April 25, 2019 by David Kennedy
At the start of the year, a healthy percentage of Canadians had never heard of SNC-Lavalin. An even larger number couldn’t have told you what business the company was in, let alone share a single detail about its legal troubles.
So much for that.
The public falling out between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former attorney general, put an end to any chance SNC-Lavalin had of settling its long-festering legal issues out of the limelight. With no more than six months to go before the next federal election, the infighting has also considerably weakened the Liberal government.
Save perhaps a couple high-profile advisors, Trudeau has few people to blame but himself. Even if you take the prime minister and his office at their word, and accept that no “inappropriate” pressure was applied to halt the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, the fact that there was pressure at all smacks of a double standard.
Within the engineering and construction industry, the Montreal-based company has a strong reputation as a major player in Canada and beyond, but ethical issues have been an open secret for years. The fraud and corruption charges laid against the company by the RCMP in 2015 for its actions in Libya years earlier were particularly troublesome, as a conviction would bar SNC-Lavalin from federal contracts for a decade.
Still, trouble for a Canadian company, even a large one, doesn’t necessarily mean a top staffer in the Office of the Prime Minister should be clashing with Canada’s attorney general over dinner at the Château Laurier.
In an impartial system, a large company should have to play by the same rules as a small one. Any attempt to apply double standards simply breeds resentment – just ask small businesses currently facing carbon taxes when larger ones are partially exempt, or check in with one of the many small- to mid-sized Ontario manufacturers that went bust in 2008 even as the federal and Ontario governments bailed out GM and Chrysler.
Judging by two months of nearly unrelenting criticism and sliding poll numbers, Canadians have little sympathy for the sort of political manoeuvring that would have opened the door to a remediation deal for SNC-Lavalin. If nothing else, the scandal has dented Trudeau’s reputation and deprived him of two popular ministers — both of whom have since been expelled from the Liberal caucus. Whether or not the blowback will be enough to down the prime minister and the Liberals come October remains to be seen.
The next hurdle for SNC-Lavalin is easier to spot. Following the company’s failed attempt to reach a deferred prosecution agreement, a Quebec judge is currently deciding if criminal charges against the company warrant a trial. SNC-Lavalin, meanwhile, has filed an appeal. In other words, the company is in the exact same legal position it would have been in had the PMO never broached the topic. If convicted, experts tend to agree the company’s reputation would take a harder hit than its finances. The seemingly unending wave of negative publicity is another story.
All in all, it’s quite clear the federal government would do itself, the thousands of Canadians employed by SNC-Lavalin and the construction industry as a whole far more good if it focused less on changing the rules of the game and more on getting the billions of promised infrastructure dollars out the door.
This column first appeared in the April 2019 issue of On-Site. You can read through the full issue here.