The West Block – Episode 17, Season 11

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Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mercedes Stephenson – Feb 20, 2022 – Feb 20, 2022


Episode 17, Season 11

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister

David Frum, The Atlantic

Location: Ottawa, ON


Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Clashes in the capital. Police move in on protesters who paralyzed the city for more than three weeks.

Ottawa Police Interim Chief Steve Ball: “We will run this operation 24 hours a day until the residents and community have their entire city back.” 

Mercedes Stephenson: As the blockades come to an end, MPs debate the government’s controversial decision to invoke the Emergencies Act for the very first time.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms continues to protect their individual rights. We’re not using the Emergencies Act to call in the military.”

Mercedes Stephenson: We’ll speak with Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair about the government’s use of emergency powers.

Tucker Carlson, Fox News: “Justin declared martial law. He’s given himself the power to end the freedom of assembly.”

Mercedes Stephenson: From Tucker Carlson and Fox News, to the New York Times, the American media has been focused on the blockades and Canadian politics like never before.

We’ll talk to The Atlantic’s David Frum about division here in Canada and the American influence.

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It’s Sunday, February 20th, and this is The West Block.

Thanks for joining us. I’m Mercedes Stephenson.

It’s been an unprecedented week in Ottawa, and I spent a lot of it out of the studio and on the frontlines between protesters and police to see what was going on.

Unidentified Law Enforcement Officer: “You must leave the area immediately.”

Mercedes Stephenson: A police presence that started slow and soft with officers on the front line who did not have shields or helmets.

Protester: “Good keep our land, the True North, Strong and Free.” 

Mercedes Stephenson: By Saturday afternoon, it escalated to the use of the mounted unit.

On Saturday, a distinct change in the level of confrontation between protesters and the police. Officers in full riot gear with batons move on protesters faster and more aggressively. RCMP tactical team’s visible just steps behind the riot police, clearing trucks as the line advanced. Some protesters tried to argue and plead with police. Others fell on their knees hoping to stop the advance to no avail.

[Loud banging noise within the crowd of protesters]
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Loud bangs and pepper spray were deployed by the police, but there was no gas used and thankfully, no one was shot or seriously injured amongst the protesters or the police despite misinformation reported in American media.

While the blockades have now been dispersed, the division remains over COVID restrictions as well as the controversial decision to use emergency powers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The federal government has invoked the Emergencies Act.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Something the Liberal government argues was necessary, but some opposition parties say is overreach.

Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister: “This is about following the money.”

Michael Barrett, Conservative MP: “If you have political views that he disagrees with, they’re coming for your bank account.”

Candice Bergen, Interim Conservative Leader: “Unfortunately, the Prime Minister has a track record of serious disregard for the law and that raises a lot of red flags.”

Mercedes Stephenson: MPs have been debating the Emergencies Act overnight and the political fallout over this continues as well as questions about what comes next with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney vowing to challenge the Emergencies Act enactment in court.

Joining us now to talk this is the minister in charge of emergency preparedness Bill Blair. Thank you so much for joining us, minister. How are you?

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Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: I’m very well, thank you. Good morning, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: We spoke to you last week about where we were at. It’s a very different scene behind me on Wellington today. I can see a lot of police vehicles but no trucks. What’s your read on what the current situation is in Canada in terms of the blockades, not just their physical location but the movement that has become a part of this?

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: Well Mercedes, as we discussed last week, we were prepared to do what was necessary to restore order and restore the rule of law, and to deal with a very real threat we were facing not only in the streets of Ottawa but at our critical infrastructure and particularly our border points. And so on Monday, we announced that we were actually putting those measures in place. I think we have seen, you know, the efficacy of those measures. The law enforcement, in a very proportional and measured and careful way, has used the tools that they needed and that we provided, to begin to bring order to this and I think they made very significant progress, but unfortunately the job is not yet done. We’ve said from the outset that we would only bring in measures that were required only for as long as they were required and we would ensure that they were proportional and Charter compliant. We remain absolutely committed to that and we’re tracking—I spoke—I had a briefing with the law enforcement this morning as to the progress they’re making on restoring peace in this country and using the tools. They’ve made it very clear, first of all, that the tools we provided have been absolutely essential to the progress that they’ve been able to make, that they have used them effectively and as carefully as we had wanted them to use them. And at the same time, they’ve said the job is not yet done. And so we are anxious that as soon as the job is completed, we will end these measures but—and they will only be in place as long as they’re required, and we’re tracking that really carefully.

Mercedes Stephenson: When law enforcement says the job is not done, what is it that they still need to do that they require the Emergencies Act in order to be able to carry out?

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: There are still, unfortunately, and we saw evidence of it yesterday in British Columbia at the Pacific Highway border crossing but even in Ontario, where there are still a number of other convoys, people coming with trucks. We still need the tools to deal effectively with that. And even in the City of Ottawa, although the police have made, I think, some extraordinary progress, there is still a lot of people still in town, still intent on the type of disruption and criminality that we have seen over the past three weeks, and so the police are still in—doing the important job of clearing that up and so that work is not yet complete. As well, a number of the financial instruments that were made available to—are FINTRAC and others, in order to get—you know, bring greater transparency to the way in which this is being funded, in the way in which the money was being used to facilitate and support criminal activity. That work is still ongoing but will only be necessary until the threat is gone. Now I’m very concerned about the activity we saw and again, at our borders, and some of the, you know, clear evidence and intelligence that, you know, the threat still exists and we have to make sure that our officials have the tools they need to keep our country secure and our community safe.

Mercedes Stephenson: This threat could go on for weeks or months, though. How long are you prepared to keep the Emergencies Act in place, because we could be seeing these convoys for a very long time and there’s concern that this could be an excuse for government overreach, looking into peoples’ bank accounts. A very emergent situation perhaps at the border or in Ottawa, people might be able to understand, but the ongoing use of the Emergencies Act is a really significant decision.

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: Yeah, those measures, of course, have only been in place for a few days and have been used very effectively by law enforcement, both in the streets of Ottawa and our border points. The availability of tow trucks to move those vehicles was part of the measures that we brought in, for example. And, you know, the authorities that are provided in designated insurgence spaces has been very, very helpful as the police have told us. It really has been essential in the work that they needed to do to clear the streets of Ottawa and to restore peace, but Mercedes let me be very clear. We understand the magnitude and significance of the measures that we brought in place. They are only going to be in place as long as they are required. We all look quite anxiously, forward to the time when order can be restored but also so that the police can then go back to relying on the existing authorities that exist: the municipal bylaws, and the Highway Traffic Act, and the Criminal Code.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the opposition, some premiers say it’s not true that you needed these measures, that there were laws on the books that would have enabled the police and law enforcement to deal with this without this precedent. And it’s not so much they’re concerned about it being used in downtown Ottawa, they’re concerned that now the precedent has been set and as we’re talking this morning, we still don’t know what the criteria are for when this could be lifted and in the meantime, the government essentially has free reign. And you’re saying we’ll be transparent and use it carefully, but you can understand the concerns of citizens that governments reassuring them is not always much reassurance.

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: And, you know, I understand that, Mercedes. That’s why this process, at all times, has been subject to parliamentary debate. A parliamentary committee is being struck in order to provide parliamentary oversight. It’s also subject to review within our courts. And, you know, I’m not going to comment on any matter before the court, but it’s quite right that those processes exist. There’s a great deal of accountability built in to the, I think, very carefully crafted legislation that gave us the Emergency Act, to allow the government to respond to an emergency in a very time limited and Charter compliant way. And so we’re absolutely committed to that and I believe there’s a great deal of transparency. There’s a debate going on in the House of Commons. Canadians can watch that debate and that scrutiny, that oversight, that accountability is built right into this process, and those measures can only and should only, be in place as long as they are required.

Mercedes Stephenson: I think there are a lot of questions for people out there about what exactly it’s going to mean, still and we haven’t gotten a lot of transparency on that. For example, people who donated to the GoFundMe or the GiveSendGo, are they going to be subject to potential legal action as a result of the Emergencies Act? Not just the organizers, but people at home who donated, or people who came down to the protest. I spoke to some of them. Certainly some people wanted to see the government completely deposed. There’s other people I spoke to who are retired teachers and said look, we’re just really sick of COVID measures. They’re now wondering if they could be subject to a criminal investigation.

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: Mercedes, no one, quite frankly, cares. And it’s not a matter for the criminal law that people made a donation to a cause. However, we know that, you know, in many respects, the funding for what has transpired and the criminality that has transpired in this country, was opaque and unfortunately our officials did not have the tools they needed to bring that under scrutiny and to take action against those who were responsible, and using this money, to support those criminal acts. There is—I want to assure those people who donations, and although somebody quite inappropriately hacked that and made that information public, that’s of no interest whatsoever to our law enforcement officials, you know, what people choose to donate to, it’s how the money was being used. And the people who were organizing and supporting these criminal measures, you know, that required scrutiny and our law enforcement officials are doing their job now, now that they have the tools to do it. But we’re not concerned about, you know, who made a donation to what. That’s not a matter for the police and it’s not a concern to us.

Mercedes Stephenson: We just have about 30 seconds left, but obviously, and this is a much bigger question. But moving forward, how do you reach out to the disaffected Canadians who were not a criminal element but were a part of this protest? How do you heal the divisions that this has exposed in our country, because your government has been very categoric in how you’ve talked about people who supported the protest and people think that’s made it worse?

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: Let me be clear, Mercedes. You know, although I disagree with people who intended, for example, to over—dispose a democratically elected government and impose some other force of their own rule, I disagree with that and, you know, I believe very strongly in, you know, the efficacy and the importance of vaccines. And so many Canadians have responded, you know, exactly right and they’ve protected themselves and their communities.

Mercedes Stephenson: But how will you move forward with that?

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: Well and I think all of us, all governments and all Canadians, we have a responsibility to, you know, I think there are people clearly disaffected and, you know, they need to be heard. They have been heard. But they also have to understand, you know, the limits of freedom of expression and opinion and assembly that it can’t be used to infringe on the rights and freedoms of everyone else. And as well, I think we need to also have, you know, a lot of clear thinking about, you know, is it right to harm others, innocent people, innocent Canadians, to idle workers and to have—to cause such damage to the economy? That type of targeted attacks on the country are wrong, too, and at the same time, Mercedes, I think we do have—we’ve all got a lot of work to do. All of us as Canadians have a lot of work to do…

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. Minister Blair…

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: To bring people together.

Mercedes Stephenson: Unfortunately that’s all the time we have, but certainly, I think everyone agrees Canadians need to come together. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Bill Blair, Emergency Preparedness Minister: Thank you very much, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next: The Atlantic’s David Frum weighs-in on the trucker blockades and Conservative American politics.

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Mercedes Stephenson: For more than three weeks now, the coverage of the trucker blockades has dominated media coverage here at home but also in the United States. The protesters have been supported by Republican politicians and conservative media outlets there.

To better understand the U.S. interest in the blockades and the implications for Canadian politics, I’m joined by author and staff writer with The Atlantic, David Frum.

Nice to see you, David. Thank you for joining us today. I think I’d like to start by just asking you your read on what’s happening here in Canada. What do you think these blockades are about?

David Frum, The Atlantic: I think the blockades, at their broadest, are driven by a feeling that a lot of people would have sympathy for, which is that restrictions have gone on for a long time and they haven’t had a clear storyline. It wasn’t that you paid—you enjoyed solidarity. You did your bit. You did your part. You masked, you isolated and then things got better. There’s been a back and forth that a lot of people find difficult to understand. And especially with this latest variant, the Omicron which is so pervasive, but for most people not that dangerous, I think many people in both Canada and the United States have a feeling that governments’ overreacted at a time when people are at the end of their patience. And so that’s why you see surveys that say things like a third of Canadians have broad sympathy with what the protesters were demanding. That sympathy fell away when you asked questions about their methods, but broadly, are you fed up? And a lot of Canadians are fed up.

Mercedes Stephenson: Some have talked about this as possibly being part of a culture war, when you see it being adopted by the Republicans in the U.S. What’s your take on where COVID fits with that whole culture war narrative?

David Frum, The Atlantic: Well very much—that’s very much why this story in Canada has gotten so much attention in the United States. Canadians often complain that Americans don’t—at least the American media—doesn’t give a lot of attention to Canadian news. Well be careful what you wish for because you got the attention.

I think one reason there was some attention in the United States was that many COVID restrictions are now being taken down in the United States. So the City of New York has stopped required indoor masking. Businesses can have indoor masks if they want, of course, but there’s no longer any city-wide requirement to indoor masking. Here in the District of Columbia which had very restrictive rules, first of March, again, the indoor masking—it’s no longer required. Businesses can do it if they want.

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So, if you are someone, a television network, a politician who scored culture war points off COVID restrictions, they’re taking away your food. They’re taking away the thing you fundraised from. So there is Canada and it creates the opportunity to do the culture war that American cities and states are no longer providing. And especially when you’re at a little bit of a distance, you can believe things about Canada that Canadians themselves would never believe. And so you can believe that Canada is a tyrannical society and that there are—and people are being held in concentration camps or internment camps, where the police are deliberately and recklessly trampling protesters under the hooves of their horses. That’s hard to believe if you live in Canada, but outside Canada things get more credible.

Mercedes Stephenson: When you see the American politicos on the Republican side grabbing on to this, and some of the American media coverage as well, do you think that that Americanization is going to translate up here actually into Canadian politics? I think that’s a big question a lot of Canadians have right now is if this is going to be a continued Americanization on our part of what we’ve seen in the United States, now seeping into Canada.

David Frum, The Atlantic: Well I think at the age of social media, there is a globalization of memes. The example I site a lot is it became, in 2020, a big progressive cause in the United States, to demand a $15 an hour minimum wage. As that demand was felt through the Democratic Party, people in the Labour Party in Britain, began demanding a £15 an hour minimum wage. Now the pound has a lot more purchasing power than the dollar. It’s not an equivalent. Why would you think that one is a good—and it doesn’t logically follow—but the symbolism of 15? They saw it on their Facebook and they said, right. We need a 15 cause over here in the United Kingdom. So there does tend to be a tendency in the social media age, for icons, memes, symbols, slogans, to move across borders, back and forth. That’s probably inevitable. But what I think is different about Canada; Canada is a very different society in a lot of ways from the United States. It is a much stronger and healthier middle-class. It is much higher confidence in government. It has a much less divisive racial history. And the result of all that is that some of the things that make these American polarization events work, are—those preconditions are not as present in the same way in Canada, and so it’s harder to do that kind of politics and it’s less successful when politicians try to do it.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well we’ve seen some Conservative politicians, for example, Pierre Poilievre, who’s running to be the leader of the Conservative Party, adopting a very pro-convoy position. Do you think that this is going to be a direction that Conservatives are going to go in Canada? And if they choose to do that, what do you think will happen to the party? Are they more likely to get elected because there are a lot of people who are angry with COVID restrictions, or is that potentially a path that has political jeopardy for them?

David Frum, The Atlantic: Well Doug Ford, the premier of Ontario, who has an election a lot closer than the federal government, has taken a very different view. He supported the Emergencies Act. He acted decisively to reopen the Ambassador Bridge, and he’s got—his election is what, a 100 days from now? The federal election is much farther off, so I think in federal conservative politics, a lot of this is—well first, it’s authentic feelings of frustration. The restrictions don’t land equally on everybody and if you are someone who owns a small business, if you are someone who’s in a very public facing way, you feel these restrictions more than you do if you work in an office, or you have a salaried or professional position. And that first kind of person is much more likely to be inside the Conservative Party than the second kind of person who’s much more likely to be in one of the other parties. So it is natural that there is—that this issue resonates more powerfully inside the Conservative Party, but by the time you get the next federal election, COVID is not going to be the issue and there are going to be a lot of other issues, including, I think, one of the most enduring legacies of the pandemic, which is going to be governments everywhere pumped a lot of money into their economies to deal with it—with COVID and that huge infusion of purchasing power is leading to inflation and that’s going to be a very important issue in the next couple of cycles.

Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve spoken a lot about Donald Trump. You’ve spoken a lot about what happened on January 6th. There are some Canadians who were watching this happen and saying it’s going to be Canada’s January 6th. Of course, we did not see violence like we did at the U.S. Capitol. We did not see, you know, hoards trying to make their way up to Parliament Hill, or break in to the Prime Minister’s Office, but there were individuals inside this group, including leaders, who’d said that they don’t think Justin Trudeau is the legitimate Prime Minister of Canada and their answer to that was that he should be deposed and replaced with a citizens committee. They later tried to back away from that, but that was the initial position. So, do you think that this is overblowing it to say that there are parallels to January 6th in the Trump movement in the United States, or do you think that there is a hard edge underlying this that is moving in that direction?

David Frum, The Atlantic: I would think—look, the problems that Canada faces with these radical groups are serious enough that you don’t need to make them more serious than they are, and you don’t need to envy the United States having even worse problems than Canada. The protest movements in Canada were much less violent than their American counterparts and that’s something that Canadians should feel relief about and should feel some pride about. The peaceable kingdom remains the peaceable kingdom still. They didn’t come with arms, as far as I know. They certainly didn’t come with firearms. It doesn’t look like it except for that one terrible case in Alberta. Nobody on the law enforcement side, so far, as far as I’m aware, has been hurt, which is tremendously welcome. And I don’t think any of the protesters were seriously hurt either, which is also welcome. So, there was a culture of restraint on all sides of these confrontations, which is a great Canadian strength. And so you can be worried about the ideology of radicalism, but you should take relief from the fact that the ideology did not express itself in the horrifying violence of January 6th in its attack on sacred symbols.

The truck protest, when they attacked the Ambassador Bridge, they were attacking peoples’ livelihoods but they weren’t attacking a symbol of democracy in the same way that an attack on Congress is an attack on a symbol of democracy.

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Mercedes Stephenson: We just have a few moments left, but your thoughts on the Trudeau government’s handling of this and the invoking of the Emergencies Act.

David Frum, The Atlantic: Well I think it is very strange to hear it presented as if the Trudeau government did something draconian, when in fact, a lot of the troubles came about because of dither and weakness. And Canadians need to do an investigation of where the dither and weakness was. Let’s hope that what comes out of this is a new Canadian agreement that blockades are not an acceptable means of protest. Not against pipelines, not against railways, not against highways and not against bridges, not against downtowns. And it doesn’t matter what the cause is. Whatever cause you have, everyone has causes—do not use these methods. When you are blocking peoples’ physical access, you are not protesting. You are obstructing. And that should be illegal. It is illegal in most cases, and those laws should be enforced whoever the protesters are.

Mercedes Stephenson: Mr. Frum, thank you for your insight and your analysis. We look forward to speaking to you again soon.

David Frum, The Atlantic: Thank you.

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

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Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. Thanks so much for watching. Please stay tuned to Global News and for all the latest developments unfolding in the nation’s capital. I’ll see you back here next Sunday. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson.

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