The West Block – Episode 13, Season 13

Mercedes Stephenson, The West Block. Global News

Episode 13, Season 13
Sunday, December 10, 2023

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Jonathan Wilkinson, Energy and Natural Resources Minister
Kate Armstrong, First Female Cadet at RMC
Lt.-Col. (Ret’d) Mark Popov, Former Director of Cadets at RMC

Ottawa, ON

Mercedes Stephenson: The fight over the carbon tax boiled over in the House of Commons, the climate policy front and centre for both the Liberals and Conservatives.

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

The Liberals unveiled long-awaited emissions targets for the oil and gas industry. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith vows to fight them.

Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier: “This isn’t going to work. Alberta’s not going to accept. In fact, we’re going to fight it every step of the way.”

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Mercedes Stephenson: The energy and natural resources minister weighs in on the critics…

Pierre Poilievre, Opposition Leader: “We’re going to axe the tax.”

Mercedes Stephenson: And the Conservatives.

And a closer look at the place where military leaders are formed. Is Canada making the right changes to produce ethical and strong military leaders?

As the summit known as COP28 comes to a close this week, the fight over the carbon tax heated up here at home in the House of Commons.

The federal Liberals have been under fire for their signature climate policies, from both the right and from environmentalists.

Last week, the Trudeau government announced new targets to reduce emissions from the oil and gas industry. There’s a plan to cut methane by at least 75 per cent, and oil and gas emissions by 35 to 38 per cent by 2030.

I spoke to Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson on Friday, after he had been up for a night of non-stop voting in the House of Commons, triggered by the Conservatives opposition to the carbon tax.

Joining me now is Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson. Minister, welcome to the program. I know you must be tired after a very late night of being up voting.

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Jonathan Wilkinson, Energy and Natural Resources Minister: It’s been a very tiring 24 hours, but I’m happy to be here.

Mercedes Stephenson: Now this—this 24 hours, these parliamentary shenanigans, if you will, by the Conservatives, all which are allowed under the rules that have dragged MP voting around the clock and led to them threatening to not let MPs go home before Christmas are largely related to the carbon tax. Would you consider seeding to any of their demands or suggested amendments to find some bipartisan agreement before Christmas?

Jonathan Wilkinson, Energy and Natural Resources Minister: No. I mean, what’s going on in the House right now is an abuse of parliamentary process. It may be technically allowed under the law, or under the rules, but I would tell you that there is no other workplace in Canada that would actually allow people to be treated the way that members of Parliament are being treated. As you know, we’ve been voting now for 19 hours. We’re probably voting for another 10 or 11 hours going forward with no breaks, every 10 minutes a vote. At the end of the day, the role of the official opposition is definitely to oppose in a constructive way and to try to make suggestions about things that should be changed, but they are not the government of Canada. They don’t dictate policy. And at the end of the day, the Opposition is playing a game here that’s just a ridiculous game.

Mercedes Stephenson: You know, the Opposition is certainly playing parliamentary games with this, but polls suggest that Canadians are frustrated with your government, and many are frustrated with the carbon tax. They’re frustrated with the fact that part of the country got a break and other parts of the country didn’t get a break. Do you think that maybe now is a time to take a second look about whether there is room for compromise, even if it’s not with the Conservatives, on your approach to the carbon tax and how you’re dealing with some of the big environmental issues aside from major polluters, when you’re talking about policies that affect individual Canadians?

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Jonathan Wilkinson, Energy and Natural Resources Minister: Well I think, Mercedes, we have to ensure that when we’re putting in place policies, they have to be done in a manner that’s affordable for Canadians. No question about that. I would say that one of the things that you said there that was that the heat—the oil and heat pump program for Atlantic Canadians. It’s actually for Canadians across the country who actually use heating oil and there is very specific reasons. The costs of heating oil are significantly higher than any form of heating and have escalated far more rapidly. But I would say, yes, we have to be working to ensure that climate initiatives are affordable. We actually have done that in the design of the price on pollution, where 8 out of 10 Canadians get more money back. And there was a study released by the University of Calgary just this week that actually showed that it’s people who live on modest and middle incomes get significantly more money back and that by taking away the rebate, you’re actually only helping people who have a lot of money. So, we need to communicate that better, but the design of the price on pollution was absolutely focused on affordability concerns.

Mercedes Stephenson: But doesn’t that kind of contradict what you just said about it affecting people who in many cases are in situations of energy poverty in Atlantic Canada that they—obviously, I assume—it can’t be working financially for them if you made the decision to give them a break?

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Jonathan Wilkinson, Energy and Natural Resources Minister: But that’s exactly why we made the decision with respect to heating oil is the disparity in terms of the price and the amount that people pay for that particular form of heating is so high that they were not getting more money back, that group of people, which is a relatively small group of people across the country. But on average, 8 out of 10 Canadian families get more money back. Certainly those that use natural gas heating get more money back. If you were to remove the price on pollution, as Mr. Poilievre wants to do, you would also be removing the rebates, and the people you would be hurting are people who live on moderate incomes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that Canadians will agree with you if you take this to an election?

Jonathan Wilkinson, Energy and Natural Resources Minister: Well, I think we’re going to take a broader conversation to Canadians in an election that simply the price on pollution. We have a very comprehensive approach to addressing the climate issue, which involves, you know, the cap that we put in place on oil and gas emissions, yesterday. It involves investments like the Dow chemical facility, the $11.5 billion investment in a net zero facility that we announced a couple weeks ago. I mean, it’s a broad approach, but it’s an approach that recognizes that you have to address this environmental crisis, but you have to do it in a way that actually is going to ensure a strong economy going forward. And you cannot have a relevant plan for the future of the Canadian economy in a global world that is moving to address carbon emissions, if you don’t accept the reality of climate change. And Mr. Poilievre doesn’t accept the reality of climate change, or he just doesn’t cares.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Obviously, you have to deal with climate change and that reality, and you also at the end of the day are a politician, you have to get elected. Sometimes those can be tough things to balance. You released your information on essentially cap and trade for industry, big producers of oil and gas, and the reaction from that from Alberta and Saskatchewan as some of the industry has been that it is not actually a cap on emissions, which was promised, that it is a cap on production and that it will affect their ability to continue to produce at the levels that the government and Canada needs in order to remain competitive. What’s your reaction to that criticism of what’s one of your big signature policies?

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Jonathan Wilkinson, Energy and Natural Resources Minister: Well, I would say if you listen to the criticism, there were certainly some in the sector who think it goes too far. There were certainly some in the environmental community who don’t think it goes far enough. At the end of the day, we worked very hard to ensure that we were designing this approach, focusing on emissions that is in—within the federal government’s ambit from a constitutional perspective. It was not focused on addressing production because that falls within a provincial jurisdiction.

If you look at what we have done, we looked at what are the technically feasible emissions reductions that you can achieve between now and 2030. The biggest ones are methane-related reduction, which is something that Premier Smith herself actually committed to working on before the last Alberta election, and the work in the oil sands, which we have developed with Pathways and the numbers that are in the cap proposal are actually Pathways numbers.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Are you concerned—just to be the typical journalist here, who on the one hand will ask you if this is a production cap, and now will ask you the question from your other critics, right, because our job is to put all of the questions to politicians. Environmental groups who say this is not what was promised, this is not going to get you anywhere near what you need to do to achieve your 2030 targets, which you already are going to be missed, that you’re introducing this quite late in your mandate. You’ve been in power since 2015, and they’re concerned about the government’s commitment on the environment. Why, if you are so committed to climate change, are you not taking a tougher stance on the big emitters who would have a far larger influence than say, the average Canadian driving their car?

Jonathan Wilkinson, Energy and Natural Resources Minister: Well the first thing I would say is actually the record on climate change is very strong. When we came to power, the target to achieve was 30 per cent below 2005 levels in 2030. We are way beyond that now. We have an intermediate target of 2026, which is 20 per cent below, and we will exceed that, and that was in the emissions reduction update that came out yesterday. And right now, we’re on track to achieve 36 per cent, and we have a number of additional initiatives that will get us to the 40 per cent. So we are on track to achieve what we have committed to do to the international community. Part of that is the cap on oil and gas emissions. We need to ensure that we are seeing significant declines in absolute emissions in the oil and gas sector, it’s the largest polluter in the country. But it has to be done in a manner that actually makes sense. You can’t demand of the industry something that is physically impossible to do. And so what we looked at were what are the technically feasible or technically achievable reductions between now and 2030. How can we actually incent their—or require the sector to go even further through the use of things like domestic offsets or investments in a decarbonisation fund that will bring additional reductions post 2030, and ensure that the sector is doing its part. But at the end of the day, you know, asking a sector, any sector, to do something that’s impossible just is not—not realistic.

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Mercedes Stephenson: How confident are you in the technology, because there’s been quite a bit of criticism that relying on carbon capture as a way to deal with this is simply not going to get us to what your own self-imposed targets are?

Jonathan Wilkinson, Energy and Natural Resources Minister: Well, I would say first of all, the bulk of the emissions reductions are actually in the methane area and there’s lots of technology in that space. And in fact, in the aftermath of putting the initial methane regulations on, there were about 170 companies mainly in Alberta that actually started up to service that market, which is great from an economic development perspective. But in terms of the Pathways work, carbon capture and sequestration is an important part of that work. I will tell you, Mercedes, I spent almost 20 years as an executive and as a CEO in the cleantech space. I’m quite familiar with carbon capture technology. It is not—many of the implementations are not new. They’re not particularly novel. It’s about how do you scale that and how do you reduce it in cost so that you can actually make it economic? There’s huge work that’s been done. Increasingly, we have moved the ball. There are large companies now, international companies that will offer CCUS systems with performance guarantees. So, I’m not that worried from a technology perspective, but of course, we have to ensure that the overall economics will work as we move to implement these technologies.

Mercedes Stephenson: I know that you have to get back in and vote, minister because those rounds and rounds of votes are still going. Thank you for making time for us on a day when I know you’ve had no sleep.

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Jonathan Wilkinson, Energy and Natural Resources Minister: Not at all. Thank you very much.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, we take a look at the heart of where Canada’s military officer culture is formed.

Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, Former Director of Cadets at RMC: “[00:11:27] and don’t get caught.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Amid the demands for reform, we look at the government’s decision to order a review of military colleges at long last.


Mercedes Stephenson: Alarming new numbers show that the number of troops who say they have experienced sexual assault has gone up.

In 2022, around 2,000, that’s about 3.5 per cent of regular force members surveyed say that they have been sexually assaulted in the workplace. That’s more than double the rate from 2018.

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The defence minister insists the government is keeping their promise to deal with the scourge of sexual misconduct.

Bill Blair, Defence Minister: “An increase in reporting is deeply concerning to us, but I think it can also be indicative of a perhaps greater confidence among victims, that if they do come forward and bring forward their complaint, that they will be taken seriously.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Sexual misconduct and sexual assault carried out by senior brass is widely viewed as one of the most toxic dangers to the Canadian Armed Forces. It’s something that all of the appointments and announcements in the military won’t fix unless there’s a change of culture of those in charge. And that culture is shaped by military colleges, like Royal Military College and College Saint-Jean, the two universities that most Canadian military officers attend. It is there that countless victims and experts have alleged the problems with abuse of power and impunity begin. Will the review that the government announced last week bring long-awaited changes? And are things improving for those inside the forces in the face of such concerning sexual assault statistics?

Joining me now is Kate Armstrong, her memoir, The Stone Frigate, detailed her experience as the first female cadet at Royal Military College, and retired Lt.-Col. Mark Popov, the former head of officer cadet training at RMC. We first spoke to retired Col. Popov a couple of years ago now, Mark, about what was happening at RMC and your experience in trying to sort out sexual misconduct, and you say losing your career for it. For those who aren’t familiar, let’s start with you Mark. What are the problems that have historically existed for RMC when it comes to sexual misconduct?

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Lt.-Col. (Ret’d) Mark Popov, Former Director of Cadets at RMC: Well I think the biggest problem with RMC when it comes down to really not just sexual misconduct but fundamental question: What is RMC for? You know, the prime minister of Canada, Canadians, the defence minister, chief of defence staff, needs to decide is it going to be a degree granting institution, an academic university where the students wear uniforms? Or is it going to be a training—an officer training institution that provides junior officers to lead the sons and daughters that serve in the Canadian Armed Forces in some of the worst circumstances in the world? Couple with that is the challenge of supervision and leadership. Typically at RMC, there’s not very many, comparatively speaking, supervisors, commissioned officers and senior non-commissioned officers to guide and supervise the officer cadets in day to day and evening activities, and that shows. It’s a large uncontrolled population of young people, many of them away from home for their first time, and they need a little bit more guidance and direction than the current staffing and organization of RMC let happen.

Mercedes Stephenson: Kate, you were the first female cadet, and it’s always been fascinating to me that I was warned in advance when we started working on sexual misconduct that the military will allow a lot of this. They’ll accept it. But if you go anywhere near Royal Military College, that is seen as untouchable. And you could actually see it online with a number of people who had supported the examinations in sexual misconduct and the reckoning on that, but when we started talking about Royal Military College, there was a defensiveness that arose. Can you tell us a little bit about your sense of whether or not things have changed significantly from when you were first there?

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Kate Armstrong, First Female Cadet at RMC: I’ve heard from hundreds of people who have written to me and said that’s my story, that’s my story. I’ve met cadets that have been at the college from my time, all the way through to present day cadets. I know cadets that are at the college now. And what I wrote about, a lot of the historical like traditional things happening that were disturbing are still going, continuing now.

Mercedes Stephenson: I know, Mark, you witnessed some behaviour there that was deeply disturbing: comments that were made to underage girls about sexual assault. When you tried to stand up to it, you say that your career was essentially ended because of that. Destroyed it. You were not supposed to reprimand the cadets they said. That was the problem versus the cadet behaviour. Why do you think RMC, in particular, has been so resistant to change, if that allegation’s true?

Lt.-Col. (Ret’d) Mark Popov, Former Director of Cadets at RMC: If you look at how RMC works, you know the commandant of RMC is a brigadier-general that typically hopes to be promoted somewhere else and they know the way to get promoted is to not make a mistake, not rock the boat, not have anything brought to attention. That was purely the case for the two commandants that I had the misfortune of working for.

If you look at the West Point, now the superintendent of West Point is selected by Congress, understanding that that will be his or her last posting. They will be there for, I believe, it’s a four to five year term, and their job is to provide junior officers to the U.S. army. Full stop. That’s what they have to do. So looking at that from a fundamental how RMC fits in the organization standpoint, it’s not setup for success in terms of leading change, culture change, or addressing problems like I tried to address in a firm, forthright and direct manner, to make the system better.

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Mercedes Stephenson: The government has announced a review into the Royal Military College and College Saint-Jean. It’s taken sort of two and a half years, I think, since we first started reporting on this for that to come out. What were your thoughts on Bill Blair’s announcement about this last week? Did that look like a substantive review that’s warranted to you?

Lt.-Col. (Ret’d) Mark Popov, Former Director of Cadets at RMC: Well reading that, and I read it a few times in detail and I’ve read the biographies of all the board members, and I was not surprised, yet amazed at how vague the announcement was. The board members, to me, look like the great fit. They’ve got a great mix of experience. They’ve got no—they’ve got skin in the game, but not RMC skin in the game. So I think they—they really have a good chance to be objective. I would be very interested to see, and so would other Canadians, what the mandate letter is. What are they trying to find out? What deliverables do they have at the end of this year? So that’s one thing that’s really lacking in this announcement is what they’re trying to see.

Mercedes Stephenson: One last part that might be last, but it’s certainly not least, I wanted to touch on was some of the information from the Statistics Canada Survey that was released last week about sexual assault, sexual misconduct within the forces. In it, it reported not only higher numbers of sexual assault, which it was impossible for us to know if that’s an increase in reporting or an increase in incidents, but we know certainly the reported incidents are up. But among those who say they were sexually assaulted, 64 per cent said they did not report it. Pardon me, 64 per cent said they did not report it, and 41 per cent said the reason why they did not report it is because they did not believe it would make a difference. Kate, what does that say to you?

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Kate Armstrong, First Female Cadet at RMC: It talks about safety to me, and I believe that people that have been assaulted need to hear I believe you. I’m sorry that happened to you. How can I help you? And to feel that that is an honest response to them coming forward, and it also, like just touching on the increase of the reporting, the safety, I believe that because of you and because of the work that’s happening publicly around what is going on culturally. I believe that that’s the safety, or the perception of safety is increasing and it allows people to come forward. And that’s the key. Like the key is to create an environment where—like a culture is just a shared [00:07:55 dreaming]. So everybody needs to be on the same page, like Mark was saying about what is the shared dream that we have for RMC for the cadets?

Mercedes Stephenson: Mark, your thoughts. Do you think that things are improving when it comes to sexual misconduct and getting results when it’s reported inside the forces and not punishing those who come forward?

Lt.-Col. (Ret’d) Mark Popov, Former Director of Cadets at RMC: Yeah, I have to agree with Kate on this. When my story came out, I was approached by a lot of former cadets, you know, male and female, saying very much the same things. You know, we hate it. This is what happened to me, and a lot of the thread that ran through was I didn’t think the chain of command would take me seriously. I didn’t think anything would be done, and I was scared that if I told my boss I would lose out on course promotion opportunity. So I think what we’re seeing now is, I personally don’t think there’s more assaults and misconduct, but I think there’s more reporting. I am hopeful, and I honestly do think that the people that join the Canadian Armed Forces really, for the most part, want to the best and respect each other. The current, you know, lapses in the justice system have done victims and accused no good. We’ve seen high profile cases that have been dropped out, quashed because of incapable administration on the part of the Canadian Armed Forces, particularly the military police, in pursuing these. So there’s double edges here. We’re getting more reporting, I think. The system has to do better with addressing the reporting if the victim wants something to go ahead with it. But I don’t see these—this spike in reporting as a massive increase in rape culture in the forces. I actually think it’s that people are reporting because they’re having more confidence in the system doing what’s good for them.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Well we certainly hope so Mark, and—sorry, go ahead, Kate.

Kate Armstrong, First Female Cadet at RMC: I was just going to add that something else that comes up quite often is people that are effectively punished for having MST, like military sexual trauma, and they end up losing their careers, yet the perpetrators continue on and sometimes rise to great heights within the military. And that does not embolden people to come forward and put themselves at risk of that.

Mercedes Stephenson: Yeah, and that may be part of that 41 per cent who say that they’re concerned that coming forward would not make a difference, something we’ll continue to report on and look into. Thank you both so much for joining us today.

Kate Armstrong, First Female Cadet at RMC: Thank you.

Lt.-Col. (Ret’d) Mark Popov, Former Director of Cadets at RMC: Thanks very much.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the terror threat lurking in Canada.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Now for one last thing…

While it’s the season of celebration for many, a sinister force of hate is brewing here in Canada, infecting young minds online, radicalizing people against their fellow Canadians.

A neo-Nazi group known as Atomwaffen is operating here in Canada. They’re sophisticated and dangerous, according to multiple national security sources.

Last week, two men were arrested for their association with the group. One is a well-known figure in the neo-Nazi world and charged with terror offences that are nothing short of blood chilling.

Multiple national security sources say concern has escalated since Atomwaffen posted a video online, showing the group in possession of a number of firearms and bulletproof vests, while promoting hate.

While this is all frightening and concerning, there is some good news in the middle of it, and that’s that the RCMP, and Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, are showing a significant level of cooperation, and that wasn’t always the case historically. The country certainly needs it.

That’s our show for today. We’ll see you again next week.

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