Skip to main content

Vladimir Putin was once just an ordinary guy at a back-yard barbecue in Winnipeg.

His host, local businessman Harry Giesbrecht, was leading him on a 10-day tour of Canada. It was the summer of 1994 and Mr. Giesbrecht had no idea, of course, that his mild-mannered friend was the future president of Russia.

Six years later, Mr. Giesbrecht has suddenly become an unofficial adviser to the federal government as it prepares for Mr. Putin's first state visit to Canada. Officials from the Foreign Affairs Department have been calling him to ask for tips on dealing with his Russian friend.

Mr. Giesbrecht has probably spent more time with Mr. Putin than any other Canadian. "He is very quiet and discreet," Mr. Giesbrecht said in an interview. "He doesn't speak unnecessarily. He doesn't drink. He doesn't have expensive tastes. And he is extremely intelligent. He has a photographic memory, and he never misspells anyone's name."

Canadian diplomats were surprised to discover that Mr. Putin had a personal friend in Canada. They had assumed that the state visit, beginning tomorrow in Ottawa, would be his first to Canada.

The diplomats were unaware of Mr. Putin's previous journey until they learned of a letter the Russian President had sent to Mr. Giesbrecht earlier this year. The Foreign Affairs Department was soon on the phone asking for advice.

Back in 1994, Mr. Putin was a deputy mayor of St. Petersburg and Mr. Giesbrecht was a veteran of the Russian business scene. As president of Winnipeg-based Central Canada Structures Ltd., he had built a $22-million hotel in St. Petersburg, ran a clothing store in Moscow, and had several other projects in construction, real estate and the grain industry in Russia.

Mr. Putin, as deputy mayor, was a good contact. When Mr. Giesbrecht couldn't find sources of gravel for concrete for his hotel, Mr. Putin came to the rescue. "He was extremely co-operative," Mr. Giesbrecht recalled.

Then the Winnipeg businessman, with Russian partners including the city of St. Petersburg, decided to build a hydrogen plant near St. Petersburg to supply hospitals and medical centres. He invited Mr. Putin to visit Canada to study similar facilities.

Over about 10 days, Mr. Giesbrecht led the future president on a tour of Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg, with a side trip to Niagara Falls, Ont. "I felt close to him," said Mr. Giesbrecht, who speaks Russian and several other languages. "I considered him a friend."

Despite many months of work, the hydrogen project fell apart. In 1998, Mr. Giesbrecht's investments in Russia were hurt badly by the Russian financial crisis and the collapse of the ruble. He lost more than $100,000 in a bank failure and became increasingly frustrated by the difficulties of doing business in Russia.

He had invested $10-million in a second hotel project in St. Petersburg, but the hotel was never completed. He decided to pull out of Russia, leaving only a few local employees in one shop in Moscow.

Mr. Putin, meanwhile, had better luck. The former KGB agent rocketed from obscurity to become Russia's prime minister, and then its President almost one year ago.

Mr. Giesbrecht sent congratulations, and Mr. Putin responded with a warm letter, saying he had fond memories of his trip.