Politics

Harjit Sajjan blasts Boeing over trade spat with Bombardier in defence industry speech

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan used a major speech Wednesday to the defence industry to blast American firm Boeing for picking a trade spat with Bombardier.

'Our government is disappointed in the action of one of our leading industry partners'

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan speaks at the Canadian Association of Defence and Security conference in Ottawa on Wednesday. Sajjan used his speech to blast American firm Boeing for picking a trade spat with Bombardier. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is calling on Boeing to halt its trade complaint against Bombardier, while further sharpening the Liberal government's threat to cancel the planned sole-source purchase of 18 Super Hornet fighter jets.

His comments Wednesday are the most direct warning he has delivered since the trade dispute with the giant U.S. aircraft maker erupted earlier this month.

Boeing wants trade regulators in Washington to investigate subsidies for Bombardier's CSeries aircraft, claiming they allow the Canadian company to export planes at well below cost.

The request to the U.S Commerce Department prompted Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland to order a review of the planned Super Hornet deal, saying "there will be consequences" for Boeing.

But Sajjan went a step further Wednesday in a speech before an annual defence industry trade show in Ottawa, underlining for hundreds of military contractors how "strongly the government disagrees" and saying he is "extremely disappointed" with the action.

He suggested Canada has other ways of dealing with its shortfall in fighter jets than simply making an interim purchase of Boeing's Super Hornets.

"The interim fleet procurement requires a trusted industry partner," Sajjan said. "Our government is of the view their action against Bombardier is unfounded. It is not the behaviour we expect of a trusted partner and we call on Boeing to withdraw it."

Last fall, Sajjan announced the government would pursue a contract to buy 18 Super Hornets as a stopgap measure until the entire existing fleet of CF-18s was replaced through an open competition, which he estimated would take up to five years.

Urgent purchase?

The Liberals insisted the upgrade is an urgent matter because the air force is unable to meet all of its NORAD and NATO commitments. The interim purchase could cost anywhere between $5 and $7 billion, according to internal Defence Department figures shared with CBC News last fall.

Critics argue the government is wasting money on the Super Hornets and should instead go directly to the open competition to deliver a permanent replacement.

An F-18 Super Hornet creates a vapor cone while doing a flyby of the USS Eisenhower, off the coast of Virginia, on Dec. 10, 2015. The Liberal government is pursuing a contract to purchase 18 Boeing-made Super Hornet jets, until it can decide on a permanent replacement for Canada's aging fleet of fighter planes. (Mark Wilson/Pool Photo via The Associated Press)

In his speech Wednesday, Sajjan reminded the audience that was still an option. But he hedged those comments when asked after the speech what he would do if the program is cancelled.

"I don't want to jump to that conclusion just yet," Sajjan said. "This is about working things through."

He said he was looking forward to Freeland coming up with a resolution.

Boeing stands firm

But at least one Boeing official didn't seemed phased by the warning.

"We heard what Minister Sajjan had to say today," said Scott Day, a senior vice-president who was attending the trade show. "With regard to withdrawing the petition, we're following a normal course of business for the U.S. government, and we'll see where it takes us."

Canada's Super Hornet purchase is being made directly through the U.S. government.

The company is still working with the U.S. navy and the Pentagon on the details of the proposal for Canada, Day said, and it will continue on schedule.

Boeing had hoped to finalize the contract with the Canadian government by early 2018.

The Liberal government has signalled to the company that it would like to see the first aircraft arrive in 2019, which would coincide with the next federal election.

Day said the company is still examining how production of Canada's jets can be slotted alongside existing orders from the U.S. navy and Kuwait.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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