Episode 25, Season 13
Sunday, March 3, 2024

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Frank McKenna, Former New Brunswick Premier and Former
Canadian Ambassador to the United States
Arif Virani, Justice Minister
Joe Clark, Former Prime Minister

Ottawa Studio

Mercedes Stephenson: Remembering former prime minister Brian Mulroney: his wins, his losses, and his profound impact on our country.

I’m Mercedes Stephenson. The West Block begins now.

He was known as Canada’s great deal maker at a tumultuous time in history. From leading the fight against apartheid, to negotiating free trade, Brian Mulroney also became a friend and inspiration to many leaders regardless of their political stripe.

Jean Chrétien, Former Prime Minister: “He was an important prime minister at a very difficult time in the country. Ah, but we had fun. We would tease each other.”

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Frank McKenna Former New Brunswick Premier and Former Canadian Ambassador to the U.S.: “There’s no doubt in my mind that in the full sweep of history, he’ll be remembered in the pantheon of our greatest prime ministers.”

Mercedes Stephenson: We speak to former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. and former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna about his close friendship with Brian Mulroney.

And, some final thoughts from former prime minister Joe Clark.

Plus, does the government’s long-awaited online harms legislation put a chill on free speech. I’ll ask the justice minister.

Mercedes Stephenson: Brian Mulroney shaped the Canada that we know today. He introduced many of the ideas and policies that now seem second nature to us, from negotiating free trade, to protecting the environment and yes, to bringing in the GST. He was known as a great statesman. He led the often lonely fight against apartheid in South Africa, and was in power with the USSR collapsed. Mulroney was a politician who wouldn’t just make deals but friendships that lasted beyond his days in office and stretched around the globe. He was the only foreign leader invited to speak at the funerals of Ronald Reagan and his good friend, George H. W. Bush.

Brian Mulroney, Former Prime Minister: “And no occupant of the Oval office was more courageous, more principled, and more honourable than George Herbert Walker Bush.”

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Mercedes Stephenson: It was an example of Mulroney’s art of balancing respect with a bit of humour.

Brian Mulroney, Former Prime Minister: “It’s very flattering to have the president of the United States take notes as you speak. And even someone as modest as me.” [Crowd laughter]

Mercedes Stephenson: Now the tributes are for Mulroney himself. From the personal with George W. Bush posting he was smart and charming, fun and kind. My family is grateful for Brian Mulroney’s friendship, to the historic. The president of South Africa saying Mulroney spoke out against apartheid and took a stand when many in the international community were wavering.

With more on his legacy, we’re joined by Frank McKenna, former New Brunswick premier and former Canadian ambassador to the United States.

Nice to see you, Mr. McKenna. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Frank McKenna, Former New Brunswick Premier and Former Canadian Ambassador to the United States: Well thank you for having me.

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Mercedes Stephenson: I know that Brian Mulroney was a dear friend of yours, and our condolences on your loss. We wanted to sit down with you this morning to hear some of the stories of his life, and to remember the contribution that he made to this great country. When you think about Brian Mulroney as the prime minister, what jumps out to you the most in your memories?

Frank McKenna, Former New Brunswick Premier and Former Canadian Ambassador to the United States: Well it’s a great question, and you know it goes from big to small. On the big side, he left huge footprints in the sand and free trade would be one of them. And the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The fact is that was a very, very controversial measure back then. Now, it’s universally accepted by Canadians that this has been good for us and all political parties are committed to it. But we had that. We had GST controversial. On the environment front, acid rain, ozone layer. Of course, everybody knows about his work on apartheid in South Africa and on and on. And in my case as a premier, I’ve paved the road from one end of New Brunswick to the other with Brian Mulroney and people will never forget him for that. The bridge to Prince Edward Island was Brian Mulroney. Hibernia, the offshore accords, I could just name things big all over the country, not just in our region.

But the small part of it is the individual acts of kindness. The calls that he would make to people in hospital or in the case of a bereavement, the way that he would remember little things in your life. And in my case, we had a relationship that spanned many decades and we just had so many touchstones, but most of them were just about relationships about growing up in small communities and different parts of Canada and being able to put our hands across our political differences and just be warm friends. And I can’t think of more than a week or two when we didn’t talk and laugh and sometimes cry about memories and stories. So those are the smaller things, but in many ways the more meaningful things.

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Mercedes Stephenson: What is your favourite story about Brian Mulroney?

Frank McKenna, Former New Brunswick Premier and Former Canadian Ambassador to the United States: Well there’s a thousand stories about it. I’m going to tell you two if I have a minute. One was the incorrigible Brian Mulroney. I was elected in the middle of the free trade debate and we had to make a decision. It was a very difficult decision. I was a Liberal premier in the Liberal government, the Liberal party nationally was opposed to free trade, but I went my own way and in New Brunswick after, as a lawyer, I’m a little bit anal about these things, so I read the whole agreement and I ended up thinking we should sign it. And we ended up deciding to go that route in New Brunswick. So I called up the prime minister to tell him that and he said he was thrilled. He wanted, obviously, people from across the aisle. He said he was thrilled and he said do you want anything? Anything I can do for you? And I said ‘look, there’s only one thing, prime minister, don’t embarrass me with this. This is hard within my party, please don’t embarrass me’. And he said ‘no, don’t worry about that’. An hour later, my comms director comes rushing in. He said you better see this. And I said ‘what is it?’ And I walked in and it was question period, and he was going after John Turner, and he was saying ‘you should do like McKenna. You should read the agreement. He read the agreement and that’s why he’s supporting free trade.’ And I said ‘hello for not embarrassing me.’

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The other quick story I’ll tell you is during the middle of Meech Lake and we were in a really sensitive discussion about the parallel accord and he called me—his switchboard tracked me down, I was at a family reunion at my sister’s house. My mother was there, she picked up the phone. She talked to him for about 10 minutes and then he finally put me on and told me what the strategy was. It was going to be announced tomorrow and look, Frank, this is top secret. It can never get out because it’s so sensitive, etc., etc., which I got all of that. And I got off the phone and mom said ‘what was that about?’ And I said ‘I can’t tell you. It’s top secret, da, da, da, da, duh.’ And she said ‘well, it’s not top secret anymore.’ She said ‘this is a party line, there are about eight people listening in on that phone call.’

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Mercedes Stephenson: Did that ever leak out?

Frank McKenna, Former New Brunswick Premier and Former Canadian Ambassador to the United States: No, it never leaked out. Well the eight people on the phone could would have no idea about what they were listening to was a matter of national importance.

Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think Brian Mulroney’s legacy is for this country?

Frank McKenna, Former New Brunswick Premier and Former Canadian Ambassador to the United States: I think, I think when he’s judged by history, he’ll be considered one of our most consequential prime ministers by a long shot. He’s already been judged the most environmentally friendly prime minister by many academics who’ve looked at it, at his track record. But I think we—I think people judge leaders not by the—he calls it the trivia and the trash, the little things. It’s the big things, the consequential things. And I think free trade and the GST are two of the most consequential, public policy developments literally, in the history of our country. They’re really pretty, pretty transformational. I think historians will weigh in on that in the fullness of time. But in Atlantic Canada, he’ll always be considered our greatest prime minister, everything from offshore accords, to Hibernia, to the big benefits office in Summerside, to the fixed links, to Alcoa. But for the country as a whole, he’ll be considered wonderful for the things he accomplished, and he’ll be given credit for the things that he tried to accomplish. And by that, I mean constitutional reconciliation, because he put his life’s blood into that and did everything he could in his power.

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Mercedes Stephenson: He was the last really red Tory prime minister that this country has had before the Conservative Party underwent a major transformation. He was also somebody who was always, as is the evidence was you, willing to reach across the aisle. He advised Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he was dealing with Donald Trump on NAFTA 2.0 and the difficulties there. He seemed to exist still in a different world than politicians do today. If he was here right now and he could give Canadian political leaders a piece of advice, what do you think it would be?

Frank McKenna, Former New Brunswick Premier and Former Canadian Ambassador to the United States: Look, I’m glad. I’m glad you opened this subject. He would say that you can disagree without being disagreeable. He would say that, you know when the game is over and we’re off the ice, we can have a beer together and talk. That’s what he would say. He was—he was a centrist, and he would say, and I would say to any political people who are listening, there are more people and more votes and more—and much more room for progress in the centre than on either side of the spectrum. It’s like golf. We always used to laugh about that. It’s like golf. You hit the ball on the fairway and you’ll end up having a good game. There’s no reason for you to hook it or to slice it. And now I find that we’re becoming not as bad but somewhat polarized, akin to the United States of America, and I just don’t agree with that. I think that this is a country built on consensus and reconciliation of two founding cultures and First Nations, and I just deplore now when I see provinces and federal government yelling at each other, rather than trying to work across political boundaries. So, he would be aghast. And he is. We’d talk about it a lot—we talked about it a lot of the time. He just did not agree with that style of politics. He was much, much more into consensus building.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Ambassador McKenna, thank you so much for joining us and for sharing your wonderful memories.

Frank McKenna, Former New Brunswick Premier and Former Canadian Ambassador to the United States: Thank you for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, new legislation promises to address online harm, but does it go too far?


Mercedes Stephenson: The federal government has tabled their online harms bill in an attempt to crack down on hateful content online and to make the internet safer for children. It’s welcome news for those like the mother of Amanda Todd, the 15-year-old sextortion victim who died by suicide.

Carol Todd, Amanda Todd’s Mother: “Amanda’s perpetrator harassed her for two and a half years, and every time we had to try and find where to go to get images taken down, which was fruitless, it was just so much that eventually all that took its toll on Amanda.”

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Mercedes Stephenson: But critics are saying it could also create a chilling effect on free speech and that there are questions about oversight and accountability in the act.

For more on this, I’m joined by Justice Minister Arif Virani. Minister, thank you so much for joining us today. Nice to see you.

Arif Virani, Justice Minister: Thank you very much for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: I think there is no question in people’s minds that there is a lot of difficulty in dealing with the issue of online hate, abusive content, child pornography, all sorts of really awful things that are out there on the internet, and as anyone who has tried to report it to a social media giant knows, it’s very tough to get that taken down. So, there’s an understandable reason behind wanting to bring this bill forward, but there’s also concern that there could be overreach and that there is not necessarily the type of oversight required to ensure that there’s not abuse of power. Are you worried that this bill could in fact, be interpreted to silence critics?

Arif Virani, Justice Minister: Well let me just zoom out for a second. So Mercedes, the bill if fundamentally about protecting children and about empowering adults, and that’s fundamentally what motivates the bill, and it’s about ensuring that the safety you have in the physical world is translated over into the online space.

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In terms of some of the concerns that have been expressed, what I’d say to people first off is that my job as minister of justice is unique around the cabinet table. I swear an oath to uphold the Constitution. That includes every viewer’s rights to freedom of expression, particularly the Charter. I take that duty very, very seriously.

In terms of the consultation we did in the last three and a half years, we talked to Canadians. We talked to Canadian experts and academics. We talked to people in law enforcement. We talked also to people abroad in other countries and we learned about what they had done in their countries and about what worked and didn’t. So as you said, there are categories of content that we don’t believe belong in the public domain: child sexual exploitation material, child abuse, child violence, things like revenge porn. That has no place in the public domain.

For the other categories that we’re identifying, we’re not saying immediate takedown. We’re saying the platforms recognize these risks, identify them, work to moderate those risks and reduce the risks and report on us on how it’s going and then there’ll be a conversation between the digital safety commissioner and the platform about the exact approach that’s being taken.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well and this digital safety commission is the one who is making the decisions. They have remarkable powers. If I look at a few, it includes ruling making—pardon me—making rulings on what content should be inaccessible. Investigation powers, hearings under certain circumstances that could be closed to the public. Who is this digital safety commission? Because it’s very different than say, hate speech normally where you have the police and the Crown making a determination on what’s a violation.

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Arif Virani, Justice Minister: Well I think that’s also a really important question that you’re raising. So the digital safety commission is going to be robust. The digital safety commissioner is going to be an individual who was voted on in the chamber that’s right behind me, in the House of Commons and in the Senate. So Canadians see their own elected representatives will have a voice in who should occupy that important role because they need to have confidence in that role. But it’s also really important to—for people to understand who are the decision makers, so a Facebook, for example. Facebook makes a determination. That determination’s vetted by the digital safety commissioner. The digital safety commissioner can make an order, as you outlined, but that order can then be vetted by a court of law. And lastly, the definition of hatred itself is not one that I dreamed up just yesterday. It is a definition that is entrenched in our laws, as pronounced upon by the Supreme Court of Canada. So it’s a Supreme Court definition of hatred that hits what we call detestation and vilification, and does not touch awful but lawful commentaries. We’re not talking about insults, offensive remarks, bad jokes. We’re talking about things like calling for the extermination of a people. That is what we’re talking about when we’re talking about hatred that would be caught from this important piece of legislation.

Mercedes Stephenson: One of the most difficult things police will tell you about this is knowing who’s actually posting this information, and often these are companies that are based in the U.S., and you actually have to go through the U.S. embassy if you’re a police officer, to get a warrant to be able to get Instagram, for example, to produce who’s behind this. How do you deal with the online anonymity? Because obviously if someone is posting hateful content under their own name, that’s much easier to trace. But most people are running this through burner accounts and there’s the reality that these are not Canadian companies.

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Arif Virani, Justice Minister: So it’s a very interesting point that you’re raising and I think it underscores the need that you have to address this—this problem from multiple fronts. We are facilitating prosecution by improvement to the criminal code and through something called the Mandatory Reporting Act for things like child porn. But at the same time, I’ve heard from those prosecutors and those law enforcement officials that ultimately the key thing is to get the material taken down. That doesn’t require finding out who has posted the material. If you’ve identified the material itself as the problem, you address the acute problem, which is the rapid circulation of the hateful material. Or in the case of Carol Todd, Amanda’s mother, the re-victimization of her daughter even today as images of Amanda continue to circulate 10 years later after her daughter unfortunately has passed and as well after the fact that her perpetrator was actually prosecuted already. The re-victimization must stop and that’s what this kind of bill will address.

Mercedes Stephenson: One of the things that I thought was surprising, and the most interesting in this, was that the bill introduces a power of house arrest for people who may commit a hate crime in the future. It’s not very often that we see the justice system act on a non-existent crime, and there’s a lot of concern about that potentially being abused. Usually people who are under house arrest, it’s because they have been arrested. They’ve been charged. There is something that they are alleged to have done. This is like a future crime. Does that precedent concern you?

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Arif Virani, Justice Minister: So it’s not actually a precedent, Mercedes, and I think it bears some explanation. So again, the first point is that we’re talking about hatred that hits that Supreme Court definition. We’re not talking about somebody on their smartphone on a Sunday afternoon, passing around a bad joke. That’s the first point.

Secondly, we know that hatred is on the rise in this country. We’ve seen Stats Can evidence that shows it’s a 130 per cent rise around the country in the last five years.

The third point is that what I’ve heard from victims and law enforcement through this extensive consultation is that they need more tools to address this. The peace bond that we’re talking about, we’ve got conditions on people’s behaviour is a well understood and well used criminal justice tool. It’s used sometimes on the backend when someone has undertaken some behaviour, but is also used preventatively. Think about domestic violence, intimate partner violence. It is used very frequently by the criminal justice system to keep women largely safe from their abusive spouses. This is a well understood tool. It requires certain steps to be taken. So the tool would be things like you need to demonstrate evidence, convince a judge that you have the evidence to impose such a peace bond. You also need, as an added safeguard that we put in place in this legislation, the consent of the local attorney general. So if this was in Ontario, the provincial attorney general in Ontario. But the most important thing that I would want to communicate to viewers is that we are not talking again about insults launched from a smartphone on a Sunday afternoon. What we’re talking about is think about in Ontario, the individual who killed four members of the Afzaal family. If we know that that person has antecedents where he’s demonstrated threats, actions, behaviour animus towards a community, it would be in my view, very appropriate to attach conditions to prevent a person like that from being close to a mosque, close to a synagogue, for example. That’s the kind of peace bond that we’re envisaging.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Aren’t those conditions already present under the criminal code, though, if you believe that somebody is going to carry out a violent act or violate hate speech laws?

Arif Virani, Justice Minister: A peace bond exists in the criminal code, yes, but not a peace bond in respect of hate offences, such as the public incitement of hatred, to wilful promotion of hatred, advocating genocide, etc. That link has not been made and that is new. And if you remarked on the press conference we had when we launched this bill on last Monday, standing side-by-side with me were the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and The Centre for Jewish and Israel Affairs (CIJA). Jews and Muslims around this country both recognize and have called for this specific provision to help keep Canadians safe from the rising hatred that we’re seeing.

Mercedes Stephenson: Interesting. So basically to wrap up for our viewers, it’s instead of having that peace bond necessarily attached to an individual who might be at risk, you’re looking at a whole community or acts against those protected communities.

Minister, thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate your time.

Arif Virani, Justice Minister: Thank you very much, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, some final thoughts on the remarkable life of former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

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Mercedes Stephenson: A state funeral will be held for former prime minister Brian Mulroney later this month. It will be an opportunity for Canadians to come together, to say goodbye and to reflect on his legacy.

This week, for one last thing, we decided to do things a little bit differently. Giving the last word to former prime minister Joe Clark on what he remembers most about Brian Mulroney. I met with him up on Parliament Hill.

Prime Minister Clark, we’re here on Parliament Hill where you spent so many years of your life, as did Brian Mulroney, and some of those were spent with him. When you think of his legacy, or a final thought of what he represents to the Canadian political community and the history of this country, what stands out to you?

Joe Clark, Former Prime Minister: Well I think it is that while he is widely known as someone who was a dominant figure in Canadian life, what we underestimate was how much he actually changed. He initiated major changes in free trade. He was critical in helping bring South Africa to an end to apartheid, a range of other questions that required real leadership, which he provided.

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Mercedes Stephenson: If there is one moment that you would look back on that you shared with Brian Mulroney, in your personal relationship one story you would share, what is it?

Joe Clark, Former Prime Minister: Well, he and I were of a certain age. His eyes began to fade before my eyes faded. I finally got a prescription for glasses, but I was too self-aware to wear it in the House of Commons. I was standing in Parliament reading an important message. I got through the English. I clearly was having trouble seeing the French. He got up from his seat next to me, handed me his glasses and I completed the statement. That kind of sort of generosity, sensitivity to colleagues, I think was a strong part of Brian’s life.

Mercedes Stephenson: Prime Minister Clark, thank you so much for joining us and for sharing your thoughts and stories. We appreciate it.

Joe Clark, Former Prime Minister: Thank you very much.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. Thanks for watching, and we’ll see you next week.

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