THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 33, Season 9
Sunday, April 19, 2020
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Guests: Minister Seamus O’Regan, Irwin Cotler, Preston Manning
Dawna Friesen, Global National Anchor: “The number of deaths continues to be underreported.”
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland: “This is currently the biggest threat that Canada faces.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “There have been far too many deaths already in Canada.”
Governor of the Bank of Canada Stephen Poloz: The Canadian economy is experiencing significant and rapid contraction.”
David Akin, Global News Sr. Political Affairs Correspondent: “The federal government has already backstopped nearly 200,000 small business loans. Many small businesses complain they did not qualify.”
Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer: “We’re asking for a regular accountability session.”
President Donald Trump: “I’m instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organization.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “There is a need for international coordination and the WHO is an important part of that.”
Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer: You are seeing that curve bending.”
Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, April 19th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Our government will invest $1.7 billion to clean up orphan and inactive wells in Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C. We’re also working with BDC and EDC to expand credit support for at-risk medium-sized energy companies so they can maintain operations and keep their employees.”
Mercedes Stephenson: That was the prime minister late last week, announcing funding for the oil and gas industry that has suffered from the economic fallout of COVID-19, as well as the oil production battle that was initiated by Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Joining me now to discuss this bailout and the way forward is Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan. Thank you so much for joining us, Minister.
Seamus O’Regan, Natural Resources Minister: Good to be back, Mercedes. Good to see you.
Mercedes Stephenson: How are things out in Newfoundland and Labrador right now?
Seamus O’Regan, Natural Resources Minister: Hard. You know, you have a province that is even more dependent, believe it or not, than the province of Alberta on oil revenues. And they have plummeted for the two reasons that you just sited. You have an industry that is suffering from demand devastation because we’re not driving around anymore, we’re not flying like we used to, so that’s plummeted about 35 per cent, and then this price war initiated by Saudi Arabia and Russia, which I think we brought some stability with a massive OPEC Plus cut, but still, look at the prices of oil. I mean, you know, you’re talking about a barrel out west that’s cheaper than a foot-long sub. I mean that is, that is dire and nobody ever thought that we’d see those days. And here in Newfoundland where it’s Brent crude, it’s less than half of what the provincial government was conservatively estimating. So these provinces are hard hit.
Mercedes Stephenson: Absolutely brutalizing Newfoundland and Labrador as well as Alberta. Your government offering up some help this week, but many inside the industry are saying it’s too little, too late. What they really need is help covering off their capital costs, their operation costs and their regulatory costs. Fixing wells doesn’t do that. Why hasn’t your government introduced money for those costs for oil companies?
Seamus O’Regan, Natural Resources Minister: Well, indeed we have. For small and medium-sized companies, and you know, they—a lot of us, I think, when we think of the oil industry think of big players, miles of pipeline, in my case, big off-shore oil rigs worth billions of dollars, when in fact, 85 per cent of the jobs are through small and medium-sized companies. So what we announced yesterday, there wasn’t a price tag on it because there’s no cap on liquidity, on the liquidity that we’re offering. But, you know, we will be working with BDC and EDC, and I know with BDC, we’re going to be targeting those companies that are between $15 and $60 million and that’s a huge swath of the oil industry. So, you know, when I spoke with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers for the first time when we were locked down, and I’ve spoken with them several times since, but in their first meeting they, you know, it was an open membership call and they said of our top five asks, the top three are liquidity, liquidity, liquidity. I was on the phone with Tim McMillan, CEO, last night and they’re very pleased with this as a first step and we’re working through the details on those liquidity measures with them. So that was very important. I know the headlines caught orphan wells, but the industry’s, I think, relatively pleased with what we’ve done on liquidity. And like everything else we’ve done through this crisis, Mercedes, what we started out with and where we are now, we are constantly changing and tweaking, and that’s why we’re listening to stakeholders to make sure that we can improve these measures to make sure they’re effective.
Mercedes Stephenson: Were there people inside the cabinet, Minister, who were against putting any money towards the oil and gas industry?
Seamus O’Regan, Natural Resources Minister: I think there’s a great realization, firstly, that we are the fourth biggest oil producer in the world. That certainly came forward for me when I attended the G7, virtually like I am now. I attended it here in St. John’s, but with colleagues from Saudi Arabia, Russia, China and the United States. You know, they wanted to know how Canada was doing, they wanted to know how as a producing country, we are doing. So the weight of responsibility of knowing that you’re the fourth largest oil producer in the world, that there are 576,000 jobs at stake. You know, that you’ve got all these small and medium-sized businesses out west and now where I am from here, you know, where I’m broadcasting from in St. John’s, Newfoundland, which has been devastated by this.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, I guess I’m wondering when that additional liquidity might be coming, then, because there are still big oil companies that don’t quality. Canadian Chamber of Commerce is still saying this doesn’t go far enough for what the industry needs to survive.
Seamus O’Regan, Natural Resources Minister: I think Mr. Morneau is going to have, you know, other announcements on that. But, you know, again, for the small and medium-sized players, making sure—and this was the same, you know, speaking with labour, speaking with unions and a number of them came out yesterday saying they were pleased. Liquidity was important for them too, because they need companies’ whole. They need companies, basically, to have the jobs for workers to come back to.
Mercedes Stephenson: Is there a possibility that you would consider putting money into the Keystone XL pipeline as Jason Kenney is doing?
Seamus O’Regan, Natural Resources Minister: Well, I have a very constructive relationship with Energy Minister Sonia Savage. I smile because today might be the first day that I haven’t to her on an almost daily basis and weeks, although the day is short so I may end up speaking to her yet. That sort of relationship with her and the relationship I’ve had with natural resources ministers’ right across the country, but I would say particularly when talking about oil, Minister Savage, Minister Bronwyn here in Saskatchewan, Minister Siobhan Coady in Newfoundland and Labrador, have been tremendously important. And even going into meetings as I have numerous times with the U.S. energy secretary over the past few weeks to make sure that our efforts are dovetailing.
Mercedes Stephenson: How do you balance out your priorities when your government has put so much emphasis on the environment, but there’s also a call for oil and gas to be bailed out?
Seamus O’Regan, Natural Resources Minister: Well, I look back to February when I attended the Globe conference, which is the biggest cleantech conference in North America, in Vancouver. And I spoke very frankly there and said there is no way that we’re reaching net zero without Alberta. There is no way we are reaching net zero without Canadian oil and gas. And similarly the next day when I flew to Calgary and co-hosted an innovation summit with Minister Savage, I said to the oil and gas companies who were there, you need net zero. And the reason being is that this is no longer just an environmental or climate change initiative. It has now become a strategy for economic competitiveness in what Mark Carney has been saying for a long time is right. Investment is changing. It is no longer going to change, it is changing. The market realizes that, investment is looking for jurisdictions that take climate change seriously. They are looking for industries like ours that are working presently, right now, on electrification, on carbon sequestration, basically decarbonizing a carbon extractive industry. And we can do it. We are doing it. We need to do a lot more, but we can’t get there without one another and that’s my message to everybody.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, we just have a few seconds left, but what do you say to Canadians who had been hoping to travel to your part of the country for vacation, to Americans hoping to come up there who now don’t know if they’ll be able to take those summer vacations?
Seamus O’Regan, Natural Resources Minister: Well, yeah it’s tough because I mean we are a province that relies so much on tourism and I am a man who is very proud of where he’s from and loves showing the place off to people who I know and sometimes people I don’t know. I just bump into them on the street and say how you doing? Where can I point you? But we’re going to have to see where we are with public safety. And I hope—I hope that, you know, coming this summer, if nothing else, Newfoundlanders can enjoy a “staycation.” I’d like Canadians to enjoy a staycation out here, and I’m looking forward to when we can open ourselves up to the world again. That will be a happy day.
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay Minister, I think all of us are looking forward to that. Thank you for your time today and take care.
Seamus O’Regan, Natural Resources Minister: Thanks Mercedes, good to talk to you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, why COVID-19 is being called China’s Chernobyl moment. Did Beijing engineer a cover-up? And how should Canada respond?
President Donald Trump: “American taxpayers provide between $400 million and $500 million per year to the WHO. In contrast, China contributes roughly $40 million a year and even less as the organizations leading sponsor. The United States has a duty to insist on full accountability.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was President Trump last week announcing he would cut funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), while the U.S. reviews the international body’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, amid allegations of a cover-up by Beijing.
On Friday, the Chinese government revised the death toll for Wuhan, increasing it by 50 per cent. So, was there a cover-up by the Chinese government? And how should Canada respond?
Joining me now is Irwin Cotler, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and former Liberal Justice Minister. Thank you for joining us, Mr. Cotler.
Irwin Cotler, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and former Liberal Justice Minister: Good to be with you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Sir, you were one of over 100 experts, academics and political figures who have condemned China in a letter that blames the Chinese government and holds them responsible for the global COVID-19 pandemic. It talks about a deliberate cover-up in this letter, which you call “China’s Chernobyl moment.” What exactly do you mean by that?
Irwin Cotler, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and former Liberal Justice Minister: Well what we meant by it is that China’s accountability arises from the fact 1) that they sought to supress information and in fact, to supress the truth to begin with, and 2) that they both arrested and imprisoned medical doctors and dissidents who tried to sound the alarm, and 3) they’ve been engaged since then in a global disinformation campaign to cover up the truth and to cover up their accountability.
Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think of the Canadian government’s rather muted response to questions about the validity of China’s numbers and their culpability in all this? At one point, the health minister Patty Hajdu suggested it was sewing conspiracy theories to question China’s data.
Irwin Cotler, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and former Liberal Justice Minister: Well, I understand why the Canadian government’s position has been somewhat mooted. We are between a rock and a hard place in the matter of the imprisonment and false arbitrary detention of the two Michaels. It’s a delicate geopolitical moment, but the real issue has been the fact that the international community have been bystanders and enablers of what has been a pattern of—and I use the word CCP, the Communist Party, not the Chinese People—we want to distinguish between the government and its people who are the targets of their oppression. But we’ve been witnessing now a state orchestrated pattern of repression, respecting the Tibetans, the Uighurs, the Falun Gong, the Hong Kong, the Taiwanese that has been going on now for 20 years. The time has come to hold China to account in the court of public opinion, if not in courts themselves.
Mercedes Stephenson: How do you go about doing that?
Irwin Cotler, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and former Liberal Justice Minister: Well what I think we can do is 1) we should make sure that our multilateral institutions like the United Nations, like the WHO, are not manoeuvred or corrupted with respect to the CCP agenda. Let me give you one example that just 10 days ago, China was appointed to a panel, a U.N. human rights panel that appoints the U.N. human rights experts in the areas of freedom of expression, arbitrary detention, health and it disappeared. You can’t make these things up. The four major violations that are now, and that led to the pandemic, are now allowing China to be elected to a human rights panel, to choose the U.N. special rapporteurs re: those issues.
Mercedes Stephenson: There have been concerns raised over just how much influence China might have with the WHO. Do you think that China should be allowed to remain in the WHO after all of this? And should they be held accountable?
Irwin Cotler, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and former Liberal Justice Minister: Well, you know the United Nations and our institutions is part of our DNA and we always have seen the United Nations as the important, which it is, institution that warrants our support. So I think there was at the beginning, you know, kind of indulgence of the WHO, because of our indulgence of U.N. institutions, generally speaking. It’s time for Canada to revisit our involvement with these U.N. institutions. We need to be supporters of them, but we have to hold them accountable, like the WHO. Otherwise, willy-nilly, we will be indulging and acquiescence ourselves in information which might be false, misleading and dangerous.
Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think of President Trump’s decision to cut funding from the WHO over the China controversy?
Irwin Cotler, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and former Liberal Justice Minister: I do believe that the WHO, as I mentioned along with other institutions, has to be held accountable. Regrettably, President Trump is not the person to have the credibility to engage in this initiative. He himself, in terms of his presidential leadership under this, began with denial, led to delay, led to dysfunction, led to him engaging in attacks on the media and others as this being false news, so he’s not the most credible figure, even if he may be doing the right thing. I would much prefer it to be a multilateral group of the community of democracies that seeks to hold the WHO to account.
Mercedes Stephenson: How do you think that Prime Minister Trudeau should proceed?
Irwin Cotler, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and former Liberal Justice Minister: Well, I think the prime minister at this point is concentrating on what are the best priorities and the policies with regard to protecting the Canadian people at this point from the ravages of this pandemic which reached our shores. I think we will have to do a rethink when this matter is over and begin to ask ourselves what are the initiatives we can take? For example, I think we should be applying Magnitsky sanctions and targeting the specific individuals in China that have been responsible for the suppression of the truth and for the arrest and imprisonment and disappearances of doctors and dissidents. We’ve applied Magnitsky sanctions to Russia, to South Sudan, to Myanmar, to Venezuela, but we’ve not yet applied any sanctions to China. By doing so, we allow them to, in fact, not be held accountable and maybe indulge their impunity.
Mercedes Stephenson: Some say the virus would have spread no matter what and that it’s unfair to blame China in all of this. What would you say to them?
Irwin Cotler, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and former Liberal Justice Minister: I don’t know if it would have spread, but I do know as scientific publications have shown that 95 per cent of it would not have spread. And all the authoritative scientific evidence is that this could have been halted at the beginning, if the truth were not suppressed, if those who tried to sound the alarm were not imprisoned and the like. So it does bear accountability, in fact, as we are speaking, the leadership in China is seeking to sensor scientific publications, which are seeking to still report on the pandemic then and now.
Mercedes Stephenson: Irwin Cotler, thank you for joining us.
Irwin Cotler, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and former Liberal Justice Minister: Good speaking with you and thank you for having me.
Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up, “Do Something,” an aptly named book by former Reform Party Leader Preston Manning. What is his call for action in this time of crisis?
Andrew Scheer, Official Opposition Leader: “There are continuing stories of people who are falling through the cracks: individuals who are not eligible for the programs that have been announced, small and medium-sized business owners who won’t be able to qualify for the measures that have been proposed. So we cannot wait until June or the fall before we can get those answers. Parliament must get back to work.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer on why he thinks Parliament needs to reconvene right here in Ottawa and in person.
Former Reform Party Leader Preston Manning argues in his new book, “Do Something” that democracy is ailing and with COVID-19, democracy as we know it, maybe under siege.
Joining me now from Vancouver Island is Preston Manning. Thank you for joining me, Mr. Manning.
Preston Manning, The Manning Centre: Well thank you for having me.
Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve written about democracy being under threat. We’re now living in unprecedented times with this COVID-19 pandemic. How do you think our democracy is functioning right now?
Preston Manning, The Manning Centre: What I tried to get into in that book is what I think will be the great ideological competition of the 21st century, which is between a citizen-directed democracy as we practice it here versus this state-directed democracy as promoted by the Communist Party and Government of China. And I think it’s how the two different systems are responding to this coronavirus pandemic is a good test of which one is best and what are the problems with each.
Mercedes Stephenson: Mr. Manning, how do you think politicians should operate in this time? What would your advice be to Canadian politicians about how to ensure there’s transparency and democratic accountability without essentially politicizing a pandemic?
Preston Manning, The Manning Centre: Well I think the less partisanship there is, the better. One of the practical things that I think could have been done, in Canada there’s a gap between the political community and the science community. Very few scientists will ever run for public office and very few political people have any kind of a science background. And if you’re going to base your response on science, the more that you’ve got to reduce that gap and to reduce it before there’s ever an immediate crisis, the better.
Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think about the Trudeau government’s decision to essentially put public health in charge? They’re saying we’re listening to the scientists and the experts on when things can happen and when the economy should reopen. Do you think that that’s the responsible way forward or do you think politicians are devolving their responsibility as the elected officials?
Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think the best way is to have accountability for government right now? Is it to have that immediate sitting with Parliament and the opposition, having regular question periods? Or do you think that the government essentially does its thing now and there’s accountability later through some sort of Royal Commission or investigation into how the government handled things?
Preston Manning, The Manning Centre: Well, I think the key to accountability is first of all, transparency in whatever the government is doing and the public as well as the opposition has an opportunity to scrutinize it. But I think there has to be ongoing accountability that you can’t let the government do whatever it wants to do and then three months or six months later, come back to evaluate that.
Mercedes Stephenson: What are your concerns, Mr. Manning, about Canadian democracy as we navigate through this time of COVID-19?
Preston Manning, The Manning Centre: Well, I think some of the difficulties we’re having, gets to a bigger problem in the need to raise the knowledge and skill level of our political class, generally. When I got out of the Parliament, I had this relationship with the international liaison department of the Communist Party of China that I acquired when I was in the Parliament, and I contacted those officials afterward and said I’d like to visit your training facilities for your top political people in China. And to my surprise, they actually complied with that and I visited three of these major training facilities for the political class in China: one in Beijing, one in Shanghai and one in Jing-Jin. And they have these campuses with buildings and lecture halls and think tanks and enormous complexes for training their political people. They have to have training at the municipal level, the state level. If they ever want to get up to the higher levels, they had to have training: 20 per cent of it was military training, 20 per cent of it was state-directed capitalism. And when you compare the energy and the investment that they make in preparing their political people for state-directed democracy with how little we do of that, I think one of the conclusions I came to is that we have to vastly increase our investment, commitment to training of our political people so that we’re better equipped to handle issues and crises like the pandemic crisis.
Mercedes Stephenson: Mr. Manning, your father was a very prominent Canadian politician but also a rancher and I understand he had a story that gave advice on how to get through tough times using the example of prairie buffalo. Could you tell us what that is?
Preston Manning, The Manning Centre: Well, the old ranchers in Alberta would tell you there’s a difference between how cattle react to a storm and how a buffalo react. The cattle tend to turn tail and run in front of the storm—run away from it, try to get away from it, whereas buffalo will turn into it. And they’ve got that massive front-end, but by turning into the storm they actually get out of it faster than running in front of it. And I think there’s a lesson in that for political people, and for Canadians generally, you don’t run away from a storm, you turn into it and you face it. And you’ll get out of it sooner by doing that.
Mercedes Stephenson: Wise words. Thank you for joining us, Mr. Manning.
Preston Manning, The Manning Centre: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you for joining us. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Stay safe and look after each other.
Additional West Block programming aired in some markets on Sunday:
Dawna Friesen, Global National Anchor: “We begin tonight with the crisis in any long-term care homes in this country, as they struggle to contain outbreaks of COVID-19.”
Quebec Premier François Legault: “I’m asking everybody available, every health worker, to come forward and help us.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford: “…In the fight against this virus is a test that will define our generation.”
Dan Albas, MP Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola: “Roughly 6 million people have lost their jobs.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We’ll also be expanding the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to reach people who are earing some income.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Hello. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister: “I feel a special affinity for the situation that is being faced by seniors right now. They see the reports of deaths and illness in senior’s homes in other parts of the country and it scares them and they’re worried about that. They know the sense of isolation that they’re experiencing.”
Mercedes Stephenson: That was Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister. Across the country, the death toll continues to rise from coronavirus. Hardest hit have been our long-term care homes. COVID-19 has swept through facilities that provide care for seniors and the disabled, killing our most vulnerable fellow Canadians.
Last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced he was sending in the cavalry: “COVID-19 swat teams”, as the premier called them, to help over 100 homes in Ontario deal with the outbreak. But is that enough?
Joining me now is Donna Duncan, CEO of the Ontario Long-term Care Association. Donna, the premier making that announcement that we were just discussing, about sending swat teams in. What is the most critical need right now in long-term facilities in Ontario?
Donna Duncan, Chief Executive Officer of the Ontario Long-Term Care Association: Well, Mercedes, you know, this is—this really is a tragedy and we identified from day one that the most pressing need we had was actually people. We need staff, we need employees. We were in a critical shortage, not just in Ontario but across Canada of PSWs (personal support workers) and in order to have staff, we have to have personal protective equipment (PPE), we have to have the face shields, masks, gowns and gloves. We need tests and we need more people. That really is the greatest need right now. If we’re going to shore up our homes, keep out the COVID virus in those homes where it’s not. We have about 626 homes in Ontario. We have just over 100 impacted at this moment, so we’ve got to keep it out of there. And then where we have it, we have to contain it. So, bringing in the cavalry is exactly what we need to do. We need to raise an army right now.
Mercedes Stephenson: Donna, I think a lot of Canadians and people at home watching the show right now have parents or loved ones who have been in long-term care and that staff shortage is no secret at facilities all across Canada. Why when there was a pandemic clearly coming, do you think more was not done to get in front of this situation and to identify and find staff before it hit?
Donna Duncan, Chief Executive Officer of the Ontario Long-Term Care Association: You know I wish there was a simple answer to it. So, our association in Ontario actually had struck an emergency task force for human resources and we convened some meetings earlier in the year just trying to understand what are the solutions. And there aren’t any easy solutions. We looked at measures that they’ve taken in Nova Scotia and out east, where they’ve actually renamed personal support workers to health care aides, thinking that just the rebranding might help deal with some of the stigma and make it more attractive. We know that this is actually a global problem. We hosted a global conference in September, where our colleagues from the United States and the United Kingdom and Australia are up against exactly the same problem. So it’s—you know it has to be a multi-pronged approach. We need to find a way to attract people to come into long-term care. It’s a very heavy care environment and I have to say, I think one of our challenges is that not everybody understands what long-term care is and who our residents really are, despite the fact that so many of us have had family in long-term care or have family there now.
Mercedes Stephenson: Why do you think it is, Donna, that long-term care facilities didn’t lockdown earlier? I mean, there are parts of the country out east where they locked down much earlier than they did sin Ontario, other countries where they locked down and they’ve managed to keep the rate of COVID-19 much lower in these facilities where the most vulnerable people are. Why didn’t your members make a decision to close the doors before they were told to do so by the government?
Donna Duncan, Chief Executive Officer of the Ontario Long-Term Care Association: Well unfortunately, the decision wasn’t our members. The decision rested with government. So especially in Ontario, we are heavily, heavily regulated. We started very early on requesting a restrictive visitor order from government. That took longer, certainly, than we would have liked. There was a lot of tension, quite honestly, between families who continue to want to have access and to be able to visit with their loved ones and what we saw was coming in terms of a real need to restrict access. We know that this disease comes from the outside and as difficult as it was, it was the right decision. But it did take longer.
Mercedes Stephenson: One of the things that was being discussed was the drop in, essentially in inspections, in Ontario of long-term care facilities. Do you think that standards dropped as a result of that?
Donna Duncan, Chief Executive Officer of the Ontario Long-Term Care Association: Absolutely not. Our long-term care homes, especially in Ontario, we have a heavily regulated environment and we actually have annual inspections by our ministry. There are regular incident—critical incident reporting mechanisms, where the government then follows up and investigates those. They investigate complaints on an ongoing basis. We also have inspections from the Ministry of Labour, public health, both provincially and municipally, as well as accreditation processes and other reviews.
Mercedes Stephenson: Donna, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.
Donna Duncan, Chief Executive Officer of the Ontario Long-Term Care Association Thank you very much, Mercedes. Take care, be safe.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Certain industries are facing even more difficult time. The oil and gas sector, because of the global price war, because of the lowered demand related to COVID and because of the measures brought in to counter COVID itself.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up, we check-in with Alberta, one of the hardest hit provinces that have been reeling from the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. Is help on the horizon?
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: “The enormous economic long-term risk of simply by Fiat shutting down SAG-D projects in particular, could be devastating to the province for years to come and so our preference instead is to mitigate risk on the public health side with the measures that we are taking.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Alberta has been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19, both in terms of the number of cases of coronavirus out there and the effect on the provinces main source of revenue: oil and gas. Less than two months ago, Premier Jason Kenney introduced a budget that was based on oil at $58 US a barrel. It projected that unemployment would go down and the deficit would be paid off in just two years. Instead, oil prices have plunged to as low as $3 a barrel and unemployment has skyrocketed. The premier has said that unemployment rate could go as high as 25 per cent. What is next for the Alberta government?
Joining me now from Edmonton is Alberta’s Environment Minister and House Leader Jason Nixon. Welcome to the program, Minister.
Jason Nixon, Alberta Minister of Environment and House Leader: Thanks for having me on, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Sir, on Friday the prime minister announced there was going to be help for the oil and gas sector in the form of $1.7 billion to help with orphaned and abandoned well clean up. Is that the help that you were looking for?
Jason Nixon, Alberta Minister of Environment and House Leader: Well we have been asking for help when it comes to orphaned and abandoned wells. This is a problem within the province of Alberta that we’ve been working diligently on here and we see as an opportunity going forward to be able to help clean up our environmental obligations inside the province of Alberta, while at the same time creating work for people within the energy sector that are looking for work at this critical time. So, we have been calling on the federal government to work with us on that. We’re excited to see the number. The number is significant. It’s going to create over 5,000 jobs inside the province of Alberta at the exact moment that we need it. I think the important messaging, though, on this, Mercedes, is the fact that this is not the end. And we hear in Alberta need to make clear to our fellow countrymen across the country that the oil and gas industry, the energy industry, the largest industry in this province and this country, is in trouble. And this is start, but we are going to need more help for this industry to make sure that it survives. An industry that provides over 800,000 across the country and provides tax revenue and a royalty revenue from coast to coast that provides the services that Canadians depend on. And so Alberta was there when we helped deal with things like the automobile sector when it was in trouble in the last decade and we really need the country to come alongside us and we need the fellow government to stand with Alberta and make sure we can save this country’s largest industry.
Mercedes Stephenson: So, what is your province asking for from the federal government?
Jason Nixon, Alberta Minister of Environment and House Leader: Well we’re going to have to continue to work on liquidity issues during the COVID-19 portion of this emergency. We’re going to have to continue to make sure that we keep care of the people that are losing employment inside this province and of course, all the provinces across the country in the short-term and as we battle the pandemic and that we make sure that our oil and gas companies, our energy companies are able to survive through that period. And then we have to work together to be able to come up with stimulus and opportunities to be able to make sure that the industry can survive and then thrive and then ultimately continue its important role in confederation.
Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think the dollar price tag is on that liquidity to keep oil and gas afloat?
Jason Nixon, Alberta Minister of Environment and House Leader: Well, you know, I don’t think anybody knows 100 per cent what the dollar value will be at this moment. We were very focused on getting immediate relief into the abandoned well portion of this problem. We’re happy to see the prime minister come alongside us today to accomplish that. That immediately gets over 5,000 people to work, but we have to continue that long-term conversations, both with the industry and with policy makers across—federally and provincially here in Alberta—on the solutions that we could have to make sure that the companies survive and that the industry is able to go forward. I want to stress that we see this as a two-stage process and the immediate solutions need to be about keeping viable companies that would be viable under normal circumstances but are struggling because of COVID and the combined problem of the price war that’s taking place within the energy industry, are able to survive and then be able to function and then ultimately be able to create wealth for this country at the other end of this crisis. That’s the immediate focus, but following that, we have to begin to look at creative ways to be able to create work within the energy industry and allow those companies to be able to go back up capacity and to continue to create jobs and ultimately tax wealth that is then shared across this country and used for our social services systems, again, from coast to coast.
Mercedes Stephenson: What would you like the federal government to do in terms of the Russian and Saudi governments? They’ve pulled back on the oil production they were flooding the market with, but do you think that more needs to be done?
Jason Nixon, Alberta Minister of Environment and House Leader: We’re going to have to continue to do more. I mean, we’ve seen some positive signs in that area in the last week or so, as you know, Mercedes, but it’s not enough to solve the complete oversupply problem at the moment and so we need to continue to have open dialogue that we appreciate the federal government being with Alberta during those discussions and communicating the needs of the energy industry, globally. And that work needs to continue and we need it to have a level of urgency. And that’s the big message that I’m hoping our fellow Canadians are hearing across the country today, the level of urgency that is happening in the largest industry in this country. We are in dire straits right now in that industry and we need to come together to figure out a way to make it survive because again, our whole country depends on it.
Mercedes Stephenson: It’s no secret that there are environmental concerns among senior cabinet ministers, some of whom do not support the oil and gas industry. Do you believe that those internal cabinet politics are playing into part of the delay in getting money out? And do you believe that could ultimately interfere with your ability to get the money you’re asking for from the federal government?
Jason Nixon, Alberta Minister of Environment and House Leader: Well, I’m concerned that those internal politics may be playing a role. I do want to then emphasize that we are approaching this from an environmental perspective. I mean one of the ways that we’re trying to create stimulus within the system is to deal with an environmental problem and that is abandoned and orphaned wells. I also want to emphasize to those cabinet ministers, if that is the lens that they’re looking at this through, that they take the time to look at how many of their constituents, the people that sent them to Ottawa to represent them, will be impacted if Canada’s largest industry does not survive or is not able to create the wealth that this country depends on. This is a critical crisis. This does not mean that we don’t continue the important work that we’re doing on environmental protection and climate change and other issues across this country, and including here in Alberta, but we have to understand that this is an industry that creates over 800,000 direct jobs, tens of billions of dollars of wealth all across this country and is essential to the very survival of confederation. This is not an Alberta issue. This is a Canadian issue and we need to come together and we’re seeing signs of that with our provincial counterparts and we need the federal government to understand how important this is, not just to the people in Alberta, but to the people from coast to coast.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, we just have a few seconds left, but I want to ask you about a letter that was sent from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers to the federal government, asking them to suspend environmental regulations and suspend the implementation of new environmental regulations at this time. What’s your reaction to that letter? Do you think that that’s a reasonable ask to say that environmental regulations should be suspended right now?
Jason Nixon, Alberta Minister of Environment and House Leader: Well, I think that what the industry’s asking for and certainly what Alberta is doing in regards to that is trying to limit some of the immediate paperwork issues associated with reporting and monitoring. But we are not making any decision that would stop monitoring from taking place in real time and our ability to understand what’s taking place in the environment. We’re monitoring our air and our water and our land, and we’re able to respond to emergencies. This does not stop us from protecting the environment, but we do have a large industry that is facing COVID-19 with a major workforce and some of the reporting requirements are significant and it’s requiring them to continue to monitor the environment, but being able to give a little bit of help on the administrative process in the short-term, seems entirely reasonable to me. And both the Minister of Energy and myself have done that in the province and we do hope the federal government will help support that going forward.
Mercedes Stephenson: So you don’t think that that puts the environment at risk?
Jason Nixon, Alberta Minister of Environment and House Leader: It does not need to take the environment or put the environment at risk. In fact, in our end, we have taken great steps to make sure again, that we continue to monitor the environment, that the requirements for environmental protection remain in place, but we have provided some relief on reporting deadlines, on paperwork deadlines between us and the industry and government, while still requiring them to meet their obligations underneath law.
Mercedes Stephenson: We have to wrap it up there, but thank you for your time, Minister.
Jason Nixon, Alberta Minister of Environment and House Leader: Thanks for having me on, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the call for a slow and coordinated approach to reopen businesses. When should the economy be re-opened? And how should that be done safely?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We cannot be in a rush to get things going again, because if we move too quickly to loosen all these controls, everything we’re doing now might have been for nothing, we’ll find ourselves in another peak just as bad as this one or worse.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. The prime minister is calling for a slow approach to restarting the economy. Businesses across the country have been hard hit and are asking federal and provincial governments to cooperate, to come with some sort of a coordinated plan that will get Canadians back to work when social distancing restrictions begin to lift, sector by sector and region by region. What should the plan look like and when should it swing into action?
Joining me now to discuss this is Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of Linamar, an international manufacturing company based in Guelph, Ontario. Linda, thank you for joining us.
Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of Linamar: It’s a pleasure.
Mercedes Stephenson: Now, you run an absolutely massive company. It is multi-billion dollars, second biggest auto parts manufacturer, I believe, in Canada. How has COVID-19 affected your company and your operations?
Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of Linamar: Well clearly, we’ve been significantly affected. Most of our customers around the world are either shutdown now or have been for the past several weeks, meaning that basically most of our facilities, globally, have been shut down for weeks as well. We are shifting into recovery mode and it is happening, you know, continent by continent, not surprisingly, given that’s how the virus has played out as well. So, already back to work in China and have been for some time, going back to work this week in Europe and going—coming back to work in North America in a couple of weeks.
Mercedes Stephenson: So, when you look at that timeframe, tell me how you figure out how to ramp up for that and when you should actually take off, because obviously, there’s this whole debate out there about making sure that the economy is able to turn back on as quickly as possible but also balancing that with health concerns.
Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of Linamar: Yeah, absolutely. And I appreciate that it is a delicate balance in terms of the lockdown, the shutdowns, to be down long enough and sort of severely enough to flatten the curve and make sure that our health care system can handle what’s going on, but at the same time, not being down so long as to create undo economic impact. So, I think we’ve been down for a while, we’re starting to see, you know, the numbers flatten off a little bit. I know it’s tough to make the call, but I think it is time to start thinking about recovery and start planning for a recovery, because certainly, when we do come out, the virus is still going to be around us. So paramount, number one, is making sure that when we come back to work that we’re coming back to work safely, which is really our key focus right now, and frankly, the key focus of the entire automotive sector, which it seems to largely be the first one to come back in a lot of the economies. So a lot of work going on in terms of sharing ideas, best in practice, learning from what worked in China and making sure that our people are as safe or safer coming to work than not coming to work. That’s our goal. We want them safe or safer at work and we’re putting a lot of protocols in place to make sure that that happens.
Mercedes Stephenson: What are your thoughts on what you’ve heard from the prime minister so far about what he’s saying on when we might restart the economy? He’s saying weeks and weeks more. You’re saying you’re planning to start ramping back up in coming weeks. Do you feel the government’s moving too slowly on this?
Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of Linamar: I think, again, it’s such a difficult situation to balance and one that nobody’s been through before, so, you know, it is tough to call. I think the good news is with auto coming back in early May, we will, as I say, we’ve put a lot of work into making sure that we’ve got really safe back to work protocols, so I think it’ll actually be a great example of how you can come back to work safely. This is how it can work, and I think it’s actually going to be quite good that the auto industry is taking a first step in that regard and can show as an example: look what we’re doing, this is how you can come back to work safely. So I think that that will help to build confidence and allow us to continue to climb out in other sectors as well.
Mercedes Stephenson: Can you tell us a little bit about what your protocols are when you’re talking about setting the example for coming back to work safely? How will you achieve that?
Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of Linamar: Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, key elements like PPE, obviously, we are planning on utilizing masks for all employees. For instance, we feel that the evidence in China looks like that was a key element in terms of success. So that is part of our protocol. Doing screening, testing, we would love to be able to do testing, but we recognize that that’s not necessarily realistic given the lack of testing. But at a minimum, we can do temperature testing and screening of employees before they even come into the building to make sure they’re not sick, they’re not feeling sick, they haven’t been exposed to somebody with the virus. So, you know, trying to screen out before we even let anybody in. Obviously, distancing within the facilities, so you know, changes are being made to make sure that people are sufficiently far away. Also, in terms of breaks and lunchtime that, you know, staggering to make not everybody out at the same time or together at the same time and then also making sure that they’re sufficiently far away, and frankly, also into sort of assigned spots. And the idea behind that is tracing, right? So that we can know if somebody, God forbid does get diagnosed, so we know exactly where they’ve been and who they’ve been in somewhat proximity to, although of course, we’re trying to maintain that 6-foot distance.
Mercedes Stephenson: Now the government has been saying that they’re leaving these decisions in the hands of public health officials because they’re the scientists. The opposition has been saying well, you know, you’re elected politicians. You should be the ones making the decision. Who do you think should make the decision about when businesses go back to work?
Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of Linamar: Well, I think—I mean, to some extent, it’s got to be business-driven in the sense that, you know, what—what is happening in terms of demand and our ability to come back, safely. I think the government, obviously, needs to play a role in that as well, but I do think that they need to listen to the public health folks and understand what’s happening in terms of the numbers and what makes sense. So, I think that we need to be collaborative in our approach around this that government, business, public health, you know, we all have a voice and we can all talk together about what makes sense and then have a coordinated approach to how we get there and how we get there safely.
Mercedes Stephenson: Linda, that’s all the time we have, but thank you so much for joining us.
Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of Linamar: It’s a real pleasure. Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: And that’s also all the time that we have for the show, today. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Stay safe and look after each other.