The West Block — Episode 13, Season 10

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The West Block: Foreign affairs minister opens up about international diplomacy during a global pandemic
WATCH: The West Block: Foreign affairs minister opens up about international diplomacy during a global pandemic – Dec 20, 2020

Episode 13, Season 10
Sunday, December 20, 2020

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

François-Philippe Champagne, Foreign Affairs Minister
Various MPs on the Hill for annual holiday book reading

Location: Ottawa, Ontario

Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block, the year that changed everything: a global pandemic, Iran, China and a new American president. My year-end interview with Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne starts now.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne joins me now for our year-end interview. Thank you so much for making time for us, Minister. I know you have one of the busiest jobs in cabinet.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well thank you, and thank you for coming to Global Affairs. I must say, yes indeed, 2020 was eventful for all of us. But I think sometime when I reflected for this interview, I’d say, I think 2020 showed the fragility and resilience of humanity across the world and certainly in our country. So certainly, there’s a lot of lessons learned from 2020 and everyone, our watchers, everyone worked very hard this year.

Mercedes Stephenson: You’re the foreign affairs minister and it was a year of unprecedented global change, both with the COVID-19 pandemic, but even we all think back to how the year started off with Iran shooting down the Ukrainian Airlines jet that had Canadians onboard. It shocked a lot of Canadians who didn’t think that they were between the crosshairs. Then we saw the COVID-19 pandemic sweep across the country, assassinations, major changes in the Middle East in power alliances, what stands out to you as the most memorable or important moment from this past year?

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well, you started with PS752, so let me say how I lived through that. You know, I remember one evening, this was the evening where missiles were shot on a military base where we had Canadian personnel and we were just assessing, there were no casualties. Thank God there were no casualties. And I remember during the call, I saw strolling on my—you know, we all look at social media these days and I saw a very flash news report that said there’s been a plane crash in Tehran. So I texted that to my colleagues and I got something back. And it said, Minister, there’s also an earthquake. So I went to bed this way, and around, I think, 3-4 am in the morning, I got a call from our emergency operations centre that said, Minister, you should wake up. You should be aware that—at that time, we didn’t have a very accurate number, but we knew that many, many Canadians had perished in a plane crash. And now my mind started racing and I said are you talking about the plane crash that left Tehran for Kyiv? And they said, exactly. So that started racing and from there, obviously unfolded. You know, probably one of the biggest tragedies for Canadians in terms of loss of lives. And then we immediately got in motion. So what happened exactly? Why was the airspace open? Why was the airport open? And also charting a way forward to say never again, so how can we reform the international bodies of laws that govern, obviously, the civil aviation in the world.

Mercedes Stephenson: How do you enforce that on a country like Iran, which so far, has not been cooperative in being transparent, initially denied that the plane was shot down, has lied to the international community, and has refused to return the remains of some of those victims to Canada and to other countries? They don’t seem to care.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well I stand up against them at every step of the way. I never—I don’t judge them by their words but by their actions. And one of the things that we did, Mercedes, from the very beginning, which I think has made a difference. First of all, the family made the whole difference in their trust and their advice to us so that we can—we’ve been in lockstep at every step of the way. But the one thing that we did at the very beginning, and again, this is going back almost to the text diplomacy is that creating this international coordination and response group. Because when this happened, one thing I thought. I said, well, we better be united because if we’re united, we’re going to be stronger. So we don’t speak only as Canada, but we speak as the group of countries representing families of the victims and on behalf, I would say, of the international community to ask these very legitimate questions, for which we expect fulsome answers. But, you know, we do that with eyes wide open. We know what Iran is capable of, and that’s why at every step of the way we’ve been challenging, we’ve been pushing, we’ve been speaking up and we’ll continue because we promised one thing to the families, was justice, transparency and accountability. And these words resonate. I spent three hours with the families and I can assure you, if there’s one part of the job which is always the most—gets inside of you—is when you have to represent people. You’re the face of their fight. That’s the same thing for Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and all the other people who are facing consular situations around the world. We did that with the repatriation.

If you ask me one thing that I will always remember, I can assure you when I was with my family at home in Shawinigan, in December 2019, at the time where we could have all our family, unbeknownst to me would be PS752 and what unfolded, the COVID and then the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Canadians in destinations that I learned of, did not probably even know they existed and having to bring back all these people. And one thing that I’m particularly happy, is that in times of need, we responded [00:05:40]. We have their back. That’s why I texted colleagues to open their space, to open airports in ways that people could probably not believe if I showed them my text messages where I remember once, where I got a call from one of the airlines. They said, Minister, can you help us open the airspace? And nothing prepares you for that. You know, I’m a lawyer. I’m a public servant. But in a way, I’ve never done that in my life and then I got—probably became somewhat of a travel agent for everyone, trying to open airspace, making sure people could get space. And our diplomats, and our people, and our civil service really stood up to the task. I mean, at some stage in the building you are, normally our watch centre would have what, twenty people? I don’t know? Thirty people on a 24 hour basis. We had 600 people. We trained people to become consular specialists. We got like 2 million calls and emails. We still had people in the Middle East, in Africa. I can’t remember how many people in Africa. We needed to make sure, for example, they could transit to London, or that Paris would allow our people to go. So in this, what seemed to go at the pace that we have never seen before in terms of information to absorb, process and to make the right decision, you know, this was unprecedented and I really want to say thank you to Canadians to give us their trust. Sometimes we’re telling them hold on for a minute, we’re fixing. But we de-conflicted so many things at the same time that I think I’ll put that in a book.
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Mercedes Stephenson: Don’t go anywhere. My interview with the foreign affairs minister continues next.


Mercedes Stephenson: One of the other big stories this year, of course, and it has been now for two years, unfortunately is that of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. They of course, have been unjustly held in a Chinese prison.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: I would even say arbitrarily detained.

Mercedes Stephenson: Arbitrarily detained which is what you guys say officially. Unofficially, we hear the term hostage taking coming out of this department, frequently.

We spoke to the prime minister on Tuesday and I asked him if he thought that there would be good news for the families before the new year. And in response to that, he said I certainly hope so. I’ve never heard him be that hopeful on a timeline before. Do you have that same hope that there might be good news for those families before the new year?

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Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well the first thing I’d say is that, let’s be clear, two years have been stolen in the lives of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. And two years have been stolen from their families and their loved ones. I happened to speak to them and I must say, Mercedes, those are some of the most sobering moments for me because, you know, I’m there fighting with the prime minister for them at every step of the way. And talking to their families when two years have been stolen from either a brother, from a loved one, or from a son, is some of the most humbling discussions you can have because obviously, we’re saying we’re doing everything we can. And I think what we have achieved this year, first, is that I think the world doesn’t see anymore, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor as being two Canadians arbitrarily detained in China. They see that as two citizens of a liberal democracy and I think, you know, that’s the strength that we have. We gained momentum. The world is talking. I’m talking to my colleagues around the world, everyone knows about Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and they know that we need to stand up and speak up together against courts of diplomacy because for me, that’s one of the worst kind of courts of diplomacy to arbitrarily detain people.

On the hopeful side, I would say, you may recall that sometime this year we caused a meeting to happen in Rome with my counterpart, Wang Yi. And I said cause to happen because it’s very unusual in diplomacy that two foreign ministers would meet in a third country, apart if you have an international setting or conference or something. But for two ministers to meet while both of us had an official visit in Italy for that matter is pretty unusual. But we caused the meeting to happen from 9pm to 11pm. And I would say in diplomacy, that’s a long meeting. And I qualified it as being robust and I’m sure our viewers understand what the word robust means in our discussion. But since then, I must say, thanks to the work of Ambassador Barton, thanks to the work of our diplomats, thanks to the work of everyone who’s been involved, we have been able to regain consular access, something that China has to do under the Vienna Convention but was not doing. When there’s no alternative to diplomacy, these incremental steps, they still matter.

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Mercedes Stephenson: So do you think that you are any closer to them being released than you were a year ago? Because we’ve heard the reports as well that the U.S. Justice Department is potentially working on a deal with Meng Wanzhou’s lawyer that would see her go back to China. A lot of people are speculating that could be the trigger that would cause China to release the two Canadian citizens. Have you talked to the Americans about that?

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well, you know, it’s customary that we can talk about ongoing court cases, whether they’re in Canada or for that matter in another jurisdiction. But we’re certainly following that very carefully as you would expect the people who are watching. But in a sense, I think that what we’ve seen—I’ve always believed that the only way forward is engagement. You need to talk to make progress in any difficult situation and that is a very difficult situation. But what I think—the thing that I’ve explained that happened in 2020, you know, allows us, like the prime minister says, to be hopeful that with the international pressure, with the fact that we’re calling it out at every opportunity, with the fact that we’re going to continue to work with this administration and the next administration and we’re going to continue to work with allies around the world. You know, I think when you look at the year-end, with the resolve being firm and smart in our engagement, I think the words of the prime minister is wise in that respect.

Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve gotten tougher with China. What led to the decision to start shifting policy on that?

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: China is changing, so our foreign policy needs to evolve. And that’s not unique to Canada. If you talk to my colleagues in many parts of the world and say, well, what they had is their framework or foreign policy at the beginning of the year, is no longer really relevant now. Let me give you a very practical example. Who would have expected that China would impose national security law on Hong Kong? So when I say to Canadians, China of 2020 is not the China of 2018 or 16. It’s not just a metaphor. It is the realization of colleagues around the world. I do speak with foreign ministers on a daily basis and everyone is facing the same issue, is that things have been shifting whether it comes to the situation in Xinjiang, whether you’re talking about Hong Kong. You’ve seen Canada standing up in more than words, because people say you’ve been doing declaration. But I said look at the action: first country in the world to suspend extradition treaty with Hong Kong. Canada, I spoke, for example, in the situation in Xinjiang way back with the U.N. high representative for human rights, which I happen to know very well. And I said what action are we going to take? What is the U.N. doing? How can we support? How can we gather countries around that? So, it’s both words and actions but being firm and smart and certainly working with the international—with our partners and allies. We’ve done that with the U.K. We’ve done that with Australia and New Zealand, the United States and in some cases, with the G7.

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s been four years since the initial reports of Havana Syndrome by Canadian and American diplomats in Cuba, who described everything from terrible headaches, to nosebleeds and all kinds of unexplained symptoms. Canadian officials still haven’t explained what happened, but there is a report that was commissioned by Congress recently and it says the most probable cause of the injuries was directed pulsed microwave energy. And intelligence officials in the United States are pointing the finger at Russia. Do you believe that this was a directed pulse microwave energy attack? And do you believe Russia was behind it?

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: I saw the report that you referred to and obviously, one of my first duties as the minister of foreign affairs, is the duty of care to our diplomats around the world. And certainly, I take that very seriously. I spoke with the foreign minister of Cuba for that matter, I think days ago and obviously, this was raised. I’m still waiting for our Canadian officials to assess that report that you saw, which was commissioned in the United States, which points in one direction. And certainly in light of that, we will take appropriate action.

Mercedes Stephenson: One last question for you, Minister. It is now the end of the Trump administration, new era with President-elect Biden coming in. What do you expect to be your biggest challenge with President Biden? Because we always hear—I know, you’re looking forward to working with the administration—but specifically, what is the biggest challenge on your radar that you’re preparing to tackle there?

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well first of all, like I said at the beginning, I said President-elect Biden is good news for Canada. I think we’ll see more stability and predictability in that relationship. And I think—and I’ll come to your question specifically, but I see on the opportunity side, the response to COVID, the vaccine, the border. I see also in the economic recovery. I mean, for sure, you know, we often say let’s build back better. I’d like to say let’s build back better, together. And I think that’s something that’s going to resonate. We see supply chains which go from global to regional, where resiliency is more important than efficiency now. And I hope that they will see the benefit of having an integrated supply chain that we have. I mean, there are no two partners who do more business together than Canada and the United States. We’ve been blessed by geography. I see also on the green side with Senator Kerry, you know, aligning our policies, aligning our views and making a difference in the world and on multilateralism. So all that being said to your point more specifically, I think that certainly the administration, just like we are, will have to do a lot domestically, the COVID response and the economic recovery. So as we do well as Canadians, it’s going to be for team Canada to always, you know, highlight to our U.S. friends, the importance of that relationship, what we can do together and what Can—the special place of Canada for the United States in as we look ahead for the next years together.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Champagne, thank you so much for joining us and for sharing some of the personal moments from your year as well.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Thank you very much. And thanks for the good work you’re doing and informing Canadians throughout the very difficult year as well.

Mercedes Stephenson: The tradition lives on, but it’s a little bit different this year. The annual holiday book reading with MPs on the Hill is next.

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[Instrumental Christmas music intro]

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: “Well,” boomed Santa. “Have all the children from Ottawa been good this year?”

“Well, ah, mostly,” answered the little old elf.

As he bustled across the busy workshop to Santa’s desk, Santa peered down at the elf from behind the tall, teetering piles of letters that the children of Ottawa had sent him.

“Most of these?” asked Santa, looking over the top of his glasses.

“Yes, they’ve all been especially good in the last few days,” said the elf.

“Jolly good,” chuckled, Santa. “Then we better get their presents loaded up.”

Michelle Rempel-Garner, Conservative MP: Even though the sack of presents was really, really big and the elves were really, really small, they seemed to have no trouble loading it into Santa’s sleigh, though how they managed to fit such a big sack into one little sleigh, even they didn’t know. But somehow, they did.

“Splendid!” boomed Santa. “We’re ready to go.”

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“Err, not quite, Santa,” said one little old elf. “One of our reindeer is missing.”

Nate Erskine-Smith, Liberal MP: “Missing? Which reindeer is missing?” asked Santa.

“The youngest one, Santa,” said the elf. “It’s his first flight tonight. I’ve called him and called him but—“

Just then, a young reindeer strolled up, munching on a large carrot.

“Where have you been?” asked Santa.

But the youngest reindeer was crunching so loudly that it was no wonder he hadn’t heard the little old elf calling.

“Oh well, never mind,” said Santa, giving the reindeer a little wink.

He took out his Santa Nav and tapped in the coordinates for Ottawa.

“This will guide us to Ottawa in no time.”

Elizabeth May, Green Party MP: With a flick of the reins and a jerk of the harness, off they went racing through the sky.

“Ho, ho, ho,” laughed Santa. “We’ll soon have these presents delivered to Bytown.”

Bill Blair, Minister of Public Safety: Santa’s sleigh flew through the starry night, heading south across the Arctic Ocean. On they flew in the wintery air, crossing over Nunavut. With a wink of an eye, his sleigh was flying over Hudson Bay and on towards Ontario. The youngest reindeer was very excited. He had never been away from the North Pole before. They were just nearing Gatineau Park, when suddenly they ran into a blizzard. Snowflakes rolled around the sleigh. They couldn’t see a thing. The youngest reindeer was getting a bit worried, but Santa didn’t seem concerned.

“In two miles,” said the Santa Nav in a bossy lady’s voice. “Keep left at the next star.”

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“But ma’am,” Santa blustered. “I can’t see any stars in all this snow.”

And soon, they were hopelessly lost.

Rosemarie Falk, Conservative MP: Then, through the blizzard, the youngest reindeer heard a faint ringing sound.


He looked over at the old reindeer with the red nose, but he had his head down.

“Red nose, I wonder who that could be?”

Ding-dong. Ding-dong. Ding-dong. Ding-dong. There was that sound again, like church bells ringing.

The youngest reindeer turned around to look at Santa. But Santa wasn’t listening; he seemed to be arguing with a little box with buttons on it. With a flick of the harness and a jerk of the reins, the youngest reindeer gave a sharp tug and headed off toward the sound of the bells, pulling Santa and his sleigh behind him.

Matthew Green, NDP MP: “Whoa!” cried Santa, as he pulled his hat straight. “What’s going on?”

Then to his surprise, he heard a ringing sound.

“Well done, young reindeer,” he shouted cheerfully. “It must be the bells of Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica. Don’t worry children, Santa’s coming. Ohhhhhhh!” Crunch.

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Then, he heard something as it plummeted through the snow clouds.

“You have arrived,” said the Santa Nav, unhelpfully.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: Finally, when the snow had died down and the clouds parted, Santa discovered exactly where they were—stuck, right at the very top of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.

“Everybody pull!”

The reindeer pulled with all their might until at least with a screeching noise, the sleigh scraped clear of the tower and Santa steered them safely past the Golden Triangle, along Rideau Canal and down into Commissioner’s Park.

Luckily, there was no real damage done, but the packages had all been jumbled up. Santa quickly sorted out the presents into order again.

“All right,” said Santa. “Thanks to this young reindeer, I know where we are now. Don’t worry children, Santa is coming.”

Jenica Atwin, Green MP: In house after house, Santa delved inside his sack for packages of every shape and size. He piled them under the Christmas trees and carefully filled up the stockings with surprises.

In house after house, the good children of Ottawa had left out a large plate of cookies, a small glass of milk and a big crunchy carrot.

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Santa took a little bite out of each cookie, a tiny sip of milk, wiped his beard and popped the carrots into his sack.

Erin O’Toole, Conservative Party Leader: Finally, Santa had delivered the last present on his long Canada list.

“Great moons and stars,” sighed Santa. “It’s past midnight and my sack seems as heavy as ever. I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone.”

Santa opened his sack to check but it was full of juicy, crunchy carrots. Santa divided the carrots among all the reindeer.

“Well done!” he said, patting the youngest reindeer gently on the nose.

But the youngest reindeer didn’t hear him. He was too busy munching.

Then, it was time to set off for home. Santa reset his Santa Nav once more to the North Pole and soon they were speeding over Nathan Philips Square, across the Great Lakes, past Olympic Park and above Mount Logan through the crisp, starry night.

“Ho, ho, ho,” laughed Santa. “Merry Christmas, Canada.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: Happy holidays, Merry Christmas, joyeux Noël à tous, and mostly, Happy New Year. I know it’s going to be a better one.

[Instrumental Christmas music outro]

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