OTTAWA — When Canadians decide this fall whether to return Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to office, Quebec’s votes will be critical.
So it’s a good thing for Mr. Trudeau that many in the province have stood by him this year even as his former justice minister accused him of bullying her over her handling of a criminal bribery case. On Wednesday, the country’s ethics commissioner found that the prime minister’s behavior violated the ethics law.
The reason Quebecers have been so loyal is that the case involved a major Quebec-based engineering company, SNC-Lavalin, which is a household name in the province, a source of pride, and a symbol of success.
Mr. Trudeau wanted the company to pay a fine, not face a criminal conviction. And he has steadfastly maintained that he was only trying to save jobs in Canada because a criminal conviction would bar the company from government work.
“I was supportive of Trudeau and what he did,” said Karl Moore, a business professor at McGill University in Montreal. “If the prime minister of Canada can’t help out one of Canada’s global companies, something’s wrong. I think they’ve been treated unfairly.”
The controversy over Mr. Trudeau’s behavior has been brewing since February, when the accusations by his former justice minister and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, became public.
In most of Canada, the accusations and unrelenting news coverage have significantly dented the prime minister’s popularity, said Jean-Marc Léger, the chief executive of the Léger polling firm. But, he said, support for Mr. Trudeau in Quebec hasn’t wavered.
ImageCreditDarryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press
“From the beginning, there has been solidarity with the company in Quebec,” he said.
He added that Mr. Trudeau’s battle to help save SNC-Lavalin jobs could pay political dividends in the upcoming election. Combined, Quebec and its larger neighbor Ontario have about two-thirds of Canada’s population, making them a linchpin to the prime minister’s re-election hopes.
Like Mr. Trudeau, Quebec politicians also rallied on behalf of SNC-Lavalin. “I don’t think we should penalize the thousands of employees who work for SNC-Lavalin,” Premier François Legault of Quebec said in February.
The company has about 3,600 employees in Montreal and other 5,400 elsewhere in Canada. But for Quebecers, the significance of SNC-Lavalin goes well beyond the numbers of workers.
It is one of a group of companies informally known as Quebec Inc. and includes the airplane and train maker Bombardier. During the 1960s and ’70s, the companies became the first large corporations in Quebec with French-speaking management. That’s important because at the time, French speakers faced discrimination in other Quebec companies.
The two companies that merged to form SNC-Lavalin designed and built hydroelectricity projects in the northern part of the province that are now an important component of Quebec’s economy. It also built iconic structures like Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
Although many Quebec firms fled to Toronto after the election of a separatist government, SNC-Lavalin stayed put. And it became a global player with offices in dozens of countries and 50,000 employees worldwide.
“The company is symbolic of Quebec’s engineering prowess on the global stage,” said François Cardinal, the editorial page editor of La Presse, a leading French-language newspaper. “The company is part of Quebec’s mythology.”
Despite its iconic status, SNC-Lavalin’s legacy also includes repeated incidents of corruption. In 2013, the World Bank banned it from bidding on its contracts for a decade to settle a corruption inquiry into its activities in Bangladesh.
Separately, an Indian government investigation found in 2011 that the company paid bribes there to build a major hydroelectric dam.
And in SNC-Lavalin’s own backyard, Pierre Duhaime, its former chief executive, pleaded guilty in February to paying tens of millions of dollars in bribes to build a hospital complex in Montreal.
A public official has also pleaded guilty to taking bribes from SNC-Lavalin in exchange for a contract to renovate a landmark bridge in Montreal.
Michel Girard, a business columnist at Le Journal de Montréal, is among many in Quebec who note that the company long ago purged senior management of those responsible for the corruption. “They cleaned house,” he said. “To put the company in prison is not fair.”
In the case that Mr. Trudeau got involved in, the company was charged with bribing and defrauding the Libyan government when Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, was in power. Mr. Trudeau argued that under a new law, the justice minister could have pushed for a civil penalty of a substantial fine, rather than a criminal conviction.
To press its argument for a civil penalty, the company engaged an array of lobbyists and others.
The ethics commissioner’s report shows that among them were Kevin Lynch, the company’s chairman who was previously head of the civil service in Canada; the chairman of the Bank of Montreal, one of the five banks that dominate financial services in Canada; and two retired justices of the Supreme Court of Canada.
And then there was Mr. Trudeau, whose aides also argued in favor of a civil penalty.
In the end, however, it was fruitless. The justice minister allowed the criminal prosecution to go forward. The company is awaiting trial.
Professor Moore said that while a conviction would bar SNC-Lavalin from bidding on government work, it wouldn’t wipe it out.
“But I think that its future is being smaller in Canada and being smaller over all,” he said. “They’ve done wrong but I think they’re being treated poorly.”
SOURCE : https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/17/world/canada/trudeau-ethics-snc-lavalin.html