The West Block — Episode 35, Season 9


Episode 35, Season 9

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests: Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney,

Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien

Location: Ottawa

Tim Macklem, New Bank of Canada Governor: “This is an unprecedented situation and calls for unprecedented response.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Our focus is on what we need to do now to get through this so that our economy can come roaring back.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: “Some of the folks who just rebuilt their homes over the past four years now see those very same homes under water at a time that was already incredibly challenging with the economic adversity plus the pandemic.”

Global News Anchor Antony Robart: “Tech giants have announced plans to add software that would enable contact tracing in their devices.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Canadians put a very high value on their privacy, on their data security and we need to make sure we respect that, even in a time of emergency measures.”

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, May 3rd. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Obviously, our focus right now needs to be on how we get through right now to support Canadians, to support workers who’ve lost their paycheques, to support families who need to take measures to protect themselves and to protect our health care system. At the same time, our investments have also been focused on making sure that when we are able to get the economy back and running. It will be done quickly and strongly.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Governments across the country continue to spend unprecedented amounts in response to COVID-19. And according to the parliamentary budget officer, the federal government alone has spent nearly $150 billion and that number is expected to grow. What does this mean for the Canadian economy?

Here to talk about that now is President of the Treasury Board Jean-Yves Duclos. Thank you for joining us, Minister. You have a very important job these days with spending. We know there’s been a tremendous amount and we’re expecting more. Can you tell us how much more money the government is expected to spend and where you’re going to be putting it in coming days?

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Jean-Yves Duclos, Treasury Board President: Well hello, Mercedes, and hello to everyone listening. And as we all know, we are in the middle of a very severe health crisis, which is also leading to a very severe economic crisis. And as you’ve said, that has important fiscal consequences. The important message, however, is that we—to go through the crisis we need to help each other and that’s why the programs that are leading to those numbers that you’ve mentioned, the programs were designed to help millions of Canadians rapidly, efficiently and with agility. We’ve made also, some improvements over the last few weeks to these programs because we understand that if we are able to go through this crisis as quickly as possible and to return to a new normal as efficiently as possible, we need to invest in workers and businesses, small businesses in particular. That involves large fiscal costs, but the benefits are absolutely essential. I would be delighted to come back to some of the more precise measures, but the main message is to help each other to go through this crisis together.

Mercedes Stephenson: What are your priorities in coming days for where the government is going to spend?

Jean-Yves Duclos, Treasury Board President: So the first priority is to help workers and those that have lost everything. They’ve lost their job and they’ve lost their ability to make ends meet, that’s the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. Seven million Canadians have already applied and have in the large majority of cases, received the $2 thousand per month.

The other priority is to help businesses pay their workers through emergency wages, so 75 per cent subsidy, for which we expect millions of workers to receive the help of the federal government.

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The third priority is to make emergency loans, in particular to small businesses and to help many of them pay their rent because we know that for small businesses, in particular, the situation is extremely difficult. We rely on them to grow the engine of the economy after the crisis is past.

Mercedes Stephenson: Is there money coming for airlines, for big oil companies and for seniors?

Jean-Yves Duclos, Treasury Board President: Well for seniors, the prime minister has been clear. We feel and understand how difficult the situation is for them. The cost of food, their ability to get food has decreased. The cost of food has increased. The cost of medicine, they feel a lot of anxiety regarding their health. So we need to help them. The prime minister has said that we are looking to announce as quickly as possible our help to seniors.

Now regarding other businesses, we have to look at the broad package of measures that we’re doing: the wage subsidies that help to those workers that we know are struggling. They don’t receive any wages but they want to maintain their employment link to businesses so that when the businesses start again, then they can rehire those workers quickly. The emergency loans, the payment of commercial rent that we have quickly come to an agreement on with provinces and territories, so it’s a broad package. Not every business is able to benefit equally from that broad package, but we believe that broad package is going to be absolutely essential to get through the crisis.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Now Minister, I know you’ve introduced a lot of measures, but those cost a lot of money, too. And we’re looking at potentially, a $252 billion deficit. Part of what your government has to think about, too, is how you start to pay that down. What options are you considering because a lot of folks out there are wondering if they might see an increase in their taxes or cuts to government programs?

Jean-Yves Duclos, Treasury Board President: Well the prime minister has been clear, we’re very focused on the emergency. The alternative, if we didn’t do this would be depression. A depression is a recession, which is a lot longer and a lot deeper than a recession and with consequences for the [00:05:46 coffer] that would be even greater. Not only would unemployment be bigger, not only would wages fall more deeply but the deficit and the debt would increase much more rapidly if we didn’t act quickly. And we are acting quickly, again, to avoid moving from a recession in which we are obviously finding ourselves now towards a depression. A depression would last longer and would be deeper.

Mercedes Stephenson: And I understand that you’re trying to keep this as a short, fast, deep economic shock but looking forward, economies are now starting to reopen. How do you bring Canada out of the recession beyond the programs we’ve already discussed?

Jean-Yves Duclos, Treasury Board President: Well we have quite a good degree of confidence in the ability of Canada: Canadians and Canadian workers, to exit the recession. We entered in that crisis with a strong economy, about the strongest economy of all developed economies. We also had the strongest fiscal situation of all developed economies. We had full employment. So we started from a very strong position and we are confident that the economy will rebound quickly once we go through the health crisis. Because as we all know, this is initially a health crisis. That’s why we all need to do our part, to follow the public health guidance. But because of the strength of the fiscal situation and the strength of the economy before the crisis, we have big confidence in moving the economy back quickly to a stronger position.

Mercedes Stephenson: And we were fortunate that we were in a relatively good position as you point out, coming into this but we’re still hearing projections that we could see 50 per cent or above 50 per cent unemployment rates in Canada. What is your government’s plan to get those people back to work?

Jean-Yves Duclos, Treasury Board President: Well, you’re right. The absolute priority must be to get people back to work because if you want to decrease the fiscal costs, you want to reduce the deficit. We need people back to employment. Now, we know we’re going to do that better and more quickly if we maintain the economic fabric of our society y and the particular small business fabric of our economy. Canada’s growth for a large number of years has been driven by the ability of small businesses to invest in their workers and to grow the economy. That’s why a very important objective of the plan—it’s a big plan—is to maintain the ability of small businesses to go through the crisis and then to emerge strongly and to rehire as many workers as possible.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well Minister, certainly a very big job ahead of you. We appreciate you taking time to join us on the program this morning. Thank you.

Jean-Yves Duclos, Treasury Board President: Thank you and have a great day.

Mercedes Stephenson: Flooding, COVID-19 and an oil crash. It’s been hard luck for Alberta. The premier joins us next to talk about that province’s way forward.


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Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland: “That a response to flooding and in due course, forest fires will be complicated by the reality that it overlaps with the response to coronavirus. So, we will respond as we always do. We are very aware of the situation in Fort McMurray and are working on that right now.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland talking about the situation in Alberta and the flooding up in Fort McMurray. COVID-19 at meat packing plants, as well as a historic crash in oil prices have all seen Alberta taking hit after hit. So, what will it take for the province to pull through these tough times?

Joining me now is Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney. Welcome to the show, Premier.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: Good to be here, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: How is the situation out there in Alberta right now?

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe: Well first of all, the floods have largely abated in northern Alberta, although we’re keeping a close eye on it. There’s just been very high ice packs—ice jams, on the Peace and Athabasca Rivers in particular. You know, what’s just so unbelievably sad about this circumstance is that the City of Fort McMurray was hit so hard with much of the downtown under water, and many homes that had just been rebuilt after the fires, homes that were lost in the fire four years ago had been rebuilt and now under water with enormous damage. And those—many of those folks lost their jobs because of the economic crisis here or because of COVID-related measures and so it just seems like people in Fort McMurray in particular, can’t get a break. Obviously, across Alberta, we continue to be affected by the pandemic. We are moving towards phase one in our re-launch strategy. The good news is that I think we fared much better than most with a much lower level of hospitalizations and ICU admissions on a per capita basis than most jurisdictions around the world. So, we think we’ve got this, but we’re going to have to stay vigilant.

Mercedes Stephenson: Premier, can you walk me through a little bit of how you decided which parts of the economy to reopen and when?

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: The first phase that I say will begin on May 14th, although there are some things that we’ve already begun opening this weekend, provincial parks are being reopened. For example, golf courses, more outdoor recreation as an example. You know, Mercedes, my view and that of our officials is that we cannot illuminate the risk of the coronavirus. What we have to do is to manage the risk. And the key factor in that, of course, is to keep the projected peak of hospitalizations well below the maximum capacity of our health care system. Right now, we have about 2,000 hospital acute care beds available for COVID patients, but we only have about 90 people in those beds. So similarly on ICU, we have huge excess capacity and we’ve done so well in stockpiling equipment that we’ve been able to share some of our surplus equipment with other Canadian provinces that were facing a tougher situation.

Mercedes Stephenson: I know those provinces, including Ontario, where I am, have appreciated that generosity but your province is in dire financial straits right now, Premier. Some are asking if this is the time to introduce a sales tax, a PST. Is that something you’re looking at?

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: Well, let me say right now we’re dealing with a double economic whammy. Really, obviously the global coronavirus recession and then the lowest oil prices in history. In the last couple of weeks, the price for Canadian oil has been at some points, negative, below zero. Like literally, our producers have had to pay people to take away their energy and this is all related to the global COVID recession, reducing demand for energy consumption, but it’s also because this OPEC plus, the Saudis and Russians in particular, actually and irresponsibly surged supply into this constrained demand environment causing price—inventories to fill up and prices to crash. Those two factors on top of five years of tough economic times here, you’re right. We are—I’m expecting to see unemployment as high as 25 per cent in this quarter. We may be seeing a 30 per cent contraction in our economy and I cannot overstate the degree of economic adversity. In relative terms, it will be the most challenging period in Alberta’s economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s. I do not believe that the right response in the midst of that economic crisis is to impose a new tax. Now, when we get through all of this, I’ve said to Albertans that there will be a fiscal reckoning. Our government had committed in our platform to have a tax reform panel at some point during our mandate. So that will be a debate that Albertans will have in the future, but right now our focus is on gradually reopening the economy from the pandemic and doing everything we can to protect the financial security of families and job creators.

Mercedes Stephenson: Have you heard any more from the federal government about help for the oil sector? I know they’d introduced a number of programs that they say small and medium-sized businesses can apply for. Nothing for the big oil companies yet. Do you think that that’s coming?

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: Well, Minister Morneau said, I think, three to four weeks ago that a major package would be coming within hours or days. We’re now moving past a month since that commitment was made. We continue to have discussions with the federal government. Yesterday, or sorry, this past week I was on the first ministers call with the prime minister and once again, with the support of premiers from across the country, emphasized how critical it is that we ensure a future for the largest subsector of the Canadian economy, our oil and gas sector which it creates directly and indirectly half a million jobs. It is our largest export industry. It is responsible for $370 billion of government revenues over the past 18 years alone, and I’ve reminded the prime minister that in the global financial crisis in 2008, Alberta was there for the rest of Canada. We helped to keep our economy moving and, we had a national government that ensured a future for the central Canadian auto manufacturing sector. This industry, this province, as well as Newfoundland and Labrador and Saskatchewan, we need the same kind of response to ensure a future for those half a million Canadians whose employment depends on the energy sector.

Mercedes Stephenson: Premier, we just have a few moments left. But I wanted to ask your reaction to the Liberal government’s announcement here in Ottawa about new restrictions on firearms.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: The significant majority of guns that are used in the commission of crimes in Canada are smuggled in from the United States and so I think the federal government is missing the target by focusing on law abiding owners and instead, they should take that effort and those resources and focus on stopping the widespread smuggling of illegal firearms across the Canada-U.S. border. And so we’re very disappointed that they’re, in the middle of this pandemic, I think focused on the politics of this and going about it in the wrong way. Crack down on the smugglers, not on law abiding Canadians.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well that’s all the time we have together today. Thank you so much for joining us, Premier.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: As provinces across the country release their plans to reopen, we’ll look at tracing your movements through your phone. Could it be part of the equation? We’ll talk to the privacy commissioner, next.


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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “As we move forward on taking decisions, we’re going to keep in mind that Canadians put a very high value on their privacy, on their data security. And we need to make sure we respect that, even in a time of emergency measures and significant difficulty in crisis.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Provinces across the country are looking at applications that can be installed on your cell phone, to help officials conduct something called contact tracing. That’s a process where public health is able to figure out who somebody infected with COVID-19 might have had contact with so they can reach out to them. And while these apps may help control the spread of the infection once economies reopen, there are concerns about what the privacy implications could be, with the government able to trace your movements.

Joining me now to discuss this is Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien. Thank you so much for joining us, sir.

Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien: Thank you, good to be on your show.

Mercedes Stephenson: Can you tell me what some of your concerns are about these COVID-19 apps that provide contact tracing information to governments?

Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien: There’s no question that these applications raise privacy issues, but the first thing I would like to say is that we think that privacy and the protection of public health can be achieved at the same time. So it’s not a question of either having public health protection or privacy, it is possible to have both at the same time. There’s no question that privacy is engaged with these applications. How do you protect both privacy and public health? Essentially, the technology needs to be designed properly. If not designed properly, there could be huge privacy concerns. But if the technology is designed properly, with an eye to important privacy principles that I can describe in a second, then it is possible to have both.

Mercedes Stephenson: So walk us through. What are some of those privacy safeguards that would make an app safe to use for public health purposes without sacrificing your personal privacy?

Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien: Yes. So there are a number of them. I won’t go through all of them, but just the most important. The first one is to ensure that the application collects and uses information only for public health purposes and not for instance, for commercial purposes or general state surveillance purposes. If it’s limited to the protection of public health, then that is appropriate. Another safeguard is that information should be de-identified and aggregated to the extent possible. In other words, the sensitive health data, or the location data, should remain on the phone and only de-identified and aggregate information should be sent to the government, to public health authorities so that they can monitor trends at a general level but not know where each individual is. If consent is relied upon, and the prime minister has suggested this week that the government is looking at a consensual, voluntary way to adopt these applications, so if that is the case, consent needs to be meaningful. And we all know of long-winded privacy policies that would not lead to meaningful consent, so it’s important that consent be meaningful. The last criteria or safeguard I’ll mention is that these applications need to have a limited time period. It is we can understand that for important public health protection purposes that what would normally not be acceptable, may be acceptable during this crisis. But it is important that as soon as the pandemic is controlled, that could take weeks, months—several months, but when that occurs, the collection of information should stop and the information that was collected for public health purposes should be destroyed.

Mercedes Stephenson: Has the government contacted you or been in touch with you at all to look for your advice on how to do this in a way that is sensitive to privacy, while achieving what they’re hoping to in terms of knowing when infected people have been in contact with others?

Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien: Essentially, we have sent our framework to government departments. We know that government departments have it and are considering the framework. They have not sought our views on specific applications at this point. We have offered our services. They know where we live, so they have our framework. We have offered our services. That’s where things stand.

Mercedes Stephenson: You talked about informed consent. Do you think that the government should have the power to make this mandatory for those who don’t sign up for an app?

Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien: That’s a difficult question. So again, I remind your viewers that the prime minister indicated earlier, a few days ago, that the government is looking at a voluntary that is consensual, way of doing things. If the applications in question became mandatory, then it would be particularly important that other principles would apply such as limiting the purpose to public health protection, the time limit. There would also be, I think, enhanced emphasis on how effective is the application in question. In order to meet privacy safeguards, the measure needs to be necessary and proportionate that is science-based, and we have heard a few days ago, Dr. Tam, if I’m not mistaken, and other officials say that they’re not yet convinced as to the effectiveness of the applications in question. If it became mandatory, it would be extremely important that the application be found to be effective.

Mercedes Stephenson: A lot of interesting questions for Canadians and for the government ahead. Thank you so much for joining us.

Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien: You’re welcome.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s also all the time we have for today. Thank you, to you at home, for joining us as well. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. We’ll see you next week.

Additional West Block programming aired in some markets on Sunday:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Today, we are closing the market for military-grade assault weapons in Canada. These weapons were designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to kill the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford: “We’re throwing every resource we can to make sure that we help the people in these long-term care homes. No matter if it’s transferring staff from the hospitals or bringing in the military, it’s all hands-on deck.”

Global News Anchor Sonia Deol: “More than a dozen meat processing plants in the U.S. have been forced to close because of COVID-19.”

Global News Anchor Neetu Garcha: “And the supply chain that puts meat on our tables is now under intense pressure.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We need to make sure that those supply chains can keep functioning but we also need to make sure that the people who work in those supply chains are kept safe.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Hello. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

Superintendent Darren Campbell: “The gunman was in possession of several semi-automatic handguns and two semi-automatic rifles. In terms of the calibre of those, I can’t get into those details because the investigation is still active and ongoing.”

Mercedes Stephenson: The Liberal government has announced a ban on what it calls military-style assault firearms. The plan, which was unveiled by the prime minister on Friday, is being criticized on both sides of the gun debate. It came into effect immediately through an order-in-council rather than being put through Parliament.

Joining me now to discuss this announcement is Public Safety Minister Bill Blair. Minister, thank you for joining us.

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Public Safety Minister Bill Blair: Of course, nice to be here with you, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Sir, can I ask you to explain what exactly is your government banning? Is it a look of a particular type of firearm or is it a capability?

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair: Oh, no ma’am. It is a capability. These are all weapons that were designed in their original purpose for military use. They were designed for soldiers to, in combat, to kill other soldiers. That’s their initial design. It is what they were intended to do and quite frankly, in this country and around the world, tragically that’s what they’ve been used to do but unfortunately, to kill innocent civilians. And so all of these weapons by type and by characteristic, and there’s two different classifications that we are using here, clearly the provenance of these weapons was in military in its original purpose, and unfortunately, they have absolutely no purpose or value in a civil society and we believe that they represent an unacceptable risk to Canadians. And so we have moved, today, or on Friday, with measures to prohibit those weapons so that they will no longer be available for sale or use in Canada.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Blair, does that mean that you’re banning all firearms that have semi-automatic capabilities?

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair: No, ma’am, it does not. And the weapons that are on the list are all semi-automatic, at least the ones that are being prohibited by type, is they are semi-automatic. They all use centerfire ammunition. They are of a calibre above a 22-calibre, which is rimfire. They are all capable of rapid sustained fire and for housing a larger capacity magazine. And they all have, as their origin and design, the use in the military. And for example, we’re talking—

Mercedes Stephenson: But Minister, haven’t military weapons—military firearms been banned for some time, anything that is fully automatic or that has a large magazine has been prohibited in Canada. So, I did notice you also banned things like artillery and rocket launchers, which are clearly military grade weapons. But in terms of this particular weapon, if you ban this sort of firearm, does it mean there will be nothing left on the market that has that same capability anymore?

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair: Mercedes let me help you with this. You made reference to automatic weapons, which are prohibited and banned in this country. We’re not referring to that. We are referring to semi-automatic weapons designed for military use, capable of sustained fire using a certain level of calibre of ammunition and capable of accepting large capacity magazines. We’ve been quite explicit. And we’ve actually listed 1,500 different models and variants of essentially 13 different families of weapons. They have no place in hunting. They have no place in sport shooting. They have no place in Canadian society. And we have had too many tragic incidents in this country at École Polytechnique, at the Quebec mosque, at Dawson College, at Moncton, in Fredericton, and most recently in Nova Scotia, where similar weapons have been used killing innocent people.

Mercedes Stephenson: Can I just ask you about Nova Scotia, though, Minister, because your government has mentioned it a number of times, but the RCMP have stated that they believe that all of the firearms that were used there were illegal. The shooter did not have a firearms license and they believe most were smuggled in from the United States. If the issue is also guns being smuggled in from the United States and not just illegally bought in Canada, how are you going to address that at the border?

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair: Okay, two very important points. I am not going to tell you what the RCMP should tell you and will tell you about the actual weapons that were involved in this case. But I believe when that information becomes publicly available, Canadians will understand the relevance of the measures that we have taken today in the prohibition of military style weapons to the tragedy in Nova Scotia. We’ve also said this is a first step but not the only thing we’re doing, Mercedes. We’ve also said we’re going to bring forward legislation in the spring. And as soon as Parliament resumes, we will bring that legislation forward, as we promised in the campaign, and as it’s clearly indicated in my mandate letter. We’ll bring forward legislation that will give us new tools, new authorities to stop the illegal smuggling of firearms into Canada, the illegal trafficking of firearms through diversion and straw purchase, and the illegal firearms that get into the hands of criminals through theft by bringing—implementing new measures, the strong measures to require secure storage of those weapons. We’ll also bring in new measures to control ammunition, large capacity magazines. We’ve announced our intention to bring forward regulations and legislation that will allow us to implement what are called red flag laws so that we can disarm and remove firearms for dangerous situations and individuals who are involved in serious domestic violence—

Mercedes Stephenson: But those red flag laws already exist don’t they? So are they just not being implemented?

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair: Mercedes, I’ve also heard, and you’re parroting a little bit, the language of the lobbyist. On the one—

Mercedes Stephenson: Sir, I’m not parroting the language of the lobbyists. The RCMP, have said there’s red flag laws. They’re supposed to be able to remove weapons from people who they believe are a danger. Are they not able to do that?

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair: And as you probably recall, I spent 40 years as a police officer, 10 as the chief in Toronto and I can tell you the limitations of the existing legislative framework under section 117 of the criminal code, we want to significantly expand that so that, for example, if a doctor becomes aware of an individual who is suffering from an illness and could be represent a danger to themselves through suicide, or someone whose been involved in an intimate partner violence or a neighbour dispute that could lead to a dangerous situation. Or for an individual who’s online spouting hate and advocating violence against a religious minority or a vulnerable population. Those are circumstances where it’s a dangerous situation and the presence of a firearm can make it deadly. And I want to make sure, not just the police, but doctors, family members, victims, community members, can take the steps necessary to render that situation safe. That’s an effective red flag law.

Mercedes Stephenson: Handguns kill more Canadians than any other type of firearm every year. Why not ban them?

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair:  We know that the majority of handgun owners in this country are responsible, and they’re very conscientious on how they store and use and acquire their weapons, but we also know that when those handguns get in the hands of people that would commit crimes with them, that they can be deadly. And so we will also bring in very strong measures, again, to prevent their theft through stronger storage, to prevent their smuggling through new offences and penalties and measures to protect those guns from coming across our border, and for those people that illegally traffic in them by buying them illegally and selling them illegally, there will be new tools for the police but also new offences and penalties that will prevent those crimes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, I’m sorry to jump in again. I have to stop you there because we are out of time, but we greatly appreciate you joining us to explain the new rules that you’re implanting. Thank you.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair:  Thank you very much, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: As the coronavirus spreads in long-term care facilities and we face a continued shortage of PPE in hospitals, we’ll sit down with the president of the Canadian Medical Association about what more is needed for those on the frontlines?


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Ontario Premier Doug Ford:  “We’re throwing every resource we can, to make sure that we help the people in these long-term care homes. No matter if it’s transferring staff from the hospitals or bringing in the military, it’s all hands on deck. And we’re going to continue, we aren’t going to stop.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was Ontario Premier Doug Ford. COVID-19 has hit long-term care facilities across the country, hitting our elderly harder than anyone. And doctors and nurses in those facilities and in hospitals are still raising concern about whether they’re getting access to the equipment they need to safely fight coronavirus. .

Joining me now to discuss this is the President of the Canadian Medical Association, Dr. Sandy Buchman. Doctor, thank you for joining us.

Dr. Sandy Buchman, Canadian Medical Association President: Thanks for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: The Canadian Medical Association has raised concerns over the past weeks about the protective equipment that doctors and nurses needed to do their jobs. Have you seen any improvement on that front?

Dr. Sandy Buchman, Canadian Medical Association President: Well we had actually hoped that we would see improvement but we didn’t see the improvement that we had anticipated. We did an initial survey on March 30th and 31st, and the majority of doctors were very anxious that they were not having an adequate supply of PPE available. And the repeat survey on April 20th and 21st showed that things hadn’t really improved overall. About 29 per cent of physicians felt that they had a better supply, but 29 per cent said it hadn’t improved and the rest said it had remained the same. Several doctors, up to about a third, said they only had a one or two day supply. So this still is greatly concerning.

Mercedes Stephenson: So what kind of equipment exactly is it that they need? Is it gloves? Is it masks? Where is most of the shortage happening?

Dr. Sandy Buchman, Canadian Medical Association President: It’s really the whole outfit. In around the 35 per cent range, people reported they didn’t have adequate face shields. They didn’t have adequate gloves, they didn’t have the N95 respirators or surgical masks, didn’t have gowns. So it was really the complete outfit that they were referring to, not just the masks, for example.

Mercedes Stephenson: Who do you think is responsible for that shortage? I mean, I know we heard this week that the federal government did not keep their personal protective equipment (PPE), basically stored for emergencies up to date or with as much equipment as was needed. The provinces have been accused of the same thing. I mean, who at the end of the day is responsible for the fact that there is not enough equipment for frontline health care workers?

Dr. Sandy Buchman, Canadian Medical Association President: Yeah. I do think that the adequate stockpiles of PPE were neglected. I mean, we had really good information post-SARS that we should be stockpiling this equipment, that it be monitored. That as equipment long before it expired, it would be distributed to hospitals and to the community and then restocked so we wouldn’t face this day. I think since the beginning of the pandemic, the government has been working incredibly hard at procuring the equipment, but we’re still not really seeing it at the grassroots level. The doctors certainly aren’t perceiving about when it’s coming down, when they’re going to get it. What’s in the pipeline, how it might be distributed to those areas of the country that need it. So hard to say, I know it just goes to the point that we didn’t have an adequate domestic supply available, and this is one of the things that we’re learning right now from the pandemic that we can never let that happen again.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you have any thoughts on where we get that personal protective equipment? Because I know some have said relying on China has been a problem. A lot of the equipment coming in, over a million masks, were defective. Are you hearing about that from your members?

Dr. Sandy Buchman, Canadian Medical Association President: We’re absolutely hearing about that. We heard about that in the survey and I’ve heard that directly from our members, particularly actually in Alberta, about substandard equipment that it was ill-fitting. That it was old. It wasn’t—the rubber bands, for example, on the masks were not good. So we’re seeing that there may be substandard equipment. This is the problem. There’s competition worldwide for the equipment and we have to have equipment that meets safety standards here. We need to protect our frontline workers. They’re putting themselves in harm’s way, and they’re anxious about that for their own health, but they’re anxious that they may transmit it to their patients. They’re anxious that they may bring it home to their loved ones. So it’s really, really important that we have high quality equipment available and a good supply. You now we’re—this is a marathon. You know, we’ve just gone through maybe the first spring, but we’re going to have—we’re going to get the second wave and potentially the third wave. We thought flattening the curve we’d have enough time to get our own—even our own domestic supply manufactured in time. We were retooling any manufacturing facilities and here we are but we still don’t really have adequate PPE, particularly at the community level.

Mercedes Stephenson: A lot of provinces are now talking about with the flattening of the curve, starting to reopen, looking forward to dates when they’re gradually going to get back on track with the economy. Do you think that we’re in a place right now medically in terms of COVID-19 where we’re ready to start reopening the economy?

Dr. Sandy Buchman, Canadian Medical Association President: Well, you know, we hear from our physicians, we hear from many experts that perhaps we don’t have sufficient information about whether we can open safely. The survey also showed us that doctors were worried about insufficient testing. Now we didn’t have enough testing out in the community to really get the good data, the information that we need to be able to open safely. So there is grave concern that we’re hearing about opening too soon. We understand the consequences of not opening for the economy. We understand the non-COVID problems that can develop, everything from intimate partner violence to people differing their medical care. So we’ve got to get the balance, but we’re really advocating for much greater testing so we can make those evidence-informed decisions.

Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think the testing levels would have to be at before we could reopen? Would it be widespread community testing? Would it be serological testing to see if people had immunity? What are you thinking should be the benchmark here?

Dr. Sandy Buchman, Canadian Medical Association President: Well it would be all of those things, but you know, we’re still kind of in unknown territory, too. Some of the serologic testing, say it demonstrates that people have antibodies, is that true immunity?  How long does it last? We’re in the middle of an experiment here, a real-life experiment and it’s hard to know. So our public health experts are calling for increased testing at community level and serologic testing. We need to—we’re learning as we go along, but there’s no doubt that that can provide information that will help guide our decisions about reopening the health care system and reopening the economy.

Mercedes Stephenson: Very interesting discussion. Thank you so much for joining us, doctor.

Dr. Sandy Buchman, Canadian Medical Association President: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: As COVID-19 has been making workers at meat packing plants sick, what impact is having on operations? And is it putting our food safety at risk?


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John Barlow, Conservative—Foothills: “Right now in the processing capacity is at a critical stage within Canada. Cargill is going to try and reopen on a limited basis on Monday. GBS in Brooks is hanging on by a thread, meaning about 70 per cent of our cattle processing is at risk. With 22 plants now closed in the United States, the issue is even more critical.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was Alberta Conservative MP John Barlow. More than 1,200 COVID-19 cases have been linked to the Cargill Meat Processing Plant near High River, Alberta, forcing it to temporarily close and cease operations last month. But it’s not the only meat processing plant in Alberta experiencing an outbreak. A second plant near Brooks, Alberta has nearly 300 cases among its workers. Is enough being done to protect these workers and the meat industry supply chain that feeds all of us in Canada?

Joining me now to discuss this is Paul Meinema, National President of United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Thank you so much for joining us, Paul.

Paul Meinema, National President of United Food and Commercial Workers Union: Thank you, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Paul, you represent over a quarter of a million workers. You members are working in High River, Alberta at a plant that’s been linked to over 1,200 COVID-19 cases. That plant set to reopen Monday. You did not want that to happen. Tell me about why?

Paul Meinema, National President of United Food and Commercial Workers Union: Well we’re quite concerned with the outbreak that was there and that we’re not sure. You know, we can’t confirm that all of the right measures have been taken to reopen the plant. We think it might be somewhat premature, we’ve not heard from the Department of Health as to whether all the required processes have been taken place. And we have members who are terrified. They’ve been working in this facility. We cautioned Cargill before about some things that were coming and asked them about closing the plant. That didn’t occur and you know, here we are today with this massive outbreak and really no assurances yet for our members as to whether this is a safe protocol to go back to.

Mercedes Stephenson: What were you hearing from your members about what working conditions were like in the plant before it closed?

Paul Meinema, National President of United Food and Commercial Workers Union: Well the working conditions have changed in the aspect that there are a number of protocols that have been put in place because of COVID-19. We think that there are other measures and one of the most important ones that we’re talking about is controlling the line speed, to reduce the line speed. These facilities have people working shoulder to shoulder. There are a number of protections that have been put in place by a number of employers. We don’t believe that that’s consistent and I think that we can safely say now with the outbreak that maybe those measures aren’t enough and we have to look at additional measures to make sure that our members, the workers, are safe in these facilities. This outbreak demonstrated that the measures that were in place to this point may not have been enough.

Mercedes Stephenson: What measures do you think need to be in place in addition to those that have already been brought in?

Paul Meinema, National President of United Food and Commercial Workers Union: We’ve been asking the employers, our employers where we represent members is that we believe that it’s not business as usual, that we can’t continue to operate at the capacity that the facilities are trying to operate at. The only safe way that we see in some of these facilities the way they’re equipped is to get the physical distance that’s needed is to slow the production line down. And I think it’s been demonstrated in a couple of plants in Alberta in these situations where proper equipment and proper physical distancing is not meeting the needs that we get outbreaks. And we’re not—we’ve not been assured by the employer that some of these precautions after this outbreak have been remedied before they’re starting again.

Mercedes Stephenson: Who do you hold responsible for the outbreak? Do you think that it’s the employer or is it the Government of Alberta?

Paul Meinema, National President of United Food and Commercial Workers Union: Well, I think there’s, you know the situation is that we are in unprecedented times and I would not—I don’t think I’m going to point my finger at anyone in particular saying hey, it’s your fault that’s all this occurred. I think there is enough finger pointing going on around, but I do believe that, you know, in the situation that we have here, to reopen the plant without a robust discussion, without confirming to the union whether some—the protocols that might have been lacking before that contributed to the outbreak have been dealt with, or we haven’t heard from the government as to whether they’re—the cleanliness of the plant, the redoing of the plant has been done to a degree that is satisfactory to the government. We’ve not heard from anyone.

Mercedes Stephenson: When you see all of this, does it raise concerns for you about the safety of Canada’s food supply chain?

Paul Meinema, National President of United Food and Commercial Workers Union: I don’t think it raises concerns about the safety of the food for sure. I think, you know, Canada has one of the best inspection models for our food and I have confidence in that. I do get concerned, however, that can we maintain production if we run these plants at full speed as we have and without the required consistency and the safety measures, is that do we have another shutdown in the future? Were we better off slowing down the production, getting the physical distancing that we need, making sure that everything is operating well and keeping a consistent production or risking another breakout.

Mercedes Stephenson: So you’re concerned then, that if there’s not proper measures in place, you could see these plants shutdown and that could create a shortage, potentially, of meat.

Paul Meinema, National President of United Food and Commercial Workers Union: That’s, in my mind, is a more likelihood than just operating at a normal that is not business as usual, that we are in a situation where we have barriers put up where we’re trying to physically distance, where people are working wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). But there are other measures in the plant that could be helpful like the further social distancing, which would result in probably a line speed reduction but a consistent slow production may be better off than running at full speed and risking more breakouts.

Mercedes Stephenson: South of the border, President Trump has ordered these kinds of plants to stay open as an essential service. Do you think that has any impact up here?

Paul Meinema, National President of United Food and Commercial Workers Union: Well, I mean, the facilities that we’re talking about in High River are internationally owned facilities. It may have an impact. I don’t know that a strict ordering from government to maintain a facility operating necessarily provides all of the safety that’s required for the folks in there. And that may actually cause the opposite if you have to—if you mandate that the plant has to be open rather than having some checks and measures as to when things could change or if there is a health concern that needs to be dealt with.

Mercedes Stephenson: Paul, thank you so much for joining us today.

Paul Meinema, National President of United Food and Commercial Workers Union: Thank you so much for the invitation, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well, that’s also all the time we have for today. Thank you for joining us. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Have a great week.

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