Skip to main content

Keeping track of why Canada can’t or won’t or shouldn’t withhold or suspend or cancel arms shipments to Saudi Arabia is getting harder and harder.

This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau added a new talking point to his ever-expanding list of excuses for why Canada may be stuck with delivering hundreds of light-armoured vehicles (LAVs) to the Saudis, and why he finds it “incredibly frustrating” to have to fulfill a deal he did not negotiate.

“The contract signed by the previous government, by Stephen Harper, makes it very difficult to suspend or leave that contract,” Mr. Trudeau told CBC Radio on Tuesday. “I do not want to leave Canadians holding a billion-dollar bill because we are trying to move forward on doing the right thing, so we are navigating this very carefully and that’s pretty much all I can say.”

This, of course, was the first time anyone had heard him evoke the financial penalties Canada might face if it cancelled the multibillion-dollar deal to sell a reported 742 LAVs manufactured in London, Ont., to a Saudi regime that looks increasingly unpredictable and dangerous under the de facto leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Before that, the government line, articulated mostly by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, revolved around the negative message Canada might send to other trade partners by backing out of the deal. “When it comes to existing contracts, our government believes strongly that Canada’s word has to matter,” Ms. Freeland said last week, while calling for “a thorough, credible and transparent investigation” into the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Well, shouldn’t Canada’s word also matter when the Prime Minister tells the United Nations that this country “will always stand tall for democracy, the rule of law and human rights at home and abroad,” as Mr. Trudeau did last month? Or does our word matter only when it comes to hard cash, not when it comes to human life and human rights?

After provoking the ire of the Saudis with a self-righteous tweet in August calling for the immediate release of civil-rights activists Raif and Samar Badawi, the Trudeau government has been remarkably restrained in its comments surrounding the Khashoggi affair, which is far more serious in nature than the detention of a single women’s rights activist. Having already burned its diplomatic bridges with the Saudis, you would think the extraterritorial assassination of a dissident journalist, and the string of lies the Saudis have issued to insulate Prince Mohammed from allegations that he ordered the hit, would be worthy of more than a few mild admonitions on Canada’s part.

If anything has become more obvious since Ms. Freeland won plaudits at home for taking the Saudis to task on Twitter, it is that Canada’s foreign policy is not as independent as the government would have us believe. If none of our allies came to Ms. Freeland’s defence in August, it was because they considered it more important to remain on good terms with the Saudis. Like it or not, aside from Israel, they are the best friends the West has in a bad neighbourhood, and selling them arms, as unconscionable as it sounds, is what friends must do.

Granted, Prince Mohammed’s ascension has complicated the equation. The 33-year-old designated heir to King Salman has thrown all caution out the window as he pursues a reckless campaign to assert Saudi dominance in the region and contain dissent at home amid a struggling domestic economy and skyrocketing unemployment.

Middle East experts are gobsmacked by Prince Mohammed’s involvement in the war in Yemen, which now resembles a quagmire, and which had not yet started when the Harper government initially negotiated the deal to sell LAVs to Saudi Arabia in 2014. The war, in which the Saudi military has been responsible for countless civilian casualties in its attempt to quash Houthi rebels backed by Iran, has radically changed the picture for Canada.

The Trudeau government, which has issued the export permits needed for LAVs built by General Dynamics Land Systems to leave the country, has all the evidence it needs to justify suspending shipments.

That, however, is the last thing the Trudeau government wants to do. Aside from Germany, none of our allies have taken measures to stop arms shipments to Saudi Arabia. And it’s not primarily because of the domestic jobs tied to them, no matter what U.S. President Donald Trump says. It’s because the consequences of abandoning the Saudis – greater instability in a Middle East dominated by Iran and its enablers, Russia and China – are even more horrifying than the barbarous murder of a journalist. That’s the world we live in and, as Mr. Trudeau says, it’s “incredibly frustrating.”