THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 34, Season 12
Sunday, May 14, 2023
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Vincent Rigby, Former National Security Advisor
Ward Elcock, Former CSIS Director
Naheed Nenshi, Former Calgary Mayor
Monte Solberg, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister
Janet Brown, Janet Brown Opinion Research
Mercedes Stephenson: With foreign interference revelations swirling around Ottawa, is it time to rethink our approach to national security?
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- Inside the navy’s search for war grave robbers in the South China Sea
- What is parliamentary privilege? A closer look at O’Toole’s CSIS revelations
I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Welcome to The West Block.
A Chinese diplomat is expelled, but opposition MPs continue to push the prime minister for answers as to why his government didn’t act sooner.
Where are things coming off the rails and why? Two former top national security officials weigh in.
And with wildfires raging in Alberta, is it hurting or helping Danielle Smith and Rachel Notley in the race to become premier?
With pressing global security threats coming from Russia and China, many say it feels like we’re entering a new cold war. Experts are sounding the alarm over how prepared Canada is to deal with these modern day threats, saying the federal government’s reactive response to recent foreign interference allegations, and the confusion over who knew what, when, points to the urgent need to update Canada’s national security strategy.
The stakes escalated last week when the Liberal government expelled Chinese diplomat Zhao Wei, who allegedly worked with Beijing to target Conservative MP Michael Chong and his relatives in Hong Kong. China retaliated by expelling a Canadian diplomat from Shanghai.
Joining me now to talk about Canada’s state of national security and intelligence is former CSIS director Ward Elcock and former national security advisor Vincent Rigby. Thank you both so much for joining us.
Vincent Rigby, Former National Security Advisor: A pleasure.
Ward Elcock, Former CSIS Director: A pleasure.
Mercedes Stephenson: Vincent, you were the national security advisor. You saw all of these threats. You’re aware of them. Who are the foreign actors who are in Canada? What kind of an intelligence picture are we facing, to paint to our viewers of what we need to be concerned about and our ability to not only protect ourselves but also spy on people who we might want to spy on?
Vincent Rigby, Former National Security Advisor: Well I think it’s very important to understand that it’s not just about the Chinese threat. It’s a broader threat of hostile state actors. So China, I certainly would say, is the number one hostile state actor right now in terms of domestic threats, but you also have to keep in mind Russia, Iran, North Korea, a number of states, and it’s not just foreign interference. I think that’s also important to remember it is classic espionage. It is the theft of intellectual property. It’s cyber-attacks. It’s across a whole range of different activities. So the threat is very real. It’s very apparent. China, I think, is leading the way but it’s not the only threat actor.
Mercedes Stephenson: Are we capable of dealing with the threats with our current national security strategy and resources, Ward?
West Elcock, Former CSIS Director: I think we are in terms of the institutions we have to deal with those threats. I think the problem comes, to some extent, around the resources that are made available for those agencies. I think that that’s probably a little thin at this point in time. I think the other reality is that perhaps our politicians—and I wouldn’t distinguish between either party, any of the parties—our politicians are really not very experienced in dealing with national security issues and frankly, would often prefer not to deal with them, I suspect. They’re more used to dealing with the things that voters in Canada are interested in, and national security usually rates pretty low on the schema in terms of what Canadian voters are interested in.
Vincent Rigby, Former National Security Advisor: And just to back that up, if I could, when you said, Mercedes, with our current national security strategy. We don’t really have a current national security strategy and I think that’s part of the problem. We haven’t had a national security policy since 2004.
Mercedes Stephenson: Wow.
Vincent Rigby, Former National Security Advisor: So 20 years and it’s the only national security policy that we’ve ever had. Now I’m not saying that a new policy would solve all the problems, but I think it would focus the government’s attention if we were to do a review—do a foreign policy review at the same time look at the tools that we have. I would agree with Ward that generally speaking that we’ve got a lot of the mechanisms in place, but I think a few of them could probably be fine-tuned and I would suggest that there are one or two mechanisms we want to think about that might focus the attention of the government a little bit better as well.
Mercedes Stephenson: So what should we be looking at in terms of tools and resources? I mean that’s kind of scary that we haven’t thought strategically about intelligence and national security since 2004, I mean three years into the Afghanistan campaign. Things have changed drastically. What do we need to update and to get into 2023?
Ward Elcock, Former CSIS Director: I’m not entirely in the same ballpark as Vincent in terms of needing a strategy. Another strategy that actually nobody is much interested in doesn’t really get us anywhere. It would be nice to see more of a commitment on the part of politicians and some leadership from politicians, but it would also be nice to see Canadians pay more attention to national security and then we might actually start to move in the direction of actually doing things. But there are things that we could do. For example, we have more review of intelligence agencies in this country than any other country in the world, and I think that, frankly, from what I know and from what I’ve heard, I think that’s leading to a kind of unwillingness to actually do things that are part of being competent intelligence organizations. Once you start to become unsure of your ability—your willingness to do stuff, you don’t necessarily do all the heavy lifting you need to do.
Mercedes Stephenson: You’re afraid to do things that you think might look bad on a billboard, but they’re normal in intelligence sometimes, perhaps.
Ward Elcock, Former CSIS Director: They’re normal in intelligence, but if politicians are uncomfortable with you doing them, and the courts, particularly the federal court, are overly restricted in terms of what they will permit and the review agencies—the review agency demand has always been high but it has been actually doubled in the last while and I’m not sure to what purpose.
Vincent Rigby, Former National Security Advisor: I think with respect, Ward and I often disagree on this, but respect to a national security strategy or policy, for me, our allies do it on a pretty regular basis, Five Eyes allies in particular. I don’t think we should be doing these every year. I don’t want them to just become paper exercises, documents that gather dust. But it’s been 20 years and in terms of informing Canadians and having a public debate, maybe that’s the way to do it and have a review and have an informed discussion.
Mercedes Stephenson: And you were the advisor, and to Ward’s point, there are 1,000 reviews. We get the releases, they say nothing. We have no idea what actually happened in those reviews, but is there transparency not only with the Canadian public but with Canadian politicians? Do they know what’s going on?
Vincent Rigby, Former National Security Advisor: Well I think there could be greater transparency. I think that the security intelligence community within Canada, it’s come a long way over the last number of years, but I’ve said on a number of occasions and Ward and I worked on a report together recently, saying we need even greater transparency. So you talk about the threat environment and Canadians knowing just how serious the threat is, we don’t do public threat assessments in Canada. We used to do them for terrorism a few years ago, but a lot of other countries, the U.S., the director of national intelligence every year comes out with this is the threat, a public statement. I think that would help inform the debate to a considerable extent.
Ward Elcock, Former CSIS Director: I think in terms of other mechanisms, I think we need to look at the CSIS Act. I think that needs to be updated. And I’m a big fan in terms of what happens inside government of creating a national security cabinet committee of some sort, where you can have a lot of the discussions you need to have about the intelligence and what to do about the intelligence about broader national security strategy. Right now, I think part of the problem we’re having with foreign interference is that you’re getting all this intel but it’s going up the chain in a very disparate way and so some is going to PM, some is going to this minister, some is going to that minister, but the PM’s not sitting down with his ministers on a regular basis, discussing the intelligence, discussing broader national security and trends over the horizon. And you said—you used the word responsive at the beginning. It’s way too responsive and that’s why I think we need a body like that at least think about it.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well it seems like it only becomes an issue when it becomes a political issue and it’s in the news, and then there’s questions about why weren’t things done. We were chatting before the show and I was shocked when you were telling me that, you know, one briefing goes to the public safety minister from the head of CSIS, another one to the PM from the person who’s in your previous job. These are two non-experts now discussing briefings neither of them heard from each other and I think this really came to light with people questioning is it CSIS that’s falling apart in analyzing the information or passing it on in a timely manner, or is it just kind of vanishing into the bureaucracy and into politicians hands? We can’t seem to get an answer over who knew what, when in the Chong case and a number of others. What are your thoughts, Ward?
Ward Elcock, Former CSIS Director: Well I think in this case it’s probably not the service. I think in this case it is much more the absence of a national security culture within government, within both politicians and the bureaucracy. That’s been true for years, the bureaucracy around, if you will, intelligence and national security issues, is tiny and the number of people who have experience beyond the intelligence agencies themselves is actually pretty small. So you really—it’s really not a surprise when things fall between the stones, when people aren’t actually between stones, when people actually aren’t experienced enough to know what the problem is.
Vincent Rigby, Former National Security Advisor: I would definitely agree with Ward on this one in terms of the culture. There’s not a very mature security intelligence culture within…
Ward Elcock, Former CSIS Director: Yeah, that’s a fair way of putting it.
Vincent Rigby, Former National Security Advisor: Exactly. But I would say the problem starts at the political level and I think that at the political level, it’s not taken as seriously as it probably should, ‘til there’s a major, major, major crisis. But in terms of who’s to blame with respect to Mr. Chong and what’s happening here, I mean I know that for politicians there’s a natural inclination to try and hold one person to one institution accountable and in my view that when something like this happens, it’s a collective failure. So I don’t know the details of the specifics of this report, but it may not have been flagged to PCO, but it may not have been flagged by CSIS either for PCO to look at it, how it is briefed. I mean, I don’t know but yes, someone’s going to be held accountable at some point and this person should have passed it up the chain. But there are lots of other people who probably should have been flagging it up the chain before it got to national security advisor, before it got to the director of CSIS, before it got to the minister. So, I think you have to look at it holistically and stop trying to politicize it and go we want to hold this person accountable. It’s not that easy.
Ward Elcock, Former CSIS Director: Although, I would add there, the issue with the Chong case in some respects is that it’s actually not a particularly serious case. It has become politically a very serious case, but to have somebody ask to collect information on a Canadian or their relative somewhere else is not really a surprise.
Mercedes Stephenson: And that they wouldn’t be informed of that didn’t surprise you either?
Ward Elcock, Former CSIS Director: Not particularly because the reality is, in many cases, that information may be too sensitive to provide to somebody. So the most that you can do, as CSIS did in this case, is to try and provide information to—I think they provided information to Mr. Chong, in order to try and protect himself from those who might be trying to target him. But the reality is, it’s not—this isn’t an assassination attempt. This isn’t personal injury to Mr. Chong and his direct family. This is the potential for a problem with his relatives in China and ultimately, the Chinese will collect that information wherever they want. If they can’t get it here, they’ll get it in Hong Kong. They do after all control Hong Kong.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well I think there is a lot of questions about what else may have fallen between the cracks when it comes to questions now about our national security and what’s been flagged up that all this has raised, perhaps a moment to discuss this and I’m sure that we will have both of you back, soon. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Ward Elcock, Former CSIS Director: A pleasure.
Vincent Rigby, Former National Security Advisor: Thank you for having me.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the wildfires burning in Alberta. What’s the impact on the campaign trail with basically two weeks to go until Election Day?
Mercedes Stephenson: The Alberta election campaign has hit the midway point during a challenging time for the province. Alberta is under a state of emergency as dozens of wildfires have forced thousands of people from their homes and their communities. It has led to changes on the campaign trail for NDP Leader Rachel Notley and UCP Leader Danielle Smith, who has been juggling the emergency while also campaigning. This week, the focus shifts to the leaders’ debate, a crucial opportunity in a tight race for each leader to try to gain momentum.
To talk about all the ins and outs of the campaign and where we’re at, I’m joined by former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi; pollster Janet Brown from Janet Brown Opinion Research; and former Conservative cabinet minister and CEO of New West Public Affairs Monte Solberg.
Thank you all for joining us. A panel from my home province, I’m here in Ottawa. We’re going to be out in Alberta in a couple of weeks, but we wanted to talk about the state of this campaign.
Naheed, let’s start with you. What effect do you think the wildfires have had on the campaign so far, if any?
Naheed Nenshi Former Calgary Mayor: Surprisingly, if any, I’m not sure they’ve had much, but if any, I think it’s actually been negative for the premier which is surprising. I would have thought here’s a chance for the premier to look like a leader, to look like a premier and that this would look good on her. I mean, obviously, we’re talking about the politics of it, but the biggest concern here is keeping people safe, protecting infrastructure and keeping property safe. But the premier kind of stumbled off the blocks on this one. It took her a few days to make a statement. It took her a couple days more to contact the prime minister and ask for federal help.
In her first press conference, I was watching it and I was thinking okay, she’s doing alright. And then at the end, she just said off hand, I’ve got some other places I have to be and then I’ll get back to the wildfire, which was kind of a—I stopped and went well that’s a very strange thing to say. And sure enough, the photos came out when she was at a fundraiser with ice sculptures and fruit and prime rib buffet, and it just wasn’t a good look for her. So, if she’s going to get a bounce from this, she’s got to change channels quickly. And unfortunately, a lot of what I’m hearing from the affected areas is that people are actually very frustrated with the government response, which surprised me. So if any impact, I don’t think it’s a good impact on the premier right now.
Mercedes Stephenson: Monte, do you agree with that assessment?
Monte Solberg, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister: No, I don’t think so. You know, I think the fact that the premier reached out to the prime minister demonstrated that she can work with the federal government when required and has produced the goods for the people of Alberta: two hundred soldiers arrived to fight fires. So yeah, she’s done well on that file. But I have to say since then, you know, later developments have probably erased a lot of the good that she did herself from her reaction to the fire. And in fact, I guess, also that she met with Rachel Notley and sat down, I think looked good on both of them, frankly.
Mercedes Stephenson: Janet, what are you seeing in your polling in terms of how this is playing out? Has it created any unanticipated changes?
Janet Brown, Janet Brown Opinion Research: I think it’s really not playing as an election issue. It’s definitely an important story. It’s the most important news story in Alberta today. But when it comes to dealing with these fires, the premier is really a figurehead and, you know, people on the ground need help from the administration, from the bureaucracy, so really, the question is was our government ready to handle this issue? And the fact that they were in the middle of an election and the leader of the governing party had to step back into her role as premier to deal with that, I think the bigger question for Albertans is was the government ready to handle this? So, yeah, no I have been talking to Albertans doing focus groups all week and the fires coming up as important, but I’m not hearing it coming up as a political issue.
Mercedes Stephenson: Monte, one thing that did come up for the premier was this video that was taken during the pandemic, where she made some comments comparing the vaccinated to Nazi followers. She said she wasn’t wearing a poppy for Remembrance Day regarding public health measures because she was protesting it. She’s come under a lot of criticism from Jewish groups, from the Royal Canadian Legion. How is that playing inside the UCP? Are those comments a factor for her?
Monte Solberg, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister: Oh, they’re definitely a factor. It’s not helpful at all. You know, she has really hurt herself, got the message completely off-track for her and her candidates, and it just contributes to the narrative out there that, you know, on some issues at least, she’s just too erratic. That said, you know, she’s trying to get it back on track by talking about her record over the last seven months since she’s been premier. The very mainstream record of investing in health care, reducing surgery wait times, reducing emergency response times, putting money back into the pockets of regular Albertans, and you know, just sort of the booming Alberta economy and that’s really where she’s got to keep it, both today and going into that debate coming up this week.
Mercedes Stephenson: Former mayor of Calgary, I mean Calgary is the battleground for a lot of this. It’s somewhere where comments like that are really being discussed and playing across the whole nation, but as people make a decision about which way that city is going to swing and the effect that it could have, what are you hearing in Calgary and how do you see this playing out?
Naheed Nenshi, Former Calgary Mayor: So Monte’s use of the word erratic is, I think, very generous. This is a very big problem for the premier and a very big problem for people who have traditionally voted Conservative but just aren’t sure they can trust this premier. The Hitler comments are just one of so many. You know, she said that the Coots blockade was a win for Canada, right back to, she said people are responsible if they get cancer, for their own health, all of it. There’s so much of it. And she really has no defence. She’s gone from you can’t talk about things I said before because I was just doing it for clicks, to I was super stressed during COVID and I said some things. Well she never said I said some things I shouldn’t have said. She just said I was super stressed during COVID because, you know, being a podcaster during the pandemic, ooh, that’s stressful. Do you know what’s more stressful? Being the premier during the pandemic and during the wildfire season. So it’s not looking good on her. And her new argument this week is look at what I did, not what I said. But the problem is you can’t really look at what she did when she was getting ready for an election, over six month’s as premier. You have to look at what she’s going to do. And Albertans are really losing that trust. So the question, and Janet knows way more about this than I do, is are the people who always voted Conservative as a habit going to actually park their votes and say like there are candidates at the door saying vote for me and we’ll get rid of Danielle later, or will they not vote, or will they actually say, you know what? The Conservatives need a timeout for my party to fix itself and I’m voting NDP. And Janet probably knows the answer to that.
Mercedes Stephenson: Yeah, that’s the question I have for you. What are you hearing in particular from those Conservative voters who would have to move to an NDP vote for an NDP victor to happen?
Janet Brown, Janet Brown Opinion Research: Well these comments that the premier’s been playing over and over again, things that the premier has said in the past, they’re absolutely playing horribly for her. But the problem is, is the NDP—it’s really keeping the NDP off message and they’re partially to blame for that themselves. The NDP has been going very hard on negative ads, and so I think voters are stuck. I see it all the time. People are very discouraged with Danielle Smith, but they’re only hearing negativity out of the NDP as well, and they’re looking for a more positive, affirmative campaign coming out of the NDP.
Now in 2012, when Danielle Smith was running as leader of the Wildrose Party and it looked like she was going to become premier, things fell apart for her at the last minute, because voters just decided they couldn’t trust her judgement and they looked for another alternative. But the other alternative that existed for them was Alison Redford, a Progressive Conservative. So for voters right now, some of them are looking around for another choice, but Rachel Notley is a big leap for them and they’re not seeing enough of an affirmative campaign coming out of the NDP to be ready to do that.
Mercedes Stephenson: Monte, leaders’ debate is coming up this week. We always talk about them in politics. I know, pollsters will tell you they don’t always have that affect unless someone is an absolute disaster or an absolute rock star. What do Rachel Notley and Danielle Smith need to accomplish this week?
Montel Solberg, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister: Well Rachel Notley needs to establish that they have a plan for the economy. The Alberta economy is doing extraordinarily well right now. People are coming to Alberta in big droves, and I don’t think they’ve actually managed to do that. I think they also have failed on public safety is another issue that is very close to the bone in key ridings in Calgary, and without a strong message on that, they’re in trouble, I think, with at least some voters.
For Danielle Smith, it’s she has to establish that she’s mainstream, trustworthy and will continue on the path she started on. She has a—you can’t be a successful leader in Canada unless you have a foot in the mainstream. You can lurch left or right a little bit, but you have to be there in the mainstream to some degree. She has started down that path in the seven months she’d been premier and she needs to reaffirm that in the debate so that people see that she had a good plan going forward.
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. Well, we are out of time for this panel. There’s so much more I want to talk about, so I hope we can have you back soon. We’re heading out your way in not too long and we look forward to seeing you all. Thank you for joining us and your insight into Alberta politics, fascinating election cycle.
Naheed Nenshi, Former Calgary Mayor: Thank you.
Monte Solberg, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister: Thanks, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: It is a distinct and rare pleasure to have you here in Canada. So, Karim Khan, thank you for coming in to talk to us.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the prime minister heads to Japan for the G7 this week. With tensions with China on the rise, what’s at stake for Canada?
Mercedes Stephenson: And now for one last thing…
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is off to South Korea and the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan. The attention of global leaders gathering in Asia will very much be focused on China’s increasing military might and sabre rattling in the region, not to mention North Korea and Russia’s threats about using nuclear weapons.
Canada presents itself as a global powerhouse when it comes to moral influence in international security, but allies are looking for more than words and so far, Canada, has not paid to play.
If the Trudeau government wants in on intelligence and military deals that counterbalance China, it will likely have to bring something to the table. We’ll see if that something is up the prime minister’s sleeve this week.
That’s our show for today. Thanks so much for hanging out with us and we’ll see you next Sunday. And happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there, especially the moms who work on our show: Bernadette and Diana.