The West Block, Season 8, Episode 20

Episode 20, Season 8
Sunday, January 20, 2019

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guest Interviews: Minister François-Philippe Champagne, Andy Ellis, Erin O’Toole

Location: Ottawa

Treasury Board President Jane Philpott: “I, Jane Philpott…”

Woman: “Minister of Rural Economic Development.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The challenges facing rural and urban Canadians are very, very different.”

Translator: “I want be independent, travel. I will work and support the freedom for women around the world.”

Man: “We’re off to the races.”

Former Liberal Candidate Karen Wang: “And this is not me and I am not who this is.”

Minister Chrystia Freeland: “The prime minister has said, as I have said, we’re living through the most turbulent moment in terms of the rules-based international order since the Second World War.”

Translator: “And there are currently over 200 Canadian nationals being detained in China.”

Canada’s Ambassador to China John McCallum: “We have a lot of work still to do.”

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, January 20th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

We are living in turbulent times and Canadians need to listen to the government’s travel advisories. Those were the words of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. She issued that statement after news broke of a Canadian kidnapped and killed in Burkina Faso, and another sentenced to death in China. Two more Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been detained for weeks without charges, jailed after a Huawei executive was arrested by the RCMP in Vancouver. Meanwhile, in Ottawa, the Chinese ambassador took the extraordinary step of threatening the Canadian government to give China what it wants or face repercussions. So, what is the government doing about it?

Joining me now from Sherbrooke, Quebec is the Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne. You’ve just had these cabinet meetings about Canada in the world. The situation with China seems to be escalating this week, minister. What strategy did you did you discuss going forward as a cabinet and a government to deal with the situation?

Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well we will always forcefully defend Canadians. Obviously, we’re talking about the arbitrary detention of two Canadians and one Canadian which has a death sentence. Obviously, which we’re against and we have been advocating. So we’re going to continue our advocacy, we’re going to continue building the coalition to make sure that the voice of Canada is heard. There are a number of discussions at high level. We will always defend Canadians in situations like that. Canadians know that and certainly, you will see us continue our advocacy, continue our engagement, continue to build a coalition to defend our Canadians abroad.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s what the government’s been saying for weeks, though, and it seems like the situation keeps getting worse. Is it time for a new approach, a more aggressive approach, perhaps?

Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well I’m not sure if it’s—I would not describe it necessarily the way you did. I mean, we are continuing our advocacy. I mean, that’s what people would expect from us, building a stronger and bigger coalition.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that it’s time for the government to say these are politically motivated arrests and their revenge for the arrest of the Huawei executive here in Canada?

Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well that’s not for me to say. What I can say, however, is that we will continue to fight for Canadians. They know we have been there. You’ve heard from ambassador McCallum. He’s been visiting them. He’s been engaging with them. We will continue on the world stage to make the voice heard. But it’s not just about these two individuals. I think that the coalition realized that if you want to have the world order where the rule of law prevails, where human rights prevail, we have to stick together. We have to speak with one voice and everyone in the world watching should be there to defend these two Canadians against this arbitrary detention.

Mercedes Stephenson: You’re the minister of infrastructure and of course, one of the big questions here is about letting Huawei in. You had the ambassador come out this week and make a direct threat against Canada, saying there will be repercussions if you don’t allow Huawei in. You dealt with China an awful lot in your career. You know what Huawei is. You know about the connection to the Chinese government. Why not just say no, we’re going to let them into the country based on China’s behaviour right now?

Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well, you know, you have to look at state relation over decades. Obviously, we will do what’s right for Canada. I’ve always said that national security comes first when you look at these types of investments and these situations. Canadians would expect us to be that first priority, which is to protect our national security and we’re going to be using that lens when we’re looking at that. And I think that the ambassador will understand that. It is the same thing when they’re looking at investment. Canada is open for business. We have a number of investors in our country, but people understand the rules. And the good thing when you invest in Canada is that the rules of law prevail. So people are welcome in our country. They know that stability, predictability, rule of law, very inclusive and diverse society is what brings investment in Canada. So we want investments, but we also have our rules and we’re going to apply them openly and fairly and in this case, we’re going to look at the national security first for our country.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well, I mean you have CSIS coming out and warning universities that are working with Huawei to be careful. You have the Americans opening an investigation, an arrest in Poland with allegations of spying against Huawei. Isn’t that enough for the government to make a decision? And now you have the Chinese ambassador right here in Ottawa, threatening the government.

Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Yeah, I don’t think threats are necessarily useful or helpful in any of these situations. I think dialogue is the way forward. When it comes to that, we will obviously listen to our security services. We have experts in Canada. Canadians know we can rely on them. So we’ll be listening to them and like I said, the lens we will be applying is the lens of national security. We’ll listen to experts, but I would say, for the rest, we will do what’s right for Canada. Whatever other people may think or say, we will do what’s right for Canada and that’s what Canadians would expect from us.

Mercedes Stephenson: Now to go to something that’s a little bit more on your file, and we appreciate you talking to us about China, when you look at purely infrastructure, there was an announcement with the cabinet shuffle this week that there was going to be a portfolio for rural growth. That actually falls under your portfolio as well. One of the things that have been talked about is high speed internet. Are you looking at potentially subsidizing telecoms in terms of putting high speed internet into areas of Canada where it’s simply too expensive for the companies to do so?

Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well, you know when it comes to infrastructure, you’re right. I mean, this week was about jobs. It was about the economy, it was about growth, it was about the environment and obviously, about rural Canada. You know, as infrastructure minister, when I go in urban areas, we’re talking about mobility. What people want in our big city centres is more mobility. They can go to work and back home faster in a better environment. When you come to rural Canada, what we hear is about connectivity, making sure that people across Canada have broadband internet or cell phone coverage. So I’m very happy that Bernadette Jordan, the new minister of rural economic development is going to be part of our team because this is just showing, again, to Canadians that we’re really focused on regions, we’re really focused on the need that we listen to people because we have heard that often that rural Canada wanted to be heard and wanted to have a seat at the table. So we’re going to be working together. Obviously, we have a program to connect part of Canada. We need to continue. We need to engage the private sector with us, but certainly, that’s a priority because we understand to date—

Mercedes Stephenson: But will you put more money behind it from the government?

Minister François-Philippe Champagne: Well, you know, in the infrastructure investments that we’re doing, there’s part of the money for that. You know that Minister Baines also had a program to connect Canadians. We’re going to continue to reflect how we can achieve that. As you know, it’s a big endeavour. It’s usually the last mile, which is more difficult, more complex in a big country like us, but our resolve is clear. Our resolve is to connect Canadians. We understand that in the 21st century if you want to innovate, if you want to export, if you want to be able to do remote education, remote medicine, work from home, you need to be connected. So the understanding is there. The willingness is there. Now we’re going to discuss about the means to achieve it.

Mercedes Stephenson: We have to wrap it up there. Thank you so much for joining us, minister.

Minister François-Philippe Champagne: It’s always a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: Still to come, Canada’s ambassador brief MPs on the Hill late last week. We’ll get the reaction from the Opposition.

But first, diplomacy to bring detained Canadians home. We’ll talk to a former CSIS operative about what goes on behind those back door negotiations.


Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. On any given day, while we’re enjoying life here in Canada, hundreds of Canadians around the world are being detained. In foreign jails or held hostage, the victims of criminal or terrorist kidnappings. Behind the scenes and in the shadows, secretive members of Canada’s security agencies work around the clock trying to secure their release. Andy Ellis was one of those people for 30 years. He worked on negotiating the release of Canadians in many high profile cases and he is the former assistant director for operations with CSIS, now working with EVNTL in Toronto. Andy, how would you rate the government’s performance on this file at this point in terms of dealing with the Canadians who have been detained?

Andy Ellis: Well it depends on how you look at it. I think if you talk about dealing with the Canadians that have been detained; I think they’re doing the best they can, given the circumstances. I think I would rate them less high in managing this, you know, sort of over the longer term. This situation developed over a long period of time and I think it could have been dealt with by having a policy in place some time ago. If you look at the way Huawei has been dealt with in other countries and the decision to allow them into the 5G network, for example, it was done sort of as a group. And had we made the decision at that time with the United States, Australia, the U.K., New Zealand and others, I don’t think we would have stood out quite so much as we do now. And now with the arrest in Vancouver, we’ve gotten ourselves into a very difficult situation.

Mercedes Stephenson: A lack of foresight before. So at this point, should the government be saying no to Huawei?

Andy Ellis: I do. I think, you know, it would have been a lot easier to say no to Huawei some time ago. The difficult situation that we have here is the best way I can describe it is people are being held hostage. People are being held hostage, Canadians are being held hostage in China and it puts a different light on it. You now have to look at this as a hostage negotiation, a very difficult diplomatic negotiation as opposed to a business decision that I think could have been made some time ago.

Mercedes Stephenson: Andy, you’ve negotiated behind the scenes with China in particular, on the Kevin Garrett case. He was detained in China. He was accused of spying, some similar circumstances. Based on that, what circumstances do you believe these Canadians are being held in now?

Andy Ellis: Well, you know, it’s a jail in China. You know, it isn’t the Metro West Detention Centre, it’s kind of tough, you know? But by those standards, there’d be, you know, foreigners being held, they’d be dealt with, with a certain degree of kid gloves I hope, but that’s normally the process because it is a diplomatic issue. You want to keep them safe and healthy. Part of the job of the Canadian government is to make regular consular visits to make sure that they’re okay. But, you know, as long as you’re held in a Chinese institution, it’s extraordinarily difficult on the people being held and probably equally or more difficult on their families.

Mercedes Stephenson: We’ve heard they’re being questioned for up to four hours a day and going back to when Kevin Garrett was held, he was kept in custody for about two years. Do you expect a similar timeline in this situation?

Andy Ellis: I don’t know what the timeline is, but it’s not good. The situation has been allowed to get to this point. I honestly believe it could have been avoided. As I said, had decisions been made, you know, on Huawei and 5G some time ago, I think we would have been able to sustain ourselves through the arrests in Vancouver a lot more effectively. Now it is into a very, very difficult situation and diplomacy is slow. And the legal process is slow. And, you know, one of the things that we need to keep in mind is the Chinese government have a lot of influence over people that are held in jails in China. In this case, they’re clearly trumped up charges. That’s not the case in Canada. You know, by nature of our constitution, the executive branch and the legislative branch do not influence the judicial system, thank god. But it puts us into a difficult position. The Chinese are expecting us to intercede and intervene and we can’t. And as long as that continues, the same situation occurs in China and they’re playing exceptionally hardball.

Mercedes Stephenson: Given the situation right now, will you go to China?

Andy Ellis: No, absolutely not. And I think it’s important that businesses, and that’s part of what my company does now, is businesses take a very, very serious look at the people who are traveling on their behalf because as I said, it’s trumped up charges. They’re grabbing people who have influence. They’re grabbing people who, you know, if you’re working for company X and it’s very influential with the Canadian government and something happens to your employee, you’re going to put a lot of pressure on the government to resolve the situation. So it’s a tenuous situation to say the least. I certainly wouldn’t go for pleasure and for business. Until the situation is resolved, I would be very, very careful.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think the travel advisory that the government has issued right now adequate expresses the risk for Canadians?

Andy Ellis: I think it’s carefully worded. I would—my best measure, I’d say it’s okay. You know, we could talk for some time about the way information about travel advisories are conveyed to Canadians. It’s kind of a 20th century conveyance. The way it’s done now, you have to go out and get it as opposed to it being pushed to Canadians. I think we can improve in the way that that’s done so more people can access it. It’s okay, but exercise common sense. Understand what’s going on right now and make your decisions accordingly. Make sure that if you’re going and you have to go, you take precautions and either that or don’t go. Do it over the telephone. Do it over Skype or meet in a third country where it’s safer.

Mercedes Stephenson: The Chinese ambassador came out last week and said there would be repercussions if Canada did not allow Huawei in and ordered Canada to stop trying to recruit international allies. When you hear those threats, do you think there’s a risk here to Canadian national security?

Andy Ellis: Yes, absolutely. I’ve never heard the Chinese make such boldfaced threats before. They tend to be exercise, you know, a little more discretion in the way that they, you know, convey that sort of information. This is, as I’ve said, they’re playing hardball. And I think it needs to be dealt with, with a lot of care. This is a tough, tough situation now. Every part of the government needs to be involved. If I were the government, I would not stop recruiting allies. He wouldn’t have said it if it wasn’t having some impact. But again, had we made the decision on the 5G when everybody else did, we wouldn’t be the lone person standing out. We would have survived this thing and we would have been part of the way that it was done before. Whenever a decision is delayed, you’re going to get yourself into situations like this and I think the government could have done a lot better had the decision been made with some—more alacrity than it was.

Mercedes Stephenson: Andy Ellis thanks for joining us.

Andy Ellis: You’re very welcome.

Mercedes Stephenson: But first, Canada’s ambassador briefed MPs on the Hill late last week. We’ll get the reaction from the Opposition.


Minister Chrystia Freeland: We’re living through, I think, probably the most turbulent moment in terms of the rules based international order since the Second World War.

Mercedes Stephenson: That was Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland late last week. Canada’s ambassador to China met with cabinet ministers and then later MPs on Parliament Hill, to brief them on negotiations with the Chinese to try to free the detained Canadians.

Joining me now to talk about that is someone who was in the closed-door briefing that media weren’t allowed into, Conservative foreign affairs critic, Erin O’Toole. Erin, welcome to the show.

Erin O’Toole: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: You had a chance to listen to this briefing. Were you satisfied with what you heard from ambassador McCallum?

Erin O’Toole: No. In fact, what was clear is that there has not been a plan with respect to this dispute, with respect to at least three maybe far more Canadians that have been dragged into the dispute in China. No plan at the beginning, no plan now and not even a real sense of how many Canadians have been affected. We didn’t get clear answers at any stage and that should trouble Canadians because there’s thousands of people working, hundreds of thousands living indirectly and not even a real sense on the impact to those citizens. So I think the government needs to show some leadership. The prime minister seems to be waiting for this diplomatic dispute to go away before he gets involved. He needs to show some leadership and call President Xi.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well, and they’ve indicated before they thought that might actually make it worse, that it would escalate it. Do you think it’s just now at the point where that’s no longer a risk? Or did you not believe that in the first place when they said it?

Erin O’Toole: Well look, this is a very unusual case. Before the extradition, the prime minister was advised about the arrest. That’s not normal. Why was that? Because they knew it would be very sensitive, given the state-owned enterprise of Huawei. Huawei’s been very political. What was the plan as a result of that? We got a sense today, from ambassador McCallum, there was no plan. He’s a former Liberal minister, so he was trying to say what a good job Justin Trudeau and his team are doing. Justin Trudeau’s calling every other world leader, but the one who holds the keys to the prisons that Canadians are in. He’s waiting for a photo op, rather than leading towards a resolution.

Mercedes Stephenson: Is there anything realistically that the Canadian government can do, though? I mean, we’re a fly in China’s ointment, as it were. We don’t have the kind of oomph that the United States does, or even other countries around the Pacific Rim in some cases. So, no matter what strategy there is, is China going to listen?

Erin O’Toole: Absolutely, they will. There’s a lot of trade and interest both ways. Canada’s also a respected and lynchpin player in the G7, in NATO, certainly very close with the United States. We have influence far above our size and that’s why China has tried for 20 years, to improve relationships. But China respects strength. You know, under the Conservative, prime minister Harper was able to disagree strongly with China, but do it as a peer to peer relationship. Now the prime minister is willing to call President Trump to talk about the detention of a Chinese citizen, but he won’t call the Chinese president to talk about detentions of Canadians. That should concern all Canadians, especially the families impacted.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that based on what you’re hearing, that China thinks that Canada is weak?

Erin O’Toole: Absolutely. The fact that the prime minister was advised about the situation before it even happened, which is highly unusual. How has he tried to calm the waters, particularly once they saw that Canadians were being arrested, criminal sentences were being changed in retaliation. He won’t even acknowledge that it was retaliation, even though they’re trying to line up other countries to be on our so-called side. He needs to lead that side. He needs to call the president, the Chinese president as a peer and say we expect fair treatment for our Canadians. We need to dial back the rhetoric. Some of it has been ridiculous. He seems to be waiting for this to go away. We’re pushing for him to take some leadership.

Mercedes Stephenson: Realistically, what can Canada do that will register with China and might help to free these Canadians?

Erin O’Toole: Well the best news actually came from the father of Miss Wanzhou, who said the founder of Huawei said thank you to the Canadians who’ve treated her well. The prime minister actually could have reached out very quickly and said to the Chinese president; Canada’s justice system’s the best in the world. Under our extradition act, she will get not only fair, but quick treatment. In fact, she is living in a multi-million dollar home in Vancouver on bail, while Canada’s getting bare bones minimal consular access, brief minutes per month with our own citizens. So the prime minister should have fought for that right out of the gate. This was blowing up in December. It’s still getting out of hand now. They’re not even sure how many citizens are impacted. What’s the prime minister waiting for?

Mercedes Stephenson: But if the Chinese are determined to make an example of Canada, how do you get around that?

Erin O’Toole: You don’t let it happen. Certainly, this is at its heart, Huawei. We’ve been calling for some time for Canada to be clear, like our other allies have in the Five Eyes. Huawei should not be a part of our 5G network.

Mercedes Stephenson: So why didn’t your government say no to it?

Erin O’Toole: It wasn’t at the point that the 5G infrastructure network was being contemplated. Certainly, we expressed concerns with Chinese espionage, cyber security issues. This is always something we dealt with directly. In fact, in McCallum’s departure speech from the House of Commons, he said, prime ministers always dealt frankly with Chinese leaderships. Well it doesn’t seem like Justin Trudeau does. He won’t even pick up the call—the phone to call.

Mercedes Stephenson: What did you make of the Chinese ambassadors threats this week to Ottawa, saying do what we want or face repercussions? What could those repercussions be?

Erin O’Toole: I think with hundreds of thousands of Canadians, you know, there’s 300,000 that live in Hong Kong. I have family in Hong Kong myself. Threats like that are making the situation worse. It took until just last week for the Chinese ambassador to be summoned by the government about this dispute. His language since then has been inappropriate.

Mercedes Stephenson: Should we expel the ambassador? Is it time to start taking some more steps?

Erin O’Toole: I think he needs to be recalled again. Perhaps he needs to go to Vancouver and see how his citizen is being treated and then give us assurances that our citizens will be afforded the same rule of law, privileges that we’re giving their citizen. I think they need an education on our system and that’s where the minister and the prime minister should do it.

Mercedes Stephenson: Is it time, though, to perhaps say the free trade deal is off the table or we’re going to consider tariffs, to really take a hard line against China?

Erin O’Toole: Well, we’ve said for some time that there should be no free trade agreement with China. The trouble is Prime Minister Trudeau made it the centrepiece of his time as prime minister, his four years as prime minister, we hope. There is going to be no free trade agreement as China’s getting more aggressive, not respecting the rights of our citizens. I think this can be dialed back, but it’s going to take leadership. This isn’t going to naturally happen.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, we have to wrap it up there. But certainly, we’ll keep an eye on it. Erin O’Toole, thank you for joining us.

Erin O’Toole: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: That is our show for today. We always love hearing from you. You can find us online at, and you can also reach us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Thanks for joining us, today. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, see you next week.

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