Cyndy Vanier’s northern Ontario ties raise questions

A First Nations leader in northern Ontario says he is curious about the experiences in his community of Canadian consultant Cyndy Vanier, now in a Mexican jail and accused of masterminding a plot to smuggle Gadhafi family members into that country.

Canadian woman jailed in Mexico specialized in First Nations mediation

A First Nations leader in northern Ontario says he’s curious about the experiences in his community of Canadian consultant Cyndy Vanier, now in a Mexican jail and accused of masterminding a plot to smuggle members of the Gadhafi family into that country.

John Cutfeet was a councillor at Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI),  about 580 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, during a dispute with a mining company that landed several First Nations leaders in jail. Vanier lists that dispute on her website as an example of her mediation work.

Canadian consultant Cyndy Vanier's website says she works primarily within First Nation communities with issues involving land claims, intergovernmental conflict, community issues and stakeholder facilitations. ((Submitted by Betty MacDonald) )

But Cutfeet said he never saw her in the First Nation during the March to November 2007 period she lists as being involved. He said he did meet Vanier at two separate conferences that year.

"In a time of great difficulty, trying to set things in order for KI … I had to wonder who were the players involved trying to deal with that situation," said Cutfeet, who is no longer on the band council but is still recognized as a community leader. "So that was one of the questions that I had when Ms. Vanier started showing up at these meetings."

The mining company, Platinex, has not responded to CBC’s inquiry about whether it employed Vanier at the time of its dispute with KI. Bill Gallagher, a strategist for Platinex at the time, told CBC that Vanier wasn’t working with him.

A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs said it has never employed Vanier — not during the 2007 dispute in KI and not during the "2009 to present" period Vanier lists on her website as working for "Province of Ontario – Native Affairs."

It has been confirmed that Vanier did work in Attawapiskat First Nation in 2009. She was employed by international diamond miner De Beers. A spokesperson for De Beers told CBC that after Vanier’s contract with the company expired in 2010, Vanier began working for the First Nation.

She was arrested in Mexico on Nov. 10, 2011.

Betty, left, and John MacDonald speak to CBC News about their daughter, Ontario resident Cyndy Vanier, who is in jail in Mexico. (CBC)

Vanier’s time in Attawapiskat was fondly remembered by some community members who spoke to the CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault.

The warm thoughts from Attawapiskat have been a comfort to Vanier’s parents since their daughter was jailed and accused of trying to smuggle former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's son to that country.

"We were able to share that with Cyndy and Cyndy was pretty low at the time," her father, John MacDonald, told CBC News. "She asked us, if we got any message back ... to reporters after that, it was to 'please thank the First Nations people for their support.'"

Vanier wore bullet-proof vest, hired bodyguard

Still, Vanier’s parents had serious concerns about their daughter’s safety when she was in Attawapiskat, where they said she wore a bullet-proof vest and hired a bodyguard. (It was the first time she had worked with Gary Peters, who would eventually accuse her of the Libyan human smuggling plot.) Vanier’s parents said safety was a primary concern for their daughter, even when working in Ontario.

"I found it pretty astounding that a woman would go up there [to Attawapiskat] under those conditions," said Vanier’s mother, Betty MacDonald. "It was pretty rough living. It certainly isn't a five-star hotel up there where she'd be staying, and it involved a bullet-proof vest and there were a lot of things from a parent's point of view, you'd think, ‘Why would she want to do that?’"

MacDonald said wearing the bullet-proof vest and hiring the bodyguard were all part of the professional dispute resolution training Vanier followed. But Cutfeet said that level of safety precaution is going "overboard" in northern Ontario.

"Normally I don't think people get to that point where they get so totally unreasonable that someone would require a body guard," Cutfeet said. "But the other thing you have to keep in mind is that [as a professional mediator] she's recognized as being able to defuse the most difficult of these situations. So why would you need a bodyguard if you had that ability?" 

KI had its own concerns about Platinex bringing in private security during its mining dispute in the First Nation. At the time, Cutfeet referred to the former British army officer hired as security by Platinex as "a militia man" — a foreign soldier hired to serve private gain.

De Beers told CBC News that Gary Peters was hired privately by Vanier, not by the company.

Vanier told CBC News that she didn't hire Peters directly. She said she hired a US-based security firm who hired Peters as a subcontractor.  She insisted the first time she hired Peters directly was in July for the fact-finding mission to Libya she did for SNC Lavalin, and that company's former executive vice president for construction, Riahd Ben Aissa, who is jailed in Switzerland and accused of money laundering and corruption tied to dealings in North Africa.

Meanwhile, Vanier’s parents say their daughter’s experiences with "rough living" in Attawapiskat are helping her cope with similar conditions she’s experiencing in jail.