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Politics Trudeau can’t blame Tories for keeping Saudi arms deal, former minister says

Conservative MP Ed Fast rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 25, 2018.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shouldn’t be blaming Conservative predecessors for signing onto a $15-billion light armoured vehicle sale to Saudi Arabia that contains terms that make it tough to cancel, says the former Tory cabinet minister who helped shepherd the deal.

Ed Fast said that events in Saudi Arabia have changed significantly since 2014, when the light armoured vehicle (LAV) agreement was inked, with Riyadh now waging a widely criticized war in Yemen and standing accused of murdering dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi on foreign soil.

Mr. Fast, now an opposition Conservative MP, was international trade minister in 2014. While the Stephen Harper government clinched the sale, it was the Trudeau government in 2016 that made the crucial decision to approve export permits for the LAVs.

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Mr. Trudeau has faced questions in recent days about measures Canada might take to censure Saudi Arabia after Mr. Khashoggi was slain in Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly said the Canada-Saudi LAV deal is prohibitive to suspend or cancel because of terms agreed to by the Harper government, and he has revealed there are penalties in the contract that could cost Canada “billions of dollars" for reneging on the transaction.

Mr. Fast, however, says the Trudeau government, which has been in power for more than three years, is now completely responsible for the state of trade with Saudi Arabia.

“If Justin Trudeau is now saying it was a bad contract, well actually [in 2014 it was] $15-billion flowing into Canada in a contract that was assessed to be fairly low risk. It created 3,000 new jobs in the longer term,” Mr. Fast said.

“Now, of course, the playing field has changed because we’ve had the Khashoggi issue, we’ve had Yemen. And now Prime Minister Trudeau has to make his own assessment – not blame the previous government, which made its own assessment."

Mr. Fast said at the time the deal was signed the LAV sale was deemed a low-risk contract. The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, where Riyadh has faced widespread criticism for alleged indiscriminate bombing and blockades that worsened a famine there, only began a year later, in March, 2015. Recent probes of the Yemen war including from UN human-rights experts in August have strongly criticized the Saudis for their conduct there. The UN experts said air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen have caused heavy civilian casualties at marketplaces, weddings and on fishing boats; some of these casualties may amount to war crimes. They also accused the coalition of imposing severe restriction on Red Sea ports and a Yemeni airport that ended up depriving Yemenis of vital supplies.

The former minister said the major concern in the Conservative government before the LAV deal was inked was whether the armoured vehicles might be turned against civilians.

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“That was the big issue back then. It wasn’t Yemen and it certainly wasn’t Khashoggi, because neither one of those two situations existed at the time.”

A Canadian crown corporation – Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC) – is the prime contractor in the deal, providing the Saudi monarchy with a guarantee that the deal would be fulfilled. And it was the Harper government that allowed the deal to proceed as written.

Mr. Fast, however, said it’s wrong to assume it was the Harper Conservatives that inserted penalty clauses in the deal. He said as a former cabinet minister he is bound by confidentiality on the precise details of the agreement, but wants Canadians to know much of the negotiations were between the Saudis and General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS), the firm that is assembling the machines in London, Ont.

“Take with a huge grain of salt the suggestion the penalties were put in there by the Harper government,” Mr. Fast said. “The contractual elements – the foundational contractual elements – were put in place by GDLS and Saudi Arabia. They were the ones that negotiated this. CCC then stepped in to provide assurances and became the party with which Saudi Arabia contracted.”

Mr. Fast doesn’t believe the deal should be cancelled because “if the purpose is to punish Saudi Arabia, it will do nothing of the sort.” He urged the Liberal government instead to take two measures to censure Saudi Arabia which he said would be more effective than suspending or cancelling the LAV deal.

He called on the Trudeau cabinet to invoke the Magnitsky Act, which targets the property of officials who have committed gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. And he urged Canada to take measures to end the importation of oil from Saudi Arabia, including increasing transmission of Western Canadian oil into the rest of Canada. “We should be focusing on getting our oil to Eastern Canada so we’re not reliant on Saudi Arabia.”

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Separately, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said on Sunday that he had met Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and called for a transparent investigation into the killing of Mr. Khashoggi. Turkey last week prepared an extradition request for 18 suspects from Saudi Arabia in the Khashoggi slaying, but Riyadh has said it wants to try those accused inside its own borders.

Mr. Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist living in self-imposed exile in a suburb of Washington, vanished on Oct. 2 after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain papers so he could marry his Turkish fiancée.

Saudi Arabia initially claimed Mr. Khashoggi left the consulate a short time after arriving. Three weeks later, it conceded Mr. Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, but said his death was the result of a fistfight. Last Thursday, Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said the killing was premeditated, citing a joint Saudi-Turkish investigation.

With a report from Reuters

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