The West Block — Episode 38, Season 10

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Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mercedes Stephenson – June 13, 2021


Episode 38, Season 10

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


Mohammed Hashim, Canadian Race Relations Foundation

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., Buffalo, N.Y.

Annamie Paul, Green Party Leader

Location: Ottawa, Ontario

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Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block.

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: “How many more families will be mauled—mauled—down the street? How many more families will be killed before we do something?”

Mercedes Stephenson: What’s fuelling the rise in intolerance against religious and minority groups in Canada?

And, pressure builds to reopen the Canada-U.S. border. Can the summer tourist season be saved?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Well we will make our decisions based on what is in Canadians’ interests.”

Mercedes Stephenson: We speak with New York Congressman Brian Higgins.

And from green to red…

Jenica Atwin, Liberal MP—Fredericton: “It’s been, in a word, distracting. And so I’m going where I can do my best work on behalf of my community.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Jenica Atwin crosses the floor amid turmoil within the Green party. Will the defection devastate the Greens? We speak with Green Party Leader Annamie Paul.

It’s Sunday, June 13th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

Hate crimes are on the rise across Canada, the horrific attack in London, Ontario last week, a tragic example that has triggered fear and anxiety for many Canadians that they too, could be victimized.

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The latest statistics show there were nearly 2 thousand police reported hate crimes in Canada. Other than a spike in 2017, the highest numbers since 2009. There was a 9 per cent increase in Islamophobic attacks in 2019, compared to the previous year.

Fifty-eight per cent of Canadians of Asian descent experienced anti-Asian discrimination in the past year and according to B’nail Brth Canada, the number of anti-Semitic assaults recorded so far in May of 2021 alone, easily surpasses the total number of assaults in 2020.

Joining us to talk about this is Mohammed Hashim, Executive Director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. Thank you so much for joining us, Mohammed.

I think Canadians like to think about themselves as a country that is welcoming, that is multi-cultural, that doesn’t have the racist undertones and the race tensions that people tend to associate with the United States. What’s the reality here in Canada?

Mohammed Hashim, Canadian Race Relations Foundation: I think it’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that, for sure. I think that we believe that we are an inclusive society. I think we strive to be an inclusive society and I think that’s driving as an important function of how we define ourselves. I think we strive more so than other countries do, but we also have skeletons in our closet. I think that—and the reality is that there is racism here in Canada and the fact that we don’t talk about it enough and sometimes we just hide it under the carpet in order to avoid talking about it—is something that now we’re coming to reckon with a lot more because of everything that we’ve been discovering recently.

Mercedes Stephenson: The numbers that we were sharing with our viewers there in the introduction are quite shocking and they’re quite concerning. What do you think is fuelling the rise in hatred? What are the factors that are making it so much worse right now?

Mohammed Hashim, Canadian Race Relations Foundation: I think when we talk about hate, we think about some—the white supremacists in the basement spewing horrible things, but hate is actually fear turned into extreme violence. And what we’re seeing is that fear is being fuelled dramatically and especially online when we see how people are talking about other people. They’re fuelling fear and that at any time you can be online and you can be four clicks away from seeing the most hateful stuff. I’ll give you an example. So if you’re thinking about getting a vaccine. You’re hearing of AstraZeneca having side effects. You see an article that talks about vaccine hesitancy. Then you go from there. You click on that and you see another article that talks about COVID originating in China. Then you click on another article that says the Chinese government is covering something up. And then all of a sudden, you click on another article that says, you know, Asians are involved in some type of conspiracy to be able to cover up the truth about COVID. The fluidity of that conversation is very, very real and very quick, and that all happens online and it all happens in a speed that we haven’t seen before. And I think that’s the underlining fear that is driving the polarization that is leading to this violence and hate in Canada, and the polarization is really where we see that being the nucleus of how hate is fuelled.

Mercedes Stephenson: That polarization, and I think so many of us have seen it online and it’s frightening that that’s how easily you can get into that kind of hateful propaganda that people are seeing. What needs to be done about that? How do you regulate it? Is it the government coming in? Is it the big platforms? How do you address that online hate?

Mohammed Hashim, Canadian Race Relations Foundation: Well I think first, we have to zoom out and think about what the expectations of our online experiences are right now. We believe that. We think that anything goes online that we can say anything that we want and that nothing will happen to us. I think that expectation is what we need to change because I think online hate legislation that will come and I believe the minister has said that it will be coming in the next few weeks, I think needs to ensure that freedom of speech is protected. But we’re not talking about freedom of speech, we’re talking about the freedom to hate online and that’s what needs to be regulated. And I think that there are ways to do so that are important and that are not easy to do, but it will take a lot of explaining and creating buy-in and sensitization from the general public on what to expect and what not to expect in their online experiences.

Mercedes Stephenson: Who would you like to see take the lead on that?

Mohammed Hashim, Canadian Race Relations Foundation: Well the government has to take the lead, there’s no doubt about that because right now, content moderation’s already happening: Facebook, Twitter, all of them are applying their own standards. But I don’t know what those standards are, I haven’t agreed to those standards. I—I—and I don’t think those standards are working. So there has to be some way where people like myself, or yourself, who want to know what the rules are of engaging online, can go and either make sure that it’s something that’s been taken down that goes back up, or if something that’s put up that is harmful, that I can flag it somebody that will then take it down in a responsible way. And now that, I believe, has to be the function of the government because if content—if the platforms just do it themselves, they’ll just—they’re just doing it as they please. And there are no set rules or understanding across society that has been agreed upon for people to adhere to.

Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think is the way forward as a society? Because we can change perhaps, the rules about what’s online. We can try to address that. We can address the concerns about civil liberties, but the fact is there are still these hateful currents in our society, these fears, this racism, this extremism. And we see marches, we see rallies, we see summits and they’re all very sincere but then we’re shocked when the next incident happens. What strategy do you see going forward to try to get Canadians to reckon with the reality and to change it for the better?

Mohammed Hashim, Canadian Race Relations Foundation: I think the first thing we have to do is we have to stop simply just relying on governments to solve this issue. I think there was—there was a letter by Jeff Bennett, who was a former Conservative candidate in one of the previous elections, and he wrote a letter of somewhat of an apology after the London killings. And he said that, you know, when he was going door to door during the election campaign, people would come up to him and say thank goodness you’re white. I can finally—I just want vote—I’ll vote for you because of what you look like. And he accepted those—those votes. He didn’t challenge them and he felt ashamed about not speaking up in a place that he wanted to represent. And that was—and him writing this apology, honestly was an act of courage. I really think that all of us, no matter what creed, colour, race or religion that we are, need to talk to people who are close to us and have them understand the implications of their words so that they’re not fuelling something. They’re not “liking” a post on Facebook. They’re not sharing something on—on Twitter so that they actually understand. And I think that Canadians need to step up in a way that’s real and that talk—like we all have crazy uncles, you know? They all say crazy stuff. And I think that we—we just have to have greater conversations with them because we might think that they’re harmless at home and not doing anything, but they might be “liking” something. They might be sharing something online and that—and that fuels this environment.

Mercedes Stephenson: Mohammed, we really appreciate your time and insight, and we hope to speak to you again soon. Please take care.

Mohammed Hashim, Canadian Race Relations Foundation: Thank you very much for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, pressure is building to reopen the Canada-U.S. border in time for the summer holidays. We’ll speak with a key U.S. law maker who says open it up.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Fifteen months into the coronavirus pandemic, the Canada-U.S. border remains closed to most travellers, cutting off families, tourists, and billions of dollars in business.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says any decision on reopening the border will be based on science and his priority is the safety of Canadians. But the delay is alarming businesses on the Canadian and American sides of the border. Many worry they’ll miss out on a second straight summer of tourism.

Joining me now to talk about this is New York Congressman Brian Higgins. He is the co-chair of the Northern Border Caucus and the Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group.

Thank you so much for joining us today, congressman.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., Buffalo, N.Y.: Happy to be with you.

Mercedes Stephenson: I know that we heard this past week from the Canadian government. They’re looking at reopening the Canada-U.S. border a little bit for Canadians, but not for Americans. What was your reaction to that news?

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., Buffalo, N.Y.: Well I think—look it, I think both Canadians and Americans are—are—are deserving of a better vision from our respective leaders about when this border is going to open. The border has been closed, as you mentioned, for 15 months. We were told both on the U.S. and Canadian side that the inflection point, the game-changing moment would be the availability of vaccines. Guess what? We now have vaccines which is a powerful medicine against the disease, COVID.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that there should be a certain rate of double vaccination among the population before we reopen the border? Because we’re—we’re far behind the United States in terms of fully vaccinated Canadians and they could be crossing into the U.S.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., Buffalo, N.Y.: Yeah, that’s a problem and, you know, the Canadian—as you know government decades ago, established strict price controls and patent policy, shortening the duration of patens, which in effect drew the—drove the pharmaceutical industry out of Canada so Canada is not producing one dose of the vaccine. That said, those who are vaccinated, fully, approximately 10 per cent of the Canadian population, approximately 45 per cent of the U.S. population should be giving consideration to at least, you know, if they have properties in Canada and they live in the United States, they should be able to visit those properties. If they have loved ones that they’ve been separated from over the past 15 months, they should be able to reunite. If you have business you want to transact, you should be able to do that. I just don’t think that Canadian and U.S. officials have been forthcoming with a vision, with metrics about when in fact the border can open both incrementally and fully.

Mercedes Stephenson: You’re a Democrat. You’re obviously a pretty influential Democrat at that. Have you spoken to the White House about how they feel about this? Do you know what President Biden’s feelings are in terms of reopening the border?

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., Buffalo, N.Y.: Well the president has said clearly to me and more broadly that he wants to get the border open, or get Americans back to a sense of normalcy by July 4th. For us that live along the Canadian border that sense of normalcy includes opening the U.S.-Canadian border.

On Wednesday night, I received word from the White House that the president was planning to speak with the Canadian prime minister about this very issue while they’re at the G7. I don’t know when that is scheduled, but I’ve also spoken with the highest levels of his administration and just urging them to do all they can to help our Canadian neighbours get more vaccines, but to also develop a joint plan, an action plan for the opening of the border.

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Mercedes Stephenson: What happens if this continues? If the Canadian side wants to proceed more slowly and the American side wants to speed up, do you think that there’s a point where the United States would act unilaterally to open your side of the border?

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., Buffalo, N.Y.: I think they could as a strategy and I think that we should open up the U.S. border to Canadians who want vaccines and can’t get them in Canada. We have surplus vaccines here in the United States, here in western New York that is not being used. And if they’re not being used, they get discarded as medical waste. Why shouldn’t a Canadian come over to our community and get vaccinated? You talk about, you know, a—a definition of essential traveller in a public health crisis, somebody seeking a vaccine should be allowed to come over and they should be deemed an essential traveller. I don’t think people really understood how powerful these vaccines are. You know the assumption was that when vaccines were developed, maybe 60 per cent effective. These are 85, 90, 95 per cent effective and thus are a very powerful medicine against COVID-19.

Mercedes Stephenson: When it comes to determining whether or not people are double vaccinated, how do you think that should happen? Because I think one of the concerns is okay, everyone understands the science behind someone who is fully vaccinated. They’re pretty safe and could say let’s start to let that travel open up. But how do you know who actually is double vaccinated versus who’s just saying they are? Do you need something like a vaccine passport and do you have any concerns about civil liberties with that?

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., Buffalo, N.Y.: I do, but I think people of good will can develop a strategy to certify, to confirm. I’ve been double vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine. I have a card that states that. There should be some way that that can be presented at the border to allow safe passage for those who have been vaccinated. You know this is—there are a lot of things we’re trying to balance here: civil liberties, public health. But the reality is, you know, I think that if you allow people that have been vaccinated to cross the border that would be an incentive for people that may be, you know, sceptical of vaccines or afraid of needles. I understand that that’s a real thing. That may be, you know, an incentive to in fact, get vaccinated, which will increase the percentage of people that are ultimately vaccinated. But, you know, there needs to be some recognition.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have, but thank you so much for joining us, congressman. We appreciate your time.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., Buffalo, N.Y.: Thanks for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, Green Party conflict and chaos. Can the Greens survive losing one of their three MPs to the Liberals?

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Drama and defection on Parliament Hill, as an internal conflict in the Green Party exploded into the public eye.

Last Thursday, Green MP, or formerly Green MP that is, Jenica Atwin, crossed the floor to the Liberals. The move came after a controversial and opposing social media posts by Atwin and a senior Green Party advisor. Those posts revealed a fault line in the party.

Green Leader Annamie Paul joins me now to talk about this. Ms. Paul, obviously a pretty tough week for you and your party. I just want to start with that initial post by Ms. Atwin. She referred to Israel as being an “apartheid state.” What were your thoughts on that?

Annamie Paul, Green Party Leader: I was actually not—not aware of the post for a day or two. I don’t—I’m not on social media that often. I—when I did come to learn of it, I was disappointed. I didn’t—didn’t realize that she had posted something directly and in contradiction of what I’d said and questioning the statement that I had put out on behalf of our party. But again, we—we are a party that has space for differences of opinion. We’re a party that is able to be able to discuss those differences of opinion ideally. And so I didn’t respond in any kind of a reactionary way to it. I hoped that we would have the opportunity to talk about it.

Mercedes Stephenson: Did you ever get that opportunity to discuss it with her?

Annamie Paul, Green Party Leader: Well we had—I—I unfortunately, you know, sometimes in life when it rains, it pours. And unfortunately, at the time that that post come out—came out and the ensuing ones—my family was in the midst of a medical emergency, my mother was in the hospital that week. When we did have an opportunity to speak three or four days later, we did briefly speak about and after that conversation, we unfortunately have never had the opportunity to speak again.

Mercedes Stephenson: Ms. Atwin said in a press conference when she announced that she was crossing the floor that this—this was not as a result of the conflict over Israel Palestine and the position. It was because she and the Liberals had been in talks for weeks. She then contradicted that on Friday morning in an interview and said it was fundamental differences with you—irreconcilable differences. Why do you believe Jenica Atkin [Atwin] left the Green Party?
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Annamie Paul, Green Party Leader: Again, I would say that only Ms. Atwin can answer that—that question, that there clearly a contrast, a flip-flop from what was said yesterday. I’m sure that Ms. Atkin—Atwin rather, is under a lot of pressure locally. There are many people that are confused and hurt by the decision. I’m sure there’s pressure. I’m just hoping that she will not choose to make me a scapegoat in all of this. I take her at her word when she said that I was not a factor in her decision, that my leadership was not a factor. So it’s very confusing to hear that that’s not the case today. But I do, again, really hope that one woman is not going to throw another woman under a bus just because things are getting a little bit tough right now.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that you can continue to lead the Green Party? It feels like there’s sort of an internal mutiny almost against you at this point. First of all, you have Ms. Atwin crossing the floor. Then you have the letter put out by your two sitting Green MPs, saying that the reason she left, it’s a tragedy and saying that it’s a result of your former senior advisor’s social media post in which he said he would actively work against Ms. Atwin’s re-election and anyone else. So he espoused what he viewed as anti-Israel views. What are your thoughts on that? Can you continue to lead this party?

Annamie Paul, Green Party Leader: Well, we had a—a leadership contest just about half a year ago. It was a very long leadership contest. It was over eight months. We had over eight candidates. We were thoroughly vetted. We had hundreds of events. I received a very clear and significant mandate from our members and so I am trying to do the work and ultimately, the members will decide whether I stay or I go. But I believe the members are with me. They elected me on a platform of diversity, democracy and daring to try to bring in particular, diversity to our party. There are always going to be these—these many mutinies. I—I take comfort in knowing we’re not the only party to have been here not even in recent memory. I’m just going to continue to try to do the work, that’s really what’s important. There is so much happening right now that requires our urgent attention. I really don’t want this to become too much of a distraction.

Mercedes Stephenson: What did you think of your former senior advisor’s post saying he’d actively work against MPs who took what he saw as anti-Zionist positions?

Annamie Paul, Green Party Leader: So with the respect to that post and Ms. Atkin’s—Atwin’s post, my intention as soon as I became aware of them and again, as I said because of, you know, the medical emergency, I wasn’t aware for a couple of days about either of them, was immediately to try to see how we could reconcile. Both parties had worked incredibly closely together for many months and the—the default always has to try to be, particularly in those cases, to work for understanding and for dialogue. Those are our Green values. And so while I didn’t succeed in—in—in accomplishing that, I—I really will never regret that. I think that you always have to—to try. I certainly wish I could do—could have done more. And I will always take my—my responsibility for these things but of course, it takes all of the parties to be willing to have those conversations if we’re going to reach that resolution.

Mercedes Stephenson: Ms. Paul, thank you so much for joining us.

Annamie Paul, Green Party Leader: Thank you so much for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: And that’s all the time we have for this week’s edition of The West Block. Thank you for joining us. I’ll see you again, next Sunday.

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