THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 38, Season 9
Sunday, May 24, 2020
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Guests: Finance Minister Bill Morneau,
Canada’s Former Ambassador to China David Mulroney,
Conservative Party Leader Candidate Peter MacKay
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: The economic impact of COVID-19.
Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer: “Is the government willing to provide Canadians with an update as to how they will get Canada’s fiscal track back under control when this pandemic is over?”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “It’s déjà vu all over again. We’ve heard yet again, the same economic arguments that the Conservatives have been making for years.”
Finance Minister Bill Morneau: “We’re working hard to preserve our employment and our economy for the long term.
Mercedes Stephenson: Then, China.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “While we advocate for the release of the two Michael’s who have been arbitrarily detained by China in retaliation for a judicial system that is independent.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And the Conservative leadership race.
The federal government has spent billions of dollars to supplement wages, help small and medium-sized businesses, and provide financial aid to both students and seniors.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We all understand that this is a crisis that is hitting really hard on businesses right across the country. And we know that if our economy is to come back, we need a large number of those businesses to hold on and to make it through this pandemic.”
Mercedes Stephenson: So, how much more is the government going to spend? And when will we find out the shape of the government’s finances?
Joining me now to talk about this, from Toronto, is Finance Minister Bill Morneau. Welcome to the show, minister.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau: Thanks for having me, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Morneau, your government didn’t release a budget because of the pandemic, and so far, you haven’t released a fiscal update. Can you give Canadians a ballpark sense of the state of Canada’s finances because we’re hearing a $252 billion deficit and a $3 trillion debt? Those numbers are extraordinarily high.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau: Well, let me just start by saying that we’re obviously in a time where the economic situation is very fluid. What we’ve worked hard to do is to make sure that we are giving Canadians a sense of how we’re supporting them, how we’re supporting individuals, how we’re supporting businesses. We’re giving as much transparency as we possibly can on the cost of the measures that we’re putting out, estimates and then updates as we go out to Parliament and to Canadians. We think that’s really important. I can tell you, though, that right now because of how rapidly things are changing, it is difficult for us to have a clear understanding of the exact economic situation. We don’t want to have false precision in an economic and fiscal update. We’re working hard to get to an understanding of where we’re at, so that we can then take a look at the measures and give a good sense of where we’re moving to. So that’s work that’s ongoing and when we have a date, we’ll be out with it. And that’s something I’m looking towards.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that that date will be before Parliament rises for the summer?
Finance Minister Bill Morneau: Right now what I can tell you is that we are obviously updating our scenarios every single day, making sure that we understand where we’re going. It is certainly something that we’re working on. I don’t know yet when that date will be because we’re trying to make sure that we can have a picture of where the economy is going, so that work is ongoing, Mercedes. I don’t have a date yet, but we’ll be certainly, continuing to inform Canadians about the measures we’re taking, the costs and the expected supports and how important those are. So that’ll be our daily approach to transparency.
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. So I guess we’ll see if parliamentarians get a chance to look at that before the summer break. But, speaking of government programs and moving forward, one of the things you have to start thinking about at this point as the finance minister is how do you start paying down all that money that’s been spent. Is your government looking at raising taxes?
Finance Minister Bill Morneau: Well no, we’re not. And I think, although of course, we need to think about the challenges we will eventually face, I will tell you that we are very focused now on the supports that we put in place for individuals and for businesses, and on how we move towards a new sense of normal. So that focus, initially, has been on things like the Emergency Response Benefit for people, things like the financing for small businesses, the credit. Or for large businesses that you saw us release this week. I’m very much in the mode now, thinking about what are the next steps? So with the wage subsidy, we announced an extension to the end of August. I want to make sure that we think about how that extension should move forward. What are the conditions that will allow for us to get back to work in a gradual and responsible way so that we can get to that new normal? So that work is critically important right now as we think about supporting individuals and businesses, but doing it in a way that creates the right incentives for us to get back to the things we want to back to, which is leading a life notwithstanding the challenges we’re facing that is moving into a different stage and a new normal.
Mercedes Stephenson: And speaking of supporting Canadian businesses and Canadian individuals, when you were first looking at how to deal with the pandemic, you wanted to pass some pretty extraordinary legislation that finance officials said you wanted so that you could make sure you had a check and balance on the banks. I’m curious to know at this point in the pandemic, minister, are you satisfied with how Canadian banks have behaved and do you think that they’ve stepped up to the plate?
Finance Minister Bill Morneau: Well, I’ve been working closely with the banks through the entire time of this pandemic, obviously pushing them to move forward. We’ve put an awful lot of liquidity out into the market through the Bank of Canada, through the CMHC, and we want the banks to actually use that liquidity to help their clients, their customers. So, you know, there’s—as with anything, it’s a work in progress. I’ve seen a significant number of mortgage deferrals which is appropriate for this time. We’ve obviously seen banks come forward for people who are experiencing credit card challenges and cut those credit card interest rates in half. We’re going to need to continue to push banks to be supportive of their customers. It’s in their interest as well. When we put forward programs like the large enterprise financing which we put forward this week, it’s very much structured so that banks will support their clients first and that we will only be the source of credit for organizations that are out of other sources. So that working together continues to be important. We’ve seen them step forward. There’ll always be more to do for the banks, for the government and we’re working together as best we can to make sure that happens.
Mercedes Stephenson: Hmm, sounds like you think there’s some room for improvement there, but we have to move on to our last question, minister. There’s been a lot of concern about state actors buying out Canadian companies. Things like oil companies, which we saw the Saudis getting involved in, the Chinese looking at a gold mine up in Nunavut, and now a warning from CSIS that state actors could be looking at buying up Canadian bioscience companies that your government has invested a lot of money in. I know you have a strategic review in place to make sure that any foreign sales are looked at during the pandemic, but given that a lot of these companies are going to continue to be vulnerable beyond that, are you looking at extending that strategic review?
Finance Minister Bill Morneau: Well right now what we’re trying to do with this and with other measures is think about the emergency time period. So that strategic review during this time period is critically important. We need to make sure that we protect, you know, our economy for the long term and that means protecting it for jobs, it means protecting it for our continued ability to have a vibrant and healthy economy. So that’s critically important. We’re not making decisions about long term structural issues during this time of the economic crisis. We do have measures that were already in place to review foreign acquisitions before we got into this crisis. Of course, those will continually need to be considered. What’s most important, I think, is that we focus ourselves on the issues that we have right now. And that’s what we’re doing and we’re going to continue doing it.
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. Minister Morneau, we’re out of time. Thank you so much for joining us this morning.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau: Okay. Thanks very much. Take care.
Mercedes Stephenson: Still to come, a conversation with leadership candidate for the Conservative Party Peter MacKay. But first, China, COVID transparency and now month 18 for two Canadians who have been detained by Beijing, what should Canada do?
China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu: “The biggest issue in our bilateral relationship is still Meng Wanzhou’s case. So that’s why we have made our position very clear, you know, to make sure that she’s back in China smoothly and safely.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “China doesn’t work quite the same way and don’t seem to understand that we do have an independent judiciary from political intervention. We will continue to follow and uphold the independence of our judicial system while we advocate for the release of the two Michaels who have been arbitrarily detained by China.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was China’s Ambassador Cong Peiwu last week on this show, responding to a question that I asked about the two Canadians in custody in China: Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. Then you saw our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau here in Canada’s reaction to what the ambassador had to say.
China has been now linking the 18-month detainment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor to the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who is being held in Vancouver. Should Canada take a tougher stance when it comes to dealing with China?
Joining me now to talk about this is Canada’s former Ambassador to China, David Mulroney. Good morning, Mr. Mulroney.
David Mulroney, Canada’s Former Ambassador to China: Good morning, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: You had a chance to watch that interview with the Chinese ambassador. What did you make of his comments?
David Mulroney, Canada’s Former Ambassador to China: Well, as you indicated, his—he made no bones about connecting the Meng Wanzhou case with the detention of the two Michaels, and I think what we’re getting there is the mask slipping. China is now no longer worrying about pretending that there is, you know, some legal reason for detaining our two citizens and they’re showing both a power play to intimidate us and they’re showing contempt, frankly, to Canada and to Canadians. And we’re seeing this in more of their diplomatic announcements and messages but we’re seeing the real China in all of this.
Mercedes Stephenson: I’m curious to know what you think triggered that, because you’re saying the mask is slipping. Canada’s current ambassador to Beijing, Dominic Barton made a comment saying essentially he thinks he drank too much of the Kool-Aid, that China is alienating people. What is leading to this change in posture in how China is addressing the international community?
David Mulroney, Canada’s Former Ambassador to China: Well, you know, we didn’t—we don’t know exactly what Ambassador Barton said because it was in a closed door session, but he seemed to be saying what’s called the “wolf warrior” diplomacy, the angry rhetoric from Chinese diplomats is alienating people and I’d say it absolutely is. But what we don’t know, we don’t know of Ambassador Barton made this point but it’s an important point to make. This isn’t a question of rhetoric or communications. The wolf warrior diplomacy is actually—actually reflects how China really thinks. What it thinks about the rest of the world, how it operates. So it isn’t a question of modifying their communications, it’s a question of understanding that this represents the challenge we’re up against. This is how China really thinks and that should be informing Canadian public policy. It should be informing our response to China and I haven’t really seen evidence of that yet.
Mercedes Stephenson: So, how does China think? What does China think about the rest of the world, especially Canada?
David Mulroney, Canada’s Former Ambassador to China: It thinks—of Canada it’s interested in Canada for a lot of reasons. Chinese people want to go to Canada and visit Canada, study in Canada. It’s a country that has some interesting technologies, but basically China sees Canada as a vassal state of the United States, as a minor country that it can push around. And part of their great anger at the Meng Wanzhou process and the fact that, you know, she’s facing extradition hearings, is China’s outrage that a country as small as Canada would dare to do this. So we’re seeing this reflected in how the ambassador is now speaking. We’ve also been seeing it in the last week or so from the Chinese consulate in Calgary that have been taking on Premier Kenney. So, Chinese diplomats are not afraid to take on elected officials in Canada, to take on the Parliament of Canada to show their contempt. And that’s really—that’s the real thing.
Mercedes Stephenson: So what should the Canadian government be doing in response to this?
David Mulroney, Canada’s Former Ambassador to China: Well, the other thing that we’ve been seeing, and this is really, really interesting, is a growing consensus among like-minded countries that when we come out of the pandemic and when things begin to return to normal, and I hope that happens soon, that there’s a reappraisal of how we engage China. Australia has been leading that process and using China’s pandemic cover-up as this sort of opening question in a new debate about how we engage China. Canada’s been a bit of a lager. We’ve—you know we’ve endorsed some of the things that Australia and others have been saying but we haven’t been in the lead. And I think we’ve got to take a much more active role and understand that things are changing in fundamental ways and we’ve got to get our own system in tune with those changes. And part of it involves what’s referred to as decoupling. Perhaps having a less, you know comprehensive engagement with China, focusing on core interests but not feeling obliged to say yes to everything that China suggests.
Mercedes Stephenson: China wants to impose a national security law on Hong Kong that is raising major concerns about democracy and civil liberty there. What is China trying to do there and what do you believe the consequences of this law will be?
David Mulroney, Canada’s Former Ambassador to China: China is deeply frustrated because the Hong Kong government, which is the level of government that should be looking at security issues like this, tried to do this about 17 years ago. And popular response from the people of Hong Kong, who were legitimately afraid that this would really interfere with their basic rights to communicate, to write, to speak out, to demonstrate, Hong Kong’s people forced it to be set aside. Now, China, seeing us all distracted by the pandemic, is going to do the work itself. This is really the last step in dismantling one country, two systems and really reneging on the deal that they—that China agreed to with the United Kingdom and directly with a lot of friends of Hong Kong including Canada. Canada supported the 1997 agreement between Britain and China precisely because we thought the deal gave protection to Hong Kong institutions, that it guaranteed a significant degree of Hong Kong autonomy. This is China reneging on this, demolishing it and it’s yet another reason why we need to rethink about the—a world that is more dominated by China, where we really need to remodel our foreign policy.
Mercedes Stephenson: David Mulroney, thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate your time.
David Mulroney, Canada’s Former Ambassador to China: Thank you very much, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, former Conservative Cabinet Minister Peter MacKay is running to be the next leader of the Conservative Party. We’ll talk to him about what he’s up to.
Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer: “And the next leader will inherit a united caucus, a more dynamic caucus, a larger caucus, a strengthened Opposition. We have 121 seats—more seats—significantly more seats than we had in the last election and a party that is ready to win the next election.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer. In August, party members will elect a new leader. Former Cabinet Minister Peter MacKay is running for that job and he joins me now from Toronto. Welcome to the show for the first time as candidate MacKay. How are you?
Peter MacKay, Conservative Party Leader Candidate: Very well, Mercedes, thank you. Thanks for having me on.
Mercedes Stephenson: Thanks for joining us. You know, Mr. MacKay, the race has been criticized on all sides by people who say it’s boring. There have been no big ideas. So I want to put the question to you: What do you stand for? What big idea do you have to offer to Canadians?
Peter MacKay, Conservative Party Leader Candidate Well I think one of the big ideas is, of course, putting our national resource sector on a stronger footing, and in particular, that means our energy sector. Being able to get oil and gas, and in particular, liquefied natural gas into the world market, places like India, Pakistan, parts of the Asia-Pacific, but also Europe and also, frankly, parts of Canada being completely energy independent and having that liquefied natural gas which is ethically produced, competitively priced and available, puts us in a place where we’re actually now doing something about greenhouse gas emissions because it burns at 50 per cent of the emissions of cold fire generation, which is what many countries are still using. And, we see a significant return on investment that comes back to Canada. We see our ability, then, to invest in new green technologies, partner in the infrastructure process with our First Nations, and quite frankly, allow our economy to start to rise again which is good news for everyone. That’s part of a broader vision of having an economic prosperity corridor that goes right across the country. So yes, moving oil and gas product but hydro, transporting all goods and services and removing all of the interprovincial trade barriers that to me, immediately kick-starts our economy.
Mercedes Stephenson: Mr. MacKay, I have to ask you this question. You’ve taken it on the chin a number of times in this campaign. You’ve had to reverse policies. At times you’ve lost staff. You’ve had to apologize. You’re an experienced politician and that performance surprised a lot of people and it has your political adversaries like Erin O’Toole saying things like Justin Trudeau will eat Peter MacKay alive. Peter MacKay can’t handle the pressure. What do you say to those comments?
Peter MacKay, Conservative Party Leader Candidate: Well firstly, Mercedes, when you’re building a national organization, there’s always early missteps. I’ve spent 18 years in the Parliament of Canada, run six elections, served in major cabinet portfolios of justice, foreign affairs and defence. I believe I’ve shown my credentials and I’ll continue to do so, and speak most importantly about a positive vision for the country that unifies Conservatives, that brings people together around forward looking constructive ideas, and quite frankly, we have to unify as a party, if we’re going to be able to get ready to replace this Liberal government that has taken the country, in my view, in the wrong direction. And so that’s what my focus has been. We have over 3,000 volunteers involved. We’ve done very well on the membership sales and the funding of this campaign. And we continue to build the support that we need, in my view, to win this contest
Mercedes Stephenson: I think a lot of people still were surprised by what they’d see as rookie mistakes and one of them was your initial launch of your campaign in French. It didn’t go so well. You mistranslated a word and Quebec is really key in this leadership race. You and Erin O’Toole are locked head to head in the latest polling and support there at 40 per cent. Would you say that you’re now bilingual in French?
Mercedes Stephenson: Is that bilingual?
Peter MacKay, Conservative Party Leader Candidate: Well, you are a French speaker, I believe.
Mercedes Stephenson: My French is very limited. Let’s move on to the next question. I’m also not running for prime minister but trying to improve it. Mr. MacKay, there is a candidate who has now twice been kicked out of the race, Jim Karahalios. He has been accused of saying things that were Islamophobic about one of the major candidates, Erin O’Toole’s campaign staff. You haven’t said a lot about his candidacy. Do you believe he should have been allowed to run in this race?
Peter MacKay, Conservative Party Leader Candidate: Well, Mercedes, I’m a big believer in our democratic process. That was a decision taken by the party, twice, as you pointed out. I’ve actually advocated at the beginning of this race to have as many candidates as possible, encouraged some of my own supporters to sign the nomination papers of other candidates, to encourage as many in the contest as possible. The ultimate decision is going to be in the hands of the membership and that of course, is an important decision for our party and I have a lot of faith in the wisdom of our party.
Mercedes Stephenson: You had said earlier that you wanted an election this fall. Now of course, COVID-19 has changed everything, so I’m wondering. Do you still think the Conservative Party should try to bring down the government in October?
Peter MacKay, Conservative Party Leader Candidate: Well, I think you’ve answered part of that question in that COVID-19 has changed everything. I think it really requires an all hands on deck approach right now to ensure that the economy, in addition to human health, is a priority. And so we need to, I believe, continue to see that people are getting back to work, that we as a country are rallying around our economy and all efforts to help those businesses and those opportunities that we know do exist in the country to reach their maximum potential. So, you know, with Parliament scheduled to come back in the fall, it is going to require, I believe, a lot more scrutiny on the steps that the government has taken and so as far as an election is concerned, I don’t think that that is the priority for the country.
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. Thank you so much for your time, Mr. MacKay. We appreciate it.
Peter MacKay, Conservative Party Leader Candidate: Thank you very much, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time that we have for today, but if you’re in Ontario, or the east, stay tuned for an extra edition of this show. And if you’re in the west, please check your local listings. Thank you for joining us and we’ll see you next week.
Additional West Block programming aired in some markets on Sunday:
Mercedes Stephenson: On The West Block this week: Provincial borders under COVID-19.
Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King: “Instead of jumping on a plane and going to a city in this beautiful country this year, we hope that you’ll hop in your car, or jump on your bike and explore the many attractions we have right here in our own backyard.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Then, reopening.
Quebec Premier François Legault: “We have the green light to reopen retail businesses.”
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs: “This is about us being able to maintain zero deaths, zero cases, and be able to open up our province like no other one in the country.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And employment concerns as economies gear up.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Government will do its part, citizens, employers, employees will be doing their part. We need to continue to do everything we can to prevent the need for any further lockdowns.”
Mercedes Stephenson: As provinces begin to reopen their economies and as we head into summer, lots of Canadians are wondering how much longer those travel restrictions within Canada will remain in place.
In Atlantic Canada, provincial borders are locked down. If you travel from one province to the next, you have to self-isolate for 14 days. So how much longer do we think that that will continue as the situation starts to improve?
Joining me now from Fredericton to discuss this is New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs. Good morning, Premier Higgs.
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs: Good morning, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Sir, you’re moving into stage 3 of reopening. Tell me a little bit about what that entails for New Brunswick.
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs: Well, certainly, you know, we are in a good position right now across the province with our health pandemic concerns, and a lot of that, obviously, is attributed to the, I think, the response of our residents and how they followed the rules of public health up to this point. And we’re relying on that continuing to do so in that regard. The borders have been a big factor for us in terms of we feel like a bit of an island here and it’s to protect that going forward. So even though it is an inconvenience, it’s something that we feel has played a big role in getting us to this point in time and it’s allowing us to open up in a way that gives our citizens freedom within the province.
Mercedes Stephenson: Some folks ask. We’ve never seen provinces erect borders before. Are you worried about the long term consequences of this in terms of the precedent it set to allow provinces to suddenly determine nobody comes in or out?
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs: Well, yes I am. I mean, we pride ourselves on the freedoms that we have across our country and I certainly do not want to infringe on those personal rights and freedoms in any way. And we’ve had some discussions around the constitutionality of it all. These are unique times. This is a health situation we’re in and a health crisis and so we’re all doing what we can in our respective provinces to mitigate the risks on our citizens.
Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve talked about creating a bit of an Atlantic Canadian bubble with PEI. I’m very envious because I would like to be in that bubble. We all love Atlantic Canada. It’s so beautiful in the summer. But why choose PEI and not include Quebec which is on your western border?
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs: Oh well, it’s purely related to the condition of the health crisis in the respective provinces: PEI is in a very similar situation and we are here in New Brunswick. Their conditions, their active cases, we’re all in a very similar state. And so that brings us to that synergy and that is the driving factor. And certainly we look forward to the day when we’re in the same position with Quebec and the rest of the provinces in the country which will come. So right now, it’s just a matter of aligning with the people that are aligned as we ramp up together.
Mercedes Stephenson: I found your approach to all this really interesting on the economic side, because you and your government have said you essentially see this as a chance to revolutionize the New Brunswick economy, that you don’t want to waste a crisis as it were, to take a new fresh look. What does that mean in terms of how you would change the economy in New Brunswick?
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs: Well, you know there’s a real—we’ve learned a lot through this process. We’ve learned a lot of how quickly we can do things. You know if you look in terms of our hospitals—I mean our hospitals were running over capacity. We had long term care patients that were in hospitals to be moved to, you know, nursing homes, but we couldn’t seem to make that transition. We did it in like a month and we moved, like 2-300 people and we moved them—and they were in a position now and of something that is right for their condition and where they should have been all along. So our hospitals are running in 70, 80 per cent capacity and we’re seeing that well how did we allow us to take this long to get to this position where we knew we needed to be and the right for the patients? So now we’re looking at other things, the virtual care for a doctor’s appointment. We’re doing that online, the more online in terms of meetings, more activity across departments. We used to have so many roadblocks in government, one department and we’d see things get isolated in one department or the next and take months or weeks or years even to get something done. Things have happened within a matter of days that would before just be unheard of. So I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want to lose that. We set up a navigator program with our business model to get businesses connected with the province. So we want to help them start up in a new and different way. This is a case where starting up as we went down would be a missed opportunity. We can see New Brunswick in a different light and that’s my goal.
Mercedes Stephenson: Premier, your government had made cuts to health care. You reversed those cuts in light of the pandemic. Are you looking at bringing those cuts back in, if you think the system is running efficiently?
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs: Well, what we did was we were looking at health reforms and related to, you know, the utilization of emergency rooms and across the province. We’ve said based on, not only this situation, but based on what we learned from those reforms that were proposed that didn’t go so well, is that we want to talk to every community about how can we get better health care. You know, we have—I don’t have the exact number right now, but it is probably, you know, tens of thousands of patients or citizens that do not have primary care access. They don’t have family doctors. We can deal with that and we can fix that issue. We’re bringing in nurse practitioners. We’re bringing online virtual appointments. Also, delays in surgery because we don’t utilize all of our facilities and we have doctors now that have been basically out of service for two months because of the health crisis and now, let’s provide the facilities an opportunity for them to come back, be in the OR rooms to get caught up on elective surgeries like never before. I think we can reform health care in a way that the consumer, the patients, the citizens, see wow, why didn’t we do this earlier? Let’s do it now.
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. On that note, we have to wrap up but thank you so much for joining us, premier, and stay well.
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs: You’re very welcome. Thank you, same to you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you.
Still to come, we’ll hear from Canada’s largest private union about jobs that have been lost and employee’s fears returning to work. But first, GM Canada is reopening its operations. What precautions are they taking? And what do they need from the government to stay in business?
Ontario Premier Doug Ford: “We want to go into areas of the automotive area—sector and start testing people in automotive sector right across the province. I want to see food processing plants being tested. That’s what I want and I’m confident it’s going to happen. As sure as I’m standing here, we’re going to make sure we ramp it up.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was Ontario Premier Doug Ford, talking about the need for more testing to ensure that workers are safe as they return to work. But until that happens, what are companies doing right now to protect employees as they come back in? And how long will it be until some of these big companies are fully operational?
Joining me now is David Paterson, Vice President Corporate and Environmental Affairs for GM Canada. Thank you for joining us, Mr. Paterson.
David Paterson, VP of Corporate and Environmental for GM Canada: Hi Mercedes, thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Can you tell me a little bit about how GM is doing these days, what’s the status of, in particular, your North American operations?
David Paterson, VP of Corporate and Environmental for GM Canada: Well, we’re starting to get back to work under the new normal. And it’s been an awful lot of work to make sure that we do it in a really safe way. In the auto industry, we had a bit of an advantage, if you will, and particularly us at General Motors because our operations in Korea and China—South Korea and China are now almost fully back to work. And so we’ve been through an awful lot of the planning and the processes that you need to make sure that all your employees are going to be safe and all the new protocols that you’re following. We also have a couple of our plants in the United States and even here in Canada, where we’ve been under some special projects to make PPE. And so over the last month, we’ve been putting all kinds of safety processes in those plants as well. So, we started up our St. Catharines engine plant a couple of weeks ago. This past week, we’ve had our CAMI plant in Ingersoll up, and they’re just up on a stage process. So instead of three shifts of work that we would normally do, we have one to start off with and we’re taking the time to do it right.
Mercedes Stephenson: Now you employee thousands of Canadians, do you anticipate that you’re going to have to lay any of that workforce off in light of COVID-19?
David Paterson, VP of Corporate and Environmental for GM Canada: Well, we haven’t had to do that and we’re working really hard and, you know, thanks to the government and some of the programs that the government’s put forward, it allows us to keep all of our salaried people working and it allows us to sort of bring back our hourly workers. In the auto industry, it’s kind of normal for us to be having shifts on and shifts off. And we use that system—we’ve had to accommodate some of the—sort of the changes of the programs, like the CERB and the CEW program, to make sure that we work through and do the best we can for our employees. We’ve worked with our unions on that.
Mercedes Stephenson: Your company did take part in the Wage Subsidy program. To what degree did you use that program?
David Paterson, VP of Corporate and Environmental for GM Canada: Yeah, I think pretty much everybody in the industry is taking advantage of that program because our revenues have completely fallen off the cliff. And so for example, auto sales just last month were down 75 per cent and if you don’t have revenue coming in, you know, if you want to keep paying your employees and not run out of cash, you want to take every step that you can. And so it’s been an extraordinary effort for us, our suppliers, our dealers, to make sure that we’re there and ready to get back to work.
Mercedes Stephenson: Would this be your entire GM workforce that was on the Wage Subsidy program?
David Paterson, VP of Corporate and Environmental for GM Canada: No, not entirely because the programs sort of works differently for hourly workers versus salaried workers. And so—but the program has been excellent and helpful and I really applaud the government for coming forward with that, but I think everybody agrees that we—that’s a temporary thing that allows us to make sure that the auto industry, for example, one of our biggest if not our most important export industry in Canada, is going to be there and sustained so that when we can find a way, as we’re doing now, to get back to work, that we’re there and solvent and able to move forward. We’re taking all kinds of measures to make sure that we conserve our cash and remain resilient. We’re in really good shape at General Motors, but we’re taking care to keep our people working. They’re working at home and this is a time we can focus on getting ready for other things like developing electric cars for the future and thinking about how the business will change. And so it’s been a really, really busy time. I’ve never been busier in my career than I have in the last two months.
Mercedes Stephenson: I know that feeling. Mr. Paterson, in 2009, the auto industry received a massive bailout from the federal government. It was over $13 billion to the auto industry, including to GM. A lot of that money wasn’t paid back. Latest public estimates we had, had over a billion dollars at least. I’m curious to know, will you be asking the federal government for a bailout again?
David Paterson, VP of Corporate and Environmental for GM Canada: No. And in fact, the money that we did have for General Motors has been paid back. It came in two waves. One came in a loan that was paid back within a number of months, back in 2009. I know because I was there. And then the government took equity shares in the new General Motors, and then both the Ontario and the federal government decided when to sell those shares. And so the numbers you’re quoting are really the decisions of the government as to when they would sell the shares. They sold them so that they could take the money and invest in an infrastructure at a time when we wanted to move on those things. And so what that investment and support did was it kept the economy of Southern Ontario solvent and moving forward. And now we’re in good solid financial shape. And we’re making sure that we’re going to be ready to drive the economic recovery of Ontario, parts of Quebec, as we bring things forward. And so one of the other things that we’re partnering with the government to look at is whether or not we could introduce in Canada, for example, something like a scrappage program. So that if you have an old vehicle that’s, say, 12 years or older, and you retire that, scrap it and take it right out of the system, the government might give you some help or assistance to move into a vehicle that is going to be more environmentally beneficial. If you replace a 12-year car with even a regular gasoline version of that car that’s new, there’s a 35 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases from just that transaction. So, this is a way to keep the economy going, get the economics of the auto sector moving forward so our factories keep going, and we could see a very significant reduction in greenhouse gas if we do it in a smart way.
Mercedes Stephenson: Very innovative proposal. That’s all the time we have for today, but we will check back with you to see where that goes. Thank you so much for joining us, Mr. Paterson.
David Paterson, VP of Corporate and Environmental for GM Canada: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, will Canadians have a job to return to as provinces reopen and economies start back up? What should you expect on the job?
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer: “As people restart certain businesses; do you actually have to look at physical barriers like plexiglass? You have to look at schedules. You have to look at how you’re going to reduce the numbers of people, perhaps whether it’s in your office setting or the store in order to get that physical distancing.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was Canada’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Theresa Tam. So, are workplaces safe for employees to return to? And how many jobs will still be there and how many lost because of COVID-19?
Joining me now to talk about this is Jerry Dias. He is the president of Unifor. Jerry, you know, a lot of people getting ready to go back into offices. Are you confident that most employers are going to have safe areas for people to work in?
Jerry Dias, Unifor National President: Well I’m a lot more comfortable with unionized workplaces than non-union workplaces. In the unionized workplaces, we have very active health and safety committees. I can talk firsthand of our workplaces and I’ll use the auto industry as an example. We have our hands all over the return to work protocols. We are making sure that our members understand that they have the right to refuse, the right to know, the right to participate in their work environment. So, our members are coming back to work, are some concerned? The answer is yes, as they should be. They’re concerned about whether or not they would contact COVID-19 at work and pass it on to their families. They’re deeply concerned about their families that are returning to work and whether or not they may bring it home. So there is a significant amount of uncertainty as there should be. And hopefully what that means is that people are going to be very conscious when they’re at work and they’re going to, you know, make sure that they follow the return to work protocols, which are 100 per cent based on safety.
Mercedes Stephenson: Jerry, I’d love to get your take on the whole work from home scenario because a lot of people have been working from home. We had Shopify, big Canadian company, come out and say the office centricity model of doing work is dead. Do you have any concerns at all about people working from home, because it’s very different conditions, obviously, than a place where a union goes in and is able to take a look at that workspace?
Jerry Dias, Unifor National President: Well, there’s different types of business models. Manufacturing workplace, you’re certainly not working from home. If you’re doing some white collar work, clerical work that’s one thing, but the assembly of something, completely different. But, no I’ve been working from home for two and a half months, and I found ways of doing things much differently, communicating much differently. This is the longest that I’ve been, probably in 25 years without being on a plane or in a hotel room. So the world has changed, and business and workplaces will adapt based on what we found out that we can do during this pandemic, but there’s other workplaces that obviously, will revert back to the status quo. But the status quo, it’s going to take quite a while, I would argue. People are nervous, workplaces look much differently today. A lot of investment has been made to alter the workplaces and business will not be as usual for a long time, based on an overall reduction in manufacturing and overall reduction in volume.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you have any sense, Jerry, of how many jobs of union members have been lost, so far, due to the pandemic and how many more do you expect?
Jerry Dias, Unifor National President: Well, there’s no question where the dust settles, there will be millions of jobs lost. The hospitality sector is going to get wiped out. I’m looking at our members in the airline sector. Even when businesses come back, they’re going to be much slower. I’m looking at the auto industry. In 2019, there were almost 21 million vehicles sold in North America. We’re expecting that to be at about 16 and a half million this year. That is significant. That will cost jobs. That will cost thousands of jobs on both sides of the border over time. But manufacturing, in general, is going to be slow. People are going to be cautious about going out and spending. So even as workplaces open, it’s going to be much slower. It’ll be gradual. It’ll take you months, in some circumstances years, before you’ll see the same type of employees in workplaces. We’re looking at a permanent change or a change for at least a year. It could be much longer than that.
Mercedes Stephenson: How would you rank the government’s performance on this whole pandemic and the programs they’ve had out there?
Jerry Dias, Unifor National President: Look, it’s a pleasure, frankly, to see all different political stripes working together, putting the politics aside. You know, there’s been some ups and down. There’s been some decisions made that were questionable in the beginning, but everybody was adapting. Things were changing on a regular basis and I’m pleased with all levels of government.
Mercedes Stephenson: There’s been a lot of discussion about the conditions and the pay of personal support workers in long-term care homes and the conditions for residents in those homes. Are you looking at all, at trying to bring some of those personal support workers in the homes into the union to make sure they get a certain level of pay going forward?
Jerry Dias, Unifor National President: We represent thousands of health care workers in Unifor, thousands of personal support workers. And let me tell you, I bargained with for-profit long-term care facilities and not-for-profit long-term care facilities and we need a change, because when you are bargaining with for-profit long-term care facilities, look, it’s almost impossible to extract a nickel for the workers. So you have personal support workers that are making a little over minimum wage. In unionized environment it’s better, usually $20-21 an hour. But ultimately, it’s for-profit and so there’s always people working. They’re under-shifted. There’s always people off work and so people are overworked and underpaid. If you can imagine a worker in a long-term care facility has six minutes in the morning to get the resident out of the bed, get them to the bathroom, brush their teeth, clean them up and get them to the breakfast table. So as long as we have our seniors taken care of under a system for a profit, there will be less workers for the purpose of maximizing profits. So we need a better system than we have today. Personal support workers are working casual part-time, non-standard jobs. They don’t give the worker full-time jobs so that they don’t have to pay them as well, so that they don’t have to provide benefits. And that’s why when the pandemic hit, the governments eventually said look, workers can only work in one long-term care facilities at a time. Why? Because they were only given so few hours in each work place, they had to have two, three jobs in order to make ends meet. So hopefully, hopefully governments will wake up and will now say look, this was a failed venture. We better regulate the industry. We better ensure that people have full-time jobs and decent pay, because if you look at this pandemic, who were the COVID heroes? Those, I will argue that were so not respected, workers in grocery stores, health care workers, transit drivers, women that worked in women’s shelters, airline workers. I can walk through the different industries that we’re depending on today. So when I hear about the nonsense about the gig economy and that’s where the future is and manufacturing jobs are dead and, you know, that’s old technology. I say excuse me, when the COVID crisis hit, who stepped up? The manufacturing sectors are the ones that started to make masks, sanitizers, personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, respirators, those that were arguing about the new tech jobs in the gig economy are the, you know, frankly, working from home. How did that serve us during this pandemic? Not very well.
Mercedes Stephenson: Jerry, we always enjoy and appreciate your perspective. Thank you for joining us today.
Jerry Dias, Unifor National President: Have a great day. Thank you, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: You too. Well, that’s all the time we have for today with you. Thank you for joining us. For more of The West Block, you can go to our website: http://www.thewestblock.ca or follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We’ll see you right back here next week. Have a great day.