Higgs government plans to seize partly completed dry dock from Quebec company
Company that built the dock says it has met its obligations to the province
The Higgs government is taking legal action to wrest a partly built dry dock in the Bas-Caraquet shipyard from a Quebec shipping company, claiming Groupe Océan is abandoning its obligations to the province.
"We're getting a court injunction right now so we can … keep it in New Brunswick," said Premier Blaine Higgs.
Higgs said the plan to seize the dock was a response to Groupe Océan's attempt to take it back to Quebec prematurely in order to finish some outstanding electrical work. The company said it couldn't find anyone in New Brunswick to do the work on its timeline.
The premier claims the province has invested more than $10 million in the floating dock, while the company hasn't created any more jobs for New Brunswickers at the shipyard.
"It's hypocritical at best for Groupe Océan to say there's no people in New Brunswick to do this so we need to take it and leave and haul it up to Quebec," Higgs said.
"I'm saying not so fast."
A seizure of the vessel could result in one of two outcomes, Higgs said.
One is to sell the dock back to Groupe Océan and find another company to help stimulate employment at the shipyard.
The second is to force Groupe Océan to complete the dock in New Brunswick or, at the very least, with New Brunswick workers.
Not enough specialized electricians
Philippe Filion, spokesperson for Groupe Océan, said the company has met its obligations to the province.
He said the agreement was always for the government to finance the building of the dock, and then lease it to Groupe Océan for a period of 20 years. He says it's the province, not the company, that is defaulting on the lease agreement.
The electrical work that remains is less than three per cent of the whole project, and he said the company's agreement with the province stipulates only that the structure of the dock needed to be done in New Brunswick, not finishing details like electrical work.
Filion said the company originally approached the New Brunswick subcontractor it had worked with on the first project it had done in the shipyard — the Belleisle Bay ferry — to do the electrical work.
He said the contractor couldn't commit to completing the the job under budget and on schedule, so Groupe Océan decided it would take the dock to Quebec.
Filion said the company did its research and this contractor was the only one in the province who could handle such specialized marine electrical work.
No skill shortage in New Brunswick: union
Jean-Marc Ringuette, president of the New Brunswick Building Trades Union, disagreed.
"We have many members who worked at marine type electrical work," he said. "We do ships, ferries, oil platforms, etcetera, and have not had any issue supplying qualified and competent men and women."
Ringuette said he was contacted by representatives of the premier's office asking whether there was a shortage of qualified electricians in the province.
"I was a little upset that … a company would come in and take the taxpayers dollars, with the promise of highly skilled, highly paid jobs coming to fruition, and then talking about a shortage of skill which was untrue," he said.
The troubled government-owned shipyard in northeast New Brunswick was launched in 2014 by two municipalities and taken over by the previous Liberal government after it ran into money problems.
Filion said the agreement between the provincial government and Groupe Océan has been renegotiated with each change of government.
They have no right to seize the floating dry dock, they have no arguments.- Philippe Filion, Groupe Océan
Since November 2018, Filion said there has been "bad faith" between the province and the company.
"I think the premier has an agenda, and he wants to put the blame for the fail of the shipyard in Caraquet on us. Since 2014 we always said we'd respect all the agreements and we respect all the agreements," he said.
Filion said the government's plan to seize the dock is "good proof of bad faith."
"They have no right to seize … the floating dry dock, they have no arguments," he said.
Call for inquiry
The trades union has called on the provincial government to conduct an inquiry into the matter.
"If we're going to make agreements of this nature, then the agreements need to be good agreements," said Ringuette. "And if we're going to use the taxpayers of New Brunswick money, we must ensure that whoever makes that deal going in protects the interests of New Brunswickers."
Higgs said he thinks an inquiry is justified and said he is considering it.
"I would like to know what would cause a government to make such a ridiculous deal to begin with," he said.
Higgs has repeatedly denounced the entire arrangement, though he was the finance minister in the Alward government that approved the original agreement.
An inquiry would not hold up the process, he said, but the seizure of the vessel could drag the situation out for "a year or two years."
Higgs said the whole situation leaves the relationship between the province and Groupe Océan "a little strained."
Filion went further.
"It's not hard, it's impossible."
Filion said the company has been unsuccessful in its attempts to communicate with the premier's office about the floating dry dock.