'Difficult contract' binds Canada to Saudi LAV deal, Trudeau says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says it's difficult to break Canada's deal to supply light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia — which is now facing possible international repercussions over the killing of a journalist — because of the terms of the contract negotiated by the previous Conservative government.

Previous Conservative government negotiated deal that prevents disclosure of conditions, PM says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told CBC Radio's Metro Morning that it's 'incredibly frustrating' he's not able to to discuss Canada's contract with Saudi Arabia to supply military vehicles. (CBC News)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says it's difficult to break Canada's deal to supply light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia because of the way the contract was negotiated by the previous Conservative government. 

"The contract signed by the previous government, by Stephen Harper, makes it very difficult to suspend or leave that contract," Trudeau told host Matt Galloway on CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Tuesday. "We are looking at a number of things, but it is a difficult contract.

"I actually can't go into it, because part of the deal on this contract is not talking about this contract, and it's one of the binds that we are left in because of the way that the contract was negotiated."

Saudi Arabia faces possible international repercussions over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trudeau, in Toronto today to announce how Canada will go about implementing the carbon tax, was asked in the Metro Morning interview what Canada could do.

Canada and many of its allies are trying to figure out what kind of diplomatic and economic pressure can be applied to Saudi Arabia to make it clear that the killing of the dissident journalist inside the Saudi Consulate in Turkey is unacceptable.

Germany, for example, has stopped its arms sales to the kingdom in light of this incident.

But Canada continues to fulfil its contract to supply the kingdom with LAVs built by General Dynamic Land Systems Canada, a military supplier in London, Ont.

Even before Khashoggi's death, human rights advocates said Canada should not be supplying the Saudis with military vehicles that could assist in its ongoing military intervention in Yemen, where civilians have been brutally targeted.

Trudeau said he understands this situation "very well," calling it "incredibly frustrating."

Turkish authorities say new security footage makes a compelling case that Jamal Khashoggi's killers planned everything out, right down to using a look-alike decoy to throw investigators off. 4:12

'Billion-dollar bill'

The prime minister repeated what he said in question period Monday about Canada suspending military export permits in the past. "We're certainly willing to do it again.

"But at the same time," Trudeau told Galloway, "I do not want to leave Canadians holding a billion dollar bill because we're trying to move forward on doing the right thing. So we are navigating this very carefully and that's pretty much all I can say on that."

The contract to which the Conservative government agreed contained extraordinary confidentiality provisions, in addition to cancellation penalties. 

The Saudis insisted on the secrecy and, according to a report in The Globe and Mail, former prime minister Stephen Harper had to back it up with a personal letter to the late king, Abdullah, who passed away in 2015.

The degree of secrecy invoked was unusual; Canada had sold armoured vehicles to the kingdom for over 25 years without those sales being subject to that degree of confidentiality.

Speaking in Oshawa, Ontario, where she was touring the AGS Automotive Systems factory, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters that her government was "looking into the contract" and was prepared to cancel export permits going forward.

"Canada has in the past frozen export permits over human rights concerns and we are very prepared to do that in the future, so we're looking at this closely. Stay tuned," she said.

She would not say how much of the contract has been fulfilled so far.

"I happen to know it, but I happen not to be able to say it," Freeland said. "There are some commercial issues around the contract that mean I need to be a little bit careful about what I say, today, around the specifics on the contract.

"I'm not going to talk about the specifics of the contract. There are some commercial issues that we are looking at right now."

2016 contract revision: fewer LAVs

Among the aspects of the current deal that have been kept secret are the number and type of armoured vehicles that were being sold.

Last spring, CBC News obtained internal documents that showed the original agreement involved the sale of 928 of the modern LAV-6s, including heavy ones with heavy assault cannons. 

A subsequent leak of documents to CBC News showed the deal was revised sometime around 2016 to include fewer vehicles. 

As of last spring, only 742 of the armoured fighting vehicles were to be sold. Deliveries are thought to be currently underway, according to the records.

General Dynamics has refused to discuss the specifics, including the possible penalties for revision or cancellation. 

Former interim Liberal leader Bob Rae joined Power & Politics Monday to discuss what options the government may have in responding to Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 8:41

Earlier in the interview, Trudeau repeated Canada's position that the Saudi explanation for what happened to Khashoggi inside its consulate is not credible or adequate, adding Canada and its allies continue to push for "real, clear answers" on the matter.

"It is unacceptable and unthinkable that someone could have murdered a journalist on foreign soil like this," he said. "That is something that the global community cannot stand for and we're being very clear about that.

"Countries around the world need to know that there are things they simply cannot do. And killing a journalist who disagrees with the regime is right up there at the top of it."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh calls on the government to pull out of the LAV deal with Saudi Arabia 0:41

Foreign ministers from the G7 countries — from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, and the High Representative of the European Union — issued a joint statement later Tuesday morning condemning Saudi Arabia's conduct.

"The confirmation of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi's death is a first step toward full transparency and accountability. However, the explanations offered leave many questions unanswered," the statement read in part.

"Those responsible for the killing must be held to account," it continued. "Saudi Arabia must put in place measures to ensure something like this can never happen again."

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was asked several times Tuesday if it was time to cancel the Saudi LAV contract. He refused to directly answer the question, saying instead that the way to stand up to the desert kingdom was to build the Energy East pipeline to free Canada from reliance on Saudi oil.

Watch Daniel Turp's interview on the LAV deal on Power & Politics

The government 'should stop hiding behind a contract' and cancel the LAV deal, says law professor and former Bloc MP Daniel Turp. 6:51

With files from Murray Brewster