THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 33, Season 10
Sunday, May 9, 2021
Host: Abigail Bimman
Dr. Alan Bernstein, COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force
Dominic LeBlanc, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Mayor
Location: Ottawa, Ontario
Abigail Bimman: This week on The West Block: Vaccine confusion.
Shelley Deeks, NACI Vice-chair: “mRNA vaccines are the preferred vaccine.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Every vaccine approved in Canada is both safe and effective.”
Abigail Bimman: A preferred shot or the first one you can get? And, COVID-19 ravages Alberta.”
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta Health Chief Medical Officer: “We don’t yet know if we have hit the peak of new cases.”
Heather McPherson, MP Edmonton Strathcona: “We have the single greatest public health crisis Alberta has ever seen.”
Abigail Bimman: We check-in with the mayor of the provinces biggest city. Plus, the prime minister’s chief of staff testifies about the military sexual misconduct controversy.
Katie Telford, PM Chief of Staff: “But I was not given the substance or the details of the allegation.”
Abigail Bimman: Does it shed any light on what the prime minister knew and when?
Hello, and welcome to The West Block. It’s Sunday, May 9th. I’m Abigail Bimman. Mercedes Stephenson is away today.
As COVID-19 case numbers remain dangerously high in several parts of this country, last week saw the arrival of 3 million doses of vaccine and hundreds of thousands more Canadians rolled up their sleeves to get their shot. But amid a boost in the number of vaccines hitting Canadian soil, came a jab of confusion.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The bottom line for Canadians is the right vaccine for you to take is the very first vaccine that you are offered.”
Abigail Bimman: That was line we heard over and over for months, even as worries mounted over blood clots. The clots are very rare, affecting a handful of the approximately 1.7 million Canadians who had the AstraZeneca shot. There are similar concerns over Johnson & Johnson. Both are viral vector vaccines, compared to Moderna and Pfizer’s mRNA technology. But as more and more Canadians followed that advice and got AstraZeneca, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization gave people pause.
Shelley Deeks, NACI Vice-chair: “What we’ve said all along is that the mRNA vaccines are the preferred vaccine.”
Abigail Bimman: A preferred vaccine? What was that government line again?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The right vaccine for you to take is the very first one that is offered to you.”
Abigail Bimman: Reaction was strong.
Unidentified person: “Take that shot. Ignore NACI.”
Abigail Bimman: And some Canadians were left feeling unsure of their choice.
Unidentified person: “It feels pretty misleading and I feel like I’ve been betrayed.”
Unidentified person: “Well is AstraZeneca bad now? Like should I have waited? Very confusing.”
Abigail Bimman: Joining me now to unpack the confusion is Alan Bernstein. He is a member of the federal COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force and president and CEO of the Global Research Organization, CIFAR. He joins us from Toronto.
Thank you so much for being with us today. I’m going to dive right in. What do you think of NACI’s messaging around a preferred vaccine and the impact that may have on vaccine confidence?
Dr. Alan Bernstein, COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force: Well I think it’s very unfortunate that it’s added to some confusion amongst Canadians about which is the best vaccine to take, and I feel badly for Canadians of course. I also feel badly for the members of NACI. NACI—none of us had heard of NACI before COVID and it’s not surprising. They provide technical advice on an ongoing basis to the provinces and to Health Canada on vaccine and they’re not used to being in the limelight and they are in the limelight now, of course. And so the advice that they provided, if you look at the tables in their document, are very detailed and very mathematical and very sort of a balancing risk and benefit, and they’re not used to sort of the nuance kind of communication that this requires to communicate to the Canadian public and so they’ve been sort of caught in the headlights and it’s very unfortunate. It’s unfortunate for Canadians because the worst thing we could have right now is for people to hesitate to take any of the three vaccines that are available to us now.
Abigail Bimman: You sit on the Vaccine Task Force, I’m curious, your thoughts on this issue that is arising about intellectual property and patents over vaccines. Canada has not taken a firm stance as our neighbour’s in the United States have, but I’m also wondering if we’re in more of a precarious position because, as you well know, we’re not yet making vaccines like on our own soil. What do you think the government should do?
Dr. Alan Bernstein, COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force: Well, we haven’t discussed it first of all at the Vaccine Task Force. We had a meeting yesterday, but it’s not been discussed.
My own view is, you know, if you think about pills, pills are usually given, you know, drugs are given to people who are sick and there’s not that many given out, you know not everybody has a certain form of cancer or has asthma or what have you. But these vaccines are being given to billions of people, so I think the waiver on intellectual property on these vaccines is very important but mostly symbolically. It’s not going to be that easy for a company to say we’re going to scale up and start making 100 million doses of these vaccines. Vaccines are very complicated mixtures of a lot of different chemicals, dozens of different chemicals that have to go in get their—have to be approved by the regulator. In Canada that regulator is Health Canada. So it’s a very different kettle of fish than just making sort of a generic drug. And so while I think the waiver that President Biden’s administration announced the other day is very important symbolically, it’s not going to mean that every drug manufacturer is going to be able to start making, you know, the Moderna vaccine or the Pfizer vaccine or the AstraZeneca vaccine tomorrow so whether Canada takes a role, you know, a position on this or not, we’ll have to see. I think it would be great if we did, personally, because I think there is a great symbolic value in it in that we are all in this together. The solidarity around this is very important and also, of course, we should remember that the original research that paid for the development of these vaccines were paid for by us, were paid for by public funds. And so having a patent on something that really came out of the public seems a bit of a contradiction to me, personally. So, those are sort of my own views and I hope that Canada does take a strong view on this.
Abigail Bimman: Alright. And finally, I want to ask about the federal council that you chair, I want to make sure I’m getting this title right. It’s the Variance of Concern Scientific Advisory Council. To be honest with you, haven’t heard much about that since it got underway a few months ago. I’m wondering what you can tell us about the push to get ahead of variants and whether that lies in securing booster shots or what else?
Dr. Alan Bernstein, COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force: Yeah, so we’ve just started to meet a few—about a month ago now. Our job is to take kind of the long view of how are we going to as a country and as a planet, deal with these variants which are arising and what are going to do about vaccines and vaccination going on forward for the next few years. And the Vaccine Task Force has also been discussing, of course, and we’ve begun as a country to negotiate with our suppliers for vaccines and for vaccines against the variants going forward over the next two years or so. And we’ve been in this, you know, journey before, of course, with flu. You know we all get the influenza vaccine every year and every year it’s a different vaccine because the influenza virus changes every year. And so I think we’re going to enter into that world now with the COVID-19 variants of concern and the ones that we know about now, the big ones, of course, are the ones out of the U.K., which have really taken over, they’re very transmissible. It’s a very transmissible variant and sort of taken over in Canada. Luckily, the one out of South Africa, the B1351, is still present at very low numbers here and it appears to be more resistant to the vaccines that we have, and so we’re going to have to design new vaccines against that variant. I think one of the advantages of the [m]RNA vaccines of the Pfizer vaccine and of the Moderna vaccine, is it’s pretty easy to tweak those vaccines and change them and sort of a plug-and-play kind of model so that we can alter them to deal with these variants. But it means we’re all going to have to have boosters, maybe, we don’t know that for sure yet, come either in the fall or in the winter of 2022.
Abigail Bimman: And that’s all the time we have. Thank you so much for your insights, Alan Bernstein.
Dr. Alan Bernstein, COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force: You’re welcome.
Abigail Bimman: And a note: The West Block requested interviews with a number of NACI members, including the chairs who declined. We had an interview lined up with a committee member, but NACI stepped in and said that person wasn’t allowed to speak publicly about the committee’s recommendations.
Up next, the explosion of COVID-19 cases in Alberta and the federal government’s response. We speak with Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc.
Abigail Bimman: Late last week, the defence committee questioned the prime minister’s Chief of Staff Katie Telford about the allegations of sexual misconduct in the military, and who knew what and when in the Prime Minister’s Office.
To talk about that, and the latest developments in the COVID-19 pandemic, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc. Minister, thank you so much for being with us today.
Dominic LeBlanc, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister: Good morning, Abigail.
Abigail Bimman: We’ll get to other topics, but I want to start with what we learned on Friday. Katie Telford said that she didn’t know the nature of the complaint against former Chief of the Defence staff Jonathan Vance. She was aware of the possibility that it could have been sexual in nature. Do you think she should have told the prime minister that such a complaint existed?
Dominic LeBlanc, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister: I think Katie Telford told the defence committee what she said publicly since the beginning of this, that she was informed by a member of the prime minister’s staff that there had been an allegation made concerning General Vance. It was made to the ombudsman at National Defence. The challenge when Privy Council officials properly followed up is that they weren’t able to get more information so the nature of the allegation and the capacity of the independent senior public servants at Privy Council who normally look into these kinds of circumstances, their ability to do so was hampered. Miss Telford said nothing new before the committee, she answered all of the questions from the opposition MPs so her leadership within our government has been very important on these issues and I think she was very forthcoming with the defence committee.
Abigail Bimman: I hear that you stand by Miss Telford, but respectfully you didn’t answer the question. Do you think that she should have told the prime minister that she was aware of a complaint?
Dominic LeBlanc, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister: No because, Abigail, she didn’t know the nature of the complaint. There was no further information, and the people that are properly mandated to look into these matters are the senior officials in the Privy Council Office. There’s a deputy secretary to the cabinet who’s responsible for senior personnel, Ms. Sherman. I work with her on the circumstances, for example, at Rideau Hall. She is the professional independent senior public servant that can look into these things, and when she followed up with the ombudsman, unfortunately she was not given any further information on which she could have conducted the appropriate investigations.
Abigail Bimman: Alright. Moving onto COVID-19, and I’d like to focus on Alberta. I’m wondering if you can tell us what you’re hearing from the premier about what’s needed and also whether you’re working on any plans to send health care workers or the military, like your government helped out with in Ontario.
Dominic LeBlanc, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister: You’re absolutely right. We’re obviously very concerned, as all Canadians are, with the COVID cases in Alberta with a number of cases and for many days now. I know the prime minister had a very constructive conversation with Premier Kenney late last week. My colleague, the Health Minister Patty Hajdu, spoke also to her Alberta counterpart. Dr. Tam is in constant touch with Dr. Hinshaw who is the chief public health officer in Alberta. The government—the prime minister reiterated to Premier Kenney, as I have in my conversations with him, that obviously if the Government of Canada either with the Canadian Armed Forces, the Canadian Red Cross, Statistics Canada, for example, can help with surge capacity around contact tracing. The provinces are very aware of the suite of measures that we have to support them and to assist them, and obviously if the Government of Alberta asks for any assistance, we’ll do whatever it takes to support them and to support the people of Alberta.
Abigail Bimman: I’d like to pivot to long-term care. National standards were a promise that was made back in September in the throne speech. Your government recommitted to that in the budget. But back in October you said that you were prepared to move forward with national standards in a matter of weeks not months, and here we are seven months later without them. So I’m wondering what stalled and how close are you to making that a reality?
Dominic LeBlanc, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister: It’s obviously a huge priority for us, we think it’s a priority for all Canadians. My mother had been in a long-term care facility in Ontario until she passed away a year and a half ago. So like many families, we understand and share the concern people have in terms of providing the best care possible. You’ll note that the budget a few weeks ago, offered $3 billion of federal investment to provinces that want to work with us on establishing best practices, national standards. I had a conversation with a Conservative premier this week, he is more than happy to work with us on national standards. The Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador himself a surgeon, a doctor, has said to other premiers that there’s a lot of merit in collaborating with the Government of Canada and we’re prepared, Abigail, obviously, to put up considerable investments to help provinces raise those standards. The National Standards Council and an independent group of experts are preparing what might be national best practices, standards, benchmarks, call it what you want. These shouldn’t be developed by politicians but by experts in infection prevention, infection control and caring for persons that are elderly or that are vulnerable. So those standards are being worked on, and we have a number of provinces that are telling us they’re more than happy to collaborate with us and to see federal investments go to improve those standards in their provinces.
Abigail Bimman: But if that all sounds so positive, why are we seven or eight months post original promise without anything tangible?
Dominic LeBlanc, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister: Three billion dollars confirmed in a budget two or three weeks ago, I think is quite tangible. The National Standards Council deciding to work with a panel of experts to quickly develop those standards, again, is something tangible. And my conversation with at least three premiers in the last week tells me that they’re ready to announce joint efforts with us very soon on how we can collaborate to set those national standards, and we’re going to proceed, Abigail, with jurisdictions that want to join us.
Abigail Bimman: Alright. Well I know a lot of families will be watching for that. That’s all the time we have. Thank you so much for your time, minister.
Up next, we go to the country’s COVID-19 hotspot, Alberta, and speak to Calgary’s mayor to see what’s being done to get the explosion of cases under control.
Abigail Bimman: Welcome back. Alberta has been reporting the highest per capita case numbers not just in Canada but across North America. Premier Jason Kenney announced tougher restrictions, including a doubling of fines. More come into force tonight.
Many say Kenney didn’t move fast enough, while on the side thousands have pushed back and taken part in anti-lockdown demonstrations and gatherings.
Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: “We must not, and we will not, force our doctors and nurses to decide who gets care and who doesn’t.”
Unidentified person: “This is disgusting!”
Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier: “And that is why we must act now to stop the spike.”
Abigail Bimman: Concerns heard in Ottawa with an emergency debate Wednesday night.
Heather McPherson, MP Edmonton Strathcona: “Thanks to the bumbling, stumbling joke that our provincial government has become, we have the single greatest public health crisis Alberta has ever seen.”
Michelle Rempel, Calgary Nose Hill: “People need to eat, so it’s very paternalistic to suggest that people who might not be following restrictions are doing so from a place of just sort of like bourgeois contempt for the law.”
Abigail Bimman: And joining me now to talk about the situation in the province’s biggest city if Mayor Naheed Nenshi. Mayor Nenshi, thank you so much for being us today.
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Mayor: Thanks so much for having me, Abigail. And I apologise if you could hear the sound of my eyes rolling so hard when I heard some of that parliamentary debate, or what passes for debate in our Parliament these days.
Abigail Bimman: Well let’s start there. What did you make of that debate and tell us what you think needs to be done to turn things around in Calgary?
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Mayor: Well I mean look, I love politics. I am a politician. I love hug the tree, that’s what I did before and many people say that’s what I do now. But ultimately, we’re in an emergency right now. This is a crisis. And as I have said before, when your house is on fire, get out your kids, your photo albums and your dog. Don’t stand around the house trying to figure out who’s to blame, to the faulty wiring, or determine whether to look into your base or not, if you actually leave your house. Just get out. And fundamentally, that’s where we need to be focused right now. So for once, it’s time for us to forget about scoring political points and focus very hard on what is it going to take to flatten the curve, what got us to this point and how are we going to continue to save lives because ultimately, yes, people are getting vaccinated. We’re going to vaccinate everyone over the age of 12 starting Monday, which is amazing! But the rate of growth, the rate of exponential growth of this disease in Alberta, across Canada actually, Alberta’s numbers are amongst the worst in the world but Canada’s are also amongst the worst in the world across the country on average and in most regions. The rate of growth of the disease is such that vaccinations alone aren’t going to get us out of this. So we’ve got to be able to be disciplined, we’ve got to be able to follow the rules and restrictions, and we’ve got to be able to keep doing the work we’ve been doing for so long to get to the light at the end of that tunnel. And by the way, those people at those anti-mask protests, let’s not kid ourselves. They’re not people who need to eat. They are people who are marching in thinly veiled white nationalists, supremacists, anti-government protests and they don’t deserve that kind of sympathy.
Abigail Bimman: And Mayor Nenshi, I know you’ve been frustrated with the courts for having tickets thrown out and you talked about having the courts crackdown harder. I’m wondering if you can tell us what conversations you’ve had and whether you feel there will be progress on that front.
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Mayor: I certainly don’t want to impinge on important principles of our democracy like prosecutorial independence, but when I hear stories like our police chief telling city council that the provincial government said slow down on the tickets, the courts are very busy, that certainly doesn’t help the women and men in the police service do their job very well and it emboldens the protestors. So I’m really happy to hear brand new language from the province of Alberta, from the Ministry of Justice, saying they’re going to crackdown harder. As a matter of fact, the court just yesterday, late yesterday, issued a pre-emptive injunction against these rallies, which gives us a lot more powers to go after those leaders, and I fully expect that’s what will happen.
Abigail Bimman: And mayor, can you tell us about your call with the prime minister this week? Was there anything you asked him for specifically or anything he offered?
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Mayor: Yeah, you know it was very kind of him to call. You don’t get a call from the prime minister every day. So we talked about a couple of things. We talked about the importance of the immediate response and what’s needed there and frankly, I think we’re under control. The one area where I’m a bit concerned is as the supply of vaccine has grown, you know we spent so much time wasting time debating about how we could get more vaccine when we all knew that soon we would run into a problem where we’d have so much vaccine, the issue would be distribution, getting into people’s arms. And so I think we’re going to be okay, but when I hear stories of people waiting two or three hours at our vaccine clinic in downtown Calgary, I think we can be more efficient. And so I did ask him if there were any resources the federal government could help us with in the actual putting into people’s arms side and we’re going to talk more about how to manage that. There may be some policy changes to allow a broader swath of workers to administer the vaccine that we might need. So there was that, and then but our biggest conversation was really what comes next? Calgary has fallen further and harder than most parts of Canada and going forward, we’re going to have a long climb out of this post-pandemic, and investments in downtown Calgary, investments in economic development so that the economic engine of the country can get back on its feet are going to be really important.
Abigail Bimman: And finally, mayor, I can’t let you go without asking you about your next steps. Does handling the pandemic make you interested in a provincial or a federal run?
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Mayor: My immediate next step is I hear that I might join Global’s Election Night coverage this year.
Abigail Bimman: Ah. [Chuckles]
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Mayor: So, very excited about that. I’ll be very spicy, though, so you may want to not consider that.
Abigail Bimman: Amazing.
Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Mayor: No—thank you. You know I am doing something I never do. I pride myself to be a strategist, always know the next moves on the chess board, and I have no idea. I know that when I’m finished this job in about six months, I have a long to-do list. But when I’m finished in about six months, I will find a way to serve, that’s in my blood but nah, probably outside of elected office for now.
Abigail Bimman: Alright. Well thank you so much, we’ll leave it there. Mayor Naheed Nenshi, appreciate your time.
And that’s it for this week’s edition of The West Block. Thank you for joining us. Just before we say goodbye, I want to wish all the mom’s out there, a very happy Mother’s Day, including my own. Hopefully the last socially distant Mother’s Day for all of us. Mercedes Stephenson will be back next Sunday. I’m Abigail Bimman, have a good week ahead.
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