THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 20, Season 10
Sunday, February 7, 2021
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Harjit Sajjan, Minister of National Defence
Anita Anand, Public Services and Procurement Minister
Michelle Rempel-Garner, Conservative—Calgary Nose Hill
Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Author and Former Liberal MP
Location: Ottawa, Ontario
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Pandemic procurement problems.
Anita Anand, Minister of Public Services and Procurement: “We are in a time of global turbulence, where production lines are being ramped up. And as that occurs, we can expect some turbulence or shifting in the delivery schedules.”
Michelle Rempel-Garner, Conservative—Calgary Nose Hill: “They took some of these manufacturers word for it. They didn’t really plan for contingencies.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Sexual misconduct allegations against Canada’s former top soldier, General Jonathan Vance.
Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Author and Former Liberal MP: “I would believe them before I believe that the government didn’t actually know what was going on.”
Mercedes Stephenson: An exclusive sit down with the defence minister on what he knew.
It’s Sunday, February 7th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.
Canada’s former top soldier, General Jonathan Vance, is under investigation by military police and the Department of National Defence after Global News revealed allegations of sexual misconduct.
Vance is accused of having had an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate officer while under his direct command in 2006 and during his time as chief of the defence staff.
Vance is also accused of sending an email, making a sexual advance on a 25-year-old corporal. Speaking to Global News, Vance denied any inappropriate behaviour.
Global News also reported the Minister of National Defence was made aware of concerns about Vance in 2018. Minister Harjit Sajjan joins us now to discuss this.
This is difficult news for many in the military. The allegations that have come forward are very serious against General Vance. I’m also aware that you had heard about this from the ombudsman back in 2018, so I just wanted to get some clarity on what exactly you learned at that time and if that was the first time that you heard about concerns of the conduct of General Vance.
Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan: Well Mercedes, first of all, you’re talking about the shock that I think all of had in the last week with the allegations that have been brought forward. I can only imagine the shock and the confidence that has been broken with all the women who are serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, and for the women that felt they could not come forward. This is probably the most concerning thing for me and something that we have to fix immediately.
When it comes to any other allegations, one thing I can tell you that anything that was brought to me was immediately reported to the appropriate authorities so that any type of investigation could be conducted. But what I can tell you, is everything that I’ve heard, the allegations that have come forward, had been new and shocking to me as well.
Mercedes Stephenson: So, what exactly did the ombudsman tell you in 2018 that you felt, was concerning enough that you had your chief of staff pass that on to Privy Council Office?
Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan: Well Mercedes, I can’t, regrettably, breach that confidence because more importantly, we have to protect the integrity of the investigation, especially what’s before us now.
Finally, these women have come forward and the last thing I want to do is undermine that trust. I want to make sure that the allegations can be properly investigated and I can’t, unfortunately, talk about the conversation because the discussions between ombudsman and minister of national defence are confidential. But as I stated, I can assure you that anything that was forwarded was immediately passed on to the appropriate authorities.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, with all due respect, the women I’ve spoken to, this is part of what they highlight that they felt that people at high levels had been warned and that nothing ever happened. Therefore, they were afraid to come forward because they feared, and some of them I can tell you, still fear the potential for punishment from within the institution. Not officially, as much as, also in unsanctioned ways. When you heard this, I understand passing it on to the appropriate investigative authority, who by the way says they had no information to do anything with this, but did you at any point actually tell the prime minister or tell cabinet or tell the prime minister’s senior staff about these concerns?
Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan: Well first of all, everything was thoroughly followed up and that—the point that you raised that women had brought this forward, that’s actually very concerning to me. These are the things that we absolutely need to fix. This is the things that we were trying to fix from day one. Our government has been putting this as a top priority, something that we worked on. So this is something that is very disturbing to me, and that’s why we’re going to be launching an independent and very thorough investigation separate from the chain of command so that we can get the answers. And one thing I can assure you, it will be thorough. It will be deep. And, also we’re going to be looking at who was complicit throughout any of these allegations as well.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well Minister, I just want to go back there, though, to ask again. Did you at any point raise this with Prime Minister Trudeau or any of his senior staff or fellow members of cabinet?
Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan: Mercedes, one thing I can assure you is that any type of information has been—was brought to the appropriate authorities for the appropriate process and it was followed up thoroughly on this. And for the sake of protecting the integrity of the current investigation, I can’t comment on anything further on this. We owe it to the survivors who have come forward to making sure that we protect the integrity of the investigation.
Mercedes Stephenson: So that’s not a yes or a no to whether or not the prime minister and cabinet were aware of this?
Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan: As I stated, we have to—I know we want answers, Mercedes. I want answers, especially all the women in the Canadian Armed Forces who deserve the answers on this and the changes that are needed and for Canadians. But it’s the independent investigation that will determine this and also if these allegations lead to a court where we’ll get the answers, but the last thing that I want to do here, is to be able to undermine the investigation and undermine any potential justice that may come from these allegations.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you wish in retrospect that you’d done more when you heard some of these allegations coming from the ombudsman?
Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan: One thing I can assure you, Mercedes, this has been a top priority, making sure that we create a safe environment. Now as a man, I can never say that I understand what a woman would go through in these type of cases, but one thing I can assure you that I always have been a champion for this, as a former police officer having investigated things like this, that we will do everything in our power to making sure that we can make those changes. And in retrospect that you asked me, I can assure you that when any allegations brought forward that it was aggressively and very quickly and timely put forward to the authorities, followed up appropriately and that any further actions, if there were, we would have taken it. But one thing I can assure you, that everything in our power was always done when something was brought forward. This is something that our government has been seized with. This is something that I have been seized with.
Mercedes Stephenson: You mentioned that independent investigation. What can you tell us about that? We know there’s a military police investigation by the Canadian Forces National Investigative Service, but there’s also a separate one. Is that being run by the department? Is it external? What does that look like?
Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan: Well, I can’t obviously, talk about the military policy investigation because that is completely independent. But one thing I can assure you, the independent investigation that has not been launched yet. I want to get the thorough advice on this before we do it so that we can get this right. But it will be independent from the military so that it is thorough. I can also assure you it will be very deep. We will be looking at who was complicit throughout this ordeal and plus to making sure that we get the appropriate recommendations moving forward to make the necessary changes so that finally that women can feel confident that they won’t not be retribution if they come forward. These are things that are extremely disturbing to me and the changes that we make. And so we haven’t made the final decisions just yet. I’m getting the appropriate advice, but it will be independent from the military.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, thank you very much for joining us on this topic. We appreciate it.
Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan: Thank you, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, vaccines, vaccines, vaccines. Where are they? Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine procurement woes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Canada’s vaccine procurement strategy is under fire this week. Despite delays in supply chain hiccups, though, Procurement Minister Anita Anand says Canadians are still on track to be vaccinated by September of this year. But some experts and the Opposition say those numbers just don’t add up.
Canada has administered just over 1 million doses into Canadians arms since the first vaccine approval in December. But with a population of nearly 40 million people, the country still lags far behind.
Late last week, I spoke with Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel-Garner to get the Opposition’s take. Here’s some of what she had to say.
Michelle Rempel-Garner, Conservative—Calgary Nose Hill: Well they keep moving the goalpost and this isn’t something that they can easily fudge because a vaccine is a tangible thing, right? And we don’t have those right now. And it’s also—moving the goalposts also has implications for delivery with the provinces. So if we’re receiving a big dump of vaccines at the end of a quarter as opposed to, you know, week by week as they had been informing the provinces, this could have, as I said, an impact on storage, on delivery. It also has an impact on the window between doses. These vaccines require two doses and if somebody gets a vaccine and then that shipment is delayed three months, it has huge implications for the public health system. So I—like saying, well we’re going to get it at some time doesn’t work when you translate that to the practical reality of delivery and of figuring out who’s getting the doses when. I think what’s happened here, is that they took some of these manufacturers word for it. They didn’t really plan for contingencies. We were late to the table on these things and now we’re scrambling. So we do need a plan B and this is what we’re pushing the government for, is what happens next? What’s our plan B because we shouldn’t be this far behind. We can’t just be leaving this to a hope and a prayer with so much riding on it between lives, our economy and jobs.
Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now, for some answers on Canada’s strategy and what is happening. Minister Anita Anand, joins us now. Thank you so much for joining us, Minister. I know that you are working around the clock trying to procure more vaccines for Canadians, a process that’s been a struggle. Things have slowed down. There’s a lot of questions about when we’ll get vaccines, less vaccines that were planned in the short-term. Canada right now is 35th overall in the world in terms of the number of vaccinations we’re giving people. Why is it that 34 other countries are ahead of us?
Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand: Well thanks for having me on the show, and I want to reiterate that after a temporary reduction last week, we are ramping back up. We have 1.4 million vaccines delivered into this country and we have shipments from Pfizer and Moderna already arrived this past week in this country. And we are ramping back up to ensure that we reach our target of 2 million vaccines of Moderna by the end of quarter and 4 million of Pfizer. And thereafter, we are going to see millions of vaccines coming into this country: 20 million in addition to that 6 million by the end of the second quarter and then more than 70 million in aggregate by the end of September so that all Canadians will have access to a vaccine should they want one.
In response to your question, we have to remember that the entire globe is seeking access to these vaccines and the pressure and the competition is incredibly intense as production facilities ramp up. Having said that, we were one of the first countries to begin inoculations, one of the first countries to sign with Pfizer and Moderna and we are on track with the time schedule that I just laid out for you with deliveries resuming, as I said, this week and continuing on into next week. And we’ve been able to get deliveries out of Europe despite the transparency mechanism that the EU put in place last week, so all systems are go. We are continuing to receive deliveries of vaccines into this country, and we are looking forward to meeting those quarterly targets.
Mercedes Stephenson: I know that there’s a friendlier administration, perhaps, south of the border now for your government, a lot of close relationships between President Biden’s administration and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. I know Canadians are wondering if we might be able to get vaccines from the United States because they are manufacturing them. Has your government asked the Biden administration for that?
Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand: Well it’s a very good point and indeed, we have been in touch with the Biden administration at all levels in terms of vaccine and access to vaccines south of the border. Our prime minister has spoken with the president and I, in fact, have also spoken with the administration to determine whether there is Canadian access to those vaccines. At the current time, U.S. domestic production of vaccines is attributed and being attributed only to U.S. citizens. But this is a matter than I’m engaged with our ambassador on, as well as the Biden administration and we will keep pressing this point. But I will say that we have managed to continue to have our exports come out of Europe in the way of Pfizer arriving here, Moderna arriving here this week and that will continue because of our cross-country negotiation and our work with our counterparts in the EU.
Mercedes Stephenson: I know the United Kingdom is pursuing booster shots to deal with some of these new variants and concerns about how well the shots might work against them and just how quickly the variants can spread. Is Canada also looking to try to procure booster shots on top of what we’ve already committed to so that we are prepared for that situation?
Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand: Well I think it’s important to remember that our procurements are based on the advice of the vaccine task force and the Public Health Agency of Canada. The scientists drive our decisions relating to all procurements. And in that vein, we are continuing to be in discussions with them regarding their advice. We’ve had preliminary conversations with vaccine suppliers about potential booster and the acquisition of those boosters. And by all means, we will continue to take the advice of the Public Health Agency of Canada with regards to additional procurements in this area, as it is so very important.
Mercedes Stephenson: It’s difficult for Canadians to evaluate how good a job the government has done in negotiating the contracts because they haven’t been released publicly, and I know that you’ve said that’s because there’s confidentiality agreements in there that prevent the government from releasing that information. But when you look at that situation, I think a lot of Canadians are wondering why we would have signed something that we can’t disclose.
Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand: Well it’s very important to remember that the vaccine companies have proprietary sensitive information that they came to the table with prior to the discovery of a vaccine itself and the knowledge that it would be passing approval from Health Canada. And it was on that basis that they around the world entered into contracts with jurisdictions, all of which have confidentiality provisions. You might say well there are some jurisdictions that have released their contracts. The contracts and they are few in number that have been released, have been a) heavily redacted, b) don’t contain delivery schedules, and c) released on the agreement of the supplier at hand. None of which are present in the Canadian context. In the Canadian context, we are actually the only jurisdiction that I know of that is releasing full-fledged delivery schedules to others and the public in this country and I think that that’s very important to note. When we are being claimed to be transparent or the lack therefore, we must remember that we are the only jurisdiction that is actually making public our disclosure schedules and in my mind, actually, that is transparency. We want to be able to allow the provinces and territories to plan as soon as we get information relating to deliveries. Whether it’s positive or negative, we pass that onto the provinces and territories through Major-General Dany Fortin and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, thank you so much for joining us today. We know you’re very busy and we appreciate your time.
Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand: I really look forward to seeing you again. Thank you so much, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the former Liberal MP who went up against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, author Celina Caesar-Chavannes on her new memoir: Can You Hear Me Now?
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Celina Caesar-Chavannes was a Liberal Member of Parliament. She made headlines when she left caucus around the same time as SNC-Lavalin was happening. She’s been critical of the prime minister and of the Liberal caucus. And now, she has released a new book about her time in politics called Can You Hear Me Now?
She joins us now on the show. Thank you so much for coming on, Celina.
Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Author and Former Liberal MP: And thank you for having me, Mercedes. How are you?
Mercedes Stephenson: You have written—you know I’m great, considering it’s a pandemic: healthy and very fortunate to be employed. I hope that all is well with you and your family.
You know, part of that people have been doing a lot of is reading while they’re at home. You’ve released this new book called Can You Hear Me Now, and I thought that was a very interesting title given your time in politics. Can you tell me a bit about why you chose that title and what it reflects about your experience?
Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Author and Former Liberal MP: Well I think there was a number of stories that you’ll get from the book, starting from the first year of me being in politics around, you know, presenting a framework for my role as parliamentary secretary, or in the second year being excluded from conversations around investments in the black community or the United Nations Decade for People of African Descent. You know, when I started talking about equity and race in 2018, you know, the silence sort of from PMO or from my own Liberal benches. So I think Can You Hear Me Now really is an expression of the fact that, you know, there’s things that I wanted to say while I was there that never really came across and I’m hoping through this book, people can understand my story.
Mercedes Stephenson: Now, in the book you talk about your commitment to diversity and the issues around anti-black racism in Canada. You were a part of this Liberal government. They’ve talked a lot about their commitments on those fronts. Do you feel that it’s sincere and that there are actually policies being advanced that are going to make a difference.
Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Author and Former Liberal MP: Well, I think Canadians could see that for themselves. Right now, the Liberal government has been faced with a class action lawsuit around the number of representation of black individuals in the Public Service. You know, we had a majority government at a time in 2015 to 2019, where we said we were going to repeal mandatory minimums. We have a large displacement of black and Indigenous people in our federal prisons. That didn’t happen. I think that there’s a lot of talk about doing certain things, but when it comes to actually executing, we’re not seeing much other than performance.
Mercedes Stephenson: One of the big stories in Ottawa over the past week has been the allegations against the former Chief of the Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance, of allegedly inappropriate relationships with subordinate women. This is a government who said they’re a feminist government. They say they didn’t know anything about this despite the fact that concerns were raised with the Minister of National Defence at one point. With the Governor General, which we heard about just a couple of weeks ago, again, concerns about the treatment of staff.
In your book, you talk about the fact that you felt you weren’t listened to. You felt you were kind of brushed off. Do you think that there’s a pattern with this government in terms of hearing what they want to hear, or do you think that they just genuinely didn’t know about these situations?
Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Author and Former Liberal MP: It’s a good question, Mercedes, but I don’t think Canadians really need to look too far to understand that perhaps, and I’m surmising, that there was some information that was shared. When we think about the fact that we have two individuals at the highest level of our government, so the governor general and during SNC with the prime minister saying that people experiencing things differently. We’re getting the same messaging of well we didn’t quite know, but people may be experiencing things differently. And I really got a, you know, within a feminist government, we have to understand that is it actually rhetoric or is it a sincere conversation about ensuring that people are safe in their workplaces? And I know, based on my own experiences, especially in the last dying days of the 42nd Parliament, that those kinds of treatments of individuals, I would believe them before I believe that the government didn’t actually know what was going on, or that people experiencing things differently. If everybody experiences things differently, it might be their problem and not everybody else’s.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well Celina, we appreciate your commitment to public service and your time with us today and sharing your experiences in your book. Thank you so much for joining us, and we hope to have you back again soon.
Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Author and Former Liberal MP: For sure. Thank you so much, Mercedes, and thank you to your viewers as well.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for this week on The West Block. But we will be right back here again at this time, next Sunday. See you then.