September 23, 2018 11:30 am
Updated: September 23, 2018 11:24 pm

The West Block, Episode 3, Season 8

Watch the full broadcast of The West Block from Sunday, September 23, 2018 with Mercedes Stephenson.


Episode 3, Season 8
Sunday, September 23, 2018

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guest Interviews: Minister Bill Blair, Minister Seamus O’Regan,
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan John Sopko

Location: Ottawa

Today on The West Block, could the situation at the border get worse as the Trump administration plans a crackdown on refugees?

Story continues below

Then, promises made, promises broken, as veterans charge the government is reneging on key vows they made during the election. Minister Seamus O’Regan is here.

And reconstruction in Afghanistan after more than 16 years in a battle against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, what will it take to achieve peace and security in this war torn country?

Welcome to The West Block. I’m Mercedes Stephenson.

This week, the Trump administration announced they will cut their refugee numbers by one third raising concerns Canada could face another wave of asylum seekers crossing the border illegally, and all this is happening as la belle province chooses a new government. In just over a week, immigration policies may determine who leads that province.

Joining me now to talk about this, is Border Security Minister Bill Blair. Welcome to the show, minister.

Minister Bill Blair: Thank you, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: This announcement by the Americans that they were going to cut the numbers of refugees by one third. The last time they cracked down on refugee numbers we saw a spike at the border. Are you concerned we’re going to see that situation again?

Minister Bill Blair: Well, we’ve been working very hard to mitigate the impact of some of the decisions that are made outside of our country and you’re right. And last year in 2017, as a direct result of some decisions that were made in the United States, we did see a surge of people coming to our border from the United States and making refugee claims. We have been working very hard with the United States and I’ve just most recently, as a result of my appointment, reached out to Secretary Nielsen who is the Secretary of Homeland Security. We are working very closely together now and our officials are entering into discussions on how we can work more collaboratively together to mitigate the impacts of decisions made on either side of the border. We’re going to look at the Save Third Country Agreement to see if it can be enhanced and improved to serve the mutual interest of both countries.

Mercedes Stephenson: And that’s one of the things the Opposition has been calling on you to do. So what exactly would that look like?

Minister Bill Blair: Well, frankly, I don’t want to get ahead of the discussions but certainly we’ve seen very positive indications from the United States that they are always willing to work with us in order to keep–secure our borders and maintain the integrity of border security on both sides. It’s something that–we have the longest undefended border in the world and it’s something that we’re very proud of. And the economic activity that transpires across that border every day is important to both countries and its incumbent on both of us to work together and to address those things. But, you know, in response to could it get worse? We have been working also really hard to be prepared and for any eventuality and so we put the resources at the border. You know, our first responsibility for anyone entering into the country is that they be subject to significant security background checks so that there’s no risk of criminality and no risk to national security. And so those resources are in place and CBSA and the IRCC have been working very collaboratively at the border to receive these individuals and all of them by Canadian law and by international convention are entitled to due process and we want to make sure that we manage that process as efficiently as possible. We’ve made significant investments in improving that system so that it’ll be more efficient and quicker.

Mercedes Stephenson: I know you’ve certainly invested money in trying to speed it up. There’s still and overall slowdown of the system but it seems like the numbers aren’t improving. Your government’s argued they have, but if I look at the numbers from January until August of 2017, 13,221 people crossed the border. For 2018, it’s 14,125 so that number is up overall.

Minister Bill Blair: Well, let’s compare things that are comparable because there has been very significant investments made and work done at that border. In the last five consecutive months, we’ve seen substantial reductions over the same period of time last year and in fact, we’ve seen over this course of this summer 70 per cent fewer people have presented themselves at our border seeking refuge than the summer of 2017 and so we are making process. And, you know, we’ve got a very robust outreach campaign. We’ve sent ministers and parliamentary secretaries–

Mercedes Stephenson: But if your overall numbers are up, how are you making progress?

Minister Bill Blair: Well, because the numbers were up compared to–the period that you state, we saw a significant surge of people coming through up until about April of this year, but we’ve been very effective in our outreach campaign and our work with the United States. There were a number of different, I think, vulnerabilities and issues that needed to be addressed and we’ve been addressing them. We will be working very hard to make sure that anyone who might be contemplating coming here, that the information available to them within their own communities or in their own countries that they understand that seeking asylum in Canada is not a free ticket to permanent residency that they are going to be subject to–they’ll be stopped and checked for security and that they will get due process. And I think this is very important, we want to make sure people understand if they’re not eligible to stay they’re going to be subject to removal. The system must be–

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you know where they are, though? I mean, not very many people have been deported; I think it’s just over 100.

Minister Bill Blair: Well, if you look at–everybody’s entitled to due process and the people have been moving through that system but we’ve also put significant resources, now, into improving the speed at which those processes are taking place and there are investments being made in CBSA. As people move through that system, they will be subject to removal and those who are not eligible to stay will be removed from the country. Some of them just choose to leave. I will tell you that we did experience a surge of people last year. We found a very small percentage of them were actually eligible to stay and the overwhelming majority of those people have left. But we know there’s a great deal of work to do, that’s why we’ve put $175 million dollars in the building of the system, $74 million dollars into improving and enhancing the ability of the Immigration Review Board to deal with these in a timely way. And our intent is to make sure that our system is fast, fair and final.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, because it’s hard to stop them from coming in so I guess you deal with them on the side. But I want to change gears and talk to you about guns.

Minister Bill Blair: Yes, ma’am.

Mercedes Stephenson: Your government is considering a ban on hand guns. What would that look like? Would you have to remove all guns, including those that legal owners have now, to stop violence?

Minister Bill Blair: Well, let me be really clear, what our government is looking at is all of the different ways in which guns, particularly hand guns, get into the hands of criminals. We’ve seen a surge of gun violence right across this country, in large cities and small communities. And Canadians are quite rightfully concerned about that and they expect us to do something about it and so I’ve been tasked to look at how those guns get into the hands of the criminals who use them to victimize other people and to plug those leaks. We’re prepared to look at any measure, including—now we’ve heard calls from the City of Toronto and the City of Montreal. I’m hearing it in Surrey, B.C. Canadians are very concerned about hand guns and many are even calling for a ban. We’re considering any measure that will be effective in keeping guns out of the hands of criminals. But that isn’t just simply a ban of hand guns, it’s also we’re considering looking at ways in which we can stop those guns coming illegally into this country. And just as importantly, we’re working on reducing the demand for those guns among criminals so that we have to focus on the supply and demand.

Mercedes Stephenson: It’d be nice if we could convince the criminals that didn’t want them, but if you’re right next door to the United States, can you really stop the guns from coming across? You could ban them here. Other countries don’t face that situation of, as you put it, the largest undefended border in the world.

Minister Bill Blair: Mercedes, I was a cop for 40 years and a great deal of the work we did in the City of Toronto was interdicting the supply of guns both coming across the border and leaking out of the domestic market. You know, there’s a tremendous amount of work that can be done there but you’ve got to work in communities to help young people make better choices. And I’ll tell you that things can be done there as well. But it’s something that we need to do.

Mercedes Stephenson: We have to unfortunately wrap there, but we appreciate it and we’ll certainly be back to talk about this again in the future. Thanks, minister.

Minister Bill Blair: Yes, ma’am.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next: Is the government breaking its promises to veterans? Well, we’ll ask the Veterans’ Minister himself.


CLIP – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We owe a sacred trust to veterans and their families, all of them. So if I earn the right to serve your–this country as your prime minister, no veteran will be forced to fight their own government for the support and compensation that they have earned.”

CLIP – “Why are we still fighting against certain veterans’ groups in court? Because they’re asking for more than we’re able to give right now.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Two back-to-back clips of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: one during the election campaign and one earlier this year responding to a veteran at a town hall in Alberta. This has raised questions among the veterans community about whether it’s a case of promises made, promises broken.

Joining us to discuss that is Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan. Minister O’Regan, thank you for joining us today. I’d like to start with a question that has a lot of Canadians and a lot of veterans outraged, and that’s the case of Christopher Garnier. He is a convicted murderer, convicted of murdering a female police officer, Catherine Campbell in a violent and horrific case. He has never served day of his life in the military yet he is receiving treatment for his PTSD, which he got, he says, from murdering this police officer, from Veterans’ Affairs because his father served. How is this possible?

Minister Seamus O’Regan: This is perhaps one of the most frustrating cases I think you could imagine, I think, as a Veterans Affairs minister and I was outraged. And I said as much when I heard the news as well. And Canadians have a right to be outraged by this. We have a duty at Veterans Affairs Canada to the veterans to look after not only them but their families as well. This is a very, obviously, very extreme example of an extension of that policy and I don’t back down on the policy. We’ll do whatever it takes to make a veteran well again and in this case, you know, it’s his father. But this is obviously, an extremely tragic example of that and I have asked my officials to get back to me as soon as possible with the reasons for this decision.

Mercedes Stephenson: And this is the curious thing, because when you look on the website there’s a program for dependent children.

Minister Seamus O’Regan: Yes.

Mercedes Stephenson: I’ve spoken to a number of veterans, though, who say that they have struggled, including Mark Campbell who you know.

Minister Seamus O’Regan: Yes.

Mercedes Stephenson: A veteran who lost his legs in Afghanistan had to pay for his children’s` therapies, who were school-aged children at the time because Veterans Affairs didn`t cover it. Russell Williams, a man who committed unspeakable crimes, was stripped of his benefits by the governor general. He served and he still didn`t get them after he committed murder because it wasn`t related. Is there a possibility that you can intervene here as the minister and stop money that is earmarked for veterans being spent on a convicted murder who`s never been in the Canadian Forces?

Minister Seamus O’Regan: Well, we’ll look at the case once we get it.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well, and other things that you’re taking a look at as well, I understand, is resources and it’s something that your government committed to and we saw that in the clip with the prime minister. The government committed they would not take veterans to court. They did. You took the Equitas case about pensions to court and argued that there was no sacred obligation. When the Tories underspent in their department on Veterans Affairs, the Liberals accused them of stealing out of the pockets of veterans. Your government underspent, as Global News reported this week, by $372 million dollars. There’s a lot of promises that have been made that it seems like you haven’t lived up to. Did you overpromise to veterans during the election campaign?

Minister Seamus O’Regan: No. Let me spell out exactly how we’ve delivered. First and foremost, let’s talk about the estimates: $372 million dollars. We did accuse the Conservatives at that time of holding back money that’s because they were cutting everywhere else. They cut benefits, they cut services, they closed offices, they fired staffed and somehow, you know, that’s supposed to improve the lives of veterans? I don’t think so.

Mercedes Stephenson: But you still didn’t spend this money.

Minister Seamus O’Regan: Well, here’s how it works. Estimates work in such a way that we make sure that we always have the money made available to us so that if anything occurs in any given year, where all of a sudden you get a lot more veterans. If all of a sudden we got into a war that we didn’t foresee, if a tragedy occurred to a number of our veterans, if something happened, we are statutorily obliged to make sure that every one of them gets the money that they’ve been promised, absolutely. I mean, that’s, you know, the Department of Finance and everybody knows that and you use it for another time.

Mercedes Stephenson: But would you have accepted that argument from the Conservatives at the time?

Minister Seamus O’Regan: Within the context of us spending $10 billion dollars, absolutely right now. I will defend that to make sure that we are watching our dollars, absolutely because we are spending $10 billion dollars in new benefits and services.

Mercedes Stephenson: But you didn’t bring back the lifelong pension which was one of the promises. You brought back a pension and you’re calling it a lifelong pension, but it’s not the same amount of money and it’s not completely tax-free.

Minister Seamus O’Regan: I totally disagree. We promised that we would bring back a monthly pension. We are bringing back a monthly pension for life.

Mercedes Stephenson: You promised a life-long pension.

Minister Seamus O’Regan: We promised a life-long pension, absolutely and it’s monthly. And that’s what we’re bringing back.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well why do veterans say then, this is a lump sum and it doesn’t add up to the same amount? It’s financially substantially less.

Minister Seamus O’Regan: I don’t know. I mean, you may be hearing that from people, Mercedes. I’ve done 42 town halls, summits and, you know, legions since January and I’ve walked through this. And when I walk through it, it’s understood. This is a pension for life. It is a monthly pension.

Mercedes Stephenson: So the veterans are telling you they’re happy with it.

Minister Seamus O’Regan: Oh many, once I walk them through it. Yeah, they understand it, absolutely. Look, there’s a [inaudible] number of veterans out there. I mean, there are lots of them with many different opinions and what I’m quite happy that we’re able to do, is that we’ve been able to develop a pension system that incorporates things like PTSD. That we’re able to take a pension system and make sure that they get the vocational rehabilitational services that they needed, because what we’ve heard, and just to give people a sense of history, I mean, what everybody on this Hill agreed to, unanimously, and, you know, as a freshman MP I’m beginning to appreciate this, unanimously all parties agreed to the new Veterans’ Charter that we would no longer go with the Pension Act because it wasn’t serving veterans well. So, you know, what did the previous government do? When it became–

Mercedes Stephenson: But you’ve been in power for three years now.

Minister Seamus O’Regan: When it became–and I’m still cleaning up the mess. We made it very clear that what we wanted to do, and what the people in Canada made it very clear about was that the lump sum was no longer working, veterans felt like they were being written off the leger. And you know what? In fact, it seemed like they were. So we said we would bring back a monthly pension that would be life-long and that it will be flexible to the needs of veterans and would also encourage work which I’m a big believer in for those people who are able to do it and for whom it works. Work is a great thing. I know that myself.

Mercedes Stephenson: You made these promises. Your prime minister said veterans are asking too much. Are they?

Minister Seamus O’Regan: Listen, we have put $10 billion dollars towards new benefits and services. I stand by that. Actions speak louder than words with this prime minster and with this government, $10 billion dollars is a lot of money and I want to get it out there as quickly as possible. I won’t be satisfied until veterans feel it.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, Minster O’Regan. Thank you for joining us.

Minister Seamus O’Regan: Thanks, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up: Corruption, violence and drugs. Can Afghanistan be rebuilt and what it means for Canada?


Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. More than 16 years after Canada and NATO went to war in Afghanistan; there is still no peace in sight. Canada paid in blood and treasure: 158 Canadian troops lost their lives. Afghanistan has suffered repeated setbacks and seems to have been forgotten by much of the western world. Is it time for NATO to step in and do more?

Late last week, I sat down with John Sopko, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan reconstruction. Here’s that interview:

Joining me now, John Sopko. You are the Special Inspector General in charge of reconstruction in Afghanistan. John, for a lot of Canadians, Afghanistan is a memory. It’s a war, it’s in our past. You’re still there. Can you bring us up to date on what the lay of the land is in Afghanistan today?

John Sopko: Well, it’s a stalemate from a military point of view and everyone has said that, including our ambassador to Afghanistan recently. I look at the reconstruction side and so I’m very interested in our training and advising and assisting the Afghan military and policy and we’ve had some setbacks and we’re concerned. I think the recent attack by the Taliban which was successful for a few days in Ghazni has been a real eye-opener as to the situation. So we have some concerns, but we’re also cautiously optimistic because there have been feelers between our government and the Afghan government and the Taliban on trying to do peace negotiations.

Mercedes Stephenson: From a reconstruction perspective, do you think that a deal with the Taliban is necessary to be able to rebuild Afghanistan? Does there have to be some kind of a truce there?

John Sopko: Well, I think everyone feels if we are going to succeed and if the Afghans are going to succeed, you need peace. Security is the key. If you don’t have security, you’re not going to have better schools. You’re not going to have better roads. You’re not going to have a better government. You’re not going to have a fight against corruption by the host government.

Mercedes Stephenson: Can you rebuild and can you have that peace without a more significant security presence there, from western countries like Canada and the United States, because there’s not many troops on the ground anymore compared to where we were five or ten years ago.

John Sopko: Our government had to consider that with the new administration and they decided to increase the number of troops, but the sheer number of troops is not really–what we should be focusing on is what kind of troops? What is their mission and where they’re being used. And I think the administration came up with a policy of using more troops for the training and advising and assisting, and letting those troops, then, go down to lower levels of the Afghan military and police to try to assist that training. That was a good proposal. That’s one of the proposals we have recommended in our reports. But I also said the focus on some of the successes. And some of the successes in the military were that the Afghan Special Forces are actually doing a very good job. So spend more resources there to try to improve their Special Forces. Also, the Afghan Air Force is improving. So spend more money and resources there. So it’s not just the finite number. It’s what is the situation on the ground? And how can we use the successes and avoid the failures to improve them?

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that there should be more contributions from western countries or from NATO, to try to secure Afghanistan and to try to help rebuild it, because it sounds like with the current levels, it’s a struggle?

John Sopko: So that’s something. You’re absolutely correct. I think NATO could help us more. And we should as for that help and I think we are.

Mercedes Stephenson: How big of a problem is corruption? Right now in Afghanistan, the U.S. is spending $122 billion dollars, I think. It’s historically been something that the country has struggled with. Has there been progress on that front and how do you deal with that?

John Sopko: Corruption is a serious problem for two reasons. One, it steals money from Canada. It steals money from the U.S., the Germans and everybody else. If the corrupt officials are stealing money from us, they’re stealing money from you and your taxpayer. So it decreases our effectiveness because we lose money, it gets diverted. But the second, and the most sinister, is that corruption fuels a cynicism among the Afghan people. When they see the big power brokers, the fat cats, the organized criminals getting aide money syphoned off to them, or they get all the contracts, or their family get all of the visas to go to the United States or elsewhere that can undercut any rule of law and any governance–good governance that the host government is trying to establish. So that’s the two-headed viper that can destroy Afghanistan. Are we doing enough? Well, you read our reports, no, we don’t think we are.

Mercedes Stephenson: I remember the opium problem and burning the marijuana fields when the Canadians were there. Has the problem with drugs become better or worse?

John Sopko: Well, I think that’s a very good question, especially from a Canadian, for a Canadian audience, because most of your heroin which is on the streets of this city and other major cities, comes from Afghanistan, unlike the United States where we get less than 2 per cent of it. I think you get up to 90 per cent. I forget the exact figure. So I can understand why your audience would want to know about that. And unfortunately, bad news: We, the United States, have spent billions–I think it’s $6.8 billion dollars–on trying to support the Afghan government in fighting narcotics and using any indicia it’s been a failure. If we don’t do something soon, and if the Afghan people don’t do something soon, you’re going to end up with a narco-terrorist state in Afghanistan.

Mercedes Stephenson: Is Afghanistan close to being a failed state?

John Sopko: It’s a troubled state. It’s a very troubled state. It needs help and that’s one of the reasons why my government, and your government, is supporting the Afghan people.

Mercedes Stephenson: When you’re dealing with the Afghan government and you’re dealing with the regional governments, to touch on that issue of corruption, how do you deal with it in a country like Afghanistan where some of these officials are warlords? Some are closely affiliated to the Taliban. When I was in Afghanistan, people used to say governor by day, Taliban by night. That’s a very difficult situation.

John Sopko: The answer to that: I think you just have to be extremely careful. And you really have to know the country and know the people you’re dealing with, and that was one of the criticisms. We just issued five lessons learned reports and that’s a common theme that we really didn’t know who we were dealing with. I know the consequences, particularly in dealing with the warlords. If the old proverbial line, you know, you go to bed with dogs, you wake up with fleas. Well that happened in Afghanistan and the terrible thing is again, it hurt our standing with the average Afghan people. And now we empowered a lot of these warlords, a lot of these corrupt organized crime figures, a lot of these people who violate human rights and now we’re stuck with them.

Mercedes Stephenson: What do you do about that?

John Sopko: Well first thing, stop supporting them. Secondly, identify it. Third thing is conditionality. We have to be brave enough as a donor to say no to the Afghans. And for too long, we thought, Oh my God, if we say no they won’t like us. They won’t take our money. Well, of course they’ll take your money. Do it. Hold their feet to the fire. My job is to hold my government’s feet to the fire, to hold the Afghan’s feet to the fire and those things. So that’s one way to handle that problem.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well, John that’s all the time we have, but thank you so much for joining us.

John Sopki: Thank you, pleasure to be here. I always love to go to Canada, so thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: That is our show for today. For extended interviews, go to our website: Thanks for joining us. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and I’ll see you next Sunday.

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