The West Block – Episode 19, Season 12

Click to play video: 'The West Block: Jan. 29, 2023 | Canada’s military in dire state; Poilievre and Trudeau’s political showdown'
The West Block: Jan. 29, 2023 | Canada’s military in dire state; Poilievre and Trudeau’s political showdown
Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mercedes Stephenson – January 29, 2023 – Jan 29, 2023


Episode 19, Season 12

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


Gen. Wayne Eyre, Chief of Defence Staff

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail

Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star 


Ottawa, ON


Mercedes Stephenson: Crumbling capabilities and an increasingly dangerous world are raising questions about whether the Canadian Armed Forces is on the brink. Could we still fight?

And the politics of branding: Party leaders are sharpening their attacks ahead of their return to Parliament Hill.

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I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Welcome to The West Block.

Canada is sending four tanks to Ukraine at a time when the military is stretched to the limit: a candid conversation about the state of the Canadian Armed Forces with the chief of the defence staff.

And Prime Minister Trudeau and Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre unveil their tactics as the House of Commons returns tomorrow. Will the politics of polarization turn off Canadians?

Canada is the latest country to announce tanks for Ukraine, following Poland, the U.S., Germany and other allies. Defence Minister Anita Anand says this support is critical for Ukraine to defeat Russia and restore peace.

Anita Anand, Defence Minister: “Ukraine’s fight to defend itself is also a fight to uphold the international rules based order that has kept us all safe since the end of the Second World War.”

Mercedes Stephenson: But as Canada’s international commitments ramp up, a dire lack of personnel and equipment are pushing defence capabilities to their limits here at home.

Joining me now to discuss the state of the Canadian Armed Forces is Gen. Wayne Eyre. He is, of course, the chief of the defence staff. Welcome back, General Eyre. Always a pleasure to have you on the show.

Gen. Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Well Mercedes, thanks for having me here today. It’s always great to talk to you and to talk to Canadians about what is happening.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Well let’s talk tanks. This announcement yesterday that Canada was sending tanks, which is a big deal for Canada considering we have a pretty limited tank fleet. We announced four. I think some people at home heard four and thought that’s it?

Gen. Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Well…

Mercedes Stephenson: Why only four?

Gen. Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: We’ve got to look at all of the factors that go into this. You know, so our total fleet size, which isn’t big, the level of serviceability. So we’ve had some challenges keeping the entire fleet serviceable. The distance that we have to send them to be operationally effective in a short period of time, understanding the timeframe that Ukraine needs them and that’s the reason why we need to work with our allies in Europe. I counted this morning, there are probably about 1,300 of the same A-4 variant that we have in Europe and overall with the various variants there’s several thousand Leopard tanks in Europe. And so if we can be part of a larger collective and pool things like technical support, ammunition, spare parts, training expertise, to provide to Ukraine, the better it’s going to be. 

Mercedes Stephenson: I think when people hear that four tanks was sort of the limit of what we could send, they go, ooh, what’s the situation with Canada’s tanks because yesterday, both you and the minister of national defence were talking about there’s a certain number we have to keep in order to maintain our commitments to NATO to be able to defend ourselves. With these four gone, are we at the limit of what we can give to Ukraine without risking falling below those levels?  

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Gen. Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: So this is a constant analysis that we go through. What do we need for our own training requirements? More importantly, what do we need for our own operational requirements? What can we deliver? What is serviceable? What can we get from industry? And weighing those factors as they change almost on a weekly basis is what we do. So at this point, four tanks, is what we can—four operational, ready-to-fight tanks are what we are delivering right now. We take a look at the timelines to get them over there. So we’re going to fly them over there, probably on our C-17s and to get them in time to start training Ukrainians in as rapid amount of time as possible and then get them into the fight. And so we’ll take a look at what we can do with the rest of the fleet based on spare parts, based on ammunition availability, based on our own requirements but this is where we stand, today.

Mercedes Stephenson: You were facing some extraordinary constraints, both with personnel, and it’s been no secret, you’ve spoken publicly about how constrained you are because you are struggling with recruiting people and you are struggling with retention. We know you’re struggling with equipment, too. Whether it’s that we only have four tanks we can really send and feel secure about our own supply, to things like a ship, the HMCS Summerside which took on water last week after a sea valve failed. A very old ship, concerns about navy equipment. Concerns about whether or not the army is going to get the equipment it needs replaced. Concerns about airplanes and whether or not the CF-18s can keep flying. What are the limitations that you’re facing right now with equipment and personnel, meaning for what you’re capable of actually doing?   

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Gen. Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: So it comes down to readiness. And what I mean by that is our ability to respond at speed and at scale with the right capabilities. You know, we can still respond pretty fast but are we big enough for what the requirement is. And so we need to work on all of those factors. Now I am concerned because we see that increased demand signal around the world and here at home, because our security situation, globally, is deteriorating. And what that means is the country is going to require more and more out of the Canadian Armed Forces in the years to come and so our job is to be ready.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that you are ready right now? 

Gen. Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Right now, for the challenges that lie ahead, no. And that’s why it’s so important that we reconstitute our force, get our numbers back up. That we get the capabilities in place that are relevant for the future security environment, while at the same time as we focus on that future piece, being able to respond today. You know whether it’s disasters here at home or the incessant demand for Canadian involvement overseas. Everybody wants more Canada. We travel around the world, we talk to allies and they say, hey Canada, you’re great. We love having your troops here. We love your expertise, your professionalism that you bring to the table, but we want more of you.

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Mercedes Stephenson: If Russia decided to expand the war, which is always a discussion and I know you’re having this with your colleagues all the time that they decide to go into somewhere like Latvia or Lithuania. What I’m hearing you say is that Canada might not be able to respond at the level that we should be, if that happened. Is that accurate?

Gen. Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: So we spent a lot of time focused on what our commitments are to NATO, what capabilities that we’ve pledged to NATO if that happens. And so if we did have to respond, we would meet those pledges but it would be a challenge. It would be an all-hands on deck event. And that’s why it’s…

Mercedes Stephenson: So we’re sort of right on the cusp of not being able to fulfill our NATO requirements. 

Gen. Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: And so it’s a chicken and the egg case here, because we’ve declared to NATO what we are capable of doing. Can we do more? Well, we’d be very, very hard pressed and so that’s where that balance comes in. You know, what can we have that’s ready versus what do we have to build?  

Mercedes Stephenson: How close are you to slipping below that, if you don’t get people and equipment urgently? 

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Gen. Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Well it’s not just us, and I’ve had long talks with my allied counterparts. We’re not the only ones facing the people crunch. I’ve had good chats with Australia, New Zealand, NATO counterparts. This is a phenomenon across the West: tight labour force, not as much interest in military service and that worries me. That worries me from a collective ability to defend democracy writ large. And so we’ve got to do our part. We’ve got to do our part with getting our numbers back up. Yeah, I am concerned, but I’m concerned for the wider West as well.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Do you have any commitments from the Government of Canada from the political level of how quickly they are going to replace things like the tanks and the M777s. They say as soon as possible. In Canadian defence procurement, that could be eight or ten years. Do you have timelines for that? 

Gen. Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: So one of the challenges is, is in those capabilities, what’s being produced on the market right now. And so doing an exact capability buy is a challenge and then M777s aren’t being produced at this point. And so we are actively looking what else can be out there for capability substitution.  

Mercedes Stephenson: So we might not to be able to replace the M777s then with other M777s.

Gen. Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Well, or do we get something different? Think M777 on a truck. Tube artillery is not going away and the war in Ukraine has shown that. So we have to replace the capability. Is it going to be an M777 or is it going to be something else that launches a round over significant distance?

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think it’s fair to say that we’re in a decade of darkness? It was used about the 90s, but I keep hearing it from troops and from retired generals. Is this a new decade of darkness?

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Gen. Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: History will tell. I think it’s too early to say if it’s a decade of darkness. You know, I’ve certainly faced some challenges in this position the armed forces writ large are facing some challenges, but our job is to do everything we can within our power to make it better, to be ready.

Mercedes Stephenson: The defence policy review is supposed to look at military capabilities, our foreign policy, our national security policy and figure out where we’re going. I keep hearing from sources it’s been pushed to after the budget. Are you concerned about the kind of funding the military might receive in the upcoming federal budget?

Gen. Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: So the funding decision, you know that’s very much a government decision and that’s beyond my—it’s out of my decision—it’s out of my hands. But what I hope this policy does is help us with the readiness that is so important. You know, fixing the foundation of the Canadian Armed Forces, the training, the people, the equipment, the serviceability, the ammunition, all of those aspects that go into readiness. And then look at the capabilities that we need. Capabilities that we’ve seen from Russia’s brutal war of aggression in Ukraine that are increasingly relevant, that we need. 

Mercedes Stephenson: Housing is an issue that I hear about all the time from the troops. My inbox is full of emails about it. They are complaining about the conditions. There’s not enough. Of course, living on the economy is incredibly expensive right now. Where are you at in terms of putting money into that kind of infrastructure and how soon could the troops expect something?

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Gen. Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Yeah, that’s a great question, Mercedes, because my inbox gets filled as well. And every town hall that I go to, that is the number one issue. So we urgently need a pay raise for the Canadian Armed Forces. We urgently need to bring in the replacement for our post living differential. Right now we’re getting close in terms of the negotiations on it, to be able to target the most vulnerable in our ranks. But yes, this concern, I’m ceased with it. We have to fix that because we need our members. We need our members not to have to worry about their own financial security. Not to be constantly looking over their shoulders to see if their families are having to go to food banks. So yeah, it’s got to be addressed urgently.  

Mercedes Stephenson: Gen. Wayne Eyre, thank you so much for joining us today, sir. 

Gen. Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: Thank you. 

Up next, get ready for more of this as Parliament returns.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Mr. Poilievre was out talking about how we should all invest in bitcoin to opt out of inflation.”Pierre Poilievre, Opposition Leader: “Everything feels broken. Oh—I just offended Justin Trudeau.” 

Mercedes Stephenson: We talk politics with two Hill veterans when we come back. 

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Mercedes Stephenson: As MPs head back to Parliament tomorrow, we’re looking at some of the hot button political issues ahead.

First up, the prime minister and the premiers will try to hammer out a new health care deal. And when it comes to the economy, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland is signalling tough times ahead.

Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister: “There is still a lot of uncertainty in the world economy and that means that we do need to continue to take a fiscally prudent approach. We still do not know for sure how the plane is going to land.”

Mercedes Stephenson: And of course, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre will be back with his firebrand style.

Pierre Poilievre, Opposition Leader: “Everything feels broken. Oh—I just offended Justin Trudeau. He gets very angry when I talk about these problems. He thinks that if we don’t speak about them out loud, that Canadians will forget that they exist.”

Mercedes Stephenson: To talk about all this, I’m now joined by The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau chief Bob Fife; and Stephanie Levitz from The Toronto Star. Thank you both so much for joining us on this Sunday morning.

Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: Thanks for having me.

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Thanks for inviting us.

Mercedes Stephenson: We just heard Mr. Poilievre there. Of course, this face-off between Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre has captured a lot of people. I’ve talked to a lot of folks who don’t normally watch Question Period on Parliament Hill and they watch it now because there is an exchange. Where do you see this going, Stephanie, as these two leaders come in and, you know, sometimes almost seem like variations of the same person just with very different politics.

Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: Yeah, it was interesting to listen to Pierre Poilievre sort of, I guess, I don’t want to say inaugural but his first speech to caucus of 2023, and he used a technique that he started using a bit over the holidays, period, which is he kept saying Justin. He kept putting everything on Justin Trudeau. It is all vested in Justin Trudeau. It is all Justin Trudeau’s fault. Justin Trudeau is responsible and he kept calling him Justin. Juxtapose that, if you will, with the prime minister’s 2023 speech to caucus, his first one to his MPs. He kept referring to Mr. Poilievre. Mr. Poilievre, like in this sort of a superior tone versus an attacking tone and you can see how the two men are poised to really vest the problems of both their parties in the individual. That is what it’s going to be. It’s the politics of branding. It’s the politics of individualism. And, you know, for the Conservatives, the message that they’re going top line. Everything is broken, that’s their line and it is all Justin Trudeau’s fault. Not the Liberals. Not the government. It’s Justin Trudeau. He doesn’t deserve to be there. The Liberals, by their token will say it’s Pierre Poilievre. He’s going—taking the world to a dark place. He’s terrible. Pierre. Pierre. Pierre. Mr. Poilievre. Mr. Poilievre. It’s very interesting to watch them sort of attack each other personally for their politics.

Mercedes Stephenson: I think that’s really hitting the nail on the head with the strategy. Bob, do you think that those politics are effective? Does that get people to vote?

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: I mean, I thought Poilievre was very effective when Trudeau came after him, suggesting in a Toronto Star interview that he was only pandering to white racists. And Poilievre put out a video online, it was very quickly saying, hey, look who’s talking, Mr. Blackface. So, you know, there is clearly a lot of dislike amongst them. The Liberals are hoping to frame him as an extremist and he’s going to try to frame the Liberals as people who don’t care about working people, who are struggling to get by because the economy is in tough shape and inflation is high. And you know what? Poilievre’s message may work with more people than name calling about saying somebody is an extremist.

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Mercedes Stephenson: A lot of people are wondering whether we could see an election, if this feels like a campaign tone. Do you think this is just sort of the perpetual tone that these two use in terms of strategy, or are things heating up to where they’re starting to weigh: do we want to go a little bit early? And of course, that decision would only ever be likely up to Justin Trudeau. The NDP has said they’ll keep him in power up to 2025. But whether or not Mr. Trudeau wants that is another story.

Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: I think, what I hear from folks when I talk to them on Hill is it feels right now that we’re in some kind of political holding pattern that relates entirely to the economy and what’s about to happen to it, because that’s the calculus a sitting government has to make. Would you go—if we are hit, a recession and it’s a bad one, which most economists aren’t saying it will be, but if we do, does the government want to go to an election when the economy is bad? I don’t think so. That doesn’t really reflect well on them. Does Mr. Poilievre want to go to an election when the economy is bad? You bet he does, because the strongest line for the Conservatives is on the economy. It’s the line where every poll suggests more people think they would be solid stewards of the economy. The question becomes, you know, what are the conditions for the election? And I think someone wrote it—I think it was even in your paper, Bob—which was 2023 is about Justin Trudeau making up his mind. It’s about him deciding what do I want to do? Where do I want to go next? What is my legacy? And I thought it was a really smart line, it was in your paper. 

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Yeah, no. I think that’s right. I mean, it’s up to Justin Trudeau to decide. I mean, all the people around him say, of course he wants to run. But the track record of anybody after nine years since Louis St. Laurent is very, very bad. And this is a guy, Trudeau, who has only been able to get two minority governments after his first majority. And the polls show that there’s a lot of dislike for Trudeau. So, at some point in the next year, he’s got to make a decision. Do I try to beat Poilievre or do I just get out when the going’s good and not have my reputation in ruins by losing the party? And my sense is I don’t think this guy is going to the end. At the end, he’s going to run again. I’m probably wrong, but you know, there are a lot of people that make the mistake of, Stephen Harper being one of them, and it doesn’t turn out very well for them.  

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Mercedes Stephenson: Think they can make it past two governments is tough in Canada. One of the big things that they have to try to figure out is health care, because it’s one of those rare issues that really touches everyone’s life in politics. You’ve had the feds and the provinces pointing the finger at each other, saying it’s your fault it’s like this. All Canadians know is it’s hard to get in to see your primary care doctor, if you’re lucky enough to have one—good luck if you’re in emerge. They’re going to be sitting down, the prime minister and the premiers to try to hammer out an agreement. Stephanie, what do you think the strategy is here for the premiers going in and for the prime minister? 

Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: Part of it is to return to those days when the federal government, the prime minister and the premiers were getting along, right? I think during the pandemic, when you saw, certainly cohesion in unanimity, among all the top leaders in this country, people responded to that because at the end of the day, they don’t care what jurisdiction it is as you said. They just want a solution. They want to see people sitting down and working on things. The challenge, of course becomes, and I think Stephen Harper, you know, he was of the opinion, for example, why go into a room with a bunch of premiers? All they’re going to do is beat up on you. There is no political win for you coming out of that room. But Trudeau needs a win. He needs to be seen as delivering something and also, you know, putting some pressure on the premiers to account for the money that’s going out the door. And I think that’s the tricky thing, is it’s not really federal jurisdiction. But how do you shovel $25, 28, 29 billion out the door that you do with it what you like, you know, no big deal. I think deliverables are realistic but, you know, Trudeau has already downplayed expectations.  

Mercedes Stephenson: Bob, do you think that that needs…?

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Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: I think there’s going to be a big pot of money—federal money going to the provinces—otherwise they wouldn’t be wanting to have a First Ministers meeting, where they know that there is no win here for them and there’s no win for the federal government. People are fed up with the way the health care system is and they want action. And kudos to the federal government for saying okay, we will give you a significant amount of money but there’ll be even more money, but it’s going to be tied to bilateral agreements where that money is slotted to go for long-term care facilities, for example, in Ontario or Home Care in British Columbia. Each province has specific needs and these bilateral agreements, which will not be announced because they have to go through negotiations, but at the First Ministers meeting, but that is going to, in a long-term, I think, help our health system not in short-term because we still have major problems. But in the long-term they will and it’s about time that they come together because it certainly wasn’t looking very good for a long period of time.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well and it’s something that so many people talk about. We get so many viewer emails about we all experience it and there’s a frustration with both the provinces, but the feds sometimes wear it more. And one thing that the federal government has also been wearing lately in terms of the Liberals is these questions about external contracts. Whether it’s the McKinsey Consulting contracts or the outsourcing of ArriveCAN to supposedly this two-person company that then was subcontracting, or the contracts that Mr. Hussain’s office had for the sister of one of his senior staffers, Conservatives always have to deal with the stereotype they’re scary and Liberals have to deal with the stereotype of corruption. Do you think that these stories are going to stick to the Liberals, Steph?

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Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: They always build a narrative, right? It’s always little bread crumbs along the lane and then you have to wonder, okay, do they gather all of that up, the opposition parties, and can they throw it all at voters and be like, see, look at this. It is a narrative. They are this. They are that. Do people retain that information? I’m not sure. You know, when you’re looking at things like health care, for example, or some of the day-to-day challenges that are facing individual Canadians, but what it allows the Opposition party to do, and we’ve seen Pierre Poilievre already begin to do this, is again, that juxtaposition that Bob was talking about. They’re not in it for you. You know, they’re not here for you. What about the little guy? They’re having these big fancy dinners. They’re spending billions giving contracts to their friends. And what about you? What about you? That is an effective political argument.

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: I think Mr. Poilievre’s strategy is to go after the government every day on the economy and on inflation, but his backbench and the front of bench MPs are going to go hard after the government on these scandals. Why is—why are we giving contracts to McKinsey and Company, which has such a terrible track record of working for the Chinese, working for the Saudi Arabia. All of these very questionable contracts and then you’ve got, you know, the whole issue of that smelly deal with the Minister Hussain and the company is supposed to do restaurants and food…

Mercedes Stephenson: Food influencing.

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: And all of a sudden they pop up as experts on public policy and media advice? I mean it just stinks. And those kinds of things, people understand that. People get that kind of stuff.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well we’re absolutely going to be keeping a close eye on all of those political battles and I’m sure all the ones that we can never predict that pop up in front of us every year. Thank you both very much for joining us and we’ll speak to you again soon.

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Thank you.

Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: Thanks, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, what I’m watching for when the House returns, tomorrow. 

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Mercedes Stephenson: We thought we’d do something a little bit different this week and share some of what I’m going to be keeping an eye on as the week unfolds and indeed, this new session of Parliament.

I’m going to be looking at the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes that’s going to be unfolding as the premiers meet with the prime minister to try to finagle a health care deal.

I’m also curious to see what the Liberal government is going to signal about the economy and the all-important looming federal budget.

Plus, U.S. President Joe Biden drops by in March for a visit. I am curious to see if he’ll ask Canada to step it up on military spending.

And finally, my favourite thing to watch, the political repartee between party leaders that will happen when Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre are back in the House and facing off again. We’ll be front and centre for all of it and you’ll be right here with us.

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Thanks so much for hanging out with us today and I’ll see you next Sunday. Have a great week.

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