Federal cabinet, provinces engage in tug-of-war over polar icebreaker contract

Ottawa’s efforts to build a massive icebreaker have become the focus of a heated interprovincial political battle over a plan to send the work to a B.C.-based firm instead of a Quebec shipyard.

Federal and industry sources say the Vancouver-based Seaspan Shipyard is back in hunt for the contract, more than a year after the federal government rescinded the order for the vessel. Sources estimate that the contract, which had an estimated value of $1.3 billion in 2013, is now worth close to $2 billion.

The sources said a plan to award the contract to Seaspan was presented recently to the cabinet committee on the economy and the environment, strongly suggesting the company is now seen as the leading candidate for the job.

The sources said federal ministers from Quebec — fearing that the Bloc Québécois would benefit politically from a decision to send the work to another province — have been trying to bring the Lévis-based Davie shipyard back into the process. That campaign is being led by Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodriguez, who was named Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Quebec lieutenant after the 2019 general election.

Canada’s Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Pablo Rodriguez speaks during a meeting of the special committee on the COVID-19 pandemic in the House of Commons June 16, 2020. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Davie, located just across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City, is frequently depicted in Quebec politics and media as a victim of unfair treatment at the hands of the federal government.

When Ottawa formally launched its national shipbuilding strategy in 2011, Seaspan and the Irving shipyard in Halifax were the only facilities qualified to build vessels for the Canadian Navy and federal agencies such as the Canadian Coast Guard.

At the time, Davie was facing financial problems and was left out of the federal shipbuilding process entirely.

Plans to build a new polar icebreaker — to be named the John G. Diefenbaker — were announced in 2008 by the Harper government. Seaspan was awarded the work in 2011, but the federal government rescinded that order in June of last year.

“Canada made the decision to substitute the one polar icebreaker with a long run of 16 multipurpose vessels (MPVs),” said Marc-André Charbonneau, a spokesperson for Public Services and Procurement Canada.

“Given the importance of icebreaking capacity, the government is exploring options to ensure the polar is built in the most efficient manner, but no decisions have been [made] yet.”

In 2011, the government was working to bring Davie in as an official member of the shipbuilding program. Because its shipyard is much bigger than Seaspan’s, many observers suggested the work on the polar icebreaker would go to Quebec.

Negotiations to bring Davie into the fold continue to this day. As part of those talks, Davie expects to be asked to build six smaller icebreakers.

While both Seaspan and Davie have a number of firm or potential orders lined up, the Diefenbaker project remains their ultimate goal.

In February, the federal government approached all major shipyards in the country and asked them to provide information about their ability to build a polar icebreaker.

In recent months, Seaspan has been talking publicly about the regional benefits that would flow to other parts of the country if it gets the contract. It has entered into partnerships with Ontario’s Heddle shipyards and Newfoundland’s Genoa Design International.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and B.C. Premier John Horgan have both called for the allocation of federal shipbuilding work to Seaspan.

Quebec Premier François Legault has been pressing the federal government to award a contract to build a new polar icebreaker to a Quebec shipyard. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Quebec Premier François Legault, meanwhile, wrote to Trudeau in October to privately support Davie’s bid for the polar icebreaker. On Wednesday, he urged the federal government via his Twitter account “to quickly confirm that the contract will be awarded to Davie.”

Sources said the polar icebreaker file is still the subject of intense discussions in Ottawa and that the matter has yet to be debated in front of the full cabinet. The government is expected to issue an update on the project over the coming weeks.

“No final decision has been taken on where any potential icebreaker will be built,” said James Fitz-Morris, a spokesperson for Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand.

The Diefenbaker will be the biggest ship ever built by the Canadian government. It will replace the Louis S. St-Laurent, which first came into service in 1969. According to the initial plan, Seaspan was supposed to have built the vessel by 2017.

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