The West Block — Episode 32, Season 10

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Watch the full episode of The West Block on Sunday, May 2, 2021 – May 2, 2021


Episode 32, Season 10

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


Harjit Sajjan, National Defence Minister

Candice Bergen, Conservative Deputy Leader

Patty Hajdu, Health Minister

Location: Ottawa, Ontario

Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: After years of failure, dejavu?

Harjit Sajjan, National Defence Minister: “We thought we were going down a path that was creating that better change. It clearly has not worked.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan taps retired Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour to lead yet another external review into military sexual misconduct, the second in just six years.

Louise Arbour, Retired Supreme Court Justice: “This might be the opportunity to actually put it right.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Will it be enough for survivors? And why should they trust the government this time around?

Leah West, Carleton University: “I’m glad it’s happening now, but it should have started five years ago.”

Mercedes Stephenson: And amid a crippling third wave of COVID-19, questions about borders, vaccines and hospitals beyond capacity.

Adalsteinn (Steini) Brown, Dalla Lana School of Public Health: “Our health care system is no longer functioning normally. We’re taking the most critically ill patients and putting them in helicopters and into ambulances and moving them across the province because we’re searching for beds.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Health Minister Patty Hajdu defends her government’s handling of the pandemic.

It’s Sunday, May 2nd. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

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For months, you have heard the voices of survivors of sexual misconduct and sexual assault in Canada’s military, women who have not only shown courage in uniform but who have bravely come forward to share their experiences while serving this country. You have heard their frustration, their disappointment and their anger, abandoned by the military they so proudly serve.

Navy Lt. Heather Macdonald, Royal Canadian Navy: “A lot of—a lot of women I have talked to are, are hurt, angered and, and disappointed.”

Maj. Kellie Brennan, Canadian Armed Forces: “We’re not at the table, we backbench men. We coach them on—on how it is, but we don’t have a seat at the table.”

Alexandra Auclair, Department of National Defence: “The hardest part is knowing there’s nowhere to turn to. There’s nobody who’s going to help you.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Last week, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced yet another external review into sexual misconduct in Canada’s military. It comes just six years after former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps delivered her landmark report on the same issue. But the Trudeau government has ignored many of that report’s key recommendations, so why should victims trust the government to get it right this time around?

Joining us now is Minister Harjit Sajjan. Thank you so much for joining us today, minister.

We last talked to you in February when this story was first starting to unfold. We’ve now heard from many victims, women and men in the Canadian Forces who have come forward with stories of sexual misconduct, sexual assault. What do you want to say to those victims about your government’s responsibility and performance on this file?

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Harjit Sajjan, National Defence Minister: First of all, Mercedes, I want to thank you for bringing this forward, being—giving the survivors a voice, which is extremely important. And what I want to say to them that we’re sorry. We’re sorry that a process has failed you that did not give you the comfort that you could come forward and, you know, without the fear of reprisal, something that we are absolutely committed to fixing and we will.

Mercedes Stephenson: When you look back and your personal handling of the complaint against Jon Vance in 2018, do you regret the way you went about that now?

Harjit Sajjan, National Defence Minister: Mercedes, I regret that the process that we’ve had before us has not given the proper support, confidence and justice to the survivors and this something that we do need to fix. It’s a process that we’ve—we felt that we were going down a path that gave independence when it came to the SMRC for reporting. It clearly hasn’t. And your reporting and the survivors who have come forward had clearly shown that and this is why we are taking the actions that we are to making sure that the—that the independent system that we’re moving towards, it’s going to be far more apparent that Madame Arbour, the work that she’ll be doing. If we’re going to look at not just from the reporting side, we’re going to be looking at accountability and the authority’s piece as well. So there potentially out of this will be organizational changes, but we want to move—work very quickly on this as well and that’s what the role that Lieutenant-General Carignan will also be doing, is building that foundation to support the work that Madame Arbour will be doing.

Mercedes Stephenson: What about your personal responsibility in this, minister? I mean this is your department and this has been happening under your watch for six years.

Harjit Sajjan, National Defence Minister: Mercedes, absolutely, what we want to do here is making sure that any time that something is not working, is you take strong action to be able to make—make the changes. This is something that we have been committed from day one.

Mercedes Stephenson: But why—why didn’t you take this action before, minister? I mean these recommendations were made in 2015. You’ve had six years to make the changes. For six years what was happening seems to have gone undetected by you as the minister. Why should victims believe that this will be any different this time when you’re in the chair as the minister? How can you reassure them that after six years of inaction that’s going to change?

Harjit Sajjan, National Defence Minister: No, Mercedes, these are legitimate questions that the survivors have and something that we have to be—work better at. The actions that were working on clearly have not worked to the extent that we wanted to. We have made progress, but that progress was not enough and that’s something that we admit but we need to do better. The processes that we had in place thought that we had some independent reporting structure is not enough. We need to go beyond a reporting structure to give, bring in greater authorities and make greater changes so that when we talk about the independence from the chain of command, it’s not just for reporting. It’s also about looking at organizational changes that we can look at and having supporting survivors, but also holding perpetrators to account.

Mercedes Stephenson: After the break, more tough questions for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan on the military’s failure to root out sexual misconduct.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan apologized to survivors of military sexual violence and harassment last week, promising swift action to address this problem that has plagued the Canadian Forces for decades. But while survivors may be cautiously optimistic, there are still concerns of the government’s handling of this file. Here’s more of my interview with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

We heard the prime minister say that nobody was aware that the allegation that was brought to you by the military ombudsman in 2018 was of a me too nature, of a sexual nature, and yet we’ve seen documentation from the Privy Council Office that refers to it as sexual harassment. It was your office who contacted the Prime Minister’s Office, what was your understanding of the nature of that claim? Were you aware that there was likely a sexual element or having to do with conduct of women?

Harjit Sajjan, National Defence Minister: When the complaint was brought forward, and I’ve—had been very clear on my testimony at committee on multiple times. And Mercedes, for me it was, it didn’t matter what actually the complaint was. A misconduct potential complaint was brought out by—about the chief of defence staff and that action needed to be taken. And that’s why we took the actions that—that we did. And, and it’s—I keep using the word process and I know that our survivors, they know that the process has failed them, but it was the process not only that we had but also the previous government had. And it has to be followed because if you don’t and undermine it, you couldn’t potentially undermine just outcome. And that’s exactly what happened, making sure it went to the Privy Council Office for—for further action. That action was taken, but it obviously was not enough. As the ombudsman stated that he could not come forward because the complainant did not wish to come forward. But aggressive action was immediately taken and—but we need to make sure that what the processes that we put into place now is going to be far more robust and that’s going to be permanent as well.

Mercedes Stephenson: But was your office, or were you personally, aware that the nature of the claim was sexual or to do with allegations about the chief’s conduct with women?

Harjit Sajjan, National Defence Minister: The—Mercedes, as I stated in my testimony, when—when the complaint was brought forward, we immediately took it to notify the Privy Council Office on this and…

Mercedes Stephenson: But—but were you aware that it was sexual in nature?

Harjit Sajjan, National Defence Minister: We did not know the details. It was only did not know the details of the complaint, as I stated in—in my testimony. What I wanted to do is…regardless of the…

Mercedes Stephenson: But then how did Privy Council Office know that it related to sexual harassment? Because they knew it related to sexual office and your office notified them.

Harjit Sajjan, National Defence Minister: Mercedes, what we wanted to do is making sure we gave it to them to actually look at exactly what needed to happen so that it is out of politicians hands. And so when it came to those types of discussions that they had with the former ombudsman, you have to follow-up and at the end of the day, for us was regardless of what type of complaint it was, to us, any type of complaint that comes in about a chief of defence staff has to be taken seriously. And that’s exactly what we did. There is no confidentiality that we could hold in place when it comes to governor and council appointments. I have to be—I have to report that to the appropriate authorities.

Mercedes Stephenson: But minister, this is a very straightforward yes or no question. Were you aware that it was sexual in nature or had to do with conduct around women?

Harjit Sajjan, National Defence Minister: To be honest with you, that’s—that’s something that as I stated, I didn’t have much details on that. I wanted to—my priority was to making sure that the former ombudsman was able to then take it immediately and speak to the Privy Council Office about this so that the appropriate action could be taken.

Mercedes Stephenson: That doesn’t answer the question, but I’ll ask you one last one because we’re about to run out of time. Will you commit that your government will accept the recommendations that Madame Arbour puts forward?

Harjit Sajjan, National Defence Minister: Absolutely.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Harjit Sajjan, thank you so much for joining today.

Harjit Sajjan, National Defence Minister: Great. Thank you very much, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: And now for the opposition’s take. Joining me is Candice Bergen. She is the deputy leader of the Conservative Party.

Thank you for joining us today, Ms. Bergen. I understand that your party is putting forward a motion calling for Justin Trudeau to fire his Chief of Staff Katie Telford. Why are you calling for that?

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Candice Bergen, Conservative Party Deputy Leader: Well we’ve actually tabled it in the House of Commons, Mercedes. You know the fact is the prime minister continues to say that he knew nothing of the allegations against General Vance. I think many of us find that very hard to believe, the fact the minister of defence knew, senior advisors knew and now it comes out that his Chief of Staff Katie Telford knew. And according to Justin Trudeau’s accounts, Katie Telford didn’t tell him. If that’s true, then he should fire her. So I—I guess in a sense what we’re doing, Mercedes, is we’re calling his bluff. If indeed he knew, he needs to man up and he needs to say that he knew and he needs to take responsibility for failing our men and women in uniform. And if he didn’t know, then somebody bears that responsibility and we say that’s his Chief of Staff Katie Telford and she should go.

Mercedes Stephenson: It was a Conservative government that chose to appoint General Jonathan Vance, and documents obtained by Global News show that the military police recommended closing the police investigation into him the morning he was appointed. Why would your government ever have appointed somebody who was under military police investigation?

Candice Bergen, Conservative Party Deputy Leader: Well, when our—our government heard of rumours, the prime minister, the chief—chief of staff acted on those rumours. But to your question, I—I do think those are fair questions and I think the system was broken. I think General Vance took advantage of that, but there is a stark difference between our government, our previous government taking…

Mercedes Stephenson: But—but do you think your government has some responsibility here?

Candice Bergen, Conservative Party Deputy Leader: Our government, we—we appointed him in July. An election was a number of months—very few months later. In that time when the rumours came forward, the prime—our prime minister heard of them. He acted on them. Very, very different, it’s a stark contrast to the current prime minister and minister of defence sitting on evidence and in fact, pushing away evidence saying we don’t want to hear it. The minister of defence said we don’t want to hear the evidence…

Mercedes Stephenson: Well hang—hang on, though, Ms. Bergen.

Candice Bergen, Conservative Party Deputy Leader: … [00:06:43 INAUDIBLE] talking about it.
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Mercedes Stephenson: Your prime minister, Prime Minister Harper did not look at the evidence. He never saw the military police reports. He never asked to see them. He took General Vance’s word for it. How—how is that better?

Candice Bergen, Conservative Party Deputy Leader: No—no, Mercedes that’s—that’s not—that’s not quite—quite accurate. When rumours…so when—when General Vance was initially being looked at for chief of the defence staff, it came to the prime minister’s attention that there had been a previous investigation of which General Vance had been cleared. The prime minister then sat down with General Vance and spoke to him directly, Stephen Harper talked to Vance directly, then rumours surfaced and at that point, the national security advisor, under the direction of the Prime Minister’s Office with the prime minister’s knowledge, looked into rumours. Then an email came forward at which an investigation was launched. Why that investigation ended is a good question and shows Vance—Vance said had the system under his control.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. I just want to be clear with our viewers that—that General Vance was appointed the day that the military police recommended the second investigation be closed, though.

That is all the time we have for today, but thank you so much for joining us, Ms. Bergen.

Candice Bergen, Conservative Party Deputy Leader: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, is the federal government doing enough to stop deadly COVID-19 variants from entering the country? I’ll ask federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu.

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Mercedes Stephenson: More than 12 million Canadians have received their first jab of the COVID-19 vaccine and several provinces are expanding eligibility for those desperate to get their first shot. But Canada’s third wave of COVID-19 has still been devastating. Hospitals are stretched beyond their breaking point, doctors and nurses are burning out and many essential workers still don’t have paid sick leave. More than a year into this pandemic, there are still concerns that too many travellers may be entering the country, potentially carrying the deadly variants. Has the federal government done enough to keep Canadians safe?

Joining me now to answer that question is Canada’s Health Minister Patty Hajdu. Minister Hajdu, thank you so much for joining us. How are you?

Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: I’m great. It’s nice to see you, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s nice to see you too, and we’re all looking forward to getting back to in-person interviews but it seems those are still a ways away. And we are hearing from experts today that Canada should be expecting a fourth wave of COVID-19 and that is news certainly none of wanted to hear. But I’m curious to know, what is your government going to do differently in the fourth wave than you did in the third wave? Because doctors are saying look, if we keep going down the same path, we’re going to see similar results. So what have we learned and what will you be changing?

Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: Well first of all, I would say that no way it is inevitable. We can actually change the outcome of how the virus behaves by our own behaviour and by our collective actions. And so as much as I think we should be prepared for anything, what I can is that the actions we take now and together over the next several months, will determine how much more sacrifice we have to all collectively make. We know what’s going to help. It’s going to be laser focused on reducing transmission in communities. It’s going to be ensuring that people get vaccinated as soon as they can and supporting people to get vaccinated that may have further barriers from that vaccination and it’s going to be applying the lessons that we’ve learned through the pandemic about what reduces transmission, including as you mentioned in your introduction, healthier workplaces and healthier living conditions. And so it is a lot of work to manage COVID, but we can do it and we have, as you pointed out, learned a lot over the last several months.

Mercedes Stephenson: Why is your government not rapid testing essential workers as they come across the border? I mean they are certainly essential and everyone recognizes that, but that doesn’t mean they can’t transmit the virus. A year in, why aren’t we rapid testing every essential worker who comes into Canada?

Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: We have certainly done pilots on the border for rapid testing with essential workers. For example, there was a pilot with truckers and we found very low rates of infectivity, in fact, under, you know, .3 of a percentage. Not to say that it isn’t worth continuing our work to find ways to work with partners like unions and employers to do that rapid testing and we’re always open to those approaches. And as we see technology evolve, as we see and for example, even more rapid—more rapid, rapid tests arrive, there will be additional—there will be additional opportunities to deploy those at the border. We’re always keeping those options open, but it is really working with employers, with unions and—and of course, with the workers themselves to make sure that what we apply at the border is—is going to be helpful.

Mercedes Stephenson: Premier Ford is asking the federal government to tighten the borders. Is that something that you’re open to?

Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: Well the borders are pretty tight, Mercedes. As I’ve said, we have some of the strictest measures in—in the world. I think I’ve listed some of the steps that travellers have to undertake in order—non-essential has to take. So a pre-departure test prior to departing in the country of origin, the post-arrival test, the day 8 test, the 14 day quarantine and multiple checks by the way. There’s always more we can do and in fact, as the premier knows, on the enforcement side, he has all the tools at his disposal. In fact, OPP can enforce the Quarantine Act, so can local police. And so I would say that if the premier has any concerns about any of those travellers abiding by the requirements, that he has the tools that he could use to enforce the Quarantine Act along with the—the measures that we’ve put into place at the federal level.

Mercedes Stephenson: But you could also take those actions now. One of the things that experts are looking at is how long people have to quarantine. If you fly into Canada and you’re not an essential worker, you have to quarantine for three days compared to in New Zealand where it’s 14 in a federal facility that’s monitored. How did you government decide on the three days? It almost seems like it was more designed to deter people from travelling than to actually keep the virus from getting out.

Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: Well Mercedes, actually it was around how long we anticipated it would take for the post-arrival PCR tests to come back. And the estimated time that we had from the experts that we were working with was three days. So that’s why the requirement of three days is in place. In fact, for some people, especially in the early days, it was longer and they were required to stay in the hotel until that PCR test came back negative and we were certain that it was safe for them to further travel to their final destination. That’s the approach that we took based on the science and evidence.

Mercedes Stephenson: But obviously with these variants, three days hasn’t been enough because they have gotten into the country and they are here and they could continue to get in. Should you be looking at a longer mandatory quarantine period in a federal facility than three days, should be looking at the kinds of numbers that Australia or New Zealand used to enforce the zero COVID policy?

Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: What I would say, Mercedes is that we have to stay focused on where transmission is happening. And the transmission is happening in community and what works for COVID…

Mercedes Stephenson: But the variants are coming across the—the border…

Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: …without a variant [00:05:57 cross talk]
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Mercedes Stephenson: With all due respect, minister, the variants are coming in from other countries. That’s how they’re getting here and then we’re having community transmission. So, why not create a tighter net so the variants don’t get in in the first place?

Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: What we know about COVID is that what stops COVID, stops COVID. And it is—it is a lot of work. It’s a lot of work at all levels. It’s at the community level, the provincial level, the federal level and we’ve been there for provinces and territories as they work to reduce transmission in their various jurisdictions. That’s where we need to stay focused. You know people are getting sick at work, they’re getting sick in crowded housing settings, they’re getting sick in community and that community transmission is where we need to stay laser focused because when we bring down cases of COVID in community, that’s when we start to see the resumption of a more normal Canadian life. And so I’m focused on that, reducing transmission wherever possible and also vaccinating people as quickly as possible so that we can save lives and stop the spread.

Mercedes Stephenson: Where are you at in terms of advice to Canadians on whether or not they can mix vaccines for their second dose?

Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: Well let’s be clear, I’m not a medical doctor and that advice would come from the professionals that are studying this, the researchers and the public health professionals that are studying vaccination and will provide advice to Canada, should we see ourselves in a situation where we do need to recommend mixing of doses. As of right now, though, I would say that our supply is indeed predictable and stable. We have a very predictable schedule from Pfizer. Moderna is increasingly more stable in terms of their projections on their deliveries. And our officials and Public Safety and Procurement Minister Anand and her team are working day and night to ensure that we can get more doses earlier than ever and in fact, that’s what’s happening. It’s actually a good news story this month. We’re seeing 2 million doses of Pfizer alone week over week in the month of May and we can see the finish line as Canadians. So we need to stay focused on taking the vaccine when it’s our turn, being part of that movement to a faster—to, to a more normal life.

Mercedes Stephenson: And I know that those standards will be welcome, but of course, where the money will come from to get homes up to those standards still remains an open question both for the provinces and federal government at this point.

That’s all the time we have for today, though, minister. So thank you so much for making time for us and joining us.

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Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: Thanks very much, Mercedes. Take care of yourself.

Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you, you too.

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

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