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Exclusive: Canada isn't being totally honest about its plan to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia

The Trudeau government contends that a massive $15 billion armored vehicle deal is "between a private company and Saudi Arabia." Documents obtained by VICE News prove that's not quite true.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
(Canadian Press/Winnipeg Free Press-Phil Hossack)

New documents obtained by VICE News reveal that the Canadian government is providing military bases, staff, and resources to test-drive the heavily armored, and highly-controversial military vehicles being purchased by the Saudi government. They also prove that, despite what the government of Canada has said, this is not just a deal between a private company and a foreign country: It is a deal between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Canada itself.


The revelation directly contradicts statements from the Canadian government contending it is just a passive participant in the deal to sell the vehicles, commonly referred to as the 'LAV III', to the Middle Eastern absolute monarchy.

The documents, obtained by VICE News through an Access to Information request, detail how the company, General Dynamics Land Systems Canada (GDLS-C), requested and obtained assistance from Ottawa in letting the Saudis test out the heavily-armed machined.

"GDLS-C requires the use of a suitable Canadian Forces Base to [redacted]," reads one memo prepared for Minister of International Trade Chrystia Freeland. "There will also be associated support such as the [redacted]. Support, staff coordination, administrative and logistics assistance."

The documents continue that the government had meetings with General Dynamics in order to ink a "Provision of Services Agreement."

When presented with the documents, a spokesperson for Freeland confirmed that the agreement was signed, but refused to provide details about exactly what benefits had been, or will be, provided.

"The CAF has concluded a formal agreement with GDLS-C to provide such access to test the vehicles. Testing military vehicles on bases is common practice, a normal contractual requirement for products of this nature, and does happen in Canada," the spokesperson said.

The LAV III at the CANSEC conference in Ottawa. (David Kawai/Daily VICE)

The documents continue that: "This [redacted] is customarily done using Canadian Forces facilities and installations. The Department of National Defence only allows for the use of its bases for non-DND activities when the use is in support of the mandate of another Government of Canada ministry," the memo continues.


It specifies that the Department of National Defence will choose the facilities and resources that will be used, and that GDLS-C will reimburse the Canadian government for all expenses incurred.

"The government insists on calling these permits some of the strongest controls in the world. Which is a joke."

When asked directly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has consistently categorized the deal as done, and downplayed his government's involvement.

"We will continue to respect contracts signed, because people around the world need to know that, when Canada signs a deal, it is respected," Trudeau told the House of Commons in April.

The deal represents a significant economic incentive for the prime minister. At a total value of $15 billion CAD, the procurement "represents the largest advanced manufacturing export contract in Canadian history," according to the documents.

The records come from the Canadian Commercial Corporation, a semi-independent government-owned body that exists to set up deals between Canadian industry and foreign countries. The corporation withheld hundreds of additional pages relating to requests on the LAV deal.

A promotional video from General Dynamics Land Systems Canada.

In 2015, VICE News broke the details of a similar deal, also to market the LAV III, but with Kuwait.

At the time, a spokesperson confirmed that the Canadian military "provided assistance to facilitate the demonstration of the LAV III Upgrade vehicle to the Kuwaiti Ministry of Defense from late-August to mid-September 2012."


The spokesperson said that such support is offered on a "limited, case-by-case basis when there are unique capabilities or services that only the Department of National Defense or Canadian Armed Forces can provide."

Who's contracting who?

The documents reveal that the deal itself, thought to be between General Dynamics Land Systems Canada and the Saudi government, was in fact between Canada and Saudi Arabia itself.

Included in these documents was a presentation made by Martin Zablocki, president and CEO of the Canadian Commercial Corporation, at the headquarters of Global Affairs Canada, which houses the country's foreign affairs and international trade ministries.

"The Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC) signed a contract with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on (redacted) for the provision of Light Armored Vehicles manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems Canada (GDLS-C).

"The CCC is the prime contractor and GDLS-C is the sub-contractor."

That fact is in direct contradiction to talking points from Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion.

"First of all, the government is not approving this contract. The government is simply refusing to cancel a contract approved by the former government, a contract between a private company and Saudi Arabia," Dion told a Senate committee in February.

A Canadian LAV III. Photo via the Canadian Armed Forces.

Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, which monitors the Canadian arms industry, told VICE News that providing Canadian military assets to get this deal done would strike to the heart of the government's spin on the issue.


"It begs the question whether that's an appropriate use of DND resources and personnel, and it also contradicts the erroneous notion that it's just a deal between Saudi Arabia and a private company," Jaramillo said.

Steven Staples, a policy analyst who has closely followed the deal, said the documents show just another way in which Ottawa is boosting its burgeoning arms trade — Canada is now the second largest arms dealer in the Middle East, according to defense industry publication Jane's, at some $2.7 billion per year.

Staples said the Canadian government helps with promotion and marketing, assists in networking, provides financing and loans, and leverages diplomatic channels to help get these deals done — now, evidently, it also provides venues for training and testing.

"On every step, the government is an integral part to this dirty deal," Staples said.

Related: Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen Used 2,000-Pound American Bombs to Kill 97 Civilians

Critics of the deal, like Staples and Jaramillo, point out that under Canada's export rules, the government can't sell military hardware to a country "whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens, unless it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population."

But there is a well-placed fear that the LAV III will be used vehicles to suppress local dissent, or in an offensive capacity. It's not a hypothetical: the Globe & Mail, which has aggressively covered the issue over the past year, obtained footage showing the Saudi government using LAVs on its citizens. Just this week, it reported that Canadian-made weaponry had been used in a house raid that killed one man.


This deal was signed under the previous Conservative government. Then, Trudeau and members of his Liberal Party repeatedly expressed skepticism over the deal. They've changed their tune since forming government.

Staples said that if even Dion, whom he called "principled," is willing to "shill for the arms industry," it begs the question: who will fight against it? Not one of the three main political parties in Canada opposes the deal.

"It's deeply distressing," he said.

Saudi Arabia and the Liberal Party

The Canadian Commercial Corporation took note of the Liberals' shift on the file. The documents obtained by VICE News contain a report prepared by the corporation, entitled "Saudi Arabia and the Liberal Party." The point of the memo was to "outline the progression of the Liberal Party's view on Saudi Arabia and CCC's contract there."

The timeline of the comments begins with a statement from a Liberal politician calling for clemency for Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes for his writings against the government.

"If Saudi Arabia is eligible to receive Government of Canada weapons exports, who would not be?"

"The Liberal Party of Canada called for clemency, condemns draconian sentence imposed on Saudi free speech advocate Raif Badawi," the description reads. "Unrelated to [redacted] but included for context purposes."

From there, the timeline includes comments from Trudeau from August 2015, when he called on Canada to "stop arm sales to regimes that flout democracy such as Saudi Arabia," to his eventual position, from October of the same year: "We will not be cancelling existing contracts."


As the memo notes, Trudeau had originally, before being elected prime minister, defended the deal as "not an agreement between the government of Canada and Saudi Arabia," but instead "between a manufacturing company here in Canada and Saudi Arabia" — which is untrue.

Related: Canada Will Sell Weapons to Saudi Arabia, but Says It Might Cancel the Deal After They're Sold

The same memo notes that Trudeau promised during the campaign that he would have Canada ratify the UN Arms Trade Treaty, an agreement that would impose restrictions on the international sale of, amongst other things, armored combat vehicles and large-calibre artillery systems — which would certainly include the LAV III.

The treaty requires exporting countries to consider the human rights situation in the destination country before approving the trade. Similar language exists in Canadian law but the decision of how that language is interpreted is ultimately at the discretion of the Canadian government.

"These criteria are likely to have a significant impact on the defence industry as these industry actors will be one of the key stakeholders in making the ATT effective," the memo reads.

"I'm sure that they [the Canadian Commercial Corporation] were very nervous," said Staples. "They were undoubtedly very sensitive about whatever the Liberal Party had said and done. … They probably wanted to reassure the Saudis."

Export permits

Canada has long maintained that its export permit process is a strong barrier to stopping the flow of arms to countries with poor human rights records. But the decision to sign the permits, and to ship the weapons, ultimately comes down to the minister and the minister alone.

"I will block those permits if the military equipment is ever used to violate human rights or against the interests of Canada and its allies," Dion told the House of Commons in May.


A media photo provided by General Dynamics.

"The government insists on calling these permits some of the strongest controls in the world," Jaramillo said. "Which is a joke."

And while talking points from the government vow "transparency" on the deal, the government has not released a final delivery date, or confirmed exactly how many vehicles will be delivered, although it's believed to be around 600.

Even the government's own internal reports on Saudi Arabia, obtained by the CBC, note that the human rights situation is deteriorating.

In Zablocki's presentation, he did say that "Global Affairs Canada is working with GDLS-C on the export licensing process to ensure products sold under contract are granted proper export permits."

Related: Dead Civilians, Uneasy Alliances, and the Fog of Yemen's War

While some, including the company themselves, have tried to downplay the role of the vehicles — Trudeau at one point called them "jeeps" — they can pack a serious punch. The standard armament of the LAV III is a 105mm gun, an armor-piercing anti-tank gun. It can also support two belt-fed machine guns and two smoke-grenade launchers.

Those capabilities are mentioned infrequently by the company itself. At a recent defense show in Ottawa, GDLS-C had painted half of the vehicle in UN colors and touted its utility as a field ambulance. A media kit provided to journalists includes two specifications sheets: One for its "engineer" configuration, which features a front plow; and one for its "combat support" mode, where it can be deploy as "ambulance, personnel carrier to command post… or other mission roles."

But with reports emerging from Yemen that the Saudi military is committing war crimes in their operations there, that spin isn't carrying much weight with the watchdogs.

"If Saudi Arabia is eligible to receive Government of Canada weapons exports, who would not be?" said Jaramillo. "The bar is impossibly low."

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @Justin_Ling