THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 10, Season 10
Sunday, November 29, 2020
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Dominic Leblanc, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs
Scott Moe, Saskatchewan Premier
Major-General Dany Fortin, VP of Logistics and Operations PHAC
Location: Ottawa, Ontario
Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, November 29th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson and this is The West Block.
Controversy over the COVID-19 vaccine and criticism of the federal government’s performance falling behind other countries in getting the vaccine for Canadians has been the top of the headlines and the biggest conversation across this country.
Premiers have criticized the federal government for not being clear on how many doses the provinces and territories will get and more importantly, when exactly Canada will receive it.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc joins me now.
Thank you so much for making time for us, Minister Leblanc. I’m going to ask you the question that a lot of Canadians have on their mind right now and that is, where is Canada in the cue to get vaccines? Are we in the top five, the top 10, the top 20? Where are we at?
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc: So a very good question. We’re certainly in the top five, Mercedes. As we have said from the beginning, we as a government, as a national government, aggressively negotiated contracts with seven major suppliers of potential vaccines. The three that appear the first to likely be approved for use because they’re safe and effective: AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer. We have literally millions of doses under contract and the first six million doses, which would vaccinate probably 3 million Canadians, because again, it appears that two doses will be required to achieve the appropriate level of immunity, those will start arriving earlier January. So very quickly thereafter, they’ll ramp up. And from other vaccine suppliers, as they get approved, we hope for use as being safe and effective by Health Canada, they’ll be available for Canadians. And the work we’re doing right now, Mercedes, which we talked about with premiers on Thursday evening, is to ensure that we have a very, very effective and efficient logistic system to roll out these vaccines safely to provinces and territories so we can start immunizing Canadians on the very first opportunity.
Mercedes Stephenson: So, if we are in the top five, but that is just those initial vaccines that are showing up that are going to vaccinate less than 10 per cent of the Canadian population. Whereas we could see the United States starting mass vaccinations well ahead of that. Why is it that we are further behind other countries that are similar to Canada?
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc: So as the prime minister indicated this week, the capacity to manufacture on a very large scale, the bio-manufacturing capacity in Canada had eroded over the last 20 years and particularly, for example, AstraZeneca, which is likely to be one of the first vaccines, closed their manufacturing facility in Canada in 2007 when Mr. Harper was prime minister and then their research facility in Montreal in 2012, again, when Mr. Harper was in power. So this tendency to send to other jurisdictions the massive bio-manufacturing capacity, means that Canada has to procure, to buy internationally from these companies, massive quantities of the vaccines and the good news is we’ve done exactly that. And they will arrive safely and efficiently in Canada, obviously as soon as they’re determined by Health Canada and other regulatory authorities to be safe for use.
At the same time, though, Mercedes, because it is correct to say that we need to develop that bio-manufacturing capacity in Canada, we’ve announced hundreds of millions of dollars of investment not only in a Quebec company called Medicago, which has a potential Canadian vaccine candidate, but in the National Research Council facilities in Montreal to ensure that as quickly as possible the construction can take place. And if we’re in a situation where we’ll need, for example, annual doses of a COVID vaccine, the science is not yet clear if that’ll be necessary—we’ll be able to have a much more robust, domestic bio-manufacturing capacity than exists today.
Mercedes Stephenson: And that’s great news for the future but minister, your government keeps blaming the closures in 2008 and 2012 under the Harper government that was a totally different type of vaccine. I mean right now, Canada does make vaccines. We make flu vaccines, but it’s not the kind of technology that we need now. Why didn’t your government move earlier in the pandemic to invest in that specific type of technology?
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc: And we did, Mercedes. I mean the pandemic, obviously, you’ll remember in those weeks in March and April, the urgency was the public health measures—the urgency was the economic measures to support Canadians during those widespread lockdowns. Those steps were taken, but at the same time, the National Research Council, my colleague Navdeep Bains, the minister of innovation, worked quickly to ensure that we were ramping up the domestic bio-manufacturing capacity. The prime minister made an announcement in August, but unfortunately, the level of safety and the scale required to bio-manufacture something as complicated, for example, as a COVID vaccine, many of it as you noted, is a novel technology that’s why there’s that sort of global race to perfect that technology and to evaluate it in terms of its safety and effectiveness. That work’s going on, but at the same time, we’re getting ready to be able to have large scale bio-manufacturing in Canada as well.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, I’m going to ask you to put your name on the line a little bit here. Your government has said, and you’re saying here today, that the reason why other countries are going to get the vaccine ahead of Canada is because they have domestic manufacturing capability. Canada did sign contracts for those vaccines, though, much later than most countries. In fact, it was weeks later and there was questions about whether that would affect when we got the vaccine. Can you guarantee Canadians that no country that does not have this sort of manufacturing capability will get it ahead of us and that this has nothing to do with the timeline on which your government signed those contracts?
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc: Mercedes, what we’ve said from the beginning, is that Canada aggressively pursued a large portfolio, the seven different potential vaccines, three of which, as I say, appeared to be amongst the first likely to be approved. We have over 400 million doses under contract now. Over nine doses for every Canadian of potential vaccines, so I think if you compare, we’ve been criticized globally by other countries for having bought too much capacity and in fact, having taken too much of a front position in the line-up. Something that we thought was essential for Canadians. So we’re very proud but we’re also very confident that we’ll have some of the most effective and safest vaccines in the earliest possible position of many countries but also, Mercedes, as I say, the work we’re doing with provinces and territories, I think in a very encouraging and collaborative way that was our experience in the First Ministers call on Thursday of this week. We’re going to be ready to ensure that provinces and territories receive this vaccine safely and efficiently. Canadian Armed Forces will be playing a visible and important role. So I’m very confident that it will be effective and efficient and Canada will be proud of the effort in terms of vaccinating our population. That, I’m absolutely convinced, Mercedes, and so should you be.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, though, that’s where my follow-up question comes in. I’m not questioning whether or not you will eventually have the capacity to vaccinate everyone in Canada but on that timeline, you didn’t answer the question about whether having signed those contracts later than other countries has anything to do with the fact that we’re receiving the vaccine later than countries that signed earlier than us.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc: Again, I don’t know where every single country has signed with what particular company. Those commercial contracts are normally kept confidential. It may also depend, Mercedes, on how many doses of each vaccine you’re buying. If you’re going to buy five doses and somebody comes along and says they’re going to buy 200 doses, maybe you’d get a better position in the line-up. I mean all of these are global, commercial contracts representing huge amounts of money, but the important thing is our government decided at the very beginning to ensure that we were aggressive and robust in procuring binding agreements so that when these vaccines are safe for use in Canada, as determined by independent scientific expertise, we would be ready to vaccinate Canadians efficiently and effectively. That’s the bottom line. Canadians want a safe and reliable vaccine and that’s what the Government of Canada’s going to get for them.
Mercedes Stephenson: They certainly do and I’m sure many folks are looking forward to the day when they can theirs. Minister Leblanc, thank you so much for joining us today and please take care of yourself.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc: Well you’re very kind, Mercedes. Thanks for having me on your program.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, our vaccine conversation continues with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe.
Mercedes Stephenson: Questions and frustration from Canada’s premiers over when a vaccine will be available to their provinces, how much of it will be available and who will get it first?
Premier Scott Moe, the premier of Saskatchewan, took aim at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this week. He joins us now to talk about what his province is hearing from the federal government about when Saskatchewan can expect that vaccine rollout.
Well thank you so much for making time for us. I know you’re extremely busy as all premiers across the country are. You had some scathing words for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week. I know what you’ve had a call with the prime minister since then. You’ve been very critical of the information that the federal government has been sharing with the provinces about the vaccine program, about where you believe Canada might be in the line to actually receive vaccines. Having had the call with the prime minister late last week, did that allay any of your concerns or do you feel the same way?
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe: Well we have had some concerns leading into our call last night and I would say there are still some concerns as we finished that call last night. And those concerns extend, I think in fairness, beyond myself just as the premier of Saskatchewan but to many areas of the nation.
Listen, the question all Canadians want to know the answer to and what premiers want to know the answer to, is how many of these vaccines are we going to get and how are we going to get those? Premiers want to know so that we can ramp up our health care systems to deliver these vaccines. And Canadians want to know when these are going to be accessible as this is the finish line that we have all been waiting for, for eight or nine months now..
Mercedes Stephenson: I know Canadians are very anxious to have those questions as well, but do you think it’s that the federal government is refusing to share that information or that they themselves don’t have it because the vaccine hasn’t been approved yet in Canada?
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe: Well, there are vaccines that going to line up and quite likely the hope is that they will be approved. And we see plans in place in other countries, most notably the U.S., where they’re going to have as many people, providing these vaccines are approved in the U.S., which it sounds like they’ll be approved in about the same time in Canada. The U.S. is going to have as many people vaccinated by the end of December, as Canada is by the end of March. So that’s troubling, proportionately. They’ll have just under 10 per cent of their population vaccinated this month and we will have just under 10 per cent vaccinated by the end of March and that’s from the 6 million doses that the prime minister says we will receive in the first quarter that will treat 3 million Canadians. For Saskatchewan that is likely going to treat about 100 thousand people from the province.
Mercedes Stephenson: So, what would you like to see the federal government doing, right now?
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe: We do have more access to vaccine in a more timely fashion. We have had conversations now for eight or nine months about restrictions coming in, how are we going to flatten the curve, to use the term that we’ve used so often over the course of the last number of months. That can start to go away if we have broad access to this vaccine. There are a number of candidates that are in the cue and my understanding is we do have access to a large number of doses, but it’s also my understanding that we don’t have access in a very timely fashion to these vaccines. And so, I don’t know whether the prime minister or the federal government has the answers on when those products are going to arrive but they should tell us. They should tell us if they don’t have them. We need to plan as premiers, to ensure that we can actually deliver these vaccines on the ground. What we’re planning for now, I guess, in Saskatchewan, is for 200 thousand doses to be delivered to 100 thousand people in the first quarter of the year and then ramp up after that. What we would like is to see that number much, much higher earlier in 2021.
Mercedes Stephenson: I’ve heard from senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, they insist that the premiers are receiving the information as they themselves get it in the Prime Minister’s Office. Do you think that that’s not true? Do you think that they’re withholding information from you?
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe: Well we received the information last week, with respect to the 6 million doses and what each province would be provided with on a per capita basis and there’s a few provinces that then spoke to receiving that information, to be as transparent as possible with the people that we ultimately represent in our provincial jurisdictions, but collectively as premiers across this nation and as representing all Canadians. So we did communicate what we were going to receive, but we need to receive more and we need to receive it in a much timelier fashion. We are seeing—what’s troubling about this, is we were seeing not just the producing countries like the U.K. and the U.S. that are going to be with full-scale vaccinations sometime here in December, but many other countries that seem to be gaining a quicker access to these vaccines than we have here in Canada. So we need a more ambitious procurement program for sure.
Mercedes Stephenson: If those vaccines were ready in mid-December, like they’re going to be in the United States and in other countries, we’re expecting that’s when the rollout is going to begin—is Saskatchewan prepared? Do you have a plan in place in your province for whose being vaccinated first and how you’re going to do that because ultimately, it is up to the provinces to decide how to deliver the vaccines?
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe: Right. We expect to receive the vaccine on a per capita basis. We do have a plan and it will very much mirror what we did with our H1N1 vaccines a decade ago. We have a plan through our very robust public health system and we deliver flu vaccines each and every year, for example, as well as many other vaccines. But we have also engaged our public safety agency here in the province that is going to work hand-in-hand with our Saskatchewan Health Authority as well as the Ministry of Health, to ensure that we are able to provide whatever vaccines we receive to the people of this province in a very well laid-out fashion that prioritizes, of course, the elderly, those that are vulnerable, as well as our essential services workers here in the province. That is very much like many areas, if not all areas across the nation.
Mercedes Stephenson: Premier Moe, I know that in your province there have not been as many restrictions as there have been in others. For example, you brought in mask wearing indoors is mandated by the province in November. You haven’t seen as many shutdowns of businesses. During the election, you indicated that you were against that. Some folks say, look, yes there has been spread, and there’s been spread in Saskatchewan just like in other provinces, but at the end of the day it’s up to premiers to take measures to deal with that spread until there is a vaccine available. So how much responsibility do you have in this, for maintaining the health of the people of Saskatchewan until there is a vaccine?
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe: Well we moved on to mandatory masking order far before most western Canadian provinces and we have increased our restrictions four times over the course of the last month as our numbers have been increasing. And we do have a higher than average active caseload today and our numbers have increased over the course of the last number of weeks and so we have taken action to ensure that we’re able to curb that rate of transmission. We’ve also done very well with respect to our total numbers and most importantly with respect to the fatalities that we’ve experienced here and Saskatchewan was far below the national average in both of those metrics. But ultimately, whether you’re in Saskatchewan or any other area of the nation, the finish line, the goal line, the hope that we’ve all been waiting for, is to have this broad based access to this vaccine and we are relying on the federal government as we did with H1N1, as we do with procuring these vaccines, we’re relying on them to do just that to procure it in a timely fashion and we expect them to be able to procure as quickly as other nations around the world. And that is what is concerning, is it seems to me that we may be slipping, if not at the back of the line, but further back in the line than maybe we would have expected, or maybe even further back than we were led to believe a couple of months ago.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you feel that the prime minister, his officials were misleading about the vaccine?
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe: I’m not sure if they were misleading. I’m not sure if they knew the answers to it at that point. I’m not sure they procured the vaccine in a timely fashion if we were on this soon enough. This was discussed on our consular federation calls and our FFM calls throughout the summer as to how this is ultimately the finish line and this is the goal line that we all need to head for and we need to manage as best we can, the balancing, the loads on our health care, the COVID infections, yes, how they impact on our economy and the people that we represent. But ultimately when we have this access to a vaccine, this is an opportunity for Canadians to get back to some degree of normal life. And what we, I think, would ask the prime minister to do is to be transparent with Canadians and premiers on how much and when this vaccine will be arriving who that we can deliver it to our people in our jurisdictions, but also be very ambitious in procuring it as quickly as possible and maybe as quickly as some other nations around the world.
Mercedes Stephenson: Premier Moe, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it.
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe: Thank you, Mercedes. We appreciate your time as well.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, more on Canada’s vaccine rollout: my interview with Major-General Dany Fortin.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Major-General Dany Fortin to head Canada’s vaccine rollout operations. He joins us now.
Major-General Fortin, thank you so much for coming on the show. I knew you as a commander in Afghanistan when you returned from NATO. Now, obviously, you’re taking on this incredibly important role. Can you tell us a little bit about what your job is going to involve?
Mercedes Stephenson: A lot of people are wondering. How quickly can you be ready? Because I was looking south of the border on Friday and we were seeing that down there, United Planes and other commercial planes were getting into position, ready to distribute this Pfizer vaccine the second that it is approved. How quickly can the Canadian federal government be ready to start moving this vaccine to provinces across the country?
Mercedes Stephenson: Dany, I’m talking to you and you’re a general. Should we take that as a sign that the military is going to be heavily involved in this effort?
Major-General Dany Fortin, VP of Logistics and Operations PHAC: So we have a small team here in direct support to Public Health Agency, so I’m just one of a number of folks here. You know, the military is a team sport, so I happen to be the face that you see, but there are people here who have been working for a number of weeks. And what we bring here is, you know, we’re here to bolster capacity of the agency. The agency is used to planning the logistics of other vaccines and the distribution with the stakeholders and the partners with the provinces and territories, but because this is unique, we have to bring additional personnel and expertise and processes that are proven. A specific tailor-made operation centre is being put in place, it includes military officers and NCOs but also a number of Public Health Agency employees that also work to the same common goal.
Mercedes Stephenson: Major-General Fortin, thank you so much for joining us today, and we wish you the best of luck on what will no doubt be a very complicated and a very important mission.
Major-General Dany Fortin, VP of Logistics and Operations PHAC: Thank you very much, Mercedes. Look forward to talking to you later. Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well that’s all the time we have for today. Thanks for joining us. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson and I’ll see you right back here next Sunday.