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Prime Minister Stephen Harper tours the General Dynamics Land Systems - Canada plant, next to a LAV 6.0 (Light Armoured Vehicle) being built for Canada, at the facility in London, Ont., Friday, May 2, 2014. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper tours the General Dynamics Land Systems - Canada plant, next to a LAV 6.0 (Light Armoured Vehicle) being built for Canada, at the facility in London, Ont., Friday, May 2, 2014. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

Ottawa's arms deal with Saudi Arabia contingent on secrecy Add to ...

Ottawa is contractually obliged to keep secret the details of a controversial $15-billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia – a transaction that Stephen Harper personally assured the country’s monarch will be guaranteed by the Canadian government, documents say.

Foreign Affairs e-mails obtained by The Globe and Mail under access-to-information law indicate the Saudis have made excess publicity about the sale of armoured fighting vehicles a deal-breaker.

Officials were scrambling behind the scenes in January, after media coverage of the arms deal, to determine the consequences of publicly releasing the terms of the Saudi contract.

Aliya Mawani, a Canadian diplomat based in Riyadh, the capital, told Foreign Affairs colleagues on Jan. 21 that “we [the government] would be breaking the terms of the contract” with Saudi Arabia if details were made public.

“The contract is under a Canadian government guarantee in terms of fulfilment,” Ms. Mawani wrote in a Jan. 21 exchange with colleagues on why Ottawa couldn’t make the terms public.

“This was confirmed in writing by our Prime Minister in his letters to the King,” she said, speaking of Mr. Harper and the late Saudi King Abdullah.

A cloak of secrecy surrounds this agreement, first announced in 2014, with Ottawa refusing to divulge any substantial information on the vehicles Canada is selling to the Saudi regime – or how it justifies the sale to a nation known for human-rights abuses.

A federal agency responsible for sales to foreign military, Canadian Commercial Corporation, is actually the “prime contractor” for the transaction even though it is General Dynamics Land Systems Canada in London that manufacturers the vehicles.

Records obtained by The Globe offer a great deal of insight into Ottawa’s role in brokering the transaction, which supports more than 3,000 jobs in Canada.

In another government e-mail exchange in January of 2015, Brigette Walenius, deputy director with Foreign Affairs' Middle East-Maghreb Commercial Unit, cited General Dynamics officials who spoke of a “confidentiality clause in their contract with the Saudis” and how Riyadh “could terminate [the] contract if too much info is released.”

Nonetheless, senior Canadian officials were delighted at the deal behind the scenes, e-mails show.

Mr. MacDonald, Canada’s envoy in Riyadh, gave Ottawa early notice that the deal was coming together as far back as 2012.

In an October, 2012, e-mail with the subject line “GDLS lands the Big One,” Mr. MacDonald informed Foreign Affairs staffers, referring to General Dynamic Land Systems.

The Canadian ambassador ends this e-mail with a jubilant expression “Gotta LOV the LAV!” but not before sketching out some bare-bones details.

He wrote that General Dynamics “have been chasing” the contract since 2009 and it’s a boon for the plant in London, Ont., because the company’s work on LAVs for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan was wrapping up as the Canadian combat mission ended in 2011. These new orders will “replace the decline from Canada’s Afghanistan withdrawal,” Mr. MacDonald said in his e-mail.

The ambassador wrote that the LAVs “are going to be ‘fully loaded,’” that they would be the “most advanced ever made” and that delivery would start 38 months after the contract was signed and last another 108 months, or nine years.

A separate January 21, 2015, e-mail from an official in Foreign Affairs’s export-control division said documentation received from General Dynamics to date suggests the vehicles could possibly include turreted LAVs “equipped with automatic firearms.”

The Canadian government is nevertheless taking care to play down the Saudi connection.

In one case, Foreign Affairs appeared to have struck references to Saudi Arabia from speaking notes prepared for a cabinet minister’s media event at the request of the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC), which is handling the LAV deal.

An official from the government agency previewed speaking notes for Minister of State Lynne Yelich before a January 9 media event to celebrate a Saskatchewan-based company’s role as a sub-contractor in the LAV sale. “Thanks for letting me know what the speaking notes are,” Lina Seto, then a CCC official, wrote Foreign Affairs. She asked for “the removal of one of the mentions of the buyer country,” adding this was “important to the supplier,” meaning General Dynamics.

“We are sensitive to the Saudi Arabia references, due to confidentiality,” Ms. Seto explained in an e-mail to Foreign Affairs on January 7, 2015.

A final version of these speaking notes obtained by The Globe under access-to-information law contains no reference to Saudi Arabia as the buyer.

Several years ago, the Conservative government in Ottawa refocused international relations to make “economic diplomacy” in service of private industry the centrepiece of Canadian foreign policy.

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