THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 26, Season 10
Sunday, March 21, 2021
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs
Kevin Garratt, Former Detainee
Amanda Connolly, Global News
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail
Location: Ottawa, Ontario
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Two years in China, the secret trials of the two Michaels. Canadian consular officials denied access. What’s next?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Our top priority remains securing their release.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Canada’s new deal with the U.S. for more AstraZeneca doses. Does it mean we’re closer to an election?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Vaccines are the path out of this pandemic and that’s why securing doses and getting them to the front lines is my number one priority.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And, the sexual misconduct scandal in the Canadian Forces.
Lt.-Col. Eleanor Taylor, Canadian Armed Forces: “The example is not only not being set, but the behaviour is being perpetrated at the top.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Did the government fail Canada’s troops?
It’s Sunday, March 21st. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.
Behind closed doors two Canadians: Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor face trial in China. The two men have been arbitrarily detained for over two years. There are no journalists, no observers and no consular officials who are allowed to watch their trials. And those trials could conclude in mere hours almost always resulting in a guilty verdict.
On Friday, the prime minister criticized China’s lack of transparency.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “China needs to understand that it is not just about two Canadians. It is about the respect for the rule of law and relationships with a broad range of Western countries that is at play with the arbitrary detention and the coercive diplomacy they have engaged in.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now from Moncton, New Brunswick, the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc. Thank you for joining us Minister Leblanc.
A lot of Canadians very worried about the two Michaels today, very worried about their future, questioning your government’s strategy, asking if you should have been tougher, if it’s time to get tougher? What are your thoughts on that?
Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs: It’s obviously we understand the very real anxiety that Canadians have about this arbitrary detention, a supposed trial, an alleged trial that doesn’t meet the basic standard of fairness, of respect for the rule of law. Our government has said from the very beginning that this is an unjust and an arbitrary detention. It’s the kind of coercive diplomacy that China seeks to engage in and it’s fundamentally opposed by Western democracies, by Canada, by our allies including the United States. Our government will not stop doing everything necessary to secure their release. The prime minister, the minister of foreign affairs, my colleagues, are engaged actively and frequently on what is a huge priority for the Government of Canada and all Canadians.
Mercedes Stephenson: There are a number of tactics you could take to be tougher with China. For example, you could apply Magnitsky sanctions. You could say we’re not going to allow senior members of the Chinese regime to buy property in Canada or houses. We’re not going to allow them to send their children to university here. There are a number of mechanisms, including kicking the ambassador out that your government has taken. But it seems like you really haven’t chosen any of those harder lines. Why is that?
Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs: First of all, we are not ruling out any action necessary, in our view, to secure the release of these two Canadian citizens. But we also think that the most effective way to make the Chinese government understand that this is an unacceptable and arbitrary detention is to work multilaterally, to work with allies that have shared values, similar interests. Obviously the United States were encouraged by the Biden administration’s willingness to support Canada and to insist with the Chinese authorities that these detentions need to end. So we remain convinced that the most effective way is to work with like-minded allies, with European countries, with the Americans and other countries, to secure the release of these two Canadians. But the prime minister, the foreign affairs minister will continue to do what is necessary to bring the maximum pressure on the government in China to release these citizens, immediately.
Mercedes Stephenson: And I realize the value of multilaterialism, and in particular, there’s been discussions about countries like Britain, the U.K., Australia, and Canada banding together to take harsher steps against China. You say you want to do what’s most effective, but do you think your approach so far has been effective? Because there’s been no change, they’re now at trial and very likely to be found guilty. It’s about a 99.9 per cent conviction rate in Chinese courts.
Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs: And there again, Mercedes, that’s a perfect example of why this is not a legitimate judicial process. If the conviction rate is almost 100 per cent and there’s no transparency, there’s no access to Canadian consular officials, it obviously doesn’t appear to be in any way a legitimate judicial process. But as we’ve said from the beginning, our government and a lot of these discussions and a lot of these ways in which Canada can bring pressure on the Chinese government and on Chinese authorities, are properly done discretely. Those conversations happen with allies extremely frequently, very frequently and will continue to do so. And as I say, the prime minister has made it clear, Mr. Garneau, the foreign affairs minister, that we will not stop doing what’s necessary to secure their release. And we understand the very real concerns that all Canadians share for these two Canadian citizens.
Mercedes Stephenson: I want to ask you about another file and it’s a file that you’re directly in charge of over at Privy Council Office, the investigation into sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces. We were promised there would be an external probe. Global News broke the story on February 2nd. We’re now past mid-March. We’ve had no update on where that investigation and that probe might be. What can you tell us about that today, minister?
Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs: Mercedes, we can say, as the prime minister has, as the minister of national defence has, that our government takes these kinds of allegations extremely seriously. No person should be required to work in a context and certainly in an institution as important to Canadians as the Canadian Armed Forces in a workplace that’s not respectful and safe. We have been, obviously, very concerned about these allegations and the prime minister and the defence minister have said that we recognize the need to have a robust review of these allegations that’s expeditious but that’s fair, and we’re committed to doing that. And the minister of defence and the prime minister will have more to say in the coming days.
Mercedes Stephenson: With all due respect, minister. There are a lot of people who are saying that these are allegations that happened after your government came in, that you say that you’re a feminist government. It’s not just about the allegations against General Vance or Admiral McDonald. It’s about widespread allegations at the highest ranks. If your government promised better to women of the armed forces, don’t you have some accountability here if six years in you haven’t seen changes?
Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs: Mercedes, we have said the changes will be forthcoming. We have said that, and we have shown across the board as a government that these allegations and these circumstances need to be taken seriously and need to be investigated in a serious, robust, independent way. And that’s exactly the commitment we’ve made to the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces, but obviously across the Government of Canada. And as I said, my colleague and minister of defence, will have more to say in the coming days about specific processes that we think will answer this very real and understandable concern of so many people.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister LeBlanc, thank you so much for joining us. We always appreciate it.
Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs: Thanks Mercedes, have a great day.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the shadowy journey of the two Michaels. We speak with Canadian Kevin Garratt, who was imprisoned in China for nearly 800 days, about what secretive Chinese trials are like and the expected verdict.
Mercedes Stephenson: The two Michaels have been imprisoned for over two years now. Michael Spavor’s trial was on Friday, and Michael Kovrig’s trial is tomorrow. Canadian consular officials were not allowed to attend the proceedings against Spavor, who is accused by China of stealing state secrets. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called the charges trumped up.
To talk about what is happening next in the shadowy journey of these two Canadians detained in China, we’re joined by Kevin Garratt, who spent 775 days in prison, in china. Prior to that, he spent 30 years living and working in Dandong province, which is where one of these trials is taking place.
Kevin, thank you so much for joining us. A lot of Canadians are wondering what’s happening behind the closed doors of the court right now. You’ve been through this process, what are the two Michaels going to experience?
Kevin Garratt, Former Detainee: What they are experiencing, and what Michael Spavor has already experienced, is being taken to the courtroom in shackles and handcuffs, it’s exactly what happened to me: going into a very, probably, dated courtroom. Being a closed trial just as mine was means there’ll be three judges, a couple prosecutors, his lawyer, a couple guards and probably an interpreter as well. He’ll be in the centre of the courtroom and he won’t have an opportunity, really, to talk to his lawyer or to say too much.
Mercedes Stephenson: Kevin, in your case, were Canadian consular officials permitted to be in the courtroom?
Al Kevin Garratt, Former Detainee: No. It was a closed trial, so there are no consular officials. What I was very thankful for was that a couple of consular officials stood outside the court building, all day with my wife, Julia, and a couple of friends, including an American lawyer, who was working behind the scenes on our behalf. And I was able to glimpse them both going in and coming out of the court building. So although they couldn’t see me because the windows of the police van were tinted, I could see them and that was a huge encouragement. And I understand, from what I’ve seen on the news is that the same thing happened with Michael Spavor. There was a contingent of diplomats and media outside. They all waved to him and that would be a huge encouragement to him.
Mercedes Stephenson: What happens when you’re actually going through this trial? It’s not like our trials. It was a couple of hours. It wasn’t months. It did not proceed over a long period of time. Do you even get a chance to defend yourself?
Kevin Garratt, Former Detainee: Right. So what happens in the trial is that all the summaries from their six months of interrogation in isolation will be brought into the court and a summary of the summaries will be presented. So basically, they’re just restating what the conclusion they’ve come to, but they really won’t have a chance to give, you know, arguments on their behalf. So it’s basically already done. I had very little opportunity to talk to my lawyer. I kept trying to understand what was going on in the court. My Chinese is okay, but the interpreter there didn’t translate everything. And I kept asking like, can I say something now? And, you know, it was no, no, no, and then yes you can, but you can’t say that. So it was very confusing. And I think it would be much the same for Michael Spavor because I understand his trial was only a couple of hours. And so a lot of it would be procedures they go through and then reading of summaries, probably, and then you’re over. It’s done.
Mercedes Stephenson: A couple of hours sound like there’s already a decision made. Doesn’t China have something like a 99 per cent conviction rate? I mean this is not really a trial in the way that we would describe a trial.
Kevin Garratt, Former Detainee: Ninety-nine per cent conviction rate. And so, really, in my opinion, and what my experience is that what they are going through is just a formality to say they followed the law, which they did. They followed their law. And this is how they do it, so that the government or the judicial system is always correct in what they do. So there’s no outside influence. Even in the first six months of isolation and interrogation, we have no access to a lawyer or anyone else to help guide you through that process. You only have fear and intimidation. .
Mercedes Stephenson: What is the emotional experience like of going through a trial where you know the outcome? You know you’re going to be convicted. It’s just a matter of time.
Kevin Garratt, Former Detainee: You know I sort of had in the back of my mind that I would be convicted. I didn’t really fully grasp that at the time. I went in with hope. You know, many people, thousands of people that prayed for me and I was praying and trusting in God and what I was going through and that He had a plan and a purpose in it. But it’s still very emotionally upsetting because you’re not sure. They have threatened me with execution many times during the interrogation period and I thought well, they could do that. But I thought, oh no, they wouldn’t. But you go back and forth in your mind because no one’s saying no. And even in the trial itself, it’s very—really excruciatingly painful because you’re going—you do not know what’s going on and for months and months, you have no information of what’s going on. And that’s the biggest thing, really, is just no knowledge, no information. You’re in a vacuum. You don’t know what’s happening on the outside world.
Mercedes Stephenson: Kevin Garratt, thank you for sharing your time and what can only be an unimaginably difficult personal experience. You’re a friend of the show and we look forward to having you back again soon.
Kevin Garratt, Former Detainee: Thank you, anytime. Yeah, and if people want to read more, of course, they can look at our book: Two Tears on the Window, and that will give them an incredibly good, I think, view into the whole political system and judicial system in China, as well as just our whole experience.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, more revelations of serious sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces. But still no answers on what the government plans to do about it.
We assemble a panel of Ottawa’s top journalists after the break.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Last week, one of the most well-known and well-respected women in the Canadian Armed Forces decided to resign her commission in protest over the ongoing sexual misconduct scandal and the failure of leadership in this country to address it. Lieutenant Colonel Eleanor Taylor, the first woman to lead an infantry company in combat in the Afghan War.
Now two months after Global News first broke the story, people are still asking what the government is going to do about this and whether Canada’s troops have been failed.
Joining me now to talk about this and some of our other top stories, this week we have The Globe and Mail’s Bureau Chief Robert Fife and Global News journalist Amanda Connolly whose been working with me closely on this story. Thank you both so much for joining us.
You know, Bob, we are still waiting to find out what the government is going to do about this. They’ve promised a probe. They’ve promised action. By the way, we’ve asked for the defence minister numerous times on the program. We haven’t seen him since very early on this speaking to us. What does the government need to do in order to protect women who are serving in the Canadian Armed Forces?
Bob Fife, The Globe and Mail: Well first of all, let me just hats off to you, Mercedes and Amanda, for just the ground-breaking work that you have done in trying to expose what has happened to women in the armed forces. The military has dealt with sexual harassment in the lower ranks, but when it comes to the higher ranks nothing ever seems to be done and you have broken that dam open. And I think there is going to have to be—well there will be serious change. The problem we have, Mercedes, is that the government does not want—and they are going to set up an independent watchdog because the way the current system works, everybody reports to the chief of defence staff and if he’s part of a sexual misconduct allegation, nothing—what woman is going to feel safe coming forward? So they are going to set up a watchdog, but the issue here is who does it report to? If it reports to the defence minister, the guy who won’t even show up on your show to talk to you about it that is not going to work. Every expert in the field says like the Australians, like the Germans, like the United States, independent watchdog must report to Parliament. It is the only way that women are going to feel safe, to come forward when generals and senior ranking officers sexually abuse them.
Mercedes Stephenson: Amanda, when you look at this, and you’ve talked to lots of the women and men involved in this as well, you’ve been very closely covering it. One of the things I’ve started to see on Twitter and on social media is soldiers and troops who are frustrated now with the minister. They’re starting to link it politically. Does this put the Liberals in political jeopardy, or do you think that they think they can protect and insulate the minister on this?
Amanda Connolly, Global News: Yeah, you know, I think that’s really a big question going forward and this is going to be a big problem for the government. The issue that they have right now, to me, is that you have a government that frequently gets caught out saying one thing and doing, or at least appearing, to do something different. For a feminist government that has built its brand around that framing of its support for women and really putting the spotlight on programs and initiatives for women, this kind of passing the buck for lack of a better term here, in terms of who is accountable, what went wrong, is problematic because people really want action right now. I think people have had it. I know you’ve seen it online. I’ve certainly seen it in comments in emails and things like that. People really are tired of waiting for more studies. They want a solution and they want it now.
Mercedes Stephenson: Bob, The Globe and Mail broke the story that the Prime Minister’s Office, in fact, did know about the allegation against General Vance back in 2018, the government had been denying that. Do you think that there is—I get asked this by troops all the time—do you think that it’s possible the PMO didn’t tell the prime minister that this was going on? That this was never brought up when they were reconsidering extending General Vance’s term and giving him a raise, both of which they did.
Bob Fife, The Globe and Mail: Well I don’t believe that for a moment, Mercedes, and I know you don’t either. Nothing happens in this Prime Minister’s Office without the senior people knowing it’s a—it’s all about control. And I cannot imagine that nobody would have whispered in the Prime Minister’s Office, including Katie Telford, who is his chief of staff, who the Prime Minister’s Office has still refused to say whether she was informed of this, that he knew about it. Look, there’s no way around this. The only way around this, is for the government to set up an independent watchdog so women can feel safe, or racial minorities can feel safe, or people that have been discriminated, can go to somebody who reports to Parliament.
Secondly, Sajjan—Harjit Sajjan, defence minister has to go. They need to have a defence minister, preferably be a woman because there is a cultural problem that’s going on in DND. It has to be changed. Your reporting has shown that and the government has to act.
Mercedes Stephenson: Yeah, and it’s a tough one for the Liberals because Sajjan is a huge fundraiser for them ahead of a possible election.
Amanda, we saw the prime minister travel for the first time last week since the beginning of the pandemic, to announce an electric batter plant in Quebec. A lot of people are speculating. They now think maybe they’re out of the danger zone on the vaccine issue, enough vaccines coming in. What do you think the likelihood is that they’re starting to weigh that spring election possibility?
Amanda Connolly, Global News: Well I think this is the timeline that we certainly have been watching from the start. You know once you start to really hit that spring-summer season, all of that election speculation really ramps up. We know that, of course, minority governments in Canada really do not tend to go well past that sort of 18 month mark. We’re very much in that timeframe right now, and so I think for the government weighing that political calculus of can we do this safely? Yes, is part of it but also, what is the sentiment of people right now around the broad availability of vaccines? Do we have enough people in the provinces and the regions who feel confident broadly that this is being handled well? That they’re not going to take that out on the government if we go to the polls right now. That really is, I think, a big open question. You look at a lot of regions that are doing better than others, some that are really lagging behind. And there is—I think there’s a strong possibility if you’re looking at that, that political calculus that that is—there is potential there for that to hurt the government unless things change right now.
Mercedes Stephenson: Bob, the Conservative convention this weekend, everything I’m hearing from the Conservatives and the NDP is they don’t’ really want an election right now, but they think that the Liberals do. Erin O’Toole has to find a way to distinguish himself if he has any hope in this upcoming election. Before that happens, he’s dealing with anger inside the party as he tries to move towards the centre. What does O’Toole have to do to have a chance here, if there is a spring or fall election, which seems likely?
Bob Fife, The Globe and Mail: Well we are definitely going to have an election this year. It’ll either be June 14th, but I—I’m a little doubtful of that only because I’m not sure enough people are going to have the vaccine in their arms by that time. But certainly in the fall, which would in some ways suit Liberal MPs a lot better because the newly elected ones will be eligible for a pension. But that’s not the issue. I think the issue here for the Conservatives, and we saw from the speech on Friday from Erin O’Toole that he’s telling the party, we’ve got to move to the centre—the centre right because we need to bring in more people in if we’re going to get elected. And he’s saying, you know, we’ve lost two elections in the last five and a half years. We’ve got to ditch this opposition to the carbon tax. They have to recognize the rights of gay and lesbian people. We have to develop economic policies that are going to appeal to the vast majority of Canadians. I thought his message on Friday was the right message, and it could mean that we’re going to have a much more competitive election because the Liberals strategy, always, is to try to paint the Conservatives as some extremists. And if he can hug that middle ground, he will have a serious chance of winning the election because let’s remember, elections really do matter. Nobody thought that Trudeau was going to win in 2015.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well we will certainly be keeping a close eye on it, and I know we’ll all be very busy trying to figure out if that’s where it’s going. That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much Bob and Amanda for joining us.
And that’s The West Block for this week. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, we’ll see you right back here next Sunday.