THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 31, Season 10
Sunday, April 25, 2021
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister
Dr. Peter Singer, Special Advisor to World Health Organization Director-General
Location: Ottawa, Ontario
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: The woman, who first came forward to Global News with allegations of sexual misconduct against former chief of the defence staff General Jonathan Vance, testifies.
Major Kellie Brennan delivered bombshell testimony before a parliamentary committee, saying Vance told her he was “untouchable”, owned the military police and…
Major Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: “He fathered two children with me.”
Mercedes Stephenson: The prime minister says action to address sexual misconduct in the armed forces is coming soon but not just yet.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We take this extraordinarily seriously. We will be making further announcements in the coming weeks.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And the growing list of people in the Prime Minister’s Office who knew about the allegations against Canada’s former top soldier.
Elder Marques, Former senior advisor to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “I advised the chief of staff to the prime minister that I was taking the step and then I kept her apprised as matters developed.
Mercedes Stephenson: For the first time, deputy prime minister and finance minister Chrystia Freeland sits down to talk about this issue.
It’s Sunday, April 25th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.
Events in Ottawa over the last week have ranged from the historic with the highest spending budget, including $30 billion national child care promise, to the shocking, in the form of testimony at parliamentary committees looking into military sexual misconduct, the women who broke their silence with Global News now testifying on Parliament Hill.
Major Kellie Brennan stunned the parliamentary committee, telling them that General Jonathan Vance was the father of two of her children and has never paid child support. She also raised questions about the independence of the military police force investigating both Vance and Admiral Art McDonald.
Maj. Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: “General Vance always told me that he always had them under control.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Then the defence committee was told that knowledge of the 2018 allegation against General Vance went right to the top of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Elder Marques, Former senior advisor to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “I advised the chief of staff to the prime minister that I was taking the step and then I kept her apprised as matters developed.”
Mercedes Stephenson: At the centre of the debate, a woman, her identity unknown, who received that notorious email allegedly from Vance, who vastly outranked her at the time referring to a clothing optional vacation destination. Questions about why her name was not revealed by the military ombudsman and whether Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan mishandled the allegations about Vance in 2018 have caused a political firestorm.
On Wednesday, the woman broke her silence with Global News and we published the email. The woman told Global she believes Vance was making an inappropriate joke but also testing the waters with her. The woman told Global she went to the military ombudsman because he was duty-bound to protect her identity and she feared career reprisals. She wanted action and she knew the ombudsman would have to tell the minister, who she believed would do something. But that never happened, because Sajjan refused to accept the evidence, redirecting the ombudsman to the Privy Council Office. Sajjan maintains he did the right thing by refusing to find out more and brought the allegations to proper authorities.
Vance denies all allegations of inappropriate behaviour and has denied that he is the father of two of Brennan’s children. Vance has told Global News that if he did write that email in question, he would have meant it as a joke.
Vance’s tenure crossed both Conservative and Liberal governments. Concerns about his conduct were raised to both, including when Prime Minister Stephenson Harper appointed him. The allegations against Vance and Admiral McDonald have triggered a reckoning in the military and demands for change as well as questions about whether the government did enough to protect the troops from sexual misconduct.
Here to speak about this for the first time, is Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, who joins me now.
Thank you so much for joining us, Deputy Prime Minister. I know this has been a very busy week for you with the budget and later in the week with the revelations about General Jonathan Vance that were brought up at committee. I want to start actually, with that and to put the question to you: Did you know about the allegations against General Vance?
Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister: No, I didn’t.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that when you were the minister of foreign affairs, you should have been told about those because a number of security experts have raised the issue that these kinds of alleged secrets can make somebody vulnerable for exploitation, that it can be a security threat and you were the one overseeing Canada’s role in the world. Should somebody have told you about these concerns?
Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister: You know Mercedes, since this is my first chance to speak about this, I’d like to take a moment to just say a couple of things about the women who have come forward, if that’s okay with you?
Mercedes Stephenson: Absolutely.
Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister: And I would just—I’d just like to say to them, what you have done is incredibly brave and courageous. It’s so hard to do. I think pretty much every woman knows that, you know, if you have been in any of these kinds of situations, there is a fear of coming forward and to have done that, is a really, really brave thing and I admire your courage very much.
I would also like to say the testimony that we’ve heard at committee, for me, has been deeply, deeply troubling. It’s clear to me, as we’ve heard from numerous reports in the past, that there are some deep problems in the Canadian Armed Forces with sexual harassment and with treatment of women and that has to end. No woman should feel unsafe in her place of work, least of all the brave women who are defending our country. So I just wanted to say that to Canadians, to Canadian women and especially to the brave women working—serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. And I do want to point out that in our budget, we have taken one of the many, many steps that are going to have to be taken, to fix this big problem and that is put some money on the table for the Canadian Armed Forces, to do the work that needs to be done to be sure that this stops.
Mercedes Stephenson: And Deputy Prime Minister, does that include civilian oversight that reports independently to Parliament? Because the budget talked about the watchdog and the oversight, but the number one thing that all of the experts have said in this, is that it’s got to be outside the chain of command. The women have said that as well, many of them who have come forward. Is that something your government is willing to commit to today?
Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister: So we said in the budget exactly as you point out, Mercedes, that, you know, it’s $240 million so that’s going to fund a lot of things. One aspect of that will be an external system of review, and the minister of defence has committed to a deep, thorough and independent review as well. And I think that’s necessary.
Mercedes Stephenson: But with all due respect, Deputy Prime Minister, it’s been over two and a half months. It’s been almost three months and your government won’t tell us a timeline for the probe, won’t commit to independent oversight that every single expert since 2015 pretty much has recommended. What is—what is the holdup here because women are feeling like there’s just no progress when I talk to them?
Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister: Well, I think the women who serve in the Canadian Armed Forces are quite right to be raising the urgency of this situation—not this situation—the urgency of the problem and the deep- seatedness of it. And I just want to assure them that we take it very seriously. Putting this measure in the budget is one sign of that seriousness and there are—is a lot more to come and that’s necessary.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, a push for accountability. Will the government apologize to the men and women of the armed forces for not taking action sooner on sexual misconduct? My interview with the deputy prime minister continues.
Mercedes Stephenson: I want to ask you very specifically today, Prime Minister, did you know about any allegations of any concerns of sexual misconduct regardless of the content in 2018 or before and when you extended General Vance’s term and gave him a raise?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “No.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a press conference last month. His office maintains he did not know about the allegations of sexual misconduct against General Jonathan Vance in 2018. But should someone have told him? More of my interview with the deputy prime minister, now.
I want to ask you about the testimony of Elder Marques on Friday. He’s a former senior advisor to the prime minister. He revealed at committee that the prime minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, was aware there was an allegation against John Vance. The prime minister says he was not told. Should he have been told?
Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister: So it’s Friday afternoon, Mercedes, and I haven’t had a chance to fully, or carefully even, review Elder’s testimony. But I do want to say about Katie Telford, that as someone who’s worked with her, she is a really committed feminist and she walks the walk. She has put in place measures inside our government, inside our caucus, inside our party, to root out sexual harassment, to ensure we have safe workplaces and I know that’s something she’s deeply committed to.
Mercedes Stephenson: So, if the prime minister’s chief of staff was aware of this but never raised it with him, you don’t think that’s something he should have known about?
Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister: As I said, I think it’s important for everyone to appreciate how committed Katie Telford is personally to these issues. In terms of the handling of the issue, these are very difficult issues to handle, especially when there are questions of confidentiality and the due process that everyone deserves. And while I had no knowledge of this, I have a lot of confidence in the people who handled this difficult situation.
Mercedes Stephenson: And yet Deputy Prime Minister, none of them told the prime minister, apparently. None of them brought this to him when he was making the decision to keep General Vance in the job, making him the longest serving chief of the defence staff in Canadian history that spanned a time during which Major Kellie Brennan says they were having an inappropriate relationship for two more years beyond that. The chief of staff to the minister of national defence, the chief of staff to the prime minister, the minister of national defence, the clerk of the privy council, a senior advisor to the prime minister and yet nobody put this on the prime minister’s radar. Doesn’t it seem like something, in your opinion, he should have been aware of when he was making some of these decisions?
Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister: The most important conclusion I draw from all of these revelations, is we have some deep problems in the Canadian Armed Forces. We need to get to the root of these specific allegations and that is very important, and we also need a systemic solution because young women, who want to serve their country, need to know that they can do that safely. And one of the things that has been the most moving for me in the testimony of the really courageous women who have come forward, is how notwithstanding these horrible things that they’ve told us about, they’ve also talked about their deep commitment to serving Canada, their deep commitment to the armed forces and the deep satisfaction that they’ve gotten from that. And we have to make it possible for more women to serve and they have to be able to serve in safety.
Mercedes Stephenson: And I understand your government is saying these things, but it seems that when there was an opportunity to take action, action wasn’t taken. And in the case of the minister of national defence, he refused to look at evidence, and it’s an email that we’ve obtained at Global News. I spoke to the woman who gave this email to the ombudsman. She felt the email should have been enough. She thought the minister would look at it and take it seriously. This is a government that has talked about being feminist. He refused to even look at that evidence. If that email had been seen, we might be in a very different place today. Do you have confidence in the minister of national defence?
Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister: Yes, I do. I do have confidence in Minster Sajjan. In addition to serving to cabinet with him, the foreign minister and the defence minister work closely together, so I’ve worked closely with Minister Sajjan and I can tell you he is deeply, deeply committed to serving Canada. He is deeply committed to diversity and fairness for everyone. He is very supportive of women, and yeah, I have a great deal of confidence in him.
Mercedes Stephenson: Shouldn’t he have agreed to at least look at this envelope then and see what was in it, if it was an allegation of sexual misconduct?
Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister: You know again, Mercedes, handling these sorts of incidents, especially when there are issues of confidentiality, when there are issues of due process, is always very challenging. I wasn’t one of the people directly involved, but I do know from my own experience how challenging these situations are and I have confidence in the people…
Mercedes Stephenson: But is it that challenging to just accept an envelope and at least look at it?
Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister: Well I have confidence, Mercedes, in the people who took the decisions in the moment. I have confidence in them as people and the thing I have so much confidence in, is these are people. Every single person you’ve mentioned is someone who cares deeply about woman, who cares deeply about safe workplaces and who cares deeply about serving Canada.
Now having said all of that, I also really agree with you and I commend your journalism because you are one of the brave women who have brought this to light. I do believe that we need a deep and thorough and independent investigation of everything. Minister Sajjan has committed to that and I think that will be an important step, too. And, you know, the budget is a further, not just indication, but concrete step showing our government’s commitment to set things right and to really transform the Canadian Armed Forces in its treatment of women, in its treatment of sexual harassment. It’s got to stop.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, do you think that at some point your government will apologize to women that people didn’t take more action at the time?
Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister: You know, Mercedes, I actually think that no woman should be sexually harassed in her workplace. No woman serving Canada should be sexually harassed while doing that and I’m happy right now, today, to apologize to any woman who was sexually harassed while serving her country.
Mercedes Stephenson: Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, we appreciate your time today and discussing this topic as a woman who’s been on the forefront for this government. We appreciate the chance to talk to you about it. Thank you so much.
Up next, the global spread of COVID-19. Tighter travel restrictions and variant outbreaks, an interview with the top advisor at the World Health Organization.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. The global fight against COVID-19 is far from over. The government is banning all passenger flights from India and Pakistan as COVID-19 variants of concern spread across this country. India is seeing upticks of over 300 thousand new cases a day and has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the G20. Canada lags behind some other countries in getting jabs in arms, while we were also in the middle of a deadly third wave here.
Joining me now for more on the status of the pandemic internationally, is special advisor to the director-general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Peter Singer.
Dr. Singer, thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate you taking the time to be on the show. As we look around the world, it seems to be a very concerning situation when it comes to COVID-19. What is your greatest concern at the WHO right now? What is keeping you up at night?
Dr. Peter Singer, Special Advisor to World Health Organization Director-General: Since the beginning of the pandemic—and Mercedes thank you for having me. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the WHO has fought day and night to end it and the defining issue, really for 2021, is vaccine equity.
Mercedes Stephenson: And when you talk about vaccine equity, is your concern both within countries like Canada but also countries like India or Brazil where we’re really seeing the variants taking on phenomenal and very frightening traction?
Dr. Peter Singer, Special Advisor to World Health Organization Director-General: Yes, when we say vaccine equity both within and among countries. But globally, Mercedes, almost a billion doses of vaccine have been distributed. Eighty-three per cent of those have gone to high income countries and upper-middle income countries and there’s a very, very inequitable distribution and that means that the pandemic is raging in places, variants are being produced and none of us is safe. And so it’s very important to get vaccines around the world and to combine them, of course, with public health measures in the one, two punch, to defeat the pandemic.
Mercedes Stephenson: When it comes to that kind of distribution, the Canadian government took a lot of criticism for accepting programs—pardon me—vaccines out of a program that was designed to provide vaccines to lower income countries. Do you think that that’s something the Trudeau government shouldn’t have done?
Dr. Peter Singer, Special Advisor to World Health Organization Director-General: The program you’re talking about is the Act Accelerator, the COVAX vaccine pillar, which by the way, is celebrating its first anniversary this week. It has distributed more than 40 million doses of vaccine around the world. The Government of Canada has been a very active and positive participant financially and in terms of its engagement in the COVAX and in the Act A, and that’s very much appreciated.
Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think about Canada accessing vaccines out of that program, though, if the priority and the major concern are low income countries that don’t have the ability to buy millions of vaccines?
Dr. Peter Singer, Special Advisor to World Health Organization Director-General: I think the—with vaccine equity, there are really three issues: dollars, doses and domestic manufacturing. In terms of dollars, Canada’s been a very good contributor. There’s still a $19 billion shortfall in Act A and that’s compared to trillions of dollars of stimulus spending around the world. So that’s a great buy.
In terms of doses, it’s very important, actually, for countries that have doses, to share them. France recently announced that it would start sharing doses because it doesn’t matter if you have money, if you don’t have vaccine doses to distribute.
And then finally, vaccine manufacturing domestically, at least at the regional level, which is an issue for Canada and for every country around the world, for example, in the budget, there was money for domestic biomanufacturing in Canada and that’s an issue for every country around the world, including regionally in Africa because ultimately, self-reliance leads to interdependence and solidarity. So domestic manufacturing in the mid to long-term is just as important as dollars and doses.
Mercedes Stephenson: When you look at the situation in Canada, and in particular in Ontario, where I know you used to reside, what is your description when you think about what’s going on here? How do you see the situation in Canada?
Dr. Peter Singer, Special Advisor to World Health Organization Director-General: It’s the darkness before dawn. There’s really no question that the situation in Canada is very tough and many, many people are suffering and this pandemic, generally, is the worst global public health crisis in 100 years. So it is a period of difficulty, but the dawn is coming—very important that hope is on the horizon, the vaccines are rolling out, combined with public health measures, means that this pandemic will end. And so that’s the key thing, I think, for people to keep in mind and for the time being, to make sure they maintain the public health measures, the masking, the physical distancing, avoiding poorly ventilated indoor spaces and so on.
Mercedes Stephenson: Is it advisable for countries to close their borders until the situation is under control?
Dr. Peter Singer, Special Advisor to World Health Organization Director-General: That’s a decision for national governments. WHO provides guidance under the International Health Regulations (IHR). The criteria are that those border closures be time limited and risk-based.
Mercedes Stephenson: Dr. Singer, that’s all the time we have for today, but thank you so much for joining us.
That’s all the time that we have for this week on The West Block. I’m Mercedes Stephenson. We’ll see you right be here next week. In the meantime, stay safe and stay healthy.