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The West Block — Episode 39, Season 10

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Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mercedes Stephenson – June 20, 2021. – Jun 20, 2021

THE WEST BLOCK

Episode 39, Season 10

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests:

Dr. Peter Juni, Ontario COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table

Anita Vandenbeld, Liberal MP, Ottawa-West Nepean

James Bezan, Conservative MP, Selkirk—Interlake—Eastman

Sam Cooper, Global News Investigative Journalist

Location: Ottawa, Ontario

Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: The shot that misfired.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer: “I totally recognize that this is difficult for many. Those who received two doses of AstraZeneca, you’ve been provided with good protection.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Conflicting public health advice has left Canadians confused.

Unidentified speaker: “Mr. Lawrence, Mr. Duncan.”

Unidentified speaker: “I declare the motion carried.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan censured by the House of Commons.

Erin O’Toole, Conservative Leader: “How possibly can the women in the Canadian Armed Forces have any faith in this minister to do his job after he failed them so badly?”

Harjit Sajjan, Minister of National Defence: “I will do my darndest and best, always for the sake of the Canadian Armed Forces until we get an environment that’s inclusive.”

Mercedes Stephenson: And the federal government declared in contempt of Parliament amid concerns about espionage.

Michael Chong, MP Halton Hills: “The Chinese military scientist, Feihu Yan, of the People’s Liberation Army, was granted access to work in the government’s Winnipeg lab.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Why are the Liberals refusing to provide documents about the firing of two scientists from Canada’s top infectious disease lab?

It’s Sunday, June 20th. Happy Father’s Day. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

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Politicians across this country told Canadians that they should do their part and get the first vaccine offered to them. Many of us rolled our sleeves up and Canadians received lots of the AstraZeneca vaccine, assured it was safe, effective and just as good as an mRNA vaccine.

But now there is frustration and confusion, after federal guidance on the AstraZeneca shot has changed yet again.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization announced that the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines are preferred over AstraZeneca now for the second shot to provide the most effective immunity against COVID-19.

Joining me now to talk about this and to help us sort through all of it is Dr. Peter Juni. He is the scientific director of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto.

Thank you so much for joining us, doctor. How are you?

Dr. Peter Juni, Ontario COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table: I am fine, thanks. Thanks for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well it’s our pleasure, and we’re really looking forward to getting some of your expert insight on this because we’re hearing a lot of confusion from folks who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine for a first shot. They’re now wondering should they get it for the second one. Is it as good as an mRNA vaccine? What would your advice be?

Dr. Peter Juni, Ontario COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table: Look, this is all evolving and what has really changed is that we are now having the Delta variant in our country, especially in our province here in Ontario. And what we know is the mRNA vaccines will protect more effectively against the Delta variants than the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Mercedes Stephenson: So if people have a choice, they will receive better protection if they get a second mRNA vaccine rather than a second AstraZeneca?

Dr. Peter Juni, Ontario COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table: This is correct and this holds especially for infections. It’s really important to realize that the protection [00:03:11 INAUDIBLE] COVID that results in hospitalization or ICU admission is probably as good with two shots of AstraZeneca vaccine than with two shots of Pfizer, for example. So this is all about infection and we just try to optimize the response in the situation we’re in.
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Mercedes Stephenson: Why do you think there’s been so much changing advice on this? Because we’re heard from folks who got the two AstraZeneca’s and now they’re going oh, well I thought I was doing the right thing.

Dr. Peter Juni, Ontario COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table: Oh, they absolutely did the right thing. You know science is emerging and what we also see is basically evolution in real-time. We now have the situation where the Delta variant is about to take over Ontario, for example, and we just need to react to it. And now we react on new evidence emerging from the United Kingdom and this evidence just clearly indicates it’s yes, two shots of Pfizer, or then also one of AstraZeneca followed by one shot of Pfizer or Moderna are just the better choice to get this pandemic under control and keep it under control.

Mercedes Stephenson: For people who have received two shots of AstraZeneca, do you think that there could potentially be advice to get a third booster shot or to get a third shot that would be mRNA to give them more immunity?

Dr. Peter Juni, Ontario COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table: First of all, we need to be aware that it’s highly likely that we all need booster shots sooner or later. Things will evolve, more evidence will come. We don’t know yet how long we all will be protected once we have had two shots of whatever we got. And depending on what’s coming next, the advice will then evolve. Right now, the aim is to get two shots of whatever is approved in Canada and if everybody actually gets that and we make it to 85 per cent coverage in the province here in Ontario, in the country, that’s the aim and then this means that we will be protected enough.

Mercedes Stephenson: Is there a difference, because I know a lot of people are asking this, between Pfizer and Moderna? A lot of people now think Pfizer is the gold standard. Is that the case or are those shots actually interchangeable?

Dr. Peter Juni, Ontario COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table: These are interchangeable. You know that’s really important, this is like a brand of gasoline basically. These two really are so close, the way they are produced, the contents, etc. We know it also when we look at the antibody responses, they’re really interchangeable and that’s important to keep in mind. There’s no better or worse between these two.

Mercedes Stephenson: The federal government’s talking about reopening the borders and that people who are double vaccinated would be able to travel. But a lot of families are wondering what that means for them because they have children under the age of 12, there’s no vaccine approved for them yet. What is your advice on that for families where you might have parents who are double vaccinated but children with no vaccines thinking about travel?

Dr. Peter Juni, Ontario COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table: We need to be very careful here. We now really need to make sure that we don’t introduce more variants into this country and we need to think about what is best here. And it’s clear, if you are not fully vaccinated, you will need to be very careful and from my perspective, this would mean if we travel with children, the children would need to undergo the regular quarantine and would need to get tested repetitively, not just once. And that’s just how it is right now. We don’t have vaccines yet that are approved for kids.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you have a sense of what the timeline is on perhaps having vaccines approved for children? I mean, I think all the parents who are at home with kids right now who are not in school are wondering if they could find themselves in the same situation in the fall.

Dr. Peter Juni, Ontario COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table: We don’t know yet for sure. I would certainly hope for September, that September would be the month when these shots are also approved for younger kids below the age of 12.

Mercedes Stephenson: Are you concerned at all that the changing advice we’ve seen and the changing recommendations between provinces and between the federal government when it comes to which vaccine to get and when, has undermined public faith in getting those vaccines, or in what public health officials are saying?

Dr. Peter Juni, Ontario COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table: I hope not. You know what? The public needs to understand this that we are working at high speed, the scientists, to get this right and knowledge evolves. And what we’re seeing here is an attempt to really get the optimal solution to everybody at every single moment. And every decision made so far with the vaccines, looking back during the last few months were optimal decisions. We need to be aware of that, given the knowledge we had. And if we continue like that, we’re on the right track and what the public needs to understand is that science never gives you complete certainty. I mean that’s like in life, you know, there are no guarantees here. We try to get it as good as it gets and right now, we’re really on the right track. So I hope we continue to do that. We also have an extraordinarily low among the vaccine hesitancy in this country and again, I hope it stays like that. People need to be aware of the Delta variant we’re talking about is a completely different beast than what we had before and the only protection you get against the thing is being fully vaccinated eventually.

Mercedes Stephenson: Dr. Juni, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your expertise. We appreciate it, and please stay well.

Dr. Peter Juni, Ontario COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table: You too. Thanks for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the Conservative call for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to resign over what they say is his failure to deal with military sexual misconduct. And we’ll have the Liberal response. That’s up next.

[Break]
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We know there’s still much more to be done to protect all of those who choose to serve their country. So it’s unacceptable that Conservative politicians would choose to slander Minister Sajjan’s reputation instead of working with us to keep Canadians in uniform safe. I said it’s unacceptable. I didn’t say it was surprising.”

Mercedes Stephenson: That was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defending embattled Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan after he was censured by the House of Commons.

Joining us to talk more about military sexual misconduct and the government’s response is the MP who put that motion forward to censure Mr. Sajjan, Conservative MP James Bezan, and we are also joined by Liberal MP and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence, Anita Vandenbeld.

Thank you both for joining us. Anita, let’s start with you. Your government is defending the minister’s performance. Recently, a report came out from a former Supreme Court Justice, Justice Morris Fish. He said there was basically no difference between 2015 and 2021 in how bad military sexual misconduct is.

Your government’s had six years to do this. The minister has not managed to improve the situation and as recently as less than 10 days ago, we had two senior generals out playing golf with General Jonathan Vance, who’s under military police investigation. It doesn’t seem like your minister has been able to make a difference. Why is your government defending his performance?

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Anita Vandenbeld, Liberal MP, Ottawa-West Nepean: Well first of all, I think what we saw on Thursday in the House of Commons is the Opposition playing politics and making this about politicians and not about survivors. And what we have been focused on from the beginning, and long before this crisis is making sure that we do have a real culture shift within the Canadian Armed Forces. And the Fish report that you’re talking about, is going to be very key. You note that the minister has accepted all 107 recommendations. We’ve already begun on 36 of them, and you’ll note that when Madam Louise Arbours, when we asked her to go and look at the roadmap, the how, Madame Deschamps herself said that this was welcome. Because what we did before, and we realize that this didn’t have the intended effect, was we left it to the military to decide how to implement Deschamps report. What we’re doing now, is we’re making sure it is outside of the chain of command. Madam Arbour will be coming up with recommendations…

Mercedes Stephenson: But Anita, in fairness, it’s another report. There have been a lot of reports. The government has accepted all of those recommendations. We still see generals going out and playing golf together and concerns about the old boys’ club. If this was not a Liberal government, if this was a Conservative government or an NDP government and this was the performance of their minister, would you find this acceptable that he’s doing his best even if nothing seems to be changing?

Anita Vandenbeld, Liberal MP, Ottawa-West Nepean: Well first of all, I think that it is very important to recognize Minister Sajjan has been fighting the old boys’ club since he himself was serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. He was the first Sikh who was able to command a regiment. He has been breaking down these barriers to make things more inclusive and he’s been doing that as minister. And regarding the golf game that you mentioned, I think that it’s important to mention that we found out about this on Saturday. On Monday, the vice-chief was no longer in his role. There are consequences happening right now. You see people who are getting investigated, you see people who are losing their jobs. And that’s what it takes for people to start feeling they can come forward. They’re starting to see consequences. We have women and men coming forward about things that happened decades ago and we’re going to see more of it. And it’s a very difficult thing for the Canadian Armed Forces. It’s a process that I think we have to go through so that we can identify who are these perpetrators so that we can actually put in real change makers into those senior leadership roles in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Mercedes Stephenson: And to find people who actually, you know, how do you get them to listen? And I think that’s a fair question, Mr. Bezan. How do you get these senior generals to listen? Because yes it is the minister’s job to do this, but if you’re dealing with a culture where people thought that this was an acceptable thing to do, they didn’t see the problem. That’s pretty tough for any politician to come in and change. How do you fix this?

James Bezan, Conservative MP, Selkirk—Interlake—Eastman: Well we said right from the beginning when this first became the story, when you broke the story about General Vance, Mercedes, back in February, that there needs to be a freeze in all promotions and salary increases for flag officers and general officers. We said that there needs to be a service-wide independent investigation that we need to promote more women and more under represented Canadians up to the command table. And we need to have an independent stream to take in complaints and investigate them, especially one that would involve senior leaders. But you know, yesterday’s motion on censure was a condemnation on General—or on Minister Sajjan for his failure to investigate and do something about General Vance three years ago, in 2018. Instead of taking the evidence and investigating it, he pushed it away and then covered it up for three long years. And during that time, sexual misconduct within the Canadian Armed Forces was allowed to fester under Minister Sajjan’s watch.

Now, he’s directly responsible for this and if he won’t do the honourable thing and resign, then Justin Trudeau has to do the right thing and fire him. And that was the purpose of the motion yesterday. It was to put more pressure on Prime Minister Trudeau to fire his inept defence minister, who….

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Mercedes Stephenson: Why now, though? Because it seemed like it took months for the Conservative party to get to this point. You were going after Mr. Trudeau, now you’re going after the minister. What is this—because some victims look at it and they think it’s political grandstanding. What does it achieve?

James Bezan, Conservative MP, Selkirk—Interlake—Eastman: Well no, the political grandstanding has all come from the Liberals. And if you look at the work that we were trying to do at the defence committee, and we were hoping to get to a point where we going to come forward with our recommendations and a final report, but the Liberals are still filibustering. For the last month, my motion and including the last two and a half weeks filibustering their own amendment to my motion and haven’t allowed any of those things to come to a vote, which would have expedited the process of how we came to the final report and how we debated all the different paragraphs and recommendations. They don’t want to see this report in front of Parliament. They don’t want Canadians to see it because again, they’re putting more effort into protecting Minister Sajjan than in protecting the women and men who serve in uniform and face sexual harassment and sexual assault as we’ve witnessed for far too long.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. We’re almost out of time, but I just want to go to you, Ms. Vandenbeld. Are we going to see a report from the committee before the House rises, which was ostensibly the reason why we didn’t hear from any more witnesses?

Anita Vandenbeld, Liberal MP, Ottawa-West Nepean: And actually, I would like to correct what Mr. Bezan said. At any moment, the opposition could agree to adjourn the very unreasonable poisoned pill motions that they keep putting…

James Bezan, Conservative MP, Selkirk—Interlake—Eastman: Move the motion to adjourn it…

Anita Vandenbeld, Liberal MP, Ottawa-West Nepean: …One after another. [Cross talk] And as soon as that debate is adjourned, we can move to the reports. In fact, we were working on the reports in good faith and they put a procedural motion to get out of the study of the reports, a 1064 and then they put motion after motion, delay tactic after delay tactic. If they wanted to get to these reports, they could adjourn the debate. Right today, they could have done it and we would have been able to get all of the reports out.
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Mercedes Stephenson: That is all the time we have, I’m afraid. I think there’s politics on both sides here. Shocking from, you know, I know, politicians. But we will continue to keep asking the questions. We appreciate your time and I know that there are a lot of victims out there hoping that all parties will put their interests first. So thank you both for coming on the show.

Anita Vandenbeld, Liberal MP, Ottawa-West Nepean: Thank you for having us.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, what really happened when two scientists were fired from the country’s top infectious disease lab amid concerns about national security and possible espionage?

[Break]

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Questions of national security at Canada’s top infectious disease lab, the opposition say the Liberals are trying to cover up an incident where two scientists were fired. They were escorted out of Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory in 2019 over what the Public Health Agency described as relating to possible breaches in security protocols.

Last week, all opposition parties joined forces to pass a motion declaring the Public Health Agency of Canada in contempt of Parliament for refusing to provide documents about the firing of the scientists.

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Joining us to talk about this now is Global News investigative journalist and author of Wilful Blindness: How a Network of Narcos, Tycoons, and Chinese Communist Party Agents Infiltrated the West. Sam Cooper joins us now.

Sam, thanks so much for joining us. I think this story is catching a lot of peoples’ attention. They’re wondering what it’s all about. What do we know about the allegations of these two scientists who were dismissed from the lab under mysterious circumstances and have kind of disappeared? Were they spies?

Sam Cooper, Global News Investigative Journalist: We know that Dr. Qiu has been working on dangerous pathogens in the Winnipeg lab since about 2006. We know she’s a highly decorated scientist. Her husband worked with her in the lab as well, and the problem, according to CSIS, is that students of hers from China are very connected to China’s military. So we know that CSIS had warned Canada’s government, Dr. Qiu and her students should not be working in this high security lab. There are concerns—CSIS automatically is concerned about People’s Liberation Army connections to research in Canada so these were flagged and the government did not respond to that warning. The work continued and as your viewers know, there was dangerous pathogens sent to the Wuhan lab in 2019. Other viral samples were sent to China over the years. Dr. Qiu maintained a high degree of connectivity to her People’s Liberation Army colleagues, this is high level scientists we know from open source records that are involved in studying bioweapons in China, were involved in co-research with Dr. Qiu. So when we put all this together with the redacted documents, they talk about viral samples that have been adapted to mice and guinea pigs in Canadian labs being sent to Wuhan. It raises a lot of concerns that there could be espionage-like activity and there could be concerns that scientists in China working on dangerous activities such as gain of function may have been working in some way with Canadian scientists.

Mercedes Stephenson: Obviously, that is pretty astounding. It’s pretty concerning. I know the conversation in the United States about where COVID-19 came from is evolving and under the Biden presidency, it’s not seen as Trump coming up with this bellicose rhetoric about it possibly being a lab accident. President Biden is saying this. It’s a theory that is being seriously looked at now. What is the perception in Washington and in our allies? Because I know you talk to a lot of allied intelligence agencies and spies about what happened in Canada and what happened in Winnipeg in particular.

Sam Cooper, Global News Investigative Journalist: I’ve had conversations recently where there’s a growing level of interest in Washington, especially with the lab leak hypothesis. It is becoming a more plausible theory within the United States intelligence community. Of course, President Biden asked his intelligence agents to study this theory. And I’ve been having conversations where sources say that, you know, if more evidence is brought out, there could be a commission of inquiry in the United States into a potential lab accident in Wuhan and so of course, Washington is starting to be interested in these allegations in the Winnipeg lab. In the worst case, if Canadian scientists were working on gain of function research in some ways, co-researching with Chinese scientists, it just raises the level of concern that they could have been involved, not in the coronavirus at all but in dangerous research that occurred in China.

Mercedes Stephenson: When you talked to your sources, are they concerned about the release of these documents in Parliament? Because on the one hand, you have parliamentarians saying we need to see this, we need to know what happened. But we’re also hearing from a lot of folks who work in national security, okay maybe one committee with security clearance needs to see them, but the mass release of these documents could lead to other national security infractions. What are you hearing about that from your sources?

Sam Cooper, Global News Investigative Journalist: There are two arguments and you pointed to one that this new national security committee has really—it’s had value in that it is showing the Canadian public, or those that want to read their reports, that Canadian intelligence does have some big concerns around countries such as Russia and China and their activity in Canada. On the other hand, what the critics, who would come from the Conservative Party side are saying, we need—could this committee be used as a blockade to these important documents? Is the government trying to hide something? And furthermore, even if the committee is doing great work around studying interference, is the Trudeau government doing anything about these recommendations to follow countries such as Australia and the United States in taking a stronger stand against interference from potential hostile state activity?

Mercedes Stephenson: And Sam, how deep is that interference? I know you just wrote a book on it. We’re not just concerned about this one lab where we don’t know exactly what happened, but how deep is the Chinese government’s penetration of major Canadian institutions?

Sam Cooper, Global News Investigative Journalist: There’s a concern within CSIS and RCMP criminal intelligence that it’s not just the Winnipeg lab. There are concerns around the CanSino vaccine collaboration, deep concerns around political influence activities at all levels of Canadian government, from municipal city halls to school boards, up to Parliament Hill. So I can confidently say in the Five Eyes intelligence community, there’s a growing eye upon Canada and the concern about whether Canada is strong enough against interference.

Mercedes Stephenson: Sam, thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate it and I’m sure we’ll be back to talk more about this soon.

Sam Cooper, Global News Investigative Journalist: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: And that’s it for this edition of The West Block. Thanks for joining us, and a very happy Father’s Day to all of the dads out there, especially the dads working on this show: David de la Harpe; Dave Ellis; Bryan Mullan; and Frank Boldt, who is a new dad again—congratulations. And of course, happy Father’s Day to my dad, too. See you back here next week.

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