In early 2016, the Business Council of Canada hired the Ipsos polling firm to gauge public opinion on the best ways to fight corporate corruption.
The move represented an opening salvo in the business council’s campaign to persuade the federal government that Canada needed to get in line with other developed countries, especially the United States and Britain, in allowing Canadian firms accused of criminal wrongdoing to atone for the sins in a manner that didn’t amount to the corporate equivalent of committing hara-kiri.
Corporate Canada’s push for the adoption of deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs), which allow firms to “remediate” for wrongdoings without pleading guilty to them, had been on the business council’s agenda for some time. But the idea took on new urgency after the RCMP, in early 2015, brought fraud and corruption charges against Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin related to the alleged bribery of Libyan officials prior to 2012.
The charges hit the century-old company and much of corporate Canada like a bombshell. Instead of limiting accusations to former associates involved in defrauding the Libyan state, the RCMP had sought to prosecute the company itself, making the entire corporation pay for the crimes of a few rogue employees.
The price, under any circumstances, would be high. A criminal case would likely take years to make its way through the courts, by which time the company, its shareholders and its employees would have suffered irremediable harm. Under a cloud of legal uncertainty, the company might even have gone under, leaving its 52,000 employees jobless and destroying what it took a century to build.
“These charges relate to alleged reprehensible deeds by former employees who left the company long ago,” SNC-Lavalin said at the time. “If charges are appropriate, they would be correctly applied against the individuals in question and not the company.”
Most Canadians appeared to agree. According to the Ipsos survey done in early 2016, fully 87 per cent of respondents felt “that it is unfair to innocent workers if unethical practices by a small number of people may jeopardize their jobs or the survival of the company.” And four-fifths of Canadians agreed that “deferred-prosecution agreements (DPAs) can be a good way for companies to co-operate with authorities and make amends for wrongdoing without jeopardizing the jobs of innocent employees.”
The idea of adopting DPAs in Canada, hence, appeared uncontroversial at the time. There were no political red flags for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government to consider as it conducted a public consultation on the issue in 2017. And in its 2018 budget, Ottawa announced it would bring forward new legislation to allow Canadian companies facing criminal charges to enter into “remediation agreements” to defer prosecution in exchange for fines and corporate governance changes.
Yet, less than a year later, there is controversy galore. Mr. Trudeau now battles allegations that the Prime Minister’s Office sought to favour SNC-Lavalin, by applying pressure on former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to override the director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, who had denied the company’s request for a remediation deal.
While the allegations of political interference by the PMO explain much of the controversy, there is also palpable outrage in English Canada at the prospect of deferring prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. The latter is seen as the beneficiary of its political connections and described in unsavoury terms by critics who say the PMO was only trying to curry favour with Quebec voters by intervening on SNC-Lavalin’s behalf.
Quebeckers, in contrast, seem to be taking English-Canadians’ apparent hostility toward SNC-Lavalin personally. The SNC-Lavalin pile-on is just the latest incarnation of Quebec-bashing, they say. Francophone commentators see a double standard and insist the rest of Canada would be singing a different tune if the fate of, say, the Royal Bank or Magna International, was at stake.
The divide in public opinion between Quebec and the rest of the country certainly complicates what is already the biggest political controversy yet faced by Mr. Trudeau, for whom there may be no good exit strategy from the SNC-Lavalin mess. But it is also illustrative of how Canada remains a country of two solitudes, in which neither solitude seems willing to consider an issue from the other’s perspective.
The irony is that the rest of Canada has just as much, if not more, at stake in the outcome of the SNC-Lavalin saga. While a source of local pride, only a third of the engineering giant’s Canadian employees – and less than 7 per cent of its worldwide employees – are based in Quebec. Its CANDU nuclear business is Ontario-based and it has extensive operations in Alberta’s oil patch. Its top executives are now more likely to speak with a British, American or English-Canadian accent than a French-Canadian one.
But Canadians never seem to let the facts get in the way of bashing the other solitude.