Prime Minister Stephen Harper crossed the country Thursday, formally announcing $33 billion in shipbuilding contracts on the East Coast and West Coast that he says will help bring three decades of economic stability to the industry.

Harper told a Halifax gathering that an agreement-in-principle had been reached with Irving Shipbuilding to begin building the vessels under the federal shipbuilding program. The Halifax Shipyard won the largest portion of the contract in October.

The prime minister spoke in North Vancouver at the Seaspan Shipyards later in the afternoon after flying the 4,500 kilometres between the two cities.

In the morning, hundreds of workers in hard hats surrounded the podium for Harper's East Coast speech. Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly and Conservative MPs Gerald Keddy and Scott Armstrong were among the dignitaries on hand.

Premier Darrell Dexter, a proponent of a major Nova Scotia public relations campaign to win the bid, was not invited.

Harper was asked whether the designs for the fleet — which include icebreakers, Arctic patrol vessels and destroyers — would be done by Canadian naval architects.

"Design work is all ultimately part of the package," he said.

"Obviously, we try to minimize design costs, but there will be ultimately Canadian design components involved in all of this."

The president of J.D. Irving Ltd., the parent company of the Halifax Shipyard, echoed the prime minister's concern about keeping costs down.

Jim Irving said many decisions — such as whether Irving Shipbuilding will design the ships or buy existing plans from another company — have not yet been made.

"Clearly we'd like to keep as much work in Canada as possible but we have to have good value and we have to be very efficient," Irving told reporters after Harper's announcement. 

"I think the general basis for discussion is that, be as efficient as possible, off-the-shelf where possible, and then as much in Canada as possible."

The $25-billion Irving contract to build the next generation of combat ships is expected to create 11,500 direct jobs in the Maritimes at its peak.

The federal shipbuilding strategy, described as the largest military procurement in modern Canadian history and is seen as the solution to keeping a steady flow of work in the shipbuilding field over the next 20 to 30 years.

Irving said his firm has received 7,000 applications for jobs at the Halifax yard, and his company is planning to go to universities and community colleges to help train the workers it will need over the next few years.

He also said the company is eager to recruit skilled workers from Western Canada.

Vancouver's Seaspan Marine was awarded an $8-billion contract for seven non-combat vessels, and there's still $2 billion in contracts that have not been awarded.

Harper told workers assembled at the North Vancouver shipyard that Irving and Seaspan won their contracts on merit, not politics.

"Like Irving in Nova Scotia, Seaspan won a transparent, hands-off selection process fair and square," said Harper.

The prime minister went on to chide the federal New Democratic Party, which he said didn't want an open competition for the contracts.

"Playing politics with military planning is how our navy and coast guard fleets ended up with ships that should have been replaced years ago," Harper said.

With files from The Canadian Press