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For Saudi Arabian Vehicle Agreement, Canada Weighs Jobs and Human Rights: NPR



A lightweight armored vehicle is part of a new monument at the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum in London, Ontario. General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada produces hundreds of LAV's for sale to Saudi Arabia.

Jackie Northam / NPR


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Jackie Northam / NPR

A lightweight armored vehicle is part of a new monument at the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum in London, Ontario. General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada produces hundreds of LAV's for sale to Saudi Arabia.

Jackie Northam / NPR

Last year, the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum in London, Ontario, installed a monument to the country's armed forces serving in the Afghanistan war. It is a 25-inch lightweight armored vehicle, complete with a tower at the top.

But these days LAV has taken another kind of symbolism for Canada.

About a mile from the museum, workers with the Canadian division of the US defense company General Dynamics Corp. builds the eight-wheeled amphibious vehicles to Saudi Arabia's national guard.

Now it is 15 billion. Canadian dollars ($ 11.2 billion) agree the focus of a debate in Canada to balance the country's respect for human rights with hundreds of well-paying jobs.

In 2014, Prime Minister Stephen Harper went in to get Canada to produce armored vehicles for the Saudis. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has so far held the agreement.

Kevin George, Principal of St. Aidan's Anglican Church in London had already been a vocal opponent of the agreement when it was signed because of Saudi Arabia's poor human rights record. Then came the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen in 2015, which greatly increased the civilian death penalty in the poor nation.

George says the Canadians have been watching with increasing alarm in the conflict, especially reports from Saudi aircraft that hit schools and doctors facilities, killing thousands of civilians, including children.

"We know what is happening in Yemen," he says. "And I think we're selling weapons to a regime that does what it does in Yemen, which is really crucial for war crimes."

George said it was the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggis last October that brought the problem of armored vehicles in Canada. US intelligence services have estimated that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the killing of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. His death prompted Canada to break the contract with Saudi Arabia.

"That's the kind of problem that really speaks to … basically for Canadians," said Shachi Kurl, the managing director of the Angus Reid Institute, a research institution for public opinion. "Is it the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do?"

In October 2018, an Angus Reid poll found only 10% of Canadians wishing to maintain the vehicle agreement and allow future arms sales to Saudi Arabia. "The overwhelming majority of Canadians said we should no longer sell weapons to Saudi Arabia," says Kurl, but respondents disagree on whether to honor or cancel the current deal.

In December, Prime Minister Trudeau suggested he might try to kill the deal.

Kevin George, Rector of St. Aidan's Anglican Church in London, Ontario, is a vocal opponent of Canada's agreement to sell light armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

Jackie Northam / NPR


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Jackie Northam / NPR

Kevin George, principal of St.Aidan's Anglican Church in London, Ontario, is a vocal opponent of Canada's agreement to sell light armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

Jackie Northam / NPR

When the NPR asked Canada's Foreign Ministry this month whether the government would continue to comply with the agreement, the department officials said "undergoing export permits to Saudi Arabia and no final decision has been taken."

General Dynamics Land Systems rejected an interview, but said in a statement to the NPR that facilitating armored vehicles "contract remains in force."

"If Canada were to unilaterally terminate the contract, Canada would incur billions of dollars of responsibility for General Dynamics Land Systems Canada," the company said in a statement in December. "In addition, the termination of the contract will have a significant negative impact on Canada's workers and the defense sector.

The government awarded the contract to General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada after negotiating the agreement with the Saudi government five years ago. The company says that the terms of the agreement are confidential. In September 2018, the Canadian television company CBC reported that internal documents on the agreement showed that the country agreed to provide 742 lightweight armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

Gerry Macartney, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce, calls it the "biggest export contract in Canadian history." He says London's economy would be destroyed if it was pulled.

"General Dynamics is one of our major employers and producers not only in London but in the region," he says. "So these are highly valued jobs in our society and across the country."

Over the years, Macartney notes that the London area has seen large companies such as Caterpillar, Ford and Kellogg's manufacturing facilities. London was also hit hard during the recession in 2008.

"Many manufacturing jobs left and never returned. It has taken us so long to get back on our feet to get a pretty good economy ahead," he says. "The last thing we need is another hit."

The company says it employs 1,700 highly educated people in London and indirectly delivers work to more than 12,000 additional people across Canada through more than 500 vendors. Macartney says there are more than 240 suppliers in London alone for armored vehicle contracts.

One of them is Rho-Can Machine & Tool Co. Co-owner DJ DeJesus says the company employs about 100 people and counts on General Dynamics for 35% of its business.

"So if the contract goes away, 35% of their work loses," he says. "It would just be terrible."

DeJesus says it would be misunderstood to believe that Saudi Arabia's behavior would change if it did not have the lightweight armored vehicles manufactured in Canada. "The bottom line is that we have countries all over the world set up to take over this contract the moment we decide we don't want to," he says.

Royce de Melo, a Middle Eastern security consultant based in the London region, says the contract is to deliver the vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

"They can go to law enforcement, can go to the military, can go to border security," says Melo. "You can't control how it's used at the end of the day."

De Melo says it would send a bad signal if Canada is not seen as failing to fulfill its contractual obligations.

But Rev. George sees the question differently.

"If Canada can't stand up to what's right in this case, can they ever have confidence to stand up for what's right in the next deal?" says the church principal.

In December, demonstrators gathered at a port in Saint John, New Brunswick, to demonstrate that armored vehicles are being loaded for shipment to Saudi Arabia.

Bryan Smith, with the Oxford Coalition for Social Justice in Woodstock, Ontario, says there could be another option that would satisfy both sides in this debate. He says the Canadian government should find other customers for armored vehicles, such as the United Nations.

"People here would continue to have good jobs and they would be put to good use, such as with peacekeeping troops in Yemen," he says.


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