Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Friday to announce a deal aimed at ensuring Canada is never again at the mercy of unreliable foreign suppliers of personal protective equipment during a pandemic.
Under the agreement, 3M Canada will increase capacity at its Brockville, Ont., facility so it can eventually produce up to 100 million medical-grade N95 masks a year.
“This is part of our made-in-Canada plan to find solutions to COVID-19,” Trudeau said at the plant in Brockville, where he unveiled the plan alongside Ford, representatives from both governments and 3M executives.
The first deliveries of the N95 respirators, which have been in high demand worldwide since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, will come early next year.
That means they will not be in place in time for a potential second wave of the novel coronavirus, but Trudeau said the investment is about being ready for the future.
“We also want to make sure that we have N95 masks at our disposal if we are ever faced with another public health crisis in the years to come,” Trudeau said in French.
The federal and Ontario governments, which are each kicking in $23.3 million to help increase production capacity at the plant, will each receive 25 million masks per year over five years for health-care and other essential workers.
Ford said Ontario needed to ramp up production of personal protective equipment given the experience early in the COVID-19 crisis, when Canada was scrambling in a global competition for a limited supply of masks and other equipment.
“This will never, ever happen to us again,” the premier said Friday.
The prized N95 respirator masks, used by front-line health-care workers, were in particularly short supply.
Millions of the respirators Canada obtained from China were found to be defective and couldn’t be used. In the early weeks of the pandemic, they were even at risk of being blocked by U.S. President Donald Trump, who called out 3M after learning the Minnesota-based company had been exporting N95 masks to Canada and Mexico.
The company pushed back, warning that backing out of existing export agreements at a time of crisis would have serious humanitarian consequences and would ultimately result in fewer masks being available in the U.S.
Eventually, the company agreed to bring masks in from its foreign plants, and exemptions were carved out to allow exports to Canada to continue.
On Friday, Trudeau said the ability for Canada to provide N95 masks to other countries also factored into the decision to invest in the 3M facility in Ontario.
“Canada as a country has never brought in limits or protectionist measures on ensuring that our products can help the world as well,” Trudeau said.
This is the second domestic contract to produce N95 masks, after Quebec-based Medicom signed a 10-year agreement to supply N95 and surgical masks to the federal government in April.
Medicom’s combined contracts are worth more than $113 million, and include providing 24 million surgical masks and 20 million N95 respirators each year.
The company turned a warehouse in Montreal into a mask factory in a little over two months. It has already started producing and supplying surgical masks to Ottawa and N95 production is to begin this month with the first deliveries expected in the fall.
Health Canada regulations require approval of the masks and each shipment must be inspected by the Public Health Agency of Canada for quality control.
Canada has contracts for 154.5 million N95 and KN95 masks. All that have been delivered so far have been imported from outside the country.
Procurement Minister Anita Anand said Friday that 61 million N95 and KN95 respirators had been delivered, including up to 500,000 N95s per month from 3M facilities in the U.S.
KN95 masks are the Chinese equivalent of the N95 respirators that are certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the United States.