THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 3, Season 10
Sunday, October 11, 2020
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Guests: Dr. Mona Nemer, Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti, Former Conservative Party Leader Rona Ambrose
Locations: Ottawa, Ontario
Mercedes Stephenson: Hello, and welcome to The West Block. Happy Thanksgiving to you. But we recognize that this is a difficult Thanksgiving for Canadians across the country this weekend, as we are facing record high numbers of COVID-19 cases, the highest yet in the pandemic. Major cities in Quebec and Ontario are moving back into partial lockdowns, with bars, restaurants and gyms closed, as well as other businesses.
On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned that the skyrocketing COVID numbers are ringing alarm bells.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We’re at a tipping point in this pandemic. Not only is the second wave underway, yesterday we hit the highest daily recorded cases, well above what we saw this spring. I know this is discouraging, especially going into Thanksgiving weekend. But remember this: when things were at their bleakest during the first wave, Canadians pulled together and flattened the curve.”
While the lockdowns in this round are more targeted, they will still hurt already hard-hit businesses.
On Friday, the Liberal government announced a suite of programs to help businesses hanging on by the skin of their teeth. They include commercial rent supports that businesses can access directly and an extension on the wage subsidy. It all leaves us with a lot of questions. Questions about COVID-19, and we wanted to talk to somebody who has the answers—not partisan answers but scientific answers—and that’s Dr. Mona Nemer. She is the chief science advisor to the Government of Canada. I sat down with her last week to talk about COVID-19: what we know, what the second wave will look like and what it all means for our health care system. Here’s that interview.
Dr. Nemer, thank you so much for making time for us today. I know you’re incredibly busy on all these different COVID committees. A lot of Canadians, today, are looking at the rising case numbers, and as they look at them, 2,000 a day or more and we prepare for the second wave. What do you think the second wave is going to look like? What are you hearing from scientists about what we should expect?
Dr. Mona Nemer: Well, you know, the second wave is going to look like what we are going to make it look like, meaning through our actions and what we do, because I think that we have everything in hand to make sure that the second wave is actually smaller and shorter than the first wave. It’s a matter of following public health guidelines.
Mercedes Stephenson: What happens if people don’t listen to that public health advice, if they continue to gather? It’s Thanksgiving weekend, lots of people wanting to get together with friends and family. What are the consequences potentially of that?
Dr. Mona Nemer: Well look, we just need to look around the world in places where they had the first and second waves, and it’s just going to keep going up and we’re going to be back in lockdown and nobody wants that. So, I really urge everyone to please make those small sacrifices so that we can continue at least to be able to see each other and, you know, not be locked down and unable to have a minimum of, you know, socializing.
Mercedes Stephenson: How far out do you think a vaccine is, then? And how realistic is that as a solution for life to go back as we knew it pre-pandemic?
Dr. Mona Nemer: Well, there are a few vaccines that have gone through the early clinical phases that assess their safety, and their efficacy at generating an immune response. So we know that that happens, that we have vaccines that are safe and we have vaccines that are able to generate in healthy individuals, an immune response. I think what we’re still waiting to find out is whether, you know, vaccination is going to prevent infection is going to prevent severe disease in infected individuals. So the timelines for this, you know, is the coming two months, and I think a number of pharmaceuticals, you know, have published actually the protocols of their more advanced clinical trials so we should have an answer by the end of the year whether we have effective vaccines against the infection or not. And then after that, I think the, you know, vaccination will be able to start as early as the beginning of 2021.
Mercedes Stephenson: This is a government that has repeatedly said, the Trudeau government, federally, that they listen to scientists, and they make evidence-based policy. Has your experience been that the prime minister and his government are making policy decisions based on the evidence and based on the science?
Dr. Mona Nemer: Well, you know, I can tell you that for, you know, the things that we have provided advice on, I am very satisfied that they are listening to the science and that, you know, as it evolves as well. I think it’s also important to realize that, you know, there are shared responsibilities between many levels of governments in terms of the pandemic. And I say this not to, you know, put blame on anybody, but it’s just that there is so much, you know, one level of government can do and I think that this is a situation where everybody needs to work together and to listen to the science but also to, you know, there are trade-offs. Science is not an absolute, there are trade-offs. And the trade-offs very much depend on local, regional considerations as well.
Mercedes Stephenson: What are your thoughts on the role of China in all of this, because there’s been a debate, the WHO, even has now said that the Chinese were not as forthcoming as they should have been with the information and with the data? You were there, you were receiving that intelligence. Do you think that China was transparent about what was going on and the potential severity of this virus?
Dr. Mona Nemer: You know look, it’s difficult to answer the question because, you know, at one point we started certainly hearing about the cases. They sequenced the virus, they made the sequence available. Now the question is: Was this happening for like a month before they talked about it, you know, is something that I really can’t comment on, because I simply don’t know.
Mercedes Stephenson: Is there still any risk of our health care system being overwhelmed by COVID in this second wave?
Dr. Mona Nemer: It’s possible, you know, but what hospitals are in certain regions are, you know, above 100 per cent capacity in emergency rooms already with the non-COVID cases. What we did, you know, previously, is we stopped a lot of care that is non-COVID and we have waiting lists that we need to go through because, you know, one, we’re getting when COVID is with us, unfortunately, other diseases are as well and we can’t just like put them on pause. So, there is a possibility that if we have to deal with huge cases of COVID-19 that we will overwhelm the system and I would hate for this to happen, you know, in Canada and to have to put people again, on waiting lists who need cancer treatment and who need, you know, cardiac surgery.
Mercedes Stephenson: Dr. Nemer, thank you so much for your time and expertise today. We truly appreciate your insight.
Dr. Mona Nemer: Thank you very much.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, COVID and the court system. Justice Minister David Lametti joins us to talk about court delays and the potential return of ISIS fighters to Canada.
Mercedes Stephenson: All of our lives have changed drastically due to COVID-19. Whether it’s going to work, grocery shopping or seeing loved ones, coronavirus has fundamentally changed the way we do things and the courts are no exception to that.
Joining me now to talk about this is Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti. Thank you so much for joining us. Happy Thanksgiving, minister.
Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti: And same to you, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Mercedes Stephenson: Sir, there are so many unintended consequences and effects of COVID-19, and one of those has been delays on the court system. Can you walk us through what effect COVID-19 has had on the courts from your perspective?
Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti: Well, the effects have been multiple in terms of the way a court can hear when it’s an in-person session. If there’s a jury trial, how do you space the jury? How do you empanel the jury in a safe way? How do you make sure that everybody who walks into that court building, from participants in the process, to the parties, to a case, to the lawyers, to the judges, to the support staff? You have to make sure that the whole thing is functioning in a safe manner that protects people inside from having the—from getting the virus, from the propagation of the virus. So all of that is in play, and then there’s the impact that it has on the case itself. Initially, the courts slowed down, or stopped in some cases, depending on the courts across Canada. And so there have been delays. We have been working, from the beginning, with my provincial and territorial counterparts and ministers of justice but also with the courts. I co-chair a committee with the Chief Justice of Canada Richard Wagner and we have been working with other chief justices and other judicial administrators across Canada, to make sure that the courts can function.
Mercedes Stephenson: There was a decision by the Supreme Court that’s well-known as the Jordan decision and it basically said people have a right to a trial within what would be considered a reasonable amount of time. Are you seeing a lot of challenges due to delayed trials, delayed court proceedings, under the Jordan decision that could see very serious charges like murder being thrown out?
Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti: Well it’s important to underline that within the Jordan decision itself, there is a provision made for exceptional circumstances. I think by any definition, or any interpretation that one could have of the Jordan decision, this pandemic is an exceptional circumstance, and therefore, is a factor that a court has to weigh when assessing the question of unreasonable delay. So, so far, the situation, we feel is under control. We’re watching it very carefully—watching it with my provincial and territorial counterparts, as well as with the judges who are administering the court system across Canada, chief justices across Canada.
So far, we’re watching. We are in constant communication with people administering the court system, and for the time being, we’re satisfied that things are moving well but we’ll continue and we’ll act. If necessary, we’ll act immediately.
Mercedes Stephenson: Should you start that legislation now so that it’s ready to go?
Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti: Well as I said, the exceptional circumstances provision is within—is framed within the Jordan decision itself, and so far, courts and counsel and all participants in the system, are taking that principal seriously. This is an exceptional circumstance and we’re confident that it will be factored into decision-making.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, I wanted to ask you about something remarkable that we’ve seen over the past few weeks and that seems to be a shift when it comes to dealing with Canadians who fought for ISIS, or the children of those Canadians. In particular, we have finally seen two people who are alleged to have supported and fought with ISIS overseas, charged here in Canada. For years, we’ve heard from prosecutors and the RCMP. They couldn’t lay charges because they just couldn’t get enough evidence. Has something changed now in the way that the law is applied so you’re able to actually prosecute people who are facing these allegations, or have you been able to somehow access this evidence?
Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti: Well look, let me begin by saying that we take terrorism charges very seriously. We take the question of foreign travellers or travellers who travel for terrorist purposes very seriously. And we acknowledge the challenge of getting battlefield evidence. Within our prosecution service, we have prosecutors who are dedicated to prosecuting terrorism charges, and so we have taken it seriously from the get-go. I don’t think there’s been a change in that regard, but there are questions of evidence and we leave it up to our prosecutors and our police investigators. Our police investigators working with our allies to gather that evidence and we leave it up to our prosecutors to assess when they have enough evidence to move forward with these kinds of charges and that’s clearly what they’ve done here.
Mercedes Stephenson: At the beginning of last week, a little girl was brought home from Syria. She was a Canadian citizen, the child of two individuals who were fighting for ISIS. She was orphaned, brought back out of Syria and into Iraq by Canadian Special Operations Forces. There’s been a big debate about bringing home, in particular, the children of those who were fighting. Is this the beginning of a change there as well, minister, where we might see more people coming home, or if we’re now able to charge ISIS fighters, seeing some of those ISIS fighters in the Kurdish camps being brought home as well?
Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti: Well look, this was a fairly unique situation that required a compassionate response, and I’m really proud of the fact that our government did respond compassionately. And I would thank all the Special Forces and Canadian Armed Forces and other Canadian administrators and officials who made this happen. This was a young girl who lost her whole family, and had family in Canada. And the family in Canada wanted to bring her back so that they could raise her. So again, a fairly unique set of circumstances. If children are there with their parents, then that is a decision that’s been made in that family and so it’s a completely different set of circumstances. And, we had the opportunity to repatriate this young girl safely and securely. So, I think it’s fair to say that this was a fairly unique set of circumstances.
Mercedes Stephenson: On COVID-19, as we see the case numbers ramping back up across Canada, I think back to the spring when we saw provinces essentially set up their own borders and start preventing interprovincial travel. Are you at all concerned about that as the justice minister and the attorney general in terms of the precedent that it sets constitutionally to allow provinces to determine their own boundaries and borders and who can come in and out?
Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti: Well look, I’ve sat on the COVID committee as justice minister and attorney general from the beginning, so I’ve participated in all of those decisions from the beginning. That’s certainly a situation that we’re monitoring. Obviously, there are rights to movement guaranteed by the Canadian Charter, but that being said, this is a pandemic and there are certain measures that might be tolerated in a pandemic temporarily in order to help fight the disease. So, we will fight the virus. So we’ll continue to monitor that situation as we move forwards.
Mercedes Stephenson: One last question: You have assisted dying legislation that has to be passed by December that will expand those who qualify for assisted dying. This of course, came as a result of a court challenge in Quebec. Are you confident that you can meet that deadline, sir?
Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti: Yes, I think we can. There’s a widespread consensus across Canada. We held consultations across Canada with experts, with people who’ve gone through the process, with MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) service providers, as well as with Canadians online, over 300,000 people participated. There is a widespread consensus for the modifications that we’re proposing and I would call on all parliamentarians in both houses of Parliament but across all the aisles, to work together to get this to the finish line so that we get this legislation passed by the 18th of December.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Lametti, thank you so much for joining us and have a wonderful long weekend.
Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti: Pleasure to be here. Happy Thanksgiving to all of your viewers.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, it’s International Day of the Girl. Former Conservative leader Rona Ambrose is here to talk about women in politics. She’ll also be touching on what’s happening south of the border with President Trump, trade threats to Canada and more.
Mercedes Stephenson: COVID-19 has been a challenge for every Canadian, but research shows that the pandemic may be hitting women and girls particularly hard. On this International Day of the Girl, we are joined by former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose who has just released a children’s book telling the story of experiences of girls all around the world. It’s great to speak to you again. Thanks for coming on Ms. Ambrose.
Former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose: Thanks for having me and happy International Day of the Girl.
Mercedes Stephenson: One of your biggest legacies, I think, here on Parliament Hill, was the introduction of legislation that required judges to be educated when it comes to sexual assault. Do you think that there have been changes in the justice system and on Parliament Hill? Are women making progress?
Former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose: I think we are making progress. I’ve spent a lot of time advocating for that bill. The bill has been reintroduced again by the Justice Minister of Canada in the last couple of weeks. It is in Parliament and I expect that it will pass—third time a charm. But because of that advocacy, we do have now at least comprehensive training in place for judges. It’s not mandatory and it’s not for all of them, but it is available and that’s a big step forward. We also saw P.E.I. introduce a similar bill, and Saskatchewan also move on it. And we hope other provinces will come onboard. My hope is that at some point we have a lot more faith in our justice system for survivors of sexual assault. You probably know the numbers, Mercedes: one in three women in Canada will experience some sort of sexual violence, but one in ten —only one in ten will report it and they’ll say it’s because they have no faith in the court system. And so we need to create that faith and we need more women to be able to feel comfortable coming forward to tell their story and to seek justice. And so that’s what the bill is about, is making sure that those people right at the top, are the ones that know the law best and that are going to manage their courtrooms in a way that we don’t see the kind of language we’ve seen in the past, like telling a girl to keep her legs together. You know, why didn’t she keep her knees together when she was raped? And, you know, really putting a lot on the victim. So, let’s hope it passes. This is the third time it’s been through the House of Commons.
Mercedes Stephenson: Ms. Ambrose, you’re also a former minister of health. When you’re looking at what’s happening right now as large parts of the country are going back into partial shutdowns, rising COVID numbers, what are your thoughts on what the government needs to do to get through this?
Former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose: Well, I mean a lot—I think at the federal level, we need to support people economically and that has happened. Now of course, we’re all worried about the amount of spending going out the door. The spending is necessary. At some point we have to see past this COVID emergency and what comes next, and we have to think about that bottom line in the debt that we are collecting. On the other hand, it’s provinces that deal with provincial—deal with health care. I think what provinces—the provinces that have got it right are the ones that have really raised their testing capacity, have really brought on a lot of testing in the last six months since COVID hit. And provinces that haven’t been able to do that are really suffering and that’s too bad. And I hope that we can see more testing ramp up. Look, we can’t keep kids in school, we can’t send people back to the workplace, we can’t keep daycares open if we don’t have a good testing regime, and waiting in line for eight hours is not a good testing regime.
Mercedes Stephenson: You’re out in Alberta, and there’s certainly been some tension between Premier Jason Kenney and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, we learned on Friday there’s some money coming for infrastructure for Alberta, but there’s been no sectorial support for oil and gas. What are your thoughts on that?
Former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose: I mean, it’s really tough to see because look, it’s great to have infrastructure funding, we’ll take all the support we need, but I mean, just last week, another 2,000 Albertans lost their jobs. We have over 100,000 people out of work with no work in sight, because, you know, the issues that we’re dealing with here are not just the fact that we’re dealing with low oil prices because of the pandemic hitting and the demand going down, but we’re also dealing with policies coming out of the federal government that are very, very hurtful to the oil and gas sector. And at the end of the day, the industry will be the first ones to put up their hand and say look, we want to be climate leaders. We are investing multi-millions of dollars to be better climate leaders. We want to make sure that we’re part of a strategy to reduce emissions, but the government has got to work with industry to make this happen. They’ve got to work hand in hand. They can’t just announce one day that they’re, you know, they’re bringing in place another carbon tax, which is what the clean fuel standard basically is without consulting with industry.
Mercedes Stephenson: Ms. Ambrose, thank you so much for taking the time to join us this morning.
Former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose: Thanks, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: And that’s all the time that we have for today. Don’t forget to tune into The West Block podcast for exclusive content and bonus episodes this week. I’ll be back here next Sunday. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend and take care.