Marco Levytsky, National Affairs editor.
For over a month now, media attention in Canada has been focussed on what has become known as the SNC-Lavalin scandal. Two disturbing revelations have come out regarding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s handling of this case. The first is the matter of political interference in the judicial process. The second is the Prime Minister’s bias towards one particular province over all others in this country, which, in turn, led him to believe that political interference in the judicial process is justified when the interests of a powerful corporation whose headquarters are in that particular province are affected.
The scandal broke on February 7 when The Globe and Mail, citing anonymous sources, reported that the Prime Minister’s Office, under the leadership of Trudeau, pressured then-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in ongoing criminal legal proceedings against SNC-Lavalin and abandon prosecution.
The article stated that after criminal and corruption charges were brought against SNC-Lavalin in October 2017, the company approached officials in Ottawa, including members of the PMO, to secure a deferred prosecution agreement instead, as a guilty criminal verdict would lead to SNC-Lavalin being barred from federal contracts for 10 years, and possibly result in the company’s bankruptcy. Trudeau denied the allegations, stating that “at no time did we direct the attorney general, current or previous, to take any decision whatsoever in this matter.”
Yet three weeks earlier, during a cabinet shuffle, Wilson-Raybould was moved from her role as Attorney General to become the Minister of Veterans Affairs — a move widely seen as a demotion
On February 12, Wilson-Raybould resigned as Minister of Veterans Affairs, and on February 27, she was finally allowed to testify before the House of Commons Justice Committee and stated: “For a period of approximately four months between September and December 2018, I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the Attorney General of Canada in an inappropriate effort to secure a Deferred Prosecution Agreement with SNC-Lavalin.”
Since then, another member of Trudeau’s cabinet, Jane Philpott, the President of the Treasury Board, resigned from her post. In her statement she said that she had “lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter and in how it has responded to the issues raised.” In an interview with MacLean’s which came out on March 21, Philpott said “there’s much more to the story that needs to be told” but that it can’t come out because “there’s been an attempt to shut down the story”—an attempt she attributed to the Prime Minister and his close advisors.
The charges against SNC focus primarily on bribes paid to the family of deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, particularly his son Saadi in exchange for billions in contracts.
According to the criminal charges, between 2001 and 2011, SNC paid Saadi Gaddafi almost $50 million in exchange for billions of dollars in airport, pipeline, and water infrastructure projects. This even includes $30,000 for sexual services Saadi purchased during his visit to Canada in 2008.
The Trudeau government’s response has been that were SNC to be prosecuted, this could result in the loss of 9,000 jobs, half of them in Quebec. This has been disputed both by analysts who noted that should SNC lose federal contracts as a result of the prosecution, other Canadian companies would fill the orders, and by the CEO of SNC itself Neil Bruce who told the Canadian Press on March 20, that he never mentioned the loss of 9,000 jobs to Trudeau.
But even were that the case, it brings up a very serious question. Is the Trudeau government prepared to interfere in a judicial process that would affect a Quebec company that has donated considerable sums to Liberal party coffers, including $117,000 illegally, and where jobs in Quebec may be affected? If that is the case, then not only does it demonstrate a double standard as far as different regions of the country are concerned, it also undermines Canada’s moral authority on the global stage when it comes to proclaiming our alleged adherence to the rule of law.
Where this issue comes into serious problems is the extradition case against Chinese company Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou. The U.S. is seeking Meng’s extradition to face charges of bank and wire fraud and conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud in connection with a company that was allegedly violating a U.S. embargo against Iran.
The Chinese have ratcheted up the pressure on Canada to release her. They have revoked the canola import permit of Richardson International, one of Canada’s largest grain processors. Canola is a big export to China, with around $3.6-billion worth of seed, oil and meal exported to the country from Canada in 2017. This affects farmers in western Canada and workers at Richardson’s processing plant in Alberta. What’s more the Chinese have officially charged two Canadians arrested in China on December 10 of stealing sensitive state secrets in tandem a charge that could involve the death penalty. So not only are jobs concerned (albeit mostly is western Canada as opposed to Quebec), but so are the lives of innocent people. And this is a case which is not of Canada’s doing, but one in which we are the pawns in a battle between the United States and China. U.S. President Donald Trump himself has stated that Meng’s extradition could be used as a bargaining chip in his negotiations with China and one of the crimes Meng is being charged with – namely violating a U.S. embargo on Iran is not a crime in Canada and could become a mitigating factor in the extradition process.
But really, the question should not be whether political interference in the judicial process is justified in the Meng case because it was involved in the SNC Lavalin one. What is in question is the government’s moral right to claim adherence to the rule of law in one case, but to ignore it in another. The Trudeau government therefore, must come clean on the SNC Lavalin case and let the chips fall where they may. If that means more resignations may be in order – even right at the top – then so be it.