A high-profile Canadian think tank that just published a paper defending this country's controversial $15-billion combat-vehicle sale to Saudi Arabia recently accepted donations from defence contractor General Dynamics – the parent of the arms maker in this export contract.
At least four of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute's "fellows," or affiliated academics, have also written columns this year arguing in favour of the deal to sell weaponized combat vehicles to Riyadh in publications from The Globe and Mail to iPolitics.ca to Legion Magazine. The institute also published a piece in its quarterly publication The Dispatch, with the same thrust, called The Saudi Arms Deal and the Inconvenient Truth.
This all came out even as international condemnation grows over Saudi Arabia's abysmal human-rights record as well as the Mideast country's bloody conduct in the war in Yemen, where it stands accused by a United Nations panel of targeting and indiscriminately bombing civilians.
While the Calgary-based Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI) acknowledges it accepted money from General Dynamics to help sponsor an Ottawa symposium in May, it won't divulge precise details of the corporate or major individual contributions it receives annually.
The organization's 2015 financial statement reports $735,520 in donations and $201,184 in grants and project funding.
Colin Robertson, vice-president of the institute and a former Canadian diplomat, said the organization, which is registered as a charity, complies with all Canada Revenue Agency rules for reporting funding. But these rules do not compel CGAI to divulge the identities and amounts paid by each contributor.
Corporate logos featured on some of the CGAI's products offer some insight into donors but Mr. Robertson said there are a number who want to remain anonymous or low-key.
The institute's May symposium discussed Canadian foreign and defence policy and General Dynamics helped sponsor the event, which cost an estimated $45,000 to stage. "My recollection is they gave the most," said Mr. Robertson, who did not divulge exactly how much the defence contractor provided. "We just about covered the costs with what we got from the sponsors."
Another significant sponsor for the symposium was Lockheed Martin, maker of the F-35 Lightning fighter.
Mr. Robertson said donors do not dictate what CGAI writes in its publications or what positions its fellows take in the media.
"A number of our fellows have written, all independently, on arms sales, as it is a topic of public debate and discussion. There is no linkage [between] their independent work and the individuals and organizations that support the work of CGAI. Our integrity depends on our independence," the vice-president said.
Amir Attaran, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa, said it's incumbent on the foreign-affairs and defence-policy think tank to disclose how much it's getting from each corporate contributor and major individual donors.
"There's an obvious appearance of bias – real bias – because you can't take money from a company and then speak in the company's interest without it seeming you're doing so for the money," Prof. Attaran said.
"If you're taking money from Philip Morris and you lauded smoking, would it be any different?"
He said a one-time donation by General Dynamics still leaves the appearance of conflict of interest.
"You can't take money for a single activity and firewall it off from the organization," he said.
Prof. Attaran said he cannot publish a single paper in a medical journal "without disclosing the money I've received."
The CGAI bills itself as "dedicated to enhancing Canada's role in the world by stimulating awareness and debate among Canadians about our nation's defence and foreign policies."
A late-June policy paper published by the CGAI – Canada and Saudi Arabia: A Deeply Flawed but Necessary Partnership – argued in favour of proceeding with the $15-billion Saudi contract. It said Canada would gain an "abstract moral benefit" for cancelling the deal but incur "concrete short-term material losses," and hurt its long-term relationship with Arab states in the Persian Gulf regions and its relations with Saudi Arabia.
"The LAV sale smells foul: providing advanced weapons to a regime with an atrocious human-rights performance is not a decision to be taken lightly. A sober weighing of its pros and cons and of how it fits in the broader partnership between Saudi Arabia and the West, however, leads to the assessment that the government is right to uphold the deal. Ultimately, Canada must deal with the Saudi Arabia that is, not with the one it wishes would be," institute fellow Thomas Juneau, a former Department of National Defence analyst, wrote in the paper.
General Dynamics Land Systems Canada, the company that assembles the weaponized combat vehicles in London, Ont., has remained largely silent during the public debate over the Saudi sale, leaving it to others to make the case instead.
While the CGAI won't lay out details of the corporate and major individual contributions it receives, the logos of several sponsors appear in publications such as its quarterly The Dispatch.
These include the Edge Group, which CGAI staff describe as a holding company for the Shooting Edge, a Calgary-based firearms and tactical equipment dealer and indoor shooting range.
Another corporate supporter is Calgary-based C4i, whose products include battlefield command-simulation software with regional offices including one in Riyadh.
Other logos of corporate supporters displayed on some CGAI publications include Enbridge, KPMG, the RBC Foundation and Iamgold Corp., a Toronto-based international gold producer.
Asked why the group takes money from a defence contractor such as General Dynamics, David Bercuson, the CGAI's acting president and the director of the University of Calgary's Centre for Military Studies, says the institute needs money. "They don't do anything illegal. There is no reason why we shouldn't take money from General Dynamics."
Some donors don't mind their logos accompanying CGAI products. "But then, people have the right to make anonymous donations. It's allowed under CRA regulations … they have a perfect right to do so," he said.
Prof. Bercuson said it's "pretty damn tough" to run a think tank in Canada, as opposed to the United States, where they seem to flourish more easily. "If it's a legitimate individual, why would we not accept money on an anonymous basis?"
He joked that the CGAI would even accept money from unlikely sources such as a left-leaning writer and social activist. "If Naomi Klein wants to donate money, we will be happy to take it," Prof. Bercuson said, before suggesting he doesn't think this would ever happen.