Trudeau defends Saudi arms export deal, points finger at Harper government

The export of over 900 armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, including some outfitted for "heavy assault," falls in line with Canada's foreign and defence policies, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday.

'Canadians expect a higher level of accountability' than the Conservatives provided, PM says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands during question period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. Trudeau insisted again Tuesday the Saudi LAV deal doesn't violate any federal government policies. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The export of over 900 armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, including some outfitted for "heavy assault," falls in line with Canada's foreign and defence policies, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday.

He was responding to NDP attacks in the House of Commons over new details of the $15 billion 2014 contract.

CBC News obtained documents which outline — for the first time — specifics of the agreement involving General Dynamics Land Systems, of London, Ont.

The deal was sealed from outside view by the federal agency which brokered the arrangement — the Canadian Commercial Corporation — at the insistence of the Saudis.

The agreement — as it was when it was signed in 2014 — called for the sale of 928 of the newly developed, highly-advanced LAV 6s, including 119 with "heavy assault" 105 millimetre cannons.

The deal was approved initially by the former Conservative government, but was given a final green light when the Liberals signed export permits that allowed the sale to proceed despite growing concerns about Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

The federal government has been asked to consider seven permits associated with the sale, according to a 2016 briefing paper prepared for then-foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion and obtained by CBC News under access to information legislation.

'Consistent with our policies'

Trudeau defended the deal and his government's decision to approve it.

"Permits are only approved if the exports are consistent with our foreign and defence policies, including human rights," he told the House of Commons Tuesday. "Our approach fully meets our national obligations and Canadian laws."

Trudeau has stood behind the deal in the past, saying Canada had to respect contracts signed by previous governments.

On Tuesday, Trudeau took a moment to tout changes his government is making to the arms export control regime — and to take a swipe at the government of former prime minister Stephen Harper.

"We have brought new processes of transparency and accountability to international sales because Canadians expect a higher level of accountability than the Conservatives have offered us for 10 years," he said.

New Democrat foreign affairs critic Helene Laverdiere said a higher level of accountability would involve releasing details of a recent investigation by Global Affairs Canada staff into allegations that Canadian-made armoured vehicles had been used in the long-running conflict against the Shiite population in Qatif, a restive district of eastern Saudi Arabia.

A Canadian LAV (light armoured vehicle) arrives to escort a convoy at a forward operating base near Panjwaii, Afghanistan at sunrise on Nov.26, 2006. (Bill Graveland/Canadian Press)

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told a Commons committee recently that the report found "no conclusive evidence that Canadian-made vehicles were used in human rights violations."

Laverdiere noted the government has refused to release a copy of the investigation.

"How can one say that foreign policy is progressive and feminist when you continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia?" she asked in the Commons.

Images surfaced online that purportedly showed Canadian-made armoured vehicles, manufactured by a separate company, being used in the long-running conflict against the Shiite population in Qatif, a restive district of eastern Saudi Arabia.

One of the video clips also showed other light armoured vehicles, apparently manufactured by GDLS, operating in the same region.

Make the Saudi report public, say critics

"I believe it will serve the public interest to know the details of the very important investigation into alleged Saudi abuses," said Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares.

Making the evidence public would not interfere with the sale, he insisted.

"I don't see how a government investigation into an alleged episode of human rights violations would interfere at all with commercial confidentiality of General Dynamics Land Systems," Jaramillo said.

Although Freeland accepted the investigation's findings and signalled the sale would continue, she noted the particulars "caused me to pause and reexamine Canada's export permit system."

The Liberals recently brought forward amendments to Bill C-47, which allows Canada to join the global arms trade treaty.

Those changes, when passed, will give the federal cabinet broader powers to deny arms export permits if there is a "substantial risk" of human rights violations.

On Tuesday, the foreign affairs committee returned the amended bill to the Commons for further consideration.

"Unless and until every light armoured vehicle is shipped to Saudi Arabia, it is not a done deal," said Jaramillo.

"Is there anything, anything at all that would force the government to reconsider? Because, at the moment, the attitude seems to be, quiet literally, we will proceed with this deal no matter what."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.