The aerospace manufacturing industry holds an important place in Canada’s modern history. The fledgeling industry’s triumphs, along with its struggles to get off the ground, illustrate the tension between Canadians, their government, and their colonial ties abroad in the 20th century. But despite some early difficulties, Canadian aerospace manufacturing now sits as the 5th largest aerospace industry in the world and the 3rd for civil air and engine production.

Manufacturing accounts for 70% of the aerospace industry’s total GDP in Canada. It includes civil and national defence activities, as well as the space industry. The country ranks highly in the production of civil aeroplanes, helicopters, and flight simulators. Large aerospace manufacturers, like Pratt & Whitney, have their base of operations in Canada.

The heart of the aerospace industry in Canada has always been Quebec. It remains so to this day. Quebec has played a historic role in the industry since its inception in the early 1900s, with support from academic and technical institutions and attractive tax incentives to keep firms in the province. It’s been said that one can build an entire aircraft from parts sourced within 30 miles of Montreal.

History of Aerospace Manufacturing in Canada

The Canadian aerospace began as small clusters of ambitious entrepreneurs, investors, and forward-thinking researchers in the early 1990s. Following the impact of the First World War, and the British Empire’s demand for aerospace technology, the industry grew from a niche into a vital sector of Canada’s economy.

The first major Canadian aeronautics manufacturer, Canadair, was incorporated in 1911. Like most of Canada’s early manufacturers, Canadair began as a British-owned firm. It was eventually purchased by the government of Canada and helped to supply the Royal Canadian Air Force in the second world war.

Between the first and second world wars, many large firms built operations in Canada, mainly in Quebec. Owing to its large and highly-educated workforce, the aeronautics industry continued to grow in both civil and military aircraft production after the wars ended.

More manufacturers emerged to meet the growing demands of the Canadian military. In 1945, the government commissioned a new Canadian manufacturer, Avro Canada, to design and develop a twin-engine fighter jet for the Air Force. Avro successfully delivered 17,000 Orenda fighter jets. On the heels of this success, the government ordered another major piece from Avro in 1953: a supersonic jet engine which was to power a craft called the Avro Arrow.

The development of the Avro Arrow is a controversial time in the history of Canadian aerospace manufacturing. The costly engine took six years to develop, and by 1959, the government had lost confidence. Not only was it expensive, but some feared the supersonic jets were irrelevant in the wake of nuclear missiles. The government cancelled the program, causing 14,000 Avro employees to lose their jobs in the span of a weekend.

The current aerospace manufacturing industry consists of over 700 firms in every region of the country. It employs 76,000 employees, 47% of whom are considered skilled workers. Aerospace invests more in research and development than any other segment of the manufacturing industry in Canada.