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The West Block — Episode 48, Season 9

THE WEST BLOCKEpisode 48, Season 9Sunday, August 2, 2020Host: Farah NasserGuests: Andrew Scheer, Marie Danielle Smith, Abigail Bimman, Bob RaeLocation: Toronto, Ontario Farah Nasser: This week on The West Block: the heat is on. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We Charity received no preferential treatment.” Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer: “This entire scandal reeks of corruption.”   Story continues below advertisement

Farah Nasser: Then, getting testy. Charlie Angus, NDP MP—Timmins—James Bay: “Don’t you get that this looks kind of dodgy to the average Canadian?” Craig Kielburger, Co-founder WE Charity: “We did this to be of service to the government.” Farah Nasser: And, Canada, China and the U.N. Unknown Woman: “We need more leverage.” Bob Rae, Ambassador to the United Nations: “We have to be clear about our own principles and about our own value.” Farah Nasser: Good morning, and welcome to The West Block. I’m Farrah Nasser. The political controversy surrounding the WE Charity dominated political headlines once again this past week. On Thursday, the prime minister testified for over an hour to the House of Commons finance committee. And opposition parties, of course, grilled him on what he knew and when about the student volunteer program. Story continues below advertisement

 Joining me now is the leader of Canada’s official Opposition Andrew Scheer. Thank you for making the time for us, Mr. Scheer. Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer: Good morning. Farah Nasser: You know we’ll just begin with the testimony. We heard the PM say that the public service approved the WE deal, and he says that he pushed back, but eventually, on the advice of the public service he decided to proceed. Given that we are in the middle of a pandemic, is there any latitude you can give the PM? Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer: Well, we’re actually outraged that the prime minister is trying to use the fact that we are facing a pandemic as an excuse to hide up his lack of ethics. What we heard on Thursday just raises more questions. If the prime minister would have us believe that he was concerned enough about the conflict of interest to push back on the public service but not to check with the ethics commissioner, well that’s a pretty big hole in his defence. He also has had no explanation as to what that due diligence was. Did the public service inquire as to what was going on at WE? A simple Google search could turn up that they were in violation of their bank covenants that they were—that their board had resigned. So when we have the top bureaucrat, the top civil servant in Ottawa saying that this organization had never delivered this type of program before, on what basis was that due diligence done? So we don’t take for one second, the prime minister’s explanation here. Story continues below advertisement

 Farah Nasser: Mr. Scheer, what are you looking to come out of this? Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer: Well, we’d like the truth. You know, this argument that we heard on Thursday, Justin Trudeau said that on May 8th, he pushed back. That he took it off the cabinet agenda because he wanted to make sure. But yet WE, this organization was able, to start incurring expenses on May 5th. Now for us mere mortals, May 5th comes before May 8th so that doesn’t make any sense. And again, as we saw with the SNC-Lavalin affair, the truth is only coming out in this drips and drabs and you know, week by week we get more details and more information. So what we’d like to see in the short term is just for the prime minister to come clean. Put everything on the table, allow the committees to have access to the cabinet, minutes, the memos that were going back and forth. Just be forthcoming and honest. And to this point, we haven’t seen that. Farah Nasser: Mr. Scheer, you’ve urged Liberal MPs to call for Justin Trudeau to resign. You’ve said, you know, he should do so for the good of the country. I just want to be clear. Are you calling on the prime minister to resign?  Story continues below advertisement

Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer: Well I believe that the prime minster lost the moral authority to govern this country when it came out that he interfered in the SNC-Lavalin affair and for firing Jody Wilson-Raybould just for doing her job. Now the Liberal Party won the election, they got the most seats. The Conservatives received the most votes, but the Liberals got the most seats. So they have the right to govern this country, but when you have a leader of a party that displays this lack of judgement, this disregard for ethical rules, this idea that there’s one set of rules for the rest of us and a special set of rules for Justin Trudeau, my challenge to the Liberal Members of Parliament is to say look, send a message to Canadians that you won’t tolerate this level of ethical scandals, that they have the power to do that. They have the power to say okay, we demand better from our politicians. I don’t think they’re going to do that, so Conservatives are going to continue to make the case to Canadians. Farah Nasser: You’ve criticized the prime minister for sidelining Parliament, but your party’s former leader, former prime minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament four times. So isn’t this type of criticism a bit rich? Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer: Not at all. You know, prorogation is done at the provincial level, at the federal level regularly. It’s a normal part of the parliamentary cycle. What Justin Trudeau has done has effectively sidelined Parliament in the middle of a pandemic since March, you know, halfway through March, all of April, all of May, most of June and now we’re into the summer. At a time when the government is racking up $340 billion worth of deficit at a time when we find out that this Liberal government dumped millions of pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE), relying heavily on the WHO and information coming out of China instead of domestic Canadian intelligence. So there’s a lot of reasons why Parliament needs to be sitting. There’s absolutely no comparison at all to a normal parliamentary cycle that may have been done in the past. And again, when we’re dealing with a scandal of this proportion, remember, what was Justin Trudeau’s first action during this pandemic? He recalled Parliament and attempted to pass a bill that would give himself unprecedented power and eliminate the role of the opposition and take away our tools. Well now we know why. He doesn’t want us to peak into the details. He doesn’t want us to know exactly what his government is doing because when we do, we find out that he’s giving sole-sourced contracts to an organization that paid his immediate for speaking gigs. This is what we’re talking about here.  Story continues below advertisement

Farah Nasser: I want to ask you, because you’ve mentioned it, about the new leader of your own party because in a month there will be a new leader of the Conservative Party. What’s your advice to him or her? And do you think the Conservative Party needs to do a better job at attracting more black, Indigenous and people of colour? Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer: Well, obviously, when you don’t win an auction you have to go back and look and see how you can appeal to more Canadians. We were able to build on a lot of success. When I took over the leadership of the party, we had 99 seats, we now have 121. We received 30 per cent of the vote. In the 2015 election, we received 34 per cent of the vote. In the last election, we gained seats back in Atlantic Canada, swept the Prairies, up in Ontario and up in British Columbia. So we still have a lot of work to do but there’s a great base there, a great foundation. We always have to look at how we can attract more people to the Conservative message. I believe that the Conservative message of individual freedom, personal choice, individual responsibility, love for our country, appreciation of our history and our belief in free market principles, that’s what creates prosperity in this country. I believe that that will resonate with Canadians and I know that the next leader will finish the job that we’ve started and I look forward to working with whoever that is.  Story continues below advertisement

Farah Nasser: You didn’t answer my question, with respect. Do you think, though, that we need to see more diversity within your party? And I’ll push that bit further. Do you think systemic racism exists within your own party? Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer: Well, look, our party believes in the fundamental worth of all human beings regardless of their race, regardless of their ethnicity. As I said, we always have to do a better job to reach out to a broader section of Canadians. We’ve got—we had a great set of diverse candidates, representing every single walk of life in this country. We had members of so many different types of backgrounds and it was great to be a leader during a campaign where we had that kind of diversity among our candidates. We did a great job of showing Canadians that we are a tolerant, inclusive party with a message that appeals to everybody. And that is what I know the next leader is going to build on in the future. Farah Nasser: Okay. Andrew Scheer, thank you for your time. Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer: Thank you very much. Farah Nasser: Up next, what’s the long term impact of the WE Charity controversy? We’ll assess the fallout with our political panel. We’re back in two minutes.  Story continues below advertisement

[Break] Farah Nasser: Welcome back to The West Block. The WE Charity controversy took up more political oxygen for the Liberals last week. Here’s a timeline of the events. On April 5th, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discuss on the phone, the need for a program to help young people during the pandemic. The next day, the finance department is tasked with looking into options and in the coming days, contacts WE among other groups. On May 22nd, after over a month of discussions between the government and WE Charity, cabinet signs off on the deal with WE.  Story continues below advertisement

On June 26th, amid growing questions, Justin Trudeau insists WE was the only organization qualified to run the student program. The deal is eventually cancelled. 

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “WE charities are evaluated by our public service as being the best and only organization able to deliver on the scale that we need.” Farah Nasser: A week and a half later, the PM concedes he did not recuse himself from the program. And the next day, we learned Trudeau’s wife, mother and brother were all paid to participate in WE events. The trickle of information continues on July 22nd, with revelations by the finance minister that he overlooked paying for over $41 thousand in expenses, for two trips he took with his family to see WE’s humanitarian work firsthand. Finance Minister Bill Morneau: “I want to apologize for this error on my part. It’s a mistake. I think it was a mistake on my part.” Farah Nasser: On July 28th, the Kielburger brothers publicly defend their organization’s track record, paving the way for Justin Trudeau to answer questions at the committee about his involvement with WE.  Story continues below advertisement

We now join our journalist panel to discuss the WE controversy in greater detail. Joining me is Marie Danielle Smith; she’s the associate editor at Maclean’s Magazine, and Global National’s Abigail Bimman. Thank you both for joining us. I’m going to start with you, Marie Danielle. The PM kept saying that this program was vetted by the public service. Is that a credible answer? Marie Danielle Smith, Associate Editor, Maclean’s Magazine: Well it is because we’ve had public servants testify to that effect. We’ve had them tell us that they were involved in the early stages of the decision-making and they were the ones who determined that WE Charity was the only organization capable distributing this program. However, the final say always rests with cabinet. And the original idea came from cabinet, too, so it’s fair to be asking questions about why the scope of the program was designed in this way, what they knew when and whether they had any discussions about the conflict of interest concerns around the prime minister and his finance minister. Farah Nasser: You know the prime minister kept saying he was aware of the optics, you know, when he looked at the WE program. He thought it might not be a good look. It seems like he had a gut feeling about that. Let’s listen to him.  Story continues below advertisement

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “This proposal mattered to me, and I instead of encouraging it along like some people say because it was somehow connected to my family, I actually slowed it down and pushed back on it, to try and make sure that everything was done exactly right.” Farah Nasser: I mean the big question becomes if the prime minister knew that there could be a concern there with his family’s relationship with WE, why did he proceed with it—with that organization? Abigail? Abigail Bimman, Global National Reporter: Well that’s right, and that was the new defence that he presented in his testimony on Thursday, saying hey, you know, I put the brakes on this. I waited for a couple of weeks to make sure that the civil servants did its due diligence. But when pressed on that, on what due diligence were you asking for and how did that make a difference in terms of the perception of a conflict of interest, the prime minister said that the due diligence was to prove that yes, really WE was the only option here. But he still hasn’t clearly answered what that due diligence did in terms of, you know, giving him confidence that the perception of a conflict of interest wouldn’t be a problem going forward.  Story continues below advertisement

Farah Nasser: Marie Danielle, what questions do you still have out of the prime minister’s testimony? Marie Danielle Smith, Associate Editor, Maclean’s Magazine: Well I think Abigail is right, we’re still wondering what exactly that due diligence looked like. And I’d like to understand better the prime minister’s rational here, if he recognized a conflict of interest and—or at least the perception of a conflict of interest. He seems to believe that a real conflict of interest didn’t exist here. But he’s already been investigated for ethics violations. Two other times in his government, he’s been found guilty of breaching the Ethics Act, and so how did he not see this coming, right? And how did none of his staff see this coming? How did no one in his cabinet see this coming? And so I think it speaks to this very tiny circle that runs Ottawa right now, and I’m interested to know if they plan to make any adaptations there or further explain how this managed to happen. As Charlie Angus said during the testimony on Thursday, this was unnecessary. Farah Nasser: I want to understand more on that tiny circle you alluded to. I mean there are political operatives who are working everyday just to find—poke holes in things and find what could be concerns at what the media will make a big deal with, the opposition will make a big deal about. But what do you mean about a tiny circle around the prime minister?  Story continues below advertisement

Marie Danielle Smith, Associate Editor, Maclean’s Magazine: Well you think about some trusted advisors, people like his chief of staff Katie Telford, who’s been with him from the start, who testified on Thursday as well, as well as a handful of cabinet ministers that really have been there since the very beginning. When we saw the Trudeau government take a second mandate in October, you might have expected there to be a bit more shuffle there, bring in some new faces, some fresh blood as it were, because this is the same group that was overseeing the prime minister during the previous ethic scandals that refer to talking about his vacation of the Aga Khan at the SNC-Lavalin scandal of last year. And so, you know if there was any mismanagement around those files, you wonder why we haven’t seen any shuffling around of the people who were there during that time. Farah Nasser: Interesting perspective. Now the opposition MPs, of course, they were very forceful in the grilling of the prime minister. I want you both to listen to a bit of exchange between Pierre Poilievre and Justin Trudeau. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “My mother…” Pierre Poilievre, MP—Carleton: “How much?”  Story continues below advertisement

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Has—has worked…” Pierre Poilievre, MP—Carleton: “Just the dollar figure.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Throughout her life…” Pierre Poilievre, MP—Carleton: “The dollar figure.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “In various ways…” Pierre Poilievre, MP—Carleton: “The dollar figure, Prime Minister.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “And is proud of the work that she’s done and…” Pierre Poilievre, MP—Carleton: “How much?” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “I’m proud of her as well.” Pierre Poilievre, MP—Carleton: “How much? I’m looking for a dollar figure.”  Story continues below advertisement

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We can, we can—we can get that number for you if you like. It’s been out in the media.” Farah Nasser: Do you think, Abigail, that this kind of, you know, harsh exchange can actually backfire? Aren’t Canadians tired of politicians yelling at each other? Abigail Bimman, Global National Reporter: I think there’s definitely two camps on this. There are people who will certainly find that very distasteful and the prime minister obviously made a strategic move in continuing to speak about all the good work that his mother has done for mental health as Mr. Poilievre was on the attack there. But at the same time, there are a lot of Canadians who say hey, the prime minister should be able to provide this dollar amount. As Poilievre pointed out there, he has, you know, had a month to come up with this and he wasn’t providing any numbers. And while he says that these numbers are in the public realm or have been reported by the media, the Kielburger brothers in their testimony earlier in the week were asked the same questions and while they did provide some new information about the average costs of expenses reimbursed for events, they also weren’t particularly forthcoming about the totals or about handing—having documents, you know, ready to hand over immediately. So I think there are still some valid questions about the money here, but the attack or the manner in which that testimony carried out, I think you’ll have some different opinions on.  Story continues below advertisement

Farah Nasser: Marie Danielle, last word goes to you. What long term damage, if any, do you think this charity controversy’s going to have? Marie Danielle Smith, Associate Editor, Maclean’s Magazine: Well I think we have—we have yet to see what the lasting damage may be. Think back to some of the issues I mentioned before and how in the long term they didn’t seem to affect the Trudeau government very much. But we’re still in a pandemic, as you said, Canadians may be a little tired of watching the shouting matches on TV right now. The Prime Minister will have, to his critics, given them more to attack and to his allies, given them a reason to hang on. So I think we’ll see over the coming months, and whether any further details come out that provide more clarity on this. Farah Nasser: Okay. Abigail, Marie Danielle, nice seeing you both. Thank you. Up next, Canada’s role on the world stage with the new U.N. ambassador. What is Bob Rae’s vision for Canada during these extremely challenging times? We’ll ask him, next.  Story continues below advertisement

[Break] Farah Nasser: Welcome back. Bob Rae is a name that is familiar to many Canadians. The former interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and the former NDP premier of Ontario is taking up a new job as Canada’s ambassador to the U.N. We reached him days before he starts in his new role in New York. Mr. Rae, welcome to The West Block. Bob Rae, U.N. Ambassador: Thank you very much. Good to be with you. Farah Nasser: Let me start off, by what your first order or business is going to be at the U.N. What’s your top priority for Canada on the world stages?  Story continues below advertisement

Bob Rae, U.N. Ambassador: Well I think the priority for everybody is recovery from COVID, and I think what we’re very quickly understanding better and better every day, this is a global pandemic which is going to require some global solutions. So what we’ve seen so far in a number of countries has been very much focused on each country and I think what we’re going to need to really increase our efforts, is to make sure that we find solutions that include everybody. That means a vaccine that’s available to everybody. It means making sure that nobody falls way behind because of what’s happened and that we’re creating great prosperity globally because that’s going to help us grow in Canada as well. So I’d say that’s my number one priority at the moment. Farah Nasser: I want to ask you about China. It has now been 600 days since the two Michaels have been jailed. Many people, not the least of which is Michael Kovrig’s wife, say that dealing with China requires firmness and resolve. It also requires nuance. So can you talk about how you see your role at the U.N. fitting into that? Bob Rae, U.N. Ambassador: Well first of all, I don’t think I’m really at the centre of it. I think Minister Champagne and Mr. Trudeau are very much in charge along with our ambassador in Beijing. I—I’ve let everybody know that if I can be helpful in any way in terms of conversations that people want me to have, I’m happy to do that. I think there’s an overall sense among Canadians that this is a terrible, terrible way for a country like China to do business. That it’s—there’s no justification for the imprisonment. And at the same time, Mr. Trudeau has made it very clear that he wants to carry on in a way that’s going to maintain Canada’s commitment to the rule of law. Farah Nasser: Just to follow up to that. Do you think that China has respect for Canada? Do you think China takes our prime minster and our government seriously?  Story continues below advertisement

Bob Rae, U.N. Ambassador: Well, I think you would have to—you’re better off to ask them, but my sense is that Mr. Trudeau himself has handled this issue with a great deal of firmness and at the same time with a great deal of compassion. But, we’re dealing with a country that has obviously taken huge exception to the decision by Canada to respect our extradition treaty and I think most people, again, feel quite strongly that we have a treaty with the United States, as we do with a number of other countries, and we’re not in a position to fool around with that treaty. So, I think China would be wise to respect all of its neighbours and all the countries in the rest of the world, and I think that’s an approach that we’re taking. Farah Nasser: You mentioned the United States, so let’s move on and talk about President Trump for a moment. You’ve called him “unhinged” and have predicted he will lose the November election. What if that doesn’t happen? Bob Rae, U.N. Ambassador: Well, first of all, I mean I’ve said a lot of things as a private citizen. As you know, Farah, it’s not—not hard to find me having spoken about a number of subjects. I won’t be doing that anymore. The Americans are in the middle of an election campaign. We’ll just have to see what happens in that campaign. And as we go into every election campaign in a democratic country like the United States, we will obviously respect whatever the American public and the American people decide. I think it’s fair to say that the approach that Mr. Trump has taken has been different for—from that of any of its predecessors and it has both challenged to—not only to our diplomacy but to that of a number of other countries. But we have to accept the right of the American people to choose as their leader whoever they want, and we—obviously because of our very close relationship with the United States, are going to be working with whoever forms the next government in the United States after November the 3rd.  Story continues below advertisement

Farah Nasser: Okay. Let’s talk about our leader here. I want to switch gears and ask you about the WE Charity. I mean you’re a senior statesman, you’ve got decades of experience in government, including as leader of the Liberal Party. Shouldn’t the government have seen this WE controversy coming? Bob Rae, U.N. Ambassador: Well, I think it’s, you know, hindsight is always 20/20. I think we need to understand a couple of things that sometimes get forgotten. The first one is we were and are in the middle of a very serious pandemic, but particularly in April, May and June, the government was making some very, very major decisions. They had to make them very quickly. The economy was in a state of shutdown. There were no jobs available for lots of people. No work, no income available for a lot of people and the government has improvised, I think, extremely well across the board. The fact that the government has chosen not to proceed with this contract, and in fact, chose to do that soon after the announcement was made, I think is an indication on the part of the government that they needed to take a different course. And I think we’re going to let the parliamentary processes and other things, the report of the ethics commissioner, all these things have to play out. The one thing I have learned in politics is that you have to learn how to be resilient in the face of challenges and I think Mr. Trudeau has always shown tremendous resilience in being able to deal with the challenges that the government is facing. And like most Canadians, I have a great deal of confidence in Mr. Trudeau.  Story continues below advertisement

Farah Nasser: Okay. Mr. Rae, thank you so much for your time and best of luck in your new role. Bob Rae, U.N. Ambassador: Thank you. Nice to talk to you, Farrah. Take care. Farah Nasser: I also asked Bob Rae if he thinks Canada should re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran and what he thinks about provincial reopening plans. You can see my full interview with him on The West Block’s YouTube channel. But for now, that’s all the time we have. I’m Farah Nasser. See you next week.

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