The West Block – Episode 22, Season 12

Click to play video: 'The West Block: Feb. 19 | Top-secret Chinese interference leaks and the need to modernize Canadian military'
The West Block: Feb. 19 | Top-secret Chinese interference leaks and the need to modernize Canadian military
Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mercedes Stephenson. – Feb 19, 2023


Episode 22, Season 12

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister

Peter MacKay, Former Defence Minister


Ottawa, ON


Mercedes Stephenson: A country scarred by divisions after the pandemic and facing threats from abroad. How do we heal the nation and protect Canadians?

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

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Out of the frying pan, into the fire: The Rouleau Commission finds the federal government was justified in invoking the Emergencies Act, but the Liberals are facing new questions about Chinese interference in Canada’s democracy.

Plus, is Canada’s Arctic secure? Questions about holes in our defences loom after the Chinese spy balloon saga.

A situation that spun out of control, that’s how Justice Paul Rouleau described what was happening during last winter’s convoy blockades. His report into the prime minister’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act came out last Friday. Justice Rouleau said the government had met the threshold they needed to, but that the situation in and of itself was also a failure of federalism.

Justice Paul Rouleau, Public Order Emergencies Act Commission: “Preparing for and responding to situations of threat and urgency in a federal system requires governments at all levels, and those who lead them, to rise above politics and collaborate for the common good. In January and February, 2022 this did not always happen.” 

Mercedes Stephenson: Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino joins me now. Welcome to the show, minister.

Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Thanks for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: I guess you couldn’t have asked for much of a better report as the government. It very clearly said that this was required, but it also said it never needed to get to this point, that there were failures in policing. There were failures in politics. There were failures in politicians at different levels of government, to get along. Do you wish you’d handled this differently or acted sooner?

Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Well first, I want to begin my—expressing my gratitude to Judge Rouleau for issuing his report. After carefully listening to all of the evidence over a number of weeks, he did come to the conclusion that the government was justified in invoking the Emergencies Act and that is because, as you pointed out, this was a protest that was national in scale. It impacted people and workers. It completely upended folks’ way of going about their daily lives. And the government had a responsibility to act, so we took that responsibility and we took that decision very seriously. We did not want to invoke the act, but we did and it worked. And it resolved the blockades. No one got hurt. There were no fatalities. There was no significant damage to property. And now we have to set about looking at the recommendations that he was very thoughtful in writing, including making sure that we’ve got strong lines of communication with police and governments so that ideally, we never get into this situation again.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Did you agree with the assessment that Doug Ford basically abandoned the people of Ottawa, according to this report that the Ontario government failed to act?   

Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Well there’s no doubt that there was very difficult moments not only for the provinces and the territories, but for the police and that is why the government took every step to address those challenges, as Judge Rouleau wrote in his report. I think one of the important points going forward is to strengthen the collaboration, strengthen the coordination between all levels of government so that it never does get to a point where you need to invoke the Emergencies Act. There are some concrete recommendations around policing and sharing of information and intelligence, and even some of the texts that are in the law itself. We’re going to study those very carefully and we’re going to work with all of our provincial and territorial partners, including Ontario with whom we’ve got a good working relationship to go forward, because there’s nothing more important than protecting the health and safety of Canadians.

Mercedes Stephenson: On Friday, Prime Minister Trudeau basically said that he was sorry for calling people who engaged in this a fringe minority, and there’s been a lot of discussion about the divisions in Canada and the kind of language that was used. Pierre Poilievre, the Opposition Leader, is laying the responsibility for the convoy at the feet of the Liberal government, saying that due to government overreach on COVID restrictions that went too far for too long and the way that you talked about people who disagreed with them is essentially what led to this. Is there some truth to that?  

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Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: There’s definitely some truth to the fact that Canadians were hurting throughout the pandemic. And there’s also truth in the fact that we live in a democracy and people have a fundamental right to express different points of view, and having debates is one of the ways in which we make forward progress. But it’s also true that the government at every critical juncture throughout the pandemic and throughout our tenure has always placed as a paramount goal, the protection of the health and safety of Canadians. And when we do that, we base our decisions on evidence and science and facts. And as we navigate these challenging times, it’s important that we work together, and I think, perhaps, that is one of the most important themes that come out of the Rouleau Commission report.  

Mercedes Stephenson: But that wasn’t really your government’s tone at the time.

Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Well, I would simply say that yes, there are definitely some lessons to be taken, but our commitment is to study the recommendations very carefully and bring Canadians along as we accelerate our recovery coming out of the pandemic. But this was an important moment for us to act. We had a duty to act. We were confronted with a very unique situation, where people couldn’t get to work. Thousands of people were laid off, temporarily. Businesses were shut down. People could not traverse the border. We had one of our closest, if not our closest ally in the United States, expressing the profound concerns that these blockades would interrupt the flow of critical supply chains. In the fact of all of those circumstances, we had no choice to act. We were always reluctant to invoke and eager to revoke. And now we will study the Commission report, to take whatever lessons we need to, going forward so ideally, we never have to invoke it again. 

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Mercedes Stephenson: As the minister of public safety, you oversee the RCMP and CSIS, two of Canada’s policing and intelligence agencies that deal with foreign interference. It’s something that Global News has reported on a lot. There was a pretty explosive report in The Globe and Mail on Friday, citing documents, very high level documents from CSIS, talking about China’s attempts to interfere directly in the election, and in fact, a target, particularly Conservative candidates and to cause them to lose. This was the strategy. You have repeatedly said that you didn’t have any evidence of China interfering. Then on Friday, the prime minister came out and said, well of course we’ve known China’s trying to interfere for a long time. My question to you is: Do you, or do you not, have evidence that China interfered in the 2021 election?

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Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Mercedes, we’ve always been up front with Canadians that foreign interference is a significant threat in the national security landscape, and that’s why we created independent panels made up of non-partisan, professional public servants, to examine very carefully the circumstances in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. And after conducting that review, they came to the conclusion that those elections were free and fair. Now that’s very important…

Mercedes Stephenson: Despite what CSIS is saying, because CSIS is—I should be careful of that—CSIS is not saying they were not free or fair elections…  

Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: That’s right. They’re not saying that.   

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Mercedes Stephenson: They are documenting threats which were not publicly revealed. Should you have told the Canadian people about these attempts to interfere? 

Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: We’ve always been up front with the fact that there is foreign interference that we need to be eyes wide-open and vigilant about. They pose a threat to our democratic institutions, which is why we put in place tools like Bill C-76, to stop foreign funding from interfering with elections, which is why we created two panels. And it was up to the non… 

Mercedes Stephenson: But when were those created? Weren’t they before the 2021 election? 

Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: To be clear, we created both of those panels to look at both elections. You don’t want elected politicians wading into the outcomes. You want non-partisan, professional public servants, to independently study the circumstances of the elections, who concluded on their own, independently, that the elections were free and fair. And that’s important… 

Mercedes Stephenson: Did they have access to the CSIS reports? 

Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: And I just want to complete the thought. That’s important because that means that Canadians, and Canadians alone, determined the outcome of those elections, and we will continue to be sure that we are eyes wide-open about that.  

Mercedes Stephenson: Did that panel have access to these intelligence reports? Were they aware of what CSIS was aware of? 

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Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Our non-partisan, professional public servants look at the information that they need to, to make the assessment around the integrity of the election.

Mercedes Stephenson: Does that include the CSIS report?

Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: So they get the access that they need to the information that is required to come to those conclusions. And those are important [00:09:20] against the threats of foreign interference. I’d also point out that it’s not just about democratic institutions. It’s also about protecting our economy, which is why in recent days, myself, Minister Champagne, Minister Duclos, also strengthened the protections in the academic sector by ensuring that there are stricter guidelines when it comes to research partnerships when they propose to study sensitive areas, where that partnership includes military and other sensitive branches of hostile state actors. This government will always take whatever steps that are necessary, to protect our democratic institutions, protect our elections, protect our economy and to protect Canadians from foreign interference.

Mercedes Stephenson: Does that include expelling Chinese diplomats who are bragging about attempts to influence the election?

Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: We will always take whatever steps that is necessary. If that means condemning hostile state actors, we will do it. If that means taking other measures, then we will do it. And we’re eyes wide open about what those threats look like and we’ve put in place… 

Mercedes Stephenson: But you’ve known about these threats for some time. We’re just finding out about them because we’re seeing the documents. But you’re the minister of public safety, so people will wonder why haven’t you taken more aggressive action? 

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Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Well in the first case, we are taking very aggressive action to deal with the threats and I’ve laid out a number of concrete tools so that Canadians can be assured that their elections are free and fair, that they and they alone determine the outcomes of it, and they can be absolutely confident that that is the case. That when it comes to protecting our economy, we’re putting in additional measures. In 2019, we passed Bill C-59, to give CSIS additional threat reduction measure powers, but the corresponding responsibility of the government is to be transparent. And so by creating NSIRA, the National Security Intelligence Review Agency… 

Mercedes Stephenson: Have you been transparent with Canadians about what you know, though?

Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Absolutely. By creating NSIRA, by creating the National Security Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians and yes, by creating the critical response group that is a panel that is made up of independent, non-partisan public servants who report to Canadians openly, transparently… 

Mercedes Stephenson: And did not document any threats to the election. 

Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: …openly and transparently so that Canadians can be sure that their democratic institutions are protected. That is the high bar that this government has set and that is the high bar that the government will continue to live up to.  

Mercedes Stephenson: I have heard from both Liberals and Conservatives that it’s dangerous to talk about China attempting to fund interference in Canadian elections because it can cause you to lose an election or lose a seat, that there is very much, and it’s not a Liberal or Conservative side necessarily, that there is a danger to talking about China from a political vantage of winning an election. Do you think that that is impeding a willingness on all sides of the political spectrum to crack down on China? 

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Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: National security is not a partisan issue. This is something that all parties should be united in addressing. And that is why when we speak about this, we speak about it in terms of relying on our institutions, relying on non-partisan public servants, to ensure that our democratic institutions are protected. We’re relying on the various branches within the National Security and Intelligence Agencies, to give the tools that they need, to protect our economy, to protect our communities. And by giving them those tools, we can address the concerns that have been expressed around intimidation, around harassment, around potential retaliation. The government is there to support all Canadians and we’ll continue to be eyes wide-open about addressing those threats by making sure that all of our agencies have the tools that they need but with the corresponding transparency that is required to be upfront with Canadians so that Canadians can maintain confidence in their institutions.

Mercedes Stephenson: We know that both our viewers and we here at The West Block love transparency, so we look forward to having you back again. Thank you so much for joining us today, minister. 

Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Thank you, Mercedes.

Up next, why a former defence minister says the Chinese spy balloon and those other aerial objects should be a wakeup call for Canada.  

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Mercedes Stephenson: There are a lot of unanswered questions about the Chinese spy balloon and the three aerial objects shot down by NORAD earlier this month.

U.S. President Joe Biden is saying the three objects were likely harmless. But between the spy balloon and scrambled fighter jets, tensions with China are clearly on the rise. Biden says his message to Beijing is clear: The U.S. won’t tolerate a violation of its sovereignty.

Joe Biden, U.S. President: “We seek competition, not conflict with China. We’re not looking for a new Cold War.” 

Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now to talk about Canada’s response is former Conservative Defence Minister Peter MacKay. Peter, thank you for coming on.

Peter MacKay, Former Defence Minister: My pleasure, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: We’ve been watching this whole thing, tracking it very closely. You could see it really escalating when it looked for a while like there might be four spy balloons. Now they’re saying only one definitely was, but it is part of a global surveillance program that the Chinese are conducting and there’s this sense of tension between China and not just Canada but the U.S. and North America that I can’t remember seeing for years. What is your take on the situation that we’re in right now?

Peter MacKay, Former Defence Minister: Well, I think you’re right. There was a moment in time probably last week, where it seemed surreal that there were numerous of these platforms—observation platforms as they were being described, some saying UFO. It looks more and more like the evidence will bear out that it was one and then others that coincidently had entered North American airspace. What made it a bit difficult to interpret was they were all different sizes, different locations at different altitudes and NORAD, of course, is tasked, first and foremost with protecting the skies over North America, the continent. It’s a shared responsibility: Canada-U.S. So one can understand reasonably why they took them down in a militaristic sense. They took them down with sidewinder missiles. It was American aircraft that was scrambled, although Canadian planes were in the vicinity. And it raises broader questions as you’ve alluded to in your opening. What does this mean for the ongoing tensions with China? With Russia as well, of course, and what about the defences of North America, particularly the vulnerability from the Arctic? And that’s where, you know, the discussion around Arctic defences and installations; observation from the Arctic becomes really, a critical question.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well and I know that this is something that you’ve been talking about a lot recently, and most of North America’s Arctic belongs to Canada. It’s Canadian territory. What kind of ability do we have to actually monitor and defend that right now?

Peter MacKay, Former Defence Minister: Very little. We don’t have modern fighter aircraft, as you know. We have some observation platforms available. We, of course, don’t have even the antiquated what they used to call the DEW line, which was a series of sensors. But we know the technology exists through satellite. We need to have the ability to have more ships there. For refuelling, we have to have a deep water refuelling station. That is still under construction. It will take a system of systems, if you will, including underwater sensors. All of this is a massive investment. The current government has committed to that but over a very long period of time. And if anything, this balloon incident, which looks to be overblown—pardon the pun—has put a sharp focus on what will be required. And I think the Americans have a greater appreciation and perhaps a little more anxiety about this than most Canadians. We haven’t taken this situation serious enough, in my opinion.

Mercedes Stephenson: How much influence does Canada have at the table in terms of making these decisions on things like shoot downs right now? Because it seemed like Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden were both kind of saying they ordered the shoot down. Does Canada have a voice or is it the U.S. calling the shots?

Peter MacKay, Former Defence Minister: We have a voice, to be sure. But in this case, make no mistake, the Americans called the shot and took the shot with their aircraft and their missiles, which by the way are about $0.5 million a pop. But we’re losing face and we’re losing that influence when we’re not upping our game. We don’t have modern aircraft. We don’t have the ships that we need. We certainly don’t have the number of submarines that the U.S., the UK and others have. And that’s why, frankly, we weren’t invited to the table with this new organization called [00:04:45 UKUSA], which is the equivalent of the Five Eyes. So we are on a downward spiral. We’re not paying our commitment to NATO with respect to the percentage of GDP. All of this in accumulation does diminish Canada’s voice at a lot of tables.
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Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that we’re going to see more, not necessarily just spy balloons, but these kinds of incursions from states like Russia and China in areas that most of us in the public hadn’t even been thinking about?

Peter MacKay, Former Defence Minister: Sadly, I think it’s entirely possible, almost expected. I believe the Chinese were opportunistic in this sense and Russia can be even more so. It’s not only the air approaches that we need to be concerned about, Mercedes. With the opening of Arctic waters, similarly, the Russians are more active, the Chinese as well in sending these research vessels through our waters. Russia, in particular, is recapitalizing some of their old military bases on their side of the Arctic. So that is to say the waters that we share, up to a certain line, the Russians are much more prepared and much more armed and much more able. And so this will pose certain challenges to Canada, in particular, but to NORAD and North America. And the Arctic Rangers, God love them, we simply—we need much more in terms of our protection of sovereignty and projection of Canadian military capability. 

Mercedes Stephenson: Speaking of Russia, there was a Russian not incursion but sort of test of the Northern skies that NORAD said they considered to be among the norm. There was an interception that happened last week, but of course, where Russia is most active is Ukraine. And a year on, a lot of folks didn’t think we would still see the Ukrainians fighting. They are. The West has backed them, but it’s still very much a question of how this is going to turn out? Do you think that Western countries are doing enough to support Ukraine and how do you balance that with also not escalating it to being drawn in and viewed potentially as a combatant?

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Peter MacKay, Former Defence Minister: I don’t think that we, the West, are doing enough and I fear that this is far from over. Russia will continually test the commitment of NATO and the West in what they’re doing in this illegal invasion of Ukraine. As you know, this goes back to 2014. We’re coming up on the one year anniversary, if you will, of the true war on Ukraine. But it begin in Crimea in 2014, and so we, the West, have been preparing and have knowledge of this for a very long time. Sending in tanks, air defence systems, everything short of, quite frankly, boots on the ground, has to continue. This is a quintessential threat not just to Ukraine, but to global security and the whole order of peace in the world. This is on Europe’s doorstep. What it has done as well, Mercedes, clearly, is accelerate the expansion of NATO, enlargement of NATO. It has allowed Ukraine, perhaps, to enter the European Union at an accelerated pace as well, in an effort to take every step to push back on Russia. But it’s coming at a massive cost, of course, in human lives. The infrastructure that’s being destroyed on the ground and it’s also having a massive impact on Russia. It has blown up spectacularly on them. They’re a poorer country. They’re a weaker country. They’ve lost their ability to project power and perhaps become more reliant, supplicant to China as a result of this ill thought out incursion into their neighbouring country of Ukraine.  

Mercedes Stephenson: Peter MacKay, former minister of defence, thank you for joining us today.

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Peter MacKay, Former Defence Minister: Thank you, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, taking stock as Ukraine marks on year since Russia’s invasion. 


Mercedes Stephenson: Now for one last thing, and this week it’s a very important one. We’re approaching the one year anniversary of Russia invading Ukraine. The images of Russian soldiers advancing shocked the world and few thought that a year later, Ukraine would still be fighting. But their resolve remains strong. It’s been a year filled with atrocities, the systemic targeting of civilians, the destruction of Ukrainian towns and cities and a long list of war crimes.

The West has backed Ukraine with words and weapons, seeing it as the front line between democracy and tyranny, but it has not been enough to win yet. As we mark this tragic anniversary, we’ll see what more the West is willing to give in coming days.

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Thanks for watching today, and I’ll see you next Sunday.

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