By Alex Binkley

Such is the political embarrassment caused by the sorry state of the Canadian icebreaking fleet that Prime Minister Trudeau personally announced in mid-January the launch of negotiations with Chantier Davie Canada Inc. for the lease of four icebreakers. The move came a month after Michael Byers, a UBC Professor and Arctic expert, issued an urgent call for Ottawa to change course on its plan to build a heavy duty polar icebreaker when what is needed are four or five medium-duty icebreakers. He said in his report Onto the Rocks that Davie was the logical candidate for the contract because it has already refitted Louis St. Laurent, Canada’s old icebreaker, and converted a container ship into a navy resupply vessel. Davie had already offered to refit American polar icebreakers for service in Canada. The federal-Davie negotiations were continuing as Canadian Sailings was going to press and neither side would comment on the details.

The federal-Davie negotiations drew criticism from Finnish shipowner Artica, which responded to a federal call last fall for icebreaking services under the Ocean Protection Plan. Artica, which has offered its icebreaking services to Canada in the past, has “icebreakers available for whenever they’re needed,” President Tero Vauraste said in an interview. Artica submitted proposals for icebreaking in the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes on as-needed basis, he said.

Since Artica’s complaint following the Davie announcement, there have been some informal discussions between Canada and the company. One question Vauraste has is what Canada will do until the icebreakers Davie has offered are ready for service. The Canada-Europe trade deal is supposed to assure that European companies can bid on Canadian government contracts and vice versa.

When asked about Trudeau’s announcement, Byers said he had no inside knowledge of the negotiations and offered no reasons not to proceed with them. His main argument is that with climate change reducing the severity of ice conditions in the Arctic, a polar icebreaker on the scale of the proposed John Diefenbaker is excessive and overly expensive.

The federal government is so secretive about that project it’s not known how much design work has been done on the ship. Its original 2018 delivery date set by the Harper government has been pushed back to 2023, but no one seems to consider that likely either. Medium duty icebreakers could handle the North and pitch in on the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes if needed, Byers said. In addition to Byers’ criticisms, the Canadian Coast Guard was unable to come to the rescue of a St. Lawrence River ferry trapped in ice in early January. There are also concerns that the ports of Montreal and Quebec City could be unreachable for ships because there is no icebreaker capable of keeping shipping routes to them open.

As Byers and the Shipping Federation of Canada have repeatedly pointed out, Canada’s six main icebreakers are on average already more than 35 years old, with no plan for replacing them. Refits will add some years to their lives, but not solve the problem.

Davie initially proposed leasing icebreakers to the Coast Guard in 2016 after acquiring the rights to four vessels that were previously destined for use in Alaska’s offshore oil and gas industry, until a downturn in the market eliminated the need for them. The proposal was a direct response to the fact the federal government doesn’t have a plan for replacing its icebreaker fleet.

Byers’ report blasted the entire National Ship Procurement Strategy to replace navy and Coast Guard vessels. It was started by the Harper government and continued with few alterations by the Trudeau government. Byers said Ottawa should contract to build a second navy supply ship along the lines of Asterix, the Davie-supplied resupply vessel that was delivered to the Royal Canadian Navy in December of 2017.