By David Pugleise
Over the years, CANSEC has earned the reputation of being a somewhat predictable defence and security trade show.
Not this year.
While many of the exhibitors were the same, the political action at CANSEC 2017 was arguably unprecedented.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan used his keynote speech on the first day of the trade show to fire a salvo direct at Boeing.
While Lockheed Martin staff looked on with smiles on their faces, Sajjan laid into their rival Boeing for prompting a U.S. government trade investigation into Canada’s largest aerospace firm, Bombardier.
Boeing has complained to the U.S. government that Bombardier is receiving subsidies, allowing it to sell its C-Series aircraft at below market prices.
Sajjan suggested to the CANSEC audience that Boeing could no longer be considered a trusted Canadian partner. And though he stopped short of cancelling the Liberal government’s plan to purchase 18 Super Hornet fighters from Boeing, Sajjan said the company has damaged its relationship with Canada.
“It is not the behaviour of a trusted partner,” Sajjan said in his speech.
He called on Boeing to withdraw its complaint, adding that Canada requires “trusted industry partners.”
Canada has not yet signed the deal to acquire the Super Hornets. It is now unclear when the deal might proceed, or if it will be scuttled if Boeing does not withdraw its complaint against Bombardier.
Sajjan said that Canada is still discussing the proposed purchase with the U.S. government. He noted that Canada has had a good relationship with Boeing over the decades, but it is now reviewing all procurement with that firm.
Sajjan also called on other companies at the CANSEC show to remind the U.S. government of the close ties that defence industries on both sides of the border have with each other and the value of that relationship.
Despite Sajjan’s public dressing down of Boeing, the company took a defiant tone. It has refused to withdraw its complaint. Instead, Boeing cancelled a press conference it had planned for CANSEC to announce the Canadian industry partners who would be involved in any Super Hornet acquisition. “Due to the current climate, today is not the most opportune time to share this good news story,” Boeing noted in a statement.
The Liberals, in turn, continued to use the CANSEC venue to ratchet up the pressure on Boeing.
After Sajjan’s speech, government officials told journalists in off-the-record briefings that Canada had suspended talks with Boeing on the fighter deal.
That information didn’t stay off-the-record for long. On the second day of CANSEC, Steven MacKinnon, parliamentary secretary to Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote, used his appearance to once again launch an attack against Boeing.
Boeing “is not acting like a valued partner right now so we’ve suspended discussions with that partner,” he told journalists several times in interviews during the trade show.
(An official with Foote’s office, Annie Trépanier, later claimed that while government ministers were not talking to Boeing, “there is no formal suspension.”)
MacKinnon did soften the blow against Boeing by pointing out that Canada isn’t talking to any other companies about replacement aircraft for the CF-18s.
The political drama at CANSEC later shifted to shipbuilding. At a news conference on day two of the trade show, Irving Shipbuilding released a study on the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) which it will build in the coming years for the Royal Canadian Navy. That study concluded it is cheaper to build the warships in Canada rather than overseas.
However, several hours after the Irving news conference, Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Fréchette released his report on the ballooning cost of the CSC. “PBO also estimated the cost saving of having the CSC built at the foreign shipyard that built the original ship design rather than in Canada. It was estimated that Canada would save $10.22-billion FY2017 of the total $39.94-billion FY2017 program budget, or 25 per cent.”