TORONTO — The chief executive of SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. says he never cited the protection of 9,000 Canadian jobs as a reason the company should be granted a remediation agreement to avoid a criminal trial on allegations it paid millions of dollars in bribes to obtain government business in Libya.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Neil Bruce said Wednesday if the engineering firm is convicted and barred from bidding on federal contracts here at home its workers would end up working for the Montreal-based company's foreign rivals.
"There would be a reduction with us but these are talented folks. They'll get a job," Bruce said.
"This thing that somehow they're going to be unemployed is not true because they are highly qualified, highly experienced people."
Bruce's comments come as a political storm in Ottawa continues over allegations that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his senior staff and others improperly pressured former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to end a criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
Trudeau and his staff have said their only concern was for SNC-Lavalin's 9,000 jobs, which might be at risk if the company were convicted and then barred from bidding on federal contracts for up to 10 years
The affair has so far cost Trudeau two cabinet ministers, his principal secretary and the country's top public servant, although he continues to insist no one did anything wrong.
Bruce said its Canadian workforce has decreased from 20,000 in 2012 and will likely fall further. That, despite it being the only Canadian company that does nuclear technology work helping Ontario facilities like Chalk River, Darlington and Pickering. Also, no other domestic firm does the scope of infrastructure services on projects in cities like Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.
He said the company has calculated that about 75 per cent of its rivals have concluded deferred prosecution agreements (DPA) in their host countries and are free to work in Canada.
Meanwhile, Bruce said he still doesn't know why the director of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada and former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould were not open to granting a remediation agreement.
He said the company appealed that decision in Federal Court, hoping to learn some of the rationale.
"We did an appeal not because we thought we would win the appeal but because we thought we might get a reason and that got tossed out with no reason so we still don't know."
Bruce said he's not holding much hope that an agreement will be offered under the current political climate, especially if the Conservatives win the fall election, and is preparing for a lengthy legal process.
"We have never asked for the charges to be dropped, we've never asked for anything to be circumvented," he said. "We just want to move on for the sake principally of our employees first and foremost and our investors."
A main stumbling block to getting a DPA could be public perception that former employees accused of crimes aren't being held accountable, he said.
He said innocent SNC-Lavalin employees feel bruised and battered by the last six weeks since a report surfaced that government officials pressured the former attorney general to grant the company a deferred prosecution agreement.
"And I think fundamentally that's unfair on our employees who had nothing to do with what went on seven to 20 years ago."
While he's not surprised that politicians would make hay out of this issue during an election year, Bruce said he's concerned the company will continue to be a political punching bag as the campaign unfolds.
"If it sort of doesn't move on from that or gets worse of course it's a concern."
Bruce also said few people have publicly defended the company's important contribution to the country as a home-grown success story.
"So if anybody's happy for us not being able to do that work and give it to the Americans or give it to the Europeans I think that's a sad, sad position."
He said there's no plans to move the company's headquarters from Montreal, adding competitors are envious of its shareholder base that is 82 per cent Canadian and led by the Caisse de depot which has helped fund its acquisition of British engineering firm Atkins.
"We see ourselves as Team Canada. We are a global champion, one of few. There's not many and we're proud to be Canadian."
Companies in this story: (TSX:SNC)
Ross Marowits, The Canadian Press