The West Block — Episode 6, Season 10


Episode 6, Season 10

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


Former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam,

Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan

Location: Ottawa, Ontario

Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: COVID-19 cases skyrocket across Canada.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We are in an unprecedented global pandemic that really sucks, and it’s going to be a tough winter ahead as well.”

Mercedes Stephenson: The future of Alberta’s hard hit oil industry.

Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan: “As the fourth biggest producers of oil in the world, which is what we are, it’s the biggest export—we gotta get it right. Our economy relies upon that.”

Mercedes Stephenson: And what’s at stake for Canada as Americans head to the polls: Biden, Trump or an unclear result?

It’s Sunday, November 1st. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

Today, we’ll sit down with Canada’s top doctor to talk about the second wave of COVID-19, and with the Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan on the future of Keystone XL. But first, in just a few days, Americans will elect their next president.

Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

President Donald Trump: “We are creating the greatest red wave in the history of our country.”

Vice President Mike Pence: “President Trump has set our nation on a path of freedom of opportunity. Joe Biden would set America on a path of socialism and decline.”

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Mercedes Stephenson: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Candidate for U.S. President Joe Biden: “Donald Trump just had a super-spreader event here again. They’re spreading more—more than just coronavirus. He’s spreading division.”

Candidate for U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris: “This is the greatest failure of any presidential administration we have ever witnessed as a country.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Who is heading to the White House and why Canada cares.

David MacNaughton, former Canadian ambassador to U.S.: “Whether it’s a Democrat or whether it’s a Republican administration, the reality is, is that there’s been an increasing amount of isolationism and protectionism in the United States and that’s not good for Canada.”

Mercedes Stephenson: On Friday at a press conference, I asked Prime Minister Trudeau about his opinion on the campaign south of the border.

I know you have to be careful about what you say about other countries elections but with so many eyes south of the border as we prepare for the election in the United States, you are a global leader, you are the prime minister of the country that has the most trade, the most military dependence on the United States. You’ve watched these two campaigns unfold and you’ve never been shy about your values or your priorities. What has been your take on the Trump campaign and the Biden campaign in the United States?

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: As you know, Mercedes, I’m not going to comment the election ongoing in the United States. I will say that as a government, our responsibility has been to be prepared for all different possible eventual outcomes. That means looking carefully at proposals made by the different candidates for this presidency and understanding how to position Canada in the best way to defend Canadians interests, to defend our values and we will continue to do that. We will continue to seek to have the best possible relationship with the United States going forward, because it is so important to Canadians and we will look to things that we can do together. Regardless of what happens on Election Day next week, we will be ready to work with the American administration in ways that will support Canadians and support our values in the world.

Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now to talk about the U.S. election and possible results if former Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird. Thank you for joining us this morning, Mr. Baird. What’s your prediction for the U.S. election outcome?

Former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird: I think it’s going to be very, very close. I think a lot of people don’t realize that Donald Trump really is in the hunt for this. No one predicted he’d win four years ago, I certainly did. I worked with Hillary Clinton, I thought she was great. But this populism we see in the United States, there is a constituency for it and no one would have ever thought one year ago that the race would be this close.

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Mercedes Stephenson: A lot of people are worried about potential violence, potential chaos after the election result. We’ve all seen the footage of what happened with the Biden campaign in Texas with a convoy of trucks surrounding it. They were ramming cars—very, very aggressive. Are you concerned about unrest or violence in the United States following the election and is there any risk to Canada there?

Former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird: I don’t think there’s much risk to Canada, but there certainly will be a lot of uncertainty and a lot of chaos. But I think we’ve got to remember that the institutions within the United States are pretty strong and they’ll get through it. On the left you’ve got Antifa, which could be pretty ugly and then you’ve got the crazy far-right groups that could cause problems. But at the end of the day, I think there’ll be a lot of chaos, a lot uncertainty but they’ll get through it.

Mercedes Stephenson: A lot of people are wondering if Donald Trump will accept the election results if he loses. He’s been giving indications, you know, the only way I could lose is if there’s fraud. People are worried about what that’s going to lead to. Do you see a scenario where if Trump loses, he refuses to walk away from the presidency or tries to sow some kind of discord?

Former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird: I think he might be just, you know, protecting himself so that in the event that he did lose, he could just blame cheating and that he actually did enjoy the support of the American people even when he didn’t. Having said that, the institutions, the United States, is strong. If for any reason he refused to recognize the results, Joe Biden will be sworn in on the Capitol in the third week of January. The Congressional Republicans, the Supreme Court, they’re pretty strong institutions and I wouldn’t see any need or a real concern there.

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Mercedes Stephenson: What’s happening inside the Canadian government right now because they’re very, very careful about what they’re saying? All the sources we’re talking to are saying, you know, they do not want to create waves. Do not draw fire, wait for an election result and then give a very careful statement. But you’ve been inside government. You’ve seen what happens. So can you tell us a bit about what cabinet will be preparing for, what the prime minister’s advice is he’d be receiving, how the Canadian government gets ready for—I mean in this case—an unprecedented election?

Former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird: I think it’s not as unprecedented as you might think. Obviously, they’ve dealt with Biden when he was vice president and they had a good relationship with President Obama and they’ve obviously managed to navigate Trump for the last four years. I think the fact that Canadian government officials have shut up and gone silent is probably been in the best interests of the country and our economic relationship so that’s a good thing. I think, you know, they’ll continue to have to deal with the challenge if President Trump is re-elected. But if Biden wins, you know, that’s going to be particularly challenging. One of the first things he’s going to do when he enters the Oval Office is cancel Keystone XL. The Democratic Party is not a party that endorses free trade. They’re very hostile on protectionism and that should be a real concern for Canada. And it’s not just Joe Biden and the buy America phenomena, is the Democratic Party is much more protectionist than the Republicans. Trump is an exception to that obviously, but, you know, we’ll be keeping the watch. Is there a Republic Senate or a Democratic Senate and that might be one check on Biden and some of his worst instincts.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that there will be a Republican Senate?

Former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird: I think it’s probably more likely than not that the Republicans will maintain control of the Senate. They’re facing probably three losses, but potentially one or two gains and even on three losses, they’re not underwater as much as they were even just a few weeks ago.

Mercedes Stephenson: All right, former Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird: Great to be with you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up after the break, Canada’s top doc, Dr. Theresa Tam joins us to talk about restaurant and bar closures in the second wave and the one thing she’d change about Canada’s response to COVID-19.


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Mercedes Stephenson: COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket across the country. There are more people testing positive for COVID-19, and the numbers continue to outpace those of the first wave.

Last Friday, the Public Health Agency of Canada released new modelling. The key takeaway: Canadians need to lower their contacts to avoid the stark projections that the public health authority released.

I sat down with Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam. Dr. Tam, thank you so much for making time for us.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam: It’s my pleasure.

Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think of the pleas from the restaurants and fitness industries who are saying we don’t have the national numbers, it’s different everywhere and I know that you are national, but for example, in Ontario, 2 per cent of the cases were coming from restaurants, 5 per cent from gyms and they’re saying the entire industry is being crushed under the weight of these shutdowns. Do you think it’s still good science to be shutting down gyms and restaurants? I think, obviously, maybe bars or clubs where people are dancing and yelling is another story, but a lot of these other places are saying look, we’re being so careful.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam: So, I think in the local level, it’s a very difficult decision. They’re trying to keep schools open. They’re trying to keep essential workplaces, schools and educational institutes open, so how do you cut down on that contact community wise? That there’s some settings because they satisfy the three C’s—what we call the three C’s: clothes, poly-ventilated, crowded potentially, and face-to-face contacts where you sometimes have to take your mask off when you’re eating or when you’re maybe exercising strenuously, that might be happening as well. So I think people are taking all of that into account.

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Secondly, there is literature to show where super-spreading events can occur. So they have occurred in gyms. We have examples in a spinning studio. There have been certain settings in pubs, but perhaps people were singing and were not wearing masks. But globally, the literature has shown that super-spreading events occur in those environments, but I think it needs re-evaluation on an ongoing basis. These are difficult decisions to balance out at the population level.

The other thing, though, is that because people are being asked to do these measures for the good of the community, there should be support. So I do know that there’s some financial support for businesses. That’s not my area of work, but because they have been asked to observe these public health measures, there should be some support in order for them to do so. They’re playing their part.

Mercedes Stephenson: A lot of Canadian seniors died from COVID-19 and many more could. Why do you think the situation has been so much worse in Canadian long-term care homes than it has been in similar countries who have not lost as many of their elderly?

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam: Yes, so I think we have to learn from that initial wave and that one of the most important aspects of the second resurgence is protecting the most vulnerable, which includes seniors and those in long-term care.

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In my annual report that I just put out, I pointed to some systemic gaps. Some of it pertains to how we value seniors and how we as a society look after them, which includes the conditions in long-term care. So some of, I think, our challenges were maybe crowded conditions in long-term care where the environment is conducive to transmission of the virus, but the other thing that I tried to put in my report is the human resources. The human resources were dependent on often racialized, marginalized, poorly paid, low-wage workers to help and support long-term care facilities. And when they’re impacted and they couldn’t go to work, the whole system began to feel the massive stress and we had to send in the military to support that. And so that was how fragile that system was and this pandemic really shone a light on some extremely systemic issues.

Mercedes Stephenson: When you look back over the course of the pandemic, this is a new virus. You were just starting to hear about it in December, in January, figure out what it means. You’re watching it spread through Asian countries, through Europe, through the United States and into Canada. Do you look back and wish there was one thing you’d done differently?

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam: I think one of the questions often posed is should we have closed the borders earlier? I’m sure that will be examined for a time.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think we should have? I mean New Zealand did…

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam: It’s a very…

Mercedes Stephenson: Taiwan did, they had lower rates.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam: At the time, Canada had about—just about 100 cases domestically, and the public health discussion at the international level at the time was we needed to minimize these sort of border restrictions commensurate with what the risks might be. So that will be examined because what will we do with the next emerging pathogen? So, I think that’s one area, is what is the trigger for that kind of varied sort of extremely broad and impactful measure? I think looking back, we will see that it’s difficult to prevent introduction of an invisible virus. And if you’re thinking it’s in one country, it’s probably in many. So that’s a different way of looking at it. Decisive action and fast action is important, we know that. You know, maybe better risk communication, making sure people know that while transmission really wasn’t happening very much in Canada at the time, it could happen. That could occur. But it was a massive decision. We’re talking about a country. This is not the same as maybe an island country with one port of entry. This is a country of many ports of entry with a land border that is the biggest undefended as it were border in the world with the greatest amount of economic activity. Now we have one of the strictest border measures in the world to ensure that we keep Canada safe.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think we’ll see a third wave?

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam: Well epidemiologists have sort of debated as to what we call these ups and downs. And in Canada, we have man y different patterns. So the national curve is a composite of all sorts of things. So you look at each jurisdiction there, their [00:07:40] are kind of different. So it’s whatever you call it. Could we get another resurgence after this? Absolutely. It depends on what we do. So it is up to us and our collective actions, but you know, given that the population in unit, we’re measuring that and we will keep measuring it. It’s very low. So, at the last measurement, we are only a few percentage points in terms of the immunity in our population. That leaves over 90 per cent of the population or 95 per cent of the population’s still vulnerable. So that tells us that resurgences can happen if we let our guards down.

Mercedes Stephenson: Dr. Tam, thank you so much for joining us.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam: My pleasure. Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: The full interview will be available on a bonus episode of our West Block podcast.

Up next, talking about Alberta oil and gas, U.S. protectionism and what the consequences of the U.S. election could be with Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Industries across this country have been hard hit by COVID-19. But one in particular that has suffered has been Alberta’s oil and gas industry. There were record declines in revenue and there certainly have been thousands and thousands upon jobs lost.

Joining me now to talk about all of this is Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan. Welcome to the program, Minister.

Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan: Thank Mercedes. Good to back.

Mercedes Stephenson: Now, I know that we’re going to get to oil and gas in Alberta in just a moment, but you are our ranking cabinet minister on the show today, so I have to ask you about the United States election. Of course, we don’t know where it’s going to go yet, but it is the story everybody is watching. What is the government doing in terms of bracing for potential fallout for Canada of whether it’s a continued Trump presidency or a new one with Joe Biden? 

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Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan: Well, I mean, I think we had a very good conversation only recently, just in the past few days: myself and the prime minister and Premier Kenney. And you know, obviously, there is a clear appreciation, obviously, amongst ourselves that the energy corridors of this continent do run north-south. I’ve had a really good relationship with Dan Brouillette secretary of energy in the U.S. and we’ve been calling each other quite frequently ever since the lockdown, ever since the pandemic hit our shores. And the same with Minister Savage, the energy minister of Alberta. You know, we know that that conversation, regardless of who is there after the Election Day in the United States, will continue because it has to. You know, our energy sector is too intertwined. Secretary Brouillette had a clear appreciation of that and with all the tumultuous—the tumult, I guess with the energy market both in Canada and in the United States since the lockdown and the twin crises of both the price war that was started by Saudi Arabia and Russia and of course, demand destruction as we’ve seen because it because of the lockdown and because of the pandemic. Through that, we have managed some stability. I mean prices are nowhere near where we want them to be and the market is changing, but at least we know that we can rely on the relationship with the United States and we expect we will be able to after the election.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well and relying on the United States has always been something we’ve taken for granted, although I think a lot of that’s been shaken in recent years. It could continue to be shaken if there’s a Trump presidency, but in the energy file, in particular, Biden could really throw a wrench in things, if you’re looking at this from an oil and gas perspective. He has said if he is elected, Keystone XL is dead. So, what is the government’s plan if there is a Biden presidency and that’s the end of Keystone?

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Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan: We’re unwavering in our support for Keystone, always have been. You know, we continue to get pipelines built. I think there’s some 5,600 people who are working on TMX right now. There is a very, very strong argument for the Keystone project that continues regardless of who the president of the United States is and we will continue to make that argument strongly. I was speaking with Russ Girling, the CEO of TC Energy only recently in the past few days as well and, you know, the project they have, they continue to tweak and improve the project so that it’s competitive and that it takes into account present realities. TC Energy and to be honest, Canadian—any player right now in the Canadian oil sands as well as My Way here in the offshore, understands that the market has changed enormously since the time of the lockdown. I mean there were certain trends, Mercedes, that we knew were happening in terms of switching to renewals, but particularly, investors going towards jurisdictions that take combat and climate change seriously in their view. And that has only accelerated since the lockdown. So, you know, you follow the money. You know, you follow the market and the market is moving that way. TC Energy is moving that way, Keystone is moving that way and we believe we’ll have stronger [00:04:07] to make to whoever wins the American election.

Mercedes Stephenson: Just to follow up on something you said there, minister. When you said that the investment has been going to jurisdictions that are taking climate change seriously, do you think Alberta has not?

Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan: No, absolutely has been, absolutely has been. In fact, I qualified by saying in their view, because we have to make sure that we tell the full Canadian story to the world. You know, the fact of the matter is we are one of the leaders in the world in clean tech. Eighty per cent of our clean tech needs in this country is funded by oil and gas and we’re not getting to net zero without Saskatchewan, we’re not getting to net zero without Newfoundland and Labrador. We aren’t getting to net zero without oil and gas. We are the fourth biggest producers of oil and gas in the world. We’ve got to get it right. Our economy relies upon that.

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Mercedes Stephenson: So then what is the plan? Because I hear you saying, you know, you’ll make the argument to the president, if it’s President Biden, he has said he is not open to it. If he says no, what is your government’s plan? Because the president will have ultimate authority on what happens in the United States. How do you support the oil and gas industry if Keystone doesn’t go ahead?

Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan: Well, you know, I don’t want to deal with hypotheses because we’re confident in the project. I’m confident of the improvements that TC Energy has made in ensuring that renewables are used to actually power the pipeline at the different pumping stations that exist along its’ route. In the overtures that they are increasingly making to First Nations and Métis communities, you know we’re certainly going to do our part on our side of the border and then of course, as you rightly pointed out, then there’s the American side of the border. And you know, the United States is as complicated a place as we are, you know, for that matter. I mean you have state governments, you have county governments, you have tribes in the case of the United States and of course, First Nations and Métis communities on our side and then you have the legal system on both side as well. The one thing that we have to maintain is our consistency. We are unwavering in our support for Keystone. 

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. Minister O’Regan, we’ll see if that is enough. Thank you so much for joining us.

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Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan: Thanks Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well that’s all the time that we have for today. Please don’t forget to listen to our full interview with Dr. Tam on a bonus episode of our podcast, and we’ll see you right back here next week on The West Block.

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