Secretary Antony J. Blinken to U.S. Mission Canada

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Washington, D.C.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you so much, and greetings, Mission Canada.  Bonjour, tout le monde.  I am so pleased to be with you.  Thank you to Charge d’Affaires Katherine Brucker for that very kind introduction, and especially for your leadership.  And thanks also to Jennifer Tierney for her hard work as the primary control officer for this week’s visit.  And let me emphasize:  This is an experiment.  This is the first virtual visit I think we’ve done, and I couldn’t be more excited about it.  I know that it puts a different kind of strain on the embassy team, especially all of our technical and technological officers.  I was talking to the charge about what kind of wheels-up party you’re going to have after I leave, so I look forward to hearing about that.

But in all seriousness, I am disappointed we can’t be together in person.  But testing this virtual travel with you is something I was looking forward to, and I very much look forward to being in Ottawa someday soon.

I was also reminded that the very first trip that I took as a State Department employee – in 1993 I was working in the front office of EUR as a special assistant.  And in those days – this is how long I go back – Canada was in EUR.  And the first trip I took accompanying the assistant secretary was to Ottawa, just around this time of the year.  So I remember it very, very well.

But thanks to you we have a robust schedule for my first trip to Canada as Secretary.  It includes meetings with leaders across the Canadian Government and a conversation with a group of young people from the program Students on Ice, which leads expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic to make sure future leaders understand the importance of the polar regions – something I’m sure everyone at Mission Canada already knows very well.

It’s no accident I’m traveling to Canada as part of my first virtual trip as Secretary.  The relationship between our countries is one of the most important that we have.  Ours is the most comprehensive bilateral trade relationship in the world, and of course before COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of people crossed back and forth across our shared border every single day.  Our governments worked together on everything from national security to climate change, to the opioid crisis, to managing the Arctic region.  It’s a vast, deep, immensely important diplomatic relationship, and it’s thanks to you.

Whether you’re a direct hire, locally employed staff, a family member, whether you work for the State Department or for one of the many other U.S. Government agencies represented here – from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Defense, to the commercial service – I am deeply grateful for everything you do every day.

And I’ve got to mention one person in particular who has served the U.S. Embassy in Canada for 32 years as a locally employed staff member, most recently at the Financial Management Center in Ottawa, and whose well-deserved retirement begins tomorrow: Debbie Cowell.  Debbie, I’m honored to be part of your last day, but thank you for every day you’ve dedicated to serving this mission.

Even in a less eventful era, the work you all do was often difficult.  But I know that during COVID-19, during this pandemic, it’s become so much harder.  I know the border crossing restrictions were painful, especially for those with families on the U.S. side.  Some of you have gotten sick.  You’ve had loved ones get sick.  It’s been a difficult and even devastating time for so many families.

I want you to know that stopping this pandemic is our number-one priority.  Nothing matters more to me than your health and safety.  So we’re going to make sure that all our Mission Canada employees and eligible family members are vaccinated as soon as possible in every consulate across the country.  It’s no secret there have been logistical challenges.  But the administration is working fast.  We’re going to get you as much information as we can as quickly as we can, and make sure that our vaccination plans are known, and that we’re executing on them.  And we need to partner in this every step of the way.

I know you’ve been working hard to keep a lot of essential work going throughout the pandemic.  You’ve worked with your Canadian partners to maintain critical supply chains.  You’ve kept the border open to essential travel.  You’ve made sure critical law enforcement and security operations have continued.  Whether you know it or not, and whether they know it or not, all of your work has made a difference to the lives of Americans during an incredible, difficult time.

So my message today is really simple.  It’s to say thank you.  Thank you for all you’re doing every single day to keep the ties between our countries strong, and to help grow them even stronger.  And I have to tell you it is the honor of my lifetime to be your Secretary.

In my first remarks as Secretary, I said that we have work to do as a department to rebuild trust and morale.  We’ve got to do a better job of listening to the people of the State Department when formulating policy.  We’ve got to invest in diversity and inclusion.  We’ve got to build a workplace culture of collegiality, teamwork, and respect.  And I want to be clear:  That doesn’t just apply to the people at Main State.  It applies to you and all your colleagues in embassies and consulates around the world.  We are all part of this community, and I’m deeply committed to doing everything I can to support you, your work, and your families.

So thank you again for helping make my first virtual trip to Canada a success, and thank you, thank you for your service to the United States.

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    The Department of the Treasury (Treasury) continues to wind down housing assistance programs funded by the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Treasury has extended one program to assist certain program participants who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, although limited program funds remain at this point. As of September 30, 2020, Treasury had disbursed $30.85 billion (95 percent) of the $32.56 billion TARP funds obligated to the three housing programs (see figure). The Making Home Affordable program allowed homeowners to apply for loan modifications to avoid foreclosure. Treasury will continue to provide incentive payments for loan modifications through 2023. The Housing Finance Agency Innovation Fund for the Hardest Hit Housing Markets provided funds to 18 states and the District of Columbia to help struggling homeowners through programs tailored to the state. Treasury extended this program through June 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic's negative economic effects on some program participants. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) Short Refinance program allowed eligible homeowners to refinance into an FHA-insured loan. Under this program, Treasury made TARP funds available to provide additional coverage to lenders for a share of potential losses on these loans for borrowers who entered the program by December 31, 2016. Status of Troubled Asset Relief Program Housing Programs, as of September 2020 aAccording to the Department of the Treasury (Treasury), these funds have been committed to future financial incentives for existing Making Home Affordable transactions, as of September 30, 2020. bRepresents the amount of funds that states and the District of Columbia have drawn from Treasury. cIncludes about $11.6 million in administrative expenses and $10 million of reserve funds, as of September 30, 2020. Treasury will be reimbursed for unused reserve amounts. dAmounts do not add up due to rounding. In response to the 2008 housing crisis, Treasury established TARP-funded housing programs to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure and preserve homeownership. Since 2009, Treasury has obligated $32.56 billion for such housing programs. The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 provided GAO with broad oversight authorities for actions taken related to TARP. This report provides an update on the status of TARP-funded housing programs, as of September 30, 2020. GAO reviewed Treasury program data and documentation, and interviewed Treasury officials. This report contains the most recently available public data at the time of GAO's review, including obligations, disbursements, and program participation. For more information, contact John H. Pendleton at (202) 512-8678 or pendletonj@gao.gov.
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  • VA Vet Centers: Evaluations Needed of Expectations for Counselor Productivity and Centers’ Staffing
    In U.S GAO News
    The Veterans Health Administration's (VHA) Readjustment Counseling Service (RCS) provides counseling through 300 Vet Centers, which can be found in community settings and are separate from other VHA facilities. RCS has set expectations for counselor productivity at Vet Centers. For example, one expectation is for counselors to achieve an average of 1.5 visits for each hour they provide direct services. However, RCS officials told GAO that they have not conducted, and do not have plans to conduct, an evaluation of the expectations. VA Vet Center Productivity Expectations for Counselors Although most counselors met the productivity expectations in fiscal year 2019, counselors GAO spoke with said the expectations led them to change work practices in ways that could negatively affect client care. For example, counselors at one Vet Center told GAO that, to meet productivity expectations, they spend less time with each client to fit more clients into their schedules. Without an evaluation of its productivity expectations, RCS lacks reasonable assurance that it is identifying any unintended or potentially negative effects of the expectations on counselor practices and client care. RCS officials told GAO that by the start of fiscal year 2021 they plan to implement a staffing model to identify criteria for determining staffing needs at Vet Centers. The model incorporates data on counselors' productivity (work hours and number of visits), and total clients to determine criteria for adding or removing a counselor position from a Vet Center. However, the model does not fully address key practices in staffing model design GAO identified in previous work. For example, the model does not include the input of Vet Center counselors, or client data associated with directors, who also provide counseling. As a result, RCS is at risk of making decisions about Vet Center staffing that may not be responsive to changing client needs. Shortages of mental health staff within VHA coupled with the increasing veteran demand for mental health services highlight the critical importance of ensuring appropriate Vet Center staffing. VHA's RCS provided counseling (individual, group, marriage, and family) and outreach services through Vet Centers to more than 300,000 veterans and their families in fiscal year 2019. In 2017, RCS implemented changes to expectations that it uses to assess Vet Center counselor productivity, setting expectations for counselors' percentage of time with clients and number of client visits. GAO was asked to review Vet Center productivity expectations for counselors and staffing. Among other issues, this report examines the extent to which VHA (1) evaluates its productivity expectations; and (2) assesses Vet Centers' staffing needs. To do this work, GAO reviewed RCS documentation regarding counselors' productivity expectations and analyzed RCS data on counselor productivity expectations and staffing, for fiscal year 2019. GAO interviewed RCS leadership, including district directors, and directors and counselors from 12 Vet Centers, selected for variation in geographic location and total number of clients, among other factors. GAO is making four recommendations, including that VHA (1) evaluate Vet Center productivity expectations for counselors; and (2) develop and implement a staffing model that incorporates key practices. The Department of Veterans Affairs concurred with GAO's recommendations and identified actions VHA is taking to implement them. For more information, contact Debra A. Draper at (202) 512-7114 or draperd@gao.gov.
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  • China-Based Executive at U.S. Telecommunications Company Charged with Disrupting Video Meetings Commemorating Tiananmen Square Massacre
    In Crime News
    A complaint and arrest warrant were unsealed today in federal court in Brooklyn charging Xinjiang Jin, also known as “Julien Jin,” with conspiracy to commit interstate harassment and unlawful conspiracy to transfer a means of identification.  Jin, an employee of a U.S.-based telecommunications company (Company-1) who was based in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), allegedly participated in a scheme to disrupt a series of meetings in May and June 2020 held to commemorate the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in the PRC.  The meetings were conducted using a videoconferencing program provided by Company-1, and were organized and hosted by U.S-based individuals, including individuals residing in the Eastern District of New York.  Jin is not in U.S. custody.
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  • Justice Department Settles Sexual Harassment and Race Discrimination Lawsuit Against Manager and Owners of Virginia Rental Properties
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department today announced that Gary T. Price, a manager of rental properties in and around Harrisonburg, Virginia, together with owners of the properties, Alberta Lowery and GTP Investment Properties, LLC, will pay $335,000 to resolve allegations that Price sexually harassed multiple female tenants and discriminated in housing on the basis of race in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.
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    In Crime News
    A Walled Lake, Michigan, business owner was sentenced today to two years in prison, announced Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard E. Zuckerman of the Justice Department’s Tax Division.
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    In Crime News
    The Justice Department announced today that a federal court in Arizona permanently enjoined a Tucson area tax return preparer from preparing federal income tax returns for others.
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