Marc Garneau on the Campbell Conversations

Apr 13, 2019

This week on the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher talks with Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau. Garneau is a member of the Canadian Parliament, and his portfolio includes trade negotiations. Garneau is also a former astronaut, and former head of Canada's space agency. 

Interview highlights

Reeher: Could you just very briefly for our listeners describe the missions that you had in space?

Garneau: I had the privilege of going on three missions. The first was aboard the Challenger in 1984, and it was a mission to observe the Earth. It was called [STS]-41-G. And then, I stayed with the program, and 12 years later, in 1996, I went on a mission called STS-77, which had a number of different tasks associated with it. We deployed an inflatable antenna, which was quite spectacular, because they were looking at the possibility of inflatable structures in space, the advantage being that they’re much lighter to bring up into space. And I was the arm operator on that mission, and I recovered a satellite called SPARTAN, which had been developed by the Goddard Space Center in the United States. And then, my third mission was STS-97 in the year 2000, and we were building the International Space Station at that point, and we brought up on our flight in the payload bay the very first solar panels. You may have seen the space station has sort of four pairs of wings. The first pair of wings were brought up on our mission, STS-97, so it was an International Space Station construction mission.

Reeher: Astronauts who have been in space have often talked about epiphanies that they have up there, and I was wondering if you had a most lasting impression of being in space that has stuck with you or whether you might’ve learned something new about yourself by being up there.

Garneau: Well, it is an intense experience, I would say, physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, for some people. I think what stays with me all these years after my flying is the fact that I saw planet Earth from a unique perspective. It only takes 90 minutes to go around the planet when you’re at orbital velocity in the space shuttle, and when you look out the window and you look down on our planet, which is beautiful, but at the same time, you’re very conscious of its fragility. If you look at the atmosphere, which is so thin, or the oceans and the fact that there are 7 ½ billion people here on the planet, you become conscious of the fact, as you see the blackness of space, that this is our home. It’s our only home. There’s 200 countries down there, got to find a way to get along with each other, and we also have to take care of the environment for the future. Those are the things that really stay with you from that experience.

Reeher: I wanted to get your sense, too, of where you think space exploration is going, could go, say over the next 20 to 30 years, because there’s different conversations about that going on right now, and some of them are quite ambitious. So, where do you think we’re likely headed?

Garneau: I think there are three important facets to space exploration. One is the astronomer’s perspective, and we’re becoming better and better at, even though we are limited with our tools, at postulating the presence of planets in other solar systems within our galaxy that may have the conditions necessary to sustain life, even though we can’t directly see them. We infer indirectly about them depending on a number of factors. That’s one thing. And I think we’re getting better at that. And that’s a tantalizing possibility. The second thing is we’re going into space to look back at Earth, with all the changes occurring on the planet, that we need to pay more careful attention by Earth observation. So, I think that is a growing field. We already have GPS satellites. We have communications satellites. We have weather satellites up there, and they all make our life easier down here on Earth. But we also want to monitor what’s happening with climate change and what have you. And the third is that, if you like, that human dimension of wanting to go out into our universe, and we’re just in our backyard at the moment, but I think in the years to come, in the decades to come, there is the possibility that an international crew will go to an asteroid or will go to Mars and, indeed, start off by going back to the Moon. So, that continues with the technologies that we have at our disposal at the moment. And I think those are the three areas where we will focus.

Reeher: Most of the political controversy here in the United States over our border has concerned Mexico, not Canada, but the trade controversies certainly have included Canada, and those politics have become, at times, very sharply edged between the United States and the rest of the world. What are the most important things that you think Americans need to know about Canada when they’re listening to American politicians talk about trade?

Garneau: That’s a very good question. Just to step back a little bit, Canada and the United States developed a free trade agreement back in the ’80s, and in the ’90s, we brought in Mexico with what we call NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. And after 20 years, we decided that we should renegotiate it. And that has been very much in the news for the past year and a half. And we have signed it. What perhaps American listeners may not be as fully aware of is that no two countries trade more than Canada and the United States on the planet. The 2018 figures, and these come from the United States, are that the trade between Canada and the U.S. in 2018 was $721 billion. That’s virtually $2 billion every day, trade between Canada and the United States, and if you look at the goods and services that are traded between the two countries in 2018, there was no deficit and no surplus. There was a very small surplus in the favor of the United States of 1 billion, $1.6 billion, but on $721 [billion], that’s virtually in the noise level. So, we export to the United States a little bit more in goods, but you bring to us a little bit more in services, and it roughly about balances out. So, it’s a good arrangement for both countries. And [for] more than 30 states, in terms of where they export their products, Canada is the number one destination. There are 9 million Americans who are directly in industries services whose focus is exporting to Canada or providing services to Canada. So, it’s a very big and very important trading arrangement. It’s really the biggest in the world. And, of course, now with NAFTA, when we bring in Mexico, we’re talking about 480 million people in a $22 trillion economy for those three countries. So, trade between us is extremely important, and, I’m glad to say, 98% is tariff free. It has been a good working arrangement, and the other, perhaps last, part is that our two economies are tightly integrated in terms of supply chains. So, it’s a good deal for everybody, and we have to make sure that we continue that way.

Reeher: Your portfolio includes air safety, as I understand. So, I have a question about the Boeing 737 Max safety issue. The issues the surrounding the grounding of those jets, I think, have been pretty thoroughly covered in the media, and I wanted to ask you a different kind of question that I haven’t heard talked about and I’m very curious about. Let’s assume that these planes are eventually recertified. It’s my sense as a non-expert that that will happen eventually. It might take a while. And then, passengers are going to have to get back on those planes after all of this press attention the two crashes. How should that be handled? I imagine that the first passengers on those planes are going to get a lot of media scrutiny, be interviewed as they’re getting on. It could be kind of a difficult, tense situation, I think, for the public.

Garneau: Yes, indeed. I think the public’s confidence has been shaken by the fact that there have been two apparently similar causes to accidents. One was Lion Air in Indonesia, the other one with Ethiopian Airlines, and I think it is critically important that, before they fly again, that Canadians and people from all countries that fly on the Max 8 have 100% percent confidence the problem has been addressed. So, how we communicate that is going to be critical, not only how we ourselves review perhaps procedures and things that we did in the past to make sure that we’re not missing something, and specifically, very carefully, look at the proposed modifications, but [also] how we communicate to the public that we have looked at this and we are 100% confident that we have resolved the issue that caused these two accidents to occur. I think that is what’s going to help people to become confident, in other words, to get back on the airplanes.

Reeher: So, question about transportation infrastructure. Right now, this is a big topic in the United States, and it’s a big topic nationally, but it’s also a big topic in this area around Syracuse. What is, briefly, the state of Canada’s infrastructure? Healthy? Problematic?

Garneau: It is, I would say, relatively healthy, but it could be better, and we in Canada, our government is investing very heavily in infrastructure for a number of different areas – so, what we call public transit infrastructure as well as what we call green infrastructure, and records amount of money for Canada, unprecedented amounts of money. Also, in my field of transportation, because we regard transportation as really an economic portfolio, and because we’re the second largest country on Earth and because we’re a trading nation, it is critically important for us to remove our goods efficiently. If we have clients in other countries, unless we get our goods to them reliably, on time and efficiently, then they’ll turn to other customers. And so, we have a special fund in Transport Canada called the National Trade Corridors Fund, which is trying to optimize our trade corridors so that we have less bottlenecks or other things that slow down the movement of goods. So, we’re putting a great deal of emphasis on that. A lot of it is by train, but also roads because we have tens of thousands of trucks, for example, to the United States every day. … If we don’t make them efficient, then we’re not deriving the best possible outcome for our economy.

Reeher: In terms that an American citizen could relate to, where has Canada’s politics been trending over recent years?

Garneau: Under our government, which has been the government for the past 3 ½ years, we feel that—

Reeher: The liberal party

Garneau: —The liberal party of Canada, yes. Our prime minister and our party believes it’s very important that we be a country that shows clearly that it lives by the rule of law, that it’s a country that, being a fortunate country, can help other countries, not only aid but also by speaking of and showing its policies and how it conducts itself. But being open to immigration, which is extremely important for Canada because we’re a small country, we’re about one-tenth of the size of the United States in terms of population and economy, and we need immigrants by being open to immigration. … There is sort of a populist, nativist, right-wing tendency in the world, and we want to counter that. And I think it’s very important for a country like Canada to be a country that demonstrates that the best approach is a moderate and more consensual approach.

Reeher: The Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, the leader of your party in Parliament, is currently embroiled in a scandal, and he’s recently expelled from the party caucus, and therefore their ability to run in the upcoming general elections in October, two prominent women, former ministers, who’ve made accusations of political meddling into a potential bribery case on behalf of a large Canadian company. I hope I’ve described that sufficiently objectively. My question to you is, how much has this damaged his leadership of the country?

Garneau: It’s certainly become a distraction. There’s no question about it. We maintain that there has not been undue interference. It concerns the person who was the what we call the attorney general, and there’s a difference of opinion on that. And it has to do with a particular case that is in the courts. And so, a difference of opinion, but it has become polarized to some extent, and we have to deal with that, but we maintain that we have taken the right approach. And Canadians will ultimately judge us. We have an election coming up in October, so Parliament will sit until June, and we continue in the meantime what we have promised to do for Canadians with respect to the economy, and we will deal with that and ultimately, when the election comes up in October, Canadians will decide.

Reeher: Has it helped your party at all that you have a pretty significant sideshow going on south of the border in the United States to say, “Well, OK, we’ve got this issue, but look at what’s going on down there”?

Garneau: I would say that, in the grand scheme of things, things are going well in Canada. We have record employment. We have created 900,000 jobs in the past three years. For a country the size of Canada, which has 37 million, that’s significant – lowest unemployment in 30 years. And so, when all is said and done, things are going well in Canada. The United States has been a close partner and friend and ally for a very, very long time and will continue to be so. We have such important economic interests. We talked about trade, but also security interests. We’re the two members of NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command], we are members of NATO. We’re culturally very close to each other. And although each administration does things differently, we will continue to remain steadfast friends and partners because not only do we like each other, we depend on each other.

Reeher: I’ve been looking at the national polls in Canada, and it does seem like there has been a recent flip in favor of the conservative party during 2019. Does this worry you?

Garneau: I think that the issue that you spoke about a minute ago has had an effect on us in the polls. I think that my prediction is that when we move into the summer and fall and into the elections, Canadians will once again fully focus on what is most important to the individual Canadian – Do I have a job? Do I have security? What does the future look like? What’s being done if I’m a senior to help me? … Those are the issues that will matter to Canadians when the election comes up, and I think the issue that is currently a distraction will’ve faded.