THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 11, Season 11
Sunday, January 9, 2022
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister
Shannon Proudfoot, Maclean’s Magazine
Iain Rankin, Former Nova Scotia Premier
Location: Ottawa, ON
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: More bluster from an increasingly belligerent Russia and China, growing concerns over the perils facing America’s democracy. Is the foundation set for a global power shakeup?
Where does Canada stand in these changing times? We speak with Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly.
Then it’s back to school, virtually.
Doug Ford, Ontario Premier: “And if we do not act, if we don’t do everything possible to get this variant under control, the results could be catastrophic.”
Mercedes Stephenson: What does online learning really mean for children and their parents? Writer Shannon Proudfoot on the impossible balance that so many are facing.
Then, former Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin resigns as Liberal leader. He joins us to look back at his time in office.
It’s Sunday, January 9th, and this is The West Block.
Hello, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Thank you for joining us today.
Russia’s military continues to mass along the Ukrainian border, stirring concerns about a possible invasion. Meanwhile, China says relations with Canada are at a crossroads, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused Beijing of coercive diplomacy on this very program just two weeks ago.
Joining us now to talk about Canada’s place in the world in these turbulent times, is Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly.
I know that there have been a number of meetings amongst NATO allies, talking about the concerns of what’s happening in Ukraine: 100 thousand troops that are massed on the border there, a lot of Russian activity, a lot of concern.
You spoke to your counterparts on Friday about how NATO will respond. How likely do you think it is that we’ll see Russian military intervention and a further invasion of Ukraine?
Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well, it is very important that we send a strong message to Russia that they need to de-escalate and that they need to stop this military build-up, which is at the border of Ukraine. And so that is why we worked as an alliance altogether within NATO to show unity because our unity is our strength. And we’re calling Russia to, you know, enter into a dialogue with us, while showing also important deterrents on the part of the alliance.
Mercedes Stephenson: We talk a lot about deterrents amongst NATO countries, but there was no real military consequence for Russia the first time that they invaded Ukraine. Will there be a red line or a hardline for NATO where there is a real consequence for Russia if they do this again?
Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well, of course, we don’t accept the red lines that were presented by Russia, but since 2014, so the annexation of Crimea by Russia, Canada has been in Ukraine to help build and support their own military. We’ve been there through Operation Unifier to train their military. At the same time, we have been very much involved also in the NATO multi-national forces on the eastern flanks, so in the Baltic states, in Latvia where we lead also, a deterrent mission there. So we know that Ukrainian—Ukraine security is also Europe security. It’s the world security, and that’s why Canada needs to play its part and we’re playing our part.
Mercedes Stephenson: And there is that broader concern that this isn’t just about Ukraine, as concerning as that is, it’s about Russian influence. It’s about increasing not just sabre rattling, but potential actual military action. One thing that Ukrainian governments have asked for in the past is weapons from Canada. Is that something that the Ukrainian government has asked you for now? And if so, is it something you would consider?
Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well, I’ve been in contact with my colleague, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba, many times. For us, it is important that we show our resolve in supporting the military there because of our training capacity. We will continue to support Operation Unifier. At the same time, right now, and that is my role, Mercedes, as minister of foreign affairs, is to make sure to show that there are two paths. Like I mentioned, first is dialogue and that’s fundamental and that’s what we’re doing within NATO with Russia, and at the same time, its deterrents. And in that sense, we will continue to play our part and again, also work with our allies that are very much involved in this as well.
Mercedes Stephenson: Russia, of course, is not the only global superpower that has created increasingly turbulent times. And China, of course, has had much more in terms of diplomatic conflict with Canada.
On this program, two weeks ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the Chinese government of coercive diplomacy and he called on western countries to work together and form a unified front because he said China has been playing western countries against each other when it comes to commercial interests.
Following his comments, there was a response from the Chinese government, and a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Mr. Trudeau’s comments: “Do not square with the facts and are full of misunderstanding and miscalculation with regards to China,” and went on to say, “The China-Canada relationship is standing at a crossroads.” Does Canada see China as a partner or a rival? What are your responses to those comments, minister?
Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well, we know, Mercedes, and viewers know, that there’s a growing influence of China in the world, and every single country needs to take a decision as to what their relationship will be with China and what our relationship as a country will be with China. That is why I was given the mandate to develop a strategy, which is called an Indo-Pacific Strategy, because we need to see, yes China, but also the region as a whole. And we need to be able to have a clear strategy in the region when it comes to trade, when it comes to also, our relationship economically speaking, but also on human rights and democratic values and issues. So, for example, on this very issue, we decided not to send any officials to the Beijing Olympics. We also called out what happened in Hong Kong over the holidays and the arbitrary detention of Denise Ho, who’s also a Canadian citizen. So we will call out China on democratic issues every time, and at the same time, we will further exercise here with experts, with academics, with people that have ties to China, with also people that have an opinion and expertise in the region to make sure that ultimately we’re ready for the next years and the next decade.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you accept the assertion of the Chinese government that Canada only has a binary choice here, that either you are a partner or a rival?
Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well, see, what I think as a foreign affairs minister is we need to be able to talk to everybody, and even with when we disagree with them. And we disagreed with China on many issues, including the arbitrary of both Michaels. At the same time, we know that there are economic ties that our businesses have with China. And so it is a complex relationship and Canadians expect us to navigate it strategically.
Mercedes Stephenson: And Canadians in poll after poll we see opinion wise, expect a tougher line against the Chinese regime. What is your government preparing to do in terms of actual concrete action to deal with the Chinese government?
Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well, I answered your question. We need to have that strategy. We need to make sure that we present it to Canadians. That’s part of my mandate letter from the prime minister and that’s exactly what I’ll be doing in the coming weeks and months. And I look forward to answering your question with more details because it is a fundamental foreign policy question and obviously, we will always be there to respond also to the expectations of Canadians when it comes to China and many other countries in the world.
Mercedes Stephenson: Is that going to be a foreign policy shift in terms of, for example, barring the ability of Chinese state owned companies to purchase Canadian companies to control foreign miss and dis-information operations here? Or to, perhaps the most obvious one, ban Huawei from building 5G in Canada?
Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well, on the question of Huawei, we know a decision is coming very soon. On the question of foreign interference, it is clear that in a democracy, we will never accept any form of foreign interference. That is also part of my mandate letter, and the mandate letter of the Public Security Minister Marco Mendicino, national security minister, and also, let’s be frank; there cannot be economic coercion on the part of any foreign country in Canada. And that is why it’s important that our businesses also are well-protected.
Mercedes Stephenson: Afghanistan is another topic that you will have to wrestle with as foreign affairs minister. I know that there is an internal review happening in the department right now of lessons learned, particularly when it comes to evacuating embassies, something that no doubt, unfortunately, will have to happen again in the future. When do you expect that report to be released? And do you have any early lessons that you’re able to take from it?
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Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: The question in Afghanistan is something that is important. There will be a parliamentary committee looking into this issue, and I look forward to participating in their hearings and also looking at their findings. But what I would like to make clear to viewers right now is on the question of Afghanistan, we know we have to do more when it comes to bringing refugees. We have a commitment of 40 thousand refugees. We are now at more—well nearly 5 thousand Afghan refugees that are in Canada, we’re one of the countries—a part of NATO that has welcomed the most Afghan refugees, but should we do more? Yes. And will we do more? Yes, we will.
Mercedes Stephenson: Yesterday was the anniversary of the downing of a Ukrainian airliner that was shot down by the Iranians, many Canadians onboard. A lot of people feel like Iran got away with this. What do you say to them?
Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well of course, I don’t agree because Iran needs to be held accountable to what happened on January 8th, two years’ ago. And I’ve had the chance to talk with the families on two occasions, and this for me, is a top priority. I’ve talked to my colleagues, which are foreign ministers in other countries also affected by the downing of PS752. So that means Ukraine’s that means also Sweden and the U.K. And we’re acting as one voice within this group, to make sure that we’re pushing Iran to show transparency and ultimately that we’re seeking justice.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Joly, thank you so much for making the time to speak to us today. We appreciate it.
Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Thank you, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: After the break, the Omicron surge has parents across the country once again helping children with their online learning. We’ll speak with one parent about the struggle their facing 22 months into the pandemic.
Mercedes Stephenson: Students in most of Canada again face a return to remote learning, as the Omicron variant creates record breaking COVID-19 cases across the country.
Online school is being called a necessary step by some provincial governments, but the constant demands on parents and on kids are taking a toll and have many questioning why we are back here yet again at this point in the pandemic.
Joining us now is Maclean’s Magazine’s Ottawa Bureau Chief Shannon Proudfoot. Shannon, I have followed your Twitter account and your columns throughout the pandemic. You are a mom. You are dealing with online schooling and so many times, I think you’ve articulated the frustration and at times the utter absurdity that it feels like we’re all living through in this pandemic as we try to make do. You’re dealing with the situation of online school and in your most recent column you called it “cruel and ridiculous.” Tell me about why you think return to online schooling is not the answer to prevent the spread of the variant.
Shannon Proudfoot, Maclean’s Magazine: I mean those are sharp adjectives, but I think they’re absolutely called for in this case. I have a JK student and a grade two doing online learning and the reality is they’re not really learning. Their teachers are doing the best they can, but—and my husband and I are lucky, we’re able to work from home and try to help them, but it’s absolutely farcical to think that this is working for anyone. And that’s why I wanted to write that column. You know, we’re all sort of sucking it up and trying to do this, but nobody can do their jobs properly. Kids are suffering tremendously on academic levels, social level, emotionally. You know, families are just afraid and I feel like if you’re not living it, it might not be apparent just how ludicrous this is. And then this sort of added layer of insult right now is it feels very unnecessary. We know a lot more now than we did in 2020 or even 2021, and we’ve been told over and over and we’ve seen evidence that schools do not cause more transmission of the virus than anything else in society, and yet it seems to be a go-to move in some jurisdictions, particularly in Ontario, to shut them down. And my argument is basically that it’s a decision with massive known costs and negligible or questionable benefits.
Mercedes Stephenson: What are some of those costs to parents, to kids, to employers?
Shannon Proudfoot, Maclean’s Magazine: It’s huge. Kids don’t function well when they’re not in their routine. You know if you were to read any kind of parenting book, the first thing they tell you, is that kids thrive on, you know, stability and predictability. They need to be with their friends, learning hands-on and playing in playgrounds. They are not normal, and it’s hard to remember that the two years that this pandemic has stretched on, as brutal as it’s been for adults, for kids it might be 20 or 30 per cent of their lives that they have not known a normal childhood and a normal education and they need that. The reality is, too, that kids who can least afford to lose more ground are going to suffer the most from this. There are kids who get meals, or clothing, or stability at school that they are not able to get at home, and I know from speaking to teachers even at the school my children attend, they just fall through the cracks. They just lose track of them when they’re not in physical school because they might not have access to technology, or to an internet connection. And parents, I mean, every parent I know is just falling apart at the seams, like you sort of learn to soldier on because what else are you supposed to do? But there’s no meaningful way in which we’re doing our jobs or parenting in the way we want to, because you just can’t. Like I literally find myself, I wish someone could sort of strap a head cam to me, like I’m running up and down the stairs trying to help my JK, help my grade two do tech support, and then there’s my job. It’s just—like it’s just an absolute farce. This is not doable, and it doesn’t feel necessary.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well, I was reading your column and imagining you trying to juggle this and talking about writing a half sentence and then trying to jump in. You’ve got a four-year-old who is trying to have circle time. Four-year-olds, as you put it so well, can’t really navigate a conference call on their own. Why do you think it is that politicians, especially in Ontario, have defaulted to closing schools as the answer? They say it’s because it’s necessary. You say that’s not the case. Why do you think that that’s the choice being made?
Shannon Proudfoot, Maclean’s Magazine: It seems in Ontario in particular, it’s become sort of a reflex. I have sensed the Ontario government at times wanting very much to look like they are capital D capitalists doing something. Taking things seriously, taking drastic measures. You know, as cases have climbed with Omicron very, very swiftly as we’ve seen, there’s a lot of anxiety about what that will mean. And it seems to me like they’ve conceived of closures as a package deal, like you would shut down indoor dining. You would shut down gyms and schools have to go with that. But the reality is there’s a different risk profile for children from COVID, and there is also a massively different risk profile in the damage they will sustain from their school being open.
You know here in Ottawa, our Chief Medical Officer of Health Vera Etches, I thought put it really well in a statement last week where she said school is an essential service, flat out. That we should be thinking of it that way. We have never tried to shut down hospitals, or for that matter beer stores, or right now, shopping malls. We have never entertained shutting those things down because we decided that there would be too great risks attached to that, and I really don’t understand why we haven’t attached that same thinking to schools. I do think right now, at the moment, the public discourse is also gotten really out of whack. I think there’s a lot of people who are very, very afraid in a way that is perhaps disproportionate to the reality. I’m certainly not a medical expert, but spent a lot of time reading this and trying to look at people who are, and there’s just some very loud voices that are hammering on the idea that children are profoundly at risk if they go to school and that the cost of them for not going are not so great. And I think that conversations gotten really worked and politicians are reacting to that public fear.
Mercedes Stephenson: I know, you know, some people watch this and say but children are like tiny germ vectors. They go to school. It’s not just them getting it. It’s the families getting it. What do you think of that?
Shannon Proudfoot, Maclean’s Magazine: That’s true, and I think there was a different calculus attached to that before we had a very, very vaccinated population. At this point, you know, we’re clocking somewhere close to 90 per cent of people, or adults, pardon me, with double doses. We’re working on boosters. We have done all we can. We have sacrificed all we could to protect the broader population and the people who are more vulnerable than children to the bad effects of COVID. And so we have sort of done that protection, that circle of protection around them and around the people who would be more likely to have dire outcomes from this. And I just don’t think it’s fair to keep asking kids to sacrifice, as I said, for minimal gain and maximum harm.
Mercedes Stephenson: Shannon, thank you so much for joining us today, and good luck with your online schooling.
Shannon Proudfoot, Maclean’s Magazine: Thanks, we’re going to need it. All of us will.
Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up, after his election defeat, former Nova Scotia Liberal Premier Iain Rankin is leaving his party’s top job. We’ll speak to him next.
Mercedes Stephenson: For the second time in less than a year, Nova Scotia Liberals will need to choose a new Liberal leader.
Former Premier Iain Rankin announced last week that he would step down as party leader. The news came five months after he led the Nova Scotia Liberals to their first election defeat in eight years.
Iain Rankin joins me now to look back on his time in office. Thank you so much for joining us. This had to be a tough decision. It’s always a touch decision to leave politics. What led you to it?
Iain Rankin, Former Nova Scotia Premier: It is a tough decision, and thanks for having me on your show. It wasn’t something that came quickly to me after a really busy year that my time as premier was extremely busy and the election campaign. And the first time that I had some time to breathe and really talk to people close to me, especially family, I was able to come to the conclusion that it’s best for me and my family, my new daughter that was born in November, and Mary, and being able to move forward with some more time at home and some time to allow the party to organize for a new leadership, which is always exciting for a political party to do.
Mercedes Stephenson: You faced a lot of challenges when you were in office when it came, especially to the pandemic. I mean, really your entire term was defined by that. What do you think is the biggest takeaway for political leaders in this country who are facing the ongoing situation with COVID and Omicron that you see when you look back at your time and think about it?
Iain Rankin, Former Nova Scotia Premier: We are certainly in unprecedented times. I think Nova Scotia has led the way in many ways, and I inherited that from Stephen McNeil and we continue to try to test a lot of Nova Scotians. That was a big part of our success. The third wave arrived when I was in office and we took some of the strictest measures possible: locking down our province and our borders, and that worked really well to arrest the trend of increasing hospitalizations and the spread of the variant. So, I think that really it’s about having the courage to make tough decisions that you know aren’t going to be popular at the time, but benefit the long term interests of the economy, frankly, and protecting services that are needed like health care.
Mercedes Stephenson: You had a rough go of it during the election, and afterwards you faced a lot of people who attacked your leadership, who said that you basically disappeared during the election campaign. Do you have any regrets about your time in office?
Iain Rankin, Former Nova Scotia Premier: None actually, it was such a privilege to be the premier. Of course, there are always critics when you’re not successful in an election. We lost by 1.8 per cent. It’s always hard to get a third term, a third majority, and I came in at the latter part of our second term. I did my best and I recruited candidates as fast as I could for those spots that were open from incumbents not running again. We worked really hard in short order and we weren’t successful, but the things we did in office: signing the child care agreement, creating new offices to tackle systemic racism, and fighting climate change with a path to get off coal with more renewable energy, those are some of the highlights.
Mercedes Stephenson: Iain, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate your time, and our best to you and your family as you move on to post-political life.
Iain Rankin, Former Nova Scotia Premier: It’s a real pleasure. And I thank you for the opportunity, and all the best to everyone in 2022 and beyond.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for this week. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Thanks for watching, and I’ll see you right here next Sunday.
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