The SNC-Lavalin Scandal Explained: A Primer on the Key Issues and Questions
Unethical, or simply unsavoury? Illegal, or just inappropriate? The SNC-Lavalin scandal is a confusing concoction of problems, and as a federal election looms, it’s important for voters to be able to make an informed judgment on their government. Here’s a primer on the key issues and questions surrounding the scandal on Parliament Hill.
Criminal charges against an engineering giant: In 2015, the RCMP laid corruption charges against SNC-Lavalin, a Montréal-based engineering and construction firm. The company is accused of having bribed Libyan officials with $47.7 million between 2001 and 2011 to obtain business. SNC-Lavalin denies all allegations. Under the Canadian government’s anti-corruption laws, a conviction would mean that the company would be shut out of bidding on government contracts in Ottawa for 10 years.
The big questions: Should companies convicted of corruption suffer punishment so serious that the livelihoods of thousands of employees, investors, and stakeholders are jeopardized? Should Canadians pay the price for crimes committed overseas in their interests?
SNC-Lavalin’s lobbying efforts for DPAs: After the Liberals were elected in 2015, SNC-Lavalin began intensely lobbying the government to have deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs) written into the Criminal Code. DPAs allow companies to avoid costly trials and criminal convictions so long as they concede to other, less punitive measures—fines, organizational restructure, or new compliance regimes, for example. This would prevent companies from going belly-up while not completely letting them off the hook. This sort of lobbying is currently not illegal, and was successful. DPAs became law in 2018, the relevant provision quietly stuffed into an omnibus bill focused not on legal reform but on the federal budget.
The big questions: Should there be tighter restrictions on lobbying? In authorizing DPAs, did the government act in the best interest of the public or in that of big corporations?
Undue pressure from the PMO: Even though DPAs became part of Canadian law, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) decided not to offer SNC-Lavalin the remediation option. According to a Globe and Mail report in February 2019, SNC-Lavalin then began to pressure the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to force a DPA. This report prompted the government to form an investigative committee, before which the then-Justice Minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould, alleged that that pressure eventually turned to her. As Attorney General, Wilson-Raybould possessed the power to override the PPSC’s decision and allow for a DPA.
Wilson-Raybould claims that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Finance Minister Bill Morneau, and various advisors thereto “hounded” her to negotiate a settlement with SNC-Lavalin. The risk of job losses, the firm moving their headquarters out of Canada, and angering Québec voters before their 2018 provincial election were all cited as reasons for why the government needed to protect the Montréal-based company, according to Wilson-Raybould. Trudeau has repeatedly insisted that neither he nor his government acted inappropriately.
The big questions: Did the PMO politically interfere in Wilson-Raybould’s role as Attorney General? To what extent was the PMO’s conduct illegal?
Tension between the roles of AG and MOJ: The offices of Attorney General and the Minister of Justice have always been occupied by the same individual. That means that the person in charge of independent public prosecutions is also a cabinet minister and politician who is responsible to the Prime Minister and their party. In other words, the situation combines a non-partisan role with a partisan one, inevitably creating a conflict of interest. Wilson-Raybould suggested in her testimony that this is perhaps why events unfolded as they did—the PMO engaged in conversations that were proper for a Justice Minister but improper for an Attorney General.
The big questions: Should the position of Attorney General and Minister of Justice be separated? How did this situation impact the handling of the SNC-Lavalin file?
Anti-Indigenous racism and misogyny in the PMO: During Trudeau’s first years as head of government, Canadians saw their prime minister give a tearful apology to residential school survivors and sing the praises of feminism across the world stage. However, his “woke” sound bite politics were quickly drowned out by his caustic response to Wilson-Raybould’s apparent insubordination. After making clear that she would not direct the PPSC to settle with SNC-Lavalin, Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of her position as Minister of Justice and Attorney General.
Demoting her to Minister of Veterans’ Affairs and repeatedly referring to the former cabinet member by her first name during subsequent press conferences were seen by some as attempts to admonish and belittle Wilson-Raybould. It seemed as though, to Trudeau, political representation for Indigenous peoples and women is virtuous insofar as such representatives toe the party line. Up until her resignation from cabinet, Wilson-Raybould was the only Indigenous member of cabinet and one of only two Indigenous women in the Liberal caucus.
The big questions: Does the Trudeau government truly respect the voices of its Indigenous and women members? Did appointing an Indigenous woman to Justice Minister positively impact the government’s commitment to reconciliation, and does her removal from that role have any related implications?