THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 3, Season 13
Sunday, October 1, 2023
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
David Frum, Staff Writer, The Atlantic
Justin Ling, Freelance Investigative Journalist
Michael Levitt, President and CEO, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center
Michael Mostyn, CEO, B’nai Brith
Mercedes Stephenson: A billion dollars in defence cuts, assassination allegations, and a Nazi controversy. We’ll try to make sense of it all on today’s show.
I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Welcome to The West Block.
Canada has been making global headlines, but not in the way we might hope. In the midst of this, the government announced $1billion in defence cuts, doing a 180 on public promises to re-arm the forces.
General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff: “There’s no way that you can take almost a billion dollars out of the defence budget and not have an impact.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And a call from Jewish groups to turn an embarrassing international incident into a chance for transparency at last about Canada’s anti-Semitic past.
- Younger and older Canadians crunched by housing, retirement, debt: experts
- Jewish community in Moncton, N.B. ‘hurt profoundly’ as Menorah won’t be displayed at city hall
- Defence minister says plan in talks for ‘significant’ military investments
- Canada begins consultations on alert system for missing Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to power with the rallying cry that Canada was back—back on the global stage and ready to engage. So it’s come as a shock to many Canadians to watch Canada find itself at the centre of two international firestorms in recent weeks. The Canadian Government likes to call itself a strong international partner, but now that reputation may need damage control.
Joining me now to talk about this is Justin Ling, freelance investigative journalist and David Frum, staff writer at The Atlantic. Welcome both to the show. Where to start with the last two weeks for Canada and our place in the world? I think I’ll start with you, David, because when we’re looking at this announcement of $1 billion in defence cuts, this very embarrassing and horrifying moment of a Nazi being applauded and recognized in Parliament, and then the whole debacle with India on top of it. You’re in the United States, and I know that you really have your pulse on a lot of global leaders. How is Canada being perceived right now?
David Frum, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: So a billion dollars in the context of the Canadian defence budget is really a significant amount of money. Canada’s defence budget for the past year was about $26.5 billion, so a billion more or less is 3 or 4 per cent. So that’s a big deal. It’s a shock—pretty glaring contrast, the governments other spending plans have not been restrained. There’s one area where there is restraint and that is in honouring Canada’s international commitments. And I think it links to what happened in Parliament and what happened with India. Canadian politics is very inward looking. Canadians have—Canadian leaders have a hard time taking seriously the reality of the external world. So with the India matter, as horrifying as it would be that the Indian state apparently committed an assassination on Canadian soil: six men, two cars, this is a serious test of Canadian sovereignty, a serious disrespect of Canadian sovereignty. It’s also true that Canada has, for a long time, looked the other way at terrorism directed against the Asian subcontinent with a sort of deal that if the terrorism does not occur inside Canada, Canadian governments will look the other way, from the Tamil Tigers, from Sikh extremists because it needed their votes for domestic politic purposes. The domestic politics triumph. That’s what happened in Parliament, that I don’t think anyone—there are no Nazi sympathizers in the Canadian Parliament, but there are a lot of people who care a lot more about what’s going on in their constituency than they do about showing proper respect to one of the most endangered men in the world, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Mercedes Stephenson: Justin, you know you track the Canadian politics aspect of all this, too, and I think a lot of people have been struck, but these are events that have played out internationally but Canadians have been embarrassed by some of this and there will no doubt be a reaction from our allies on the defence cuts. Canada’s been under pressure to spend more. We just committed to 2 per cent recently at the NATO. Then there’s a change in defence ministers and suddenly we go from we are committed to rearming the Canadian Armed Forces to we are committing to getting rid of $1 billion. What are the politics behind this for the government?
Justin Ling, Freelance Investigative Journalist: You know, I think it’s actually a rare case where there is no real politics to it, because it’s not a political choice they’re making not to spend this money. It’s not a political choice their making not to hit the 2 per cent. Frankly, I don’t think they can hit the 2 per cent. I don’t think they can spend that $1 billion because they don’t know where the put the money. Everything we’ve selected as a priority for the Canadian Armed Forces, we have fallen woefully behind on. We’re either years too late or we’re just not finding the results we hope for. We’re having a hard time recruiting people. We’re having a hard time keeping people in positions of leadership. We’re having a hard time keeping people in the forces. We can’t even deal with the systemic and endemic issue of sexual harassment and otherwise bullying in the Canadian Armed Forces. We can’t even come up with a strategy and stick to it on how to deal with that. The people we keep entrusting to do that job keep getting forced out based on their own scandals and misdeeds. So it is deeply troubling that they’re striking off $1 billion, but I don’t know that it’s intentional choice the government is making to deprioritize the Canadian Armed Forces. I think it is a matter of incompetence.
Mercedes Stephenson: Are we kind of freaking out and naval gazing because we’ve had embarrassing events and saying on my God, the whole world is taking notice when people don’t care about Canada? Or is this having a real impact on our ability to get business done?
David Frum, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: Well let’s separate some incidents. And the incident in Parliament is just a reflection of the amateurism with which Canada approaches international relations. The India matter is very serious because that relationship is very important to a lot of people. The Indians are behaving badly. Everyone knows they’re behaving badly, but they are very powerful and there are then, these tests of power. If Canada wants its allies to muster up, the allies are going to say what would Canada bring to this? You know, to Justin’s point about the amateurism with which Canadians approach defence questions. So Canada has one of the most sophisticated banking systems in the world. Canada has one of the most sophisticated insurance systems in the world. The people who do trade advocacy in Washington are highly knowledgeable and highly effective. No Canadian government would tolerate incompetence in anything it cared about. Canada is not a bumbling country. It’s not a second rate country where it attaches a priority. Canadians have ridden for free on the defence issue, but they expect their voices to be heard when it’s necessary. And on this India matter, Canada’s going to be asking—here’s the Canadian request: look, there was this terrible event on Canadian soil and Canada wants its allies to rally around.
Mercedes Stephenson: Justin, what’s your sense of why the Canadian government told Canadians this had happened? There have been a lot of other incidences, I think, about China or other national security events where they say this is national security, we can’t talk about it. And in this case, they proactively went out, and I think it’s still under debate whether or not that was a move that worked well for them. I know certainly some allies were frustrated, but they felt it was the thing to do. Why do you believe that they handled the intelligence in that way?
Justin Ling, Freelance Investigative Journalist: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a few reasons why and I think one of the prime ones is that we know journalists were working on this story. At least one reporter had the story ready to go, had evidence pointing at the strong possibility that Hardeep Singh Nijjar was killed in connection—helped from the Indian High Consulate. We know that people in the Sikh community were pointing the finger at the Indian High Commission. So I think it wasn’t really the government’s choice. I think their hand was largely forced; the fact that they were also dealing with foreign intelligence, I think makes clear that the story was going to come out eventually, so I don’t think it was a question of them deciding to do so. But you know, I do think it’s worth noting that this government, on some big issues, has the right idea, right? I mean, you look back to 2018, it was Justin Trudeau who spearheaded an initiative to create a kind of response mechanism for foreign interference that was actually quite a good idea and it’s helped other countries deal with both Russian, Chinese, and other types of foreign medalling. You know, this government was actually quite strong in trying to hold Iran account after they down a civilian airliner just a couple of years ago. This government actually says and thinks the right thing. I mean, it is one of the last remaining sort of liberal champions for rules based international order. The problem is, as David notes, is that when it comes to execution, they often trip over themselves, right? They often can’t seem to get these basic things right. They created a mechanism for foreign interference and then didn’t use it when China was consistently using proxies and patsies in our country to win over Canadians, to tap, in some cases, former law enforcement officials and to try and put money into the coffers of NGOs and maybe even political parties. I mean, that’s unconscionable that that was allowed to happen, but it should get at least a little bit of credit for recognizing that we ought to be tackling some of these problems, especially as an international community not just sort of all running off madly in all directions.
David Frum, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: Can I descent from that? I think the government is no less competent than other governments. I just think that what you have to infer from its actions what its real priorities are. So, the election interference helps the government—this government—with its internal ethnic politics. That’s maybe one of the reasons why they suddenly became less good at managing the file, that maybe the file was working the way it wanted to. On the India Sikh matter, I mean, the government’s priority in that whole area, for a long time, has always been managing electioneering within the Sikh communities and other South-Asian communities. That’s their priority. They are successful with meeting their priority and the problem is their priority is always inward, vote counting, very short-sighted. It is not global. It’s not international. It’s not responsible. So the point—and it would be wrong to take away from this idea these people are bumblers. I think the thing to take away from is they do not have responsible international priorities. They are completely focused on domestic ethnic politics and everything is always sacrificed to those kind of making sure that you maximize the vote count for the governing party of the day within the ethnic communities in the ridings that the government most urgently cares about. That’s, I think, how to understand the Chinese election matter, and I’m worried it’s how you understand the India matter.
Justin Ling, Freelance Investigative Journalist: But David, let me pushback on that because we also have to recognize that there are individuals in our politics who kind of—in some cases—sit on both sides of these issues. Some cases, folks who clearly have some sympathy for the Chinese government, and on the other side, people who trace their family roots back to Hong Kong or Taiwan or other countries that have faced the realities of Chinese oppression. Ditto on the India file. We have folks, you know, folks from the rest of India in our Parliament. We have six from Punjab or Palestine in our Parliament as well, and frankly, that’s an asset. It is a good thing that Canada is a country of diaspora, of ex-patriots, of people who are hoping Canada can be a voice and a channel for human rights…
Justin Ling, Freelance Investigative Journalist: But this is a good thing. This is an asset.
David Frum, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: You said, we’re balancing—you said, we’re balancing ethnic considerations and that is not how national security should be done. It’s an important part of politics, but there needs to be something more to national security than balancing ethnic interests. And that is something that Canadian governments in general, have a hard time doing and this government has had a harder time than most.
Mercedes Stephenson: I have to jump in there because we’re out of time. I’m sorry to cut off what is a fascinating debate, and I hope that we can continue it sometime soon because I think it is an important one to have. Justin Ling and David Frum, thank you both very much for joining us.
David Frum, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: Thank you. Bye-bye.
Justin Ling, Freelance Investigative Journalist: Thanks.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, Nazis in Canada: the secret and shameful history that Jewish leaders say must now be exposed.
Mercedes Stephenson: Many Canadians were shocked to discover that a man who fought for the Nazis was honoured in Parliament.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “For all of us who were present to have unknowingly recognized this individual was a terrible mistake and a violation of the memory of those who suffered grievously at the hands of the Nazi regime.”
Mercedes Stephenson: What started as an international embarrassment for Canada has now also become an opportunity to reveal a shameful part of Canada’s history: anti-Semitic policies that banned Jewish refugees while allowing no Nazis to enter Canada with the government’s knowledge and approval. Jewish groups say that what happened in Parliament is proof that we need to release the records of Nazis who are living here in Canada, as well as information about who let them in and why.
Joining me now to talk about the past week and what all of this means for Jewish Canadians and Canada on the international stage is Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith, and Michael Levitt, a former Liberal MP and President and CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center. Thank you both so much for joining us. I know this is an important but also very painful topic to talk about for the Jewish community in Canada.
Michael Levitt, I’d like to start with you. You were a Liberal member of Parliament. What did you think of how all of this unfolded, and the speaker and the prime minister’s handling of this absolutely horrific international incident?
Michael Levitt, President and CEO, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center: Thank you, Mercedes. It was devastating to see this unfold, you know, and right before Yum Kipper, one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, to see the rising and the lauding and the applauding of a Nazi in, you know, one of our most sacred institutions was really, really mortifying. And it was unfortunate that Speaker Rota took so long to step down, but I know Anthony. As you said, I served with him for a number of years. He’s a good and decent man, but this was the kind of mistake that is just absolutely irredeemable. And you know, the prime minister, it was important for mending to occur, the head of our government, you know, the head of the country, it was necessary to hear from the prime minister, to hear his acknowledgement of the harm caused to Jews, to Holocaust survivors in particular. Other victims of the Nazis, but also importantly to our allies in Ukraine, and of course, to President Zelenskyy because this has had profound impact on the global stage in the aftermath, and the fallout continues.
Mercedes Stephenson: Michael Mostyn, I know that you’ve been hearing from a number of people in the Jewish community. What are you hearing about how this has affected people and what the government needs to do to try to repair this?
Michael Mostyn, CEO, B’nai Brith: Yeah, I agree with everything that Michael said, and it is a matter of disbelief, even now that we’re talking this more than a week later. People just do not understand what’s going on. So many Canadians have been telling us at B’nai Brith, they can’t believe that Nazis were let into this country. They don’t understand how this could be possible. And of course, our government records are still a secret and that’s a big part of the problem. The Deschenes Commission Report, the Rodal Report, B’Nai Brith and the entire Jewish community has been calling for its release. That’s what needs to be done at this point. We cannot move forward, as the prime minister said in his apology, but we cannot move forward and learn the lessons of the past if we don’t know the past. I actually received a call just the other day from one member of the community. It was a survivor of this particular unit that Mr. Hunka was a member of, this Nazi unit, the 14th Waffen-SS Galicia Division. And she told me how this was the moment in time, just don’t stop. Keep going. Get the records open and tell Canadians what really happened. How did we let the Nazis into this country? And we are just not going to move beyond this scandal until that chapter is opened.
Mercedes Stephenson: Michael Levitt, I think there’s a lot of Canadians watching this right now who are probably horrified with hearing this. Can you give us a sense of the scale of how many Nazis were allowed into Canada and what little we know, since the government—and we’ll get into this more, I think, in just a second—has been refusing to release these records for years of things that happened in the 1940s and 1950s?
Michael Levitt, President and CEO, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center: The number that’s often used is around 2 thousand. But again, the fact that….
Mercedes Stephenson: Two thousand.
Michael Levitt, President and CEO, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center: The fact that there’s been—yeah, the fact that there’s been such a lack of transparency around this, really, we don’t know the full extent of how many, how many are still around. And just an additional point to what Michael Mostyn was saying—the namesake of our organization, Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter—he in his later years, travelled the world, speaking out, looking to pursue justice. He actually refused to come to Canada. He refused to set foot to Canada because he was so mortified by the shameful track record of successive governments in dealing with our, you know, dirty laundry, as it related to that, you know, decades old issue around, you know, Nazis in Canada. And I agree with Michael, there’s an opportunity here for the government to, you know, open up the books and let’s once and for all, you know, bring this chapter to a close by at least being transparent, at least sharing the information.
Mercedes Stephenson: Michael Levitt, just before I go back to Michael Mostyn, as a member of this government, did you ever have a sense of why there was a resistance to this? Because one of the things I’m hearing from the Jewish community is they are feeling, in some parts of the community there’s been several missteps by this government and they’re concerned about whether or not they understand the Jewish community, the understand the vulnerability that’s there right now.
Michael Levitt, President and CEO, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center: I have to tell you that this is an issue that transcends any one government, obviously, over the span of time. And in particular, I’m going to use as an example, the case of Helmut Oberlander: an individual who managed to stall out the clock through appeal after appeal. You know, he managed to evade justice and, you know, dying as a very old man in the comfort of Canada. But, you know, in that case, for decades, for about 40 years, there was process after process underway and no government wanted to take action, including shamefully, my own at the time and this was something that I was very outspoken about, but it did not make a difference. We just could not get a handle on bringing accountability, even in a case like that where again, the record was very clear.
Mercedes Stephenson: Michael Mostyn, what reasons do you get from the government when you ask for these documents to be released so that Canadians can see? I mean, I think that’s an astounding number for a lot of our viewers to be hearing: 2 thousand people who were believed to be Nazis knowingly let into Canada. Not snuck under the radar. Not lied about their identity to get in. That the Canadian government knew who these people were and allowed them to enter anyhow.
Michael Mostyn, CEO, B’nai Brith: And I believe the 2 thousand number is actually this particular unit that Mr. Hunka was a member of, the 14th Waffen-SS Galicia Division. Who knows? Like Michael said, who knows how many Nazis? Irving Abella once said that, you know, perhaps all you had to do was show the SS on your wrist to get into this country at one point in time following the war. This particular, by the way, the Deschenes Commission at the time didn’t have—well maybe they did, but we don’t know—2005, the British released their records and said that those particular individuals were not—would not be appropriate to immigrate into the UK and they ended up here in Canada. So there are a lot of questions over all of this. And the reason why? We don’t know. We put in ATIP request after ATIP request, and we get silence. So nobody knows the reasons why. If I had to guess, it would just be that there’s going to be a lot of embarrassment over successive governments, as Michael had said, but also other institutions like the RCMP on how we could possibly have such indifference for Nazi perpetrators to come to this country and there were no prosecutions and no deportations. But the one thing that we can do from the failure of how we dealt with allowing Nazis into this country is to learn from that, change the processes so that as current and future war criminals and terrorists enter into this country, we’ve learned the lessons and make sure that Canadian citizenship isn’t that cheap.
Mercedes Stephenson: Certainly a very important lesson and I have no doubt the two of you will keep the public pressure on for accountability on this very dark chapter in our history that continues to unfold with the presence of these Nazis in Canada. Thank you both so much for joining us and for sharing your community’s perspective with us.
Michael Levitt, President and CEO, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center: Thanks, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, as the world becomes a more dangerous place, the government is announcing defence cuts. What does it all mean? We’ll have that on one last thing.
Mercedes Stephenson: And now for one last thing…
Members of the Canadian Armed Forces put their lives on the line for this country, for you and for me. They deserve our respect, our thanks and the equipment to be able to do their jobs.
In recent years, the military has struggled with aging equipment, more deployments with fewer personnel, and the sexual misconduct crisis, not to mention fears from the troops that equipment given to Ukraine—who very much needs it—would not be replaced here in Canada, despite ministers’ promises to do so.
So it was with a heavy thud that the news of the defence cuts landed, knocking already low morale in the Canadian Armed Forces to the pits. The Liberal government had vowed to keep their promises to spend on defence, ensuring they uphold commitments to our allies. When Anita Anand was defence minister, she extolled the personal commitment to making sure the military got the money it needed.
Anita Anand, Former Defence Minister: “One of the most rewarding parts of my job is to work hard for the Canadian Armed Forces in terms of ensuring that they have the capabilities, the capacities, the resources that they need.”
Mercedes Stephenson: So, what happened? The government cannot keep on promising deployments and capabilities to the world and making up for the shortfall on the backs of our troops.
That’s our show for today. Thanks for spending time with us, and we’ll see you here next week.