THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 2, Season 11
Sunday, November 7, 2021
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Anita Anand, National Defence Minister
Tim Laidler, Veterans Transition Network
“Maroof”, Former Canadian Forces Interpreter
Location: Ottawa, ON
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: The new defence minister with a message for the military.
Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: “We need to address the issues relating to sexual misconduct, relating to culture, head on.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Anita Anand moves swiftly, removing sexual offences from the military justice system. We’ll speak to the minister about that decision and her priorities for the department.
Pleading for Canada’s help, Afghan interpreters forced out of safe houses and stuck in refugee camps turn to Canadian veterans for support.
We’ll get the latest from the head of one veteran’s group who is on the ground in Doha.
And, fleeing the Taliban…
“Maroof”, Former Canadian Forces Interpreter: “The kids, the children and women are scaring.”
Mercedes Stephenson: We’ve been following this Afghan interpreter’s journey to Canada. We’ll tell you how he’s doing.
It’s Sunday, November 7th, and this is The West Block.
Thank you for joining us today. I’m Mercedes Stephenson.
The military police and military justice system have been under fire for months as the sexual misconduct scandal raised questions about competence and chain of command cover-ups in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour wrote a letter in October urging the government to take immediate action and remove sexual offences from the military justice system, transferring them to civilian authorities. The country’s new defence minister has pledged to do just that.
Joining me is the Minister of National Defence Anita Anand. Thank you so much for joining us today, minister. Our first opportunity to speak since you’ve changed portfolios, National defence, obviously in a time of great difficulty right now with the Canadian Forces facing so much turmoil.
You’re an expert in corporate governance and governance of large institutions. When you look at the Canadian military, where do you think the problems are?
Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: My role as the minister of national defence is to ensure that Canadians have confidence in the armed forces and that the armed forces is an institution where its members can feel safe, respected and protected. Why is this important, not only for the victims of alleged sexual assaults themselves but for Canadians at large, and for the Canadian Armed Forces to be able to execute on the mission that they are charged with, including strong, secure and engaged. So my goal really, is first and foremost, to ensure that the culture change that is identified by Justice Deschamps in her 2015 report, as well as Mr. Fish in his report from last year, is really addressed. And as you mentioned, my expertise in governance will hopefully assist me with this task.
Mercedes Stephenson: These have been changes that experts and victims have been calling for since even before 2015. You implemented one or announced you would be implementing one last week after Justice Arbour wrote urgently to your predecessor, saying something needed to be done about the military justice system, particularly when it comes to sexual assault and sexual offences that military police and the military justice system should no longer be trying, investigating those offences. When will that take effect? I mean are there investigations that are underway right now that will be transferred? Will it only be new ones? What’s the timeline we can expect there?
Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: So if I could just take a step back and make sure that the broad wording of my reply to Madame Arbour is clear and on the table for us all. I, in particular, said that we will work immediately to ensure that all sexual assaults, including historical sexual offences alleged to have been perpetrated by members of the Canadian Armed Forces past or present, will be referred to the civil justice system. And so this is a very broad based and monumental shift in policy and as such, it is going to necessitate systemic change across the board. So the question of when is a difficult one to answer at this moment in time, though it will be answered in due course. I know that the provost marshal and the director of military prosecutions is—are working on this at the current time, and we need to let that occur in order for the reform that I identified yesterday to be durable, to be long-lasting, to be effective. And so I will return with a more specific timeline, Mercedes, but at this moment in time, I am pleased to be able to announce and share with the Canadian public that we are making this move and it is going to happen.
Mercedes Stephenson: In fairness, the department was told that this should happen back in the spring by Justice Fish. We’re talking about almost six months later. It seems to move at a glacial pace, so what’s the hold up?
Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: When I was sworn in just last week, I will say that we identified a number of priorities and in fact, I came to the table with a to-do list that I wanted to execute on. And on that to-do list was an analysis of the Deschamps and the Fish reports, as well as any interim recommendations of Madame Arbour. Which ones have been implemented? Which ones have not been? And if not, why not? And that is the first top level item for me. I am still going through this with my teams. But in the meantime, I have identified this very important reform, which is incredibly significant for victims of sexual assault. To be able to have their cases tried outside of the military justice system in a system that is going to be able to offer more experience and less conflict of interest, frankly, for the betterment not only of the victims themselves but across the board in terms of the administration of justice. We are going to see much different processes taking hold for the benefit of all.
Mercedes Stephenson: What does this mean for women and men who’ve had their cases investigated in the past? I’m thinking in particular of navy Lt. Heather Macdonald, who alleged that Admiral Art McDonald, who is the current chief of the defence staff, sexually assaulted her. The military police did not lay charges in that case. They said that they did not find it was unfounded. They did not exonerate him as he had said publicly in the media, but they also didn’t charge him. Will past cases like that also be given to civilian authorities to take a second look at?
Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: So these are issues that we are making sure that we are addressing in the process of implementing this bold move that we are making in terms of transferring cases from one system of justice to another. Indeed, there are going to be a number of questions such as the ones you raised just now, that we will have to take a look at in order to ensure that justice is served. And that is my overall goal here that we have to make sure that the victims of sexual assault are able to access the most efficacious justice system possible, where their rights are going to be protected, where the procedural safeguards are going to be in place, and where we can be assured that they will have a fair hearing.
Mercedes Stephenson: When it comes to sexual misconduct, of course it’s broader than just a criminal offence like a sexual assault. There have been calls from experts and from victims again over the years to have this heard by an independent watchdog that reports to Parliament. Is that a recommendation that you plan to implement, minister?
Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: I am studying this very point at the current time. I think there is validity in having independence and independence in reporting mechanisms. The precise structure that that would take, of course, is something that, as I said I’m studying, but I’m also waiting for Madame Justice Arbour to opine on this particular item. Let’s just say that as soon as I reviewed the interim recommendations that she provided, I acted on them and I plan to do the same thing with the final recommendations as well. And we will do everything possible to be ready to implement recommendations as soon as they are made to us, including on the independent reporting mechanism that you identified in your question.
Mercedes Stephenson: There are currently two chiefs of the defence staff. This has been the case now since the winter. It’s unprecedented. I can’t think of another G7 country that has two people who are both in name, the chief of the defence staff. When does your government plan to take action to determine which one individual will remain as the chief of the defence staff?
Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: So I will just clarify that one of those individuals is on leave at the current time, and so we have the other individual, Acting Chief of Defence Staff Wayne Eyre, executing the duties and functions of the acting chief of defence staff. That’s exactly what he’s doing. I work alongside him every day. He is serving Canadians well in his role. The decision relating to Art McDonald is one that is made by the governor in council and is made by the prime minister and therefore, that process will take place. And in the meantime, I will continue working as minister with Acting Chief of Defence Staff Wayne Eyre.
Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you minister, take care.
Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: You too, take care.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, Canadian veterans step up the fight to get Afghan interpreters and their families to Canada. But they say Ottawa’s approval process isn’t working and lives are at risk. We’ll talk to them on the ground in Doha after the break.
Mercedes Stephenson: Hundreds of Afghans who are desperate to come to Canada have received eviction notices from homes that were set up to protect them. Safe houses operating in Kabul were shut down on Friday when the Canadian veterans and volunteers that funded them ran out of money. Veterans say despite the setback, they’re not giving up on pressuring the government to speed up the approval process that has left thousands of Afghans stranded in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries in refugee camps.
Tim Laidler is one of those veterans who have been Afghan allies. He’s the board president of the Veterans Transition Network and he joins us now from Doha. Thank you so much for joining us, Tim. We appreciate it. What’s the situation right now with the safe houses closing for Afghans who are on the ground?
Tim Laidler, Veterans Transition Network: It’s absolute crisis. It’s extremely unfortunate that the funding didn’t come through like many of us were hoping, to keep these open until we could get everyone out of the country. Many of the Afghans are making very tough decisions. Some are moving back to their homes in outlying parts of Afghanistan. Remember, they were invited to Kabul by the Canadian Embassy to do their biometric scanning. They were invited by the Canadian Government to Kabul to catch flights to get out of the country. Most of them could not get on those planes because of the crowds at the airport and they were stranded in Kabul. And I was very proud to be part of a team that’s given them safe housing now for almost three months.
Mercedes Stephenson: Tim, you mentioned the funding. So far, to even be able to provide this, and you’ve been doing it now for almost two months, since August when the election was called, where did you get the money to be able to pay for these safe houses? Did you just raise it yourself?
Tim Laidler, Veterans Transition Network: Yeah, through the generous support of thousands of Canadians who ended up donating to this campaign, including great corporate sponsors and family offices. We did raise over $2.5 million that we were able to send in-country and support thousands of peoples’ life support. You know it was a phenomenal achievement that we were able to provide that much in such short a time. I think a lot of people on our team were really counting on the government to come in and fund the safe houses, but that did not happen in the end and that’s what’s ultimately led us here today.
Mercedes Stephenson: Why is it? I think a lot of people at home are kind of baffled by this. Why won’t the government agree to fund the safe houses, if these are people who are potentially being hunted by the Taliban, they have in many cases young families, several children with them? Why has the Canadian Government told you they won’t provide money for that?
Tim Laidler, Veterans Transition Network: We’re as confused as everyone. We’re getting different messages. You know there have been expressions of interest to support the safe houses from politicians. There has been different policies sort of alluded to like the Canadian Government will not pay for housing for people who are waiting refugee claims to come to Canada, and that’s been part of the justification of some people that told us why we haven’t got the funding. The election being called in the middle of all this is another reason people have said they weren’t able to approve this sort of funding, so we’re as confused as ever. But, what we do know is that there is still hope. There are still thousands of people that we’re in direct contact with who are fully approved to come to Canada. What we need to do now is work on a way to get them out. And that’s what I’m doing. That’s what we’re working on with the Veterans Transition Network. We’re still raising funds. We’re still requesting donations. We’d love to be able to provide safe housing again for Afghans who are stuck. At this time, we’re putting most of our energy and efforts towards evacuating them, following what American military NGOs have been doing, getting the charter planes out, getting them out via land routes, finding ways to get the people we promised to come to Canada a way out of that country.
Mercedes Stephenson: Where is the holdup, I guess in getting these people out, because we all remember the incredible urgency and yet here we are weeks and weeks later still talking about it. Where is the challenge in terms of actually being able to bring these people directly to Canada? Is it immigration documents? Is it flights? Is it money? What are your biggest stumbling blocks?
Tim Laidler, Veterans Transition Network: This is a two front war. On one front, we have the logistics of there’s no consular presence in Afghanistan anymore. In order to travel, you need some sort of travel document where you need to give over fingerprints. This is normally what would happen in another situation and that presence no longer exists in Afghanistan so it has to happen in a country outside of Afghanistan. All the bordering countries are very careful not to take anymore Afghan refugees in. For example, Pakistan, they have 1.4 million Afghan refugees already in Pakistan from all the decades’ previous conflict that have led more people going there. So the borders are firming up. They’re really careful not to move them out. So we need to—there’s just logistics involved in that.
The second problem is approving people who are eligible to come to Canada. We’ve said very clearly as a country through our leaders, we are going to bring Afghans who have a significant and enduring relationship with the Canadian military and government, out of Afghanistan. Many thousands of those people have not heard back from IRCC. There is a backlog of emails we’re told, but that needs to be fixed quickly to at least give people some hope, to get a response back from IRCC to know that Canada has not forgotten about their application and that they can hang on. There are veteran groups like us. There are NGO groups like Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) are working with us. We’re fighting to get you out and get you to Canada. We just need you to hang on a little longer.
Mercedes Stephenson: Has the government been able to explain why these documents are so backed up? I mean they said they were going to step up, again, weeks ago to deal with this and yet if people still aren’t hearing back, and I’m hearing from Afghan interpreters who we’ve been in contact with, who work with veterans who I know over in Afghanistan. They’re saying they’re not getting a response. Is there any explanation for why that’s the situation?
Tim Laidler, Veterans Transition Network: I have not received a formal explanation. All we can do is guess. And my guess is that we promised a very generous—a very broad, generous group of people to bring in from Afghanistan. It started as interpreters and then we said maybe we’ll bring interpreters and their families. And then we said well how about NGO staff and their families? We said okay, that’s fair. These are the groups that had an enduring relationship with Canada, but then the government announced we’re also going to bring in women’s rights advocates, LGBTQ Afghans, vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities. So if you think of 30 million people in Afghanistan and all these vulnerable groups we’re committing now to bring in, and we’ve also said we’re only bringing in 40 thousand, it’s millions of people who could potentially qualify as a vulnerable minority in Afghanistan. Basically half of the population, all the women, can qualify as vulnerable and they all believe they do now and they’re all trying to apply to come to Canada. I think that’s what the stumbling block is here. The policy has not been precise enough and they haven’t been rejecting applications and letting people know hey, you only work for the Canadian Government for this amount of time and that doesn’t signify as significant and enduring. There’s been no communication out. Everybody who wants to apply, apply and now they’re all trying and I think it’s just jammed up the system.
Mercedes Stephenson: Tim, obviously a very dire situation there as the safe houses are closing. I know your personal commitment clearly on this file as you’re in the Middle East trying to help Afghans get out is phenomenal and we appreciate you and all the veterans who have been working so hard to try to help our allies. Thank you.
Tim Laidler, Veterans Transition Network: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the long journey to Canada
“Maroof”, Former Canadian Interpreter: “There are too much shootings. The kids, the children.”
Mercedes Stephenson: That was August and “Maroof”, an Afghan interpreter who was desperate to get to Canada. Now three months later, he’s made it. We’ll tell you how he and his family are doing, after the break.
Mercedes Stephenson: Ottawa says it airlifted 3,700 people from Afghanistan during its emergency air mission in August. But as you heard from our last guest, thousands more are waiting to get out.
We’ve been following the journey of one Afghan interpreter who worked with the Canadian Special Operations Forces. “Maroof” and his family have now landed safely in Canada.
“Maroof” joins us now. “Maroof”, thank you so much for making time for us and welcome to Canada. We are so glad to see you here. I know it has been a very long and difficult journey. How are you and your family doing?
“Maroof”, Former Canadian Interpreter: Thank you. I’m good and I’m glad to be here in Canada after a long trip. We are happy, but our happy is not that much joyful in Canada because of the families who they are left behind in Kabul. That is our curious that we are so worried about those people that they are in Kabul and they are left behind still. So that is our situation.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well and for our viewers at home, the reason why we’re still blurring “Maroof’s” face and using a pseudonym for him even though he is here in Canada is because he still has family who is left behind in Afghanistan.
“Maroof”, what is the situation for the people who work for the Canadian Government who are still in Kabul in Afghanistan?
“Maroof”, Former Canadian Interpreter: The people who work with the Canadian Forces are still in Kabul and they have gotten their G numbers and also application numbers, UCI numbers. And they are confirmed to get to Canada, but there are no flights and also no Visa for a third country to go to Pakistan or somewhere else.
Mercedes Stephenson: With the funding for the safe houses running out, what is the risk to their lives from the Taliban?
“Maroof”, Former Canadian Interpreter: There are too many risks. One risk is if they go to their villages, provinces, they are showing if they were going to Canada that is one risk. And also another risk is that what they had, they spend it. They don’t have nothing because they were assured that we are going to Canada but still they are over there. Even they don’t have that much money to go to their provinces and also, a tax in Kabul from ISIS. So these are all those threats that they have in their minds and they are so scared.
Mercedes Stephenson: What would you like to ask the Canadian Government to do?
Mercedes Stephenson: Absolutely. IRCC, of course being Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which has to process any applications for Afghan interpreters and employees of the Canadian Government to come here to Canada.
“Maroof”, thank you so much for joining us. Our best to you and your family and to your friends and family who have yet to make it out of Afghanistan.
“Maroof”, Former Canadian Interpreter: Thank you. Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. Thank you for spending your time with us, and we’ll be right back here again next Sunday. I’m Mercedes Stephenson for The West Block.