'Team Montreal' fights to keep UN aviation agency

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Quebec International Relations Minister Jean-François Lisée and Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum have kicked off a joint lobbying effort against moving the International Civil Aviation Organization to Qatar.

Qatar bidding to move 'jewel in Montreal's crown' to Doha

Fight to keep ICAO

10 years ago
Duration 2:44
Politicians of all stripes united to fight Qatar's bid to wrest ICAO headquarters from Montreal.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Quebec International Relations Minister Jean-François Lisée and Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum may seem like strange bedfellows.

But all three levels of government have kicked off a joint lobbying effort against moving the International Civil Aviation Organization to Qatar, agreeing that losing the United Nations' only office in Canada would cause both political and economic damage.

Calling their efforts "Team Montreal," Baird said they were optimistic and "more united than ever" in their determination to secure a victory in September. The group "put aside politics" for this cause, he said. "We will take nothing for granted."

The United Nations agency that regulates international aviation transport has been based in Montreal from its beginnings in 1947. Its lease expires in 2016, and the agency's governing council had recommended renewing the lease.

But last month, Qatar submitted a proposal to move the office to Doha, offering generous financial incentives to the organization.

The council of ICAO has authorized the secretary general to sign an agreement to keep the agency in Montreal, and Canada is prepared to sign that agreement immediately, Baird told reporters in French. Canada's also open to improving the offer, he said.

Speaking to reporters at a clean energy announcement near Quebec City, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that he wasn't aware of "any serious complaints" about how Canada hosts the organization.

"Montreal is a sophisticated city that is a hub of the aerospace industry around the world," the prime minister said. "There is absolutely no reasonable case to move the centre out of Montreal."

Baird: Landing rights not in play

Baird was in Qatar four weeks ago and said he had a "good visit." Canada's recent positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict never came up during his visits to five different Arab countries, he said, trying to dispel the suggestion that recent foreign policy positions of the Harper government were driving the Qatari bid and could provoke other Gulf states to support the move.

"When leaders get together, you talk about the issues that are on top of your mind, that are a priority concern," Baird said. "If Canada doesn't stand up for human rights, if Canada doesn't stand up for liberal democracy and against terrorism, who will?"

"I would characterize our relationship with the Arab world to be excellent," Baird said. Nor is the (separatist) political stripe of the provincial government an issue, he added.

Lisée said that recent efforts by provincial and municipal governments to fight corruption and collusion are part of "the brand we're building" around the world. "We're fighting back, and we're fighting back hard," he said.

Baird's meetings in Qatar included the prime minister, who's also the chairman of the board for Qatar Airways. He said he asked for additional landing slots in Canada, and Baird reminded him that he was the transport minister who gave them earlier slots and said Canada would be pleased to look at their request.

However, "if this is a way to get more landing rights, it's not going to work," Baird said.  "I'll just be charitable and say that request is on hold while we put all of our energy into Montreal."

"The sad thing is that when you look at Qatar's bid … they're just offering a huge financial inducement to move it," the foreign minister said. "We already have a great headquarters for ICAO. We've got a great deal that's been approved by the administrative council to have it here for another 20 years rent-free … to make it even better over the next 20 years."

"If we can make that deal even better, we're prepared to do so on any irritants … we're all prepared to look at what our governments can do to make a great bid even stronger," the federal minister said.

Baird said he's made 20 calls, including to at least two Arab countries, and said he'd had a positive response.  A cocktail reception Thursday evening in Montreal with more than 100 representatives was also successful, he said.

He also suggested that member countries of the Francophonie want the office to stay in Montreal.

"We know what Qatar is doing …. They want Doha to be a world-class city, and getting a world-class organization there would certainly assist in that regard. But the other 190 countries can look at Montreal and see that it's already a world-class city."

The three politicians were on their way to a more formal meeting with representatives after their joint press conference Friday.

Lisée called the headquarters "the jewel in Montreal's crown," saying it was a key part of the "ecosystem" that has been built up in recent decades in the city, with other businesses and major civil aviation agencies also headquartered there.

Montreal is considered the second or third-largest aeronautical aviation city in the world, Lisée said. There is no reason for the agency to leave the city, he argued, noting that Qatar was not invited to submit any offer to become its new host but did so on its own initiative.

Applebaum said Montreal is proud to have the United Nations agency, making it one of only eight cities worldwide to host a permanent seat for the UN. Sixty other offices are in Montreal because ICAO is based there, he suggested.

"Montreal will do everything in its power to ensure that ICAO and its employees feel at home in its city," the mayor vowed. "It's part of the future of our metropolis, and we are convinced that it will continue to be the case."

You can enjoy winter

Lisée rebuffed the suggestion that member countries might not enjoy Montreal's weather, suggesting that if they want to compare snow to sand they should consider that their children can make snowmen but not sandmen.

"We will not [be] shy about the fact that winter is something that you can enjoy and it doesn't last all year," the provincial minister said of Canada's counter-argument. "We will look at the heat in Doha all year. If you want to talk weather, we'll talk weather. But it doesn't come down to that."

"There are cities that have a great quality of life that don't have the ecosystem of the aerospace industry [that Montreal has]," Lisée said. "Montreal is the world capital of civil aviation."

"ICAO likes to be liked, likes to be wooed, and we understand that. And so we'll dance with them," he said. "They know and we know that our main argument is that Montreal is the main place for them."

Concerns of some countries about visas or education costs could be addressed by federal and provincial governments, Lisée said. Resolving a list of "irritants" in diplomats' lives is part of Canada's effort, he said.

"We've had very positive signals," Lisée said. An international organization like ICAO doesn't like to be pushed around, he said, and Qatar's bid wasn't completely welcomed.

Both Baird and Lisée compared the lobbying effort to an election campaign, with the Parti Québécois minister noting somewhat in jest that in this case the Qatar proposal needs to get more votes than "50 plus one."

Applebaum chimed in to clarify that the Canadian side only really needs to work together to garner "40 per cent plus one" against the move.

Lisée got a laugh out of being reminded that 40 per cent is enough. Baird joked that you need a big majority for Montreal.

Sixty per cent of ICAO members, or some 115 countries, need to vote in favour of the move in September in order for Montreal to lose out. The office brings an estimated $120 million in economic benefits to the city specifically and to Canada's aviation industry generally.

Baird created this problem: critics

Yesterday, the House of Commons voted unanimously in support of the Harper government's fight to keep the headquarters in Montreal. Quebec's National Assembly passed a similar resolution in support of efforts to keep ICAO's permanent seat in the province.

But after Friday's question period, opposition MPs continued to ask whether Canada would be in this situation if the Harper government had a better relationship with the UN.

"They seem to have this kind of bellicose approach to the UN, and right now we're needing to get support from the UN when it comes to keeping this important institution in Montreal," said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar. "They don't know how to work with others."

"What we're seeing now is Minister Baird having to deal with a problem that he created," Dewar said. "This should be a no-brainer."

"You have to ensure that when you go abroad you do no harm and you promote Canada's interests," he said, pointing out the angry reaction to Baird's April meeting with an Israeli minister in East Jerusalem as one example of something that might hurt Canada's chances now.

Liberal MP David McGuinty agreed that Canada is vulnerable because of its reputation at the UN.

"Canada is a pariah with UN member states.  Why should they help Canada now?" he said.