by Mark Cardwell

The Quebec union that represents nearly three-quarters of the 1,100 workers at Davie Canada has written an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, demanding a larger share of federal shipbuilding contracts for the reborn shipyard.

“Though Davie obtained in March a 9-month life-extension contract for CCG Earl Grey, the (Confédération des syndicats nationaux – or CSN) considers that the federal government must do more to ensure the future of the Lévis shipbuilder,” reads the letter, which was sent in the days leading up to the tabling of the Quebec provincial budget on April 21. Signed by the leaders of Davie’s union local and other CSN affiliates, it refers to the fact that the yard was excluded from the more than $30 billion in contracts that were awarded to two yards – Irving and Seaspan – under the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy in 2011. At the time, Davie was struggling to stay afloat after 20 years of financial hardship and ownership turmoil.

Since then, however, the yard’s London/Monaco-based owners, Group Inocea, have brought the yard back to life. Davie has notably completed three partially-built vessels for the offshore North Sea oil industry, and is building two LNG-powered government ferries. The two $125-million vessels are scheduled for delivery within the next year.

Those successes led to Davie being named Shipyard of the Year at Lloyd’s List’s annual North American Maritime Awards ceremony in Houston in February, beating out runner-up General Dynamics NASSCO for its “ability to deliver quality vessels on time, meet the needs of stakeholders and showcase innovative designs while adhering to high environmental standards.”

“There can be no doubt in the federal government’s mind that Davie Canada has everything needed to participate fully in the construction of ships of all categories,” reads the letter. “Our Lévis shipyard is the biggest in Canada, and the most appreciated in North America.” The letter echoes the sentiments of Davie’s owners, who have repeatedly questioned the ability of the NSPS winners – particularly Seaspan –to build the contracted ships. They have publicly offered – and privately lobbied – to take on those contracts. They have also called on Ottawa to send Davie the lion’s share of future contracts, invoking principles of fairness and provincial equity. “We strongly urge the government to recognize Davie Canada as a serious and credible actor in the Canadian naval industry,” reads the letter. “The federal government has a golden opportunity to change its habits and to treat Davie in a fair way, like it does with other Canadian shipbuilders.” The Chief Executive Officer of Davie’s parent company says he shares the union’s frustration: “They’re proud of what we’ve done – and they’re hungry for more,” Alex Vicefield told Canadian Sailings. “But we’re working closely now with the government and I’m confident we’ll win our fair share of contracts on merit.”

Since the letter was sent, however, another letter – this one a complaint sent five months ago from a yard worker to the Office québécois de la langue française (OLF), Quebec’s French-language watchdog – has generated negative publicity for the 190-year-old yard.

On April 14, Davie employee Serge Lapointe sent a reminder to the OLF, saying the situation he complained about in November had not been resolved. Lapointe claims that communications in the yard are mostly in English, and that the company’s executives are mostly English-speaking. He also contends that the company hires English-speaking subcontractors to do jobs that local francophones could and should be doing.

Several French-language newspapers have picked up on the story, touching off an ongoing and sometimes ugly debate over language on Quebec social media platforms.