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The West Block – Episode 13, Season 11

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Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mercedes Stephenson – January 23, 2022 – Jan 23, 2022

THE WEST BLOCK

Episode 13, Season 11

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests:

Anita Anand, National Defence Minister

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier 

Location: Ottawa, ON

 

Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Ukraine on the brink of war. With momentum building and 100 thousand Russian troops on Ukraine’s border, can diplomacy stop another invasion?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We’re calling on Russia to de-escalate, calling on diplomatic conversations.”

Mercedes Stephenson: And what’s the red line? Will Canada put more boots on the ground or arm the Ukrainian military? We’ll speak to the Minister of National Defence Anita Anand.

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: “There are some early indications that Alberta has reached and surpassed the peak of infections.”

Mercedes Stephenson: After back-to-back crises and controversies, Alberta’s premier looks for a reset. Can he silence his critics ahead of a critical leadership review this spring? We’ll talk to Jason Kenney about COVID, leadership and why he sidelined his justice minister.

It’s Sunday, January 23rd, and this is The West Block.

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Hello. Thanks for joining us. I’m Mercedes Stephenson.

Canada continues to push for a diplomatic solution to the crisis on Ukraine. Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly met with Ukrainian officials in Kyiv and reaffirmed Canada’s support.

About 200 Canadian troops are on the ground in Ukraine as part of a training mission under what’s called Operation Unifier. Ukraine is looking for even more from Canada, though, including military help as the threat of the Russian invasion increases.

The Liberal government has taken a tough tone on Russia, but what will that translate to in terms of action?

Joining me now is Defence Minister Anita Anand. Thank you so much for joining us today, minister. Obviously, a very serious and concerning situation in Ukraine. What is the red line for Canada to consider this to be a war? Is it any incursion by the Russian troops into Ukraine, or is there a particular line that you’ve talked about in terms of what will constitute an act of war?

Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: Thanks, Mercedes. Yes, it is a very concerning situation. I am working on this issue every single day, and together with my colleagues, we are looking at options regarding the situation and the potential for further Russian invasion into this country.

I will say that at top-of-mind for us is a diplomatic solution. And we are very much hopeful, as are our allies, that there will be meaningful dialogue that will lead to de-escalation.

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In the absence of that, there will be severe consequences, including of a financial nature in terms of sanctions as Minister Joly outlined this week. So the situation is evolving. It is concerning and it has my attention for sure over the past number of weeks and will going forward.

I will say that I have spoken with Minister Reznikov from Ukraine a number of times already. I’ll be speaking with him again in the next few days, and he has invited me to go to Ukraine and that is something that I do look forward to and ensuring that that can happen.

Mercedes Stephenson: The Russians have made some pretty hefty demands, especially when it comes to things like disclosing where troops are, where missiles are positioned. Do you think those demands are reasonable?

Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: I will say that since 2015, under Operation Unifier, we as a country have been doing what we can to ensure that Ukraine is secure and stable. And we will continue to do that. So the work that we are doing, really right now, Mercedes, is across government in defence, in international development, in finance, in foreign affairs. We are working as a team to ensure that we have a comprehensive strategy to deal with Russian aggression at the border and a potential for a further Russian invasion.

Mercedes Stephenson: Canada has deployed special operations forces in Ukraine to look at options for supporting the Ukrainian government, as well as evacuating the embassy. What is the decision point for removing Canadian personnel, especially Canadian military personnel from Ukraine who could potentially become casualties if this becomes a theatre of war?

Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: Well let me just say at the outset that special forces have supported Operation Unifier since fall 2020, so it is no out of the ordinary for them to be there. And indeed, we have been looking of course, at embassies across the international spectrum to ensure that we are able to effectively assist wherever possible. So those are ongoing analyses and are no different in the context of this situation.

Mercedes Stephenson: But what would be the decision point to either add troops into Ukraine or take them out?

Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: Of course, the situation is evolving and we are definitely going to be acting with our allies alongside of NATO and our allies. And I will say that in that regard, I have been consistently engaged with Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, as well as Minister Ben Wallace, to ensure that we are acting in coordination. As I said, I have been invited to go to Ukraine, which I’m looking forward to do. And in that trip, I would also like to meet with my counterparts in Europe, to ensure that we are acting comprehensively as this situation evolves.

Mercedes Stephenson: So when you say acting comprehensively, I think I go back to that first question we talked about, about how you determine a response. Is it going to be based on Russia’s actions, or will it be based on the response of our allies, and will we act in a coordinated way because there’s been a lot of discussion about there being different opinions inside NATO about what should be done here and that creates an issue with moving forward in a unified front.

Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: Well, that’s a good question, but I don’t think those two options that you put on the table are mutually exclusive. What I mean by that is that we, of course, are watching very closely the moves that Russia is making at the border. And at the same time, we are coordinating with our allies across the board. I have spoken with colleagues across Europe and of course, the United States and the U.K., my counterparts in fact, to ensure that regardless of the situation, we are acting in tandem.

Mercedes Stephenson: What is Canada prepared to do if Russia does have a further invasion into Ukraine? We certainly have strategic weapon stocks. They’re in Montreal. Their whole purpose is to be able to be sent to allies, if they need that. Is that on the table in terms of the show of force we’re hearing about Canada potentially undertaking?

Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: So let me respond by firstly saying that Operation Unifier is the heart and soul from a defence perspective, our support for Ukraine and extending Operation Unifier is in my mandate letter. And I will say that I will be delivering on that commitment.

In addition to that, in direct response to your question about weapons, Canada is supporting Ukrainian security through a variety of ways. Not only through Operation Unifier, but we are also present with several hundred troops in the region to deter against aggressive activity under Operation Reassurance, for example.

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So I can say that I’m working with my cabinet colleagues on ways to further support Ukraine, and I will have more to say on those options very shortly.

Mercedes Stephenson: Has Canada begun to move troops or weapons into the theatre in case they are needed, or as part of the intention for deterrents? I’m hearing from multiple sources that Canada is starting to take a more aggressive position. Our public rhetoric has been more escalated even in the United States. Your government’s been very clear that you side with Ukraine in this. Are you actually starting to act on this now in case you do have to put a plan into motion?

Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: At the current time, our troops remain engaged in Operation Unifier, as they have been since 2015. That is what we are continuing to deliver on and we will continue to do that.

Russia has two options here: meaningful dialogue and de-escalation, or facing severe consequences, for example, including financial measures. That is the current state of play, and I will be back to update you, Mercedes, as things evolve.

Mercedes Stephenson: The Russians have basically said they don’t care about sanctions. They’re not too worried there’s an effect on the Russian people. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of effect on the Russian regime. What do you think a meaningful response would be? Is militarily really the only option here? And if that’s the case, would you also look at putting more troops into Eastern Europe outside of Ukraine?

Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: Well first of all, I believe that diplomacy can be effective, and I sincerely hope that the diplomacy that is occurring at the current time, will lead to de-escalation. Indeed, in terms of our presence in that region, it is by way of Operation Unifier, as well as Operation Reassurance, which is our presence in Central and Eastern Europe. And at any time under that particular operation, there can be up to 915 Canadian Armed Forces members deployed in this operation. This is Canada’s largest current military operation, and also, we have five CF-188 Hornet aircraft participating in NATO’s enhanced air policing there. So in other words, the bottom line is we do have a presence in Ukraine, around Ukraine and we will continue to ensure our presence there. It’s in my mandate letter. I will be delivering on it.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, thank you so much for joining us. I’m sure we’ll be back in touch soon as the situation continues to evolve.

Anita Anand, National Defence Minister: You bet, Mercedes. Look forward to talking to you again. Thanks so much.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. We’ll find out why he wants Ottawa to change its vaccine mandate for truckers, and we’ll talk Alberta politics. Stay with us.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is under scrutiny for his handling of a controversy involving another member of his cabinet. Justice Minister Kaycee Madu is under pressure to resign after he admitted to calling the Edmonton police chief last year over a distracted driving ticket. It’s one more challenge facing Kenney, who’s been criticized for his handling of the pandemic and faces a party leadership review in just a few months.

Joining me now is Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Thank you so much for joining us today, Premier Kenney.

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: Great to be here, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Sir, you find yourself struggling with another controversy in front of your government, this one relating to the justice minister, who you’ve asked to step aside, Kaycee Madu.

You revealed late last week that you actually knew about this ticket. Can you walk us through what you knew about the ticket the justice minister received and his phone call to the Edmonton chief of police?

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: Well I heard at some point last year that he’d received a ticket and paid it. I was briefed on the entire set of facts this past Monday when it became a media story, and I learned that he had made this call following the ticket. The Edmonton police chief has said publicly that there was no interference with the ticket raised by the minister. No ask that it be rescinded but rather, he raised other issues, particularly around racial profiling. That’s something that Minister Madu has been particularly passionate about as a black Canadian. And so I thought in given the context, I consulted with some senior former members of the judiciary and of government, both federally and provincially, to get their advice. And the advice I got was to have an independent investigation. We have a former judge working on that. It should be a very quick investigation to determine whether or not there was actual or perceived interference in the independent administration of justice, which is obviously a core principle.

Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve been criticized for not removing him from cabinet completely, for not outright firing him, for just asking him to step aside. Do you believe that there’s any scenario in which it’s acceptable for a justice minister to call the chief of police about a personal matter?

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: Well, I expressed to Minister Madu earlier this week when I learned about all of this, my serious disappointment because I think doing so is an error in judgement. Given the broader context, I think that it’s best to have an independent authority, in this case a former judge, look at all of the facts and report back. That’s exactly what we’re doing.

Mercedes Stephenson: Premier, I’d like to talk a little bit about COVID with you. Obviously, you’re COVID response has been under the microscope in Alberta, and nationally it’s been different than many other provinces. And you’ve spoken out against Quebec’s trial balloon idea they’re floating of having a financial penalty for people are not vaccinated. You’ve said that that’s something you will not consider in Alberta. Some folks look at this and say look, it’s the unvaccinated folks who are mostly ending up in ICU’s and in very serious condition, why shouldn’t they have to pay if the rest of us have to live under restrictions? What are your thoughts on that?

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: Well I certainly understand the concern because here in Alberta, about 70 per cent of our ICU COVID patients who are there primarily for COVID are unvaccinated, and that’s out of 10 per cent of our adult population that’s unvaccinated. So it’s very unfortunate and very frustrating that that small portion of the population has not done the responsible thing to help us with the huge pressure on our health care system that is causing widespread cancellations and postponements of surgeries and other medical procedures, not to mention huge stress on our frontline health care workers. I share that frustration, but at the end of the day, we have a universal, publicly funded and accessible health system, which doesn’t make moral judgements on peoples’ choices.

Mercedes Stephenson: When it comes to truck drivers, you had some pretty strong comments late last week, saying that the Canadian government should not be imposing mandatory vaccination on truck drivers. You’re concerned about the supply chain. You’re concerned about those truck drivers. But the Americans are bringing in the exact same rules, in fact, beyond truck drivers. It’ll apply to any foreign citizen entering the United States through a land border that you have to be vaccinated from January 22nd on. So why do you think the Canadian government should take a different position than the American government on this?

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: Look, we can’t control American policy, but I would say, first of all, we should be vigorously lobbying the U.S. administration to apply a common sense approach. Secondly, we shouldn’t shoot ourselves in the foot just because the Americans are doing that. Let’s be frank, Mercedes, while exporting Canadian products to the U.S. is hugely important, many of the groceries, especially fresh produce on our shelves across the country, come from the U.S. And so if we further impair imports from the U.S., it’s going to drive up inflation, which in food in food is already sky high. It will make it more expensive for Canadians to buy basic groceries at the worst possible time. And here’s my point. Look, I understand that there are some contexts where a vaccine mandate may make sense. Hospital workers would be an obvious case. And I think truckers should be encouraged to get vaccinated, but we’ve had an exception to this rule now for several months. Why would we now apply this quarantine rule just when we are really reaching the peak of this problem of supply chain and inflation? It doesn’t make sense. I’m just asking the feds to take a step back, apply some common sense here and extend the current exemption not requiring that quarantine, which could really clobber us in terms of cost of living and access to groceries, etc.

Mercedes Stephenson: What’s your relationship like right now with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? How would you describe it?

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: Well, I would say it’s professional. We have a bunch of issues where we are strongly at odds and there’s no—everybody knows that. And there are some issues where we’ve been able to work together. And I said to him the day after I was elected that I was committed to finding common ground where we could move forward in the interest of Albertans, particularly our economy. Unfortunately, his government has continued with policies like the No More Pipelines law, the tanker ban. Continued to ignore Alberta democracy on our Senate elections and continues to announce more and more policies that hammer Canada’s largest industry, which is Alberta’s oil and gas industry. So, we’ll continue to do everything we can to fight for our vital economic interests while finding places where we can cooperate, as we often have, through various aspects of COVID, for example.

Mercedes Stephenson: The federal government has said that they’re going to start ending the subsidies to oil and gas, fossil fuels, within two years. Obviously, that has an impact on Alberta. What do you see the future of your province’s energy being, because it seems pretty clear that the federal government is committed to transitioning away from the oil sands pretty quickly?

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: Well, if that is in fact the case. They haven’t said that to us bluntly, but there’s certainly a lot of suggestions that they—I mean, the appointment of Steven Guilbeault, a former environmental extremist, to the environment ministry is very concerning to us, and just the accumulation of policies that have been pinning down our energy industry. You know, Mercedes, half a million Canadian jobs are tied directly or indirectly to oil and gas, mainly out of Alberta. It’s the country’s largest export industry, the largest subsector of our economy. We sell $100 billion of this energy to the Americans alone, every year. And here’s the point. If we turned off Alberta and Canadian energy oil and gas production tomorrow, that would not change one single thing in terms of emissions or global demand and consumption. It would just hand a monopoly to the world’s worst regimes, to OPEC dictatorships and Putin’s Russia.

Mercedes Stephenson: We’ve seen in the U.K., the decision to get rid of basically all of the COVID restrictions. You had an experience with this over the summer where you opened up very quickly and then you had some regrets about that. What lessons have you learned from that, and how will you apply that as you prepare to open back up? And I guess are you looking at getting rid of the restrictions that are in place, permanently? What point does that happen at for you?

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: Sure, great question. So we’re following very closely what’s happening in Britain and elsewhere. The problem for us in the summer with the Delta wave in the fall was that we had not yet reached high enough levels of vaccination. We thought we were there, but since then, we’ve gone from 75 per cent to 90 per cent adult coverage and a whole lot more people who have added immunity through prior infection, so-called natural immunity. Obviously, we’re adding to that right now with the much less severe Omicron variant. And that makes me hopeful. I quoted yesterday from an editorial in the British Medical Journal, the Lancet, saying that after Omicron that COVID will come back, but the pandemic won’t. Now we don’t know that for sure, so we will proceed cautiously and prudently. But I think we will be in a position to substantially release public health measures that we have in this province, which are far less stringent than, for example, in central Canada, and to move—because we have to just learn to live with this. You know, right now we have not quite reached—I think we’re coming down the COVID transmission peak, but we’ve not yet reached the COVID—the Omicron hospitalization peak. That will probably be late January, early February. Once we start to see sustainable reduction in our hospitalizations from Omicron, then I think we can move to begin significantly relaxing public health measures. And if Omicron acts like, for example, the Spanish Flu, or any other similar contagious respiratory virus, I think we can expect to see increasing—decreasing severity in future variants, which should bode well for the future.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, we’ll ask Premier Kenney about his leadership challenges.

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Mercedes Stephenson: One last question for you, premier. What has this been like for you? You faced a lot of controversies. You’ve been beat up by your own caucus. What has this experience felt like for you being at the leadership helm? It seems like maybe it’s been a little bit lonely.

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: You know, it’s I think been difficult for everybody during leadership in COVID. You’ve had to—we’ve all had to make impossibly difficult decisions with only very bad options. And, you know, very typically during some of these virulent waves, the choice between do you risk blowing out the hospitals and having to cut life support for people? Or do you bring in painful restrictions that can have all kinds of negative effects on peoples’ lives, their livelihoods, their mental health, etc. These have been impossibly difficult decisions and probably a little more difficult than Alberta politically than elsewhere in Canada because this is more of a free and loving province, more sceptical about government restrictions. So I won’t pretend it’s been easy, but you know something? We’ve continued to keep our eye on the ball doing—managing COVID, while also delivering on a very ambitious reform agenda, focused on economic growth and recovery. And on that, we are winning. We’re knocking the lights out in terms of diversification, economic job growth, attracting investment, and I’m really excited about what the future holds.

Mercedes Stephenson: Premier Kenney, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: Thanks, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. Thanks for watching. You can watch the extended interview with Jason Kenney on our website: http://www.globalnews.ca.

We’ll see you right back here next Sunday. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson.

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