There are allegations that SNC-Lavalin won some contracts in foreign countries through bribes. Bombardier appears to be subject to similar allegations. Ongoing investigations at both companies will determine whether either allegation has merit, and if so, whether either company has broken Canadian laws.
Is it possible that other Canadian companies might have resorted to bribes to gain access to foreign markets and contracts? If one looks at the global footprints of Canadian companies, especially those in the resource sectors, and compares these footprints with the countries in the bottom third of Transparency International’s corruption index, it would appear that we have not heard the end of such allegations.
But even if one or more Canadian companies has violated Canadian laws, so what? If bribes are necessary to gain access to foreign markets – they are a cost of doing business, akin to marketing costs and lobbying – why should we care? More importantly, why should there be any laws to deter Canadian companies from engaging in such practices outside of Canada? Isn’t corruption a problem for other countries to solve?
The obvious response is that we must set minimal ethical standards for Canadian companies. We cannot allow companies to engage in a race to the bottom in order to win business. At some point, unethical behaviour does not justify additional sales and jobs. After all, we are Canadians and we must stand for something.
But before I stand up and start singing “O Canada” in both official languages, let me turn to free trade agreements. With the World Trade Organization multilateral trade negotiations going nowhere, Canada is pursuing as many bilateral free trade agreements as possible. Among these is a trade agreement with China.
The last time I checked, gaining access to the Chinese market trumped any concerns for weak labour laws and the absence of many individual and collective freedoms and rights. It appears that in our pursuit of free trade with as many countries as possible, the Canadian Government is content to ignore human rights issues, as well as endemic corruption, in order to open up opportunities for Canadian companies. And Canadians seem to ignore these issues as well as long as they can get lower prices in return. I d not see Canadians marching in the streets objecting to negotiating trade agreements with certain countries and willingly accepting higher prices in turn.
So what is the difference between a Canadian company, and I am not referring to any Canadian company, paying bribes to gain access to a market and the Canadian Government accepting limited freedoms and the general absence of human rights in order to help Canadian companies gain access to a market?
Are we willing to stand for something and accept the resulting sacrifices? Do we as Canadians actually stand for anything other than our own selfish interests? If so, let us debate what it is we stand for and what this implies for our external relations and laws.
Or are we just hypocrites? If so, let’s admit to this and do away with any laws that impede the ability of Canadian companies to compete.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.