The unusually large claims figure in the political risk insurance program, which Export Development Canada offers firms operating globally, may be a record for the Crown corporation, although an official said big claim years have happened before.
Chief financial officer Ken Kember said insurance claims against political risks tend to be volatile because of the unpredictability of global events.
"Those events don't arise all the time, but when they happen they tend to be quite large and dramatic," he said. "It'll be zero for some years and all of a sudden you'll have some activity.
"This probably is the largest amount, certainly in recent years."
Kember added that although the lion's share of the claims were paid out in 2012, in some cases losses sustained by Canadian firms operating in the area may have dated back to previous years.
The democracy movement known as the Arab Spring began in the North African nation of Tunisia in early 2011 and spread like wildfire into the Middle East, toppling dictatorships in Egypt and Libya and igniting a civil war in Syria, which is still being waged.
A number of Canadian companies, including oil firm Suncor Energy and SNC-Lavalin, the engineering firm, operate in the Middle East, but the EDC would not name the countries involved or the firms who made claims.
Kember said paying out claims does not end the story for the EDC, adding the agency often attempts to reclaim losses from the governments involved.
Despite the unusual year for insurance payouts, the EDC's financial report for 2012 shows the agency earned $1.2 billion in revenues from its loans, investments, premiums and loan guarantee fees, a modest increase from $1.1 billion the previous year.
Stripping out unrealized losses from previous years, the report shows EDC had a flat year in 2012 with income of $943 million. As well, the export agency paid the federal government $500 million in dividends during the year after judging it had excess capital on hand for its forecast needs.
In a statement, EDC chief executive Stephen Poloz said the overall results reflect Canada's disappointing export performance in 2012, but also that Canadian firms are making greater use of its services and programs.
Income remained stable despite the fact that the total amount of international business activity generated by EDC client firms fell to $87 billion last year from the record high $102.5 billion in 2011.
"We were especially pleased to see that Canadian exporters are continuing to grow their foreign investments and taking on more business in emerging markets that require financing," Poloz said, "and that EDC was able to help them do more of it in 2012."
He said the trend is especially true for small- and medium-sized exporters.
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