POLITICS
08/01/2019 18:44 EDT | Updated 08/01/2019 18:54 EDT

Elizabeth May Draws NDP Heat With ‘Idea’ About SNC-Lavalin And First Nations Water

Charlie Angus had some sharp exchanges with the Green Party leader on Twitter.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Green party leader Elizabeth May makes her way from Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 18, 2019.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May says she was merely “floating an idea” when she proposed getting SNC-Lavalin involved in projects to help deliver safe drinking water on First Nations reserves.

It’s a proposal that has been blasted by New Democrats in what May sees as a sign that the upcoming election campaign will be “ugly.”

At a town hall meeting in Ashcroft, B.C. in July, May suggested that if SNC-Lavalin is found guilty on corruption and fraud charges, the Quebec-based engineering giant should face a court order to perform “community service” by repairing water infrastructure on reserves.

“Community service, for a large corporation, would be a very interesting approach,” she said, according to the Ashcroft-Cache Creek Journal. “It would keep the workers working. The shareholders of SNC-Lavalin wouldn’t like it, but maybe they should have paid more attention.”

It’s an “obvious place where we can get a lot of work done that doesn’t break the bank on the federal taxpayer,” May was quoted saying. 

 Watch: A handy timeline of the SNC-Lavalin affair

 

SNC-Lavalin returns to court in September and faces the spectre of a 10-year ban from bidding on federal contracts. The company was at the heart of the political firestorm that rocked the Liberal government for months. Former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould alleges she was improperly pressured by top government officials to halt SNC-Lavalin’s criminal prosecution through a remediation deal, also known as a deferred prosecution agreement.

Veteran northern Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus, his party’s ethics critic, released a statement late last week saying he was “appalled and disappointed” by May’s proposal. He accused Greens of seeking to “turn over water infrastructure contracts on reserve” to a corporation facing serious charges.

“This is not a time to experiment with privatizing water services. It is especially not the time for the Green party to use this crisis as a chance to promote an international corporation facing corruption and bribery charges,” he said in the release. “What kind of message does that send to Indigenous communities about the value of reconciliation?”

Angus and May also had several sharp exchanges on Twitter, with the Green leader denying she ever suggested privatizing water services. 

At one point, May said her party helped NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh win his seat. May did not run a candidate against Singh in a B.C. byelection last year, honouring a so-called “leader’s courtesy.”

Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, whose riding includes two First Nations under boil-water advisories, told the Winnipeg Free Press in a statement that May’s idea “opens the door to privatizing water.” 

Safe drinking water for First Nations is “not a charity or community service project,” she told the newspaper,  but a matter of human rights and Ottawa’s constitutional obligations.

Mark Hancock, national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, also joined the fray.

“This is not, as some have called it, a ‘novel’ solution. This is the same old politics of privilege, pushing aside the real issues facing people and giving cozy deals to corporations who break the law,” Hancock said in the release Monday. “The only thing novel about this proposal is that, disappointingly, it is the Green party proposing it.”

But May told HuffPost Canada in an interview this week that the NDP is attacking her “groundlessly” and that her words have been “egregiously misrepresented.” Greens have always opposed the privatization of public infrastructure, she said.

‘I’d better toughen up’

May suggested the NDP criticism has something to do with her party’s recent momentum. 

“I guess it’s a compliment because it suggests they’re desperate but I like these guys,” May said of her NDP colleagues. “It means that it’s going to be an ugly campaign and I’d better toughen up.”

Recent national public opinion polls have shown Greens clearing double-digits, which could spell trouble for the NDP in several ridings. Greens also narrowly bested the NDP in spring fundraising, according to Elections Canada figures. 

May stressed her proposal is not party policy, merely a “trial balloon.” She brought up the same idea during a televised sit-down with Maclean’s writer Paul Wells in June.

“I think it’s a starting point for a conversation, which is obviously difficult to have if you’re going to get slammed by people who claim you said something you didn’t say,” she said.

A judge sentencing a corporation to work on projects where they would not draw a profit — such as “installing clean drinking water and ensuring that it’s owned and operated by First Nations” — is an idea worth considering, May said. 

“It would only be if First Nations and Indigenous communities agree they were willing to see this as a community service,” she said.

But Veldon Coburn, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Canadian and Aboriginal Studies, finds the whole notion “asinine” and insulting to Indigenous peoples.

Coburn, who is Anishinaabe from Pikwàkanagàn, told HuffPost there is a “moral unseemliness” in even suggesting that a corporation convicted of wrongdoing be forced to help the federal government meet its obligations to First Nations.

It signals to us that they want to cut corners and costs,” he said. “If somebody owes you something, is lawfully obligated to provide it to you, it’s kind of insulting for them to wait around... for a Plan B.”

Coburn also said such a proposal would “penalize the non-criminal organizations” that would legitimately bid on such projects.

May denied such a proposal would effectively let the federal government off the hook for its obligations to provide potable drinking water on reserves. The federal government says 87 long-term drinking water advisories have been lifted since 2015, with 56 remaining on reserves across the country.

“We’ve seen decades of neglect. Boil-water advisories that have gone on now for 15 ,17 years. I can’t live with that,” May told HuffPost. “If we think creatively… it’s not letting anyone off the hook. It’s making sure it gets done.”

With an election months away, May said the blowback won’t change her approach to discussing whatever issues surface at public events.

“I am not going to, as a leader in this country right now, reduce myself to bulletproof talking points that mean you say almost nothing, ever, about anything important,” she said.