Inside the failed fight for federal funding for Port of Halifax

Nova Scotia's federal cabinet minister is defending the Trudeau government's refusal to fund a major expansion at the Port of Halifax while pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into rival Canadian ports.

Trudeau government defends rejection of port expansion

The South End Container Terminal in Halifax is shown in August. (Pam Berman/CBC)

Nova Scotia's federal cabinet minister is defending the Trudeau government's refusal to fund a major expansion at the Port of Halifax while pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into rival Canadian ports.

Treasury Board president Scott Brison says the proposed expansion submitted by Halifax raises multiple issues, including its impact on truck traffic downtown Halifax and best use of land.

"There are 700 trucks going through downtown Halifax every day," Brison said. "That is one of the considerations we have to consider in terms … of a community where people want to live and a quality-of-life perspective."

Brison says Ottawa is examining what is the best way for Nova Scotia to capitalize on bigger container ships that are now becoming the industry norm.

There are proposals for new container terminals at Melford, in the Strait of Canso and in Sydney, Cape Breton.

Port 'shuts down' expansion discussion

Brison also revealed that Hector Jacques, the chairman of the Halifax Port Authority, has stepped back from recent remarks suggesting the Halifax expansion is vital to the national interest and analogous to the Trans Mountain pipeline.

"I have a letter from Mr. Jacques saying his comments were misrepresented, misquoted and apologizing for the impression that they created," Brison said.

Hector Jacques is the chairman of the Halifax Port Authority (Halifax Port Authority)

The letter released by Brison's office states the port has now "shut down all media releases or discussion" related to its infrastructure plans unless vetted by the entire port authority board.

Brison says the federal government is looking at the big picture.

"The Government of Canada, as the sole shareholder in the Halifax Port Authority, needs to consider a lot different criteria in terms of which project make the most sense for the future of our region, and for the city," he said.

$300M for port rivals, zero for Halifax

Brison is facing questions because Halifax has been shut out of Ottawa's major transportation infrastructure fund.

So far this year the Liberals have announced $300 million in upgrades for ports in Vancouver, Montreal and Quebec under a new National Trade Corridors Fund.

Treasury Board president Scott Brison. (CBC)

Halifax has not seen a penny.

Brison's office initially said the Halifax application was for a $400-million expansion involving a northern extension of Halterm and inland rail facility, a project with a potential 50-year lifespan requiring due diligence. An official later corrected the number to about $500 million.

After the application was rejected, the port announced plans this summer for a $35-million temporary extension of the Halterm container pier in the city's south end to accommodate a second berth for ultra-class container ships, vessels which carry 10,000 or more 20-foot equivalent unit containers.

These giants are becoming more common as the world shipping industry consolidates.

The port says it is able to fund this project by borrowing the money.

Why Halifax says expansion is vital

Speaking recently at Halifax Port Days, Jacques made the case for the Halterm expansion, saying without it trade would land in U.S. ports.

"If we can't make room in Halifax for the big ships, we run the very real risk of those vessels and the cargo they carry bypassing Canadian ports entirely," he said.

"What that means is Canada's trade agenda would be dependent on U.S. policy and regulations for this country's transatlantic trade."

In his remarks Jacques went on to draw an analogy.

"The Trans Mountain pipeline is of national significance for getting western Canadian oil and gas resources to international markets, in our small way, our second ultra-class berth is similarly vital."

When asked about the Port Days remarks, Brison cited the letter from Jacques disavowing media coverage.

Offered an explanation

In fact the remarks, reported in the business website AllNovascotia.com, reflected what Jacques told the audience.

However in his letter, which was released by Brison's office, Jacques stated otherwise.

"I understand when these erroneous reports were brought to your attention, you were not pleased and rightly so," Jacques wrote Oct. 3.

He offered to travel to Halifax, Ottawa or the Annapolis Valley "if ever something that occurs related to HPA that is troubling you."

Shuts down media releases

"The one comment that I did in fact make and regret doing so with hindsight is the Trans Mountain analogy … regrettably, the analogy raised all kinds of spurious connotations."

Jacques said he was apolitical and suggested his "political nose" was not acute enough to realize how the statement could be taken out of context.

"I want to ensure that there is nothing that we do at the Port that should cause concern to you. … I have literally shut down all media releases or discussions on the infrastructure plans without having them vetted thoroughly by the entire board."

Halifax expansion unclear?

The port authority has been pondering a new master plan for months. It has never been released.

It said in August that it is considering two expansion scenarios at Halterm.

One is a temporary second ultra-class berth extension to the south and a permanent expansion immediately northward from its existing site.

Ottawa has dipped into the National Trade Corridor Fund for a major spend in Nova Scotia.

In July, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Sutherlands River to announce $90 million from the fund would be used to improve a deadly 38-kilometre section of the Trans-Canada Highway between New Glasgow and Antigonish.

Read more articles at CBC Nova Scotia

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Ottawa rejected a $35-million Halterm extension. In fact, an official in Brison's office said the rejected proposal was for about $500 million.
    Oct 11, 2018 9:03 AM AT

About the Author

Paul Withers

Reporter

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.