THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 42, Season 9
Sunday, June 21, 2020
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Guests: Former Ambassador to China David Mulroney,
Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal,
Former Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block.
Anthony Robart, Global News Anchor: “Two Canadians who have been detained in China for 18 months have now been charged with spying.”
Mercedes Stephenson: The two Michaels, charged. And a failed UN bid.
Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Philippe Champagne: “The seat on the Security Council was never an end in itself. It was merely a means to an end.”
Translator: “It’s true. I called him a racist.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Allegations of racism in Parliament.
NDP Party Leader Jagmeet Singh: “We had a motion to callout the systemic racism in the RCMP. Anyone who wants to vote against that is a racist, yes. ”
Yves-François Blanchet: “Alain Therrien is anything but a racist person.”
Conservator Leadership Chair Lisa Raitt: “This is the second of our official debates.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And the Conservative leadership debate.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We have continued to express our disappointment with the Chinese decision, with the Chinese detention of these two Canadians. We will continue to advocate for their release, for their return to Canada while highlighting, of course, that we have an independent judicial system.”
Mercedes Stephenson: That was the prime minister on the news late last week that two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig being held in China, have now been charged with espionage among other charges. Both men have been detained in China since December of 2018, and their arrests came after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver. Where does the relationship between the two countries stand, and when might we see some help for the two Michaels?
Joining me now to discuss this is Canada’s former ambassador to China David Mulroney. How are you Mr. Mulroney?
Former Canadian Ambassador to China David Mulroney: Hi Mercedes. How are you?
Mercedes Stephenson: Very well, thanks. Obviously we’re all thinking of the state that Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig must in right now, how they must feel. What was your reaction to China finally laying charges after a year and a half?
Former Canadian Ambassador to China David Mulroney: In a way, we saw this was coming. This was inevitable, because what China has been doing is a crude parody of the Canadian legal system. At every step in the Meng Wanzhou expedition process, China has followed it with a step of its own that’s designed to prolong the detention of our two Canadians for at least as long as Ms. Meng is in her judicial process in Canada. So we had the ruling in Canada a couple of weeks ago on double criminality, and the fact that Ms. Meng lost that means that the case will go on at least until next spring. And so, as expected, the Chinese have now announced another step in their process, completely fake, completely spurious, which puts our two poor Canadians in the same kind of jeopardy they’ve been in for so many days, so many hundreds of days for some time. So that with the charges, a process begins, it could take up to a year or more. It’ll take exactly as long as the Chinese Communist Party thinks it needs to take, to send us a message and to put pressure on us.
Mercedes Stephenson: Are the charges the message alone, or are Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in more danger now, because they’re close to a trial and therefore potentially closer to a sentence?
Former Canadian Ambassador to China David Mulroney: In one sense, yes. Because technically the Chinese could say well, you know, we can’t do anything now because we have rule of law and we’ve got to let the court decide. But the reality is that courts decide according to the party. And Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig will be held exactly as long as the party thinks they need to be held regardless of the process. So, in that sense, things have not changed. But what continues, as you indicated, is this very cruel isolation for two men. Because of the pandemic, they have not had consular visits. Mr. Kovrig, as we discovered on your show, had a call from his father, a single call. They’re living, you know, with the lights on 24/7 in crowded cells. They have very little room to walk around, very little to divert themselves. It’s a cruel and terrible situation and it’s going to continue for some time.
Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think of the government’s response? We heard from the prime minister. Some people have said that they need to be tougher on China. Others say that doesn’t matter because until Meng Wanzhou is released, this will be the situation. What are your thoughts?
Former Canadian Ambassador to China David Mulroney: I think the prime minister has failed on two counts. He’s speaking to two audiences. One audience is China, and he needs to be franker and tougher and more honest, because the Chinese are watching. If they determine that he will continue to be as friendly as careful in his use of language as he has been, there’s no cost to them. They know that they have him where they want him and they’ll continue to put pressure on us. The other message, though, is Canadians. Canadians need to hear that the prime minister is deeply concerned, that he’s outraged about what’s happening to our two Canadian citizens. One of the Canadian sub-audiences is of course, the Public Service of Canada, the Foreign Service. When they hear the prime minister speaking like that, they get the message that it’s kid gloves that we don’t want to rock the boat that we don’t want to change anything that we’re trying to back to the status quo. So he needs to change his language. Not in an unreasonably way or in a way that seeks to provoke the Chinese, but one that is guided by facts and it expresses the concern that Canadians deeply feel.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think there’s value in some kind of economic retaliation?
Former Canadian Ambassador to China David Mulroney: I don’t think retaliation in this sense works, simply because the Chinese system is so different. They can take a lot more pain that we can. And what retaliation means is that some Canadian sectors will be targeted. And that’s, you know, we have a democracy and we have to care about all of our Canadian citizens. But there’s some very real practical steps that we could and should be taking that we haven’t that have nothing to do with retaliation and everything to do with taking care of our Canadians. If we look at it now, we’ve had more than a year of detention of this outrageous detention, yet we continue to pump trade missions and academic exchanges and cultural programs into China. If any other country had done this, we would have curtailed that. So the first thing we should be doing is cutting back on all of this government sponsored or government directed travel. We should be ensuring that Canadians hear loud and clear how dangerous China can be for them and how limited our options are. And we should be working with the like-minded to come up with a common travel advisory, common language that expresses the danger. I think the Australians who’ve experienced this would be interested in joining us. The Swedes are going this. This could be a powerful response to China, and it’s one that’s entirely in line with what the government should be doing.
Mercedes Stephenson: Another major foreign policy hit for Canada this week, the loss of the bid for a UN Security Council seat. This is a government that came to power in 2015 saying Canada’s back. They were convinced that they could get this seat. They poured millions of dollars into pursuing it. They were not able to get it. Why do you think that is? And what do you think it says about Canadian foreign policy?
Former Canadian Ambassador to China David Mulroney: When you think about, Mercedes, this week has brought us the defeat in New York on Wednesday, and then back on Friday we discovered what was happening to the two Michaels’, the charges were brought against them. In many ways, it’s one of the most disastrous weeks for foreign policy—Canadian foreign policy in recent memory. We now have had, I think, we’ve witnessed the death of one particular form of Canadian foreign policy such as it was with the Security Council defeat. The world apparently has decided that it actually does not need more Canada. We should take that lesson and recognize that that was a 1970s or 80s diplomacy at best, time to move on from that old form of multilateralism. At the same time, the Chinese are reminding us that the world is much more dangerous for us, much colder, and that we need to invest in our own security in pushing back against Chinese interference at home, and we need to be working with allies to try to limit and pushback against Chinese interference in other countries and efforts to undermine the system, the system, the rule—the system of rules of Canada and others have put in place. So, it’s been a disastrous week, but sometimes you can move on from a disaster. I would suggest that the government not be too ambitious. They don’t need to remake everything. They should start with getting China policy right, getting the language right and taking the steps that Canadians have been waiting for them to take.
Mercedes Stephenson: An important discussion, no doubt. We appreciate your expertise and your time. Thank you for joining us, Mr. Mulroney.
Former Canadian Ambassador to China David Mulroney: Thank you, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, systemic racism in Canada. What is the government doing to end it? We’ll ask the only Indigenous cabinet minister in Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Systemic racism in Canada: Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal, told colleagues on the Hill last week that he was revolted by recent video tape showing police brutality against Indigenous people. Vandal is the only Indigenous cabinet minister, and one of four Liberal MPs, from the Prairies. What does he want his government to do, to end systemic racism in this country?
Joining me now to discuss that is the minister himself. Minister, you have a unique role in that you represent Canada’s North. You also bring a unique perspective to the table as the only Indigenous cabinet minister. What do you think your government should be doing?
Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal: Well, first of all, I don’t know many Ca—I don’t know any Canadians that were not revolted by the videos—the many videos that are coming from all—different parts of Canada, whether it’s the North or the Atlantic provinces or Alberta. It’s something that is completely unacceptable and it’s something that needs to stop, a.s.a.p. I think, when I spoke at the committee a few days ago, I was a little frustrated because we do have—this is an issue that’s not new. This is an issue when I first got into municipal politics in the late-80s we had something in Winnipeg called the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, where—which was launched, because a First Nations man was shot by the police in an inner city of Winnipeg, and unjustly of course. And there was a whole inquiry, and Murray Sinclair presided over it, and there was quite a thick book of recommendations on what municipal governments and governments generally in society should do to kind of bridge that divide. Since then, we’ve had the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. We have had the Truth and Reconciliation committee with many calls to justice, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report. I think we have a basic roadmap—government has a basic roadmap in front of us through the many reports and recommendations that have been—already been commissioned. We need to go back to those reports and we need to make sure that those calls to action are implemented. And that’s something, incidentally, our government is doing, but we need to put added vigour into that exercise.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, there’s been a lot of criticisms from very prominent Indigenous leaders, including Perry Bellegarde, Cindy Blackstock, the Native Women’s Association saying the government has made promises on everything from schools for Indigenous Children, to Indigenous policing, to not having responded yet to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s report, so a lot of work there that the government has committed but hasn’t done yet. But I just want to turn our attention to Parliament Hill, because this week, as you know, Jagmeet Singh called the Block Quebecoise House Leader a racist in the House over a motion he made with his hand when he turned down Mr. Singh’s motion on the RCMP and on systemic racism in Canada that he wanted to have debated. Do you believe that that motion and that tone that the Bloc leader took was racist?
Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal: You know, I wasn’t there in the House that day, and I would have to let the Bloc speak for themselves on why they decided to oppose that motion. I know our government supported it. It’s something that certainly needs to be done, and when the only racialized leader like Jagmeet Singh makes that sort of comment, I respect that comment and I think all Canadians should as well. I don’t know what Mr. Singh’s lived experience is, but obviously he’s describing what his lived experience is, and I respect what he said. Getting back to your other comment about our government hasn’t done enough. I’m for sure agree with you we haven’t done enough, but we’ve spent more than any other government in recent history on trying to eliminate the social inequities that Indigenous nations live in. I know that we’ve spent $25 billion of new money on education, on justice, on health, but that’s not enough. We have to continue that sort of investment in nations across the country, for a prolonged period of time.
Mercedes Stephenson: But minister, that’s a question I wanted to ask you, because Mr. Singh said that he believes people who deny the existence of systemic racism are in fact racist themselves. Do you agree with that assessment?
Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal: I think it you refuse to acknowledge that systemic racism exists, you are—you certainly do not have an open mind to address this issue. And I think by certainly refusing to acknowledge that systemic racism exists, you are exhibiting racist behaviour. I mean, it’s hard to argue with that. I mean, it’s—I think we need to get beyond that to solutions on how we actually address the systemic racism and the racism that is existent in Canada in 2020. And we need to look at very specific issues that are going to improve the situation. I’ll give you an example. This morning before this interview, I was at a roundtable on the use of body cameras in Nunavut and in the North. It was a great conversation. There were members of the RCMP there. There were senators, there were Inuit leaders. There were some politicians from the North, and we just had a very frank discussion on is this a reality? Is this somewhere we want to go down? Those sorts of conversations have to occur across Canada on a multitude of issues.
Mercedes Stephenson: A very important conversation and one we look forward to continuing with you in the future. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal: My pleasure. Thank you very much.
Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up, we’ll hear from former Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe on the events over this past week on Parliament Hill, and accusations of racism against a BQ member.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. A showdown in the House of Commons last week, dramatic moments as NDP leader Jagmeet Singh was kicked out for calling the Bloc Quebecoise House Leader a racist, for not supporting his motion on systemic racism in the RCMP in Canada. The Bloc wants action if Singh refuses to apologize, and so far, it looks like that is the case. So, how is all of this playing out in Quebec?
Joining me now is former Bloc Quebecois leader and political analyst Gilles Duceppe. How are you Mr. Duceppe?
Former Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe: Pretty well. I’m confined, but well.
Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you for joining us. We want to talk to you today about this dynamic on Parliament Hill. What is your take when you were watching this all go down last week, and how is this playing for the Bloc in Quebec?
Former Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe: Well, I was very surprised of Jagmeet Singh’s reaction, because the Bloc supported a motion that was adopted unanimous in the House, to hold a meeting of a committee to study racism within the RCMP. So we supported that. The leader, Mr. Blanchet made speech recognizing the existence of systematic racism, and the Bloc said we shouldn’t adopt a new motion proposed by the NDP because that means coming to conclusion before hearing people next week in Ottawa, because witnesses will come in Ottawa to discuss the question of systematic racism in the RCMP. So that was the only reason, so I don’t understand at all, Jagmeet Singh calling the—Therrien a racist. And in Quebec, I think it’s not supported at all, but the NDP’s almost absent in Quebec nowadays. And I think Trudeau made an error also saying that he’s understanding—he doesn’t understand the Bloc having that attitude. I think that was a rational and logical attitude. We can’t make conclusions before hearing the witnesses. Or, if we want to adopt such a motion, we should have called the committee to have a meeting discussing systematic racism in the RCMP. It’s one or the other, not both of them, of course.
Mercedes Stephenson: Jagmeet Singh is saying that it’s racist—that the motion that Therrien made was racist with his hand, and that the refusal to even allow this motion that he was proposing to get to a debate, denies systemic racism and anyone who denies systemic racism is therefore a racist. So, I’m taking it that you disagree with Mr. Singh on that.
Former Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe: That was pure hypocrisy and he was lying, because the Bloc supported the motion to discuss the systematic racism in the RCMP. And Blanchet made a speech saying that he recognized the existence of systematic racism. I think that Singh—the only thing he wanted to do was to get more support in the rest of Canada, knowing that he’s losing to the Liberals even in B.C. So, I think that was cheap politics from Jagmeet Singh. It won’t help them in Quebec, not at all and neither Trudeau, by the way.
Mercedes Stephenson: So you don’t think the emotion he had at the press conference or what he was saying was genuine?
Mercedes Stephenson: Premier Legault has also said he doesn’t believe there is systemic racism in Quebec. Do you think that there is a problem with recognizing systemic racism in Quebec society?
Former Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe: There is systematic racism all over in the world, including Canada. And I do remember Justin Trudeau in 2006, when there was a meeting to support Katimavik with Senator Hébert. And Trudeau came to me and asked me what’s your—what is your small nation? That was kind of systematic racism. So there is systematic racism in Quebec, but we’re certainly not having to take lessons from the rest of Canada. Remember pronouncing a speech in Saskatoon University—University in Saskatoon in 1991, and there was a lot of students criticizing Quebec, because there’s a sovereigntism movement and for them it’s racism. And I said well, in Quebec the First Nations are 1 per cent of the population, but 2 per cent of the population in jail, this is unacceptable. So they were applauding. And then I said I’d check in Saskatchewan this morning, 12 per cent of the population, but 72 per cent of the population in jail. They all win back their seats. I said come on there’s no more questions? What’s your problem? I mean, we have to recognize there is systematic racism all over the place, but when Canada’s starting to give lessons to Quebec, I mean, just unacceptable. The day the francophones outside Quebec will have the same rights and the anglophones in Quebec, they’ll be very happy. It’s not the case at all.
Mercedes Stephenson: One last question I wanted to ask you, but on a different topic, Mr. Duceppe. We saw the Conservative debate earlier this week, both in French and in English. One of the big discussions has been that the candidates are not that fluent in French. Who do you think should lead the party? And do you think any of them have good enough French to make an impression in Quebec?
Former Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe: I would say the night of the debate in French, my wife and I said do we listen to a special program on political analysis around the world, or listen to a comedy? So we chose to listen to the comedy and that was the debate in French. I mean, 50 years after the adoption of the Official Languages Act in Canada, those people just can’t speak French. I mean, I just don’t understand that. And I think both of them, be it O’Toole or MacKay, both of them are speaking a French which is worse than Andrew Scheer. Having said that, I said the essential, I think I don’t see how they’ll be able to make a campaign in Quebec next time around.
Mercedes Stephenson: Monsieur Duceppe, we appreciate your analysis. Thank you for joining us today.
Former Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe: It was a pleasure.
Mercedes Stephenson: And that is the time that we have for today. Thank you for joining us, and to all the dads out there, including my own dad, Happy Father’s Day. We’ll see you next week.
Additional West Block programming aired in some markets on Sunday:
Mercedes Stephenson: On The West Block this week, racism in Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “And systemic racism exists within our country, in every part of our country and in all our institutions. Recognizing systemic discrimination is the important first step.”
Mercedes Stephenson: COVID costs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Our government will be releasing an economic and fiscal snapshot.”
Conservative Finance Critic Pierre Poilievre: “The dictionary defines snapshot, or a hunter, as a shot quickly taken without deliberate aim. Will the debt exceed a trillion dollars?”
Finance Minister Bill Morneau: “We are looking forward to providing the information that will come out in our July 8th presentation.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And, vaccinations.
Global National Anchor Dawna Friesen: “The world is still hoping for a vaccine, and today the World Health Organization (WHO) says its optimistic hundreds of millions of doses could be available later this year.”
Mercedes Stephenson: July 8th, that’s when the federal government will give a fiscal snapshot of the Canadian economy.
The prime minister made the announcement last week, and said that the government was simply not prepared to give a full fiscal update because they could not make responsible predictions about where the economy might be in the months to come. But one person who has been doing something like that is the Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux. And now Mr. Giroux is here to talk about this with us. What did you think when the government announced this fiscal snapshot
Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux: Well, at first I was happy, almost relieved, to see that they would be tabling an update on June 8th—July 8th, sorry—but the devil will be in the details. So subsequent to the announcement, there were discussions about this being just a snapshot, which will include only the expenditures so far. So what I’m really looking forward to on July 8th, is to see whether the government will also include not only the expenditures so far and the impact of the slowdown in the economy but also the plan going forward. So, what is the government planning on doing for the next several months as the pandemic recedes and the number of cases is reduced? So what’s to come for Canadians in terms of government expenditures, programs, and what do they anticipate will the economy be looking like as the number of cases goes down?
Mercedes Stephenson: There have been historic expenditures, just incredibly large to deal with this pandemic, but we haven’t had any kind of an update since December of 2019 that’s the last fiscal update. What have you thought of the government’s argument that they cannot responsibly have put something out before now, to update Canadians on a state of the economy and just how big the deficit and the debt are going to be?
Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux: Well, I thought that was a bit, almost insulting, for the jurisdictions that have done that. For example, Newfoundland has released an update, Saskatchewan has released an update, and Quebec has released an economic and fiscal update, just Friday. So, that was a bit insulting for these jurisdictions that were already working on such an update. And also, the Bank of Canada had released two scenarios, economic scenarios: one optimistic, one pessimistic. And the Federal Reserve in the U.S. had also released an economic scenario a couple of weeks ago, and my office, obviously, we’ve been working on that since the end of March, trying to quantify the impact on the economy and on the federal finances. So, to hear the prime minister say that it was an invention, or it was very difficult, it was a bit of a stretch for us, because we have been able to come up with a scenario. Of course, we don’t expect to be 100 per cent accurate. There are a lot of uncertainties and a lot of moving parts. For example, the spread or not of the coronavirus, the COVID-19, and as well the response of various levels of government, these are all big unknowns and add to the fact that Canada is an oil producing country so the price of oil adds another unknown into the equation of trying to quantify the direction that the fiscal situation of the government will be, but it’s not impossible and nobody’s asking for perfection in that world. But, I think it’s important that Canadians have an idea of the state of federal finances and the state of the economy. And that’s especially for parliamentarians who are trying to make the best of the situation and they’re voting on government programs.
Mercedes Stephenson: And you have been throughout this pandemic steadily and regularly, sometimes several times a week, updating with the latest reports and projections for where the economy will be at and how much money all of these programs will cost the government. I was looking at your most recent report, and we’d all talked about parliamentary budget officers projecting over $150 billion deficit. That number has now jumped, according to your latest numbers, to $256 billion. I remember when we were talking about $20 billion deficits. Take us through where you see the Canadian economy right now, and where this $256 billion number comes from.
Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux: So, in that latest report that we released last week, we expect that there will have been a significant contraction in the economy in the second quarter by about 13 per cent, but we also expect that the economy will grow, again, starting in the third and fourth quarters as the restrictions on the movement of persons and social/physical distancing, all these restrictions are gradually lifted. So that should leave us with a deficit of about $256 billion, and that’s the result of significant government spending. Notably all the programs that were announced by the government that’s about $170 billion in new spending, and also a consequence of the slowdown in the economy, which leads to lower revenues for the government and that’s about $60 billion in revenues that have been lost by the government or will have been at the end of the years as a result of the slowdown and the contraction in the economy so a mix of reduced lower spending and also significant increases to government expenditures.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s a very deep hole and it’s a hole that could keep getting deeper, because as we heard the government extended the CERB. That put billions more dollars onto this. What are the ways out of this? What options does the government have to start to pay this down?
Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux: Well, one important feature of these programs is that they have been presented as temporary. So as long as these measures are indeed temporary, and the economy picks up again, then it won’t be that difficult to return to much smaller deficits.
Mercedes Stephenson: And we’ll see if that happens. Thank you so much for joining us, today.
Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux: A pleasure.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next: China’s Western Horizon, a new book about China’s growing influence in Eurasia. We’ll talk to the author, Daniel Markey, coming up next.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Over the past couple of months, China has been making headlines around the world, first on COVID-19, then actions against pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, and clashes along its border with India. Then late last week, the decision to charge two Canadians: Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig who are detained in China. They are charged with spying. China’s influence around the world is growing, especially in Eurasia. China’s Western Horizon is a new book looking at this influence.
Joining me now is author Daniel Markey. Daniel, thank you for making time for us.
Professor Daniel Markey, Johns Hopkins University: It’s great to be with you.
Mercedes Stephenson: So you have been looking at China’s activities all around the world. This is something that is on a lot of Canadians radar right now, but you’ve really drilled down on a place that not a lot of us pay attention to and what China is engaging in there, Eurasia. Tell me a little bit about what countries we’re talking about in Eurasia and what China is doing in those countries that may be concern to the world?
Professor Daniel Markey, Johns Hopkins University: Yeah, I’ve been looking at what China’s up to a long its western border or where I call it ‘western horizon.’ So into places like Pakistan, in South Asia, or Kazakhstan in Central Asia, or even Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. And in all of these places, we’re seeing a lot more Chinese involvement. Specifically starting on the economic front, but then increasingly getting involved in the politics of the region, and I think increasingly likely over time, to be involved in security issues as well, that is China finding ways to expand its military power projection capability across this enormous region, which if you look at a map, you’ll see extends all the way up to the doorstep of western Europe, the Persian Gulf. These are increasingly strategic parts of the world, but the places we haven’t thought about China as much in, in the past.
Mercedes Stephenson: And there must be some significant human rights concerns there too, because we have all heard about the concentration camps filled with the Uyghur Muslims in China. Many of them are ethnic Kazaks and other countries that are in Eurasia, what’s happening there in terms of the human rights situation?
Professor Daniel Markey, Johns Hopkins University: Yeah, it’s a terrible story within China, and you’re absolutely right that we know that there are a million or maybe many more Chinese Uyghurs, principally Muslim, but also some Kazaks, ethnic Kazaks. And then increasingly, we’re seeing the repression of Chinese Muslims outside of Xinjiang, along China’s western border and in the rest of the country. So this is a terrible story inside of China, but it’s also affecting the wider region because as you know, many of those living in central Asia and onward into the Middle East and in Pakistan are Muslim themselves and so their reaction to this you would expect would be quite negative. But what’s intriguing about it is that officially at least, most of these other countries have kept quiet and that relates to the central storyline here, which is that many of these countries are basically owe China a lot of money, are increasingly indebted to China, see their economic stories entangled with China in ways that they can’t get out of and are worried about upsetting Beijing so they keep quiet. They look the other way, and that in turn has the potential to create cleavages between their leaders, who as I say, owe a lot to China, and their broader publics who are increasingly upset with China’s treatment of its own Muslims.
Mercedes Stephenson: When you look at China’s behaviour around the globe right now, everything from what many have indicated they believe is a Chinese government backed cyber-attack on Australia, the ships in the South China Sea, Africa, where they’ve been investing tremendous resources. A lot of people say it looks like China is reasserting this and this should be—pardon me—reasserting itself, and this should be an issue of significant international concern. How would you characterize China’s global actions right now?
Professor Daniel Markey, Johns Hopkins University: I see China as definitely a rising power, but this is not a story that is a post-COVID story or a brand new story. This is a story that’s decades in the making that began with a rapid and vast expansion of China’s own economy at home and now is translating from economic wealth into increasingly political leverage and I would anticipate military power across the world. And maybe the best way to think about China’s rise in growth and power is like a rising tide that is extending to various parts of the world, filling up welcoming inlets with Chinese influence and in some cases as we’re seeing, I think, increasingly in places like Australia, hitting rocky shores where it’s less welcome and where there is some pushback. The local reaction to China, in many ways, will determine where China’s rising power nets at the most political influence, and as I say, potentially military influence as well.
Mercedes Stephenson: Here in Canada, top-of-mind when we talk about China is the cases of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, two Canadians who were detained in China. They are still there. It has been a year and a half now since they have been—well over that, since they have been jailed. They were just finally charged on Friday. What advice do you have for the Canadian government in dealing with China on that issue?
Professor Daniel Markey, Johns Hopkins University: My only sense there and I admit that this isn’t something where I think there’s an easy solution to. If I had it, I might have written about it somewhere. I think that this is a tough one. This is an example of how China is willing—Beijing is willing to use this type of leverage in, I think, kind of ridiculous ways, to place pressure on countries like Canada. But Canada’s not alone, and that in itself, I think, suggests the roots of a policy solution that is Canada and other states around the world that face this kind of threat and challenge by China really need to band together. And sitting here not far from Washington, DC, I would have liked to see the United States take the lead in some of this. I’m afraid at the moment, we’re otherwise occupied. But hopefully in the future, the core of the response to China will be likeminded states with liberal concerns about its authoritarian behaviour and its treatment of its people and international residents responding together and placing concerted pressure on Beijing.
Mercedes Stephenson: Daniel Markey, thank you so much for making time for us today and for your excellent and very interesting analysis.
Professor Daniel Markey, Johns Hopkins University: My pleasure, happy to be with you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, will there be a vaccine for COVID-19 within the next year to 18 months? Or is that false hope? We’ll hear from one scientist about what a realistic timeline for a vaccine is.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Late last week, the government announced a new voluntary national contact tracing App as yet another measure in the fight against COVID-19. Contact tracing and testing have become part of our new normal until there is a vaccine, and many are hopeful that that could be available within the next 12 months. But is it realistic to think we could have a vaccine that soon?
Joining me now is Byram Bridle; he’s the associate professor of viral immunology at the University of Guelph. You’ve recently penned an article talking about vaccines, and in it you express that you think perhaps a few of the politicians and the scientific community out there, perhaps, are being too optimistic. Do you think it’s possible that we could have a vaccine within a year?
Professor Byram Bridle, University of Guelph: Hi Mercedes, thanks for having me. I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but I would say it’s highly improbable.
Mercedes Stephenson: And why do you think that that is, because I know it takes years, typically, to develop vaccines. But since the beginning of this, we’ve had people out front saying we can’t have a new normal until there’s a vaccine. We’re working hard on a vaccine and the implication is always that it’s just around the corner. Why do you think those expectations were set?
Professor Byram Bridle, University of Guelph: Well I think it’s important. Everybody wants hope, and I guess the reason why I’m speaking out, though, is because false hope can be really problematic, especially after the fact. It can cause more problems and more harm than it does good, and so as a scientist who works on the development of vaccines, I just want to be very upfront and honest with Canadians. It’s simply not feasible for a vaccine to be developed in such a short period of time. In fact, many argue that 12 months is probably too long now. This pandemic might run its natural course in as little as two years from the beginning, which would put us towards the end of 2021. And the issue is, if we don’t have our people in our country vaccinated very early in 2021, it’s not going to have much utility, a vaccine is going to be particularly helpful at the tail end of the pandemic. And one of the things that I’ve often asked when I state that this vaccine likely can’t be made in such a short period of time is why are we able to make the annual flu vaccine year after year in under a year? So one thing that’s important to keep in mind when it comes to timelines for making vaccines, when it comes to annual flu vaccine that’s a pre-approved process, right? It’s already gone through regulatory approval and it’s just being tweaked each year. And this case, we’re talking about the development of a completely new vaccine technology. So when the flu vaccine technology was originally developed, it also took many years to develop. And to go through the clinical testing, there’s typically three phases. So there’s first a phase one trial, which emphases safety, the safety of the vaccine, then a phase two trial and ultimately the phase three trials are large scale and they’re designed to make sure that the vaccines actually work. And under normal circumstances, the average time to traverse from the beginning of phase one, to the end of a phase three trial, is normally 10 years or more. There have been some outliers, which have set kind of time records. But even the best case scenario, we’re looking at historically is maybe bringing that down to four years, but definitely one year or less.
Mercedes Stephenson: Wow, and that is substantially more than, I suspect, a lot of people watching at home right now were expecting to hear. I just want to go back to something you said, though, about this particular pandemic. And you said it’s likely that it will run its course. What does that look like in terms of the Canadian population and the effect of this pandemic?
Professor Byram Bridle, University of Guelph: So, the only way for a pandemic to end is for enough people to become immune to this particular virus. And so people have probably heard the term herd immunity flying around quite a lot, and so what refers to is once enough people become immune to the virus, the virus is highly inhibited in its ability to spread through a population and that’s because chances are that most of the people that an infected individual would come into contact with would be immune, and therefore the virus would have no way of spreading. Now, there’s debate about how much immunity is required for this particular virus, but scientists generally agree that the minimum amount is likely at least 60 per cent and probably more in the ballpark of 70 per cent, and some have estimated that perhaps as many as 85 per cent of Canadians will have to be immune before this pandemic loses its ability to spread through the population.
Mercedes Stephenson: So the reality is then for Canadians when we hear politicians saying we can’t go back to the new normal until there’s a vaccine that probably is not going to be the case. Do you foresee then, the physical distancing measures that we have in place remaining in place until 2021? Or do you think that at some point people are just going to start coming back and you will see a higher death rate?
Professor Byram Bridle, University of Guelph: So that’s certainly up for debate. I can tell you among the scientific community, there is a growing debate about that. So I guess the short is yes, physical distancing measures will certainly need to remain in place for, you know, a relatively prolonged period of time. And again, I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news, but I just don’t want government policies and the general public deriving too much hope from the prospect of a vaccine. Rather, I think what’s going to be more important, perhaps, is looking at interventions. So for example, there’s the potential to repurpose drugs that have currently received approval by regulatory agencies like Health Canada, which means they’ve already been shown to be safe in people and those could be much more rapidly mobilized into routine clinical practice if they prove to be helpful with this particular virus. So that could potentially be implemented faster. What that would look like, though, is people would still get infected. They would still get sick, but these drugs would reduce the severity of the illness and reduce the number of deaths associated with it as we naturally progress towards this goal of herd immunity. And in terms of, you know, whether these measures would need to be relaxed, like I said, there’s a lot of debate in the scientific community. There’s no question that this virus is extremely dangerous for the elderly and they’re suffering by the far the most severe forms of COVID-19 and they’re also suffering the highest incidents in terms of death rates. But for individuals under 65, the debate has now started about whether we need to implement such strict strategies for a very long term, because for example, if you take the under 20 demographic, we’ve only had in the ballpark of 200 cases in Canada and there have been zero deaths. To put that in perspective, last year with the annual flu, which doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as the SARS coronavirus 2 has, there was well over 1,000 Canadians under the age of 20 who got infected with the flu virus and 10 of those Canadians died so one could argue that for younger individuals, some of these measures now are likely overboard as we start generating this data. So I do think you’ve raised an important point. Yes, we have to maintain this physical distancing for a while until policies change, but I think we need to start having serious discussions now, as the data is accumulating, about whether we can ease up on some of these policies.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s a lot to think about, and it sounds like a long road ahead. Thank you for raising these interesting questions and this policy discussions and expectation adjustment, I suspect, for some people watching out there including myself. Thanks so much for joining us.
Professor Byram Bridle, University of Guelph: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: That is all the time we have for today. Thanks for joining us, and for all the dads out there, including my own dad, Happy Father’s Day.