The West Block — Episode 17, Season 10


Episode 17, Season 10

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Host: Abigail Bimman


Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, Intensive Care Doctor, Ottawa

Annamie Paul, Green Party Leader, Toronto

Ryan O’Connor, Lawyer, Toronto

Kirsten Hillman, Ambassador of Canada to the United States

Mercedes Stephenson interview with Retired General Jonathan Vance

Location: Ottawa, Ontario

Abigail Bimman: This week on The West Block: COVID-19 crisis.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Deciding who gets an ICU bed and who doesn’t, well that’s not where we want to be.”

Abigail Bimman: Ramped up restrictions amid rising cases. The future of Canada-U.S. relations with the transition of power like we’ve never seen before. And, Canada’s longest serving chief of the defence staff, retires.

It’s Sunday, January 17th. I’m Abigail Bimman. Mercedes Stephenson is away today.

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This week, coronavirus cases and deaths continue to hit new highs. We’ve seen provinces take tougher measures. And as everyone waits for more vaccine, the prime minister announced a new delay from Pfizer-BioNTech.

Today, we take a look at some of the thorniest issues in this pandemic: long-term care, lockdowns and vaccine rollout. To do that, we’ve enlisted the help of experts, wide-ranging in their experience and opinions.

We begin with a doctor treating the sickest patients on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19.

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng is a critical and palliative care doctor at two Ottawa hospitals. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, Intensive Care Doctor, Ottawa: Thank you so much for having me.

Abigail Bimman: You are in those ICUs, which we constantly hear are being stretched as cases rise. How close are you to having to decide who gets lifesaving care and who does not?

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, Intensive Care Doctor, Ottawa: Luckily, the situation in Ottawa has been quite stable. Like we haven’t been, even from the beginning of this pandemic, in a situation where we have been overwhelmed. We’ve been able to maintain care for non-COVID-related patients. You know, in the second wave we haven’t had to stop elective surgeries, for example. But we do—we are preparing for the worst. And based on some of the projections that we saw earlier in the week, we have increased our capacity. We have increased the number of staff ready to be available if we do see that those numbers increase. So, you know, we are doing our best to prepare.

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Abigail Bimman: So you’re doing your best on your side. What do you think needs to be done in general, to avoid overcrowding ICUs? Are restrictions and more lockdowns the right move?

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, Intensive Care Doctor, Ottawa: You know—you know this is my humble opinion. I’ve never been a big advocate for lockdowns, shutting down schools, because I think for me it’s looking at the main areas of spread. And for me, that’s always been long-term care, which we’re doing a better job at addressing since we’ve started vaccinating our long-term care staff, the patients and their families. So hopefully that makes a bit of a difference. As well as, you know, when the patients come—that we see in the ICU are often the marginalized patient population that are essential workers that live in multi-generational homes. And so part of the things that we would like—or I would like to see come to the forefront would be, for example, paid leave. You know when somebody can’t afford to take time off to get tested or knowing that they’re not going to get paid if they’re off for two weeks in isolation or they might even lose their job because they’re in isolation. That is prohibitive for us to get some of these patients tested and to prevent the spread. So I think that’s the main thing.

Abigail Bimman: And finally, I’m wondering what do you want Canadians to know about what it’s like inside those ICUs and the toll that the virus is taking?

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, Intensive Care Doctor, Ottawa: You know I am so proud of the group that I work with. They have, since the beginning of the pandemic, when we were all scared, we were all frightened, you know, are we going to get it? Are we going to bring it home? Are we going to die from COVID? And honestly, the fact that everyone has just continued to hustle, to continue to do their best for their patients despite, you know, being in such a scary environment, being—you know, you have nurses that are in a room with COVID patients for, you know, half a day, like 12 hours a day and they’re still plugging away doing their job. So, you know, I want to say that it is tough on our staff, but you know, this is what we’re here for. Like we’re here for you and we’re here to do our best, to provide care for the Canadians and we’ll continue to do so.

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Abigail Bimman: Well thank you so much for your insights and all of your hard work.

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, Intensive Care Doctor, Ottawa: Thank you so much.

Abigail Bimman: And to broaden the conversation, we’re very pleased to have the federal Green Party leader join us. Annamie Paul has been leading a charge to reform Canada’s long-term care system and to respond to more drastic lockdown measures in Canada, including the stay-at-home order issued in Ontario last week. We’re joined by lawyer Ryan O’Connor.

Thank you so much for your time today. I’d like to start with Ms. Annamie Paul. People living and dying in long-term care have been at the most at the centre of this tragedy, the most vulnerable throughout this pandemic. I know that you understand that all too well on so many levels, your father died in a long-term care home during the first wave. We continue to see outbreaks in these homes. You and your party have long been calling for change. What needs to happen to fix this critical situation?

Annamie Paul, Green Party Leader, Toronto: For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been inviting experts almost daily to give us those answers. And what is clear is that the solutions are there and can be implemented tomorrow to save lives. So we need to see vaccinations going first and foremost into long-term care because that’s where three quarters of our deaths are happening. More rapid testing, we need to see increases in staffing and stabilizing staffing and better pay for workers so that staffing can be stabilized, more separation between long-term care residents and safe access for family members and caregivers through PPE. And again, all of these things can be done right away and they would save lives immediately.

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Abigail Bimman: So Ms. Paul, may I ask you? As you say, you’ve been asking the officials in charge and politicians about this for so long. Why aren’t we seeing these steps taken when some of them, as you say have a) been issues for a long time, and b) steps that could be taken rather quickly? What do you think about that?

Annamie Paul, Green Party Leader, Toronto: If I had the answer for that, I would share it. But I must say that I am completely—I’m confused and I know that myself, and of course, all of the family members of loved ones in long-term care are just beside themselves, because the infectious disease specialists, the epidemiologists, the biostatisticians, they’re speaking with unanimity. There’s totally consensus about what needs to be done. And in the jurisdictions where they have made at least some steps towards taking these measures, it has saved lives. We have the worst record amongst all wealthy countries for deaths in long-term care and this is a humanitarian crisis that has taken tens of thousands of lives already.

Abigail Bimman: And I’m going to pivot now to the broader situation and looking at Ontario. Ryan O’Connor, Ontario is banking on stricter lockdown the rules. The province issuing another state of emergency and a stay-at-home, which left many people confused. Can you weigh in on that and whether you think that’s the right move?

Ryan O’Connor, Lawyer, Toronto: I think of the issue is addressing the question of viral spread. I don’t know that forcing persons to remain in their homes with 29 different exceptions is really going to address the issue. And at the same time, while we’re putting greater impositions on a person’s ability to move about in the community, to go about their business, potentially to go to work, we’re really restricting their civil liberties without any sort of—potentially any sort of benefit concerning viral spread.

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Dr. Arruda, who is the chief medical officer of Quebec, recently, indicated before Quebec imposed its curfew that there’s no hard evidence to suggest that a curfew would be effective, and we can draw the analogy to Ontario and the stay-at-home order. With 29 exceptions, it likely wouldn’t be effective as well in containing viral spread. And the medical officer of health at the City of Toronto, Dr. de Villa has said the same thing with respect to curfews. So, I really don’t know that asking persons to remain in their homes, it’s a 24/7 curfew with 29 caveats, that it’s really going to address the issue that the government wants to and that’s to contain viral spread.

Abigail Bimman: And I know from your Twitter feed, you are offering anybody who has questions or gets in trouble over this or doesn’t understand, to reach out to you. Can you speak from a legal perspective what some of the issues are, when there is confusion in that text?

Ryan O’Connor, Lawyer, Toronto: Well when there’s confusion, it might be applied by authorities—the law might be applied by authorities in an inappropriate way. We don’t know how police officers and bylaw officers are going to apply the law. They’ve been told by solicitor general’s office that they’re not to pull over persons on the road to determine if they’re in violation of the stay-at-home order. But they were also told in the same order from the solicitor general’s office that they’re to exercise some sort of discretion. So, we don’t know how this is going to be enforced and that’s problematic for charter rights. It’s problematic for equality. We don’t know which communities might be targeted. And then there’s just broader issues concerning the charter about stay-at-home orders and curfews, generally. Canadians and Ontarians rights have been restricted throughout the pandemic in terms of their ability to see their family, to go and visit their friends, etc. Now curfews in Quebec, stay-at-home order’s in Ontario, these are almost the single greater impositions on civil liberties that we’ve seen since the October crisis and government should be in a position to justify that with evidence. And when it can’t justify that with evidence, it’s likely that any sort of charter challenge against these rules could ultimately be successful.

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Abigail Bimman: And I’d like to pivot and ask both of you your thoughts on the vaccine rollout. We heard that the government is expecting to ramp up by April, talking about a million doses a week by then. But then we also heard about a delay from Pfizer-BioNTech and some provinces are talking about running out.

I’d like to start with Ms. Paul. Do you think that we’re getting vaccines to the most vulnerable fast enough when you look across the country?

Annamie Paul, Green Party Leader, Toronto: Well the answer to that is already clear and that is no. We have seen, just here in Ontario, well over 200 deaths since the beginning of the year in long-term care. And as I said, we know that at its worst, over 80 per cent of our deaths from COVID were within long-term care facilities. So long-term care facilities should have been first, it would have saved the most lives. And we are not consistently following the advice of our national immunization committee, which is—and in terms of who gets prioritized. And so this—the decisions about vaccine distribution should be guided by the science and the experts and nothing else. Politics shouldn’t come anywhere near it.

Ryan O’Connor, Lawyer, Toronto: We know at the beginning, there were procurement issues with the federal government obtaining the necessary vaccines. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars to do so and yet they’re still not in the arms of Canadians. So I’d rather the federal government not pick a fight with Ontario and not pick a fight with the provinces and actually ensure that they have the logistics and the supply chains available so that they get these jabs in arms, which is really what we need to move out of lockdown to move on with our lives.

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Abigail Bimman: Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for today. Green Party Leader Annamie Paul and lawyer Ryan O’Connor, thanks for your time and your insights.

Annamie Paul, Green Party Leader, Toronto: Thank you very much.

Ryan O’Connor, Lawyer, Toronto: Thanks, everyone.

Abigail Bimman: Up next, an interview with Canada’s ambassador to the United States ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration.



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Abigail Bimman: U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration is on Wednesday. I spoke with Canada’s Ambassador to the United States Kirsten Hillman, Friday.

Thank you so much for joining us Ambassador Hillman. The Canadian Embassy, so close to Capitol Hill. I’m wondering, where were you when the violence broke out earlier this month? And I’m wondering, what are your concerns about right-wing extremism and its impact on and in Canada.

Kirsten Hillman, Ambassador of Canada to the United States, Washington: Hi. Thanks so much for having me. So, last week, last Wednesday when the riots took place here on Capitol Hill, I was actually in my home here in Washington. Our embassy had—was—is on minimal staff because of COVID and we were even further, you know, reduced in staff because we knew that such a large demonstration was going to be taking place that day.

In terms of your—the second part of your question, I mean I think that there is, obviously, what happened last week represented a very sad and very worrying event and I think that we all need to be looking at that carefully. I think here in the United States, people are still thinking a lot about what that—essentially attack on their democracy meant for them going forward, how they’re going to manage it. And I think the good thing is that what we’re seeing is a really strong and resolute effort to move forward with the transition next week in a very orderly and safe way.

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Abigail Bimman: And on that transition, amid all the chaos and the work that needs to be done in a transfer of power that’s been extraordinary, how do you plan to get the Biden administration’s attention? And specifically, what will you do to push Canada’s interests in areas that clash with the president-elect’s plans? I’m thinking about Keystone XL pipeline and his push for Buy America.

Kirsten Hillman, Ambassador of Canada to the United States, Washington: As you say, you know, getting off as of 12:01 on Wednesday, reaching out and getting into the Biden executive team was going to be very important to us. We have been spending months getting ready for that. The Biden team themselves, the appointees and the nominees have been very respectful of the fact that there’s only one U.S. administration at a time and it remains the Trump administration until Wednesday at noon. But, we have been able to talk to many members of their transition team and people that are advising them to start to lay the groundwork for those first calls and that first outreach.

When it comes to the interests, you know, of Canada that may not fully align with some of the things that the Biden team is projecting as some of their priorities, you know, we’re going to have really good, honest and fact-based conversations. On the economic side, there’s no doubt that when we work together, we are stronger and our economies are more resilient. There’s no doubt that open and fair trade with Canada is good for Americans and, you know, the Democrats know that. They know that because just, you know, this summer, the USMCA or CUSMA as we call it in Canada, the new NAFTA, was passed with overwhelming Democrat support. So, there are a lot of facts there for us to draw upon as these plans start to take shape in order to protect Canadian interests.

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Abigail Bimman: Given both safety considerations and the pandemic, will you be attending the inauguration ceremony in-person? And will any Canadian ministers or other officials be traveling to D.C. to join you?

Kirsten Hillman, Ambassador of Canada to the United States, Washington: So I am going to represent Canada at the inauguration in-person and socially—social distancing protocols are going to be in place. And in fact, all attendees will be COVID tested before we attend.

Abigail Bimman: There has long been a government advisory against non-essential travel. The prime minister has made it clear there will be no more repatriation flights, but still there are plenty of Canadians in the United States, including snowbirds in states with high coronavirus rates: Arizona, California, and Florida. What’s your message to those Canadians and are they safe?

Kirsten Hillman, Ambassador of Canada to the United States, Washington: You know the COVID pandemic here in the United States is a very serious matter and there are certain regions of this country that are suffering greatly. And I think my message to Canadians, is to follow the advice of experts and scientists in our government and to limit and cease all non-essential travel. Ultimately though, you know, Canadians have to make these decisions for themselves and, you know—we—that I guess, is what they’re doing. But I certainly would advise Canadians to follow the advice of experts and scientists.

Abigail Bimman: But Ambassador Hillman, for those Canadians who are already there in the United States, what’s your message to them and are they safe?

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Kirsten Hillman, Ambassador of Canada to the United States, Washington: Well, I mean, I think—I hope that they are taking all the precautions that are required to stay safe. That they are wearing masks, that they are socially distanced, that they are remaining within their, you know, bubble. Whether it’s a small family or a couple or a single person, I hope that they are following all those protocols. We all know what it requires to stay safe in COVID times. I mean this is—these facts are quite clear. So, I hope that they are doing that. And my advice to them is to follow that guidance.

Abigail Bimman: Ambassador Hillman, thank you so much for your time.

Kirsten Hillman, Ambassador of Canada to the United States, Washington: Thank you so much.

Abigail Bimman: Up next, Mercedes Stephenson’s interview with retired chief of the defence staff General Jonathan Vance.


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Abigail Bimman: Welcome back. Retired chief of the defence staff General Jonathan Vance transferred command last Thursday. Mercedes Stephenson sat down with him ahead of his final days as CDS. Here’s that interview.

Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now is General Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff outgoing, Canada’s longest serving chief. General Vance thanks for coming on the show. It’s great to have you.

There has been concern and there’s been criticism of the Canadian Armed Forces for having people who are a member of the Proud Boys, those who expressed interest in QAnon, white supremacist organizations, for example, Patrick Matthews, who crossed the border into the United States where he was subsequently arrested by the FBI, Corey Hurren, who smashed through the gates at Rideau Hall was a Canadian Ranger. And I know that this is something you have your military intelligence looking into and tracking. How serious of a problem is this in the Canadian Forces?

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Retired Chief of Defence, General Jonathan Vance, Canadian Armed Forces: Well, it depends on a range of things. It’s a serious problem. Period. Because even as our minister has said, even one incident has the potential to, you know, tarnish a reputation of the Armed Forces as an institution—a flagship institution of this country and it is not what we want. It’s also an indicator that any one of those individuals may have poisoned the life or had a negative impact on the lives around them of people in the Armed Forces affecting morale, operational effectiveness and cohesion. And that’s not good either. So it’s serious. Period. The scale and the depth and the penetration of this in the Armed Forces, we don’t know all the answers to that but we’re continuing to try and find out.

What we must do and you’ll certainly see in the next CDS carry on with, is we must get our policy base right based on the rule of law, correct administration of our troops. And I know it doesn’t sound all that compelling, but ultimately we live or die by the policies that we have that exclude people, or include people, or deal with them if they step out of line. We put a lot of work after the Proud Boys incident. We put a lot work into a hateful conduct policy. It was a direct reflection of what we learned through the process of Operation Honour.

Mercedes Stephenson: Let’s talk about Operation Honour. Many ways has been the capstone of your time in the Canadian Armed Forces. This was something that was launched after Madam Deschamps report. I know personally, I talk to lots of folks in the military. I’ve been around it a long time. They didn’t think this was a problem. They thought that the report exaggerated things. There were problems with the military justice system that I remember talking to you about, that I was reporting on in terms of how people were being treated, able to plea bargain, for example, instead of being, you know, actually treated seriously. It was a slap on the wrist. You brought in the ability to administratively discharge people. Despite all of the public messaging and all the manoeuvring, you haven’t seen that much of a dent in the actual sexual harassment that is being reported in the Canadian Armed Forces. You’re saying zero tolerance. It’s nowhere near zero. The most recent numbers we have is over 300 incidents in 2019, down from 413 the year before. Why do you think Operation Honour has not been successful?

Retired Chief of Defence, General Jonathan Vance, Canadian Armed Forces: Well, of course, you’ve asked the question in a way that I won’t answer it, Mercedes. I think that Operation Honour has some successes. I said at the very beginning of Operation Honour that it was going to be a long, multi-generational [00:03:52 effort]. It’s a campaign. It never ends. It is a statement of our values and put in place and evolved over time the policies that govern our actions. If the measure of Operation Honour is that there are zero cases, ever, of sexual misconduct, if that’s the only measure, then you are asking a question on the kind of same path that I was when I started Operation Honour. I learned as we went through the development of the toolsets around Operation Honour, that it’s also very important to look at and have good policies around how affected people are treated, recognizing that they have been harmed and treated incorrectly. And those policies continue to evolve and will do so with a number of things, including the military justice system.

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Operation Honour has not ended the horrible phenomenon, but it has reduced it and it continues to reduce. And I’d like to think that although we are all impatient and we have been judged by some as not ending the phenomenon yet and therefore it’s a failure. This is a long-term effort. It is a forever effort.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. Well, we look forward to speaking to you in your retirement, too. General Vance, thank you very much for your service to Canada and for making time for us today on The West Block.

Retired Chief of Defence, General Jonathan Vance, Canadian Armed Forces: Thanks. Thanks, Mercedes. Thanks for covering the Armed Forces [00:05:42].

Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you.

Abigail Bimman: For the full interview with General Vance, tune into this week’s episode of The West Block podcast. Well that’s all the time we have for today. I’m Abigail Bimman, and this is The West Block.


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