THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 9, Season 11
Sunday, December 26, 2021
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Year-End Interview with
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Location: Ottawa, ON
Mercedes Stephenson: As Canada plunges into the third year of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must find a way to lead the country through it. But that’s not his only challenge.
2021 brought a sharp rise in the cost of living, revealed an unprecedented crisis in the military, a more aggressive China, and Afghanistan collapsed. Where is the government’s accountability? And what is the way forward? We’ll ask the prime minister in my year-end interview.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, thank you so much for sitting down with us here in this very grand room just off of Parliament Hill. It’s your annual year-end interview. Really big year for you: an election, more pandemic, and your birthday. You are, of course, a Christmas day baby turning 50. Are you where you wanted to be at this point in life?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: First of all, I’m never sure about saying Christmas baby anymore when you’re about to turn 50. You know, that’s a—there’s a bit of a disjunction there.
Listen, this past year, like the year before, has all been around focusing on trying to help Canadians through these very difficult times, COVID a big part it, but all sorts of other challenges as well. And being, I think, incredibly grateful on a personal level that Canadians are in general, so thoughtful and present and there for each other that even through the toughest times you have examples of people stepping up and being there that has allowed us to come through some really, really challenging moments.
Mercedes Stephenson: When you look at that, so many Canadians are having a really rough Christmas. Life is expensive right now. Buying a turkey is expensive. There are people who are fully employed and they are barely able to make ends meet. What are you going to do for Canadians specifically, to support them who are struggling to pay their basic bills with the inflation that we’re seeing in Canada and all around the globe?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: Well the first thing we said when this pandemic hit is that we would be there to have Canadians’ backs and that has guided us throughout. This inflation crisis we’re in, the rising costs of living for people is a direct response of the impact of the pandemic on the global economy and on Canada, and the best thing we can do to support people, is to end this pandemic for good.
Mercedes Stephenson: But how do you do that as the federal government? I would love for you to end the pandemic. I’m sure you would love to end the pandemic, but that’s a really tough thing to do.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: It is. But it involves getting in boosters, which we are doing. It involves supporting the provinces in getting those boosters into arms, which is happening. It also involves making sure that whether it’s municipalities, or provinces, or private businesses, people are empowered to make the tough decisions that involve keeping distances, following public health guidelines, knowing that the government will continue to be there with supports as necessary that will allow us not just to get through this pandemic but also to have our economy bounce back stronger.
Mercedes Stephenson: One of the really big challenges you have as a prime minister is China. And one of the big moments for you this year was getting the two Michaels home. Take me to that moment on the tarmac when you saw them.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: It was extraordinarily emotional for me. To see them coming home and to know that they were coming home because of the fact that we stayed strong on our values, we stayed strong on the rule of law and we didn’t make any side or backroom deals. We said no. We are a country of the rule of law and we’re going to model that. And we got countries around the world to bring up the case of the two Canadians every time they were speaking with Chinese leadership, which was extremely impactful on the Chinese and wanting to look for a solution on this. But that one moment that touched me perhaps more than anything else was when Michael Kovrig turned to me and said, “Thank you for getting me home, but thank you also for staying true to what Canada is and stands for as one of the good guys while you were doing everything you could to get us home.”
Mercedes Stephenson: That must have been such a burden lifted for you.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: It was, it was, it was surprisingly emotional on a personal level because as a leader, as a prime minister, you want to do the right thing. You know what the right thing is, but there’s a human cost. These two Canadians were stuck in terrible conditions, totally arbitrarily and there was at least a theoretical way of me taking shortcuts and backroom deals to get them home, but I knew and I felt that you had to do the right thing and we stayed the course on the right thing. And to hear one of the Michaels’ say to me, “You did the right thing” was satisfying on a personal level in ways that surprised even me.
Mercedes Stephenson: I could imagine to hear him say that and to make your decisions going forward, because China’s not going to back off.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: When likeminded countries pull together, when we align, when we coordinate, when we show a united front because one of the challenges that we’ve had as a western world is that we compete with each other. We’re trying to see how we could get better access for Canadian beef than Australian beef to this country or that market. There’s been a bit of competition amongst friends because we’re capitalist democracies on trying to do well, especially given the extraordinary economic opportunity of the rising Chinese middle-class. So, how do we access that? Well we’ve been competing and China has been from time to time, very cleverly playing us off each other in an open market competitive way. We need to do a better job of working together and standing strong so that China can’t play the angles and divide us one against the other and quite frankly, on the issue of arbitrary detentions where we say dozens upon dozens of countries signing onto this in a very real way declaring that no, coercive diplomacy is not alright. Those kinds of initiatives do make a difference.
Mercedes Stephenson: So what’s your strategy going forward? Because I think everyone understood that while the two Michaels were in custody, you were a little handcuffed on what you could do because there are two Canadians whose lives are at stake. Their home now, what’s the way forward for Canada?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: The way forward, is to first of all, be pleased that the Michaels are home, but also to be wise to the fact that the China that did that is no longer the China that we thought about ten years ago or even five years ago in some ways. And we have to be alert to that possibility but also to that mind frame that they have moving forward, which means there are things we’re going to have to continue to challenge China on: human rights, democracy in Hong Kong, supports for journalists, non-interference in the goings on of independent countries in Asia. These sorts of things are really important for us, but there are ways in which we’re going to have to compete with China, whether it’s on the commercial level with trade deals, on goods and services. Being thoughtful around that and then there are ways in which we’re going to want to work with China and think about climate change, for example, where they are going to be a significant player if we’re going to be able to decarbonize our global economy, they have to be part of it. So all these different nuances are going to continue, but I think we’re going into it with a very vivid understanding of the way modern China operates.
Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up, we’ll have more of my conversation with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right after this.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. My one-on-one with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues with a look at Canada’s role in the world, from fighting U.S. protectionism to calling an election during the fall of Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We will continue to work over the coming months to resettle refugees.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Here’s the second part of my conversation with the prime minister.
You have to operate in a world now where Canada doesn’t have the buffer zone that we used to. It was, you know, three oceans and the United States. Donald Trump’s presidency changed that. Joe Biden, much friendlier, obviously, with you, but still Buy America and very protectionist. With climate change, the Arctic is opening up. You’re seeing a more aggressive China, a more aggressive Russia. How do you insulate Canada when you don’t have some of those protections and fall backs that previous prime ministers did?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: Well the first part, and yes, the global context is shifting, but, you know, we still have three oceans and a strong ally in the United States. The flavours are shifting a little bit, but we are in an extremely good position. But the one thing that has always served Canada and indeed, a lot of middle powers in the world, is multilateralism, is working with like-minded countries, is aligning our focus, our initiatives, our measures forward, knowing that no country is able to go it alone and quite frankly, what we’re seeing and what we saw through the past four years of the United States under Trump, is that even the U.S. when it tries to go alone, isn’t able to truly go it alone. And where President Biden continues to deal with real challenges internally, domestically and polarization and all sorts of things he’s having to deal with, he is also returning to a certain level of engagement and collaboration and alignment with partners.
Mercedes Stephenson: When it comes to foreign affairs, one of the big things that I doubt anyone saw coming in terms of dominating the election was Afghanistan. And your government was very heavily criticized for calling an election. There were allegations that ministers weren’t paying attention that they were busy campaigning. Is there anything you regret about how you handled that?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: Election or no election, we did everything we could to accelerate the evacuation of Canadians and Canadian supporters from Afghanistan. I think the entire world, and I’ve talked with a number of our allies in Europe and elsewhere who were caught extremely off-guard with how quickly things got out of control in Afghanistan…
Mercedes Stephenson: But the intelligence was there two, three months in advance warning that the fall was happening far faster than expected.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: We knew it was coming. We didn’t know it was going to be this fast. Nobody knew it was going to be this fast. So the response we had, I mean, Canada responded well. Other countries responded well. It still wasn’t enough to stave off the humanitarian tragedy of the Taliban taking control. And that’s where the efforts we did throughout the month of August to evacuate thousands of people, need to continue now. And they continue. A plane landed, you know, recently with hundreds of Afghan refugees on it. We’re continuing to bring more people in. We’ve had about 4 thousand come in. We are on our way to welcoming in 40 thousand Afghan refugees in the coming year or two.
Mercedes Stephenson: Two years is a long time if the Taliban’s trying to kill you.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: It is a long time and that’s why we’re trying to accelerate as much as we possibly can and why we’re working with allies to put pressure on the Taliban to allow people to leave Afghanistan. And it’s going to be a very difficult winter for people in Afghanistan and it’s heartbreaking for Canadians, including and especially the Canadians who served alongside many extraordinary Afghan citizens who were there not just supporting Canadians but fighting for a better future for their country, for their sisters, for their daughters that are now facing this horrific setback. And it is something quite extraordinary, the level to which Canadians are willing to open up our communities, our homes, to welcome in Afghan refugees more than any other country in the world. Our targets are higher. Our will is greater to resettle and at the same time, we need to continue to do the humanitarian and development supports that are going to bring Afghans into a place of stability while we work around as much as possible the Taliban government that are terrorists.
Mercedes Stephenson: When it comes to the military, military sexual misconduct, something that you and I have talked a lot about this year. Two of the top commanders in the Canadian Armed Forces both accused of sexual misconduct. There has been general after general after admiral who has had to step aside. How did you not know that there was a problem in the military before the story broke?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: I think—well, the Deschamps report made clear that there was a problem in the armed forces. I think there was a lot of faith that Operation Valour of the past years was making progress on this, but it took some extraordinarily powerful stories about some of the highest placed individuals, stories that you and your colleagues specifically were spearheading, to understand the depth and the scale of the culture challenge in our armed forces. The fact that we have such respect for the women and men in the armed forces who have our backs, that it is difficult for all of us to realize that we haven’t had their backs. That we have allowed a culture of command and an environment in the military that is not worthy of those young people who choose to step forward and serve, or of the parents who are so proud to send and see their kids join our armed forces. And that is something that all Canadians have to reckon with, but especially our government, which is why we made an apology but mostly…
Mercedes Stephenson: Well it was a court mandated apology.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: The apology is an important thing, but more important is the action we take to put women and men at the centre of what we’re doing, the survivors who need the support, the people who choose to serve, because not only do we need to fix the culture in the military, we need our military to keep growing, to keep being able to serve Canadians in the extreme weather events and around the world. And the challenges of recruitment right now when people see the environment and the culture there is really, really concerning. And that’s why, whether it’s the work that Justice Arbour is doing or Lieutenant-General Carignan is doing and all the efforts that even the new chief of defence staff, the vice-chief of defence staff who’s the first woman in the role, or Minister Anand that they are working on to transform this in a way that for the first time in a long time for many people within the military, feels real. But there is so much more to do as you know.
Mercedes Stephenson: After the break, more from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on his government’s response to military sexual misconduct.
Mercedes Stephenson: The military sexual misconduct scandal rocked the Canadians forces and plunged the military into a leadership crisis.
The prime minister gets candid about the need for culture change and his regrets about not doing earlier, in the final part of our conversation.
Why did you never hold anybody in your office or your minister accountable for what happened? Because people knew, they heard the rumours. Why was it that you were never willing to actually put that accountability on the elected government’s shoulders for what they didn’t look into?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: Listen, there’s always ways of looking back on what could have or should have been done differently, but the fact is Minister Sajjan, who is himself a decorated soldier who was a member of the police before that, had fought all his life against the kind of intolerance and old boys’ network that we know was part of the problem in the military. And I had—and I have confidence in him to continue to fight to do the right thing.
Mercedes Stephenson: You really think he did a good job?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: I think it was an impossible job and I think he did a good job. Yes, I do. I think given the context that he was faced with, given the situation and the depth of the challenges in the armed forces he set us up for the success that we’re going to be having over the coming years.
Mercedes Stephenson: Should he have told you? Do you think he should have said, “Hey, you’re sitting down with this chief of the defence staff, I actually have some pretty serious concerns about what his behaviour might be.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: I don’t want to get into the details of things that are continuing to be investigated and appear before the courts. But I know Harjit Sajjan. I know the extraordinary people in the armed forces who want to see change happen. I know the people who are working on it now are deeply committed to creating that culture change that despite all the words being said about trying to do this over the past decades is now happening for real. And what Justice Arbour is moving forward with is not just another report, but is a concrete implementation plan that pulls together all the different recommendations and says okay, “You can do this, you can do this,” which is why when she came out just a few weeks ago and said, “Okay, next thing you should do is take all the sexual misconduct cases out of the military justice system and put them in the civilian courts.” We’re doing that right now. Those sorts of measures that aren’t just okay, accepting the recommendation of a report but taking concrete actions that are going to transform our military in ways that put the women and men who serve at the centre of it, survivors at the centre of our…
Mercedes Stephenson: The concrete actions you could have taken six years ago.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: Mm-hum, yes. And looking back, there are always things that we wish we had done more and faster, but when the very top levels of the military are insisting that there is no problem, it is a challenge for any government to say, “Okay, you’re wrong. We’re going to get rid of all of you. We’re going to bring in an entirely new system.” It took a crisis, unfortunately, because I wish it hadn’t. I wish the women who came forward and showed extraordinary strength and bravery on top of having had to go through things that are unacceptable, didn’t have to be the instigators fighting for all their other brothers and sisters who continue to suffer in silence. But that’s what it took and I am so grateful for them and I will continue to do right by the courage they had in moving forward to say there needs to be a change. I wish we had done it 10 years ago. I wish we had done it 50 years ago, but we’re doing it now.
Mercedes Stephenson: How do you feel when you think back to some of those meetings you had with those chiefs of the defence staff?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: One of my very first volunteer jobs or volunteer engagements when I was back at McGill as a university student was with the Sexual Assault Centre at McGill Student Society. The idea of consent, of date rape, of sexual misconduct in academic institution was something that 25 years later I see we haven’t made much progress on and I really genuinely believe when I was working on that 25, 30 years ago, we were going to see changes. It is unbelievably slow to make these changes, but they are happening. And I wish I could have done more. I wish I had been able to do more. I wish circumstances would have pushed us into it, but we are there now. And we are pushing as hard and as fast and with everything we can, and we are being supported by extraordinary members of the armed forces from the inside who say, “About time. Thank you for doing it. Here is our support as well,” whether it’s Lt.-Gen. Carignan, or outside experts, or people in the mix who are finally bringing this about, because it’s not just about ending sexual misconduct in the military, although that in itself is a huge thing. It’s also about understanding that a modern military needs to do a better job of valuing and respecting every individual in their full diversity within the armed forces. And yes, there will always be command structures and always be hierarchies. That’s the way the military needs to work. But doing a better job of appreciating the value and respect for every individual who put up their hand and didn’t have to, it wasn’t drafted in, said, “I want to serve my country by putting it all on the line for them.” They are worthy of a level of respect and they are worthy of being seen in the fullness of who they are in a way that militaries all around the world, the Canadian military is no exception, deserve to do a better job of because those men and women who serve, who choose to serve and their families, deserve a hell of a lot more. And Canadians deserve to have the people who have our backs, be properly supported as they’re doing it.
Mercedes Stephenson: Prime Minster Trudeau, thank you so much for joining us. Happy Birthday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: Thank you, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Merry Christmas to you and your family.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: Merry Christmas to you as well.