Ship that may have sunk admiral's career to be unveiled in Quebec

The ship that may have cost the military's second-in-command his career will be formally unveiled in an elaborate ceremony Thursday at Quebec's Chantier Davie Shipyard.

7 months after raiding the home of Vice Admiral Mark Norman, RCMP have yet to lay any charges

The MV Asterix, the navy's planned temporary supply ship, is pictured at the Chantier-Davie Shipyard in Levis, Que., in early July. The contract to lease the vessel to the federal government is at the centre of an RCMP investigation into the leak of cabinet secrets.

The ship that may have cost the military's second-in-command his career will be formally unveiled in an elaborate ceremony Thursday at Quebec's Chantier Davie Shipyard.

The MV Asterix will serve as a temporary naval supply ship, starting early in the new year, after it goes through a series of shakedown trials.

The federal government is leasing it for $668 million, and the deal has drawn the attention of federal investigators who have accused Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, the military's vice-chief of defence staff, of leaking federal cabinet secrets to officials at the Lévis, Que., shipyard.

Norman has been suspended since January when word leaked from National Defence that he was under RCMP investigation.

Alex Vicefield, CEO of Inocea, a global shipping conglomerate that owns Chantier Davie, said that despite months of investigation the RCMP have yet to lay charges.

"There's been a lot of noise and possibly some people have jumped a bit too early on it," Vicefield told CBC News in an interview.  

"I think it's been unfortunate for Admiral Norman, but it's been positive for us. It's actually put into the public a lot of the dealings in the background which have plagued this whole shipbuilding program from the outset."

Shipyard rivalry

Vicefield has long been an outspoken critic of the national shipbuilding strategy, which in 2010 established Halifax-based Irving Shipbuilding Inc. and Seaspan, of Vancouver, as the federal government's go-to yards for ship construction.

The RCMP search warrant used to seize Norman's computer, tablet and cellphone from his Ottawa-area home was publicly released in April. It points to an email exchange between Norman and the head of the company shepherding the Asterix project.

Norman told Spencer Fraser, of Federal Fleet Services, in November 2015 that he believed rival Irving Shipbuilding wanted to kill the lease program and suggested there might be political interference from, what was at the time, the new Liberal government.

"The fact Admiral Norman came out and protested some of this is quite admirable, and I think a lot of people have recognized that," said Vicefield.

Irving Shipbuilding was asked to comment, but declined.

Norman has never spoken about the controversy and the RCMP have refused to discuss the investigation.

The navy has been without a supply ship since HMCS Protecteur was retired early because of a devastating fire in 2014.

Controversial deal

In the summer of 2015, Federal Fleet Services signed a letter of intent with the former Conservative government, on the eve of the last election.

It was agreed the company would get a sole-source contract to convert a civilian supply ship for lease to the navy, but the details were to be negotiated at the time.

Shortly after they were elected, the Liberals wanted to review the deal and ordered a temporary halt to the program — something that was leaked to the media.

With the story in the public domain, the Liberals relented and allowed the project to go forward.

RCMP believe Norman was involved in a complex chain that saw cabinet's review decision passed to Davie, high-power Ottawa lobbyists and eventually journalists.

Vice Admiral Mark Norman has been suspended since January when word leaked from National Defence that he was under RCMP investigation. (CBC)

Police have focused their attention on the back-channel dialogue between Norman and Fraser, which many former defence procurement officials have described as highly unusual.

"I hope to see Admiral Norman's name is cleared," said Vicefield, who was also the target of a separate RCMP search warrant in the case, along with Fraser and one other Davie official, John Schmidt.

The Asterix, which will operate with two revolving civilian crews, will help supply Canadian warships at sea.

A Senate committee last spring recommended that the federal government consider leasing a second supply ship for the navy if the current program works.

Vicefield wouldn't say if there have been any direct talks over the issue, but indicated he hopes the opportunity to deliver another ship is presented. 

Federal Fleet Services is betting there is a market for this kind of lease arrangement and has placed an option on another cargo ship.

The company has been courting other unnamed NATO allies, regardless of whether Canada is interested in a second ship. 

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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