Bullets over Bay Street

Shouldn't selling munitions to an occupying force be a war crime?

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On the morning of Thursday, May 5, the shareholders of one of Canada’s largest corporations, SNC-Lavalin, shuffled into the gallery of the Toronto Stock Exchange for their annual general meeting.

The TSE was converted into a fortress for the occasion. A dozen riot cops on horseback assembled around King and Adelaide, waiting for approaching demonstrators the glass walls of the gallery were separated from the sidewalk by manned barricades.

Inside, dozens of uniformed police kept an eye out for anti-war rabble and exchanged jovial comments with affluent passersby. Given SNC’s eagerness to profit from the occupation of Iraq, the sight of shareholders passing through checkpoints to enter the gallery offered some understated irony.

As CEO Jacques Lamarre addressed the meeting, shareholders eyed their glossy annual reports. Total net revenue for 2004 was nearly $3.5 billion. Sales of ammunition to “military and paramilitary markets” were up, generating revenues of $289.2 million. And the company had retained its status as “the only producer qualified to produce a key propellant for the United States’ armed forces,” well positioned to profit from a U.S. war effort that shows few signs of slowing down.

This rosy economic forecast notwithstanding, traces of nervousness pervaded the meeting’s atmosphere. Much as they tried, shareholders could not ignore the faint rumble of chanting and drums beyond fortified police lines, or the targeted arrests carried out by T.O. cops in full view of the meeting.

At the core of the controversy erupting around SNC-Lavalin is its key role, through wholly owned subsidiary SNC Technologies, in an international consortium contracted to manufacture 300 to 500 million rounds of small arms ammunition annually for the U.S. military. This despite overwhelming Canadian public rejection of the invasion of Iraq.

Its participation in an ammunition-supply consortium anchored by General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems will, explains the anchor’s CEO, “ensure supply support for the U.S. armed forces in their war against terror.” The question posed by a demonstrator’s placard outside the meeting was therefore pertinent: “Is SNC stock rising with the body count?”

Inside the meeting, Lamarre tried to deflect criticism, explaining that all SNC sales are “100 per cent approved and reviewed by the Canadian government.” Besides, he quipped, “we have no way of knowing” if SNC bullets are used in Iraq, “no way of knowing what the U.S. Defence can do with” them.

Really, the issue of where and how the ammunition will be used is pretty straightforward. The U.S. Army is facing a “bullet crunch,” attributed by the Financial Times to the number of troops in Iraq (about 120,000) and the unexpected intensity of armed Iraqi resistance.

Eric Hugel, defence industry analyst at Stephen’s Inc., sums up the problem: “We’re using so much ammunition in Iraq, there isn’t enough [manufacturing] capacity to go around.”

But it takes more than a market for Canadian businesses to line their pockets. As Lamarre was quick to point out, any arms export of this magnitude requires federal oversight.

The Canadian arms trade is subject to control by the Export And Import Permits Act, giving the Minister of Foreign Affairs regulatory responsibility. Sales that could contribute to war crimes should be prohibited. But the fox, personified in this case by Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew, is once again guarding the henhouse. Andr&eacute L&eacutemay, the ministry’s deputy director of international trade, tells NOW that concerns about Canadian munitions being used illegally in Iraq are based on “pure speculation.” While SNC sales to the U.S. are subject to relevant Canadian export regulations, Lémay offers his department’s assurances that “these military exports are in fact permissible.”

But military sales to any governments that are “involved in or under imminent threat of hostilities” or that “have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens” are subject to tight control.

Certainly, one needn’t look far for legal grounds to bar the U.S. from access to Canadian ammunition. Consider an announcement made by the U.S. Marine Corps the very day before SNC’s fortified TSE get-together.

Issued from Camp Pendleton, the statement explained that a corporal who had executed an unarmed Iraqi in a Fallujah mosque would not face charges. True, the whole incident had been filmed by NBC and broadcast internationally. True, execution of wounded prisoners is flatly prohibited by the Geneva Conventions. Nonetheless, explained the commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, the execution was “consistent with the established rules of engagement” for U.S. occupation forces.

So the execution of wounded prisoners is consistent with the rules governing the use of millions of rounds of Canadian ammunition. Judging from U.S. conduct in Iraq, so is the hunting of insurgents native to that occupied country.

Indeed, potentially explosive contradictions in Canadian society are easy to discern. On the one hand are those manoeuvring to profit from the spoils of empire. On the other, many people of conscience stubbornly refuse to view the world through stock market indexes.


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