THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 20, Season 12
Sunday, February 5, 2023
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General
Mercedes Stephenson: A Chinese spy balloon sailing through Canadian airspace and over the U.S.
Plus, under pressure: The Liberals change tactics on some really big issues.
I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Welcome to The West Block.
The U.S. ambassador weighs in on the diplomatic incident between the U.S. and China, after a Chinese surveillance balloon was spotted floating over the U.S. last week.
David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada: “They are a legitimate threat to the United States and Canada.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And the federal justice minister on bail for violent repeat offenders, concerns about medical assistance and dying (MAiD) for the mentally ill, and a political climb down on gun legislation.
Late last week, a Chinese surveillance balloon was spotted hovering over the United States. It also spent time in Canadian airspace. This incident has increased tensions between the U.S. and China, and of course, it has all of us thinking about North American defence and security, especially ahead of the president’s visit next month.
I am joined to talk about this by the United States ambassador to Canada, David Cohen. It’s always such a pleasure to see you, ambassador.
David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada: Well it’s great to be with you and make great this is my first visit in the studio. Not my first visit with you and it’s great to be here.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well, it’s a first visit on a pretty exciting weekend with everything that’s happening with this balloon. I know that you were briefed on intelligence and security. You’re a close friend of the president. Canadians are looking at this and they’re concerned and so are Americans. What can you tell us about the incident in terms of the significance that the Chinese are actually flying a balloon over North America with intelligence gathering capabilities?
David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada: So I think it’s a reminder of the need for us to be vigilant, the need for us to fund an adequate defence, the need for us to have an adequate technological defence. I think it’s a reminder of the importance of NORAD to continental defence for both Canada and the United States. On the other hand, let’s not jump out of our shoes here. I mean this is a balloon that was at very high altitude. My information is that there was never any…no American citizens or buildings were ever in jeopardy for this. The balloons were well above commercial airliner flight patterns and this is not the first time that this type of a device has been floated over the United States. It has happened previously.
Mercedes Stephenson: I think that part is remarkable. I just want you to kind of talk about that for a second because people are saying, “Well this is a sudden escalation.” But it’s just we haven’t heard about this before.
David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada: I think that’s right that we just haven’t heard about it before, but it’s another reminder that when you’re dealing with matters of sensitive foreign relations and sensitive intelligence matters, that’s not a time where you really want your government to be full transparent all the time. So I mean I think what’s important is, the way I look at this, is what’s important is, it was known, it was known to our military and intelligence sources. There was a capable, immediate assessment as to the risks and the dangers and conclusions were reached. And I think in the tracking of the path, the position of the Pentagon is that if necessary, if we became worried about what it is that could be observed through this balloon, we were prepared to ameliorate those risks. I mean you have to remember that China is also, and Russia, I mean they also have satellites. You know, they have low altitude satellites that are constantly taking pictures of all of the United States and of all of Canada for that matter.
Mercedes Stephenson: Is this maybe more about China sending a message: We can do it if we want to than what it’s actually gathering in terms of intelligence?
David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada: So I hate to speculate what China’s motivations will be. And you noticed that public comment, of course, is that this is…it’s gathering weather data and it drifted off course. I’m not sure I believe that it’s gathering weather data, but it’s entirely possible that it drifted off course and there was never any intention to have it flying over, you know, over this part of the United States. So…but I don’t want to speculate about what China’s up to. I’m happy to comment, though, that this really should be a reinforcement for all of us, for our public that China is not something…China is not a country to be trifled with. They are a legitimate threat to the United States and Canada, from a military perspective, from a defence perspective, from an intelligence perspective and from a trade perspective, and I think it underscores the reasons for sound and consistent policies by both Canada and the United States toward China. And it doesn’t mean those policies are that we should shutdown access of China to our markets or we should wall off our countries to China. It is a reminder of the need to be vigilant, of the need to pay attention and, you know, I think the United States’ policy around China is sound and it’s a reminder of how sound it is. Invest and is invest of what we do well and position ourselves well. Align. Align ourselves with our allies and in particular, Canada. And then compete with compete having the broadest possible definition. It’s not just trade competition, but it’s be prepared to push back against military incursions or intelligence incursions, pushed back against human rights violations, against non-market-based trade practices. And I think it’s that integrated approach of working with China when we need to and when we should and where it benefits all of us, but being prepared to push back on China and to recognize that China to the United States—I’ll say it this way—China is not Canada. I mean, China is a potential threat and needs to be watched all the time. And it is a different relationship between the United States and China than there is between the United States and Canada.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that Canada is tough enough policy-wise on China? Because there have been some questions about Chinese espionage here, attempts at Chinese interference and influencing our politics. Is the U.S. satisfied with the position the Canadian government’s taking?
David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada: So I, you know, I don’t know how I would have answered that question a year ago, based on information that I would have had then. But it’s pretty easy for me to answer that question now, which is I think the United States is comfortable with where Canada is with China. You know, coincident with the release of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, Canada had a lot to say about China and about its relationship with China and I think we all heard tougher rhetoric, a greater sense of the threats that China played at Canada and to North America. And frankly, I think we heard an articulation of a policy that was very close to the policy that the United States has adopted vis-à-vis China. So, right now, in my term as United States ambassador to Canada, I can’t really point to anything that Canada has done that would not be completely consistent with what the United States would do and is doing in the same circumstance.,
Mercedes Stephenson: One last question. The president is visiting next month. What do you expect the focus of that visit’s going to be?
David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada: So I’m happy we’re at the point where you can actually say the president is visiting next month. We have a month where he’ll be visiting and I think the themes of his visit will be to emphasize the importance of the U.S.-Canada relationship, the strength of that relationship. The president has previously said, and I hope we’ll hear it again, that the United States has no better friend, partner or ally in the world than Canada and I think that will be one of the themes.
I think another theme will be some of the critical places where we are working together around the energy transition, and the environment and climate, and the energy transition. I think there’ll be conversation about some of the deliverables that were discussed in the North America Leaders’ Summit, where Canada and the United States are very aligned on future economic growth and very importantly, on the type of growth. And to use Joe Biden’s words, which I’ve heard Prime Minister Trudeau use as well, “We want to build from the bottom up and from the middle out, not from the top down. And we want to have growth and recovery that benefits every segment of the economy, every segment of society and everyone in the economy.” And so that’s such an important shared value, but it’s such an important objective for both countries that I would expect that that would be one of the themes we’ll hear about on the visit.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well and I’m sure there’ll be some questions about trade in there as well. Something we hope to talk to another time when we have not the situation that is currently unfolding dominating our thoughts. Always a pleasure to speak to you, ambassador. Thank you for coming.
David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada: A pleasure to speak with you and I’m happy to come back at any time to talk about trade.
Mercedes Stephenson: I’m going to hold you to that.
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‘Not the first time’ a Chinese surveillance balloon passed over U.S.: ambassador
Up next, the justice minister faces tough questions on bail reform, gun control and medical assistance in dying.
Mercedes Stephenson: The premiers are urging the Liberal government to reverse Bill C-75, which they say made it easier for violent repeat offenders to get bail.
Calls have grown louder following recent attacks on public transit and the killing of an OPP officer in late December.
Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre introduced a motion to reverse the bill last week.
Pierre Poilievre, Opposition Leader : “The Conservatives are putting forward a motion in the House of Commons to reduce…to reverse Trudeau’s failed Liberal bail policy and ensure that repeat violent offenders stay behind bars rather than automatically being released.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now to talk about the state of Canada’s system and bail is Justice Minister David Lametti. Minister, welcome. Nice to have you here.
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: A pleasure to be here.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that repeat violent offenders, not the first time, non-violent offences, but people have been before the courts and been convicted on a number of charges, a number of times that in some way related to a weapon or some kind of violence against another person, should be able to get bail the way they’re getting it right now? Or do you think that that should be more restricted and would you look at bringing in measures to ensure that if somebody is a repeat violent offender, they’re not able to get out and commit more crimes while they’re on bail?
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Well, we’ve looked…we will look at the system, there’s no question, to see if we can improve it. It is difficult already. In at least one gun offence that I can think of, there is a reverse onus already. You have a right to bail. In Canada, it’s a charter right. It’s also an old common law right, so it’s one of the oldest rights we have. You’re innocent ‘til proven guilty. That being said, you can only be denied bail if you pose a threat to society. In most cases, it’s up to the Crown to show that the person will be a threat to society and therefore denied bail.
We’ve reversed the onus in intimate partner violence. One gun offence that I know of, and repeat offenders in theory should be subject to that higher standard because they would possibly pose a threat to society. It’s up to prosecutors to make those arguments in front of a judge. That being said, we’ve heard the crime from premiers. We have seen some tragic events and our sympathies go out to the families of Constable Pierzchala and others who’ve been affected. And so we will do our best to see if there are other places that we can toughen the system up in a way that still complies with the charter and the balances that we’re trying to create as a result of the charter, and we’re open to working with the provinces to make sure also that the administration of justice at the provincial level, the administration of the bail system works that Conservatives failed to point out…
Mercedes Stephenson: But you are the federal justice minister, so you do have the power to make these changes. Are you willing to make it harder for repeat violent offenders like Mile Sanderson, like other offenders we’ve seen who have a long history?
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Right.
Mercedes Stephenson: We’re not talking about a first time.
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Yes, willing to look at ways to make it tougher. What the Conservatives fail to point out in the case of Mile Sanderson as well as the case in Southwestern Ontario, that in both cases, the person did have a bench warrant out for their arrest. They had breached their bail conditions and they were supposed to have been re-arrested.
Mercedes Stephenson: And that doesn’t seem to be happening in a number of cases across Canada.
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Well, and that’s the administration of the bail system, which falls on the provinces and I’m not blaming the provinces…
Mercedes Stephenson: But if they weren’t out in the first place, you wouldn’t have to pick them up either.
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Well, it’s an ongoing system, right? And so, again, the presumption is you get bail because it’s a charter right, unless you are a threat to society, or it can be shown that you are, or the possibility, you know, violently reoffending…
Mercedes Stephenson: But you’d think in the cases of like repeat violent offences that goes towards the argument you might be a threat to society?
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Well, it should be an argument that the Crown makes in these hearings. We will certainly look at ways to strengthen that.
Mercedes Stephenson: Let’s talk about guns. On Friday, your government announced that you were repealing this very controversial amendment to what was initially supposed to be about handguns. It got expanded to include long guns. Hunters were very upset. Your government defended the bill, said that wasn’t the case. You weren’t going after those guns. Now it seems you’re recognizing maybe you were going after some guns you didn’t intend to. What happened there?
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Well I think we listened and we heard. It was never our intention to go after hunting rifles. It was always our intention to go after handguns and assault rifles. And we heard a number of important voices in the community, particularly PolySeSouvient who wanted a definition, an evergreen definition. And so we tried it. We didn’t quite get it right, had a little too much reach.
Mercedes Stephenson: Went a little too broadly.
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: And so we’re pulling it and going back to the drawing board. Again, we listened to people…
Mercedes Stephenson: Is it going to come back as just handguns this time, the handgun amendment? Or is it going to be broader but not include hunting rifles?
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: I’ll leave that to Minister Mendicino to work out. He’s going to go out and consult, I think pretty intensively over coming weeks and months and we’ll see where it lands. But it is our intention to keep Canadians safe. It is our intention to ban assault rifles. It is our intention to ban and buy back. It is our intention to ban handguns. We’ve already frozen to some extent the weapons that we can, but we want to enshrine this in law. And he’s going to continue working on a definition after having consulted, but we heard people and, you know, we heard people in rural Canada. We heard Indigenous voices and we heard hunters saying you caught my weapon. And our response was sincere, which is we don’t mean to catch legitimate hunting weapons.
Mercedes Stephenson: Yeah. It seemed like maybe it wasn’t the best planned out before it was announced. But I do want to ask you…
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: It’s actually quite…in fairness, it’s actually quite a difficult exercise to create an evergreen definition.
Mercedes Stephenson: I can imagine with a changing industry, but there is one other topic I’m hoping to touch on with you and that’s medical assistance in dying (MAiD). On Thursday, you announced that you’re going to be pushing the deadline for mental health conditions, being the reason why people are able to seek medical assistance in dying, to March of 2024. It was supposed to kick in last month. There’s been a lot of concern about this, a lot of concern that with mental health. It can be hard to tell if a person is in a state of mind to make that decision. That vulnerable people could use mental health because they’re experiencing anxiety and depression from being unhoused or lacking the proper social supports, and that instead of receiving the social supports that they need to get well or to keep them in housing or to make sure they’re able to buy food, that they will seek MAiD as an alternative and these vulnerable people could be exploited.
Do you think that mental health should still be a reason why people can seek MAiD in Canada?
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Well, let me state at the outset that those circumstances that you’ve just described are not…that do not render one eligible for MAiD, under the mental…under the regime that’s been elaborated by our expert panel.
Mercedes Stephenson: Even if they go in and say I’m experiencing severe anxiety and depression?
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: That’s right. Yeah, no. You should, if you’re experiencing severe anxiety and depression, if you’re having suicidal thoughts, you should see a…you should seek a doctor’s help. You should seek help: friends, hotlines. Help is there. Those people are not eligible for MAiD. The regime and this is a bit of a misconception that’s being…
Mercedes Stephenson: So people who are suicidal are not eligible for MAiD?
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Not at all. These are…what you’re looking at are disorders…mental disorders, mental illnesses that have been treated by experts over a long period of time and where there’s no possibility of improvement. This is not a case of suicide. This is an important piece of misinformation that is being, frankly, advanced by critics who don’t want to see this part of the regime move forward or indeed, want us to back away from previous parts of the MAiD regime. This is not meant to apply to people who are having suicidal thoughts. This is not meant for people…
Mercedes Stephenson: But how can you guarantee that if depression is related to suicidal thoughts?
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Well, the…
Mercedes Stephenson: In some people, not in all.
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: The guidelines that are being…that have been elaborated by the expert committee; we’ve now got an extra year to make sure that those get out to universities teaching medicine to practitioners, the various colleges. Professional bodies across Canada will be able to internalize these guidelines and develop the tools so that this gets out to the profession. Those guidelines are quite severe. What we’re talking about is a very tiny, tiny fraction of cases within another tiny fraction of cases even on end-of-life regime cases. Vast majority of MAiD cases are end-of-life: cancer…
Mercedes Stephenson: Well so far. We haven’t opened it to mental health yet, so we don’t know those numbers.
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Well, we have opened since 2021, a non-end-of-life regime with additional criteria and safeguards. And even then, we’re now starting to get data based on the 2021 regime, as of January and getting better data is important, this aggregated data in particular. That data still shows that it’s a tiny fraction. The numbers that I have seen, a tiny, tiny fraction of people who are non-end-of-life and the mental health, people suffering from mental disorders will be a tiny fraction of that tiny fraction.
Mercedes Stephenson: But the Canadian Mental Health Association says that you can’t determine whether or not mental health is ultimately curable.
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: I’ll base my opinion on what Dr. Mona Gupta said who chaired our committee who’s one of the leading experts in Canada. She said that the practice, the practitioners who are working with these kinds of patients are comfortable with the criteria as elaborated and actually, she feels they’re ready to move forward now. What we’re doing with this pause, is giving everybody a chance to internalize these guidelines and we want everybody to be on the same page. It allows us to combat some of the misinformation that’s out there. But this won’t open the floodgates. This is…people suffering from mental illness are suffering. People suffering from mental disorders are suffering and a number of them, we know, would like access to MAiD because they’re suffering is incurable and intolerable. And so they have the same…they should be in the same position as any other Canadian who is capable of making that decision.
Mercedes Stephenson: Mr. Lametti, thank you so much for joining us today.
David Lametti, Justice Minister and Attorney General: Okay. Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, what I’ll be watching next week. The premiers head to Ottawa, looking for a health care deal.
Mercedes Stephenson: Tim for a little analysis on what I’ve got an eye on for this week.
The premiers will be here in Ottawa to ask for more money for health care. They want $28 billion, not pocket change. The prime minister clearly has an offer up his sleeve and he said that there will be strings attached. Will the premiers, especially from cash strapped provinces, be in a position to say no to any deal? And how will the curveball of side deals with each province shape the political strategy in the meeting? The divide and conquer tactic with the provinces worked well for the Liberals on child care, so we’ll be looking for that.
And of course, we’ll also be keeping an eye out for further developments in the diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and China.
I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Thanks for hanging out with us today, and we’ll see you right back here, next week.
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