For a Québécois, the SNC-Lavalin-Trudeau-government debacle is especially painful to watch. I can’t help but wonder whether English Canada’s punditocracy would be as indignant if the prime minister’s office had seemingly been trying to save a Toronto- or Calgary-based multinational corporation instead of a Quebec one.
SNC-Lavalin is Canada’s largest engineering firm. Not just Quebec’s.
I hate having to raise that kind of question, but it must be raised to ensure we get to the right place concerning the long-term fate of SNC-Lavalin. Especially since we’ll probably never know why then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould did not agree to using a “remediation agreement” to deal with the problem, a perfectly legal means of protecting companies that have erred in major ways and yet do not deserve to die.
Did SNC-Lavalin commit illegal acts? Whatever it did in the past concerning the MUHC hospital contract or Libya, it has since turned the page. It is now being run by different people. The company has been restructured under a new CEO, British-born Neil Bruce.
The charges of bribery and fraud against SNC-Lavalin in connection with its operations in Libya do not involve any current managers.
SNC-Lavalin was founded in Montreal in 1911. It is one of the world’s 10 largest engineering and construction companies. Until the scandals, it was Canada’s industrial jewel in the crown.
When I was in Algeria, invited by the Canadian International Development Agency to lecture on journalism, the driver who picked me up from the airport insisted we take a short detour on the way to my hotel. There was something he really wanted to show me. We drove to the highest point overlooking “Alger la blanche” (Algiers, the Algerian capital, really is mostly white, and beautiful) to see the famous Makam El Shahid, the monument built in 1982 to mark the 20th anniversary of the end of the war of independence and honour the martyrs who helped liberate Algeria from 132 years of French rule.
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The driver did not want to honour the martyrs that day, but the Canadians who built the memorial designed by Algerian artist Bachir Yellès. I got the entire history of SNC-Lavalin and enough praise to last Canada and Canadians a couple of lifetimes.
If the federal government allows the criminal prosecution against SNC-Lavalin to proceed, instead of entering into a remediation agreement, and if SNC-Lavalin is found guilty, the firm will be barred from government contracts for 10 years. It is already under a ban by the World Bank. It might not survive a guilty verdict.
And if the company were to go out of business, more than 50,000 employees worldwide, including 9,000 in Canada, would lose their employment. The large tax bills paid by the company every year would disappear. SNC-Lavalin would become an easy prey for a foreign takeover, say by friends of Canada, like the Chinese Communist Party.
Prosecuting corporations has its limits: you can’t jail a company. You can only strip it of its assets, its human assets to begin with. But how many members of SNC-Lavalin’s workforce had anything to do with the charges the company faces? Why should they pay with their livelihood for wrongdoings of others long gone from the company?
Failure to accept the remediation compromise, which would impose upon the company further disbursements and more behaviour-containment rules, is to condemn SNC-Lavalin to a likely death.
What good would this achieve, exactly?
I am not suggesting that the separation of powers be disregarded, and if anyone, from the prime minister on down, acted against the spirit of the law, he or she should be sanctioned. But I ask you, dear reader, if the street address of SNC-Lavalin’s headquarters were on Bay Street instead of at 455 René-Lévesque Blvd. W. in Montreal, would we be talking about the same scandal today?