Ottawa moving up construction of new naval support ship in Vancouver

OTTAWA—In a move likely to send shockwaves through Quebec and its shipbuilding industry, the federal government has decided to speed up construction of one of its permanent new naval support vessels.

The government’s multibillion-dollar shipbuilding plan has long called for Seaspan Marine in Vancouver to build an ocean-science vessel for the Canadian Coast Guard before turning to the navy’s two new support ships.

But the federal procurement department says the government will finish one of the support ships—which carry food, ammunition and fuel for fleets at sea—before moving onto the science vessel.

The second joint support ship, as the permanent vessels are called, will be built last.

The government last year approved a plan for Seaspan to start some advance work on one of the joint support ships as the shipyard waited for the coast guard to finish designing the science vessel.

The decision to now go ahead and completely finish the first ship will “build on the good momentum underway,” said Public Services and Procurement Canada spokesman Pierre-Alain Bujold.

It will also ensure the shipyard stays busy so workers aren’t sitting idle or laid off while they wait for the ocean-science vessel, he added, and allow time for lessons to be absorbed before construction of the second joint support ship.

“This decision makes good sense and is a prime example of how the (national shipbuilding strategy) allows us to be flexible in meeting Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Coast Guard requirements while finding efficiencies at shipyards.”

While Bujold said further details on schedules will be provided in the coming months, sources say the decision is expected to see the first new support ship delivered earlier than its current 2023 timeline.

That could be bad news for Seaspan’s rival in Quebec, Davie Shipbuilding.

The federal government awarded Davie a $700-million contract in 2015 to convert a civilian container ship into a temporary supply vessel and lease it to the navy for at least five years.

The contract, which is at the heart of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman’s breach-of-trust case, was intended to fill a gap that was created when the navy’s two previous support ships were forced into early retirement in 2015 due to fire and rust.

The Quebec government, Davie and federal opposition parties have been pressuring Ottawa to lease a second ship, at a cost of $500 million, which they say will serve the navy while supporting workers at the shipyard near Quebec City.

Much of the basis for their argument about meeting the navy’s needs has been Seaspan’s constant struggle to meet deadlines and the fact design work on the coast guard’s oceanographic science vessel still isn’t finished.

Those may now be moot points if the changed schedule does result in faster delivery of a permanent vessel, though a government source said some design work is still needed.

Davie spokesman Frederik Boisvert wasted no time Tuesday blasting the decision to prioritize completion of the first joint support ship as going “against common sense” and as “an insult to Canadian taxpayers.”

He questioned the impact on the coast guard, whose existing oceanographic-science vessel is nearly 60 years old, and noted Seaspan has struggled to deliver the first of three fisheries-science vessels for the coast guard. All three were supposed to have been delivered by 2018.

“The most basic principle of the national shipbuilding strategy was to start out with smaller projects and let the shipyard prove themselves before moving on to larger, more complex projects,” Boisvert said Tuesday.

“Seaspan has failed miserably on all fronts: cost, schedule and quality. They should be blacklisted by the government and (are) now rewarded for failure. … It makes no sense at all and it will be another blow to the coast guard.”

In an apparent reference to Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who represent Vancouver-area ridings, Boisvert went on to accuse “regional politicians in Vancouver who are thinking solely about winning seats in this year’s election” for the decision.

The MV Asterix was the first temporary support ship delivered by Davie; the second on offer is called the MV Obelix.

“The reality is no matter what games are played, the Obelix is needed,” he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced pointed questions in Quebec City last month over his government’s refusal to give a second contract to the Davie shipyard for a supply vessel.

While he said he was looking at ways to provide more work for the shipyard, Trudeau said a second supply ship is simply not needed right now.

Navy commander Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd told The Canadian Press recently that he was “comfortable” with having only one temporary support ship in the water given when officials expected the two joint support ships to be delivered.