Cold and fed up, 11 sailors from Caribbean and South America are stuck in Trois-Rivières, Que.

The director of the local sailors' centre says he has never seen anything like it. The crew have been living on three cramped tugboats since October, receiving low pay and poor fare. Most have no winter clothing.

Meant to be moving tugboats to Guyana, they await authorization from Transport Canada to get underway

Man standing in front of a sign for the Trois-Rivières, Que., port.
Mark Wong was one of the seafarers stuck in the Port of Trois-Rivières for months before he decided to fly home. (Submitted by Mark Wong)

Eleven Caribbean and South American sailors are stuck at the port in Trois-Rivières, Que., aboard three cramped tugboats that were destined for export in October.

For three months the tugboats have been sitting idle in the port, detained by Transport Canada for failing to meet various laws and international maritime conventions necessary for an international voyage. 

Once Canadian-owned and Canadian-flagged vessels, they were sold to B.K. Marine, a Guyanese company, according to Vince Giannopoulos, the vice-president of the St. Lawrence and East Coast Seafarers' International Union of Canada.

With the new owners hoping to bring the boats back to Guyana for tug work and shipping in South America and the Caribbean, Giannopoulos says the boats needed to undergo many "regulation-based changes." 

But months ago, Giannopoulos was contacted by seafarers who raised concerns about their living and working conditions aboard the vessels — reporting that they were paid below what they were initially promised and not given contracts.

Workers promised wages they never received

Mark Wong worked on one ship as an engineer for months without a contract. He arrived in Canada in June 2022, expecting he would be en route shortly.

But in October, he was among those who got stuck in Trois-Rivières.

"They promised it very early when we got in 'you're gonna get a contract, you're gonna get a contract.' And you know we don't fight nobody. We're just quiet people," said Wong.

Wong says he only received the contract in December, shortly before he flew back home to Guyana on Dec. 24 in the sweatshirt and jeans he arrived in many months before.

"As a seaman, I just adjust myself to any condition … [But] the winter was coming in … It's kind of a relief that [I'm] out of the cold," said Wong. 

Blue-and-white tugboat, moored at port.
One of the three tugboats in Trois-Rivières. The boats have not been permitted to leave the port by Transport Canada. (Submitted by Mark Wong)

Even though employers are legally required to offer contracts in writing in Canada, Giannopoulos says Wong's situation was common among workers.

"A lot of the crew are pretty disappointed … [They] were told things back home and when they got here to the vessels, those things weren't necessarily true," said Giannopoulos.

He said many of the crew members received only a third of what they were initially promised as pay.

"Imagine yourself taking a job in a foreign country and you get there and nothing is what you've expected. You know it can be really tough to deal with that kind of thing," said Giannopoulos.

Tugboats not designed for long-term living

The crew's living conditions in Quebec have been difficult, especially as the temperatures dropped. Most of them don't have proper winter gear.

"So while they're legally allowed to disembark from the vessel and take a walk through town … they just don't have the means to do it, in terms of staying warm in this kind of cold weather," said Giannopoulos.

Paul Racette, executive director of the Trois-Rivières Seamen's Club, helped lead the effort to gather winter clothes for the crew, asking the community and municipality for help.

The organization gives sailors a place to gather and use the internet.

Interior of a room with a pool table, some men sitting around, a window.
Paul Racette first heard about the issues seafarers were experiencing on the tugboats back in October, when some of the workers began visiting the local seamen's club in the port. (Submitted by Paul Racette)

Having talked to the crew aboard the three tugs, Racette says in his eight years working at the port he has "never seen something like this before."

"They arrived and they didn't have a salary," said Racette, adding that only 11 workers remain — 14 having left in recent weeks.

"The living conditions are not good. These types of boats are not designed for people to live there long term. It's meant for maybe a few days or weeks on board," he said, adding that the remaining seafarers are not speaking directly with the media about their situation for fear of reprisals.

"It's really exceptional and it's problematic for them."

Two blue-and-white tugboats moored in port.
Tugboats Brianna T. and Bradley G. weren't designed for long-term accommodation, says Paul Racette. (Submitted by Mark Wong)

Global reality

Unfortunately, this is a "reality on a global scale," said Giannopoulos. "I don't think that anyone who's knowledgeable on the maritime industry is surprised that this situation is happening."

He said the sailors' gear is not up to par and they are not being given decent meals — sometimes being served instant noodles for lunch and dinner for days on end.

While there have been similar situations over the years in Quebec, with some workers being stuck without pay on board, in this scenario, it is a good thing the workers are able to return home "when they've really had enough," said Giannopoulos.

Transport Canada said the tugs were inspected and detained due to non-compliance and it will not lift the detention order and authorize the vessels to take to the sea until the B.K. Maritime has "rectified all outstanding items."

B.K. Maritime did not respond to CBC's request for comment.


Rachel Watts

CBC journalist

Rachel Watts is a journalist with CBC News in Quebec City. Originally from Montreal, she enjoys covering stories in the province of Quebec. You can reach her at