THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 41, Season 10
Sunday, August 22, 2021
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship
Election Panel: Celina-Caesar-Chavannes, Former Independent MP;
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Mayor; and
Brad Wall, Former Saskatchewan Premier
Location: Ottawa, Ontario
Mercedes Stephenson: Chaos in Afghanistan as the Taliban takes control.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Our government has committed to resettling up to 20 thousand Afghans.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Election timing under fire.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada: “A fourth wave is underway in Canada.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Do the Liberals still have a path to a majority?
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: “My wife loves the picture.”
Mercedes Stephenson: O’Toole’s pitch for being prime minister.
Mercedes Stephenson: Can Jagmeet Singh turn personal popularity into votes?
Get ready, the 44th Canadian federal election is off to an unexpected start, and The West Block is back to make sense of it all.
It’s Sunday, August 22nd. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.
Canadian officials say they’re working around the clock to get Canadians who are stuck in Afghanistan, and Afghans who worked for Canada, out of the country as quickly as possible.
The government has been criticized by Canadians in Kabul. Afghans and veterans groups trying to help them who say Canada’s response has been slow and cumbersome.
Government officials acknowledge the situation on the ground at the Kabul Airport is chaotic and changing by the hour. Thousands of people desperate to flee the Taliban have swarmed the airport to try to get on any flight out of Afghanistan. But even getting into the airport is posing a security risk with the Taliban patrolling crowds outside the perimeter.
Maroof is an Afghan interpreter who worked for the elite Canadian Special Operations Forces in Kandahar. We’re not revealing his name or his face for his safety. He sent us this video from just outside the airport, Saturday evening.
Canadian officials called him to get on a plane, but he is not sure if he and his family, including five children aged eight and under, will make it through to board that plane.
Mercedes Stephenson: Getting to the airport is only one of the challenges facing Afghans who are desperate to get to Canada. A complicated application process and a lack of communication from government officials have also been raised by Afghans and those trying to help them.
Marco Mendicino is the minister for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. He joins us now. Thank you for joining us, minister. Good to see you. You heard the request of Maroof there, a former Canadian Special Operations interpreter. He’s outside the airport trying to get in. Says it’s very dangerous, it’s very hard to get through the crowds. He has five small children with him. He’s asking the Canadian government to send in the Canadian Special Operations Forces to get them out. It’s something the French have done. It’s something the Brits have done. The Americans are sending helicopters. Is your government considering sending escorts to bring people to the airport, like Maroof, who are trapped behind the crowds?
Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship: Well I’m going to come to that in just a moment, but I do want to begin by acknowledging the sense of despair and anguish that you can hear clearly in his voice, and I want to assure you and your viewers that we’re going to do everything possible to get him into the airport safely and on a flight. I just cannot overstate that enough.
Look, this is a profoundly painful moment. It is for the Afghans who are trying to leave, Mercedes. It is for the families who are here in Canada, some of whom I‘ve had the privilege of speaking with. It’s a painful moment for the Canadians who’ve sacrificed a lot, so much in Afghanistan. What’s really important for your viewers to know is that we’re going to continue to exhaust every effort to try and get as many out. As you know, we’re a re-established military presence on the ground. We do have flights running again. That’s good. We are participating in an air bridge with our coalition forces. That’s good. That’s going to increase our capacity potentially to get some other Canadian bound Afghans out as well. And we are going to continue to make sure that we process all of this as quickly as possible, cutting through the red tape. The bottom line is we’ll do whatever it takes to get as many people out as quickly as possible.
Mercedes Stephenson: Does that include sending the Special Forces out to get them? Because so far, the government official’s advice has been, in a briefing to reporters, that people should try to get to the airport. Obviously, that’s extremely dangerous and the airport itself is very dangerous. And that if you don’t make your flight, well basically call a 1-800 number.
Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship: Well, we are staying in constant contact with the Afghans that we’re trying to evacuate, and I understand why you’re asking the question. I know that there are legitimate concerns around how Afghans and people are transiting to the airport. We know that there are real issues with the Taliban who are creating barriers at the checkpoints. I want to unequivocally clear that in a call earlier this week with my Fives Eyes counterparts, we said that we need to speak with one voice in setting expectations that everybody who is attempting to leave Afghanistan should be granted safe passage to do so. I also know that there are questions around how we’re going to get them into the airport. And what I’ll say here is that we have to trust the military that is on the ground, the members of our armed forces, on how they get them into the airport, on how they load them into the plane, on how they extricate them from the airport with flight routes They’re the experts, and we have to trust them in their judgements. And they’ve been given full operational discretion to make those calls.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, I haven’t heard anybody on the ground criticizing the Canadian military, but I’ve heard a lot of criticism of your department that there are not phone calls being returned, that people put in applications. One gentleman I spoke to is a Canadian permanent resident working for a very large NGO. Submitted on August 8th, still hasn’t heard anything as of today. There wasn’t a 24-hour hotline that people could call. There was all these bureaucratic red tape, which you yourself referred to. Do you think that your department has done a good job on this evacuation?
Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship: Well I want to make it abundantly clear that I’ve instructed my department to cut through all the red tape, waiving passport requirements, waiving COVID tests, and now moving biometric security screening to a third country where it’s safe, making sure that when they get to the airport that we get them in as quickly as possible. And they have been performing around the clock, accelerating the processing of applications, making sure that people get everything that they need, constant communication. I am accessible to everybody that has called as much as I possibly can be. The point that I’m making is we’re going to exhaust every possible effort. Me and my colleagues, Minister Sajjan, as well as Minister Garneau have been literally working around the clock, because we know that lives hang in the balance, Mercedes. And we know that the situation has deteriorated and notwithstanding those challenges, we have been able to re-establish our presence on the ground, get flights going again, making sure that we get as many people out as possible is our number one priority.
Mercedes Stephenson: I understand that minister, but so have a lot of other countries and they moved faster. I do want to ask you about the 21 thousand Afghan refugees you committed to take while you were in government before the election was called. A lot of people thought you were announcing 21 thousand new spots like you did with the Syrian refugees. These in fact, are just the re-designation of existing spots. If this is such a terrible crisis and we know what the Taliban will do to ethnic minorities, to women and girls, to other vulnerable groups, why has your government not announced new spaces for Afghans who urgently need asylum in Canada?
Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship: Well the first thing I would point out is that we have grown our Afghan refugee family by a little bit more than a thousand, or approximately a thousand, in a short span of time. In fact, we’ve been able to resettle and give one thousand people approximately new lives in Canada in all the time that the last special immigration program that was launched 10 years ago. We were also the first country in the world to launch a humanitarian resettlement program that is going to welcome 20 thousand Afghan refugees, particularly those who are the target of the Taliban: women and girls. And we are standing up that operation as quickly as possible. Some of them will indeed be able to get out, we hope. We’re showing operational flexibility on the ground, which is to say that if our armed forces members see someone that falls within those priorities, then they have the ability to put them on flights. And it’s our understanding that that’s exactly what’s happening. And the point of that is that we want to save as many lives as possible.
Mercedes Stephenson: But minister, that doesn’t answer the question of why you didn’t create new spaces for Afghan refugees in this dire crisis. But we’re running out of time so I have just question for you, sir.
Your government chose to call an election campaign in this crisis. Typically, this is the kind of crisis that would consume a minister full-time. How can you possibly be campaigning and doing your job as the minister at the same time?
Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship: Well first, this is not a partisan issue and this is my sole focus. And I’ve been going around the clock and making sure that my department is working tirelessly, as is everybody in all of our departments right across the government, to save as many lives as possible. I’ve got my volunteers on the ground and they’re very enthusiastic and very energized. But my focus is here and it will continue to be on Afghanistan, saving as many lives as possible so that we can do right by those Afghans that supported the mission for many years in Canada.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Mendicino, thank you for joining us today and good luck with your mission to get the Afghans here.
Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship: Thank you very much, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, federal leaders hit the campaign trail. We’ll take the pulse this week with The West Block’s brand new election panel. You’re going to want to hear from them. You’ll hear from this mayor, this former premier and this former MP, coming up.
Mercedes Stephenson: A small number of anti-vaccination protesters tried to drown out Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau in Ontario this week. Mandatory vaccines: just one issue that dominated the campaign so far, abortion and the crisis in Afghanistan also made headlines.
Joining us now to talk about this is our West Block election panel. I could not be more excited to have them here with us. You can see them up on the screen. We have former Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall; Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi; and former independent and before that Liberal MP Celina-Caesar-Chavannes. Thank you so much, all, for joining us. We’re very excited to have you on the show.
Well we are at the end of week one in a campaign. Celina, you’ve been watching it closely, as I know we all have here. What’s your take on how the first week went?
Celina-Caesar-Chavannes, Former Independent MP: Well I think the first week started off with a nice juxtaposition between the prime minister and his family going to Rideau Hall, and the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. You know, a humanitarian crisis brewing while there’s this nice picturesque opportunity for the prime minister to hopefully get a majority, win an election. Seeing the Conservatives sort of trip and fall over themselves post 2020 with a platform that doesn’t mention race. Prime minister’s managed to answer a question on monetary policy without talking about fiscal policy, which was kind of interesting. So I think the first week is what we’re pretty much going to expect for the rest of the election.
Mercedes Stephenson: Mayor, a lot of questions about the timing of this election with Afghanistan, with the fires in B.C. and the fourth wave of pandemic. Do you think that the Liberals got what they were looking for in this first week?
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Mayor: Well, you know, I’m one of those weird people who love elections. I love the idea that we can talk about policy and different visions of the future and I hate to admit it, but I also kind of love all the horse trading stuff and the daily running polls and all of those sorts of things. But to me, what’s really critical here is we actually do have very different visions of the world being presented, of Canada being presented, at a time when there is a lot of crisis in the world. And so what I think is happening now, is frankly, nobody’s paying attention. So the parties are kind of getting their training wheels off and trying to figure out how they’re doing this in what they perceive to be a pretty risk-free environment. So the framing of the initial week of should we have had an election or not, is actually to me not that interesting. It’s like saying I didn’t want to go to this restaurant but now I’m here so either I cross my arms and I don’t eat, or I pick something off the menu. And I think that we’ve got to get to that sort of thing quickly, and the Conservatives fast off the bat after proclaiming that we didn’t want this election, this is election is terrible. By the way, we’re totally ready for it and here’s our giant policy with this very interesting picture of Erin O’Toole on the cover. And what’s really good there, is that they’ve done it. What’s really bad, as Celina points out, is there are some real clunkers in there. But I’m really happy to have this out so that we can have the discussions we have to have and I hope we will over the next few weeks, some things like cost of living, on housing, on climate policy, on reconciliation, on equity.
Mercedes Stephenson: Brad, your thoughts. Does the first week matter? Does the question about the international climate resonate with Canadian voters? Are people worried about this fourth wave of the pandemic, or is all that forgotten by the time people are voting in September?
Brad Wall, Former Saskatchewan Premier: I think the first week, the first day is crucial. It’s the chance for the parties and their leaders to start to frame the ballot question that they want Canadian voters to decide upon. Obviously they’re going to try to frame a question that they win out on in the end if Canadians agree, in fact, that that is the central issue of the campaign. And I think it was incumbent on the prime minister more so than the other party leaders to be able to do that, especially given the fact notwithstanding whether it’s a transient issue, the issue of did we want this election, do we need this election was very much part of that first week milieu and I think also, was a bit of an encumbrance then for the prime minister to be able to properly explain two things. One, here’s the ballot question. Here’s why I want Canadians to give me a majority government or vote for my party. And two, here’s the case for having an election in the middle of a pandemic with the Delta variant coming on at a time of an historic drought on the Prairies, historic forest fires in the West Coast and then, as has been pointed out, immediately after then we have the Afghanistan situation and I think the first week then, was a difficult one for the governing party.
I think Jagmeet Singh framed the election early on as Trudeau’s selfish election, a pretty good framing in my respect, I think—in my view, sorry. And I think Erin O’Toole had a good week for some of the reasons mentioned. He needs to de-risk a vote for the Conservatives because the Liberals will come with their tried and true effort to try to point to a hidden agenda on the part of the Tories or make them seem scary. So to put out the entirety of the platform, not a bad way to de-risk but lots of work to do certainly and also to come out with respect to his pro-choice position, I think was positive.
One final point, I think an indication that week one wasn’t going as well for the prime minister and the Liberal party was that I think it only took ‘til day four until they were pushed playing the abortion card. So overall, I think Mr. Singh and Mr. O’Toole had a better opening week than the governing party to Mr. Trudeau.
Mercedes Stephenson: Celina, you were in the Liberal party as an MP. You know many Liberals very well. You’re still in touch with them. A lot of people are saying we don’t know what the ballot box question is, but elections so far, generally that had been called around pandemics by incumbents favoured incumbents. That wasn’t the case in Nova Scotia last week, though. Do you think the Liberals have something to worry about, or was that just one government that people were unhappy with?
Celina-Caesar-Chavannes, Former Independent MP: So I think Brad sort of hit the nail on the head there, like what is the question that the Liberals want to put to Canadians? What are we having this election for, other than the prospective of getting another majority? And if the Liberals were not paying very close attention to Nova Scotia or managed to sort of scoff it off as oh, it’s just another—a thing that happened somewhere out on the East Coast, then they may have another—they may have something that that need to worry about, because, you know, in Nova Scotia, there seemed to be a pretty solid Liberal front and that has disappeared. And I think that the risk of taking an election in the middle of a pandemic, again, we have to normalize a lot of the things that we’re going to do. We don’t know how long that this pandemic is going to go on for, so I’m not as worried about having an election in the middle of the pandemic, but why? The Liberals need to clearly articulate that. What is their position for Canadians? What do they want to do better in this next round that they haven’t done, and they really need to pay attention to what Canadians are saying on the ground, and I think Nova Scotia spoke quite clearly on there may be some disruption afoot for our Liberal government.
Mercedes Stephenson: But mayor, there’s been a lot of politicization of vaccines in this, and I see you wanted to jump in there with a response so take it away with your thoughts, but a lot of concern from folks that all parties are politicizing vaccines in this election as well with the mandatory vaccination issue.
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Mayor: Yeah, I just wanted to underscore Celina’s point just before I get there of the question of why. I don’t think anyone will care that there is an election, because ultimately it’s a very big country. There’s always horrific things going on and quite frankly, I don’t know that one single thing would be different in Afghanistan if we didn’t have an election, nor if a different party were in power. It’s a horrifying situation for humanity and no matter who was in power. I know all of our leaders would work hard to do the best they could do to bring people to safety.
But the Nova Scotia one is interesting. I talked to a lot of friends in Nova Scotia on this very question, you know, does this mean that the Liberals are going to fall into a trap? And most people say, well you know, Rankin ran to the right of the PCs of now Premier Houston in Nova Scotia. It was a strange election. But the most important thing is, don’t forget, the now-Premier Houston took great pains to distance himself from the CPC. He made a point of saying he’s not a member of the federal party and that he is a Progressive Conservative and a red Tory. So it’ll be interesting to see if that’s the space that Erin O’Toole wants to hold.
But as for politicization of various issues, you know certainly there is this very strange wedge issue with the vaccine, where it feels like the parties are in different places, but actually they’re very close to one another. The only difference is—for the small minority of people who are unvaccinated—will there be an alternative way to get on a plane, because ultimately for federal civil servants, if you have a medical exemption, you’re going to figure out a way to get rapid tests in there. And I think that that will quickly disappear, because the Liberals wanted to create a wedge and I’m not sure that that wedge truly exists, unless Mr. O’Toole really goes hard core to satisfy the anti-maskers and the anti-vaxxers, which I don’t see any movement towards. I will say there’s a lot of stuff that has happened this week that we haven’t picked up on because so much more is going on. And I think the biggest issue is Mr. O’Toole’s speech in French in Quebec, in which he said that he would no longer oppose things like Bill 21, the discriminatory law that changes what jobs you can have based on your faith. And if the conventional wisdom is true, that this is really a very strange election where the national numbers don’t matter as much as the riding by riding details, if that really starts to spread and Mr. O’Toole has lost a bunch of Muslim and Sikh voters who may make the difference in those belts around the big cities, even in one or two seats in Alberta. And little things like that that may have slipped past the narrative could in fact, make a huge difference.
Mercedes Stephenson: Final word to you, Brad.
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, that’s all the time we have for this week. It flew by. Yeah, I feel the same way. I saw your face there.
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Mayor: So much more to say.
Mercedes Stephenson: But we’ll be back next week to talk more. Thank you so much to our panel for joining us and we’ll see you next Sunday.
Celina-Caesar-Chavannes, Former Independent MP: Thank you.
Brad Wall, Former Saskatchewan Premier: Thank you, all.
Stay with us, we’ll be right back on The West Block.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well, that’s our show for this first week of the election campaign. Thanks for watching, we’ll be back here next Sunday. I’m Mercedes Stephenson for The West Block.