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Canada's Ambassador to China Dominic Barton makes his way to a committee room to appear before the House of Commons committee on Canada-China relations in Ottawa, Feb. 5, 2020.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Dominic Barton, who led McKinsey & Co. for nine years before becoming Canada’s ambassador to China, says he was unaware of the global consulting firm’s role in advising a U.S. drugmaker to bolster sales of OxyContin, the highly addictive painkiller that contributed to tens of thousands of deaths in Canada and the United States.

He told The Globe and Mail that it’s personally upsetting to learn McKinsey was providing advice to Purdue Pharma on tactics to drive sales of Oxycontin and that he understands the damage caused by opioid misuse.

McKinsey consultants advise governments and corporations around the world. The firm agreed last week to pay US$573 million to settle investigations in U.S. states over its consulting work related to sales of opioids.

McKinsey is open to settlement regarding opioid work in the U.S. and Canada

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Mr. Barton was global managing director of McKinsey from mid-2009 to mid-2018, a period during which the firm advised Purdue Pharma on ways to increase sales of the painkiller.

In a 2021 court filing, Massachusetts’ attorney-general alleged that McKinsey’s consulting - including a plan to “turbocharge” Oxycontin sales - advised Purdue and other manufacturers to target “prescribers who write the most prescriptions, for the most patients, and thereby make the most money for McKinsey’s clients.”

Last Friday, The Globe and Mail reached out to Mr. Barton, now based in Canada’s embassy in Beijing, to ask whether he was aware of his firm’s actions and if he had any regrets about the people who died from or became addicted to the painkillers. On Tuesday, The Globe asked similar questions to his New York-based lawyer.

“I understand the tragic human toll that opioid misuse and addiction has taken in both Canada and the United States and these revelations are distressing for me personally,” Mr. Barton responded several hours later in an e-mail.

In the period of January, 2016, to March 20, 2020 alone, 16,364 Canadians died of opioid-related overdoses. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 450,000 people died from overdoses involving any opioid in that country, including prescription and illicit opioids, from 1999 to 2019.

“I regret that this was the case and hope that the settlement will contribute meaningfully to supporting and healing communities and families,” Mr. Barton said.

Mr. Barton said no one at McKinsey told him that his consultants were working on strategies to boost Oxycontin sales.

“As Global Managing Director, I was not in a position to oversee every client engagement and simply had no knowledge of the work undertaken for Purdue by my former colleagues,” he said.

Mr. Barton said he only learned “after the fact through media reports” of the activities by McKinsey.

“It would appear that the professional standards and values McKinsey has always sought to uphold were not adhered to by the individuals involved,” Mr. Barton said, adding he would “have nothing further to say” on the matter.

Court filings from a 2019 lawsuit filed by Massachusetts’ attorney-general against Purdue and its owners, the Sackler family, alleged the consultants urged the Sacklers to make “a clear go-no go decision to ‘turbocharge the sales engine’ ” behind Oxycontin.

The Globe had been pressing Mr. Barton and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau since December to explain what role his ambassador to China had in the opioid crisis.

In December, Mr. Trudeau brushed aside questions about whether Mr. Barton, a former top economic adviser to his government, was aware of the controversial opioid work being done under his leadership at McKinsey.

“Dominic Barton is an extraordinary Canadian who is doing great work for us in China as Canada’s ambassador,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters.

Jay Alix, the billionaire founder of consulting firm AlixPartners, has engaged in long-running legal battles with McKinsey over its conduct in U.S. bankruptcy cases. He questioned why the Prime Minister is keeping Mr. Barton in China.

“As the leader, he personally profited from all the opioid consulting advice that turbocharged the sales and benefited from McKinsey’s related opioid investments that were profiting from the very addiction which McKinsey helped fuel. The buck stops with him,” Mr. Alix said.

Mr. Alix said the Prime Minister must decide whether Mr. Barton should remain as Canada’s man in Beijing given the behaviour of McKinsey in the opioid crisis and other questionable conduct by the firm.

“The management failures, lack of responsible leadership, and numerous acts of alleged illegal behaviour that took place under Barton’s watch is mind boggling,” Mr. Alix said. “Is Dominic Barton really the kind of person that law-abiding Canadian citizens and government leaders can place their trust in and be proud of?”

In 2018, the New York Times revealed McKinsey had prepared a document on how Saudi Arabia’s austerity measures were being received, raising questions about whether its analysis played a role in Riyadh’s effort to target its online critics. McKinsey later said the brief was not written for a “government entity” or to target critics and that it was “horrified by the possibility, however remote, that it could have been misused.”

That same year McKinsey came under criticism for holding a corporate retreat in China’s western Xinjiang region, just six kilometres from the location of an internment camp where Beijing is imprisoning minority Muslim Uyghurs.

In 2017, McKinsey apologized for “errors of judgment” in its business dealings with corruption-tainted firms in South Africa.

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis, vice-chair of the Special House of Commons Committee on Canada-China Relations, said his party opposed Mr. Trudeau naming Mr. Barton as envoy to China in September, 2019.

“Our view from the beginning with respect to ambassador Barton was that he was not an appropriate choice ... back before we even knew about any of these issues around McKinsey advice to Purdue,” he said. “This was based on the nature of the some of the involvement McKinsey had with Chinese state-owned and affiliated enterprises.”

As head of McKinsey, Mr. Barton focused on building the company’s China business during Beijing’s rise as a global superpower. One of its clients was Sinochem, a state-owned conglomerate that produces industrial components, works closely with the People’s Liberation Army and is a leading provider of Chinese aid to rogue states such as North Korea and Iran.

McKinsey, which issued a statement in December saying its work with Purdue “fell short” of its standards, has declined to say whether, as global managing director, Mr. Barton was aware of the advice his company was providing to the drug maker. A spokesperson said Wednesday the company had no response to the questions raised by The Globe.

There have been at least four class-action suits filed in the United States against McKinsey over its opioid advice.

Matthew Browne, who represents plaintiffs in class actions suits against McKinsey in Oklahoma, Illinois, New York and West Virginia, did not rule out the possibility of calling Mr. Barton to testify.

“As to his personal involvement with Purdue or any other specific McKinsey client engagements, we can only state we look forward to conducting additional discovery regarding our claims,” he said.

Provincial governments in Canada have also filed opioid-related claims against Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies in a U.S. court totalling US$67.4-billion, in an attempt to recover health care costs associated with fighting an epidemic that has killed thousands of people and devastated communities across the country.

Purdue recently pleaded guilty to criminal charges, including bribing doctors to prescribe OxyContin, as part of a US$8.3-billion settlement with the U.S. Justice Department. The company generated US$31-billion in worldwide revenue from its pain pill, ranking the Sacklers among America’s richest families.

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