THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 31, Season 11
Sunday, May 29, 2022
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General
David Frum, The Atlantic
Robert Benzie, The Toronto Star
Sabrina Nanji, The Queen’s Park Observer
Location: Ottawa, ON
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: A horrific school shooting in Texas. 19 children and two teachers murdered by an 18-year-old gunman. A decade after Sandy Hook, why is nothing changing in America?
Beto O’Rourke, Democratic Candidate for Texas Governor: “And this doesn’t happen anywhere else on the planet. If we keep doing the same thing, we’re going to get the same result.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Commentator David Frum joins us on the politics of gun control south of the border.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Canadians are remarkably united in wanting to see less gun violence.”
Mercedes Stephenson: The prime minister says new gun control legislation is coming soon here in Canada. What are the Liberals planning? And will it mean tougher sentencing on gun crime?
We’ll ask Justice Minister David Lametti.
And one last pitch to Ontario voters. Is Doug Ford in for another majority?
Doug Ford, Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader: “We’re going to focus on our plan to get the province moving.”
Mercedes Stephenson: We check in with our Ontario election panel as voters head to the polls on June 2nd.
It’s Sunday, May 29th, and this is The West Block.
Hello and thank you for joining us today. I’m Mercedes Stephenson.
The precious faces of 19 little children killed in cold blood in yet another school shooting are etched into all of our minds today, the agony of the parents, and the questions about why the unthinkable continues to happen over and over again in America.
Here in Canada, we have significantly stronger gun control laws but it has not always insulated us from gun crime.
The federal government has pledged to do more about gun control, but there have been questions about the effectiveness of the proposed measures and whether enough is being done to hold those who commit crimes with a firearm, accountable.
Joining me now is Justice Minister David Lametti. Thank you so much for joining us today, Minister Lametti. It’s nice to see you, obviously, tragic circumstances that we’re talking in, though.
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Yeah. You know—look, I grew up near Buffalo and so that was a tragic set of events, and then what we saw in Texas, again, your heart goes out to the people who are suffering those tragedies and certainly we’re there in solidarity as the people of Canada.
Mercedes Stephenson: And it’s obviously apples and oranges between Canadian and American gun law. Very different up here. Far harder to get a firearm. Your government has made additional changes to make that more challenging. You’re talking about bringing in more. I won’t get into the public safety angle as much with you, because I know that’s your colleague Minister Mendicino’s job. But I do know one thing that Toronto police are asking for, and other police forces, have been tougher bail conditions for people who are charged with a firearms offence. Is that something that your government is looking at?
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Well, we did major bill reform. It was started by my predecessor, Jody Wilson-Raybould, and then I finished when I got named minister under Bill C-75. So there were a number of different bill reforms brought in there and we’re still following those as they work through the system. Certainly, we’re always open. I’m always open as a minister of justice with the responsibility for the criminal code, to look at ways of making the system better. So I’m certainly open. But as I said, we’re still watching how that reform on Bill C-75 is working itself through.
Mercedes Stephenson: Another question that has come up is whether there should be longer, tougher sentences for gun-related crimes. And I know that your government disagrees with mandatory minimums. You’re removing that because you said that is disproportionately affecting Black and Indigenous Canadians, but what about tougher, longer sentences for people who are involved and convicted of crimes involving a gun, and in particular, trafficking guns in from the United States, which is one of the biggest sources of illegal gun crime—pardon me—illegal guns. Obviously the crime’s illegal, here in Canada.
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Well look, that’s certainly an option. We’re talking about two different things here. Minimum mandatory penalties are, you know, they’re at the end of the scale where there isn’t often a public safety issue at play.
Maximum penalties, serious crimes, they get punished seriously. In the previous Parliament, in addition to the C-22, which was then the minimum mandatory legislation, we had C-21, which did increase a certain number of maximum penalties for these kinds of gun-related offences and certainly that option is still on the table moving forward.
Mercedes Stephenson: Is that something you’re looking at imminently? Because I know your government is planning to potentially bring in legislation as soon as tomorrow. Are these items among that legislation?
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Look, I can’t obviously pre-empt what my colleague, Minister Mendicino is going to table. There is a notice on the Order Paper and so that’s all I can say to that. But certainly, because it was in a bill in the last Parliament, which died on the Order Paper, I think it’s fair to say that these kinds of things were discussed again.
Mercedes Stephenson: The majority of gun crime in Canada involves handguns. Your government has talked about allowing municipalities to ban them. Why not do that as a federal government and put it into the criminal code? Why leave that on mayors? It seems like we have trouble stopping the guns coming in from the U.S. How would we stop them from moving between cities?
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Well look, we certainly have taken measures at the borders. We certainly have taken measures against trafficking as well as against gangs and gang violence in the course of our administration. And Minister Mendicino has led a number of talks. You’ve alluded to the promise that we made in the last electoral campaign to work with municipalities as an option. Again, I’m not going to pre-empt what Minister Mendicino has as a matter of cabinet confidence, but I think it’s fair to say that this is on the top of the prime minister’s agenda. It’s on the top of Minister Mendicino’s agenda and it’s a very serious commitment that we made to Canadians.
Mercedes Stephenson: You are a Member of Parliament from Quebec. There are two very controversial bills there. Of course, the bill banning people wearing religious symbols in the public service and then Bill 96 as well, which would affect people who are unilingual Anglophones or speak another language. A lot of people are saying this will disproportionately target refugees and immigrants who come to Canada with limited English and no French. They only have six months to learn it before they’re banned from having access to public services in another language. Your government has said that you stand up against things that discriminatory and yet it seems like you’re so reluctant to challenge these laws from Quebec in court. Why is that?
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Well first of all, I announced last week that when the Bill 21 case, if and when the Bill 21 case gets to the Supreme Court of Canada, we will be there making arguments. And I’ve outlined our discomfort and the prime minister has as well with the pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause. The notwithstanding clause, many of us remember the debates of when it was implemented with the constitutional change in the early 1980s. The notwithstanding clause was meant to be the last word in a dialogue between the legislature and the courts. It wasn’t meant to be the first word. And when it is the first word, it precludes not just political debate, but it also precludes judicial review of the substance of it and it effectively eviscerates, guts the structure of the Charter.
With respect to Bill 96, I have to emphasize that as a federal government in the constitutional structure that we have, I have to act within areas of federal jurisdiction. And I’ve said from the beginning with respect to Bill 96 that we would be vigilant in the protecting the rights of Canadians that are under federal jurisdiction or were in the Constitution or in the Charter and we’ll continue to do that. Obviously, there’s a challenge with Bill 96 in the sense that the whole thing is wrapped around the notwithstanding clause again. And again, we share that same concern about the pre-emptive use of that clause. But certainly, I’m watching carefully with respect to the implementation of that act, how it affects the constitutional rights—linguistic rights of Quebecers in the courts, for example, search and seizure rights, rights of Indigenous peoples—inherent rights of Indigenous peoples and language rights of Indigenous people. So those all fall within federal jurisdiction and I’m waiting to see how the law is actually implemented in order to see if there is Charter or Constitutional violations there.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Lametti, thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate your time.
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, there are gun control bills before U.S. lawmakers. But even in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting, there is political gridlock.
We’ll speak with political commentator, David Frum about the American politics around the gun debate, next.
Mercedes Stephenson: U.S. President Joe Biden is meeting with the families of the school shooting victims in Uvalde, Texas today. There have been 27 school shootings so far this year alone in America.
In Biden’s address last week, the president lamented the failure of Congress to pass what he calls common sense gun laws.
U.S. President Joe Biden: “Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God’s name is our backbone to have the courage to deal with it and stand up to the lobbies?”
Mercedes Stephenson: To better understand the political climate on this issue, I’m joined by Atlantic staff writer and commentator, David Frum. Thank you so much for joining us today, Mr. Frum.
David Frum, The Atlantic: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: I think that why question is the one that so many Canadians feel to the core of their being. Why is this the situation in America?
David Frum, The Atlantic: If you put the question to a national referendum vote: Do you want to ban the AR-15 rifle? Yes or no? You’d have, according to most polls, about 52 per cent would say yes, but 42 per cent would say no. This is a 50/40 question. American public opinion is pretty strongly in favour of some measure of control. So it’s not a question about American culture or American attitudes. It’s a question about the American political system. Why do the 40 win? Why do the 50 lose?
Mercedes Stephenson: And why do the 40 win and the 50 lose?
David Frum, The Atlantic: Well the American political system is not representative. And it’s not representative in any random way. It favours certain kinds of views over others. It’s tilted toward rural areas. It’s tilted toward wealthier areas. It’s tilted toward the smaller states and it’s tilted to the more rural parts of those smaller states. It’s also hugely influenced by courts that are moving farther and farther away from public opinion.
Sometime in June, the Supreme Court will hand down a decision in a lawsuit against the State of New York. In the State of New York, it is not legal to carry a gun on your person as you walk around on the street. Some people brought a lawsuit challenging that and it looks like they are going to win, that the Supreme Court will say in every state in the country there’s a constitutional right to carry a gun on your person. So that’s not about where public opinion is. That’s where about institutions are. So the question you have to ask is: Why did the institutions fail not what’s wrong with Americans as people.
Mercedes Stephenson: And do you think that this is the point where institutions change? Is this the watershed moment? Others say look, Sandy Hook happened. That didn’t change anything, neither will this. Some people think maybe this is the one that makes the difference. What are your thoughts?
David Frum, The Atlantic: Well I have a bitter truth on that, which is people say nothing changed after Sandy Hook, but actually a lot changed. Things got worse. Many states passed laws to make it easier to carry more guns into more places, to make it easier to carry guns in public. So Sandy Hook, what happens after these massacres, these massacres are very good for the gun business? The minority that want more and more guns, about 3 per cent of Americans by the way, own half the guns in the country, an average of 17 guns per person among that 3 per cent. So that group, any time there’s a massacre, thinks oh my God, I might be unable to get my 18th gun. And so they rush out and buy more guns. So the massacres are good for business. And states respond to the massacres by tilt—that’s what happened after Sandy Hook—by tilting the law more and more in favour of that 3 per cent who own an average of 17 guns each. But if things can change for the worse, they can change for the better. And I think there—I’m not going to make any prediction about whether this is the massacre that will do it, or whether it’s the next one, or the one after that, but I do firmly believe that eventually the forces of decency and kindness in American life are going to overcome the forces of grief and blood.
Mercedes Stephenson: Is there some sort of limited gun control that you think has a chance of making it through Congress? Is there any sort of middle ground that the Republicans and the Democrats can move towards? Or is this such a polarizing issue that the Republicans will vote against anything that changes gun control and increases it?
David Frum, The Atlantic: Well there are measures that could be done at the state level. And one of the things that the states could do, for example, is restrict and rollback the laws that have been passed since Sandy Hook. I’m sure people have seen these images of men carrying rifles into the Tastee Freeze while they buy a frozen treat. You don’t have to put up with that. You don’t have to have concealed carry everywhere. So there are lot of these micro changes that can happen and that can be done by the state level. And I think eventually, it’s only a matter of time before Congress acts, too. It’s also possible that this most recent terrible event may have some impact on the domestic politics of the state of Texas.
Mercedes Stephenson: And of course, we saw Beto show up and he was very upset. He had to leave the press conference. He got kicked out. The current governor of Texas is standing by everything they’ve done. They’re also coming under intense criticism for the police response, allegations that a police tactical team was there for almost an hour before they went into the school. How do you see that playing out?
David Frum, The Atlantic: Well that’s where it gets very powerful, because people are going to say the police were cowardly, the police didn’t respond. To which the police are going to say well there was a man inside shooting a high powered firearm. What did you expect us to do? And I think that triggers a thought, well if a man with a high powered rifle is too difficult for 19 police officers to overcome, maybe it should be more difficult for that man to get a high powered rifle. A lot of these changes are going to come in the state of Texas not at the governor level. Texas is one of the weakest governorships in the whole country. But state legislatures, if you can have changes at the Uvalde level, if you have changes at the county level, if you can have changes at the municipal level, if you’re going to have changes in the state Assembly and the state Senate, then you can make some real differences.
Remember, the advocates of guns everywhere understand how weak their position is. That’s why they try to shutdown democratic debate. That’s why they’re trying to move this whole discussion from the legislatures to the courts. It’s because they know the public opinion is not ultimately on their side. They are a militant and organized minority that depend on the indifference of the majority.
Mercedes Stephenson: David Frum, thank you for joining us today, sir.
David Frum, The Atlantic: Thank you very much.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, with only four more days until Ontario voters head to the polls, our election panel is back to talk about why the race to second place may be the tightest contest there is.
Mercedes Stephenson: With four days left in Ontario’s election campaign, it looks like incumbent Doug Ford is set to lead the Progressive Conservatives to a second term as government.
Our Ontario election panel is back to look at these final days of the campaign. Robert Benzie is the Queen’s Park Bureau Chief with The Toronto Star, and Sabrina Nanji is the founder of The Queen’s Park Observer.
It has been a remarkable campaign to watch. A lot of people thought Doug Ford had major vulnerabilities going into this. Everything from his handling of the pandemic and long-term care home homes, to some of the scandals that had plagued his caucus, his cabinet and at times, him. He didn’t perform particularly well in the election debate. He hasn’t made himself available for one-on-one interviews and at times, he’s been kind of MIA on the campaign trail, but none of that seems to have affected him. What do you think his secret sauce is?
Robert Benzie, The Toronto Star: Well Mercedes, I think that one reason that Premier Ford is doing fairly well on the campaign is his competition is not that hard. I mean, it’s not that tough. He came into this campaign with a lead and he looks like he has a lead as we enter the final days. So, I mean he’s been playing it safe. He has done one media interview with The Toronto Star actually, my paper, but he has been largely avoiding one-on-one TV interviews, things like that and playing it safe, being extra cautious. And I think it’s a classic frontrunner campaign.
Mercedes Stephenson: Sabrina, what do you think?
Sabrina Nanji, The Queen’s Park Observer: Yeah, this obviously is a strategy that seems to be working for Ford and to even another extent, his candidates. I mean we’ve seen Ford, he was up every day almost during the pandemic, the height of COVID, and he has put his foot in his mouth in the past. I mean just thinking about that province-wide debate that you mentioned, Liberal leader Steven Del Dulca was kind of forced to fact check him on the fly after he was making claims about them raising the gas tax, and it kind of has come down to risks versus reward. You know Ford and the PC’s are leading handily in the polls and it probably helps his campaign that he’s not making big splashy headlines, daily. They want him to stay on message. We saw a similar strategy with dozens of PC candidates skipping out on local debates. If you ask the PC war room, they say they’d rather be door knocking, but it’s also a liability, right? You can have protesters show up at these events. Nurses and autism families have been going hard on that front. And then there’s the risk of, you know, Ford himself going into unscripted territory, which we have seen. So this is a very tightly controlled campaign. But at the end of the day, it’s accountability and the public that suffers.
Mercedes Stephenson: Yeah, I think it’s such a big question. We’ve seen it at the federal level, too, where politicians simply avoid opportunities where they think they could make mistakes that could cost them, but it means less transparency, less access, less information for voters. That said, you know, there is lots of things that the opposition could have dug into effectively here, Robert. Steven Del Duca, the Liberal leader may not even win his seat. There seems to be a greatest competition for second place, as you’ve both been saying. Why do you think the opposition has performed so poorly in this election?
Robert Benzie, The Toronto Star: Well Mercedes, one of the things is I think some people thought that this campaign would be a re-litigation of Ford’s pandemic performance. And for whatever reason, it hasn’t been. I don’t know if it’s because Ontarians are fed up talking about COVID-19, as everyone everywhere in the world is, or if it’s because people are saying, you know what? It wasn’t as bad here as it was in other places. Quebec just across the river from where you are, 2,000 more people died of COVID-19 than died in Ontario, yet Quebec only has 57 per cent of the population. We didn’t have the curfews that François Legault put in place in that province, although we had very long lockdowns and our kids were out of school in-class learning for longer than anywhere else in North America. But for whatever reason, the problems that Ford had during the pandemic have not dogged him and I don’t know if it’s because Steven Del Duca and Andrea Horwath haven’t been able to get something to stick or if it’s because voters are saying you know what? I’m not sure that they would have done anything that differently.
Mercedes Stephenson: Sabrina, do you think that Steven Del Duca and Andrea Horwath hang on to their positions as leader after this election or their party’s going to forgive them? Or do you think that they’re going to be looking for new leadership?
Sabrina Nanji, The Queen’s Park Observer: Yeah, I mean there’s a lot at play here. You know, the Liberal Party itself, they have their own internal rules where if you don’t win the premier seat, which as we know the Liberals were decimated in 2018 with going from seven seats to, you know, taking the premier spot will be a huge feat for them. But then Del Dulca will be facing a leadership review. If he doesn’t win his own seat but still forms Official Opposition, I think they’ll still keep him around. But of course, there’ll be a lot of questions about how the campaign was run.
We know NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. This is her fourth kick at the can as leader, likely her last, too. You know, there’s this 901 club that has been forming behind the scenes where in the moment polls close at 9 pm next Thursday, they’ll be, you know, immediately pressuring her to step aside if she doesn’t win. So this is going to be an opportunity for those parties to reset.
And to Benzie’s point, I think, you know, they’ve had trouble capitalizing on some of the missteps the Ford government has made during the pandemic, but you know, at the end of the day, during COVID, people don’t really want to hear from the opposition parties necessarily, even though there was a lot for them to, you know, hound the PC’s on because you kind of want to hear from the powers that be.
Mercedes Stephenson: The 901 club, that’s pretty brutal one minute after. We just have a couple of moments left so I’m going to do a super quick lightning round with each of you about what do you think is going to be the biggest potential pitfall or gain this week? Starting with you, Robert.
Robert Benzie, The Toronto Star: Well you know, Mercedes, if affordability issues continue to dog the governing party, it could bite Doug Ford. People are worried about the price of gasoline. They’re worried about the price of groceries. So far, that stuff hasn’t stuck to him. But he has presided over a time when inflation is getting really high. It’s not his fault, but it’s not Justin Trudeau’s fault either and it’s hurting the Trudeau Liberals federally. So it’ll be interesting to see if it hurts the Ford Conservatives.
Mercedes Stephenson: Thanks. Sabrina, final word to you.
Sabrina Nanji, The Queen’s Park Observer: Yeah, I think, you know, we’re going to see a lot more candidate controversies coming out. At the end of the day, though, this is kind of inside baseball and I’m not sure if it’s really going to stick to the opposition parties. I’ll be paying close attention to where the leaders are headed in the last week. I think the NDP will be trying to shore up the seats they did win. The Liberals will be around the 416 and the 905. It’s where they can make the most gains. And if the Conservatives are feeling confident, they’ll be hanging around in NDP territory, which we’ve seen this week with Ford rallying in Hamilton. So I’ll be paying close attention the itineraries for sure.
Mercedes Stephenson: It’ll be very interesting to see the results and if it’s what the pollsters are predicting. Thank you very much Robert and Sabrina for joining us.
That’s it for our show for today. Thanks for watching. I hope to see you here next Sunday. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson.