Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed Libyans have been maimed or killed in recent weeks as they peacefully demonstrated for a democratic alternative to the brutal, thuggish regime of Muammar Gaddafi.
In response, some 6,700 km due south of the violence, the International Criminal Court in Johannesburg commenced a formal investigation into Gaddafi's alleged crimes against humanity.
And halfway around the world, in British Columbia, the man whose company now is building a $275-million, state-of-the-art prison for Gaddafi in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, huddled with premier-designate Christy Clark, helping her prepare to take the reins of government.
Yes, as bizarre as it sounds, Gwyn Morgan, the $300,000-a-year chair of Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin, a firm that for decades has worked with Gaddafi and his sons, is now serving as a "transition advisor" for Clark while she prepares to implement her "Families First" agenda in Victoria.
And above and beyond that weird fact, is another: Morgan's company does business worth millions of dollars annually with B.C.'s public sector.
So, two questions for Christy Clark. First, what measures have you taken to protect British Columbians from Gwyn Morgan's real and perceived conflicts of interest?
Second, and even more important, why are you working with a man who saw nothing wrong with building a prison for a mad killer like Gaddafi?
Morgan's rise to top of SNC-Lavalin
Gwyn Morgan is best-known as a top executive at Encana Corporation, one of the world's leading natural gas producers (more about this from Andrew Nikiforuk).
Morgan left Encana a very wealthy man, and in 2007, he and his wife had purchased a retirement home in North Saanich. Valued at $7.5 million, the two-acre estate boasted many tall trees and was believed to be the eighth most expensive estate property in the Greater Victoria area.
Gwyn Morgan had reached the pinnacle to which all Albertans aspire -- he had become a British Columbian.
A slew of corporate directorships followed Morgan as he eased into the life of a retired Saanich gentleman, notably at HSBC Holdings plc and Rio Tinto Alcan, and he was asked by the Fraser Institute to sit on its board of trustees.
But even before taking retirement, on Mar. 4, 2005, Morgan had joined the board of SNC-Lavalin, the well-known, Montreal-based engineering firm. And, as required by the company, he became a shareholder in the company's stock. From an original base of 15,000 common shares, the most-recent filings show that he owns 31,000 common shares, as well as another 20,580 deferred share units.
According to the company's calculations, Morgan's equity position in SNC-Lavalin at the end of fiscal 2009 was worth close to $2.8 million.
Along the way, in 2007, he had been promoted from a mere director to chairman of the board, and his annual compensation rose commensurately. In 2007, Morgan was paid $225,000; in 2008, $295,000; and in 2009, $298,000.
Morgan, to put it plainly, has a significant financial interest in SNC-Lavalin.
SNC-Lavalin in British Columbia
SNC-Lavalin has done very well in British Columbia. Among its many projects, two stand out.
In 2005, the company began construction on the $1.9 billion Richmond-Airport-Vancouver (RAV) SkyTrain line (now known as the Canada Line), which opened in the summer of 2009.
Under a controversial public-private partnership (P3) arrangement that the BC Liberal government forced on TransLink -- initially the Greater Vancouver Transit Authority, now the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority -- SNC-Lavalin will operate the system, and collect annual payments, over a 35-year period.
More recently, in October 2010, SNC-Lavalin negotiated a $587 million contract to design and build an expansion of the Waneta Dam, located in the Kootenays at the mouth of the Pend d'Oreille River.
(BC Hydro and Power Authority paid $825 million in 2009 to purchase a one-third interest in the dam from then-owner Teck Resources Ltd., a company that has made sizeable financial donations to the BC Liberal party.)
SNC-Lavalin in Libya
At almost exactly the same time that SNC-Lavalin got the go-ahead on the Waneta Expansion project, the company announced that it had won a $450 million water-supply contract to develop the Al Kufra Wellfield in southern Libya.
The project will be overseen by the Great Man-Made River Authority, which, according to a senior executive with SNC-Lavalin, has been a major client "for over 25 years." The latest project will see the Montreal engineering firm drill hundreds of deep wells and lay concrete pipes to transport water from Libya's southern region to cities in the north.
It wasn't the only SNC-Lavalin project underway in Gaddafi's Libya. In 2008, the firm began working on a $500 million contract to build an airport in Benghazi, the country's second-biggest city.
In 2009, according to the latest corporate filing, SNC-Lavalin's annual revenues in Libya totaled $279 million. Last year, that number climbed to $418 million.
So, things appeared to be going well for SNC-Lavalin and their projects in partnership with Muammar Gaddafi. But the company's fourth-quarter report (for the year ending on Dec. 31, 2010) confessed that the future looked somewhat uncertain.
"Due to the recent events in Libya, the company expects to have lower revenues in 2011 from this country compared to 2010," stated the report.
'Deals with dictatorship'
And what are those "recent events"? Here's a smattering of headlines from various newspapers.
"Gaddafi forces fire on protesters in Tripoli," observed the Washington Post (on February 26).
"Qaddafi Brutalizes Foes, Armed or Defenseless," noted the New York Times (March 4).
And, "Gaddafi's forces unleash 'bloodbath'," in the Vancouver Sun (March 5).
Oh, and here's one more, from the Globe and Mail (March 5): "Deals with a dictatorship: Canadian companies loved Libya's potential, and the money to be made, despite the regime's darker side."
Who might be at the top of the list of those Canadian companies doing business with Muammar Gaddafi? None other than Gwyn Morgan's SNC-Lavalin, which, according to the Globe and Mail, has "signed deals worth well over $1 billion."
The newspaper further noted that SNC-Lavalin first began working with Gaddafi in 1986, and "didn't shy away from currying favour with Colonel Gaddafi's sons Saadi and Saif, [the latter] considered by many to be a successor to his father."
'State of the art' prison for Gaddafi's use
But here's the headline that should have raised eyebrows within Christy Clark's leadership campaign team. (With a personal contribution of $10,000, Gwyn Morgan was one of the largest financial donors to the Clark effort.)
"SNC-Lavalin confirms it's building jail in Libya," appeared over a Canadian Press story on Feb. 24. According to CP, a company representative denied that the engineering firm had concealed the construction project. "It is one of the thousands of projects we work on yearly, not all of which are announced by press release."
The spokeswoman added that SNC-Lavalin's prison would be a "state-of-the-art facility," and "built according to international human rights standards."
Juxtapose those remarks with Amnesty International's 2010 report on Libya, which states that: "Freedom of expression, association and assembly continued to be severely curtailed and the authorities showed little tolerance of dissent."
And, "An official investigation began into the killing of prisoners at Abu Salim Prison in 1996 but not details were disclosed and some victims' relatives who had campaigned for the truth were arrested. Hundreds of cases of enforced disappearance and other serious human rights violations... remained unsolved, and the Internal Security Agency (ISA), implicated in those violations, continued to operate with impunity."
Will McMartin is a contributing editor at thetyee.ca.
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