The West Block — Episode 26, Season 9

The West Block: Mar 1
Watch the full broadcast of The West Block from Sunday, March 1, 2020, with Mercedes Stephenson.


Episode 26, Season 9

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests: Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Dr. Marcos Espinal,

Grand Chief Joe Norton

Location: Ottawa

Lands Rights Protestor: “The train’s not stopping. The train’s not stopping.”

Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations: “We’re working on it. We’re working on it.” 

Indigenous Leader: “The Canadian Government has to come to an agreement with the Wet’suwet’en chiefs and that’s where the pressure should be.”

Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations: “I’m here to break—reaffirm that I’m very interested in accelerating that work on—on rights and title.” 

Dawna Friesen, Global National: “Anxiety mounts over the spread of COVID-19.” 

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General: “The global risk is very high.”

François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Foreign Affairs: “If people are going in a zone, in an area, in a country which we already know there is an issue, people should really think twice.”

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, March 1st. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

After weeks of railroad and port blockades across the country in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, tensions escalated last week, even protestors facing off with the train. This has all come at a cost to the economy with thousands of layoffs and many businesses hurting. And within the Indigenous community, it has opened up deep divisions.

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Joining me now to discuss this is Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who also has the intergovernmental affairs file. So many of these falling under problems that you’ve been put in to fix, but many Canadians are saying they feel like this is such a difficult time for the country and some are saying that the country is pulling apart at the seams. What do you say to those Canadians who look at say the economy is in trouble? We have COVID-19. We have blockades and can’t move our gear. Why isn’t the government doing more for us?

Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs: Well, you know, Mercedes, I think it’s a really good question and I would start by saying to those Canadians it is a difficult time, and I absolutely acknowledge and embrace a federal government responsibility for being a leader in that work. And you know what? I think it’s what Canadians want. I think that Canadians really understand how great Canada is, that we have something really, really special here. The tensions and the strains are absolutely real, and now is a time for all of us to put our shoulder to the wheel, to knit our country together and to face up to the very real challenges, the very real differences across our country, within our country, and to find a consensus on the hard issues.

Mercedes Stephenson: But is allowing weeks of blockades to go on and the millions of dollars that that has drained from the economy, is that leadership by the federal government?

Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs: You know what is leadership by the federal government was the prime minister saying a week ago, the blockades must come down and “the law must be upheld.” That was a crucial moment. It was essential for him to say that. And since then, what we have been seeing is progress—by no means, complete—but real progress in getting the blockades dismantled. And I do want to be very clear with Canadians that a protest is an absolute and essential democratic right. I think all of us as Canadians are really proud that we live in a democracy where we can do that. But protest does not and cannot include the right to stop Canadians from going about their business, from doing their jobs, from living their lives. Our government is—

Mercedes Stephenson: Then why wasn’t your government tougher on that?

Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs: Our government is very clear about that.

Mercedes Stephenson: Teck Frontier—as you know, you’ve spent a lot of time out west, you are a westerner. It was symbolic—

Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs: Well I’m an MP for University of Rosedale, but I love Alberta. I am a grateful daughter of Alberta.

Mercedes Stephenson: Born and raised in Alberta, like me. And you know the reaction out there because you hear it even I’m sure, just from friends and family that this was really a symbolic project. And the CEO of Teck said look, you simply cannot get natural resource projects approved in this political environment. Your government is, in part, responsible for that political environment. What are you going to do to help Albertans in terms of concrete measures now that Teck is no longer an option?

Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs: Teck is a private sector company and Teck’s decision to withdraw was a decision by that company.

Mercedes Stephenson: But it’s your government’s decision, if you’re going to do something to help Albertans financially at this point.

Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs: Well—so you’ve asked a number of questions and I want to talk about—I, I very much agree there is a role for the federal government in the path forward and I’d like to talk about that, because I think that Don Lindsay wrote a very wise letter explaining the company’s decision to withdraw. And what he pointed to was the lack today, of a national consensus on how we proceed on the two things that I believe the overwhelming majority of Canadians support, very much including Albertans, which is that we do need ambitious action on climate change. We all know that climate change is a pressing issue. And by the way, I very much believe that Albertans understand that, including the leadership of the province of Alberta. At the same time, we need a strong economy, and Canada is lucky to have a strong natural resource sector, including a strong oil and gas sector—

Mercedes Stephenson: But does that mean you’ll do something financial?

Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs: Which employs hundreds—

Mercedes Stephenson: Because a lot of people in the oil and gas sector think it’s over right now.

Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs:  Mercedes, I will get to that. But I think there is something even more important that I would like to take this opportunity to talk about, which is—so let me just finish the point about the oil and gas sector because I think it’s important for Canadians to hear of it. So I do want to be very clear that our government recognizes the importance of the oil and gas sector, its value to the Canadian economy, the fact that this is a sector that creates hundreds of thousands of high paying jobs across the country, including a lot of great blue collar jobs. We recognize that, we value that.

What I think we need to do now is have a very urgent, very serious conversation between the federal government, the provincial government, the oil sector and indeed, actually the whole country, talking about how do we achieve both of these objectives. And the good news, from my perspective, is I believe the oil sector, in particular, energy CEOs are absolutely there. We are seeing the leaders of some of Canada’s leading oil companies. I spoke to one just in the past 48 hours, but I won’t name the person because the person asked me not to name them. And I spoke to several this week, they are there. They understand, frankly, because of their own convictions, because of their own conversations with their own children and also because of what the global investment community is demanding. They understand that they need to act on climate change. A lot of Canadian companies are making net zero by 2050 commitments and they understand that it is work that we need to do together. It is work, we—the oil sector is already doing. It is work that I really believe the brilliant scientists and innovators in Canada, particularly in western Canada, in this area, are totally well-equipped to do. And what I think we need to do now, I think we need to treat Teck’s withdrawal as a wakeup call for our country. And we need to say now is the time to do that hard work, to actually face up to the fact that it is a challenge. It’s a real challenge to reconcile ambitious action on climate change, and a strong economy, and a strong oil and gas sector, but we can do it. And I think now is the moment for us to do that work, to have that consensus, to get to that national agreement. And when we do that, we will have no trouble at all getting big projects built in Canada, which is what we need to do.

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

Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs: Okay. Thank you for letting me say that, Mercedes. I really, really believe it.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well up next, as more countries report an outbreak of the coronavirus, have we reached the tipping point to a pandemic? And what’s being done to protect Canadians?


Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. More than 50 countries are now reporting cases of COVID-19, as the battle to contain the virus intensifies.

Here in North America, many schools are preparing for a break this month, leaving parents to question the risks of that much desired vacation. Have we reached the tipping point for coronavirus and can it be stopped?

Joining me now is Dr. Marcos Espinal, the director of the Department of Communicable Diseases and Environmental Determinants of Health at the Pan American Health Organization. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Dr. Espinal.

Dr. Marcos Espinal, Pan American Health Organization: My pleasure.

Mercedes Stephenson: Each week, we are hearing about more and more cases and countries reporting COVID-19 now within their borders. A lot of people are wondering: at what point does this meet the criteria to become a pandemic?

Dr. Marcos Espinal, Pan American Health Organization: Well, that is a very important question and there is a fine line that we could cross anytime. The pandemic issue, it has pros and cons because the word pandemic can create also fear, stigma and can also suggest that the international community cannot contain this virus. On the other hand, we firmly believe that it is a pandemic when we start observing sustained transmission in the communities. We have seen that in three countries, so far: Italy, South Korea, and Iran. So we are watching this critically.

Mercedes Stephenson: How prepared do you think we are here in Canada, the United States and the Americas, for this virus?

Dr. Marcos Espinal, Pan American Health Organization: So the health systems are really, really not homogenous in terms of preparations. So there are stronger health systems, others are weaker. Canada and the United States have very strong health systems. I think Canada, it has done very well. Canada also has a lot of experience on the past coronavirus like SARS. And I think Canada has been able to handle the cases that have arrived related to China very well.

Mercedes Stephenson: So far, the cases we’ve had coming into Canada have been people who have been in contact with somebody who had contact with someone in China, a spouse of somebody who had it, but when you really start to worry is when you start to see community transmission, that transmission of the disease to people who have not been or had a close relationship with someone who is considered to be high risk.

Dr. Marcos Espinal, Pan American Health Organization: That is correct. And that is the key issue for calling it a pandemic event. We don’t rule out that that is going to be called like that, you know? We also don’t rule out, like for instance, in China, cases are declining that it could come back. But as the director general was saying a few days ago, a couple of days ago, the organization still think that it can be contained.

Mercedes Stephenson: What about places like Africa where there is now a case in Nigeria, where there is not the kind of health care system that European and North American and many Latin American countries have. Once is reaches there, does it become much harder to contain it?

Dr. Marcos Espinal, Pan American Health Organization: There is no doubt that Nigeria will be committed to try to contain this. We have an office for the whole of Africa and certainly we’re working with them. But I agree with you, there are several countries where the health systems are weak and they need to be strengthened.

Mercedes Stephenson: Even in the United States, in California, they were talking about a shortage of testing kits. Are you concerned about whether or not even countries like Canada and the U.S. are really prepared for this to come and for the health care system to have to deal with it?

Dr. Marcos Espinal, Pan American Health Organization: One thing is containment and the other thing is mitigation. Mitigation measures can be implemented when we have outbreaks or community transmission.

Mercedes Stephenson: A lot of Canadian families are getting ready to go on their March break. They tend to go away. People travel, they fly. They go to places where there are lots of people, like theme parks. You know, should Canadian families be concerned about that and should people be rethinking, potentially, their plans for the break or just carry on?

Dr. Marcos Espinal, Pan American Health Organization: Well, that’s an important question. I think the key issue is to watch how this evolves and make the best decision close to the vacation or so. I mean, some countries are already recommending cancelling mass gathering events. But it depends on the country itself. You know, each country within their boundaries can recommend what they consider is good for their citizens. One thing is clear that if there are community transmissions in a place, you know, it’s important to avoid that place—I mean, for the time-being. But if the vacation is in two months or so, I recommend watch and see how this evolves. If they see more cases coming into their vacation or holiday place, then it would be recommended—it would be better to postpone that travelling because protecting life is more important than being on holiday.

Mercedes Stephenson: So for people at home watching, what should they be doing to protect themselves both from preventing getting the virus but also dealing with a situation where there is an outbreak and things could change in terms of ability to get out of the house, or use public transit, or go shopping?

Dr. Marcos Espinal, Pan American Health Organization: I think the important issue is not to create panic. The purchase of extra supplies is related to what I said earlier: if an influx of cases arrives in Canada, the authorities need to be prepared with stocks of supplies, protection equipment and so on. But they’re not saying this is because the risk is high or low. I think this is called preparedness. I mean to make sure they have the equipment needed and the supplies needed to face a major influx of cases. I think the issue of [00:15:06 lower risk wise] also depend on the health system of the country, but nobody can control a virus like this. Nobody can predict—I’m sorry—what is going to happen. But we cannot also say that it’s going to be Armageddon or something like that. I think countries are preparing and Canada is one of them. And we fully are confident that Canada is able to do a good preparation for facing cases of coronavirus, like they have done already, so far.
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Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you very much, doctor.

Dr. Marcos Espinal, Pan American Health Organization: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up, a conversation with Grand Chief Joe Norton on blockades, the new normal and whether reconciliation is possible.


Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Weeks of Indigenous land rights protests in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposing a natural gas project in B.C., have hit the economy hard and opened divisions across Canada.

Many Indigenous leaders are calling on the government to address their land rights disputes. The Mohawks at Kahnawake in Quebec were on the frontlines at solidarity blockades.

Joining me now from Kahnawake is Grand Chief Joe Norton of the Kahnawake Mohawk Council. Thank you for making time for us, Chief.

Grand Chief Joe Norton, Mohawk Council of Kahnawake: My pleasure.

Mercedes Stephenson: Grand Chief, these barricades have been erected across Canada for weeks and people say it seems like an extreme way to go. Like it is so drastic in terms of cutting off access, in terms of damaging the economy, but it seems to be something that you believe is necessary. Why do you believe you have to have barricades and these kinds of protests that are actually shutting down freedom of movement and the economy, to be effective?

Grand Chief Joe Norton, Mohawk Council of Kahnawake: Well it was nothing that was planned in advance, people—especially like in the community here of Kahnawake, it was a spontaneous reaction to images that the people here in the community saw on the screen with the RCMP moving in and arresting people and carting them away at gunpoint. It’s not the first time we’ve seen things like that. And we saw similar things happening way back, 30 years ago, in 1990. So there was an immediate reaction to support, and I’m not saying we’ll take credit for the rest of the country jumping in, but certainly when it—it was like an I don’t know—a domino effect, the next thing you know, right across the country, people were doing things, both native and non-native also, too.

Mercedes Stephenson: So what is, I guess, the benchmark for you to take the barricades down and beyond that, for the barricades to potentially go back up again?

Grand Chief Joe Norton, Mohawk Council of Kahnawake: It’s a very difficult situation in terms of this present circumstances because of the fact that, you know, a couple of thousand miles away on the other side of the west coast, there are discussions and negotiations taking place, you know, just starting recently and we have no control over that. But our commitment given to continued support until such time as the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are satisfied and request that we stand down. Not only us, but across the rest of the country, is something—that commitment that we’ve given. And we’re hoping that’ll happen, you know, 24 or 48 hours, over the weekend, and that we’ll be able to turn—return to as normal a life as we can. And hopefully for the future, there will be a process that’ll be put in place that won’t require these kinds of things, won’t require Canada to use use-of-force through the courts, through law enforcement and all those kind of things, and that our own people will not be put in a position where they have to protest, they have to block highways, bridges and all those sorts of things. So a fair and honest, peaceful way of settling matters is what I’m striving for. We’ve floated a couple of ideas on how, about what that could look like in the future, in the very near future and there’s been some reciprocation by Canada on those ideas.

Mercedes Stephenson: What do those ideas look like?

Grand Chief Joe Norton, Mohawk Council of Kahnawake: Well, I don’t want to go into too much detail because it’s still like unofficial kinds of discussions that have been had, but immediately—I mean, right at this point, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake has talked about the possibilities of sending a delegation of our police officers, the peacekeepers, to Wet’suwet’en Territory, to help in policing matters, you know, for a short time period, of course. And there’s something official that’s coming out quite soon to that effect and, you know, you’re getting the scoop on this, first hand.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well, we like scoops, so that would be Indigenous policing by another Indigenous police force replacing the RCMP at Wet’suwet’en.

Grand Chief Joe Norton, Mohawk Council of Kahnawake: Yes, or either that, or in conjunction with the RCMP. I don’t know what that would look like. I mean, Canada and the province of B.C. have to acknowledge that and work with it, because there’s too many stories that are going back and forth in terms of the—the term was used—the “brutality” of the RCMP on Wet’suwet’en people. So—and then there’s, of course, the response to that is no, no, no, it’s a minor patrol. Regular things are taking place. So maybe it’s good to have somebody else and other eyes on the ground type of Indigenous police force to be able to be there, to help calm things down.

Mercedes Stephenson: Grand Chief, what did you think of what was happening with the Mohawk at Tyendinaga, because there was people putting tires on fire on the tracks, a vehicle on fire on the tracks, throwing things at passing trains. Does that concern you that that kind of activity will force the hands of police, or that it undermines support for your movements?

Grand Chief Joe Norton, Mohawk Council of Kahnawake: That is not something that I would condone because it’s very dangerous, very dangerous to the individuals themselves, and we hope that that would not continue.

Mercedes Stephenson: One last question for you, Grand Chief. Premier Légault has said that your territory is heavily armed with firearms, including AK-47s. Is that true?

Grand Chief Joe Norton, Mohawk Council of Kahnawake: Well, I don’t know if that’s to appease the National Assembly. So if Légault is beating the drum, then, you know, he’s sadly mistaken. And, you know, it’s a pity. It is a pity that a provincial leader has to stand up and say those kinds of things. I, for one, am an advocate of peace.

Mercedes Stephenson: But sir is what he said, true?

Grand Chief Joe Norton, Mohawk Council of Kahnawake: No, it is not true—totally false.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. Grand Chief, thank you so much for your time.

Grand Chief Joe Norton, Mohawk Council of Kahnawake: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for today. Thanks for joining us. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. We’ll see you right here, next week.