The West Block, Episode 13, Season 8

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Episode 13, Season 8
Sunday, December 2, 2018

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guest Interviews: Peter Schiefke, Minister Michelle Rempel, Stephen Sestanovich,
John Ivison, Daniel Leblanc

Location: Ottawa


On this Sunday, a price tag of over $300 million dollars and counting, for taxpayers in costs for asylum seekers crossing into Canada irregularly. And a Liberal MP is under investigation for where he got the money that he’s been gambling. We’ll talk to two MPs about what’s at stake.

Then, NATO foreign ministers meet on Tuesday as tensions escalate between Russia and Ukraine. What more can NATO and the West do to deter President Putin?

And a new North American trade deal is signed but events here at home overshadow the ceremony. We’ll unpack the politics of an investigation on Parliament Hill.

It’s Sunday, December 2nd. I’m Mercedes Stephenson,and this is The West Block.

Three-hundred and 40 million dollars and counting, that’s how much taxpayers money is being spent by the Canadian government in the past year alone to process asylum seekers who are simply walking across the border into Canada. This number does not include the millions of dollars in costs to the provinces to house and care for these irregular migrants. We asked the government for a minister to come on the show and answer some questions on this issue but we were told that nobody is available.

But first, we begin today with a story that broke late Friday night, when former Liberal MP Raj Grewal announced he was taking a leave of absence from the Liberal caucus, following days of stories that surrounded his gambling addiction. Here’s what the MP had to say Friday night:

Minister Raj Grewal: “My sins are not ones based on corruption and dishonesty. They are born out of human frailty.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Grewal went on to say that he has paid back every single one of his loans, amounting to millions of dollars in gambling debts. But police are investigating where the money came from and for now, Grewal intends to stay on as member of Parliament.

Joining me now, is Peter Schiefke ParliamentarySecretary to the Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime and in Toronto, Conservative Immigration Critic Michelle Rempel.

Peter, I want to start with you, it’s probably the biggest political story of the week and one that’s been snowballing. That’s MP Raj Grewal. There’s a police investigation into him. He has seven figures in gambling. There are questions about where that money came from. You’re the parliamentary secretary for organized crime, are you concerned that there could be a connection between Mr. Grewal and organized crime?

Peter Schiefke: Well unfortunately, I don’t have a clear answer for you on that. There is an ongoing investigation by the RCMP. I pretty much know as much as most Canadians. I’m hearing about this in the news. I’m learning about what he’s being accused of, like many of my colleagues are. And, I mean it wouldn’t be my place to comment on an ongoing investigation. The one thing that I will say is that we have confidence in the RCMP to carry out their investigation and to bring about the conclusions that Canadians want to hear.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that maybe the PMO should have triggered on this a little earlier when the RCMP started making calls about his trip to India back in the spring and the Prime Minister’s Office was aware of that?

Peter Schiefke: So I don’t know whether or not the Prime Minister’s Office was aware of wasn’t aware. I’m not familiar with what’s been told to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well they’ve said they were aware on that.

Peter Schiefke: The one thing that I will say, once again, is that, you know, having worked with the RCMP for the last little while, we have confidence in the work that they’re going to do, the work they’ve already done and we’re looking forward to seeing where this investigation takes us and what the results will be.

Mercedes Stephenson: Michelle, do you believe that the Prime Minister’s Office didn’t have any inkling that this was a problem?

Minister Michelle Rempel: You know, if the Prime Minister’s Office had any reason to suspect that there was a security issue, etc., that’s something that I think Canadians expect to be informed of so I’m—and I know my party is going to be watching this issue very keenly and holding the government to account, should that be the case.

Mercedes Stephenson: I’d like to switch to immigration now, the other topic that we want to address. The Parliamentary Budget Officer put out a report this week, Peter, new numbers: $340 million dollars is the bill that taxpayers have been footing just for people to cross the border and process them in the last year alone, and they project that that’s going to continue and increase. When you have people in Alberta who have lost their jobs, people at GM who’ve lost their jobs, taxpayers look at that number. Do you think that they should be happy with how the government is performing on this?

Peter Schiefke: So, I think the report shows two things. First, is that Canada is being affected just like so many other countries by the increase in migration. All around the world, there are tens of millions of people that are looking for refuge from prosecution, from civil war, from economic crises. And the second is that we need to as a government always look for ways to make what the UNHCR actually considers to be one of the best programs for the management of asylum seekers in the world more efficient. The good news is, is that we are, and we have for the last two years, been working with the RCMP and the border security, to make sure that we’re looking for as many ways as possible, to make the system as efficient as possible. What we’ve been able to do so far is to make it so that every single case is handled in a faster manner and that’s because the great work that’s being done by the RCMP as well as the—

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. I want to give Michelle a chance to respond here. Michelle, go ahead.

Minister Michelle Rempel: So first of all, we have to be clear about who we’re talking about here. These are people who have reached the safety of upstate New York. We have an agreement with the United States called the Safe Third Country Agreement which is in theory is supposed to prevent asylum claim shopping and that’s really what’s happening here. The United States is a safe country. The Liberals have just spent $1.1 billion dollars to allow people to illegally enter our country from the safety of upstate New York. That’s not a system working well. That’s a system that’s being in the state of abuse. When we’re talking about the world’s most vulnerable people, it is not people that are in upstate New York and frankly, this is just an entire—we know now how much that hashtag welcome to Canada tweet that the prime minister put out cost. I mean, the average cost of somebody illegally crossing into Canada who makes an asylum claim from the U.S. is roughly about the same. Not including provincial social welfare costs as a minimum wage worker would make in the entire year in Canada and that’s just in abuse. Thegovernment’s getting around this, it’s ridiculous.

Mercedes Stephenson: That is one of the questions is that it doesn’t include the full amount because you still have to house these people, and some cases you have to feed them and take care of them.

Peter Schiefke: So, Mercedes—

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you understand why Canadians are frustrated?

Peter Schiefke: I do. And I think they’re frustrated because they’re also being given a lot of misinformation and it’s actually being perpetuated by my colleague from Calgary Nose Hill. First of all, she knows full well that she’s not in a position to decide who can claim asylum into Canada and who can’t. We have a great system set up for that.

Minister Michelle Rempel: We’re Parliament, weshould be.

Peter Schiefke: She questions the intelligence of every Canadian—

Minister Michelle Rempel: We should be questioning that.

Peter Schiefke: Whenever she tries to put forward the argument that irregular migrants are coming to our borders because of a tweet. She either isn’t aware of what’s going on around the world or she’s purposely misleading Canadians—

Minister Michelle Rempel: That’s what the media said.

Peter Schiefke: And I’m asking her which one is it.

Minister Michelle Rempel: Actually, the media actually reported on this.

Peter Schiefke: But in addition to that, the reality is that we are now experiencing what so many other countries are experiencing. The only difference between what’s happening now and what happened before is that we’re actually taking action to try and put in place that is more efficient and better able to—

Mercedes Stephenson: But that’s the process then and you’re not stopping people from crossing.

Peter Schiefke: So we have an agreement which she highlighted—

Minister Michelle Rempel: Yeah, and I want to pushback.

Peter Schiefke: And she’s trying to mislead Canadians unfortunately, again because the Safe Third Country Agreement—

Minister Michelle Rempel: No, actually, can I point out some misinformation?

Peter Schiefke: Cannot be modified or changed unilaterally—

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, One second, one at a time here.

Peter Schiefke: So it cannot be modified or changed unilaterally, which she’s suggesting we can do. It actually took a while to develop that agreement and now we’re looking into—

Mercedes Stephenson: You’re looking into changing it, but you you’ve been looking at that for—

Peter Schiefke: Several weeks ago, a trip to Washington—

Mercedes Stephenson: Did he make any progress on that trip?

Peter Schiefke: He did. He met with high level officials to discuss ways—

Mercedes Stephenson: But has anything changed?

Peter Schiefke: No, and that’s what we need to reinforce is that—

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. So then I want to give Michelle a chance to respond.

Minister Michelle Rempel: Look, Canada—Parliament, the Government of Canada has the sovereign right to manage our borders. We, as Parliament, can legislate who comes into the country and who doesn’t, and the reality is that the Liberals are trying to spin around that. And in terms of misinformation, here’s something interesting. The parliamentary secretary who’s on your show today, as well as the minister, have been standing up in the House of Commons using a figure around children, and in fact, the parliamentary budget officer in his report, stated that the government wasn’t tracking the ages of people coming into the country. So I want to know from him if he was lying to Canadians or if he was lying to the parliamentary budget officer?

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you want to respond?

Peter Schiefke: So the information that’s we’ve actually received tells us that roughly 40 per cent of those coming into this country are actually children.

Minister Michelle Rempel: But that’s not what is said on—

Peter Schiefke: And the other thing that I wanted to mention—

Minister Michelle Rempel: That is not what’s said in the [00:08:27]

Peter Schiefke: And this is important—

Minister Michelle Rempel: No, I want to know who you were lying to because the parliamentary budget officer said you don’t track that.

Peter Schiefke: My colleague is saying that it is our job as a government to make changes when necessary and that this is really important for Canadians to know.

Minister Michelle Rempel: It’s you that are misleading Canadians.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, hang on guys. Do you track the ages of people coming into the country?

Peter Schiefke: The RCMP does a great job of tracking all the information necessary.

Minister Michelle Rempel: Then why did the parliamentary budget officer say—

Mercedes Stephenson: Including the ages.

Peter Schiefke: We’ve had over the last six months—

Minister Michelle Rempel: Page 19, it says that you don’t track that.

Peter Schiefke: This Opposition say that we could have made changes, we need to make changes.

Minister Michelle Rempel: Who did you lie to?

Peter Schiefke: Over there, period. And Canadians need to know this: 230,000 asylum seekers—

Minister Michelle Rempel: No. Canadians need you to close the loophole on the Safe Third Country Agreement.

Peter Schiefke: Under Stephen Harper’s government and they did nothing to change the system.

Minister Michelle Rempel: 1.1 billion dollars.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, both of you stop for a second here so we can jump in. This is a great debate and I know we’re going to continue to talk about it but we are out of time for right now so thank you both very much for joining us.

Minister Michelle Rempel: It’s ridiculous.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, tensions escalate between Russia and Ukraine. What more should be on the table to deter President Vladimir Putin?


Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. NATO foreign ministers are set to meet in Brussels on Tuesday and Russian aggression will be top of the agenda. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated when Russia ceased three Ukrainian naval ships late last month. What should the West and NATO do to deter Vladimir Putin?

Joining me now from New York is Stephen Sestanovich, a former state department official and professor of International Affairs at Columbia University.

Stephen, what can NATO do at this point?

Stephen Sestanovich: Well, NATO wants to make as clear as possible to the Russians that they made a mistake that they should reverse gear, release the ships and the prisoners and allow normal access for Ukrainian shipping into their own ports. They also want to make clear that they’re firmly behind Ukraine in security terms and will continue to provide military equipment. And they also want to try to reenergize the diplomacy. This has been on hold for some time and with a Ukrainian presidential election coming up, there may not really be the best environment for making progress on this. But the ministers will surely want to push to get some kind of new movement, while making clear that that doesn’t in any way compromise their support for Ukraine.

Mercedes Stephenson: Canada has troops in the region, including in Ukraine and in Latvia to try to deter Russia. One of the things the Ukrainians have been talking about is actually potentially having NATO ships come to the area where this is happening. Do you think that that’s a realistic possibility?

Stephen Sestanovich: I think NATO ministers and NATO governments are going to be very reluctant to do anything that creates a new risk of military confrontation but they are thinking about, and various NATO governments have proposed upgrading the military presence and exercises in the Black Sea. Butthis is a pretty dicey situation and they don’t want to make it worse. You know, people remember that in 2008, the Russians provoked the Georgians again and again, another neighbouring state and eventually the Georgians took the bait and the result was a war. Nobody wants that to happen with Ukraine so there’s going to be a lot of caution conveyed to both sides,but including Ukrainians. Let’s not do anything stupid.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think there’s a threshold that risks a Ukrainian retaliation?

Stephen Sestanovich: Look, there is an ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. There is firing every day. There are international observers who talk about violations of an ostensible ceasefire that are in the, you know, in the dozens every day. So there’s always a possible trigger for new hostilities. If the Russians decide, though, as they’ve been doing for about six months, to completely choke off Ukrainian shipping that will produce new tensions and it will put new pressure on any Ukrainian government to respond. My guess is, the Russians, as they normally do, having tested the waters, will back away a little bit from this so as not to have a rapid escalation. When they put more pressure on Ukraine, they want it to stick and they just want the Ukrainians to back down.

Mercedes Stephenson: There’s been lots of discussion this weekend about the relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Does Donald Trump have any influence over Vladimir Putin in a situation like this?

Stephen Sestanovich: Well, Trump’s main influence is to convey very strong western unity and to indicate what kinds of new problems could be created for Putin if he does something rash and continues to act in an aggressive way against Ukraine. News sanctions, new military equipment for Ukraine, new isolation for Russia. That’s the main influence of a negative kind. He may also want to hold out the prospect of some kind of improvement in Russian-American relations and that’s been one incentive that the Trump administration has dangled before Putin. But the truth is they haven’t been able to deliver on that, so most of the pressure on Putin is going to be of a negative kind. If you continue to put pressure on Ukraine, there’s going to be a world of hurt ahead of you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Is that kind of pressure effective? I wonder because we’ve spent so much money and sent so many troops to try to deter the Russians and yet, now we see them, seizing Ukrainian ships.

Stephen Sestanovich: Yeah. This is a—it’s a good question for policy makers and for journalists and for experts. The Russians have been under enough pressure until now not to escalate what they’re doing against Ukraine. They haven’t been under enough pressure to retreat and that’s a difficulty in diplomacy, to be honest. I think there were many people in Russia who wanted to go a lot further in 2014, and I believe that western unity and sanctions actually helped slow them down and stop them but it didn’t force them to retreat.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, Stephen. Thank you so much for joining us with your time and expertise, today.

Stephen Sestanovich: A pleasure.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, we’ll unpack the politics of accountability and the broader implications of a gambling addiction for Ontario Liberal MP Raj Grewal.


Minister Raj Grewal: “I want to make it clear, that every single personal loan that was made to me was made by cheque, that everyone has been paid back,and every loan and repayment is transparent and traceable. This has nothing to do at all with anything sinister except to feed my own addiction.”

Mercedes Stephenson: That was former Liberal MP Raj Grewal giving his statement on repaying his debts and his decision to reconsider resigning as an MP.

To discuss all of this, joining me is Daniel Leblanc, a political reporter whose been driving much of this story at the Globe and Mail, and John Ivison, a political columnist with the National Post.

Start with you Daniel, what did you make if that video statement?

Daniel Leblanc: It was a partial response to the questions that are out there. So first off, we knew it was more than $1 million dollars in debts that he had. And now we use the word millions which raises the quantum, but the questions remain as to whom was this money owed? Were these people—was Mr. Grewal in a conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest in relation to these debts? How was the money paid back? It sounds like his family bailed him out of how much does he still owe—did heconsolidate his debts or does he have new debts?There’s so many questions still about the financial disclosure and what was the basis to his story is an MP who was in facing serious personal challenge, a gambling debt and—but also a number of other questions as to with whom had he been dealing.

Mercedes Stephenson: And he’s now basically saying, John, as Daniel was saying, that he has raised millions of dollars to repay this is the first time we find out it’s actually millions in debt. We still don’t know where the original money came from, though.

John Ivison: Right. I mean, for a transparent response, it’s not very transparent. And it may be that he supplied some of this information to the Ethics Commissioner. On his Ethics Commissioner file, it says he’s got lines of credit from his student debt days and presumably you would then ad millions and millions of new debt that he’s added. And you’re right, it doesn’t explain where the money came from in the first place, given his MP salary is relatively limited compared to the amount of outlay he was spending. But then again, he had ties to companies in and around Brampton. They were declared as employment income and we know that there are RCMP investigations into some of those relationships. It seems to me that this story is not going away. The opposition parties are going to want to know a lot more about this and they’re going to want to try and spread this contagion to other members of the government and already, we’re starting to see other Liberal MPs named in some of these stories.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well, and there’s a story in the National Post that named Navdeep Bains. He is one of the most important and prominent ministers in this government, saying that your paper reporting that the RCMP had been called in respect to a multi-million dollar land deal. It ties Raj Grewal’s name to Navdeep Bains. How dangerous is that politically for the government?

John Ivison: Well, I think, you know, the idea that he’s now reconsidering his resignation, I think that the Liberal whip will not allow him to reconsider his resignation. I think that they will want him gone because this is now starting to spread. And this—it’s a complicated story, Brampton. But essentially, the City of Brampton was trying to buy some land from the province. The province’s price was too high. Bains and Grewal were sent the details of the price. The suggestion is that somehow this price was then handed to a land developer which had ties to the Liberal party. In fact, one of the members went with Grewal to India on the prime minister’s trip. The company then bought the land and then flipped it back to the City of Brampton for a million dollars more.

Mercedes Stephenson: And the RCMP is asking questions about his relationship with that company in India, so that’s two, possibly three RCMP investigations all naming the same person.

Daniel Leblanc: And the fact he didn’t resign just keeps the story going, because now the question is why did he resign? We got from his video one—a sense that he was forced to resign by the Liberal party. He met the PMO. He met Mark Holland, the Liberal whip. They tried to force him to resign. He actually said he would and now he’s reconsidering and that just drags this whole story forward. And this attempt to, you know, cut off the controversy by having him gone has not worked and he’s staying here for a while.

John Ivison: And one thing that intrigued me from the story that appeared in the Post was that—one of the directors of the company said well, Grewal, he’s just an MP in the area. He’s nothing more. But he is something more because we know through his own filings, that he acts as a lawyer for companies in construction and in immigration cases.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well and the Liberals have largely lost control of this at this point because you can force him out of the party and out of caucus but you can’t force him out of Parliament.

Daniel Leblanc: No. And we saw from Nicola di lorio,who resigned in the spring, who is still sitting as an MP, will resign in January. The issue of the by-election will be interesting if there is a by-election. If not, what does it mean for Brampton east? That’s where Jagmeet Singh also could have been running or could be running in the next election—next federal election. The Tories will want the seat.

John Ivison: The trend with these seats in Brampton and Mississauga, much of the 905 right around Toronto is that they move in lockstep. Provincially and federally, they’ve all gone blue and they’ve all gone red. And they all went red last time and it may be that the tide turns this time.

Mercedes Stephenson: And there is another report that is not going to be helpful to the government coming out tomorrow, on Monday we’re expecting this. It is the report into the prime minister’s disastrous trip to India, the security compromise question about a convicted murderer who attended his reception, Jaspal Atwal. This again, brings up difficult issues for the Liberals on a trip they’d rather forget.

Daniel Leblanc: The infamous India trip that, you know, there’s the pictures. We saw, you know, the Liberals dip in the polls after that trip and, you know, more bad news just reminds that and brings back bad memories. Ralph Goodale was not happy with the way the whole thing was handled and more questions, more Opposition fire.

John Ivison: Yeah, it’s funny when you talk to people inside and you say well, are the—is there any upside to India? Maybe you got some bump in the polls and some Indian-Canadian communities. And they go no. No, we just—when people raise India, we go India? Did we go to India? It’s one they want to forget.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well, and for them, it again ties back to Grewal, who the RCMP is asking questions about his time in India. It ties back to questions that they were being asked about relationships to Khalistani separatists and groups that are not legal in Canada. And now they have to face sort of the perfect storm of the Raj Grewal incident and unfolding investigations, plus the India trip all compounding at once.

Daniel Leblanc: Just before Christmas, more bad news and people have really been gobbling up this Raj Grewal story. We see from our numbers who’s been reading the stories and how many people are reading the stories. It is something that’s caught the population’s interest and raises a lot of questions and ethics and the Liberal party. I don’t think they want to be running on the issue of ethics in the next election.

John Ivison: No, a definite Achilles heel for the Liberal party as we’ve seen in their videos.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, well that will be the end of this discussion for today but I’m sure not the end of this story as it continues to grow, especially with Raj Grewal making the decision that he is fact, going to stay in Parliament. Thank you both very much for joining us today.

John Ivison: Thank you.

Daniel Leblanc: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: That is our show for today. Thanks for joining us. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, see you next week.

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