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MONTRÉAL–In mid-December, Robert Fowler, a career Canadian diplomat who is currently the United Nations' Secretary General's Special Envoy to Niger, and his aide Louis Guay, an official at Foreign Affairs, were abducted in Niger.
They were kidnapped hours after visiting a mine operated by Montréal-based mining company SEMAFO (Société d'exploitation minière-Afrique de l'Ouest).
"Louis [Guay] called me and said he was going down there on a UN mission and that he heard the mine was a Canadian success and he wanted to report this back to Canada," Benoit La Salle, the president and CEO of SEMAFO, told the National Post.
There are few other confirmed details regarding the kidnapping. Agence France Presse reported that the UN and the governments of Canada and Niger have all become extremely secretive about the kidnapping. The UN initially denied that Fowler was on an official trip, but later a spokesperson contradicted the initial statement, admitting that in fact he was on official business.
This difficult and sensitive event raises oft unaddressed questions about relations between Ottawa and Canadian resource corporations operating abroad.
Why was a UN envoy, sent to deal with a conflict largely over natural resources, visiting a Canadian-operated mine?
Guay, who organized the last-minute trip to the mine, was involved with the privatization of a massive gold deposit now operated by Goldcorp and Barrick Gold in the Dominican Republic.
The mine Fowler and Guay visited on December 14th is run by a company with ties to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
SEMAFO is an outgrowth of La Salle's work for Plan Canada, a subsidiary of Plan International, "one of the world's largest development organizations, working in more than 65 countries worldwide on critical issues affecting millions of children."
Plan Canada is funded by CIDA. In July, La Salle told an interviewer that SEMAFO "was created in 1995 during my first visit to Burkina Faso as part of a mission with the NGO-Plan. I am the president of the administration council of Plan Canada and a director of Plan International. So, after the Plan organized visit to Burkina Faso provided me an opportunity to get close with national authorities, I decided to create SEMAFO to participate in the development of Burkina Faso's mining industry."
In another interview, La Salle said "[in my position at Plan] I was able to meet [African] presidents, prime ministers and functionaries" with whom he now does business.
It appears that La Salle has put his political contacts to good use. An April 2007 Montreal Gazette business article headlined "Local Miner a Major Force in Niger," reported on the close relations between SEMAFO and Hama Amadou, then Prime Minister of Niger.
"We work very closely with [then Prime Minister Hama Amadou]... We're part of his budget every year. He knows us," La Salle told the Gazette.
La Salle then described how the prime minister helped his company break a strike at the mine. "We went to court, we had the strike declared illegal and that allowed us to let go of some of the employees and rehire some of them based upon a new work contract. It allowed us to let go of some undesirable employees because they had been on strike a few times," he said.
Prime Minister Amadou was later arrested on corruption charges stemming from an unrelated incident, and is awaiting trial.
SEMAFO is not the only Canadian resource company that has in Niger.
Calgary-based TG World Energy "hired Mr. [Jean] Chrétien last year  to help it get out of a pickle in the impoverished African nation of Niger," reported The Globe and Mail.
TG's rights to explore 18 million acres of Niger's wilderness for oil and gas were revoked by the government, which believed that TG hadn't invested
enough in prospecting.
Niger then awarded the concession to a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corp. The Calgary company sued Niger's government and went to arbitration with the Chinese firm through the World Bank Group's International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).
"[TG] also asked Mr. Chrétien to intervene," reported the Globe. During a trip to Beijing, Chrétien spoke with officials from China National Petroleum and then flew to Niamey, Niger’s capital, and arranged a meeting between TG and Niger’s president.
Chrétien's lobbying led to a new agreement between TG World, Niger and the Chinese, which saw the Canadian company's stock price increase from eight cents to more than $1 per share within a year.
None of this sort of Canadian "diplomacy" is unusual, and is in fact standard across Africa.
Within 13 months after leaving office, Chrétien had made business-related visits to Gambia, Nigeria, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Describing political lobbying on behalf of Canadian mining corporations in the Congo, journalist Maurice Carney told Democracy Now! that every Prime Minister since Pierre Trudeau (Clark, Mulroney, Chrétien, Martin) "has left office and profited from the natural resources of the Congo while the Congolese people suffer."
Many agree that there is something distasteful about former public officials exchanging their political contacts and prestige for a buck. But the lobbying work of former politicians is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to public officials' support for Canadian business in Africa.
Canadian embassies and trade missions are largely focused on advancing Canada's corporate interests.
A 2004 KAIROS Canada report entitled Africa's Blessing, Africa's Curse notes: "Canadian diplomatic missions in Africa spend much of their time making sure that mining companies and host governments are brought together and the companies are much praised by Canadian officials."
Although the abduction of two UN officials made headlines, the unaddressed questions about relations between Ottawa and Canadian haven't been adequately explored.
Based in Montreal, Yves Engler is the author of the forthcoming The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.