The West Block — Episode 11, Season 10

Click to play video 'The West Block: Dec. 5, 2020: Record-breaking case numbers and Canada’s fiscal fallout' The West Block: Dec. 5, 2020: Record-breaking case numbers and Canada’s fiscal fallout
Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mercedes Stephenson – Dec 6, 2020 – Dec 6, 2020


Episode 11, Season 10

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland

Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel Garner

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro

Location: Ottawa, Ontario

Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block:

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland: “We will do whatever it takes to help Canadians stay healthy, safe and solvent.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Pandemic fiscal fallout, historic deficit highs, with more spending ahead as the government struggles to deal with COVID-19.

Questions about the vaccine rollout, when will Canadians roll up their sleeves?

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And Alberta in crisis: Is it time to crackdown?

It’s Sunday, December 6th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson and this is The West Block.

COVID cases continue to skyrocket across the country. All this unfolding as the federal government projects the deficit will be the highest since the Second World War. It has skyrocketed to over $300 billion due to the pandemic response. And based on the economic update last week, spending will not stop anytime soon. Much of the pandemic recovery, however, will rely on having a COVID-19 vaccine.

The U.K. has just approved the Pfizer vaccine, but Health Canada isn’t there just yet. Information is rapidly evolving on this and so far, Canada has no concrete date for when we can expect a COVID-19 vaccine here on Canadian soil.

Joining me now with the latest is Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland. Thanks so much for coming on the show, Minister.

The first question I wanted to ask you is not one about finance, or really about a specific file but about the politics in general in our country right now. When you look across the country, we’re seeing more and more backlash against the restrictions. We’re seeing people who are raising concerns about the vaccine, people who are angry about the lockout when businesses are shut down for public health reasons. Are you concerned that the pandemic is increasingly becoming a wedge issue or a culture war rather than a public health crisis?

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Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland: Yes, of course I’m concerned, Mercedes. But—and maybe this reflects my essentially glass half full personality—at the end of the day, I see more collaboration and cooperation and people all being prepared to do the right thing for themselves and their neighbours. And I see a lot of reasons for optimism and I’m going to give you three really quick ones. One is Halifax restaurateurs who actually said please close us down because we’re seeing a rise in cases and we want you to close us down so that our community can be safe. I salute those people.

Second, is all of our health care workers, I had an extremely moving and humbling conversation this week with some of the amazing people who work at Surrey Memorial Hospital and, you know, these are people who are working not 24 hour shifts but more than 24 hours shifts. They’re working in really dangerous and I would personally find them to be scary circumstances, and they just keep on going and there are thousands and thousands of people across the country doing that.

And then the final group of people who really inspire me are our children. Very occasionally, I’m able to be in my own house and take my little son to school. And when I see him and the other elementary school kids, like faithfully put on their masks and go in and they wear their masks all day long, I’m so proud of those kids and there are kids like that all across the country.

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So overall, Mercedes, I feel we’re doing a good job as a country. We do have to buckle down a little bit more, but I have confidence we can do it.

Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve had a really big week. You always have big weeks with the number of files you juggle, but in particular with the long awaited fall fiscal update because have a budget. In it, you announced a lot of supports for individuals, a lot of supports for businesses that are very direct. You also announced a $100 billion in stimulus spending that is expected once the economy starts to recovery. You said as a part of that spending, there was going to be guardrails in place to tell you when to turn it up and when to turn it down, things like the employment rate and total number of hours worked, but you haven’t disclosed what the numbers are. And you called them fiscal guardrails. When I think of guardrails on a highway, I think they stand up because they’re staked to something. So, what are the particular numbers that are your stakes here and have you figured that out yet?

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland: So first of all, let me just be clear that when it comes to the growth plan, we said that we intend to spend between 3 and 4 per cent of GDP, so roughly between $70 and $100 billion. So it’s not for sure a $100 billion, it’s up to $100 billion. And in our fiscal projections, we were very clear to offer a lot of different scenarios because there’s just so much uncertainty out there. And I thought it was important to be transparent with Canadians that we will need a growth plan and also be transparent about the fact that we need to let things settle down a little bit more, we need to conquer COVID before we know for sure how much money it’s going to be.

On the fiscal guardrails, you are totally right, and they are about jobs, jobs, jobs. And we are going to offer more details and more specifics on those fiscal guardrails as we unveil the plan. You’re right, if you have guardrails on a road they need to be physical and anchored to something. Once we start driving down the road, let me assure you, they’re going to be some very clear anchored material concrete guardrails there.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Deputy Prime Minister Freeland, your government signed a contract with a company called CanSino for vaccines. We’ve since reported that Canada’s national security agencies had warned there were serious security concerns with this company. That vaccine program also fell through. When we’re in the current situation we are with China, why did the Canadian government sign that contract instead of sinking those funds into the many other diverse vaccines that you’re pursuing and were you aware of the warnings from national security agencies about this company?

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland: You know when it comes to the effort to get vaccines for Canadians, and this is an effort that has been fierce and intense behind the scenes since the spring, my approach, and the approach of our government has been when it comes to the health of Canadians, leave no stone unturned, do whatever it takes to support Canadians and I feel very comfortable that is the right approach.

The other thing that I think is really important for Canadians to appreciate is we have been really successful at getting—acquiring the world’s most diverse, most robust vaccine portfolio. It has seven vaccines in it. We have bought enough vaccines to vaccinate every—to have 10 doses for every single Canadian. So we have our bases covered there. We did—we pursued every option that was the right thing.

And then I do want to say one thing, which is personal to me, Mercedes, when it comes to China. And that is, you know, when I was foreign minister, I worked hard on the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. I got to know the families of these brave Canadians and it is totally unacceptable to me that they are not here in Canada. Canada’s priority is always going to be to get these brave Canadians home.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Are you hopeful with the news out of the United States that the U.S. Justice department may be negotiating to send Meng Wanzhou back to China and that that might trigger the release of the two Michaels?

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland: That’s a case, as you know, Mercedes, which is before the courts and it’s a sensitive case where the wellbeing and the lives of two Canadians are very much at stake. So I’m really sorry, I used to be a journalist. I believe in answering questions, but that’s a question that I can’t answer. I’m sorry.

Mercedes Stephenson: Have you had any reassurances from the incoming Biden administration that this will be a priority for them?

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland: The prime minister has already a great relationship with President-elect Biden. Of course, the United States only has one government at a time and it’s appropriate to work with the government of the moment. But the prime minister, and really our whole government, we have a really good relationship with President-elect Biden and his team, and they know, as do American political leaders across political lines know that this is a priority for Canada. We’ve had great support in the House, in the Senate, for Canada, for Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. We’ve had some bipartisan votes and support there and that’s important.

Mercedes Stephenson: Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, thank you for joining us. We wish you and your family well.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland: Thank you very much, Mercedes, and same goes to you and to all Canadians. Let’s stay safes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, a COVID critique with the Conservatives. We will be speaking with health critic Michelle Rempel Garner after the break.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back to The West Block.

Joining me now to continue the discussion about vaccines and the economy is Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel Garner. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel Garner: Thanks for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: The government has given us some more information about when we can expect vaccines, some details of the military rollout and what that’s going to look like, saying that they could be in Canada, the vaccines, as early as the end of December. I know that your government had been—pardon me, your party—had been demanding timelines on this and I’m wondering if you’re satisfied with the information that the government has provided this week.

Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel Garner: Well Mercedes, I think the question that’s on most Canadians mind is very simple. It’s when can I get the vaccine? And we really don’t have much more information on that. You know we’re seeing countries around the world like the United Kingdom, like the United States, give their citizens a lot of detail on that question. We still don’t have that. We’re months behind other countries on basic information. We’re seeing the provinces ask for this information as well. So, you know, this week, this is why we put forward a motion in the House of Commons to compile this information from the government because it’s just too critical for that information gap to be out there.

Mercedes Stephenson: So what would you have done differently? If your party is the government in waiting, what would you actually have done differently to get a vaccine sooner? Because at this rate, we’re hearing that Canada is expected to approve the vaccine about the same time as the CDC does in the United States. That’s not that big of a difference in a timeline.

Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel Garner: The critical piece of information here, though, is how many doses we’re getting and when. And even though the government says that they’ve secured these doses, we don’t know when they’re going to be delivered to Canada. We know that the government spent several months working with a company called CanSino on a potential vaccine. That deal fell through. So I think that there are questions to be asked, especially with regard to what we would have done differently. If that hampered Canada’s ability to be closer to the front of the line on a delivery schedule with a higher number of doses. This is information that we’re going to be pressing the government for in the coming week. Again, we had a motion come forward this week that should be supported, which will compile that information. But there are three things that we’re asking for as a party.

First, better public health information to be made available to public policy experts across the country on the spread of COVID.

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Second, more widely available rapid and at-home testing so that we can isolate people more effectively, so that we’re not just looking at mass public lockdown as the only tool while we’re waiting for a vaccine.

And then, of course, as you just mentioned, a more comprehensive plan for vaccine delivery so that Canadians can understand exactly when this crisis is going to end.

Mercedes Stephenson: Ms. Rempel Garner, you are the health critic for your party. This week, there was a lot of media coverage of a petition presented in Parliament by one of your colleagues, Derek Sloan, a Conservative MP. The petition was about the COVID-19 vaccine and it made assertions like it was human experimentation. It raised questions about whether or not the real intent of the vaccine was to prevent COVID. People are characterizing it as an anti-vaxxer petition. Derek Sloan at no point has disavowed what was in that. He hasn’t said I brought it forward but I disagree with it. Does that undermine your position as a party when you’re out there saying the most important thing is vaccines and one of your own colleagues is questioning what the vaccine’s real intent is?

Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel Garner: I mean, all I can say—I’m not going to speak on behalf of Mr. Sloan, but I can speak on behalf of our party’s position because I am the health critic and this is our leader’s position as well—I really do believe that the only reason the government has moved in recent weeks on details around the vaccine is because the Conservative Party of Canada has really lit a fire under them. Our party understands that without a vaccine, there’s no way that we have economic recovery. We need to have this vital tool that countries around the world are vying for right now. So vaccines, I want to be very clear. It’s a position of our party that vaccines are critical public health tools. They’ve changed the course of, you know, human history in terms of eliminating different diseases. We need to have this critical tool in Canada. And you know, with regard to some of the content that we’re in there. For people that are listening, we have a world-class regulator in Canada that makes sure that these—any sort of pharmaceutical product is safe. We have to trust in that regulator. With regard to the federal government, the Trudeau Liberal government, they need to have this information that you and I have just spent this segment talking about, out to the Canadian public because education is going to be so important. So we need to make sure that people understand when and where they can get this vaccine so that we can move forward and not just be seeing continued lockdown, especially…

Mercedes Stephenson: In light of that, though, do you think that…

Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel Garner: I’m hearing the other country is getting ahead of us.

Mercedes Stephenson: In light of that, if you have a Conservative MP, who is putting forward this kind of material and not denouncing it, do you believe that Mr. Sloan should be allowed to remain in caucus?

Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel Garner: Well I mean, you know, I look at the Liberal Party and we had members of their caucus when Jody Wilson-Raybould was going through all of her things, saying ridiculous sexist things to her and Justin Trudeau still has them in their caucus. The question that everybody has on their mind right now is can the Conservative Party of Canada put enough pressure on the Justin Trudeau Liberals, such that we move beyond party lines and get information on when we’re getting a vaccine. That’s what I’m focused on. That’s what the leader of our party is focusing on, Erin O’Toole. And we certainly support the government working hard to get Canadians that vaccine so we can move out of this generational crisis that our country has been facing for the last 11 months.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, doesn’t sound like you’re focused on cracking down on people inside the party. We appreciate your time, Ms. Rempel Garner. Thank you for joining us and we wish you and your family the best.

Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel Garner: I disagree.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, an interview with Alberta’s Health Minister Tyler Shandro.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Alberta has seen a record spike in the number of COVID-19 cases. Experts are sounding the alarm in that province and warning that if numbers continue to rise, more restrictions could be on the way in the future.

Joining me now with the latest from Alberta is Health Minister Tyler Shandro. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Minister.

Everybody is talking about the situation in Alberta. It’s very close to my heart. I’m an Alberta girl, my family is still there. I think that the province really has the concern and the empathy of the country, but there’s a sense that this is a crisis and many are asking why the government hasn’t taken more drastic action in terms of restrictions to flatten the curve. So, is your government looking at that in the immediate term? Has the time come to really get stricter with people?

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Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro: Well thank you for the question. And yes, you’re right. The case numbers have risen in Alberta, especially in Edmonton and Calgary. And so that is concerning to us. It is why last week we had—and by last week, I mean the week before—we had implemented new measures that really were, you know, they were focused on the evidence and where we had seen for the last nine months, transmission throughout our communities and so that’s why we were imposing mandatory restrictions on social gatherings in people’s homes where we really saw that as the main concern for us. And so—but we did tell Albertans that if we did not see reductions in cases as a result of those new measures that were imposed that we would before December 15th, be reviewing that data with our public health officials and be determining whether further measures would be required.

Mercedes Stephenson: How high do the numbers have to go before you take action? I mean, folks were saying you’re looking at field hospitals. There are hospitals that are—could be over capacity that this is rapidly becoming a very serious public health crisis. Your numbers are as high as, or higher than Ontario, a population that is much, much larger than Alberta. Alberta has one third the people of Ontario, why not just crackdown right now and say we’re going to flatten this virus? It’s time to take a month out and just really be strict and tough.

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro: Well first of all, it’s going to take 10-14 days for the effects of a measure to be understood and to whether, you know, whether there’s a reduction in case numbers that come as a result of measures. So that’s why we needed some time after the previous measures were announced, for us to be able to see where there were changes in our communities. And if there were any reductions in our case numbers, we did say that when we announced those measures, so we want to see our rate come down below one. We haven’t seen that yet by this time and so it is the case that we might be imposing further measures. We’re going to be reviewing that data with our public health officials, though, before December 15th when we have that information. But I should also say, look we erected a tent outside of one of our hospitals back in the spring. It was a tent that was donated to Alberta that was erected by our health authority, Alberta Health Services. We’re not looking at field hospitals. We have contracted with agencies to be able to make sure in case it ever was needed as a contingency plan, but remembering that a contingency plan is over and above anything that’s required for the current state. And so, of course, I think we had engaged in the contracting for a tent that could be erected outside a hospital like it’s already been happening at the Peter Lougheed Hospital in Calgary. And that’s just prudent planning.

Mercedes Stephenson: I want to ask you about something that an academic here in Ottawa said. Amir Attaran, he took to Twitter with a very controversial thread saying that Alberta has basically put public health behind the interests of individual freedom and the economy and therefore the federal government shouldn’t help Alberta. Alberta should bail itself out as a wealthy province. Obviously, he received a lot of condemnation on that for social media, but I’m wondering what your response is to Mr. Attaran?

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro: A lot of that is inflammatory and I don’t think warrants any kind of response so I’ll leave it for other folks on Twitter to reply to him.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that the criticism that others have made in the political realm that Alberta has put individual freedom and prosperity ahead of health is warranted?

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro: No, it’s not at all. Look, the measures that we have imposed so far have been looking at the evidence that we see not just in Alberta but also throughout the world, including in Asia and Europe and the United States. We saw a spread…

Mercedes Stephenson: But with all due respect, Minister, you put them in much later than other provinces, and in many cases, still don’t have the same number of restrictions that Quebec or Ontario does.

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro: Well, I think the main difference is that retail is still allowed to be open and restaurants are still allowed to be open. We’ve seen small numbers of retail workers who have contracted COVID and it’s actually proportional to the number of retail workers that are in our economy. And we haven’t seen significant worries at this time about spread in those workplaces. We have imposed mandatory masking in all indoor workplaces, so that would include retail and it would include restaurants. But the main worry we have at this time is in social gatherings and that’s exactly where we directed out measures when we announced them previously and where we’ll continue to review that evidence with our public health officials.

Mercedes Stephenson: Did Minister Hajdu try to influence you to bring in more restrictions in any way?

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro: That wasn’t a conversation. It was a check-in. She was asking how we were doing in Alberta as she has throughout the pandemic. She’s had conversations with me as I assume she’s had conversations with other health ministers as well, and was very happy to make myself available to answer any questions that she had.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. Thank you so much for joining us today, Minister Shandro. I know you have a lot that you are dealing with out there in Alberta and we send our best to Alberta from Ottawa.

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro:  Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well that’s all the time we have for today. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. We’ll see you right back here next Sunday.