Relief, some anxiety, as Vancouver shipbuilders react to $15.7B windfall
'They're showing confidence that the West can really do this work'
As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government's plan to spend $15.7 billion to build up to 18 new coast guard ships, stakeholders in the industry, which has experienced its share of ups and downs, breathed a palpable sigh of relief.
George MacPherson, who has been president of the Shipyards General Workers Federation since 1989, said he's "never seen anything as big as this."
"We're going to see generations of shipbuilders trained and come into the industry — so good news for the province, good news for the industry," he said.
"I think they're showing confidence that the West can really do this work and get it done well."
Trudeau made the announcement in Vancouver's Stanley Park, outlining a plan that would see 16 of the 18 ships built in a fleet-renewal project anchored in Seaspan's Vancouver Shipyards.
Two others — Arctic patrol ships that will be modified for the Canadian Coast Guard — will be built at Irving Shipyards in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
"Canadians deserve better than to have this fleet rust out," said Trudeau.
"This fleet renewal is going to create jobs in everything from ship design and engineering to construction, welding and inspection while strengthening this world-class Canadian industry."
Vancouver's shipbuilding industry thrived in the 1970s and into the mid 1980s, according to MacPherson, but had reached a breaking point in 2011 when Seaspan was granted an $8-billion contract by the federal government at the 11th hour.
"The announcement in 2011 was huge. This is bigger, this is much bigger. This is really great news," he said.
'Ship after ship after ship'
MacPherson said the shipyard previously had enough work to sustain it until 2034, but he expects this announcement will push it far beyond that.
"For people on the ground it gives them a lot of security, they know that their jobs are secure. They don't need to worry about a lull between the vessels ... It's going to be ship after ship after ship," he said.
MacPherson said that while Seaspan has the contract, he expects smaller yards will benefit as well. He also said he expects an influx of workers, potentially from Alberta's ailing oilsands.
"Anybody that's looking for work, we're going to put them to work," he said.
But while most industry workers expressed relief at the promise of easier times on the horizon, there was some anxiety around the announcement.
The current National Shipbuilding Strategy designates two shipyards, one in Halifax, the other in Vancouver. But on Wednesday the federal government announced it would also be launching a competitive process to add a third Canadian shipyard as a partner under the National Shipbuilding Strategy.
Tim Page, vice-president of government relations with Seaspan, said there's some concern about the increased competition.
"We were disappointed to learn that today because of the investments we've made out here and the expectations we've had from the earliest days of the National Shipbuilding Strategy that this was about two shipyards," he said.
Page said he hopes to sit down with the Trudeau government as soon as possible to discuss how a third shipyard would fit into current arrangements though he's still pleased with the cash windfall.
"It's good news for our workforce. It's good news for our apprentices we have here and in Victoria," he said.
Aside from the shipbuilding plan, the federal government is providing an additional $351.3 million to enhance capacity of the coast guard, strengthen management and oversight and promote a greener way of doing business.
According to a government statement, the $15.7 billion figure is an "early estimate" of the cost for construction, support, infrastructure, project management and cost overruns, or contingency funding.
The costs of each ship will be announced after contract negotiations have been completed.
With files from Lien Yeung