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

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau brushed aside questions Tuesday about whether Dominic Barton, once a top economic adviser to the government and now ambassador to China, was aware of the controversial work being done under his leadership at McKinsey & Co. to help boost sales of opioids.

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

“He has a long history in business and economics, and is the right person to continue moving forward at a very difficult time in Canada-China relations.”

Mr. Barton was global managing partner of McKinsey & Co. from 2009-2018, a period during which the massive consulting firm advised New York-based Purdue Pharma on ways to bolster sales of OxyContin.

In 2016, Mr. Trudeau tapped Mr. Barton to head a blue-chip advisory council on economic growth. Mr. Barton served as global managing partner emeritus until September, 2019, when Mr. Trudeau appointed him Canada’s envoy to Beijing.

The New York Times reported last month that McKinsey had discussed ways for Purdue to “turbocharge” sales of its drug OxyContin, including paying Purdue’s distributors a rebate for every OxyContin overdose attributable to pills they sold.

Contacted by The Globe and Mail, McKinsey declined to say whether, as top managing partner, Mr. Barton was aware of the firm’s involvement with Purdue Pharma. The company, which issued a statement earlier this month regretting its advisory work, referred questions to Mr. Barton about his knowledge of McKinsey proposing that pharmacies be paid rebates for opioid overdoses.

The Globe has asked Mr. Barton about what he knew about McKinsey’s work for Purdue. He has not responded.

On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau, whose government has spent more than $150-million to combat the opioid crisis in Canada, declined to answer a question about whether he had ever asked Mr. Barton about his role in the McKinsey work for Purdue.

Instead, he defended Mr. Barton.

“I am pleased to have him by my side on the international stage as we work very hard to stand up for Canadian values and to move forward on building a better future,” Mr. Trudeau said of the former McKinsey partner.

“His leadership on working hard to bring home the two Michaels is a defence of Canadian interests, including Canadian commercial interests,” the Prime Minister said, referring to the two Canadians locked up by China in apparent retaliation for Ottawa’s arrest of a Huawei executive on a U.S. extradition request.

The latest revelations about McKinsey’s work for Purdue have prompted calls by U.S. Democratic and Republican lawmakers for the firm to be investigated.

“Whether it’s shadowy business dealings in China or helping Purdue stoke the opioid crisis, McKinsey has a lot to answer for,” Republican Senator John Hawley said in a statement to The Globe earlier this week. “Now McKinsey is terrified of going on the record to defend their conduct or even answer a few basic questions.

Reached by The Globe last week, DJ Carella, director of global media relations at McKinsey, said he could not answer if Mr. Barton was ignorant or unaware of the nature of the work undertaken for Purdue. He would only say that during Mr. Barton’s tenure as global managing partner, “he was never on the client team that served” Purdue.

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis said the Prime Minister gave a “total non-answer” to serious questions about his ambassador to China, particularly since so many Canadians have died from the opioid crisis.

“These are critical questions and it is just totally irresponsible for the Prime Minister to brush them off,” he said. “Dominic Barton needs to answer specifically about how he views McKinsey’s advice to Purdue and what he knew and he didn’t know when he was leading McKinsey.”

The MP, who is vice-chair of the House of Commons special committee on Canada-China relations, said Mr. Trudeau has an obligation to get those answers from Mr. Barton.

“There is something that is really terrible here in terms of McKinsey’s record and especially for Canadian families impacted by the opioid crisis [who] are going to be legitimately demanding answers from the government,” Mr. Genuis said.

At McKinsey, Mr. Barton led the company through several controversies – including in China. In 2018, for example, the company held a retreat in China’s western Xinjiang region just six kilometres from the location of an internment camp that is believed to deliver vocational skills training and forced political indoctrination to ethnic Muslims.

In 2017, McKinsey issued an apology for what it said were “errors of judgment” in its work with companies accused of corruption in South Africa.

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