THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 47, Season 9
Sunday, July 26, 2020
Host: Farah Nasser
Guests: Alfred Burgesson, Mark Blumberg, Professor Richard Florida
Location: Toronto, Ontario
Farah Nasser: This week on The West Block: upping the pressure on the finance minister.
Pierre Poilievre, MP—Carleton: “He admitted that he did not pay $41 thousand in expenses.”
Dawna Friesen, Global News Anchor: “Canada’s finance minister had admitted he made a big financial mistake.”
Minister of Finance Bill Morneau: “I want to apologize for this error.”
Farah Nasser: Then, looking closely into the deal with WE.
Mark Blumberg—Charity Lawyer: “The Canadian public has the right to know, you know, who the government is giving to.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Only the WE organization had the capacity to deliver the ambitious program.”
Farah Nasser: And rethinking urban planning.
Antony Robart, Global News Reporter: “And Toronto’s speeding up its plan to add more bike lanes amid this pandemic.”
Unidentified Male: “The time to act is before people settle back into the status quo.”
Farah Nasser: Good morning, and thank you for joining us. For weeks now, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has been on the defensive over conflict of interest accusations involving the WE Charity.
More and more details have come to light over time, including a significant revelation last week by the Finance Minister Bill Morneau that he had overlooked paying back a $41 thousand travel bill for two trips he took with his family to see the charity’s humanitarian work.
Today, we’re looking at the impact on those arguably most affected: young Canadians. Their prospects for employment were shattered this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Alfred Burgesson is a 23-year-old member of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council, who had questions about the partnership with WE. He joins us now from Halifax.
Thank you for being our guest, Alfred. Before we get started on that, tell us more about your role on the Prime Minister’s Youth Council. What was that like?
Alfred Burgesson, Prime Minister’s Youth Council Member: Sure. So I joined the Prime Minister’s Youth Council last year, and it’s an advisory board of youth ages 16 to 24, created and led by our PM, Justin Trudeau. We are Canada’s first ever youth council. And so as a council, we provide non-partisan advice to the prime minister and our government. I can tell you that it’s been a great learning opportunity for me, so far, and it’s a special thing we have here in Canada. Not many countries create spaces like this for young people.
The cohort before mine have called for diversity and youth involved decision-making and it’s led to, you know, government’s commitment to have 75 per cent of crown corps include young persons on their board.
And recently, some youth council members and I shared an anti-racism call to action letter and some recommendations to the PM and his team, and we believe that these calls to action would allow us to dismantle systemic racism in Canada, today.
Farah Nasser: I’m going to get into that, Alfred, because I really want to discuss that with you. But let’s first talk about WE, because given your role, you were given an opportunity to be on a Canada Student Services Grant Advisory Board and that was to do with the WE contract but you declined. Why?
Alfred Burgesson, Prime Minister’s Youth Council Member: I did decline. And as I’ve said before, I haven’t heard a lot of positive things about the experiences of my peers that they’ve had with the organization. And lately, we’ve heard allegations about, you know, racism within the organization and problematic international operations. But I think I’ll leave it there. I’m not interested in delving too deep into We, I want to stay focused on how we can collectively make the situation better for young people.
Farah Nasser: I just do have to pick up on that, though, when you talk about potential or allegations of racism in the organization. Can you give us a bit more on that?
Alfred Burgesson, Prime Minister’s Youth Council Member: I don’t have any personal experience to that matter. That’s something that I’ve seen and online through others. I believe there’s a call to action created by former employees of WE to their board and so I can refer to that, but I’ll just leave it there because I personally don’t have any experience dealing with WE.
Farah Nasser: What advice do you have for the Prime Minister right now, Alfred?
Alfred Burgesson, Prime Minister’s Youth Council Member: In terms of the advice for the Prime Minister, again, we have nearly $1 billion that should be available to support students. And the summer’s almost over, so we need to ensure that students are valued and that they receive these investments during this unprecedented time. Alongside a collective of youth organizations and youth programs, program managers in Canada were launching a campaign called 1B4Y, so $1 billion for youth. And essentially we want to create a set of guiding principles that the government could follow and how we could administer this $1 billion moving forward.
Farah Nasser: I want to switch the focus now on, you know, you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation that letter that you put out. Let’s start, though, with the prime minister. He called you shortly after those blackface photos came out. What did he say to you then? And how do you feel now about some of the perhaps promises that were made?
Alfred Burgesson, Prime Minister’s Youth Council Member: So, we’re still waiting meaningful changes regarding anti-racism and calls to action from our government. I had conversations with the prime minister last year on what he could do to lead by example, and as we said, the members of the youth council have written another letter. But this is not something that he can do alone, right? Like this needs to be done in collaboration with provinces, territories and municipalities. We’ve been vocal. I’m just not sure this is a priority for our current government, but I guess time will tell. And so we are, you know, we’re hopeful that progress will be made on that front.
Farah Nasser: It’s interesting that you said that you think this isn’t a priority. I mean, this is a government which ran on gender equity, on a focus of diversity, reconciliation. Are you saying that the government is all talk no action?
Alfred Burgesson, Prime Minister’s Youth Council Member: Yeah. I mean, I think we as citizens need to demand the changes, right? We can march and we can call for change, but nothing will happen if we don’t have specific calls to action. And so, you know, like I said, the youth council and members of the youth council have put forth a set of recommendations, but we really need the public and others across Canada to put pressure on our government. And if people are interested in adding their voice to petitions and getting engaged and having a direct line to our politicians in Canada, they can get engaged by visiting www.collectionaction.ca.
Farah Nasser: Alfred, I want to end off with this. What are you most optimistic about right now?
Alfred Burgesson, Prime Minister’s Youth Council Member: What I’m most optimistic about right now is that we have nearly $1 billion to spend on youth, and we need to ensure that we spend this money. And if I can give any sort of feedback to the government on how we can do this well, there are five guiding principles I would like to leave. And that is young people across Canada should be a part of shaping how we spend this money. This should not be something that’s created by the government alone. Second, we need to centre equity in this investment. We need to prioritize organizations led by black and Indigenous people, to work with other youth within their community. Third, we need to expand the funds to non-students, to make the spending more equitable and perhaps develop pathways for education for young people who may not be in post-secondary education right now. We need to extend the program past the timeline of the summer and perhaps look at December of 2020 or March of 2021, youth need more time. And lastly, we really need to include youth in building that better and we need to launch, you know, national challenges that allow youth-led organizations to co-create solutions today. We need action and if this sounds like something that you want to support, you can do so by visiting www.collectiveaction.ca.
Farah Nasser: Okay. I’m going to leave it there. Alfred Burgesson is a member of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council. Thank you.
Alfred Burgesson, Prime Minister’s Youth Council Member: Thank you, Farah.
Farah Nasser: Up next, digging deeper into the WE Charity, a Global News investigation into the organization at the centre of the controversy.
Farah Nasser: Joining us now to talk more about the growing pressure on the prime minister and Bill Morneau, and the WE Charity itself are Global News investigative reporter Stewart Bell, and Global National’s Mike Le Couteur.
Gents, thanks for joining us. Stewart, I want to start with you. You started looking into this charity, the WE Charity and you discovered that there is more than one entity. So, explain to us the difference between the WE Charity and the WE Charity Foundation.
Stewart Bell, Global News Investigative Reporter: The WE Charity has been a registered charity in Canada since about 1997. It did about $66 million in revenues last year. It sent about $27 million overseas to support its various programming as part of its mission. On the other hand, the WE Charity Foundation was only established as a charity last year. It has a budget about $150 thousand, no real assets to speak of and no real track record of accomplishments to speak of as well. But somehow it became the vehicle for administering this $912 million federal government program.
Farah Nasser: You also spoke to a prominent charity lawyer. I want to play a clip from him.
Mark Blumberg, Charity Lawyer: “WE Charity has significant assets, whereas WE Charity Foundation has no assets. It has no buildings that we’re aware of. It has no staff, and so they’re just very different entities and it would be like saying I gave money to a particular charity, but in fact, you gave it to a different one. Or, I gave money to the City of Toronto, but I gave it to the City of Winnipeg.”
Farah Nasser: What are the big concerns here?
Stewart Bell, Global News Investigative Reporter: Well, for Mr. Blumberg there were two concerns, really. One is that, you know, when the prime minister announced this agreement for the CCSG, he said the government had reached a deal with the WE Charity to administer it. Now we now know that was not correct. It was in fact, the WE Charity Foundation, which is an entirely separate charity and very, you know, different in a lot of ways as we just discussed. The other concern Mr. Blumberg raised is that, you know, should the government ever need to recover any funds through this program from the WE Charity Foundation, there really are no assets for it to go after.
Farah Nasser: Okay. Let’s talk about the political fallout to this, Mike. The opposition came out swinging this week against Bill Morneau who apologized several times for $41 thousand, a payment he had to make for two trips he took with his family, to see some of WE’s humanitarian projects. What are hearing from other Liberals about all this?
Mike Le Couteur, Global National Reporter: Well so far, they’re standing by him, and we’ve asked them at their different announcements last week, whether or not they still stand behind the finance minister, whether he should remain in his role. And they say he should, saying that he’s apologized and he’s sort of rectified the issue by paying the money back, while there still are some questions remaining. I think the other issue that we need to look for is the backbenchers and how they will feel about this. You know, backbenchers often have to sort of defend the government quietly as they move about in their ridings. We reached out to one recently and this person said they were going to reserve anymore comment until they hear from the prime minister at the ethics committee coming up this week. And I think that is an indication as well that it could be that these backbenchers are getting tired of these ethics breaches. Don’t forget, this is the third major one that this government, this prime minister, will have to go through. He’s already been investigated for the Aga Khan vacation, already on his involvement in the Jody Wilson-Raybould and SNC-Lavalin affair. This is number three. Will they be burning their political capital with the electorate as well? That remains to be seen because they’ve been riding high in the polls as a result of their COVID-19 response, but they have taken a bit of a hit here so it’ll be interesting to see whether or not within caucus there will be rumbling and it will be calling for the finance minister to step down. Don’t forget, he is the third highest ranking minister in cabinet behind the prime minister and the deputy prime minister, so it would be massive if he was shuffled out.
Farah Nasser: Well one of the big questions that is going to be asked this week is why the government picked WE. I want to play a clip from the prime minister on June 29th.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The WE Charities are evaluated by our Public Service as being the best and only organization able to deliver on the scale that we need to make sure that young people have service opportunities this summer.”
Farah Nasser: “The best and only” as you just heard the prime minister say, but we spoke to the head of the union representing public servants who says this should have been handled by the Public Service, that there was no need to farm out this program. Mike, what’s the political implication of all that?
Mike Le Couteur, Global National Reporter: Yeah, I think it plays to how did the timeline actually go through here? Because we know there have been discussions and internal discussions between members of different cabinet ministers’ offices and the WE Charity. Were they tipped off as to what this charity or what this program might look like? We know that the decision was made by cabinet on May 22nd, but we’ve heard that there were a number of meetings between different officials from the government and WE Charity, and whether or not WE Charity was told this is what the program will possibly look like, what we’re looking for. So if your proposal hits all of these, checks all of these boxes, well then you’ll likely be picked. That, I think, is key and likely where opposition parties will try and really go at the heads of the WE Charity and the prime minister when he is before the ethics committee as well because they want to know whether or not the personal connections between the prime minister himself and WE Charity, and the finance minister and WE Charity, were ultimately what tipped the balance in this case.
Farah Nasser: Okay. Stewart what questions do you still have?
Stewart Bell, Global News Investigative Reporter: Well, you know when you look at what the WE Charity did in this case, by making the agreement not with itself but with kind of a spinoff foundation. It’s perfectly legal and perfectly understandable why they would do that. As part of the agreement with the government, they were told that they would have to take on a legal liability for the students that were being placed in various volunteer positions. And so this is taking place during a pandemic. I think they were rightly concerned about any potential, you know, legal fallout down the road if something were to happen to a student, for example. So they did it—they structured this in a way that would protect their assets. But what we haven’t heard answers to is, you know, why the government would agree to do it this way. How did it serve the government? How did it serve the interests of Canadians?
Farah Nasser: Okay. Mike and Stewart, thanks so much for your insight.
Up next, the coronavirus and the future of cities: the giant opportunity the pandemic presents to rethink the way we design our cities.
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Farah Nasser: Welcome back. The coronavirus pandemic is forcing us to rethink almost everything we do. The pandemic intersects with another moment in time: more a movement where inequality and systemic racism have been called out. Both are now forcing us to confront our assumptions, the way we live and the way we design our cities.
One person who spent a lot of time thinking about what makes cities tick is Richard Florida, a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Welcome to The West Block, Richard.
Professor Richard Florida, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto: It’s great being with you, Farah. Thanks for having me.
Farah Nasser: I want to dig deep into both these issues, but let’s begin with COVID-19 and what our cities are going to look like in the future and let’s begin with work. What is the effect of people working from home and what’s going to happen to all those office towers in downtown cores?
Professor Richard Florida, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto: Well, the first thing is that cities are going to be fine. Toronto and Vancouver and Montreal and Winnipeg and Edmonton, they’re all going to be fine. Big cities have survived far worse pandemics and crises in the past. The force of urbanization is just greater than infectious disease. When it comes to work, a lot more of us who work in knowledge jobs are going to be working remotely. About 40 per cent of the Canadian workforce is working remotely today, and about half those folks who continue to work remotely. So yeah, we’re going to need less offices and that’s a good thing. You know, if more people stay working remotely, that means fewer people on the roads, less traffic congestion and less emissions and cleaner cities.
Farah Nasser: So when we talk about getting around, though, like transit, there are people who are scared right now, Richard, to get on transit, to get on planes for that matter. How are we going to get around? How is that going to change?
Professor Richard Florida, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto: Well, the data is unclear as to whether the virus really spreads on transit, especially if we’re socially distanced and wearing a mask. That said, just sometimes things—data don’t match. Science doesn’t matter. People are scared of transit. Not just in Canada, not just in North America, but when China came back online, a society that’s very used to getting on subways and trains, ridership went dramatically down. So look, we’ve got to be careful because we don’t want all those folks getting into private cars and driving to work. The congestion we experience in our cities and regions will be astronomical.
Farah Nasser: Okay. Now we’re talking about driving, that’s one thing. But cities itself, like when we talk about culture, right? People aren’t going to restaurants, they’re not going to concerts the same way they were, art galleries. What happens to the vibrancy that exists in cities now?
Professor Richard Florida, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto: The cultural artistic and creative economy has just been decimated by this crisis. You know, artists and musicians and performers can’t work. There is simply no work for them. And in some estimates, for the United States, for example, suggests that as many as half of all performing artists have been put out of a job. What if we set up locally sourced platforms for local culture, in Toronto, in Vancouver, in Edmonton, in Winnipeg, in Montreal, so neighbourhood groups, community groups and they can hire local artists and local chefs to create a socially distanced block party. Maybe put performers and artists on every street corner to create some liveliness in our communities this summer. But it’s time to activate local culture, and there’s an opportunity there to get us away from mass produced culture and back to the business of supporting local arts and local culture.
Farah Nasser: Okay. I want to move our discussion now to something else. I mean, your last book was about polarization and we now have this reckoning with anti-black racism, which has really lifted the lid on inequality in our country. It’s shown how out of control it is, so how in your opinion, can we make the most of this moment right now?
Professor Richard Florida, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto: I think it’s the most important moment of my life for cities. The COVID crisis focused attention on the inequities with regard to how many visible minorities were exposed to the virus in their communities. And now a wave of protests saying, you know, we’re not going to stand for racial and social and economic injustice, police brutality. We want a better way of living, and that movement is a movement not just of visible minorities and frontline workers, it is a movement of knowledge workers, professional workers, white Canadians, multi-cultural Canadians. It is multi-cultural and multi-class. People standing up and saying we want better cities. So the opportunity we have now, is to make our cities better, to build them back better in ways that are more inclusive, that create more opportunity and more justice for all Canadians, but in also ways that are healthier and safer and more resilient going forward. You know, this hits hard at me. The reason I became an urbanist, was in 1967, I’m born in Newark, New Jersey. My home town exploded into civil unrest: black people protesting police brutality, racial injustice. And as a little boy, I was asking my mom and dad why are there tanks in our streets? Why is the army national guard occupying? Why is there such prejudice against racial minorities? And to see it happening really hits hard. Look, I think—but, the difference today is this is a multi-cultural, multi-class movement. It is white, black, Latino, Asian, immigrant, new Canadian. It’s rich and poor. It’s knowledge worker and service workers all saying enough is enough. So I actually think this is a great moment. Maybe COVID helped to prepare this moment, but he outpouring of civic awareness, about racial and class injustice provides hope, a silver lining that we can rebuild our cities in ways—and suburbs and communities and countries—in ways which are far more racially and economically inclusive. Inclusiveness and resilience, those two words: inclusiveness and resilience have to be and underscored as the way forward for our cities, suburbs and urban areas in the future.
Farah Nasser: So let me ask you then, how long is this window for change?
Professor Richard Florida, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto: Look, I think we have a couple of years to get to do things right. And what we need in Canada is to, really to take a big step forward. We have an opportunity here to attract talented people from around the world, to build our cities and suburbs back better, to really develop a new deal between our federal government, our provinces and our cities. The one thing that’s happened is our mayors, our premiers and our prime minster and our federal government have worked together. It is time for a real new deal for cities. We’ve talked about this for a long time in this country. Provinces, cities and the federal government, working together to build more inclusive cities and suburbs, where all Canadians regardless of race, colour, creed or socio-economic status, can have a true Canadian dream and true opportunity. That’s got to be our go-to move going forward.
Farah Nasser: Okay. I’ll leave it there. It’s been a pleasure. Richard Florida, thank you.
Professor Richard Florida, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto: It’s always a delight to be with you Farah. Thank you for having me.
Farah Nasser: That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you for joining us on The West Block. I’m Farah Nasser, and I’ll see you next week.