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The Trudeau government’s Saudi hypocrisy

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Wednesday, April 13, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Liberal government had until recently tried to have it both ways on the deal to sell LAV armoured fighting vehicles to Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, it displayed its moral qualms about the sale, negotiated by the previous Harper government. On the other hand, it claimed that it had to honour the agreement because, well, a done deal is a done deal.

Remember when John Turner insisted, "I had no option"? He did. And as documents released this week show, so did the Trudeau government.

The contract was signed in 2014, back when a Liberal government was a distant prospect. But it was revealed this week, final approval of the deal from Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion only took place a few days ago, on April 8. That ministerial approval, including a review of the potential for human rights violations by Saudi Arabia, was necessary to give the contract effect and allow the sale of billions of dollars' worth of armoured fighting vehicles to go forward.

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No, the Liberals did not sign the initial contract. Yes, the deal was well along before they came into office. But it turns out that, until a few days ago, the sale was still very much unconsummated. And after the Trudeau government came into office, it took the steps necessary to bring it across the finish line. The government made its choice – while claiming it had no choice.

What's more, the previously secret "Memorandum for Action," signed with a handwritten "approuvé par le ministre" from Mr. Dion, offers a very different analysis of the reasons for going ahead with the Saudi arms deal than the Liberals have been making to the Canadian public.

And while it could be that realpolitik and Canadian jobs deserve to outweigh Saudi Arabia's abysmal human rights record, that doesn't square with the way the Trudeau government has sold itself, and the deal, to Canadians.

The memorandum describes Saudi Arabia as "a key partner for Canada, and an important and stable ally in a region marred by instability, terrorism and conflict." It is Canada's largest trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa, and "Canada appreciates Saudi Arabia's role as a regional leader promoting regional security and stability, as well as countering the threat posed by Iranian regional expansionism and ISIS."

It notes that Canada has a "long-standing defence relationship" with the Saudis, and that since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Canada "has encouraged Saudi Arabia to acquire the means to defend itself against neighbours like Iran and their various proxies." The Saudis are "a key military ally supporting international efforts to counter ISIS in Iraq and Syria as well as instability in Yemen." Canadian-made armoured vehicles will "assist Saudi Arabia in these goals, which are consistent with Canada's defence interests in the Middle East."

And the sale, which the report describes as "a major success in Canada's efforts to assist in opening markets for Canadian defence suppliers" will also carry benefits for the Canadian Armed Forces, which also uses the LAVs, by creating "economies of scale" that will allow these vehicles to continue to be produced at reasonable cost in Canada by General Dynamics Land Systems Canada in London, Ontario. The company employs 2,100 people, "anchors Canada's defence industry cluster in southern Ontario, and supports a supply chain of over 500 Canadian firms, including small- and medium-sized enterprises, across Canada."

There's a lot of truth in the above, much of it uncomfortable. Canada is now deeply involved in the Mideast and especially in Iraq – arguably more deeply involved than ever, thanks to the Liberal government's decision to end the air mission but increase the number of troops on the ground (officially non-combat, sometimes looking more like combat). As such, our partners in the neighbourhood include a long list of people with awful human rights records, from the Iraqi government to the Saudis.

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It may not be necessary for Canada to be such an active, military player in the Mideast. But if Canada is involved – and both Conservative and Liberal governments have chosen that option – it is necessarily going to be working hand-in-hand with unsavoury regimes. We can't be both in and out.

All of which leaves the actual foreign policy behind the Saudi arms deal sounding discordant with the foreign policy the Liberals have been publicly peddling. Yes, the world beyond our borders is dark and imperfect, and sometimes the options are all varying degrees of bad. Sometimes, we may have no choice but to develop close ties with congenital human-rights abusers (hello, China).

But in a democratic society, it's necesssary for the government to offer the public a lot more clarity as to how it's navigating the muck of international affairs. Change the rhetoric, or change the policy. More clarity, not more muck.

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