March 8, 2012 5:52 am

U.S. firm linked to civilian deaths hired to train Canadian soldiers

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OTTAWA – An American private security firm whose employees have been implicated in the killing of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan was paid nearly $2.4 million to train Canadian soldiers last year.

Documents tabled in the House of Commons show Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater, was providing select troops specialized training in precision shooting and defensive driving at the company’s North Carolina facilities.

Other soldiers were trained in bodyguard and close-quarter combat skills.

Not all of the training was done by the company’s staff, the documents say. In many instances, the Canadian Forces supplied its own instructors or simply used the company’s extensive training complex.

The military has had a relationship with the security firm for years; the documents say 605 Canadian soldiers have received training at the company’s North Carolina complex since 2006, as well as an unspecified number of special forces commandos.

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In 2008, the federal government awarded the company a standing contract to provide training and access to its facilities on an as-needed basis. It was awarded without a competitive bid “because it was assessed that Xe Services had the only facility capable of meeting the operational requirements for specialized training of CF personnel,” the documents say.

The federal government is billed each time the Canadian Forces needs trainers or access to the company’s facilities, which are also used by the U.S. military.

Before changing its name to Xe in 2009, Blackwater gained notoriety for its involvement in several incidents involving the killing of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan over the previous decade.

Operating under contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. government, one Blackwater employee killed an unarmed Afghan civilian in 2009, while a case against four contractors implicated in the death of 17 Iraqis in 2007 was reopened last year.

A Defence Department spokesman said the contract was established because Canadian military training facilities don’t always have enough space or the right weather for proper instruction.

Also, said John Dacombe, the training provided by Xe is highly specialized and is only required by a small portion of the CF.

“Contracting facilities for short periods of time is the most cost effective alternative to investing in expensive infrastructure that will only be used a few times a year to meet these unique training requirements,” he said.

However, Dacombe said more private companies have emerged and established similar facilities, which will provide the military with more options for future training.

Blackwater’s reputational problems were such that the company changed its name again this past December, when Xe became Academi. New management was also brought in.

Still, Liberal defence critic John McKay questioned why the Canadian Forces has not only engaged a company with such a checkered history, but awarded it a contract without a competitive bidding process.

“Could the Canadian government find no one better to train Canadian soldiers?” he said. “A sole-sourced contract worries you at the best of times. But to sole-source Blackwater?”

McKay said the actions of Blackwater employees in the past are a sharp contrast to the well-earned international reputation Canadian soldiers enjoy, and he questioned whether the latter wasn’t at risk.

“Training is far more than simply how you load a gun, this is how you shoot a gun,” he said. “It’s also the inculcation of values.”

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