British Columbia’s ship finally comes in

It was great news last week when the federal government announced that Seaspan Marine Corp. had been awarded the $8 billion non-combat shipbuilding contract.

It was great news last week when the federal government announced that Seaspan Marine Corp. had been awarded the $8 billion non-combat shipbuilding contract.

Seaspan’s Vancouver Shipyards will build seven initial ships including four Canadian Coast Guard science vessels, two Royal Canadian Navy joint support ships and a Canadian Coast Guard polar icebreaker. Then there’s another 17 smaller vessels to be built that fall under the government’s National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS).

The economic spinoffs are staggering. The contract will mean at least 4,000 jobs over the next eight years with long-term secured jobs. Employment will expand for welders, machinists, steel fabricators, electricians, pipe fitters, sheet metal workers and so many other trades.

Like a pebble in a pond, the ripple-effects will be enormous. With secure incomes, workers will feel confident enough to buy homes, cars, and big ticket items. Satellite and retail industries and services will benefit enormously. Other shipyards will profit as they step up to provide services to Seaspan and all the trade and technical schools are going to be inundated with students wanting to upgrade their skills or make a career change to position themselves for jobs.

Who can blame them?

“While we felt we were more than capable of building the combat ships (that contract went to Halifax Shipyard) we are honoured to have been chosen to provide non-combat vessels for the men and women of the Royal Canadian navy and Coast Guard,” said Jonathan Whitworth, Seaspan CEO. “We have a long and established track record of working with the Canadian Navy and Coast Guard in building ships on time and on budget.”

Whitworth is committed to restoring B.C.’s shipbuilding industry which has been languishing for decades following its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. And any government bidding process was viewed with political suspicion for years following that fateful award by the Mulroney government in 1986 when they gave the CF-18 fighter maintenance contract to Quebec’s Bombardier rather than Manitoba’s Bristol Aerospace considered back then technically superior. The move cost Mulroney major electoral points, dumped scorn all over him for his blatant political favouritism and deepened bitter beliefs in western alienation.

Fast track 25 years to a different Canada from the 1980s. PM Harper is from the west, Quebec doesn’t have the push and shove clout it once thought it did,  and the Harper government was determined not to have political ghosts coming back to haunt it once a decision was made. It went to extraordinary lengths to keep the adjudication process surgically clean. Harper, known for putting a political spin on just about everything not to mention his reputation as a control freak, was apparently hands-off on this one and by all accounts silent with everyone on the selection process.

Four senior bureaucrats navigated this bid to shore with the added expert opinions of three outside consultants. The bidders’ names were reduced to Company A, Company B or Company C.  In the end Whitworth, as elated as he must have been with his executives and workers, was equally humbled.

“We have been in it to win it and we haven’t been alone,” he said in a press release. “We couldn’t have won without the hard work and dedication of the team who worked tirelessly over the last 18 months to compile the bid or the many supporters who stepped up to assist including the Government of B.C., our three municipalities, local First Nations, shipyard unions and teaming partners from across Canada.”

Planning has started, $150 million worth of infrastructure construction will get going and actual ship construction will start in late 2012.

It couldn’t be a better time to be in shipbuilding in B.C.

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