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SNC-Lavalin affair recalls Harper’s bombing of Libya and a history of corporate power

If we are concerned for democracy, then that concern should manifest itself in a definable worry over corporate power that writes laws and engages in wars. They, more so than the leaders, are the constant problem.


Records of lobbying done by SNC-Lavalin have long been open to the public.

2016 had barely started but at that time lobbyists were meeting people from within the PMO, the Privy Council, and Global Affairs Canada (to name a few offices). For some time now, information on these meetings has been easily accessible.

These lobbying efforts lasted years—with a variety of meeting reports issued every few months—all carrying the explicit attempt to bring about “[t]he introduction of [a] Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA).” After bribing a foreign government, a DPA would allow for “sentencing agreements” that protect the wealthy, granting them amnesty, from the legal consequences, as SNC-Lavalin puts it, of “white collar crimes.”

With the most recent report by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, the content of the meetings between SNC-Lavalin and the Trudeau administration, was only elaborated. The CEO of SNC-Lavalin’s presence, as well as the attendence of the Prime Minister himself, was also confirmed at at least one encounter.

In these months, SNC-Lavalin showed its power to both mobilize a senior policy advisor of Trudeau’s to host public consultations and even to eventually have the legal framework for receiving a DPA (which required amendments to the Criminal Code) slipped into Budget 2018. The passage of an amendment to the criminal code within the federal budget was planned so as to “expedite passage through Parliament.”

Incidentally, it is the company’s similar maneuvering of foreign government’s that had it facing charges.

To obtain contracts in Libya—which it got in the form of contracts for a prison, an airport and a pipeline—SNC-Lavalin engaged in an “aggressive marketing campaign.” Nearly $48 million, possibly more, was distributed to public officials. As an ode to their charm and class, SNC-Lavalin then defrauded Libyan organizations about $130 million.

Among these bribes, the son of Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi received renovations to his Toronto penthouse costing $200,000, and received a yacht the Globe described as “150 feet and featur[ing] a private movie theatre.”

It is in both Canada and Libya that SNC-Lavalin illustrated its ability to manipulate government for company gain. Its alarming capabilities in this domain, particularly in Canada—where it, for all practical concerns, drafted, tabled, and passed legislation—has mainly been beyond the concern of the media’s recent coverage of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner report.

Not just an affair

Similar failures to address corporate accountability squeezed through the press recently, like the PMO’s decision to strip investigatory powers from the Canadian Ombudsperson for Corporate Accountability (following intensive lobbying efforts).  Yet, the opportunity to start a conversation on corporate power in Canadian society was not taken up.

Dominant media narratives have focused the spotlight on Trudeau. Yet, the real affair is truly a long-lasting and growing problem of a Canadian elite managing politicians. This story exceeds any prime minister.

To understand the history of Canadian industry, we can study the lobbying that encouraged Canada into Libya under the Harper government. In the context of Harper in Libya we see similar dynamics of corporations shaping policy to their exclusive benefit—and incidentally we can remain within the geological confines the SNC-Lavalin affair has left us in.

The 2011 killing of dozens of civilians in NATO air raids in likely violation of international law, was (similarly) never widely condemned. Yet, Canada’s creation of further instability, sparking tensions between rebel factions and meanwhile growing al-Qaida (a situation that US President Barack Obama called a “Shit show”) occurred after encouragement from the military and the energy industry. This is very well in line with—and possibly more criminal than—more recent pursuits of injustice at the advice of corporations—one can only wonder why it did not spring similar outrage.

Indeed, for those truly concerned about holding corporations accountable for their mischief abroad, Harper’s bombing of Libya becomes an important piece in Canadian history.

A “shit show” in Libya

Although Canadian intervention was formulated under the banner of NATO, Canada took a leading role in the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya.

At the time, the 2011 Libyan civil war pitted the brutal leader Muammar Gaddafi against revolutionary rebel forces. Canada offered Canadian Lt-Gen. Charles Bouchard to lead NATO airstrikes in the region in support of certain rebel factions. Bouchard, our Canadian general, would consequently approve “each and every airstrike,” launched by NATO.

Canada also went on 10% of the total airstrikes, contributing substantially to a project involving countries like the US, France, and the UK. As one author notes, “[b]y the end of the mission in Libya, the Canadian contribution came to rank fourth among contributing nations, behind only the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.”

Framed as a process to bring stability and democracy to Libya, the truth of what would occur from an invasion was summarized before airstrikes began. In a briefing report by Canadian intelligence specialists they observed, “[t]here is the increasing possibility that the situation in Libya will transform into a long-term tribal/civil war… This is particularly probable if opposition forces [, the rebels,] receiv[e] military assistance [from] foreign militaries.”

Throughout NATO’s engagement, members of the Canadian air force had similar fears. They believed they would only be replacing Gaddafi with Islamic extremists. Canadian military men would joke that they were “Al-Qaeda’s air force”—a fact which wasn’t far from the truth, as Al-Qaeda benefited significantly from the air raids, “becoming a genuine army.” If even personnel understood the nature of the war they were fighting, the Harper administration was likely aware of this information as well but chose to ignore it.

Amnesty International reminds us that the concerns coming from the Canadian military and intelligence were later substantiated. Once Gaddafi was deposed and NATO went home in victory, “Impunity for gross human rights violations of the past and ongoing abuses by militias remained entrenched. Discrimination against women continued in law and practice.”

To Canada’s further discredit, although it is widely accepted that NATO underwent an “important” process to “minimize civilian casualties,” Human Rights Watch complained in 2012 of “unacknowledged” civilian deaths resulting from the NATO offensive. This count included 20 women and 24 children.

As the human rights watchdog writes in their report, they were “in doubt” of “the presence of a lawful military target at NATO bombing sites” with no evidence of “Libyan government forces, such as military weaponry, hardware or personnel, or communications equipment, at seven of eight sites” where civilians died.

Despite repeated requests from various international bodies, NATO refused to provide evidence to support designating their targets as military sites, suggesting possible violations of human rights law.

Equally terrible was what journalist and author Ian Sinclair called “[a]rguably NATO’s most shameful dee[d]”—the military alliances’ supporting role in the rebel assault on the Libyan city of Sirte.

What occurred in Sirte was noted as “a two-month long siege and indiscriminate bombardment of a city of 100,000.” Rocket launchers and guns were fired recklessly into the coastal city. Journalists operating in the area found reports of people dying in Sirte hospitals merely for a lack of oxygen. Medicine for heart disease, blood pressure, and even baby milk was in dangerously scarce supply.

Fleeing residents and locals reported casualties and damage to infrastructure from NATO bombing. Human Rights Watch was informed of bombs striking schools to rubble.

At the beginning of their mission, NATO had received a mandate to create a no-fly zone over Libya. Instead, they actively supported rebels, bombarded targets with little military significance, and knowingly helped to cause distress in the region that continue’s well into the present.

A business community on edge

As we have seen, the incentive to invade Libya could not have come from an anxiety over authoritarianism—Rather, it was simply enough for Canadian industry to give their go-ahead.

Suncor Energy had a particular incentive to use their power as Canada’s second-largest corporation to influence the Harper government into intervention. As foreign policy analyst Yves Engler explains, Libya, an oil-rich country “signed a multi-billion dollar 30-year oil concession” with Suncor in 2008. Yet, Suncor was given reason to worry over its business operations when in 2009, Gaddafi threatened to “seize” the “assets” of one of its subsidiaries, PetroCanada. Memos released by Wikileaks, show that concern over the takeover of PetroCanada was even felt among Ambassadors from the US and UK, one of whom commented in correspondence, “Libya’s moves against PetroCanada…have left the expatriate business community on edge.”

In the same memos, the UK ambassador remarked that it was “not good for Libya to threaten existing and potential investors,” for they would risk “violat[ing] the sanctity of contracts.”

Potentially adding to the worries of Canadian planners, was the nationalization of foreign-owned oil industry by Gaddafi in the past and his lasting reluctance to, as one correspondent put it, “turn over the resources of the country to Western oil companies.”

Thus, in the months leading up to Harper’s March 2011 announcement of his intentions on Libya, Suncor heavily lobbied public officials. Its interests included developing and maintaining its operations in Libya, and possibly pressuring the Canadian government for a quick, painless transition of power away from Gaddafi.

One of several lobbying campaigns by Suncor in the preceding year stretched from October 2010 to January 2011. Although the contents of the communications in this period rely on unverifiable self-reporting by Suncor, one of the several subjects discussed included “international relations” while lobbyists kept contact with the PMO, the Privy Council,  National Defence, as well as Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada.

One notable meeting in June 2010—nine months before Canada announced its engagement in Libya—had a particularly high-ranking audience. The Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of National Defence, and a few other significant Canadian planners met for a discussion. Interestingly, Suncor’s reporting on the meeting—which mainly implied it met to talk domestic concerns—did not reflect the international mandate of the members gathered at the table that day. Even in the days leading up to Harper’s March 2 2011 announcement that formally initiated intervention efforts in Libya, Suncor continued to meet with important public officials.

So when John Baird, Harper’s foreign minister, travelled secretly to Libya to meet the interim government it is no surprise he brought Suncor with him. SNC-Lavalin also accepted an invitation to join in on the trip. Despite its relationship with the Gaddafi family, the engineering giant had similar interests which were being jeopardized by the Gaddafi regimes newfound instability (an instability particularly evident following the 2011 growth of violent rebel revolutionaries), and was also lobbying the government up until March 2011.

With Suncor and SNC-Lavalin, Baird met newly imposed Libyan officials “to smooth the resumption of business and exchanges.” That is to say, to ensure the rebels Canada had intervened for would now keep their promise and act in their interest.

The invasion of Libya was also a good chance to justify military expenditures in the interest of the military-industrial complex. The Harper government spent gross sums on its intervention in Libya. Aircrafts from both Lockheed Martin and Boeing were contributed by Canada to NATO’s intervention. The two multi-billion dollar companies had lobbied the Canadian government leading up to intervention in Libya.

As director of Public Response, Steven Staples observes “deployment of the armed forces” was “driven” by incentives to “procur[e]” arms. As Staples continues to highlight, such a move would not be unprecedented. “Conflicts have been used to justify military projects in the past.” Interestingly, Lt-Gen. Bouchard who led NATO forces, would go on to lead himself into a career with Lockheed Martin in 2013.

Leaked emails from Hillary Clinton reveal Canada’s ally France entered the war on similar terms. Among France’s five concerns listed in an internal memo, “[a] desire to gain a greater share of Libya oil production” was the first concern, the hope to “Provide the French military with an opportunity to reassert its position in the world” was the third. Strangely enough, the desire to bring democracy to Libya was absent from the list of top French officials reasons for intervention.

One constant

With Harper’s understanding that he might throw the region into turmoil and the lack of follow-through to ensure democracy came to Libya, there is a clear indication of a plurality of more sinister interests at play. Large industry leaders like Suncor, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and possibly SNC-Lavalin all had the ear of the government, clearly defined interests in a military engagement, and connections to the intervention made clear following March 2011. The human rights abuses and the resulting destruction likely lies very much in the hands of these industries.

The underlying corruption that influenced both the Harper administration and Trudeau administration deserves equal admonishment. If we are at all concerned for democracy, then that concern should manifest itself in a definable worry over corporate power that writes laws and engages in wars. They, more so than leaders, are the constant problem.

The disparity in criticism and investigation between Harper and Trudeau, only reveals a love for scandals and whistle-blowers, of politicians locking heads. One is even pressed to find discussion of the crimes SNC-Lavalin is accused of since the Commissioner’s report was released, and media’s solutions range from Andrew Scheer to changing the nature of the Attorney General’s position.

To truly avoid future injustice the first step is confronting industry—only then can we move on to politics.

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