International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan recently told a parliamentary committee that he ignored instructions from his own ministry to lobby for a potential deal between the Qatari military and a Canadian light-armoured vehicle (LAV) supplier at the FIFA World Cup last fall.

In March, The Maple revealed that Sajjan was told in briefing documents to lobby Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, for a potential deal with General Dynamics Land Systems - Canada (GDLS).

Specifically, Sajjan was told to explain that the deal “would bring Canada and Qatar significant benefits,” and that Canada “sincerely hope[s] to see this opportunity for cooperation between our countries realized.”

The documents, obtained through an access to information request, contained the first direct acknowledgement from a government ministry that such a deal was in the works.

An itinerary for Sajjan’s World Cup trip showed that the minister was also scheduled to meet with GDLS representatives at a closed-door meeting with the Canadian Business Council in Qatar at the Canadian embassy.

The Maple’s original story was subsequently picked up by The Globe and Mail and brought up in a parliamentary committee on immigration and citizenship on April 26.

Bloc Québécois MP Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe asked Sajjan why lobbying for the LAV deal was on his agenda when the minister’s public statements suggested the visit was focused on promoting human rights and international development.

“How does selling arms to Qatar fit with your mandate as Minister of International Development?,” Brunelle-Duceppe asked.

Sajjan told the committee that he ignored his own ministry’s lobbying instructions. “When I go on trips, I usually have a binder like this for briefing notes,” said Sajjan. “In this case, for my visit to Qatar, this was in my notes. Even with the good work that officials do during my meetings, that advice was ignored and that was not raised.”

Brunelle-Duceppe pointed out that lobbying for the deal was listed as one of Sajjan’s “key messages” that he was supposed to deliver to Qatari government officials. “As the minister responsible for Canada's diplomatic mission in Qatar, you are not delivering the key messages that you are asked to deliver as a minister,” said Brunelle-Duceppe.

Sajjan said the topics that he raises during meetings with foreign officials are ultimately his decision. “I stayed focused on my international development file from that region,” the minister said.

Brunelle-Duceppe then asked Sajjan: “Do you think [the LAV deal] was in the briefing notes because the diplomatic channels that Canada uses to talk to the Taliban go through the people in Qatar?”

Sajjan replied: “Sometimes there's information that could be for other reasons, but I can assure you that for this one, it was not raised.”

The Maple contacted Brunelle-Duceppe seeking clarification and further details regarding his question about Canada’s communication channels with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but did not receive a response by publication time.

After his World Cup trip, Sajjan met with Al-Thani on March 5 on the sidelines of the UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries in Doha, reportedly focusing on “development cooperation and partnerships between the two countries.”

Sajjan’s office told The Maple in an emailed statement this week that the GDLS deal “absolutely did not come up at all” in that meeting either.

The Maple also asked if Sajjan himself supports the potential deal. The minister's office replied that Sajjan "is focused on international development and does not have enough details to comment on his support and/or approval of any such deal."

When The Maple originally asked Global Affairs Canada (GAC) about its apparent support for the deal in March, as shown in Sajjan’s briefing documents, the ministry said it does not comment on commercial activities for confidentiality reasons.

But the ministry defended trading weapons with Qatar on the basis that “Canada has one of the strongest export controls systems in the world.”

However, Kelsey Gallagher, a researcher with the arms monitoring group Project Ploughshares, raised concerns about the potential deal in an interview with The Maple in March.

“The central concern is that Canada is arming yet another deeply authoritarian state,” said Gallagher. “Qatar does not treat its own people well, and as we saw during the World Cup, it treats non-citizens even worse.”

“In places like Qatar, there’s overlap between the police and the military, and there have been instances of LAVs purportedly being used against protests [elsewhere in the region],” he added.

According to Amnesty International, Qatar continues to abuse migrant foreign workers despite promising reforms ahead of the World Cup, and heavily curtails freedom of expression, women’s rights and engaging in same-sex relationships.

Alex Cosh is the news editor of The Maple.

Editor's note, May 11, 2023: This story has been updated to include additional comments from Harjit Sajjan's office.

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