The West Block – Episode 5, Season 11

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Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mercedes Stephenson – November 28, 2021 – Nov 28, 2021


Episode 5, Season 11

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader 

Location: Ottawa, ON


Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block.  It’s official: Admiral Art McDonald is out and General Wayne Eyre is in as Canada’s chief of the defence staff.

Anita Anand, Defence Minister: “I look forward to working very hard with General Eyre.”

Mercedes Stephenson: With a new defence minister and a mandate to change military culture, what does the future look like for the Canadian Armed Forces? We sit down with the chief of the defence staff.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “While Conservatives try to score cheap political points, we are focused on Canadians.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Parliament is back in session and the Opposition is back, too, taking aim at the government’s priorities.

Pierre Poilievre, Conservative MP: “It’s ‘Justinflation.’” 

Mercedes Stephenson: With rising prices from groceries to housing, should Ottawa be doing more to tackle the cost of living?

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: “People cannot find a home that’s in their budget.” 

Mercedes Stephenson: We talk solutions with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

It’s Sunday, November 28th, and this is The West Block.

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Hello and thank you for joining us today. I’m Mercedes Stephenson.

For the past nine months, the Canadian Armed Forces have struggled with a sexual misconduct scandal that has rocked the institution and demands a massive cultural shift. The question has been who can lead that shift. And with the new defence minister in place, the prime minister has also named General Wayne Eyre as his chosen chief of the defence staff. General Eyre joins me now.

Welcome General Eyre. We spoke to you before as the acting chief of the defence staff. You are now actually the chief of the defence staff. Last time I saw you, you told me you didn’t want this job but here you are.

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Well, I’m not sure anybody would want to have this set of circumstances, Mercedes, but I am honoured to have been selected for this position and I will do the best that I can for members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the people of Canada, because this is an incredibly important institution for our nation.

Mercedes Stephenson: What makes you the right person to lead this change?

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Well I don’t necessarily believe that I am the right person, and not one single person is going to be able to make the change that’s required, because it’s going to take a collective. Not one person has all the answers for what we need to do and we’ve got to seek those solutions from wherever they may come from. And for every day that I continue to wear this uniform, I’m going to strive to make this institution better.

Mercedes Stephenson: You say you may not be the right person. I know you from many years in command. You’re a humble guy. Is that what you mean? Or what do you mean by you may not be the right person?

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Well what I mean is I will be doing the best that I possibly can to improve the Canadian Armed Forces each and every day so it continues to deliver for the people of Canada. I don’t have all the answers for what we’re facing and I am willing to, and eager to seek those solutions from wherever they may be.

Mercedes Stephenson: And I do know I’ve spoken with a number of survivors of military sexual misconduct who were quite happy to see you in the job. They believe, obviously, there have been mistakes made as there always are, but they think that you seem to have good intentions, to actually try to create change and I want to talk to you about some of those, including how you select the leaders, because one of the things identified was there was toxic leadership at the top and the military and the government themselves have talked about this, which suggests the process for choosing who leads people and sets the tone for the culture was problematic. How do you choose the right leaders going forward that can lead this change beyond just the chief’s office?

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: So we’ve got a couple of initiatives underway. We’ve started with the general officer and flag officer selection this year in terms of adding more science to the process: psychometric testing, 360 feedback sessions where subordinates have a voice in the selection in the determination if somebody’s going to go forward, using it as a tool to identify potential flags. We are introducing inclusivity as a key determinant. So how do we measure—how do we assess inclusivity at all levels as well, because in my view, as we look at culture change, that’s one of the key aspects we have to look at. We’ve got some excellent aspects of our culture, you know the willingness to be part of something bigger, the willingness to put oneself in harm’s way, the willingness to serve selflessly, to leave your family behind to go overseas and do great things, but it’s the exclusionary aspects of our culture that need to be fixed. So how do we incentivize it? How do we assess it at the lowest levels is a very important step going forward.

Mercedes Stephenson: There is a class action lawsuit settlement that is going forward. It closed just a few days ago for claims. There were almost 19 thousand individuals who came forward. Not total claims, but individuals making claims. Did that number surprise you, the scope?

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: I look at it from a number of different perspectives. So firstly, the scope speaks to the depth of the issue that we have to face going back historically but presently as well. The large number of people going forward also speaks to their willingness to do that, which should make us happy that they’re willing to do that, realizing of course, that the act of even coming forward can re-traumatize some. I think it’s also important to notice—to note that the latest stats I’ve seen, 42 per cent are men and that speaks to this not being just a woman’s issue. It’s an issue for all of us to address. It’s an issue of power dynamics as well that speak to an element that we have to fix.

Mercedes Stephenson: I have the same number and a lot of people talk about this as a women’s issue, but it really goes to that fact: 42 per cent of the claimants being male. Certainly higher than I think a lot of folks expected or talked about and that deeper institutional issue. One of the things that you have also talked about is that you’re losing people over this. You’re having especially leadership around the NCO rank who’ve been in for 15, 20 years, lots of experience deciding to say, you know what? I’m just going to get out. I don’t like how this institution looks, and it’s actually affecting you potentially, operationally. How do you convince those people to stay in? And how serious are the losses that you’re sustaining right now?

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: So I’m always concerned about those mid-level ranks and their retention because we’ve invested experience. We’ve invested skills. We’ve invested training in them. So yes, I am concerned because they are the heart of our organization. The ability to make the necessary changes resides at that level, so we need targeted retention. We need to encourage those that we’ve invested in to stay, and a lot of it is changing those aspects of our culture that are driving them out because they are the future.

Mercedes Stephenson: Admiral Art McDonald was the chief of the defence staff. He’s who you had to take over from. There was the extraordinary situation where actually had two chiefs of the defence staff and this letter that he wrote saying that essentially he was the rightful person and should be in charge. Prime Minister says he’s lost confidence in Art McDonald. You are the chief of the defence staff, but Admiral McDonald is actually still in the military and you do have the ability to take administrative action against him even though criminal charges were not laid. Is that something you’re looking into?

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: What has happened is between Admiral McDonald and the government. I’ve deliberately kept myself at arm’s length from that process and he’s indicated that he’s releasing from the military so that will unfold.

Mercedes Stephenson: So does that mean that you’re not looking into any kind of administration action in regards to the allegations of sexual misconduct? 

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Not at this point.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. I also want to talk to you about the work that the Canadian Armed Forces are doing in the flooding across Canada. It’s a lot. How are you doing in terms of the assets you have, in terms of the number of people and capabilities to keep up with the demands that you are facing with these increasing natural disasters?

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Well that’s a concern of mine, Mercedes. We’re seeing an increase in frequency and intensity of natural disasters because of climate change. It’s increasing the draw upon the Canadian Armed Forces. We also have to remember that when the people of Canada are in need, that becomes our number one operational priority. So right now, as you mentioned, we’re deployed to British Columbia. We are taking our tasks from the province. The province at this point is happy with the number of resources we’ve put out there with our land task force and with our air task force. We’ve got somewhere in the neighbourhood of 600 people on the ground focused on this. If the situation deteriorates, we’ve got more on standby to bring in. Likewise on the east coast, as we speak, we’ve got air assets that are moving out there, trying to get through the weather to get to the people of Newfoundland to help out as well. You know as always, we have troops on standby in every region to deal with these domestic emergencies, but I am concerned with the increasing demand on our armed forces and what it’s doing for our readiness. And as we look forward to the future and designing the Canadian Armed Forces of the future, we have to do that with an understanding is what will be the role and expectation of our armed forces going forward?

Mercedes Stephenson: And it seems like that role is changing with the pandemic as well. I have a question for you that I’ve gotten from some folks who are in uniform. They’re unvaccinated and they don’t want to be vaccinated. They’re not clear on what the future holds for them and some of think they may be dishonourably discharged from the Canadian Forces if they don’t accept the COVID-19 vaccine. What’ the case there?

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Well we’ve been very clear in terms of the administrative action we’re going to take and in terms of measures leading to release from the Canadian Armed Forces. But I want to be very clear with you as well. I don’t understand why somebody who signs up puts the uniform on, when our operations are predicated on teamwork, why someone would willingly put others at risk by not getting vaccinated, willingly put teammates at risk. So we’re not able to employ these individuals. We’re not able to employ them operationally. We’re not able to move them around the country. So in my view, even if we are short of numbers, we need those that are employable.

Mercedes Stephenson: My last question for you is the one I always like to ask people in security positions: What’s the threat to Canada that keeps you awake at night?

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: There are many threats that keep me awake at night, Mercedes. We’re seeing a deteriorating global security situation where geopolitically it’s probably more dangerous now than it has been since the end of the Cold War. With global reordering, it’s more complex because it’s multi-polar as opposed to bi-polar. We’re seeing increased activity in the Arctic, the threat of climate change of course, we see unfold every day. Not just in terms of natural disasters but population migrations as well and what conflict that may spur. Technological acceleration and we see potential adversaries investing in some very high tech, very capable capabilities. We see the continued proliferation of violent extremist organizations and extremist ideology not just overseas but here in our own country as well. In our own country and indeed in all liberal democracies, we’re seeing a polarization of societies. We’re seeing traditional liberal democratic institutions under increasing threat. So, mix that altogether, it’s a very dangerous world out there and we are going to see the Canadian Armed Forces called upon more and more. Canada’s going to need us unlike ever before, that’s why fixing our culture that will underpin our operational effectiveness going into this much more dangerous world, is imperative right now.

Mercedes Stephenson: You mentioned the geopolitical situation, so I just have to ask you in particular about China and your concerns there.

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Well we’re seeing China becoming increasingly aggressive, trying to impose its world view on many of its neighbours. Upend, the rules based international order, that’s got to be a concern. That’s got to be a concern for many. So protecting that rules based international order that has served the globe so well over the last seven decades has got to be a priority.

Mercedes Stephenson: General Eyre, thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate your time and congratulations on the new job.

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Well thanks, Mercedes. Thanks for the opportunity to speak.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, we’ll speak to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh about the rising inflation rate in Canada and cost of living. He says creating more affordable housing is one solution.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. I’m sure you don’t need anyone to tell you the cost of living is going up. If you’ve gone to the grocery store, or filled up your vehicle, or made a mortgage or rent payment recently, you felt the pain of growing inflation. Canada’s inflation rate jumped to an 18 year high last month at 4.7 per cent.

Here’s how some of that breaks down in every day basics. Meat prices have spiked, with chicken and ground beef costing 7 and 8 per cent more than they did at this time last year. There’s less pain for some foods like apples, which have increased by almost 2 per cent, but buying a home continues to get pricier, too. The cost of housing has shot up by 18 per cent in the last year alone.

Joining me now is Jagmeet Singh, Leader of the NDP. It’s so nice to see you in-person here on the set. Welcome back to The West Block.

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: I know. It’s been a long time. It’s a great honour to be back in-person.

Mercedes Stephenson: And, you know, as we move out of the pandemic and we get to start to do interviews like this again, a lot of folks are still really struggling and they’re struggling with the basics. And I know you were talking about this on Parliament Hill all last week. I mean the price of gas through the roof. Trying to pay for housing or for rent, extraordinarily expensive—people are being priced out of the neighbourhoods they live in, the basics, including food going through the roof. What as the NDP leader, will you be pushing for in Parliament in terms of practical solutions to help people with how expensive the basics of life now are?

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: Well first just acknowledge it is really tough right now for a lot of people. They’re coming out of the pandemic and we’re still in it, but there’s a lot of uncertainty and there’s been a lot of worry already, and now on top of that, the cost of living is just going up so high.

One of the things that is the biggest burden, I think, is the housing. So whether it’s renting or owning, that seems to be the biggest driver of the cost of living going up. There are two things we need to do around when it comes to housing and the cost of living when it’s about rent. We’ve got two pressures. There’s speculation driving up the cost of housing. We can tackle that with tools at the federal level. And then we need to put more money into building more affordable homes, and the federal government can play a stronger role on those two things.

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Mercedes Stephenson: So what does that money on the more affordable homes look like? Are you trying to put in more density? Are you putting money directly into peoples’ pockets? Are you creating government subsidy programs? What would the NDP plan be for that?

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: A couple of different things. One is we know there’s a lot of municipalities that have projects that are ready to go but they can’t access the funds. I’ve spoken with a lot of mayors who say we’ve got projects, we’ve got land, but we need partnerships to have the funds so that we can develop them. So that’s one area.

We know there are federal lands in different municipalities across the country that could be shifted or developed into affordable housing. There’s just the CMAC used to be used more effectively in building cooperative housing and not-for-profit housing. So these are some long-term solutions. And then immediately, we need to see pressures on foreign buyers, on property flipping. These are driving up the cost of housing to an unsustainable level. And so those are things that the federal government can use our tax code to limit so that we’re not seeing such a skyrocketing cost for housing.

Mercedes Stephenson: There’s also a lack of supply which we were talking about and that does take some time to fix, especially when you’re still building with COVID restrictions. These are longer term solutions and I think there’s—just listening to our viewers—a sense of frustration sometimes from folks that they feel politicians are out of touch, that they don’t go to the store themselves in a lot of cases and buy a loaf of bread, or fill up their own car with gas. Do you know how much those things cost if I were to ask you, you know, what’s the price of gas? What’s the price of a loaf of bread? Are politicians out of touch on this?

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: No, these are things that I’m regularly—I cook in the house so it would be harder if you asked someone else in the family. But for me, I’m the one that does a lot of the grocery shopping and cooking and so I see the costs of bread and the cost of groceries going up. I know how tough it is. And what I’m seeing is also that the biggest pressures are really in housing. That seems to be the biggest crisis that we’re up against outside of the pandemic is housing. And that’s where people are telling me really heartbreaking stories of not being able to find a home, not being able to rent a place. It’s really impacting people from all walks of life. We’ve got people who got good jobs, they can’t find housing. People that have low-income or no income; it’s really an issue that impacts all Canadians.

Mercedes Stephenson: Gas and groceries, though, are also very expensive and they’re things that Canadians are concerned about. I mean in order to eat, and I know you’re a big proponent of health, to eat healthy is getting really expensive for things like fresh produce and meats, and that’s a product of international supply chains in some cases that are breaking down, COVID protocols in China. How can the government or the NDP supporting the government, do something about these issues that seem to be affecting several countries, including one as powerful as the United States?

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: When we look at the cost of living, we look at the things that we can control right away. We know that there are a lot of costs that are the subject of supply chain and are more difficult to have direct control over, but there are a lot of things that Canadians pay for that they shouldn’t have to pay for. The cost of medication is something that a lot of Canadians have to struggle with. We should have universal pharmacare program in place. The cost of child care is something that we see some steps being taken, but we can really push to make life more affordable for families that want to make that choice. I’ll be a dad pretty soon and I know that’s a…

Mercedes Stephenson: Congratulations.

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: Thank you. That’s a big worry on a lot of peoples’ minds. There are lot of things where the federal government could be a more active player in providing support so those costs, those daily costs for families are brought down to offset some of the other costs that are harder to deal with in terms of supply chain.

Mercedes Stephenson: Some economists say that they think the increased government spending may actually be contributing to inflation because there’s more money out there and pent up consumer demand because of the pandemic. The NDP is usually in favour of more government spending. What are your thoughts on the possibility that that spending could actually exacerbate things?

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: We looked at what was going on in the pandemic and we saw the K-shaped recovery happening. And the K-shaped recovery was when people who are struggling, people who are working class, for them things got worse and worse and harder and harder. Those who had lots of money saw opportunities to make more money and we saw inequality increase. Without any investments from government to support people, we would have seen that gap widen. And we already saw it widen even with the supports. So I can’t accept a future where we see more and more inequality, meaning workers and families that are trying to get by, have a harder and harder time while those at the very top continue to benefit and become richer and richer.

Mercedes Stephenson: But does that mean that you are concerned about more government spending potentially inflaming inflation or not?

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: I look at when people are in need of help, our focus should be on getting that financial support to people. That’s the best way to come out of a difficult time as opposed to cutting the help that people need, will only exacerbate the inequalities. So I’m a firm believer in supports to people who need it most, but there are a lot of examples of wealthy companies that took public money that didn’t need to, that abused the system and I would focus our attention on making sure they paid back their inappropriate use of funds and we invested in the people who need it most.

Mercedes Stephenson: Are you concerned that some of the pandemic supports that are there and are ongoing might be contributing to the labour shortage?

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: Not at all. Right now, the pandemic supports have been cut off but they were $1,200 a month at the last phase. $1,200 a month is far less than minimum wage even. If that amount of money is precluding someone from working, then we don’t have a support problem. We’ve got a basic wage problem and people aren’t earning a decent living. We’ve heard some reports of some restaurants and some other business owners saying one of the solutions is if you give people good pay and good hours, you’ll get good workers.

Mercedes Stephenson: There’s a lot of concern as well about the Canada-U.S. relationship around Buy America, the auto pact. People saw Trump go out and thought, “Oh, we’ve got President Biden now. We’re going to have a friendly president,” friendlier perhaps to Canada but also protectionist in a way that could harm Canadian interests. What do you think should be done to ensure that Canadian auto makers are not harmed by American protectionist policies? How do you move forward on this?

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: We need an exemption for Canadian made products. It’s really clear our supply chains are so interlinked that when something is made in Canada, it’s something that’s been produced with a lot of American input and our goods flow back and forth. So what we need is an exemption for Canadian products. It’s clear that our economies are so interlinked that supporting or allowing for Canadian products to be within the Buy America would still encourage Canadian and American jobs and there should be an exemption.

Mercedes Stephenson: Last question. We heard the throne speech on Tuesday. I thought you might be a little bit more enthusiastic about it, given your past support for the Liberal government. Is the NDP going to vote in favour of it or not?

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: Well in the past, we’ve both voted for a throne speech in 2019, and against—or against in 2019 and for in 2020. So we’ve said to the Liberals, and we say this openly, that they shouldn’t take our support for granted on any bill or any motion. We want to make sure that it’s going to help Canadians and we want to see an openness to work with us, to make this Parliament work in the interests of Canadians. So, so far, this throne speech doesn’t sound like one that’s focused on the needs of people or the urgencies of people.

Mercedes Stephenson: But so far, I mean we saw the whole throne speech, so is that a yes or a no?

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: Well what we’ve seen is an indication from the Liberals that they don’t have a desire so far to work with us. They’ve indicated that in that throne speech, major things that we need: a housing crisis, there’s not the urgency required to deal with it; on health care, no pharmacare or dental care. Some of the key things that we want to see happen are not in that and so that’s not a throne speech that indicates to us, so far at this point that they want to work together.

Mercedes Stephenson: So unless you get certain requirement, like pharmacare, it’s a no.

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: Well unless we see a willingness to solve some of the problems that people are going through, we’ll look at that and then reconsider. But so far, this doesn’t look like a desire to really work with us.

Mercedes Stephenson: NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, thank you for joining us today, sir.

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: We’ll be right back after the break.

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Mercedes Stephenson: And that’s our show for today. Thanks so much for watching. But before we go, we want to leave you with images of the Canadian Armed Forces on the ground in B.C.

More than 500 troops have been deployed to help the province with flood relief. As the Mayor of Princeton said, having the military show up is a huge morale boost.

Troops are also expected to deploy to Newfoundland and Labrador, to help with flooding in that province.

Thanks to our women and men in uniform for all they do for Canadians in these floods.

For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson.

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