The government of Justin Trudeau spent much of its early months in power twisting itself in knots over whether or not to export Canadian-made light-armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The $15-billion deal, originally signed by the Harper government, represented a serious political challenge to the rookie with the sunny ways.
On the one hand, the sale would secure 3,000 jobs in Ontario. On the other, the LAVs would be exported to a country with a terrible human-rights record – not exactly something that fit with the image Mr. Trudeau was trying to project.
The Liberals eventually signed the needed export permits but endured withering criticism for doing so. It didn't help that The Globe and Mail uncovered video evidence of LAVs being used in Saudi Arabia against the country's own citizens, and of Canadian-made LAVs doing battle in neighbouring Yemen – both of which are violations of Canada's arms export rules.
So what's a government to do? As The Globe reported at the end of last month, Ottawa's answer has been to conveniently change the rules on arms exports. Export controls formerly designed "to regulate and impose certain restrictions on exports in response to clear policy objectives" now serve only "to balance the economic and commercial interests of Canadian business with the national interest of Canada."
Gone is a requirement to consult with human-rights stakeholders. Documentation on the end-use of the weapons is no longer mandatory. And restrictions on the diversion of arms, such as the use of Saudi LAVs in Yemen, have been watered down.
Ottawa used to preface its rules with the boast that "Canada has some of the strongest export controls in the world." Now it says, "Canada's export controls are rigorous and in line with those of our principal allies and partners."
There is no doubt a lot of cynical politics in all this. But where some see only chicanery, there is also maturity.
The Trudeau government contorted itself in its desire to support Canada's arms exporters while trying to somehow elevate itself above the moral quandaries of arms exporting. It came off as hypocritical and naive. The Liberals were trying to stand on one side of the fence rhetorically, while doing business on the other side. They had to pick a side: Block arms sales to anyone who might actually use them, or be realistic about weapons sales to countries that are not our enemies.
The new rules will not be everyone's cup of tea, but at least they are a choice. You can't walk a sunny path every day.