The West Block — Episode 46, Season 9

The West Block: Jul 19
Watch the full broadcast of The West Block from Sunday, July 19, 2020 with Farah Nasser.


Episode 46, Season 9

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Host: Farah Nasser

Guests: Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne;

Annie Kidder, People for Education;

and Carol Campbell, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

Location: Toronto

Farah Nasser: This week on The West Block: more questions in the WE Charity ethics investigation.

Dawna Friesen, Global News Anchor: “The House of Commons Finance Committee has opened its investigation.”

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Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland: “Clearly, our government made a mistake.”

Farah Nasser: Then, upping the pressure on China over the two Michaels.

Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s wife: “What are we going to do, because words are not enough?”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We’re also looking at additional measures.”

Farah Nasser: And, reopening schools.

Coleen Christie, Global B.C. News Anchor: “Our provincial government is taking a wait-and-see approach.”

Unidentified Woman: “There are some obstacles for women who still are—do a lot of the child care.”

Unidentified Woman: “I think a woman’s recovery is everyone’s recovery.”

Farah Nasser: Good morning, and thank you for joining us. I’m Farah Nasser in Toronto, and you’re watching The West Block.

Now we may be in the middle of summer but there is no shortage or political news. The prime minister and Canada’s Finance Minister Bill Morneau are both involved in an ethics investigation surrounding their family members’ involvement with WE Charity, which stood to receive over $40 million for a student grant program.

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Also, strong words from Canada’s foreign affairs minister, surrounding a Russian cyber-attack targeting researchers looking for a COVID vaccine, here. But what action could Canada take?

And then of course, there is China and the other really big story in federal politics. It has been nearly 600 days that Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been imprisoned in China and no end in sight to their detention.

Joining us now to talk all about this is Minister François-Philippe Champagne, he’s Canada’s foreign affairs minister. And minister, it is a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you for making the time for us.

I’d like to start with the WE Charity controversy. We now know that questions were posed around the prime minister’s connections to WE Charity. You were, obviously, one of the more prominent voices around the cabinet table. Did you personally know of the connection?

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well, let me say the prime minster—and thanks for having me first of all—let me say that the prime minister has been clear, a mistake was made. We need to course correct as it’s the normal thing to do in circumstances like that. I’ve been clear, I have no connection whether directly or indirectly with the WE Charity, but let’s also remind for the people who are watching this that the spirit behind that was to provide opportunities this summer for students who wanted to volunteer. So yes, the process should have been better and will be better in the future. We have admitted that there were mistakes made in the process, but let’s not forget what we were trying to achieve, which was to help our youth this summer at the time of COVID.

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Farah Nasser: I don’t think anybody’s disputing that minister, but were you personally satisfied that there was no conflict to when this was brought up?

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well, like I said, the prime minister has spoken. I was not aware of the particular circumstance surrounding that, but what’s more important for Canadians, those who are watching us, this to say listen, clearly there’s a mistake. And the prime minister has acknowledged it, has been clear we made a mistake and now there’s a course correction, the systems, how can we prevent that from happening in the future? How can we make sure we provide opportunities for students this summer? And how is the government—we learnt from that. I mean, this is unprecedented time and a lot of things have been happening very quickly, but what things that it is teaching from that and one of the lessons learned, is we need to be extremely careful whenever we make decisions to uphold the highest standards that Canadians have the right to expect from their elected leaders.

Farah Nasser: Okay. And minister, do you have any connections to the WE Charity?

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: No, I don’t.

Farah Nasser: Okay. Let’s move onto Russia, minister. Canadian researchers developing a vaccine for COVID-19 have been targeted by Russian hackers, along with other countries. Now you released a statement calling out “irresponsible state behaviour.” What specifically is Canada doing beyond calling it out?

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Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well first of all, we were deeply concerned and I must say, appalled that in a time of COVID that state and non-state actors would be trying to get in our network, try to disturb the research that’s being done to find a COVID vaccine. It is really disturbing, and it’s times like that where we say we need to strengthen our resolve to make sure that we are vigilant first. I’ve been aware of some companies which were subject of the targeting, making sure that we have processes in place, making sure we work with our security agencies and intelligence agencies to prevent and protect and respond to what’s going on. We’ve been working with our allies in the U.K., the United States, but first and foremost, I’m appalled that in a time like that, that state and non-state actors would like to disrupt in whatever form, the research that’s being done to find a COVID vaccine. And this is a good example of calling out Russia in this case very specifically, of trying to disturb and target some of the research activities going on in Canada.

Farah Nasser: Minister, it’s been almost 600 days since the two Michaels have been in jail. The prime minister has hinted at more measures against China. What else is Canada considering?

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well, you said it and again, you know, arbitrary detention has no place in the world and certainly has no place in 2020. I have been dealing with this issue almost on a daily basis. Even earlier this week, I was in touch with Ambassador Barton. We almost talked every other day to make sure that we progress. I think we have said it and we have talked to the family of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. I appreciate their call for more action. I can assure you that with the international community this is top-of-mind, even in the Five Eyes call we had recently, arbitrary detention in the case of the Michaels was raised. I think we need to also look at—towards Washington because this all started there and certainly, we are working with American allies to try to see what more can be done because again, this whole case started with accusations that were made in the United States. And certainly, we are working with them to try to see how can we move in this situation because you’re quite right, this is 600 days coming soon and 600 days too many. And more broadly, I’ve been talking to make sure that we’re looking with our allies around the world about an international protocol to prevent to the extent possible, arbitrary detention. Talking with like minds to make sure that this never—or least that the threshold or whatever state, wants to engage in arbitrary detention would be facing consequences for their actions.

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Farrah Nasser: Well, I mean there have been tough calls, like sanctions against top Chinese officials, calls coming from high ranking—former high ranking government officials here. Are you considering that?

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: What I would say, Canada has been leading the effort. I mean, we’ve been front and centre from day one when it came to Hong Kong. I can say the measures that I’ve announced recently, which was first to suspend the extradition treaty, to stop the export of sensitive items to Hong Kong and to update our travel advisory. You’ve seen some of our colleagues around the world are considering similar measures that Canada has been taking. The prime minister and I have been clear; we’re also looking at immigration measures. So, we are really looking with—you know, I think Canadians understand that the best way to have a greater impact is to work with our allies, to work with the international community, to be complimentary, to act in unity and to call it for what it is, to stand up and speak up for the people of Hong Kong. There are very live discussions. Earlier this week, I was having an exchange with the U.K. foreign secretary, last week with Secretary Pompeo. We are really coordinating our actions to make sure that we respond appropriately to the erosion of freedom of liberty in Hong Kong.

Farrah Nasser: Okay. Thank you minister, we are going to have you standby because we have a lot more to talk about, including is Canada doing as much as its allies? I’m going to press the minister further on that. Plus, I’ll ask him to respond to calls by Michael Kovrig’s wife to put more pressure on China.

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Farah Nasser: Welcome back to The West Block. We’re continuing our conversation with Canada’s Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne about China’s increasing assertiveness.

It has been nearly 600 days that the two Michaels have been in jail. And in the past two weeks, China has imposed a new security law on Hong Kong. Could Canada be doing more to punish China?

You spoke about the allies but, you know, the U.K. has done something concrete: extended residency. Australia’s made it easier for Hong Kong residents to stay there, so what concretely are we doing right now? I mean these allies have acted. Why haven’t we?

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well, I would say we’ve been at the forefront. If you look at—we were the first ones to suspend the extradition treaty, and I know that our colleagues are looking at similar measures. We were the first ones to—with the United States—to say that we would stop the export of sensitive items to Hong Kong and we have said even at the get-go that we would be looking at immigration measures to be complimentary with what’s going on. So, you know, a suggestion that we—somehow we’re not leading is not grounded, in fact, because we’re actually leading and some of our colleagues are looking. We are all comparing measures that we’re taking with the same objective, which is to send a strong signal to China that the erosion of freedom of liberty that will force all of us to look at the ramifications and consequences it could have on existing arrangements between our different countries and Hong Kong.

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Farah Nasser: You know, Vina Nadjibulla, I know you’re in contact with her, the wife of Michael Kovrig. She’s rejected the idea that securing the freedom of the two Michaels will endanger other Canadians. I want to just quickly play a clip for you from her.

Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig’s wife: “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.”

Farah Nasser: Minister, it seems like China—I mean, is not backing down here. I mean, this is widely seen as an arbitrary detention. Is Beijing the one calling the shots?

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well, I would say what they’ve been doing, and like you said to the wife of Michael, we talk regularly. We are working together. I must say, every time that we have discussion it’s to try to look at strategic, like you say, to be smart, to be looking at what we can do together, what we can do in Washington, what Canada can do, and I greatly appreciate her involvement. She’s been terrific to work with. And as you know, there’s many Canadians who have chipped in with their thoughts. One thing that we need to make sure is at the same time, the first and foremost priority is to get the release, the immediate release of the two Michaels, but also to take more broadly as to what it means and what would be the consequences and how we’re going to do that to protect other Canadians in the future. So, we’re very much aligned when it comes to that, and I would say what China has been doing on arbitrary detention, today in the world, it’s not only two Canadians which are detained. But what the world is seeing is that there’s two citizens [00:03:33 of Liberal] democracy which are arbitrarily detained, and I can assure that is having a lot of attention around the world. You saw recently the EU-China Summit. The leaders discussed on the case of the Michaels. This is not only now a Canadian issue, it has become a world issue and I’m sure that China is taking notice that this is hurting themselves that arbitrary detention is not the way to resolve conflict in 2020 and that we will be relentless and we will use every opportunity to advocate for the release and to get consular access in accordance with the Vienna Convention.
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Farah Nasser: Yeah, that’s exactly what the families have been asking for, this consular access, and it can’t come soon enough. I just want to understand. I mean, this whole Huawei—banning Huawei decision. I mean, Canada’s now the lone holdout in this Five Eyes security alliance as you mentioned. Is this really the only bargaining chip that we have left when it comes to the two Michaels?

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: I would not make any link with the two issues. One is to ensure the security of our network and our national security in general. I think Canadians want us to make the right decision, to be thoughtful in our analysis, to consult with intelligence agencies, to make sure we protect our system, our communication system for now and for decades to come. I would not make any link between the two. You know, you can never justify arbitrary detention. This is not the way to proceed. We are advocating, obviously, for the Michael law, but I can assure you, I have been very clear that I’m looking not only at the Michaels but beyond, to make sure that as the international community is watching what China is doing that we have some form of protocol to say how can we act together whenever this may occur again and to deter any state actors from engaging in arbitrary detention. So, there’s really no link between the two. One is we take the decision to protect the national security in the best interest in Canadians, and the other one is to continue to advocate for two Canadians which have been arbitrarily detained.

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Farah Nasser: Okay, our Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne. Thank you so much for your time.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Thank you, it was a real pleasure. 

Farah Nasser: Up next, what will September look like for millions of children?


Farah Nasser: The coronavirus pandemic has been a stressful period for everyone, but perhaps especially for the millions of working parents. While there’s been a lot of attention on income supports and help for businesses, you can’t fully restart the economy without child care and school. But there are still big questions about what September will look like.

Joining to unpack it all is Annie Kidder. She’s the executive director for People for Education; and Carol Campbell, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Thank you both for being here.

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Annie, I’m going to start with you. What do you see happening in September? And what are you most concerned about?

Annie Kidder, Executive Director for People for Education: Oh, if only I knew what was going to happen in September? I think that my biggest concern is yes, it is an incredibly—it’s stressful for parents to understand what is going to happen with their children. It’s very hard to plan ahead. I think the even bigger maybe crisis is what is happening with children and how are we going to make sure that all kids get the kinds of supports and education that they need? You know, we’re no longer in that immediate emergency situation. Some people are talking about this next part being—lasting for the foreseeable future, which is kind of scary. In many systems across Canada they’re talking in particular about high school students learning partly online and partly in person in school. For a lot of high school students, they don’t have the support that they need. The worry is it’s going to sort of disadvantage students that are already disadvantaged. So I think you’re right, we’ve paid a lot of attention to kind of economic crisis up to now. Now we have to look at the human part of this, to make sure that the millions of students and their millions of parents are getting the support they need and that kids are getting the education that they need. And it’s hard—it’s partly in place across Canada. It’s very—it’s quite disjointed, but there are a lot of concerns looking ahead.

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Farah Nasser: I want to get into what role the federal government has to play in this. But Carol, I’m interested in your perspective because you’ve advised governments in various levels—on various levels in different countries as well. So do you think our government has a good handle on this? Or did we leave our homework to the last minute?

Carol Campbell, Associate Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education: Well, as Annie says, this varies across Canada. So B.C. and Quebec are partially opened. Some other provinces have started to allow teachers in schools to go back into school but only in small numbers. So obviously it varies by government. I do worry, like Annie, that it feels like particularly here in Ontario but in some other provinces, too, we’re quite far behind in our planning compared to other governments and other countries. Over 20 countries now have reopened and there are some that have done so successfully and unfortunately some that have not. So there’s lots of evidence to learn from, both within Canada and internationally on what seem to be the key conditions and requirements around a safe reopening and things that we absolutely need to avoid as far as possible.

Farah Nasser: So, can you give us any examples of some—what countries are doing right and what they’re doing wrong, what’s working other places?

Carol Campbell, Associate Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education: Yeah. So the first thing is to get the rates of the coronavirus infection as low as possible in the community. So we need to do that in Canada right now. And of course that varies across Canada, because when there’s community spread, if school’s reopened it goes into schools and vice versa. So get the rate of infection down then phased reopening. So, it’s not been in other countries every student back in school on day one. So start with some grade levels and build up so that schools have time to adjust. Now that has child care implications. Staggered entry into school so that you can address bussing issues and not have masses of people arriving at the one time, then with in-school strict adherence to public health, physical distancing. That means fewer students in a classroom, attention to physical distancing. Many countries are using masks. Then you need to say well we need more classrooms, so repurposing and finding community spaces. Use of outdoor learning whenever possible and then as I said, protocols around cleaning of schools and what to do when somebody gets sick. And as I said also, we need to ensure as Annie has said that there’s a comprehensive child care strategy linked to whatever happens as well as supports for learning at home. So that means universal broadband, internet connectivity and access to personal devices.

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Farah Nasser: I want to bring in Annie actually on that point. You know, Annie, you talked about different places having different rules and different ideas of how to do this. Is there a role the federal government—what is the role, I guess, of the federal government? And can there be a solution without a huge cash injection or many, many more resources?

Annie Kidder, Executive Director for People for Education: Well, I think it’s going to need a partial cash injection, and I think that there is a role for the federal government. The federal government’s been doing extraordinary things since March when this all first came upon us, and that we have to look at this as another really vital way of supporting children, young people and families. There is—we have a constitution that definitely prevents the federal government from interfering directly in education per se, but there are a lot of things that have to happen around education. And one of the things we’re arguing is you can’t actually. We cannot keep relying on parents or “the home” to support students. So child care is vital, but we have to think about those kids who are sort of from 8 to 18. They don’t necessarily need child care, the younger ones do, obviously, but they need supports. So you don’t want 15-year-olds sitting at home if their parents have gone back to work. You actually want places for them to go and this is a role that the federal government could play. It’s probably not an incredibly huge infusion of money, but the federal government could be allocating money—they just put in a huge amount—but more, to get to municipalities and school boards and the provinces so that they could support students, for instance, to go be in community centres where they are taught online by teachers but there are other grownups there: child and youth workers or social workers or even grad students who are supporting them to learn so that they’re not left on their own to figure it out. Because one of the worries right now, and this is happening internationally, is that the World Bank has talked about the worry that we’re going to lose quite a large group of students, particularly in high school. And these are the kids who were already maybe struggling, who don’t have families with necessarily the capacity to do the amount of support that’s needed at home and those kids need somewhere to go every day. They need to get up in the morning and think they have—just as when they had to go to school that they have to go to the public library down the street or the community centre or whatever the public space is. They will be physically distanced. They will be masked. They will be safe, but they’ll have support to keep on learning because the worry is that kids are going to lose six months, even a year of learning and that’s going to have an impact on their lives. So we need the supports for families, we need places for kids to go where they’re supported to learn, and I do think that there’s a role for the federal government there. 

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Farah Nasser: Okay. Well we’ll leave it at that. Carol Campbell, Annie Kidder, thank you both for your insight and your time.

Annie Kidder, Executive Director for People for Education: Thank you. Thank you very much.

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.