Meagan Smith-Windsor left Saskatchewan a few years ago to join the front line of a bloody civil war. She wanted to help the people of South Sudan in their fight for survival against a brutal military dictatorship in Khartoum.

And so off she went. But she didn’t wear a soldier’s uniform, and she didn’t carry a rifle. Nor did she become a foreign-aid worker. Her front line was Calgary. Her weapon was information. And her enemy was one of Canada’s prominent corporate citizens: Talisman Energy.

Talisman didn’t start Sudan’s war, but it sure helps fuel it. The Canadian oil company contributes millions of dollars every year to the war chest of the Republic of Sudan, a regime described by Washington as “rogue” and terrorist.

Talisman is 25 per cent owner in a consortium that drills for oil in a South Sudanese war zone. The Government of Sudan collects millions of dollars in oil royalties to help pay for helicopter gunships, tanks, bombers — and death squads. No civil war would be complete without the extrajudicial killers. These goons take villagers suspected of talking to rebels, they tie them to trees, and they hammer spikes into their temples.

Front Line: Calgary

On the morning of May 1, Meagan Smith-Windsor joined more than 100 protestors outside Calgary’s posh Hyatt Regency Hotel. It was quite a mix. There were Sudanese refugees, social activists, clergy, foreign-aid workers, doctors — anyone who felt Talisman was not showing corporate responsibility by partnering with a dictatorship. They called for Talisman to stop working in Sudan as long as civil war rages on.

The protestors also asked Canadians to stop investing in Talisman. Doctor Simon Bryant of Calgary said he would find out if MD Management, a financial services subsidiary of the Canadian Medical Association, had money invested in the Calgary-based oil company — and why.

Protestors came from the U.S., Manitoba, B.C. and across Alberta. They wore t-shirts that read “Canadian Oil Out of Sudan,” “Oil Has Brought Death” and “Divest Now.”

The messages on placards hit hard:

  • “Sudan Kill and Drill”;
  • “School Bombings Courtesy of Talisman”;
  • “Human Rights Before Shareholder Profits”;
  • “Talisman Guilty of Ethnic Cleansing”; and
  • “Blood Money.”

One large banner featured a drawing of a small South Sudanese child, with the caption: “I used to live on the oil fields. Now my parents are buried there.”

Anthony Leah of Nebraska said many members of his family in South Sudan — including his mother and father — had been poisoned by chemicals dropped from bombers. He said Khartoum has a “scorched earth policy.” The more land that is cleared of villagers, he explained, the more the consortium can drill for oil.


This front line on May 1, this sidewalk outside the Hyatt Regency, was where hundreds of Talisman shareholders arrived for the 12-billion dollar company’s annual general meeting.

Police and hotel security staff were everywhere. Officers parked their paddy wagons on the street and in the hotel driveway as a reminder to protestors to behave. They helped shareholders slip quietly past demonstrators for their get-together in the Imperial Ballroom on the third floor.

Inside, Talisman presented a slick multi-media show-and-tell on three large screens. Photographs depicted Talisman’s “world-wide diverse operations.” Colourful graphics painted a rosy financial picture: a five-year production growth averaging 15 per cent. Slides of Sudan showed people peacefully working on crafts — no spikes in the temples for this well-heeled audience. Nor were there images of helicopter gunships mowing down refugees in South Sudan lining up for food … or of attacks on foreign aid workers.

The language of the meeting was sanitized. Talisman executives were described as having “up-stream experience.” There was talk of “international performance,” “mid-cycle prices,” “2-Q” (second quarter) and a “strong balance sheet.”

Talisman’s slogan this day: “10 years of Performance, Growth and Value Creation.”

Company Chairman David Powell described the civil war in Sudan as “tragic.”

Finally, when Powell kicked off a question period, an investor sitting in front of me turned and said, “Here comes the Sudan show!”

The Sudan Show

Speakers lined up at the microphones. One by one, they blasted Talisman for its role in Sudan.

Merv Schafer of Calgary pleaded for Talisman to get out: “The company crossed the line big-time trying to exploit oil in the middle of a war zone.” He described the area as a “killing field.” Schafer also accused the company of trying to muzzle media trying to report on a class-action lawsuit against Talisman launched in New York City by the Presbyterian Church of Sudan and a group of refugees.

Talisman’s response: the company is a force for positive change in Sudan, has spent two million dollars in community development projects … and things would be worse if Talisman wasn’t there. There was no mention of the Sudanese military using a Talisman airstrip to attack villagers (as Amnesty International and other groups contend).

Powell said he had just returned from Sudan. He said people — including Canadian government officials — had described Talisman as “an excellent ambassador for Canada.”

The Sudanese refugees who spoke up said exactly the opposite.

They accused Talisman of complicity in a massive depopulation of the area by the Sudanese military, citing extra-judicial killing, rape and slavery. Talisman acknowledged that some villagers had been “relocated” to make way for oil development — but claimed these people had been compensated.

This brought laughter from a pro-Sudanese faction sitting at the front. The shareholders remained quiet and stared straight ahead.

Another refugee approached the mike, scanned the room and began, “Shareholders, put yourself in our position … would you like it if you went home today and found your wife and children murdered?”

Several shareholders walked out when Sudanese refugees and their supporters spoke. James Roberts of New Brunswick, an observer at the meeting, called that “rude”: “They showed their ignorance for the Sudanese people and what they’re going through by not sticking around.”

Professor John Lueth of Iowa State University — another Sudanese refugee and soldier-veteran — stopped people in their tracks when he said, “history will show that Talisman shareholders are making blood money.” Lueth accused Canadians of complicity in the war, and said he looked forward to seeing CEO Jim Buckee indicted as a “war criminal.”

That remark prompted more shareholders to exit the Imperial Ballroom.

But they didn’t escape without a final shot.

Out on the street, departing shareholders were met by dozens of noisy protestors, waving placards that read “Blood Money,” and shouting, “Shame, Shame, Talisman.”

On the front line, armed with pamphlets for Talisman shareholders, was Meagan Smith-Windsor.