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The West Block – Episode 22, Season 9

The West Block: Feb. 2
Watch the full broadcast of 'The West Block' from Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020 with Mercedes Stephenson.

THE WEST BLOCK

Episode 22, Season 9

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests: Minister of Health Patty Hajdu,

Alberta’s Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon

MPs: Rob Oliphant, Liberal MP; Dan Albas, Conservative MP

Location: Ottawa

Jonathan Wilkinson, Environment and Climate Change Minister: I think it’s important that all provinces are working to help Canada to achieve its target.”

Bill Blair, Public Safety Minister: “We’re going to make sure that we maintain the integrity of our digital environment.”

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General: “We must all act together now to limit further spread. I’m declaring a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

François-Philippe Champagne, Foreign Affairs Minister: “And I will tell you Canada is at the forefront of the response, and I can assure you that the Government of Canada is there to respond to this consular emergency and we will continue to do so.

It’s Sunday, February 2nd. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

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Mercedes Stephenson: The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the coronavirus outbreak a “global health emergency.” But here at home, the government says the threat to Canadians remains low. Amid questions about what steps are being taken to protect the Canadian public, Ottawa has found itself under fire over the delay in evacuating about 200 Canadians from Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said negotiations with his Chinese counterparts take time and that the logistics are complicated.

NDP Health Critic Don Davies called on the government to be more upfront about minimizing the risk to Canadians here at home.

NDP Health Critic, Don Davies: “They absolutely have to be quarantined. At some point, when we know that the virus incubates for up to 14 days, we need to make absolutely sure that anybody who is getting on a plane with people that maybe are healthy can’t infect them.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now is Health Minister Patty Hajdu. Thank you for joining us, Minister.

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu: Thanks for having me, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: The World Health Organization has declared a global health emergency when it comes to coronavirus. What does that mean for Canada? And does that trigger them reaching that level of being willing to declare an emergency mean that it’s time to take more aggressive action here at home?

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu: So what that means for Canada is, in our case, continue what we’re doing and support the international effort to find out more about the virus, to find out more about what potential pathways we have to discover a vaccine or some kind of antidote to the illness. It also means that we need to do more collaboratively as a world to support countries that don’t have the same level of sophistication in their public health systems as Canada does. But in terms of our own national preparedness, no. We are in line with the recommendations as they stand and we are one of the leading countries contributing to reducing the global spread.

Mercedes Stephenson: Other countries have already evacuated their citizens who are in Wuhan. Japan, the U.K., the U.S., bringing them home, we have not done that yet and there’s been some criticism, particularly by Canadians who are in Wuhan that the government has been too slow. Why has it taken so long to get the plan in place to bring people home?

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu: Part of the challenge that we had when the virus became more well-known, and we knew that we had as a world, a virus that could spread, was that many Canadians that were in the Wuhan, Hubei region of China, had not actually registered with Global Affairs Canada, so we didn’t know that we had very many Canadians. Or we knew we had Canadians there, but we didn’t know who and we didn’t know what kind of supports or services people might need. So in those early days, as I was reminding Canadians to register online with the Global Affairs—on the Global Affairs website, we saw a real spike in numbers of people who are now telling us that they were there. And our, of course, officials had to reach out to each individual or family to talk about what they were looking for in terms of support, and as that clarity happened over the last couple of days, we were able to ascertain that we would have the numbers needed to charter our own plane.

Mercedes Stephenson: Is there any concern, and I understand the desire of the Canadians to want to come home, and the government to bring them home and into the Canadian health system, but is there a concern that you potentially spread the virus by bringing people out of the epicentre where this originated?

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu: So, China’s been really clear that people that are sick with the virus, people that are sick at all, won’t be able to travel and there’ll be extensive health screening in partnership with Canadian officials before people board the plane. Having said that, we’ll also be supporting Canadians who are ill, and right now we don’t have any reports of Canadians asking for assistance who are ill, but if there were to be people who became ill before we were able to arrive in China, we would support those people in China to make sure they’re getting appropriate health care systems.

Mercedes Stephenson: But they wouldn’t be allowed on the plane.

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu: At this point, China is saying they would prefer not to and in fact, have insisted with other countries that sick patients don’t travel, for a couple of reasons. One, obviously it’s not good for the sick patient themselves. It’s a long journey and it can be very stressful and there may not be the appropriate medical supports depending on the severity of the illness. But secondly, because to contain the global spread, China’s been working very hard to ensure that cases don’t leave the country. So the way that we could support people, should they become ill in the intervening days before we evacuate Canadians, is to actually support them through ensuring they’re getting their medical needs through the China health care system.

Mercedes Stephenson: But there’s about a 14-day incubation period, so you could have people get on that plane who have no symptoms, but when they get off here they have symptoms, or days later, they become ill. So what’s the plan for those Canadians that you’re bringing home? Will you put them into isolation or quarantine them?

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu: Well, I’d like to remind Canadians that the risk remains extremely low, today. As we’ve said all along, the risk is low to Canadians and part of that is because of our incredible public health care system and the lessons that we’ve learned from SARS about the importance for information, the importance for working together, sharing information about potential cases that might be under an investigation and positive cases, cases that have tested positive with each other. So far, the process that we have in place has been working.

In terms of the people that are coming from Wuhan, we would be working very closely with them on the flight, and when they arrive to ascertain their health. And I would like to remind Canadians that people that are asymptomatic, that is that they don’t have any cough or flu, or symptoms of fever, that they are not transmitting the disease.

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Mercedes Stephenson: So you’re not looking at a quarantine, then, for that plane?

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu: All options are on the table in terms of how we proceed to protect the health of Canadians that are both coming back from China, but also the health of Canadians that are here. And we’ll have more details as that plan evolves.

Mercedes Stephenson: For Canadians who are here and have been in Wuhan or have been in China, you’re primarily relying on self-reporting right now. There’s not monitoring at the airport, necessarily of taking people’s temperature like there was with SARS. People are not being forced into a quarantine. Some are saying the government is not taking enough action that this is a public health issue and it shouldn’t be reliant on people to self-report, there should be better tracking. What do you think of that argument?

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu: Well, I think it’s, you know, really important that when we quarantine people without any medical evidence to do so, that it actually can accelerate fear and discrimination, and it’s not necessarily that effective. In terms of temperature taking at the airports, the challenge with that is it’s not also effective. You may have symptoms without a fever. You may have fever without the other symptoms and it doesn’t necessarily tell us if people have the virus. The measures that we’re taking are evidence-based. They’re recommended by the World Health Organization and in fact, one of the things that the World Health Organization has recommended is to limit restrictions on travel and trade, solely because the evidence doesn’t support those kind of stringent measures at the airport, and we’ve been very effective in ensuring that the process we have put into place, including self-reporting if you visited the region, which requires then, a thorough interview with the CBSA officer, are in place in all languages that people can understand.

Mercedes Stephenson: The U.S. is being very categoric and very clear. They’re saying don’t go to China to their citizens. Just don’t go at all, for any reason. And if you’re there, you should consider leaving. Canada has said we recommend against non-essential travel. Why not take a tougher position on either flights coming into Canada or recommendations to Canadians who could be considering travel to China?

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu: Again, we are working closely with the recommendations of the World Health Organization, which have indicated that no further restriction on travel or trade should be placed in this case and nor would it necessarily be effective at stopping the spread of the disease but rather, the measures that we have in Canada around ensuring a very robust system of surveillance, a very robust system of collaboration.

Mercedes Stephenson: So are you confident that what Chinese officials are telling you is truthful and accurate?

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu: The Chinese government has taken extraordinary measures on their behalf to try and contain the spread of the disease, globally. In fact, they were praised by the World Health Organization for doing so. There is no indication that China is being deceitful.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Hajdu, we know you have a very busy day, so thank you for joining us.

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu: Thank you very much, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, we’ll hear from two members of the newly created Canada-China committee. Is the government doing enough to protect Canadians from coronavirus? And a look at the still looming decision on Huawei.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. The brand new Canada-China committee met for the first time last week. It’s looking at everything from coronavirus to security threats and Huawei.

Conservatives pushed for the creation of the committee as part of their call for Canada to take a harder line on China. It’s been over a year now since Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were detained in China, after Huawei’s CFO was arrested in Vancouver. Relations between the two countries have been strained and many are calling on Canada to ban Huawei.

Joining me now to respond to this issue are our MPs: Rob Oliphant for the Liberals, who of course is the Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and Dan Albas for the Conservatives.

Dan, let’s start with you because we just heard from the Liberal health minister talking about the crisis. She says the government is doing enough. They don’t want to incite panic here, that Canada is in a good position and the risk is low here. Do the Conservatives believe the government is doing enough to deal with the coronavirus outbreak?

Dan Albas, Conservative MP: Well, anytime you’re talking about a crisis of any sorts, leadership is so important. And leaders plan, they also communicate and they hold others accountable to the plan. And so far, we have a number of unanswered questions. We have other countries, such as the United States, Germany, who have been able to successfully repatriate their citizens back home. And with the government, they’re just unable to give us basic details on how they plan on doing this. And so from our viewpoint, we actually called a health committee meeting to bring the Minister in to actually answer some of these questions and Dr. Tam, our Public Health official, certainly gave a lot of information, but we need more. We need more specifics from the government so that people can rest assured that the government’s on top of this file.

Mercedes Stephenson: But, you know, Rob, people are saying, look, we’re not monitoring at the airport. We’re relying on people self-reporting in what could be a public health crisis, if it escalates. There’s no travel ben to China. We still don’t know what’s going to happen with the Canadians when they come back. Has the government been caught a little bit flat-footed on this?

Rob Oliphant, Liberal MP: I don’t think so. There’s a strong travel advisory, and what the Canadian government has said is that Canadians should only travel if they have absolutely necessity to travel to China. So, we are advising that Canadians do not go. Banning travel is something that is extremely different than travel advisories; however, we’re negotiating with China right now, because they would obviously prefer that we don’t have movement. We’re obviously preferring that we want to bring Canadians home. We’ve had about—close to 200 who’ve asked to be repatriated. So the minister has organized a chartered plane. The plane is ready to go. A crew is trained and ready to go. We’re waiting for manifests and which passengers on that plane, and we’re waiting for permission from the Chinese government. We’ve offered to help China with medical supplies. We’re doing everything we should do, but we’re also not panicking. The last thing you want a government to do is panic. You want them to be prepared, planned and execute carefully, do no harm.

Dan Albas, Conservative MP: Yes. We need to know a little bit more information as to how the government is responding, the fact that we had a Canadian citizen who self-reported and identified themselves to CBSA that they could be carrying it and were told that they could go home, and then continue to phone in and basically say that they believe that they had contracted the virus. Again, we should be having some crystal clear rules as to how this is going to be contained and what the protocols are. We should not be just letting people self-report. And Air Canada, they actually cancelled flights before the government had done anything on this. If you look in Italy, they’ve already banned air traffic altogether. So there’s different approaches by different countries. Some countries seem to be on the ball. Some seem to be flat-footed on this file.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. I want to change gears and talk, briefly, about Huawei because that was something else that the committee was talking about this week, it’s something certainly that the government is seized with. There’s been no decision yet on whether or not to allow Huawei to participate in Canada’s 5G system, but earlier—pardon me, last week, the U.S. Government made a decision to say yes, we are going to allow them in.

Rob, where is the government at? You promised a decision after the election, it’s now February, in terms of when Canadians will find out whether or not Huawei can participate?

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Rob Oliphant, Liberal MP: I think this will come up at our special committee on Canada-China relations. It hasn’t come up yet. Last week, we had an organizing meeting and we began with briefings. We had two briefings already on the bilateral relationship. One was on trade and one was on the diplomatic relationship. This week, we’ll have one on justice and on consular cases. And then Dominic Barton, the ambassador will appear at our committee on Wednesday. We have not yet got into the issue of Huawei. We are charged with doing those various activities. We’re looking at bilateral relationship, trade implications to trade relationship and obviously, safety and security issues as well. And the Huawei decision is that intersection around investment and trade and activity, business relationship and public safety and security.

Mercedes Stephenson: But no sense from your perspective as a senior Liberal of when the government might make that decision?

Rob Oliphant, Liberal MP: I am waiting as well. The government is taking, obviously its time. We have our partners in the Five Eyes are all reaching decisions on Huawei in its participation. Our allies are important to us, we consider like-minded and allies on every decision we do, but Canada will make its own decision based on what’s good for Canada and what’s good for Canadians. And that’s where we’ll be at.

Mercedes Stephenson: Go ahead, Dan.

Dan Albas, Conservative MP: Look, the Conservatives have been calling for well over a year, and we even made this part of our election platform, that the government should ban Huawei from participation in our 5G infrastructure. Other countries like Australia, like New Zealand with much smaller security apparatus have already banned it.

Mercedes Stephenson: But the U.K. is allowing is, and Boris Johnson’s government is not exactly radical communist sympathizers.

Dan Albas, Conservative MP: Well now, but I would also simply suggest that both British Telecom and Vodaphone are planning on other using other suppliers for it. So, getting back to here, we also had it where the former Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale had said it would be after the election. Now we hear from the current Public Safety Minister Bill Blair that it will take—it’s not just security considerations but other considerations will be taken into account. So, the question is here, has the government—are they just ragging the puck here? Are they putting our national security—are they stopping legitimate activity, because many of these carriers are waiting to spend billions of dollars to be able to put in this next generation of infrastructure, but they can’t do it with any certainty so it’s costing billions of dollars. And it also questions whether or not, you know, the government puts our, you know, other interests in front of our national security and Canadians privacy. Those are two things that Conservatives believe—

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. Quick response from Rob and then we’ve got to go.

Rob Oliphant, Liberal MP: I’m going to radically agree with you, because I think what you’re saying is—so this is a complex decision. We have allies and partners who have reached a decision: New Zealand and Australia on one side, we have the Americans reaching their own decisions. We have the U.K. making its decisions. We will carefully analyze this. We’re not—we’re the government. We’re not an opposition. We have a group of tools and a group of resources that we will apply to this and make a recommendation that is in the best interest of Canadians.

Dan Albas, Conservatives MP: But we are also completely separate, Rob, than the United Kingdom.

Mercedes Stephenson: And on that—

Dan Albas, Conservative MP: Our economy is integrated with the Americans.

Mercedes Stephenson: We have to wrap it up because we are out of time, but certainly we will, I’m sure, be taking to both of you again because there are many issues on this committee. So thank you very much for joining us.

Rob Oliphant, Liberal MP: Thanks for having us.

Dan Albas, Conservative MP: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up, Alberta’s environment minister on his push for a green light from Ottawa for the massive Teck Frontier Oil Sands project.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. The federal government says it will make a decision about the new massive oil sands project in Alberta by the end of the month. The Teck Frontier oil sands mine is seen by many as a symbolic decision that could pave the course for the strained relationship between Ottawa and Alberta. Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson hinted last week, the decision could be pushed even further down the road, as Ottawa weighs the need to boost Alberta’s economy and the need for crude oil against meeting climate targets. Wilkinson noted Alberta is currently challenging the federal carbon tax in court, and connecting those two issues has not been well-received in the West.

Joining me now to talk about this is Alberta’s Minister of the Environment and Parks Jason Nixon. Welcome to the show, Minister.

Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon: Thanks for having me on.

Mercedes Stephenson: What was your reaction when you heard the federal environment minister make that link between Alberta’s challenge to the carbon tax in court and the potential approval or rejection of Teck Frontier?

Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon: Well, a variety of reactions, but the biggest issue, I think, first of all, is the argument itself. Alberta has a tier program, which means that the Frontier project would fall underneath the Large Emitter program inside our province. That’s a program I brought forward as environment minister here in Alberta to manage our GHG emissions with our largest emitters, and Minister Wilkinson has given us equivalency on that project. So to compare a consumer carbon tax to the industrial side of the carbon question is a ridiculous statement. So I think that’s a bit confusing.

In addition to that, the federal government has a carbon tax on our consumers here in the province of Alberta, so the argument that Minister Wilkinson seems to be making in the press just doesn’t make any sense from our perspective, and we continue to point out this project’s been approved by both regulators, both the federal government regulator and the province and it’s in the best interest of this province and our country and we expect it to be built.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Does it make you reconsider your position on challenging the carbon tax in court?

Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon: Absolutely not. Albertans spoke loud and clear last April, gave us very clear instructions to fight the Trudeau carbon tax. We made it clear we will fight it in court, we’ll fight it in the ballot box and we’ll do what we can. Now, this is not about us, not wanting to meet our climate change obligations. Alberta takes climate change serious. We take emission management serious, but we’re going to do it our way. We’re not going to bring in a tax and try to manage a climate issue on the back of hardworking Alberta families. We have a different approach and we expect the federal government to allow us to proceed with our approach, and again, to move forward with what is a critical project for our province but also for this country.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that there is a risk that the federal government won’t approve this project based on what the minister is saying publicly in the media?

Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon: Well, you know, if I go off of comments I’ve seen in the media, they’re concerning to me. I can’t put myself, you know, into their decision-making process because obviously, I’m not in the room. All I can do is keep telling you, you know, the facts. And the facts are that this project has gone through a very significant regulatory process that has jumped through all of the hurdles, it’s followed all the rules and the idea that the federal government would change the rules at the last minute is ridiculous. I mean for our friends across the country, I mean in Ontario, if there is an automobile plant that was going through—that it went through the regulatory process for almost a decade, went through all the approvals and was approved, and then all of a sudden in the last minute, the federal government tried to change the rules at the last minute, I’m sure Ontario would be upset and that’s how Albertans are feeling right now.

Mercedes Stephenson: Why do you believe the federal government is making that linkage? What do you think their goal is here? Are they trying to prompt Alberta to do more on the environment? Is this to delay it? What do you think the reasoning is behind coming out and saying this?

Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon: Well, the only thing I can think is that they’ve got a bit of a political problem. They have stood up and said that they want to work with Alberta and deal with national unity, which is a real issue inside confederation at the moment. So they have that on one hand, but on the other hand, they’re worried about portions of their base and how this may impact them politically. That’s a tough spot, maybe that they find themselves in but I don’t care. At the end of the day, they need to, if they have said that they want to work with our province, they’ve reached out so they want to work on the unity issue, we have been clear as the Alberta government that this is one of the main issues that has to be addressed for that to be successful. And right now, the ball is in Justin Trudeau’s court. He has to decide if he’s serious about working with Albertans or if he’s going to prove what most people in this province believe, and that is Justin Trudeau’s not interested in our success and he’s not interested in the unity of this country, and he’s not going to stand with Albertans. He’s going to continue to knock us—or hit us while we’re down.

Mercedes Stephenson: So does that mean that you believe that the federal government wants to see the oil sands shutdown?

Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon: Well, I mean, all I can go off of is the prime minister’s former comments. I mean he’s made comments to that effect in the past. And so I guess what I’m saying is now it’s his opportunity to show whether those comments in the past are true and he’s going to go out of his way to shut down the oil sands and to hurt Albertans, hardworking Albertans or if his comments after the election are actual factual and that he is going to reach out and work with us on unity issues and help our province out. The ball is in Prime Minister Trudeau’s court. Albertans are waiting to hear his answer and time is running out. It’s time to make a decision.

Mercedes Stephenson: Now if you talk to federal Liberals, they’ll look, we have Chrystia Freeland out working hard, trying to connect. We bought a pipeline for $4 billion. We’ve told Alberta we expect them to do more. They’re not doing more. The ball is in their court to do more than just target the big emitters and this is an opportunity for them to show that they’re serious. What do you say to people who make that argument?

Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon: It’s a ridiculous argument. First of all, the fact that the federal government bought a pipeline is because of their political failure to enforce the law. Alberta will not be held hostage and negotiated with when it comes to developing our resources. We won the constitutional right to manage our own resources. Alberta takes emissions seriously. It takes climate change seriously. It has for a long time. It was the first province to regulate on emissions. We will continue to meet our climate obligations, but we will continue to stand up for our constitutional rights to develop our resources. The federal government has no business in this area from our perspective and again, at the end of the day, this comes down to a project that was approved, went through the regulatory process both federally and provincially, and was determined it was in the best interests of this country. There’s no excuse for the federal Liberals not to approve this, and their actions in the next few weeks—I can’t stress this enough—will finally tell Albertans once and for all, whether the prime minister’s serious about working with this province or not.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Nixon, that’s all the time we have for today, but thank you so much for joining us.

Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon: Thanks for having me on.

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