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Days before clash, Ottawa assured court Saudis wouldn't use Canadian arms against citizens

A Saudi Arabia flag is seen flying on Parliament Hill Nov. 2 in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/Dave Chan

Only two weeks before Saudi Arabia deployed what appear to be Canadian-made armoured vehicles against its citizens, the Trudeau government was defending military sales to the Mideast kingdom in court filings on the basis that no proof existed Riyadh had ever used such equipment on its own people.

The late July crackdown on minority Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, which Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is now investigating, has shone a spotlight on combat machines sold to the Saudis by a little-known Ontario company, Terradyne Armored Vehicles.

If confirmed as a violation of Canada's defence export controls, the matter could undermine the Liberal government's rationale for allowing a much bigger military sale to proceed: the $15-billion General Dynamics weaponized armoured vehicle deal with Riyadh which supports hundreds of manufacturing jobs in and around London, Ont.

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Further fuelling the controversy is another video, circulated by Shia activists Tuesday, which allegedly show Canadian-made General Dynamics light armoured vehicles (LAVs), also taking part in the Saudi crackdown.

Read more: Ottawa calls for probe into apparent Saudi use of Canadian-made armoured vehicles against citizens

Watch: Saudi dissident on arms deal: 'I believe Canada could strike a model for the world.'

Explainer: Why the Saudi arms deal is a big deal

The Globe and Mail could not immediately verify that the short clip was shot in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province.

The federal government is still in court fighting a legal challenge of its April, 2016, decision to issue export permits for the General Dynamics contract. The decision by then-foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion amounted to a judgment call by the government that there is no reasonable risk the exports would be used to commit human-rights violations.

The Eastern Province conflict calls into question Ottawa's judgment on Saudi Arabia.

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In January, the Federal Court rejected University of Montreal law professor Daniel Turp's initial legal bid to block shipments to Saudi Arabia, a country regularly ranked among "the worst of the worst" on human rights by independent watchdog Freedom House. Dr. Turp is now appealing.

On July 11, 14 days before video and photos of Terradyne Gurkha vehicles emerged on social media from Saudi Arabia, lawyers for the federal Department of Justice filed a document trying to counter Dr. Turp's appeal. In it, they repeatedly say that Ottawa is not aware of any cases where the Saudis have used Canadian-made armoured vehicles against their own people.

"There is no evidence that such vehicles have been used to infringe the rights of the civilian population," the memorandum of fact and law filed by the Attorney-General in Canada's Federal Court of Appeal says.

"It's the heart of their argument," André Lespérance, one of Dr. Turp's lawyers, said of the federal government. "They always have said: There's no evidence, there's no evidence."

Canada has sold smaller lots of armoured vehicles for 25 years, but never anything approaching the magnitude of the $15-billion deal, the largest advanced manufacturing contract in Canadian history. Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Canada has said the contract was awarded to cement friendship between the Islamic kingdom and Canadians.

This could all change should it be confirmed that Canadian armoured vehicles are being used to suppress the Saudi population.

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"The minute there's evidence, they are forced to choose between the rights of the civil population and whatever interests they have in the region," Mr. Lespérance says of the Canadian government.

The Trudeau government moved quickly late last month after a report in The Globe to launch a probe into what appear to be Canadian-made combat vehicles with armour plating and gun turrets attacking Shia militants in Eastern Province. New videos of Terradyne machines participating in the attacks are still being circulated by Saudi dissidents.

The House of Saud's use of combat machines against its Shia population in the eastern part of the country goes to the very heart of the controversy over whether the Trudeau government is violating Canada's weapons export control rules, particularly with the $15-billion General Dynamics deal.

These 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.

A Canadian arms-export researcher, Ken Epps, says the Saudi arms sales reveal the contradictions with the department of Global Affairs, which is supposed to promote business with other countries but also police military and defence shipments.

Also, Mr. Epps said what's unfolding now in Saudi Arabia exposes how Ottawa has long failed to meet the test set out in arms-control guidelines: The government is supposed to have "demonstrated there is no reasonable risk" that military goods may be used against the local population before it signs export permits.

In the case of the $15-billion deal, the Liberal government never met this threshold, said Mr. Epps, with Project Ploughshares, a disarmament group. It merely stated it was not aware of any abuse of citizens with Canadian-made goods.

"It appears that the Canadian government isn't even using its own standards."

Armoured vehicles, which normally are equipped with machine guns or cannons, are "force multipliers" on a battlefield, meaning they significantly increase the military capability of armed groups.

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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