Wings over Quebec
In the French-language debate during the federal election campaign, Prime Minister Stephen Harper reacted to criticism of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter acquisition by saying, “I’m the only leader on this platform, on this set, who is defending the role of our Canadian and Quebec aerospace sector in the purchasing of airplanes.” Harper was appealing to the minds of some in Quebec, the hearts of others and the economic interests of an entire province.
Aerospace has grown to occupy a special place in the province’s vision of itself. When Premier Jean Charest officially opened Pratt & Whitney Canada’s new engine assembly facility in March, he stated that his province was claiming ownership of the aerospace industry for the next century. As Jacques Saada, the president and CEO of the Quebec Aerospace Association, explains, “Quebec is the third largest aerospace cluster in the world, after Toulouse and Seattle – Toulouse with Airbus and Seattle with Boeing, of course.” By any measure, the sector is substantial, with annual sales in excess of $12 billion, 80 percent of which is exported.
Four big players are at the heart of the aerospace sector in Quebec – Bombardier, CAE, Pratt & Whitney Canada and Bell Helicopter Textron – and their operations have created a strong supply chain of smaller companies to feed their productions lines.
“That is the first strength we have, the diversity and know-how of our companies. The second thing is that very early on, 26 or 27 years ago, a philosophy was adopted in terms of training, and the training in Quebec is very much in tune with the needs of the industry to the extent, for instance, that many programs that are offered either at trade schools or in what we call the CEGEPs here, community colleges, and universities are directly designed with the contribution of the industry,” Saada said.
Close connections and networks have developed between research centres, universities, training schools and the aerospace industry. “That has produced a spiral of knowledge, know-how and skills which I believe are second to none,” he added.
The federal government has long supported the aerospace sector as a strategic development sector for Canada, and Quebec has done the same in its provincial interest, with beneficial tax treatment, research and development, manpower training and commercialization.
A major benefit of Quebec’s and Canada’s participation in the F-35 program is that small and medium enterprises in Quebec, like their counterpart SMEs elsewhere in Canada, have joined the supply chain of a global product. “In the F-35 program, it is not a formula of Industrial Regional Benefits which applies,” Saada said. Tier Ones to Lockheed Martin must come from one of the nine countries of the consortium, so they compete among other Tier Ones. Since each company’s supply chain doesn’t necessarily come from its host nation, SMEs can compete aboard.
“The beauty of the program resides in the fact that while with the IRBs you were able to secure some contracts, in proportion of the investment you are making, here you are able to offer your services on a global level for all of the countries which are going to be interested in buying the F-35 and producing the F-35. So obviously it can be and, I believe, it will be a way for our companies, for our SMEs in Quebec to really develop their global markets.”
A market facilitation team has been set up for Quebec SMEs to exploit the Joint Strike Fighter opportunity with participation from both federal and provincial economic development agencies as well as the Quebec Aerospace Association. As Saada put it, “we have embraced this cause very, very whole heartedly.”