The West Block Transcript – Episode 40, Season 13

Mercedes Stephenson, The West Block. Global News

Episode 40, Season 13
Sunday, June 16, 2024

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff
Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister

Ottawa Studio

Mercedes Stephenson: The chief of the defence staff has said our military is not ready. As he prepares to say goodbye, we’ll get his candid assessment on the state of the Canadian Armed Forces.

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

Wayne Eyre is leaving his post as Canada’s top soldier. With wars raging from Ukraine to the Middle East and domestic dependence on military help increasing, we’ll ask how dire things are for the men and women in uniform.

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And on the diplomatic front, should Canada be ready to step up internationally? Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly says Canada will soon have a plan to hit NATO’s spending target, but will it really happen?

Militaries are supposed to be prepared and ready for anything, but when it comes to the Canadian Armed Forces, even our top brass have said that’s not the case.

Bill Blair, Minister of Defence: “We must do better.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Earlier this year, the minister of national defence warned the military is in big trouble when it comes to having enough troops.

Bill Blair, Minister of Defence: “There’s more people who’ve left than have entered. That is, frankly, it’s a death spiral.”

Mercedes Stephenson: And on Remembrance Day, our chief of the defence staff was blunt about Canada’s readiness to fight a war or defend itself.

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: “Mercedes, my biggest concern is not being ready. Not having the capabilities, the people, the training, the sustainment ready to respond to what is really an uncertain future.”

Mercedes Stephenson: General Wayne Eyre never expected to be the CDS but he found himself in that role, appointed in the midst of the sexual misconduct crisis as the government scrambled to find a general officer without skeletons in their closet. He has had to see the military through difficult times: spreading global conflict, a recruitment and retention crisis, crisis as well in military equipment, and some cuts to military spending.

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Chief of the Defence Staff Wayne Eyre joins us now. General Eyre, great to see you.

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Thanks for having me, Mercedes, and great to see you as well.

Mercedes Stephenson: So yesterday was your 40th anniversary in uniform, an incredible achievement and career. You have watched such transformation in the global security system, in Canada’s place in the world in our armed forces. As you’re preparing to leave, I want to ask you about the state of readiness of the Canadian Armed Forces, because when we’ve chatted in the past, you’ve talked about your concern that we are not ready for a war. So, what is the state of national defence in this country and are we prepared for military conflict?

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Well that’s an interesting question because you mentioned 40 years, and as I think about the history of the military in this country, it could almost be considered a history in unpreparedness as wars have come and we had to scramble to be ready. And arguably, we are more ready now than we have been in some time, but that’s not saying enough. And so as we take a look at the confluence of stressors in the global security environment that we’re facing, probably more complex than we have ever faced as a country, the confluence of stressors geo-politically with the increasing alignment of Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, the continuing threat of violent extremist organizations, the disinformation that’s happened right here in our own society, coupled with climate change which is driving security concerns around the world. It’s causing human migration. It’s causing conflict. It’s causing increased frequency and intensity of national disasters here at home. It’s opening up our own Arctic, which presents security challenges. We see the acceleration of technological change, which is changing the very character of war, how they were fought and we’re seeing that play out in Ukraine as we speak. And then we see what’s happening within our societies with our institutions of liberal democracy: journalism included under assault, our own institution under assault, the institution of elections under assault and increased polarization in our societies. So those four combined present some real challenges to us as a country and in particular, the Canadian Armed Forces, because with those challenges, the demand on us is going to go up. And that’s why readiness is so important. The ability to respond at speed, at scale, for the duration required, with the capabilities required. We have work to do on all of those. But I’m an optimist, cautiously optimistic right now that we are an institution on the upswing that all sorts of improvements are being made across a wide range of areas. Not fast enough. We need to continue to emphasize a sense of urgency and there still remains lots of work to do.

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Mercedes Stephenson: When you look at the threats to the Canadian Armed Forces, you mentioned foreign interference so that’s something I’ve been curious about. Are you concerned about your members being targeted for foreign interference by other countries? We’ve heard of members of the RCMP, for example, who have been charged, that they were being influenced by foreign governments. Obviously, the military deals with very sensitive information. Is that a risk that you’re looking at as well?

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Yes, absolutely. We know we are a target. We know our members have some coveted information, some skills, experience, and so it’s something we have to be very much on the lookout for. This is real. The threat is real and often in Canada, we are naïve to the security challenges we face. You know, it’s very different when I travel to other parts of the world, where the sense of insecurity is visceral. You know, go to Eastern Europe. I was recently in Estonia and Latvia, and the sense of insecurity due in large part to living memory of being occupied and then seeing the vicious war crimes occurring in Ukraine, the forced deportation of tens of thousands of children and the rapes, the killings. They don’t want that to happen, and so they have that sense of insecurity. We’ve been relatively isolated here, thankfully, in this country, protected by three oceans and a super power to the south. Well, security is becoming global. We live in a globally integrated threat environment and we need to be prepared for it.

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Mercedes Stephenson: How much faster do we need to move in order to be prepared for it?

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Well the marker I’ve put down with the team is the end of this decade, beginning of the next. And the reason I say that is we take a look at the build-up of China’s military. We take a look at Russia’s ability to reconstitute from the war—from their brutal war of aggression in Ukraine. You know, both being led by dictators, men of history and destiny as they would see themselves. They’re not getting any younger. Risk tolerance is going up. We need to coexist. We need to, as our top national security objective, avoid great power war. That’s best done through the ability to collectively deter adventurism, expansionism, imperialism. And so that is the aim point that we are looking at internal to the Canadian Armed Forces.

Mercedes Stephenson: You don’t have a successor named yet, despite having mentioned quite publicly that you were planning to retire this summer. It’s been months and months and months. You and I were both at the change of command for the Canadian Special Operations Forces and at it, you talked about some of the consequences of having not named a successor yet. There’s actually operational consequences and there’s consequences for military families who don’t know where they’re going to be posted to. Can you elaborate for us on a bit what the consequences have been of this slow response to name your successor?

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General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Well there’s a process ongoing. You know, we’re not the only one who have had challenges like this in terms of slowing down of promotions. You know, we saw that in the United States recently and they succeeded through it. So, you know, I’m confident that we will be able to, you know, continue to move forward. You know, this is a manifestation of the unequal dialogue in political-military relations, which is absolutely proper in a democracy. The military has to be subservient to dually elected civilian officials.

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Mercedes Stephenson: What advice are you going to give your successor?

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: I’ve got…I’ve got almost a full notebook of advice, of transition notes that I’ve written up as various issues have come up. But in terms of advice, it’s to be open. You know, just because one sits in this position doesn’t mean one has all of the answers. The situation that we’re facing is extremely complex. We have to be open to new ideas, new ways of doing business, external ideas. We have to be able to reframe what we have taken as underlying truths to a situation. I would recommend Adam Grant’s book, Think Again, about doing just that, and continue to learn. Learning does not stop just because you finish your professional military education. Your professional development continues every day.

Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think the biggest challenge will be for the next chief of the defence staff?

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General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: The biggest challenge will be to continue to build, re-build readiness at pace, to make sure that we’ve got the people, the training, the equipment, the sustainment in place to be able to respond at speed, at scale, at duration and so continuing to focus on that: getting our numbers back up, cautiously optimistic as we’ve started this fiscal year on the recruiting side, much better than we have for many years. So our efforts at reconstitution are starting to bear fruit. We actually grew the armed forces last year, after three years of shrinking. And in fact, we are doing better than many of our closest allies from that perspective. But still, tremendous amount of work to do there, so getting the people up, getting that readiness rebuilt, and continuing to provide options to government as crises continue to occur because they will continue to occur in increasing frequency.

Mercedes Stephenson: I have to ask you with 40 years of experience. As you reflect on your career, what do you believe your biggest success was and what’s your biggest regret?

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: So I have had the opportunity to be involved in some very interesting experiences. You know, whether it was the Battle of Medak Pocket in Croatia in 1993. Whether it was my time in Korea with the United Nations command, tours in Afghanistan, you know, leading our largest to-date advisory mission with the Afghan National Army. So all of those experiences are something I’ll be processing in retirement and thinking about, because it has been such a rich, rewarding career. And, you know, as I say to the next generation, and I reflect on my career, and I see the trajectory that we are on despite all of the challenges that are out there in the security environment, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. It’s an adventure. It’s a way of life. It’s an opportunity to do something bigger and having that transcendent purpose of serving your country, having the adventure of going to many different locations around the world and being involved in those super interesting activities. And so yeah, that’s what I’ve taken away and that’s what I recommend to the next generation.

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Mercedes Stephenson: I know that you refer to yourself sometimes jokingly as the accidental CDS. You certainly haven’t had an easy tenure, but we’d like to thank you, on behalf of The West Block, for always coming on the show and speaking so candidly about the situation and on behalf of Canadians for your incredible service to this country.

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Well thank you, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, as the depth of interference from China and India becomes more clear, we speak with Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly.


Mercedes Stephenson: As security around the globe becomes increasingly unstable, Canada is under even more pressure to step up internationally. NATO allies are demanding that Canada pay its fair share. Our navy is surveilling Russian ships near Cuba, and Canada’s engagement in the Middle East has been stunted.

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Joining me now is the Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly. Thank you so much for joining us. Nice to see you again.

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Nice to see you, Mercedes. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Mercedes Stephenson: You have an incredibly complicated file. There is so much happening in the world right now and countries that used to be allies like India are now concerns and challenges, China reasserting its dominance. Iran, the Middle East. Russia. As you try to navigate these waters, I know there had been, obviously, a very tense relationship with China for a while. It seems like your government is now re-engaging. I know your deputy minister went to China. The head of the navy went recently. How would you describe that re-engagement and why do you think now is the time to be pursuing a warmer relationship with China?

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Yeah, thanks, it’s a fair question. I think…what I did last fall is I came up with a new foreign policy, where we would be engaging in what I call pragmatic diplomacy, is that we would engage with countries that we don’t necessarily see eye to eye. That we don’t necessarily share the same values or at the same time, you know, same political systems, but that we need to talk to in order to prevent an international conflict. So, when it comes to China, we will, of course, challenge China when we ought to, and we’ll cooperate when we must. And the areas of cooperation are the ones that were indicated in our Indo-Pacific Strategy, which are climate change, things linked to health, also, of course, geopolitics, including, for example, what’s happening in the Middle East, of course, in Ukraine as well. And at the same time, everything linked to AI. But to be frank, Mercedes, these are tough conversations. I don’t see diplomacy as a gift you give to another country owed, allowing them to speak to you. I think it’s a best way to convey really difficult messages in order to make sure that in the end there is less tensions for us and in the world.

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Mercedes Stephenson: You mentioned the Indo-Pacific Strategy and originally so much of that was premised on the idea that India was the counterweight to China. And now we have this information that India has plotted and successfully killed, your government alleges, a Canadian citizen in Canada. How do you navigate that whole part of the world now that you have both China and India as perhaps adversaries to Canada who are actively working against our interests in some cases, and your government says killing Canadian citizens?

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: And we stand by the allegations that Indian agents killed a Canadian on Canadian soil. And so this is a breach of our sovereignty. As a country, this is, of course, against Canadians’ safety and we will make sure that not only do we work and let the RCMP do its work, but my job is to make sure that I can address the diplomatic effects of that in a private manner with the foreign minister.

To your point about the Indo-Pacific Strategy, we’ve done so much right now, first, to increase our knowledge about China, creating a Chinese bureau within also our department at Foreign Affairs, because of course, we know China’s influence in the world is wide ranging and we need to increase our knowledge about that.
Second, we’ve decided to make sure that we would increase our relationship with Japan and Korea at the same level as we are with the U.K., with France and Germany. So we’re deepening a relationship in the region. There’s a far range of countries with really a lot of population and that’s what we’re doing as we speak.

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Mercedes Stephenson: When it comes to dealing with India diplomatically, part of the question has been how high up this plot went. I keep hearing the name Ahmit Shaw, who is Modi’s right-hand man. That would suggest that this was not a one-off. Not rogue agents running an operation, but actually planned from the inner circle in the Modi government. Have you heard that information?

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: What I can tell you, it’s we are in a rule of law country. We have an investigation ongoing and my job as foreign minister is to make sure that I let the police forces do their work and trial people, and meanwhile that I do the work of addressing security concerns with India, which I’m doing.

Mercedes Stephenson: I do want to ask you as well about the Middle East, which of course, is top of mind for a lot of people right now. Your government shifted positions on the two-state solution, but you still believe, obviously, in a two-state solution, but there’s a willingness to accept a Palestinian State before the end of the war. Is that contingent on Hamas being eliminated?

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: I didn’t see before the end of the war. So first and foremost, we had a long time…for a long time, a position that the parties needed to agree. And from the moment they agreed on a two-state solution, we would recognize a Palestinian State. Now we know right now that Hamas is a problem. Hamas is still in control of Gaza, still in control of hostages. And at the same time, the Netanyahu government is against a two-state solution. So, we can’t just wait indefinitely for this to happen. We need to signal the fact that we’re moving our [00:05:45] in position to recognize a Palestinian State at the right time.
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Mercedes Stephenson: When it comes to international engagement, one of the pressures Canada has been under is more defence spending. You’ve talked about getting to 2 per cent, having a plan to get to 2 per cent. So I want to ask you a fairly straightforward question.

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Yeah.

Mercedes Stephenson: In July, at the NATO Summit, will you have a solid plan for when and how you are getting to 2 per cent of GDP spending on defence?

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: So thank you for your question. I think it’s a fair question. I think that first and foremost, Canadians know we need to increase defence spending. We saw because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, things changed in the world, and for a long, long time, we thought that our geography was protecting us and we need to invest more in us, in our own defence. Russia is a neighbour to our north. We need to defend our own Arctic, assert our sovereignty, and safeguard our security. And so now we have a defence policy update that brings up to 1.76 per cent. That’s what the minister of defence and the prime minister announced two months ago.

Mercedes Stephenson: In five years from now at best case scenario.

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: And they said that we would be on a path to 2 per cent. We know that there’s procurement processes that we need to do. That’s just part of having a strong CAF, Canadian Armed Forces. And so, we will launch these processes and at the same time, I’m convinced we will be able to get to 2 per cent. We want the NATO Summit to be a success. It needs to. It needs to for us, for all allies, for American friends and also for NATO itself and Ukraine. So we will be there for [00:07:29 burden sharing].
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Mercedes Stephenson: How much pressure are you getting from allies like the United States and the U.K. to have a solid plan, not just a commitment that you want to get their aspirational, but here’s how, when and the equipment we’re buying, for example, the submarines?

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: So they reacted very positively and I must say, particularly the U.S., to our defence policy update. Why? Because…and I think maybe some NATO allies were surprised, we decided to invest in North America.

Mercedes Stephenson: Although the American ambassador was on the show a couple weeks ago and he said that Canada is essentially the outlier and the laggard when it comes to NATO spending.

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well, I think that I had many conversations with David Cohen, the ambassador, who is a good friend, and he’s been very supportive of our investments. But indeed, we need to get to 2 per cent. That’s what people expect us to do and that’s what Canadians expect us to do. We, as a government, have invested more than any other government in defence. But, the reality is the world has changed so we will invest more in defence. And indeed, you mentioned submarines. We need to launch procurement on that. We’re working on icebreakers. There’s lots to come and good news.

Mercedes Stephenson: So to make sure we’re clear, you’re going to get the submarines?

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Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: We need to make sure that we work on military equipment. We know we have to invest in submarines, but I’m not the minister of defence. I’m the minister of foreign affairs. But I know that procurement has an impact on the relationship you have with other countries so that’s why we’re taking that decision very, very carefully.

Mercedes Stephenson: Absolutely. And of course, our defence policy is there to reinforce our foreign policy.

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Exactly. They go hand in hand.

Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you so much for joining us today, minister.

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: My pleasure, Mercedes. Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, one last thing. Foreign interference escalates when a party leader says that he was also a target.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Now for one last thing…

The foreign interference file led to even more explosive allegations on Parliament Hill last week, with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh saying this after he read the classified report.

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: “I was a target.”

Mercedes Stephenson: In a bombshell press conference, Singh didn’t hold back on what he thought of parliamentarians who were named in the report, accused of colluding with foreign powers to the detriment of Canada.

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: “They are indeed traitors to the country.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Singh telegraphed his outrage, accusing his political opponents of doing nothing because he says they benefit from the current situation.

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: “Both Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre are putting the interests of their party ahead of the country.”

Mercedes Stephenson: While Singh’s passion to hold those who have undermined Canada accountable is admirable, it seems to have its limits. Singh would not answer questions about why he continues to prop up the Liberal government despite what he described as a failure to act despite knowing how serious the problem was.

Reporter: “Why continue to back them up?”

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Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: “We’re not at all doing that. What we’re saying is we’re going to demand answers and we’re going to continue to push for solutions.”

Mercedes Stephenson: If Mr. Singh is going to accuse the government of knowingly ignoring what he called traitors in Parliament, then Canadians need a better explanation and answer about why he isn’t holding the Liberals accountable when he has the power to do so.

That’s it for our show. Thanks for watching.

And to all the amazing dads out there, we wish you a happy Father’s Day.

We’ll see you here next week for our season finale.

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