China was the first country to order all of its Boeing 737 Max 8 planes grounded after the deadly Ethiopian Airlines crash last Sunday. Australia and Singapore quickly followed suit. So did the European Union, whose air safety watchdog — which has jurisdiction over 30 countries — said it was doing so to, “ensure the safety of passengers.” The Indian government said that its MAX planes would be grounded until “appropriate modifications and safety measures are undertaken to ensure their safe operation.”
But for several days Canada stayed the course, even though this was the second fatal crash involving the Max 8 in just a few months. Falling in line with the U.S (where the plane is made), Transport Minister Marc Garneau initially said he wouldn’t make any “premature decisions.” Garneau instead declared — somewhat bizarrely — that Canadian pilots are among the world’s best and he would fly the Max without hesitation. “Flying is a very safe way to travel,” Garneau added.
Less than 48 hours later, however, the transport chief reversed course. Citing “new data” that Canadian officials had received, Garneau issued a safety notice — a move that effectively banned the 737 Max 8 from using local airspace. U.S. officials eventually followed suit, though not before President Donald Trump tweeted, “I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot,” a reference presumably to the increasingly complexity (and challenges) posed by highly automated aircraft.
Garneau and others defended their initial decisions to keep the Max flying, insisting that the evidence available to them at the time did not support grounding the Boeing 737 Max 8. But such reasoning misses the mark. Garneau’s mistake isn’t that he didn’t ground the plane sooner. Rather, it’s that he allowed the plane to fly in the first place.
When a new jet rolls off the assembly line, it can’t just take to the skies. The manufacturer must first show the plane complies with existing safety standards. This means acing lab tests, flight tests and evacuation tests all under the watchful eye of government safety inspectors.
Once that happens, the plane is issued a “type certificate,” which allows it to ferry passengers around. There is one problem however. In recent years, the U.S. government has, citing a lack of resources, allowed jet-makers like Boeing to “self-certify.” This means that while one Boeing engineer tests the airplane’s systems, another acts as the government representative signing off on whether or not those systems are sound.
If this arrangement worries you, you’re not alone. The U.S. government’s own internal watchdog warned about the setup, saying it creates the “potential risk” for companies to trust workers with inadequate qualifications or poor performance records. Non-governmental workers were also found do checks, “not related to high-risk issues — e.g., issues that could directly impact the potential loss of critical systems or other safety concerns.”
This doesn’t mean manufacturers like Boeing want to build an unsafe product. Why would they? But commercial aviation has long been dogged by high operating costs and low margins. As former pilot William Langewiesche noted two decades ago, in this environment, “safety is never first, and it never will be, but for obvious reasons it is a necessary part of the venture.”
That’s something Minister Garneau should have considered before ever allowing the 737 Max 8 to fly in Canada. Instead, concerns about the plane’s certification were pinned on the Americans. In an email to CBC News, Garneau’s spokesperson said, “The process of certification of the Boeing 737 Max  aircraft was led by American authorities” and that, “Transport Canada officials are working with their American counterparts in order to assess next steps.”
Under existing rules, a type certificate issued in the U.S. is usually accepted by Canada (and vice versa). This given the “high degree of mutual confidence and trust” enjoyed between the two countries.
That trust, however, has been broken.
Canadians deserve better. When it comes to public safety, Ottawa should lead rather than follow. This means implementing an aircraft certification standard that doesn’t just acquiesce to the U.S.
Yes, a “natural affinity” — as Minister Garneau put it last week — with our largest trading partner is both understandable and important. But so is taking a stand when our interests don’t align. Garneau knows this, of course. In the aftermath of last week’s crash, he said, “We make our own decisions in Canada, and those decisions may be different from those of our colleagues south of the border.”
But perhaps we should start making those decisions before tragedies happen — not after.
This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.
This story originally appeared on CBC