By Michael Nickerson
We’ve got our best people on it. They’re working overtime. Don’t worry. When you start hearing phrases like that you can be sure of a few things: the best people haven’t been on it, until now they’ve been doing anything but working, and you have great reason to not just worry but think about getting heavily sedated. Be it your mechanic, your doctor, your lawyer, your internet provider, or possibly your veterinarian whose just misplaced your cat, the jig is obviously up. Whatever it is they say they’re on top of, they aren’t. They were just hoping nobody would notice.
So when Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland suddenly waxes eloquent about how “energetically” her staff is working on the Saudi file, specifically military arms sales to the House of Saud by Canadian manufacturers, one wonders just how “urgent” (to use another Freeland buzz word) the issue has really been. If you guessed not at all, then by gosh you’re getting the hang of this.
For those who missed it, here is the issue in a nutshell: Canada sells a lot of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, a country that accounted for some 20 per cent of Canadian military arms sales in 2016 alone. But thanks to a deal brokered by the Canadian Commercial Corporation (the “prime contractor” of record) for some $15-billion in light armoured (and weaponized) vehicles (or as Justin Trudeau flippantly called them in the 2015 election, “jeeps”) to be built and shipped off to Saudi, that percentage is about to go way up.
Now, in theory (and under Canadian law), the House of Saud isn’t supposed to use any of this weaponry to violate the human rights, or the basic vitality, of its citizens. One suspects they’re just supposed to drive them around for civic entertainment. But wouldn’t you know it, what in the age of smart phones and the internet, footage showed up of Saudi security forces doing just that: kicking serious citizenry ass with some fine, grade A Canadian made and approved equipment.
So cue the Freeland freak out. We’re on it; we’re investigating it; we’re getting all the facts; we’re voicing our concerns. We’re also negotiating a major trade agreement and are a little busy. But never you mind. As Freeland emphasized, “We are absolutely committed to the defence of human rights and we condemn all violations of human rights.”
Condemn perhaps; doing anything about it is another thing entirely. Since the day this deal was brokered, the rationalizing has been at best pathetic, at worst morally repugnant. From the idea that we have safeguards in place, that there are Canadian jobs at stake, and that we need to be on good terms with our Saudi friends, to the cynical creed that someone will sell it if we don’t, so let’s cash in, there has been a concerted effort to ignore the simple fact we are enabling a regime that is anathema to what Canadians supposedly stand for.
Whether it’s women’s rights (or lack thereof), a draconian legal system, suppression of individual freedoms of expression, or a migrant worker system that borders on slavery, Saudi Arabia represents just about everything abhorrent to people in this country, yet has been a cash grab too hard for Canadian businesses and governments to ignore for decades. Even a Saudi proxy war in Yemen has failed to do more than generate mild rebuke, much less censure or economic sanctions and boycott.
That war has so far claimed ten thousand lives, displaced three million people, and lead to over 200,000 cholera cases and climbing, all since 2015, and much of that misery and devastation at the hands of our Saudi friends. Whether they use Canadian military equipment directly or indirectly in these atrocities should not matter. That we enable them in any way does.
Will a Trudeau government committed to human rights and overtures to peacekeeping finally just say no, and stop enabling and supporting a regime that has committed to anything but? Will our foreign affairs minister cancel the export permits of not just $15-billion in mobile armour, but all military sales to Saudi Arabia? I’m thinking there is going to be some energetic and urgent discussion on that subject. Probably some overtime too.