THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 19, Season 9
Sunday, January 12, 2020
Host: Eric Sorensen
Guests: Minister François-Philippe Champagne, David Frum, Peter O’Toole
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.”
U.S. President Donald Trump: “It was flying in a pretty rough neighbourhood and somebody could have made a mistake. Some people say it was mechanical. I personally, I don’t think that’s even a question.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “I am, of course, outraged and furious that families across this country are grieving the loss of their loved ones; that the Iranian-Canadian community is suffering. All Canadians are shocked and appalled at the senseless loss of life.”
It’s Sunday, January 12th. I’m Eric Sorensen, and this is The West Block.
Eric Sorensen: What seemed to be an international tragedy half a world away became a national nightmare here at home: 176 people were killed when a Ukrainian passenger jet was shot down by an Iranian missile. Remarkably, and tragically, several dozen of the dead in that distant land were Canadian, the welfare of their families now top of mind for the Prime Minister.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “I had a chance to sit with some of the families of the victims. They are hurt, angry and grieving. They want answers, they want justice.”
Eric Sorensen: The anger in this country was compounded by Iran’s refusal at first, to accept responsibility. By the weekend, the Iranians admitted one of their own missiles took down the plane, saying it was “an unintentional error.” Prime Minister Trudeau spoke with Iran’s President Rouhani, demanding Canada be fully part of the investigation.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “What Iran has admitted to is very serious. Shooting down a civilian aircraft is horrific. Iran must take full responsibility. Canada will not rest until we get the accountability, justice and closure that the families deserve.”
Eric Sorensen: Still, how transparent will the investigation be with a regime as secretive as Iran in charge?
Hours before Tehran acknowledged its role in the disaster, I sat down with Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne,
Minister Champagne, thank you for joining us.
François-Philippe Champagne, Foreign Affairs Minister: Thank you for inviting me.
Eric Sorensen: The Prime Minister is demanding answers, justice and accountability. What is that going to look like in this tragic case?
François-Philippe Champagne, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well obviously, if you look at the tragedy that unfolded, the second largest contingent of victims are Canadians, so the families, the loved ones. Canadians in Canada,obviously, have many questions. We’re going to push for answers.
The first course of action, as you’ve seen is I’ve been talking to the foreign minister of Iran, which is the first in many years, to get access, because the first thing we need to get is to get our people on the ground. We have a quick reaction team based in Ankara in Turkey, which is ready to enter Iranian territory as soon as we get the visas. So when I spoke to the foreign minister of Iran, I said obviously, the first priority I have is to make sure we get visas for our quick reaction team to be on the ground.
The second thing is the investigation. In light of the intelligence report we have received, obviously they are very disturbing news that suggests that the plane would have been taken down by a surface-to-air missile. People, and we as the Government of Canada and I think the world community, have a lot of questions, and I would suspect also Iranian families have a lot of questions. So we’re pushing, obviously, to bring Canadian expertise to the investigation, Canadian technical expertise, but also to make sure that there could be a full accountability and hold people to account in that. So I think what the Prime Minister was saying was really reflecting the sentiment of Canadians and Canada and the international community.
Eric Sorensen: Iran denies that it was a missile in spite of the intelligence that you have. How confident can you be that you’re going to get answers?
François-Philippe Champagne, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well the investigation will unfold. I think if we have a full transparent investigation, which is led by the international community, we’ve been talking to partners in Ukraine. I’ve been talking to a number of partners and countries for which they have nationals that won’t apply. I think the transparency, accountability will be essential to provide the answers that the family and I would think the international community want. So we will be working with the Iranian government, as you would assume. We need that in order to get access to the sites. And once we have that, once we have eyes on the ground, we will obviously inform Canadians, tell them exactly how things are happening and we’ll do regular briefing. The Prime Minister has been doing that, talked to a number of leaders around the world. I’ve been talking to colleagues around the world and I think everyone wants answers to these questions.
Eric Sorensen: Given Iran’s history and its ability to control information, it’s obviously on the ground first before Canadians can even have a chance to look at things. Are you—can you say that Canadians will get answers?
François-Philippe Champagne, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well, we’ll ask all the questions and we will push for answers as you would expect. That’s why my priority number one has been to get visas so we can be on the ground and provide consular services because above all, you have families. You have people grieving .They request—they demand that we provide them the answers, which is just normal under the circumstances. And in order for us to do that, we are ready to deploy but we are still facing—I’ve been told as I was walking for this interview—that a few visas have been issued, so this is something which is very fluid. We’re monitoring the situation hour by hour with our officials, and as soon as we have people on the ground, we will be able to provide further details about where we are and certainly, participate actively in the investigation as everyone would expect.
Eric Sorensen: In one sense, you know, something like this can suggest why we don’t have diplomatic relations, but I was speaking with someone from the Iranian community and they are critical of both the Liberals and the Conservatives before you, for not having diplomatic channels because this is the very kind of time you need to have those channels open so that you can have a relationship. It may seem like a bad time to consider it, but is there something about this that says you need to have diplomatic channels?
François-Philippe Champagne, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well, you know in my job, you take the facts as they are. We have been—we didn’t choose that situation, obviously. The first event is that we had missiles which were fired at bases in Iraq where we have military personnel. Everyone has been accounted to be safe. After that, we had obviously, the tragic loss of the plane. So the first thing I did was to talk to the Iranian foreign minister. I think this is the first step, obviously, to get access. We’re also working with the Italians. As you know, in our diplomatic jargon, they are the protecting power of Canada and Iran. I have been talking to the Swiss government this morning because they represent Iranian interests in Canada. I’ve been talking to the Dutch also, which have experience to learn, to make sure that we do everything we can to provide accountability, to provide all the details that Canadians want and we’ll continue to do that. We can have these discussions at a later stage. My priority and the one of the Prime Minister and this government is obviously now with the victims, the family of the victims and the loved ones, then the investigation, then making sure that there’s full transparency.
Eric Sorensen: The Prime Minister said that it’s too soon to assign blame in whatever proportion. Whatever proportion suggests that there’s maybe more than one party to blame, are you going to be prepared to challenge the Americans on their part in creating what happened over there as being the unintended consequence that we saw in this tragedy?
François-Philippe Champagne, Foreign Affairs Minister: I think the focus, and the Prime Minister was right in saying that, is now in providing, I would say, emergency response to the families who have a lot of questions to make sure that the investigation is carried out properly with the best international standards, to make sure that we can have access, that we can work to the extent we need, with the Iranians to do that. I think the primary focus is that I think people who are watching us would expect us to put all our energy now, in making sure that everyone does the right thing. And Canada holds people to account and on behalf of Canadians, the country, but also, I think the world is watching. The world is watching Iran. The world is watching how this is going to be unfolding. We are in a situation, as you know, the Middle East, where everyone has been calling for de-escalation, so there’s a lot of moving parts, but certainly first and foremost now, it’s about the people. It’s about the victim. It’s about the family and this is where we are putting all our attention now, is to make sure that we can provide the immediate answers that the family are entitled to receive.
Eric Sorensen: Minister Champagne, thank you for talking to us.
François-Philippe Champagne, Foreign Affairs Minister: Thank you very much for having me.
Eric Sorensen: Up next, the Iranian disaster. Was it the unintended consequence of decisions and actions from both Tehran and Washington?
Eric Sorensen: Welcome back. As families search for answers to what happened to Flight 752 over the skies of Iran, some suggest it is the unintended consequence of the hostilities between the U.S. and Iran, and that both sides bear responsibility.
U.S. President Donald Trump: “It was flying in a pretty rough neighbourhood.”
Eric Sorensen: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, and the author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. We spoke with David, Friday, about the blameworthiness of both the Americans and the Iranians.
David Frum, The Atlantic and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush: The Iranians have just bulldozed the crash site, removing all evidence. They are holding back the black box, which they claim they have found. There are questions about whether or not they will have tampered with it.
Eric Sorensen: And Iran, can it just continue to be opaque in this matter?
David Frum, The Atlantic and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush: Well, Iran is going to have an internal political problem. This is not like Russia striking a plane full of people from other countries. This is a case where Iran struck a plane with many people who have family in Iran. So as heartrending as this catastrophe has been inside Canada, many of the people of course, were Canadian citizens or Canadian residents, they all have relatives back in Iran, and Iran is a repressive society. It’s not a completely closed society. And the grief that Canadians feel just is going to be amplified inside the land where so many relatives of the victims lived.
Eric Sorensen: Now there’s consensus pretty widely that Iran is blameworthy in this, but after the reports of the missile strike and the U.S. president said well, there’s been a mistake on their side. You produced an article in The Atlantic almost instantly that said the U.S. cannot shove all of the blame on Iran. Why?
David Frum, The Atlantic and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush: Yes. Look, there has been a chain of escalation of violence between the United States and Iran, beginning about the 27th of December. They’re strikes and counter-strikes. In this case, the United States, the second and third last rounds of the cycle of retaliation, the United States carried out an assignation of Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian terrorist general who has much blood on his hands, and of course, is a person deserving of a violent death. But the United States gave an explanation, or the Trump administration gave an explanation of its actions that’s obviously not true. They said that he was killed in order to avert an imminent attack. That story is already disintegrating and indeed, it doesn’t make logical sense. Qasem Soleimani was the man at the top of the chain of command. If you can stop an attack by killing the top guy, then the attack is not imminent. If the attack is imminent, killing the top guy won’t make a difference. It wouldn’t have stopped 9/11, had the United States killed Osama bin Laden 48 hours before. The plan was already under way. That’s what it means to be imminent. So, the United States escalated dramatically by killing Soleimani. The Iranians, then, counter-escalated by firing at the United States from inside Iran, something they had not done before. Two hours after the Iranians unleashed their barrage of missiles, they see a blip on their radar. It’s the civilian airliner. But Iran is not a first world country, it doesn’t have sophisticated technology. What it looks like happened was the Iranians saw this blip and thought that’s the incoming American retaliation for the thing we just did to punish them for the thing they just did. So it’s Iran’s crime. The Iranians acted and the Iranians killed, but this crime occurred in the context of an escalation that the United States also contributed to and contributed to under false pretences.
American politics now is like geology, that there—55 per cent of the country is very strongly opposed to the president and about 45 per cent of the country, a little less, is strongly supportive of the president. And really, whatever the question is, those are the numbers.
What Americans are clear about is that they do not want to get involved in a war in Iran. Three-quarters of Americans oppose any kind of confrontation with Iran. The Trump administration has been stumbling toward exactly that kind of confrontation, partly by accident. Partly because of the president’s bad political calculation that escalating in Iran will help him with impeachment, but the confrontation keeps getting more violent and President Trump is deluding himself if he thinks he’s going to find any political relief from using violence against Iran.
Eric Sorensen: Canadians are asking the questions you’re asking, but do you have a sense, then, that Americans are asking it? Like I’m trying to get a sense whether you think that Donald Trump’s image is going to be burnished by this or if he’ll pay a political price?
David Frum, The Atlantic and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush: We have early—I think we know the answer to that. The USA Today and Ipsos did a poll that they conducted over Tuesday and Wednesday of the week just preceding, where they asked Americans a series of questions. And they showed by a large majority that Americans did not agree that killing Soleimani had made the United States more safe, and a majority, 55 per cent, the familiar 55 per cent, thought it was now more likely that Iran would develop a nuclear weapon. And we know that—we can surmise, we don’t know—we can surmise that the White House internal polling showed them the same thing because what was the first sentence out of the president’s mouth at his press availability after the shoot down? He said, I guarantee that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon. He was responding to polls that showed that 55 per cent of Americans now think it’s more likely that Iran will get a nuclear weapon because of just what happened.
Eric Sorensen: Yeah, you’re aware of it, and you’ve mentioned it, the toll on Canadians in that flight. Prime Minister Trudeau said it’s too early to assign blame, as he put it, in whatever proportion, which suggests there is some blame to assign in more than one direction. How do you see, I guess, the effect of all of this on the Canada-U.S. relationship and the Trudeau-Trump relationship?
David Frum, The Atlantic and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush: It’s obviously going to be a strain. So to have 30 people meet a violent death in a town the size of Edmonton, I mean that is a real dagger blow at a community. So, I think Canadians are going to be grieving. I, myself, just in casual conversation on the phone on other lines of business, have in the past two days, talked to two people who knew someone who was on that flight. So the grief is going to be very widely shared in Canada. And I think Canadians are just going to be—I don’t think it’s going to be a big impact because, you know, what can be done? But, President Trump’s lack of human feeling about it, I mean, it’s not going to change anybody’s mind. You knew he lacked human feeling, but it’s just every time you confront his lack of human feeling, it’s a shock.
Eric Sorensen: David, we’re out of time. We could talk to you all day, but thanks very much for talking to us today, appreciate it.
David Frum, The Atlantic and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush:Thank you.
Eric Sorensen: Coming up, we’ll talk to Conservative Foreign Affairs critic Erin O’Toole about the situation in the Middle East, and the future of his party.
Eric Sorensen: Welcome back. Former prime minister Stephen Harper severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned in 2015 to re-establish those relations but that has not happened. And what impact will that now be having at a time like this? When Canadians want and need cooperation and answers from the Iranians.
Joining us now from Toronto is Conservative Foreign Affairs critic Erin O’Toole. Mr. O’Toole, thank you for joining us. You’ve called on Ottawa to work with allies. The minister of foreign affairs said he’s doing exactly that, earlier on our show. Is there more, you think, that Ottawa can or should be doing to press the Iranians to get satisfaction on this crisis in Iran?
Erin O’Toole, Conservative Foreign Affairs Critic: Absolutely, Canadians should ask our allies and build consensus to demand justice. Eric, this is a crime. There’s blood on the hands of the Iranian government. At the very least, it’s criminal negligence. If it was actually intentional, this is a crime of mass-murder. And I was at a memorial last night for a professor from my community who lost his wife, son. His wife was also expecting. We should demand justice. Those involved in this incident, whether it was intentional or not, should be brought to justice.
Eric Sorensen: It may not seem like the right time to consider this, but given just how difficult these relations are, does this suggest that maybe this is the very time that we should have diplomatic channels open with Iran?
Erin O’Toole, Conservative Foreign Affairs Critic:Well in this case, the accident investigation would be conducted by Iran and Ukraine. We weren’t operating the aircraft. Of course, our citizens were the ones targeted or killed as a result of it. We’ve been working with our allies to make sure that we can press for Iran to finally give over the black boxes, which I understand they may have, and fully cooperate with an investigation. But when I hear that Iran has already bulldozed the crash site, they’re hiding the evidence of what appears to be a crime. And so we can work with our allies. It would really not matter whether we had any consular presence or not because this will be Ukraine directly involved. And we’ve talked to the Ukrainian government and they want our expertise involved in the investigation, but we have a lot of political arguments about embassies and consulates. Mr. Trudeau had four years to open it. He saw the same risks that we saw in 2012. Let’s not let Iran off the hook here. This was a crime that took place and Canadians are demanding justice.
Eric Sorensen: Was this terrible event, you think, connected to the back and forth hostilities between Iran and the U.S.? And in that regard, I guess, because, you know, Ottawa is being very stern with Iran, should Ottawa also take Washington to account.
Erin O’Toole, Conservative Foreign Affairs Critic:No, the Trudeau government’s actually been quite soft on Iran. They did run to warm diplomatic relations. They actually have foot dragged in terms of listing the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist entity. Parliament voted over a year ago to do that and the Liberals have not yet done it. So this is the result of Iran, slowly, over many years, fighting proxy wars, funding terror, and when you shoot down a civilian scheduled aircraft from your own capital city airport, the aircraft has a transponder, Eric. This is either the height of criminal negligence or it was a crime of mass-murder, and I think let’s not allow other political issues to cloud the fact that the Iranians are responsible and we demand justice.
Eric Sorensen: Let me turn to the, if you don’t mind, to the Conservative leadership. It’s not officially on. You’re not officially in, but if you were to enter, what would you say the party has to do to address the outcome in 2019 where there was such a strong presence for the Conservatives in Western Canada and not so much in Ontario east?
Erin O’Toole, Conservative Foreign Affairs Critic:Well look, like many members of the Conservative Party, I’m a grassroots volunteer first before I became an MP. I was really disappointed with the election, particularly in the suburbs of southern Ontario where I’m an MP, where I’ve won three times. So I’m talking to a lot of people and saying how can we grow our movement? How can we keep the Conservative Party and all parts of it, united? But we have to win in the greater Toronto area. There’s only a few of us here now. We have to grow in the suburbs of the lower mainland of B.C., Atlantic Canada and Quebec. There’s huge opportunities for us to win and so let’s use this as a way to grow the party.
Eric Sorensen: Does the party also have to do more with, I guess you would say a 2020, up-to-date climate policy?
Erin O’Toole, Conservative Foreign Affairs Critic: I think that’s going to be part of it, Eric, absolutely. Whatever the issues Canadians are talking about: the economy, where they know the Conservatives are the best; the runaway Trudeau deficits they’re concerned about; the high taxes they’re concerned about. We also have to talk about other issues they’re concerned about: lowering greenhouse gases. How can we leverage Canadian technology to do that? I’ve been talking about that for many years. Resource development, including pipelines can be the best employment opportunities for Indigenous Canadians. Justin Trudeau cancelled Northern Gateway, depriving actually, Indigenous communities of ways to provide for their people. So, Conservatives need to find conservative solutions for the problem facing our country and I think Canadians will be drawn to that. So, a lot of conservations, I’m talking to a lot of people that called me after Andrew’s news, and we’re seeing how we can grow to win.
Eric Sorensen: Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier finished one, two in the last leadership race. A lot of Canadians probably wouldn’t know who finished third. It was Erin O’Toole, and is that going to be an issue for you? You are more of a low profile figure on the national political stage.
Erin O’Toole, Conservative Foreign Affairs Critic:I’m not a career politician, Eric, and I haven’t been in politics and in the bubble of Ottawa my whole life. I served in the military for 12 years. I worked as a corporate lawyer in the private sector. I helped establish national charities for military families and for our Canadian heritage. I think Canada needs more doers in politics and less lifers, and that’s going to be part of the discussion.
Eric Sorensen: Alright, Erin O’Toole in Toronto today. Thank you for talking to us.
Erin O’Toole, Conservative Foreign Affairs Critic: Thank you.
Eric Sorensen: And that is all the time we have for today, thanks for joining us. For The West Block, I’m Eric Sorensen. Have a good week.