Canada

Canada warned Trump administration of repercussions when shipments of masks and ventilators cut

Trump’s initial refusal to ship the masks was just one of many fires Canadians officials had to put out to keep PPE flowing into Canada in April and March

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OTTAWA – When the Trump administration restricted shipments of N95 masks and ventilators last spring, Canadian officials pushed back and drafted a list of pressure points Canada could use, even pointing out some U.S. hospitals depended on Canadian electricity.

An email released to the House of Commons Health committee shows Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., Kirsten Hillman, drew up a long list of levers Canada could pull, including Canadians who work in hospitals in Detroit, medical equipment suppliers in Canada, and even the electrical supply for northern Maine, which is dependent on electricity from New Brunswick.

“NB Power is the electricity provider to Northern Maine. There are at least three hospitals in Northern Maine that would get their electricity through NB Power,” reads the email from Hillman.

Hillman sent the list to staff in the prime minister’s office in advance of a phone call between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford and Jared Kushner, former president Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor.

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Telford and Kushner were in regular contact during the NAFTA renegotiations and stayed in contact throughout the Trump administration. The list of items was also circulated to other Canadian officials as they met with U.S. counterparts to make clear Canada could cause problems for the United States.

Hillman’s list also includes special filters for bio-containment suits from 3M that were made in Canada are necessary for the suits to work, as well as a paper mill in Nanaimo B.C. that makes the specialized fabric for surgical masks and gowns.

Trump briefly stopped 3M from exporting N95 masks using the defence production act to prevent shipments of the critical masks from leaving the United States. At the time in early April, Canada had no ability to make masks domestically.

A Liberal government source said the point of Hillman’s list was to make clear how interconnected the two economies were and that export restrictions were not in anybody’s interest. They believe they got the message across because Trump relented and allowed shipments of the 3M masks to resume.

N95 masks were a particular problem point for the Canadian government early in the pandemic. Hospitals in several provinces had to advise staff to conserve the masks and they were extremely close to running out of the crucial supplies.

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Trump’s initial refusal to ship the masks was just one of many fires Canadians officials had to put out to keep PPE flowing into Canada in April and March.

Canada was ordering millions of masks from China, but many of them were not meeting technical specifications and getting the shipments was proving difficult.

One Canadian flight in late April was forced to leave the airport in Shanghai without its shipment of PPE. While it was reported at the time that the plane left empty, it actually left with other shipments bound for Canada. A rush of shipments and new screening at Chinese airports caused major problems for Canadian shipments and one staffer warned it was a major concern.

Canada warned Trump administration of repercussions when shipments of masks and ventilators cut
In April 2020, American firm 3M was ordered by President Donald Trump to stop sending N95 masks such as this one to Canada, but refused to comply. Photo by Angus Mordant/Bloomberg

“As previously mentioned, there is a 40 [plus] hour wait for trucks en route to the airport and China has strict quarantine rules for [people] entering the country, meaning aircrews cannot stay at the airport for an extended period of time to wait for supplies to be unloaded onto planes,” reads an email between staffers in the prime minister’s office after the empty plane hit the news.

Trump used the defence production act to stop the shipments of 3M masks. The act allows a U.S. president to force American companies to prioritize U.S. government orders.

Masks weren’t the only item the Trump administration was blocking. Zoll, a German firm that made ventilators in the U.S., signed a contract with Canada in early March to provide 200 ventilators. They were supposed to arrive beginning in April, but late in March they were also being stopped.

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In an email, a policy advisor in the office of then-Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne, told staff in the prime minister’s office that the ventilators would be delayed because the company had a relationship with the U.S. department of defence.

“Zoll indicated that all its ventilator production will go to the U.S. (DOD) for at least the next 60- 90 days. ZOLL has had a decades-long relationship with DOD, and DOD recently invoked existing options in current contracts, so they feel they have no choice but to execute.”

Canada ordered thousands of ventilators early in the pandemic due to fears they would run short. Ultimately, the feared shortage of ventilators never occurred.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu appealed to her U.S. counterpart about the issue and was promised Canada would be exempted from the act. Canada eventually received the ventilators, but the first shipment was delayed by a month.

The government has since signed contracts to have N95 masks and ventilators made in Canada.

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