THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 40, Season 10
Sunday, June 27, 2021
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader
Cindy Blackstock, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada
David Akin, Global News Chief Political Correspondent
Location: Ottawa, Ontario
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block.
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: “It’s getting a little noisy. I’m having a hard time.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We have seen a level of obstructionism and toxicity in the House that is of real concern.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And signs of a looming election.
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: “On issue after issue, there are not five choices for Canadians, there are two. Canada’s Conservatives on one side and the Liberal, NDP, Green, Bloc Quebecois coalition on the other.”
Mercedes Stephenson: We speak with Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.
Chief Bobby Cameron, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations: “We are asking for understanding.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And a hard road to reconciliation.
Unidentified Speaker: “An assault on First Nation people. We are proud people. The only crime we ever committed as children was being born Indigenous.”
Mercedes Stephenson: The horrific discovery at Cowessess First Nation has triggered an outpouring of grief and has many asking, how many more children will we find and what should be done?
Phone Operator: “Starting with questions on the phone. One question, one follow-up…”
Mercedes Stephenson: …covering politics during a pandemic. Does less access mean less scrutiny for the government?
It’s Sunday, June 27th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.
The parliamentary session is over and it’s looking more and more like a summer election could be in the cards.
It’s been 10 months since Erin O’Toole won the Conservative leadership. Does he have what it takes to win the election, which many believe is imminent?
Joining us now is Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole. Thank you for joining us, Mr. O’Toole. How are you?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: Good to be with you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well on Friday, we saw a press release from the Liberal Party. They have appointed their national campaign director. Certainly seems like that movement towards the election is picking up steam. Are you ready? And what do you think the ballot box question is going to be?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: Well as Opposition leader in a minority Parliament, in a pandemic, I’ve always had to be ready, Mercedes. And we’ve done that. We’re attracting great candidates. We’re putting forward a recovery plan to get Canada’s economy and the country back on track after COVID and I think that will be the ballot question.
Once we’ve emerged from the pandemic, it’s who is going to get the economy back on track? Who’s going to secure a future for all Canadians? Many Canadians highly impacted by COVID, the mental health strain and everything else. So we have a five-point plan to get our country back on track and I’ve got the experience both in the military and the private sector as a minister of getting things done. Not just announcing things like Mr. Trudeau but actually delivering. And that will be the key question: Who can secure that future for Canada?
Mercedes Stephenson: How challenging is it going to be for you to get traction because despite a number of government missteps, including tremendous difficulty with the vaccine rollout, the Trudeau Liberals seem to keep bouncing back from it, especially in key places where you need to win like Ontario and Quebec. If the Liberals call this election when everyone’s riding high on a two-dose summer, how are you going to challenge that to win?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: Well that’s what they’re hoping on. They’re hoping on no one’s paid attention to Parliament, to countless scandal and cover-up after cover-up from the WE Charity Scandal to sexual misconduct allegations in the Canadian Armed Forces. They’ve literally tried to avoid any scrutiny, Mercedes because they’re hoping Canadians will just feel elated. But Canadians are smarter than that. They’re going to say, okay, we’re through that challenge. The Trudeau government was late on vaccines, late at the border. Do we want someone that’s going to be late with getting people working again, tackling the unemployment, the half-trillion dollars’ worth of debt, the inflation rate, the housing crisis across this country? I think Canadians know Conservatives balanced the budget. After the last global recession, we’re strong in the economy. And as I get out and get to know people, they’ll see hey, you can have an ethical prime minister who actually is experienced, unlike Mr. Trudeau, who is really about just being a publicity representative for the Liberal Party. We need someone that actually gets things done from reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, right through to economic growth.
Mercedes Stephenson: So if you have those messages that you feel will resonate with Canadians, why do you think those numbers aren’t reflecting for you in the polls right now?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: Well because the numbers people have been following in recent months, Mercedes has been case counts, vaccination rates and ICU levels. That’s what people have been focused on. We’ve been on the biggest crisis in Canadian history, certainly in my lifetime. And we’ve tried to work with the government to support people throughout that, but we’ve been disappointed time after time, particularly as a veteran with the cover-up for three years of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations against the chief of defence staff.
Mercedes Stephenson: Why haven’t you been able to capitalize on any of that? It’s not reflecting in your numbers. If all these mistakes are being made, but you as the Opposition leader aren’t able to get traction about that, how are you possibly going to win a general election?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: We will win the next general election, Mercedes, because people want better than a prime minister mired in scandal, three personal ethical investigations and the know our country has tremendous opportunity but it needs leadership. So the only poll that matters, Mercedes, is Election Day. I’ve been behind in polls before and I’ve won because I’m experienced, I bring people together and I get things done.
Mercedes Stephenson: I want to ask you about something you said in a speech ostensibly to caucus, but it felt a lot like a campaign stump speech to me. You said, when you were talking about reconciliation, the road to reconciliation does not mean tearing Canada down. What does that mean?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: That’s what reconciliation is, Mercedes, reconciling horrific parts of our past with our commitment to do better today. So I think Canada is a great country. It is not perfect. And when we celebrate it, we need to recommit to its principles. That’s what I’ve said. Mr. Trudeau and some of his ministers almost want to cancel Canada Day because we failed in the past. Let’s channel that frustration of when we fall short to make Canada even better, more inclusive and to truly reconcile that past that is at the centre piece of reconciliation. That’s why I will make sure that trust in the federal government is restored so when the prime minister makes a promise about boiled water advisories, you better have a plan to deliver. But like everything Mr. Trudeau announces, never delivers. So people will see my record is completely different. And reconciliation was the first question I asked as Opposition leader. It will be a key priority for the Conservative team.
Mercedes Stephenson: And can I ask you, then, what will you be offering in the election when it comes to reconciliation because a lot of Indigenous leaders heard your speech and they’re saying look, we don’t want to celebrate people who were the architects of residential schools. Canada has to look at its past. It has to take it seriously and not just be setting off fireworks.
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: Absolutely. You can recognize where we’ve fallen short and rededicate our efforts to do better. In fact, in my own community at Canada Day, the chief of the First Nation in my community usually spoke about reconciliation. If there was no Canada Day celebration, there would be no recognition about that. I’ve spoken about the tremendous role of Aboriginal veterans in our history that weren’t recognized at the time. We need to recognize the fact that they stepped up. So there is so much to celebrate in our country that we have to be proud to be Canadian. Is it the fact that I’m the only one running to be prime minister that’s actually proud of our country and wants it to do better? So that’s going to be a real approach, is how do we do better? How do we reconcile? I don’t think it’s by tearing down. I think it’s by building up.
Mercedes Stephenson: I think you’d have an uphill battle to convince Canadians that leaders of other Canadian political parties aren’t necessarily proud of Canada. But I do want to ask you when it comes to the relationship with Indigenous peoples and with reconciliation, do you believe there should be a criminal investigation into what happened at residential schools?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: Mercedes, there is a roadmap that was given in 2015, especially with respect to missing children and the horrific discoveries in Kamloops and in Saskatchewan. ’71 to ’76, the calls to action are about this issue. I’ve asked the prime minister, let’s commit to a roadmap to deliver and to fund it and announce that to Canadians before Canada Day. I’ve committed full support from the Conservative Opposition in that effort. Mr. Trudeau, in 2015, said he approved of all 94 calls to action and has moved on only a couple of them, so reconciliation is also about restoring trust. I’ve been reaching out to friendship centres, Indigenous business circles, individual leaders within Indigenous communities. They’re going to have a partner in me, but they’re also going to have a prime minister that actually brings people together to get things done and that will be a very big difference between myself and Mr. Trudeau.
Mercedes Stephenson: Does that mean that you feel there shouldn’t be a criminal investigation or there should?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: Well we had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that has looked into the horrible history of residential schools and if there are specific criminal charges that can be brought, absolutely. It was our government, a Conservative government that apologized, that settled with some of the remaining survivors and family members because there is intergenerational trauma. We are committed to this. There should be full disclosure of documentation. We owe it to those communities, to First Nations, to move swiftly on the calls to action.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for today, but thank you so much for joining us and we’ll see if the next time we see you is back in the House of Commons or on the campaign trail.
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: Look forward to it.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, as more unmarked graves are discovered at former residential schools across Canada, how can the country heal?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Specifically to the members of the Cowessess community and Treaty Four communities, we are sorry. It was something that we cannot undo in the past, but we can pledge ourselves every day to fix in the present and into the future.”
Mercedes Stephenson: That was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last Friday pledging action after the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan discovered hundreds of unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school.
Frontline organizations working with Indigenous Canadians say the need for in-person cultural and mental health support has intensified over the past month as communities discover unmarked graves at former residential schools.
Cindy Blackstock has been fighting for the rights of Indigenous children and residential school survivors for years. She’s the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and she joins us now.
Cindy, thank you so much for joining us today. Another difficult discussion, another difficult day, so much so for Indigenous people across this country as they face the very real prospect of what survivors have been talking about and you’ve been talking about for so long, the reality of residential schools. And we just heard Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He sounds like he’s saying all the right things. He’s apologizing. He’s making promises. What is the reality for Indigenous children today in Canada?
Cindy Blackstock, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada: Well in terms of the federal government, the federal government funds all public services on reserve and does so to lesser levels, that’s been going back to Confederation. And just last week, the federal government was in court litigating against First Nations children and it still has not complied with the 2016 legal decision requiring it to end its discriminatory provision of services that is resulting in unnecessary family separations at levels higher than residential schools, Mercedes, harms and even the deaths of some children. And don’t forget, we also have the children dying in the education due to the inequities. The children in Thunder Bay who had to move away when they were 13-years-old just to go to high school and then sadly died there.
Mercedes Stephenson: So Cindy, I just want to back up because something you said there, I think it strikes such a cord and I think it’s really under reported in the media, and we don’t talk about it very much and it’s very disturbing and it’s very concerning, and that is the fact that there are more children in the care of the state today than there were under residential schools. What is the impact of that?
Cindy Blackstock, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada: Well it’s a magnification of the trauma from residential schools. Think about it this way, the last residential schools closed in 1997. That trauma echoed forward and then these First Nations children and families had fewer public resources to be able to deal with it. But they were often judged by Canadian public who didn’t know any better, Mercedes, as if they got more. And that perpetuated the cycle of racism and the cycle of trauma. And now as Canadians are kind of awakening to this, what we need to do is really call Canadians to the current injustices. This is our watch. This is how we can really honour those kids, is to end the injustices for the generation of First Nations Métis and Inuit children today. And that’s what the survivors wanted for us. That’s why children’s issues are the top calls to action from the TRC.
Mercedes Stephenson: And what needs to happen? What does the government need to do and what do Canadians need to do to make that happen?
Cindy Blackstock, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada: Well the government needs to stop fighting residential school survivors in court. They’re still fighting St. Anne’s residential school survivors, where they literally had an electric chair for those children. But they’re using tax dollars to fight those survivors. They need to drop that. They need to drop litigation against First Nations children, comply with orders to provide equitable and culturally based services to First Nations children and families and they need to implement the TRC’s calls to action and the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls calls to justice. The good news is we have all these solutions, and the role of the public is to make sure that the government implements those solutions because far too often, they make flowery and nice statements but they don’t change things on the ground.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that if we have a summer or fall election, finally Indigenous issues might actually be an issue for all Canadians at the polls?
Cindy Blackstock, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada: Yeah, well this is going to be litmus test of Canadian values and what Canadians care about. If we really believe in justice, if we really believe in fairness, if we really believe that no child should go to school and die there, either in the past or with those kids in Thunder Bay, then we have to hold our federal and government officials accountable of all political parties. I’m going to have a copy of the TRC calls to action at my doorstep and whoever comes knocking; I’m going to say how are you going to implement every one of the 94 of them?
Mercedes Stephenson: I do want to ask you specifically about the Minister of Crown Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett. She sent a text to Jody Wilson-Raybould that took basically a Tweet Wilson-Raybould had put out about residential schools and that this is not the time in her view for an election. And Carolyn Bennett just asked her: Pension? I spoke with Jody Wilson-Raybould on Thursday. She told me she thought that this was reflective of systemic racism in the government. I know the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs is calling on Carolyn Bennett to resign. Do you think the minister can stay in her job?
Cindy Blackstock, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada: Well I think what it’s really reflective of is an overall governmental culture of colonialism, this idea that they know better than us that somehow we are the savages and we’re just out for the money. I found that remark by the Crown Indigenous Services Minister Carolyn Bennett to be completely inappropriate. And might I say, I also took note that she and Minister Miller and the prime minister were not there to vote on a unanimous House of Commons motion to drop litigation against residential school survivors and drop litigation against First Nations kids. So this action needs to be seen within a broader array of actions that really are working against the justice of First Nations Métis and Inuit peoples not standing for it.
Mercedes Stephenson: A lot of people are wondering this year about Canada Day, Cindy. There have been calls from some Indigenous communities and leaders not to celebrate it. What are your thoughts on that?
Cindy Blackstock, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada: I think it’s a day that Canadians can really take to learn more about the history of their country. Colonialism really was the great cancel culture and it really allowed for non-Indigenous folks to know very little or to hold only stereotypes. So I’d really recommend people get on the National Film Board website, watch the great documentaries by Alanis Obomsawin, read the TRC calls to action. Go and check out what other calls to action you want to be a part of implementing and get to work. That would be a real way of celebrating the values of the country and also honouring the memories of those children.
Mercedes Stephenson: Cindy, thank you so much for joining us and taking the time to share your expertise.
Cindy Blackstock, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada: Thank you so much, Mercedes, all the best to you.
Mercedes Stephenson: And a reminder, for those who are out there watching right now, there is support if you need it. The Indian Residential School Survivors Crisis Line is available in Canada 24 hours a day. The number is toll-free and you can speak in confidence. It’s at 1-866-925-4419.
Up next, have pandemic restrictions eroded journalist’s ability to hold the government accountable? A check-in on the health of The Fifth Estate.
Mercedes Stephenson: Pandemic political coverage created unprecedented challenges for Parliament Hill reporters. Transparency and access became a challenge in the face of public health restrictions. But have political parties used COVID-19 to try to avoid accountability?
Today we’ll go behind the scenes with our chief political correspondent David Akin to find out.
David, welcome, nice to see you in-person. We haven’t had a chance to do this in some time.
You’ve been working from home in the pandemic and we really wanted to talk about today what it’s been like to cover the government, to have access to politicians and transparency? And I asked you to take us to a place that in the many years on the Hill, you believe is really important and have been impacted by the pandemic. Tell me about where we are?
David Akin, Global News Chief Political Correspondent: Well Mercedes thanks. The West Block’s in the West Block. This is the West Block, room 225A, where once a week, pre-pandemic, every Liberal cabinet minister and MP has got to go through these doors to meet in that room for their caucus meeting. That means if you want to talk, ask them a question, you stand outside this door. This is the only in and out, and those MPs are going to have to go by you and you can hold a politician to account, a politician that might be trying to avoid you. But with the pandemic, all these caucus meetings are happening virtually. We cannot chase down politicians who are trying to avoid us and that means politicians can avoid the scrutiny of the parliamentary press gallery.
Mercedes Stephenson: And so many times, you or I have lurked in these hallways, waiting for someone to surprise them or outside. As you say, no longer that access. Folks at home might be thinking well wait a minute, I see press conferences all the time and I hear David Akin’s voice, or I see Mercedes Stephenson, so what do you mean you don’t have access? How is that different from when we could be out here, yelling things at politicians as they went by?
David Akin, Global News Chief Political Correspondent: Well first of all, the people who choose who to ask questions on those press conferences are often political staff or they’re the random telephone operator, and there’s a real pell-mell about how journalists get chosen to ask questions. And more importantly, on a press conference call, a teleconference, the politician who wants to stop taking questions hangs up. You can’t do that if you’re physically here. We can just follow a politician all around this place until they stop and answer our questions.
Mercedes Stephenson: And there’s also a mute button, of course, on those press conferences. So the ability to yell a question or to interrupt someone if they’re not answering, even giving your talking points is gone. Let’s go check out the foyer.
David, we’re here in the foyer, somewhere you and I used to spend a lot of time. The prime minister would come down those stairs and enter, MPs would, very, very different session of Parliament with the pandemic. Most MPs and ministers are not here a lot of the time, remote voting introduced. A minority government that was really able to operate like it was a majority and historically high spending. What do you see as the highs and the lows for this particular session?
David Akin, Global News Chief Political Correspondent: Well I think, clearly, the pandemic dominated everything and so behind that door, those closed doors, in the House of Commons, we did see incredible amount of spending was approved to support businesses, individuals, etc. We have a vaccine program in place. I think most voters will judge a government, be it provincially or federally on how they handle the pandemic. But, you know, there is a lot of politics out there that I think the incumbent Liberals may be vulnerable on. We’ll see how it plays out. The military misconduct stuff has still not been resolved satisfactorily for people in the force, as you know well, as well as many voters. Indigenous reconciliation is clearly a big issue and how well is the government handling that file? And then there’s going to be other things about Liberal entitlement and arrogance. They’ve just been found in contempt of Parliament, essentially. They’re suing the Speaker of the House of Commons.
Mercedes Stephenson: I’ve never seen that before.
David Akin, Global News Chief Political Correspondent: Never seen that happen before. So we’ll see what happens, whether or not the government feels confident that once it tests voters, perhaps at the end of the summer and open the doors up and come back in, in the fall. We’ll see.
Mercedes Stephenson: David, we are outside the West Block, as per our show’s name, and on Parliament Hill. A lot of folks are wondering are we going to be back here in the fall, or is there going to be an election?
David Akin, Global News Chief Political Correspondent: Well I think the Liberals want their majority government. Their minority right now is about two year’s old and that is typically the life of a minority government. But if you look at the polls, I don’t think it’s automatic the Liberals win a majority. It’s right now about even. Now the Conservatives under Erin O’Toole sort of treading water over the last several weeks, but Jagmeet Singh’s NDP has been showing some strengths, particularly in B.C., and Yves Francois in the Bloc Quebecois also showing some strength in Quebec. And for the Liberals to win that majority, they’ve got to pick up about a half a dozen seats in Quebec, maybe a couple more in Ontario and definitely a couple more in B.C. Mm, I’m not so sure I see that right now. So I’d say fall election or late summer – 60/40 we’re going.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well, we’re hoping for that 40. David thanks so much for joining us and have a great summer.
David Akin, Global News Chief Political Correspondent: You too.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s a wrap for The West Block this season. We will see you right back here after Labour Day or sooner, if an election is called.
I want to thank our amazing West Block team for their hard work this season. And from all of us to all of you, have a great summer.