THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 23, Season 8
Sunday, February 10, 2019
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Guest Interviews: Minister Nathan Cullen, Minister Marco Mendicino, Minister Lisa Raitt,
Ambassador Orlando Viera-Blanco, Senator Doug Black
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The allegations are false.”
Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer: “The prime minister himself appears to have fired his own attorney general for refusing to bow to his demands.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “At no time did we direct the attorney general to take any decision whatsoever in this matter.”
Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer: “Those words were written by a lawyer.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland: “As Venezuela, under Nicolas Maduro’s rule has descended into chaos, millions have fled the country, severe shortages of food medicine and the basic necessities of life”.
Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer: “We need something done now.”
Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs “But will they scrap their no more pipelines Bill C-69?”
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna: “The party opposite has no plan for the environment, no plan for the economy.”
Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, February 10th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.
Late last week, a political bombshell rocked Ottawa. Serious allegations against the Prime Minister’s Office, that the PMO pressured former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to end a criminal prosecution against SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec engineering and construction company that has faced numerous charges of corruption. The prime minister says these allegations are false. But the opposition is calling for an emergency justice committee meeting this week. So, where do we go from here?
Joining me now, are three MPs. Here in studio for the NDP, Nathan Cullen, for the Liberals, Marco Mendicino and in Toronto, Lisa Raitt representing the Conservatives.
Marco, you’re here representing the government so I’ll start with you. You’ve been denying the story is true. I’m going to ask one more time, did the PMO at any point try to pressure, influence, twist the former attorney general’s arm to get involved in the SNC-Lavalin case?
Minister Marco Mendicino: No, and the prime minister made that statement yesterday with integrity and that is because he respects the office of the attorney general.
Mercedes Stephenson: Wait, wait a minute, yesterday all he said was that he didn’t direct her, which was never the allegation and that fed the story.
Minister Marco Mendicino: And that distinction was collapsed in question period and I believe that whether you want to use the word direct or influence, he or neither his staff, did either. And that is because he respects the office of the attorney general and the independents that it imports and that is a value that runs through all the work when it comes to our work in the justice system, work that was advanced by Minister Wilson-Raybould and work that is now being advanced by David Lametti. And it is a value that we will continue to influence all of our work in a very positive way.
Mercedes Stephenson: Nathan, do you believe that?
Minister Nathan Cullen: No, I don’t because when the prime minister was asked again and again and again, he would only use the word you first used, which was direct. Other Liberals have been saying other things but the prime minister of Canada has been guided by lawyers, I assume, to only say a certain thing. We have a bombshell of a report from Bob Fife, a very respected journalist as you know, has been able to do this before, uncover things that have meant a great deal in the end. And Jody Wilson-Raybould has gone silent and I think the silence speaks volumes. Look at what this is: SNC-Lavalin, a massage multi-national company that has illegally given more than $100,000 in contributions to the Liberal party, wanted a change in Canadian corporate law so that they wouldn’t come up on corruption and bribery charges that would then deny them from getting any future government contracts. For 10 years, the Liberals conceded to make that change in the law. Then we see the case going ahead. Jody Wilson-Raybould’s, you remember her letter that she put out to Canadians saying that she needed to be—
Mercedes Stephenson: Yeah, and we actually have it here and we can get to it in a moment.
Minister Nathan Cullen: She needed to speak truth and power and be able to be free of even the perception of influence. And at the time, I don’t about you, but I wondered what was she referring to? I’ve never seen a minister get shuffled and release a letter like that, especially saying those things. Now we find out, through Fife’s report, that there was pressure being put on her saying why don’t you give these guys—let them cop a plea. Let SNC-Lavalin get out and then be able to continue to bid on all these lucrative government contracts. The whole thing stinks. That’s why we’re calling for an inquiry. And if the Liberals have nothing to hide, then clearly they’ll support at least our motion at the justice committee which is next week and the letter I wrote to the ethics commissioner right now asking for him to do an investigation also.
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, I want to get back to two of those things in a moment, but Lisa, first I want to give you a chance to respond.
Minister Lisa Raitt: Sure. I mean, we’re talking about the office of the attorney general of Canada. That person is in charge of all prosecutions of criminal law in this country and as such, even though they sit in cabinet, they actually have to be independent of what happens politically. And there are lots of rules and regulations about what you can and cannot say to the Attorney General on matters. What we want to do is get to the bottom of it. As Nathan said, there’s going to be a motion at the justice committee next week, asking for parliamentary review and having nine witnesses come in to at least tell us whether or not they had conversations with the attorney general so we can determine whether or not there has been political inference from the Prime Minister’s Office in a criminal case. And if there is, it’s very severe, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Marco, will you allow that committee to go forward? Are the Liberals going to say yes? And if so, are you going to let it happen in full of the public?
Minister Marco Mendicino: Well first of all, it’s not up to me and I’m not a member of that committee. I’m a parliamentary secretary—
Mercedes Stephenson: But you are member of the Liberal party and you’re the government’s representative.
Minister Marco Mendicino: And what the government has said time and time again is that when it comes to committee business, those committees exercise their functions and their responsibilities independently. And—
Mercedes Stephenson: Except for you have the majority on that committee.
Minister Marco Mendicino: Well that’s not by any other function and the result of the last election. And certainly when the—
Mercedes Stephenson: So then you should be able to tell us if you’re going to allow it to go forward.
Minister Marco Mendicino: Well part of what it means to be independent is to not impinge on the debate that occurs at those committees. Those committee members, not only the Liberal members but members of the Conservatives and the NDP and any other—
Mercedes Stephenson: Who don’t outnumber you so it’s still up to your party.
Minister Marco Mendicino: And any other members of that committee have a responsibility to undertake which issues they’re going to study, which witnesses they’re going to call, which evidence they’re going to entertain.
Mercedes Stephenson: So you can’t say yes.
Minister Marco Mendicino: It’s not for me to say. And saying so, would actually potentially impinge on the independence of the committee. So that is what it means to be—
Mercedes Stephenson: So that doesn’t sound—
Minister Marco Mendicino: Can I just make a comment as well just about the other parties because yes, SNC-Lavalin and this prosecution have been well known. You’d have to be living under a rock not to know about the prosecution. But SNC-Lavalin also met with Jagmeet Singh. They also met with Andrew Scheer and I wonder whether or not either of my two colleagues would be willing to talk about those meetings?
Minister Nathan Cullen: Absolutely. Oh yeah, we’ll talk about our meetings if you talk about yours.
Minister Lisa Raitt: Sure, not a problem. Let’s go.
Minister Nathan Cullen: How about that?
Minister Lisa Raitt: A hundred per cent.
Minister Nathan Cullen: Let’s get that commitment right now. Jagmeet Singh, Lisa you’re good, right?
Minister Lisa Raitt: Yep.
Minister Nathan Cullen: Andrew Scheer will come forward and absolutely talk about everything that happened in that meeting if the Liberals will do the same thing.
Minister Marco Mendicino: [crosstalk] Nathan for Andrew Scheer, that’s a new thing.
Minister Nathan Cullen: I just asked Lisa and she confirmed it.
Minister Lisa Raitt: Make a deal.
Minister Nathan Cullen: So here’s the thing. There’s the deal. And you know what? The Liberals won’t agree to that deal.
Mercedes Stephenson: Would you be willing to talk about it?
Minister Marco Mendicino: As I said, look it, the opposition will do what they want to do. If they want to bring the issue forward to the committee, it’ll be up to the committee to decide.
Mercedes Stephenson: And I think you raise a fair point that the Conservatives certainly have a history with SNC-Lavalin as well.
Minister Marco Mendicino: Absolutely.
Mercedes Stephenson: The NDP lost so they haven’t been in power or been government, so it’s not the same kind of responsibility. But Nathan, you’re saying these are such terrible allegations.
Minister Nathan Cullen: Mm-hum.
Mercedes Stephenson: Why only go to the ethics commissioner because we both know the ethics commissioner does not have teeth.
Minister Nathan Cullen: No—okay, I wouldn’t want to challenge you on that a little bit, Mercedes. The ethics commiss—
Mercedes Stephenson: Well cannot put anyone in jail, cannot fine people for a significant amount unlike, say, the RCMP.
Minister Nathan Cullen: What we are talking about here is the potential obstruction of justice. It brings a 10-year jail sentence, as Marco Mendicino would know that the crime is serious because it’s influencing an office holder about a court case that’s going on. All the dots are lining up and paint a picture. And everyone’s looking at it and saying my goodness, did the Prime Minister’s Office really try to put pressure on the Attorney General of Canada is supposed to be independent. And when she wouldn’t concede to that pressure, she was fired, that letter that we talked about before, how clearly unhappy Jody Wilson-Raybould was to be removed from justice, the first Indigenous woman justice minister in Canada’s history. And Marco will talk about veterans, which is fine but we all know that she was removed from that position and we didn’t know why because the government’s never told us why.
Mercedes Stephenson: Was she punished?
Minister Marco Mendicino: Well of course not. And I think it’s really—
Minister Nathan Cullen: Of course not, Marco would know.
Minister Marco Mendicino: It’s really disrespectful for Nathan to speak on Jody Wilson-Raybould’s behalf to characterize her feeling—
Mercedes Stephenson: Well to be fair, we have asked Jody Wilson-Raybould to talk on this and she has chosen not to.
Minister Marco Mendicino: Nathan just made explicit statements with regards to how she felt about her new assignment.
Minister Nathan Cullen: Did you watch [crosstalk]?
Minister Lisa Raitt: David Lametti did.
Minister Marco Mendicino: They did not—look it, I’m sorry but it is not either for Nathan, nor for anyone else to speak—
Minister Nathan Cullen: Or Lametti?
Minister Marco Mendicino: For Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Minister Lisa Raitt: Okay. Or Lametti?
Minister Marco Mendicino: Her statement spoke about the pride that she took in her role as justice minister—
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, let’s look at the statement because we keep—
Minister Marco Mendicino: And she also spoke about the pride that she wanted to continue—
Mercedes Stephenson: We keep talking about it—
Minister Marco Mendicino: Continue to do on behalf of veterans and that’s not being fired and that’s certainly not being demoted.
Mercedes Stephenson: Unique responsibilities to uphold the rule of law, administration of justice, demands a measure of principled independence. And she goes on to say, “It is a pillar of our democracy that our system of justice be free from even the perception of political interference and uphold the highest levels of public confidence” and says she was always willing to speak truth to power.
Lisa, I have never seen a cabinet minister release a letter like this before when they’re shuffled. Do you think that this is certainly what she was talking about or is there a possibility there’s another shoe that’s going to drop here and there’s something else?
Minister Lisa Raitt: Well to me, what she was signalling is that in her role as attorney general, not as the minister of justice, that she received pressure to make certain decisions. I suspect that there may be some other ones. That’s part of the reason why we want to get people in to talk about the interactions between the office of the attorney general and the Prime Minister’s Office. And to Nathan’s point on the ethics commissioner, the ethics commissioner has a very strong role to play here because you must testify. You must talk to the ethics commissioner if they want to speak with you. And if they find any wrongdoing, they must turn it over to the RCMP and let it go their way. The ethics commissioner has a role.
Mercedes Stephenson: And Lisa would your party contact the RCMP?
Minister Lisa Raitt: Well we’re in the process right now—
Mercedes Stephenson: The RCMP is saying that they’re aware of this.
Minister Lisa Raitt: Sure, but we’re in a process right now where we’re going to deal with it in the most expedient fashion, which is requesting nine witnesses to come in and tell us what happened at the parliamentary committee where they have to testify and it is under oath and they do have to appear before us and answer our questions. We think that’s the right way to do it immediately.
Minister Nathan Cullen: And if there’s nothing to hide—if everything that happened between the Prime Minister’s Office and the former attorney general, if everything was copasetic and they have proof to show that, then the Liberals should support our motion. They should have no problem with this. But if I watch question period, and I just watched the non-answers that were just verbatim—doesn’t matter what question we ask—
Mercedes Stephenson: Well, I want to ask a very direct question to you, Marco.
Minister Nathan Cullen: They fire the same answer back.
Mercedes Stephenson: And the former attorney general has put out a statement saying she can’t comment on this because of solicitor-client privilege. Your government has the power to waive that privilege to allow her to either deny the story or confirm it. Will you do that?
Minister Marco Mendicino: First of all, solicitor-client privilege is a constitutional principle and it has to be taken very seriously because when the Attorney General of Canada is offering advice to the Government of Canada, she or he is doing so in order to ensure that legislation and policies are consistent with the charter and that’s also consistent with conventions which have existed not only since the birth of our federation—
Mercedes Stephenson: So does that mean that you won’t—
Minister Marco Mendicino: But since before.
Mercedes Stephenson: You will or won’t waive it?
Minister Marco Mendicino: Ultimately, those decisions will be taken by the Government of Canada. But right now, what I will say—
Mercedes Stephenson: Which is you.
Minister Marco Mendicino: Well, which is not me, to be fair, which is the prime minister in consultation with cabinet. But what I will say is that it is entirely counterproductive to ensuring that we have a justice system that provides access to justice when we have allegations which are not substantiated, which are not based on fact, but which are rather based on reports anonymous—
Mercedes Stephenson: So you could allow her to simply come out and say that.
Minister Marco Mendicino: Anonymous sources—well I’m sorry but we have said that. The prime minster has said that these allegations are—
Mercedes Stephenson: But she has not said that.
Minister Marco Mendicino: False.
Mercedes Stephenson: She’s been silent and that’s fed the story.
Minister Marco Mendicino: Her—what I will say is that she has made a statement both about the pride that she’s taken in past role as attorney general—
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, we have to wrap it up there.
Minister Marco Mendicino: In her current role as veteran’s affairs minister.
Mercedes Stephenson: I’m sorry, that’s all the time we have for today.
Minister Marco Mendicino: And that’s important work.
Mercedes Stephenson: I’m sure we’re going to be back.
Minister Nathan Cullen: They could let her speak and they’re choosing not to. That’s a fact.
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, that’s the end for today but not the end of the story.
Minister Lisa Raitt: It is not the end.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, as pressure mounts to remove Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, what more can be done to force him out and ease the crisis?
Mercedes Stephenson: As the crisis in Venezuela intensifies, President Nicolas Maduro has been refusing to allow desperately needed aid into that country. Canada has recognized Opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate president. Last week members of the Lima Group met here in Ottawa and called for free and fair elections to be held soon. But the situation could get much worse before it gets better.
Orlando Viera-Blanco, the newly appointed Venezuelan ambassador to Canada joins me now from Montreal.
Sir, your government has been recognized internationally but the reality is that President Maduro is still running things on the ground in Venezuela. What are the next steps to try to dislodge him from power?
Ambassador Orlando Viera-Blanco: So the next steps, we understand from Mr. Maduro that the country’s already facing the worst crisis, political crisis, economic crisis and social crisis in the life of Venezuelan people. The next step is to continue with the pressure of international community in order to convince him that it is time to go. That it’s time to take him down, the power and trying to cooperate with the political transition that is already running in Venezuela.
Mercedes Stephenson: What happens if that doesn’t convince him and he maintains control of the military and the police? At some point does it reach a threshold where you think there’s a potential for violence?
Ambassador Orlando Viera-Blanco: We are in the complex process right now in Venezuela. One point is for sure, the military forces in Venezuela, which is new right now, is that, the military forces, you can see they are already with the people. They belong to the people and they are part of the people.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you believe that the military ultimately will turn against Maduro?
Ambassador Orlando Viera-Blanco: I believe so. I believe that enough is enough. I believe there is a huge lack of humanity in Venezuela. We have 1,135 political prisoners right now. We have huge starving. We have a huge bad situation under medical and supply services and terms. So I do believe that national forces in Venezuela, they are part of the consequences of the crisis in Venezuela so I’m sure that now they are moving to the right side of the history.
Mercedes Stephenson: President Trump has indicated that all options are on the table, including the possibility of American-backed military action. Canada has taken the opposite position saying that they don’t back a foreign violent intervention. What do you think is the most helpful for the Venezuelan people in terms of threats or promises that might help to dislodge Maduro?
Ambassador Orlando Viera-Blanco: The coalition with international communities is looking to help is looking to improve the situation in our community and that’s what for me is the point. It is not about a military intervention in my own opinion.
Mercedes Stephenson: There is significant Russian and Chinese influence in Venezuela around the Maduro government. How much of a role is that playing in the difficulty of your government being able to actually seize power and take command and control of the day-to-day operations of government?
Ambassador Orlando Viera-Blanco: It’s a transition that we are living right now is very immense progress that in just the last 10 days, 12 days, Mr. Juan Guaido has been making progress. His executive decision just appointed a diplomatic representative around the world. It is [inaudible]. Already we have recognition of more than 50 countries around the world so it’s a process. It’s a process. In order to look exits, in order to lose a happy ending peacefully and institutionally.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think there’s a peaceful ending where Maduro survives if he simply refuses to give up power?
Ambassador Orlando Viera-Blanco: Maduro must give up. I don’t know what’s going to be the final decision but maybe we can anticipate that how all the facts is running out. It’s so easy to survive the power with a huge international community just now recognizing Maduro, recognizing Juan Guaido just putting it in evidence. There are so many criminal issues in Venezuela. It’s an international corps, right now trying to make a decision about investigation against the Maduro government is 85 per cent, 90 per cent of the population against Maduro. Is it national forces making decisions about it? I’m not seeing any government in the history to survive this kind of situation, even as a dictatorship.
Mercedes Stephenson: We just have a few seconds left, Mr. Ambassador, but the Lima Group recognized your government in part because there was a promise to have free and fair elections. Do you have a sense of when those elections could be called?
Ambassador Orlando Viera-Blanco: We have to realize, and we have to be clear, that in Venezuela is a huge dismantling of the structure of the state. We had to reconstruct—we have to rebuild the state. We have to put impartial magistrates in the power of the election branch in order to guarantee a transparent election.
Mercedes Stephenson: So there’s no timeline yet.
Ambassador Orlando Viera-Blanco: That’s right.
Mercedes Stephenson: Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much.
Ambassador Orlando Viera-Blanco: Thank you very much for your time and for having me.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, charting a course forward on Bill C-69. Will the contentious natural resources bill survive the Senate?
Minister Amarjeet Sohi: “The purpose of Bill C-69 is to fix a broken system that was implemented by the previous government in 2012. It took away the ability of the Indigenous peoples to participate in a meaningful way. It took the ability of Canadians to participate in the regulatory process. It took the ability away for us to protect our environment, the waterways, fish and fish habitat. We are fixing a system that would allow us to move forward on large energy infrastructure projects in a way that makes sense for Canadians.”
Mercedes Stephenson: That was Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi taking heat in question period over one of the government’s most contentious bills, Bill C-69. The bill overhauls the way natural resource projects are assessed. Both industry and environmental groups say it is critical to Canada’s economic and environmental future, the bill is stuck in the Senate, where there’s a fight over how it should proceed.
Joining me now, Senator Doug Black from Alberta. Senator, welcome to the show.
Senator Doug Black: Thank you very much, Mercedes. It’s great to be here with you.
Mercedes Stephenson: So, the government says that this bill is going to speed things up and provide better environmental regulation. You disagree, what do you think is so wrong with Bill C-69?
Senator Doug Black: There are number of things wrong. The sensible thing for the government to do is to trash it and start again, but that’s not going to happen So what is fundamentally wrong is that projects in Canada, not just in the energy industry but across the natural resource sector, must spend hundreds of millions of dollars to advance themselves. They want certainty up front. They want the government to say yes, this is a project that we can get behind if all the boxes are checked. The way it is now, Mercedes, is that you have to do all of the work that’s required, get all the boxes checked, then the government will tell you if they like the project. Industry is simply saying we cannot live with that uncertainty. So that is the big problem that I have.
Second problem I have is when bodies are to consider how projects are to be approved, there is no consideration taken of economic factors. They must consider consultation factors, they must consider environmental factors but nowhere are there issues such as competitiveness, such as prosperity, such as vibrant communities. Silent, there’s nothing. So consequently, business and this is—we’re talking 20 per cent of the Canadian economy here, has no certainty that their economic concerns must be taken consideration of. And then there are matters like standing. Who can show up? Currently, anybody can show up. You don’t need to have any necessary kind of connectivity.
Mercedes Stephenson: So it expands the number of people who could speak at those hearings.
Senator Doug Black: It is an open bar. Anybody can show up.
Mercedes Stephenson: What happens to industry if this bill passes as it is?
Senator Doug Black: Well you’ve seen the comments of the leaders of industry. The bottom line is they’re saying under this regime, we’re just not going to bother applying for projects in Canada. We will take our money and do our projects outside of Canada. And Mercedes, we’re seeing that now.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think it’ll kill the oil sands?
Senator Doug Black: It will restrict the oil sands, absolutely. There will be no new development in the oil sands. Many would argue that that’s the very intent of the legislation, coupled with the tanker ban on the west coast. Many would argue that’s the whole purpose here, but in terms of the contribution that the oil sands make to Canada, this is an asset that we need to enhance and protect and take advantage of. But absolutely, there will be no new projects in the oil sands with this. There’ll be no new pipelines. I worry about forestry. I worry about mining. I worry about the offshore oil industry. I worry about the nuclear industry. We’re talking the potential for the Canadian economy, the resource economy just to move out of the country because we’re closed for business.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think it is the government’s intention to try to shut down the oil sands?
Senator Doug Black: I think there are parts of the government that believe that that will be a desirable outcome. I believe that, but there are other—
Mercedes Stephenson: What parts? Prime minister?
Senator Doug Black: I don’t know about—I mean, I don’t know about that. Certainly there are segments of the government that believe that the oil sands are contributing too much to global warming and these are real issues that take these issues seriously.
Mercedes Stephenson: So you want to go across the country and consult with Canadians on this. The government is saying that this is really an expensive political stunt. At the end of the day, they have a majority to pass this in the Senate. Do you really think that those consultations will change anything at the end of the day?
Senator Doug Black: I’m hoping that they will. I think it’s very important that the government understand clearly what Canadians are feeling about this legislation and not just big business, how it’s affecting families, how it’s affecting communities, how it’s affecting First Nations communities. I think it’s very important that my colleagues in the Senate hear firsthand from the pain and the dislocation that has been caused and will be accentuated with this bill.
Mercedes Stephenson: We have to wrap it up there, but thank you so much for your time, Senator Black.
Senator Doug Black: Thank you very much, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for today. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. We’ll see you next week.
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