The West Block – Episode 16, Season 11

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Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mercedes Stephenson – Feb 13, 2022 – Feb 13, 2022


Episode 16, Season 11

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier

Dean Alexander, Director Homeland Security Program

Location: Ottawa, ON


Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Ontario declares a state of emergency as political pressure to end the blockades intensifies in Canada.

Doug Ford, Ontario Premier: “There will be consequences for these actions, and they will be severe.” 

Mercedes Stephenson: And the United States…

Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan Governor: “This is compromising and jeopardizing many jobs that this needs to be resolved.” 

Mercedes Stephenson: With supply chains at stake and Canada’s reputation under fire, the prime minister sends a message to protesters.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “And the consequences on them and on their families will be significant if they choose to continue.”

Mercedes Stephenson: We speak to the Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair.

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: “The threat of COVID-19 to public health is no longer outweighs the hugely damaging impact of health restrictions.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Alberta and Saskatchewan pull the plug on vaccine passports as other provinces announce plans to ease off COVID restrictions. We’ll talk to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. 

Donald Trump: “And we want those great Canadian truckers to know that we are with them all the way.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Anti-mandate protesters gain high profile fans and big donations from south of the border. We’ll talk to national security expert Dean Alexander about the implications.

It’s Sunday, February 13th, and this is The West Block.

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Thank you for joining us today. I’m Mercedes Stephenson.

While blockades, protests and demonstrations continue to pop up across the country, and in some places, go on for days and days. Everywhere from the Windsor Bridge to the Pacific crossing at the border in B.C., to of course, right here in downtown Ottawa, folks have been living with these protests which have now become a major state of emergency here in the province of Ontario.

Joining us to talk about this is Minister Bill Blair, who is of course, the minister for emergency preparedness for the federal government. Nice to see you, Minister Blair.

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: Good morning, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Sir, what do you make of what’s happening in the country right now?

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: Well, you know, I think we see in part, in these protests, the frustration that everyone feels with this pandemic and I think we’re all anxious to see it end. But I think it’s also very clear that there is—there are people within that protest and organizing their response who are clearly trying to do as much harm as possible to the country. You know we’ve seen it evidenced in the chaos that has existed in the City of Ottawa, but most particularly the targeting of crucial infrastructure and particularly some of our most important border entry points, cutting off the flow of trades and goods, which is idling thousands of workers, you know, costing the Canadian economy an enormous amount of money and clearly, their intent is to cause as much harm to Canada and to Canadians as possible. And so we now have a situation where it’s clearly a very significant and serious public order event and we all need the police to do their job. And to that end, we’ve been working to make sure they have the resources and the tools that they need to do it, but ultimately it comes down to the police need to restore order, to enforce the law and to open up those point of entry and restore public safety in the City of Ottawa. We’ve seen some evidence, by the way, Mercedes, even this morning, where over the past 24 hours, the OPP led police contingent in Windsor has been moving, I think, very purposely and carefully, proportional to the situation but have now begun to make arrests to open up that border, and that’s exactly what we need the police to do in this country to restore order and to uphold the law.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that the Ottawa Police have failed to do this job? And if so, why do you think that’s happening?

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: Well I think that there’ll be a great deal of reflection at the end as to why the situation has evolved the way it has in the City of Ottawa. But I was much encouraged this week, first of all, by the establishment of an integrated command team where now the OPP and the RCMP are joined at the command table with the OPS in order to bring order and to enforce the law at this event. We’ve also been working to make sure that we bring as many police resources as are required to do the job here, but ultimately it comes down to the police have to enforce the law and to do their job. We’re making sure that they’ve got the tools and resources to do it and we’re all very hopeful that they’ll be able to bring the situation under control utilizing the tools and resources that have been made available to them.

Mercedes Stephenson: What is your government’s plan to deal with this, because the situation in Ottawa is obviously quite entrenched but it’s clear that this is not unique to Ottawa or unique to Ontario? It’s becoming an issue at border crossings across the country. The prime minister has said everything is on the table. All options are on the table. What does that mean for the federal government who has a responsibility to protect critical infrastructure.

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: All three orders of government have responsibilities here, including of course, the federal government. And you’re right. My particular concern is the threat that these protests represent to critical infrastructure in these countries, particularly our border crossings but other aspects of critical infrastructure: transportation, manufacturing. Even the delivery of foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals to our shelves that Canadians need every single day, is being threatened by the activities, the criminal activities of the people engaged in these blockades. And so we’ve been working very closely with our provincial partners, first all, because—and we saw evidence of the success of that. You know we’ve been working very—like I know the prime minister and the premier have spoken a number of times, as have minister of counterparts on what the province and the federal government need to do together. Very, very pleased with the decision that was made in Ontario to declare an emergency and to enact important regulations. We’ve also been working to make sure that our law enforcement agencies have the tools they need, but Mercedes, I want to assure Canadians we—I recognize the threat, and my government does, that these blockades in particular, hold for all Canadians. We saw now blockades taking place in British Columbia, in Alberta, Manitoba and in Ontario. We need the police to do their job and we have to make sure that they’re there, but we also are prepared to use whatever legislative and resource tools. And I want I mean by that is every federal resource is—will be considered in order to protect critical infrastructure and to keep Canadians safe. The police have an important job to do, but there are other jobs that also need to be done and we’ll make sure they get done

Mercedes Stephenson: Are you prepared to invoke the Emergencies Act?

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: Certainly. I will tell you, the Emergencies Act has been under a very fulsome consideration right from the first day, as to what needs to be done. But the Emergencies Act—the federal Emergencies Act is really contingent upon the provinces exhausting their authorities and turning to us and saying we need more. And that’s why the conversations with the provinces have been so important. And we saw on Friday, the province of Ontario has now, I think, gone all in and I’m very, very grateful for the work that they’ve done to make those tools available. We’ll see if their effectiveness is sufficient to bring the situation in Ontario under control. We’re also looking really carefully on what’s happening. The people who are behind these blockades, you know, are clearly trying to disperse police resources and challenge us at—in other provinces—provincial jurisdictions. That’s why that collaboration between provinces and territories is so important. And, you know, policing is such a local thing in this country and we’ve seen it in the municipality. We’ve been working the mayor. We’ve been working with the Ottawa city council, bringing the province to the table, bringing in our resources to the table. Like everybody’s got a job to do here and a responsibility, but that I want to assure you that we recognize that the threat to Canada, to Canadians, to our livelihoods and to our prosperity, that these protests represent this isn’t about the vaccines anymore. This is something and is deeply concerning. We need the police to do their job.

Mercedes Stephenson: Can I ask you what you think it’s about then? Because they’re saying it is about vaccines. When we’re out in the street talking to people, that’s the feedback I’m hearing from people who are protesting. What do you think it’s really about then?

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: Well I’m not sure what cutting off essential supplies and goods to Canadians has to do with vaccines. You know, I think there’s—you know, I get everybody’s frustrated and we want to see this come to an end, but it is clear the intent of these blockades in particular, is to harm Canadians and harm the country and that doesn’t have anything to do with vaccines. And I think we all have to recognize that, you know, the harm that is being caused by these individuals, and it’s not about people’s frustration with the pandemic, the vaccine mandates that were put in place were put in place to protect Canadians and we’re not through this pandemic yet. And so we’re going to continue to do the things that are necessary to protect Canadians and at the same time, you know, we’re all working very hard to get—make sure that vaccines are available, that we do all of the things that are necessary to keep Canadians safe, but, you know, idling thousands of workers in Ontario at our auto plants, cutting off the supply of produce and everything else, the intent of that is not to express frustration with vaccine mandates. The intent of that is to harm the country and it needs to stop. And we need the police to do their job in order to stop it.

Mercedes Stephenson: When you look at the political situation here, you’re a former police officer so you know the police can clear one bridge and people can go to another. They can clear one protest and it pops up somewhere else. There is very much a strong political undercurrent to this, whether it’s the people who are out protesting because they’re upset with the vaccine mandates, or whether it’s the people who’ve signed off on the memorandum of understanding that says they want to overthrow your government and install a citizen’s committee. There’s a wide range of political expression here.

Your government has been criticized by members of your own caucus, including by Joël Lightbound, who is, of course, a Liberal MP. He said earlier this week that he couldn’t help but notice with regret both the tone and policies of my government change drastically on the eve and during the last election. A decision was made to wedge and divide and to stigmatize. Do you fear that by the way you’re talking about these protests and the refusal to listen, the refusal to meet with anybody who’s involved with them, that you’re potentially creating a greater wedge and divide that is further polarizing people and potentially opening them up for radicalization?

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Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: Mercedes, we’re completely open to discussions with Canadians about the health measures that are necessary and that we’ve implemented in order to keep Canadians safe. We’re not prepared to negotiate the overthrow of the government and quite frankly, some of…

Mercedes Stephenson: No, but the tone on this, perhaps. Not to actually capitulate the government, of course.

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: Listen, I think that from the beginning there’s been an acknowledgement that we have to be there to support Canadians through the pandemic. You know, we’ve been there with financial supports for families and for businesses. We’ve implemented with herculean effort to procure vaccines and personal protective equipment (PPE). We’ve been working very hard to protect Canadians and we understand that there is a segment of society that doesn’t believe in the science and doesn’t accept the importance of vaccines but that doesn’t mean the science isn’t true and that we don’t have to continue to do all of the things that are necessary.

Mercedes Stephenson: I’m so sorry to cut you off. We’re out of time. We’re very tight today. My sincere apologies for cutting you off. Thank you for joining us. I think still lots of questions about the government’s tone to come. We’ll be back with those. Thanks for making time.

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: Thank you very much for having me this morning, Mercedes. Have a good day.

Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up next, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney joins us on the show.

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Mercedes Stephenson: On Monday, Alberta students no longer need to wear a mask at school. That follows last week’s decision to scrap the vaccine passport program in Alberta. Even more restrictions will be lifted on March 1st. Critics say the province is moving too fast and point to last fall’s COVID surge that came after the province opened up for the summer.

Joining me now is Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Premier Kenney, nice to see you.

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

Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve made the decision to lift restrictions in the province. Some are saying it’s too much, too fast and it’s being drive by a political agenda and not science. What is your response to those criticisms?

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: Mercedes, these damaging restrictions should only be in place when absolutely necessary. These restrictions have caused widespread damage to peoples’ mental and emotional health, particularly for kids and adolescents which is why our first step was basically to lift all measures on kids. After two years, enough. A 10-year-old—20 per cent of a 10-year-olds life has been interrupted by COVID restrictions. So it’s time to start carefully and gradually getting life back to normal. We’ll only move to broader re-opening within about three weeks, if we see a continued trend downward on hospitalizations. But Mercedes, countries and jurisdictions all around the world are moving in the same direction for the same reasons, most of Scandinavia, much of Europe, blue states in the U.S., Canadian provinces because we see the data and we have to learn to live with COVID.

Mercedes Stephenson: I have to ask you, because we’ve seen those involved in the truck convoys claiming victory for this, saying it is their protests that have led to this decision. Have those demonstrations had any effect in your decision-making on when to lift the restrictions?

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: No, absolutely not. In fact, their demand wasn’t that we have a gradual approach and maintain some public health measures as we watch hospitalizations. Their irresponsible demand, as I understand it, has been to eliminate all measures immediately, which we think we would imprudent. We are not—but the other side of this, we’re not going to allow 40 guys with trucks at the Coutt’s border crossing to prevent us from moving forward in a prudent way to get life back to normal. So in fact, I once again call on those involved in that and other border crossing obstructions to get out of the way. They’ve made their point. They’re breaking the law. They’re creating a public safety hazard and we fully expect the police to use all of the tools at their disposal to ensure enforcement of the law, to restore public safety and order.

Mercedes Stephenson: One of your former cabinet colleagues, and a fellow Albertan, Pierre Poilievre, is running for the Conservative leadership. He came out in an interview and said, “I am proud of the truckers” and says that they are essentially doing the right thing. You’re here criticizing them. As a former federal Conservative, when you look at how the national party is handling this, are you concerned? And do you find Mr. Poilievre’s comments acceptable?

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: Well I think like many Canadians, I actually have a certain degree of sympathy with what some of the protesters are saying. I am strongly opposed to the pointless federal vaccine mandate on cross border truckers. It’s not doing any benefit for public health. It was an unnecessary provocation, further impairs our supply lines—our supply chains. But I understand the wide frustration with public health restrictions. People are right after two years to be frustrated with that. On the other hand, we can never condone law-breaking behaviour. Either we believe in the rule of law or we don’t. And you cannot apply that selectively based on the nature of a protest or where people come from on the political spectrum. So I’ll tell you, I think one of the key principles of being a Conservative, is to believe in the rule of law and law and order. And that’s why we made it very clear to the police here in Alberta. We expect full enforcement of the law. In fact, we’ve given them additional tools with the Alberta Defence of Critical Infrastructure Act which we expect them to use.

Mercedes Stephenson: Premier, does that mean that you disagree with Mr. Poilievre’s position? Do you think it’s responsible?

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: Well, I will never praise people who are there breaking the law, creating public safety hazards, and I don’t think anybody in elected office should do that.

Mercedes Stephenson: I also want to ask you about the decision to get rid of the vaccine passport. Some are raising concerns that this could deter people from getting vaccinated. And sure, people who are vaccinated can still get COVID, absolutely, but they don’t get as sick with it. Are you worried that this is going to send a message to people that vaccination isn’t necessary, that it wasn’t a public health measure and that those who might otherwise get vaccinated now don’t feel that that’s something they’re going to need to do as much because there’s not some sort of situation that makes life more difficult, which yes, has been very divisive but in some provinces has been quite effective in getting people to become vaccinated?

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: Well since we brought that program in September, we saw our first dose vaccination rate go from 78 now to 90 per cent for adults, and from 68 to 87 per cent second dose coverage amongst adults. And frankly, it’s been basically frozen for the better part of two months. So, you know, we continue to encourage people to get vaccinated, to get their third shot. That’s the best way to protect themselves and our health care system from hospitalizations. But at the end of the day, Mercedes, in this province, it looks like 10 per cent of adults have not gotten vaccinated, are very unlikely to do so and I don’t think we can live in a society where we kind of stigmatize 10 per cent of our population based on…and here’s the thing. Those vaccine—proof of vaccination programs made sense in the fall when people who were unvaccinated were at a higher risk of infection and transmission that is no longer the case because of the transmissibility of Omicron.

Mercedes Stephenson: But they still get sicker from it if they get it. Statistically, people who are unvaccinated get sicker than those who aren’t.

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: Absolutely, the vaccines are hugely protective against severe outcomes, including hospitalization and death. But the point of the vaccine proof of vaccination programs was to reduce transmission. There is no statistical difference now in the chances of transmission between vaccinated and unvaccinated people. So, there’s no longer a compelling rationale to maintain a policy of that nature, which was proven to be very divisive.

Mercedes Stephenson: Are you prepared to say that you will never bring back COVID restrictions? Is that the message here because we’ve seen them lift and come in before? It sounds like you’re being much more categoric now that this is over and no matter what Alberta is going to move forward on this path.

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: I think there is a very good reason to believe that Omicron could be the beginning of the end of COVID. The last thing I ever want to do is have to be put in a position where we have to bring in restrictions to protect the health care system. All governments in Canada, including ours, need to do everything possible to expand health care capacity, particularly in intensive care. Now having said all of that, I mean the last thing I ever want to do is to have to come back to restrictions. We don’t have a crystal ball. We can’t say with a 100 per cent certainty whether a far more severe variant might come at us in the future.

Mercedes Stephenson: One last question for you on the trucker protest. Do you think that federal and provincial governments should be sitting down with the demonstrators to talk to them?

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: Well frankly, no. I don’t think governments—elected governments should get into position where they’re held hostage by groups that are breaking the law and hurting others and violating the rights of others. I think that these folks have made their point and they can continue to make their point in lawful and peaceful ways, without disrupting the economy, the lives of others, creating public safety hazards. I think it’s long past overdue for enforcement.

Mercedes Stephenson: Premier Kenney, thank you so much for joining us today.

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next with prominent American politicians supporting the convoy protests here in Canada, what does foreign influence mean for our national security? We speak to a U.S. Homeland Security expert.

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Sean Hannity, Fox News: “People in this country, stand in solidarity with what they’re doing and for the freedom movement that they’re leading.”

Mercedes Stephenson: The convoy protests have captured the attention and support of Fox News hosts and prominent Conservative politicians, from former president Donald Trump, to Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

To understand what’s driving that support and what it all means for the future here in Canada, I’m joined by Dean Alexander. He’s director of the Homeland Security Research Program at Western Illinois University.

Thank you for joining us Dr. Alexander. Canadians are watching with great interest as this unfolds. Clearly, so too, are some American politicians and prominent media figures on the right. Why would the Americans be so interested in what’s going on in Canada and where are their political interests in so overtly supporting us?

Dean Alexander, Director Homeland Security Program: Thank you for having me. Besides Canada being a strategic political, military and economic partner, the fact that as a neighbour, they are facing similar challenges with the pandemic and you have groups within society that have concerns regarding vaccine mandates, masking, different regulations. So folks in the United States, politicians and otherwise, see the “Freedom Convoy” as an opportunity perhaps to leverage forces in the United States and Canada and elsewhere and have that antipathy against current government here in the United States as well as in Canada.

Mercedes Stephenson: You study homeland security. This is a very divisive issue, the convoy protests up here in Canada. Some say it is purely people fed up with the mandates who are trying to make their points. Others say their explicit memorandums of understanding and calls to overthrow the Canadian government. As an expert researcher, do you believe a movement like this one, these kinds of convoy protests, pose a threat to democracy, or do you think that they’re simply protests?

Dean Alexander, Director Homeland Security Program: Well I think within these protests and probably you have a variance of individuals, some are peaceful, maybe concerned about the mandates, vaccine or otherwise. You have others, instigators, extremists of various ilk’s that are trying to sew dissention and possible violence and objectively when you have protests that lead to the fact that are either violent, further violence or interfere with basic commerce infrastructure, basic society then it’s problematic and potentially has the opportunity to undermine a civil society and democracy.

Mercedes Stephenson: How should politicians deal with this?

Dean Alexander, Director Homeland Security Program: At this point, it’s a melding of different social skills, a melding of different perspectives, give and take. And again, part of the issue is with the opposing party. It’s the same thing with peace agreements. You can have peace agreements dependent on both parties. If one party’s not interested in a specific outcome then there’s a problem.

Mercedes Stephenson: Dr. Alexander, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate your expertise.

Dean Alexander, Director Homeland Security Program: Thank you very much.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. Thanks for watching. We’ll see you right back here next Sunday. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson.

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