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Trade minister ‘comfortable’ with decision to approve Saudi arms deal

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question in the House of Commons on Tuesday

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland says she is comfortable with the Trudeau government's decision to approve export permits for the bulk of a controversial $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia but, like Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion, she would not say whether she would have struck the combat vehicle deal in the first place.

"I'm supportive and I'm comfortable with the decision of our government," she said.

The Liberals are on the defensive after court documents released last week revealed that Mr. Dion, not Stephen Harper's Conservatives, signed the export permits to allow 70 per cent of the transaction to ship to Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for human rights abuses.

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Mr. Dion insisted in an editorial board meeting with The Globe and Mail this week that he alone – not Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or PMO advisers – was responsible for the decision to green-light the arms shipment. He said Ms. Freeland was the one colleague he consulted.

The International Trade Minister would not say whether she would have sold the weaponized armoured vehicles to the Saudis were it her decision in 2014, which is when the Tories arranged it.

"It's important not to engage for us, as ministers, in hypotheticals. It's important for us not to engage in what-might-have-beens," Ms. Freeland told reporters.

Former Conservative trade minister Ed Fast was a driving force behind the deal.

The Liberals used their majority on Tuesday to vote down an NDP attempt at the Commons foreign affairs committee, one backed by the Conservatives, to create a subcommittee of MPs that would scrutinize arms exports to countries with bad human rights records. The Liberals defeated the motion by a vote of 5-4.

"There's all this talk about transparency and openness, but when we ask for a gesture, it's a flat no," NDP MP Hélène Laverdière said. "We're not talking about a revolution. It's a subcommittee that would do the job Parliamentarians are supposed to do."

Liberal MP Bob Nault, who chairs the Commons foreign affairs committee, could not immediately be reached for comment. Mr. Dion has said the Liberals would prefer to focus on building Parliamentary oversight over security matters.

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One prominent critic of the Saudi arms deal charged that Mr. Dion and Ms. Freeland are reluctant to say they would not have signed it in the first place because that would underline how indefensible the decision to carry it through is.

"If human-rights pariah Saudi Arabia is considered to be an eligible recipient of Canadian military exports, it is hard to see who would not be," said Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares. The disarmament group based in Waterloo, Ont., is an agency of the Canadian Council of Churches, and tracks arms shipments.

Mr. Dion, it turns out, signed the export permits in early April – shortly after University of Montreal law professor Daniel Turp filed a lawsuit challenging Ottawa's right to export these arms. The Liberal signature on the export permits means the Trudeau government has taken full ownership of a decision to sell arms to a country notorious for human-rights abuses.

Deals to export weapons are not considered to be assured until permits are granted – a process that is the most important step in ministerial oversight of these transactions – and after a careful review of the human rights situation in the destination country. Last week's export permit revelation runs counter to Liberal insistence that the Saudi deal was a fait accompli arranged by the Conservatives.

Ms. Freeland reiterated on Monday that the Liberals believe it would hurt Canada's reputation to cancel the deal.

"Something that I very much learned as Trade Minister, inheriting many agreements that have been negotiated by the previous Conservative government and governments before, that it is important that the government of Canada is a trusted negotiating partner for international counterparts. That's not just an important principle, it's an important way of doing business and being a partner in the world."

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The Liberals have repeatedly promised a "more transparent approach" for future arms deals in recent months, and Ms. Freeland said she "very much" supports that.

Asked by the NDP whether he and his advisers "were kept completely in the dark" about the export permit signings, Mr. Trudeau indicated the decision was Mr. Dion's.

"We are demonstrating government by cabinet, which means I have tremendous confidence in the ministers in our government to make the right decisions on files that cross their desks, and they do so with the full support of the Prime Minister, because that is why we put them in this job," Mr. Trudeau told the Commons.

Alex Neve, secretary-general for Amnesty International Canada, called the Liberal decision to defeat the NDP motion to create a Parliamentary oversight body on arms exports "a missed opportunity to demonstrate that the commitment to openness and transparency will prevail even with respect to tough and sensitive issues."

Speaking with CTV Kitchener on April 15, Mr. Trudeau was asked whether he personally felt good about the deal.

He acknowledged "obviously there are concerns about human rights," but said his opinion was not what mattered.

"My personal feelings are not what people elected me for. They elected me to be a clear, responsible leader of this country," Mr. Trudeau said.

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About the Authors
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

Ottawa Bureau Chief

Robert Fife is The Globe and Mail's Ottawa Bureau Chief and the host of CTV's "Question Period with The Globe and Mail's Robert Fife." He uncovered the Senate expense scandal, setting the course for an RCMP investigation, audits and reform of Senate expense rules. In 2012, he exposed the E. More

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