The West Block — Episode 43, Season 9

The West Block: Jun 28
Watch the full broadcast of The West Block from Sunday, June 28, 2020 with Mercedes Stephenson.


Episode 43, Season 9

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests: Vina Nadjibulla (Michael Kovrig’s wife);

Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador Dwight Ball; and

Wexit Canada Interim Leader Jay Hill 

Location: Ottawa


Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: China, divided diplomacy.

Farah Nasser, Global News Anchor: “Ottawa is facing new pressure to strike a deal to free two Canadians detained in China.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “I respect the distinguished Canadians who put forward that letter but I deeply disagree with them.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Then, an Eastern bubble.

Antony Robart, Global News Anchor: “More regions of this country are easing up on public health restrictions and allowing people more freedom to get together. The four Atlantic provinces have agreed to a so-called ‘Atlantic bubble’.”

Mercedes Stephenson: And, Western separation.

Wexit Canada Interim Leader Jay Hill: “There’s no longer a home for Westerners in Canada.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: “The anger and frustration that lies behind separate sentiment, it is real.”

Mercedes Stephenson: A diplomatic divide over how to deal with China and its arrest and charging of two Canadians: Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig played out nationwide last week. Nineteen eminent Canadians, including Louise Arbour, Lloyd Axworthy, Ed Broadbent and Hugh Segal, signed off on a letter to the prime minister, calling on his government to intervene in the extradition case of Meng Wanzhou so China would release the two Canadians. Here is Prime Minister Trudeau’s response to that letter.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Government needs to focus on what is going to keep Canadians safe into the future. And to demonstrate to China that they can just arrest Canadians and get what they want out of Canada, even for us going against the independence of our judicial system.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now is Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s wife. Thank you so much for joining us, Vina. How are you?

Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s Wife: Thank you for having me on your show, Mercedes. I am okay.  It has been a very challenging and intense week, that’s for sure.

Mercedes Stephenson: How have you been doing throughout this process? And I know you’ve received letters from Michael, how is he doing?

Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s Wife: Well, in terms of how I’m doing through this particular week, it has been a challenging and emotional week, but we take comfort as Michael’s family that at least in coming out and speaking publicly Canadians now have a better understanding of the incredible hardship that Michael has endured for the last 18 months, and that the courage and resilience with which he has endured that suffering can inspire them in the same way that it has inspired me and his family, to continue to fight for his freedom. And I hope that that will in fact, continue. And we are grateful for the hundreds of messages that we have received this week from Canadians around the country saying that they are standing in solidarity with our Michael and Michael Spavor, and that they hope everything can be done to bring them home.

Mercedes Stephenson: How did you feel when you heard the prime minister’s response to your proposition, which was that the justice minister could step in and stop the extradition process for Ms. Meng and that China then, potentially, would release Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor? He was categorical in saying there’s no way his government will do that.

Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s Wife: It was difficult to hear that message for sure, but what I hope we will also continue to focus on is the fact that the prime minister mentioned that Michael and Michael Spavor are a priority and that the government is committed to bringing them home. And I hope that that commitment is true and will continue, because the idea that somehow if we release—if we do this and find a way to secure the freedom of Michael and Michael Spavor that will endanger other Canadians in the future, then that essentially means we have to resign to the fact that Michael will have to languish in jail for an indefinite period of time. We cannot accept that. I don’t believe those are our choices. I believe we can find a way forward, a way that is both principled and pragmatic. A way that is both smart and strategic. The government has been committed to finding that path forward. I hope that we can work together to do that, because the alternative is simply unconscionable. Michael should not have to suffer anymore. It’s already been 565 days. He should not have to suffer any more for something he has not done. It is a very complicated geo-political situation. I understand that, I have devoted my life to working around geo-politics and studying it. There are no easy solutions, we understand that. But a solution must be found. And those who say we can’t do this, fine. What are we going to do, because words are not enough?

Mercedes Stephenson: And what other options do you think there are that you’d like to see the government pursue?

Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s Wife: We have to have a much more courageous conversation about the position Canada has been put in, in honouring this extradition request and whether or not the extradition request was put forward in good faith. There are conversations that need to continue around that and the fact that we now know that our minister of justice has not only the authority but the responsibility to control that process and to step in should Canadian interests demand that, that is in our view, progress, because if anything, it hopefully generates more leverage and more space for the government to continue to negotiate and engage with China, with the United States. Having worked on this for as many days as I have, what I know is we need more leverage. We need more space to manoeuvre and hopefully the conversations of this week have opened up a little bit more space for that.

Mercedes Stephenson: Vina, we know this has been a very challenging week for you and for your family, so thank you so much for taking the time to join us. And we certainly wish you the best and hope that your husband will be freed soon.

Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s Wife: Thank you, Mercedes. And I guess one thing that I’d like to note at the end is that as we celebrate Canada Day next week, and as we all reflect on how grateful we are to be living in this peaceful, safe country, I hope Canadians also remember that there are two innocent Canadian men who would want nothing more than to come home and to be in Canada and to be reunited with their families. And I hope we can bring them home. Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you, Vina. We will certainly be thinking of both your husband and Michael Spavor on this Canada Day.

Thirteen senators from across party lines have sent their own letter to the prime minister, calling for Magnitsky sanctions to be levied against top communist party officials in China.

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Joining me now is Senator Marilou McPhedran. She is one of the senators calling for these sanctions. Thank you so much for joining us today, senator. Tell me why you think Magnitsky sanctions are the way to go with handling China.

Senator Marilou McPhedran: The Magnitsky law is designed to go after those who have been abusing human rights in other countries but give to themselves the benefits of investing in Canada. So, this is something that we can do within our control and it also makes a very strong statement that we’re not only talking about human rights abuses here, we’re talking about the new global bully and the need for Canadians and Canadian parliamentarians to do what we can, to stand up to the bully.

Mercedes Stephenson: What did you think of the call this week by a number of prominent Canadians, as well as Michael Kovrig’s wife, for the justice minister to step into Meng Wanzhou’s extradition process and halt it in the hopes of having the two Michaels’ released? The families are saying that they want their loved ones back. The prime minister is saying a move like that would put other Canadians at risk and embolden China. What are your thoughts on that?

Senator Marilou McPhedran: Well, I think the filter that we need to be using on the question of the Michaels’ and also the question on Canadians in Hong Kong is the same filter: we need to focus on Canadians. We need to focus on saving lives and we need to focus on in the case of Hong Kong, facilitating how people get out of Hong Kong. This is reminiscent to me of Iran, when the Canadian ambassador broke all of the rules and hid Americans in the embassy to protect them. We are facing a dire threat here to yes, the rule of law, but you know, there is no single rule of law. It is this is something where we are skilled diplomats in this country and we have ways, and I know this is going on in back channels, and I think it’s very important that we keep the filter on Canadians and their lives and their wellbeing.

Mercedes Stephenson: So, does that mean, senator, that you think that they should stop the extradition process? Or do you think that that would encourage not only China, but other regimes to essentially take Canadians hostage when they don’t like a Canadian government policy?

Senator Marilou McPhedran: Frankly, they’ve already shown us that as the world’s bully, that’s what they’re already doing. So this isn’t about being prophylactic. This is about responding to the reality that we have to deal with now. And this is necessary to look at what is really a relatively new and recent awareness that we’ve had as a country that what we’re facing is the world’s new bully. And, you know, it doesn’t work well to always give in to the bully, that the way in which this situation is being negotiated, whatever our diplomats are doing, whatever our prime minister can do to focus on what needs to be done within reasonable boundaries, and one of the things that was pointed out by Louise Arbour and Lloyd Axworthy and the others that signed the letter to the prime minister, urging that the negotiations occur around the Chinese citizen in Canada and our Canadians in China. What they’re basically saying and these are top world experts with a lot of experience in the practicalities of real politics that it is possible to do more and we should be trying to do more. And that doesn’t, in my opinion as a human rights lawyer, that doesn’t undermine the rule of law per se. What is being suggested is within the boundaries of the rule of law.

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

Senator Marilou McPhedran: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, an Atlantic bubble and an oil sector bust. We’ll talk to Newfoundland and Labrador’s Premier Dwight Ball.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. On Friday, the Atlantic Provinces will open their borders to each other, to encourage travel within their East but not from beyond that. How much will this help economies like Newfoundland and Labrador’s that have taken a triple blow with COVID, a collapsed fishing season, declining oil prices and a closed border to foreign tourists and some Canadian tourists. And what does it all mean in the months ahead for the province?

Joining me now to talk about this is Premier Dwight Ball. How are you, premier?

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball: Not too bad.

Mercedes Stephenson: So tell us about the situation out there in Newfoundland and Labrador economically. Right now, I know they were in some pretty dire straits the last time we spoke. Paint a picture for us of where things are at, at this point.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball: Yeah, I think your opening comments, Mercedes, described it very well. It’s been a tough start to 2020 for Newfoundland and Labrador. The collapse of the oil prices had a significant impact in our province. That’s about 30 per cent of our GDP, so you can imagine, you’ll see those economy prices what that meant to employment and being competitive up on the world stage.

Mercedes Stephenson: When you look at the overall economic situation across Canada, an equalization, which has been a really big point of discussion, especially out in Alberta, but also in your province where the opposition are calling for changes, potentially, to the equalization program because here you have Newfoundland and Labrador struggling very hard, but under the current formula, you don’t get any equalization money from the government. Would you like to see that changed?

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball: Well, you know, we haven’t got equalization, you know, for many, many years right now, of course we would like to see the transfer payments change, but added to that, you know, we can actually help ourselves with some support from the federal government. [00:01:47] for many years to come. We have great natural resource opportunities here in Newfoundland and Labrador. The oil and gas industry is one of those examples. We have some of the best oil in the world in terms of carbon intensity per barrel. We want to see that industry actually continue to develop.
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Mercedes Stephenson: So what would that support look like? Would that be sort of a one-time payout? Is it help specifically for the oil and gas industry? Is it changing up equalization? What’s your ask to Ottawa?

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball: Well it’s a couple of things. One is that we had a number of big projects that are currently, you know, have been suspended right now in our province. We’d like to get them moving forward. This is about development and maintaining—being competitive up against all the jurisdictions. So, we would have those—that would help extend with exploration that would track more money and create the industry that we think we know we have here. And we also know that there’s a transition between a cleaner growing economy, we could help, you know, other jurisdictions in Atlantic Canada. We put a roadmap in place that would actually help greenhouse gas emissions in places like Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and working with Quebec in this particular case.

Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think your timeline is on that? Because one of the concerns we’ve heard from a lot of businesses, and from some premiers, is this has to be emergency support, but the money is just not moving out the door fast enough on the big business and the corporate level. It moved very quickly for individuals, but not for big businesses like oil.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball: You know there’s no question there’s a tight schedule here. We’ve seen a lot of exploration that was planned for our province that has been differed or suspended or even stopped at this particular point in time. So these are a huge opportunity loss for our province, so we need some action. There’s no doubt about that.

Mercedes Stephenson: On COVID-19, which has put so much pressure on your province and really every province across Canada, you took some very controversial decisions, including to close your borders to other provinces in Canada, and that’s a situation in a number of provinces that is now facing a constitutional challenge. People are saying it violates their charter rights. But you also introduced, essentially, a suspension of the normal procedures for police. So, police could enter somebody’s home if they wanted to check if somebody was there who might have COVID-19 or who was from out of the province, and there are some people who are saying they’re really worried about the precedent that that has set. Are you worried about the precedent that some of the steps your government took has had in terms of what other provinces could do in the future or what could happen in your own province?

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball: So right now, we’re at zero cases as you’ve just mentioned in your opening comments around Atlantic Canada. On a regular basis, we’re not seeing any positive cases at all. So we’ve opened up our borders now to the rest of Atlantic Canada. If that all works, you know, we’ll continue to monitor, we’ll see by late-July where we could be with the rest of the country. Right now it’s about prevention as opposed to enforcement. It’s more important for us to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our province. We have a great—we have our system ready to respond in case we had a setback right now. We don’t think that will be necessary. Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans have been very compliant. Atlantic Canada is in a good spot right now, so we feel this is the right time to open and ease those restrictions allowing people from Atlantic Canada to come to Newfoundland and Labrador.

Mercedes Stephenson: Premier Ball, we always appreciate your time. Thank you for joining us.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball: Thank you, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up, a former House leader under prime minister Stephen Harper is now leading a party that is advocating to leave the country.

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: “While I acknowledge that the true heartfelt passion of those folks, I’ve laid out before why I think talking, you know, pursuing separation would be massively counterproductive.” 

Mercedes Stephenson: That was Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on his former Conservative colleague, Jay Hill, the new interim leader of the separatist Wexit Canada Party. So how does one go from being the former House leader for the Conservatives under prime minister Stephen Harper to leading a separatist party? Let’s find out.

Joining me now, Jay Hill. Jay, you know, I’ve covered you for years on Parliament Hill. I have to say on a list of 100 people I thought were likely to lead a separatist party, you weren’t on it. What changed your mind so that you don’t believe that the West should remain in Canada anymore?

Wexit Canada Interim Leader Jay Hill: Well Mercedes, this has been a bit of a process. I know it came as a bit of a shock to some people that haven’t followed my ridings over the last couple of years, but I’ve written several columns. They were carried in newspapers for about two years now, where increasingly I was concerned about the direction of our country, increasingly dismayed about the prospects for a bright future for my grandchildren and that motivated me finally, to get involved in this. I was approached by a group of people and we formed the inaugural board for the party and we’re committed to moving this forward.

Mercedes Stephenson: So Jay, walk me through what this is really about. I mean, is this a party that wants to have a referendum to have Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, B.C. separate or is this more of a Reform party kind of a protest movement?

Wexit Canada Interim Leader Jay Hill: Well no, it’s not a protest movement, Mercedes. It’s moved well beyond that. The anger is so deep-seated, and the frustration with a failed confederation is so widespread now in Western Canada that we are taking this extraordinary step, I believe, to organize federally and run candidates, hopefully in the next federal election if we have the time to organize properly, and elect members to Parliament, similar to what the Bloc Quebecois has done, to seek sovereignty for Western Canada. Now it might not come to that extent, we don’t know. But you’re right, our goal is, eventually, that our long term goal is to convince the provincial governments of Western Canada to hold a referendum and let the people decide whether they want to remain in confederation as it is structured, because in our opinion it’s not working.

Mercedes Stephenson: So, how do you do this, because in particular, Alberta is clearly the place where there is the most separatist sentiment, and you see that from the polling, it’s not nearly as strong in the other provinces? How do you go about separating when Alberta’s finances are in the state that they’re in, because 10 years ago, there was a lot of money there to do something like that, but right now they’re in a lot of trouble so you’d be essentially pulling out of Canada sat a time when you don’t have that ideal fiscal and economic support to set up a government, do everything you’d have to like taxes, pensions, trade agreements. I mean, it’s a pretty big undertaking.

Wexit Canada Interim Leader Jay Hill: Oh, it’s huge, Mercedes. And I can tell you myself and the seven people that are on this inaugural board are not naïve people. We believe in the cause, but we do believe and recognize all the challenges and hurdles that you’ve outlined and there’s many, many more as well before we ever go to establishing an independent nation here in the West. So, as I say, I’m not downplaying the challenges, it would take a lot of negotiation. But on the issue of the finances, if we weren’t sending billions of dollars to Ottawa and getting, you know, a few hundred million here and there back of our own money, we’d probably be a lot better off, financially.

Mercedes Stephenson: What happens is you get to the point of a referendum and you get enough in Alberta to leave, which even that is questionable. It seems highly unlikely you would get anywhere near that number in B.C., Saskatchewan or Manitoba. Would just the one province or two provinces that want to leave, go? How does that work?

Wexit Canada Interim Leader Jay Hill: Well that’s a great question. And it’s a question that I’ve had put to me already and, you know, I don’t have the answer to that. I mean, it would be up to the people whether they want to proceed in the hope that other provinces would see the good sense that it makes to have an independent nation and they would ultimately join with Alberta. If you look back on confederation, all the provinces weren’t established at the same time, and that’s part of the reason why we have such an ineffective and unequal Senate, for example, where the provinces of Ontario and Quebec each have 24 senators and all of the West only has 24 as well. So, you know, it’s a challenge, I admit that. And I don’t have those types of answers. I don’t have the answers about a lot of things. I’m just committed to building a credible alternative for those people that don’t believe, as I do, that confederation works.

Mercedes Stephenson: Jay, we just have a few moments left, but I have to ask you, you know, Premier Kenney came out and said that this is irresponsible. Have you talked to him or have you talked to prime minister Harper about this?

Wexit Canada Interim Leader Jay Hill: No, I haven’t talked to either of them. I don’t believe this is irresponsible. I believe that it’s a different approach from what Mr. Kenney is pursuing. I wish him well with his Fair Deal Panel report. I don‘t anticipate he’s going to have a lot of success on the major issues like changing the equalization formula, things like that.

Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you for joining us, Jay.

Wexit Canada Interim Leader Jay Hill: My pleasure.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for today. Wednesday is Canada Day and while there will be no big celebrations here on Parliament Hill or in towns and cities across the country, there will be virtual celebrations. We hope you all have a wonderful Canada Day.

[O Canada anthem plays]
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