The West Block – Episode 29, Season 11

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Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Eric Sorensen – May 15, 2022 – May 15, 2022


Episode 29, Season 11

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Host: Eric Sorensen


Sean Fraser, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship

Kevin Page, Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy

Lisa Raitt, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister

Monte Solberg, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister

Location: Ottawa, ON


Eric Sorensen: This week on The West Block: Canada steps up efforts to help Ukrainians fleeing war.

Sean Fraser, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship: “We’ve got now 25 thousand Ukrainians who have arrived since the beginning of the year.”

Eric Sorensen: The first federal chartered flights for Ukrainian refugees are announced, but thousands more wait for approval.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We continue to be absolutely committed to getting as many people out of Afghanistan as possible.”

Eric Sorensen: Afghan refugees plead for Canada’s help after threats from the Taliban. Immigration Minister Sean Fraser on efforts to bring refugees to safety.

Pierre Poilievre, Conservative Party Leader Candidate: “And the Bank of Canada governor has allowed himself to become the ATM machine of this government.”

Eric Sorensen: The Bank of Canada is in the crosshairs as inflation soars. What can the central bank do? We’re joined by former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page.


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Jean Charest, Conservative Party Leader Candidate: “He still won’t tell you his position of whether he is pro-choice or pro-life.” 

Eric Sorensen: Did the latest Conservative leadership debate shake up the race? We’ll talk to two veteran Conservatives.

It’s Sunday, May 15th, and this is The West Block.

Hello, and thanks for joining us. I’m Eric Sorensen.

More than 6 million Ukrainians have fled the country since Russia’s invasion. More than 200 thousand have applied to come to Canada. Thousands more are still waiting for visa approval.

Joining us now is Sean Fraser, the minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship.

Minister, thanks for joining us. You were in Poland and you could see what that country is dealing with, millions of Ukrainians. Does that up the pressure on this country to do better, to speed up the process here?

Sean Fraser, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship: First of all, let me say thanks for having me, and thanks to our partners in Poland for their extraordinary generosity to have been there and seen firsthand the impact of having millions of people cross the border in a very short period of time is a really eye-opening experience.

One of the things that I was very encouraged by is there is a really good awareness of the Canadian program amongst Ukrainians who’ve made their way to Poland, and we were there to open an expanded biometrics collection facility, at least in part. And to have seen the operations firsthand, gives me great faith that things are running smoothly. People are getting in and out in 10 minutes. We’re seeing that we have the capacity to process more than the demand that we’re seeing. But the message from those on the ground in Poland was one of gratitude, to say thank you Canada for stepping up to match the ambition of many European nations to take such a large number of people.

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Eric Sorensen: You know we saw a planeload this week in Newfoundland and Labrador. Can we expect to see more Ukrainians coming more quickly, because it seems a little uneven so for.

Sean Fraser, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship: Yeah, and look, thank you to Newfoundland and Labrador. They’ve sent a team over. They’ve got a plane that arrived recently. There’s going to be three chartered flights land in the next couple of weeks: May 23 in Winnipeg, May 29 in Montreal and June 2 in my home province of Nova Scotia to Halifax Stanfield International Airport. But the charter flights are only going to be one part of the story. I should point out since the beginning of the year, we now have approximately 25 thousand Ukrainians have actually arrived in Canada, but for those who want to avail themselves of an opportunity to travel to Canada, we’ve also worked with Air Canada and the Shapiro Foundation who’ve made extraordinarily generous donations that’s going to cover the cost of travel for at least 10 thousand Ukrainians who are seeking to come to Canada. The advantage to this particular strategy is that whether you happen to be in Warsaw or not, or if you’ve instead been approved to come to Canada and travelled throughout Europe elsewhere, you’re still going to have access to be able to book flights on widely available commercial airlines which travel more frequently and have more flexibility in terms of where you may be leaving from and where you may be destined to. So the combination of government finance charters alongside this incredibly generous donation, we’re working to help implement to give people flexible access to travel on commercial airlines, we’ll certainly see thousands of people arrive in the weeks and months ahead.

Eric Sorensen: Can you just help us a little bit with the numbers to get a sense of how many Ukrainians do you think will come, how many will be temporary, and just ballpark even, how many might settle here permanently?

Sean Fraser, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship: You know, it’s hard to say because there are decisions that have not yet been taken. We’ve now seen more than 100 thousand approvals. We’ve seen about 200 thousand applications, and we’ve seen 25 thousand or so, a little bit more since the beginning of the  year, have actually arrived in Canada.

One of the reasons that I say it’s a little bit difficult to predict, is when I went through a processing facility for Ukrainian refugees in Belgium during my recent visit, they had prepared for 200 thousand, and only 30 thousand have come. We’re hearing not just for people who are thinking about coming to Canada, but for people who are thinking about going to countries across Europe that people are really reticent to go too far from the western border of Ukraine because they have hope and optimism that returning home in the short term is going to be an opportunity for them. Those who have travelled further west are actually reluctant to travel too far from major transportation hubs because getting home is going to be that much more difficult. So it’s hard to predict with precision how many people who’ve been approved to come to Canada will in fact decide to come to Canada, and until we know that number, it’ll be difficult to understand how many will want to resettle permanently. We don’t want to necessarily create a special program that’s going to encourage people to stay forever that may not have a family connection because Ukraine is saying we want you to provide safe haven to our people, but we’re going to need them back for the reconstruction phase of our country when we win this war. So we’re going to continue to provide safe haven for people. They’ll be able to apply for permanent residency should they wish, but we’ll have a better sense of the numbers as the data reveals itself in real time.

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Eric Sorensen: That’s a good point about that Ukraine will want them back, because they’ll need the help of all Ukrainians when the time comes.

I want to ask you about the other major immigration operation, the one involving Afghans. Things are getting harder for people there because of the Taliban. How would you describe the level of frustration for those that are trying to come to this country because you’ve seen those that are on their computers saying I can’t reach the department? I can’t get my papers approved. It’s taking too long. And every day that goes by is a big worry for them that they’ll ever get out.

Sean Fraser, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship: Yeah, the situation in Afghanistan is absolutely heartbreaking. When you see the danger that people face and the persecution at the hands of the Taliban that is a very real fact of life for many Afghans, it is an extraordinary challenge to watch but at the same time, it gives me faith that having made one of the most substantial contributions of any nation in the world with a commitment to resettle 40 thousand Afghan refugees, demonstrates to me that we are on the right track. I’m very encouraged by the recent uptick in arrivals in Canada.

In the month of April, we’ve seen 2,500 Afghan refugees arrive in Canada. On Wednesday, we had almost 300 arrive in Canada. Today, there was a flight with more than 300 arriving as well. Disproportionately people who served alongside Canada during our mission in Afghanistan but it’s important that we put this in context, too. Our department has been contacted by more than a million people who’ve expressed interest in coming to Canada. The sad reality is that not everyone who hopes to come to Canada will be a part of the program. But we should still take comfort knowing that we’re doing as much on a per capita basis as any country in the world and with very limited exceptions, we’re doing more than just about everyone when it comes to resettling some of the world’s most vulnerable. Our commitment to resettle those who’ve made a contribution to Canada and to resettle 40 thousand Afghan refugees has not wavered. The challenge is on the ground when the Taliban, a listed terrorist entity in Canadian law has ceased control, are unlike any other mission that we’ve ever been engaged with. But despite the magnitude of the challenge, we’ll continue to work with partners in the region and on the ground to move people as quickly and safely as possible until we reach our goal of resettling at least 40 thousand Afghan refugees in Canada.

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Eric Sorensen: Well you have Afghans and Ukrainians and all of that on top of the usual heavy load for immigration in this country. Thank you for joining us today, Sean Fraser.

Sean Fraser, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship: It’s a real pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Eric Sorensen: Up next, whether it’s gas or groceries, the cost of everything is going up. The Bank of Canada is eying interest rate hikes, but is that a good idea? We’ll look at that when we come back.

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Eric Sorensen: Whether it’s filling up your tank with gas or buying groceries, the cost of living is going up. Inflation unlike anything we’ve seen in 30 years is the culprit.

When we buy a basket of goods and services for say, $100, the Bank of Canada’s inflation target of 2 per cent would see the average cost go up to $102, the following year. A little bit of inflation can be a good thing, to boost the economy, get consumers spending now, not later.

In the early 1990’s, after years of high inflation, the bank set that 2 per cent target and through ups and downs has kept pretty close to that until we started coming out of the pandemic. Prices have spiked and inflation is now up to 6.7 per cent. The question: Where is inflation headed next?

To answer that question and to get a better understanding of the role of the central bank, I’m joined by former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page. He’s the President and CEO of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa.

Well Kevin, the next monthly update on inflation comes out this week. Where do you think inflation is headed next?

Kevin Page, Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy: Yeah, I think it’s probably going to be a similar range. We saw that in the United States last week, where the number sort of stayed on a month-to-month basis and in terms of this increase in the rate of inflation at a similar rate. So, probably somewhere in that kind of 6 to 7 per cent range, which is an enormously high number.

Eric Sorensen: A lot of Canadians are really being caught by this and wonder like how did we get here? You know, what’s your explanation for that in a nutshell?

Kevin Page, Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy: Yeah, so two historic events. One in 2020, the global pandemic, and then the other more recent story is the Russia-Ukraine war, which had enormous impacts on the world economy, which created enormous supply disruptions and I think a lot of people are taken by surprise as to how strong the economy came back after the kind of COVID-related shutdowns, which really boosted demand and boosted inflationary pressure.

Eric Sorensen: Is there a prescription that you can see for how we can, if it’s going to downturn and bring us back towards that 2 per cent target? How do we do that?

Kevin Page, Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy: So, I mean policy makers, those people at the Bank of Canada, I think the minister of finance as well, she plays a role in terms of setting expectations, really try to anchor expectations that yes, this is a short-term phenomenon, so a lot of people out there collective bargaining right now. There are companies setting prices and they see input prices going up just to try to anchor prices back in a kind of 1 to 3 per cent increase in the rate of inflation, the CPI. So, is there a policy prescription? Yeah, I think normalization of fiscal and monetary policy, like reducing these large federal deficits and increases in policy rates at the Bank of Canada, which will, unfortunately, slowdown the economy somewhat but reduce demand pressure.

Eric Sorensen: Can higher interest rates work? And some people would say they need to do more of that. Others are sitting at home saying I carry a lot of debt and I do not want higher interest rates.

Kevin Page, Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy: I mean certainly central bankers around the world and certainly in Canada, know that there’s an enormous amount of household debt and corporate debt and government debt because, in part, government anyways, because of the pandemic. So they’re mindful of that, but right now, the policy rate’s sitting at 1 per cent. Going into COVID, it was roughly around 2 per cent. So, we’re dealing with inflation rates much higher than the Bank of Canada’s targets so that we should expect increases of policy rates, mortgage rates, consumer lending rates of at least 1 to 2 percentage points over the next year, year and a half.

Eric Sorensen: The Bank of Canada now is in the spotlight over this. Is this a problem for the bank to solve?

Kevin Page, Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy: Well I think it’s, again, we find ourselves in these historic times and there was enormous global instability, uncertainty. So it’s really important that monetary policy plays a key role to try to stabilize the economy at this point in time. They did it in 2008 with the global financial crisis and now they’re doing it now with these sort of two shocks: the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, so the institution in countries, the central bank responsible, the lead responsibility for targeting, for dealing with the rate of inflation to try to stabilize it.

Eric Sorensen: Yeah, the perceived frontrunner in the Conservative leadership race is Pierre Poilievre. He would fire the Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem and replace him with somebody. I guess that he feels would return to lower inflation as a mandate. I don’t want to drag you into a political conversation, but can domestic politics undermine confidence in the bank?

Kevin Page, Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy: Yeah, I think it’s important that we have strong institutions and I think that we’ve gotten used to over the past three decades that having an independent central bank that is independent and is making decisions on these policy interest rates that is divorced from the political environment. I think we want to maintain that. So I think it would be quite a shockwave, a global financial shockwave to have a government literally remove a central banker whose by all intents, seems to be doing a fine job. But he’s doing a very difficult job.

Eric Sorensen: How is the Central Bank of Canada regarded internationally?

Kevin Page, Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy: Yes, I think it’s a strong institution. People like me that read those monetary policy reports see it as a very transparent document. It’s certainly staffed with great professionals. Mr. Macklem is a highly regarded central banker and he comes on the heels of other highly regarded central bankers in Canada, including Stephen Poloz, including Mr. Carney, including David Dodge and many others. So, it’s a strong institution. I think it’s a very simplification to assume that if we just change the leader that somehow this sort of global environment, and inflation truly is a global issue, it just somehow disappears.

Eric Sorensen: Well, and for that matter, can the bank, or the Canadian government on their own, bring inflation down in this country?

Kevin Page, Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy: No. No. The nature of these shocks, again, I’m sure Mr. Poilievre and others, if they just like pick up the latest version of The Economist Magazine and they flip through the back pages, they will see that. And they look at these economic indicators: inflation rising well above 8 per cent in the United States, on average, above 7 per cent increase in Europe. So Canada is actually, we’re sitting on the low end of that sort of distribution. There are a few other countries to have lower inflation rates. This is a global phenomenon. A lot of it is supply related and it’s because of those very strong supports that went in 2020 to help during the lockdown, I think the economy’s come back really fast. Eventually, markets will adjust. These policy rates we’re going to adjust to, they’re going to go up. It’ll slow the economy a little bit. So yeah, I think over the next couple of years, we could see inflation back maybe in the 3 per cent range.

Eric Sorensen: That’s really helpful. Thanks for coming in.

Kevin Page, Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy: Good to be with you.

Eric Sorensen: Alright.

Up next, did last week’s Conservative leadership debate shake up the race? We’ll ask two former Conservative cabinet ministers to weigh in.

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Eric Sorensen: The Conservative Party’s English language debate took on a unique format with rapid answers and personal interests, but the six leadership contenders still threw some punches.

Joining us now, former Conservative Cabinet Ministers: Lisa Raitt and Monte Solberg. Well the format debate was debated well enough, but on the substance, Lisa, what do you come away with from that debate? Were there winners moving ahead in terms of gathering up votes on that first, second, third ballot?

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Lisa Raitt, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister: I think definitely some minds were made up, but I also think that there is a lot of non-Conservative membership holders out there and I think they were watching to see what kind of an alternative that the Conservatives were thinking of putting forward to go up against the Liberal government, because I have had a number of people ask me about who I thought did well and what did I think of it. The fact that they stuck with the debate for as long as they did, I think is a testament to the fact that it was a bit of welcoming for non-Conservatives in a way because you got to know the candidates as well as getting to know their positions on policies. So no clear winner for me, except for the fact that you got to know the individuals a little bit more and I thought I like those questions.

Eric Sorensen: Monte, it’s the only English debate. Do you see momentum for anyone coming out of it?

Monte Solberg, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister: Well I thought some of the sort of secondary candidates, if I can call them that, had a chance to introduce themselves their first time on a national stage to really lay out who they are and what they believe in. They probably gained the most from the discussion. Jean Charest had an opportunity to sort of reintroduce himself to Canadians. Of course, he’s been around for a long time and I thought he did quite a good job. Pierre Poilievre certainly made himself clear on a few issues and had a chance to layout his primary concerns around the economy and those kinds of things. An unfortunate, I would say, strategy error in not leaving himself enough time to respond or enough opportunities to respond in the last almost half hour of the debate, which was unfortunate because it really got on some of the issues he cares about the most.

Eric Sorensen: Well let me get onto one of those. Our previous guest, Kevin Page spoke to the importance of preserving the independence of the Bank of Canada. Pierre Poilievre says he would fire the governor, Tiff Macklem. Does that help him win the leadership, Lisa?

Lisa Raitt, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister: I don’t think so. I know that when Doug Ford ran for premier in 2018, they made a lot of noise around the fact that the CEO of the OPG was making $6 million a year and how atrocious it was because people were paying high prices in electricity. That was the contrast and it was successful. I don’t think going after the governor of the Bank of Canada is going to be extremely successful either outside or inside of our party. And my proof point is I have lots of mid-20’s, early 30’s folks, who are interested in our fiscal party because they’re not happy with what’s happening in the government, and then they stop short and say, “But this Bank of Canada thing, you know, I don’t get it” and that’s unfortunate.

Eric Sorensen: Monte, you came in with the Reform Party on a high in 1993, but it took 12 to 13 years for Conservatives to take back government from the Liberals. Could the party be defining itself too narrowly for the next election, again?

Monte Solberg, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister: Well I think the opportunity here is for my people why they want to fire Justin Trudeau. He’s the one that I think most Canadians are concerned about. My concern is that Pierre is in the strong position. He’s probably leading overall, but he needs to be concerned about second place votes or second choice votes. I don’t think he won any second choice votes by promising to fire somebody that not one in a 100 people could pick out in a line up. So, I think it’s a bit misplaced. The other danger for Pierre is some people have said he’s showing that he’s too risky. As a young guy, he carries the burden of proving that he’s not going to be imprudent and not do rash things. This doesn’t help him.

Eric Sorensen: Lisa, Monte talked a little about Jean Charest reintroducing himself. Is this Progressive Conservatism that we’re more familiar with from a previous generation; is that out of step with today’s conservatism?

Lisa Raitt, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister: Well you know what’s never out of step? Leadership. And I think when you can annunciate why you’re seeking the leadership and why you want to come back to help Canada and why Canada’s so important, that that transcends whatever flavour of politics you to ascribe to a person’s time in a certain office. And I thought he did that very well. He made the point both off the top and then in his close, which I thought was exceptionally strong as to why he is running, what it means, what the stakes are for Canadians and why he should be the leader.

Eric Sorensen: Can I just ask you to take a moment, though, to talk about something else? We saw Jagmeet Singh in the last week, was accosted by protesters. It was vulgar. Does this trend of in your face with public figures worry you, Lisa?

Lisa Raitt, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister: Always. I mean, nobody wants to see anybody to be accosted and it’s horrifying and it does happen in all parties and it happens in various periods of time. But I think what’s being tapped into now is just this great anger there is against the current government in place, and now the NDP because of the fact that they are supporting this government until 2025, and that’s manifesting itself. I have not seen this level of anger towards a party in my political life. I will be truthful about that. Even when everybody was mad at my government, the Stephen Harper government, it didn’t go to this level. And as a result, we do have to take a look at what’s caused it, why is it happening, and quite frankly, how are we going to protect our political leaders?

Eric Sorensen: Monte last thought to you.

Monte Solberg, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister: Well you know I’ve seen this before. Preston Manning experienced a lot of hate and vitriol going onto university campuses back in the day. But this is really bad, I agree. And I think part of the responsibility of anybody aspiring to leadership these days, is to make sure to be responsible with their rhetoric and not show any kind of encouragement to that kind of level of animus. We should see our opponents as opponents, not enemies. And I think that should be made clear from the bully pulpit that political leaders have.

Eric Sorensen Alright, that’s a good final thought. Monte Solberg, thank you, and Lisa, thank you.

That’s our show for today. Thanks for watching. We hope to see you back here next Sunday. For The West Block, I’m Eric Sorensen.


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