How far behind schedule is Canada's shipbuilding program? Ottawa won't say

Federal officials running the country’s multi-billion dollar shipbuilding program are refusing to say how badly off-track the schedule is for the delivery of new naval supply ships and the Canadian Coast Guard’s planned heavy icebreaker — even though they’ve known since last fall.

Officials have known the updated timeline since the fall - but they're keeping it to themselves

A worker takes a photo as the main girder of a new 300-tonne gantry crane is lifted into place at Seaspan Vancouver Shipyards in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday April 2, 2014. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Federal officials running the country's multi-billion dollar shipbuilding program are refusing to say how badly off-track the schedule is for the delivery of new naval supply ships and the Canadian Coast Guard's planned heavy icebreaker — even though they've known since last fall.

A revised schedule has been presented to Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) by executives at Seaspan, one of two go-to shipyards for the federal government.

There's a reference to the new schedule in an information paper, obtained by CBC News under the access to information law, which analyzes anticipated production gaps at the two shipyards.

When contacted, PSPC official Jean-Francois Letourneau recently confirmed the new schedule exists, but added the information in it is being withheld.

"The Government of Canada is currently reviewing (Seaspan's) Vancouver Shipyards' schedule and will communicate details once this review is complete," Letourneau said in an email.

Sliding deadlines

That review has been going on since last year, according to the documents.

The schedule is politically sensitive in light of the Liberal government's promise to fix the military procurement process — and because the delays speak to issues at the heart of the breach-of-trust case against Vice Admiral Mark Norman, the military's second-highest commander.

Last winter, Seaspan presented the Liberal government with a plan that could speed up the naval supply ship program, said a procurement source.

The government hasn't responded to the proposal, said the official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the file.

When the National Shipbuilding Strategy was launched in 2010, the navy was due to receive its supply ships this year.

A senior defence procurement official, in a recent interview with CBC News, said the new delivery date for the first vessel is now 2022.

"We're still four years away, give or take," said Pat Finn, a retired rear admiral who heads the equipment-buying section at National Defence.

"We're still negotiating some of those details, or should I say learning some of those details."

PSPC negotiates contracts on behalf of National Defence.

Delivery of the $1.3 billion polar icebreaker — the John G. Diefenbaker — had been tentatively set for 2021. It was bumped to 2023 in March of 2016, according to records tabled in Parliament.

Political embarrassment

The new date set out in Seaspan's recently revised schedule isn't public.

Ongoing procurement delays are proving to be a long-term source of political embarrassment for the Liberals.

Missed deadlines are at the heart of the alleged corruption case involving Vice-Admiral Norman, who was charged with one count of breach of trust in March.

He is accused of leaking cabinet secrets in relation to a contract for a leased supply ship — a vessel meant to fill the gap left by the early retirement of the navy's previous replenishment vessel and delays in program for a permanent replacement.

An expert in defence procurement said the silence from the federal government about the state of the schedule is troubling, and appears calculated to avoid further political humiliation.

"We need to have an actual conversation about shipbuilding that is honest and provides an assessment of where we are so far," said Dave Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, who has authored several papers on the subject.

"It is well past time, in my opinion, for the Government of Canada, the current government, to live up to their very commendable pledges made by (then-minister of Public Services Judy Foote) two years ago to be more open and transparent."

Letourneau said information on the shipbuilding timetable will be made available in the coming months; in the meantime, he pointed CBC News at a 2016 annual report on shipbuilding and the department's website.

The opposition Conservatives asked for information last fall on delivery dates and were told in a written response that the schedule "is subject to commercial confidence restrictions and cannot be shared."

Official did not explain how a plan for a federally-funded program could be considered a "commercial" confidence.

"Failing to communicate has created a one-sided dialogue," said Perry. "There may be lots of reasons on why we are where we are, but what you can see as a member of the public is that all of the projects are clearly behind schedule."

Seaspan launched a coast guard research vessel — Sir John Franklin — in December of last year. It is still undergoing fitting and trials.

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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