The West Block – Episode 9, Season 9

Watch the full broadcast of The West Block from Sunday, November 3, 2019 with Mercedes Stephenson.


Episode 9, Season 9

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests: Peter Van Loan, Tom Pentefountas, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, Chris Sands

Location: Ottawa

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Thank you, my friends.

Dawna Friesen, Global News Anchor: “There’s been much speculation about the future of Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer. What exactly happened?”

Peter MacKay, Former PC Party Leader: “Yeah. To use a good Canadian analogy, it was like having a breakaway on an open net and missing the net.”

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President Donald Trump: “We’ve secured the oil, and, therefore, a small number of U.S. troops will remain in the area.”

Mitch McConnell, U.S. Senate Leader: “I hope the administration is trying to mitigate the damage done.”

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker U.S. House of Representatives: “We have an opportunity to do it right. I’m optimistic.”

Adam Schiff, D-Ca: “The president’s misconduct has compelled us to continue to move forward with an impeachment inquiry.”

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, November 3rd. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

Is there a civil war brewing inside the Conservative Party? After an election loss, tensions are running high in Tory circles, and at the centre of it all, Andrew Scheer, as party faithful from across the country question whether the Conservative leader is at fault. Scheer will face his caucus on Wednesday, and a leadership review in April. But in the meantime, the public blame game is well underway, with the most notable comment coming from Peter MacKay, last week.

Peter MacKay: “People did not want to talk about women’s reproductive rights. They didn’t want to talk about revisiting the issue of same-sex marriage, and yet that was thrust onto the agenda. I think among female voters in particular, and those who would have been impacted by any re-visitation, it created a nervousness…”

Mercedes Stephenson: The next day, Mr. MacKay tweeted his support for Mr. Scheer and said his comments were to help the party win in the next election. Well, just how serious is the internal rife over Mr. Scheer’s leadership of the party?

Joining me now, in Toronto, Peter Van Loan, former government House leader under Stephen Harper, and in Montreal, Tom Pentefountas, a former Quebec Conservative candidate in this past election.

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Some pretty stunning comments from your former colleague Peter MacKay. Mr. Van Loan, do you think that he is campaigning to be the next Conservative leader?

Peter Van Loan: Well, I think he’s out been working very hard for the party. He’s—I have to take at face value his insistence that he just wants to support the leader and support the party, and I have no reason to question that. I think that, though, he expressing some concerns that are out there among people, I’m not sure I agree with all of them. I think that we have good reason to be happy with our election result with a forward progress. I think that’s the test of whether a leader can stay. Andrew Scheer has delivered that forward progress with many more seats, actually doing better in the popular vote than the Liberals, so I think he’s earned the chance at another go.

Mercedes Stephenson: But he didn’t win in some pretty key areas, including the 905, the 416 and Quebec. Tom, you’re out in Quebec. You were a Conservative candidate in a past election. Do you agree that Mr. Scheer should stay on as leader of the party?

Tom Pentefountas: There were four basic elements that created this tension in Quebec, and the 905, and to a certain extent, Atlantic Canada, I believe. There was a question of the issue of abortion, the same-sex marriage, the curriculum vitae embellishment, and those three elements came to the fore to slow things down and they created a sense of distrust, unfortunately. And Canadians were anxious and willing and waiting to show Justin Trudeau the door, but unfortunately we couldn’t concentrate on the things that we wanted to concentrate on because all this focus was on the social issues.

Mercedes Stephenson: Now Tom, do you believe that that focus on the social issues was a product of Andrew Scheer as the leader or the party’s mistakes?

Tom Pentefountas: Well, you know a campaign is an interesting entity and things can happen during a campaign that is not foreseeable and some other things are manifested foreseeable. The question on abortion in the French debate was manifested foreseeable and you can’t take a day to answer that question because it creates distrust amongst the population and a discomfort. The question of same-sex marriage, it took almost a week to respond to that issue, and again, it creates unease amongst the population, especially in 2019. The dual citizenship was another issue that should have been settled well before the writ was dropped, as was the issue with the CV. These four elements came together to keep us from talking about the things that are important for this country, and that’s not going to change in the short-term, I fear.

Mercedes Stephenson: So Peter, what would have to happen for voters in the GTA, and areas like that, and you’ve campaigned around there. You’re very familiar with it, to convince them that they could vote Conservative? And what would Andrew Scheer have to convince the Conservative Party he’s able to do in that particular region of the country which the electoral math tells us you need in order to win?

Peter Van Loan: I think where the weakness of the Conservative campaign was the lack of a defining platform plank that could have been the ballot question, some kind of exciting, clear challenging issue, probably on the economic front or economic growth, job creation front, taxation front, something like that the people could debate and have the election about. And absent that kind of issue, these other lesser issues that, you know, frankly, I think Andrew Scheer had good answers for and really aren’t anything that the campaign was about, became nagging concerns and they were able to fill out that space because nothing else was doing that.

Mercedes Stephenson: People say that Andrew Scheer was not able to answer the questions about his social beliefs in a way that convinced voters there wasn’t a concern about what he might do when he came into office. That if people around Stephen Harper say look, Mr. Harper had an answer for this. It was very clear; he was able to put it out there. Why wasn’t Mr. Scheer able to anticipate those kinds of questions and be prepared with an effective answer? And if he couldn’t do it in the two years leading up to this election, what’s to say he’ll be able to do it before this minority parliament falls?

Peter Van Loan: I think Andrew Scheer basically had the same position as Stephen Harper did, but what Stephen Harper had was, as I said, very clear, dramatic policy positions on things like tackling crime that are important to people in the GTA where we’re seeing—because some of Harper’s initiatives were rolled back—a rise in gun crime. Things like strong taxation policies, we had a lot of the same ones as before, a little tinkering once, but nothing major. So, it really is a notion that nature abhors a vacuum and with that vacuum on other policy questions these little nagging things which were insignificant, for which I think there were good answers, began to fill that space.

Tom Pentefountas: Yeah, the night of the TVA debate, that was the coup de grace for us. That was—we continued to fight valiantly, but that was a demarcation point for us, unfortunately. And after that, there was no coming back. People have no appetite for these issues. I understand Andrew Scheer is a Catholic as is, I understand, Trudeau and we understand the church’s position. I’m a Greek Orthodox faith, I understand my church’s position, but public policy is public policy and there has to be a clear delineation of the two and that wasn’t the case, and that created an unfortunate mistrust and I don’t think the context of a minority government, where Justin Trudeau can decide in April to call an election, and I lived through it with the ADQ in a minority situation, it can happen at any moment in time, when the prime minister senses weakness and that’s why we need in the short-term, to proceed to a leadership race and have a leader in place who can speak to Canadians and evacuate these social issues first and foremost, and can speak to Canadians in both official languages because francophone Canadians will be more demanding, are more demanding and with good cause as regards to the national leaders capacity to speak to one of the founding nations of this country.

Mercedes Stephenson: Last point to both of you. How serious do you think that the move inside the party is to unseat Andrew Scheer, starting with you, Peter?

Peter Van Loan: Well, it’s funny. In the olden days, you used to have to have a kind of insurgency. If you think back to the Clark days and the efforts to displace him, I’m not sure that’s the case anymore in political parties. Thomas Mulcair walked into a convention, there wasn’t any organized insurgency and they chose to select a new leader. So we might be in a new kind of era. One of the paradoxes for people who have views like Tom is, if it is going to get into that kind of fight over a leadership, Andrew Scheer is inevitably going to be forced to, you know, kind of rely on that social Conservative crowd who are pretty good at getting people out to delegate selection meetings to bolster his support. So that’s one of the ironic paradoxes and difficulties we face. The other thing is, in a minority parliament, I think we’re going to see probably Justin Trudeau throw some of these difficult social issues on the table early, to make life a little bit uncomfortable for Mr. Scheer.

Mercedes Stephenson: Tom, do you think this can go forward without it destroying the party?

Tom Pentefountas: I don’t know what’s happening within the party, but I can tell you and the people will—if I was in caucus, I wouldn’t be speaking publicly. I would make my views known in caucus, but I can tell you amongst the 68 candidates in Quebec that did not get elected, the degree of disappointment is overwhelming. Again, losing an election on things you can’t control is one thing, losing an election to the things you can entirely control is completely unacceptable.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you both, for joining us and sharing your views.

Tom Pentefountas: Thank you.

Peter Van Loan: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the humanitarian crisis in Iraq and Syria, as President Trump withdraws troops from the region.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the world’s most wanted terrorist and the brutal leader of ISIS, died after U.S. Special Forces cornered him in a raid in Syria.

Critical intelligence for that raid was reportedly provided by the Kurds, who fought at the sharp end of the spear against ISIS as Western Allies and now, many are fleeing for their lives.

The UNHCR reports that nearly 180,000 Syrian Kurds have fled the area since Turkey began and assault on the Kurdish led forces in that part of the country. That assault began shortly after President Trump announced last month he was pulling U.S. troops out, the very same troops who had been closely allied with the Kurds in the fight against ISIS.

Joining me now is Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdish Regional Government Representative to Washington, D.C. Welcome to the show.

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman: Thank you very much.

Mercedes Stephenson: Ms. Rahman, I know you’ve been very busy in these past couple of weeks on Capitol Hill, meeting with American lawmakers. What’s your message been to them?

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman: There are many issues that we’re concerned about: security issues, and of course, humanitarian, which I think sometimes is lost in this conversation about what’s happening in Syria.

Mercedes Stephenson: One of the big events that playing in a lot of people’s minds, of course, is the death of Mr. al-Baghdadi, one of the most wanted terrorists in the world, the leader of ISIS. The Kurds have come out and said that they had a key role in that operation, that they provided intelligence. In fact, they may have had an operative who collected Mr. Baghdadi’s underwear to verify the DNA test on him. Can you speak to the role that the Kurdish forces played in terms of working with the U.S. Special Forces, to capture Mr. Baghdadi and ultimately resulting in his taking of his own life?

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman: I’m very proud of any role that the Kurds have played in this and other operations. And I think the takedown of Baghdadi symbolically is very important, but it still leaves ISIS as an organization. It doesn’t really meet the demands and the need for justice from the victims of ISIS, and especially I’m thinking of the Yazidis and the Christians who suffered genocide at the hands of that terrible organization.

Mercedes Stephenson: There have been calls in Canada to bring home Canadians who travel to Iraq and to Syria, to fight with ISIS. There’s been concern that some of those camps they were being held at by the Kurds have been disrupted by these Turkish offensive operations. What’s the situation on the ground right now in terms of those Kurdish camps that were ISIS prisoners? Are they still intact or are all those prisoners now still out on the loose?

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman: My understanding is that some prisoners did escape, perhaps a week or two ago now, but otherwise, generally, the camps and the prisons are under control. But even before the announcement by President Trump, these prisons, these camps were a concern and they remain a concern. The numbers are huge. Al-Hol camp holds thousands and thousands of people. The conditions aren’t very good. It’s really—we’ve been signalling this for a very long time. These really—and there are camps like that in Iraq too, by the way. There’s no real care. And by care, I don’t mean a luxury lifestyle. What I mean is there are children in these camps. Okay, their parents are ISIS fighters and they believe in the ideology, but why aren’t we doing something about the children? Otherwise, in five years’ time, in ten years’ time, these children will be teenagers, they will be adults. All they will have known is growing up in a camp rampant with ideology that is all about death and destruction, and this will have happened while we have let them grow up in this atmosphere.

Mercedes Stephenson: So if you were able to speak to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today, you would ask the Canadian government to bring the Canadians who fought for ISIS back to Canada.

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman: I do believe it’s the responsibility of every country, every government, to bring back its own nationals and put them on trial. And that would be my message to Prime Minister Trudeau. I understand that some countries are concerned that perhaps they don’t have enough evidence to convict somebody that perhaps the laws of certain European and western countries are such that after ten years or so, those people would be released. Well, perhaps it’s time that you looked at your laws. But you can’t just shirk your responsibility and dump these serious global problems on those of us in the Middle East who have to live with it day in, day out.

Mercedes Stephenson: Is there a feeling in the Kurdish community that there’s a betrayal here, that the international community is now looking the other way after working so closely with them?

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman: Eleven thousand Kurdish fighters died in Syria and in Iraq, 2,000 Peshmerga died and thousands on both sides were injured. So certainly, we have paid the price fighting ISIS with our blood. The international community, of course, has been an important partner with equipping, training, providing resources, but nothing replaces blood at the end of the day. We’ve given enormous sacrifice. So I think that partnership needs to be born in mind.

Mercedes Stephenson: What will happen if you don’t get the access to the humanitarian assistance or military assistance that your people are asking for?

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman: We’re very concerned that if hundreds of thousands of Syrian, Kurds, cross over into Iraqi, Kurdistan, that we will have a humanitarian catastrophe on our hands just because we don’t have the wherewithal to cope with another new influx.

Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you so much for joining us.

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman: You’re welcome. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to share our story with you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up: 16 sitting days remain for the U.S. House of Representatives before the year runs out. Will they pass the new NAFTA in the midst of calls for President Trump’s impeachment?

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Nancy Pelosi: “So we have an opportunity to do it right. We’re not there yet, but we understand the road that is the less, shall we say, mile that we have to go. So I’m optimistic.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi late last week, telling reporters in Washington she’s hopeful that Congress will soon sign-off on the new NAFTA deal. But top of the agenda in the meantime in the House is the potential impeachment of President Trump. Will Congress get this trade deal passed as they investigate the president?

Joining me now from Washington is Chris Sands, Director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Chris, welcome to the program.

Chris Sands: Thanks Mercedes. Good morning.

Mercedes Stephenson: So Chris, there’s about 16 more days sitting for the U.S. House of Representatives in this year. Impeachment top of the agenda, do you think that USMCA will manage to be passed before the end of the year?

Chris Sands: I actually am still optimistic that it will be passed. It’s a kind of strange tension between impeachment and USMCA as we call it, CUSMA as they’re calling it in Canada. The tension is this: on the one hand, a big part of the democratic base and a large part of the American people want to see the impeachment process pursued so at least they can find out whether or not Donald Trump was involved in any shady dealings. Not only before in the 2016 campaign, but also currently while he’s been in office. And there have been some witnesses that have suggested that that is a possibility. On the other hand, an even bigger portion of the electorate, as always, thinks it’s the economy is stupid. What have you actually done for us to boost the economy? On Friday, we had a jobs report that suggested 128,000 new jobs created in the United States in the previous month. That’s a fantastic result, and Donald Trump came out with a commercial, a little ad that he ran on social media that basically said the economy is strong. I got al-Baghdadi, he’s dead. I’m not a Mr. Nice Guy, but I’m getting things done and all the Democrats want to talk about is impeachment, and that tension going into the 2020 campaign almost a year from now, just about exactly a year from now, is the setup for this election. I think Democrats want to pass USMCA so that they can say hey, we can do things. We can even do bipartisan things, but there is a rule of law, impeachment matters and Donald Trump has to answer for the bad things he’s done or may have done. You can’t just waive him with immunity and skip out—skip the investigation.

Mercedes Stephenson: Is there still a risk that President Trump would rip NAFTA up if USMCA doesn’t make it through the House or is that threat largely off the table now?

Chris Sands: I think the threat is largely off the table. It was always heavily discounted by trade policy experts in part because of the ambiguity. NAFTA says you can give six months’ notice of withdrawal and any of the three countries could walk away from the NAFTA commitments. On the other hand, we know that the courts have been willing to block Donald Trump in so many ways, and if you’re talking about removing NAFTA benefits, you’d have companies lined up from one end of the country to other saying we want to block Donald Trump from leaving NAFTA. It’s just too important to our bottom line.

Mercedes Stephenson: Chris, when it comes to impeachment, we hear a lot about it in the news. Here, obviously, we see the American news, but it’s not a process that we have in our system the same way, so can you walk us through what happens in the impeachment process at this point, how that unfolds and what it would mean for the Trump presidency?

Chris Sands: Well, the first thing is the House has now, effective last Thursday, voted to start a formal impeachment inquiry. There was a lot of criticism here that they had broken with tradition by having the intelligence committee in the House rather than the judiciary committee running the investigation, having private hearings that is closed door and supposedly in secrecy, not even allowing some Republicans to cross examine witnesses. Now we’ve had the formal vote. We have new rules that should allow Republicans to not only cross examine witnesses but call their own. So we’re on what I would now say is a more normal impeachment process. The House will conduct an investigation and when they feel they have enough evidence, they will bring articles of impeachment. Now, it’s not a legal process, but a political process. So the articles of impeachment will claim that Donald Trump is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanours that have disqualified him from holding the office of president. Once they’ve brought those charges, the impeachment is like an indictment. It’s a kind of set of charges that are being brought. It then goes to the Senate, presided over in a very special procedure by the Chief Justice of Supreme Court, John Roberts, who would have to sit with all the senators serving as a kind of giant jury and there would be a vote at the end of a trial in effect whether the evidence presented suggests that Donald Trump should be removed from office. Now he has to be removed by two thirds of senators. Half of the senators are Republicans and they issued a letter to Nancy Pelosi, all 50 Republican senators, saying we will not treat this process seriously unless you have a House vote. You saw the House vote this week, so the senators, especially Republicans, are sceptical and you’d have to bring a number of them onboard in order to have a successful impeachment conviction that is to remove the president. But I think what Democrats are after now is not so much the conviction, but the charge. The feel if the indictment goes through, even if it’s on a partisan basis, if there’s an impeachment of the president, it’ll hang over his head and it will make it an election issue going in. Do you want this man who’s clearly done bad things even though he hasn’t been convicted, to be re-elected? Or do you want a fresh face from the democratic side?

Mercedes Stephenson: Fascinating. Well, we’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it. Thanks for joining us today, Chris.

Chris Sands: You’re welcome. Thank you, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for today. Thanks for joining us. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson.