A year ago, Cynthia Vanier was a Canadian mediator at the pinnacle of her peacemaking craft. Speaking now from the prisoners’ phone in her Mexican jail, she struggles to explain how war landed her in such a place.
First came the e-mail from her former bodyguard – who was also a bodyguard for Saadi Gadhafi – asking if she was watching the growing strife in Libya. Then, a phone call from a mysterious Libyan-Canadian who was ready to raise big money for a mission to his strife-torn homeland. Finally, the lucrative negotiations with a top executive at the Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin that would net her the consulting contract of a lifetime.
By July, 2011, Ms. Vanier was on a private jet headed toward North Africa for a fact-finding mission that would put her in contact with top officials of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, and would eventually land her in prison accused of trying to smuggle Mr. Gadhafi’s son, Saadi, and his family into Mexico.
“I am pretty heartbroken that this has happened. I am pretty disappointed the Canadian government hasn’t stepped up to the plate to be more supportive. Usually I am the one on the outside trying to help people, not on the inside trying to find my way out. It’s pretty tough,” said Ms. Vanier in her first public comments since she was arrested in November.
Ms. Vanier’s case sets two irreconcilable stories against one another. Mexican authorities say she is the ringleader of an international plot to smuggle the playboy son of the fallen Libyan dictator to Mexico along with his wife and two children.
Ms. Vanier maintains she had nothing to do with any Mexican plot, but leaves it to her family to offer more detailed explanations. A reporter from The Globe and Mail took part in the conversation on a recent Friday when Ms. Vanier telephoned her parents in Canada from prison. She talked about how she came to be involved in providing the Libya report, but refused to address the Mexican charges, saying she did not want to put her legal defence at risk.
In Ms. Vanier’s life as a mediator in Canada, there were few problems she could not resolve, usually netting her a tidy cheque in the end. She settled a conflict between the Attawapiskat First Nation and the De Beers diamond mining company, one of many interventions she conducted in native communities from Caledonia, Ont., to Merritt, B.C. She even once helped the Ontario Hockey Association settle a bill with an inline-skate hockey league.
Ms. Vanier, 52, came to mediation in mid-career while she was a manager at Air Canada. After taking courses on the topic, she quit her job, built a new business and became a frequent keynote speaker at conferences. Settling disputes earned her a living that allowed her a house in Brampton, Ont., and a second home in Mexico.
At Ms. Vanier’s Brampton home there was a big-screen TV and a pool table for her children, a son and a daughter now grown. She long held a private box at the arena of the local junior hockey team. She wouldn’t think twice about shelling out $4,000 for a corporate outing to play her favourite sport, golf.
Ms. Vanier purchased a $590,000 home on the beach near Puerto Vallarta last year. Her family says she needed room for her dog, Titan, and visits from her children. Mexican authorities say it was meant to be a safe house for the Gadhafi family.
“I think Cyndy always liked the better things in life,” says her mother, Betty MacDonald. “She always lived in rather large houses and indulged her children.”
At the same time, Ms. Vanier was well regarded in impoverished native communities for settling conflict and connecting with traditions. Just before she was approached about Libya last winter, she was asked to give a eulogy for Lillian Pitawanakwat, a beloved native elder from Birch Island, in the Manitoulin region of northern Lake Huron, who had died after a long illness. The two had struck up a deep friendship after years of working together.
“Cyndy helped us with our own grieving process, and to bring the family together at a terrible time. She brought us together in a circle of healing,” said one of Ms. Pitawanakwat’s daughters.
What emerges from interviews with family, friends and former associates is that Ms. Vanier was part do-gooder, part savvy entrepreneur who was out of her depth when it came to Libyan strongmen and the shady world of international security.
Ms. Vanier says she was at her winter home near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, last winter when Gary Peters, a security consultant from Cambridge, Ont., dropped her a line: Was she watching what was happening in Libya?
Mr. Peters, who had been Ms. Vanier’s bodyguard for two brief-but-heated negotiations in Attawapiskat, had a more lucrative and long-standing job guarding Saadi Gadhafi. Mr. Peters says he saw a chance to combine his muscle and Libyan connections with Ms. Vanier’s more diplomatic skills for a lucrative foreign job.