The West Block transcript: Season 8, episode 21
THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 21, Season 8
Sunday, January 27, 2019
Host: Mike Le Couteur
Guest Interviews: Parliamentary Secretary Marco Mendicino, Colin Robertson, Stephanie Carvin, Susan Delacourt, David Akin
John McCallum, Canada’s Former Ambassador to China: “And I think Ms. Meng has quite a strong case.”
Dawna Friesen, Global News Anchor: “Some breaking news in this country tonight: he now regrets his comments.”
Andrew Scheer, Conservative Party Leader: “It’s completely unacceptable.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Our focus is on getting those Canadians home safe and making sure all their rights are respected.”
Andrew Scheer, Conservative Party Leader: “I would fire John McCallum?”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Making a change would not help release those Canadians a day sooner.”
Coleen Christie, Global News Anchor: “Breaking news from Parliament Hill: John McCallum has resigned at the request of the prime minister.”
RCMP Officer: There was no specific target identified. There was an attack planned, which is what led to our disruption.”
Mike Le Couteur: It’s Sunday, January 27th. I’m Mike Le Couteur. Mercedes Stephenson is away toady, and this is The West Block.
Respecting the rule of law, that’s what we’ve been hearing over and over again from the Trudeau government when talking about the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. But Canada’s ambassador to China, John McCallum, went way off script last week saying he thinks that Meng has a strong case, and that freelancing has now cost him his job. Over the weekend, the prime minister asked for and accepted McCallum’s resignation.
Joining me now on why McCallum was fired and what comes next is Marco Mendicino, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Infrastructures and Communities.
First Mr. Mendicino, the prime minister stood by Mr. McCallum on Thursday then he misspoke again on Friday. So, we haven’t heard yet, why was he fired?
Parliamentary Secretary Marco Mendicino: Well let me begin by saying that I know John McCallum and like most that have had the chance to work with him, I hold him in high regard. I think his career in public service will stand the test of time, but over the last several days he made a number of comments which were unhelpful and obviously, did not reflect the government’s position as it relates to Ms. Meng’s extradition matter. That’s why the prime minister asked for his resignation. You know, the opposition are going to continue to resort to partisanship. We’re going to be continued to focus on securing the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. Minister Freeland has been rallying support from around the world from countries like the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, other countries within Europe. These are countries that know that Canada honours its treaties. We honour our word and we share values when it comes to the rule of law. And they’ve also joined in calling for the release of these two Canadians who are being arbitrarily detained in China.
Michael Le Couteur: So was he just freelancing or was Mr. McCallum actually speaking for the government when he said on Friday that it’d be great for Canada if the U.S. dropped the extradition request for Ms. Meng?
Parliamentary Secretary Marco Mendicino: Well no, he was not reflecting the position of the Government of Canada and as the prime minister’s statement indicated, he asked for the resignation of Mr. McCallum following that second interview and now we are going to continue working on securing the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. The way that we do this is not be descending into the fray when it comes to partisanship, but rather by engaging diplomatically around the world. And I know that’s something that Minister Freeland has been working very diligently on. The Foreign Service has a proven track record at securing the release of Canadians who have been detained in other regimes. Whether it’s in North Korea or in Iran and we need to continue following that track. That’s where our focus lies.
Michael Le Couteur: But clearly this hurts diplomatic relations and when it comes to Canada trying to free these Canadians who’ve been arbitrarily detained, what is this government’s message to the families? How are they supposed to feel now?
Parliamentary Secretary Marco Mendicino: Well that we support them and that we will continue to remain laser light focused on securing the release of both of their family members who are in China, Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. And that’s what you would expect all Canadians would want from this government. Look, there’s a lot of work that gets done by the Foreign Service and by our government that is behind the scenes. That work is done responsibly. It’s done in accordance with the rule of law and we must continue to engage diplomatically and that is how we are going to secure the release of these two Canadians.
Michael Le Couteur: But how difficult is that now that you had all of this happen? Because clearly, the Chinese will look at this and say, well you know where are they? Where is Canada in this now?
Parliamentary Secretary Marco Mendicino: Well, as I’ve said before, we are very focused on securing the release of these two individuals. The opposition are going to try and fixate on the resignation and are going to try and smear Mr. McCallum. That isn’t going to advance the objective of securing the release of our two Canadians. What will is if we continue to place our confidence in Minister Freeland and our Foreign Service. There are counterparts that they are working very closely with in China. There are also many other countries who have come to Canada’s side. And as I said at the outset of my remarks, this is because we share a fundamental belief in the rule of law. We share values which transcend partisanship, which transcend politics, and that is why they have expressed their unequivocal confidence in Canada to conduct the extradition hearing matter, which is what we heard before the courts, an independent branch of government and have also called simultaneously for the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. That’s what our government would indicate to their relatives and their families and that we will continue to support them however we can by remaining focused on the diplomatic exercise at hand.
Michael Le Couteur: Mr. Mendicino, I appreciate you joining us. That’s unfortunately all the time we have. Have yourself a great day.
Parliamentary Secretary Marco Mendicino: Thank you.
Michael Le Couteur: So, where does this leave the Canadians caught in the crossfire in China? Well joining me right now is a former diplomat, Colin Robertson. Thanks very much for joining us.
Colin Robertson: Good to be with you, Michael.
Michael Le Couteur: So I guess the first question is the message to the families now of these detained, how are they to feel right now?
Colin Robertson: Well it’s the same, we’re—the Canadian government has got their back and our representatives in China and headed now by our chargé, who are making every effort to defend their interests and particularly getting access to them to report on the conditions they’re in. That’s got to be the concern of the families is how are their husband, brothers, and sons?
Michael Le Couteur: But how do we now get that message back on track going forward with China? Because everything the Chinese have seen right now are two different messages: one from the prime minister and one from McCallum. How do we right this ship?
Colin Robertson: Well the emphasis, once again, I think as we heard this morning, the government is doubling down on the rules based approach, which is exactly right. Because for a country like Canada, we need rules, especially when you’re a middle power to be able to deal with big, that’s what levels the playing field. So the rules based institutions and the rules based approach, which is at the heart of this whole extradition affair, is what we talk about, but it’s also an opportunity to reset the relationship. We’ve now got an opportunity to put in a new ambassador. I think we should also be pushing for a new Chinese ambassador because some of the comments that he’s made about white supremacy is just off the reservation and I think we impress upon the Chinese that we want to have a new—restart the relationship, but we probably need new quarterbacks in the field because frankly, we don’t—the Chinese didn’t necessarily trust Mr. McCallum anymore, or did he have the confidence of the prime minister, and we don’t trust, I think, the Chinese ambassador. So I think it starts with that. The alternative might be something like special envoys which are better to have ambassadors who you can trust and work with.
Michael Le Couteur: But I mean resetting some of the players is a good plan, but so much of the game has already been played. How do we get anybody to forget the first three quarters of all of this?
Colin Robertson: Well they won’t, but you go in with a new ambassador and perhaps an ambassador here and they engage. I mean it’s all about engagement. We think about sending over a ministerial delegation. We impress upon the Chinese that we’re prepared to engage with them. But first and foremost, we’ve got to be getting the two Canadians that we are detained, we think unfairly, out of jail and some sort of mitigation on the sentence of Mr. Schellenberg, although that would be different and that’s on a separate track. And then you get into the economic relationship and then the sort of broader interests as well. And remember, other countries are going to be watching how we’re handling this because they could be in the same position. In the same way—in a certain way, the Chinese are—you know, there’s this Chinese expression, you know, you kill a chicken to scare the monkeys. Well there’s a whole lot of monkeys, which are the Chinese sort of say look how we’re treating Canada. And so they will—that’s why they’re banding behind us because that’s why you’re getting the Brits and the Australians and everyone else because they could be in our position as well.
Michael Le Couteur: How much more difficult will it be to smooth over relationships, especially with the Chinese? Because they are such a superpower, because of how traditional they are in relationships.
Colin Robertson: Well the Chinese have interests, too, and I think they would understand they have people into China have gone off the reservation and they deal with them in a more summary fashion than Mr. McCallum’s been dealt with. So this doesn’t normally happen, but this is extraordinary even for Canada, but is an opportunity, as I say, to reset. But I think you need some new players, two new ambassadors and then with a clear goal to get the relationship back on track. Now, I don’t think anything much is going to happen until the China-U.S. relationship is sorted out and of course we’re through this extradition hearing with Meng Wanzhou.
Michael Le Couteur: And just quickly, if you were to advise the prime minister what to do in the next couple days ahead. Does he have to call President Xi to go look, hey, sorry about all this, let’s reset?
Colin Robertson: No. I think that we’ve got a chargé who will deliver a message. Well, I think Chrystia Freeland could talk to her counterpart. He may well pick up the phone to talk to his counterpart, the premier. Not the president, because the Chinese aren’t—the president won’t take it, again, their very particular minded. And just sort of say—and I think deliver the message. Okay, we’re going to be appointing a new ambassador fairly soon, we’d like you to consider something as well because we think this important relationship should get back on track.
Michael Le Couteur: I appreciate your time. That’s all the time we have for you today, Colin Robertson. Thanks so much for joining us.
Up next, a major terrorism raid in Kingston, Ontario leads to two arrests. What does it mean for national security?
Michael Le Couteur: Welcome back. The RCMP says it was a terror plot that was being planned from a home in Kingston, Ontario. Late last week, the Mounties swooped down on two residences.
RCMP Officer: “From the initial information and what I can comment on is it was a substantiated and credible attack plot; however, there was no indication of where that attack was to take place. There was no specific targeting or time associated to it. The disruption occurred when sufficient evidence was gathered to make the arrest.”
Michael Le Couteur: Police say they found evidence of explosives, including some material which they had to detonate. The Mounties first learned about the plot from the FBI. Still, the police say there is no imminent threat to Canadians.
Joining me now to talk about the investigation and what it means for national security is terrorism expert, Stephanie Carvin. Thanks for joining us, Stephanie.
Stephanie Carvin: Thanks for having me on.
Michael Le Couteur: I guess the first question is there’s no imminent threat, but the plan had to be evolved enough for them to move in.
Stephanie Carvin: Right, so they probably would have reached a stage where they felt that, you know, there was something in the investigation that was giving them the impression that now was the right time to actually move. It’s not really clear what that is. I mean there’s some speculation there was this plane overhead that had gotten a lot of attention and its role in this particular investigation. Or perhaps that the bomb that was being developed, or explosive device that was being developed, had reached a stage where the police felt that now was the time they actually needed to move in.
Michael Le Couteur: Some of the details that they did tell us is that FINTRAC was involved. And that’s obviously the federal watchdog that monitors terrorism activity, especially with the—in regards to moving of funds. Does that tell you that there could be more tentacles to this, especially cross border?
Stephanie Carvin: It is an interesting piece of the puzzle. I do note there is no specific financing charge that was laid on the minor, the individual we don’t know that much about. So the section of the criminal code that they used was facilitation, which is 83.19 and not—and the other thing that’s interesting about that particular charge is that you don’t actually have to have facilitated in the name of any kind of particular group. They were just making some kind of terrorism easier. So the FINTRAC angle might be related to that particular aspect of this, but again, it’s really not clear.
Michael Le Couteur: But when they say terrorism, I mean obviously they have to have enough there to say that this was something connected to somebody and being at the press conference, I remember the RCMP refused to say ISIS or any other group, so what could it possibly be?
Stephanie Carvin: So the terrorism legislation stipulates that, you know, you have to be able to prove that you’re carrying an act out for a political, religious or ideological cause. So that’s the fundamental basis. Now normally, that is associated with a group, but it could just be the fact that, you know, they’re still investigating. I just think there could be other threads to this, you know, perhaps the FBI is looking into some angles in the United States if there was kind of a cross border angle to this. So they don’t want to prejudice the investigation at this stage by perhaps giving away more than they want to.
Michael Le Couteur: Now Andrew Scheer, the leader of the Conservatives has sort of really said that this foiled terrorism plot reiterates the fact that we need stronger borders, we need to examine our screening process for refugees and this is also on top of the concerns that they’ve expressed over asylum seekers that are crossing the border irregularly into Canada. Do you think that those comments are fair?
Stephanie Carvin: So, I believe in that, you know, in strong security procedures, I believe we do need a strong CBSA to look into individuals who do want to come to Canada. And certainly, not necessarily on the Sunni Islamist inspired side, but on the Tamil side, on the Sikh side and other kinds of terrorism, we have seen individuals of a radicalized mindset end up in Canada. So we do need those in place. That being said, on—in these kinds of terrorism cases, so what we call Sunni Islamist extremism, most of the radicalization has typically happened in Canada. So the issue that, you know, would more screening actually have helped in this case? It’s not at all clear. If you look at the—you know, I think there’s been something like 55 terrorism charges. Fifty-four of those, I believe, are kind of on the Sunni Islamist side. Almost all of those individuals were born in Canada, came to Canada as a very young child. They radicalized here. So it’s not clear to me that further spending of resources on enhancing those procedures is the best way to spend money. If you want to improve counter-terrorism in Canada, you need to actually be funding programs here not necessarily enhancing what is already, I think, a pretty robust regime on the refugee side.
Michael Le Couteur: And quickly on that, because they were youth and because as we said, we think they were radicalized here, or possibly radicalized here, are we not doing enough here to make sure that we’re watching in the communities?
Stephanie Carvin: Well, you know, this is a really interesting question and I think we need to have our—you know, we have a national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians, as well as, you know, if this new legislation ever passes, news bodies that will be reviewing these things and hopefully giving us answers. Right now, we don’t have a lot of insight into those processes, but, you know, Canada’s threat environment is very different from what we see in other countries, particularly Europe. So, you know, it’s interesting, the CSIS director David Vigneault now thinks that a cyber espionage and economic espionage are the now number one threats to Canada. So, you know, our terrorism problem is there but to the extent that I think some people worry about it, perhaps not.
Michael Le Couteur: Thank you very much for that, Stephanie. That’s all the time we have left, we’ll leave it there.
Up next, a historic moment on Parliament Hill: MPs return to Ottawa for the first Question Period in the new West Block. We’ll unpack the politics of that first week back.
Michael Le Couteur: Welcome back. Tomorrow is a big day on Parliament Hill, the new House of Commons, new home in the West Block will be officially open for business and I think we know what will be dominating this week so let’s get right into it.
Joining me now are the Toronto Star’s Bureau Chief Susan Delacourt and our Chief Political Correspondent here at Global News, David Akin. Thank you, guys for joining us. So, we know what the first couple of questions of Question Period are going to be, all about John McCallum, right Susan?
Susan Delacourt: Do we know that, though? I found it really interesting in December when this whole thing started to blow up. The Conservative were very careful in Question Period. You didn’t see—I went back and checked actually, today, to see how many questions that had asked and not many. I think it’s not so long since they were in government. They understand the danger of politicizing this and I actually do believe the Conservatives have been very responsible and careful about this. So I expect that same tone to continue tomorrow. I may be overly optimistic, but I think there will be some questions about McCallum, for sure. But I do think everybody is treading very cautiously around this one.
Michael Le Couteur: David, do you think that Scheer is going to ask why didn’t you fire him sooner?
David Akin: Yeah, well he’s already—I mean he came out and did that already in sort of some statements and, you know, the Conservative caucus’ meeting this weekend so they’re all here in town. Yeah, and that’s actually—that may be a good point. It may not be the lead question. I think they have—they control Question Period’s agenda. So they want to set the tone, they want to talk about things that presumably is good for their base and good for expanding the votes and I would—if they come at carbon tax, I think that is—you’re going to hear pounded over and over and over again from the Conservatives is carbon tax. And we know the Liberals, I think, are kind of expecting that. We’ve already heard the line from the prime minister talking about you think Conservatives are “for the people”. They’re not. They’re Stephen Harper’s party. It’s election season and I expect QP, tomorrow, in the brand new West Block QP, will be a bit of a preview of some electioneering. And you’re right, Susan, I don’t think McCallum is something anybody wants to electioneer about.
Michael Le Couteur: They don’t want to even look at Trudeau’s judgement in this in standing by him one day, giving him the sort of the mulligan on this one.
Susan Delacourt: Yeah, I think, yes, you are going to—they will do a little victory lap about the idea that they wanted him fired earlier. Trudeau stood by him. I do think we know now that if Mr. McCallum had not spoken to star reporters in Vancouver on Friday, he probably still would be in the job and there might have been a few more questions about that. But there is not much they can say now because they got their wish, he’s gone.
David Akin: And you heard from Marco Mendicino earlier on the program, the Liberal MP, you know, saying I—we expect the Conservatives will try to smear John McCallum, but we’re focused on the families. And so long as, you know, the government is talking about the families, I think that would sober up any opposition politician, New Democrat or Conservative that wants to make some hay here. We need to remember about the guy on death row in China and the two Canadians, an ex-diplomat, a businessman detained, you know, arbitrarily. That really is the big picture.
Susan Delacourt: And it’s a good thing to keep in mind, too, those families is nothing has changed in their circumstance because of John McCallum’s firing. And I suspect nothing much is going to change in the short term. I think this is a long haul battle and it’s—I think all the politicians, as I said, are being very careful about it.
David Akin: If there’s one thing, you’re right, I agree. That’s a good point, the issue about our Canada-China relations, yeah, they don’t get better with McCallum’s firing and they’re probably getting a lot worse. But our Canada-U.S. relations were in peril with those comments that McCallum had hanging out there and that is very, very important. And that is something that maybe the—you know, the Conservatives could explore that issue about how is your relationship with the United States going?
Michael Le Couteur: Looking back on Parliament Hill, here, all the MPs are coming back. So is Raj Grewal, former Liberal MP, who admitted before the holidays he was going to take some time to work on his gambling addiction and mental health issues. He’s back. Do you think that the Liberals will even consider, Susan, bringing him back into the fold?
Susan Delacourt: No. They are kind of—once they’ve decided they are kind of—you know, we saw this with Hunter Tootoo, he’s still an independent as well. It’s the Liberal caucus is sort of a bit like Hotel California right now. You know, you can check out but you can’t leave.
David Akin: Nicola Di Iorio is the other one.
Susan Delacourt: Yeah, and I had asked Trudeau about all these cases when I interviewed at the end of December and he said there’s only so much a prime minister can do. He can’t force people to be unelected. He can force them out of caucus. And I suspect—I think there was a lot of affection for Raj Grewal, but I think he crossed a line and I don’t believe he’ll be back in caucus.
Michael Le Couteur: David, same for you?
David Akin: Yeah, no absolutely and I don’t—that’s an important group of ridings, the Brampton ridings and he really has been the sub-lieutenant, if you will, of Navdeep Bains whose been the political minister for the GTA. Raj has been a big accolade of Bains. And that does put a little hole in the political machine to a degree, but I fully expect the Liberals will keep those Brampton seats. They’re going to fight hard over those Brampton seats with the Conservatives. And Raj was a key part of that fight, but he’s not going to be part of that fight anymore.
Michael Le Couteur: But we haven’t spoken a lot about it lately, but also expected to come back, Tony Clement. I mean that is not somebody—
David Akin: It’s his birthday today as it turns out. I happen to keep these things on the calendar. Happy Birthday, Tony.
Michael Le Couteur: Yeah, David’s known for that. On Twitter: Happy Birthday, Mr. Clement. I mean how will he be received back in the House of Commons, given that his is maybe a little more tricky [trickier]?
Susan Delacourt: The same thing, I think. I do believe that it’s going to be a rather unforgiving set of circumstances for Mr. Clement. I think that his own caucus felt a bit blindsided by this and yeah—
Michael Le Couteur: So to even be back, though?
David Akin: Well he says—I mean at the end of the day, that’s—as with Raj Grewal, as with Nicola Di Iorio, as with Hunter Tootoo, Darshan Kang, it’s really up to the constituents to, I guess, make that call.
Michael Le Couteur: But they don’t have that voice right now, right? I mean there’s nobody to say hey, buddy, time to go.
David Akin: No, but he’s going to be in a corner, one of the corners, I’m not sure which with Maxime Bernier.
Susan Delacourt: That was a really interesting corner back there.
Michael Le Couteur: Yeah, it’s all corners now.
David Akin: It’s all corners and we’re not going to hear very much and I suspect, I don’t think it’s going to get a lot of our attention. It might be the odd question, but he’s—and again, there’s another MP, who if he gets re-elected in Parry Sound-Muskoka I’d very surprised. That will be a riding that will be contested. The Liberals had a pretty good candidate in the last election and now I think it’s kind of up for gr—it could be up for grabs, Parry Sound-Muskoka.
Michael Le Couteur: Yeah, gotta talk about the NDP, too. Sven Robinson back in the fold, what’s old is new again. Thomas Mulcair, a little bit of backseat driving, can Jagmeet possibly rally people around him at this point?
Susan Delacourt: It seems really difficult, doesn’t it? He’s, you know, he just gets running in the by-election and now he’s got the former leader sort of second guessing him or blindsiding him as you say. It does look like he can’t catch a break. Luck turns in politics, but certainly he doesn’t seem to have a lot going for him right now. That being said, I still expect him to win Burnaby South. I think—
David Akin: For what that’s worth, he’s going to lose Outremont, though, which is his last leader’s riding and that was a very important symbolic beachhead in Quebec. He’s going to lose Quebec, essentially in the next election. I think if they get one seat, Alex Boulerice, that’s about it. That may be the way more important loss in this by-election than the Burnaby South win.
Susan Delacourt: Interesting.
Michael Le Couteur: All starting on Monday. Thank you both for joining us, I really appreciate it.
That is our show for today, everyone. Thanks for joining us. Mercedes will be back next week. I’m Mike Le Couteur, have a great week.
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