The West Block — Episode 54, Season 9


Episode 54, Season 9

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests: Health Minister Patty Hajdu, Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel-Garner

Journalist: Robert Fife

Location: Ottawa, Ontario

Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: The COVID curve picks up.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer: “The average daily case counts have been increasing. This is concerning.”

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Mercedes Stephenson: Schools starts just as coronavirus cases jump by 25 per cent.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We are not out of the woods. Canadians need to continue to be vigilant.”

Mercedes Stephenson: We’ll ask the health minister how Ottawa is planning to handle a second wave.

Michelle Rempel-Garner, Conservative Health Critic: “We don’t have a plan from this government beyond another shut down of the economy.”

Mercedes Stephenson: The Official Opposition weighs in on Canada’s pandemic preparedness and the upcoming throne speech and a reality check of Sputnik 5: Russia’s fast-moving COVID-19 vaccine.

Unidentified reporter: “COVID’s surging to surpass more than 27 million cases globally. A vaccine can’t come quickly enough.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Hello, it’s Sunday, September 13th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

This week as the number of COVID-19 cases increased across Canada, Quebec Premier François Legault said that those who defy public health rules meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 are endangering the elderly and the health care system. So starting this weekend, Quebecers who don’t wear a mask in indoor public spaces will be fined.

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In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford called for a crackdown on border crossers who are ignoring the 14-day self-isolation requirement. Ford says Ontario police checks have uncovered more than 600 people breaking the quarantine order and he’s frustrated about the lack of federal action.

Doug Ford, Ontario Premier: “Yeah. We can’t have our police running and seeing people breaking quarantine and nothing happens to them—a slap on the wrist. It turns in to be a joke.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Meanwhile, in British Columbia, a spike in COVID-19 cases led provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry to ordering bars, night clubs and banquet halls to close again. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned Canadians are not out of the woods yet.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We are all still living in an emergency. COVID-19 is here and is going to keep being here in our communities until such a time as we have a vaccine or else much better treatment than we have now.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now to talk about all of this and the possibility of a second wave, is Canada’s Minister of Health Patty Hajdu. Minister Hajdu, thank you for joining us.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu: Thanks for having me, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, you’ve talked about there being a resurgence in cases. We have seen a significant increase in recent days. Does this constitute the beginning of a second wave?

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Health Minister Patty Hajdu:  Well thanks for the question, Mercedes. It’s really hard to say exactly what this will look like because in fact, what happens next is in all of our hands. Of course, we are seeing case numbers growing and this isn’t to be completely unexpected. It’s fall, people are moving inside. Of course, people are experiencing pandemic fatigue, isolation fatigue, but what happens next is really in the hands of Canadians and we’re working really hard with all of our partners to make sure that communities have the tools they need to protect themselves and each other.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, what would the bar be to have the entire economy and the country shut down like it did at the beginning of this pandemic if there’s a second wave?

Health Minister Patty Hajdu: You know, I think shutting down the economy is a very blunt tool, and of course, we, you know, we collectively as governments took a pause in February and March as we worked incredibly hard to flatten that curve, as Dr. Tam talked about time and again. But I think we’ve learned a lot since the initial surge and I think we have a lot more sophistication in all of our systems across the country and my hope is that we can work together to put out hot spots as they arise.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, your government has repeatedly said that you believe that Canadian people and the Canadian government have handled this pandemic well, but when you look at the death rates, Canada has 29 times the death rate of Japan, according to researchers, 50 times the death rate of New Zealand, 55 times the death rate of Australia. Why do you think that that is?

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Health Minister Patty Hajdu:  You know when we look at the proportion of deaths across the country, it’s a tragedy. Almost, you know, 85 per cent of those deaths happened in long term care homes in Ontario and Quebec. And in fact, we knew early on that vulnerable people would be more at risk. That’s why it’s really important that all of us work together to better strengthen protections for people that are in particular vulnerable situations like long term care. We didn’t see the same phenomenon in British Columbia. In fact, different measures were taken there and I think there’s an opportunity for us to all collectively reflect on how we actually protect people in long term care and other congregate living settings that are of course, more vulnerable, to really adverse outcomes from this virus. That’s the hard work we’ve been doing over the last several months together.

Mercedes Stephenson: Let’s talk about in particular your government’s handling of this. We had you on the show when this was first becoming a global pandemic and at that time, both you and the Canadian government were telling people that Canadians were at a very low risk. In retrospect, do you think that that was an accurate statement to Canadians?

Health Minister Patty Hajdu: You know, we’ve always followed the advice of our public health officials and in fact, at that time, the risk to Canadians was indeed low. There were very few cases in Canada. We were screening from the affected countries and when it became apparent that this virus was spreading uncontrollably in countries that were not reporting any cases, we took even stronger measures. Of course, you know, there will be a full review of how Canada dealt with the pandemic as I think all countries will be looking at in terms of strengthening their processes for future outbreaks. But at that particular time, of course, with very few cases and with a real strong global effort to try and contain the spread and not allow it to spread across the globe, you know, at that time the risk was indeed low to individual Canadians. I’m looking forward to that review as much as all Canadians, to ensure that we have the best public health system in the world as we move forward.

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Mercedes Stephenson: But minister, you’ve said that you were aware of how serious this virus was as early as December and January. You knew the borders weren’t closed. You said right on this program that the science didn’t support the borders being closed or temperature checks. Do you think that your government failed to take action early enough, if you knew that this was such a dangerous virus yet you weren’t closing borders and you were telling Canadians that it was a low risk to them.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu: I think if we had closed the borders in January with no cases, I think it would have been a sense of incredulity by Canadians and by many other partners. In fact, as you know, closing international borders is a very serious decision. It has major economic implications, which are also very difficult for the country. And I think the measures that we took around screening, is exactly what evidence and science says.

Mercedes Stephenson: One of the other topics that have been discussed all around the world is China’s role in this whole situation. You were asked early in the pandemic about whether the Chinese had underplayed the numbers that they were experiencing and the severity of this disease. You had dismissed that as a conspiracy theory. In retrospect, do you think that China was honest and was forthcoming in the intelligence it shared with the global community and Canada about the risk?

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Health Minister Patty Hajdu: Look, very early on, China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) to the emergence of a novel coronavirus and also shared the sequencing of the gene, which allowed countries to be able to rapidly produce tests to detect it in their own countries. I think the phenomenon of under reporting is going to be something that we’ll hear about across the world because of course, as pandemics come and as we see surges, it’s very difficult to determine how many people are sick at any given time and how many people are having, you know, adverse outcomes, including death at any given time. We’re doing an incredibly, you know, good job, I think, in Canada of capturing those, but I still think there will be deaths that in retrospect will be reviewed by coroners and by health professionals and determine that it is related to COVID-19. And here’s the challenge, it is difficult when you’re in the middle of a crisis to do that kind of thorough counting. In fact, they went back and revised their numbers as you know. I think that every country is grappling with how to manage this incredible demand on our data systems to ensure that we have the most accurate reporting of the number of cases that we have and the number of deaths that we have and everything in-between. And we’re going to continue that hard work in Canada because that data is essential to understanding what to do next.

Mercedes Stephenson: So, do you think that was just an honest mistake by the Chinese, then and not a deliberate effort to conceal?

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Health Minister Patty Hajdu: I can’t—I’m not going to speculate, Mercedes. It’s really hard to understand except through the lens of Canada’s experience and as the minister of health. And I can tell you when everything is happening all at once, it can be very difficult, especially depending on the legacy data systems that you may or may not have. So listen, what I can say is the world needs to work together right now and we need to ensure that we’re actually working in full partnership to defeat COVID-19 because it doesn’t matter if Canada is successful if other countries are not. If COVID-19 is present globally then it will be present in all of our countries and we can see that even from countries that had very early success in what they thought was eliminating the virus. This virus is a global virus. It’s a global pandemic and we need a global response.

Mercedes Stephenson: Are you concerned, then, that people continue to be able to enter Canada? I mean we say the border is closed but really, it’s only the Canada-U.S. border that’s closed, on land.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu: Well no, in fact, no foreign national is allowed into Canada unless they are an essential worker. And in fact, obviously, Canadians are always welcome back to their country and that is a fundamental right we have as Canadians. Every traveller is required to isolate for 14 days except if they are essential workers. And let me tell you, the economy of Canada depends on the goods and services, freely travelling across our shared border with the United States. This is an agreement that we are so grateful that we’ve been able to arrange with the United States and I’m grateful to my colleagues have been negotiating that month by month.

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Mercedes Stephenson: When do you think it might be safe to reopen the land border between Canada and the United States?

Health Minister Patty Hajdu: Again, you know, as the health minister, I’m happy with the situation as it is. We have our hands full here in Canada and of course, we want to reduce importations as much as possible so we don’t overburden public health systems that are working so hard right now. And I know my colleagues work on negotiating the next steps very carefully with their American colleagues each month.

Mercedes Stephenson: And one last question for you, minister. The pandemic alert system, Globe and Mail had a report saying that this was shut down, that you said you didn’t know that it had been in shutdown, that that was situation. Do you think as the minister of health, you should have known that that system had been shut down and looked for it to be reactivated before seven months into the pandemic?

Health Minister Patty Hajdu: Well certainly. I actually do think that, you know when this change was made that it should have been flagged for my office as a minister of health or any minister of health’s office. In fact, the decision to change the focus of the information network preceded my time as minister of health. That decision should have been flagged for the minister’s office and discussed with the minister because from my perspective this is a significant tool and asset for the Government of Canada and that is exactly why I’ve ordered this external review.

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Mercedes Stephenson: As the minister, do you think that you have a responsibility to ask those questions, though, to say do we have any additional intelligence? Is there a system that’s monitoring this? What tools do we have in our toolbox?

Health Minister Patty Hajdu: Absolutely. And those are the questions that I asked very early on with Dr. Tam, with the president of the agency, with all of the officials that advised me. What do we know? What is happening? What committees exist? How do we get the information that we’re getting? And in fact, it came as a very large surprise to me, the refocusing—the existence and the refocusing of the Global Public Health Information Network. It’s very important that we know about these tools as political leaders and of course, that is a big part of what I hope the review will uncover, is how those decisions were made, how they were communicated to the minister of the time and why it is that changes were made without the knowledge of the government of the day, which was us.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate it.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu: Thank you very much, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the opposition with their critique to the government’s response on COVID-19.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Joining me now to continue our discussion on the federal government’s response to COVID-19, is Conservative shadow health minister Michelle Rempel-Garner. Michelle thanks for joining us. You have just been appointed to this critic role. You had a chance to listen to our interview with Minister Hajdu. What is your response to what the minister had to say?

Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel-Garner: Well, seven months into the pandemic when we’re seeing a significant uptick in the number of cases, Canadians are being asked to trust the government for their response. And the reality is what I heard on that interview there’s no plan. You know, there was a lot of vagueness. You know, we’re giving people tools. What tools? I mean, beyond the threat of an economic shutdown, the government really doesn’t have anything else in its disposal, after this amount of time, to address this issue and that’s not acceptable. And also, I think we do have to be questioning the health minister’s competency and adequacy in this role. I mean to go on national television and say that she was briefed in late December and January and knew about the severity of the coronavirus, yet it took months to put in place basic measures like border control. She was talking about screening, there weren’t—there wasn’t screening happening at the airport, to the point where provincial premiers had to come in and take their own action. I just think that Canadians are being asked to trust somebody with their health and safety going forward and she’s made deadly choices that have cost Canadians their lives.

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Mercedes Stephenson: You know, a lot of people look back and they criticize the government’s performance on this, but if you look around to a number of similar countries like the U.K. or the United States, they took a similar approach. Do you think that it’s fair to look back and say okay, well, we should have done things drastically differently than other countries with similar democracies, similar economies, and similar outlooks? 

Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel-Garner: Well, our leaders are tasked with keeping the health and safety of Canadians at the front of any decisions that they make and we do have to look at this within our own borders. The reality is, is that both the prime minister and health minister in their words, were briefed on this issue at a time when they could have done something. You know, I heard the minister say well, you know, we didn’t want to go against public opinion. The reality is, is if you’re the public health minister of Canada, you’re actually paid to make tough decisions that will keep Canadians safe, whether or not you’re going to be liked. And I think that a lot of Canadians should be worried about Trudeau and his health minister making decisions based on popularity rather than public health outcomes. So, again, I think we have to look in the Canadian context and again, you know, you Mercedes, you mentioned some of the stats about death rates in Canada. Those are unacceptable, especially when we look at countries around the world. So the fact that we don’t have the government looking at best practices that have worked in other jurisdictions and even doing feasibility analysis on that right now, that we’re still the only thing that we have in their own words is that blunt tool of an economic shutdown that has cost so many Canadians their jobs. It’s just it’s unacceptable. And, you know, they’re talking about reviews. We don’t need a review. Canadians died and we’re in one of the worst economic crises that our country has ever seen. There’s your review. Now they need a plan.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Well speaking of a plan, as the opposition, you are talking to the government about, I assume or will be at some point, what you’d like to see in the throne speech. What would you like to see as the health critic? What is essential that you believe the Canadian government needs to do, to protect Canadians if there is a second wave?

Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel-Garner: Well first of all, I think Justin Trudeau needs to address some of these trust issues that have come up with the health minister. She’s made many decisions from downplaying the severity of the pandemic on the frontend of it, delaying border closure measures, you know, suggesting that questioning China’s response was a conspiracy theory, I think that there’s issues with trust right now. And for Canadians to trust her after all of this, I think it’s a big leap. So, that’s something that I think the government needs to address. Then, across the world we are seeing best practices being—start to be explored at least, right? You know, we’ve heard reports that Health Canada, they refuse to look at things like home testing. Now they are looking at that. How is the government going to—and analyze that—those types of tools? What metrics are they using and how can they be deployed so that we’re keeping Canadians safe, while ensuring that we’re not using another—again, in their own words—blunt tool of an economic shutdown. And also, I think that there’s been a big offloading of responsibilities to the provincial government. We’re hearing premiers, you know, just saying look, we can’t shoulder the burden of all of these poor deadly decisions. We need some more clarity. You’re hearing, you know, Premier Ford, Premier Legault talk about the need to have more funding. They need—Justin Trudeau needs to have a plan that is beyond an economic shutdown that protects people from COVID-19, while showing a clear path to recovery so that sectors like, you know, hospitality and tourism and other sectors that are—really don’t have a path forward that affects so many others Canadians that we’re seeing that plan. And that’s something that if it’s not in the throne speech, if the throne speech is just sort of crass, partisan wedge politics designed to distract from scandals, you know, I think that we’re going to have a real crisis here in Canada in terms of public confidence.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you for joining us, Michelle.

Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel-Garner: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the ongoing string of political scandals facing the Liberals. Stay with us.



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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. We are just a week and a half away from the speech from the throne, but it has still been a busy political news cycle, as it has been all summer. This week: a number of scandals for the Liberal government to deal with. Here to talk to us about all of that and what to expect in the throne speech is Ottawa Bureau Chief for The Globe and Mail, Bob Fife. Bob, thank you for making time for us.

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: My pleasure.

Mercedes Stephenson: Now Bob, you know your newspaper and you really led a lot of this story on the WE scandal. WE has not shutdown their operations in Canada. Does that shut down the scandal for the Liberal government?

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Absolutely not. This scandal is going to go on for months. We know that the finance committee, which was shut down—shuttered by the Liberal government, is going to resume when the House of Commons gets back on September 23rd. The lobbying commissioner has launched a formal investigation into the activities of Marc and Craig Kielburger and other staff in their lobbying activities with the high members of the Liberal government. As well, the RCMP has got an examination into this issue on whether they should open a criminal prosecution. And as you know, Question Period will begin the day after the throne speech and you can bet every member of the opposition is going to be focused on WE. Because this is such a serious issue, it involved the prime minister and members of his family as well as the finance minister, who is now gone, Bill Morneau. But this is not going to go away, lots of unanswered questions.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Well Bob, two other big stories this week. Bill Morneau found to be in violation of the Election Act, and former Liberal MP Raj Grewal charged by the RCMP. He was the MP who was found to be gambling sums of money big enough that attracted the attention of Canadian intelligence, the RCMP charging him with four counts of breach of trust and one, a fraud over $5,000, talking about how he was using his office as a way to generate this money, allegedly. How does that play out for the Liberals?

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Look, I think this is quite serious. You and I are not going to be able to go out and borrow millions of dollars to go gambling at a casino across the river from Parliament Hill in Gatineau. He used his connections, according to the police, to get those millions of dollars. What was he promising? Why were they giving him millions of dollars? Who was giving him the money? Was it organized crime? Was it some people who may be involved in foreign intelligence agency? Those are really serious issues that have to be answered and of course, Bill Morneau, he’s gone now, but he’s a reminder that he was the second most powerful person in the government and he is under an investigation over the WE issue, but as well, we find out that he violated Canada’s elections laws. I mean, Mr. Morneau is—was a walking conflict of interest it seems, and this also plays in to the Conservatives narrative that the prime minister, that members of his caucus and that the finance minister are unethical and that they cannot—they do not have a moral compass. And that issue is going to be dominated over and over by the Conservatives as they try to convince Canadians that you—if they vote for them, you’ll have an ethically responsible government. 

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Mercedes Stephenson: Now Bob, we just have about a minute left, but I know cabinet is meeting tomorrow at a retreat to talk about what goes into the speech from the throne. You always have your finger on the pulse. What are you expecting?

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Well, first of all, Mercedes, I don’t expect very much from the throne speech. I think we in the media and the politicians, you know, overdue it, if I may say so. We see the speech and we go oh, it’s not that great. But, you know, we know they’re going to talk about housing. They’re going to talk about COVID and the economy. There’s going to be stuff on the green environment, but how much they’re going to do? They seem to be pulling back on going very, very heavy on the environment. Perhaps their polls are telling them Canadians want them not to focus so much on climate change or major spending on climate change that they help the economy recover from COVID and to make sure that the health system can respond to what we expect will be a second wave.

Mercedes Stephenson: Bob, great analysis as always. Thank you so much for joining us.

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Thank you. Bye.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well that’s all the time that we have for today. You can tune into Global News tomorrow morning for coverage of the cabinet retreat we were just talking about. And of course, we’ll see you right back here, next Sunday on The West Block.

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