The West Block — Episode 37, Season 9


Episode 37, Season 9

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests: China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu, Minister of Seniors Deb Schulte, Employment and Labour Lawyer Howard Levitt

Location: Ottawa

U.S. President Donald Trump: “Don’t ask me, ask China that question. You may get a very unusual answer.”

Dawna Friesen, Global National Anchor: “Canada is collaborating with China, to begin trials of a vaccine candidate for COVID-19, here in Canada.”

Prince Albert MP Randy Hoback—Conservative: “Why is Canada’s ambassador to China criticizing China’s actions during the pandemic while this Liberal government is defending it?”

Deb Schulte, Minister of Seniors: “COVID-19 has made life more expensive and more difficult for seniors because of the risks of more severe outcomes.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “COVID-19 has exposed some uncomfortable truths about our society, including how we care for seniors in Canada.”

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer: “The federal government can do things to help, is to make sure that we have enough PPE.”

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, May 17th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “I think it’s clear that there are many questions for countries around the origins and behaviour in early days on the COVID-19 situation, particularly questions for China that we’ve called on to be asked in the coming months so we can get answers.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: “There is going to be, and there must be, a great reckoning for the role that China has played in this.”

Mercedes Stephenson: That was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who has taken a hard stance against China for its handling of coronavirus. Australia is calling for a full investigation of what Chinese authorities knew about COVID-19 and when they knew it. So, what is the Chinese government’s response?

Joining me now is China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu. Welcome to the show, ambassador.

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China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu: Thank you for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: Ambassador, a lot of Canadians have questions about where COVID-19 originated from. Some think it may have leaked accidentally out of a lab in Wuhan, others believe it came from a wet market there. Where did this virus originate?

China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu: You know that is a very serious question for the scientists to answer. And all the available evidence now suggests the virus itself is not manmade, it comes from nature. And for us, we should let the scientists to answer that question rather than to hear from some politicians.

Mercedes Stephenson: There have been calls, ambassador, to find exactly that information out through an international investigation into the origins of the virus. Will your government allow that take place? Or will you punish countries who are in favour of that?

China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu: Well China, we also support a review committee to be established by WHO but that should be your pick and place in an open and transparent manner and appropriate time. That is, after we win the fight against the pandemic. Currently, we believe all the countries should focus their energy and attention on fight against the COVID-19. However, I think that for this kind of review it should be inclusive in nature. It should address the global response to the COVID-19. And for us, we have played the most strict in the comprehensive matters in fight against the disease and that we are making great progress on that. But if you can see, for the United States, it has lost the precious time they had [00:03:32] you know, from China because we had issued early warning to them. Even from the very beginning, starting from January 3rd, we have been updating the United States and the WHO and other countries in a regular way.

Mercedes Stephenson: But China initially did not release accurate numbers and is facing allegations that that was deliberate. I know that there’s been a lot of confrontation between Donald Trump and your government. Ambassador, what’s your view of which leader has handled this crisis better: Justin Trudeau or Donald Trump?

China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu: So I think each country has its own way to deal with a crisis. But here, I think that in Canada, we also have noted that under the concerted efforts of the federal government and the provincial governments, they are making progress in the fight against the disease. So there are some provinces who are now planning to reopen and that’s encouraging news.

Mercedes Stephenson: Canada’s Ambassador to China Dominic Barton had some tough words for the Chinese government. He says that your government’s response to the pandemic has been alienating foreign countries and allies because you’ve taken such a heavy handed approach. And others have accused China of essentially using bullying and economic tactics to punish countries who speak out about this. What’s your response to Ambassador Barton?

China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu: From the information we got, the report itself, it’s [00:04:57]. So I think that for us, when we are developing relationships with other countries. We are pursuing a foreign policy, independent foreign policy of peace and we are engaged in friendly exchange with other countries. So there is no things like bullying other countries. Rather, China is a victim, not only of the disease itself but also a victim of disinformation. So you can see, some politicians in the United States, they are waging a political campaign against China, try to smear China’s image. That won’t help in their fight against the disease and to save lives of the American people.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Ambassador, there are two Canadians who have been in jail in China: Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, it’s now been 18 months. It’s hard for a lot of Canadians to hear you describe China as a victim when there are two Canadians behind bars there, with no evidence in a case that people inside the Canadian government will tell you is, essentially hostage taking over the Huawei incident here in Canada with Canada arresting the chief financial officer of Huawei Meng Wanzhou?

China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu: There’s nothing like hostage taking. You know, those two Canadians are actually suspected—engaged in suspected crimes of endangering Chinese national security. So the competent Chinese authorities are handling the case according to law. And I would like to tell you, they are in good physical condition and their lawful rights are protected according to law. But I would like to take this opportunity to point out that actually the biggest issue in our bilateral relationship is still Meng Wanzhou case. So that’s why we have made our position very clear, you know, to make sure that she’s back in China smoothly and safely.

Mercedes Stephenson: And you will not release the two Michael’s until that happens?

China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu: There’s an ongoing judicial process, you know, for the two Canadian citizens.

Mercedes Stephenson: In the case of the two Michael’s, the Canadian embassy has not had access to them now in over four months and there’s deep concern about their wellbeing. I know that Canadian authorities have asked to at least have a video call, like you and I are having right now with the two Michaels, or a phone call to check on their wellbeing. Your government has refused that consular access. This is all happening as Meng Wanzhou is here in Canada, she’s in a mansion. She’s able to go out for jogs. Why will you not give the Canadian government access to the two Michael’s?

China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu:  Madam Meng should not be detained in Vancouver in the first place. And for the two Canadian citizens, we are making sure that they receive, you know, all those treatment, you know, in accordance with law. So that’s why during this outbreak, we have provided better food for them—not only for them, but for other [00:07:57] needs to increase their immunity against the disease and that we also arranged for a special telephone conversation between Michael Kovrig and his father, that also on the basis of humanitarian consideration. So anything that we can do according to law, you know, make sure that happens. And for the consular visits, they’ll be resumed if the situation improves.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Can you tell me when that will resume, or when you could organize a video call for Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and Canadian government officials?

China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu: Yeah, I think that my point’s very clear. You know, we want to make sure that the safety and the health of those detainees are protected. So as long as the situation gets better, we will resume these consular visits.

Mercedes Stephenson: And I understand what you’re saying about in-person, but I guess that doesn’t answer the video call. But I do want to move on to ask you, what is the relationship between the Chinese government and a group known as the United Front here in Canada?

China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu: You know, I’ve seen some reports, you know, about that recently. And for the organization, who initiated the report, actually it is—actually people would recognize it has the intention to have these rumours around. But China, we have never engaged in anything like to interfere in other countries internal affairs. That’s not our tradition. And if you talk about human rights, I would like to suggest that we should first be alerted to this fact of those discriminations against the Chinese people and the Asian people here in Canada of the COVID-19 [breakout].

Mercedes Stephenson: So sir, then, you deny that your government in any way has been involved in intimidating Canadian citizens of Chinese descent who are living here in Canada?

China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu: I have said that clearly, you know, there’s nothing like that. We don’t interfere in other countries internal affairs. So there is no such thing happening here in Canada.

Mercedes Stephenson: What about the report that Global News had about the collection of personal protective equipment (PPE) by the United Front that was sent back to China at the same time as the Chinese government was not releasing the full severity of the pandemic? Was your government involved in taking that personal protective equipment from Canada, back to China knowing that could cost Canadian lives?

China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu: So there’s nothing like we are holding back those supplies. And I would like to point out that actually we are doing a lot of things to help Canadian people in the fight against COVID-19 just as recently you helped us, you know, so we value that. There’s a good tradition of our two countries helping each other in those trying times.

Mercedes Stephenson: No question going forward, everyone hopes there will be global cooperation on this pandemic. Ambassador, that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you for joining us.

China’s Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, seniors have been hardest hit by COVID-19 on the health front, and many say it is causing a financial strain on them, too. What is the federal government doing to help this vulnerable demographic?


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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: “Eighty per cent or more of the deaths during COVID-19 have been seniors living in long-term care homes. The military had to be called in. Out of 14 countries, Canada has been deemed the worst in its care of seniors.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. There are nearly 7 million Canadians over the age of 65, and as you just heard, they have suffered more than any other group in Canada with this pandemic. The tragic deaths and outbreaks in long-term care facilities and nursing homes has exposed the vulnerability our seniors and raised questions about their care. And for those living at home on a fixed income, things haven’t been much easier. It’s a frightening situation for many. So what can the federal government do to help?

Joining me now is Seniors Minister Deb Schulte. Thank you so much for joining us, minister.

Minister of Seniors Deb Schulte: Thank you very much, Mercedes. I appreciate being on the show.

Mercedes Stephenson: The number one group who we hear from are people in your portfolio, seniors. They’ve been very concerned about COVID-19 and many of them have been really hard hit, both financially and health wise. Now I know that long-term care homes are the purview of provincial governments, but with 80 per cent of the deaths of COVID-19 in those long-term care facilities, what is your government looking at doing to support the provinces, to make sure there’s a strategy in place and to make sure that the level of care is consistent across the provinces?

Minister of Seniors Deb Schulte: Very early on, we were aware that there were challenges in these facilities. Obviously, they’re regulated by the provinces and territories; however, we brought out in conjunction with the public health authorities across the country, and in conjunction with them we brought out guidance so that long-term care facilities could be making sure they put in the proper protocols to keep their residents and their staff safe. We also put a significant amount of money on the table and engaged 24/7 in getting the protective equipment that’s required in these facilities to keep everybody safe. It’s a very tough market, a global shortage of this equipment. So we engaged quickly our—all of our resources, 24/7 and also engaged with businesses across Canada to start building it right here at home so that we wouldn’t be dealing with these challenges for very long. And we are working on that, we’ve put money in for wage subsidies because we know that people were in essence, underpaid for the work that they’re doing and certainly needed to see the recognition for their hard work and be encouraged to continue to go into those facilities and care for our seniors. So that was $3 billion that we’ve provided to the provinces and territories to help them with that, and we’ve also brought in the military where we’ve been asked, to provide resources with very significant shortages in staff at certain facilities. There are 25 facilities that we have our federal military in those facilities, so that the federal government has been very, very engaged in this file, providing all the support, bring a team Canada approach to this situation on the ground. And, you know, there are serious underlying challenges that are being faced in these facilities, and in the coming months the federal government will be there to work with the provinces and territories, to find lasting solutions.

Mercedes Stephenson: Does that mean that you could look at long-term funding to the provinces that the federal government would provide, because once this particular wave of the pandemic is over there could be a second wave, and some of the issues that have been exposed are longstanding.

Minister of Seniors Deb Schulte: Our focus is entirely on doing what we need to do today, to keep people safe and to deal with the issues that are coming up. And there will be time to reflect with the provinces and territories what other steps need to be done.

Mercedes Stephenson: Last week your government announced a one-time payment of up to $500 for seniors to help offset costs that they’re facing. Most seniors will only get $300 of that through the OAS. Why did it take so long to come up with this money when so many seniors were saying they have increased costs in everything from refilling prescriptions monthly now, to having to have their groceries delivered, to not being able to get on public transit safely?

Minister of Seniors Deb Schulte: So early on, we initiated a GST credit top-up that provided on average, single seniors from low and modest income: $375 for singles and over $500 for couples. So that was early on and they got that money in April. And we saw that there was need for more, so that’s why we brought forward this announcement this week that we would give $300 for OAS recipients and an additional $200 for GIS recipients. So just to put that in context, if you’re a couple on Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), you will have received over $500 through the GST top-up that you got in April, and now you’ll be receiving $1 thousand through this one-time tax-free payment. So for them, they will have received over $1,500 of direct financial support from the government, for the pandemic. That’s a significant amount of money to support our seniors in need.

Mercedes Stephenson: Your government campaigned on a promise to increase the OAS. That was supposed to happen in July. Are you still on track to do that?

Minister of Seniors Deb Schulte: So right now, we are completely focused on what needs to be done to get Canadians through the pandemic and to be able to bend the curve of the virus transmission, keep our public health systems below capacity and make sure that Canadians can get through as they’re doing the important things like staying home and not exposing themselves. While the government is completely committed to implementing our campaign platform promises, our focus right now is where it needs to be, is in keeping Canadians safe, providing them the support that they need to get through.

Mercedes Stephenson: So, does that mean that seniors shouldn’t expect to see this in July as your government had promised?

Minister of Seniors Deb Schulte: So what they’re going to be seeing is a significant payment, a tax-free payment that’s coming soon in—they don’t need to apply. If they’re on OAS and over 6.7 million seniors are on Old Age Security (OAS), they will be receiving $300 in their bank accounts. If they are low income seniors, they will be receiving the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) additional $200 without—they don’t need to apply, it’s going to be received. So that’s $500 in addition to the [00:06:43 cross talk].

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Mercedes Stephenson: But minister, that’s the pandemic relief. I’m referring to your campaign promise. Is that not going to happen in July now, that promised increase of over $700 to the OAS?

Minister of Seniors Deb Schulte: So as I’ve said, right now our government is completely focused on helping Canadians through the pandemic and we have committed—we are committed to delivering on our promises, but right now the pandemic is taking all efforts and energies and that’s where our focus is.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. Minister, thank you so much for your time.

Minister of Seniors Deb Schulte: Thank you very much for your time, too. Have a great day.

Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up, as provinces begin to reopen, what rights do you have when it comes to returning to work? And what obligations do employers have to keep people safe?


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “As people start looking at going back to work, there are going to be lots of questions about safety, about child care, about next steps. And we’re going to work very closely with the provinces, with industries, with employers, with people to give as much clarity as we possibly can.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was the prime minister last week, lots of questions for Canadians as they get ready to head back to work. So, what rights do you have if you don’t feel safe on the job? And what obligations do employers and businesses have to make sure the workplace is safe? And could they be liable if it’s not?

Joining me now is employer and labour lawyer Howard Levitt. Thanks for joining us, Howard.

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Employment and Labour Lawyer Howard Levitt: Thanks for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: So as provinces reopen and workers are getting ready to go back to work, employees perhaps back to offices, a lot of folks are wondering what rights they have? So, what rights does an employee have to say no, to going back to work or to keep working from home if they have concerns about their workplace?

Employment and Labour Lawyer Howard Levitt: Well they have no legal right to work at home. That’s entirely up to the employer, even if they can prove it’s more productive and efficient at home. But they do have a right to say it’s unsafe at work, the employer would then have to explain to them why it is safe, what measures have been taken to make it safe. And if the employee still refuses, then either the employee or the employer can go to the occupational health and safety inspector who will come in pretty quickly these days and make a binding determination. Once they determine its safe, or if the employer does one or two things it will be safe, the employee’s that come back to work then, they’ll lose their job, or lose their CERB, or lose their EI, or lose everything.

Mercedes Stephenson: Wow. So I’m imaging for people out there who aren’t even worried about their workplace but might be worried about transit, they wouldn’t have any protection there if they have to get on public transit and they’re worried about being exposed.

Employment and Labour Lawyer Howard Levitt: Well, they don’t have to take public transit. They can find other means of getting there, theoretically at least. But public transit is not going to help them to be excused to avoid coming to work, fear of public transit.

Mercedes Stephenson: What would the obligations of the employer be to make sure that the workplace is safe?

Employment and Labour Lawyer Howard Levitt: Make it safe. That requires social distancing, have sanitation stations everywhere, have washrooms readily available, ensure people clean their hands. Make sure anybody with COVID symptoms or flu-like symptoms stays home and does not enter the workplace, discipline people who breach any of those rules and do what they have to do to make the workplace safe. That might mean shift work, that might be limiting the number of employees, that might be workplace redesign, but whatever they have to do they have to do because if they don’t do it, an employee complains yeah, I think it’s dangerous and the employer says come in anyway. And that employee or another employee becomes sick with COVID and let’s say, God forbid dies, there could be a massive lawsuit against that negligent employer.

Mercedes Stephenson: So companies are liable, potentially, if they’re not providing a safe work environment?

Employment and Labour Lawyer Howard Levitt: They absolutely are liable for not providing a safe work environment and that is the biggest concern of all, probably.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do we have a sense of what that would be in this case, because typically, I mean obviously, there have been health and safety regulations for many years, but this is a whole different kind of health and safety issue?

Employment and Labour Lawyer Howard Levitt: Yes. And the workplace inspectors are getting trained of that. It’s now a matter of social distancing and washing your hands an awful lot, of wearing masks or personal protective equipment (PPE) where necessary, but making sure you don’t get close to someone who might theoretically, for all you know, have COVID. So social distancing is the main name of the game. And maybe you have to take the stairs rather than the elevator to get to work, depending on what floor they’re at. But whatever it takes, employers have a duty to make sure their workplace is safe. And that duty might require an entire workplace redesign now.

Mercedes Stephenson: Will there be any reassurance to people who are working that they’ll be compensated if they stay home sick beyond when this pandemic’s immediate sort of centre moves aside?

Employment and Labour Lawyer Howard Levitt: In terms of compensation, no. If they don’t have a sick leave policy, they don’t have short-term disability benefits, if they don’t have any sick leave protection at all, that doesn’t change. And whatever protection the government is doing and CERB runs out they will not be paid for time home sick. They have a right to stay home sick but they won’t be paid for it, unless the company already has those benefits.

Mercedes Stephenson: Some very useful information. Thank you so much for joining us, Howard.

Employment and Labour Lawyer Howard Levitt: Thanks for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time that we have for today. Thank you for joining us. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. We’ll see you next week.

Additional West Block programming aired in some markets on Sunday:

Quebec Premier François Legault: “We’ve concluded that the conditions are not met to reopen elementary schools in the Montreal region.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: “The growth curve has successfully been flattened in most of Alberta.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford: “We cannot let our guard down now. We must watch the trends like a hawk.”

B.C. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry: “We have to continue to take it slow. This weekend, less travel is incredibly important.”

Health Minister Patty Hajdu: “There is quite a bit of work to do in the space of vaccine creation and then production but that is certainly something that we’re working on.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Hello. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister: “And it’s because of Manitobans that we’ve been able to begin to slowly and to carefully restart our economy.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford: “We’re getting thousands of people back to work. We’ve laid a solid foundation for economic reopening and recovery. We have the framework.”

Quebec Premier François Legault: “A crucial element that would help us to reopen is for the majority of people to start wearing a mask.”

Mercedes Stephenson: We just heard from three of Canada’s premiers in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, about how their provinces are going about reopening. Ontario has taken a slower approach than some with a limited number of businesses that will be reopening on Tuesday. But if you are looking for a haircut, a manicure, or a massage you’re going to have to wait. And as for those restrictions on gatherings of numbers of people, you still can’t have more than five in one place here in Ontario.

Joining me now to discuss all of this is the person who’s been the driving force behind much of the closure and subsequent reopening plans, Ontario’s Finance Minister Rod Phillips. Welcome to the show, minister.

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Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips: Mercedes, it’s great to see you.

Mercedes Stephenson: You too, minister. You know, you’ve taken a very cautious approach in terms of the reopening. It’s slower than a lot of other provinces. You don’t have dates attached to it. Why have you chosen that particular approach?

Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips: You know, Mercedes, when we first started to shut down things, we knew that at some point an even more difficult task was going to be reopening. And so three weeks ago, we laid out a framework and we said at the time that that framework was a roadmap, not the schedule. And a lot of people at that time were saying well where are the dates? And we said these dates will be tied to achieving certain public health metrics. We need to make sure that we have the capacity in place in our hospitals. We make sure we have the tracking and the testing, but very importantly we need to make sure that the cases are coming down. And so that’s why this week, we were able to, you know, with that framework in mind, tell Ontarians that on Tuesday, we’re going to start to open up the economy. Another part of the framework was that there will be 3-4 week slots between that space, and that again, was informed by the health and science professionals who said the gestational period for this virus is two weeks. So we need at least two weeks to judge the impacts of what we’ve done in terms of reopening. So it was part of the plan that we laid out. We’ve also lain out in this case, 95 different guidelines for the businesses that are going to be opening so they can do it safely and this is really about two things. It’s about making sure that we can do this in a way that’s safe, we know that’s important. But secondly, we need to make sure that there’s confidence from the public, from employees, from employers and that’s why the guidelines are so important, and that’s why we think doing this in a way that makes it least likely that we’re going to have to go back and shut things down again makes sense.

Mercedes Stephenson: So who will make the final decision on when the full reopening happens? Is it the premier? Is it cabinet? Or is it the health officials?

Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips: Well, all of it comes from the advice from our health professionals, in particular, the chief medical officer. But it’s our job to put the plan in place, which is what we did with that framework and now with this first stage of re-launching. So, the cabinet, of course, has to consider all the factors: the economic impacts, the health impacts, the mental health impacts that are considerable on people. But we, at the end of the day, do that based on the best health and science advice and we’ve been able to do that and frankly, we’ve been able to see our chief medical officer has said, you know, that we have planked the curve now. We’ve been able to do that because that has had the confidence of the 14.5 million Ontarians who’ve done the hard work, first of all, our front line workers, but also the people who’ve had to stay home and those who’ve had to shut their businesses. So we need to maintain that confidence and then finally, move in a sensible process, you know, to a full reopening. But we’re going to do that according to the health and science advice.

Mercedes Stephenson: Your government has spent $17 billion, so far, fighting this pandemic. Do you have a sense of how much more you might have to spend and how much this will have cost the Ontario economy at the end of the day?

Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips: Unlike other governments in Canada, we did recalibrate. We were on track like everyone else to present a budget in March that would have reflected the old reality. In relatively short order, I produced a one-year financial plan, essentially a short-term one year budget that did talk about the impacts in terms of revenue, a $6 billion loss and of course, the investments that you talked about, $17 billion in support for health care and otherwise. Since then, the economy has deteriorated. We’re quite evidently dealing with the worst economic situation, not just in Canada but globally in our lifetime. So I’ll update that on a quarterly basis. We just thought it was important that people understand to the greatest extent we could what we were doing to support the economy and people and health care, but also that we be transparent. So, we’ll do that again, I think it’s in August, I do quarterly updates and we’ll be clear then where we see the economy going and where that impacts the provincial finances.

Mercedes Stephenson: 1.1 million Ontarians have lost their jobs as a result of this pandemic, another 1.1 million on top of that have seen severely reduced hours. How do you go about that number of people, over 2 million, back into the workforce at full-time hours?

Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips: Well, you know, it starts with where this all started, with a global health crisis. We know that, you know, if we do not deal with the health issue, to the very best of our ability, then people aren’t going to have the confidence to return back to work. We’ve had the opportunity to look closely at what has happened in other jurisdictions, and what we know around the world in other jurisdictions is, people don’t come back to work, the customers don’t come back as quickly as some people might think they would and of course, that’s because people are concerned about the health situation. That’s why we’ve put our health response at the front of this and that’s what we—why we set up the framework that was based on those health criteria that I talked about. However, as we see the curve flattening and as we see our own ability to operate with COVID improving, because we’ve been learning throughout this process, then people will come back to work. Jobs will return and we will be able to start to see some of those people, as the premier mentioned in your clip, tens of thousands more people will be working this coming week than were the last week because we’ve been able to, on a limited basis, open the economy. But it’ll be one step at a time and, you know, I have so much confidence in the people of Ontario and frankly, in Canada, to come through this, but we have to understand that the COVID has not gone away. That’s why we have to make sure we maintain the capacity in our health system, the testing, the tracking, and we have to understand that people are understandably concerned having heard about all the devastating impacts of this, in terms of coming back and we have to continue to do things that inspire their confidence.

Mercedes Stephenson: We just have a few moments left, minister. But do you have a sense of how many Ontario businesses will not survive this pandemic?

Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips: You know, we don’t but I think about it and I know our premier thinks about it every day. That is, it is, you know, businesses and particularly, smaller businesses are so important to our economy and of course they’re so important to the families and individuals that they support. So, we are doing what we can do to support them. We’re trying to again, make sure that their customers feel safe and their employees feel safe coming back that we give them the guidance they need to run their businesses and then we will just work through this a step at a time. None of us have had to turn on an economy before, so we’re learning through this together. But I do have ultimately, a lot of confidence in the resilience of Ontario business people and just Ontarians in general, to come through this.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay minister, certainly lots to think about and talk about going ahead. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips:  Thank you, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the May long weekend, the official, or semi-official at least, start of summer, heading out to the cottage on the agenda for lots of people most years but not this year. We’ll hear from cottage country on the impact of the pandemic on those communities.


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Ontario Premier Doug Ford:  “This isn’t going to be the typical May 24th weekend. I’m asking you please don’t bring a whole whack of people up. It’s not the party weekend it’s been in the past. You know, go up there. Check things out. Try to bring your own supplies up there.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was Ontario Premier Doug Ford. The May 2-4 long weekend is a time that so many of us look forward to all year, a chance to finally get outside, to open up cottages and enjoy nature, an unofficial launch to our Canadian summer. But this year, cottage owners are being told a very different message: stay home. How long will that order stay in place and how are vacation communities across this country getting ready for the coming wave of cottagers?

Joining me now is to chat about this are two mayors from cottage country: Phil Harding, who is the mayor of beautiful Muskoka, Ontario and Darnelda Siegers, the mayor of the spectacular Sechelt, B.C. Welcome to the show, mayors. I want to dive right into it because we have a ton to talk about. Let’s start with B.C. What is your message to people, mayor, who want to come out and enjoy your community at this time? Are you welcoming cottagers or are you asking them to stay home?

B.C. Mayor Darnelda Siegers—Sechelt: The message out here in B.C. is to stay home, come later. We have done a great job here on the sunshine coast in keeping the COVID-19 pandemic, virus at, you know, at bay. So, we want people to come later, we’re concerned about our community.

Mercedes Stephenson: Mayor Harding, what’s your take, same message or a different one?

Muskoka Mayor Phil Harding: It’s a slightly evolved message. For the first six, eight weeks of this pandemic has definitely been stay home, stay safe, don’t travel, but what we realize is, in particular, Muskoka Lakes, 80 per cent, 95 per cent of our residents are that of seasonal and they want to check on their seasonal properties of which they may not have seen in the last six months. So as long as they’re able to do it safely and responsibly, we’re encouraging people to be able to do so. But if they can stay home, I think that’s the first message, but if they feel the need to come north, to do it safely and responsibly.

Mercedes Stephenson: And Mayor Harding, when you say safely and responsibly, what are your recommendations to do that in a safe and responsible way?

Muskoka Mayor Phil Harding: Well, first of all, our food supply, our hardware stores are all operating under different protocols versus with COVID-19. So the ability to work through those lineups, getting in and out of the stores is not business as usual. We’re kind of considering it business as unusual in this day. So what we’re really saying is for this weekend or next weekend, if they happen to be coming north, to make sure that they bring supplies with them so they don’t have to interact, they don’t have to go out, they don’t have to lineup that they can truly treat this as opposed to a holiday weekend, as an isolation weekend, to sort of prep their properties for summertime.

Mercedes Stephenson: Mayor Siegers, you know, I think a lot of cottagers are saying, look, I pay taxes on this cottage. What if I shop in the city and bring my groceries? Aren’t we supposed to get outside and get fresh air and sunshine? Why can’t I come to my cottage? What’s your concern there?

B.C. Mayor Darnelda Siegers—Sechelt: Our concern is in the Sunshine Coast and Sechelt, 50 per cent of our population are seniors and we have a lot of immunocompromised residents then, so our concern is the transmission of the virus. So I would agree with Mayor Harding, if the second homeowners feel the need to come here, please restrict your access to our residents, take—bring your supplies with you and ensure that if you have to go out, you maintain all of the physical distancing measures.

Mercedes Stephenson: I’m curious to know. Both of your communities, we’ve heard stories of police in some cases enforcing orders, the do not move order. Do not go to your cottage. Will that be the case in either of your communities?

B.C. Mayor Darnelda Siegers—Sechelt: Not in Sechelt, although we do have community ambassadors are out who will be [00:03:57 inaudible] to continue the physical distancing.

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Mercedes Stephenson: And what about in Muskoka?

Muskoka Mayor Phil Harding: In Muskoka, yeah, thank you. In Muskoka in particular, we don’t have any provincial orders to stop people from travelling, so we’re not. But we are obviously, using best judgment and we are still encouraging people if you do happen to be going into the shops, to make sure you wear a mask, wear protective equipment. Treat yourself as if you’ve got the virus and how do you not spread the virus. So, when you are walking down the street by somebody, as opposed to hey, how are you? Take a step back, which seems intuitively rude, but we need to think differently. That actually is intuitively positive and respectful to take a step aside from that person we’re passing.

Mercedes Stephenson: Are you able to deal with any kind of an influx? Have you taken any kind of measures in advance to prepare for this?

Muskoka Mayor Phil Harding: So our hospitals, we are in conversations regularly. We have two hospitals within the district of Muskoka. Both are prepared. We don’t have anybody—we might have one person, I think, in hospital currently, or they were just discharged. So we’re ready, should that happen. But from a virus spreading perspective, I think the one thing to note, people are utilizing their second homes in Ontario these days to isolate. Maybe someone in their family has a compromised immune system, so they are truly isolating at their cottage, if you will. I’ve used the stats. Toronto has roughly 3 million people over 600 square kilometres. Muskoka, in particular, even with our seasonal residents, probably has 120 thousand people but that’s over 4,000 square kilometres. So if you really want to isolate, this is not a bad place to do it.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well, and I think that’s what a lot of people are thinking. Look, I can come up there, I can isolate. I can be away from other people. I won’t be going into grocery stores. I won’t be, especially in both Vancouver and Toronto, in a very concentrated downtown area with a lot of population density. I’m wondering going forward, what’s going to happen in terms of when things go back to normal? Are either of you expecting that you’re going to see a return to a typical summer this summer, or do you think that that’ snot going to happen until 2021? I’ll give it to you first Mayor Siegers.

B.C. Mayor Darnelda Siegers—Sechelt: So, the issue that we have out here is to get here, you have to take a ferry. And so it’s hard to physically distance on a ferry unless you stay in your vehicle. So, there’s a limited number of people. The tourism department—tourism is saying as well, you know, visit but later. So we don’t know how that message is going to be taken by the greater population.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. And for Muskoka?

Muskoka Mayor Phil Harding: What I appreciate is our tourism sector and our tourism industry with hotels being closed, our concert venues being shut down right now. The tourism component of Muskoka this summer is going to be vastly different, there’s no question. This weekend, next weekend, next few weekends things really aren’t open, though they just opened yesterday, Saturday, the golf courses and marinas can now be fully open. So that’s a good thing to slowly restart. But social distancing is going to be a thing. I think we’re all going to be living with for the next 12 months. Restaurants with may be half capacity and bars. No longer are we walking in a hugging people in a group. We are truly standing apart.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. That’s all the time we have. Thank you both, for joining us and sharing your community’s perspectives.

B.C. Mayor Darnelda Siegers—Sechelt: Thank you very much.

Muskoka Mayor Phil Harding: Thank you, and be safe!

Mercedes Stephenson: Thanks, you too.

Coming up, testing is the buzz word to reopen more communities and areas across Canada. What are the different tests? And if you’ve been exposed to coronavirus, are you immune? We’ll find out next.

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Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer: “Right now, you can’t actually say here is the vaccine that is going to be the most successful. That’s still on the going evolution globally, but we’re part of that research internationally. So I think, you know, I think we need to look at every option.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was Canada’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Theresa Tam. A possible vaccine against the coronavirus is believed to be at least 12 to 18 months away. So, that means in the meantime, testing is the key for many economies as they begin to reopen.

If you have been exposed to COVID-19, are you safe? Are you immune?

Joining me now to help make sense of all this is Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, he is the Canada Research chair in molecular pathogenesis and of emerging as well as re-emerging viruses. You know all about these kinds of viruses and diseases. Doctor, I’d like to take a look at the testing first because we’ve heard Dr. Tam talk about how important that is and the numbers I’m looking at here say we’re currently around 25,000 tests being performed a day. That’s far below the 60,000 that Dr. Tam has recommended. Why is this moving so slowly.

Dr. Jason Kindrachuck, University of Manitoba: You now what? I think we’re still trying to get, you know, out of this glut of basically having limited biological supplies and reagents to be able to do the testing. We know that it hasn’t only been us that have been competing for all these reagents. It’s been basically everybody across the globe. So, I think we’re getting into a better position. And what we’ve also seen is that a number of other products and platforms have been coming onboard. So, you know, I think what we’re seeing today is not necessarily reflective of what we’re going to see basically in the coming weeks. And I think what we’re doing is anticipating, you know, the different types of testing modalities that are going to be available for all the different health regions across the country.

Mercedes Stephenson: Can you walk us through what you’re expecting in terms of the coming testing, both in terms of that basic throat swab and nose swab that we’ve seen so many people get, as well as the serological testing to look for immunity?

Dr. Jason Kindrachuck, University of Manitoba: Yeah. I mean, you know, listen, I will say right up at face value that we are trying to get some serology testing up and running here as far as some of our own research. But the serology testing is really important. Ultimately, you know, we need to not only identify, you know, who is currently infected with this virus in our population but also who has been infected. I mean, it’s critical for us to really understand how far this virus disseminated within our different communities, to not only gain perspective of, you know, ultimately how many cases did we face? So, you know, what can we anticipate from that for potential second waves? But also start to get some indications on, you know, potential immunity and immune protection in those people that have been exposed. So, the serology testing, I think, is really where we’re going to see a lot of things pick up very quickly, but we ultimately know that we still need to be able to test people as they come in with different potential exposures or mild symptoms. And again, I think what we’re seeing is a lot of point of care tests that can be done essentially very efficiently by a health care provider or a trained professional that can be done within a matter of minutes. So all these things are paramount to, you know, to our response efforts across the nation.

Mercedes Stephenson: What happens for people who have had the virus, either those who have severe symptoms or who were exposed to it, developed it, didn’t even know they had it. Do we have a sense of how quickly you become immune and how long that immunity might last?

Dr. Jason Kindrachuck, University of Manitoba: Yeah, so this is the million dollar question, right? And it’s something that, you know, if you spend any time on social media, people are asking about it constantly, you know, where are we with this? What we understand right now, if we look back at coronaviruses and most infectious diseases to be fair, we know that people will basically have an immune response once they get exposed, and most times what that will lead to is the generation of antibodies. And what we rely on those antibodies for, is to protect us when we are re-exposed to that same pathogen. So the hope is here, you know, and some of the data is starting to suggest that when we look at people that have been infected and have recovered, they do develop antibodies. The kind of a limitation for us is we don’t know how long those antibodies last for and nor do we really know yet, how protective they are. But again, basing that off of prior information, especially with coronaviruses, with things like SARS and MERS, our expectation is there’s going to be at least some amount of immune protection in those individuals. We just don’t have a basis yet for how long that’s going to last for. So, we’re working on this as quickly as possible. But again, we’re five months into this pandemic and from the emergence of this virus to the world for the first time. So our perspective right now of long-term immune responses is five months.

Mercedes Stephenson: And we learned last week that the National Research Council is working, actually, with a Chinese lab, to try to develop a vaccine. Do you think that that’ a promising vaccine? Is there one that stands out to you of having a possibility of really making a difference here?

Dr. Jason Kindrachuck, University of Manitoba: Well, I’m cautiously optimistic, right? And I always go back to, you know, maybe it’s part and parcel of growing up in Saskatchewan. I look at all these things right now, and all the different vaccines that are being, you know, kind of touted as potential, you know, game-changers for COVID-19 as potentially being things that we can use in basically our defence against this virus. So, you know, right now, I don’t think we have a perspective on which vaccine is going to necessarily work best. But I think what we’ve seen is that really since, you know, 2014, since the West African Ebola epidemic, really there’s been just an unbelievable increase in the amount of knowledge and infrastructure that’s been devoted to being able to develop vaccines very quickly. And all these are potential promising candidates, so I am very optimistic we will see something. The timeframe is highly debatable. We heard that yesterday from Dr. Rick Bright in some of his testimony. I don’t think we quite know what that timeline looks like yet, but I remain amazingly optimistic that not only will we have a vaccine, but we’ll have multiple vaccines that we’ll be able to use across the nation and across the globe.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well, and certainly a topic that we will be checking in with you on again, no doubt in the future. Thank you so much for joining us, doctor.

Dr. Jason Kindrachuck, University of Manitoba: Great, thank you so much, Mercedes and have a great long weekend.

Mercedes Stephenson: You too. That’s all the time we have for today. Thanks for joining us. We hope you have a great long weekend at home as well. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. We’ll see you next week.

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