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Politics Gadhafi contacts prompt Ottawa to review policy on foreign militaries

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Canadian Ambassador to Libya Sandra McCardell visit the former compound of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi in Tripoli on Oct. 11, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Canadian government will review its policies on companies doing work for foreign militaries after it was revealed that Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin worked with the Gadhafi regime to create a military-civilian engineering unit.

The Globe and Mail reported Saturday that SNC-Lavalin worked closely with Saadi Gadhafi, the son of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, to establish the unit in the years before a rebellion unseated the Libyan dictatorship, offering the services of a retired Canadian admiral and former president of Hydro-Québec, among others.

On Monday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said the report raised concerns that will require a review of Canadian policy.

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"Obviously, reading the story, I was deeply concerned by what it had to say. We will be looking into the issue," Mr. Baird said from Haiti.

Canada has controls that restrict the sale of goods and technologies to foreign countries that could be used by their militaries. But there are no restrictions on providing services to foreign militaries, even those controlled by repressive dictators, unless their countries are the target of Canadian sanctions. Now questions are being raised about whether new rules should be made.

"Obviously, we're open to reviewing our laws, our regulations, our policies and protocols going forward in the future," Mr. Baird said.

The talks between SNC-Lavalin and the Libyan government took place from 2008 to 2010, and Mr. Baird noted that was before Ottawa imposed sanctions on business dealings with the regime last February in response to Col. Gadhafi's bloody crackdown on opposition protesters.

"But obviously you are judged by the company you keep. And this was a particularly nefarious character," Mr. Baird said. "Going forward, we'll be looking at what we might do on this issue."

Mr. Baird's comments mark an unusual expression of concern about the activities of a Canadian company abroad. Ottawa has been active in promoting the resumption of business with Canadian firms after the war, and Mr. Baird brought SNC-Lavalin executives to meet Libya's new leaders in the National Transitional Council on a trip to Tripoli in October.

Documents cited by The Globe and Mail revealed that officials from the engineering giant met repeatedly with Saadi, the third son of Col. Gadhafi, who was named as commander for a new engineering unit that would assume civilian construction and military duties.

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SNC described itself as a defence contractor and offered the regime military experts, such as retired Canadian Vice-Admiral Ron Buck, the former head of the navy and vice-chief of the Canadian Forces, and former Hydro-Québec president Armand Couture. It also extended advice on the unit's structure.

SNC-Lavalin didn't respond to Mr. Baird's comments, but repeated that its defence work does not involve combat training or weapons. In a letter to the editor of The Globe and Mail, the company's chief executive officer, Pierre Duhaime, wrote: "In the case of Libya, our sole project with the military consisted of a program to develop an Engineering Corps, like the model in the U.S. or France, that would be capable of supporting and building infrastructure (facilities, bridges, roads, etc.) for civilian use."

SNC-Lavalin's venture on the new unit took place in the period between two different sets of sanctions that have been slapped on Libya.

Canada joined the Western world in lifting sanctions in the years after Col. Gadhafi renounced his pursuit of nuclear weapons and backing of terrorism abroad in 2003. Former prime minister Paul Martin visited Libya in 2004, as did many Western leaders. Multinationals quickly angled for lucrative contracts. In Libya, SNC-Lavalin has worked on a project to build a $275-million prison and a massive water pipeline. All its projects are suspended, but the company has indicated it intends to resume operations when it determines it is safe for workers.

Libya's new leaders have signalled they are reviewing all foreign investments. During the rebellion, NTC leaders said they would remember countries that stood with them when it came time to do business later; but they have stressed they will honour Gadhafi-era contracts.

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