Update: Pierre Duhaime quit his job as chief executive at SNC-Lavalin on Mar. 26, becoming the third executive to leave the firm in under a month. Duhaime’s resignation followed news that he had authorized $56 million in payments previously rejected by the CFO, thus breaking the company’s ethics code. Exactly what the money paid for is unknown. Here is a Maclean’s Q+A with Duhaime from April of last year.
As one of the largest engineering firms in the world, Quebec-based SNC-Lavalin is a corporate giant in Canada and beyond. Starting as a small engineering firm in Montreal in 1911, the company now operates in 100 countries across the globe, with annual revenues of over $6 billion. Yet SNC’s centennial year has been marked by upheaval in many of the countries—Egypt, Libya and Tunisia among them—where it does business. President and CEO Pierre Duhaime recently spoke about the company’s operations in these suddenly unstable parts of the world—and about its contract to build an immense prison complex in Libya.
Q: Tell me about SNC-Lavalin’s decision to build Libya’s Guryan Judicial City prison.
A: For us, in Libya or elsewhere, this is an infrastructure project. We have been in Libya for 25 years, we have been building airports, roads and water plants. It was presented to us as way of opening up the country, of respecting civil rights. It was one of the key projects of Gadhafi’s son, Saif. We went around the world but mostly in the United States to find out what were the best jails in terms of respect. We thought, “What’s wrong with this?”
Q: How much did you consider Libya’s human rights record before taking on the project?
A: Libya was part of the human rights commissions with the United Nations. Mr. Gadhafi was very welcome by many prime ministers and presidents around the world. Saif was very vocal in terms of respecting human rights in Libya. And of course, you need to have jails, no matter what. It’s not for political prisoners, it’s for prisoners.
Q: But we have no way of knowing if it was for political prisoners or not.
A: The way it was presented to us, it was nothing to do with political prisoners.
Q: SNC-Lavalin did a fair bit of publicity around the irrigation projects and the airport work. The prison wasn’t publicized.
A: Because it’s too small. The project was $200 million. It wasn’t really big enough to attract that much attention. We talk about billion-dollar jobs. A hundred million or $200 million is not something we talk about. And it wasn’t even 100 per cent us, it was with a joint venture with another company. We see that more as a service contract, nothing else.
Q: I have trouble believing that a jail is the same thing as an airport.
A: For me, it’s the same thing. Here in Quebec we are bidding on jails, we are bidding on hospitals.
Q: But our human rights record is pretty good. In Libya, it’s not good.
A: Why are you saying that? Do you have any proof?
Q: Sure. You mentioned Saif. He referred to the people in the rebellion as “rats” and has handed out arms to pro-Gadhafi forces.
A: Yes, after the rebellion started. Look, you just have to go back to what Saif said in the last five years. He has given speeches at the London School of Economics. Go and see what he said.
Q: Do you believe him now?
A: When you are in a war you say some things that maybe you wouldn’t repeat later on, and you don’t really believe it. He’s in a war and he has to defend his family’s interests. Maybe they are reacting too heavily. And I don’t support what he is saying. I am totally against what they are saying. But they’ve said it.
Q: What has been the fallout from all of this, as far as public relations?
A: We are trying to explain to people that we are an engineering company working for a customer who was totally welcomed by the Canadian, American and British governments. Today, things have changed. There are all kinds of politics behind the scene. Who has initiated the thing? Who has armed the rebels? Why has it suddenly happened now?
Q: I think it happened because people were fed up with 40 years of dictatorship.
A: That’s a bit naive. There’s always external forces behind these things to help the rebellion. It didn’t happen just like that. I’m not saying all the people were happy, but there are a lot of people who still support Gadhafi. Right now we don’t have a true democracy. And I support what the international community is doing, because the way [the Gadhafi regime] has resisted is not the right thing. I’m not there to defend the Gadhafi system. I’m saying we have been working in Libya for the last 25 years, we respected the government conditions, we were well in line with the rest of the world. What’s wrong there?
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