The federal government is under pressure to levy sanctions on one of Russia’s richest oligarchs, who has strong ties to President Vladimir Putin and whose family owns a global gold-mining company that has an exploration project in Nunavut.
Billionaire businessman Alexei Mordashov has been blacklisted and subject to asset freezes by the United States, the European Union and Australia but has so far avoided being targeted by Ottawa. The White House described him and several other sanction targets as “close to Putin.”
Mr. Mordashov is the largest shareholder of Severstal, Russia’s fourth-largest steel maker, and his family owns stakes in gold miner Nordgold, whose headquarters are in Moscow. Nordgold was majority owned by Mr. Mordashov until March, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when he transferred his shares to his live-in partner in an attempt to avoid sanctions.
Conservative Senator Claude Carignan raised the matter in the Senate on Dec. 14, asking Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson why Mr. Mordashov is not on Canada’s list of banned Russian oligarchs and why Nordgold is allowed to operate in Canada.
Mr. Wilkinson said he was open to imposing sanctions on the Russian oligarch, whose personal net worth is valued at about US$29-billion, but he said the decision rests with Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly.
“It is important because Canada is a leader when it comes to banning bad actors, including Russia, which invaded Ukraine. I am very open to the idea of having a conversation with you and then with Minister Joly,” Mr. Wilkinson told the Senate during a ministerial Question Period.
Ms. Joly herself has talked about the need to impose high costs on Russia. In May, she said the goal of Canada and its allies is to isolate Russia “economically, politically and diplomatically.”
But Ms. Joly’s office declined to say what the minister would do about Mr. Mordashov when asked by The Globe and Mail. Instead, press secretary Adrien Blanchard noted in a statement that Ottawa has imposed sanctions on 1,500 “individuals and entities complicit in Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, including on Putin himself” since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
“Our objective is to be in lockstep with our allies, hold the Putin regime accountable, and starve the Russian war machine,” he added.
Mr. Blanchard, however, didn’t explain why Canada is not in lockstep with major allies on Mr. Mordashov.
Conservative Senator Leo Housakos, a former speaker in the Red Chamber, said it is embarrassing that the government has failed to act against Mr. Mordashov.
“In this particular incident, we talk tough about dealing with Putin and standing up for Ukraine and yet we see a Russian oligarch doing business here and enriching himself off Canadian natural resources,” he said.
Mr. Housakos said he fears that Canada has become “a laundry machine for dictators and oligarchs to come to Canada and use us because of our lax approach in dealing with these authoritarian criminals.”
Michael Nesbitt, a University of Calgary law professor who previously worked on sanctions policy for the federal government, said the Canada tends to lag its Western allies in levying sanctions on individuals or entities.
He also said the Canadian government appears to have a “less robust” process than major allies to decide which companies and individuals to target.
When the EU put sanctions on Mr. Mordashov, it said he was “benefiting from his links with Russian decision-makers” and cited his business company Severgroup’s financial interest in Rossiya Bank “which is considered the personal bank of senior officials of the Russian Federation.” It also cited his investments in media that “actively support the Russian government’s policies of destabilization of Ukraine” through pro-Putin television stations.
On June 3, the EU also levied sanctions on Marina Mordashova, described as Mr. Mordashov’s wife, citing the transfer of Nordgold shares to her through “various offshore companies.”
That month, Washington hit Mr. Mordashov with sanctions as well as four companies linked to him, including Nordgold. They also imposed sanctions on two of the billionaire’s children and his life partner, Ms. Mordashova.
In March, Italian police seized a yacht owned by the Russian billionaire.
The Nunavut project, known as Pistol Bay, consists of 860 square kilometres of mineral rights within the underexplored Rankin-Ennadai greenstone belt. Nordgold, through its Canadian subsidiary Northquest Ltd., is the 100-per-cent owner of the Pistol Bay venture.
In 2019, the company said on its website that Nordgold conducted an exploration drilling campaign that demonstrated the site had approximately 1.6 million ounces of gold at a grade of 2.2 grams per tonne.