B.C. pizza mogul takes aim at Canada’s Saudi arms deal

Photo : THE CANADIAN PRESS Jonathan Hayward

 

A refugee-turned-B.C. pizza mogul is taking a vocal stance against Canada’s $15-billion deal to sell military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

Ray Russell, the CEO of Freshslice Pizza, announced on Twitter he had sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressing his hope the government will cancel the upcoming deal, saying it would amount to taking “blood money.”

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what’s going on here,” Russell said. “This regime is a brutal regime and we have to do something as a human being, as a Canadian.”

Russell came to Canada from Iran in 1987 as a refugee. He says he arrived with $8 in his pocket and worked hard to build Freshslice Pizza into a multimillion-dollar business. The restaurant chain has over 70 locations across the province.

[If] some people hurt us business-wise, I really don’t care about it and I will not change my mind on that.– Freshslice Pizza Owner Ray Russell 

He said he was compelled to speak out after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Turkey on Oct. 2.

There have been conflicting accounts on what actually happened to the vocal critic and Washington Post columnist.

Turkish officials say a 15-man Saudi assassination squad — including at least one member of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s entourage — killed and dismembered Khashoggi, whose body has not been found.

The Saudi government provided several different versions of what happened, including that the journalist died in a fist fight. It currently maintains the journalist died in a premeditated killing.

Russell, who describes himself as a long-time Liberal Party supporter, says Khashoggi’s death acted as a spark to draw attention to other issues associated with the Saudi Arabian regime, pointing to the regime’s ongoing military action in neighbouring Yemen.

It’s common for responsible organizations to raise their voice, especially in democratic settings when the government does something that is not appreciated.– SFU Business Professor Rajiv Kozhikode

UN experts have accused the regime of war crimes including rape, torture, disappearances and “deprivation of the right to life” during three and a half years of escalated fighting against rebels in Yemen.

“The fight is good against evil, it’s not about — how you call it — race or politics,” Russell said. “We all have to do our part here.”

Mixing politics and business

Rajiv Kozhikode, an associate professor at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business, says while businesses have often taken ideological positions on local issues, increased connectivity through social media means businesses are now taking stances on international issues — and getting their message out.

Kozhikode, who researches corporate political activity, says one example was when Apple CEO Tim Cook and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz both decried U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2017 travel ban.

“It’s common for responsible organizations to raise their voice, especially in democratic settings when the government does something that is not appreciated,” he said.

But in the case of a smaller, local business like Freshslice, he says it might need some extra support to ultimately effect policy changes.

“If it’s just isolated resistance, then it would not have much momentum. But a collective resistance … then it might change.”

‘Money does not come first’

As for Russell, he says he is not worried about a backlash against his business.

“The way I see it, we all have to do the right things. Money does not come first,” he said.

“[If] some people hurt us business-wise, I really don’t care about it and I will not change my mind on that.”

Ray Russell says he is not worried about a backlash against his business because of his stance. (Freshslice)

On Wednesday, Trudeau said he is looking at different options to suspending the contract. He had previously been reluctant to cancel the billion-dollar deal, citing significant financial penalties — as much as $1 billion or more — built into the contract signed by the previous Conservative government.

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