Niqabs, the economy, national unity — all issues that predictably came up in Thursday night's French-language debate. 

But few had forecast that Canada's relations with Saudi Arabia, and specifically, a multibillion-dollar contract to sell armoured vehicles to the country, would erupt as an issue. It made for one of the more interesting exchanges of the night, and a reprieve for debate watchers tiring of the party leaders covering the same old ground.

The issue of whether Canada should be involved in such a deal with a country with a poor human rights record carried forward Friday. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, as he did the night before, defended the $15-billion deal that Canada helped secure last year, under which the London, Ont.-based manufacturer General Dynamics Land Systems will sell armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

At a campaign stop in Rivière-du-Loup, Que., Harper was asked whether he was putting Canadian jobs ahead of human rights concerns.

"As I've said in the debate, it's frankly all of our partners and allies who were pursuing that contract, not just Canada. So this is a deal frankly with a country, and notwithstanding its human rights violations, which are significant, this is a contract with a country that is an ally in the fighting against the Islamic State. A contract that any one of our allies would have signed," he said.

No sense to pull contract: Harper

"We expressed our outrage, our disagreement from time to time with the government of Saudi Arabia for their treatment of human rights, but I don't think it makes any sense to pull a contract in a way that would only punish Canadian workers instead of actually expressing our outrage at some of these things in Saudi Arabia."


Raif Badawi could face 1,000 lashes if his sentence is carried out. The punishment is divided into four sessions, with hospital visits in between to treat the wounds. His wife and children live in Sherbrooke, Que. (Amnesty International Canada)

In a news release last February, the government said the 14-year-contract would benefit more than 500 local Canadian firms and create and sustain more than 3,000 jobs each year in Canada, with southern Ontario accounting for approximately 40 per cent of the supply base.

Electorally, the region is also important. As CBC's Éric Grenier recently noted, the electoral map of southwestern Ontario, a little more Conservative in recent years, may be swinging back, with both the Liberals and New Democrats hoping to pick up seats.

Politics aside, the deal has raised questions about whether some of those Canadian-made vehicles could be used against Saudi Arabia's own citizens. But Thursday's debate also raised the cases of two Saudis, imprisoned for speaking out against their country.

Ali Mohammed al-Nimr faces beheading and crucifixion for taking part in a protest during the Arab Spring in 2012 when he was 17. And Raif Badawi, a blogger who was found guilty of insulting Islamic values and "promoting liberal thought," was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison. Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, and the couple's three children now live in Sherbrooke, Que., after escaping Saudi Arabia in 2012. 

Cancel the contract?

During the debate, one of the moderators asked if, as a form of sanction, the government should cancel the contract. Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair also challenged Harper on the military sales to Saudi Arabia.

Harper said his government has always denounced human rights abuses, but suggested that didn't mean the military deal should be sacrificed.

"We've indicated we would welcome Mr. Badawi, who is not a Canadian citizen, at any moment," said Harper, 

"But it's not right to punish workers in a factory in London, [Ont.] for this. It doesn't make sense."

On Friday, when Mulcair was asked about the issue, he said Harper may be violating rules by making such a deal without asking questions about the human rights record of Saudi Arabia.

Mulcair said his government would ensure it analyzed the human rights record of any country in which it intended to sign an agreement on arms.

'Pragmatic approach'

But human rights quite often take a back seat in the world of geopolitics. In an interview earlier this year with CBC's Brent Bambury, Thomas Juneau, a former Middle East analyst for the Defence Department, said Canada certainly has a commercial interest in Saudi Arabia, one of the biggest economies in the Middle East. 

But Canada and the U.S. and its other allies perceive Saudi Arabia as a stabilizing force in the Middle East, one that opposes Iran.

"I think that in its relationship to Saudi Arabia, the Conservative government has taken quite a pragmatic approach. The Conservatives pride themselves on having a principled foreign policy, and in some cases that's true and in other cases it's not," Juneau said.  

"Saudi Arabia is one of the cases where principle is completely trumped by pragmatism. The pragmatism in our relationship with Saudi Arabia is the trade argument — the armoured vehicles —  but trade more broadly, and the partnership with a country that's aligned with some of, not all, but some of our geopolitical interests."

"I think the key point to remember, broadly speaking, is that that's the norm," Juneau said. "We may lament that, we may find that unfortunate, but in most cases for Canada, as for other countries, that's the nature of international politics, as ugly as it is in many cases."

With files from The Canadian Press