The West Block Transcript – Episode 24, Season 13

Mercedes Stephenson, The West Block. Global News

Episode 24, Season 13
Sunday, February 25, 2024

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Gen. (Ret’d) Rick Hillier, Former Chief of Defence Staff
Dan Stanton, Former CSIS Executive Manager

Ottawa Studio

Mercedes Stephenson: Today marks the beginning of the third year since Russia invaded Ukraine, and the war is entering a precarious phase with concern that Ukraine could be faltering. What does it mean for Ukrainians and for global security?

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

At the sight of one of the first battles won against Russian aggression, Hostomel Airport, a show of solidarity.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Your fight is our fight.”

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Mercedes Stephenson: World and military leaders standing with President Zelenskyy, including the prime minister.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “You are fighting for your sovereignty, for your territory, for your language, for your culture, for your democracy. But also for our democracy.”

Mercedes Stephenson: What’s at stake? We talk with retired top General Rick Hillier about that and his concern that Canada is becoming irrelevant on the world stage.

Plus, concerns about insider threats, including for Canadian nuclear security.

And, a new warning from Canadian intelligence that large crowds could be terror targets.

Ottawa has made it clear: this country stands with Ukraine.

In a surprise visit to Kyiv, Justin Trudeau stood with Western leaders to support Ukraine’s president and underlined Canada’s contributions and continued support.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We’ve now passed 40 thousand Ukrainian military that we have trained and that and contributions from other countries doing training as well made a significant difference in Ukraine’s ability to hold off the massive Russian attack in those first days two years ago.”

Mercedes Stephenson: The prime minister and Ukranian President Zelenskyy signed a security cooperation agreement between the two countries, confirming Canada is in it for the long haul.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The security agreements we signed today will engage Canada to stand with Ukraine for 10 years and beyond, if necessary.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Canada has joined many Western countries with donations of money, military hardware, training and ammunition. But Russia’s recent significant victory over the Town of Avdiivka and their strong air presence there is raising new concerns about Ukraine’s ability to win the war. What could be the price the world pays if Ukraine loses this fight?

Retired chief of the defence staff Genreal Rick Hillier joined me earlier.

How would you describe where the war is at right now, militarily?

Gen. (Ret’d) Rick Hillier, Former Chief of Defence Staff: Two years in, I think that it—the war on Urkaine itself is at the most fragile, most vulnerable period during this past two years. Their morale is sagging, certainly, as they see them disappear from the headlines in the West, if you will. They see a lack of support from Western countries who have been supporting them up ‘til now. They lack certain crucial elements for the fight itself. Their summer offensive, fall offensive did not achieve anything that they wanted to achieve. And now right at this moment, they’re on their back foot, very seriously, and the Russians are leaning forward and getting ready for more offensive operations in a large scale. They’re vulnerable. They’re fragile. This could go really badly, very quickly, and there’s not much the West can do about it in that short term except give the munitions and the things that Ukraine needs to fight those Russians, to first of all, defend themselves, then deter the Russians from doing more offensive operations and then defeat the Russians. And I think that’s where we need to go right now. Ukraine is in a vulnerable state, more so than ever in the past two years.

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Mercedes Stephenson: You’re on the strategic advisory council providing support and advice to those who are involved in the war effort in Ukraine. What are Ukrainian leaders telling you they need to defeat Russia?

Gen. (Ret’d) Rick Hillier, Former Chief of Defence Staff: They desperately need training. We’ve been doing very well on the individual training, of training an infantry soldier or an engineer. What we have not done for them, and this told during the failed offensive last summer, we’ve not enabled them to come together in bigger battle groups and brigade combat teams, so a thousand soldiers of all kinds and disciplines to five thousand soldiers with their equipment and train to manoeuvre as one team. And unless you have that kind of training, you cannot do offensive operations, and so we need all of those things. Right now, short term, they need artillery ammunition in the hundreds of thousands: 155, 105, 152, it doesn’t matter the calibre. They need artillery ammunition that they don’t have righ tnow.

Mercedes Stephenson: A lot of folks have been frustrated by the state of the Canadian Armed Forces and the say all this money is going to Ukraine and they’re not winning. What happens if Ukraine loses this war? And why is it that you believe those levels of investment and shells going to Ukraine are critical?

Gen. (Ret’d) Rick Hillier, Former Chief of Defence Staff: Well first of all, I think that by helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia, we’re actually helping ourselves be defended from Russia. And I try to think of, you know, yeah, there is a cost to doing this, and the cost is significant for sure, especially when we have so many other demands for that kind of money. But think of the cost if we don’t help Ukraine succeed and Russia wins and we have Putin with his military standing on the border of the Czech Republic and Poland and Latvia and Lithuana and Estonia. All of those countries, by the way, believe that they would be next as a target, and none of them have complete confidence that NATO would come to their support if something occurred. Think of the cost of that, of what it would do to our economy, the price of energy around the world and all of the things that would impact from that. So by helping Ukraine, we are defending ourselves, without question in my view. Just think of the chaos of 40 million people on the move as refugees, frightened of the Russians. We’re defending ourselves by doing that. The Canadian forces is a separate issue.

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Mercedes Stephenson: General Hillier, Canada took in a number of Canadian refugees, and I know you’re in touch with a lot of these families. What is the situation for those who have come to Canada? How are they settling in and are they getting the support that they need?

Gen. (Ret’d) Rick Hillier, Former Chief of Defence Staff: Mercedes, I think for 50 per cent of those who have come from the Ukraine, by other countries also as either refugees or political refugees or asylum seekers, I think for about 50 per cent, the situation is desparate. They don’t have housing. They don’t have access to jobs, even though jobs might be available. They’re challenged for medical care. Simple communications of having a cell phone or having a phone to be ablet to contact their families back in Ukraine, for example. These things are desperate and I’ve been sort of—sort of beating a drum here to say, you know, we can do better at this. We did it with 50 thousand Syrian refugees back in 2015. This government did it. They had a national strategy. Right now, we have a gap. We have traditional homeless, they’re being looked at after despite the fact that that number has grown. We have a housing crisis of what—8.5 million homes needed in Canada over the next five to 10 years, which we’ve seen not to be meeting. In between, we’re not providing the kind of support for those refugees coming in. There are solutions, whether it’s modular housing or things of that nature. Bring people in. Set up the modular housing. Let them be warm, welcome, fed. It’s going to cost. It’s going to cost, you know, $500 per person/per night. And then getting through that system and out to permanent accommodation out in small towns and cities and places across the country where they need people to work and where accommodation is available. We need to have a better solution for that middle piece of it here. It needs to be a national strategy.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Well let’s talk about the Canadian Armed Forces. What I asked folks on social media what they wanted to hear from you, the question that I got over and over again, especially from a number of veterans and serving troops who have met you—they saw you when you were in command, the Canadian Armed Forces—they wanted to hear what you think about the state of the Canadian military now and about defence spending.

Gen. (Ret’d) Rick Hillier, Former Chief of Defence Staff: Well my God, I love those men and women who serve our nation in uniform and the families who stand beside them. I continue to meet hundreds, if not thousands of them across the country on airplanes, at airports, at events and people still come up and say, you know, say hi and introduce themselves, if I don’t know them personally up till then. They are incredible. The vast majority are in the armed forces to serve Canada. I love them, and at the same, I just feel so sorry for them. For the past six, seven, eight years, we’ve done nothing but beat up on those incredible individuals and talk about, you know, really the things that are minor in nature in the Canadian forces. And I don’t mean that we don’t need change because we certainly do, but we need strong leadership stepping up and yes we do. And we need to be a home for every Canadian, if they can meet the exacting standards of the Canadian Armed Forces. But those young men and women in uniform, they’ve been beaten up now for two, three, four, five, six years and more. Their equipment has been relegated to sort of broken equipment parked by defence. Our fighting ships are on—on limitations as to the speed that they can sail or the waves that they can sail in. Our aircraft, until they’re replaced, are old and—and sort of not in that kind of fight anymore. And so I feel sorry for the men and women who are serving there right now. I—I am so thankful that we still have them, and I hope that there are better days ahead. And I think there is some potential of that, but at present, we’re in a world of hurt.

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Mercedes Stephenson: So what needs to change?

Gen. (Ret’d) Rick Hillier, Former Chief of Defence Staff: Welll first of all, I think we’ve got to spend a lot of money on the short term here. Secondly, we have—but first maybe, not secondly—we have to give a purpose to that armed forces again. That armed forces had a purpose, which is to fight and win our nation’s battles when we needed them to do so. All the other tasks are ancilliary to that, and they can be prepared to help out. And whether that’s, you know, during a flood or during an ice storm or any of that nature, they can do all of those things. Give them that purpose. Make sure that the leadership has got the operational experience to be able to do the kind of things that we’re going to ask them to do. We’ve got incredible young leaders coming thorugh, unleash them. Unleash their recruiting campaign and don’t put any restrictions on them. And the last thing, perhaps even more important than anything else but certainly important is look, unclutter, unblock how we go and buy equipment. Let’s go and buy some air defence for the Canadian Armed Forces and let’s buy it right now, not just missiles. Let’s buy the gun systems and the longer range missiles that go with it. Let’s go buy some self-propelled artillery, you know, the Swedish army produces the Caesar 155 system, which the Brit’s just bought as an interim solution to their issue with artillery. Let’s go buy some artillery. Let’s go buy a new fighting vehicle. Get General Dynamics in London to build, and while we’re investing there, we create jobs for Canadians. And let’s go get a new tank. And let’s go and increase our investment in ammunition production in Canada and all those other things that we need, but let’s go and do all of those things and let’s not take a 10-year acquisition cycle to do it. Let’s make our decisions in the next three to six months, commit to it and that’ll in itself start to incite the morale, improve the morale of the men and women that are serving. They’re tired of going out to the vehicle parks and seeing 60 per cent of their vehicles parked up against the fence because they’re broken.

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Mercedes Stephenson: I want to pull out for the last question—take sort of the 20 thousand foot view. You were the chief of the defence staff at a time when we were facing national security threats. We’re facing even more now, and it seems like things just keep popping up, whether it’s China, Russia, Iran. The Houthi attacks on Western ships and shipping lanes. The situation in Gaza, concerns about Iran interfering here in Canada. When you look at the world, what do you believe the greatest threat to Canadian national security is?

Gen. (Ret’d) Rick Hillier, Former Chief of Defence Staff: Our irrelevance. Our irrelevance. The fact that nobody even bothers to phone us if they’re talking about doing something as a group of Three Eyes or a group of Five Eyes or things of that nature. All those things you described are very real geo-political and strategic threats, and they can destabilize the world even more than it is now. And when the world is destabilized, it’s bad for Canada. It’s bad for our economy, bad for our nation, and we pay a huge, huge price. But all those things will be handled by other nations, and Canada will be irrelevant to the solution in any of them, the way we are progressing right now. Irrelevance in the international scene, I think is the greatest threat to Canada. And I think we can change it in a variety of ways, but we have to have the leadership focus on it and do it.

Mercedes Stephenson: General Rick Hillier, thank you so much for joining us today.

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Gen. (Ret’d) Rick Hillier, Former Chief of Defence Staff: Mercedes, my pleasure.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, insider threats. How much of a risk do they pose to national security?


Mercedes Stephenson: Earlier this month, Cameron Ortis, the former head of RCMP intelligence, was handed a long prison sentence for trying to sell classified information to police targets. It was the first convinction under the Security of Information Act.

Not even a week later, an Alberta RCMP member was arrested for allegedly accessing protective RCMP record systems to assist a foreign government.

And last week, Global News broke the story that a former employee of Ontario Power General, the company that operates some of Ontario’s largest nuclear plants, has been charged—accused of posting nuclear security vulnerabilities on the internet, with the intent of helping a foreign actor or terror group.

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How vulnerable is Canada to these kinds of insider leaks, and what does it mean for our national security?

Joining me now is Dan Stanton. He’s a former CSIS executive manager in operations and the director of the National Security program at Ottawa—at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute.

Thanks for joining us, Dan. We love to get to hear from a former senior spy about these things whenever we have the opportunity. What is an insider threat?

Dan Stanton, Former CSIS Executive Manager: Well, Mercedes, the insider threat, whether it’s a leaker or a spy, a spy from the inside, is unquestionably the most serious threat to national security. These are individuals that progress from, you know, low-risk to potential to do some leakage, to becoming a high-risk where they actulaly act on these—these impulses and these plans, and it’s a very serious threat.

Mercedes Stephenson: What motivates somedoby to do that? What are the characteristics that you’re looking for, because I know with Cameron Ortis, one of the criticisms is that a lot of red flags had been missed.

Dan Stanton, Former CSIS Executive Manager: Yeah, because there’s a whole number of things that can motivate someone. There’s a former head of clinical psychology for the CIA, Dr. Ursula Wilder. She did some significant research on this and basically, you know, what makes someone spy? What makes someone leak? What they do is you look at the predispositions of people. You look at how people cope with stress. You look at these external triggers going on in their life: professional, personally. And so it’s a continuum, really, from low, medium to high-risk that they’re then going to leak. They’re going to seek some relief from whatever stress or issue they’re dealing with.

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Mercedes Stephenson: So what sort of things should they be looking for? What would indicate that somebody might become an insider threat in their behaviour?

Dan Stanton, Former CSIS Executive Manager: Well you’re going to look at some—anything that’s irregular. Anything that’s outside the pattern of what they normally would be like: how they arrive at the office Monday morning. There can be everything from IT violations to maybe perhaps even some emotional issues or, you know, certain breakdowns. There can be things going on in people’s lives: financial stress, relationships, what have you, and it’s really important if someone that may actually be high-risk to leak that the organization is able to intervene and mitigate before it becomes a disaster.

Mercedes Stephenson: How serious would an insider threat at a nuclear plant like the one we’re talking about be? We’ve reported just to bring folks up to speed that these were posts made on the internet, allegedly, the police say that revealed security vulnerabilities in Canada’s nuclear infrastructure, specifically to Ontario Power Generation, which is a Crown owned corporation responsible for very large nuclear plants that by the way are in very populated areas around Toronto. What sort of national security risk does that pose?

Dan Stanton, Former CSIS Executive Manager: The insider threat in a venue like that is even more serious than some external agent, let’s say a terrorist group or a foreign state let’s saying to acquire or perhaps degrade the capabilities, because they’re using the knowledge they have. They’re using the access they have, the expertise they have to make the whole system vulnerable. And in this particular case, basically put out a how-to manual in terms of getting into that IT infrastructure and either degrading it or accessing the information. And we’re talking about some pretty serious things here when you get into things like chemical, biological weapons. In this case, we’re talking about radioactive materials, nuclear materials that Canada has to—is obligated to safeguard.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Does this put us in a bit of a difficult situation internationally because I know we’re a part of a number of agreements that you have to safeguard nuclear information. The Five Eyes were already not particularly impressed with us over the Cam Ortis case. Is Canada going to be seen as a risk?

Dan Stanton, Former CSIS Executive Manager: There’s going to be questions because Canada is party of a number of counterproliferation regimes and treaties. Everything involving nuclear, for example, under IEA safeguards, the United Nations Safeguard Treaty. So I think there’s going to be some international partners that are going to have some questions to say basically what happened. And more importantly, what is Canada doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

Mercedes Stephenson: Well and are we doing enough? I mean, I know in the Cam Ortis case, one of the criticisms was he was never polygraphed, whereas as you know, if you’re a member of CSIS or CSE and other intelligence organizations that happens to you every few years. Not that it’s always necessarily the be all and end all, but it’s a safety. It’s a mechanism.

Dan Stanton, Former CSIS Executive Manager: Yeah, it is. I mean, the ingelligence agencies have basically raised their game in the—because of all the insider threats in the past of CSIS, CSE and I suspect the military as well. They’ve got good insider threat programs where you look at the human behaviour of the individuals. You don’t get preoccupied with the technological fixes. You look at the psychology. You look at who’s at risk. You look at mental health issues. You want to make sure you have a good mental health support program. And so in those agencies, yeah, I think they’re well resourced and well reinforced, but other departments and the private sector and crown corporations, I have my doubts as to whether they would have a robust insider threat program that looks at the personalities and the people as opposed to just the technology.

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Mercedes Stephenson: I also wanted to talk to you about a new terror assessment that’s out. This comes from—it’s called ITAC—of course, you’re very familiar with it, the Integrated Terrorism Threat Assessment Centre, and basically they’re a group of people who look at what the threat is to Canada at any given time. They released documents through Access to Information to Global News that showed their warning that the Israel-Hamas conflict could inspire attacks on crowds in Canada. And we’re talking about big gatherings in some cases: Remembrance Day, the Santa Claus Parade. How would you assess the terror threat right now to Canada and what’s your reaction to their analysis of this?

Dan Stanton, Former CSIS Executive Manager: I think it’s a good assessment and I think it’s a good time to put it out there because the worry is always the lone wolf. The most ISIS inspired terrorists who we’ve had in Canada were lone wolves and they’re very difficult to collect intelligence on because of course, they’re not very social and you can’t get sources around them. And so what the assessment is saying is there is a possibility that someone on either side of the issue may be radicalized and may decide to act, may see a group. May see some sort of protest or some facility and act upon that. And let’s not also rule out the possibility of some digital disinformation as well. There’s some pretty good, I guess you could say fabrications that could also trigger someone and influence someone and push them a little further along that radicalization process.

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Mercedes Stephenson: I lastly wanted to ask you about something related to that and that’s two young people who were arrested here in Ottawa and charge under very serious terrorism offences. One alleged to have essentially built a bomb out of TATP, a homemade explosive. The other was looking for a prohibitive fire arm. They wanted to attack Jewish targets and among other targets out in public. This was obviously caught in time, but my national security sources keep saying to me—and they’re not just talking about ISIS terrorism, they’re also talking about far right—they haven’t seen a national security threat level like this in some time. Is that consistent with what you’re hearing?

Dan Stanton, Former CSIS Executive Manager: I think it is consistent. I think the issue has always been and it was with your previous terrorism threats is what we don’t know that we’re worried about. I mean, people can go from zero to 80 in terms of radicalization and motivation to do something, very quickly, depending on what’s all going on in their life. So if there’s people out there that, you know, adhere to an extremist narrative and are thinking of doing something, it’s very hard for intelligence and law enforcement to stay on top of all that. You can’t cover all the targets all the time. And a lot of what’s going on right now, a lot of the coverage of what’s going on in the war in the Middle East and everything else can in some ways provoke some people.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well I know there’s a lot of concerns about enough resources, but we’ll have to leave that for another day. And of course, we always include that all these charges have not yet been proven in court. But Dan Stanton, thank you so much for joining us.

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Dan Stanton, Former CSIS Executive Manager: Pleasure, Mercedes. Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, what’s being done for the youngest and most vulnerable victims of the war in Ukraine?


Mercedes Stephenson: Now for one last thing…

Children are the most innocent victims in any war and yet they often pay the greatest price, and that has certainly been the case for the children of Ukraine.

Many things have stayed with me from covering the war in Ukraine in its early days. But without question, the most heartbreaking and haunting images were of the traumatized children, their faces tear-streaked as they cried without any sound.

The baby in a stroller who we met in her tiny pink snowsuit, chosen out before the war by her mother, never thinking she would have to wonder if it would keep her baby warm enough fleeing outside overnight.

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The little boy who we met in a shelter who would wet his pants every time the air raid sirens went off, after his town had been mercilessly bombarded by Russian artillery.

So on this first day of the third year of the war, it is the suffering of Ukraine’s children that we must remember, especially those who have been taken in mass abductions by Russian forces.

I sat down with Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin in Halifax, and he detailed the scale of the kidnappings and the direct effect on the children.

Andriy Kostin, Prosecutor General of Ukraine: “We are investigating more than 19,500 cases of forced degradation of Ukrainian children.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Just last week, the EU approved more sanctions against Russia, adding names of individuals involved with the kidnappings. Canada is part of a group of countries trying to help the kids come back home.

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: “Canada, together with Ukraine, will launch the international coalition for the return of Ukrainian children.”

Mercedes Stephenson: The International Criminal Court has issued a related arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin for his role in the unlawful transfer of Ukrainian children. But Putin cares not for international law or reprimands. His impunity demonstrated at home and abroad again and again, including with the death of his most vocal critic, Alexei Navalny in Russian prison.

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While two years is a grim milestone, I’d like to leave you with the words from Kostin on why Canadians shouldn’t be beset by war fatigue.

Andriy Kostin, Prosecutor General of Ukraine: “We Ukrainians are, you know, living in this situation, living in this world. We are the first who want this to be stopped. But we all understand it could be stopped only by defeat of Russia, and every one of us is responsible together, to make it happen.”

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. Thanks for watching. We’ll see you next week.

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