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Editorial comment

What about the west?

Canada is witnessing a particularly gripping political scandal at the moment, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer of political interference and of lying to Canadians.

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The story goes: Montreal, Quebec-based global construction firm SNC-Lavalin faces charges of fraud and corruption in connection with decade-old payments to the Libyan government. Between 2001 and 2011, it is alleged that SNC made nearly CAN$48 million in payments to Muammar Gaddafi’s crumbling regime in order to secure lucrative contacts in the country, including those in the oil and gas sector. Two former employees were charged in 2014 with bribing Libyan officials to win deals. Since the Liberals came into power in 2015, SNC has been lobbying the government for a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) or remediation deal instead of a trial and potential criminal prosecution. In this way, SNC could admit wrongdoing and pay a financial penalty for its sins. However, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada rejected the bid for the DPA last October and the trial is pending. If convicted, the company could be blocked from competing for government contracts for a decade. But the real scandal lies in statements from ex-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould, who has accused Trudeau and several other Liberal party figures of putting pressure on her to persuade the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to drop SNC’s trial and plump for the DPA. Wilson-Raybould spoke in front of the Justice Committee in February and claimed that over a period of four months last year she experienced “a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere…in an inappropriate effort to secure a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin.” This January, Wilson-Raybould was removed from her position as Attorney General and, in what was seen by many as a demotion, was given a job as Minister of Veterans’ Affairs. A telephone call in which Michael Wernick – then head of the civil service – intimated to Wilson-Raybould that her job might be at risk should she fail to push for the DPA, has been made public. Wilson-Raybould maintains that the Prime Minister was among those who sought to sway her decision on the matter and to soften any penalties SNC faced.

Trudeau has denied allegations that he attempted to obstruct justice, but did concede that he urged officials to consider the economic ramifications for Canada if SNC was to be ruined over the case. At a press conference he said: “[SNC] create[s] many thousands of spin-off jobs in the peripheral industries; they directly and indirectly put food on the table for countless families as one of Canada’s major employers”. Did Trudeau put pressure on the then-Attorney General solely in order to save the thousands of jobs that SNC currently provides in Canada, or did other factors play a part? SNC is an established Liberal campaign contributor. The largest investor in SNC is the Quebec public employees’ pension fund, with a 20% stake. Canada’s next election is scheduled for October 2019: Trudeau’s popularity in opinion polls has dropped recently and support from his home province will be key to the Liberals’ re-election efforts.

In an article published in The Atlantic in April, David Frum makes the case that Trudeau’s push to save some 3400 Quebec-based SNC jobs is strikingly at odds with his ambivalence about another jobs issue further west. He argues that while Trudeau was making considerable efforts to absolve SNC of its past sins, he was ignoring the plight of the western province of Alberta, which has suffered a loss of 130 000 jobs since January 2015 and whose oil-dependent unemployment rate is 7.3%. Landlocked Alberta urgently needs additional pipeline capacity to get its oil to market and to halt the current discount price at which it is forced to sell at. Frum suggests that while Trudeau’s government has professed a willingness to help Albertans, it has consistently paid more attention to the preferences of environmentalists and to the economic demands of indigenous groups. Frum concludes: “In Canada, the Trudeau brand is deeply associated with the crassest favouritism of Quebec economic interests. The SNC-Lavalin affair confirms every apprehension that a Trudeau in power means second-class citizenship for western Canadians.”


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