Cold snap raises concerns about coast guard's aging icebreakers in the St. Lawrence

A mechanical break that kept an icebreaker from providing assistance to a trapped ferry between Quebec City and Lévis earlier this week is renewing calls to replace the coast guard's aging icebreaker fleet.

Recent equipment problems prompts calls to replace old vessels

A coast guard icebreaker had an equipment break this week near Quebec City and had to be repaired. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

A mechanical break that kept icebreaker Terry Fox from providing assistance to a trapped ferry between Quebec City and Lévis earlier this week is renewing calls to replace the coast guard's aging icebreaker fleet.

"The fleet of icebreakers is old," said Steven Blaney, the Conservative MP for Bellechasse-Les-Etchemins-Lévis. 

The ferry was eventually towed to shore by a private company and the Terry Fox icebreaker is now undergoing repairs so that it can be up and running again.

After the incident on Wednesday, the ferry service between Quebec City and Lévis had to be cancelled Friday because of the accumulation of ice along the St. Lawrence River.

"We need icebreakers," said Blaney. "Even with the existing strategy to replace the ships, the fleet will continue to grow old."

While a spokesperson for the coast guard acknowledged the aging vessels, she also defended the entity's work over the last week.

"We have deployed all of our ships and we're covering all of our key sectors," said Julie Gascon.
There is an accumulation of ice in the St. Lawrence River between Quebec City and nearby Lévis. (Jean-Simon Fabien/Radio-Canada)

The criticism raised after the incident involving the Quebec City ferry also failed to mention the efforts made by the coast guard, she added.

"I really think it's a shame," she said. "Our teams are working day and night to serve clients."

Davie shipyard offers help

The Davie shipyard in Lévis has also offered to loan four of its powerful icebreakers to the coast guard to subsidize number of ships available during the winter along the St. Lawrence River.

Frédérick Boisvert, the spokesperson for the company, said that this week's incident shows that the coast guard's current icebreakers are at the end of their life cycle.

"The federal fleet is rusting so quickly that it can only be replaced," he said.

The proposed project to replace the ships would also create 300 jobs for the struggling Quebec-based company, he added. Davie Canada laid off nearly 400 employees right before the Christmas holidays.
The Canadian coast guard acknowledged its aging fleet of icebreakers, but said its crew is working 'day and night' to provide assistance to its clients. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

"I think this is the perfect illustration of the pertinence of the Davie shipyard in what we're calling the debacle of the coast guard because the ships are so old," he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should take the proposal into serious consideration and act before it's too late, said Blaney.

"It's time for him to make a good resolution, that he forget his vacation in the Caribbean with Aga Khan and that he think about the Canada's Nordic reality," he said.

Rising costs

Paul Barbeau, a naval architect, warns that simply carrying out repairs to the old icebreakers isn't enough.

"Our icebreakers have worked very hard and they are tired," he said. "There is no doubt that if we want to maintain that reliability that we have to get new ones."

"We can't continue to repair them constantly — work conditions are very difficult."

The aging fleet could lead to higher costs for maritime transport and consumers could end up having to pay more at the end of the day, he added.

"The risks for ship owners will be higher so insurance will cost more," said Barbeau. "Ship owners will have to put savings aside for the unexpected."

With files from Radio-Canada's Louis Gagné