SNC-Lavalin: What is the Issue and Why Should You Care?

The issue is a major political scandal, but it’s difficult to know if voters care 

Annalisse Crosswell, Associate News Editor

Over the past few weeks the media has been inundated with commentary on the SNC-Lavalin case. The issue was first brought to light on Feb. 7 when a Globe and Mail article, citing unnamed sources, suggested that undue political pressure had been applied to Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould’s decision in a criminal prosecution of the engineering and construction firm. Her decision being not to veto Kathleen Roussel, Director of Public Prosecutions, stance against giving the company a deferred prosecution. In the weeks following the decision Wilson-Raybould was first moved to Minister of Veterans Affairs, a cabinet shuffle on Trudeau’s part that seemed unnecessary, and then resigned despite having commented that she didn’t see the move as a demotion. 

In itself the issue may seem like just another political scandal, but the heart of this issue raises important questions about the sanctity of Canadian politics. It raises the question of whether the structure of Canadian parliament allows enough autonomy in matters that should be kept separate from the sway of politicians, such as decisions of legality that the Attorney General is meant to handle. It also begs the question, is our large voting demographic, the younger generation, paying attention to important matters such as these? 

Speaking to Anna-Elaine Rempel, president and vice-president equity and sustainability, on the topic of student engagement, the Courier asked whether it’s a simple task getting students to engage with politics – be it at the small scale of student politics or at the provincial and federal levels. The question elicited a chuckle from Rempel, “No, it’s definitely not easy,” she said. “…I think it really comes down to showing people why they should care and that takes a lot of effort on the part of those who are already engaged…”  

For some, scandals like the SNC-Lavalin case are of huge importance in determining which party will receive their vote in the coming election. For others political scandals are a complicated issue that they would rather not delve into and voting feels like a redundant task of ticking a box. Some individuals may even see it as a reason to start caring. That being said, the issue iscomplicated and hard to follow in the media without an already clear understanding of how politics works. 

So why all the fuss? SNC-Lavalin, an engineering and construction firm, is facing charges of bribery and fraud in relation to 2015 business dealings with Libya and had previously lobbied the federal government to defer the criminal prosecution. Prosecution would prevent the company from being able to take government contracts for 10 years, while a deferral would require the company to admit guilt, pay a fine, and agree to certain conditions to prevent future issues of legality. In the case of a deferral, the company, which has a history of attracting media attention for all the wrong reasons, would be able to continue to be contracted by the Canadian government. 

With 8,500 employees in Canada, the company has taken on large government contracts in the past. The argument that Trudeau has made to Wilson-Raybould is that those employees welfare needs to be thoroughly considered before taking action. The pressure, according to the Prime Minister, was applied to ensure that the Attorney General had both adequately consulted those knowledgeable on these matters and taken the necessary time to deliberate. 

According to Political Science instructor Tim Schouls this process, in itself, of being able to lobby the government for a deferral is new in the legislature. Following in line with a number of other Western countries, Trudeau instated this change last year as a part of the federal budget in order to allow companies that employ Canadians to continue to take on government contracts. “…I think it’s framed in a way that, again, we don’t want to penalize those who are employed by these companies simply because the company itself was criminally negligent or irresponsible,” commented Schouls on the legislative change. 

When the proposed bill came into parliament as a part of the budget in March of 2018, however, it was done so quietly. Though some MPs suggested that it should be debated as a separate issue, Trudeau also seemed to be firm in his decision to maintain it as a part of the budget approval.  

Essentially the issue comes down to whether or not Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did try to sway the Attorney General’s decision on the matter and whether this was to save 8,500 jobs or simply to protect a portion of voters that play a large role in his potential re-election. Information that might not come to light and, in the case of an investigation, could come far too late to inform the election. Schouls commented that investigations like this are a long-haul process that can take years.  

As it stands Wilson-Raybould has insinuated that there is more to the story, saying in an interview that she was waiting for the other shoe to drop, but is unable to publicly comment on exactly what happened to make her feel that resigning was necessary. “It’s one thing to be concerned about the welfare of individuals employed by a company who might lose their jobs. It’s quite another to pull a company from the brink of being prosecuted for explicitly partisan reasons, namely to secure your own prospects in the forthcoming election,” Schouls noted. He feels that following the shuffle, the new Attorney General will have no choice but to reject the deferral.  

Schouls also believes that Wilson-Raybould’s gender and First Nations heritage played a role in her decision to speak up about the matter. His reasoning being that a male in the same position would be more accepting of the hierarchical structure of government and that being of a demographic that has been so thoroughly taken advantage of by government in the past makes Wilson-Raybould more sensitive to such persuasions.  

“…if you’re going to invite 18 women into your cabinet along with 18 men,” he said, alluding to Trudeau’s decision to take a feminist stance and maintain a cabinet of 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women, “don’t expect [the women] to passively accept the political system as it has been constructed by the fathers of federation…”  

While it seems inevitable that the scandal will negatively impact Trudeau’s already precarious position entering this year’s election, Schouls doesn’t believe this will be the deciding factor between his re-election and a Conservative or NDP government come October. While the NDP government has been measured in its response to the scandal, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has been shrill in his calls for Trudeau’s resignation. “Anybody that I’ve spoken to so far has been embarrassed by the behaviour of the Conservatives under Andrew Scheer,” said Schouls, who believes that the most likely outcome of the election is a minority Liberal government. 

While the issue is complicated, it has the potential to play a huge role in the upcoming election. The amount of attention voters are paying to the scandal – and others like it – is also an important part of the discussion. Capilano University represents an important demographic of these voters who will live with legislative changes and political decisions well into the future.  

Rempel has experience attempting to get students to vote at the student politics level, in trying to get students engaged with the municipal election and the provincial referendum for Proportional Representation electoral system, she found it difficult to capture students attention on political matters. This is was especially true at a municipal level despite the direct impact on students. 

“It’s a very mixed bag honestly…” said Rempel, regarding the student engagement with political issues. “It really depends on what you’re family situation might be. If you come from a really politically engaged family you’re much more likely to have an awareness of it, just because you grew up with it. If you didn’t you have to do a lot of that work yourself.” She noted that this changes depending on the focus of students politics. She believes most students would have an awareness of issues like these, without necessarily going out of their way to understand them. 

Rempel believes that a lack of engaging political education in the K-12 system is “a huge pitfall” and that much more could be achieved if this was changed. “I’m a huge advocate of really doing a much better job of teaching kids about politics from a much younger age,” said Rempel.  

On the other hand, Vice-President Academic Noah Berson, has a more positive outlook on student and youth political engagement. He believes that politics is playing such a large role in the lives of millenials who have started to become engaged out of necessity. “It’s a privilege to be apolitical and one we cannot afford. We are starting to take things into our own hands,” he said. Issues like the environmental turmoils we face along with the cost of education and housing are important motivators according to Berson.  

“This next federal election, will be the first election in Canadian history where there will be more millennial voting than baby boomers. Our generation has often been accused of laziness or apathy but the opposite is true,” Berson said. “While occasionally I’ll still come across someone while campaigning that doesn’t know anything about politics, the vast majority of student our age are interested in it.” 

He also noted that a massive number of those who voted for Trudeau were also millennials. To him, this signals hope that the engagement is there and will continue to influence Canadian politics positively. In reality it is difficult to know how engaged students are with the issue and will likely be more easily recognizable come election time. 

DISCLAIMER: As the Capilano Students’ Union (CSU) has no official position on the SNC-Lavalin case – and has little way of knowing how students are engaging with the issue – neither Berson or Rempel were able to comment directly as to whether this was a priority for students.

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