THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 42, Season 10
Sunday, August 29, 2021
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Mayor
Brad Wall, Former Saskatchewan Premier
Location: Ottawa, Ontario
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block. Canada’s rescue mission is over, but thousands of Afghans who back the West have been left behind. Targeted by terrorists and on Taliban hit lists, what will Canada do to help them?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Our engagement with Afghanistan is not done.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Anger on the campaign trail.
Mercedes Stephenson: Safety concerns cancel a Liberal rally in Ontario.
Plus, a change in momentum.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Erin O’Toole would rip up our $10 a day child care agreement.”
Erin O’Toole, Official Opposition Leader: “This is Canada’s recovery plan. This is a roadmap back to unity.”
Mercedes Stephenson: The Liberal lead gone, now neck and neck with the Conservatives.
And our political panel weighs in with this week’s winners and losers.
This is The West Block on day 15 of the election campaign.
It’s Sunday, August 29th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.
Canada’s air evacuation from Afghanistan is over. Canadian officials say 3,700 people were rescued from the Kabul Airport by Canadian and allied aircraft.
We spoke to one Afghan interpreter on the show last week. He was desperate to get his family on one of those flights.
Maroof, Afghan Interpreter: “Everybody wants to get in soon.”
Mercedes Stephenson: That is Maroof, who waited in dangerous conditions in the sewage canal outside the airport trying to get in. He left not long before the deadly suicide bombing at that very same location. Maroof did not get on a plane. He was not able to get out, and he says he feels abandoned by the country that he helped for so many years.
Mercedes Stephenson: For more on this story, I’m joined by Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau. Thank you so much for making time for us today, minister.
We just heard from Maroof, he worked for the Canadian Special Forces as an interpreter. He is begging the Canadian government to do more. We have heard from hundreds of others like him. What are you offering to people like Maroof in terms of concrete support? I know you’re asking people not to lose hope, but what measures is the Canadian government taking for those who are still on the ground in Afghanistan?
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: So it’s a very good question. The first thing is we’re trying to establish contact and in order to maintain that contact as we move forward. And we’re going to be doing everything possible that we can to get remaining Canadian citizens, permanent residents and vulnerable Afghans, such as interpreters and their families out of Afghanistan, and that is our number one objective in this phase 2 if you like, of the program. And so it’s important for us to be in constant communication with them.
The very first thing that we are doing multilaterally with many countries is negotiating with the Taliban. That is happening in the days ahead of us. And a priority demand, in fact, it’s the number one demand, is that they allow safe passage of Afghans out of the country. That is something that everybody agrees with and that we will be establishing as a demand on the Taliban as we move forward. We don’t know how they’re going to react to that, but that is a primary focus in the days to come in speaking with the Taliban.
The second thing is that we are also, in this case it’s Qatar and Turkey, are negotiating with the Taliban to keep the airport open and to return it to a normal commercial operation after the military evacuations have completed. And there’s very compelling reasons for them to do it, first of all, humanitarian aid. Canada, for example, announced $50 million in humanitarian aid last week and secondly, to allow people to come in and out of this landlocked country. So if the airport becomes available again for commercial operations, that will be an extremely important point of entry and exit. So those are two very important things that may help for us to get in the coming weeks and months, the people that we want out of the country, out of the country.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, as you know, Canadian veterans groups who’ve worked so closely with these Afghan interpreters have been doing just incredible work to try to track them, protect them, establishing safe houses, paying for them to stay there because they’ve left their homes and they have nothing. Will the Canadian government consider, or commit to helping, to fund some of these charitable organizations that are on the ground, or veterans’ networks that are operating to keep people safe and, for example, provide funding to help interpreters stay safe in these safe houses?
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: So I can’t answer right now. But I think that first of all, I want to say how much we have admired and have been thankful for the work that has been done by these veteran networks to try to help and some cases by being there, to bring back interpreters, obviously people who worked for our Canadian military at a very important time and that we all are determined to bring back to the country. So this is a possibility. I can’t answer that sort of on the spot here. But it is something that we certainly recognize as having been a very, very important role during the past months.
Let me say, we did get 3,700 people out. Obviously we didn’t get everybody out and we have to continue to do it. And it’s the same with the 13 countries, really, that operated the air bridge. The reason they were there is because they wanted to get more people out and all of them still have more people to get out. So we’re all in the same boat in that respect, and I wish, it’s heartbreaking that we weren’t able to get everybody out, but we are going to continue and we’re not going to give up until we do get them out.
Mercedes Stephenson: Canada did close our embassy a couple of weeks ago. In fact, the morning that your government was triggering an election, Canadian embassy staff was being evacuated out of Kabul. The Americans didn’t close their embassy. The Brits didn’t close them embassy. Other countries did not close their embassy. They remained behind to help facilitate citizens getting out and Afghans. Some are suggesting the lack of Canadian personnel on the ground complicated things for us. Why did you make the decision to remove all embassy staff from Afghanistan?
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: So let me answer that question by saying I have an obligation to the ambassadors who operate in different countries, to hear them when they say that they have a serious concern from a security point of view for their staff and that they recommend that evacuation take place. And that is exactly the decision that was taken by myself and my deputy minister, to evacuate them at the time. Remember at that time, the Taliban were rushing and imminently coming in to Kabul and nobody knew exactly what was going to happen.
Now the other thing is when we look at the Americans who had a huge embassy, they were able to relocate a portion of that at the airport, as the British were able to do because they had some facilities that they were able to control at the airport. We did not have that capability. And so what happened was that we did initially evacuate everybody, but then we brought about 70 military, some of my staff and some of the IRCC staff to help with the processing of people to get them out of the country and as I say, we were successful in getting about 3,700 out of the country and I think that we were able to do that processing because of our presence there.
Mercedes Stephenson: We are, of course, in an election, which means you’re juggling re-election with also being the Minister of Foreign Affairs at this time. Some have suggested that perhaps part of the reason Canada removed staff and didn’t take as aggressive, for example, special operations missions as other countries, was fear of political risk if something were to happen on the ground in the election. Is there any truth to that, minister?
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: So two things here. First of all, our special forces were there and did go outside the perimeter of the airport. And secondly, I want to put that myth to bed about how we have been focused away because of an election. I can tell you that the minsters involved, all the necessary ministers involved, have been completely focused on the main issue, which is Afghanistan. I’m the Foreign Affairs Minister, that is my main responsibility and I can assure you that all of my department has been working completely non-stop on this particular issue, and the same thing with Minister Sajjan at DND and the same with Minister Mendicino at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. So there has been no lack or diminishment of resources put on Afghanistan, even though we may be on an election. For us, this election is completely secondary to our main responsibility, and I’m very proud as foreign minister that I have been able to focus entirely on Afghanistan.
Mercedes Stephenson: We just have about 30 seconds left, but your government has talked about bringing more than the 20 thousand refugees you’ve committed to. Are you able to tell us how many more refugees beyond that you will bring in at this point from Afghanistan?
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: So we have said an initial 20 thousand, but the need is greater. I won’t speculate on what that will mean in the end, but Canada really wants to help.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister that’s all the time we have. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister: My pleasure, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, angry protesters have hounded the Liberal leader’s campaign. On Friday night, things got so bad a Trudeau event was cancelled over security concerns. This is not politics as usual in Canada. What does it all mean? We’ll ask our West Block panel after the break.
Mercedes Stephenson: An event for Liberal leader Justin Trudeau in Bolton, Ontario, was cancelled on Friday due to security concerns.
Mercedes Stephenson: Trudeau’s campaign has been targeted by protesters at multiple campaign stops. But the protests have grown and become more aggressive. Trudeau says he understands people are frustrated and angry in the pandemic, but that this is different.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “I’ve never seen this intensity of anger on the campaign trail, or in Canada.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now is The West Block’s political panel: former Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. Independent former MP Celina-Caesar-Chavannes has been unable to join us at the last moment, unfortunately, due to some technical issues. Thank you both for joining us today.
Watching that visual, you see lots of people angry, lots of people yelling. Protests are not uncommon. The way that these protests are unfolding, though, and the fact that we actually had an event cancelled because of a security concern, is very, very unusual in Canadian politics. I can’t remember seeing an event actually cancelled on the federal level. What are your thoughts on what we saw go down on Friday, Brad?
Brad Wall, Former Saskatchewan Premier: Well it’s clear that the pandemic has got Canadian society, Canadian people even more polarized and willing to act on the edge of that polarity, and that’s what we saw unfold in those protests, I guess. I think that’s still a pretty generous way to describe them. You know, there’s no doubt that some of that is perhaps a product of organization. But either way, if those protesters, if the result that they want from this election is changed, obviously they don’t want the prime minister to serve in that capacity after the 20th of September, their efforts are very counterproductive. I think the prime minister probably had one of his best moments, maybe the best moment since he called this election two weeks’ ago in responding to the protesters. And there are certain things that I think all Canadians, those that have made up their mind and those that are still making up their mind, find abhorrent and I think the example of those protests of people shouting expletives in the company of young kids at the prime minister, they would be top on that list of things that Canadians would find abhorrent and they would want to disassociate or distance themselves, most Canadians, from that kind of activity.
Mercedes Stephenson: Naheed, you know, you heard Brad say there, protesters kind of, if you can call them that. There’s been some question about who these people are because we’ve spotted at least one person who’s the same person at a couple of rallies. They’re very organized: similar slogans, similar manner of dress, showing up at the last minute. Last minute flights for people who are travelling from one location to another, not cheap. And some are wondering is this organized? Are these people being paid and by who? What are your thoughts on that?
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Mayor: Oh, I mean, of course it’s organized and it’s been going on for a long time. So yes, it’s certainly gotten worse during the pandemic. Remember the yellow vest protests that started long before the pandemic. It has gotten incredibly extreme. I, myself, have had to change the way that I live my life, which is really frustrating to me. Certainly you’re hearing horrible things being said. Our council unanimously condemned the use of racist language and imagery and white supremacist language at the protests that were happening here at City Hall. These are very, very troubling times, and here’s the thing: it’s not going away. You know here in Alberta, we have a Conservative premier and he is as much of the target of the protests as I am. I just get the racialized stuff on top of it. And so ultimately, we’ve got to come to terms with this and we’ve got to really, in my opinion, of course value the right of everyone to express their opinion, but also draw a line as good, decent people on what is decent behaviour in our community and we’re just not seeing that with these protests.
Mercedes Stephenson: Brad, when you look at this, you know, people look at the United States and obviously we’re not talking about the same level, not even close to what happened on Capitol Hill, but it started with the same kind of rhetoric. Are you worried about the direction that Canadian politics is going in? Could it be vulnerable to the same kind of extremist forces in the U.S.? And what should political leaders of all stripes be doing and saying at this time?
Brad Wall, Former Saskatchewan Premier: I think political leaders need to call it out. I think here in the media over the week and on yesterday and Saturday, I think, a Conservative candidate recognized some of his volunteers, I believe that was the situation, who were at that particular protest and basically indicated to them that they’re no longer welcome on the campaign. I think that’s the kind of thing we need to have to do. I think it has to happen—you’ll get this sort of thing on both ends of the spectrum and the extreme ends, granted. And so I think it’s incumbent upon those who are candidates, those who are leaders of the political parties to call it out and maybe to speak in very practical terms to the type of folks that were there doing what they were doing at the prime minister’s event, which is to say if you want him to be defeated in September, this is very counterproductive because, you know, to the extent that somebody might be thinking about voting for O’Toole, but wondering at the back of their mind if this is the sorts of things that a vote like that associates with, it’s not helpful. Never mind all of the—that’s a very sort of perhaps, you know, pragmatic reason to not do it or to call it out. There’s just another much more compelling reason, which is the values that we want to live as individual citizens and as a country, and call to people’s sense of that. But I do think a political party, party leaders, candidates can be leaders in this respect and we’ve seen a little bit of it already.
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Mayor: If I can jump in there. I think we also have to make sure that we’re taking responsibility for our own actions. And, you know, we have seen here in Alberta, a couple of MPs: Michelle Rempel Garner and Tim Uppal actually apologize for their conduct in the 2015 election around the niqab ban, around the barbaric cultural practices. There’s a direct line to be drawn from that election in 2015 and what we deemed was acceptable, to the kind of behaviour that we’re seeing right now. Meanwhile, my premier now says he was never in favour of the niqab ban. That’s not quite how I remember the history. I remember him going after me on Twitter for talking how the niqab ban was a bad idea. And so ultimately we as political leaders, Brad’s absolutely right, need to take responsibility, but we also need to take responsibility for our own actions. And we need to understand that laying down the breadcrumbs and blowing the dog whistles leads exactly to the kind of activity that we’ve been seeing.
Mercedes Stephenson: One of the things that we wanted to talk about today is the performance of the parties on the campaign trail. Not just the performance in terms of the actual whistle stops, which we’ve been watching and that’s what we were just talking about with protesters, but also the performance in terms of where they’re at in the polls. The Liberals had a significant lead going into this election. They’ve largely squandered it. It’s disappeared. Now we’re still early on. There hasn’t been a lot of talk about a Liberal majority this week. People have been talking about can they hold onto their minority. Brad, what are your thoughts on how the parties are performing on the campaign trail?
Mercedes Stephenson: Naheed, we just have a few moments left, but I want to ask you top three issues you haven’t heard, if you had to list them on the campaign trail this week.
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Mayor: Well I’m super happy that we’ve started to hear about one of them, which is housing and a much broader conversation about housing. Not just housing affordability but also homelessness is something that I hope comes up. We need to have a serious conversation about climate, you know, in a summer where Calgary’s been covered in snow. There’s been wildfires and drought. We need to really look at the climate policies in the party and see if they make sense. And, you know, certainly the CPC policy is interesting, but weird and it needs some scrutiny and we need to talk about it. And then the third thing I’ll mention is the most fascinating thing about the election for me right now is this attempted rebrand by Mr. O’Toole of the Conservative Party into the party of workers and workers’ rights. We’ve heard a bunch of stuff about workers sitting on boards of big companies, about protecting pensions. And yesterday, or the day before, I heard Mr. O’Toole say the Conservatives will stand up to corporate Canada. That’s quite the rebranding and I think people would be right to be a bit sceptical of it. But it is a fascinating political move that undermine a new form of conservatism going forward.
Mercedes Stephenson: We have to wrap it up there, but thank you both for joining us today. We’ll see you again next week.
Up next, branding is a major part of any political campaign, but there’s one brand not chosen by the parties: the unofficial campaign plane names traditionally chosen by journalists. We’ll tell you what they are for 2021 when we come back.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Campaign planes turn into a base of operations for reporters like me on the trail, and it’s tradition for journalists following the leaders to name those planes.
Over on the NDP plane, Jagmeet Singh is a social media TikTok star, so it’s only fitting that he travel on the newly christened “Influence-Air”.
And reporters following Erin O’Toole drew inspiration from his platform’s cover: flying high on “Flex Air”.
One of the first questions Liberal leader Justin Trudeau faced was why hold this election now, leading to the tongue in cheek name of his plane: “Nécessaire”.
Well, that’s all for our show today on day 15 of the election campaign. Thanks for watching, and we’ll be back here next Sunday. I’m Mercedes Stephenson for The West Block.