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March 18, 2013
The Harper government launched an all-out commercial offensive a full month before the 2011 war in Libya had ended to ensure "a return on our engagement and investment," newly released documents show.
Canada played a lead role in helping liberate the North African country from the clutches of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, a fact that was to be played up during the drive to secure business opportunities for Canadian firms.
The documents have raised old questions over what role commercial interests played in the West's decision to launch a military operation in oil-rich Libya, especially given international inaction in Syria.
They have also prompted debate over whether countries that did help oust Gadhafi and install a new Libyan government should have received some type of reward in the form of increased business opportunities.
"I thought we were there to protect civilians and support human rights, not to protect our investments and make sure we win new ones from people who take power after Gadhafi," said Steve Staples, president of the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute and a critic of the mission in Libya.
"It undermines the government's own arguments that we were there to protect civilians from a brutal dictator when they go in so quickly with a trade mission."
A plan to support Canadian companies interested in doing business in Libya was approved by Cabinet on Sept. 7, 2011, according to the documents obtained by Postmedia News.
At that time, rebel fighters had taken control of the capital Tripoli, but Gadhafi was still on the loose and his fighters would maintain control over several parts of the country for another month and a half.
Still, confident victory was at hand, Cabinet agreed to begin seeking new commercial opportunities "as the security situation, capacity of the NTC (rebels) and financial environment evolves."
Canada's contribution to the seven-month NATO sea-and-air campaign that helped rebel forces overthrow Gadhafi's regime included fighter jets, surveillance refuelling aircraft, frigates and several hundred pilots, sailors and support staff.
A Canadian, Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard, also oversaw the entire NATO operation.
Canada's military involvement in Libya cost in excess of $100 million, and while there was wide public and parliamentary support for the mission, the documents noted: "Canadians will want to see a return on our engagement and investment."
Cognizant of the potential for "aggressive international competition," as well as the many difficulties facing "new Libya," Canadian diplomats felt that "early engagement with the new Libyan leadership on commercial matters is of interest to both countries."
"A new Libya presents numerous business opportunities for new investments in different sectors of the economy," read the documents, which were prepared for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird before a trip to the country in October 2011.
The first step was conducting an "assessment mission" to identify "a number of commercial opportunities that will drive Canadian economic activity in Libya."
Next was re-opening the Canadian embassy in Tripoli and manning it with a team of three trade commissioners to support firms that had previously secured contracts under the Gadhafi regime, as well as those "seeking to pursue new opportunities that are being identified."
Canadian firms also supported proposed initiatives like a series of cross-Canada forums on doing business in the "new Libya," including on the sidelines of a major petroleum show in Calgary, and ongoing high-level engagement with Libyan authorities by Canadian counterparts.
The diplomats noted that "40 years of neglect" had left "huge gaps" in key infrastructure areas, while "priority sectors" for Canadian firms included oil and gas, communications, aerospace and defence, and education services.
The government was also intent on ensuring the new Libyan authorities honoured existing contracts and ensured payment for work completed by approximately 12 companies that were in the country when hostilities broke out in early 2011.
These included Montreal engineering firm SNC Lavalin, Petro-Techna, Canadian Petroleum Processing Equipment, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, Pure Technologies, Air Richelieu and Calgary-based energy giant Suncor.
Baird ended up spending about five hours in Tripoli on Oct. 11, 2011, which included a meeting with various senior officials in the Libyan rebel government.
According to a list of "objectives" prepared for Baird, the minister was to "build on Canada's leadership role in the NATO mission" and "highlight Canada's fast action to ease sanctions."
That was to "set the foundation to pursue Canadian interests, in particular commercial interests in the New Libya."
Baird was also to address challenges associated with contracting a private security company to guard the Canadian embassy.
The last objective was to "promote the values of freedom, democracy, human rights and rule of law as the best foundations for a stable and prosperous Libya," as well as "demonstrate our readiness to support the democratic transition."
Baird was told his visit would "cement Canada's role as a key player in Libya going forward based on our role over the past seven months."
"It would reinforce our position among a small group of NATO allies and regional actors that led the Operation Unified Protector," the notes add.
"A ministerial visit would reinforce in the minds of the Libyans that Canada is among this elite group of New Libya supporters and sets the foundation for the active promotion of Canadian interests going forward."
Baird spokesman Rick Roth said in an email that the government is proud of the role Canada played "in supporting the Libyan people's aspirations for freedom and will continue to support Libya throughout its democratic transition."
He noted that Canada has contributed $11 million for democratic reform and disarmament in Libya, including the destruction of the country's remaining chemical weapons.
Trade Minister Ed Fast's spokesman, Rudy Husny, added that Canadian companies are extremely active in Libya.
But while some like Staples will question the government pursuing commercial opportunities in Libya after Gadhafi's fall, Babak Banijamali of Toronto-based Canadian Petroleum Processing Equipment said the British and French were actually faster when it came to engaging the new Libyan government.
For that reason, business opportunities haven't been coming as quickly to Canadian companies as he and others might hope.
"It would be nice if Canada raised the flag a little higher," he said.
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