For weeks, Canada has been gripped by the political drama surrounding SNC-Lavalin, a scandal which has implicated Canada’s political and business elite in a web of corruption, deceit, and abuse of power. By now, the allegations are widely known: that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put inappropriate pressure on former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to interfere in an ongoing corruption case against SNC—a construction giant with close links to the Liberal Party—and removed her as attorney general after she refused to do so. In the intervening weeks, Canadians have borne witness to new revelations, high-profile resignations, and almost daily reassurances from the prime minister that everything is just fine.
But everything is not fine. As the days go on, the SNC drama only continues to deepen, involving new actors, additional story arcs, and ever more chilling accusations of wrongdoing. Only one thing is certain: something is rotten in the state of Canada.
The story so far
Back in 2015, SNC-Lavalin was charged by the RCMP with fraud and corruption in relation to nearly $48 million in bribes to Libyan officials between 2001 and 2011. The court case is still in progress; if convicted, SNC will be barred from bidding on federal contracts for 10 years.
On Feb.7, The Globe and Mail published details from an anonymous source alleging that Raybould was approached by the Prime Minister’s Office and pressured to ask prosecutors to settle with SNC out of court. This would allow the company to sidestep a criminal conviction and continue bidding on federal contracts. According to the story, Raybould resisted the pressure. Shortly after, in mid-January, Raybould was demoted from minister of justice to minister of veterans affairs, with no appropriate reason being given at the time.
As the story broke, the Liberal Party immediately went into damage control mode. According to some experts, the act of pressuring the attorney general to interfere in a corruption case may have violated Canadian law. Whether or not this is true, the Trudeau government has already been found guilty in the court of public opinion. Soon after the scandal broke, polling numbers for Trudeau and the Liberal Party took a dive.
When asked by reporters if the story was true, Trudeau delivered a carefully scripted response, saying that at no point did he “direct” Raybould to interfere in the case. Reporters then asked if he had pressured Raybould to interfere, to which he restated that he did not “direct” her to. Raybould herself refused to field questions in the immediate days after the story was released. Many took this silence as an admission of guilt.
This suspicion only intensified after the Liberals made repeated attempts to stifle any investigation into the scandal. The Liberal Party placed a gag order on Raybould, citing “solicitor-client privilege” which the government refused to waive until recently. The Conservatives and NDP demanded a justice committee investigation, which the Liberals belatedly accepted. However, with a majority on the committee, the Liberals have refused to demand testimony from the prime minister himself. An ethics investigation was also accepted, but the investigator is unable to press charges and can only levy fines up to $500. A public inquiry was rejected out of hand.
Before long, fissures emerged in the government. On Feb. 12, Raybould resigned from the Liberal cabinet. On Feb. 18, Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s principal secretary, also resigned, saying, “the fact is that this accusation exists” in a statement. On Feb. 19, Raybould was forced to wait two hours to address a cabinet meeting, with some reports stating that some MPs didn’t want her there. Other Liberal MPs had been asked not to speak to the media, for fear of further damaging the party. The following day, Raybould told the House of Commons that she hopes to have “the opportunity to speak my truth.” Finally, on Feb. 27, she was given that opportunity. For Trudeau, the worst was yet to come.
The Raybould testimony
On Feb. 27, Raybould delivered her first testimony to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. In her almost 40-minute opening statement, Raybould admitted the allegations against the government were true:
For a period of approximately four months between September and December 2018, I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the Attorney General of Canada in an inappropriate effort to secure a Deferred Prosecution Agreement with SNC-Lavalin.
According to Raybold, these “sustained efforts” involved 11 people in government—including Trudeau himself—and took place across 10 meetings and 10 phone calls explicitly related to the SNC case. Raybold also said she received “veiled threats” from top officials after refusing to follow orders.
The prime minister’s role was a large focus of Raybould’s testimony. In a meeting on Sept. 17, Raybould said that:
The PM again cited potential loss of jobs and SNC moving. Then to my surprise – the Clerk started to make the case for the need to have a DPA – he said “there is a board meeting on Thursday (Sept. 20) with stock holders” … “they will likely be moving to London if this happens”… “and there is an election in Quebec soon”…
At that point the PM jumped in stressing that there is an election in Quebec and that “and I am an MP in Quebec – the member for Papineau.”
According to Raybould, government officials later told her that, “we would of course line up all kinds of people to write op-eds saying that [interfering in the SNC case] is proper.” Still, Raybould refused to interfere.
Weeks later, Raybould was approached by a top government bureaucrat who told her that Trudeau would “get it done one way or another.” He also notified her that the PM was “in that kinda mood.” This was her final warning.
Shortly after, Raybould was moved from attorney general to minister of veterans affairs.
Trudeau’s sinking ship
Canadians stood in awe after the testimony. Their reaction is wholly understandable. It is not every day that a respected former cabinet member accuses the highest levels of government of engaging in a concerted effort to obstruct justice.
However, no one was more awestruck than the Liberals themselves. After all, the role of a Liberal MP is to follow orders, not to uphold the “rule of law,” which every bourgeois politician knows can be modified or violated as corporate Canada sees fit. Trudeau’s mistake was in promoting a woman who actually believed the things the Liberals said on the campaign trail, as opposed to the professional liars that populate the rest of the Liberal caucus. He is now paying dearly for his decision.
A recent poll by Ipsos revealed that if an election were held today, the Liberals would receive only 31 per cent of the vote, compared with 40 per cent for the Conservatives. This is a stark reversal from before the scandal broke, when the Liberals were comfortably in the lead. In the same poll, 67 per cent of Canadians say they believed Raybould over Trudeau, and 55 per cent said the the SNC scandal would impact how they vote in the federal election. More worryingly for the prime minister, almost two-thirds of Canadians believe he has “lost the moral authority to govern.”
As Trudeau sinks, Liberal MPs have started to abandon ship. This trend culminated on Mar. 4 with the resignation of cabinet member Jane Philpott, a high-ranking figure in the Liberal government. In her departure letter, Philpott said she had “lost confidence in how the government has dealt with [the SNC] matter and in how it has responded to the issues raised.” Two cabinet members have now resigned, making this the largest political crisis since 1963, when three cabinet members resigned from John Diefenbaker’s government.
Desperate, Trudeau has tried to divert attention from SNC. Over the past two weeks, he has given talks on everything from space exploration to climate change. However, barring a one-way trip to the moon, Trudeau will not be able to escape the public ire. He knows his time in power is running thin.
SNC and the Liberal Party
A close look at SNC-Lavalin can help us to make sense of the scandal.
SNC is a Montreal-based construction firm that employs around 50,000 people, and has revenues close to $10 billion. Apart from the Libya scandal, SNC has been charged or found guilty on numerous counts of fraud and corruption in recent years. This includes bribes to win the contract for a hospital in Montreal, shady dealings in Cambodia, and bribes to Bangladeshi officials, an act for which the World Bank barred SNC from bidding on its contracts for 10 years.
More important, however, are the bribes, both legal and illegal, that SNC has made to the Liberal Party over the years. In the last few decades, the Liberals have received tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars from SNC, much more than the company gives to any other political party. In order to avoid the limit on corporate donations, SNC also devised a scheme to make donations illegally. In November 2018, an SNC executive pleaded guilty to making illegal donations totalling $117,803 to federal parties, more than $109,000 of which went to the Liberals. For all of those “donations,” SNC reasonably expected something in return.
Since at least 2017, SNC has lobbied the federal government to have Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPAs) written into the Criminal Code. DPAs allow the government to make out-of-court settlements with corporations facing criminal charges. This change would benefit SNC since, if it was convicted, the company would not be allowed to bid on federal contracts for 10 years. SNC’s lobbying campaign was championed by the Business Council of Canada, which represents most major corporations in Canada. In that time, SNC lobbied the Prime Minister’s Office 19 times. Their efforts paid off.
In spring 2018, the Trudeau government made changes to the Criminal Code allowing DPAs, just in time to intervene in SNC’s ongoing corruption case. The picture that emerges is none too favourable for the Liberal Party. Their only miscalculation was the insubordination of a renegade MP.
The system is guilty
Given the facts, it is hard to doubt the guilt of the Liberal Party. But what can be done about it?
The Conservatives have pounced on the SNC scandal to bolster their own credentials as an incorruptible party. In their public speeches, they denounce “crony capitalism,” and promise that things would be different if they were in power. They conveniently ignore the fact that, under Stephen Harper, their own party was plagued by scandal after scandal. This includes the Senate expenses debacle that they would rather people forget. They also ignore how their own party has received thousands of dollars from SNC over the years, despite its checkered history. The truth is, if the Conservatives were in power, they would no doubt act in the same way as the current government.
In his testimony to the justice committee, Trudeau’s former secretary Gerald Butts defended his former boss by saying that “nothing happened” beyond normal government operations. In fact, that is the whole problem.
The acceptance of corruption by Canada’s political and business elite is nothing new.
In the 1970s, Jean Chrétien told Canadians not to put their “head in the sand” and ignore overseas business because they were bothered by bribes. In 1991, the former head of SNC told Maclean’s that whenever he issued bribes, he demanded receipts, saying, “I make sure we get a signed invoice. And payment is always in the form of a cheque, not cash, so we can claim it on our income tax!”
Similar views are widely held by the rest of Canada’s elite, if not in public then in private. This is no coincidence.
Under capitalism, profit is put before everything else. When certain laws stand in the way of making profits, as with SNC, those laws are modified by politicians at the behest of their corporate patrons. If those laws can’t be changed, firms will employ a number of schemes, usually aided by a team of lawyers, in order to skirt the laws and continue doing business. If they happen to run into trouble, firms can rely on their friends in politics to bail them out. After all, that is what they pay them for.
In truth, there is no way out under this hopelessly corrupt system. The actions of the Trudeau government prove yet again that, in the final analysis, the state is at the service of the capitalist mafia. These gangsters must be fought by other means.
Some have argued that SNC is “too big to fail,” and that if they are found guilty, it will have a devastating impact on the 50,000 people they employ, 9,000 of which are in Canada. However, this is only true if SNC is left in the hands of its crooked private owners. In the capitalist courts, small-time criminals are routinely stripped of their assets after being found guilty. Why then should the big-time criminals be spared? Corrupt firms like SNC should be punished by having their assets confiscated and placed under democratic workers’ control. By these measures, no jobs will be lost, apart from the cushy executive positions at the top.
However, SNC’s owners are not the only ones on trial. For years, SNC was supported in its misconduct by the Liberal Party which, being found guilty in the eyes of ordinary people, deserves to be thrown out of office for the crime of aiding and abetting. In their place should be formed a workers’ government, purged of all crooked officials, corrupt dealings, and bureaucratic obstructions.
The court of public opinion has delivered its ruling, and the verdict is clear: the entire political and business establishment has been found guilty of mismanagement. The only justice is in throwing these crooks out of power, and handing control to the working class.