When Alberta students head back into their K-12 classrooms this fall, they (and school staff) will be provided with two reusable masks, courtesy of the provincial government.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced Saturday that the province had placed orders for 1.7 million masks at a total cost of $4.2 million.
She said instead of putting out a standard request for proposals, the government expedited the process given the urgency of the situation and approached two companies directly — U.S.-based Old Navy, a multinational clothing company owned by the Gap, and IFR Workwear, a family-owned company based in Red Deer, Alta.
While the government didn't specify how much of the order each company will be fulfilling, Lyn Radford, community relations manager for IFR, said her company will be fulfilling just 10 per cent.
It's really great that we got recognized for our product … we worked very hard in March when COVID-19 hit. - Lyn Radford, IFR Workwear
IFR was founded in Red Deer 15 years ago by the Radfords: dad Reg, mom Lyn and daughter Erin Buckland. The company is certified with the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (Erin Buckland and Lyn Radford are Metis) and has offered a scholarship fund for Indigenous students at Red Deer College since 2008.
The company has a 31,000-square-foot manufacturing and distribution centre in north Red Deer (LaGrange's riding), and a manufacturing plant in Mexico.
"It's really great that we got recognized for our product," Radford said. "We worked very hard in March when COVID-19 hit. We worked very hard to retool some of our factories, both in Alberta and in Mexico, to make sure that we would be able to meet the demand that was coming."
Radford said the masks need to be delivered by the end of August, so they'll be using both their Red Deer and Mexico manufacturing plants to meet the demand on short notice.
Company, founder are UCP donors
The announcement of the government's choice of IFR raised some eyebrows online, as Reg Radford is a long-time conservative donor, donating $3,600 to the former Progressive Conservative Party between 2006 and 2011. He contributed $255 to Premier Jason Kenney's leadership campaign in 2017, and $2,000 to LaGrange's campaign in 2019.
The company has also made donations in excess of $7,000 over the years to the Progressive Conservative Association.
Radford said she wants to put talk surrounding those donations to rest, especially as she said those numbers pale in comparison to what her family contributes to charity each year.
She recently chaired a campaign to build a new Ronald McDonald House in the city, and was part of a 10-year push to bring the Canada Winter Games to Red Deer, which saw her honoured with a city lifetime achievement award. IFR has also donated thousands of masks to local front-line workers.
"We have not worked with the government directly, so any of this cronyism, nepotism," she said. "Of course we're a business so we're going to support political affiliations … we don't know what the government's done, but we can tell you, we submitted a quote to a third party. That party submits to the government."
Radford said the company only sells to distributors and not end users. She said a distributor requested the price to order childrens' masks, IFR supplied the distributor price, and the distributor sent the quote to the province — and secured the contract.
"We're very up front, we're very transparent, we're a family business. You'd think they'd be glad Alberta companies are getting a small piece of it, anyways," she said.
Reg Radford is also listed as an intermediary of Thatcher Estates Limited, an entity tied to the British Virgin Islands, in the Offshore Leaks — a cache of details of offshore accounts leaked in 2013. It is legal for Canadians to use offshore tax havens but profits must be reported. Offshore jurisdictions also might have strict confidentiality rules and shell companies that can make it easier to hide assets.
Radford said back in the '70s they had utilized offshore accounts, but realized it wasn't right, pulling back and later supplying their documents when the Canadian government investigated the leaks.
"We had nothing in there ... we're through and through Canadian here," she said.
IFR said in a statement posted to its LinkedIn page that it was happy to see its distributor selected by the provincial government.
"It was one of our distributors selected to supply a small percentage of the reusable mask contract. Thereby it doesn't matter where our political affiliations lie, we supply to other businesses only, not government nor individuals but very appreciative to be recognized for our work," the company said.
"We continue to employ Albertans and we continue to support many, many non-profits with our time and resources. We hope that our fellow Albertans see the benefit of these wins for small businesses in Alberta."
On July 18, Kenney and LaGrange visited IFR's Red Deer facility.
"This is a great Alberta company that produces garments and personal protective equipment for heavy industry, and which is now onshoring production of masks for COVID-19," Kenney wrote of a visit to IFR.
IFR's masks will be 65 per cent polyester and 35 per cent cotton, with two-ply design, elastic ear loops, an aluminum nose bridge, and what the company said is anti-microbial technology. The masks last through at least 75 washes, and should be washed with bleach, the company said.
John Strain, head of e-commerce and technology at Gap Inc., said in an emailed statement that Old Navy will offer "an assortment of reusable, non-medical grade cloth face masks in different colours and patterns."
The masks are made of three-ply cotton with elastic ear loops. The company has already sold about 10 million of the non-medical masks to employers like the City of New York and the State of California.
Neither company's masks are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Companies were chosen to fulfil order fast, province says
Alberta announced on July 21 students would return to in-person classes in the fall, and on Aug. 4, Albertans were told that masks would be mandatory for teachers and students in schools where physical distancing can't be maintained.
Timothy Gerwing, a spokesperson for the minister of municipal affairs, which the Provincial Operations Centre (POC) falls under, said the companies were chosen by "non-partisan bureaucrats" with the POC and had to meet both quality requirements and the demands of filling such a large order before classes resume.
"I hope you can understand that ordering 10,000 masks from one small company, 20,000 from another, etc. all the way up to 1.7 million wasn't realistic given we have weeks to deliver to school divisions. The primary goal is getting the masks into the hands of Alberta families for the resumption of classes," he said in an emailed statement.
Local companies ask why foreign conglomerate was chosen, without RFP
But some local companies have said they're frustrated to see the lion's share of the mask contract go to U.S.-based Old Navy, when Alberta's Bits and Pieces program is in place to source supplies locally during the pandemic.
Toby Cowx, owner of Calgary-based Sanford & Chante Inc., is partnered with Vaughan Imports to bring medical and non-medical masks to Western Canada, and said he's recently been able to work with some Alberta mask manufacturers.
He said they've imported and sold just over 50 million masks as of last week to clients like airports and retail businesses, as well as a federal contract they've been awarded in partnership with an Indigenous-run company.
He said he was surprised to hear the government hadn't put out a call for proposals.
"If they went through a process and decided to use them because of cost and their history of being able to deliver ... that's perfectly fine," he said.
"Would have liked to have been involved in the process, at least had an opportunity to bid on it ... because we have proved ourselves reliable in procuring and delivering.
"It would have been nice to use Alberta-made product for Alberta services."
Cam Dobranski, of Medium Rare Chef Apparel in Calgary, said in an emailed statement that his company had hoped to contribute.
"We are disappointed that the Alberta government has gone with companies outside Alberta as I believe Old Navy was one of the ones picked. The other has some political ties," he said.
"We really wanted to contribute but feel we have been left out of the equation as we have a high quality product that we have worked hard at producing locally."
Hippo Hug, a Calgary-based mask manufacturer, said on Twitter that it reached out to the government after that mandatory mask announcement and encouraged it to support the more than 40 Alberta companies manufacturing masks, but did not hear back.
"It is easy to be disappointed in this decision. The tough part is moving on and doing to hard work to keep supporting our communities, local biz and each other," the company wrote.
Hippo Hug was one of the manufacturers chosen to manufacture masks for the City of Calgary. The order of 30,000 masks allowed the company to triple is staff, and donate thousands of dollars in materials and finished masks to various non-profits, the company said.