The West Block Transcript: Season 8, Episode 17

Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance is shown in his office in Ottawa on Thursday, June 8, 2017.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang.
Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance is shown in his office in Ottawa on Thursday, June 8, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang.


Episode 17, Season 8

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guest Interviews: Abigail Bimman, David Akin, Michael Le Couteur, Darrell Bricker, General Jonathan Vance

Location: Ottawa



Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer: “Baseless and unacceptable, that is how the Indian government described the prime minister’s bizarre theory.”


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “This has been an excellent trip that has been an opportunity to deepen people to people ties between India and Canada.”


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President Donald Trump: “We’re thinking about just taxing cars coming in from Canada. That’s the motherlode. We don’t like their representative very much.”


Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer: “Did she get the return for all those concessions and end to steel and aluminum tariffs.”


Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland: “We were tough when it mattered.”


New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs: “We ran on the belief that New Brunswick needs better service from the political leaders. We were elected on that.”


Quebec Premier Francois Legault: “The election is over now. Let’s start working together for the benefits of all Quebecers.”


People’s Party of Canada Party Leader Maxime Bernier: “Here it is, the People’s Party of Canada.”


Alberta Premier Rachel Notley: “When Alberta’s oil is sold in Canada, profit from it actually goes back to Canada.”


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Ontario Premier Doug Ford: “The one issue that Ontario and Saskatchewan are most closely aligned on is the fight against the Trudeau Liberal carbon tax.”


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We are going to move forward, as we always have, in a very consistent way.”


It’s Sunday, December 30th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.


You just watched some of the defining political moments of the year. Stories that changed the landscape, created winners and losers, and made history. Let’s take a look at some of the top political stories of the year.


I’m here with my Global National colleagues to talk about the biggest political stories of the year. Joining us is Michael Le Couteur, Abigail Bimman and David Akin.


Abigail, let’s start with you, biggest story on the Hill for you this year.


Abigail Bimman: For me, it was the trip to India. I know we’re going all the way back to February, but I was on that trip as a reporter and it was fascinating to watch it play out, all of the missteps, all of the problems with that trip, so the big ones being the choice to wear Indian attire, which did not go well. I remember somebody in India saying, you know, we Indians don’t wear Indian clothing this often. And then watching it play out back home, which was even worse. And of course, the invitation of Jaspal Atwal, the convicted attempted murderer photographed at an event on the trip, and watching the way the inner circle handled that trip on the trip very poorly. But bigger than that, the reverberations and the consequences of that trip, we’ve seen it play out all through the year with the Daniel Jean testimony, and just this month, we have a new report about that trip. So that trip was the first time that we saw a dent in Trudeau’s numbers. We saw some polling showing the Conservatives surpassing the Liberals in polling and it was the trip that stuck in terms of making an impression.


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Mercedes Stephenson: And David, why do you think that trip stuck? What about it made it that watershed?


David Akin: Well there also wasn’t much—I mean, there wasn’t much business element, and we’ve travelled with prime ministers past and present, and there’s often a cultural mix to these trips as well as a business component.


Michael Le Couteur: This one was heavy on culture.


David Akin: This one was heavy on culture.


Michael Le Couteur: And unnecessary, completely unnecessary.


David Akin: And you saw the Conservatives take it up in the House of Commons as Justin Trudeau’s India vacation and I think also reverberated with Canadians, not only the costume but what did you do? He brought his family over and they were also suitably decked out, so I think it just struck completely the wrong tone and Trudeau wore it.


Michael Le Couteur: And PMO knew it, right? I mean, we saw at the parliamentary press gallery dinner where you had Trudeau get up there and make fun of it and say, “India trip, what India trip? We didn’t go to India this year.” Internally they knew this was a massive misstep.


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Abigail Bimman: Well, I think tense is important. They knew by the time of the parliamentary press gallery and they know now. But on the trip it just went from bad to worse and they couldn’t right that trip.


Mercedes Stephenson: And certainly a trip they’d like to forget, but some things they’d like to remember. NAFTA, I know was a big top for you, Mike, in every story this year.


Michael Le Couteur: Yeah, it was. And I mean, what do want to call it? NAFTA Lite, USMCA, CU, MC—


David Akin: New NAFTA, new NAFTA, U-SMACA.


Mercedes Stephenson: NAFTA 2.0.


Michael Le Couteur: Whatever it is. Yes, that was finally something that Trudeau can look at and go I got a deal done with Trump. Can you believe this, right? Because nobody thought—I mean, no matter what the Conservatives want to say and they think that they could have gotten a better deal with him, they believe they could have. Trudeau and the Liberals understood that trying to deal with Donald Trump and what he wanted to do and what he was trying to do, and still to this day, I’ve spoken to people who were in the room and they said they were taken aback because they would show up and look across the table and say so, we agree on this but we just saw a tweet from your boss saying you don’t agree on this. And the people across the table from the American side would go, ah, we need to get back to this here. So the fact that they could get it done, I think, is going to be a huge feather in the cap for Trudeau. He’s going to campaign on that. The problem is we still have the steel and aluminum tariffs hanging over. Everybody thought that they were going to get resolved with the resolution of NAFTA. They haven’t, it’s a massive dent on our economy right now. Trump loves them. He thinks that they’re great, that they are a huge benefit to the Americans. How Trudeau will get those tariffs taken off is going to be the biggest hill he’ll have to climb next year.


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Mercedes Stephenson: And another question on it, David. Congress is still a big question mark here, because it’s a very different Congress coming in and they haven’t signed off on it.


David Akin: It is, and we’ve already seen several existing members of the Congress on both sides of the aisles say they don’t like the new NAFTA or the USMCA. Yes, so that’s going to be a big problem. I think on the steel and aluminum tariffs, though, I think Trudeau is betting and the reason they didn’t tie the two things together, they think they’ve got an easy case in court and it is in a couple of different jurisdictions. They’ll win there and Trump won’t succeed there. But NAFTA is all politics and our side and Trump have to actually now politic to the new Congress.


Michael Le Couteur: And speaking of the Congress issue, I mean when you just saw earlier in December that terrible photo-op in the Oval Office with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer that just degenerated the Democrats.


David Akin: I love that kind of transparency in a photo-op. There should be more photo-ops like that. [Cross talk] There are too many boring photo-ops.
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Michael Le Couteur: But I mean, the fact that the Democrats now want to make sure that they turn what Trump sees as a win into a loss. USMCA, NAFTA Lite, NAFTA 2.0, might be where they want to do it.


Mercedes Stephenson: But Abigail, if Congress starts to become difficult on that, is that a political issue for the Liberals here at home or can people differentiate?


Abigail Bimman: I think people can differentiate because the Liberals have been so consistent in their messaging about what a good deal this is. I think for me, the reason that NAFTA is one of the most important and biggest stories of the year, partially just the fact that it took so long to roll out, I spoke to lots of people who don’t normally follow politics so closely, who were paying attention and saying hey, what does this actually mean? We have free trade with the United States, right? It really made a lot of people pay more attention, want to know the details and I think—


Mercedes Stephenson: It was a big surprise for a lot of Canadians that America might not be a friend.


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Abigail Bimman: And when people started to realize this actually might break and fall apart and hey, what does that mean for us now in our average daily life? I think that’s why that story stood out.


Michael Le Couteur: We’ve never had to worry about the Americans, right? It’s never been—


David Akin: Or not as much, yeah.


Michael Le Couteur: Yeah. It’s always been okay, you know what? Sometimes we don’t get along with them and that’s fine. Trump has changed the game completely. Now, nobody knows where the U.S. stands. Forget on a yearly basis, on a monthly basis, on a daily basis.


Mercedes Stephenson: And speaking of game changers, for Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, a pretty big game changer with some of the provinces, David, which I know relates to your top story of the year.


David Akin: Well, yeah. So I want to start with New Brunswick 10 years ago, if you don’t mind. I’ll get into that this way. Ten years ago in New Brunswick—


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Mercedes Stephenson: David Akin’s history is always good.


David Akin: Yes, and I love numbers. I’m a numbers guy. Ten years ago, 95 per cent of New Brunswickers in an election voted Liberal or Conservative. This fall, barely 70 per cent did. There’s a couple of new parties: Greens, People’s sort of Alliance Party. Let’s go next door to Quebec, there’s a brand new party, the CAQ is in charge there. The Liberal Party had their worst showing ever and the Parti Quebecois; they’re not even an official party anymore. Let’s keep going west to Ontario. The Liberal Party of Ontario, one of the strongest machines in western democratic history, it’s no longer an official party. All three provinces said I’m done with the status quo. I want something new.


Let’s look ahead to next spring in Alberta. Four years ago, Albertans said to heck with the status quo, threw out the PCs and chose the NDP for the first time, and it looks like the NDP may be on their way out with another brand new party, Jason Kenney’s United Conservatives. This volatile electorate, an electorate that’s ready to say I want to try something completely different. We have seen some polling that suggests the Greens are on the rise. That is a net bad for Justin Trudeau’s in the year ahead. We’ve seen Maxime Bernier’s new party. That may be a net bad for the Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives. It’s up for grabs in this year, voters are ready to move.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Abigail, where do you think that populism—is it populism, I should say, is driving it? Where is the factor coming that’s changing the way people vote?


Abigail Bimman: I think it goes back to what David says in terms of people who are all ready to try something new. And in terms of populism, it’s people who are just looking for those other alternatives. Maybe we don’t quite yet know exactly how far that will go or what is the meat of those other alternatives, but it’s people paying more attention to a new alternative.


Mercedes Stephenson: Mike, we have a few seconds left. Your thoughts, you’ve been watching the provinces for a long time. How significant of a shift are we seeing?


Michael Le Couteur: I think the fact that now Justin Trudeau is sitting around the table where he doesn’t have a lot of receptive ears anymore is going to be an issue for him. The fact that when he first dreamed up of I’m going to hold these meetings again with the provinces and territories and, you know, it’ll be sunny ways and we’re going to have a great time. Well I think he’s really seeing now why Stephen Harper never did it before, because it is difficult, it is hard to get consensus around this table, and I think in 2019 that’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. Will he try and play himself off of Premier Doug Ford, or is he going to try and go around campaigning saying, look, I’m the antidote to every one of your premiers, or does he have, you know, a receptive audience there?


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Mercedes Stephenson: A bit of a reality check for sure. Thank you to all of our reporters for joining us with their top stories of the year.


David Akin: Thanks.


Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, Canadians head to the ballot box in just over nine months. We’ll find out where the parties stand as we head into this election year.




Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. As we wrap up 2018, it’s always a good time to take stock of where the parties stand, what issues matters to Canadians and what politicians will have to do to avoid political pitfalls and woe voters in the coming election year. With the answers to those questions, joining me now from Toronto is Darrell Bricker, the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs.


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Darrell, you have your finger on the pulse of voters and politicians are always paying close attention to your polls. Take us through how each of the three federal parties, or at least three biggest parties, are doing.


Darrell Bricker: Well right now, it’s the Liberal Party’s election to lose. When you take a look at where they are in our polling, they’re about five points ahead. But the key point, Mercedes, is not that they’re just five point ahead, they’ve got a pretty good lead in all the places that really count in terms of winning large numbers of seats, so British Columbia, in Ontario and in the province of Quebec. So they’re actually doing a little better than maybe the overall poll numbers suggest.


When you look at the Conservative Party, they’re way over performing in the province of Alberta, which distorts how well they are doing in the national numbers. So they do really well in Alberta, they do also pretty well in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but they are only competitive with the Liberal Party in the 905, east of the prairies. So when we’re looking at where the Conservatives are, they’ve actually got quite a long way to go in order to really challenge the government.


And then finally, the NDP has been in a steady slide. They’re down at 18 right now, since about the summertime. So they have to find a way to get back into the race.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Darrell, what about Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada? Is he getting any traction?


Darrell Bricker: Not so far in our polling. I mean, we’re not specifically asking about the party, but we don’t see the category that we usually lump that into, “other”, rising up in any great degree at the moment.


Mercedes Stephenson: When it comes to issues, what are the topics that Canadians are prioritizing and that they’re going to be looking for politicians to present positions and solutions on in this election year?


Darrell Bricker: Well the number one issue is always health care and the Liberal Party does have a pretty good lead on that, but anybody who’s been around politics for a long time knows that you don’t really win elections based on health care, you tend to lose them. So I don’t expect that it’s going to be a big debate during the course of the next year and the next election. So that really brings us into economic issues and that’s where it becomes quite interesting. The Conservatives have a pretty good lead, about eight points over the Liberal Party, in terms of economic management. But on the key issue of taxes, which is now number two to health care in terms of people’s overall concerns, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party are pretty well tied. That’s an issue in which the Conservative Party traditionally has done a lot better. So if they’re going to get competitive, they’re going to have to establish some distance.


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When you take a look at where the Liberal Party’s really been focusing its attention on things like environment, for example, climate change, anything that has to do with the broader definition of identity politics, they tend to rank further down the list. So as we go through the 2019 and work our way towards October in the election, I expect where you’re going to see a lot of the heat and light—a lot of the friction in the election campaign will be around those issues of economic management and taxation.


Mercedes Stephenson: Darrell, what do you think each party has to watch out and what do they have to achieve if they want to win in 2019?


Darrell Bricker: Well the Liberal Party really has to find a way to get itself focused and establish a gap on the issues that people are most concerned about, they’re really in charge of. So for example, getting back more into a discussion about the economy and the future of the economy, particularly when we’re facing some headwinds going into 2019, I think they would be well-served by doing that.


The Conservative Party really does have a little bit traditionally an advantage on economic issues, so what they have to do is they would have to really position themselves well on the economy.

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The hardest agenda I would say is for the NDP. When the Liberals have moved so far to the left to really occupy the space that the NDP traditionally occupies in terms of Canadians political thinking, there’s not a lot of space left for them. So they’re going to have to find a way to get back into this.


Mercedes Stephenson: Darrell Bricker, great analysis. Thanks so much.


Darrell Bricker: Thank you.


Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, does the Canadian military have the resources it needs to handle demands from overseas and domestic operations? We’ll find out.


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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Soldiers, sailors and air men and women sacrifice to keep this country safe. Right now, there are over 2,000 of them deployed far from home during this holiday season. Canada’s top general, the Chief of the Defence staff General Jonathan Vance sat down with me for a yearend interview on Canadian Forces operations.


General Vance, thank you so much for joining us.


General Jonathan Vance: It’s a pleasure.


Mercedes Stephenson: You see all of these reports. Reports that normal Canadians don’t get to see: reports about the threats that we face. What keeps you up at night?


General Jonathan Vance: Well what certainly keeps me busy are any of the reports pertaining to where we’re operating in the world, where there may be a threat to our troops, or a threat to the success of our missions and that can range from reports of individuals or groups of individuals armed or otherwise that would try to harm our people, all the way through to those kinds of reports that would have an impact on the success of our missions.


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Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think the biggest threat to Canada is?


General Jonathan Vance: There are very few large military threats to Canada. There are certainly threats that are evolving right now that can reach Canada, be they missiles or threats against our cyber security, threats to our oceans and to our shores. We face a significant threat almost every year now with natural disasters, forest fires and floods and so on that affect Canadians. So in our role to defend Canada and protect Canadians, that’s been significant.


Mercedes Stephenson: How much strain does that put on the forces, because you have limited personnel, limited equipment, limited budgets, and now you’re dealing with thousands of people deployed at home and abroad to deal with natural disasters as well as with manmade threats.


General Jonathan Vance: Generally speaking, over the last few years, we haven’t been, you know, stretched to the point of not being able to do the missions that we’ve been asked to do. One of the things that happens, of course, is as I provide options to the government for overseas missions, missions away from Canada, I don’t provide options that we can’t do. I don’t provide options that—


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Mercedes Stephenson: So it limits your choices.


General Jonathan Vance: Well, like anything, I would be remiss if I didn’t give options that were feasible. And so yeah, we have to stick—every military does. You’ve got a certain size and you have to be able to live within it. Thus far, I haven’t felt any restrictions based on what the government has asked us to do versus what it is that we are able to do.


Mercedes Stephenson: Will you feel those restrictions going forward if there is not an injection of people or funding?


General Jonathan Vance: Absolutely. So that’s why the defence policy has a significant injection of people and funding. We’re going to grow by 3,500 people on the regular force. We’re going to grow into the reserve to 30,000.


Mercedes Stephenson: To change to operations, looking overseas, you have a tremendous number of troops on NATO operations. I think a lot of Canadians aren’t necessarily really aware of how many are there. How concerned are you about the situation between Russia and Ukraine which seems to be escalating, when there are so many Canadian troops that are in that region and could find themselves right at the front of where that conflicts taking place?


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General Jonathan Vance: So we have lots of troops involved in NATO operations. We’ve got enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in Latvia. We’ve got ships and aircraft, on-duty ships consistently and aircraft episodically on duty for NATO. And then in Ukraine, about 250 people who are training Ukrainian forces and doing a great job of that, fantastic work.


The escalation that occurred was brief and did not affect our troops. That said there’s no question about it that we’re in Ukraine because of what Russia has done. And as Russia continues to be provocative, be aggressive, it does—and I understand—it raised the stakes somewhat. It hasn’t affected this mission, our Operation UNIFIER at this juncture, but it doesn’t point to a peaceful and ultimate resolution of Ukraine that we’d like to see.


Mercedes Stephenson: Mali is another place where there’s a significant Canadian forces presence. You’re about halfway through that mission now. How do you know if you’re making a difference?


General Jonathan Vance:  Well, first and foremost, we’ve provided an outstanding capability in terms of the aeromedical and aviation logistics capability to that mission. On any given day, we know we’ve done a good job when each task day-by-day gets done and gets done expertly. So we can measure our success in terms of our little part of the mission by the activity, the output and the success of any given mission. To measure it in the context of the wider UN mission in Mali, well we know that those forces that operate out of Gao must have aeromedical evacuation support so they’re able to function. So, it’s sort of binary. It’s either there and it’s working, and therefore they have the confidence to deploy outside and engage the population or they don’t. And they are.


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Mercedes Stephenson: You’re an infantry guy who likes boots on the ground. When you look at five aeromedical evacuations, do you think that makes a difference for the people on the ground in Mali?


General Jonathan Vance: Well it certainly made a big difference for the people that we evacuated in those five missions.


Mercedes Stephenson: But for the broader population?


General Jonathan Vance: Well, we’re there—the aeromedical evacuation is to support the peacekeepers that are there. We’ll support others as well, you know, depending on the call. Yes, I think it does.


Mercedes Stephenson: How many people do we have there and why are we in Iraq?


General Jonathan Vance: Well, right now, we have authorities up to 850 people to deal with Operation Impacts and on any given day, that number fluctuates. I’d say today, we’re about 700. We’re there. We were there. The first part of why we were there was to help eliminate the threat of Daesh, to destroy Daesh’s ability to continue to function. Now, I would say we’re a partner in the stabilization phase, where there continue to be Daesh elements that either want to re-emerge or have existed from before and we’re helping identify where those are and help the Iraqi’s deal with it. And we’re going to doing the training, professional training of Iraqi security forces in a couple of different locations. So it’s a holistic approach that defies easy definition of win-loss. We’re going to have for this over time.


Mercedes Stephenson: You were in Afghanistan. The West pulled out of Afghanistan, it’s in chaos again. There’s tremendous violence. Are you worried the same thing will happen with Iraq?


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General Jonathan Vance: Well not right now because I think we continue to stick to it, particularly with the emergence of the new NATO mission. The coalition and the NATO mission will be complimentary to one another.


Mercedes Stephenson: General Vance, thank you so much for your time today.


General Jonathan Vance: Okay, Mercedes, a pleasure.


Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, thanks for joining us. As we leave you today, we want to pay tribute to some of the politicians who passed away this year.

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