The West Block – Episode 22, Season 13 – National

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THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 22, Season 13
Sunday, February 11, 2024

Host: Eric Sorensen

Guests:
Dominic LeBlanc, Public Safety Minister
Kirsten Hillman, Canadian Ambassador to the United States

Location:
Ottawa Studio

Eric Sorensen: It’s a crime that costs Canadians every day: cars stolen from their driveways. Ottawa says it has a fix.

I’m Eric Sorensen, sitting in for Mercedes Stephenson. The West Block starts now.

Governments, police and auto experts brainstorming ways out of a Canada wide crisis. Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc on the strategy to crack down on auto theft.

And, laying the groundwork for a possible second Trump presidency. Ottawa has rekindled a Team Canada approach to smooth relations, but could the prime minister be ruffling some feathers? We speak with the Canadian ambassador in Washington.

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Every five minutes in Canada, a vehicle is stolen. Some are violent armed car jacking’s like this.

From 2018 to 2022, auto theft cases tripled in Canada, costing Canadians more than $1 billion a year.

Terri O’Brien, President & CEO Équité Association: “Every five minutes a Canadian is victimized, and every five minutes a neighbourhood in our country feels less safe.”

Eric Sorensen: The vehicles often end up in shipping containers which then disappear overseas. It’s become so common that a federally led auto theft summit was held on Thursday that included law enforcement and border officials.

Dominic LeBlanc is the minister of public safety and he joins me now. Mr. LeBlanc, thank you for being here. People who’ve had their cars stolen not only feel violated but they’re infuriated that sometimes they can be tracked and they still can’t stop them from slipping through, going to the port and ending up overseas. What do you say to Canadians who are angry and scared?

Dominic LeBlanc, Public Safety Minister: Obviously, we say that we understand fully that sense of fear and that frustration that people are feeling and it’s in big cities in the country but it’s also in small communities. That’s why, as you noted, we thought it was important to bring together law enforcement leaders from big municipal police forces, from provincial police forces, the mayors of some of the big cities where this is an increasingly worrisome circumstance. We had the RCMP commission, the head of the Border Services Agency, a number of my cabinet colleagues. The prime minister opened the conversation precisely because the only way to really attack this situation, Eric, is for everybody to work in a very concerted way, together. There’s no doubt that having an air tag identifying a stolen vehicle at a port, for example, in Montreal. The ability of the Border Services Agency is to open those containers and retrieve those cars, is something that we’re working on, that’s why we announced $28 million additional dollars to allow them to buy scanners and have more officers. But the most effective way is to stop the cars from being stolen in the community. So the sense of fear, of insecurity and increasingly violent circumstances, we need to attack that at the level of local police, provincial police. The RCMP are working in terms of the connection to organized crime, transnational organized crime. So that was the conversation last week of how can we all work very effectively and quickly together, to bring these alarming numbers down.

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Eric Sorensen: And that’s the question. How quickly, for example, can you eliminate these jurisdictional roadblocks?

Dominic LeBlanc, Public Safety Minister: As quickly as possible. We’re hoping in the next few weeks, that was the consensus of the meeting last week, that we have a detailed action plan, all of us, about what specific things we can do in our own jurisdictions to remove those roadblocks and to make sure that police forces are working together with the Border Services Agency. One of the challenges, Eric, the RCMP tells me that up to 40 per cent of the stolen vehicles are resold in Canada. So they’re not exported. They’re resold in Canada, many of them with fraudulent VIN numbers. They change the vehicle identification numbers. Some unsuspecting buyer can buy a car that ultimately turns out to have been stolen, a used car. That’s a challenge for local and provincial police. The RCMP are working, as I said—because also we heard from police leaders that much of this is driven by organized criminal groups that use this revenue for more violent things: gun smuggling, human trafficking. So we all need to really lean in as quickly as we can and look at a whole series of instruments, and that was exactly the conversation last week.

Eric Sorensen: And you mentioned 40 per cent sold in this country, but that’s 60 per cent and you know where they’re going for the most part, which is right through this portal in Montreal in these containers. That’s the frustration, again, for people is that cars aren’t small and somehow they are fitting in these containers. Like, how soon are you going to have more agents and more scanners to stop these cars from getting away?

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Dominic LeBlanc, Public Safety Minister: Very quickly. The answer: my instruction, the $28 million additional dollars the Border Services Agency, will allow them to reassign and recruit new officers. There are technologies that will help, but to be realistic about it, Eric, there are hundreds of thousands of containers that go through that port and Canadian exporters selling perfectly legitimate export goods around the world also need to have a port that’s efficient. Mr. Poilievre’s simplistic solution that every single container is going to be examined is absolutely unrealistic. The Border Services and the port say that that’s not the way to do it. The most effective way is to have increased intelligence from local and provincial police and the RCMP so the Border Services Agency can best target the high risk containers or goods that are leaving. 100 per cent of the police intelligence that the Border Services Agency gets in terms of suspected stolen vehicles in container X, all of those containers are inspected and I went myself to the Port of Montreal and saw examples of the stolen vehicles that were in some of the containers. But again, just so people understand the scale of the problem, local police forces have to come and retrieve those vehicles. The Border Services Agency is in possession at that point of what would be an exhibit in a criminal prosecution, so it’s like evidence if you want in a criminal trial. So Ontario police, Toronto police, other police forces need to retrieve these vehicles from the port. It’s a time-consuming way to do it. So the most effective way to bring these numbers down and improve community, security and safety as you noted in the introduction, is to prevent these vehicles from being stolen in the first place or catch the people very quickly before they end up in the containers and at the Port of Montreal. So we need to do all of this at the same time and that was the conversation in Ottawa last week.

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Eric Sorensen: It feels like a lot of this keeps coming back. Every question comes around to how long it’s going to take because governments aren’t always that quick at this. We’re talking about perhaps stiffer penalties. How soon before we might see something that is tougher because the police say that the penalties in this country are akin to bike theft and in the U.S. they’re much tougher. Are you going to see some stiffer penalties and how soon?

Dominic LeBlanc, Public Safety Minister: Yeah. So the prime minister noted and my colleague, Arif Virani, said that we’re absolutely open to criminal code amendments that would see stiffer penalties in the case of repeat car thieves or a connection to organized crime, or the use of a weapon or violence to steal the car. Many of those measures already exist in the criminal code, but if that’s going to be a deterrent, we’re prepared to move quite quickly and we heard police leaders suggest that. We’re prepared to move quite quickly in this regard, but as you noted, criminal code amendments that work their way through Parliament and then the Senate, we want to do as many things as we can, as quickly as we can and it probably starts with giving local and regional police with the RCMP and Border Services, increased resources and increased personnel to prevent these vehicles from being stolen and apprehend in the cities where they’re being stolen, the people doing it. An interesting thing we heard is vehicle manufacturers also can play a role in terms of the technologies that may prevent the cars from being stolen. We announced that we’re banning devices that can copy electronic keys, the fobs. The electronic keys for many of these cars, you could buy on the internet, devices that are capable of copying these keys that criminals are using to steal the cars. So we’ve got to move in a whole series of areas as quickly as we can.

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Eric Sorensen: When I heard the auto manufacturers talk over the last few days, they seem to be suggesting the problems were at the ports or in the laws not being tough enough. I didn’t see them saying that they needed to do more. Are you needing to hear more from the manufacturers?


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Dominic LeBlanc, Public Safety Minister: Absolutely we are, and my colleague, the transport minister, said that vehicle standards, either import standards or standards in terms of vehicle sales are something that we would look at with the manufacturers. I’m not an expert in these technologies, and the challenge there, Eric, of course, is this would be new vehicles manufactured prospectively in the future. That has to be part of the solution to make everybody safer, and these vehicle manufacturers should want their customers to have increased assurance that their vehicle is less likely to be stolen. That would certainly be, if I was a car manufacturer, something that you might want to market, but that doesn’t deal with the person who’s got a car in his or her driveway tonight and worries about it being stolen tonight or from some shopping centre or a parking lot somewhere. So we need to do a whole bunch of things in a concerted way with provincial and municipal partners. That’s why I thought the conversations and the commitments were so encouraging. Everybody shares the sense of urgency and wants to reduce the understandable public anxiety on this issue, but no one government can do it on its own. We need to do it as a group working together and that to me was one of the important takeaways this week.

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Eric Sorensen: Just very quickly, as public safety minister, will you take ownership of seeing to it that if a year a now we’re asking questions about did this happen, did this happen, that you’ll take ownership of either the success or the delays that occur?

Dominic LeBlanc, Public Safety Minister: I’ll take ownership of the federal elements of this plan: Border Services, RCMP on criminal intelligence and organized crime. The RCMP aren’t patrolling the streets of Toronto or the Peel Region or Montreal where these cars are being stolen. So that’s exactly why it’s important that municipal and provincial leaders made the commitments they did to work with us and us to work with them. That’s the best way we’re going to do it, not one order of government, Eric, can fix this on its own. We’re certainly prepared to do our part, but I’m encouraged that partners in big municipalities and provinces are also ready to work with us and with each other.

Eric Sorensen: Minister LeBlanc, thank you for your time today.

Dominic LeBlanc, Public Safety Minister: Thank you, Eric. Have a great day.

Eric Sorensen: Up next, navigating the choppy waters of the upcoming U.S. election. Canada’s ambassador in Washington on Team Canada’s plan to smooth the way.

[Break]

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Eric Sorensen: The United States is our closest ally, biggest trading partner and requires constant diplomatic attention. But the prospect of a second Donald Trump presidency adds a jolt of urgency to our U.S. relations. The prime minister is resurrecting a Team Canada approach. At the same, he’s injecting provocative references to Donald Trump into the politics up here.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The Conservative leader doesn’t want to talk about his failed Republican-style plan. What he is proposing to do is to make Canada great again. That is not what Canadians want.”

Eric Sorensen: It’s one thing to score political points off Donald Trump at home, but how will it play out with our Team Canada diplomacy south of the border? Canada’s ambassador to the United States Kirsten Hillman joins us now.

Ambassador, let’s start with Team Canada. You know diplomacy with Washington it seems to me is always the most important never-ending work in progress. So what is the prime minister’s Team Canada approach?

Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s Ambassador to the United States: The Team Canada approach is an extension of the kind of work we’re always trying to do down here, which is to build broad and deep relationships across the country, in all regions and on both sides of the aisle. The Team Canada approach that was announced at the cabinet retreat a couple of weeks ago in Montreal is like the Canadian overlay to that with Canadians. So what we’re really trying to do over the next year and perhaps, you know, onward in perpetuity, is to make sure that Americans across the country and in regions outside of Washington, DC, understand the degree to which their prosperity, their resilience, their security, their ability to protect their jobs, their environment depends on strong and deep relationships with Canada. Because what we’ve seen over the past couple of years, certainly post-COVID is that those relationships, if anything, are getting stronger and stronger. It’s just they’re not talked about enough. So that’s the focus here.

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Eric Sorensen: In an election year, do you have to prepare with sort of a broader array of possibilities? Because you could have somebody re-elected or not re-elected, and somebody from another party suddenly there, you have to almost double-track your message to both sides.

Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s Ambassador to the United States: Absolutely. And, you know, there’s a lot of emphasis put on the election in the White House, for good reason, but it’s important for Canadians to recognize that all 435 members of the House in Congress behind me, are up for re-election. A third of the Senate and 11 governors are also up for re-election this year. And a lot of those relationships are as important to us when we are trying to either promote issues of interest to Canada or resolve challenges that we have because sometimes they are really much more localized. And so having all those relationships in place is crucial to being able to do our job.

Eric Sorensen: I was more seized of what was happening with President Biden in these last few days heading into this interview with you because there are now more questions about his mental sharpness and his age, and I start to think we have to take even more seriously the possibility that it could be a Trump administration. Have you reached out to Trump officials to begin laying the groundwork with them?

Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s Ambassador to the United States: We’re absolutely talking to Republicans that are advising former president Trump and to strategists that are advising him, and of course to his allies in Congress and at the state level. Absolutely.

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Eric Sorensen: Trump and Trudeau already have a history and it’s not necessarily a positive one. The age old advice to any prime minister is to not take sides, but as we heard at the beginning, you know, the prime minister has invoked MAGA politics and not in a positive way with respect to his Opposition leader and also with respect to the former president. Does that make diplomacy a little more challenging?

Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s Ambassador to the United States: Well, you know, I guess what I would say to that is this. The issues that are really important for us to highlight in order to navigate either, as I say, Canadian priorities or to protect our interests, tend to be around economic prosperity, environmental security, national security, national defence and making sure that we’re, you know, making the most of the relationship in these areas that are very local and are very important to individual Americans in their communities. And my experience—I’ve been here for, you know, for six years, for four years as ambassador—my experience is that on those local issues: economic security, environmental security, national security, food security, those are not partisan issues. Both Democrats and Republicans want to assure those things for their voters and for their constituents. And so what we do is we talk about the issues. We talk about how those goals of theirs are enhanced by making sure that their partnership with Canada is as strong as it can be.

Eric Sorensen: Have any Republicans or Trump officials said anything about this relationship, the Trudeau-Trump dynamic and anything that he may have been saying more recently?

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Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s Ambassador to the United States: No. I have not had anyone comment on that to me. And in fact, recently, in discussions that I had just this week, we tend to focus more on the fact that under the last administration, Canada and the United States, under the Trump administration, Canada and the United States and President Trump and Prime Minister Trudeau together with Mexico were able to renegotiate the NAFTA and that that was a really important success. There’s a lot of people in this town that are very focused on that success and, you know, the achievement that was made. So, you know, we tend to focus on results. We tend to focus really on what are the policy issues that are core to Americans and Canadians.

Eric Sorensen: I’ll only ask you like one more question around this just because, you know, in some respects you’re saying it’s about results, it’s about things like trade, but things can be personal, particularly as we discovered with Donald Trump. And some former diplomats have weighed in on this Louise Blais quote, Newt Gingrich from 2016, saying that, you know, we hear what you’re saying about our guy Trump up there and it doesn’t play well down here. She seems to be saying keep the rhetoric in check. Is that generally good advice you would say in terms of you doing the diplomacy you have to do?

Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s Ambassador to the United States: Well, you know, I guess I would say this. The people in the United States, who support President Trump, support his policies. And some of those policies work well in the Canada-U.S. relationship, some of them don’t. The same thing is true of President Biden. You know, there are some policies that he has that have been difficult for us. And so we stay focused on that, but people who are supporters of President Trump are not distressed by being pointed out as being supporters of President Trump. They’re proudly supporters of President Trump.

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Eric Sorensen: It has been the case at times where it’s Republicans who kind of take a wide eyed approach and say they actually have very good feelings about Canada. Do you discover that as well that you might think you’re going to go into meetings in one way with Democrats versus Republicans, but you can find that you just never know where you might have some positive results?

Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s Ambassador to the United States: Oh, you know what? I couldn’t agree more. So recently, Congress created a bipartisan and bicameral committee. So it’s the House and Senate, Republican and Democrat, and it is a committee that is focusing on deepening and strengthening the relationship with Canada, both from an economic and a security perspective. And the interesting thing about that caucus is that it was spearheaded by Republicans, and it was the brain child of Republicans. It now has, I think, 66, 67 members and it’s more or less even between Republicans and Democrats, but for the longest time there were many more Republicans that were saying yes, we want to focus on the Canadian relationship. We really are very deeply committed to it. We’ve got members of that committee from, you know, Tennessee and Arkansas and many from Texas, and, you know, from very, very Republican states, and we had all of them over here to the embassy for a, you know, a reception and a discussion, and they couldn’t be more bullish on this relationship. And I don’t think that should be a surprise to Canadians because ultimately, Americans regardless of the stripes are deeply concerned about ensuring resilience in their country, right? As I say, whether it’s economics resilience, energy resilience, making sure that their homeland is safe, and that’s very much a Republican and a Democratic priority. So I just—I think there’s just a lot of common ground here for us.

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Eric Sorensen: Every U.S. election year is an important one for our diplomacy in Washington. Are the stakes particularly high this year?

Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s Ambassador to the United States: The world is really complicated right now, right? All Canadians know that the world is really complicated right now, and I think that the stakes are high with regard to making sure our most important alliances are strong, making sure our Canadian economy is strong, making sure our people are safe that we have what we need to be prosperous and healthy. And in that regard, yes. I would say given that the United States is our closest ally, our most important trading partner, our most important security partner, making sure this relationship is as strong as it possibly can be is job one.

Eric Sorensen: Really appreciate your time with us today. Thank you.

Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s Ambassador to the United States: Thanks for having me.

Eric Sorensen: Up next, as Ukraine prepares to mark a grim anniversary, worrying signs of softening support.

[Break]

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Eric Sorensen: Now for one last thing…

Two years ago, Ukraine was attacked by Russia and could have fallen within days.

By the first anniversary, Ukraine remarkably had turned its fortunes around. Russia was backed into four eastern provinces and NATO was united, delivering weapons and hope to Ukraine.

Now on the eve of the war’s second anniversary, the outlook is much more bleak. Ukraine is running low on troops and arms. Russia is dug in, almost immovable in those four provinces. A beleaguered President Zelenskyy has replaced top military figures, while Vladimir Putin looks more confident, finding a sympathetic American audience with Tucker Carlson on Elon Musk’s X platform. While in Washington, Republicans are blocking military aid in this election year.

Jen Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, Brussels: “It is vital that the United States Congress agrees on continued support for Ukraine in the near future. And I count on all allies to sustain their commitment.”

Eric Sorensen: But even in Canada, interest in the war appears to be softening. A year ago, 65 per cent of Canadians were just as concerned about the way as when it started. That concern has slipped to 58 per cent. And while 39 per cent of Canadians believe Ukraine should fight to drive Russia from all its lands, almost one third support negotiation, even at the price of giving up some land.

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The stakes are enormous. A weakened or defeated Ukraine means a stronger Russia posing a greater threat to Europe and to NATO, and that’s even before Donald Trump potentially returns to the White House.

The third year of the war is about to begin, and for Ukraine it may be the hardest.

To succeed, allies like Canada must stay engage—if necessary to spend more even when the public cares less.

Thanks for watching. We’ll see you next week.





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