The West Block – Episode 9, Season 13

Click to play video: 'The West Block: Nov. 12, 2023 | Veteran pushes for Canada to recognize toxic legacy of burn pits on soldiers'
The West Block: Nov. 12, 2023 | Veteran pushes for Canada to recognize toxic legacy of burn pits on soldiers
Protests and demonstrations have erupted across Canada since the start of Israel-Hamas conflict in October, many of which have been peaceful. But officials have become concerned about a rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia in light of recent escalations, including attacks on a Montreal synagogue and two Jewish schools, as well as a violent clash on Concordia University’s campus. ‘The West Block’ host Mercedes Stephenson speaks with Government House Leader Karina Gould on what help the feds are providing to ensure communities feels safer, potential consequences for violent hate attacks, her concerns as a Jewish woman, and more. Plus, Stephenson speaks with retired Master Cpl. Arjun Grewal about the dangers of toxic burn pit exposure for soldiers, the adverse health effects stemming from the burn pits, how the issue is playing out in Canada, and more – Nov 12, 2023


Episode 9, Season 13

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


Karina Gould, Government House Leader

Master Cpl. (Ret’d) Arjun Grewal, Former Canadian Special Operations Forces Member


Ottawa, ON

Mercedes Stephenson: Scenes of hate and intimidation playing out across the country have some Canadians asking if they’re safe.

I’m Mercedes Stephenson, The West Block begins now.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We are seeing an increase in threats of violence, in violence, in hatred.”

Mercedes Stephenson: A stark warning from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a spike in antisemitism and Islamophobia plays out against the conflict in the Middle East.

Does Ottawa’s response go far enough? We’ll ask Government House Leader Karina Gould.

And the toxic legacy of burn pits, for troops who served in Afghanistan. Why are Canadian veterans still waiting for recognition?

Protests and demonstrations have filled many Canadian cities since Israel launched its offensive in Gaza after the October 7th attack by Hamas. Many have been peaceful, calling attention to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. But this past week has seen a sharp escalation in antisemetic attacks that has alarmed officials.

Pierre Poilievre, Opposition Leader: “A Montreal synagogue has been firebombed. A hate preacher has called for the extermination of Jews. Jewish students have been called the ‘K’ word. Terrorists fired bullets at two different schools.”

Karina Gould, Government House Leader: “There is no room and there is no place for antisemitism in Canada. There is no room and there is no place for hate. There is no room and there is no place for violence.”

Mercedes Stephenson: But what specifically is the government doing to address the rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia?

I’m joined now by Government House Leader Karina Gould. Minister, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

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Karina Gould, Government House Leader: Yeah, I’m glad to be here with you.

Mercedes Stephenson: I’d like to start today not speaking to you as a politician or as a cabinet minister, but speaking to you as a Jewish woman, you’ve been open about your faith, the mother of a young child, an expectant mother of another child to come into the world who is watching this alarming and growing antisemitism in Canada. How is this affecting you?

Karina Gould, Government House Leader: You know, Mercedes, I think the very first thing that I feel is just incredible sadness. You know speaking with friends and colleagues and folks around the country, I think a lot of people and particularly Jewish people right now, are feeling very worried here in Canada. I think there’s a recognition and there’s a lot of hurt and there’s a lot of pain coming out of what’s happening in the Middle East, obviously, both you know whether you’re Jewish or Muslim, Israeli or Palestinian. There’s a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety, but the deep sadness that I have right now is what’s been happening, particularly what we saw in Montreal last week with the Molotov cocktail at a synagogue in a Jewish community centre, the gunshots that were fired at two Jewish schools. Yeah, I think it’s—there’s a lot sadness and fear out there because you know, here in Canada, even though we have differences and people come from all different parts of the world, ultimately everyone should feel safe to be who they are, to practice their faith despite what’s happening in other parts of the world, and the very real feelings and legitimate feelings that people have in that regard.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you feel there’s been a shift in antisemitism in Canada? When I speak to some members of the community, they tell me not only have they never felt anything like this, they’d only been told about it by their grandparents in some cases were Holocaust survivors, but they never thought they would see or experience something like this in their life. There’s always Islamophobia. There is always antisemitism, but they feel like the environment is changing and like there is potentially a threat to the community in a way there hasn’t been previously.

Karina Gould, Government House Leader: Yeah, I think so. I mean the very real incidents that have happened over the past week, where you know that has crossed over into—you know fortunately no one has been hurt, but has into very real violent threats. I think, you know, we always talk about it and know that it’s there in present, but you know this is a very scary time for a lot of people. I think the community is resilient in many ways, but certainly people are on high alert. You know I’ve spoken to a number of people who are, you know, just worried to be themselves because they feel targeted as Jews in Canada, and that’s something that I think is—is just devastating. And as I said, nobody in this country should ever feel, no matter their faith, no matter their background, no matter their race, no matter their gender—should ever feel like they can’t be who they are in safety and in security in Canada. And certainly, we’ve seen a huge rise in antisemitism. We’ve seen a huge rise in Islamophobia as well, and both of those things are in many ways two sides of the same coin. And you know it’s hard right now. You know people are hurting a lot, but I think it’s also incumbent upon folks to not look at their neighbour and see anything but a Canadian right now. That doesn’t mean that they, you know, shouldn’t be protesting or expressing themselves, but to make sure that, you know, when we look at who we are as Canadians, we see Canadians first.

Mercedes Stephenson: And I know that, you know, this is obviously a very emotional time for a lot of people and we want to be very clear, and I know you do too, that we’re not talking about people who are criticising the Israeli government or who are standing up for the rights of Palestinians. We’re talking about people who are calling for violence and for harm, who are practicing hate speech, who are coming out and saying that they support what Hamas did, that that’s what we’re talking about not saying you don’t like Israeli government policy. And I think that sometimes those things get conflated. But one of the issues that is being brought up to me by minority communities, in particular right now the Jewish community, and I think of your former colleague Michael Levitt. He was a Liberal MP. He now says it is time to move beyond platitudes. It is time to move beyond, you know disavowing this and condemning it, that more needs to be done. What can the federal government do to protect Jewish communities right now?

Karina Gould, Government House Leader: Well, so I mean first of all, I think it’s also important to note that, you know, when we talk about I think what’s happened, particularly in the rise of antisemitism, is also the, you know, the threatening violent acts that have happened over the last week, in particular at Jewish institutions that, you know, again, thankfully nobody was hurt. But—but those are very scary for people and they’re very real when a Molotov cocktail is left outside of a synagogue or bullets are shot through schools. These are—these are real things that again, nobody was there, but I think there’s a real concern that there might be more escalation.

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In terms of what the federal government can do and is doing, last week Minister Le Blanc, the minister of public safety, announced an addition $5 million to the Security Infrastructure program, which is a federal program that’s available to faith groups of all denominations, including Jewish groups, but it’s available to everyone to provide security infrastructure. So whether that’s security cameras or alarm systems at it could be places of worships, it could be community centres, it could be faith based schools, to be able to access to protect themselves. We’ve appointed two special envoys, one special envoy on combatting antisemitism in the promotion of Holocaust remembrance, as well as a special envoy on Islamophobia and continuing to encourage dialogue. I think that’s really important. I think lowering the temperature and not trying to escalate the tensions, making sure that we as the government but also as leaders across this country are really trying to again, remind Canadians of who we are and that this is a diverse, this is a tolerance, this is an inclusive country. I think the prime minister has said it best, you know if we can’t demonstrate that peaceful coexistence here in Canada, what country can? And I know we can because we have for a long time, and you know, we are, you know steadfast in combating racism and combating hate and all of its forms. And then of course, you know, other levels of government and police forces, I think need to take these threats very seriously to make sure that we don’t see an escalation where someone, you know, God forbid, gets hurt or even killed here in Canada. And I think particularly what we saw, awfully, in the last week in Montreal has put that at the forefront that we need to take these threats very seriously to the Jewish community, but to communities right across the country.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Gould, thank you for joining us today with both your thoughts as a cabinet minister and I know what is a much more personal and difficult side of this story for you. We appreciate it.

Karina Gould, Government House Leader: Thank you very much, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the toxic legacy of burn pits on Canadians who served our country.


Mercedes Stephenson: For many veterans, the battle doesn’t end once they hang up their uniforms and come home from the battlefield. PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, lost limbs and shrapnel wounds are just some of the health issues that can follow troops off of the battlefield and back to Canada. And now exposure to toxic burn pits is emerging as a concern. Burn pits were commonly used to get rid of waste, including toxic chemicals on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. has already passed a law extending benefits to veterans who were exposed to these pits. President Joe Biden even shared his personal connection to the issue. His son Beau, a veteran, died of brain cancer in 2015.

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President Joe Biden:Toxic smoke, thick with poison, spreading through the air and into the lungs of our troops. When I came home, many of the fittest and best warriors that we sent to war were not the same. Headaches, numbness, dizziness, cancer. My son Beau was one of them.”

Mercedes Stephenson: While Washington’s law is now more than a year old, Canadians soldiers who were exposed to the same burn pits in Afghanistan are still waiting.

Joining me now to talk about this is retired Master Cpl. Arjun Grewal who did six tours in Afghanistan. He’s now the CEO of Ventus Respiratory Technologies, a company that creates masks to protect law enforcement and military from toxic exposure.

Arjun, great to see you here on set. I’ve known you for a long time. You’re a phenomenal veteran, and we’re just thrilled to have you on the show today.

Master Cpl. (Ret’d) Arjun Grewal, Former Canadian Special Operations Forces Member: Thanks for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: You have been ‘the guy’ when it comes to burn pit research in Canada. I spoke to a number of people. I made a bunch of phone calls when I first looking into this, and everybody said you have to talk to Arjun, he knows the details. Can you start with explaining to us what is a burn pit and why is it so dangerous?

Master Cpl. (Ret’d) Arjun Grewal, Former Canadian Special Operations Forces Member: I’m humbled by that so thank you. And I’m happy to share this with Canadians because it’s an important issue that doesn’t get a lot of attention here. What is a burn pit? It’s a—it’s a large bonfire, if you will, that is in the middle of a military base or a forward operating base and it’s used to get rid of, incinerate everything. And I mean everything. Helicopter carcasses, batteries, human waste, ammunition, food waste, and what it does and why it’s so dangerous and why it’s—burn pits are such a specific cause of toxic exposure is because it smoulders. It doesn’t incinerate at a high rate. It’s not plasma fired and it doesn’t get rid of anything very fast. And with the populations that exist on military bases, they’re often living around where those burn pits are placed. And one thing that’s important to note is that a burn pit is a bit of a necessary evil. In these areas where we are unsupported and we are austere locations, proper waste facilities are not available and can be a security risk. So burn pits are utilized often and a lot more so than just in a couple of these large forward operating bases.

Mercedes Stephenson: I remember the burn pits in Afghanistan. They were very common and they were part of life because as you say, there was—there was nowhere else to get rid of this refuse. When you talk about things like helicopter carcasses and batteries going in, what sort of toxins are given off by these burn pits and then are being inhaled by the troops who are living and fighting around them?

Master Cpl. (Ret’d) Arjun Grewal, Former Canadian Special Operations Forces Member: Everything from particulates that include heavy metals. There are volatile organic compounds that come from carbon based incineration and again, at that low heat, that smouldering, it just makes it more available and more available to be inhaled. You’ve smelt the smell of plastic or burnt hair—it’s all within there are volatile compounds and cytotoxins that cause everything from respiratory illnesses, irritations, neurotoxicity, and the list goes on.

Mercedes Stephenson: This is, you know, something that struck me because I know a lot of firefighters and it’s well known that cancer is high risk for them in Canada, but we haven’t heard the government or Veterans Affairs talking about burn pits where people are inhaling this smoke without any kind of a mask like a firefighter would have as a possible consequence. And this really came onto my radar because I just anecdotally know three relatively young, very healthy veterans, people who were doing things like triathlons and marathons who got cancers out of nowhere and died very quickly. That is anecdotal, but their families raised concerns to me about the possibility of burn pits. Can you tell us what the science says because while there’s no studies in Canada, I know there are in the U.S. about what kind of health conditions burn pits can lead veterans to develop?

Master Cpl. (Ret’d) Arjun Grewal, Former Canadian Special Operations Forces Member: And of course, that’s a very sad story and I think any veteran that you speak to probably has a very similar story of friends or colleagues who are being diagnosed with early cancers, complex respiratory diseases that aren’t seen in an age group or a population like the military. I mean we are some of the healthiest, fittest, most tracked population in Canada and we’re still seeing a high rate of illness. So in terms of what types of illnesses that we see, cancers are obviously one that are very scary, but there’s COPD, asthma, infertility. And from these chemicals metabolising into your bloodstreams, into major organs, into the brain, we’re seeing really complex cases earlier, earlier in age. And as we talk about veterans, some of these afflictions are coming to currently serving soldiers, too, not just people who have retired or are in service.

Mercedes Stephenson: So the burn pit issue didn’t end with Afghanistan.

Master Cpl. (Ret’d) Arjun Grewal, Former Canadian Special Operations Forces Member: Absolutely not.

Mercedes Stephenson: Toxic exposure is still happening to our troops who are serving now.

Master Cpl. (Ret’d) Arjun Grewal, Former Canadian Special Operations Forces Member: Everybody needs to breathe and breathe clean air as often as we can, and where toxic exposure takes its place outside of the burn pit, is everywhere from high volume training, or even low volume training.

Mercedes Stephenson: So you mean like firing a lot of rounds out of a firearm, somebody who is at target practice, for example.

Master Cpl. (Ret’d) Arjun Grewal, Former Canadian Special Operations Forces Member: Exactly. You know weapons training of any calibre, any type of weapon from small arms rifles and pistols to tankers and lab gunners and artillery men and women. These are all areas where they’re getting exposed to the exhaust that comes from a weapon, the handling that comes from weapons which are made up of lead, copper, antimony and a host of other heavy metals. And then the other, of course, is breaching. So whether it’s mine breaching operations and training for those…

Mercedes Stephenson: And that’s for—for people at home, that’s blowing something open, right?

Master Cpl. (Ret’d) Arjun Grewal, Former Canadian Special Operations Forces Member: Exactly.

Mercedes Stephenson: And when you see in the movies and they blow in to enter, that’s a breach.

Master Cpl. (Ret’d) Arjun Grewal, Former Canadian Special Operations Forces Member: Yeah. Gaining entry into an area using mechanical means by cutting or sawing, or using incendiary means like explosives.

Mercedes Stephenson: How many Canadians do you believe have been exposed to this, ballpark?

Master Cpl. (Ret’d) Arjun Grewal, Former Canadian Special Operations Forces Member: Well the statistics show that about 40 thousand Canadian citizens have deployed to Afghanistan during our time there from 2001 to 2014. In the U.S., where these studies are a lot more rigorous and reported, they have stats where they’re almost 100 X, so 4.2 million soldiers in the U.S. deployed during the global war on terror into Afghanistan and Iraq. And they’ve shown that there is four times higher rate of cancers, illnesses, and COPD and other respiratory illness among that population when compared to the general population. So it’s—I think it’s a clear correlation that similar statistics would be shown here in Canada, if those studies were taken and completed.

Mercedes Stephenson: What has the United States done to deal with this? I know they’ve passed legislation. Can you walk us through what American veterans now have access to or benefits from as a result of the changes in the law down there?

Master Cpl. (Ret’d) Arjun Grewal, Former Canadian Special Operations Forces Member: In the U.S., there’s been great leadership around this space, as well as in the mental health, the TBI space, where we’re finally catching up. But organizations and advocacy groups like Burn Pits 360 have been really vocal leaders in this space to get veteran health care. And this is obviously, care that is after the fact so when—when soldiers are diagnosed and they need care or pass away from an illness. They call it presumptive exposure, presumptive illness because of service. And what they’ve been able to pass is a stark and massive funding budget to take care of these respiratory illnesses. $280 billion was signed into act by President Biden, like you said, a year ago. And what that’s afforded the veteran community and soldiering community, the ones that are still serving, is knowledge that they’ll be taken care of when they get exposed, if they get sick and if they pass away.

Mercedes Stephenson: All right. So it’s the same as if you have PTSD here, or you lose your hearing, you get compensation from Veterans Affairs, and if you pass away that the family receives money because it’s recognition that it was service-related. Do you have any sense that the Canadian government or Veterans Affairs Canada is looking into something similar?

Master Cpl. (Ret’d) Arjun Grewal, Former Canadian Special Operations Forces Member: I honestly have very little sense in it because I’ve done the research and we’ve reached out to a number of leaders within VAC and the CAF to try and understand that the—the problem and what’s being done about it. My—my—myself and my colleagues are—are recent veterans. We retired only three to four years ago, so we know exactly what it was then. And to see that not much has changed is quite apparent.

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s obviously very concerning and concerning to hear that it’s still happening. I know you were a member of a unit that’s highly operational that still those operators get blood tests done regularly to look for lead in their blood, but lead is only one heavy metal and you’re saying they’re exposed to a lot. Do you think that the Canadian Armed Forces is conducting sufficient toxic exposure testing as they’re going along because one of the challenges for veterans, of course, is always to prove that something that’s happened is service-related? And if there’s no baseline, it’s very hard to prove that, something people experience a lot with TBIs. Do you think that toxic exposure is going to be similar?

Master Cpl. (Ret’d) Arjun Grewal, Former Canadian Special Operations Forces Member: I think I’m confident in that unit being rigorous in their ability to protect and take care of those—those operators. I think the great CAF is not there yet and it needs to be.

To answer your other question about, you know, are there—are they taking steps to—to mitigate or protect? You know lead is a canary in the coal mine. We are exposed to 30 to 40 different heavy metals in any training environment training evolution. And lead is one of those hot topic issues that everybody gets, right? Lead’s been removed from gasoline, from paint, from toys, so that’s now the one we’re looking at removing from weapons training. But as I said, there’s a number of carcinogenic heavy metals that happen and occur in that kind of training beyond just lead.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Arjun, thank you for your service and your sacrifices. We appreciate it, and for joining us today with this important topic.

Master Cpl. (Ret’d) Arjun Grewal, Former Canadian Special Operations Forces Member: Thank you for having me and shining light on this issue.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, a West Block tradition in honour of our veterans. We reflect on those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.


Mercedes Stephenson: Now for one last thing…

Canadians gathered at ceremonies across this country yesterday to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.

This year’s Remembrance Day marked the 75th anniversary of the United Nations’ first peacekeeping mission, something that plays in all of our minds as the world appears more volatile and divisive, with Russia’s war Ukraine and the conflict in the Middle East.

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Our peace and freedom are never something that we can take for granted.

We here on The West Block would like to thank all of our veterans and those who are currently serving.

We leave you with images from the service here in Ottawa.

I’ll see you next Sunday.

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