Canada and SNC Lavalin

February 22, 2019   ·   0 Comments

By Laura Campbell

Large corporations have too much power- and attempting to check that power comes at massive costs to the global (and by extension, Canadian) economy. This is a bitter pill to swallow for anyone trying to push for a more equitable world (me, for instance! And perhaps at some point in his life, Justin Trudeau, too). But this isn’t a NEW phenomenon. That’s why as an activist it feels daunting and frustrating to read about the SNC-Lavalin affair. There are so many issues to unpack here.

Let’s begin with the immediate problem: our Prime Minister’s office bullied a member of his own cabinet, Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould (she has now resigned). Someone allegedly pressured her to avoid going ahead with prosecution proceedings against Canadian engineering giant, SNC-Lavalin, related to fraud and corruption charges. The company made payments exceeding $40 million to the Libyan government over the course of a decade. This scandal has shattered a collective illusion Canadian Liberal voters have had surrounding Justin Trudeau. He was supposed to be better than Stephen Harper. He was supposed to be more honest. He was supposed to be a feminist. He was supposed to honour his commitments to reconciliation, and Wilson-Raybould’s appointment was one such measure. This all looks very bad.

And for Justin Trudeau, that’s the key political problem here: in this case, perhaps he was simply not ENOUGH like Stephen Harper. Harper and his office were famously suspicious, secretive, and autocratic. We’ve all simply forgotten (or accepted) the fact that Prime Minister Harper publicly bullied Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin. And that was what we knew about. Not to mention the fact that SNC-Lavalin was getting away with their crimes during the majority of Harper’s years in power. What would he have done, I wonder? 

What Trudeau’s government is accused of is very serious. It tells us everything we already knew about the Liberals: when it comes to issues of grave importance to our national economy, their course of action will be the same as the Conservatives: protecting the public interest (or what they perceive to be in the public interest) is more important than what is theoretically the right thing to do. The right thing is to respect the independence of the courts, and the Attorney General. Full stop. 

The second problem is that this scandal has served as delicious fodder for those working to get Andrew Scheer elected- and no one should fall for it. Indeed, there are now two predominant narratives emerging from the conservative establishment. There’s the honest admission on behalf of some Conservative strategists that a Deferred Prosecution Agreement for SNC-Lavalin is necessary (check out the Feb. 17 editorial in the Star from Jamie Watt, Conservative strategist). This is a common legal tool that is in place in a few other G7 countries that allow large corporations to pay heavy fines, rather than being prosecuted, since prosecution could have too negative an impact on citizens and the economy. And that’s why the Liberals included Deferred Prosecution Agreements in the 2018 budget bill. 

But these are not the same strategists that are working to get Andrew Scheer elected. No, those guys are taking advantage of this. Big time. Even though Andrew Scheer himself met with SNC-Lavalin executives in May 2018 to discuss the deferred prosecution agreement and the charges laid against the company.

And here comes the final, perhaps more complicated, problem: we have to wonder what message our government(s) are sending by putting in place laws that allow for Deferred Prosecution Agreements for multi-national corporations. ‘Break the law, but just don’t get caught! If you get caught, we can negotiate some fines’….  that’s exactly what we are working through as a society right now. This isn’t just Justin Trudeau’s problem. This problem belongs to all of us. It belongs to the thousands of Canadians that work for SNC-Lavalin, and benefit from the company’s business in Libya. And you can’t DO business in Libya unless you play by their rules. You can bet that China’s global reach and subsequent prosperity (cyclical economic downturns notwithstanding) are entirely based on the fact that they pay their way into the game. That’s just how the imperialism of the 21st century works. 

Does it make it ok? No. No it does not. But this is the defining challenge of our times. We  actually need global frameworks, agreements and legal coordination if we wish to have our companies remain competitive AND ethical in the world. This is what so much of politics is about. It is what President Wilson strove for in 1919. It is, once again, what spurred the establishment of the European Union. To avoid crippling competition that leads to war, we need to coordinate and agree on the rules of the game. There are some states in the global community that we must do business with, for a variety of reasons (for instance, precious raw minerals that we need for our technologies). How can we ensure that the people mining those resources are paid fairly, that they are treated well? 

Canadian mining companies are famous offenders when it comes to acting ethically abroad. Stephen Harper’s government repeated the same claim, over and over: something to the effect of ‘our companies follow principles of corporate social responsibility.’ If we repeat it a million times, maybe it will become true? 

Knowing this of course makes us all confront the gross truth: we Canadians benefit from the abuses our government and corporations participate in. For instance, we have accepted that selling weapons to Saudi Arabia is more important than suffering children in Yemen who are victims of those weapons. But could this next election perhaps act as a referendum on whether or not we are ACTUALLY ok with it? Because I don’t believe that a majority of Canadians like what is happening. But will we elect either a Conservative or Liberal government again, both of whose policies on these issues are nearly indistinguishable? That depends on how the smaller parties frame these problems. A development I’ll be watching closely. 

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