Canada’s history.

Crosbie promised the moratorium would only last about two years. It’s been more than 20.

Now there is a glimmer of hope. Northern cod stock has reached about 25% of the levels seen in the ’80s.

But there is a fierce debate over what the return of cod fishing should look like in Newfoundland.

Musician Arthur O’Brien entertains the lunchtime crowd at Chafe’s Landing, a popular Petty Harbour restaurant, with songs about Newfoundland and Labrador.

As a child, O’Brien used to be part of the fishing economy.

“Right here you’re sitting off what was once one of the best fisheries in the world,” he says after his set.

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O’Brien hails from Bay Bulls, a nearby coastal community. Like many children in fishing villages, O’Brien was a “wharf rat”, making pocket money cutting out and selling cod tongues by the dozen or the pound.

Bay Bulls – a fish processing hub – was one of the hundreds of rural towns whose economic backbone was the inshore fishery.

The inshore fishery is relegated to smaller boats that are essentially small independent businesses, unlike the industrial-sized trawlers that fish further out in the Atlantic.

A lot of things changed after the cod fishery was shut down, the 43-year-old recalls. People left the Atlantic province in droves, losing about 14% of its population.

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“Every Newfoundlander has someone gone away. Everybody,” says O’Brien, who gets a big reaction when he sings about locals leaving to work in the Fort McMurray oil fields in Alberta.

Some 18,800 people from the province went to work in the western province between 1996 and 2006 alone.

Until recently, the decade-long oil boom in both Alberta and in the waters off Newfoundland helped fill the gap left by cod.

But low oil prices have sent unemployment rates in the province ticking upwards and squeezed government revenues.

Crab and shellfish also gave fishermen a reprieve, but now those stocks are also showing signs of stress.

In April, angry fishermen forced their way into the headquarters of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), while others burnt their gear in front of a regional office over cuts to shrimp and crab quotas.

The same month, another fisherman, Richard Gillett, went on a hunger strike outside DFO offices in St John’s, demanding a meeting with the federal fisheries minister.

Then in June, search and rescue workers had to airlift the crew of a fishing vessel to safety after they were caught in thick sea ice. The ice has delayed the snow crab season, another source of income.

Neil Ward’s son was among the men rescued as the vessel sank below the ice.

“For them to be doing this, it shows how desperate people are,” Ward, a store owner in the coastal town of La Scie, Newfoundland, says. “They’re willing to take the risk.”

DFO has begun to loosen the moratorium, if only slightly. In 2017, the agency extended the length of the cod fishing season and doubled the weekly catch limits in most regions under a “stewardship fishery” programme.

Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union (FFAW) President Keith Sullivan calls the current levels set by DFO “really, really conservative”.

FFAW is asking DFO to further expand the cod fishery to make up for the squeeze fishermen are feeling over cuts to crab and shrimp quotas.

Sullivan sees an opportunity to create an international market for Canadian northern cod, and rebuild the fishery infrastructure.

“People understand it’s got to be done sustainably, but they can also see that this is something that’s going to bring value back to communities, hopefully for years to come,” he says.

But Tony Blanchard, the resource management director for DFO in the region, says “caution” is the current approach. The government will start making annual assessments of the stock in 2018.

Ryan Cleary, a former journalist and ex-federal politician, says fishermen are impatient and the industry, beyond cod, is in crisis.

“It’s going to continue to heat up until it boils over,” he says.

Cleary, along with Gillett, is trying to launch a splinter union – the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador – in a bid to take on the FFAW.

He says the independent, small boat operators need their own representation. FFAW says about 4,100 of the 15,000 workers they represent are inshore fishermen.

“The average Newfoundland and Labrador fish harvesters are dying out,” he says.

Many coastal fishermen are now in their 60s, with few young people willing to take a risk in an industry that’s been struggling for decades, or pay the upfront costs of training, licensing and buying a vessel.

Cleary and Gillett also believe the inshore fishery is facing an unprecedented crisis in many ways worse than the cod collapse, with stocks of most commercial species on the decline or delicate in terms of rebuilding.

“It hasn’t gotten better, it’s gotten worse.” says Cleary. “We didn’t learn anything from the moratorium.”

Some independent scientists have been raising alarm bells about any imminent ramp up in the cod fishery.

Memorial University’s Noel Cadigan says cod stocks are still too fragile to allow for more fishing and sees DFO’s decision to expand the season as a mistake.

He worries they are caving to pressure from fishermen who see crab and shrimp stocks failing.

“I don’t think we’re going to do irreparable harm but we certainly are delaying recovery of the stock,” he says.

Cadigan and his colleagues say a better management plan – one that includes a timeline for recovery and defined targets along the way – is necessary.

Back on the Petty Harbour wharf, Tom Best is frustrated and worried about what will happen if the moratorium is lifted.

He says politicians and agency staff, most of whom live thousands of kilometres away in Ottawa, were nowhere to be found in the last 25 years when it came to making tough decisions about the fishery’s future.

“You could have hundreds of communities in this province prospering from the cod fishery if people just used their brains and their heads,” the president of the Petty Harbour Fishermen’s Cooperative says.

“People are geared up to do things that were destructive before the moratorium, and they’re going to go right back to it again.”

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Bots used to skew political debate

If you’ve been chatting about politics on social media recently, there’s a good chance you’ve been part of a conversation that was manipulated by bots, researchers say.

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) has studied such discussions related to nine places – US, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Canada, China, Taiwan, Brazil and Poland – on platforms including Twitter and Facebook.

It claims that in all the elections, political crises and national security-related discussions it looked at, there was not one instance where social media opinion had not been manipulated.

Bots in propaganda

Bots – programs that perform simple, repetitive tasks – are integral to what the OII calls “computational propaganda” – instances of people deliberately distributing misleading information on social media by various means.

Bots can communicate with people – retweeting fake news, for example – but they can also exploit social network algorithms to get a topic to trend.

They can be fully or only partly automated. A single individual can use them to create the illusion of large-scale consensus. They can also be used to stifle critics by mobbing individuals or swamping hashtags.

The methods the OII used for identifying bots in each country study varied.

The institute has, however, been criticised in the past for identifying social media accounts as being “bots” whose owners insisted they were nothing of the kind.

‘Anyone can launch a bot on Twitter’

Bots are built by authoritarian governments, by corporate consultants who hire out their expertise, or by individuals who have the know-how, says the OII.

“Because the Twitter API [application programming interface – the means by which one bit of software can talk to another] is open, anyone can launch a bot on Twitter,” explained director of research for the project, Samuel Woolley.


See also:

One in eight UK election Twitter links is ‘junk’

Massive networks of fake accounts found on Twitter

Clinton bots ‘hit back in second debate’


While bot and other propagandistic behaviour was specific to the political context of each country, the study also identified several trends.

In every country, it said, civil society groups struggled to protect themselves against misinformation campaigns.

And in authoritarian countries, it added, social media was one of the key ways the authorities had tried to retain control during political crises.

The frontline of disinformation

Computational propaganda has been particularly prevalent in Ukraine, the research suggests.

There had been “significant Russian activity… to manipulate public opinion” the report said, adding that Ukraine had become “the frontline of numerous disinformation campaigns” since 2014.

The typical way this worked, it explained, was that a message would be placed in an online news outlet or blog’s article.

This was possible, it said, “because a large number of Ukrainian online media… publish stories for money”.

These would then be spread on social media via automated accounts and potentially picked up in turn by “opinion leaders”, with large followings of their own.

With enough attention, the message would ultimately be picked up by mainstream media, including TV channels.

The study provides an example related to the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in 2014 to illustrate how such campaigns work.

A conspiracy theory claiming that the plane was shot down by a Ukranian fighter jet originated with a tweet from a non-existent Spanish air traffic controller, called Carlos (@spainbuca).

The post was then retweeted by others and was picked up by Russia’s RT television network as well as other Russian news outlets.

Ukraine’s information ministry later revealed the account had been used to retweet pro-Russian messages earlier in the year.

In Russia itself, the OII suggested that about 45% of politics-focused Twitter accounts were highly automated, “essentially reproducing government propaganda”.

‘Tools against democracy’

It remains difficult to quantify the impact such bots have had.

But the OII’s researchers believe that “computational propaganda is now one of the most powerful tools against democracy”.

They have called on social media firms to do more to tackle the issue.

Lead researcher Prof Philip Howard proposed several steps that could be taken by the tech firms, including:

  • making the posts they select for news feeds more “random”, so as not to place users in bubbles where they only see likeminded opinions
  • giving news organisations a trustworthiness score
  • allowing independent audits of the algorithms they use to decide which posts to promote

Prof Howard cautioned, however, that governments must be careful not to over-regulate the technology for fear of suppressing political conversation on social media altogether.

In response, Twitter reissued a statement saying that third-party research into bots on its platform was “often inaccurate and methodologically flawed”.

It added that it strictly prohibited bots and would “make improvements on a rolling basis to ensure our tech is effective in the face of new challenges”.

A spokeswoman from Facebook was unable to provide comment.

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Mummified toe used in cocktail stolen from Canada bar

A bar manager in Canada is hoping to nail the culprit who stole a mummified toe used in their signature cocktail.

The Downtown hotel in Dawson City, Yukon, offers a unique drink called the Sourtoe Cocktail. Any drink can be used in the concoction, but the special ingredient is a a shrivelled black human toe. 

Those who touch the gnarled digit with their lips as they drink are awarded a certificate. 

One customer tried the signature drink on Saturday, swallowing the drink before making off with the toe.  

“We are furious,” Terry Lee, the hotel’s Toe Captain, said in a statement.

[embedded content]

“This guy asked to do the toe after the 9-11 p.m. Toe Time hours and one of the new staff served it to him. And this is how he pays her back? What a low life.”

The cocktail dates back to 1973 when a toe believed to belong to a prohibition-era rum runner was found in a cabin by boat captain Dick Stevenson, prompting him to start the “Sourtoe Cocktail Club.”

The toe was originally placed in a beer glass full of champagne but these days any drink can be used.

One rule has not changed though. “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow — but the lips have gotta touch the toe”, the Downtown Hotel website states. 

[embedded content]

The stolen toe was recent donation from a man who had to have it surgically removed. Having been cured in salt for six months, the bar had only just started using it in its cocktail.

“This was our new toe, and it was a really good one,” manager Geri Coulbourne told CBC News. “We just started using it this weekend.”

The hotel has lost toes in the past and in 2013 it increased the fine for swallowing or stealing one to $2,500. The rise was introduced after a tourist swallowed the toe and left the then-$500 fine on the table.

The latest thief faces a fine unless he returns the digit intact. Given the culprit left behind his certificate, they have his name so are hopeful he will toe the line. 

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