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This article was published 22/11/2018 (1070 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — The federal government has opted to keep military pilot training in Portage la Prairie, the Free Press has learned.
Southport Airport’s 350 jobs are safe, after lobbying by Premier Brian Pallister and Conservative MPs, following months of concerns officials would consolidate training in Saskatchewan.
As the Free Press reported in 2017, Lt.-Gen. Michael Hood, who was head of the Royal Canadian Air Force, had expressed a preference for consolidating pilot-training operations at CFB Moose Jaw.
At an industry conference, Hood had privately suggested that would save money, and he preferred to keep the training at a military base.
His comment sparked months of rumours in high-ranking military and political circles that the Liberals would shut down the Portage facility, which was established to replace CFB Portage when it closed in 1992.
On Wednesday, Public Services and Procurement Canada quietly updated its information webpage on the military’s Future Aircrew Training (FAcT) program:
"Following a review, the government of Canada has determined the new training services will continue to be provided at the existing locations," the website reads.
Maj. Scott Spurr confirmed that means Southport will continue "at contract award," meaning whoever wins the contract for 2027 will have to operate at the facility.
The military was caught off-guard by the revelation, as it normally informs local mayors before publicly disclosing the future of a large facility.
Without seeing an official statement, the area’s MP, Candice Bergen, was cautiously optimistic, saying it was a "heartening" development after a year of consternation for her constituents.
"I’d like to get a little bit more information info before I start doing too much of a celebratory dance," the Conservative MP said Thursday. "If that is indeed accurate, and that’s the way it’s carried out, that’s indeed good for Southport, and now the devil will be in the details."
Bergen said she’d remain vigilant in seeing through that the military holds a fair procurement process, ideally with the Southport facility -- located on the south edge of Portage la Prairie, some 70 kilometres west of Winnipeg -- and its current amount of local staff.
Governments face a delicate balance in military procurement between operational effectiveness and spreading the forces’ economic heft across various regions.
An October 2017 briefing note for Hood, obtained through an access-to-information request, reveals the military confidentially surveyed industry partners about whether to maintain the two-location training system.
Five of 10 responding companies said "centralizing flying training in one location is supported or in some cases, preferred," the briefing note reads.
In August 2016, the Department of National Defence told industry "considerations will be given to amalgamation to one site depending on viability and industry input. Alternative locations may be considered for viability if offered by industry."
Industry hadn’t proposed a location to replace Southport, Brig.-Gen. Michel Lalumière recently told the Free Press.
"We're not sensing there's an appetite in industry right now to look at another location than the (ones) we're very familiar with," Lalumière said in a Nov. 13 interview, on the sidelines of another aerospace industry conference.
He said analysts were still looking over industry proposals, but changing the existing arrangement "would definitely be leading-edge" and academics or allied nations would have to provide supporting evidence to companies proposing a change.
"For (those companies), it was also a lot more comfortable to describe the current structure that we have today," Lalumière said.
A week later, PSPC updated its webpage on the FAcT program.
Bill Ryan, business development manager for KF Aerospace, which runs the training at Southport, said his firm heard rumours for a month the military would be retain the facility.
"We think the campaign from the premier, to the MPs and all that, should have worked in terms of common sense and rationale, for continuing to use Moose Jaw and Portage for training bases," Ryan said Thursday.
Ryan said his colleagues have been making the case the current two-location systems allows the air force to save costs and risks by split its housing needs and airspace between two locations. When a snowstorm or fuel contamination grounds all the planes at one base, the other can step up to keep pilots largely on their training schedules, he argued.
Just this week, the federal auditor general tabled a report finding the RCAF doesn’t have enough pilots trained to operate its current fighter fleet, nevermind the used jets it’s about to inherit.
Lalumière said his officials aim to have a former request for tenders posted by the spring, and a contract awarded by 2021. That’s breakneck speed by military-procurement standards, because existing contracts will start expiring in 2023.
"Industry's ready. They told us they're ready — but there's not much time to lose. And we're moving forward."