The government of Quebec has suffered a serious setback following a decision in Ottawa that will prevent it from landing in the province its controversial airship project, deemed too risky for national security because of the participation of a powerful Chinese investor.
In an interview last Thursday, the Minister of the Economy Pierre Fitzgibbon confirmed that Flying Whales will not be able to settle in Quebec.
“The Canadian government gave notice to Flying Whales in Europe that it did not want us to have a Quebec subsidiary of Flying Whales,” he said.
In July, our Bureau of Investigation revealed that Ottawa had still not authorized the creation of a Quebec subsidiary of Flying Whales, a company in which Quebec is a minority shareholder.
Flying Whales is an airship project capable of transporting up to 60 tonnes of material, particularly intended for regions with difficult access.
According to the information available, which had not been officially confirmed by Ottawa, the decision was delayed due to the risks of espionage linked to the presence of a Chinese investor in the project.
Last fall, Mr. Fitzgibbon announced that his government was becoming, through Investissement Québec (IQ), a shareholder in Flying Whales SAS. This French company is also owned by the Chinese national aeronautics company AVIC.
A financial contribution of nearly $ 30 million from IQ provided for the creation of a Quebec subsidiary, intended to bring together research and development activities for the Flying Whales airship project.
Risks of espionage
In November, Mr. Fitzgibbon himself mentioned the risks of industrial espionage linked to the presence of AVIC. He was reassuring, however, by stressing that the Chinese company would not be a shareholder in the subsidiary in Quebec.
On Thursday, Fitzgibbon explained that this was not enough to allay fears from the federal government, which has the power to decide whether or not foreign investments like the one planned by Flying Whales will benefit the Canadian economy or not.
“The Canadian government decided, for national security purposes, that it did not want to do business with this company,” he said. I was disappointed, of course. ”
Mr. Fitzgibbon explained that he had no information leading him to believe that this refusal was directly linked to the risks of espionage.
“The issue is the relationship AVIC has with the French company,” he said. The Minister acknowledged that a former employee of AVIC was registered as a director of the Quebec subsidiary. “I didn't know he was a former employee of AVIC,” he said.
In the United States, AVIC is in the crosshairs of the government, according to which the powerful conglomerate is controlled by the Chinese military.
Despite suggestions from the liberal opposition that he should withdraw his investment in Flying Whales last summer, Mr. Fitzgibbon still believes in the impact of the sums invested
The minister is not convinced it will fly
While maintaining his investment in Flying Whales, the Minister of the Economy Pierre Fitzgibbon admits it: nothing guarantees that the airship of the company will one day take off.
In February, however, the minister was more affirmative.
“I hope to fly in in 2022-2023,” he said.
But last week, Fitzgibbon said several uncertainties remain.
“I can't tell you today: it’s going to fly for sure. It is not credible to do that, ”he admitted.
Of the $ 30 million that was invested, $ 7 million was to be invested in the Quebec subsidiary, which Ottawa blocked. This sum could now be injected into the French parent company.
“I can not promise you that the device will fly, but there is a market for the device,” assured the minister, while maintaining the horizon of the first flight towards 2023.
To develop its aircraft, Flying Whales relies on technologies developed by the Chinese giant AVIC, co-shareholder of the French parent company. “We start from a prototype that flew in China, we are not starting from zero, zero,” said Mr. Fitzgibbon.
According to him, Quebec companies will benefit from the government's partnership with Flying Whales. He believes that the engine of the aircraft could be developed here.
“This is a project that will make it possible to employ Quebec engineers who are lacking projects these days,” he hopes.
Quebec research and development companies will be called upon to contribute, despite the impossibility of creating a Quebec subsidiary of Flying Whales.
“We will do it via the parent company while respecting the security issues,” said Mr. Fitzgibbon.
Potential investments of $ 50 million and the creation of 100 jobs are planned in the province.