At the peak of his power, Arthur Porter enjoyed the rarefied luxuries of a Caribbean villa and a chauffeur-driven Bentley, boasting of contacts with heads of state from around the world — including no less than the prime minister of Canada.
But as meteoric as Porter’s rise was to the heights of power, so was his fall from grace. In the last two years of his life, the former CEO of the McGill University Health Centre languished in a cutthroat jail in Panama, fighting for his survival as lung cancer spread to his bones and ultimately led to his death on Tuesday.
The ironies abound: a radiation oncologist by training and founder of a cancer clinic in the Bahamas, the 59-year-old Porter ended up as a cancer patient himself, complaining that he was being deprived of medical treatment in La Joya prison even as skeptics suspected he was faking his illness.
The man who so assiduously courted politicians — from Stephen Harper to Philippe Couillard (when he served as health minister in the mid-2000s) — later became a political pariah after a warrant was issued for his arrest more than two years ago on corruption charges.
And those charges stem from arguably the greatest irony of Porter’s fulsome life: the $1.3-billion superhospital of the MUHC. Porter was the driving force behind the superhospital, a project that was so costly that successive provincial governments — Liberal and Parti Québécois alike — passed on it for more than a decade before he helped win its approval.
Yet that same project proved to be Porter’s undoing after provincial police alleged that he accepted $22.5 million in bribes in exchange for rigging the bidding process to award the construction contract to engineering firm SNC-Lavalin.
A gleaming structure clad in multicolored aluminum, the superhospital is Canada’s most modern health-care facility. But the bidding competition that led to the superhospital’s creation is also what one police investigator has described as the “largest corruption fraud in Canadian history.” And for much of the project’s history — save for the last two years of the hospital’s construction — the flamboyant Porter was front and centre.
“The McGill University Health Centre will perhaps always inspire question marks and conspiracy theories among Quebecers and other Canadians,” Porter wrote in his memoir, The Man Behind the Bow Tie, published a year ago.
“The project took on a life of its own, to the point where it was rumoured that I was 7-foot-5 and could shoot icicles out of my eyes. But above all the noise, that hospital will still be there. It will stand the test of time.”
Born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on June 11, 1956, Arthur Porter IV and his sister were raised in a well-to-do family in the impoverished West African nation. His father, who now lives in Ottawa, is a respected historian and anthropologist; his Danish mother had studied nursing at Cambridge University.
In 1975, Porter followed in his father’s footsteps by studying at Cambridge, where he met his wife, Pamela Mattock.
(In yet another cruel irony, Porter, a self-described family man and father of four daughters, had not spoken to his wife since she was extradited to Quebec in June 2013 on criminal charges for her role in the alleged MUHC fraud. Pamela Porter pleaded guilty last December to money-laundering, was sentenced to two years in jail, but has since been transferred to a halfway house. The Porter family that once held dinner parties in the Bahamas is now split apart: the father deceased; the mother living temporarily in Quebec; and the adult daughters having to relocate to other homes in the United States and the Bahamas after Canadian authorities moved to seize properties that are considered “the proceeds of crime” from the alleged MUHC conspiracy.)
While studying anatomy at Cambridge, Porter took to wearing the bow tie that became his sartorial signature and picked up the British accent, evoking the air of a genteel physician. But friends and associates recall another side to Porter: he liked his drink, was prone to a ribald sense of humour, and above all else, he was shrewd to the point of Machiavellian.
A few years after acquiring his medical degree, Porter and his wife moved to Detroit where he practised in that city’s debt-ridden hospital. It was in Detroit that Porter began developing political contacts, raising funds for the Republican Party. In 1999, he was appointed head of the Detroit Medical Centre; four years later, the MUHC hired Porter to jump-start the stalled superhospital project despite his controversial tenure in the Motor City.
Almost as soon as he arrived in Montreal in 2004, Porter resumed nurturing close ties to the political parties in power. During his time at the MUHC, Porter attended a garden party hosted by Harper and founded a consulting company with Couillard in 2009, almost a year after Couillard left public office.
(That company was later dissolved, long before Couillard ran for the Quebec Liberal Party leadership and was elected Quebec premier. Couillard has since distanced himself from Porter, saying he was “fooled” by Porter’s charm, adding he belongs to a list that includes other politicians and heads of state.)
On June 24, 2010, Harper appointed Porter chairman of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), Canada’s spy watchdog, entrusted with the nation’s most sensitive secrets, despite Porter’s lack of experience in security matters. A year later, Porter resigned the SIRC chairmanship after the National Post revealed that he had wired $200,000 in personal funds to a former international arms broker for an infrastructure deal in Sierra Leone that fell through.
Porter also quit the MUHC amid concerns he was involved in too many private business deals. He returned to the Bahamas, where he announced in January 2013 that he had lung cancer. Four months later, Porter and his wife were arrested by Interpol agents at Panama’s international airport on the MUHC warrants. Among Porter’s belongings was a passport from Sierra Leone which he claimed gave him diplomatic status.
In total, nine people were charged in the alleged MUHC scheme, including two other former MUHC executives and three ex-SNC-Lavalin ones. Porter was the only one not to appear in Quebec to formally answer to the charges. In an apparent final act of defiance, Porter chose to fight cancer in a filthy Panamanian prison — all the while maintaining his innocence — than be extradited to Quebec and receive proper medical care, with easy access to his family.
Porter once professed to harbour secrets that could be politically damaging in Canada. However, he was also known for his bombast. Still, if he were to be believed, Porter carried those secrets to his grave.