OTTAWA — A moment of indiscretion at a conference last summer kicked off nine months of trepidation in high-ranking military and political circles over the future of Southport Airport, the Free Press has learned.
Last August, the head of the air force said he would prefer consolidating pilot-training operations in Saskatchewan, sparking worries he’d compromised his staff’s ability to impartially determine the fate of 350 jobs in Portage la Prairie.
At a reception following his retirement Friday, Lt.-Gen. Michael Hood said his remarks weren’t meant to cause a stir.
"The only comments I ever made were at a private lunch. And the fact that someone’s reporting something on that is of great disappointment to me," Hood said, moments after handing over the Royal Canadian Air Force to a new commander.
On Aug. 10, 2017, Hood expressed strong support for pulling pilot training out of Manitoba, moments before taking the stage at the annual Aerospace, Defence and Security Expo in Abbotsford, B.C.
Bill Ryan, business development manager for KF Aerospace, which runs the training at Southport, was at the table.
Ryan and others said Hood suggested consolidating pilot-training operations at CFB Moose Jaw would save money, and Hood preferred keeping the training on the site of a military base.
Currently, RCAF trains most of its pilots at both the Saskatchewan base and the Southport facility, which was created as a non-profit when the military closed CFB Portage la Prairie in 1992.
The contract runs until 2027 and a request for tenders is expected next year.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan was concerned the air force commander’s remarks would undermine his staff’s ability to conduct a fair assessment of different bids. He co-wrote a letter to Hood asking him to reconsider.
"If it’s not broke, don’t fix it," Bezan said. "The system that we’ve had right now has worked really well."
Multiple sources said Hood’s comments, and the concern it would prejudice an open bidding process, contributed to him retiring earlier than expected. However, some said his high rank did not leave room for advancement.
The only higher position within military ranks is chief of the defence staff, a position few expect to be vacant in the near future.
Bezan, who is the MP for the Interlake region, doesn’t know whether his letter contributed to Hood’s retirement; that wasn’t the intent, he said.
"This isn’t a personal attack in any way, shape or form on Hood. This is about us holding government to account, and making sure the best interests of our constituencies, as well as the Armed Forces, is being considered in this contract," Bezan said.
Southport CEO Peggy May said military officials told her earlier this year they were hoping for a single company for its pilot-training contract, which will be put up for tender by late 2019.
On Tuesday, the two firms that co-ordinate the training announced a merged subsidiary, which will allow them to make a unified bid to continue operating out of both Southport and Moose Jaw.
KF Aerospace co-ordinates training at Southport while CAE does the same in Saskatchewan; they have formed a join subsidiary called SkyAlyne.
May believes that deal bodes well for Southport.
"There shouldn’t be concern for the local population because the contract that we have currently doesn’t run out until 2027," May said on Thursday, between meetings in Ottawa with officials. "We have a little bit of time here to get through the process."
Ryan said military officials have reassured him Southport, and any other facility, will have a fair shake. "The impression we have is that the decision hasn’t been made yet," he said.
Though the military will choose whether it will train pilots at one or two locations, Bezan said SkyAlyne would make a compelling argument to keep the current two-base arrangement.
"It’s in the best interest of the RCAF to maintain its program at Southport, because any infrastructure needs that happen there will be built by industry, and not come out of the defence budget," he said.
"A lot of people commute (from Winnipeg) to their jobs and their good, high-paying work. And we have to make sure that we protect those jobs."
He also said keeping the current arrangement could help the military address a growing need for pilots. Bezan obtained documents earlier this year through an access-to-information request showing "severe" short-staffing, as military pilots opt for commercial jobs.
On Friday, members of the RCAF paraded Hood to his final inspection and speech as commander, in front of scores of dignitaries at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa. He passed a symbolic tapestry onto Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger, who took over as head of the air force.
Meinzinger wouldn’t specify how he sees Southport’s role in the future, but said pilot training "will be a key part of our capital program, as we move to the future. I look forward to engaging in that particular area."
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has asked Portage residents to advocate for the base, and federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer voiced support for the status quo. For months, Tory MP Candice Bergen has been quietly advocating for Southport.
In response, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has stressed officials will look at the best option possible through a fair process.
Hood suggested on Friday Manitobans don’t have to worry about the future of the Portage facility.
"We haven’t closed any doors on anything. So, this thought, that somehow we’re excluding the possibility of Southport, is simply not true."