The decision, said Brian Mulroney in the House of Commons, was “a painful one and a difficult one.” For months the Prime Minister and his cabinet had agonized over a billion-dollar contract for the maintenance of Canada’s sophisticated CF-18 fighter jets. By September the contest had assumed all the markings of a classic confrontation between Central Canada and the West. A technical evaluation team had ruled out one of the three bidders, a consortium led by IMP Group Ltd. of Halifax. That left the cabinet to choose between two other groups—Bristol Aerospace Ltd. of Winnipeg or Canadair Ltd. of Montreal. Last week the government announced that it had chosen Canadair— sparking anger in Manitoba, and delight in Quebec. Declared Quebec Liberal MP Jacques Guilbault: “There was bound to be someone happy and someone unhappy, and my area is happy.”
In Manitoba, politicians and business leaders accused Ottawa of making its decision on purely political grounds. A visibly irate Premier Howard Pawley called the decision “cynical and callous.” Referring to Mulroney, Pawley added: “Frankly, I cannot trust the
man. I cannot trust the Conservative party.” Added Bristol president Anthony Bowden, whose company spent close to $5 million on its bid: “The politicians have bowed to the power of Quebec.”
In Ottawa, federal Treasury Board president Robert de Cotret acknowledged what military officials had quietly been saying for months—that
In Manitoba, politicians and business leaders quickly accused Ottawa of making its decision on purely political grounds
Bristol was the clear winner of the competition on technical grounds. And Bristol’s bid—$100.5 million for the first 3V2 years of the contract—was $3.5 million below Canadair’s. But de Cotret said that Canadian-owned Canadair could make better use of the sophisticated technology it must acquire to maintain the fighters. Bristol’s business is maintenance of aircraft, but Canadair also designs and builds
them. In fact, during the lobbying that preceded the award, Canadair warned Ottawa that if Bristol won the contract, it would mean the end of Canadair as a designer and manufacturer. The cabinet, said de Cotret, concluded that “the country as a whole” would benefit more by putting the technology in the hands of Canadair.
But there were other reasons for Ottawa to favor Canadair. When it became clear that the military favored the Bristol bid, Quebec business leaders, unionists and politicians rallied to support Canadair. Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa declared that the contract—expected to create close to 350 jobs in the Montreal area—was crucial to the province. Even Bourassa’s political nemesis, former premier René Lévesque, said that Quebec deserved the contract because it had received only a small portion of the $2.4 billion in benefits from the original CF-18 purchase in 1980. By contrast, Bristol and Manitoba MPS pointedly avoided the debate, saying the contract should be judged solely on technical merits. Said Winnipeg MP Lloyd Axworthy: “They made a fatal mistake—they thought they could play it on the straight and narrow.” For Bristol, the decision was a high price to pay for a lesson in power politics.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.