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Then-Canadian prime minister Paul Martin (left) shakes hands with Libyan Leader Colonel Moammar Gadhafi (right) in his tent in a military compound in Tripoli, Libya.Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

SNC-Lavalin could never have done business in Libya, or at least not very successfully, without a helping hand from the Canadian government.

Were it not for a 2004 trade mission to the North African country by then-prime minister Paul Martin – paving the way for SNC-Lavalin’s biggest contracts there – it’s possible the Canadian firm would not be facing criminal charges today.

The brutality of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s regime has been cited by some legal experts as a possible explanation for why Director of Public Prosecutions Kathleen Roussel refused to negotiate a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with SNC-Lavalin. The law forbids Ms. Roussel from entering into such an agreement if she believes a company’s alleged crimes might have caused serious bodily harm or death.

There is no public evidence to suggest that the alleged bribes that led to charges being laid against SNC-Lavalin in 2015 enabled Mr. Gadhafi’s repression. But that does not mean Ms. Roussel does not possess information to the contrary.

Mr. Gadhafi, who was overthrown and murdered in 2011, did not need to be bribed in order to repress his own people. And the involvement of SNC-Lavalin and other Canadian companies was supposed to lead Mr. Gadhafi to embrace democratic reforms.

In 2004, multinational corporations were scrambling to sign deals in Libya after the lifting of international sanctions. A year earlier, Mr. Gadhafi had renounced terrorism and his country’s weapons of mass destruction, winning friends in the West.

“That was a major step forward for Libya and a major step forward for anyone who wants our children to live in peace,” Mr. Martin told the Toronto Star on his Libyan trip, during which he met with Mr. Gadhafi. “It’s very important that Libya be encouraged, that we work with Libya, as it pursues that very positive force for itself and the world.”

Canada’s “encouragement” involved building goodwill with the Libyan strongman that helped SNC-Lavalin and other companies win business in the oil-rich country. Sanctions had left Libya in dire need of investments in infrastructure and resource development.

Then Petro-Canada chief executive Ron Brenneman joined Mr. Martin on his 2004 trip. The Calgary oil company was looking to win lucrative oil leases. And Ottawa was then in the process of selling off its 19-per-cent stake in the former Crown corporation. Winning a bigger piece of Libya’s oil pie helped boost the value of that stake.

SNC-Lavalin had been operating in Libya since the mid-1990s. But its business there took off after Mr. Martin’s trip. In a 2006 Globe and Mail interview, then-SNC-Lavalin CEO Jacques Lamarre insisted the company was helping to elevate business practices in Libya: “We like win-win situations. We’ve been involved in international markets for over 40 years and have helped many countries to become normal.”

By 2011, as Mr. Gadhafi moved to suppress Arab Spring protests in his country, it had become clear the dictator had never given up on repression. SNC-Lavalin found itself having to publicly defend its $275-million contract to build a state-run prison. A company spokesperson insisted the detention centre in Gharyan, near Tripoli, was “the country’s first to be built according to international human rights standards. We think this is an important step forward for this country and an opportunity for us as a company to share values that we think are essential to all citizens of the world.”

The Gharyan prison was not completed before SNC-Lavalin was forced to cease operations in Libya. That makes directly tying the company to human rights abuses seem like a stretch. But, again, Ms. Roussel may have information the rest of us don’t.

The former SNC-Lavalin executive at the centre of the Libyan scandal, Riadh Ben Aissa, has co-operated with investigators since pleading guilty to a single charge of forging documents relating to $22.5-million in bribes paid to win a mega-hospital construction contract in Montreal. The remaining 15 charges against him were dropped.

Mr. Ben Aissa spent 29 months in a Swiss prison after his 2012 arrest there until he plead guilty in 2014 to paying bribes to Saadi Gadhafi, Mr. Gadhafi’s son, to help SNC-Lavalin win Libyan contracts. His credibility as a witness in Ms. Roussel’s prosecution of SNC-Lavalin will be hotly contested by the company should the case go to trial.

This mess might have been avoided if Canada had not embraced Mr. Gadhafi. Remember that the next time a Canadian prime minister shakes hands with a dictator.

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