Ottawa

Canadian PPE manufacturers want government to shop at home first

The head of the organization representing Canada’s personal protective equipment manufacturers says the industry feels betrayed by the Canadian government because it’s not buying from small, home-grown companies.

Buying from multi-nationals 'decimating' Canada's fledgling PPE industry, group says

A person wears personal protective equipment, which includes an N95 respirator mask and nitrile gloves. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

The head of the organization representing Canada's personal protective equipment manufacturers says the industry feels betrayed by the Canadian government because it's not buying from small, home-grown companies after encouraging them to step up to deliver "critical supplies."

Barry Hunt, president of the Canadian Association of Personal Protective Equipment Manufacturers, says the domestic market is now saturated with cheap imports of masks and other protective items, and companies that have developed new, environmentally friendly products in Canada can't get government contracts. 

"The prime minister himself and the federal government made a commitment to our industry to buy products," said Hunt. 

"What we've seen is the exact opposite: buying only from multinationals, buying only commodity products, locking health-care workers out of new and innovative products, and essentially, decimating the new PPE industry." 

Hunt's own firm, Prescientx, based in Cambridge, Ont., launched in 2019 to develop automated, self-disinfecting hospital technology with the help of research from the University of Waterloo. 

As the pandemic began in March 2020, Hunt says Justin Trudeau called on Canadian entrepreneurs to fill a void in domestic personal protective equipment production. 

And the work began. Hunt's company was among the many Canadian manufacturers that stepped up. 

Barry Hunt says the domestic market is now saturated with cheap imports of masks and other protective items, and Canadian companies can't get government contracts. (CBC)

'Market is flooded'

"Since then, the government has spoken directly with almost 3,000 Canadian companies that have offered their expertise and capacity to meet the country's need for personal protective equipment and critical health supplies," according to a news release from the prime minister's office on March 31, 2020.

The association of PPE manufacturers was set up less than a year ago to represent about 30 Canadian companies making a variety of equipment, including masks, respirators, and hand-hygiene products, with an aim to use 80 per cent Canadian materials in the next year, according to Hunt. 

But the problem, he says, is big, multinational companies such as 3M and Medicom now have the lion's share of the contracts.

"Both companies received large grants for building plants or adding onto plants, as well as five- and 10-year contracts for the supply of masks and respirators in Canada. So that was done simultaneously with the call to action for Canadian manufacturers to stand up and create a new industry ... and the market is flooded," said Hunt. 

The association has raised its concerns with both government and opposition MPs.

Conservative MP Tony Baldinelli, who represents a riding in Niagara Falls, Ont., said he looked closely at the boxes of masks currently available throughout the parliamentary precinct and the House of Commons, and he was surprised to see all the masks were made in China.

Critics say the federal government is not prioritizing Canadian-made products, such as these N95 respirators made in Winnipeg. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"There's several Canadian-made facilities, including one in my own riding that manufactures PPE," said Baldinelli. "It's incomprehensible to me that two years into this, that we should still be sourcing PPE products from China."

Baldinelli stood in the House of Commons on Dec. 3 to ask Filomena Tassi, Minister of Public Services and Procurement Canada about the issue during Question Period.

Tassi responded by crediting the businesses that ensured there is no PPE shortage.

"We know that Canadian businesses have pivoted. They retooled and we have supported them every step of the way. We are in a position now where we're not short on PPE. Why? Because Canadian businesses stepped up and our procurement efforts have supported those businesses. We're going to continue to do that," she said.

Hunt takes issue with that answer. He notes one federal government department has provided significant support, but the procurement department has not responded to the association's inquiries.

Filomena Tassi, seen during a news in July 2019, says Canadian manufacturers have ensured there is no PPE shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press )

Taxpayer investments

Hunt called the National Research Council a "fabulous partner to industry to help develop new products, new materials and new technologies" in producing PPE.

This includes work developing compostable, more environmentally friendly products that can be manufactured with corn and forest-based materials instead of petroleum products. 

"The government has invested taxpayer dollars in producing world-leading products. You would think they would want to buy those world leading products today, but they're not," said Hunt. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On found at: cbc.ca/thebandplayedon You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca

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