The West Block – Episode 17, Season 9

The West Block: Dec 29
WATCH: Watch the full broadcast of 'The West Block' from Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019 with Mercedes Stephenson


Episode 17, Season 9

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Journalist Panel: David Akin, Michael Le Couteur, Abigail Bimman

Guests: Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Location: Ottawa

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Neither the current nor the previous attorney general was ever directed by me or by anyone in my office. There was an erosion of trust.”

Jody Wilson-Raybould, former justice minister: “I experienced a consistent and sustained effort to seek to politically interfere.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “I dressed up in Aladdin costume and put makeup on. I shouldn’t have done that.”

Dawna Friesen, Global News: “Today it emerged the party has been paying the private school fees for his children.”

Andrew Scheer, Conservative Party leader: “Thank you so much for all the support you’ve given me.”

Claude Carignan, Conservative senator: “At the end of the day, we lost confidence.”

Andrew Scheer, Conservative Party leader: “I just informed my colleagues in the Conservative caucus that I will be resigning.”

Greta Thunberg, climate activist: “It is very moving to see everyone who is so passionate.”

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, December 29th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

Jacques Gourde, Conservative—Lévis—Lotbinière: [C’est un crime, c’est un SCANDALE.]
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Mike Le Couteur, Global News: “The cries from the Conservatives: someone should be charged with obstruction of justice.”

Jody Wilson-Raybould, former justice minister: “Privilege and confidentiality are not mine to waive, and I hope that I have the opportunity to speak my truth.”

Michael Wernick, former clerk of the Privy Council: “I do not ever give advice that is partisan in content or motivation.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “There was an erosion of trust. Darkening your face, regardless of the context or the circumstances, is always unacceptable.”

Andrew Scheer, Conservative Party leader: “I will be resigning as the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome to our final show of 2019, and in fact, of the decade.

It’s been quite the year on the Canadian political scene, from scandals and resignations to elections and everything in between.

What are the standout stories that dominated the headlines, changed the country, and, in some cases, made history?

Joining me now is the year-end political panel with all of our Ottawa journalists: David Akin, our chief political correspondent; Michael le Couteur and Abigail Bimman. Thank you all for joining us.

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It’s been quite a busy year for all of us here in Ottawa. We have been running on stories since basically February — that’s when the first big one really exploded onto the scene and that was SNC-Lavalin.

Mike, let’s start with you. Tell me a little bit about how this story came to light and how it played.

Mike Le Couteur: Well, with, you know, the Globe and Mail coming out and saying that there was this deferred prosecution pressure by the PMO, and of course, Trudeau coming out straight away and saying it’s false. And I think that is still sort of hanging out there. How does he still say it was false after everything we heard? And then how it evolved: Jody Wilson-Raybould, the recordings of Michael Wernick. It’s just one of those stories that you sit there and go, really? Did that all just happen? And it still feels like, and I know this is the end of the year, it feels like it was 10 years ago because so much has happened in between.

Mercedes Stephenson: And Abigail, Jody Wilson-Raybould had been on people’s radar but never quite in the way that she was. How did that change the political discussion and the landscape for the Liberals?

Abigail Bimman: I think it had a huge impact. You had these two camps of people who supported her and people who didn’t. And I think the biggest evidence of what happened here is that she now sits as the only independent in the House of Commons. So certainly people in her riding decided that she was worth having as their representative after all of this unfolded. But it really turned the page for the Liberals in terms of how things played out, and we haven’t mentioned Jane Philpott. The Liberals lost a very senior, very respected, cabinet minister who then didn’t get re-elected. So it certainly had a big, long-term impact.

David Akin: And it may not be done. Don’t forget, we’re now in a minority government and the opposition parties will control the agendas of key committees like the justice committee, like the ethics committee that the Liberals in the last Parliament used to prevent further investigation. We do know the Conservatives wanted to have a lot more witnesses from the PMO about alleged interference, and we’ll see what kind of appetite the opposition parties have for more investigations into SNC-Lavalin. One of the interesting wrinkles, though, is in Quebec, on the other side of the river here, what Trudeau did on SNC-Lavalin is very popular, standing up for Quebec Inc., and so the Bloc Québécois will not want to remind voters, presumably, what a hero Trudeau was in SNC-Lavalin. In English Canada, it’s a very different story. It is definitely seen as a story, as the ethics commission found, of a prime minister interfering improperly with the workings of a justice minister.

Mercedes Stephenson: Now David, one of the other big stories this year has been the relationship between federal and provincial politics and the ‘resistance,’ as some called it, these provinces who have really been a thorn in Justin Trudeau’s side, the whole issue of Wexit coming up, the discontent in Alberta and Saskatchewan, that’s something you covered very closely.

David Akin: Yeah, and I’m an election nut, and of course, the federal election was the big one this year, but we had elections in Alberta, which was kind of a big deal. Obviously, Jason Kenney affirming that he is the leader, if you will, of the blue resistance in the country, but also for Alberta a very healthy showing by the NDP and Rachel Notley and although they got knocked out of power, Alberta’s political culture now has the political culture that, I think, in other provinces they have where you have the governing party and a strong opposition. So that’s important. But yes, Scott Moe, Jason Kenney, Brian Pallister, also a big majority win for him, again, a Conservative premier joining with Blaine Higgs out there in New Brunswick. So we’ve got these conservative-minded premiers that clearly are looking at a minority prime minister and thinking it’s time to rewrite some things and we will see if the provinces can agree together, because there is some dissension among provinces, and if they can agree and get their act together, I think they can force some change that they want from a federal government.

Mike Le Couteur: But one member of that resistance that I think now has almost broken ranks a little bit was right after the campaign, right after the election, you saw Doug Ford stand out there and say, you know what? That was all politics. I was the punching bag. I was the piñata for Trudeau throughout this entire campaign, and to some extent, I think some Conservatives look at it and felt like he was locked in the basement in the entire campaign and said just don’t come out. We don’t want to hear from you.

David Akin: And weirdly, I heard from one candidate, Leona Alleslev, the floor switcher who became the deputy leader, she said that voters didn’t know that it was Scheer’s decision to put Ford in the closet. They thought it was Ford didn’t want to be seen with Scheer. And she’s actually on the record saying it was a mistake that Scheer and Ford did not campaign together. I’m just putting that out there because sometimes voters don’t know all the inside baseball stuff … They just didn’t see Ford in the campaign trail and thought it was Ford’s comment on Scheer’s [00:06:40 cross talk].
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Mike Le Couteur: And how does Ford now look coming out after his meeting with Trudeau, and they got along famously it looked like—

Abigail Bimman: He said he wanted to be a unifier and I saw eyebrows go up everywhere — Doug Ford now the great unifier of all these provinces.

David Akin: And he wants to learn French and all these great things. And now, he’s coming out of this looking less like he’s resistant and more like he wants to work with this prime minister.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well and something to keep an eye on for sure, but speaking of the election, let’s switch gears to that. We were all on the campaign buses and planes and saw this up close. Abigail, what were the key moments of that election for you?

Abigail Bimman: I spent quite a bit of time on the Liberal campaign, and really the brownface and blackface stories breaking would be the standout moment in the campaign, not just that it happened but how everybody dealt with it afterwards and how it unfolded. And the lasting impact as that story developed and more examples came out, but also that it didn’t seem to nudge the polls very much. There were just, you know, a lot of different facets to that story as it came out.

Mercedes Stephenson: David, you’ve covered a lot of election campaigns. How did this one figure in terms of not only the brownface/blackface, but the outcome a lot of people, a year ago, thought Justin Trudeau having another majority was a sure thing. That was not the case. But Andrew Scheer also didn’t perform as expected, neither did Jagmeet Singh. Maybe only the Bloc were the ones who came out as the winners.

David Akin: I think the Bloc had the best campaign and result. Listen, whenever I look at elections, what did each party want? What was their objective going in? Did they accomplish their objective? And I think except for the Bloc Québécois, you could say no. Parties didn’t accomplish their objective necessarily in the sense that the Conservatives clearly wanted to be the government, and I know that a year ago that might have been unrealistic, but they had a shot. And even though they won the popular vote and got a lot more seats, of course they’re now looking for a new leader. Liberals lost a million votes, and I’m sorry, that was a rebuke. And on election night, you see Trudeau giving a speech there, you’d thought he triumphed. I thought that was a bit out of touch. Jagmeet Singh was half his caucus gets wiped out in Quebec, terrible night. And the Green Party, let’s not forget them, they’ve been looking for some sort of breakthrough and I know they won three seats at a general election and whoop-de-do, but they were polling much better and I think they need to, as they go through another leadership race, they need to say do we want to win, because we need to get more organized as a party for that.

Mercedes Stephenson: Mike, why do you think the brownface/blackface story had so much resonance? It showed up on the headlines around the world. It was on American talk shows. Typically Canadian election issues are very Canadian. This is one that really echoed beyond that.

Mike Le Couteur: Yeah, I mean, besides the fact that it came out in Time magazine and I think it was one of those things that was so opposite to what the world saw of Justin Trudeau. When he burst onto the scene in 2015, it was feminist prime minister who was the beacon of liberalism in the West. It seemed like there was almost like a handing of the torch by Barack Obama, former president to the U.S., to Justin Trudeau saying, ‘OK, now take this and run.’ And it was just one of those things. And I remember, I was sitting on the Conservative campaign bus when it came out, and a number of journalists had to Google it separately instead of clicking on the link because we thought this must be spam. This can’t be happening, because it was that thing.

David Akin: I was on the bus when it broke out, the Liberal bus when it broke. And we did the same thing. We were going, no, this is the Onion or something like that. It was just bizarre of a moment. But you’re absolutely right that his international veneer, he’s taken a big hit. And we’ll see, you know, as he goes to summits around the world, if people listen to him, if he can walk the walk.

Mercedes Stephenson: And I have to move on to our last topic because we’re running out of time. We just have about a minute and a half left, but the Conservative civil war and the meltdown that’s happened there: Andrew Scheer taking the brunt of this, resigning as the leader. Abigail, take us through that a little bit.

Abigail Bimman: Well, I think that, you know, in a minority government, the Liberals can breathe a small sigh of relief in the short term here with Andrew Scheer resigning that they don’t have to worry in terms of getting things passed because nobody wants to go to an election year. But the Conservatives need to do a lot of figuring out in terms of their next steps and that’s going to take some time. I think it was a not such a surprising moment that it happened in terms of the Scheer resignation. I think some of what caused it was, but there were some, you know, fighting for a while since they got that result that they did.

Mercedes Stephenson: David, how dangerous is this to the Conservative Party? Are they going to eat themselves?

David Akin:  Well, listen, take a look in 2015. Let me say this, the NDP and the Conservatives are movement parties. In 2015, New Democrats said our movement isn’t here anymore. Tom Mulcair took us too much to the centre. They ditched Tom Mulcair in favour of a more true-to-the-movement kind of leader in Jagmeet Singh, and how did that work out in the next election for the NDP? Not very well. Conservatives need to ask themselves, movement? Or do we want to win? And I think that’s going to be the real hinge for this upcoming leadership race.

Mercedes Stephenson: Mike, very next, we just have a few seconds left, though: top three contenders, you think, for this race?

Mike Le Couteur:  Well, I’m hearing Pierre Poilievre, which I think is somewhat ridiculous, but probably Erin O’Toole and then the two names of people who were once in the party: Rona Ambrose and Peter MacKay. And I think MacKay said it properly when, you know, we talk about eating themselves. Right after the election, Conservatives had a breakaway on an empty-net goal and still didn’t put it in the net.

Mercedes Stephenson: OK. Well, that wraps up our end-of-year political discussion. We could talk for an hour about this, but thank you all so much for joining us and for all your hard work this year.

David Akin: Happy New Year.

Mercedes Stephenson: Shortly after we sat down with our journalists, SNC-Lavalin reached a deal with the Crown prosecutor. The company pleaded guilty to a fraud charge and will pay a $250-million penalty. There is no criminal conviction, though, so the company can still continue to bid on federal contracts.

Coming up after the break, the right to be cold: a very Canadian concept. We talked to a renowned Inuit activist about climate change.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back.  Canada is warming at twice the rate as the rest of the globe, according to a federal report that was released earlier this year. With melting ice sheets and thawing permafrost, the people of Canada’s North are seeing their cultural livelihoods and infrastructure under threat.

I sat down with activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier to discuss what she calls “the right to be cold” and the changes that she has seen to her northern homeland. Here’s that conversation.

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

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, activist: Pleasure to be here.

Mercedes Stephenson: You’re a northerner. You’ve seen the impact of climate change firsthand on Canada’s North. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the changes that you’ve seen over the course of your life?

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, activist: Well, I mean, I grew up travelling only by dog team the first 10 years of my life and so the changes are huge. You know, the ice is forming much later in the fall. I mean, we’re still boating in November, not only in Nunavik, in Northern Quebec where I come from, but in Nunavut as well. And so the changes are great in terms of the ice. And you have to understand that ice, for us, is mobility and transportation. And so that becomes precarious. It becomes an issue of safety and security right away. The coast is eroding. The permafrost is melting very rapidly, so that creates infrastructure problems, where we’ve had to even relocate certain homes in my region, in Nunavik, in Salluit, to another place because the houses were buckling, the homes were buckling as a result of the permafrost on the ground. There are new species of animals that have come that sometimes we say, ‘Oh, never seen that before,’ whether it’s animals, fish or insects, into the North. As it warms, these new species are making their way up. The tree line, also, you can see the lush. When I was growing up, you know, we had willows and we had small trees. Now we have huge willows and huge trees because as the permafrost melts, then it creates, you know, the ability for the trees’ roots to go deeper, more nourishment and they grow. Lots of different changes that have happened in the Arctic since I was a child, for sure, and particularly in the last 10, 15 years, there’s much more changes happening.

Mercedes Stephenson: And that seems like a very dramatic rate of change.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, activist: The alarms should go up because it affects not only my world in the Arctic, but what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. It is impacting everywhere else in the world as the ice melts in particularly Greenland, ice sheet that is melting. It creates a sea-level rise in other places in the world and so the geographical or the physical aspect of climate change that impacts the Arctic is one thing, but it’s also about culture and the way in which Inuit culture is so remarkable and so ingenious. And to lose that, because it’s not just the ice, but it’s the wisdom of Inuit culture, of teaching our children the character-building and life skills on that ice in the cold that is really the hallmark of Inuit culture, meaning, if you’re out there, you know, of course you’re out there learning how to become a really good proficient provider for your family as a hunter, but the actual life skills and the character skills that you’re taught when you’re out there on the land, where you’re waiting for the animals to surface, the snow to fall, the winds to die, you’re learning patience. You’re learning how to be courageous and bold under pressure as you’re out there in that harsh environment. You’re learning how to be persistent and not to give up until you have found the nutritious food that you bring to your families. You’re learning how to not be impulsive and to develop your sound judgement, and ultimately to become wise as a person making wise choices. That’s what is at stake here. So the speed of these changes has really impacted our way of life. And so we’re trying now to deal with the consequences of that history and the highest suicide rates in North America, as Inuit are known to have. And we want our children to start to embrace their lives, not take their lives. And so that wisdom of the land that I talk about, the character building, to be able to deal with stressful situations on the land, those life and character-building skills are transferable to the modern world. If you have learned that through nature, you’re often more able to adjust and adapt in the modern setting when those stressors come your way. And so it’s not just the ice, it’s not just the wildlife. It’s really about our children and our families and how we want them to be able to make those choices that are life-affirming and life-giving rather than life-taking. And so it’s really that wisdom that we’re afraid that would be lost even further. And so we want to say hey, we’re not just victims as Inuit. We have much to offer to you in the world, in terms of how we could do things differently in partnership with one another because everything is connected and everything is interconnected and whatever happens in the Arctic is impacting everybody now in the south. And it’s only now that people are starting to take notice.

Mercedes Stephenson: You talk about something you call ‘the right to be cold.’ What does that mean?

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, activist: Our very right to be Inuit as we know it is being diminished and destroyed as a result of climatic changes. And so the right to health, the right to educate our children, the right to safety, the right to our homes, all of those rights that are already entrenched in international law, in the Rights and Duties of Man, in the 1948 Rights and Duties of Man, are being diminished as a result of what’s happening, the inaction of our governments of our world to address the greenhouse gas emissions. So our very right to be Inuit as we know it is being violated by the inaction of countries around the world.

Mercedes Stephenson: Climate change was a bigger issue in this past election than we’ve ever seen before. Are you hopeful that politicians are listening now and will take action?

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, activist: Climate change is everybody’s responsibility. If we wait for government to take action, we may wait an awful long time and we’re already in the late stages of what’s happening. Our climate is not changing, it’s in crisis. It’s in trauma. But, you know, politics is a tough place to be. I mean, I understand that world a little bit, you know? And it’s a tough place to be where you can make promises but then you’ve got to — you go in there, it’s a slippery slope and you compromise and you compromise, you know? And it’s tough to be a leader in those elected roles, which is why I’ve never wanted to go into federal politics per se because I think when you’ve worked too hard to stand on your principle, it would be very tough to remain unprincipled when you’re in that political arena. We still have hope, though, and we still hope. I mean, I know through our own organizations here in Ottawa, in fact, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, headed by Natan Obed, you know, they work very closely with the federal government and with this particular government that has been re-elected. So there is those kinds of partnerships that have been building for some time now, but the reality, we know in Canada what the reality is in terms of what brings in the money for our country and how difficult that is to address those kinds of situations with Alberta and so on. So, we still have hope that Canadians will come together and address these issues as urgently as they need to.

Mercedes Stephenson: Sheila, thank you so much for joining us today, to share both your expertise and your very personal experiences.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, activist: Thank you so much for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, new year, new MPs. We asked members of Parliament what their resolutions are as we count down to 2020.

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Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for today, but before we leave you, we’ve asked a few MPs what their New Year’s resolutions are for 2020.

From all of us here at The West Block, we wish you a happy, healthy and prosperous new year. I’m Mercedes Stephenson.

MPs’ New Year’s Resolutions:

My New Year’s resolution for 2020 is to find a pickup hockey league here in Ottawa so I can get back on the ice.

Jenica Atwin, Green—Fredericton


Two things I’d like to do better in 2020 are going to the gym consistently and, secondly, making sure that my time with my children is device-free.

Brad Vis, Conservative—Mission—Matsqui—Fraser Canyon


New Year’s Day marks the 20th anniversary of my father’s passing. For folks in Toronto, who knew him politically, knew him as a journalist, as a television reporter, when he passed away, one of the commitments I made to him, and to myself, was to continue his fight to end homelessness in this country. And so on the 20th anniversary of his passing, I recommit myself to that goal. Let’s end homelessness not just in Toronto but right across this country.

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Adam Vaughan, Liberal—Spadina—Fort York


[Voice of translator] Well, my New Year’s resolution is to make sure that the government makes a real commitment and invests so that everybody has safe and affordable place to live, that they invest funds and policies that will actually tackle the opioid crisis so that we don’t have to lose family members and friends and neighbours to this crisis, and that they actually invest in tackling climate change. And of course, stop fighting Indigenous people in court.

Claude DeBellefeuille, Bloc Québécois—Salaberry—Suroît


I want to be a great role model to my two kids and be able to demonstrate to them what it means to be kind-hearted of people, to look after myself physically as well and how I can always grow every single year. So I want to be able to be that role model that my kids can be proud of.

Hon. Harjit Sajjan, Liberal—Vancouver South


I lost my mom in October and the commitment for me this year, in terms of a resolution, is to live out all the values that she lived and taught me. And those include treating everyone with compassion, never judging and working very hard. Those things I’m going to do, in memory of my mom.

Hon. Filomena Tassi, Liberal—Hamilton West—Ancaster—Dundas


So this year, I put on a few extra pounds and so my goal in 2020 is do something I’ve done in the past, is to give up sweets for the entire year. And I have a very strong sweet tooth, so no chocolate, no pie, no cake. I’m going to give it up for the entire 2020 year.

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James Bezan, Conservative—Selkirk—Interlake—Eastman