The West Block — Episode 34, Season 10

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Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mike Le Couteur – May 16, 2020 – May 16, 2021


Episode 34, Season 10

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Host: Mike Le Couteur


Anita Anand, Public Services and Procurement Minister

Professor Jessica Mudry, Ryerson University

Dr. Angela Rasmussen, Virologist, VIDOInterVac

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail Ottawa Bureau Chief

Amanda Connolly, Global News / @amandacconn

Location: Ottawa, Ontario

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Mike Le Couteur: This week on The West Block: One by one, provinces press pause on AstraZeneca.

Hesitancy, confusion and concern over second doses, we’ve got an interview with Procurement Minister Anita Anand.

A one-dose summer? Experts weigh in on the dangers of mixed messaging a pandemic.

Dr. Angela Rasmussen, Virologist: “One mark of expertise is admitting up front what you don’t know, preparing people for the fact that things might change.”

Mike Le Couteur: And, the man in charge of Canada’s vaccine rollout steps down amid a military police investigation for alleged sexual misconduct.

It’s Sunday, May 16th. I’m Mike Le Couteur, and this is The West Block. Mercedes Stephenson is away today.

Well the vaccine landscape in this country has changed again. As the science evolves, we are seeing more evidence of an increased risk of very rare blood clots from the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Dawna Friesen, Global National Anchor: “Ontario will no longer give AstraZeneca as a first dose.”

Dr. David Williams, Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health: “This decision was made out of an abundance of caution.”

Mike Le Couteur: More provinces announced restrictions on the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine last week.

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia Medical Officer of Health: “The decision to pause the use of AstraZeneca is based on caution, science and the availability of alternative mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.”

Mike Le Couteur: The premiers and health officials gave varying reasons, from an observed increase in the rare blood clotting condition, to supply issues.

The federal government received 655 thousand doses of AstraZeneca last week, but it’s not clear if and when the provinces will use them, meaning some of the doses could expire.

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Christine Elliot, Ontario Minister of Health: “We don’t expect that there will be any—or perhaps just a few doses—that may expire. However, this is out of an abundance of caution, because the safety and well-being of the people of Ontario has to be our top priority.”

Mike Le Couteur: And joining us now for more on vaccines coming into this country and the road ahead for Canada is Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand. Thanks so much for being here, minister.

I just want to first start with the fact that we are getting—we got last week—655 thousand doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Besides it going into second doses for some people, what if others don’t want them? Or what if people don’t want them as a second dose? What then, do we do with all of these doses of AstraZeneca?

Anita Anand, Public Services and Procurement Minister: Well thanks for having me on. And let me just say the conversation about AstraZeneca and second doses of AstraZeneca is one that is occurring at the current time between Minister Hajdu and her team and the provinces and territories, and so from a procurement standpoint, of course, I’m focused on getting doses into the country. And next week we will have 4.5 million doses coming into the country, 1.1 million doses of Moderna and the remainder from Pfizer for a total of 4.5 million doses in one week, that’s unprecedented, Mike. And by the end of the month, we will have 25 million doses in total in the country. So that’s my focus: procurement, delivery of doses into the country.

Mike Le Couteur: That point is taken. But you’re procuring these doses right now and they’re coming as a result of your procurement contracts, so what happens when you consider that provincial health officials are looking at what you’re buying and saying we don’t really want it right now. So isn’t that a bit of a failure on your part?

Anita Anand, Public Services and Procurement Minister: Well actually, Mike, we put in place seven contracts last summer with a diverse range of suppliers for various types of vaccines because we wanted to make sure that we were prepared for any eventuality regardless of which horse crossed the finish line first, so to speak, or whether there would be issues that arose with any of the vaccines. So what we’ve done, from a procurement standpoint, is maximize the benefits for Canadians, actually, and we’re allowing Canadians to have access to the best vaccines possible as a result of these procurements. For example, with Pfizer and Moderna alone, we will be seeing millions and millions of vaccines coming into this country over the next weeks and months.

Mike Le Couteur: Again, point taken and I hate to continue on AstraZeneca but I’ve got another question on it. Did you make sure when you negotiated that contract that there was a clause in there that stipulated if health officials, like we are seeing now in many of the provinces, say that it does not pass the muster for them and that it should not be going into Canadian arms. Is there a clause in that contract with AstraZeneca that can let us get out of that contract because we had negotiated upwards of 22 million doses of AstraZeneca that right now it doesn’t look like Canadians want.

Anita Anand, Public Services and Procurement Minister: Well actually there are Canadians, who want AstraZeneca, Mike, I have to say. My husband, the leader of our government, Prime Minister Trudeau, is all looking for the second dose of AstraZeneca so I take exception to the point that nobody wants AstraZeneca.

Mike Le Couteur: But minister, it’s on first doses. I mean on first doses because yes, as I mentioned in the earlier question, we can get through those second doses, but there are still upwards of 17 million other doses that you’ve negotiated a contract for. What do we do with them if they’re not going to go into new arms?

Anita Anand, Public Services and Procurement Minister: Well that, as I mentioned, is a conversation we’re having across government right now and we have committed to donating excess doses. Our prime minister has mentioned this, I have and Minister Gould and Minister Hajdu are all on the same page in terms of the need to donate excess doses that Canadians aren’t using So we are thinking of all of the options relating to any excess doses and we will continue to make sure we fulfill our obligations to Canadians by bringing in millions of doses. One hundred million doses or more will be in the country prior to the end of September and we, of course, will maintain our obligations to the developing world as well.

Mike Le Couteur: And in fairness, I’m not trying to knock AstraZeneca that was my first dose as well. I’ll take it tomorrow. But if your point is that if there’s excess, does that mean we’re looking at the rest of AstraZeneca as a possible donation to other countries?

Anita Anand, Public Services and Procurement Minister: As I mentioned, the conversation about doses and any excess doses is one that is occurring at the current time, and so we need to engage with multiple ministries on this question and make sure that we are fulfilling the needs of Canadians in terms of getting vaccines to provinces and territories as well as our obligations to the developing world. So we’ll have more to say on the question of donations in the future but at the current time, my focus is on getting vaccines to Canadians and that’s exactly what we are doing. Over 50 per cent of adult Canadians have received at least one dose of vaccine. We’ve delivered over 20 million doses to the provinces and territories and Canada is in the top three of G20 countries for vaccines and vaccine administration among other things.

Mike Le Couteur: When you’re talking about percentages, the prime minister had spoken about, and public health officials on Friday actually, spoke about 75 per cent of Canadians getting a shot by the summer and 20 per cent getting their second dose by the summer, would loosen up restrictions. As the procurement minister who has to be bringing in these vaccines, right now the numbers show that we’re at 42 per cent of people getting their first dose, how confident are you that you can get vaccines in the door quickly enough to hit that 75 per cent number?

Anita Anand, Public Services and Procurement Minister: That 75 per cent number was determined based on our expected procurements, so I am confident that we will continue to bring in millions and millions of doses for Canadians. We expect over 40 million doses prior to the end of June and over 100 million doses by the end of September. It may be the case that we can accelerate doses even sooner.

Mike Le Couteur: Minister, that’s all the time we have for today. I appreciate it, thanks so much for being with us.

Anita Anand, Public Services and Procurement Minister: Thank you so much, Mike. Take care.

Mike Le Couteur: Up next, experts weigh in on conflicting pandemic messaging and what the government should do about it.

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Mike Le Couteur: Throughout this pandemic and even just this week, there has been a push and pull on the messaging for Canadians: politicians promising one thing and public health officials tempering expectations and then other politicians promising something else.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The one-dose summer sets us up for a two-dose fall.”

Dr. Howard Njoo, Deputy Chief Public Health Officer of Canada: “For something like the face masks, I would say that would be probably one of the last things to go. I think it’s just a good practice to keep on right into the fall.”

Doug Ford, Ontario Premier: “I just don’t believe a one-dose summer—it’s just not good enough.”

Mike Le Couteur: Joining us now to discuss this more is Jessica Mudry, the associate chair of the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson University, and virologist, Dr. Angela Rasmussen from VIDOInterVac in Saskatoon.

Thank you both for joining us. First, I want to go with Professor Mudry. The prime minister says something like that, a one-dose summer and a two-dose fall, but doesn’t really give any other details as to what that actually means until a few days later and then we hear that it’s 75—if 75 per cent of people get a first dose and 20 per cent of people get a second dose, we can start doing things outdoors again. Is that effective communication?

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Professor Jessica Mudry, Ryerson University: I think it’s a very catchy phrase, you know, to have this kind of parallel between one-dose and two-dose. I mean, these are phrases that are sort tightly packaged almost PR moves, but I think that what is lacking behind that is what that actually means scientifically. And I think that what we need to do is start educating the public about the scientific ramifications of what one-dose summer, two-dose fall actually means. And I think that when we do that, we’ll probably be able to grab onto and actually marshal support for some of these messages.

Mike Le Couteur: And Dr. Rasmussen, what’s the risk of people being told that they can get outside, but then they actually don’t really understand the message and they just tune it out altogether?

Dr. Angela Rasmussen, Virologist: Yeah, I think that’s one of the big risks, because something like a one-dose summer suggests that we’re going to be back to essentially normal by the summer and that means a very specific thing. In this case, it means we have to hit certain metrics before we can begin gathering outdoors. It would be really helpful if that message of one-shot summer was paired with what it actually means for people in their real lives.

Mike Le Couteur: I just want to follow up on that, though. We’ve been told so many times, we need to follow the science and that this is science in real-time. But do most people out there really understand that that means things will change?

Dr. Angela Rasmussen, Virologist: I don’t think so. Just in my own observations, I think that many people get the idea that follow the science means that we are doing experiments, checking facts off as we identify them and that’s really not how science works. Science is normally couched in uncertainty and we don’t many things. In fact, most policies are made in a situation where there is great uncertainty. So any type of policy, any type of guidance for what people should be doing in their daily lives, can change as we get new information.

Mike Le Couteur: And Professor Mudry, I mean it almost feels like we’re living inside of a clinical trial right now.

Professor Jessica Mudry, Ryerson University: It’s fair to use that comparison, but I mean I think what we also have to remember is that this is really common. And as Dr. Rasmussen pointed out, you know, any time there is a bit of uncertainty, that’s where scientists find the beginning of their work. Science is not really about knowing, it’s the starting point for science is not knowing something and that’s sometimes difficult for people to grasp. And so, I mean, I can’t really blame politicians for having shifting messages and changing messages because the very nature of science is that it’s always shifting and sort of, you know, retooling their thesis statements about, you know, what exactly I’m studying at this moment and how can I achieve the best results? And I think once we start to understand that things like the risk of this or the risk of that is actually just a measure of probability. It’s a measure of what we don’t know. It’s not actually a measure of what we know.

Mike Le Couteur: But professor, there’s so much grey into it and it seems like humans like to deal a lot in black and white, so how difficult is that to try and communicate it to people?

Professor Jessica Mudry, Ryerson University: I mean it’s true that people do like the line in the sand. They like very, very distinct binaries, you know this is x, this is y. But science really moves forward because of grey areas and we are living a grey area right now and I think that sometimes that’s where a lot of frustration comes, a lot of politicking comes and really, that just smacks a little bit of ignorance certainly on the part of politicians of again, how the scientific process actually proceeds.

Mike Le Couteur: Dr. Rasmussen, speaking of grey areas, there’s a lot of it with AstraZeneca. We’ve seen changing advice in Canada on whether or not it’ll be used. It’s not even approved in the U.S., so what are the implications across the globe when G7 countries like Canada and the U.S. are seen to basically be turning up their noses at a certain vaccine?

Dr. Angela Rasmussen, Virologist: Well I think this is where educating people about that uncertainty becomes really, really important because in countries like Canada and countries like the U.S., and as somebody who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which people are turning their noses up against, it will be really helpful, I think, for people to understand how committees like NACI, the ACIP in the U.S., are making these decisions and recommendations, and how people should be thinking about doing risk benefit analyses for themselves. Personally, I’m very relieved to have gotten the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. I know that Prime Minister Trudeau said something similar about receiving AstraZeneca. I think that when we’re communicating about using these vaccines and the rest of the world, where they will be very important in terms of achieving global herd immunity. We really need to be talking to people more about what we know, what we don’t know, what the risks are and what the benefits will be for many people. And people should be able to be empowered to make that decision for themselves.

Mike Le Couteur: Given all of the grey and all of the unknowns, I mean how difficult is it for politicians to thread the needle about being honest about what they know and what they don’t know and trying to instil that confidence in people to make sure that they do follow guidelines?

Professor Jessica Mudry, Ryerson University: Well I think it’s certainly incumbent upon politicians to let us know when they don’t know something. And I think that a lot of times it’s—it—people think that it comes from a moment of weakness but it actually helps foster trust between a speaker and their audience. Being able to say I really don’t know this right now, but we are doing our best to get the, you know, the most up-to-date, the most, you know, scientifically sound information as it happens, I think would instil a little bit more trust from the Canadian public towards the government at this point in time.

Mike Le Couteur: And doctor, I just wanted to ask you very quickly, we’ve only got about 30 seconds. Would it have been advisable for people to say look, this is basically one big experiment and we’re trying this out, but trust us?

Dr. Angela Rasmussen, Virologist: I don’t know if it would have been advisable to say this is one big experiment, but I do agree with Professor Mudry very strongly that one mark of expertise is admitting up front what you don’t know, preparing people for the fact that things might change. You know follow the science is a relatively meaningless term. What we should be educating people about is that science is a method and it’s a process and if we teach people to think that way, I think they will be more accepting of changing guidance and changing information from the government.

Mike Le Couteur: Thank you so much for that conversation. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to leave it right there.

Dr. Angela Rasmussen, Virologist: Thank you so much for having me, Mike.

Professor Jessica Mudry, Ryerson University: Thank you, Mike.

Mike Le Couteur: Coming up, what happens to the vaccine rollout now that Major-General Dany Fortin is under investigation?

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Mike Le Couteur: Welcome back. Late Friday, we learned Major-General Dany Fortin, the person the Trudeau government appointed to handle vaccine distribution, is being investigated by the military police.

Global News has confirmed it’s related to an allegation of sexual misconduct that predates his time as a general. The news comes in the wake of misconduct investigations launched against a number of high-ranking officials, including the former chief of the defence staff General Jonathan Vance and his successor, Admiral Art McDonald.

Joining me now to talk more about this is Robert Fife, the Ottawa bureau chief for The Globe and Mail; and our very own Amanda Connolly, whose been reporting extensively on this subject.

Thank you both for being here. Bob, we’ll start with you. What do we know about the allegations in this specific case?

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail Ottawa Bureau Chief: Well we don’t know very much. The allegations are being very closely held by only a number of people in the acting chief of the defence offices and the deputy minister of defence as well, obviously, the minister of defence’s office. But we do know, according to the sources that I’ve talked to, is that the misallegation of sexual misconduct took place prior to Major-General Dany Fortin becoming a general in 2015. It is—I am told that it is a credible allegation and the government has decided, or the defence department has decided that they no longer, no matter what—how this long an allegation may have been, that if there are any credible allegations that they are not only going to be investigated, but that anybody who has been accused will have to step aside. Finally, Mike, they began to realize that they have to take this stuff seriously, both inside the rank and file, it’s no longer acceptable and certainly, it’s not acceptable amongst the public.

Mike Le Couteur: Yeah, and that does signal a bit of a different tone that we’ve heard. So Amanda, how significant is this latest investigation in the wake of all of the other investigations that we’ve seen about—of the high-ranking members of the military?

Amanda Connolly, Global News reporter: Well it’s certainly one more stone that adds onto this really heavy pile weighing on the government right now. Like you mentioned, of course, they’re looking at a number of different allegations against very senior leaders in the military and that all is having a big effect both on morale in the troops in terms of the perception of the military, the government’s ability to get the job done and really handle these allegations credibly. Again, this is a feminist government. Their brand is built on that. If they can’t handle this properly and get this done and be seen to do it well, that’s a big political risk for them.

Mike Le Couteur: Yeah, for sure. And the risk also for the military, Bob, and for Public Health Agency of Canada, neither has said how much this will affect the vaccine rollout. Are you at all concerned, or do you think there could be a snag at this crucial time when we’re getting so many vaccines coming into the country?

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail Ottawa Bureau Chief: No. There are lots of competent people who will be able to step in and fill those shoes. But I just want to come back to what Amanda said about this being a feminist government. If they were such a feminist government, if they really sincerely cared other than doing rhetoric, they would have followed the recommendations of former Supreme Court Justice, who said that they need to set up an independent body to investigate sexual harassment, misconduct, rape and assault in the military. They have failed to do so. They’ve still failed to do so, including the former military ombudsman and everybody else as saying set up an independent inquiry. What have they done? They’ve set up another Supreme Court judge to look into this whole issue. This is a failure of a feminist government.

Mike Le Couteur: And what has it done that that file has sat on their desk for five years? Amanda, I mean this is something that everybody said when they announced that Justice Louise Arbour is going to be taking this over. They said well this is just another Deschamps report. We already have the report. We already know what’s coming. Like, having it sit there and just doing the same thing, what does that mean?

Amanda Connolly, Global News reporter: I think that—I think that there’s two parts to that question. One of them is the fact that we’re hearing now from senior military officials of individuals who have left the military. I know I have spoken with several in the last couple of weeks who are saying look, we failed. We messed this up. We did not handle this properly. We didn’t understand what the Deschamps report was saying. And that—I think that what you’re seeing here, too, is also kind of a bit of a dissonance between you look at the numbers and the conclusions laid out in the Deschamps report and you look at the real human aspect of it and how crucial it is to act. I don’t—the sense that I’m getting right now from people I’ve spoken to is that they didn’t get that human aspect of it and that’s a big part of the reason. That’s…

Mike Le Couteur: How? How is that?

Amanda Connolly, Global News reporter: That’s the big question, right? How do you look at that and not believe that this is a serious problem? It is a crisis for the military right now. It is an institutional crisis for them, and to have this latest individual facing these allegations, again, we don’t know the details of that—this is a huge issue that the government and the entire country is watching very closely, particularly because it’s so tied right now to the vaccine rollout.

Mike Le Couteur: Bob, you’ve been on Parliament Hill for a long time and I don’t want to age you here, but have you ever seen a government that has studied things so much, asked for reports, sat on them so much and then just ask for another report? I mean how unprecedented is this when you see what they’ve done with this file?

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail Ottawa Bureau Chief: Well this is a government that’s really—really terrible at managing crisis. Look at the SNC-Lavalin inquiry, for example. They weren’t able to handle that very well. Almost everything that they touch when it’s a major crisis, they don’t know how to handle it. And this is one that is not going to go away. There are going to be more people—I know there are going to be more people who are in senior positions, who are going to have to step aside because women are talking amongst themselves whether they should come forward with this and this is going to be a major problem. And if they were smart, they’d set up an independent inquiry—an independent body to overlook this right now. They’re refusing to do so, just like they did a few years ago. I don’t know why they’re dragging their feet because the solution is pretty damn easy.

Mike Le Couteur: Amanda, just very quickly, I mean this hasn’t really been a good year for Trudeau appointees. In 20 seconds or less, what does this mean for the blinders they have in vetting?

Amanda Connolly, Global News reporter: I think this signals that they have a big problem in vetting. There is something missing. There is some hole in what they’re doing and they have to figure it out really fast or else keep facing these problems going forward.

Mike Le Couteur: Yeah, appreciate your time. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to leave it there. Bob Fife from The Globe and Mail, Amanda Connolly from Global News, thanks so much for being with us, everybody.

And that’s all the time we have on this Sunday morning. Thanks so much for joining us. For The West Block, I’m Mike Le Couteur. Stay safe, everyone.


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