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Politics Ottawa gave arms maker early assurances of no 'red flags' on $15-billion sale to Saudis

Trade Minister Ed Fast announced the light-armoured-vehicle (LAV) deal in February, 2014.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Canadian government weighed the impact on Israel of selling $15-billion in arms to Saudi Arabia, as part of an early effort to identify obstacles to this massive deal, and then informed the London, Ont., manufacturer it could find no "red flags [or] objections" to the transaction, e-mails show.

Ottawa undertook this analysis despite the fact that General Dynamics Land Systems Canada had not even announced the contract or applied for permits to export the made-in-Canada fighting vehicles to Saudi Arabia, a country with an abysmal human-rights record.

The hunt for red flags that might block this controversial sale was conducted by the export-controls division at Foreign Affairs as much as one year before the arms deal – brokered by Ottawa – was made public. It was completed by early 2013 and Trade Minister Ed Fast announced the light-armoured-vehicle (LAV) deal in February, 2014.

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The actions taken by Foreign Affairs demonstrate how important it was to Ottawa to pave the way for the arms deal, but also how central considerations over Israel are to the Conservative government. Stephen Harper regularly voices unqualified support for the state of Israel, with the Prime Minister telling the Israeli parliament in 2014 that "through fire and water, Canada will stand with you."

Records obtained by The Globe and Mail under access-to-information law show the Foreign Affairs export-controls division took this review upon itself "given the magnitude of the contract" at hand. "Despite the absence of an actual permit application," a 2014 e-mail to nearly 20 senior Foreign Affairs officials says that the division decided to conduct an "information … consultation" to see whether there would be any hindrances "to the export of the LAVs and related technologies."

In a Feb. 12, 2014, e-mail, Debbie Gowling, director of the export-controls division, explained to Foreign Affairs officials, including one from then-foreign affairs minister John Baird's office, that those consulted included the "geographic desks [in the department] responsible for Saudi Arabia and for Israel, given geopolitical considerations," as well as the defence and security-relations division.

One source familiar with the process said that the Saudi and Israel desks inside Foreign Affairs were consulted as part of an internal gut-check to make sure that they saw no major problems with what will be the largest military export ever brokered by Ottawa. Saudi Arabia and Israel do not have diplomatic relations but are both allies of the United States and both see the regime in Iran as a major threat.

Foreign Affairs was careful to leave itself a margin of manoeuvre in this informal "red flag" review of the transaction, with Ms. Gowling saying in her Feb. 12, 2014, e-mail that at no time did the department guarantee to General Dynamics that the sale was officially approved. "There has been no confirmation of any decisions/assurances … with regard to the export of these items," she wrote.

Ms. Gowling said the export-controls division made it clear that "a more thorough analysis would be conducted when actual permit applications were received and that there were no guarantees as circumstances could evolve."

The export of the light-armoured vehicles – machines that are regularly marketed by General Dynamics as equipped with cannons or automatic weaponry – still requires Ottawa's official stamp. It has so far approved the export of technical data but little else.

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The informal review revealed in the Foreign Affairs e-mails suggests General Dynamic has little to fear concerning official approval of its export permits.

Still, federal rules oblige Ottawa to examine whether arms shipments to countries with poor human-rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, would endanger the local population.

The Department of Foreign Affairs, by its own stated rules, is required to screen requests to export military goods to countries "whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens." Among other things, it must obtain assurances that "there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population."

Ottawa, however, has stunned rights advocates by refusing to divulge how it will justify this massive sale under its strict export-control regime. It has said it will not release its analysis of how the sale complies with the regime.

As an example of how light-armoured vehicles might enable human-rights abuses, activists allege it was Canadian-made fighting vehicles that Saudi Arabia sent into Bahrain in 2011 to help quell a democratic uprising. The Canadian government doesn't deny this happened. It only says it doesn't believe the vehicles were used to beat back protests.

Selling General Dynamics light-armoured vehicles to the Saudi government will help sustain more than 3,000 jobs in Canada, including many in London, Ont., where the factory is located. There are 10 federal ridings in the London region, many of them held by Conservatives, and the Tories are eager to retain this foothold in the October election.

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Several years ago, the Conservatives refocused international relations to make "economic diplomacy" in service of private industry the centrepiece of Canadian foreign policy. In 2009, the taxpayer-financed Canadian Commercial Corporation, a federal agency that has traditionally brokered Canadian arms sales to the United States, began looking to markets such as the Middle East for new business as the United States cut defence spending.

With a report from Campbell Clark in Ottawa

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