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The West Block — Episode 2, Season 10

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THE WEST BLOCK

Episode 2, Season 10

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests: Jackson Proskow, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough, Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen, Green Party Leader Annamie Paul

Locations: Ottawa, Ontario

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, October 4th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

U.S. President Donald Trump and the First Lady were diagnosed with COVID-19 last week, testing positive for that virus. The President has since been hospitalized at Walter Reed Medical Center.

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Joining me now to give us the latest out of Washington, is Global National Washington Bureau Chief Jackson Proskow. Jackson, what can you tell us about President Trump’s condition this morning? 

Global National Washington Bureau Chief Jackson Proskow: Good morning, Mercedes. There’s still a lot of concern that he’s not out of the woods yet and I think that’s the big sort of takeaway despite all the sort of conflicting information around his current condition. The briefing we had from doctors on Saturday suggested that he is no longer on supplemental oxygen. We learned through subsequent reporting that he was given supplemental oxygen while at the White House. They say his fever has disappeared. Again, we learned through reporting that he did have a fever at the White House, enough of one that it raised concern amongst staff and that’s part of what brought him to Walter Reed in the first place. And really now, as it is for anybody who contracts this virus, it’s kind of a wait-and-see period where the next, you know, days and perhaps weeks are really critical because we know that especially for older patients, perhaps those with underlying conditions that things can quite suddenly take a turn for the worse sometimes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well and obviously seeing the president helicoptered out in Marine One suddenly to the hospital. He didn’t stop to talk to the press, he went right by. He’s released two videos since. Some are thinking maybe in the hopes of trying to calm the public and show he’s still able to speak, he’s still functional. There’s been no transfer of power. Jackson, do we have any sense of the timeline on this of when the president may have contracted it because a lot of people who’ve been around him, including people former aide Kellyanne Conway are testing positive.

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Global National Washington Bureau Chief Jackson Proskow: Yeah, so the positive diagnosis came at some point on Thursday. There’s a bit of ambiguity as to whether there were multiple tests taken before it was confirmed that the president actually had tested positive. They may have waited for a secondary or tertiary test to confirm that to the public because some of the rapid testing kits that the White House uses do have a history of false positives. Needless to say, given the incubation period and the sort of timeline here, it suggests that the president may have been infected perhaps last weekend and there’s a lot of focus now around an event that took place at the White House last Saturday. That was where the president announced his judicial nominee for the Supreme Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett. There were several hundred people at the White House in the Rose Garden sitting shoulder to shoulder without masks for that event. And then part of that event actually moved indoors, and again, people were maskless. They were not maintaining any sort of social distance and we’ve now seen a whole bunch of people who were at that event start to test positive here.

Mercedes Stephenson: We just have a few moments left Jackson, but what is the effect of this now? We’re in the middle of a presidential campaign, what happens if one of the candidates becomes too sick to campaign?

Global National Washington Bureau Chief Jackson Proskow: In short, obviously the president is off the trail. Whether or not he returns is an open question. Joe Biden proceeding with a relatively normal campaign schedule for now but yeah, when you’ve got a 74-year-old campaigning against a 78-year-old, this is a natural question. Remember, people are already voting. Millions have already cast ballots by mail or in-person at early voting locations. The bottom line is if one or both of the candidates is unable to fulfill their duties as a candidate, there is that period between November 3rd and the inauguration in January and the Electoral College, the electors actually meet in December to certify who the candidates are for each state. Conceivably if one or both candidates is unable to proceed, either party would put forward a new candidate and the College of Electors would actually decide who that new candidate is as a replacement. Believe it or not, it has happened historically with a vice-presidential candidate. We’ve never been in this hypothetical situation with a presidential candidate before, though.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Certainly unprecedented news as much of 2020 seems to be. Thanks so much for joining us this morning, Jackson. We’ll certainly keep an eye on that story.

Global National Washington Bureau Chief Jackson Proskow: Thank you.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford: “We’re in a second wave of COVID-19 and, as premier, it’s my duty to protect the people. We will be bringing in more public health restrictions to try to stop this virus from spreading any further.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now to talk about the federal government’s response to COVID-19 in the second wave is Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough. Thanks so much for coming on, minister. We just heard from Premier Ford there. We also heard from the prime minister on Friday. He said to Canadians: “Don’t go out unless you have to.” I think that’s giving a lot of folk’s flashbacks to March and April. I know you’re very plugged in at the cabinet table. Can you share with us what the government is anticipating this fall when it comes to both the health and economic parts of this second wave of the pandemic?

Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough: Well really important questions and really important direction from both the premier and the prime minister. We are right back at the place where we desperately need Canadians to dig in, do what we do best. Work together to once again, tackle this rising wave of COVID-19, you know, it’s totally up to us. And what we expect to happen this fall, is as people start going indoors, as the flu season also descends upon us, we have to make sure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to continue to address, you know, through the things that we all do. Whether it’s hand washing or social distancing and wearing masks and just staying put as much as we can. The more we can do those things, the less economic consequences there’ll be because the more we can deal with community spread, you know, individually and through our families, the less likely we’ll have to be to shut down the country again.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that that shutdown is inevitable? I mean a lot of folks criticized the last one and said we need to be more strategic this time: lockdown the long-term care homes first, don’t lockdown the places of business. What are your thoughts on that?

Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough: Well I don’t think it’s inevitable. I think it’s far from an inevitable. I really think it’s in the hands of Canadians right now and I think that we’ve learned a lot from how we approached the first wave and we’ve got an opportunity here to be more targeted, to be more strategic in how we respond. You’ll see provinces trying different tactics, whether, you know, shutting down a specific type of business versus all businesses, changing the hours of businesses. You know, we’re really trying amongst governments to minimize the economic impact going forward, but it really depends on people, you know, remaining vigilant. We’re not messing around here.

Mercedes Stephenson: Bill C-4 introduced. Of course, it’s your bill. It’s looking at what exactly Canadians are going to get for supports: big changes to employment insurance benefits as well for people who are sick or having to stay home. Whenever a government puts together a bill like this, you take into account certain expectations: how many Canadians you think will need this. What are you projecting in terms of the number of Canadians who will likely need that employment insurance support going forward?

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Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough: Really good question. So as you know, at the height of CERB, we had about 9 million Canadians. And we’ve had about 9 million Canadians access it at the height. I think we’re about 7.5 million at one time, but we know that it’s possible for a full economic shutdown that we could get there. We’re not expecting to get there. As I said, we think that we can more tactically approach the economic impact of this go around, but we need to be ready and we needed our benefit system to be ready to pivot at any time to the reality of a lot of people being back off of work. So, you know, the EI system is ready. People have already been transitioning into EI. The new benefits will be available as of tomorrow, of the sickness and caregiver benefits, people can apply for them. But we wanted a yearlong system of benefits, EI and the recovery benefits, to give a little bit of certainty in some crazily uncertain times.

Mercedes Stephenson: There was a gap between when CERB ended and when the new EI benefits that you’ve designed will come through. Some folks really concerned about how they’re going to pay their bills. The opposition says the Liberals prorogued Parliament, that’s put these people in a difficult situation. What do you say to those Canadians?

Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough: Well I guess I’d clarify that there was actually no gap between when the CERB ended and when eligibility for these benefits began. So the CERB ended on the 26th [September] and these benefits started on the 27th of September. What’s different about these benefits is that they’re two-week periods instead of four-week periods and they’re given like EI, in arrears. So you apply for the two weeks you’ve just experienced. You don’t apply for the four weeks to come. Part of that’s to deal with some of the concern we had around making the benefits more nimble and incentivizing people going to work if they could. But it’ll feel like a gap because you’ve got this two weeks and then a couple more days to get your payment, but effectively you will be paid for every single day and there’s no gap.
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Mercedes Stephenson: Is your government considering sectorial supports to support certain industries? I’m thinking in particular here: tourism. I’m thinking about airlines, a lot of airports are saying they’re almost redlining, and oil and gas out West in places like Alberta and Saskatchewan, to try to keep people employed instead of ending up on EI under your portfolio if their employers go under.   

Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough: Well and that’s exactly what we want to avoid, right? One of the things we’ve tried very hard is to keep people attached the labour force and keep businesses afloat. So absolutely, one of the things you’ll hear from the finance minister and other ministers in the weeks and months to come is how we’re going to more “targetedly”—I don’t know if that’s a word—support different sectors. Again, we don’t know what’s going to happen economically with these sectors, but we know it’s going to take a long time for many of them to recover if they do, to the point where we were pre-COVID. And we need to be there for them. We’ve spent a lot of time on our Pan-Canadian approach, supporting every worker, supporting every family, supporting every business with a lot of really important targeted measures, but we need now to strategically invest in specific sectors of the economy that are particularly hard hit.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Qualtrough, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

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Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough: My pleasure. Take care, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: You too.

Up next, I’ll talk to the Deputy Conservative Leader to get the latest from the opposition on what their thoughts are for the government’s response to COVID-19.

[Break]

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Here to talk about the politics around COVID-19, the government’s response and the Official Opposition, from her riding is Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen. Thank you for joining us, Ms. Bergen. You know, your leader, Erin O’Toole, suffered from COVID-19 himself, so did his wife, Rebecca that meant you had to step up in a big way to lead your party. Did that experience change your view in any way on COVID-19 and the risks that it poses?

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Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen: Well, you know, we’re obviously really happy that our leader Erin O’Toole and his wife both are doing well. Erin’s been able to return to the House of Commons. But I think it just really makes it real for everyone that this virus is serious. It’s hitting people regardless of who you are, where you live, what your job is. So we all have to be very serious about how we deal with it and how we’re protecting ourselves and those we love.

Mercedes Stephenson: Your party has said that you will not be supporting the government’s speech from the throne, but you did support the legislation introducing new employment insurance benefits for Canadians among other things. Why did you end up voting in favour of that bill after your party had been so critical on it?

Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen: Well listen, we were very clear and we have been from the onset of COVID that we would not get in the way of Canadians getting the support that they need, but it really is troubling to see how Trudeau continually holds back Parliament, shuts down Parliament, and then is forced to because of his actions, to ram through legislation that is spending billions of dollars with virtually no oversight. And it really goes to what has been a habit of Trudeau, and that is disrespecting democracy and Parliament, and I think we’re seeing him using this pandemic to his own political advantage. But at the end of the day, Conservatives want to help Canadians. We want to see every day Canadians helped, and so we wanted to ensure that this got passed and Canadians got the support that they needed.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Well and at the end of the day, he had the support of the NDP to do this, which is what he really needed. How closely has your party been working with the government to determine supports that Canadians may need going forward as we find ourselves in this second wave?

Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen: Well it’s been very frustrating. They have not been listening to us from the onset. Even in January, when we were asking about the border closures, when we were asking questions of them, we were dismissed. Then very early on when the pandemic hit, they tried to again, ram through legislation that would give them power. And so, we really, really wanted to work with them because we knew during an emergency that’s what Canadians expected. We did give them suggestions. Some of the suggestions they took. Much of it, they took too late and so we continue even now when it comes to asking for rapid, safe at-home testing. We’ve been pushing for this for the last week and a half. We’re seeing them making some announcements, but we’re really concerned with the follow through. Their track record on follow through and delivery is not good.

Mercedes Stephenson: If you were in power right now, what would your government be doing differently? I mean it’s always easier to sit back and criticize. This is a government going through a pandemic and it’s an extremely challenging time, a lot of spending. We are seeing that in different governments around the world, so what would the Conservatives do differently right now?

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Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen: Well I think the one thing you can say about Conservatives, is we’ve been offering solutions and trying to get the government to listen to our ideas well ahead of the times that they actually have. So first of all, Conservatives would be giving Canadians an ethical government, a professional government, a government that isn’t just going to make huge, grand promises with no way of delivering and that’s what we’ve seen the Liberals do. So we would have probably gotten earlier on in terms of getting some rapid testing for Canadians at-home. We would be supporting small businesses. You know, we’ve been very concerned with the government’s approach to supporting Canadians—

Mercedes Stephenson: But how would you be doing that exactly?

Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen: You can’t—

Mercedes Stephenson: How would you have gotten those tests earlier? How would you be supporting small businesses differently? I know there are ideas that your party’s talked about, but how would you have executed those ideas?

Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen: Very, very simply, the government was only going to give a 10 per cent wage subsidy to small businesses. We told them they needed to increase that to 75 per cent. We also said you should be primarily supporting small businesses. That’s what we would have done. Conservatives very much support small businesses, so you would have seen a Conservative government primarily supporting small businesses so that those businesses could stay open so that people could have jobs while at the same time, supporting people when they couldn’t go to work because of COVID. So, that’s on the job side of things. On the health care side of things, you would have seen us working together with our allies. You would have seen a health minister, a Conservative health minister, who was making decisions that were timely and that were accurate. And we’ve seen this health minister, for example, make so many mistakes, so many—made so many bad judgements. And trust is really lost; a lot of Canadians really don’t trust the Liberals. So you would have had a Conservative government that is ethical, that is professional and compassionate and those are three things that we haven’t seen with the current government.

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Mercedes Stephenson: One last question: In the presidential debate down south, last week, we heard President Trump refuse to condemn white supremacists as well as right wing extremism. That’s certainly a topic a lot of folks have been talking about up here in Canada. Are you concerned about right wing extremism or white supremacist activity in Canada?

Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen: Any extremism, absolutely. White extremism, any kind of extremism is concerning, and I think that’s why it’s so important that we, whether it’s the current government or our Conservative government in waiting, believe very firmly in we need to be uniting Canadians, not dividing them. Not using wedge politics or pitting one group against the other. Absolutely, we condemn. I think all Canadians condemn. The majority of Canadians condemn white supremacy or extremism of any kind. We are an inclusive country, we are a caring country and it’s important that politicians and I have to say including the Liberals, and especially when we’ve seen some of the things the Liberals have done, need to be building a country that does not divide but that unites Canadians and that’s what Conservatives will do under Erin O’Toole.

Mercedes Stephenson: Deputy Conservative Leader Candice Bergen, joining us from her riding today. Thank you so much for your time, Ms. Bergen.

Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen: Thanks for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, we’ll be joined by the new Green Party leader.

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[Break]

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. The Green Party of Canada has elected a brand new leader today: Annamie Paul. She made history yesterday as the first black woman elected to lead a major federal political party and she joins me now. Welcome to the show Annamie, and congratulations on your win.

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul: Thank you so much, it’s just a pleasure to be here this morning.

Mercedes Stephenson: Ms. Paul, your win, a historic win, where do you think the Green Party needs to go to be able to win a substantial number of seats in Canada?

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul: My job is to help us connect with people in Canada because we have been heading in the right direction for a very long time and it’s just time to make that link with people in Canada in terms of who they’re choosing to vote for. We are the party that has been talking about the policies that had they been in place when the pandemic hit, would have made all the difference in the world. And so I’m thinking of universal pharmacare, I’m thinking of our demands for reform in long-term care, I’m thinking of guaranteed liveable income. And so, you know, we’re on the right track, it’s just a question of bringing more Canadians along with us.

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Mercedes Stephenson: You are already signed up to run in a by-election. Of course, as the leader, you eventually want to have a seat in the House of Commons. You’re going to be running in Bill Morneau’s old riding. Do you think you have a chance of winning there because you didn’t take a large percentage of the vote last time, although, of course, you were not the leader of the Green Party at that point?

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul: That’s true, and I’m hoping that that is an advantage. One of the things that the Liberals always did was to bring in the star candidate that normally went into cabinet, and of course, that’s very—could be very attractive for residents, even though it didn’t produce any of the outcomes that people in Toronto Centre deserved and should have expected given how senior their MPs representation has been. So in my case, I’m running for the same reasons that I ran less than a year ago in Toronto Centre, which is to make sure that people in Toronto Centre have the option of real representation. And I do believe again, that we—we’re not where we were before. We’re not where we were six months ago. We are in the midst of a pandemic that has hit Toronto Centre particularly hard. And people there, I believe, will be looking for the representation that is actually going to bring the urgent help that they need. And so yes, I am going to be running to win in that seat.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Your win is a historic win, and there’s a lot of discussion right now in Canada about anti-black racism, about the need to have more diversity, more voices in politics. What would you like to see happening in Canadian politics to be more inclusive and to reach out so that we have a political system that actually represents Canadians?   

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul: Well there’s no shortage, and we are so fortunate in Canada that we have been able to attract the best talent, the best minds from all over the world. We have—we’re one of the most successful countries in doing that, and so it’s even more of a reason that it’s a shame when that diversity is not represented in our public policy. We know that the best ideas can come from everywhere and anywhere and so if we’re cutting ourselves off from that diversity then we’re just losing out in terms of the kind of policy that we’re developing. And so I’m just encouraging every single person in Canada to be the eyes and ears or talent in their community, there are many outstanding people from underrepresented groups that just don’t see themselves reflected in politics and so they don’t consider it. And so tell them. Tell them when you see that talent, we’re interested. We think that you should run. And when you do, we’re going to support you and we’re going to vote for you. And there’s no question that electing someone like me, the Green’s choosing—our members choosing someone like me, already that’s a very powerful symbol for people who had not seen themselves reflected and I’m very proud of that.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Ms. Paul, you are—

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul: And I thank our members.

Mercedes Stephenson: You are only the second Jewish person to lead a major federal political party in Canada. I know you experienced anti-Semitism on the campaign trail. Are you concerned about anti-Semitism in the Green Party?

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul: I’m concerned about anti-Semitism in general. There’s still definitely some work to do. There’s no question that the race was an eye-opener. I can’t attribute all of the comments at all to our membership. I know that every single political party has work to do in making sure that they’re truly inclusive, making sure that the voices within their party are people—the voices of people that absolutely adhere to their values. And so there is no place in the Green Party of Canada for anti-Semitism and there never will be. And I would say that I would hope that all of the political parties feel that way, and I will also encourage every single person in Canada, whether it’s anti-Semitism, or anti-black racism, or anti-Indigenous racism, when they see it, speak out because silence emboldens the hate and that’s what we need to make sure we stand out.

Mercedes Stephenson: Ms. Paul, thank you so much for joining us today and congratulations.

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Green Party Leader Annamie Paul: Thank you so much, it’s a pleasure. Hope to come back soon.

Mercedes Stephenson: Absolutely. Well that’s all the time we have for today. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and we’ll see you back here next week on The West Block.