Liberals guarantee immediate icebreakers work for new entrant in federal shipbuilding program

Companies interested in being the federal government's third go-to shipyard are being asked to get in line — and to do it quickly. Public Services has put out an invitation to qualify and giving bidders 15 days to respond. The winner is being promised immediate work with the construction of six icebreakers.

Announcement could be positive sign for Quebec's Davie shipyard ahead of federal election

CCGS Terry Fox breaks the ice ahead of CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent during a science mission charting Canada's Arctic continental shelf in 2015. The federal government announced Friday it was ordering the construction of six new icebreakers and the work would go to a yet-to-be-selected federally designated shipyard. (Gary Morgan/Submitted by Canadian Coast Guard)

The Liberal government formally launched the process to add a third shipyard to the National Shipbuilding Strategy on Friday and even guaranteed the winner immediate work with a plan to construct six new icebreakers for the coast guard.

Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson made the announcement in Iqaluit on the sidelines of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's northern tour.

It's something that could very well prove to be a boon for the Davie shipyard of Levis, Que., on the eve of this fall's federal election.

Trudeau announced last spring the federal government would add a third yard to the nearly decade-old strategy. Irving Shipbuilding of Halifax and Seaspan of Vancouver have been, until this point, the go-to construction yards for the federal government.

CBC News reported last summer the Liberal government intended to "refresh" the strategy, which has been beset with delays and rising cost estimates.

15 days to apply

On Friday, Wilkinson said Public Services and Procurement Canada is giving interested shipbuilders 15 days to get in line to qualify to become the third designated go-to yard for the federal government. 

In addition, he announced the winner will receive a contract to construct desperately needed icebreakers for the coast guard, which has an existing fleet that is over 30 years old. 

"The Canadian Coast Guard saves lives at sea, maintains safe shipping, enables an otherwise ice-choked economy, protects the marine environment and supports Canadian sovereign presence in the Arctic," Wilkinson said in a written statement. "Demands on the coast guard will only grow as the impacts of climate change become more frequent and intense."

Jonathan Wilkinson made a shipbuilding announcement in Iqaluit on the sidelines of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's northern tour. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The addition of a third yard to the strategy has been publicly opposed in the past by at least one of the existing partners. A senior official at Seaspan told The Canadian Press in May that bringing in another company raised questions about the Vancouver company's long-term viability, and even the entire shipbuilding industry.

The decision, though, was widely seen as a nod to Davie, which was not selected when the program was first unveiled in 2010 by the former Conservative government.

The Canadian Coast Guard's medium icebreaker Henry Larsen is seen in Allen Bay near Resolute, Nunavut, in 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Under the original strategy, the Quebec company was only allowed to bid on repair and refit work as well as construction of small vessels. It aggressively pursued opportunities to open up the framework and gained powerful allies within the province's business community.

Last January, CBC News reported that a group representing up 1,000 companies — both inside and outside Quebec — had launched a lobbying campaign to convince the federal government to open the strategy to a third yard.

The Association of Davie Shipbuilding Suppliers, which represents companies that do business with the shipyard, said it planned to make it a major issue in the October federal election.

Documents obtained by CBC News under access to information legislation show that as late as November last year officials at Fisheries and Oceans Canada were telling the minister to downplay the notion that the strategy would be refreshed.

At the time, Wilkinson was scheduled to meet with Davie officials and was told to reiterate the government's line that no changes were contemplated to the role of Irving and Seaspan in the shipbuilding strategy.


How much the business association's threat of electoral punishment played into the decision to open up the strategy is unclear.

Davie had already been awarded a $610-million contract to convert three civilian icebreakers for coast guard use.

The announcement Friday is all about crass politics, as far as the Conservative Opposition is concerned.

"In classic Liberal fashion, today's announcement is more about Justin Trudeau's re-election campaign than it is about delivering ships for the Canadian Coast Guard." said Todd Doherty, the Conservative fisheries and coast guard critic.

"Clearly Justin Trudeau's support for the Canadian Coast Guard is not as advertised. Otherwise this announcement would have taken place four years ago, not mere weeks before the next election."

A major review of the country's transportation infrastructure, tabled in the House of Commons in February 2016, warned the Liberal government that the coast guard was in a shambles, with many of its icebreakers and major vessels worn out by decades of use.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.