THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 4, Season 11
Sunday, November 21, 2021
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Erin O’Toole, Opposition Leader
Henry Braun, Abbotsford Mayor
Jonathan Wilkinson, Natural Resources Minister
Location: Ottawa, ON
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Rebellion in the Conservative ranks.
Denise Batters, Senator: “Under Erin O’Toole’s leadership, the rift in our party is growing.”
Mercedes Stephenson: A battle for the soul of the party…
Erin O’Toole, Opposition Leader: “Anyone who’s not on the page, who’s not putting the team and the country first, will not be part of this team.”
Mercedes Stephenson: The Conservative leader sends a message to caucus as infighting spills out into the open. But as MPs return to Parliament, can he keep his party united?
We’ll speak to Erin O’Toole about leadership, vaccine mandates and his priorities when the House resumes.
Devastating floods and landslides wreak havoc on the province.
After a year of extreme weather, B.C. grapples with how to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. We’ll talk to the Mayor of Abbotsford and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.
It’s Sunday, November 21st, and this is The West Block.
Hello, I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and it’s great to have you with us today.
MPs are returning to the House of Commons tomorrow to elect a new speaker.
On Tuesday, we’ll hear the Liberal government’s priorities in the speech from the throne. But Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole has his own list of priorities that he wants Ottawa to tackle, but with opposition within his ranks that has followed the Conservative leader since the election on everything from vaccine mandates to his Conservative values, he faces significant questions. Opposition Leader O’Toole joins me now.
Good morning, Mr. O’Toole. Thank you for joining us today.
Tomorrow, Parliament is back in session and I think a lot of folks are wondering what the status of your members of Parliament are going to be in the Conservative caucus. There was a lot of internal debate and discussion about vaccines and whether or not to get them. Will your members of Parliament all be vaccinated in time for the return of Parliament tomorrow?
Erin O’Toole, Opposition Leader: Well we’ve said for many months, Mercedes, that when we return to Parliament, and that’s coming now this week, we will be ready to serve and that all the MPs will be vaccinated, or will have a medical exemption, following the rules as we’ve always tried to follow the rules from the beginning of the pandemic. The big difference between us and the Liberal Party is we don’t try and divide people on the questions of vaccines. We try and reduce hesitancy. I’ve always tried to do that. I’ve always been very pro vaccination and we’ve always tried to take the temperature down on the discussions and that’s what we’ll continue to do. And I think members of Parliament have to be positive forces of public discussion about the pandemic, including questions about vaccines and we’ll be having that approach when Parliament gets back.
Mercedes Stephenson: You had the civil liberties caucus led by Marilyn Gladu. It was pretty clear they were not on that page, so how did you overcome that opposition within your own caucus?
Erin O’Toole, Opposition Leader: Well there is no such caucus like that. There are some MPs that are hearing from families in their communities worried about feeding their kids, paying their bills. And what I’ve said, consistently, is there’s a difference between a member of Parliament hearing from a constituent and wanting to advocate for them and how the member of Parliament themselves conduct themselves in their own workplace and that’s the distinction here. As MPs, we have to hear from our constituents and try and find solutions try and advocate for everyone and we will do that. It’s important to do that. But as MPs, we are public officials. We have a public profile and I’ve said an absolute requirement of our team, Mercedes, is to be reducing the amount of questions or hesitancy about vaccines or anything not adding to confusion. We’re going to be in Parliament for three things: hold a cover-up corruption prone government to account, focusing on the inflation crisis and adding to a positive dialogue about the pandemic, including vaccines.
Mercedes Stephenson: Did you give direction to your MPs that if they did not receive a medical exemption or become vaccinated they would be removed from caucus?
Erin O’Toole, Opposition Leader: I have said we’re going to set that example and that anyone deviating from that and causing confusion will not be part of our discussions in Parliament because we have an obligation to be a positive force. What we saw in the election campaign, Mercedes, was Mr. Trudeau used the vaccine question to divide people and Mr. Bernier used the question to divide and in some cases scare people. Our goal in a pandemic is to be responsible, to rely on science and to make sure we reduce hesitancy not add to it.
Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve had division within your own caucus that you’ve had to deal with. Last week, you had the Conservative retreat here. You made the decision to remove Senator Denise Batters from the Conservative caucus. You’ve made it clear that any MPs who are calling for an early leadership review of your leadership will also be removed from the party, but Global News has spoken to folks even in your office who say you’re confident that about 70 MPs would back you—and this is important because in the Conservative caucus the leader can’t just kick an MP out, you have to have the backing of other members of Parliament—that you’re confident about 70, maybe 80 of those MPs would vote in favour of kicking out someone who opposes you. That means somewhere between about 30 to 40 per cent of your caucus you’re not sure about. What does that say about your leadership?
Erin O’Toole, Opposition Leader: We had the best retreat, best caucus meetings we’ve had in my full year as leader, Mercedes. We’re united on standing up for Canadians when Parliament returns. When someone fights against their own team, doesn’t actually follow the will of the team, we have caucus meetings that are always lively. They have been since I came here nine years ago as a backbencher, but those conversations are held indoors. We respect one another and the situation with one of our senators; she made a decision to essentially leave the team herself. And so what we have with the Reform Act is a way to not only have the leader and the caucus accountable but we’re accountable to each other and we’re here to stand up on the inflation crisis, the national unity crisis we’re facing after six years of Mr. Trudeau. And as I said, on discussions about the pandemic we have an obligation to be professional and not add to questions about the public handling the pandemic and that’s my expectation for all members of national caucus.
Mercedes Stephenson: What’s your reaction to the Senate Conservatives deciding to keep Senator Batters after you removed her from the official Conservative caucus?
Erin O’Toole, Opposition Leader: Well the national caucus agreed with my position that when a senator is operating outside of the will of the caucus, especially the elected caucus, the MPs who were just getting their mandate from their communities just a few months, Mercedes, that is our approach as a national caucus and the Senate will handle their own internal affairs next week when they return. But our national caucus, you have to be focused on respecting the team, focusing on the economy and holding the Liberals to account, and people want us to come here and be professional and ready.
Mercedes Stephenson: Because the reality is, this is the discussion being had inside your party right now. Some people don’t think that you can survive as the leader. You’re obviously putting a hardline down, but it seems like Conservatives in the Senate aren’t listening to you.
Erin O’Toole, Opposition Leader: They will have their meeting next week, but the national caucus has been absolutely clear: we are united and that’s why there was a united support for the decision I made. But as I said, anyone that’s been on a team, either a sports team, in the business, or my time in the military, when you’re actually fighting against your own team, you’re helping your adversary. And we’re here to actually hold the Trudeau government to account at a time where the country needs a smart, professional, united Conservative Party more than ever. We made great gains in the election. We need to build on those. We didn’t abuse the trust of people in the pandemic. Mr. Trudeau called the election in a pandemic and then used it to divide people. I think we can win the next election if we’re united and we focus on the economy and the issues that matter to Canadians.
Mercedes Stephenson: So how do you heal those divisions inside your party? Because there are a lot of folks who are angry about the positions you took on gun control or accepting large deficits in terms of spending. They say you ran on one set of values to become Conservative leader and then you flip-flopped during the election. These are people who are in your own caucus. I’ve talked to them. Lots of other folks here in Ottawa have. How do you bring everybody together so that you can move forward?
Erin O’Toole, Opposition Leader: Well we’ve had great caucus meetings and in fact, I encouraged my team to have the Reform Act measures to make sure that we can be accountable to one another. I’m speaking to all the people that ran for us as candidates across the country. I’m back doing tours, something I couldn’t do as a leader for a year, Mercedes. We’re hearing from people and generally, the grassroots think that in this pandemic election where Mr. Trudeau thought he was going to use the pandemic to get a majority, it’s status quo. He lost. He actually blew $600 million and didn’t get his majority. I’m disappointed we didn’t form government, but we’re right there. If we can continue to be professional, speak to the issues that Canadians want to hear from the Conservative Party on and bring a positive approach to a more united Canada, more prosperous Canada. That’s what we’ll continue to do and the support we’re hearing, especially in ridings that were closed or that we can pick up next time, is let’s keep going. Let’s keep engaging more people in our dialogue and that’s what we’re going to do.
Mercedes Stephenson: You have a bit of a difficult position here because you know you have people inside your caucus who are questioning your leadership. There are people in the party who are questioning your leadership. Why not just have the early leadership review and prove that you have the support that you say you do?
Erin O’Toole, Opposition Leader: I’m in my caucus and as I said, our retreat we just had was probably one of the most positive, united and strategic meetings we’ve ever had a team, trying to learn some of the lessons from the election and prepare to hold a corrupt government to account. We also have a measure to hold me to account internally and the party does at our next convention. We need the next few months to be on Mr. Trudeau. He covered up a range of things from the Winnipeg lab scandal, to how much we paid for vaccine doses and all their management of the pandemic, including the WE Charity scandal. We have the ability to shine the light on that lack of accountability from the last year. That’s what we will do. Canadians sent us back literally with a status quo Parliament, but with us getting some strategic gains in growth in the suburbs, we need to just build on that and win the trust of more Canadians next time. And we’re not going to do that if we take our eye off holding the Liberals to account. So, our team is united in that mission, Mercedes, and I will continue to reach out to our grassroots to engage them in it as well.
Mercedes Stephenson: Mr. O’Toole, what is your position on children being vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine now being approved for five to 11-year-old children?
Erin O’Toole, Opposition Leader: Well the vaccine is the most critical tool in our fight against COVID, but I’m a parent of two young kids. I understand that parents will want a lot of questions to be answered. Rebecca and I will be getting Jack vaccinated, our son who’s 10. Our daughter’s 15, she was vaccinated. But parents get understandably protective about their children and I know the provinces will be working on answering any questions now that there is a vaccine available for the younger cohort. We also think, as we’ve been calling for, for a year, the more things we can do in terms of rapid tests and giving the provinces the tools they need to keep people safe, that’s what we need to do and I’ve always tried to say if you have any questions about a vaccine, whether for yourself or someone in your family, have those questions addressed and let’s not do it in a way that tries to scare or divide people.
Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you so much for joining us today, Mr. O’Toole, and we will see you bright and early tomorrow on Parliament Hill.
Erin O’Toole, Opposition Leader: Looking forward to it. Thank you, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the mayor of Abbotsford says it could cost $1 billion to recover from the devastating floods. We’ll talk to him next about rebuilding and adapting to climate change.
Mercedes Stephenson: British Columbia has been battered by heat waves, forest fires, and now the province is struggling to manage multiple disaster areas after heavy rains triggered floods and landslides.
Thousands of people have been displaced due to the flood waters and some communities have been cut off by fallen bridges and roads, including parts of the vital Coquihalla Highway, which have simply been washed away. At least one mud slide has proven fatal. Critical agricultural land is under water and national supply chains have been interrupted. Despite the devastation, people have come together, providing each other with shelter and rescuing livestock.
Mike Farnsworth, B.C. Public Safety Minister: “This has been a terrible, terrible disaster. But I know this, as the British Columbians and as Canadians, we stick together. I’m going to come out of this. I’m going to build a stronger, better province and a stronger and better country.”
Mercedes Stephenson: British Columbians now face the monumental task of rebuilding communities, rail lines and vital roadways following the heavy rains earlier this week.
Joining us now to talk about this from one of the hardest hit communities in British Columbia, Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun. Thank you so much for joining us, mayor, just tragic what is happening in your community. Can you tell us a little bit about what the situation is in Abbotsford right now?
Henry Braun, Abbotsford Mayor: Well the Nooksack River continues to pour into Abbotsford at the northeast or northwest section of our Sumas Prairie and so that is the number one issue. We can’t stop that water and we have two breaches. The crews are out there now addressing that. The military’s on the ground helping us. They’ve got some engineers that they can bring along that do these kinds of things. So it’s a very fluid situation out there. We are still in the middle of a flood event.
Mercedes Stephenson: What is the scale and the scope of the damage so far?
Henry Braun, Abbotsford Mayor: Well Sumas Prairie equals 90 square kilometres. I think that’s about 22 thousand acres that has all been under water. The western portion is receding the water levels because of the breaches, but that water is going into what was once a lake and that lake will continue to fill up until it’s 20 feet deep so we have people who have been rescued from the tops of their barns or the tops of their houses and that water can only be pumped out. It cannot be drained out anywhere. We have the four largest pumps in all of western Canada that can pump 500 thousand gallons per minute and they have been going full bore and will continue to go full bore for a couple of weeks for sure. We’re calculating all that out as we speak.
Mercedes Stephenson: And some of this water is actually coming across from the American side of the border, so what are you looking for from your partners in the United States to help address this situation?
Henry Braun, Abbotsford Mayor: This flooding is not because of rainfall. We could have handled the rain event and more. The pumps will handle that. What we can’t handle is the Nooksack River overflowing its banks and coming across the border. It was never designed to take on water from another country so that’s really what we have here. I intend to have a conversation with Governor Inslee. There was a report done in the 1990s because of a flood event like this—not like this. It was a one in 35 year storm. I’m being told this is a one in a century storm, so this is multiple times greater and we need to get back together, Canadians and Americans because they’ve got flooding on their side of the border, too. Not as many people impacted and we have to fix this once and for all.
Mercedes Stephenson: You know, a lot of the scientists are saying our climate is changing. We are seeing more extreme weather events and so what used to be a once in a century flood may no longer be once in a century. It might get a lot more frequent. What are you thinking in terms of your community moving forward in concerns that it might not be another 100 years before this happens again?
Henry Braun, Abbotsford Mayor: Once we get this under control as much as we can, and we’re still a few weeks out I think, those kinds of conversations need to be had because our dikes, we have known for quite a while, we have been advocating with the federal government and the province to rebuild our dikes. We’ve known—we’ve spent extensive or done extensive reports on what needs to be done, but the totality of that is $400 million for just the City of Abbotsford and we are not the only city. Chilliwack has issues and Hope up the valley so we need to get a little more serious about this because if we don’t, this is going to happen again. These dikes are not built to seismic requirements today, but we need to bring those dikes into conformity with the situation and the climate that we’re in. There is no doubt. Nobody has to convince me of climate change. I’ve lived here 68 years. The climate is different today than it was 68 years ago.
Mercedes Stephenson: Mayor, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it and our best to you and your community as you deal with this ongoing situation.
Henry Braun, Abbotsford Mayor: Thank you, I appreciate the invite.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, as British Columbia feels the brunt of extreme weather events, we’ll talk to the minister of natural resources about Ottawa’s plans to adapt to climate emergencies.
Mercedes Stephenson: The effects of climate change are on full display in British Columbia, with only three months between the current floods and the devastating wildfires and heat that we saw earlier this year.
Joining us now to talk about Ottawa’s plans for how to adapt to a change in climate and these increasing natural disasters is Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson. Thank you so much for joining us today, minister. How are you?
Jonathan Wilkinson, Natural Resources Minister: I’m doing very well. How are you?
Mercedes Stephenson: Very well thanks. I know that you are a member of Parliament for one of the areas that is affected in British Columbia. Your government has just returned from COP26, a lot of really big commitments there made on the environment to try to address some of the changes that are causing this kind of weather, but I’d like to know as you plan to come back to Parliament tomorrow and start to implement your vision for how to deal with this, what are some of the concrete steps that the government is prepared to take to try to address this kind of severe climate triggered weather?
Jonathan Wilkinson, Natural Resources Minister: Well, I mean first and foremost, of course we need to be focused on ensuring we’re providing the supports for folks here that have been affected and obviously, you know, our sympathies go out to the families that have been affected very directly through this process. And there will need to be supports and disaster recovery on an ongoing basis and the province and federal government will need to work on that. But you are right, you know, we are seeing these disastrous weather events, the extreme weather events far more frequently. We’ve seen it in New Brunswick and in Quebec and Alberta, a number of times in Alberta and now just within the course of three or four months, twice in British Columbia. And this is what climate scientists have been telling us for decades, is going to happen. And so, you know, one, we need to stop making the problem worse. We need to be serious and ambitious about the work we need to do to reduce emissions, but of course, we need to be now reflecting on the infrastructure that exists in this country and ensuring that we’re building towards a more resilient economy going forward that can actually adapt to the greater challenges that we face. And so first and foremost, there is work going on, on Canada’s first Natural Adaptation Strategy. We need to push that forward with urgency, identify those areas where we must take action to further strengthen the infrastructure and other things, to ensure that we’re going to be resilient. And that is going to be something that the minister of environment and myself are going to need to push forward very actively.
Mercedes Stephenson: How quickly and how much money are you prepared to spend? Because obviously, you know, when you see those images of the Coquihalla Highway just swept out and gone, you’re talking about moving an entire highway potentially, you magnify that all the way across Canada. It might be necessary but it’s going to be a hugely resource intensive project.
Jonathan Wilkinson, Natural Resources Minister: It is, but I mean we’re either going to take it on proactively or we’re going to take it on reactively, right? We’re going to either spend money trying to clean up the disaster that’s happened here in British Columbia in the last little while and what happened in Calgary in 2013, or we’re going to try to get ahead of it and make the investments with respect to ensuring that our infrastructure is resilient in the face of these kinds of things that we know are going to be happening coming forward. And so of course, we will need to prioritize. We can’t do everything at once. That’s exactly what the National Adaptation Strategy is about, is working with the provinces and municipalities to identify those areas that are most vulnerable and to prioritize those up the chain and make the investments and then work through the list. It won’t be everything done at once, but obviously, we have to go after the things that are most difficult and most challenging that are of greatest danger in the face of a changing climate.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that your government has moved quickly enough on this? Because we just spoke with the mayor of Abbotsford and, you know, obviously he’s dealing with an absolute disaster there. And he says that he’s been asking the provincial and federal governments to address problems with the dams there that are not up to the standard that they need to be for years.
Jonathan Wilkinson, Natural Resources Minister: Well look, I think this government is the first government in the history of this country that has actually made climate adaptation an integral part of addressing the climate issue. We have invested many billions of dollars in funding for projects around the country, including the Spring Bank Reservoir, which is about actually ensuring that Calgary never goes through what it did in 2013 and many projects that are similar. But we recognize that we’re going to have to do more. I mean, first and foremost, we have to stop making the problem worse. I mean, people who continue to question the ambition, you know, the need for ambitious climate action, I mean they should come here and have a look at what this means. But at the end of the day, yes, we need to do more on adaptation. We have been doing a lot, but we clearly are going to need to accelerate the pace of the work and we’re going to need to work in partnership with municipalities like Abbotsford.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well we’ll be keeping a close eye on when you are prepared to act, how much money, all of those things likely to be on the table as Parliament returns tomorrow. Minister, thank you so much for joining us today, and our best to your constituents in this very difficult situation.
Jonathan Wilkinson, Natural Resources Minister: Thank you very much, appreciate that.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. Thank you for joining us. We’ll be back here next Sunday. I’m Mercedes Stephenson for The West Block.
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