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Mulroney, me and the CF-18

I had the PM's solemn word -- but it was worthless

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/3/2011 (3109 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In 1986, Manitoba expected the 20-year, $100-million maintenance contract for Canada's new CF-18 fighters would come to the province. Bristol Aerospace was confident it had submitted the superior bid and Ottawa had promised there would be no political interference. In this excerpt from his book, Keep True (University of Manitoba Press, $28), former premier Howard Pawley describes how Manitoba was double-crossed.

While in London, England, in October of 1986, I received a frantic long-distance telephone call from worried staff in Winnipeg. They urged me to immediately contact Prime Minister Mulroney. "Funny business is going on," they warned.

That same evening, I attended a sumptuous dinner at Canada House, hosted by Canada's high commissioner, Roy McMurtry, the former Conservative attorney general of Ontario. There, I was confronted by a deeply worried Sir Francis Tombs, who was the head of Rolls Royce, the owner of Bristol Aerospace. In these official surroundings, he forcibly counselled me that his company would have no alternative but to re-examine any future investment strategies they might undertake in Manitoba: "If this is the way Canada wishes to do business, we will avoid smaller provinces; they have too little political clout with Ottawa. It's better for us to choose provinces like Quebec or Ontario: they can pull the political strings."

Angered by this threat, I was vividly reminded why western Canadians have historically felt alienated by the lopsided political-economic power of central Canada. I was determined that they would not win this time without a good fight.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/3/2011 (3109 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In 1986, Manitoba expected the 20-year, $100-million maintenance contract for Canada's new CF-18 fighters would come to the province. Bristol Aerospace was confident it had submitted the superior bid and Ottawa had promised there would be no political interference. In this excerpt from his book, Keep True (University of Manitoba Press, $28), former premier Howard Pawley describes how Manitoba was double-crossed.

While in London, England, in October of 1986, I received a frantic long-distance telephone call from worried staff in Winnipeg. They urged me to immediately contact Prime Minister Mulroney. "Funny business is going on," they warned.

I had the PM’s solemn word — but it was worthless

I had the PM’s solemn word — but it was worthless

That same evening, I attended a sumptuous dinner at Canada House, hosted by Canada's high commissioner, Roy McMurtry, the former Conservative attorney general of Ontario. There, I was confronted by a deeply worried Sir Francis Tombs, who was the head of Rolls Royce, the owner of Bristol Aerospace. In these official surroundings, he forcibly counselled me that his company would have no alternative but to re-examine any future investment strategies they might undertake in Manitoba: "If this is the way Canada wishes to do business, we will avoid smaller provinces; they have too little political clout with Ottawa. It's better for us to choose provinces like Quebec or Ontario: they can pull the political strings."

Angered by this threat, I was vividly reminded why western Canadians have historically felt alienated by the lopsided political-economic power of central Canada. I was determined that they would not win this time without a good fight.

After several fruitless attempts to reach Mulroney the following day, I reluctantly left London for a scheduled weekend break in the county of Cornwall in western England, the site of my ancestral roots. There, on 23 October, I finally received the prime minister's telephone response. Neither I nor my wife Adele, who was accompanying me, was pleased by this procrastination. We had spent more than a day in this beautiful Cornish countryside stuck in a cramped hotel room awaiting his call—in my case, with considerable foreboding.

I started the telephone conversation by advising the prime minister about the rumours relayed to me from Winnipeg and the information I had gathered in London alleging that a decision had already been made. I reminded him of the tendering process. "Was it no longer being honoured?" I demanded. "Was politics superseding the above-board process that had been promised to prevent such abuse?" Mulroney responded in his usual smooth, charming way. Had he not always been fair to the West? he asked. An uneasy chill raced up my spine. I replied, "Brian, all that may be fine, but I hear worrisome reports pertaining to the CF-18 contract." The prime minister assured me that he had not studied the file, and that no decision had been made. He promised to call once a decision had been made, and to discuss it with me first.

On the morning of 31 October 1986, during my daily forty-minute drive to Winnipeg from my residence, I was smacked with the lead item on the CBC morning news. Treasury Board chair Robert de Cotret had just announced that the federal government contract for the CF-18 maintenance work had been awarded to Canadair in Montreal. De Cotret explained that the government decision was based on the importance that it attributed to technology transfer. This was obvious bafflegab, coming as it did from a government that neither before nor subsequently demonstrated much interest in Canadian nationalism. Although normally slow to rise to anger, I was furious by the time I reached the premier's office.

Already, worried officials of the provincial trade department were assembling there along with their minister, Vic Schroeder. Hurried calls by various officials were put through to the union, Bristol Aerospace, and the City of Winnipeg, summoning their representatives to meet with us at once. As an increasing number of tense individuals huddled, it was agreed that there was no alternative but for Manitoba to go on an immediate offensive.

At ten o'clock, I stormed out of my office to meet with the media at a rapidly called press conference. Even the faces of the normally neutral reporters vividly betrayed their anger at the enormous body blow delivered so unceremoniously to their province. There, the electrifying atmosphere was the same as throughout the province. Barely containing my anger, I opened the press conference by denouncing the Mulroney government's decision. I outlined the pledge given to me only a few days earlier by the prime minister and which his office had been reminded of on the "Wednesday of this week"—a promise to call me before the decision was made. I announced my decision to lead, the next day, an all-party delegation of business, labour, provincial, and city representatives to Ottawa to meet Mulroney and Tory cabinet ministers from Manitoba and demand the reversal of this horrendous decision. Irritated, I advised Manitobans of my frustration and added, referring to the breach of Mulroney's promise, "It's one more example of the shaft. I cannot trust this man."

The morning after my press conference, the Manitoba delegation departed Winnipeg International Airport for an urgent meeting in Ottawa with Mulroney and his ministers from Manitoba.

Arriving at the conference room in the Langevin Block, we were seated as a group, and we patiently awaited the arrival of the prime minister. Entering the room fashionably late, Mulroney was coolly received. He began the meeting on a sour note, hissing, "Premier Pawley, I have been made aware of your vulgar remarks." Evidently he was referring to the press conference the day before when I had dared to openly question the prime minister's trustworthiness. "They will be long remembered," he warned, ominously adding, "and I have made note of them." To these comments, I responded, "Mr. Prime Minister, it doesn't matter very much what you think of me, nor indeed what I might think of you; however, what is critical is that you re-establish the trust from the Manitoba people that you have lost." My remarks did nothing to assuage his anger; he turned to Mayor Norrie and snapped, "Mr. Mayor, do you have a submission to make?" His snub was obviously aimed at me and was one that I could not let go unchallenged. "Mr. Prime Minister, I will be speaking on behalf of Manitobans," I firmly asserted. With obviously increasing discomfort, Mulroney was left with no choice but to listen to me.

I related to him the reasons for the anger we all shared at "this act of betrayal by the federal government." "The decision should be immediately reversed," I insisted. "It is unfair treatment of a province with less political clout. Smaller provinces should not be treated in this manner."

If the prime minister had expected the criticism from the Winnipeg mayor to be more restrained, he was sadly mistaken. Never before in his life, Norrie explained, had he heard as much anger directed at a prime minister from Winnipeggers as he heard at the past weekend's Blue Bomber football game. If Mulroney expected criticism to slack off when it came to the turn of the representatives of the Manitoba and Winnipeg chambers of commerce, he was in for bitter disappointment. Doole and Henderson both sharply chastised the federal government's actions. As the labour representative prepared to speak, Mulroney attempted to make his departure. I was able to delay his exit only when I implored him to remain and listen to what the spokespersons for the workers had to say: "Surely you can't walk out and not hear the representatives of the workers themselves speak." Mulroney slowly and reluctantly returned to the table.

The president of the Federation of Labour and the regional vice-president of the Canadian Association of Industrial, Mechanical and Allied Workers, the local union at Bristol Aerospace, spoke eloquently about the sense of betrayal and anger felt by workers at the plant. The Manitoba Mulroney cabinet ministers, Jake Epp and Charlie Mayer, sat stoically through the meeting. Not once did they intervene to support the Manitoba delegation or their own constituents. They had failed to head off the announcement so unfair to their own province. Indeed, Jake Epp had done much damage by repeatedly trying to reassure Manitobans that the CF-18 contract would be landed by Manitoba.

The bitter confrontation finally ended on a highly unsatisfactory note. The die had been cast, and for the Mulroney government there was no turning back.

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