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SNC Lavalin corruption roots run deep

SNC Lavalin headquarters in Montreal
John Bell

February 16, 2019

As the pressure on his government from the latest SNC Lavalin scandal mounted, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the press: “Her [Jody Wilson-Raybould] presence in cabinet should actually speak for itself.” Famous last words. First thing the following morning Wilson-Raybould resigned from Trudeau’s cabinet, saying that she was lawyering up before publicly speaking further about the scandal.

Wilson-Raybould was Liberal Justice Minister until a recent cabinet shuffle demoted her to the Veterans Affairs portfolio. Then the rumours began to leak, that the popular young minister was moved out because she refused to cut a deal that would allow engineering, mining and construction giant SNC Lavalin to avoid bribery and fraud convictions. Instead they would get off paying some fines.

Lobbyists for SNC Lavalin–one of the world’s biggest engineering corporations–had been pushing hard for a deal. These included insiders from Chretien, Martin and Harper government days. It is alleged that pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office then came down on Wilson-Raybould. As more information leaked out, Trudeau tried to do damage control. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and Tory leader Andrew Scheer both called for an independent investigation by the Ethics Commissioner; finally Trudeau had no choice but to say he would welcome such an investigation.

SNC Lavalin–partner with Canadian state

The growth of SNC Lavalin into one of Canada’s biggest and most strategically important corporations is due to its partnership with the Canadian state–and for decades that meant with the Liberal Party.

That is not to suggest that the cozy relationship between government and corporation didn’t continue during the Harper years.

It was the Harper Tories that granted a second 10-year contract to SNC Lavalin in 2013, privatizing a range of military services in Afghanistan. SNC has long been in the forefront of privatizing logistical support not just for the Canadian armed forces; remember they won the contract to supply the US military with ammunition for the occupation of Iraq in 2004.

SNC was caught slipping more than $100,000 in illegal donations to the Liberal and Conservative parties between 2004 and 2011. That is on top of donating up to the legal limit. The former SNC vice-president who engineered the illegal donations, Normand Morin, was rewarded by Harper with an appointment to the Port of Montreal board in 2006.

In 2013 Socialist Worker ran a damning list of bribery and corruption charges against SNC Lavalin, and its operations in India, Bangladesh, Libya, and at home in Quebec.

White collar criminals

Canada has long had one of the worst records on white collar crime prosecution in the so-called developed world. Or the best, if you are a corporate criminal.

In 2018, Justin Trudeau decided to do something about that. He made it even easier to be a corporate crook.

SNC Lavalin’s deepening criminal woes in the past decade prompted its lobbying pressure on a government that was more than willing to listen. Trudeau and his finance minister Bill Morneau hid a change to the Criminal Code inside their 2018 omnibus budget bill, enshrining a new legal mechanism called “deferred prosecution agreement” (DPA). Although the NDP tried to have the new law debated separately, the Scheer Tories don’t seem to have been disturbed about flying the DPA in under the radar.

According to DPA supporters like SNC, these would allow corporate criminals to turn themselves in in exchange for avoiding serious charges like bribery or insider trading. But even some Liberal backbenchers rolled their eyes; MP Greg Fergus worried: “It seems we're letting those with the means have an easier time of it than those who don't have the means.”

It took Wilson-Raybould’s resignation to blow the lid off DPAs. We’ll have to wait to hear what she has to say about undue pressure from Trudeau and the PMO. Meanwhile the Liberals and Tories will hypocritically wrangle about the particulars of an investigation. Trudeau will try to kick the can until after the coming election. Scheer will hope no one remembers how his party also abetted SNC Lavalin’s crimes.

Meanwhile, pundits will write that SNC is just too big and economically important to prosecute. And others like the CBC’s Neil Macdonald will defend SNC Lavalin’s corrupt practices with thinly veiled racist arguments that that’s just how business gets done in places like Libya.

And Canadians will get a reminder that under capitalism there is only a revolving door between parliament and corporate boardrooms, and that there is literally a separate law for big business.

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