Martin Patriquin: The makings of a perfect Canadian political scandal

As with some notable past episodes, the allegations concerning SNC-Lavalin prosecution involve more than a waft of Quebec favouritism.

The headquarters of SNC-Lavalin is seen in Montreal on November 6, 2014. Paul Chiasson / THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Liberal government’s alleged interference on behalf of SNC-Lavalin is a perfect Canadian political scandal. It combines corruption charges, intrigue and too-big-to-fail implications for one of the country’s biggest companies, all crowned with the storied sense of entitlement of the Liberal Party of Canada.

And as with many such Canuckian political scandals, it involves more than a waft of Quebec favouritism. This episode began last week when the Globe and Mail reported that then Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould had been subject to pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office to grant Quebec-based engineering behemoth SNC-Lavalin a “remediation agreement.”

Such an agreement would effectively see dropped the many corruption-related charges faced by the company stemming from its dealings in Libya. Instead, the company would pay a financial penalty, among other remedial measures, and as a result, be sprung from the judicial purgatory where it now sits.

In any other country, a government thumbing the scales in favour of a large and important company would be considered garden-variety, pork-barrelling boosterism at worst. In Canada, where politicians of all stripes have parked many promises to appease the restive, politically crucial province, it has hardened into a dreary narrative.

First, delve back into history, to 1986. That year, Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney awarded a 20-year, $100-million contract to service the country’s fleet of CF-18 fighter jets to Quebec-based Canadair — despite Winnipeg’s Bristol Aerospace offering a lower bid. The Mulroney government muttered something about the benefit of Quebec’s “technology transfer” from its well-established aerospace sector, but the truth was far more venal: Mulroney had vowed to sell the separatist Parti Québécois on the benefits of federalism. This contract was the fruit of his vow.

Now consider Bombardier, the pride of Quebec’s vaunted aerospace industry. The company’s choice postal code has resulted in a cash bonanza from the federal as well as Quebec governments. Foisted on the taxpaying public to the tune of $4 billion since 1966, according to the Montreal Economics Institute estimate — an amount that includes provincial government support — Bombardier is one of the biggest recipients of government largesse in the country’s history.


Put simply, governments have not allowed Bombardier to fail, despite a chronically anemic share price and a corporate structure that serves to enrich the Beaudoin and Bombardier family clans. The party that oversees Bombardier’s collapse is the party that loses Quebec.

For its part, SNC-Lavalin shares Bombardier’s heft and has the benefit of good timing. With the October election looming on the horizon, a “remediation agreement” would be mutually beneficial to SNC and the Liberal Party of Canada; the former gets out of a legal jam and the latter gets to ride to the defence of a Quebec-based corporate crown jewel. The trouble is, by not granting this remediation, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada seems to have already deemed SNC undeserving of such a thing.

There are any number of reasons why, not the least of which is how SNC-Lavalin hasn’t admitted to any wrongdoing in its dealings with the institutionally homicidal Gadhafi regime, notwithstanding a former senior executive of that the company having pleaded guilty in Switzerland to related charges. Another good reason why SNC shouldn’t get a pass: the prosecution has spent the better part of four years preparing for the case, a sign prosecutors are convinced  the charges have merit.

Finally, there is this. Since 2013, SNC-Lavalin has been served a 10-year ban from bidding on World Bank-funded projects; seen one of its executives, Riadh Ben Aissa, spend time in a Swiss jail for his role in the company’s Libyan hijinks; and, by cooking bids to build Montreal’s MUHC hospital, helped perpetuate what one police investigator called “the biggest fraud corruption in the history of Canada.”

And yet aside from a handful of arrests, the company has hardly suffered consequences on home soil. Perhaps prosecutors thought it was time.




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