The West Block – Episode 27, Season 12

Mercedes Stephenson, The West Block. Global News


Episode 27, Season 12

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada

Joanna Chiu, Toronto Star

Cheuk Kwan, Toronto Association for Democracy in China



Ottawa, ON



Mercedes Stephenson: Mission accomplished: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a feel good message to Canadians.


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


U.S. President Joe Biden: “Bonjour, Canada.”


Mercedes Stephenson: In a two-day visit to Ottawa, President Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cemented their close relationship and pledged to work together on some key areas.


The U.S. Ambassador to Canada is here with Washington’s view.


And, sending a signal to China after a week of even more revelations about Chinese election interference.


U.S. President Joe Biden wrapped up his visit to Ottawa with a strong pitch for creating even closer ties between Canada and the United States. In his speech to Parliament, Biden described the future as full of possibilities.


U.S. President Joe Biden: “Nothing is beyond our capacity. We can do anything. We have to never forget. We must never doubt our capacity. Canada and the United States can do big things. We stand together, do them together, rise together. We’re going to right the future together, I promise you.”

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Mercedes Stephenson: So what does that future look like in real terms, and what are the Americans looking for from Canada when it comes to big ticket items like clean energy technology, critical minerals, the Arctic and defence?


For more on all of this, I’m joined by U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen. Ambassador, so nice to have you back.


David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada: It’s great to be here. Good morning, everyone.


Mercedes Stephenson: What a visit. I mean you could really feel the energy in that last clip. Everybody seemed very happy with it. I know these visits, despite what we see are not a one or two-day event. They are months in advance and months after. What do you feel the biggest success of this visit was?


David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada: So for me, the biggest success is the essential message that Joe Biden was able to deliver in person, live in multiple audiences and that is the partnership and the relationship between Canada and the United States is longstanding, it’s durable and it’s going to continue. It’s going to continue and it’s going to grow.

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As the President said in another clip in that speech, the United States will be there for Canada. Period. And I think the message of rebuilding the trust that used to exist between Canada and the United States, Canada’s part of the United States. I think in one visit, I think the President sort of reinforced it, locked it down, turned the key, moved onto the next point.


The supplementary message to that is partnership. It’s our ability to accomplish so much when we work together. One of my favourite Joe Biden lines, which is really from the 2021 virtual visit is when Canada and the United States work together, we’re stronger. We’re better. And we do better and the world does better. And I think he had a chance to deliver that message as well, and I do think people—I do think when he left, I know our team here on the ground, the White House team felt energized and I think Canadians felt energized by this. And there’s nothing like having someone who’s as authentic and genuine a communicator as Joe Biden actually speaking those words live and in Canada.


Mercedes Stephenson: I think a lot of Canadians feel, obviously, the relationship with the Biden presidency is way more stable than with the Trump presidency and that there was a warm to Canada but maybe a lukewarm. This visit felt to me like the tone was changing. I know there’s been frustration from the Americans over things like defence spending and that Canada has been saying they’re doing more to try to address that, but it almost felt like there was a shift in the relationship back to closer—to what we saw, for example, between Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama. Do you think that that’s accurate that the relationship has become closer?


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David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada: So I don’t—I don’t have enough of a personal window here. I’ve got 15 months of personal window. I know how strongly Joe Biden feels about Canada and about how strongly he feels about his relationship with Prime Minister Trudeau. I know that from the process where I was considering what job I might want to do in the administration and my conversations with him about how he felt about Canada. So I don’t think there’s any change in the way Joe Biden feels about this, whether there’s a change in the perception of Canadians as to the closest in the relationship. I think there’s been—I think there’s clearly been a sense, in part because Joe Biden hasn’t been here—so I think there’s clearly been a sense of does Joe Biden really care about Canada? Do those words that he says form the United States, are they authentic and real? Do those words that David Cohen as ambassador says, are they really the way that Joe Biden feels? I think if you can do something in one visit and a series of speeches and interactions, and visuals on TV, I think this visit put that to rest. Joe Biden cares about Canada. The United States cares about Canada. This country is our most important friend, ally and partner, and having Joe Biden on Canadian soil reiterating that and given people the opportunity to see the way he interacts, the friendliness of his interactions with Prime Minister Trudeau. Whether it’s a change in the way the United States feels or just a hammering home of the importance of Canada to the United States, this visit accomplished that message.

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Mercedes Stephenson: One of the things that we have seen post-COVID and with the concerns about Russia and China is this concept of friendshoring, that you want your supply chains to be with friendly countries so that you’re able to access them and don’t find yourself cut off from energy, cut off from automotive parts, cut off form vital things for the economy. I noticed there was a lot of discussion about having a secure supply chain and how much both the President and Prime Minister seem to want that to be between Canada and the United States. They are very real challenges with the amount of manufacturing. We still rely on from China, realistically in Canada and the U.S., practically. What does that increased closeness between supply chains and the economies look like as it plays out going forward?


David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada: So the integration of the supply chains, the resilience of the supply chains, which by the way it’s more than automobiles—we’ve now injected critical minerals and critical mineral supply chains into this conversation—is amazingly complex. There are a lot of piece parts to it and some of these places like critical minerals, China has a big head start and how do we catch up? So I’m a believer in the one step at a time approach, which is you can’t just wake up the next morning and say our supply chains are integrated, we’re now prepared to take on China and to be competitive in every way with China in terms of our alliance on Chinese manufacturing in our supply chains. You have to bite these off one at a time. So we have this new task force, this integrated energy task force, which is focused on creating integrated supply chains in the energy space and empowering the energy transition to intentionally a one-year task force, because we do not want this to be one of those efforts that has an unlimited time horizon to it. We’re trying to create the sense of urgency that we think this believes.

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Mercedes Stephenson: I noticed there was less public discussion about China this time than in some of the previous meetings. There was a lot about Russia and what’s happening in Ukraine and the atrocities there. China was less of a mention other than when at one point the President slipped speaking to Parliament and called Canada, China and said, “Well I guess I know what I’m thinking about.” I’m curious to know, what was the discussion about China behind the scenes?  


David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada: So, I mean China was a discussion. It is covered in the joint statement, the importance—and by the way, China is important in a couple of senses in the defence space with the balloons and the imperative that Chinese and Russian investment in the Arctic and in potential intelligence gathering, potential offensive capacity in the Arctic and the implications that that has for NORAD funding, sort of reinforcing the need for specific and important commitments for NORAD modernization. So, that’s part of the joint statement. China also comes up in the commercial set—in a commercial setting where discussions and there is a paragraph in the joint statement about the need to recognize the changed approach of China toward the West and toward North America. And so it was a discussion. It is covered in the joint statement, but I think it was covered in an appropriate way, which is as part of larger stories, increasing our competitiveness overall in an international economy, defence, as opposed to picking at China. And I—by the way, this is the United States and Canada was no light between the two countries as to the importance of taking on China, competing against them more effectively, calling them out when they adopt non-rules based trade practices, and I have to say, if I can, I hate disagreeing with you because I respect you so much, but if I’m—that clip you showed was a great clip from the speech, but for me, the emotional punch in the gut of the parliamentary speech was the two Michaels and the comments that both the Prime Minister and the President made about that and about the leadership that Canada has played with now 70 countries, attacking arbitrary detention. All of that was China directed, so you sort of can’t leave the overall impression of the visit without realizing that Canada and the United States together are prepared to take on China when China needs to be taken on, to protect ourselves from a defence in a commercial capacity.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Ambassador, a very clear message. That’s all the time we have for today, but I’m sure we’ll be back and talking about many of these issues again. We always love having you on the show.


David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada: Well great, I appreciate being on. And good luck with the budget this coming week.


Mercedes Stephenson: [Chuckles] Thanks. We’re going to need it.


David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada: Right.


Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, some Chinese Canadians say they’ve been warning about Chinese medalling and government intimidation for years. They’re wondering why Ottawa is only paying attention now.

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Mercedes Stephenson: There has been a lot of news on the Chinese interference and influence file in the past week.


On Tuesday, we learned about special rapporteur David Johnston’s mandate, given to him by the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Katie Telford agreed to testify before a House committee about what the government knew regarding Beijing’s election interference. But that wasn’t enough for the opposition parties, who voted for an inquiry to be called immediately.


A day after MP Han Dong resigned from the Liberal caucus to clear his name, following revelations he had an unsanctioned conversation with the Chinese Consul-General, discussing the two Michaels.

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Han Don, Liberal MP: “I want to assure Mr. Michael Spavor and Mr. Michael Kovrig and their families that I did nothing to cause them any harm. The allegations made against me are as false as the ones made against you.”


Mercedes Stephenson: On Friday, the Prime Minister was asked about Han Dong at a news conference with President Biden.


Unidentified Speaker: Do you believe he advocated for the delayed release of the two Michaels?


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? “First of all, Han gave a strong speech in the House that I recommend people listen to, and we fully accept that he is stepping away from the Liberal caucus in order to vigorously contest these allegations.”


Mercedes Stephenson: While talking about China’s efforts to influence and interfere in our democracy might seem new to some, for many in the Chinese-Canadian community this has been a reality that they have warned about for years.


Joining me now to talk about this is Cheuk Kwan, co-chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China; and Joanna Chiu from the Toronto Star, she’s also the author of the book China Unbound.

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Thank you both so much for joining us today.  


Cheuk Kwan, Toronto Association for Democracy in China: Thank you.


Mercedes Stephenson: Cheuk, I’d like to start with you. What is your reaction to the Han Dong story? What do you make of it all?


Cheuk Kwan, Toronto Association for Democracy in China: Well, we were kind of puzzled why he would do what he did, if that is indeed what he did and it’s proven, then I would say—I would speculate that he might have just wanted to cultivate friendship with the Chinese Consul and maybe telling the other side what they want to hear.  


Mercedes Stephenson: And do you think that there’s some context around there that people should be thinking about, Joanna, when they’re hearing these stories. It obviously shocked a lot of people. Han Dong very clearly denies that this happened. There was a conversation. We know that. The Prime Minister’s Office has confirmed there was a conversation but it’s sort of the questions about what was in it, and part of that has evolved into a discussion about whether there’s enough nuance in reporting about Chinese interference in Canada.

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Joanna Chiu, Toronto Star: Yeah. I have a piece coming out actually, trying to figure out the legal definitions of some of these words that we’re talking about, like foreign influence and agent, and if you’re a proxy for a foreign state. And part of the issues in Canada are definitions either don’t exist because we don’t have a concrete set of laws on foreign influence, or they’re different, or they’re even a bit contradictory. So the RCMP and CSIS have different definitions of what is foreign influence. I think Han Dong’s case, he is in the hot seat right now but we should remember that previous reports, these leaks from, you know, spy documents say that at least 11 federal candidates were possibly supported with undeclared cash donations by the Chinese Consulate and Han Dong reportedly was one of them. But previously, he said that he had no idea that he had any sort of support from the Chinese Consulate that CSIS did not brief him, that he was not informed. So I think this case really highlights the difficulties in a nuance of what foreign influence is, how foreign states act in Canada. It could be true that you could be a target but not know it. If someone is a good threat actor, they could manipulate you so that you change your behaviours, thinking it’s out of your own volition and that you are not in fact, voluntarily acting as a proxy for a foreign state. So this is really complicated and I think it’s an opportunity for public education and potentially looking at gaps in their laws, rather than always pointing fingers or being quick to judgement on certain people. I think Cheuk and I have seen on Twitter, some people are unearthing images of events where Chinese Consulate members have met with certain members of the Chinese-Canadian community and saying, “Oh, this must be something shady going on. They must be an agent.” But that just proves they were in the same room. So hopefully we have kind of more kind of nuance and context around these conversations.


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Mercedes Stephenson: Cheuk, you mentioned that you think that part of this might have been if Han Dong said what he’s alleged to have said by these CSIS sources that it may have been him just saying it’s what the Chinese Consulate wanted to hear. Can you describe for us what a relationship like that would typically look like? Would that kind of a conversation be abnormal? Is that a kind of a conversation that you would think is problematic to be having?


Cheuk Kwan, Toronto Association for Democracy in China: People from—Chinese people or people from China take—put a lot of emphasis on [00:05:27] which is a relationship. So to attempt a Consulate General—Chinese Consul-General’s Consulate National Day party or Chinese New Year party, it’s not—certainly not a—not a wrongdoing and certainly welcome. But there are also a lot of cultural cues that maybe some of us are not privy to, and these could be some of these cultural boundaries that are—you know, they’re a grey area. So I’m not saying that Han Dong did anything wrong. I’m just saying that we have to be careful how we read these signals. And certainly, as I pointed out before, we’re just dealing with 10 per cent of the iceberg. We’re at the end of the tip of the iceberg about federal electoral interference. There are a lot of things that have been going on below the water level for many, many years by China in terms of influencing, interfering and medalling in Canadian affairs, from the election of school board trustees, to the municipal mayors and councillors, to the provincial government and of course, the federal government. So this is something that I think we should be aware that we’re not barking up the wrong tree. We should be looking at what’s underneath that iceberg and really get a feel and understanding of perhaps the danger of such China’s medalling in our affairs.
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Mercedes Stephenson: Joanna, what does the spectrum look like of influence and interference from sort of trying to entice people and be friendly, whether it’s taking them on trips or going to events, trying to influence their thinking, right up to what some members of the Chinese-Canadian community have described in the Uighur community of direct threats against their family?


Joanna Chiu, Toronto Star: So I think it’s important to understand just recent years in Canada before the two Michaels were taken, before the Meng Wanzhou crisis, the overarching philosophy in Ottawa, across Canada was that it was good to pursue trade and business of China as much as possible and there was a justification I found in my research across the Western world that with just mere contact with Liberal democracies through things like business and trade, China’s political system would somehow naturally evolve to become more democratic, that its human rights conditions would improve. So some say it was kind of a justification that was definitely some say the case in Canada. I was in Beijing when Trudeau took his senior cabinet members over to China to try to get a free trade deal with China. That was just in 2017, so it’s very recent that the main goal of Ottawa was to have friendlier ties with China and behind the scenes, a lot of people like Cheuk Kwan, who were warning that part of it may have been to influence decades of influence on Canada’s political system that this was a good idea, that it was good to try to not speak too much about China’s human rights situation, to try to be more positive instead. This was a line that Beijing definitely wanted people to believe. And a lot of this took place with positive inducement. So I talk about carrots and sticks approaches, we learn more about the sticks nowadays because more Uighur, Tibetan, Hong Kong Chinese Canadians are talking about how their family friends are frightened, that they don’t comply if they don’t try to cooperate with China. But the carrot approach, I think is still a larger slice of the pie of what China tries to do. So, you know, inviting even like pretty low level politicians, city councillors of smaller towns in Canada, to these very lavish VIP, all-expenses-paid trips in China. And if you look up records, you know, politicians have been open that they have been excited about going on these trips and they’re really, when they’re in China or even when they’re having some of these paid receptions sponsored by the Chinese Consulate here in Canada. They’re really treated with a lot of respect. It’s kind of a playbook where oh, you’re a friend of China. You understand China. Let’s get some business done and this has been going on for a long time, including during the Meng crisis. B.C. and other politicians were criticized for planning and trying to continue these activities with China.


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Mercedes Stephenson: Very interesting topic and one that I hope we can talk to both of you about again soon. We’re out of time for today, but thank you so much for taking the time to share your interest and insight with us on this topic.


Joanna Chiu, Toronto Star: Thanks for having us.


Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, what to watch for in this Tuesday’s federal budget.




Mercedes Stephenson: It’s time for one last thing. The federal budget comes down on Tuesday, the biggest political event of the year in Ottawa. This year, the government is post-COVID spending but must now deal with economic uncertainties in the Canadian-American and global economies. They also have to strike a balance between promised fiscal restraint and the rising cost of living, paired with politically popular affordability programs for Canadians. Defence, clean energy technology and their deal with the NDP are all also must-haves on the agenda. We’ll have special coverage in our live budget special on Global News.


That’s our show for today. Thanks for hanging out with us, and I’ll see you next week.


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