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Most Canadians oppose arms deals with Saudi Arabia, poll finds

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland talks to reporters in St. John's, N.L. on Sept. 12, 2017.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

A solid majority of Canadians object to selling combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia in the wake of revelations this summer that Riyadh deployed made-in-Canada combat vehicles against civilians during internal strife in the desert kingdom.

A new poll by Nanos Research for The Globe and Mail found that 64 per cent of Canadians oppose and somewhat oppose the Canadian government allowing assault machines to be sold to the Saudi monarchy. Forty-four per cent oppose these sales and another 20 per cent "somewhat oppose" this trade.

This reading of the public mood arrives more than six weeks after Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced a probe into the use of Canadian combat vehicles against civilians in Saudi Arabia this past July.

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After The Globe reported on what appeared to be Canadian-made Terradyne Gurkha armoured vehicles being deployed in the Saudi community of al-Awamiyah, in the kingdom's Eastern Province, Ms. Freeland said she was "deeply concerned" and announced a probe of the matter. Video clips and photos of these vehicles have circulated widely on the Internet. One clip also showed combat machines made by General Dynamics Land Systems' London, Ont., factory being deployed.

Pollster Nik Nanos said it's clear most Canadians give a thumbs down to selling arms to Saudi Arabia, a country that regularly ranks among the "worst of the worst" on human rights by U.S. liberty watchdog Freedom House.

"It doesn't matter how you ask the question. A majority of Canadians don't like these transactions," Mr. Nanos said.

This week, the Liberal government said it remains preoccupied with investigating the matter and has nothing to report to Canadians yet.

Federal arms-control rules forbid arms exports unless Ottawa can demonstrate there is no risk of customers turning them against civilians, placing the burden on the Canadian government, not critics, to justify why military sales should be allowed.

A former foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the Canadian government has a very big task on its hands right now.

"Reports from Awamiyah were disturbing. The onus is clearly on the federal government to establish that Canadian military goods were not, and are not, being used against civilians," University of Ottawa international-affairs professor Roland Paris said.

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The Saudi government has not denied that it's used Canadian-made armoured vehicles in internal conflicts. In an August statement to The Globe and Mail, the Saudi embassy in Canada said those it was fighting deserved it because they are terrorists. Al-Qatif, the location of the July clash, is a hotbed of opposition to the reigning House of Saud and the Saudis frequently cite terror threats when they go after the area's militants.

The Mideast country went so far in August as to compare its use of force in this case to the October, 2014, incident in Ottawa where Canadian authorities killed a lone gunman who stormed Parliament Hill after fatally shooting a soldier at the National War Memorial.

The Trudeau government says it's still assembling the facts. "Since hearing of allegations of potential use of Canadian-made vehicles in response to Saudi Arabia's security challenges, Global Affairs has been actively seeking more information. This work is ongoing and has not concluded. Canada continues to review all available information," said Adam Austen, a spokesman for Ms. Freeland.

The House of Saud's use of combat machines against its Shia population goes to the very heart of the controversy over whether the Trudeau government is violating Canada's weapons export control rules by allowing arms exports to Saudi Arabia – including a $15-billion General Dynamics sale of weaponized armoured vehicles the Liberals only authorized last year.

Canadian arms-export rules call for restrictions on arms exports to countries with a "persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens." Shipments are supposed to be blocked unless there is "no reasonable risk" the buyer could turn arms against its own population.

The Nanos poll also found 14 per cent of respondents support and 15 per cent "somewhat support" allowing Canadian combat vehicles to be sold to Saudi Arabia. Eight per cent were unsure.

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The survey polled 1,000 Canadians between late August and early September and is considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

Amnesty International Canada secretary-general Alex Neve said it's time for Canada to end armoured vehicle sales to Saudi Arabia. "Canadians understand the grave human-rights implications. It is time for the government to follow suit."

He said he's eager to hear what Ms. Freeland's investigation has found.

"We welcomed Minister Freeland's announcement that the government is looking into the reports of Canadian armoured vehicles being used against civilians in eastern Saudi Arabia. More than six weeks later, we need to know the outcome of those investigations and an indication of what the government is prepared to do."

Video: Saudi dissident on arms deal: ‘I believe Canada could strike a model for the world’
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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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