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With eye on high-value jobs, B.C. earmarks $5-million for aerospace

Cascade Aerospace is a specialty aerospace and defence contractor focused on building long-term relationships with customers by meeting their unique needs for high value, complex programs. An employee works on the interior of an aircraft.

At Cascade Aerospace in Abbotsford, a pair of aging Mexican military aircraft are undergoing a multimillion-dollar refit. Built in 1967, the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules will be returned to the Mexican government with specs, from the cockpit controls to the re-engineered wings, fit for 2014.

With 600 employees, Cascade is one of just two authorized maintenance facilities in the world for the C-130s. It's just one example of a thriving sector that the province now is hoping to expand.

British Columbia's aerospace sector has grown to a $1.2-billion industry with scant notice from the provincial government, landing international defence contracts that help fuel 10,000 high-tech jobs. On Tuesday, Finance Minister Mike de Jong is expected to offer some detail of his government's $5-million commitment to help the sector gain new heights.

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When he unveiled the B.C. budget in February, Mr. de Jong promised to invest $5-million over five years to attract global aerospace and defence contractors to B.C.

With few details included in the budget, one reporter asked if the province is "getting into the bomb-making business."

The short answer is, no. But what the province is jumping on is high-tech, value-added industry that plays a role in making Canada one of the world's biggest aerospace players. "What we do want to do is capitalize on an aerospace industry that has quietly established itself in a way that most British Columbians, most Canadians don't understand," Mr. de Jong said in February.

Benjamin Boehm, chief operating officer for Cascade Aerospace, said the commitment should help with needed skills training and research and development to help keep the industry growing in an increasingly competitive field.

"It's a coveted business. It produces high-paying, high-intellect jobs," he said in an interview Monday. "And it is value-added – this is not pumping something out of the ground and shipping it offshore."

The Mexican defence work was won because the company could demonstrate the capacity to deliver, but those kinds of contracts are getting harder to capture as the European Union and the United States become more protectionist. As well, he noted, the Canadian government is curtailing its military aircraft spending.

"We need the province to work nationally," Mr. Boehm said. "We are up against Goliaths – the Chinese aerospace industry works as one country. We can't be out on our own, with Quebec and Ontario each doing their own thing, or we will be eaten alive."

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Mr. de Jong is expected to tour one of Victoria's major aircraft assembly facilities, Viking Air, to showcase the industry's potential. After buying the rights to the classic Canadian aircraft, the Twin Otter, the company began production in 2007 for clients around the globe.

Jay Teichroeb, regional vice-president of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, said Tuesday's announcement will be the B.C. government's first substantive response to an Industry Canada report on the aerospace sector – worth $22-billion in direct revenues nationwide – that called for more investment in research and skills training.

"It's a very positive statement of the B.C. government's recognition that technology-oriented industries provide an important sustainability element to our provincial economy and play a significant role to help diversify the economy," he said.

The $5-million can be used to help organize the industry, he said, which should help secure more procurement contracts.

It is a small start but it is a change in tone for the B.C. government, which has been primarily focused on securing a liquefied natural gas industry. The provincial government belatedly backed the Seaspan Marine Corp. bid for federal shipbuilding contracts that landed the company $8-billion worth of work in 2011. That bid was hampered by the B.C. Liberal government's no-subsidies policy, and Seaspan missed out on the larger contract, worth $25-billion.

Follow me on Twitter: @justine_hunter

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