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1st Avro Arrow, Now Canadarm: When Will Canada Learn To Hold Onto Its Tech?

Wouldn't it be better to build on what we've done, instead of constantly seeing some of our best work move south?

09/14/2017 17:29 EDT | Updated 09/14/2017 17:30 EDT
Photo by NOAA via Getty Images
In this handout provided by NASA from the the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, weather system Arthur travels up the east coast of the United States in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida on July 2, 2014 in space. The robotic arm of the Space Station Remote Manipulator System or Canadarm2 is seen at upper right.

The images we choose to put on our currency are meant to be iconic portrayals of the people, places and things we hold most dear as a nation, images that help define us as a people and speak to what we wish we could be.

There's the loon, the moose, the Bluenose schooner, past prime ministers and, to be added in 2018, Viola Desmond, who in 1946 refused to leave a whites-only section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre.

Now, take a look at the back of a five-dollar bill, and you'll see a proud bit of Canadian technology floating high over the earth, Canada's logo emblazoned across it for all the world to see, the Canadarm.

The Canadarm was developed in the 1970s and first put into space in 1981, soon becoming an integral part of NASA's space shuttle program. That program's success would not have been possible without the Canadarm literally reaching into space and doing the work the crew had been sent into orbit to perform.

Jim Wilkes/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Sam Higson, Shuttle programs director for Brampton's MDA Space Missions, right, gives Ontario Lieutentant-Governor David Onley, seated, a quick rundown on the Canadarm robotic manipulator as deputy general manager Craig Thornton looks on, on July 20, 2011.

In 90 missions over 30 years, the Canadarm helped set up the Hubble Telescope, retrieved a stranded communications satellite and helped build the International Space Station, where a second generation of the arm continues to work today.

This is technology that all Canadians can rightly be proud that our country produced. It was conceived with a healthy dose of taxpayers' dollars and some $108 million to get it started, so we all own a piece of it.

A sense of ownership is intensified for the workers and retirees who helped build the first Canadarm, including those at Northstar Aerospace in Milton, Ont. who today are facing job loss and a 24 per cent cut to their pensions as the plant closes and its work moves to the U.S.

Spar Aerospace was the lead contractor on the Canadarm, and when that company was broken up, part of it later became Northstar, where workers are represented by Unifor Local 112.

Private equity firm Wynnchurch Capital, which now owns Northstar, is moving production south just as another iconic piece of Canadian aerospace technology is being rediscovered. The Avro Arrow was cutting-edge technology when the Diefenbaker government killed the program and sunk its prototypes into Lake Ontario.

Chris Donovan/The Canadian Press
David Shea, vice president of engineering at Kraken Sonar, speaks during an announcement of the discovery of a free-flight model of the Avro Arrow found in Lake Ontario, during a press conference in Toronto, Ont. on Friday, Sept. 8, 2017.

Now, preparations are being made to pull those prototypes from the lake, just as one of the companies behind the iconic Canadarm is moving its production and technology to the United States.

I have to ask, why does Canada keep doing this? Why do governments repeatedly spend taxpayer dollars to develop the latest in aerospace technology, and then sit by while it leaves the country?

Workers in this country have proven over and over that we have the capability to rebuild and rekindle cutting-edge technology in Canada, only to cut ourselves off at the knees and force ourselves to start over again when that technology is exported by the companies that own it.

Wouldn't it be better to build on what we've done, instead of constantly seeing some of our best work move south, or to the bottom of Lake Ontario?

Why do governments repeatedly spend taxpayer dollars to develop the latest in aerospace technology, and then sit by while it leaves the country?

The Northstar workers losing their jobs and the retirees seeing their pensions cut by about $200/month are only the most visible of those who will be hurt by the Milton plant closure later this month. Also paying the price are young people who will never have the opportunity to get a good union job at that plant.

It's basic economics that one job creates many more, both in the spending habits of the workers involved, and in the other companies contracted to be part of a project.

All that is lost when we let our jobs and innovative technology leave the country.

Surely Canada can do better. Surely we can ensure that our investments in industry are made to build something lasting that will help generations of working people build their careers, a decent life and a retirement with dignity.

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