THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 8, Season 11
Sunday, December 19, 2021
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister
Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, Canadian Armed Forces
Location: Ottawa, ON
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block…
Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister: “The epidemiological situation is changing rapidly.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Concerns the rising Omicron wave could become a tsunami.
Dawna Friesen, Global National Anchor: “Trying to blunt the impact of Omicron.”
Unknown Male Speaker: “Data is very clear that this is incredibly transmissible.”
Mercedes Stephenson: As Canadians rethink their holiday plans, what’s Ottawa doing to prepare the country for what some say could be the hardest phase of the pandemic?
Also this week…
Anita Anand, Defence Minister: “We are sorry. I am sorry.”
Mercedes Stephenson: After historic apology to survivors of military sexual misconduct, what’s next? How long will it take to transform National Defence? We talk to the general charged with transforming the culture of the armed forces: Lieutenant-General Jennie Carignan.
It’s Sunday, December 19th, and this is The West Block.
I’m Mercedes Stephenson, thank you for joining us today.
Last week, the federal government advised Canadians against non-essential international travel in an effort to protect against the Omicron variant, while Ontario and Quebec announced thousands of new COVID-19 infections.
On Friday, the federal government reintroduced the requirement for pre-arrival negative PCR COVID-19 tests for all travellers coming into Canada regardless of trip duration.
The rapid rise in cases and the changing health advice ahead of the holidays, though, has many Canadians frustrated and wondering what they should do with planned vacations and trips to see family.
Joining us now to help us unwrap all this and figure it out is the Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra. Minister, thank you for joining us. How are you?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: I’m good, Mercedes. Thank you very much for having me on.
Mercedes Stephenson: You know this is the news nobody wanted, but it’s the news that we are faced with and Canadians now have to make some pretty tough decisions. You are advising against international travel. A lot of folks have vacations booked. They feel they followed all the rules. They have waited. They are questioning why they should not travel abroad if Omicron is already here.
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Mercedes believe me, I get no satisfaction, nor do I get any joy out of this. But what we are witnessing is this new variant that is rapidly transmitting among individuals at a rate that we had never seen before. And we really decided to take the step to advise all Canadians to postpone their non-essential travel in order to protect them. To protect them first from contracting this variant, or COVID, but also to protect them against any sudden changes of border measures either in Canada or around the world, where we don’t want to see any Canadian get stuck or having to deal with any symptoms abroad. So it’s really based on the information that we have and it’s out of prudence and care for Canadians that we’re advising them against non-essential international travel.
Mercedes Stephenson: When you mentioned the potentially changing border measures, a lot of folks thought last week when you were announcing some of those changes that it might include quarantines again. Is that a possibility? I know it’s a factor a lot of people are trying to calculate into their decision on what to do. Could you be reintroducing a quarantine for people returning to Canada?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Mercedes let me say it again. We are always assessing and monitoring the situation, but we’re also consulting medical public health experts and dissecting the information that we get, and we will not hesitate if the evidence proves that we need additional measures.
Currently, we have some of the toughest now border measures, but if we need to add another layer of protection because that’s the advice we receive, we will not hesitate to do so. So it’s really prudent for all Canadians to avoid non-essential travel and by the way, we’re not only talking about Canada changing its own border measures. There is a high risk that other countries could change their own border measures.
Mercedes Stephenson: When it comes to the science, listening to the doctors throughout this week here in Ottawa, they’ve been saying their primary concern is actually community spread in Canada. It’s not international travel. A lot of scientists say travel bans don’t work. It’s already here, it’s too late. So what is the science behind your decision to bring in these travel measures if the real issue is community spread?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: First of all, let me say you’re right. The community transmission is where most of the transmission occurs and it’s really important for Canadians to follow local public health advice, to get vaccinated, to avoid large gatherings where potential spread could occur. The travel measures are just an added measure. Again, the science behind it is, which makes a lot of sense, is the less people have opportunity to interact with other people, the less risk they put themselves in. And if they are abroad, if they are internationally—God forbid they contract COVID—we’re at a disadvantage as a government or as a public health system to offer services to Canadian citizens, but also they might be at-risk of being stuck in that country. There’s also a risk of bringing the virus back with them. So it’s just a matter of probability. It’s a matter of precaution. It’s a matter of prudence. We think it’s best for Canadians to try to minimize as much interaction as possible and also by the way, other countries, we’re not really sure about their public health measures. We’re not even sure about their public health system so it’s out of precaution and out of prudence to protect the health and safety of all Canadians.
Mercedes Stephenson: Now I just want to play a clip from one of Canada’s top doctors, who our viewers will recognize, on the advice that they’re giving to politicians versus the advice that politicians are implementing. Take a listen to this.
Dr. Howard Njoo, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Public Health Agency of Canada: “We recognize that there are other considerations at play as well beyond just the strictly sort of technical public health advice that we may be giving to minsters.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Those other considerations sound a lot like politics, minister. Some people are saying this is just political theatre. What is strictly the advice that you’re actually getting from the scientists based on what Dr. Njoo’s is saying there?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: I think Dr. Njoo was talking about operational considerations. Believe me, there is no political gain for me to stand before you here and before the Canadian public just around Christmas to say please cancel all your travel plans. I don’t see this as a political theatre at all. This is necessary. We are being honest with Canadians. We are being candid with Canadians based on the information that we have, based on the advice that we receive. Yes, there are operational considerations on how we implement advice, how quickly can we ramp up certain measures. But at the end of the day, it’s really all these precautions and all these measures are done to protect the health and safety of Canadians. And as I said, I don’t think—I wish I didn’t have to do this. I wish none of us had to go through this, but it is really a necessary advice and a necessary measure to protect everyone.
Mercedes Stephenson: I do want to ask you about testing at airports and land borders. It’s something you and I talked about a couple of weeks ago when you were on the show. You had said that you expected the testing at airports to basically be ramped up that weekend. It’s still not all the way up. There’s still not the testing a land borders with people crossing back in from the United States. If the science is there to support that testing and to mandate it, why has your government not gotten fully up to speed yet and why is it not consistent for every person coming across from the United States in the land border?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Mercedes, two weeks ago, when I discussed this with you, I told you that it’s going to take some days to ramp up our effort. We’re actually doing really well with testing travellers coming from outside the United States. Minister Duclos on Friday said that we are now testing 21 thousand daily travellers out of 23 [thousand].
Just two weeks ago, we were at around testing 11 thousand. So we’ve more than doubled the numbers. We’re almost now testing everyone. When it comes to the U.S. border, we continue to have these random mandatory testing that roughly tests about 15 to 20 per cent of incoming travellers…
Mercedes Stephenson: But why isn’t it a 100 per cent, though? I mean what’s the science that the risk is lower for someone driving across the border than someone flying across the border?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: If you recall, we talked about the U.S. and to this day, we still have not included testing all travellers coming from the U.S. based on the information that we have. So we are monitoring the situation in the United States. We are very familiar with the public health measures that are ongoing in the United States. Our public health experts are in daily discussions or regular discussions with American public health experts. So we’re monitoring the situation closely with the United States. There are tests that are taking place at the border, both land and air, who are coming from the United States. So we are doing everything we can. And if there are additional needs to change these measures, we will do so.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you have a date on when everyone will be tested coming in?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: We’re almost there, so I am hoping that in the coming days we will be at 100 per cent. But we’re almost at 100 per cent as we speak.
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. Minister, I’m sure we will be checking back with you again on those numbers in a few weeks. Thank you so much for joining us today and happy holidays.
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Thank you, Mercedes. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays to you and your viewers.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, a five-year plan to change military culture and stamp out sexual misconduct. Can the Canadian Forces do it? Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan has been tasked to lead that internal campaign. She joins us next.
Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, Canadian Armed Forces: “I was absolutely very touched by the apology itself. I had not forecasted how much this would be affecting me as a military member and as a member of this defence team.”
Mercedes Stephenson: That was the military’s Chief of Professional Conduct and Cultural Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, reflecting on the historic apology delivered last week to survivors of military sexual misconduct.
Carignan’s position was created last spring to lead cultural reform within the Canadian Armed Forces in response to the sexual misconduct crisis. The general says military members are hungry for change, but that it could take as long as five years or maybe even longer in a campaign to create that change.
Joining us now is Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, here in-studio. Thank you so much. It’s nice to see you.
Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, Canadian Armed Forces: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Mercedes Stephenson: You have a very difficult task ahead of you, and you are one of the highest ranking women in the Canadian Armed Forces. Obviously, you’ve come up through the system, what was your experience like personally and were you surprised by this story when it broke?
Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, Canadian Armed Forces: Well I think when you have spent most of your adult life in the military, you go through a lot of different changes over time and you evolve and you learn. So of course, there was a momentum that was in place for a few years now that brought us to where we are today. And with the report coming out from Madame Deschamps in 2014 and in the actions taken after that, that allowed us to learn a lot, but we could see that we had not gotten to the heart of the problem. So I think right now we have this opportunity to conduct a lot of changes that is going to take us even further as an institution. And I have to say, although it’s a big task, I’m not alone to do that. We are mobilized all around this issue and I feel that I am very much supported by all of my colleagues who are leading the effort in many other areas within defence. In their role, they are taking into account culture. So although I have culture in my title, it’s a defence team effort and I’m not alone in doing that.
Mercedes Stephenson: You’re a lieutenant-general, that’s a three star in the U.S., a three leaf here in Canada. It’s a very powerful position. It’s the same rank as the person who commands the army or the navy or the air force. They have a lot of people working for them. How many people do you have working for you on this change in your office?
Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, Canadian Armed Forces: Well I lost count, but we are consolidating currently, a lot of the various tools that have been working in culture in different areas within defence. So I think we want to bring everybody that works the culture piece and some of them have for a few years under a same roof so that we can again, gain momentum and mobilize around culture and make it more of us.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think you have enough resources to that? I mean if you’re talking about the army and the navy, it’s thousands and thousands of people. I know your office doesn’t have that many, but do you think that you’re being given sufficient resources to achieve what is a very, very large mandate?
Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, Canadian Armed Forces: So right now, we are growing. And there are two things about resources. One is yes, resource material and personnel, but there’s also a smart way to do business, where in exchange with the various groups they have their own role in adjusting culture. And in the role of monitoring, the role of making sure that the changes are being done, making sure that we are measuring the progress, this is kind of where we are, as well as we are enabling our other colleagues in their work in changing culture. So this is kind of the area where we are. So, yes it’s about resources, but it’s also about working smartly.
Mercedes Stephenson: The military has talked before about change. You and I both remember 2015. Remember back before that when Maclean’s first broke the story. Since the 90s, this is being discussed. I remember when we were talking about the story internally, our national anchor Dawna Friesen said how many times have we heard this story? What’s different this time in terms of the Canadian Armed Forces being committed to change? Do you think this is actually the time you get the tectonic shift?
Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, Canadian Armed Forces: What is different this time is, this time we are going at the heart of the issue. So we have been looking at symptoms, historically. But what we have learned in the past six years is that we had not gotten to the heart of the problem. So what problems are we trying to solve is the key piece. What is the environment that allows all range of misconduct to take place? What are the factors that allow that to do this? And this is where we are going to be intervening on the processes, on the tangible processes that influence culture. And it’s going to be done in constant consultations with our external stakeholders who care about defence and also with our internal networks that are plugged in to the dynamics on the floor and making sure that we constantly adjust to the environment.
Mercedes Stephenson: It sounds good. It sounds like a lot of buzz words, too. So what does it mean in practicality how you execute this? I mean, one of the things I know you’ve talked about is leadership. This sexual misconduct scandal addressed a lot of the leadership in the Canadian Armed Forces. It’s become a big, big issue. You’re talking about selecting leaders differently. How does something practical like that play out so you are selecting the right people to lead the organization?
Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, Canadian Armed Forces: So it’s looking at the development of leaders and how we develop leaders and what character do we reward? So historically, we have rewarded the same type of character. Now we have to look at this differently. So revisiting what character we want to see in leaders and develop the tools and equip our leaders to develop the character that we are looking for. So it’s more empathy. It’s more human centric. It’s how to have difficult conversations. How do we work through culture and diversity, because leading a diverse team is a challenge and it’s different than leading people who all look like you? So we know that these tools do exist. We just have to make them work together to enable our leaders to get there.
Mercedes Stephenson: Does that mean are you doing psychology tests? Do you talk to their subordinates? I mean, how do you determine what people are really like? Because I’d imagine, if I’m—I don’t know—a captain or a major and I’m sitting with a lieutenant-general like you, I may present a very different image than I’m presenting when I’m in command.
Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, Canadian Armed Forces: Absolutely, and it’s going to be a variety of different—it’s going to be a multi-faceted, multi-pronged approach. So it’s going to be many things at the same time. Not only do we need to look at how we select how we promote, so this is a systemic process, but how do we evaluate is also a key piece. So the selection behind the leaders is a combination of it could be 360 tests, it could be psychometric tests. It could be these tools that could enable us to have a different picture of our leaders before we make a selection.
Mercedes Stephenson: What would you say to young men and women who are thinking about joining the Canadian Armed Forces, but they’re worried about it after what they’ve seen in the news?
Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, Canadian Armed Forces: I think this is a choice that they will have to make for themselves. We have a range of persons in the military now that can provide feedback on their own experiences as well. But in the end, it’s always a personal choice.
Mercedes Stephenson: General Carignan, thank you so much for joining us today, and good luck with your mission ahead.
Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, Canadian Armed Forces: Thank you very much.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, we’ve got two special editions of The West Block airing over the holidays. We’ll unwrap a preview of what we have under the tree for you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. As many of us plan for some time off over the holidays, we wanted to share with you our plans for two special editions of The West Block.
Starting next week, Sunday, December 26th, tune in for a special full length interview with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. We talk about the pandemic, relations with China and his handling of the military sexual misconduct crisis.
The prime minister now says he wishes he’d done more, earlier.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “When the very top levels of the military are insisting that there is no problem, it is a challenge for any government to say okay, you’re wrong. We’re going to get rid of all of you. We’re going to bring in an entirely new system.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And then for the first show of 2022, we have another special full-length interview with a very special guest on the show. Here’s a preview:
The discovery of unmarked graves at a former residential school in the B.C. interior led to a country-wide awakening. When the prime minister announced Canada’s new governor general last summer, many saw it as a significant step forward on the path to reconciliation: an Indigenous woman as the Queen’s representative in Canada.
Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada: [Inuktitut language spoken].
Mercedes Stephenson: On this special edition of The West Block, we reflect on Canada’s difficult past and the promise of a better future. One-on-one with Canada’s 30th Governor General Mary Simon.
We hope you’ll tune in for that very special edition of the show on Sunday, January 2nd.
Before we go today, I would like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to the small but mighty Ottawa bureau team who help put the show together each week. The West Block would not get to air without their big brains, hard work and team spirit.
Thank you to the show’s wonderful and talented show producer, Bernadette Vanneste.
Thank you David Baxter who helps us produce the show each week.
Thank you to our incredibly talented editors: Frank Boldt, Dianna Hagemeyer, and David de la Harpe, and camera operator Luigi Della Penta.
And to the rest of the Ottawa bureau who always pitch in: Caz, Steve Alexander and Mike Haslett.
This year, investigative producer Marc-André Cossette, national producer Crystal Oag, and online reporter Amanda Connolly poured their hearts and souls into the ground-breaking military sexual misconduct stories that you saw on this show. Thank you.
Thank you to our online writer Rachel Gilmore, and to our engineers: Tony Peng and Peter Pacconi.
A very special thank you to Ottawa bureau manager, Bryan Mullan, who pulls off miracles every single week.
And of course, to our guest hosts: Abigail Bimman and Michael Le Couteur, as well as chief political correspondent David Akin and our bureau administrator, JL.
A huge thank you as well to our control room team who have to put up with me every week all the way from Edmonton.
From all of us to all of you, happy holidays, and we’ll see you in 2022.
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