The West Block – Episode 21, Season 12


Episode 21, Season 12

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


Retired Gen. Thomas Lawson, Former NORAD Deputy Commander

Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star

Bob Fife, The Globe and Mail


Ottawa, ON


Mercedes Stephenson: Drama in the skies: an F-22 fighter jet shoots down a high altitude object over Yukon.

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

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With three shoot downs in a week over North American airspace and fighter jets scrambling every few days, what is happening above us?


Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: “Premier Danielle Smith from Alberta, she is no ‘bestie’ shall we say, of Justin Trudeau.”

Bob Fife, The Globe and Mail: “And now he is going after them on bail reform and he had a big win.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Our Sunday panel is here with a critical eye on the big stories.

NORAD has been around since the Cold War, designed to deal with Russian bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and even hijack civilian aircraft. But for the first time in the command’s history, it actually shot something down on Saturday, and that was what was described as a cylindrical object the size of a small car by the Canadian defence minister. It was over Yukon, after authorities had been tracking it floating from United States over into Canada. It was shot down about 160 kilometres from the border at 3:41 p.m. on Saturday.

Here to talk about what is happening, what we know, and what we can expect next is former retired Gen. Thom Lawson. He, of course, was our chief of the defence staff in Canada. He was the former deputy commander of NORAD and he is a former fighter jet pilot. Welcome to the program, Thom.

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Retired Gen. Thomas Lawson, Former NORAD Deputy Commander: Thanks very much for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: Thom, what do you make of the information we’re getting so far about what this object might have been?

Retired Gen. Thomas Lawson, Former NORAD Deputy Commander: Well, you know, it does appear that it’s, in any sort of military sense, completely non-threatening. It doesn’t carry a payload that threatens life or limb and therefore, it is more of a collection object, the size of a small car as you mentioned. That might play into an intelligence long game, but really very little threat in a traditional military sense, anyway. Really, it becomes part of this barrage of balloons that is coming from somewhere west of here.   

Mercedes Stephenson: We did hear the defence minister describe it as being similar to the object that was shot down off the coast of North Carolina. That was a balloon. Gen. Eyre actually did call it a balloon last night. Tell us what the shoot down process looks like, from the decisions that are being made at the political level and at NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs, to those fighter jet pilots who are actually in the air with eyes on this.  

Retired Gen. Thomas Lawson, Former NORAD Deputy Commander: Right. So this is part of the envelope for NORAD. All of the sensors looking outwards and upwards, mostly tweaked and optimized over decades and decades of history for faster moving objects, but nevertheless able to receive bounced energy off of balloons, would see this thing at some point off of the continental coast and start to monitor it. If they don’t see it there, then it can be missed and seen over continental territory. But once it’s seen and monitored, NORAD headquarters and decision-makers go into a full process to determine what the threat is, both in the short-term and long-term what the threat is to civilian air traffic, and then start to bring the elected officials and decision-makers into the process. So this all would have been taking place yesterday, ahead of the shoot down yesterday afternoon. 

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Mercedes Stephenson: How hard is it if you are a C-18 pilot or an F-22 pilot, to shoot down a balloon?   

Retired Gen. Thomas Lawson, Former NORAD Deputy Commander: Yeah. It sounds like it should be easy. It’s not. If anyone’s had the opportunity to listen to the radio transmission from the series of fighter jets that took down the first balloon a few days ago off North Carolina’s shoreline, it’s quite an intricate process and it’s complicated by the fact that most of the weaponry that’s carried by our fighters is optimized for fast-moving things. This doesn’t—certainly the mylar and the helium doesn’t provide any returns on radars, and it doesn’t really have a heat signature either, which most of the missiles require. So it would require one of these very modern missiles. I was thinking of some of the missiles that I used to use when I was flying fighters, you know, decades ago. I don’t think I would have had a chance to take down something above 40 thousand feet. So, I, unlike many Canadians and Americans, I’m quite impressed that they were able to take this down. Not only this one, but the other two, I think is confirmation of the technology that’s been built into newer missiles.  

Mercedes Stephenson: Not as easy as it sounds. I want to ask you about the fact that this was an American F-22 and you had the president saying he authorized that. I’ve seen a lot of reaction from Canadians who were saying why wasn’t this a Canadian pilot? Do we need to worry? Is this because we’re not capable of doing it on our own? Is this an example of NORAD working as it should, where you can have planes on either side of the border? Or should people be concerned that this was an American jet that shot it down?

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Retired Gen. Thomas Lawson, Former NORAD Deputy Commander: Well first of all, I have to say that as a Canadian boy, I wish it had of been a Canadian pilot who shot it down. I’m sure the Canadian pilots who were racing up there over the Yukon were hoping they would get there first, too. But beyond that, no. This actually is significant and symbolic of the strength of the NORAD Agreement, to my knowledge, still, the only bi-national agreement in the world. There are all kinds of bilateral agreements, trade agreements and such, where the partners maintain their sovereignty, but the clear and present danger there was around that Russia presented back in the late 50s when NORAD started, blew all of those concerns away. Let’s not see territory as Canadian or American. Let’s really hone the decision process so we don’t have to worry about whose aircraft is used, whose missiles are used and all of that still stands today in 2023. So once NORAD assessors and analysts pass all of this information on up the chain to the president and prime minister, and they provide, in this case prime minister, provides the authority to shoot this thing down, the commander of NORAD, who by the way is always American. Deputy commander, the role I had some years ago, always Canadian. They really don’t see the material as being American or Canadian. They don’t see the territory as being American or Canadian. Once given the order, they use their best assets and the first ones on site to take the shots. And this is what occurred yesterday. 

Mercedes Stephenson: Yeah, hearing from a lot of military sources that this was actually textbook NORAD, where both countries were able to operate together and it allows Canada to have more access to more resources while maintaining our sovereignty because we make the final call on what’s going to happen over our territory just as the Americans do. You know, NORAD has released some information, the commander of NORAD who is also the commander of North Com., about balloons in the past. They’ve been digging back through their records and it’s clear this was not the first time. How, Thom, do they look for more balloons on the assumption that there could be more out there? 

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Retired Gen. Thomas Lawson, Former NORAD Deputy Commander: Yeah, I thought this was a remarkable piece of information that the NORAD commander gave us. Certainly, he would have considered the effects of passing this on, the fact that balloons are now determined to have passed over continental U.SA. Perhaps Canada in the past, as far as years ago with the politicization of everything in the states, this then became a way to embarrass, I guess, the Trump administration. But more to the point, what he was saying was—I think the sensors by the way had not been upgraded in recent years. That’s something that’s going to happen in the future. Canada and United States probably will see an acceleration as a result of some of this. But I think what has happened is that some of the indications they now see were there. Indications that they didn’t assign to anything weren’t able to recognize as balloons are now seen as balloons in at least several cases. Three as the commander was saying. So I think what they’ve done is they probably upgraded the data processing with an eye to seeing if this has happened in the past.

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Mercedes Stephenson: They in a couple of cases left these balloons up for a lot longer than we knew about them. I learned about this one yesterday afternoon. They knew about it for a lot longer than I did, as usual. People are saying why are they not shooting it down, immediately? Is there some sort of a value in letting it stay up for intelligence? Are they waiting until it’s over a safe area? Obviously in the North, that might be a little bit easier than over, you know, the United States. But I’m curious to know if there is some sort of an advantage to them watching it for a while instead of just taking it down right away?  

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Retired Gen. Thomas Lawson, Former NORAD Deputy Commander: Yeah, absolutely right. So it may anger some people. It may excite some people to know that North American intelligence agencies fed by all kinds of organizations, including the military, know lots of things that the average civilian doesn’t know in Canada or the United States, and so long as our elected officials are rooting through this data before and afterwards, they’ll help make decisions to our best benefit and in a lot of cases, some of this stuff should remain secret. So in this case, to your point, the balloon was allowed—this balloon and others—were allowed to sail freely in the stratosphere over top of North American territory with the idea, I think, that the Chinese wouldn’t know it has been detected, or whoever owns these objects that are flying over. And that allows other sensors: CP-140s, the Aurora, the U-2 the Americans had up near this one, to actually gather…

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. Thom…

Retired Gen. Thomas Lawson, Former NORAD Deputy Commander: …or intercept the signals going from the balloon up into space: satellite and going back to China or wherever and collect data and reverse engineer. So yes, it can be very invaluable to watch these things. 

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s super interesting. I’m so sorry that we have to jump in there, because we are out of time. But thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us and we’ll find out how many more of these balloons there are. 

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After the break, our politics panel is here to talk about everything from bail reform to that new health care deal. Stay with us.  


Mercedes Stephenson: There has been plenty of political reaction to the prime minister’s health care announcement, but it seems like the only consensus from the opposition leaders is that it is not good enough.

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: “There is no clear path here. There’s no clear plan to hire more health care workers and that means it is a failure.” 

Pierre Poilievre, Opposition Leader: “He had money for the WE Charity, $54 million for the useless and broken ArriveCAN app, over $100 million for the McKinsey high-priced consultants, but he doesn’t have enough money for health care.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now to discuss the politics of this deal and some of the other hot button issues on the Hill this week is our panel: The Globe and Mail’s bureau chief Robert Fife; and Stephanie Levitz from The Toronto Star.

There was so much hype around this health care deal. Everyone thought the big spending Liberals were going to come out with the money gun, make everybody happy and that doesn’t seem to be what happened. Bob, what’s their strategy here?

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Bob Fife, The Globe and Mail: Well I’ve had a lot of Liberal MPs coming up to me and saying, “Why were they spinning you about the fact that there’s going to be all this money when it’s just the Liberal party’s campaign commitment of $46 billion?” And it didn’t make a lot of sense because they—everybody was assuming, including the premiers—that there was going to be a big, big pile of money on the table for health care. And it’s a significant amount of money, let’s not fool ourselves. But it’s nowhere near what they pretended that it was going to be. So a lot of people were disappointed, including the premiers about that. But look, they’re all going to accept the money. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of complaining about it when the premiers meet on Monday. They’ll come out and say, “It’s not enough” but on balance, they’re going to take the money and run.

Mercedes Stephenson: Steph, what is the strategy in that to you? Because the Liberals don’t seem like they are afraid of spending, generally. And health care is a big issue. It’s an issue people are upset about. They want to see changes. And then there was sort of this fiscal limitation suddenly on the Liberals. Why on health care?

Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: Well, I mean, to one—for ordinary people, they see this massive sum of money and they think, “Okay, how is that going to help me get a family doctor tomorrow?” And the answer is that it isn’t. And I think perhaps the Liberals are inching towards, and maybe our country is inching towards a much bigger debate of how we fix our health care system beyond throwing pots of money at it. And let’s recall that that was part of the sticking point originally, between the premiers and the prime minister being able to arrive at some kind of health care funding deal. The federal government wanted strings attached. They wanted conditions. They wanted certain things. The premiers were very, very resistant to that idea and they got themselves to a place where they could say, “Okay, we need to have some shared priorities.” So I guess in sum, what it is: Why keep throwing pots of money at a broken system? And how do you end up having a conversation that says, “We acknowledge these things are broken. These are what we’re going to fix and this is the money we need to fix them.”

Mercedes Stephenson: And it seemed…

Bob Fife, The Globe and Mail: But there is something good about these bilateral agreements. Rather than giving the provinces a whole lot of money, with an escalator clause that they can spend wherever they want. The federal government is saying, “We’ll give you $25 billion, but it’s got to go to specific things, which we will negotiate with each province because each province has a particular need, whether it’s primary care in Ontario or long-term care facilities or home care. Ottawa can now—we now know that money will go to those specific needs and each particular province and that’s a good thing. Also good from the federal government’s perspective is there’s no escalator clause in that. So it’s just one-time payment of money. They’re not going to have to have, say, if inflation is up a 9.5 increase every year. So that, from their point of view, is good. And a lot of economists were as surprised as you were about the fact that there wasn’t a lot of money. But from a fiscal standpoint, it’s a good thing because our deficit isn’t going to go skyrocketing up. It’s actually inching downwards. .

Mercedes Stephenson: Steph, we were saying, you know, the premiers are unlikely to say no to this, but is there a united front there? Or has the government kind of with these bilateral offers, managed to split them off a little bit and be able to have really cash-strapped provinces who need to say yes?

Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: Well I think to some degree, perhaps there can’t be a united front because as Bob so accurately pointed out, different provinces have different needs. They have different demands, different weaknesses baked into their own system. So it seems to me, a proper functioning of federalism when it’s not just one policy for everybody, but there is some targeted arrangement for the cash. I wonder amongst the premiers, though, the fact that Doug Ford was sort of the one who seemed to break the logjam to signal that he’d be willing to put—have some conditions put on the money, that he was more open to sort of more direction from the federal government, how that plays amongst his premier colleagues. I mean, you know, Premier Danielle Smith from Alberta, she is no ‘bestie’ shall we say, of Justin Trudeau. Nor does she want to Justin Trudeau’s ‘bestie’. But how does she play her role amongst the premiers? Is she going to be the one who screams and stands up and demands more? Is she the one who says, “Let’s all get along?” So there are some provincial dynamics there that are interesting as it relates to the relationship with the federal government. But at the end of the day, as we both all said, they’re not going to not take the money.

Mercedes Stephenson: Let’s talk about bail reform, another big topic over the last few weeks, including Pierre Poilievre, Conservative leader, came out with his proposal. Bob, what did you make of what Mr. Poilievre had to say on bail reform? 

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Bob Fife, The Globe and Mail: Well, Mr. Poilievre has already had success in joining with Indigenous groups and farmers and hunters, and getting the federal government to pull back their gun legislation. And now he’s going after them on bail reform, and he had a big win because yes, on Thursday, the premiers wrote unanimously a letter to the justice minister saying, “We want you to immediately reform the bail legislation in this country.” And the justice minister said, “Okay, I have to seriously look at this.” And so Poilievre’s going to be able to stand up and say, “See, we won this for you.” Because what the premiers want is to have a reverse onus, which means that if you’re a guy who’s been involved in violent crimes with weapons, then the onus must be on you to be able to explain to the bail hearings why you should be able to get out, not the other way around. Because the way the law is now, the legislation is that you can get out very easily, as early as possible, conditions to get out, which is why we’re seeing a lot of these instances where people are getting out and then committing violent acts. So, Mr. Poilievre is actually onto a good thing here, and clearly, the premiers are too. And the government is going to have to move on this.   

Mercedes Stephenson: Steph, what’s your take on it? 

Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: So I’m going to pick up something that Bob said about it being a win for Pierre Poilievre, because the gun issue is such a sensitive political debate in this country and what tends to happen is that every time the Liberals try and tighten gun regulations, the Conservatives stand up and they talk about not taking away from the abilities of hunters and others to, you know, fish—I’m sorry—and to hunt, obviously. And then the Liberals will come back and say, “Oh, you know, you’re crime and da, da, da, da, da.” But what Pierre Poilievre has managed to do here is say, “Oh. You say,” the Liberals, “that you’d like to protect and keep people safe? Then fix bail reform.” Right? He has gotten, finally a parry that he can throw right back in their face when they say that their gun legislation, and they want to make people safer. Well here’s another way you can be making people safer and you’re choosing not to do it. So because he has the premiers behind him on this one, because he has members of the legal profession behind him on this one, it makes it a more salient political argument and more of a political win for him because it’s not about terrifying people that the Conservatives want armed weapons on every street corner in Canada, which is what the Liberals tend to argue. 

Bob Fife, The Globe and Mail: Yeah, and you know, the Liberals, when the House came back, they wanted to be on the game. They thought, “Okay, we’ll have this big health care accord,” but first they were knocked back on their feet by having to withdraw the legislation on guns. And then they overhyped the health care spending commitments that they made with the premiers, so they haven’t really benefitted from that and now they’re on bail reform, where they’re having to backtrack on that, too. So who knows what’s going to happen this week when they’re going to have to be some backpedalling.

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Mercedes Stephenson: They have some NATO meetings where there’s going to be questions about spending, and a NATO member, of course, is Turkey and there was that horrific earth quake in Turkey and Syria that has killed thousands and thousands of people. Steph, that’s a weirdly muted response from the federal government. They didn’t step up and offer large amounts of matching aid. They are potentially deploying DART, the military disaster response team, but they’re still figuring that out. It hasn’t even deployed since 2015. Did this strike you as strange compared to their normal response to international crisis? 

Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: It did seem slow. It did seem—I mean, I guess it’s a tragic reality of the times that we’re in that these crises, especially things like earthquakes and other natural disasters are becoming more commonplace around the world and it seems as though, as cynical as this may sound, there is a template that is available for government response. There are a series of things they often do. They do them quickly. This one did not feel like it moved as quickly as normal. And then, you know, as it relates to the military component, deploying DART, that was one where again, we find ourselves asking this existential question: What is our military for, right? I mean, we have all these various components of it and it seems as though every time we are called upon to deploy or to assist using a component of our military, it results in dithering. It results in questions about well, if we do that, then we’re not going to be able to do this. And what about this? And we must always be ready. If we must always be ready, what are we always ready for, if when something happens, we don’t do anything?

Mercedes Stephenson: And you have the chief of defence staff saying in fact, a lot of the time we might be ready.

Bob Fife, The Globe and Mail: Look, this is a no-brainer. We have DART. It’s been—all over the world, it’s been very, very successful. Countries are really appreciative of us when we send the DART team. And we didn’t send it. Now we’re still talking about it. You know, over 20 thousand people are dead. We should have been there right from the get-go. I don’t know whether this was because the government is annoyed at Turkey because they haven’t been great on the issue of Ukraine? But whatever the case is, it’s actually an embarrassing situation for Canada. And you know, more and more, we’re becoming relegated to a bit-player. When the president meets with world leaders, it’s often like four or five of our five eyes people, but not Canada. Often, it’s just three people. So we’re not being invited to the table very much. And, you know, I think, we, as Canadians, should be worried about that, that we are not being taken seriously anymore on a whole range of issues because we always have in the past been players.  .

Mercedes Stephenson: Certainly eyebrow raising and Canadians like to think of our country that way. That’s all the time we have for today, for our politics panel. Thank you both for joining us. We’ll see you again, soon.

Bob Fife, The Globe and Mail: Thank you.

Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: Thanks Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, what I’m watching. An important NATO defence meeting ahead on the one-year anniversary of Russia’s war with Ukraine.

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Mercedes Stephenson: One last thing that I’m going to be keeping an eye on this coming week: NATO meetings with defence ministers from across the alliance will be happening just ahead of the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine. The Ukrainian strength and stoicism has seen them overturn speculation that Russia would simply roll through Kyiv in under 24 hours. And NATO countries have stepped up, escalating from tough talk to providing increasingly powerful weapon systems like tanks. But what will they do now that the Ukrainians are asking for fighter jets? Likely not an option for Canada and there will be big questions about our ability as a nation to deliver military heft in an increasingly dangerous world, where are capabilities are declining.

Thanks for hanging out this week, and I’ll see you back here again, next Sunday.

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