THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 7, Season 11
Sunday, December 12, 2021
Host: Abigail Bimman
Melissa Lantsman, Conservative—Thornhill, NDP—Vancouver East
Jenny Kwan, NDP—Vancouver East
Stephen Poloz, Former Bank of Canada Governor
Guy Saint-Jacques, Former Canadian Ambassador to China
Location: Ottawa, ON
Abigail Bimman: This week on The West Block…
Tiffany Gaura: “It took me 24 hours to get tampons delivered to my room.”
Abigail Bimman: Quarantine hotel quagmire…
Karen Hogan, Auditor General: “This is not a success story.”
Abigail Bimman: And a scathing audit of the Public Health Agency’s ability to keep track. An economic update…
Chrystia Freeland, Finance Minister: “We are going to give a full report on Canada’s public finances on Tuesday.”
Abigail Bimman: Amid concerns over rising prices…
Candice Bergen, Conservative—Portage-Lisgar: “We have a two-decade high inflation increase.”
Abigail Bimman: We check-in with the former Bank of Canada governor.
Plus, Olympic boycott…
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We will not be sending any diplomatic representation.”
Abigail Bimman: Canada’s message to China.
It’s Sunday, December 12th, and this is the The West Block.
Thank you for joining us. I’m Abigail Bimman. Mercedes Stephenson is away today.
Well there has been mass confusion over travel rules ever since the federal government moved to implement more testing on arrival November 30th. Ottawa says they’re now halfway towards meeting their arrival testing goal of 23 thousand air travellers a day. Meanwhile those forced to stay in quarantine hotels have described dismal shortcomings, and the auditor general slammed the Public Health Agency of Canada’s ability to keep track of them.
Unknown Man: “There seems to be miscommunication at every level.”
Abigail Bimman: Hours without food, struggling to get supplies.
Tiffany Gaura: “You can’t get anything that you need. You have to—it took me 24 hours to get tampons delivered to my room.”
Abigail Bimman: Startling stories from travellers waiting in quarantine hotels.
Unknown Woman: “The first thing I wanted to do after moving my boxes in was to lock my door, and then I realized, you know, the latch at the top had nothing to hook onto.”
Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: “The expectation would be that they get access to appropriate food and accommodations.”
Abigail Bimman: Last week, a scathing analysis from the auditor general looking at June 2020 to July 2021, found the Public Health Agency of Canada didn’t contact 14 per cent of travellers who tested positive for COVID, to check their isolation plans and could only keep track of a quarter of travellers in quarantine hotels.
Karen Hogan, Auditor General: “The agency was unable to confirm whether 75 per cent of the individuals actually arrived at the hotel and stayed for those three days.”
Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister: “I have directed officials in my department, including the chief data officer of the Public Health Agency of Canada, to come up rapidly with a plan to optimize the collection and sharing of travellers’ information in order to ensure better follow-up and better enforcement of border measures in the immediate future.”
Abigail Bimman: All this as the country’s top doctor describes a shift in case counts no longer on the decline.
Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada: “With daily new cases increasing, there is concern that national severity trends could begin to rise again.”
Abigail Bimman: And joining me to discuss the latest on border measures, we have a panel of opposition MPs. We welcome Conservative Melissa Lantsman, who is the party’s transport critic, and Jenny Kwan, the New Democrat immigration critic. And just a note before we get started, we asked for interviews with both the health minister and the public safety minister and both declined.
So, I’d like to start with quarantine hotels. And I’ll start with Ms. Lantsman. What do you think the government needs to do differently in terms of arrivals at the borders and should these hotels be scrapped?
Melissa Lantsman, Conservative—Thornhill, NDP—Vancouver East: First of all, it’s 20 months into a pandemic. It’s not—you know, it’s not month one. So the mismanagement of this really creates a lack of trust with travellers. We’ve heard all kinds of horror stories in my office and likely Jenny’s office as well, of people, you know, being stuck in quarantine hotel because they, you know, they didn’t use the Arrive Can app appropriately or they didn’t have it. They’ve been tested twice. They’re double-vaccinated, and obviously the conditions in there are horrific. And you’ve heard about, you know, babies not being able to get food, people not being able to get a change of clothes. So the mismanagement around this is, you know, was in the report, but we’ve seen it for weeks now, and the government really hasn’t answered for it.
Abigail Bimman: Jenny, what about you? Do you think these hotels should stay? What changes do you think need to be made?
Jenny Kwan, NDP—Vancouver East: Well the Liberal government had one job to do and that is to keep Canadians safe. And I’m so sorry to say, they failed miserably. They brought in these measures that were unclear. People did not really know how it was going to work. And then for them to be quarantined and not be able to access basic needs, it’s just unbelievable that this is happening. And worse still, that they’re not even keeping track of the people where they tested positive. How could that be? That’s a very basic thing that they had to do and they even failed at that. So the government really needs to take responsibility for their failures and they need to answer to Canadians and what they’re going to do to fix it. These quarantine hotels have had problems for a very long time now. I’ve been hearing them consistently from individuals who have been quarantined, the conditions are terrible. There were early issues around safety even. And even now, after all these months, the government did not have the wherewithal to fix it. The auditor general now has come out with a scathing report that basically says that the Liberal government has failed Canadians and that is not acceptable.
Abigail Bimman: Okay, so I hear both of you are on the same page about the government needs to fix these hotels, but I’ll just give you one more opportunity and I’ll open the floor up to both of you. Do either of you think that this hotel program should be scrapped altogether? Should Canadians, you know, just go home to quarantine?
Melissa Lantsman, Conservative—Thornhill, NDP—Vancouver East: And that’s a question for the government. But we don’t know who they’re taking advice from. They’re not running the hotels in any way that is good for people, so look, it makes absolutely no sense for a traveller who has been double-vaccinated, double-tested, to be told that they are stuck in a government facility, run by the Liberals at a level that is distressing for anybody in there. So these hotels have to go.
Abigail Bimman: And you Ms. Kwan?
Jenny Kwan, NDP—Vancouver East: Well, I have to say this: How come the hotels that are being paid by Canadian tax dollars are not doing their job? How could it be acceptable that their level of service and standard is so deplorable? And so we do have to get to the bottom of this for individuals. I’ve heard from individuals who have a very sound quarantine plan. They even have their own home that they can go to with nobody from their family living in those quarters so that they can be completely isolated and the government is saying no, that’s not good enough. They need to actually go into a quarantine hotel. So I think the Liberal government needs to have some explaining to do. How is it that things are so bad? And how come people with sound quarantine plans are not accepted?
The other thing that I want to raise is this: A lot of these quarantine hotels, in fact, the government allowed the company to displace workers. Many of the workers there are women and racialized woman who have been with the hotel for many years, and they have been displaced and they’ve brought in new workers to do this work and only for us to find that the job that they’re doing is not up to snuff. This is not good enough.
Abigail Bimman: I want to move on to the auditor general report, and I will start with you Ms. Kwan because you raised them first. The health minister, as you heard in that clip too, promising to improve basically information sharing to better keep track of people. Will that be enough?
Jenny Kwan, NDP—Vancouver East: Well, they actually did not keep track of people. The auditor general’s report indicated that people who tested positive—a thousand people—can you imagine? A thousand people tested positive for COVID-19 and the government did not even manage to track them. Don’t know what happened to them. How is that even possible? They had one job to do and that was to keep Canadians safe. And they have failed at doing that. And now, this is particularly concerning because COVID-19 numbers are on the rise. We need to take every measure possible to protect Canadians, and we of course, need to follow the science in that regard. The government knew this was coming. How come they couldn’t deliver?
Abigail Bimman: And Ms. Lantsman, do you take Minister Duclos at his word that there’ll be better information sharing and that will fix this problem?
Melissa Lantsman, Conservative—Thornhill, NDP—Vancouver East: Well no, I think it’s a reaction that’s 20 months too late. We’ve heard the constant refrain that the government can’t even get testing right. Thirty per cent of tests, that’s one third, that’s 400 thousand tests from February to June of last year that have been misplaced or not matched with the traveller. So, if you’re not getting one third of them and you’re putting forward new testing requirements, how do the Canadian people trust this government to keep them safe? That’s what they have to answer for. That’s what they have to explain to Canadians and they haven’t done so.
Abigail Bimman: Alright. Well that’s all the time that we have for today. Thank you very much Conservative Melissa Lantsman, and NDP MP Jenny Kwan. Thank you for your time.
Well coming up, what you need to know ahead of this week’s fiscal and economic update. We check-in with a former governor of the Bank of Canada.
Abigail Bimman: On Tuesday, the finance minister will present a fiscal and economic update, giving Canadians a look at the state of things amid rising prices, record inflation, and the impacts of a pandemic which has not released its grip on the world. Bringing his insights, we have former Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz, also currently a special adviser at Osler.
Thank you so much Mr. Poloz, for joining us. What should Canadians be looking for ion this update, and what do you expect to see?
Stephen Poloz, Former Bank of Canada Governor: Well I think we’re looking for some basics. People want to be reassured that the fiscal plan is a sustainable one. One that perhaps begins the return to a place where we’ll know we’ll have some room to manoeuvre should another big shock occur. So that’s where the deficit and the debt plan fit it. People will be asking: Well will there be any new taxes that might inhibit growth in the economy? Hopefully not that type of tax. And will there be some growth enhancing measures such as, you know, tax efficiencies, simplification of the tax structure or internal trade barrier between provinces, those kind of things, I think.
Abigail Bimman: I noticed you said that you were hoping to see not that type of tax that would inhibit. Is there a tax you’re expecting to see or a tax you would like to see?
Stephen Poloz, Former Bank of Canada Governor: No, I have no inside information on that, Abigail, but we know that the traditional taxes that are, you know, kind of easy to implement, have a tendency to slow economic growth and my sense is that economic growth, once we’re past the bust and recovery of the COVID shock, the trend rate of growth to the economy is actually going to be fairly modest. And so every decimal point matters because that’s how we’ll work our debt down having done all this fiscal work during the pandemic. So I’m hopeful that if there are any temporary increases in taxes to help address that, that they be the type that do not slow the growth, such as sales taxes. I think sales taxes, especially if they were temporarily increased would be a very good way to go about it.
Abigail Bimman: Alright. We also have an announcement Monday with the finance minister and the current Bank of Canada governor. Reports are suggesting that the bank will not change the 2 per cent inflation target. With the opposition hammering the government on inflation, I’m wondering if you think that a change to that 2 per cent target could be seen as a political move.
Stephen Poloz, Former Bank of Canada Governor: Well I hesitate to comment on any detail given that’s somebody else’s responsibility these days, but I would just observe that for pretty well 30 years now that framework that’s been in place has done a really good job. It’s simple for people to understand. It’s not really debatable per se and I think sticking with something with that same base. It’s possible it will be tweaked in one way or another. There’s lots of speculation today, over the weekend, but that’s fine. We’ll wait and see what they have to say. But as long as the Bank of Canada continues to have some room to manoeuvre, to take its judgements into account and that the anchor of inflation remains in place, I think we can be satisfied.
Abigail Bimman: And on inflation and on the oppositions’ continued drumbeat that it’s the Trudeau government’s policies to blame for this high inflation, is that fair?
Stephen Poloz, Former Bank of Canada Governor: No, not really. Unless it was prefaced with aren’t we lucky that the policies worked well to prevent the second great depression, which is what many economists were worried about when we first encountered the COVID shock. The biggest worry that we faced was that the economy would go into such a low state that deflation would kick in. And once deflation kicks in, it’s very hard to reverse. What happens with deflation is if you have outstanding debt, which we all do, the debt keeps growing and how hard it is to service with deflation ongoing. And that’s where depressions come from. All that was avoided, which is a great news story. And we’re in the zone now where the fine judgements have to take place, while those are fine judgements, mistakes could be made or they could be just fine. And we won’t really what inflation is for about another six or nine months.
Abigail Bimman: With the increase in the cost of living now that, you know, Canadians are facing at the grocery stores, at the gas pump, is there something that the federal government can actually do to help in the short-term?
Stephen Poloz, Former Bank of Canada Governor: Really not. Inflation is usually a relatively slow moving process. In this case it wasn’t which is a clue that tells you that it’s usually from or mostly coming from, temporary factors. So a quick anecdote, if you don’t mind—I mean I stayed in a hotel room just before the pandemic in Toronto: $449. I stayed there in November of 2020, it was $149. And I stayed there a couple of weeks ago and it was $300. So it’s gone up a lot in the last 12 months. A 100 per cent and yet it’s still below where it was pre-pandemic. And that’s the pattern we see in many sectors. It’s all buried in the CPI, so we won’t know what the trend of inflation is probably until the summertime.
Abigail Bimman: Alright. And one last question for you, Mr. Poloz. It’s a decision you had to make when you were in the governor hot seat many times. Do you think now is the time to raise that benchmark interest rate?
Stephen Poloz, Former Bank of Canada Governor: Well the good news is the economy is mostly back to normal. I realize there are pockets where it’s not and we have the supply chain issues. Those things will work themselves out, but we’re back in the neighbourhood of where we belong. And so, you know, it is time for everything to normalize: prices, interest rates, all those things. I don’t say immediately or anything like that, but all the conditions point to good news. And so yes, it’s no longer necessary to have really, really low interest rates. But the path to normalcy is something that we can’t really predict because it’ll be a very data dependent process. We’ll have to see how it turns out.
Abigail Bimman: Alright. Well that’s all the time we have. Thank you so much for your insights, former Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz.
Well up next, standing up to China: Canada’s diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics. We speak to a former ambassador about the path forward.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We are extremely concerned by the repeated human rights violations by the Chinese government. That is why we are announcing today that we will not be sending any diplomatic representation to the Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games this winter.”
Abigail Bimman: Canada joins allies, including the U.K. and the United States in a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympic Games. Athletes will still compete. Canada says keeping them safe is a priority, but government dignitaries will not attend.
Joining us to discuss the latest on the Canada-China relationship is former Canadian ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques. He’s currently a fellow at the China Institute at the University of Alberta, as well as at the Montreal International Studies Institute. Thank you so much for joining us.
Let’s start with that boycott. Do you think that it goes far enough to stand up to China?
Guy Saint-Jacques / Former Canadian Ambassador to China: Well I think we are running out of time and maybe in these circumstances that’s the best that we could do, but in my view it’s the minimum. What we should have done is a year ago, take advantage of the ongoing COVID crisis to say that we needed to postpone the game by one year and use this time to put pressure on China to agree to a full investigation by the U.N. on what’s really going on in Xinjiang and also to force them to collaborate with the WHO to find the true origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. And of course, China would have refused to collaborate and then Canada and the U.S. could have jointly offered to host the games using existing facilities in Whistler, Vancouver and Seattle, but now we are playing catch up. Of course, we don’t want to penalize the athletes, but I do hope that we will have more western countries that will join this boycott.
Abigail Bimman: On the flipside, should Canada be concerned about any possible retaliation from China? I know there’s, you know, the mention of stepping up security for athletes. Should Canada be concerned?
Guy Saint-Jacques / Former Canadian Ambassador to China: Well I would not be concerned about the security of the athletes, but of course, if there are more countries that join this official boycott, because in my view, it’s more an official boycott than a diplomatic boycott, then it will be more difficult for China to penalize. I would expect that we will have—we will be punished for the eventual decision on Huawei if it’s ever announced. On that, I don’t understand the delay. But to come back to the safety of the athletes, I think that there would be such a public international outcry if they dare to do anything to athletes from the countries that have officially boycotted the opening ceremony and there would be consequences for China. So I would not be too concerned about that.
Abigail Bimman: Last week, we also learned our Ambassador to China Dominic Barton is stepping down. I’m wondering what do you make of that move and what would you like to see in our next ambassador.
Guy Saint-Jacques / Former Canadian Ambassador to China: Well I’m sure that Mr. Barton has come to the conclusion that things won’t improve in the short term, you know, with this decision on the boycott of the games, the hopefully upcoming decision on Huawei. And also for him it was difficult for personal reasons. I understand his wife was living in Hong Kong and it’s difficult to travel back and forth. Each time that he goes back to Beijing, he has to spend three weeks in quarantine. And because the relationship will remain difficult, I think, you know, Canada would be better served with a career diplomat, someone who would have served previously in China, who hopefully speaks the language, knows the culture, knows the political system and can be forceful because there will be very difficult discussions with China. And if you have listened to what the Chinese Ambassador Cong Peiwu said earlier this week, they don’t admit any guilt for the crisis. They just say that it’s for Canada to learn the lessons. And so it will take a long time to rebuild confidence and I hope that we will hear more at some point on what is the Canadian strategy on China, because at the minimum we need to be a lot more firm.
Abigail Bimman: And finally, to your last point I want to ask you more about Canada’s China policy and also what you made of the line in the speech from the throne mentioning deepening partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. Where does Canada go from here?
Guy Saint-Jacques / Former Canadian Ambassador to China: Well I also look forward to seeing the mandate letter of Minister Joly and also of the minister of defence because there is an important security angle to the Indo-Pacific strategy. What we have heard, this new Indo-Pacific strategy will cover China but that in fact, what I’ve heard is that the policy on China will be flexible and maybe not very explicit. And I’m a bit puzzled by this because it’s always clear for everyone, for diplomats, for politicians and for our allies to know exactly where we stand. But let’s remember in all of this that our security interests are aligned with those of the United States and other members of the Five Eyes and that we will have to work a lot more closely with allies to develop a common strategy to oppose the, what I’ve called, the “dark side” of China and prevent future hostage taking, and to stop the use by China of punitive trade measures to punish you if you don’t obey their orders. So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on that and, you know, we again, our partners are expecting more clarity from us.
Abigail Bimman: Thank you so much for your insights former ambassador Guy Saint-Jacques.
And that’s all the time we have for our show today. Thank you for watching. We’ll see you back here next Sunday. For The West Block, I’m Abigail Bimman.