Ottawa should produce vital products -- like it did in the Second World War

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Oregon Army National Guard Soldiers, along with staff from the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST), load 140 Oregon ventilators onto a truck for shipment to New York. Image: Oregon National Guard/Flickr

At first glance, the question posed by a Canadian medical ethicist might seem thoughtful:

If two coronavirus patients are having serious trouble breathing -- and one is a 12-year-old child and the other a 74-year-old doctor -- who should get the hospital's only available ventilator?

But on further thought, this question -- asked on a recent CTV news program -- seems not just horrifying but also almost … crazy.

By that I mean, how on earth has it come to the point where we're worried there won't be enough life-saving ventilators -- when manufacturers have been producing these machines for decades without difficulty!

Of course, ventilators are suddenly in short supply due to the pandemic and ensuring an adequate supply for Canadian needs seems like an almost impossible feat.

In fact, it pales in comparison with the amazing production feats performed by Canadian industry during the Second World War -- feats that we're still capable of today, if our leaders would overcome their reluctance to take charge of needed industrial production.

In 1940, when British forces had to make an emergency evacuation by sea from Dunkirk, they left behind virtually the entire British fleet of military vehicles. Almost defenceless, Britain turned to Canada to help it replace the 75,000 military vehicles it had abandoned in France.

Canada immediately stepped up to the plate -- and then some.

In a highly co-ordinated effort, Ottawa created -- almost from scratch -- a vast industrial base that produced 800,000 military transport vehicles and 50,000 tanks, not to mention tons of other military supplies throughout the war.

This enormous industrial mobilization, overseen by wartime government production czar C.D. Howe, was enabled through legislation that gave Ottawa wide-ranging powers to compel manufacturers to produce war material.

Also central to Canada's massive mobilization was the creation of 28 Crown corporations, with a workforce of 229,000, dedicated to manufacturing war products, according to University of Toronto's Sandford Borins.

Borins notes that many of these Crown corporations were impressive. Victory Aircraft, for instance, proved highly effective at manufacturing complex, British-designed planes and provided the foundation for the postwar creation of the supersonic, state-of-the-art jet known as the Avro Arrow.

Another wartime Crown corporation, Research Enterprises, teamed up with the National Research Council of Canada to design and produce technologically advanced radar equipment, periscopes, rangefinders and radio sets.

After the war, however, Ottawa was quick to transfer all production capacity back to the private sector. It shut down or privatized all 28 wartime Crown corporations, no matter how promising.

In recent decades, Canada has increasingly bought into an ideology that celebrates the marketplace and denigrates government. Indeed, we've become so locked into this pro-market mindset that, even in the face of today's deadly pandemic, Ottawa seems paralyzed to take charge in order to ensure adequate supplies of vital materials.

Of course, many companies have signalled a willingness to produce materials for the pandemic. But, without a powerful government agency overseeing production and distribution, we've been left scrambling to buy scarce equipment in a chaotic private marketplace, bidding against U.S. states and governments all over the world.

If the Trudeau government seems unable to break out of its subservience to the marketplace, some in the labour movement are showing more vision.

A group of laid-off autoworkers has called on the government to immediately order General Motors Canada to begin producing needed medical equipment at its largely idle plant in Oshawa -- just as GM in the U.S. is starting to make ventilators at an Ohio plant.

The Canadian workers argue this could be the first step toward establishing a Crown corporation that could use the massive Oshawa complex to produce essential medical equipment, as well as products needed for the conversion to green energy.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has shown no interest in the idea. Instead, he's left us to the mercy of the marketplace, anxiously hoping we'll be able to buy enough ventilators, even as we find ourselves debating who might have to be thrown overboard -- a 12-year-old child or a 74-year-old doctor.

The correct answer is, of course, neither! Instead, Ottawa should bloody well get to work to ensure that desperately needed, life-saving materials are manufactured right here in Canada now.

Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author of The Sport & Prey of Capitalists: How the Rich are Stealing Canada's Public Wealth. This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Image: Oregon National Guard/Flickr

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