The Canadian government's rapidly-shifting talking points on their decision to export militarized Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia has entered a new phase.
Now, Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion is insisting that he would have canceled the deal if he had proof of human rights abuses in the theocratic dictatorship, but he'll be open to retroactively killing the deal at some point in the future if he sees evidence of Riyadh using the Canadian-made weaponized on its own citizens.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday afternoon, Dion went on to offer a litany of other explanations for his decision to approve the sale of $15 billion worth of the LAVs to the regime, which brutally executes hundreds of people a year, offers few rights to women or sexual minorities, faces accusations of war crimes in Yemen, and which is continuing to subject civil liberties advocates like blogger Raif Badawi to brutal corporal punishment.
The deal is between London, Ontario-based General Dynamics Land Systems and Saudi Arabia, but brokered through the Canadian government-owned Canadian Commercial Corporation.
Dion read a prepared statement in English and French, even reading out the sub-headers of each section of his remarks — including "choosing the right lever to improve human rights in Saudi Arabia," "continual rigorous oversight of human rights," "security matters," and "the economy matters."
The minister contended that "our government will not weaken the credibility of the signature of the government of Canada." Then, he suggested that cancelling the military deal could jeopardize an education exchange that has placed some 17,000 Saudi students in Canadian universities — those exchanges "will likely help promote the legal liberalization of Saudi society," he contended, "if we drop the contact, we will set back the clock on those productive efforts." Then he argued that rejecting the deal "will simply hand the contract to a non-Canadian, potentially more ambivalent provider." He added that Saudi Arabia is a "strategic partner" in the region and in the fight against the Islamic State.
"Last Friday, I made the decision to grant some export permits," Dion said, but added that if he so chose, he could have declined to do so. The minister told reporters that, had he found proof that the LAVs would be used, or that previously-sold Canadian gear had been used, against civilian populations, things may have been different.
"Should I become aware of credible information of violations related to this equipment, I will suspend or revoke permits."
"Our best and regularly updated information indicates that Saudi Arabia has not used the equipment to violate human rights," Dion said in the foyer of the House of Commons.
Finally, he said, that might change, based on how Saudi Arabia uses the armored vehicles, which are equipped with anything from a 12.7mm machine gun to a 105mm tank gun.
"Should I become aware of credible information of violations related to this equipment, I will suspend or revoke permits," Dion said.
The practical impact of pulling those permits after they've been approved is somewhat unclear.
For the machinery still in Canada, the government would be essentially forbidding their transport overseas. But for the LAVs already on the ground in Saudi Arabia, the Canadian government has no real power over their use. That would essentially cancel the deal — something the government continually said it would never do.
A government source with knowledge of the file insisted that, even if the LAVs are already on Saudi soil, revoking those permits would have some impact, at least in terms of leverage.
The minister spoke for more than 10 minutes, but took just two minutes of questions.
"Now I'm going to say this straight up — and I don't say it lightly — the government lied to Canadians about who signed what, when in the Saudi arms deal."
Asked specifically how the minister justified portraying the contract as a "done deal" that couldn't be cancelled, only to turn around and note that he could have refused to sign the export permits — but signed them anyway — Dion was nonplussed.
"It's a done deal in the sense that the contract have been signed. It has been signed. And we make the commitment to not withdraw this signature," Dion said. "Once the contract is signed, the minister of foreign affairs keep the power to allow or to revoke the export permits. So where is your problem? I don't understand."
Reporters pushed him to acknowledge that he could have killed the deal.
"Yes," said Dion. "But the process of the export permits is to look at if the equipment has been properly used. That's the basis on which I made my decision."
Dion did not take questions about Saudi Arabia's record of using Western military hardware in its war in Yemen — which has been plagued by accusations that Saudi soldiers are committing war crimes. He didn't answer how Ottawa intended to monitor the use of the vehicles once they're on the ground.
Wednesday was the first time that the minister acknowledged that the export permits had been signed.
The news of the permits was actually revealed by Globe & Mail reporter Steven Chase, who reported that the permits had been submitted to the court through a lawsuit filed to challenge the deal. Chase published the full export orders signed by Dion on Wednesday. Then, Tuesday night, a leak to the Canadian Press confirmed the permits had been signed, and that the government would be releasing their contents.
"What a strange way to learn for a government that claims to be more transparent than the last government," said Conservative foreign affairs critic Tony Clement — a minister in the previous government which approved the deal.
NDP leader Thomas Mulcair — who, during the election, supported respecting the deal — was categorical about the government's shifting rhetoric on the file.
"Now I'm going to say this straight up — and I don't say it lightly — the government lied to Canadians about who signed what, when in the Saudi arms deal, and that is a very serious matter," Mulcair said in the foyer of the House of Commons earlier in the afternoon. "And I'm going to be calling the government to account on that."
Asked about the arms sales on the floor of the legistlature, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed that "we will honour the contracts" and noted that his political opponents across the aisle had also supported the deal, before repeating the claim that was contradicted by his minister just minutes earlier — "you cannot cancel a contract retroactively."
Cutting to the heart of the matter, Trudeau cited the roughly 3,000 workers who will be hired under the auspices of the deal:
"The fact is that there are jobs in London relying on this."
Follow Justin Ling on Twitter:@justin_ling