The West Block — Episode 55, Season 9


Episode 55, Season 9

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests: Minister Dominic LeBlanc, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney,

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh

Locations: Calgary, Alberta and Ottawa, Ontario

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The world has changed in many ways over the past number of months with this COVID crisis, which requires us to set forward a new throne speech.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: “They campaign on things and they don’t actually deliver them. This is not about politics, it’s about people. It’s about health care.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford: “Some of those folks that hold the parties for 150, you know, they are a few fries short of a Happy Meal.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We are not out of the woods.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Hello and welcome to The West Block, coming to you today from a smoky Calgary. We’re here with late breaking developments from over the weekend and late Friday that Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has tested positive for COVID-19, the head of the Public Health Agency of Canada has also resigned, concerns about long lines in a spreading pandemic, all of this just days ahead of the hotly anticipated throne speech that will set the government’s agenda. Here to talk about that now is Minister Dominic LeBlanc.

Thanks for joining us, minister, and congratulations on your one-year anniversary from having your stem cell transplant. We’re all so happy that you’re able to join us healthy and well.

Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc: Well thank you, Mercedes, it’s a privilege to be on your show, and I’m certainly glad to be here.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, Canadians across the country are worried about their health today. We have seen long lineups of people waiting to be tested, surging numbers. Dr. Theresa Tam saying there’s concern that we could lose control and have a second wave of this pandemic. Ottawa already in that second wave of a pandemic. What is your government doing to make sure that you address the need for more testing, introduce things like rapid testing, and have the personal protective equipment (PPE) that Canadians need?

Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc: So, I think that’s an essential question that Canadians are understandably asking themselves. We’re concerned, obviously, about the long lineups at various testing sites. That’s why just this week, actually, we announced $19 billion of additional funding for provinces and territories. $4.3 billion of that money directly related to increased testing capacity. We want to get to 200,000 tests a day, the capacity for 200,000 tests a day. That’s what the premiers agreed with us was the objective, and that’s why we transferred, as I say, $4.3 billion just for that element alone. We think Canadians expect our governments to be focused on the pandemic, on their health and safety. Now that’s certainly what our government’s focused on and will continue to work collaboratively with public health authorities and the provinces to do whatever it takes to keep Canadians safe.

Mercedes Stephenson: With all due respect, minister, I think a lot of Canadians are wondering why seven months into the pandemic it seems we still weren’t prepared for the fall spike that everybody’s been talking about.

Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc: Well, I think, Mercedes, provincial governments, which obviously have the responsibility to organize testing sites, to organize the delivery of health care, have been telling us that the additional resources that we allocated, a total of almost $19 billion, as I said, but $11 billion directly related to the health care needs for the restart of the economy and of the return to school. These are all things we’ve been discussing with provinces and territories, and frankly, we’ve met their ask, in terms of additional funding for public health imperatives like testing, contact tracing. So we’ll continue to do whatever it takes, as I say, working with provinces and territories to ensure that capacity is adequate.

Mercedes Stephenson: You mentioned focusing on the immediate threat of the pandemic. You have the throne speech coming up this week on Wednesday. How much of that is going to now have to focus on the immediate emergency situation versus some of the big picture, longer term social programs? You were looking at introducing an environmental legislation.

Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc: So that’s a very good question. We spent two days as a cabinet, looking at exactly those questions this week. The first day was focused almost exclusively on the public health challenges on what is necessarily to continue to protect Canadians. That remains, Mercedes, our principle focus is what can the Government of Canada do to support Canadians from a public health perspective and an economic perspective that the COVID-19 pandemic is clearly not over. So that has to be necessarily the most important focus of governments, and certainly is of our government, but our throne speech will talk about additional measures that the government’s prepared to take to continue to work with provinces and territories on these issues. But we’re also going to be talking about the economic recovery of the country, something that Canadians expect us also to be focused on. The economic shock to the country and around the world was unprecedented, so we have some very specific measures which will speak to the economic uncertainty that Canadians also expect their government to be focused on.

Mercedes Stephenson: Can you give us a hint on what those measures might look like?

Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc: Mercedes, I can imagine everybody’s very excited this weekend, wondering what’ll be in the throne speech. But we’ll have to wait, I think it’s only three more sleeps, or four more sleeps, and you’ll have all the information that you need. But, there won’t be any surprises, Mercedes. We’ve been saying very clearly that the pandemic and the health and safety of Canadians, is the priority. So, people shouldn’t be surprised that the government’s focus will be squarely on that. But as I’ve said, they also expect the government to focus on issues as important as climate change and a successful economic recovery. We’ll be speaking to those issues as well in the throne speech.

Mercedes Stephenson: Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who himself was just diagnosed with COVID-19 late on Friday evening, put out a readout of his discussion with Prime Minister Trudeau about what should be in the throne speech. And in that readout, Mr. O’Toole said that Mr. Trudeau talked about introducing new legislation on the CERB. Is your government going to be bringing in a second version of the CERB for this pandemic?

Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc: Well, I think what we’ve said, Mercedes, from the beginning, is that the economic security of Canadians is essential to ensuring the public health imperatives of people self-isolating, of people who aren’t feeling well not feeling the economic pressure to go to work and therefore risk infecting others. The Prime Minister’s been very clear that Canadians will be protected in terms of the income supports they need during the context of COVID-19. It’s certainly not over. So you’ll be seeing discussions in the throne speech about specific measures that will give them that income security, whether it’s an employment insurance system that is obviously simpler and more inclusive to ensure that that’s one way Canadians can be protected. We will take all of the measures necessary to provide that income support because it’s not only in the economic interest of the country, Mercedes; it’s also a public health imperative. And jurisdictions that have done the best in coping with COVID-19 have had some of the most robust income security protection, so those will continue. Canadians need not worry that they will be without the replacement income they need because of the unprecedented economic downturn at a time when Canadians expect them to make safe and appropriate choices from a public health perspective.

Mercedes Stephenson: Can I ask you how you feel personally, about going for the vote on the speech from the throne? We’re talking about 338 MPs, potentially coming back to Ottawa. I know you’ve been talking to the opposition parties about how to handle this. We now have a situation where the leader of the Bloc has been diagnosed with COVID, the leader of the Conservatives, a number of staffers as well, a parliamentary security guard. Are you worried about going to work?

Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc: Well, obviously we’re concerned about Mr. O’Toole’s health, Mr. Blanchet as well. We’ll continue to do what’s necessary to protect those people that work on Parliament Hill, but my colleague, the House leader has also been clear, we will follow the public health guidelines in place in Ontario as appropriate. And the Speaker has also been cleared that there are opportunities for remote voting, which will ensure that all members of Parliament can have their votes count. But we think it’s unrealistic and unsafe to expect everybody to be sitting in the chamber, but we want to ensure that it can safely and securely done remotely and that’s exactly what’ll happen.

Mercedes Stephenson: Four premiers decided to come to Ottawa, to ask for more money or health care. They basically threw themselves at the mercy of the federal government. They said, look, you can’t redecorate the second floor of your house when there’s cracks in the foundation. What’s happened with COVID-19 has not only meant a crisis in health care for those who have COVID, but for those who are waiting for diagnosis and treatment and surgeries on a number of other illnesses. They’re asking you to significantly increase funding to health care. Do you think that’s a reasonable ask for them to make?

Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc: The Prime Minister, Mercedes, has been clear that we’ll be happy to talk to the provinces about the Canada Health transfer, about the longer term importance of a safe and accessible high quality health care system. We share the premiers’ concerns, so we’re prepared to have that conversation. But again, to have four premiers come to Ottawa on a Friday afternoon before a throne speech when there are, as you said in the beginning of our conversation, these huge lineups at testing centres and a real concern about a second wave of COVID. We think that’s where the urgent focus should be of all governments. That’s where we’re focused and we certainly think the premiers need to maintain that focus as well.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister LeBlanc, thank you so much for your time.

Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc: Thank you very much, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: We’ll be back in studio in Ottawa after the break with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on his ask of the federal government for the throne speech and more health care funding.

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. On Friday, four premiers converged on Ottawa: Jason Kenney, Brian Pallister, Doug Ford and François Legault, demanding the federal government give more money to the provinces for health care, saying the system is broken. They are looking for $70 billion from the federal government to be injected into the health care system as well as $10 billion in infrastructure spending and money for provinces like Alberta, who have been hard hit economically on top of COVID.

Joining me now to talk about all of this is the Premier himself, Jason Kenney, who is here in Ottawa. Thank you for joining us Premier Kenney.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: Thanks very much, Mercedes

Mercedes Stephenson: You have come to Ottawa to ask the federal government to spend more money on health care as well as more money and fiscal stabilization funding for Alberta. Why do you believe you need that money? 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: Well I think health care speaks for itself. The provinces were supposed to get 50 per cent of funding for health care from Ottawa when the program was created five decades ago. We’re down to provinces being 80 per cent of the bill, and for us in Alberta, with the fiscal catastrophe that we are now living on top of all the huge costs associated with COVID, that’s coming home in a very real and human way. But, as you know, Mercedes, we’re also facing an economic crisis, a jobs crisis in Alberta, and have been for five years, going through economic stagnation. The global COVID recession on top of the biggest collapse in oil prices in history has hit us especially hard. And the human consequences of that are enormous, which is why we are demanding fiscal fairness. Albertans have been very good to the rest of Canada, paying over $600 billion net to the rest of the federation over the past five decades, even $20 billion a year annual contributions during recent tough times, but the federal government has capped something called the fiscal stabilization program. Arbitrarily, it’s supposed to be there if we have problems like Alberta when we are in a big economic downturn. We need that now and we’ve got the support of all 13 provinces and territories for that fairness. It would represent about $6 billion for Alberta to put to work in both our health system and in job creating programs.

Mercedes Stephenson: Dominic LeBlanc essentially said in a press conference on Friday that he didn’t understand why you and Premier Pallister, Premier Legault, Premier Ford, came to Ottawa in person to make this ask. He said this has been an ongoing conversation that he’s already told the premiers this was something you would talk about as the fall went on. Kind of felt like he was saying it might be a political stunt. So, why did you come to Ottawa if these conversations are already underway?

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: Because this is so important, we had to find a way to highlight these desperate needs in our country for our people. This is not about politics, it’s about people. It’s about health care. It’s about jobs. And, you know, premiers do come together to meet, usually twice a year. We were supposed to meet this week in Quebec City, but that couldn’t happen because a lot of Atlantic premiers can’t travel with their bubble down there, so we decided instead, those of us who could attend, to be here in Ottawa to underscore the unanimity of all provinces and territories on these questions about a fair distribution of health care costs, particularly during this health care crisis and a fiscal fairness, particularly for the resource producing provinces like Alberta, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan, as we have contributed so much to the rest of the country. Now is our hour of need and Albertans have had Canada’s back for decades. We need to see Canada have Alberta’s back right now and that’s what this statement represents from premiers right across the country. There were four us here for logistic reasons, but we speak for all 13.

Mercedes Stephenson: We’d heard here at Global News that initially the government was looking at up $100 billion in green spending in the throne speech. That’s been knocked way back because of the climbing numbers with the pandemic, but there’s still talk of a green recovery. Does it concern you that Alberta will be left out of that?

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: Well I think this is one of the reasons that premiers decided to come to Ottawa, because we started to hear these trial balloons from Ottawa in last two or three weeks about all sorts of ideological shiny objects about spending money on things not related to health care or jobs. And we’re here to say that Canadians want governments at all levels and all parties to be focused on protecting both lives and livelihoods. If there are parties or governments that want to pursue their ideological concerns, at some point in the future they can do that and be accountable to the voters. But in this COVID year, in this—the largest economic contraction in nine decades, surely we can all agree that we should be single-mindedly focused on the public health urgency and the economic crisis that’s in front of us. That’s the message being sent by Canada’s premiers today.

Mercedes Stephenson: I know that you got along very well with Chrystia Freeland. Do you feel that Dominic LeBlanc is hearing the provinces concerns in the same?

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: Yes, very much so. And Dominic and I have known each other for many years, have a great relationship. He came all the way out to Edmonton to spend several hours listening to Alberta’s perspective and I trust he’s taking those back to the federal cabinet table, but he is just one minister. And I think we can see with all of the trial balloons coming out of Ottawa that there are other ministers who want to exploit the COVID crisis to turn money away from, effectively, health care and job creation, towards programs that have nothing to do with either of those things. And that could, you know, another point here, Mercedes, if we’re asking the federal government to do first, in this crisis, do no harm when it comes to jobs and the economy, but they are layering on or threatening to impose more and more costly job killing regulations, which would disproportionately hammer Alberta and the resource provinces, the clean fuel standards. They’re using the Bill C-69 No More Pipelines Lines law to intervene in mining operations in Alberta, potentially to chase away investments and kill thousands of jobs. So part of my message is please, do no harm, get to the people at Environment Canada and some of the federal cabinet, please get Ottawa’s foot off the throat of our economy. Allow us to recover. If we want to talk about a continued environmental progress, we’re happy to. But let’s put first things first and those are health and jobs.

Mercedes Stephenson: Premier Jason Kenney, thank you for your time.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: Thank you, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, will the government survive the vote on the speech from the throne? We speak to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh on whether or not his party will back the government.

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. In this minority Parliament, a lot resides on the importance of collaboration with the opposition.

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked to party leaders about their priorities for the upcoming parliamentary session. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said that he would push the prime minister on the government’s plan to reduce the CERB. He joins me now to talk about his priorities and that conversation with the prime minister. How did it go, Mr. Singh? Did he seem open to your priorities?

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: Well, the prime minister was willing to listen, and I laid out my concerns. And one of the biggest concerns I have is that the prime minister on one hand, is going to put forward a throne speech that purportedly will talk about benefits to people. But on the other hand, right now, not in the distant future, but right now, the Liberal government’s proposal will cut the help that Canadians receive, those who can’t go back to work, those who don’t have a job to go back to, they are going to see less help. And that to me is wrong, particularly given the second wave which seems imminent. We need to make sure there’s help for Canadians when they can’t go to work and those Canadians who are unable to return to work need to know that there’s help there for them.

Mercedes Stephenson: He listened to you, but did he make any commitments on that?

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: There’s no commitment so far. I made it very clear, though, for me that the throne speech and just giving words is not good enough. We need to see some action. And one concrete thing that the prime minister can do right now, is while he’s presenting the throne speech, there’s a concrete opportunity that with that legislation that’s right now going to be proposed alongside the throne speech, the prime minister can do the right thing, which is not to cut the help that Canadians need Those who can’t go back to work, still need to be able to support their families, put food on the table. I’m asking and calling on the Liberal government to make sure there is help for Canadians in need, particularly if they are back in a lockdown scenario. With increasing COVID-19, we need help for Canadians. That’s what I’m fighting for.

Mercedes Stephenson: With those rising numbers of COVID-19, do you think that we should be having a federal election?

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: I think for a number of reasons, the focus has to be on what’s in the best interest of people. And right now, there is no plan in place for people if there is an additional lockdown with the second wave. There is no plan in place to make sure people get paid sick leave, something that I’ve fought for and that our party, as New Democrats, we fought for. So there are a lot of uncertainties right now for small businesses, for people who have felt the pain of COVID-19. That should be our priority, making sure that help is in place for those who need it. 

Mercedes Stephenson: So how do you handle that dichotomy? Because on the one hand, you’re saying it’s not a good idea health-wise to go to an election right now. But on the other hand, if you just hand over the power to the government, they can put whatever they want in that throne speech and not have to negotiate if they know they can count on your support. 

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: Well that’s the thing. I am prepared to go to an election, but I understand the gravity of that decision. I understand how serious it is, given that there’s so many things that are still not decided. There’s so many questions left unanswered. Canadians want to know what’s going to happen if there’s a second wave. Will I get help? Will my family continue to get support if we can’t go back to work? If we’re ordered not to go back to work, can we get help so we can pay the bills because those questions are so pressing. I understand the gravity of going to an election. I am prepared, though, if the prime minister and the Liberal government aren’t ready to deliver what Canadians need, if they’re going to get caught up in scandal, helping themselves instead of people, then I’m more than ready to fight an election. But I understand it’s a very serious decision and it is not my goal to tear down government. My goal is to force Parliament to work for people.

Mercedes Stephenson: So where’s your line in the sand on that? What absolutely has to be in the throne speech, or if it’s absent from it, would trigger you to make that decision?

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: Well I’ve laid out a number of really important things that I want to see. I’ve put out to the prime minister, a number of my priorities, but an immediate thing, instead of a distant promise, you know, the throne speech or our visions about the future—I put forth some concrete things right now. The prime minister is putting forward a proposal to—because he’s ending CERB—he’s talking about the next steps. And I’ve put it to the prime minister that the next steps can’t be less money. Right now, the Liberal government’s proposal would take the $2,000 that families receive now and cut it by 20 per cent to $1,600 dollars. That is wrong. And I’m telling to the prime minister directly that that should not happen. In addition, it shouldn’t be harder to get help. If someone can’t go to work, if their job is shut down because of COVID-19, it shouldn’t be more difficult to access the help that they need and the family needs. That’ what I put to the prime minister as an immediate test to see if the prime minister is really committed to helping people. I’ve said this is what I’m about. And if you can work with me to deliver that help to Canadians, we can do it.

Mercedes Stephenson: What happens if the federal government puts something in this like pharmacare to wedge you? Didn’t increase the CERB, but put pharmacare in there? Would you feel compelled to vote for that?

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: Well I hope that the Liberal government actually delivers pharmacare. We know that in this pandemic, when people lost their jobs, they also lost their benefits. For a lot of Canadians that meant they lost their ability to buy medication. And if you think about it, in a pandemic when people are worried about getting sick, the fact that millions of Canadians before who had no coverage and now those who lost their coverage, couldn’t afford the medication they needed to stay healthy, to me is a serious problem. So we absolutely need to see a universal, publicly delivered pharmacare for all, something that New Democrats have fought for and will continue to push for.

Mercedes Stephenson: Mr. Singh, thank you so much for joining us.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: Thank you very much, Ms. Stephenson.

Mercedes Stephenson: And that’s it for the show this week. Before we go, some sad news: former prime minister John Turner passed away this weekend, he was 91 years old. Our thoughts are with his family and friends. See you next week.

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