Weeks after a Canadian company was publicly accused of ignoring concerns about its oil and gas drilling near a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the company’s most senior leadership turned to Global Affairs Canada for help.
The federal department stepped up to assist Reconnaissance Energy Africa (ReconAfrica), which was in damage control after a flurry of articles from National Geographic and the Globe and Mail in May 2021 detailed the global outcry against the company’s oil and gas exploration program in an ecologically sensitive area spanning Namibia and Botswana.
Global Affairs staff arranged at least eight meetings in 2021 with Canadian officials, including one between the company and Canada’s top diplomat, United Nations permanent representative Bob Rae.
On Aug. 25, 2021, a meeting was held between Rae and ReconAfrica’s leadership. One email from Global Affairs staff describes Rae, the former interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and former Ontario premier, as taking the call alone “following guidance from Ottawa.”
Rae didn’t comment, but ReconAfrica confirmed the meeting took place.
“Representatives from ReconAfrica met Mr. Rae once in 2021 to introduce him to the company and our work in Namibia and Botswana. We have had no contact with him since,” a ReconAfrica spokesperson said.
The meeting with Rae occurred after critical news reports revealed the extent of ReconAfrica’s drilling plans near the Okavango Delta, one of the world’s largest protected areas for endangered wildlife and a culturally significant place to the San people. They also detailed serious allegations the company was misleading investors and would damage important ecosystems. ReconAfrica denies these allegations.
Across dozens of emails sent between July and October 2021, Global Affairs Canada staff discusses organizing several meetings with ReconAfrica, including a visit to the company’s Namibia office. The emails, which note the extent of international and domestic criticism the company was facing, were retrieved through an access-to-information request and reviewed by Canada’s National Observer.
In one email, trade commissioner Keith Banerjee told colleagues: “We actually suggested to [ReconAfrica] that they could engage with our senior folks everywhere to help set the record straight...”
"This is par for the course when it comes to the Canadian government finding ways to shill for corporations that are doing great damage on the ground to communities and to Canada’s reputation," says @nikiashton #ReconAfrica
The emails show Global Affairs was aware of the criticisms ReconAfrica was facing when the meetings were arranged.
“ReconAfrica is well aware of the negative social media attention. The company has adopted a proactive communications strategy and hired three PR firms to assist, but challenges remain,” reads a briefing note prepared for Global Affairs staff before one of the meetings with ReconAfrica.
Global Affairs declined multiple requests to interview Rae and did not answer questions asking for details about the meeting. Instead, the department provided a statement that did not name ReconAfrica or Rae but rather noted Canada enjoys “strong and positive” relationships with Namibia and Botswana and that Canada expects companies operating abroad to follow the laws and respect human rights.
“Trade commissioners in Canada and at diplomatic missions around the world actively promote responsible business conduct best practices and provide advice to Canadian companies to help them identify and mitigate risks in their activities abroad,” Global Affairs spokesperson Pierre Cuguen said.
The correspondence between Global Affairs staff reveals Rae encouraged ReconAfrica to connect with top UN representatives in Namibia and Botswana.
In one email, Banerjee describes the “suggestion from [Rae] to get in touch with the UN Permanent Residents locally,” referring to United Nations representatives in Namibia and Botswana, Sen Pang and Zia Choudhury, respectively.
Shortly after, Global Affairs staff provided the specific contact information for those diplomats to the company.
Chris Cooter, the high commissioner for Canada in South Africa (who handles trade commissioner services in Namibia), further “proposed ReconAfrica call on UN and key missions in Namibia, Germany, the U.S., and the U.K.” to help, according to the emails. Cooter also noted concerns from the international community could grow as the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow that year got closer and eyes would be on Canada’s climate performance.
The emails seen by Canada’s National Observer paint a picture of a department looking to assist the company despite allegations ReconAfrica has offered bribes and engaged in stock manipulation. Following complaints relating to fraud and alleged corruption, the RCMP opened an investigation into ReconAfrica last year. The RCMP did not answer Canada’s National Observer’s question about whether that case is still ongoing. No charges against the company have been laid, and ReconAfrica denies all allegations.
NDP MP Niki Ashton, who recently signed a letter calling on ReconAfrica to be suspended from the Toronto Stock Exchange as it fundraises for further drilling, told Canada’s National Observer: “This is par for the course when it comes to the Canadian government finding ways to shill for corporations that are doing great damage on the ground to communities and to Canada’s reputation.”
Ashton said Canadians would be “embarrassed to enraged” to hear that a Canadian company like ReconAfrica is drilling for oil in such an ecologically sensitive area, and said she was surprised to hear Rae would meet with the company.
“Canadians deserve better than a department and a government that is supporting companies [that] have a track record like ReconAfrica,” she said.
“We know there are many instances where extractive companies with no actual operations in Canada are using Canada's framework –– whether its stock exchange, whether its financial support from Export Development Canada, whether its support from our embassies and our high commission –– to pursue their own profit motive.”
Handling government relations for ReconAfrica in these emails is lobbyist Will Adams. Lobbying records and federal corporate registries show Adams is the owner of a numbered company called 11871722 Canada Inc. Adams is a prolific lobbyist, working on behalf of Woodfibre LNG, fossil fuel refining company Tidewater Midstream and a handful of others. He has also held a variety of government positions, according to his federal lobbying registration, having most recently acted as chief of staff to the Liberal Party of Canada’s deputy leader from 2011 to 2013 –– the years Rae served as interim Liberal party leader.
Adams did not return a request for comment. According to federal lobbying records, Adams hasn’t worked on behalf of ReconAfrica since October 2022.
Canadian activist Rob Parker, who works with the Economic and Social Justice Trust of Namibia, told Canada’s National Observer he thinks Global Affairs is trying to avoid negative publicity with its connection to ReconAfrica.
“They are probably embarrassed by ReconAfrica, but because of the straitjacket they've put themselves in, they can't really do anything about it,” he said. “I think they're just hoping ReconAfrica goes broke and goes away.”
Namibian activist Ina-Maria Shikongo says Canada is acting hypocritically to provide support to a fossil fuel company like ReconAfrica given the country is already experiencing the climate crisis.
“Canada has a very bad reputation already because of its historical and colonial past with its Indigenous people … so I think for Canadian diplomats to even get involved to help this company to continue doing what it's doing in a UNESCO-protected area is very hypocritical,” she said.
“I would question Canada’s ethical and moral responsibilities towards their own historical genocidal behaviours,” she added. “Do they really want to make history right or do they want to continue causing genocide and ecocides outside of their country?”