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The West Block — Episode 9, Season 10

Click to play video 'The West Block: ‘Drastic’ action needed as surging COVID-19 cases raise alarm bells across Canada' The West Block: ‘Drastic’ action needed as surging COVID-19 cases raise alarm bells across Canada
Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mercedes Stephenson

THE WEST BLOCK

Episode 9, Season 10

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests:

Dr. Jane Philpott, former Health Minister

Joe Savikataaq, Premier of Nunavut

Chris Coons, U.S. Senator from Delaware

 

 

Location: Ottawa, Ontario

 

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Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Canada at a crossroads again. Lockdowns as the COVID curve explodes.

 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Canada could have up to 20,000 new cases daily by the end of December if we don’t limit or reduce our contacts now. And if we loosen and increase our contacts, we could see tens of thousands more.”

 

Mercedes Stephenson: Fears of a worst-case scenario as the pandemic reaches Canada’s north.

 

Global National Anchor Dawna Friesen: “There are now 70 active cases in Nunavut, the entire territory is under tight restrictions for the next two weeks.”

 

Mercedes Stephenson: And Biden, Buy America and the border, a senior U.S. Senator on what’s coming for Canada.

 

Delaware Senator Chris Coons: “I would expect that President-elect Biden will move quickly to address some of those strains and to weave back more tightly our close partnership with Canada.”

 

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, November 22nd. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

 

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Well, Canadians in two of the country’s largest cities are preparing to go back into lockdown, tomorrow. That comes as COVID-19 cases continue to break daily records across the country.

 

Dr. Theresa Tam warned Canadians that if they continue to increase their contacts, cases could skyrocket upwards of 60,000 a day.

 

Joining me now to talk about the second wave of COVID and Canada’s path forward, is former Health Minister and Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Queens University, Dr. Jane Philpott.

 

Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Philpott. You know some really stark news that came down on Friday, hearing from the federal government we could be expecting 60,000 cases a day if we continue down the current path and continue to expand our contacts, Toronto and Peel moving into lockdown, tomorrow. Tough, tough news for a lot of folks out there and there’s this big debate about whether the best way to deal with the exploding case numbers is lockdowns. Is that, in your view, the best way to plank the curve?

 

Dr. Jane Philpott, former Health Minister: Well, Mercedes, thank you for having me on and this is, I think a sobering time for us all. We are at a tipping point, there’s no question. And the announcements that came out on Friday, laid it out very clear for us—clearly for us in terms of what the modeling shows and how bad things could get, but this is actually in our hands. This is in the hands of all the people across the country, as to the extent that they can possibly manage. And not everybody can, but to the extent that everybody can stay at home, can follow the guidelines, can make sure that they do not increase their social contacts, then those worst-case scenarios won’t happen. But we are at the tipping point. People had to take drastic actions. Some very serious measures were announced across the country and I can certainly speak to those here in Ontario. Those are hard decisions for governments to make, but they had to be made because we’ve got to get this thing under control before it reaches those worst-case scenarios.

 

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Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that some of those decisions should have been made sooner? I know there’s been some criticism of Ontario Premier Doug Ford by some of the City of Toronto, who wanted to see restrictions earlier.

 

Dr. Jane Philpott, former Health Minister: Well, as I say, I will not be one of those who pretend that it’s easy for anybody who is a policy maker, who is in a leadership position across the country right now, for the decisions that they have to make because they are going to hear voices from all sides. But what we’re able to do now, is make those more precise specifications. So you’re looking at in Ontario, where Toronto and Peel are unfortunately areas where the spread has been quite marked and they’re the ones that have to do the shutdown right now for the sake of everyone. You know of course there are some people that have to keep working and it’s hard for them. You know I think we need to continue to give a shout out to those people who still make sure that there’s food on the table for us. And some people do have to work. I think about health care professionals who have to go to work and the personal support workers who are there making sure that people get the care that they need. Not everything is possible for everyone to be able to stay home, but those decisions had to be made in order that we can go forward. We’ve got several months to go yet till we get to the point that that vaccine is on the horizon. We’ve got to do the hard work now and we’ve got to do it together.

 

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Mercedes Stephenson: Dr. Philpott, I know that you are running a very important data project for the Government of Ontario, when it comes to COVID-19. Why do you think it is that this far into the pandemic, we still really don’t have clear data on where the spread is happening, or we don’t have public numbers either on where people are being hospitalized, why people are dying of the disease or dying of it, details of who gets the sickest and who is the most vulnerable? Because some critics are saying without that kind of good data, you can’t make good policy.

 

Dr. Jane Philpott, former Health Minister: So to a certain extent, Mercedes, we are paying the price for the lack of investments for a very, very long time in this country and the data jungle that’s out there in the health world. You know we’ve got an inability of provinces to be able to share data in the same kind of standardized methodology. In a province like Ontario, we’ve got 34 different health units that are all reporting their data in slightly different ways. You know I think that there’s been progress made. Certainly the work that we’re doing on the Ontario Health Data Platform is helping to move people in the direction of standardizing what that data looks like. I think Ontario has, for the most part, been pretty forthcoming in terms of making sure that that data is as open as possible, but it has been extremely hard for people to be able to make decisions. Thankfully, the Ontario Health Data Platform (OHDP) will help on that as it continues to be able to gather the data and be able to provide more rapid results. But our lack of investments in public health for a long time and the continued siloing of health systems across this country are some of the reasons that we haven’t been able to get the kind of information that we’ve needed up until now.

 

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Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that if we’d had a higher testing capacity, or the rapid at-home testing and more capacity to contact trace, we could have mitigated how bad the second wave it becoming?

 

Dr. Jane Philpott, former Health Minister: Well, you know, I think about 2020 in hindsight and we will continue to analyze this over and over again for a long time to come and there’s lots of things that we should have done differently in the early days and you know it’s a naïve person who thinks that they had all of the answers right up front. You know, of course we should have done more testing in the early days, we should have shut things down more. We’ve learned a lot. People have had the humility to adapt, to ‘pivot’ as they say to be able to change direction and become wiser. The testing, tracing and isolating piece has been perhaps the part that’s been the most disappointing across, you know, I think safe to say, across the country. Although we see in certain areas where there’s particular expertise and ability to be able to do that well when before things get overwhelmed and we need to get to a place to get those numbers down low again so that the test trace and isolate will be much more effective and public health units will have the capacity to do it.

 

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that’s a job for the federal government?

 

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Dr. Jane Philpott, former Health Minister: So, everybody has a job to do in this, and no one should be pointing fingers at one another. They should all be recognizing the authorities that they have, using them to the maximum ability that they have and collaborating with others. And that’s where I think we’re seeing a little bit of challenge. There’s a lot of finger pointing going on, which doesn’t necessarily—isn’t necessarily helpful. But there is a role for the federal government to have that national leadership, to look at things like data standards, to put in place measures that will require provinces, for example, to be able to report their data to the government, to be able to do the work on supply chain, to be able to incent investments in areas like long-term care. So there’s no question that in a public health emergency like this, the federal government has a role to play.

 

Provincial governments, of course, have an even—would could argue—an even bigger role to play in terms of the delivery of health care and that a day-to-day enactment of public health measures, but Canadians have a role to play in this, too. And that’s the important part, is that it’s actually on all of us. It’s on all of us to look to the interests of one another, to rally together in the face of the threat amongst us.

 

Mercedes Stephenson: Dr. Philpott, thank you so much for joining us and please take care of yourself.

 

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Dr. Jane Philpott, former Health Minister: You too. Stay well.

 

Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now to continue this discussion on COVID-19 is Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq.

 

Premier, thank you so much for joining us.  Your territory has been experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, including in some very remote and fly-in communities, which are incredibly vulnerable. What’s the situation in Nunavut today?

 

Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq: All right. First of all, I’ll just explain a little bit about Nunavut. It’s one third a land mass of Canada. We have 25 remote communities and all of them are fly-in only. We have no roads in Nunavut. You cannot go to another community without hopping on an airplane and getting to another community. So just in that context there, we’re quite remote. And currently, we have COVID in four communities.

 

Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve had isolation centres in place for months so that people, who are coming into your territory, isolate there for two weeks to prevent the spread. It still has gotten out, so I’m wondering what you think B.C. Premier John Horgan’s proposal that inter-provincial travel should cease to stop the spread of COVID. Do you think that’s the solution?

 

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Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq: Well here within Nunavut, we don’t recommend any unnecessary travel right now at all. So I don’t know if it’s the solution, but it is one of the tools we have here to keep COVID from going throughout the communities. And our recommendation is if you don’t have to travel, please don’t travel to another community. We’ve had isolation hubs for quite a while and I believe that has helped us prolong when COVID came here. All the members that did get COVID, they did do the 14 days so we’re looking at if—just to see how that happened.

 

Mercedes Stephenson: One of the things that we hear from public health officials is a vaccine could help to alleviate this, also rapid testing. I know you recently spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Has he given you any assurances that your territory will be prioritized to receive the vaccine first or to receive those rapid tests first?

 

Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq: First, I’d like to thank the prime minister for all the help that his government has given us. I just spoke to him a few days ago, and he assured us that we are on top priority here and we have asked for rapid testing capability in our isolation hubs so that we could test people before they come up, the rapid testing units. And we have been assured that we are top priority due to our situation here and our vulnerability, so I’d like to thank the prime minister again, for keeping us in his thoughts and that he said he’s there to help if and when we ask for any help.

 

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Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think you have a sense of how many of those vaccines you might get when they’re available? I know it’s been a big topic of discussion, Ontario saying they want 40 per cent. Do you know where you are on the list in terms of how many you might be seeing?

 

Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq: No, we’re not—I have no idea, and we’re not at the level of discussions yet of how many we’d get or when we get them. We just know that we’d be prioritized, too. But in terms of the numbers we’d get, I have—we don’t have that.

 

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, Premier. Thank you so much for joining us today and we wish you the best.

 

Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq: Thank you very much for having me on your show and you have a good weekend.

 

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the future of Canada-U.S. relations: an interview with powerful Democratic Senator Chris Coons, a potential member of the Biden administration.

 

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Uncertainty south of the border, what will a Joe Biden presidency mean for us here in Canada?

 

Joining me now for insight into the future of Canada-U.S. relations, what it could mean for our trade and security is Delaware Democratic Senator Chis Coons, a Biden insider, who is widely expected to take a powerful role in the new administration.

 

Thanks for making time for us, senator.

 

Delaware Democratic Senator, Chris Coons: Thanks Mercedes, it’s great to be with you The West Block.

 

Mercedes Stephenson: You know people have been anxiously watching the American election results up here in Canada, including President Trump’s Twitter feeds and various campaign press conferences. Why do you think it is that we haven’t seen more condemnation of what the president has been saying, both by senior Republicans and senior Democrats?

 

Delaware Democratic Senator, Chris Coons: Well Mercedes, the condemnation of President Trump’s refusal to accept the outcome of the election has been fairly uniform and fairly loud across senior Democrats. It is a real challenge to my working relationship with a number of senior Republicans in this Senate that they’re not being clear, that they’re not standing up and saying it is past time for a transition to begin. A few have said so. But in the interest of public health and the interest of our national security, it is past time for the transfer of information to begin. Even as President Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, continue to pursue longshot legal challenges, there is a vanishingly small chance of any of them succeeding and so the transition should be well underway.

 

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Mercedes Stephenson: At what point do you think senior Republicans stop backing the president?

 

Delaware Democratic Senator, Chris Coons: I’ve been trying to get an answer to that in personal conversations with colleagues in the Senate. I think we’re a matter of a week away because the states are beginning to certify the outcome of their elections and that means there is no further review or recount possible once they certify their elections. The last conceivable date would be December 14th when our College of Electors meet. But, you know, frankly, every day that we are delaying, is a day that puts at greater risk our public health and our national security.

 

Mercedes Stephenson: Senator, as you know, Canada has two citizens being held in China. The Canadian government has referred to them as being taken hostage as a result of having arrested Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Huawei, here in Canada on an American warrant. What do you expect a Biden relationship with China to look like because a lot of folks think you might be the secretary of state?

 

Delaware Democratic Senator, Chris Coons: Well Mercedes, to be clear, I’m speaking with you today as a senator. I am a currently serving member of the foreign relations committee, not as a member of the transition team, and I’m honoured that I’m being mentioned. I think, first, that we are deeply grateful to our trusted partners in Canada for respecting the concerns raised by the United States on this warrant and for the ways in which this has challenged the Canadian and Chinese relationship. The Chinese response: arresting without real basis, in fact, the law, to Canadian citizens, is just one more step that shows how under Xi Jinping that China’s become more aggressive, not just regionally, but globally. They don’t respect intellectual property. They don’t respect the rule of law. They frankly, have coloured outside the lines of the international system for far too long. And President-elect Biden sees clearly, the challenges that all of us who represent free societies, open market democracies, the challenge that we face from China and I believe he’ll pull our partners and our allies closer together to come up with a coordinated strategy. President Trump’s tariff policies haven’t just combatted Chinese innovation mercantilism, haven’t just tried to reset the table with China. They’ve actually harmed our partners and allies. And Canada and Canadians have effectively conveyed to those of us in the Senate, the ways in which it has strained our relationship and I would expect the President-elect Biden will move quickly to address some of those strains and to weave back more tightly our close partnership with Canada.

 

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Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that might include dropping the extradition request for Meng Wanzhou, or would it look more like President Biden—pardon me—President-elect Biden, pushing harder on China to release the two Michaels?

 

Delaware Democratic Senator, Chris Coons: Look, I can’t speak with any confidence about the president-elects position. I will say that if it were up to me, I would be pressing harder on the Chinese to release these two Canadians who are held without cause, and frankly, to consult closely with Prime Minister Trudeau, someone who I view as a close and trusted ally, and who I believe will enjoy a very good relationship with President-elect Biden. But, you know, frankly in consultation with a partner and ally, we’d be asking—the president-elect would be asking exactly what is in Canada’s best interest as well as what’s in the United States best interest.

 

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, more of my interview with Senator Chris Coons.

 

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[Announcer]

 

President-elect Joe Biden: “So we’re moving along knowing what the outcome will be. And as I said earlier, and I probably shouldn’t repeat it, but I find this more embarrassing for the country than debilitating for my ability to get started.”

 

Mercedes Stephenson: One of the biggest issues, of course, for Canada is trade, and under President Trump we had tariffs applied to us, national security tariffs a number of times. There’s no suggestion that President-elect Biden will do that, but he has talked extensively about buy America. So what assurances does Canada have that a Biden presidency will respect what was renegotiated in NAFTA 2.0 and that Canada will not be harmed by that buy America stance?

 

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Delaware Democratic Senator, Chris Coons: I deeply respect and support President-elect Biden’s position that as we build back better the American economy, we should focus where we can, federal purchasing and procurement on American source. But we did just conclude the USMCA, or as you put it NAFTA 2.0. It had broad bipartisan support in the Congress and we should not be disadvantaging our Canadian partners or violating our USMCA commitments while trying to strengthen our own economy.

 

We are a part of an integrated North American economic system and we shouldn’t be doing things that go out of our way to harm our Canadian partners in our effort to recover from this pandemic and the recession.

 

Mercedes Stephenson: Senator Coons, I know you have a lot of experience in the Senate and in dealing with Canada, especially when we were going through the difficulties with the United States over the tariffs that we were facing. How has that experience informed your view of where Canada-U.S. relations need to go?

 

Delaware Democratic Senator, Chris Coons: Well I had a memorable encounter as a senator where the former Foreign Minister Freeland came to the Senate foreign relations committee and she delivered in as measured and diplomatic and responsible a way as possible, an extremely forceful message about the ways in which these national security based tariffs on steel and aluminum are being exported from Canada to the United States were an insult and were a harm to our relationship. And I’ve never forgotten walking out in the hallway afterwards and saying to two of my colleagues, one Republican and one Democratic, did you hear that? Did you hear that? The foreign minister of one of our closest, most trusted allies just delivered a scathing review. She was pounding on the table and demanding that we change course. And they sort of looked at me and said I heard nothing of the sort. I said exactly, because she was being Canadian. She was being respectful and thoughtful and diplomatic. But imagine if she’d instead like jumped up on the table and kicked over the coffee urn and yelled at us. Would you have heard her then? And they’re like oh yes. Oh, we would have noticed that. I said please recognize that our just our incredibly trusted close ally who has been with us through thick and thin, is trying to get us a clear message. These tariffs must be reversed. So, I have tried at times, successfully at times, unsuccessfully, to translate from Canadian to American English, the messages that we heard and I will be doing my level best to make sure that they are heard in the year to come.

 

Mercedes Stephenson: A lot of folks think cancelling Keystone XL, the pipeline, would fall into that. That is one of the President-elects prime promises that he will cancel that pipeline. It could be very, very damaging to Alberta. Do you think that he is going to follow through with that promise? I know the Canadian government is going to be lobbying hard for him not to.

 

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Delaware Democratic Senator, Chris Coons: I think I’m going to have to leave that to serious and earnest and prompt negotiations between the incoming administration and the Canadian government, rather than my saying on a Sunday show what I believe will be the right thing for him to do. But that’s going to be a tough relationship moment for us. The tar sands of Canada have contained within them, an enormous amount of energy and I recognize that both Canada and the United States as energy exporters have a role to play in contributing to energy security, but we also have to be mindful of the ways in which a coordinated strategy to combat climate is also an urgent priority for both of our nations because climate is an existential threat. The challenge to address in climate, is to find ways that we can do so without also harming our economies and our competitiveness. And I’ve worked in a bipartisan way with Republicans in the United States Senate to come up with strategies that can allow us to do that, principally by starting with embracing changes in our agriculture sector, as well as transportation and building spaces. So, I’ll be supporting what the Biden administration does in this, but I do think it begins by negotiating closely with a trusted partner.

 

Mercedes Stephenson: Tough relationship moment. I think that there may be a few folks in the Canadian government taking note of that. Thank you so much for joining us today, Senator Coons. We appreciate your time.

 

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Delaware Democratic Senator, Chris Coons: Thank you, Mercedes.

 

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for this week. I’ll see you right back here next Sunday on The West Block.