Canada Votes 2015

Unifor walk back criticism of NDP for raising Saudi arms deal in debate

Union says representative who told media the NDP should keep the deal under wraps ‘gravely misspoke’
Photo: 4 Cdn Div/4 Div CA - JTFC/FOIC

A questionable arms sale to Saudi Arabia raised by Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair in last week’s French debate has now become an electoral flashpoint, after a union representing workers at the London, Ontario plant producing the armoured vehicles reportedly asked the NDP to stop talking about the deal.

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This morning an article in the London Free Press was published under the headline “Union asks NDP to keep Saudi deal ‘under wraps.’”

The article quoted Fergo Berto, Unifor area director for London, saying, “We asked the NDP to not make this an issue, that it be kept under wraps. There are a lot of issues out there to be talking about.” He also indicated that Unifor national president Jerry Dias had spoken to NDP leader Thomas Mulcair about the subject over the weekend.

Most of these vehicles are destined for the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which has been implicated in repression of political dissent by the country’s monarchy.

Mere hours later, the union took to Twitter to argue that Berto had “gravely misspoke,” in the process “damaging our union & putting the NDP in a very bad position.” Unifor has declined to do media interviews about the situation, instead issuing a short statement citing transparency as their issue with the contract and arguing that “the bottom line is that the contract has been signed. The NDP have indicated they will respect the contract.”

The deal in question is an almost $15 billion sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia by London, Ontario-based General Dynamics Land Systems Canada. Ricochet was one of the first outlets to report on this deal back in June 2014.

Critics have charged the sale runs afoul of Canadian export control policy, which forbids the export of military goods to countries “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.”

In this case the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which specializes in research on arms control and conflicts, has found that most of these vehicles are destined for the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which has been implicated in repression of political dissent by the country’s monarchy.

Questions remain about their apparent support for an arms deal that could be in violation of Canada’s export control policy.

The deal was brokered by the Canadian Commercial Corporation, a Crown corporation responsible for facilitating military trade arrangements. Prior to this deal, the size of which is unprecedented, the vast majority of Canada’s military exports each year went to the United States.

“Saudi Arabia is slated to be a major, if not the largest, recipient of Canadian military exports for the next decade or more,” says a research memo by Project Ploughshares published by the Ottawa Citizen.

The same memo argues that “the Saudi government’s abysmal human rights record is well documented. In directing a crown corporation to actively seek out the contracts, the Canadian government has ignored the high risk that Canadian vehicles will become tools of repression.”

In a statement, Unifor argued that they are “committed to standing up for jobs and human rights. In this case the concern has been that the Harper government failed to provide the transparency Canadians deserve.”

Unifor statement

Before the statement’s release, the union’s Twitter account responded to a number of users who voiced concerns.

This response came amid fierce criticism on social media, some of it from the union’s own members, that Unifor’s position amounted to support for arms sales to a repressive dictatorship.

The union has now criticized the contract for a lack of transparency, and reiterated their commitment to both jobs and human rights, but questions remain about their apparent support for an arms deal that could be in violation of Canada’s export control policy. For their part the NDP has criticized the deal, but London-area MP Irene Mathyssen told the London Free Press that the contract will not be cancelled if the NDP win.

No doubt many will be watching to see if this issue comes up in Friday’s French-language debate on the TVA television network in Quebec, and perhaps more importantly, whether any of the leaders commit to cancelling the deal if elected.

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