Justin Trudeau looked mostly befuddled this week when he explained that we’ve lost the “capacity” to produce vaccines. We used to have it, he said, but it’s gone. As if you’d permanently lost track of your umbrella because it hasn’t rained much lately. As a result, we don’t know when the guys with capacity — the U.S., U.K., Germany — will get around to supplying us. We do have a great “portfolio” of orders from those places. So our national skill isn’t making, it’s shopping.
Like most things that seem random and orphan, this has a past. It goes way back. Canada didn’t acquire its manufacturing capacity (now misplaced) by spontaneous combustion. It was a tough, controversial policy decision by John A. Macdonald, his “National Policy.” It deliberately replaced imports of foreign goods with Canadian ones, and presto: an industrial working class that could, magically, buy stuff it made. It was sheer government activism.
Cancelling that capacity was also deliberate policy, known then as free trade. We can get it cheaper elsewhere, so let’s go shopping. Brian Mulroney launched that in the late 1980s, Jean Chrétien ratified it in the 90s, and Stephen Harper nailed the lid on the coffin. The totality of his economic policy amounted to: pump oil from the ground and sell it fast to others who’ll do whatever to make it more valuable.
Their argument for abandoning the capacity to make things was largely based on fashion. The free trade train is leaving the station, they said, and the question is: will Canada be on it? You wanna be hip or what?
One thing lost in that process was the dignity of making useful stuff. When was the last time you heard anyone like Justin rhapsodize about making things versus buying them, researching them or integrating them with social media? Is that why cooking is such a big thing now? You’re actually making something, versus shooting it on your phone and sending it out.
People love growing their own vegetables, but there’s pressure to cut the supports farmers need for what is a pretty industrialized process. There’s a sense of heroism in resource industries; “it’s life and death in there every day,” said the guys who gingerly stepped around the molten “pots” in the aluminum smelter at Kitimat. But making stuff is now more a hobby than a livelihood.
Yet we’re the place that gave the world insulin. The non-profit Connaught Laboratories in Toronto produced it, plus diphtheria and polio vaccines. They distributed them worldwide, at cost. They were in a class with the Pasteur Institute in Paris and Lister Institute in London. Under Trudeau the elder, its mandate got diluted into private-public bullshit. Then Mulroney privatized and sold it off. We still have labs that work on vaccines, but no production capacity — so even if they succeed, they’d have to send it elsewhere to be mass produced.
True, we’re not juggernauts like the U.S. or Germany but hey, Australia figured it out. Under their deals with Oxford and AstraZeneca, they produce those vaccines in country and give them to everyone free. Justin didn’t mention them in his muddled announcement.
The first strike I ever saw action in was at a small hospital supplies plant in Brantford. It had been sold to a U.S. corporation that planned to cut staff and make it a warehouse distributing products from elsewhere, like surplus Korean War bandages that hadn’t been resterilized. It raised questions about loss of manufacturing and public health. The strikers won but the plant is long gone.
As I say, it didn’t all just happen, and if you think it did, Doug Ford would probably say, “Give your head a shake.”