OTTAWA – Keeping the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal is so politically and economically important that it’s bringing together two foes: the federal Conservatives and Quebec’s separatist Parti Quebecois.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird will stand with Jean-Francois Lisee, Quebec’s minister of international affairs, at a press conference Friday to present a common front in efforts to thwart the move.
The pair will be joined by the mayor of Montreal in hopes of fending off an attempt by Qatar to wrest away the agency, which sets international standards for civil aviation and is the only United Nations agency based in Canada.
“This government is putting aside politics and will work with anyone to ensure we deliver, and ensure that this is maintained in Montreal,” Baird said Thursday during question period.
Canada was caught off guard late last month when Qatar made a pitch to the organization that it ought to move from its Montreal headquarters to the wealthy kingdom’s capital of Doha.
Baird was in Doha in early April as part of a Middle East tour. He said no one said a word about the pending pitch.
“I had a good visit to Qatar a few weeks ago. They never brought this up,” Baird said. “Obviously they’ve been planning this for some time. We have a difference of opinion.”
Since then, Baird’s already been on the phone twice to the prime minister of Qatar and said he’s already rallying support from elsewhere.
“Qatar is a very small country with great wealth and is offering a lot of money to bring this headquarters to Doha,” he said. “We don’t think that these type of things should be for sale and we’re going to work strongly to convince other countries.”
Also backing Canada’s bid are international unions who say a move to Qatar is at odds with the ICAO’s mandate.
“How can an organization that has to defend the rights and safety of workers and passengers be moved to a state whose citizens’ pleas for democracy are answered with batons and buckshot?” David Cockroft, the general secretary of the International Transport Federation, said in a statement earlier this week.
Canada has played host to the ICAO since 1946. Its current headquarters were built in the 1990s at a cost of $100 million.
In March, Canada and the ICAO’s governing council concluded negotiations on a new lease for the building beginning in 2016. But it still requires final approval from the organization’s secretary-general, who is awaiting the outcome of this fall’s vote on Qatar’s bid.
Though the organization didn’t go looking for a new host, it is obliged to consider the outside offer under the organization’s rules.
Losing the ICAO would be a financial and political blow for Canada.
Montreal is the hub of Canada’s aviation industry, and its international reputation as a major player is reflected in the ICAO’s longtime residency.
The organization also feeds the city’s economy; it employs 534 staff and says it generates some $80 million annually for Montreal’s economy and 1,200 direct and indirect jobs.
Montreal-based Air Canada has already registered its support for keeping the ICAO based in a city “with an international reputation for its expertise in civil aviation, whether in air travel, aeronautics, international organizations or various specialized training programs offered by Montreal universities.”
The Qatari bid, meanwhile, is seen by government critics as being politically motivated and a reflection of Canada’s pro-Israel policy in the Middle East.
For the bid to prevail, a minimum of 60 per cent of the ICAO’s 191 member states must sign off, a threshold that could send a strong rebuke to Canada.
Baird irritated many in the Arab world last month when he went to the Israeli foreign minister’s office in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians and the UN consider occupied land.
“What happened with his charm offensive when he went to the Middle East recently is he actually united people really against Canada,” said Paul Dewar, the NDP’s foreign affairs critic.
“Now that he has this problem on his hands, I’m hoping that he’ll listen to people … I’ll be the first one to engage with him if he asks for help, along with my colleagues, to actually keep this asset in Montreal.”
The rift between Canada and some Arab states extends to issues beyond Israel. The two sides have only just started to patch up holes in their relationship that were the result of long-standing aviation issues.
Both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have been lobbying Canada vigorously for more landing rights for their airlines, only to see their efforts continually blocked by domestic airlines.
On his visit to the Middle East in April, Baird and the UAE announced they were moving towards an agreement that would see friendlier skies, which includes an end to a long-running visa dispute.
Baird highlighted that agreement as proof things are looking up for Canada-Arab relations.
“Of the first five Arab countries that I visited, not one of them mentioned Canada’s position on Israel.”