The West Block – Episode 14, Season 9

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Watch the full broadcast of The West Block from Sunday, December 8, 2019 with Mercedes Stephenson.


Episode 14, Season 9

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests: Pablo Rodriguez, Alykhan Velshi

Journalist Panel: Susan Delacourt, Joel-Denis Bellavance

Location: Ottawa

Julie Payette, Governor General: “To fight climate change, strengthen the middle class, walk the road of reconciliation, keep Canadians safe and healthy, and position Canada for success.”

Andrew Scheer, Official Opposition Leader: “Well, that was disappointing. I believe an insult to the people of Alberta and Saskatchewan for not recognizing the anger and the sentiments that exist there.”

Yves-Francois Blanchet, Bloc Quebecois Leader: “I’m going to support his speech because I see in that speech many opportunities for us to make some gains for Quebec.”

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: “If the Liberal Government thinks that this is good enough, then they are wrong.”

Donald Trump, U.S. President: “We find a security problem with it. And, you know—and Canada is going to make a decision at some point.

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, December 8th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Speech from the Throne was unveiled last week, setting the tone and priorities for the new Liberal minority government. The speech echoed campaign promises, including to cut taxes for the middle class, and focused heavily on fighting climate change, reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians, pharmacare, gun control, and peacekeeping were all on the agenda too, but the speech was delivered to a divided country. And while it emphasized national unity, that wasn’t enough for some.

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Andrew Scheer, Official Opposition Leader: So today’s throne speech was, I believe, an insult to the people of Alberta and Saskatchewan for not recognizing the anger and the sentiments that exist there.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now is House Leader Pablo Rodriguez.

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: Thank you for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: So you have a big job, you have to handle a minority situation in the House. You also have to handle the sensitivities across the country that we’ve been hearing about, particularly in Alberta and Saskatchewan. And one of the things that we’re hearing from that part of the country in the days since the Throne Speech is frustration that they weren’t mentioned. Why didn’t the Throne Speech have something in particular about those provinces?

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: Well, the Throne Speech didn’t mention any province specifically, but it did mention the importance of regions. And I think the most important thing that you have to look at is the first thing that Minister Freeland did, was to go to Alberta because of the importance of Alberta, because of the importance of the West, because we understand the difficult situation lives there.

Mercedes Stephenson: But there’s nothing in here about what the government is actually going to do in terms of concrete measures to help them.

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: Because that will come. General Speech from the Throne is a document that is quite general. It doesn’t specific what we’re going to do on a lot of things, it just gives the direction, and also shows that we’ve also listened to Canadians because Canadians on October 21st said one clear message: you guys better talk to each other and collaborate in that place, in Parliament. And this is what we’re trying to do, and the Throne Speech reflects that.

Mercedes Stephenson: Looking at climate change, which is another big theme in the Throne Speech, it’s one of the most frequently mentioned words if you do the word count in it. And your government says in it that they’re going to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and also that you will continue to lead in ensuring a price on pollution everywhere in the country and to further reduce emissions. Are you looking at raising the carbon tax?

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: No, we’re not there at all. We’re talking about different measures. When you look at this climate crisis—because it is a crisis and it’s been adopted by the Parliament—we all understand that there’s not one measure that will do the job. We need many measures and, you know, putting a price on pollution is one, planting trees is another one. I mean legislative—there’s many things we can do at the legislative level.

Mercedes Stephenson: So the carbon tax won’t go up then, your government is committed to that.

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: The carbon tax—the price of pollution is one of the things that we’re doing and you’ll see the details eventually. But also, this has to be a concrete effort with other countries, too. We cannot do this on our own. We need the support and help and collaboration with other countries as this is what we’re trying to do through agreements like the Paris one and others.

Mercedes Stephenson: On gun control, which was another one that was mentioned in here, and I thought it was very interesting. When you read the exact language in the Throne Speech, it says that the government’s going to crack down on gun crime, which is a big concern for a lot of Canadians.

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: Yes.

Mercedes Stephenson: But it says you’re wanting to ban military-style assault rifles. A military-style assault rifle is a weapon that functions on fully automatic. Those are already illegal in Canada, so people are saying that this is a pretty empty promise.

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: No, no, no, some of those weapons are still legal in Canada and which is in my point of view—

Mercedes Stephenson: No, nothing that’s fully automatic is.

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: It is. Assault rifles, you will see—you will find we had examples when we showed during the campaign when we announced that measure, and they have no place in our streets, in our cities. Why would somebody need that? Those weapons are built for one single purpose, is to kill the most people in the least amount of time. That’s it, that’s the only purpose. And they should not be in the streets.

Mercedes Stephenson: And, there’s a lot of Canadians who would agree with you on that, but they’d also say that the statistics show that the vast majority of handgun homicides in Canada are carried out by—pardon me, of firearm homicides in Canada—are carried out by handguns. You’re saying you’ll allow cities to ban that, but the mayors are saying that’s possibly effective. If you’re going to have an effective handgun ban it would have to be federal.

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: No, we’ll be working with them and it’s going to be up to the cities to come with their own solution. But we—

Mercedes Stephenson: But how are they possibly going to enforce that?

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: Well, we’ll be there as collaborating. I think there’s a will from big cities to do something on this, and we’ll sit down with them. It’s not up to us to tell them exactly this is what you’re going to do because sometimes you need a different solution for a difficult topic.

Mercedes Stephenson: But why not just have the federal government ban that?

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: Because we think that the input from the cities is extremely important.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. And I know in fairness, you’re not the public safety minister, but you’re here for the Throne Speech—

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: That’s true, also.

Mercedes Stephenson: And we’re going through all of the different things here. Pharmacare, this one is a big interest to a lot of Canadians.

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: Yes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Very non-specific language in the Throne Speech. You said, “We’re going to give Canadians a pharmacare system that they deserve.” Will it be universal pharmacare? Is this going to be for all Canadians?

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: Well, the reason why it’s lacking some details it’s because we’re going to be doing this with the provinces. So it’s the provinces that administer the health system and we’re going to—and we sat down with them, to discuss a few things and we’re going to sit down with them once again before coming with more details. That’s why I’m saying the Throne Speech tells you the intentions. I think it’s the right thing to do and we think as a government that it’s the right thing to do, but it’s impossible to do it without the provinces, so once we sit down with them we’ll be able to have more details.

Mercedes Stephenson: You are of course, from Quebec.

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: Yes.

Mercedes Stephenson: And really, the government is relying on the Bloc Quebecois to stay in power. Are you concerned at all about how that could play out politically in the rest of the country if you’re relying on a separatist party to stay in power as a minority government?

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: We’re not relying on anybody. We’re suggesting ideas, programs and we are supported by one or the other. But—

Mercedes Stephenson: We saw both the NDP and the Conservatives come out very strongly against it. Some people were surprised by the NDPs reaction to it because a lot of this seemed to cater to them. How do you get those opposition parties onside when they’re coming out and saying absolutely not, we’re not going to support this? Do you look at possibly incorporating some of the amendments that they’ll be proposing?

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: Well, I think the only way to move forward is by speaking to each other. I had the chance to speak last week with the three House leaders in private meetings. I think it went really well. I gave them my cell phone right away and I told them you can call me anytime. So we’ll be discussing. We’re ready to listen to ideas from others. We’re not the only ones having good ideas. Others have good ideas, too. And we’ll sit down and we’ll listen, but again, we’ll go case by case.

Mercedes Stephenson: Why do you think the prime minister chose you to be the House leader?

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: I don’t have a clue.

Mercedes Stephenson: What’s your personal outlook when you’re doing—you’re known as being a pretty affable guy? How do you personally approach talking to opposition members and trying to negotiate with them. It’s going to be piece by piece and very strategic, so I assume he thinks you’re a very strategic guy as well as a friendly one. What’s your outlook on this?

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: You know what? At the end of the day, we’re all humans and we’re all elected for the same reason: try to improve the lives of Canadians of our children and grandchildren, and sometimes we don’t see things the same way and sometimes we do. So, you know, our job is not to agree on everything and it’s not going to happen, but I’m quite confident that when you come here in good faith and you want to improve the world and make a difference, we can agree on a lot of things.

Mercedes Stephenson: Pablo, thank you so much for joining us.

Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader: Thank you very much.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, why does Chinese tech giant Huawei want to move its U.S. research centre to Canada? And what will it mean for their push to build a 5G network here?

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. It’s been nearly one year since Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were detained by the Chinese Government in what Canadian Government sources have called a “political hostage taking,” the detentions and apparent retaliation for Canada arresting Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou on charges for the United States. Now the U.S. Government is labeling Huawei as a security threat, their telecommunications regulator, the FCC, banning it from taking part in certain elements of the U.S. telecommunications structure. Huawei has announced that they are planning to move the company’s research centre from the United States to Canada because of increased sanctions against their operations by the Trump administration. So, what are Huawei’s plans for telecommunications here in Canada?

Joining me now from Vancouver is Alykhan Velshi, Vice President of Corporate Affairs for Huawei. Welcome to the show, Alykhan.

Alykhan Velshi, VP Corporate Affairs, Huawei Canada: Thanks for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: Alykhan, there’s a lot of concerns about Huawei as a security threat. You have the U.S. regulator labelling your company as such. Canadians wonder why should you be allowed to operate here or to move your research facility to Canada. What do you say to them?

Alykhan Velshi, VP Corporate Affairs, Huawei Canada:  A few reasons. So first of all, Huawei has been operating in Canada legally since 2008, and in that time we’ve grown our workforce to 1,200. So Huawei’s already in Canada. And during that time, we’ve served all three major telecom companies and we haven’t had a single complaint from them or from the Canadian Government about our business here.

Mercedes Stephenson: But there’s concern that your company is a national security threat. The U.S. national security advisor said that if Canada allows Huawei in with 5G, it will be a matter of time until every Canadians’ social security and health records are compromised, that everything you type into your phone could be intercepted by the Chinese State, because under Chinese law, the government has the ability to compel Chinese companies to provide information for intelligence. So what assurances do Canadians have that the Chinese Government is not going to use this technology to spy on them?

Alykhan Velshi, VP Corporate Affairs, Huawei Canada:  Well, first of all, in Huawei, all of our activities in Canada, and everyone who works for Huawei in Canada, has to follow Canadian laws and Canadian laws alone from our President Eric, to me, to the engineer beavering away in a lab. But more broadly, I’ve always found that the Trump administration kind of talks out of both sides of their mouth on this issue. On the one hand, you know, they come to Canada as they did last week and they try to bully Canadians into not, you know, into not accepting Huawei technology. But on the other hand, you know, U.S. carriers continue to use Huawei, particularly in rural areas and the Trump administration continues granting them exemptions so that they can continue to do so. So they kind of are pursuing a mixed policy.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well, you’re subject to Canadian law here, but the company is based in China and it’s subject to Chinese law, which has the ability to compel information from the company. Furthermore, your company has signed an agreement with public security and the policy in the Shenzhen region where the Uighurs have been put into concentration and internment camps, and that information could be being used to surveil them. So, when Canadians raise concerns about the company developing, for example, resources here and technology that could be used in human rights abuses or having Canadians privacy breached, it doesn’t sound like you’re able to give me any reassurance that the Chinese Government will not do that.

Alykhan Velshi, VP Corporate Affairs, Huawei Canada:  I can give you plenty of reassurances. So, for starters, when we sell network equipment to telecom carriers, whether it’s Rogers, whether it’s Bell, TELUS or anyone else, they control the equipment, right? And we sell it to them. We sell it to operators and then we don’t—no longer have access to that equipment. So I think it’s just important to recognize that, you know, the equipment is under their control at that point. But secondly—

Mercedes Stephenson: But the Chinese Government is able to access equipment that they don’t own and that their companies don’t own, too. So just because you hand it over wouldn’t mean they’re not able to get access off of it.

Alykhan Velshi, VP Corporate Affairs, Huawei Canada: No, no. No, no, that’s simply not true, and in fact, the Chinese law that you’re referring to, laws like that have been on the books since before Huawei even entered Canada, and so, you know, these similar debates that we’re having now and sort of our public policy discussions, they‘re the same things that were on government decision-makers minds back in 2008 when Huawei was first allowed into the country. And all that’s happened in the intervening 11 years is we have more than a decade of Huawei successfully and legally operating in Canada without a single complaint from any single Canadian security agency or one of our telecom customers..

Mercedes Stephenson: Well multiple former heads of Canadian security agencies have publically expressed concern as that they do not believe that Huawei should be able to operate in Canada. But I want to turn to the plight of two of our fellow Canadians citizens: Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. They have been in jail in China for almost one year now, direct retaliation for Canada’s arrest of your company’s chief financial officer. Will Huawei Canada call for the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig?

Alykhan Velshi, VP Corporate Affairs, Huawei Canada:  We’ve been very clear that we’re concerned, like all Canadians are concerned, by their treatment, by what we’re seeing over there, and it remains our position that it’s ultimately a problem that can only be solved by governments working together, by governments and diplomats working together. Our government here in Ottawa and the Government of China and our strong hope, our strong desire, is that they can find a solution as soon as possible that can bring the two Michael’s home.

Mercedes Stephenson: But your CFO is detained in a $10 million mansion in Vancouver out where you are, and these two men are in jail. Canadian and American sources have told me they have the lights on 24 hours a day. Don’t you feel there’s an obligation there if Huawei Canada is abiding by Canadian laws and Canadian interests, to try to do something for these two men?

Alykhan Velshi, VP Corporate Affairs, Huawei Canada: Well, you know, we’ve said that, you know, we’re concerned. We’ve said that we want the two governments to work together, to find a resolution that can bring them home as soon as possible. With respect to, you know, Meng Wanzhou, obviously she has access to Canadian court. She has lawyers here, and you know we remain confident that, you know, that she is—will be found innocent because she is innocent, and you know, we remain alarmed by the politicization of her trial down in the United States.

Mercedes Stephenson: You worked in Stephen Harper’s Prime Minister’s Office, which was very tough on China and the human rights violations. As a Canadian who worked in that position, and now you’re working at Huawei, do you find the position your company is taking difficult?

Alykhan Velshi, VP Corporate Affairs, Huawei Canada: Huawei has a history of operating in Canada under Conservative Governments and under Liberal Governments, in compliance with Canadian law and we don’t really take sides in these sorts of—you know, these partisan issues. We want these decisions to be made based on technology, not politics.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. Alykhan Velshi, that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you for joining us.

Alykhan Velshi, VP Corporate Affairs, Huawei Canada: Thanks for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, we’ll unpack the government’s Throne Speech and what lies ahead for Parliament in the coming week.

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[00:15:41 Reporter ?]: World leaders caught on camera laughing about President Trump.

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was part of U.S. democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign ad that came out last week, using material that went around the world after the NATO meeting in England.

Let’s get reaction to it and what it means for Canada’s relationship with the United States with our journalist panel: Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau Chief Susan Delacourt and Joel-Denis Bellavance Ottawa Bureau Chief for La Presse. Welcome.

Big story this week: that video that no prime minister’s office ever wants getting out. They always say if you see a camera, watch out, it could be live. That’s exactly what happened in this case. It was the royal pool that fed this out. Some say this is just an example of typical world politics, everybody talks like this. Everybody’s human. Not a big deal. Others say you know what? It’s now ended up in the presidential campaign in the United States. This is not going to help the relationship between Trudeau and Trump. What’s your take, Susan?

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Susan Delacourt, Ottawa Bureau Chief, Toronto Star: Well, I had one. I wrote it this week. My first reaction when I saw it was relief that finally people were talking about Donald Trump. My view that the bad diplomatic behaviour at NATO was not leaders talking about Donald Trump: it was Donald Trump. I think we’ve come to the place now we are normalizing Donald Trump’s behaviour, and I think there was a—judging from the feedback I’ve been getting to what I wrote—I think there’s a large sense among people that we’ve been letting Donald Trump away with stuff for too long, that it was good to see that he’s—that world leaders still have the capacity to be shocked by what they saw there. So, I—it was a bit of a contrary view, but I think we’ve got to point out bullies. We’ve got to react to bullies and stop being afraid of reacting to bullies.

Mercedes Stephenson: And you could say, and some argue as Susan does, that it’s justified. Does it create a problem, though? I mean, you had Donald Trump come out and say—he still likes Trudeau. He’s two-faced, but he still likes him. It’s just like that friend you had in high school. I don’t know. But are you thinking Joel-Denis that this is an issue for Canada-U.S. relationship or is it just a blip?

Joel-Denis Bellavance, Ottawa Bureau Chief, La Presse: It could be. We’ll have to see in the next few weeks, months, if it will have a backlash on Canada. But obviously, it has become part of the campaign narrative in the United States because Mr. Trump, you know, he’s not seen very well by other world leaders. And it may mark something of a beginning. Maybe world leaders will discover after this incident that was well publicized where they need to stand up more often to Donald Trump so that he does change his behaviour. He doesn’t want to be treated like that as being sort of the laughing stalk of other world leaders. So, it may mark something of a new beginning for—in terms of international diplomatic order with Mr. Trump and we’ll have to see. But Mr. Trump may complain one day that there’s interference in U.S. election and it comes from Canada as a result of [00:18:48] statements.
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Susan Delacourt, Ottawa Bureau Chief, Toronto Star: Trump’s reaction to this was interesting. He did not have the reaction like he had at the G7 in Charlevoix a couple of years ago. He wasn’t—

Mercedes Stephenson: And we all had flashbacks to that, I think.

Susan Delacourt, Ottawa Bureau Chief, Toronto Star: Yeah. And some of the, you know, weak, dishonest, two-faced, they all kind of go together. But I did think that this time it was interesting to see how he felt that he had to say no, I made the joke. I was the funniest guy. It was funny when I called him two-faced. And he seemed to be taking it okay. And let’s face it, Donald Trump has bigger problems right now than world leaders laughing at him. He is facing impeachment in the United States. And, again, I’ll say it is—it struck me as perfectly sane and rational for world leaders, even Boris Johnson to be standing around saying what was that? That we watched today at NATO.

Mercedes Stephenson: A common theme sometimes when people are watching the U.S. president, but to turn here at home where the prime minister returned to, to deliver the Throne Speech or to witness it. He writes it, but the Governor General actually delivers it. One of the big things people were looking at is what tone is it going to set for the government. JD, what did you think they accomplished? They needed to in sounding conciliatory or was it a little bit of a finger wag?

Joel-Denis Bellavance, Ottawa Bureau Chief, La Presse: I think that they did accomplish what they wanted to accomplish. The tone of it, I think it was perfect: conciliatory, not bragging about their election win, and also appealing to other parties in the House of Commons to support what they’re planning to do because it will be for the common good. So, I give it a high mark for that speech on the throne because there’s a lot of ideas, but also the tone and also pointing out to other minority governments in the past, Lester B. Pearson for one example, that you can accomplish things even though you don’t have the majority in the House of Commons. And I think the test of it was the fact that the Bloc Quebecois very quickly, within an hour, said they would support the Speech from the Throne so I think that they passed the test.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well Susan, when I listened to the speech, a lot of it sounded like the NDP had written it. But Jagmeet Singh came out and said, you know, it’s not enough. It’s not enough detail.

Susan Delacourt, Ottawa Bureau Chief, Toronto Star: Yeah.

Mercedes Stephenson: Not a surprise the Conservatives were against it. They have the Bloc in their pocket, but what did you make of the opposition party’s reaction?

Susan Delacourt, Ottawa Bureau Chief, Toronto Star: It’s somewhat predictable. I think the interplay between all the leaders in the House on Friday was fascinating. It was the exchange between leaders that we really wanted to see more of during the election, you know? And in some ways it seemed that Andrew Scheer was rightly or wrongly, trying to a) set the stage for another election, and b) sort of go back and talk about what was on the campaign trail. So I do think we are seeing the shape of—the early shape of the House. The Throne Speech has set the stage for what the parties want out of this. And the Conservatives clearly want a whatever we do in the next few months, days, weeks, whatever, is the training ground for an election.

Joel-Denis Bellavance, Ottawa Bureau Chief, La Presse: The irony of all this is that the Bloc Quebecois, which is supposed to be here to be a disruptive element, is the one that is—has struck the most conciliatory tone in the House of Commons, so far. And so this is surprising, and the Liberals will have to tread carefully because if they are seen as relying too often on the Bloc Quebecois, it may have a backlash in western Canada. So, they have to be careful about that, not getting too close with the Bloc Quebecois. Also seek allies with other parties so that they’re seen as working for everybody and all the regions.

Susan Delacourt, Ottawa Bureau Chief, Toronto Star: I went and compared it. I actually think—I’m alwa—I like measuring politicians against themselves. And I thought the differences between 2015 Throne Speech and 2019 were fascinating. This one was double the length of the old one, and half the exuberance. It was very itemized as Joel-Denis says, and also, it was very domestic and local. Yes, it didn’t mention Alberta and Saskatchewan, but it talked local, regional. There was very much, just like Chrystia Freeland has been grounded, you know, and brought back to Canada. I did think there was a—there’s a real sense that this is a domestic Parliament we’re looking at right now. Not as much mention of the world in this one.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, just at the very end and a bit of a surprise there with NATO peacekeeping, but we’ll keep an eye on that. Thank you so much to our journalists for joining us today.

Joel-Denis Bellavance, Ottawa Bureau Chief, La Presse: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for today, but before we go, Happy Birthday to my mom, who’s celebrating her big day, today.

Thanks for joining us on The West Block. I’m Mercedes Stephenson.