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The West Block Transcript – Episode 33, Season 13

Mercedes Stephenson, The West Block. Global News

THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 33, Season 13
Sunday, April 28, 2024

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests:
François-Philippe Champagne, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian Opposition Leader

Location:
Ottawa Studio

Mercedes Stephenson: Buying essential, like groceries, is becoming increasingly out of reach for many Canadians. Ottawa said they have a plan, so where are the results?

I’m Mercedes Stephenson. The West Block starts now.

François-Philippe Champagne, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister: “The auto workers of Honda make us win, and today it’s their big victory.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Hot off a big electric vehicle announcement, the industry minister joins us to talk practicality and progress. From the electrification required to drive EVs in Canadian winters to an update after all the tough talk about taking on big grocery. Where are the results for Canadians?

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And as Ukraine receives its latest American aid package to help fend off Russia, the neighbouring country of Belarus is strengthening its ties to Vladimir Putin. I speak with the Belarusian opposition leader on her very personal battle.

The cost of living is on the minds of millions of Canadians, and one of the most painful and unavoidable costs is shopping at the grocery store.

Earlier this year, the federal government announced it was committing $5 million a year to help investigate rising grocery prices. Months before that, the industry minister told The West Block…

François-Philippe Champagne, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister: “I’m starting to make calls to some CEOs around the world and say, ‘Hey, have you looked at Canada lately?’ It’s part of the number of things that I’m trying to do. Like I say, on day four, we’re far from saying it’s done. We’re saying this is a fight.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Where is he in that battle more than seven months later?

We caught up with the minister as he announced an historic car deal for this country. Honda will invest $15 billion to create four new electric vehicle plants on Ontario.

François-Philippe Champagne, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister: “This is more than just about the auto sector. This is about Canada punching above its weight.”

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François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry joined me after his announcement in Alliston, Ontario.

Thank you so much for making time. I know you’ve got a busy morning there, minister, and a big announcement for the government with this huge investment from Honda: electric batteries. Everyone is hoping, of course, that we can move forward and do things that are better for the environment. But one of the questions is whether Canada is ready for this number of electric vehicles and electric batteries: the grid system that supports that, the number of chargers. Rural areas still not the level of investment that really makes this attainable for a lot of Canadians. Is your government planning to put more into that so that these vehicles you’re building and the batteries you’re building can be absorbed into the market?

François-Philippe Champagne, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister: Well sure, and let’s celebrate as Canadians today. I mean you’ve seen today the largest single investment in the auto industry in the nation history, the largest investment of more than 75 years history. I mean, listen it’s sending a signal to the world that we have the best worker in the world, that the place to invest is in Canada because now we have the full supply chain when it comes to battery, electrical vehicle[s]. Honestly, today is really a game changer. We’re talking about 240 thousand electric vehicles that are going to come from the plants that we’re talking about. We’re talking of four plants in reality in this announcement today. So this is really a day for Canadians to celebrate. We’re really—we’re really punching above our weight. The world is noticing and Canada is becoming, really, this hub for green manufacturing.
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Mercedes Stephenson: I think there’s no question it’s a big win to have this kind of investment in Canada from a very reputable company, but I don’t think it answers the question of whether or not your government is doing enough to electrify Canada so that people will realistically be able to drive these vehicles.

François-Philippe Champagne, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister: Well we’re going to do more, and this is great because when you have an investment like that that’s kind of a catalyst. I think everyone knows that the final destination is electrical vehicle[s] and now you’re seeing Honda tripling down. It’s not even doubling down. I remember talking to the chairman of Honda in Tokyo some two years ago and I made the pitch for Canada and he said, “I heard you. Just be patient.” And this was patience well invested because now they recognize that with the, you know, the plant in Alliston is one of the best performing, if not the best performing that they have in the world. So it start[s] with people and then obviously the fact we have critical minerals, renewable energy, access to market, makes Canada a place of choice to manufacture the cars of the future.

Mercedes Stephenson: Let’s talk about another big part of your portfolio. Last time you were on the show, we talked about the fact that you actually do your own grocery shopping. So you are certainly seeing the prices…

François-Philippe Champagne, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister: Indeed.

Mercedes Stephenson: …in the stores. You were optimistic at that point that you thought Canadian grocers were going to act. You had sort of the carrot of asking them and the stick of the threat of a windfall tax. You didn’t implement that windfall tax in the budget. Why not?

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François-Philippe Champagne, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister: I’m on their back all the time. You know we asked something. What we get was not what we wanted, and then we changed the law and we changed the rules of competition. And I think that is the best way in order to make sure that not only now, but for the foreseeable future, we’d have more competition in the country. And the folks at home understand that the best way to put pressure on prices is to have more competition. In addition to that, yes, I’ve been in touch with foreign grocers to see whether we can entice some of them to come in the Canadian market because if you look at what’s happening in Australia and New Zealand, in markets in Europe, we have too much concentration when it comes to grocery in the country and certainly, the rules that we made, the change that we made on competition, the biggest reform since the act has been enacted, you know, decades ago, that is already more conducive to bring foreign entrance.

I’ll give you an example. Before, you know, when you had one grocer in one particular area, they can force out basically to leases the people that would come around. When you talk to the Independent Grocers of Canada they’d say that’s why when you see a big banner, you don’t see any smaller grocers because they have these rules within the lease that prevent anyone coming around. Well we made that illegal now. So those are the type[s] of things which will have a direct impact. I appreciate it’s not like a switch you can turn on and off. I’m on their back and will continue. But I would say the reform of competition is a step in the right direction to bring stability in the prices we see in Canada.
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Mercedes Stephenson: If the most important thing is competition and you’re likely going to have to bring in the foreign grocers who you mentioned, what would make them want to come to Canada, because if I were a foreign chain looking, I might look at the history of what happened with Nordstrom, what happened with Target in coming to Canada? Very successful, very large American companies that wrapped up their operations here and left. So how would you reassure foreign grocers that if they come into such a concentrated market with high building costs, high construction costs, and established players that they have a chance of being successful?

François-Philippe Champagne, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister: Well the change in competition, I’ll tell you I met one of them in the United States, and the biggest hurdle they had was about leases. They could not find four or 500 leases or property to lease in [00:07:18 site A] in the country, despite them being very big: billions of dollars. And they said, “Minister, now that you changed that, it’s changing the game. Now we’re going to look at Canada again.” So is it easy? No. Is it worth trying? Definitely. You know when I started with these battery plants, people were laughing, saying, “Minister, we never had one and now we have, you know, a number of them and counting.” So listen, it always start[s] with a phone call. We went there. I keep engaging with them and I’m hopeful. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s worth trying because Canadians, we know that housing, the cost of living, those are top of mind to people and obviously, grocery is top of mind. So I’ll do everything I can to be their voice, to be on the back of CEOs and to make sure that we have more competition in the country.

Mercedes Stephenson: Are you close to closing a deal with any of those foreign grocers?

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François-Philippe Champagne, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister: Listen, it’s never easy. It takes time because to your point, you need to engage. We need to extend the change in dynamics. I say Canadians are ready for someone new in the market: deep discounters, people which would offer quality and competitive prices. So you know me, I’d rather work and then announce than the other way around. So let me do the work and when we have, hopefully, good news then we can share with Canadians.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, I wanted to ask you about your government’s interaction with china. Obviously, it’s been a pretty frosty relationship over recent years. We learned that the deputy minister of foreign affairs travelled to China to try to reopen some of those ties. You’re the industry minister, where I know there’s tremendous concern about the possibility of Chinese interference, stealing trade secrets, trying to lure some of our top scientists or top inventors to China. Is your government, from your department, also looking to reopen those ties with China or to have a closer relationship?

François-Philippe Champagne, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister: Well you know you’re talking to a former foreign affairs minister. So my way, when it looks to China, is always to engage with eyes wide open. That’s what we’ve done. We’ve made sure to different policy when it comes to research security, when it comes to critical minerals, when it comes to strategic supply chain, to make sure that we protect our national security and our economic security. That’s what Canadians expect from us. At the same time, you know, we realize that China is a large economy and therefore some level of engagement like we’re seeing now with the deputy minister of foreign affairs going in China, I think it is going—is the right thing. You know, you need to engage, but at the same time, we need to be eyes wide open and I’ve always been working with industry, with partners to make sure we do that. We have strengthened our rules to protect our national security, protect our intellectual property, making sure that we have better defence on cybersecurity, that we have rules around artificial intelligence and, you know, what’s critical for economy. So that’s really the framework, you know, engage, but with eyes wide open.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, thank you so much for joining us today, and we appreciate your time.

François-Philippe Champagne, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister: It’s always a pleasure to be with you. Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up, I sit down with the brave woman who is standing up to the strongman regime in Belarus.

[Break]

Mercedes Stephenson: While Ukraine is in the fight of its life against Russia, the president of neighbouring Belarus is cozying up to Vladimir Putin.

Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko snatched control of the country, announcing himself the victor after what much of the West called a fraudulent election in 2020.

He’s expected to run again next year in a so-called election, which would extend his rule to 36 years.

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And earlier this year, he signed a law, stating that exiled opposition leaders cannot run in future elections. That would include Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The former English teacher ran against Lukashenko in 2020, and was subsequently threatened with 15 years in a prison camp. She now lives in exile with her young children, heading a government-in-waiting to help bring Belarus back to democracy. I sat down with her in a future interview.

Sviatlana, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with us today and tell us a bit about yourself and about the very serious situation in Belarus, which is such an important country in Europe and in the conflict with Ukraine that Canadians don’t hear about very often.

You were the leader of the opposition in Belarus, but you can’t live there. In fact, if you went home, you would likely be jailed and you could be killed. Can you tell us what is that like for you?

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian Opposition Leader: For too long, Belarus has been percepted as part of Russia, appendix of Russia, settled of Russia, but we are not. We are [a] European nation who wants to return to its European roots, who wants to be part of this European family of countries, but there is [a] dictator who has stricken us back into the Soviet Union past.
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I was sentenced to 15 years in absentia already. I’m [an] extremist and I’m [a] terrorist in my country, but actually we have thousands of declared extremists and terrorists among Belarusian people, its best doctors, best teachers. It’s elderly people. Everybody who is opposing the regime automatically becomes extremists in Belarus. We have plenty of extremists in Belarusian jails. These are our political prisoners. So extremists in Belarus is people who [are] fighting for democratic values.

Mercedes Stephenson: That includes Sviatlana’s husband, who was grabbed from the street after announcing he was going to run against the current president. He was sentenced to more than 19 years in prison. Protests over his detainment, efforts by Amnesty International and appeals by world leaders have all gotten nowhere.

I can’t imagine what that must be like for you. Do you know how he’s doing? Have you been able to speak to him or get any kind of an update?

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian Opposition Leader: So my husband is in jail for almost four years already, and since he was imprisoned I haven’t had possibility to talk to him at all. But, a new way of torturing political prisoners is to keep people in ‘incommunicable’ mode. It’s a new word that we have to learn. It means that lawyer is not allowed to visit our beloved. Letters are not delivered, so people are kept in full isolation. It’s a way to persuade our political prisoners that they’re forgotten. And I haven’t heard anything from my husband for one year. Nothing. I don’t know if he is alive. My children ask me every day. Where is our dad? Why we don’t receive letters from him? They know that he’s in prison. They know that he’s hero [in] Belarus, but why? What’s happened? Is he dead? They are asking me. And it’s the most painful, you know, not—this uncertainty.
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Mercedes Stephenson: The man her husband tried to challenge, the current president of Belarus. Aleksandr Lukashenko. He’s been called Europe’s last dictator, and he’s cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

We saw what happened to one of the greatest critics of the Russian regime, [00:04:06] Nalvany being killed. How concerned are you for your husband in that scenario that Lukashenko could adopt these same tactics as Putin?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian Opposition Leader: Of course when I knew about this tragedy, about murder of Alexei Navalny, I thought that murder of Navalny could be, or green light, or redline for dictators, it will depend on the response of [the] democratic world, if response will not be the size of and strong enough, it will give opportunity for all the dictators to kill their opponents in prison without any consequences. Of course you think about my husband and of course it’s painful, but also, you know, I had opportunity to meet with Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of Alexei. She’s a rather strong like person. Many women underestimate their strength, but when life puts you in the situation when you have to show all your power, your internal strength, you just stand and do what you have to do.

Mercedes Stephenson: How would you describe the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Aleksandr Lukashenko?

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Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian Opposition Leader: It’s symbiotic friendship. It’s a friendship when they need each other, they use each other. For many years, Lukashenko played a role of seesaw between West and then Russia. Whey they—in the winter, he made friendship with Putin because he needed cheap gas and oil. In summer, he made friendship with Europe because he needed extra money when he—in 2020, you know, Putin, he was—Putin supported him economically, politically. And now he is like loyal to Putin, fully loyal. So for Putin, Lukashenko is also necessary because Lukashenko is [a] very cheap, very loyal partner for him. Lukashenko will provide our territory, our infrastructure for any Russian troops if they will try and, you know, invade Ukraine from our side or with like talks that they might attack European countries. So they just need each other, using each other to circumvent sanctions at the moment, but it’s not about good relationship. It’s about surviving at the moment.

Mercedes Stephenson: There have been reports of Russian nuclear weapons placed in Belarus. Can you just speak to what you know about that and what kind of signal that sends?

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian Opposition Leader: We know that some facilities are being prepared for this nuclear weapon. Nuclear weapon is attempt to terrorize Belarusians, to blackmail Western countries, but the main aim of this deployment is to anchor the presence of Russia in our country for many years ahead, because it will be very difficult to get rid of this nuclear weapon in the future. And also in case, you know, these brutal dictators will decide to use kind of nuclear weapon, a counterattack will be on Belarus because Putin will launch this nuclear weapon from our country.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Countries such as Canada have announced sanctions against Belarus, the latest when Sviatlana met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this month. The sanctions were levied against 21 people on human rights violations.

What do you think of the West and NATO’s response, which has largely been to continue to funnel money and military aid to Ukraine, as well as to sanction individuals in Belarus and in Russia? Is it effective? Is it enough?

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian Opposition Leader: I really consider sanctions to be the most effective instrument for weakening the regimes, but the sanctions don’t work effectively because of the huge loopholes that these sanctions have. Sanctions from Russia are imposed mostly on import and Belarus on export. They’re using each other to circumvent sanctions. Lukashenko buys goods for Russia. Russia sells Belarusian goods that are under sanctions in Belarus. So it’s like, you know, new schemes that everybody knows and we ask and we demand synchronization of sanctions between Russia and Belarus regime for them to work effectively.

Mercedes Stephenson: What’s your view on what will happen if Russia wins in Ukraine?

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian Opposition Leader: Ukrainians as [a] nation, they will fight ‘til the last soldier, the last person. And of course, if [the] democratic world will stop assisting Ukraine, and if we allow Russia to prevail in this war, it will not be [the] defeat of Ukraine. It will be [the] defeat of [the] democratic world and because Ukrainians are not fighting for their land. They’re fighting for the very values that your country, democratic countries are enjoying. And believe me, we know dictatorship better. If—to allow the beast, you know, to prevail in one country, they will not stop there. They will challenge [the] democratic world further, and believe me, the next doors this enemy will knock, it will be your doors.
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Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you so much for sitting down with me an explaining this issue to us, and our thoughts are with you and your children and certainly with your husband, too, as you all fight for freedom in Belarus.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian Opposition Leader: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the message and the messenger. The prime minister’s post-budget tour and Pierre Poilievre’s impromptu road stop.

[Break]

Mercedes Stephenson: And now for one last thing…

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet have been cross-crossing the country promoting their federal budget. But the budget blitz may be in vain, at least according to the polls.

In an exclusive poll for Global News, Ipsos found just a few days after the budget that 34 per cent of Canadians surveyed said the budget made it ‘less likely’ they would vote for the Liberals. Only 8 per cent say they’d be ‘more likely’ to vote for the Liberals. And for most people, 58 per cent, it didn’t change their views.

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Pierre Poilievre continues to enjoy a significant lead over Justin Trudeau, with the Tories leading the Liberals 43 to 24 per cent. However, being the frontrunner comes with greater scrutiny and expectations, which means his unplanned stop at a convoy like encampment last week of people who say they were protesting the carbon tax, created a problem for the Conservative leader.

Pierre Poilievre, Opposition Leader: “Everyone’s happy with what you’re doing.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Videos from people at the encampment documented Poilievre’s visit and show him standing next to ‘F Trudeau’ flags. And this flag, doodled on a trailer door is of much greater significance. That’s the symbol of a far right extremist group called Diagolon that CSIS has warned about. The Liberals pounced immediately.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The Diagolon is a violent, white nationalist organization. Anyone who wants to be prime minister of this country needs to be clear with Canadians about whose votes he wants and who he stands with.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Poilievre’s office says he was just stopping to see an anti-carbon tax protest. Diagolon isn’t a fan of Pierre Poilievre. They mock him and they’ve threatened his wife. But his office didn’t condemn the group when asked about the pit stop.

Canadian voters have a dilemma between broken Liberal promises, scandals and too little, too late, and the Conservatives controversies and tone challenges. Both major parties have questions about political leadership.

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That’s our show for today. Thanks so much for joining us, and we’ll see you next week.

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