By Brian Dunn

This year marks the 20th Anniversary of Valport Maritime Services, a private company that provides stevedoring, logistics, marshalling, warehousing and staging of breakbulk and bulk cargo at the port of Valleyfield, about halfway between Montreal and Cornwall, Ontario. With around 900,000 tonnes of cargo handled last year, it’s not one of the larger Canadian ports, but it has carved out a unique niche for itself.

“The big advantages we have here are a flexible labour force, a large (323,000 sq. ft.) staging area, lower stevedoring costs than our competitors, and flexible working conditions,” explained Frank Dunn, President of Valport, who runs the operation with partner Clarence Eddy. “So where in the geographical scheme of things were we going to put our efforts and grow the port? One of the best areas was the Arctic because of the type of cargo going north which is general cargo and project cargo.”

When Valport started 20 years ago, it was not in the packaging or crating business, but decided to offer those services as part of a one-stop shopping philosophy for its clients. Other value added services include rigging, assembly, steel work fabrication and project management, including bar coding, with substantial savings to clients amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Mr. Dunn. “We try to get shippers and receivers interested in controlling their own destiny in a terminal that they could call their own hub, their own home away from home, as opposed to a port that only handles cargo in and out. Here we give them the option of doing all kinds of things.”

He cites the example of Igloo Building Supplies of Edmonton that moved to the port to take advantage of its packaging business and even does some onsite construction of housing components and modular homes that are packaged and shipped to the Arctic. Another example was steel kits coming in from Ukraine in the form of raw material which the port made into railway kits for export.

“The kinds of clients we’re trying to attract are those that bring a product in, we finish it here and put it on a ship.” About 60 per cent of Valport’s activity is related to Arctic shipping, led by Nunavut Eastern Arctic Shipping (NEAS) and Desgagnés Transarctik, the only two shipping companies in Canada that offer regular liner service to the Arctic, according to Mr. Dunn. “NEAS is a committed stakeholder, meaning they use us for all cargo heading north, whereas Desgagnés only uses us for project cargo. We cannot do everything for both, because we’re not big enough, but we will be soon. We have a project to extend our (1,106 metre) berth by 300 metres to accommodate that growth.”

About 22 trips to the Arctic will have been made during the May-October season, with each trip accounting for roughly 20,000 tonnes of cargo. Mr. Dunn noted that NEAS only operated two ships to the area 15 years ago. However, growth in Arctic shipping opportunities has led NEAS to increase its fleet to five vessels.

While Valport’s biggest client is NEAS, its biggest shipper is Baffinland and its Mary River iron ore project on northern Baffin Island, accounting for some 30 per cent of the Port’s Arctic business last year. This year it will be a little less, because the construction phase is winding down. But it will ramp up again once the mine begins production next year, said Mr. Dunn. “They will have a lot more employees going north for the production and they will need to keep the machinery going up north, and they will need to supply raw materials and supplies from here. Plus, this is only phase one. Phase two is much larger. So the possibility of a much larger expansion exists, based on the success of phase one.”

Valport also handles project cargo for Canadian Royalties’ nickel project in Nunavut and for NEAS, which added a fifth ship to its fleet in July, the MV Erasmusgracht, a 450-foot ice class I vessel, partly to transport building materials and equipment for the Iqaluit International Airport improvement project. The project includes a new airport building, expanded aprons, new lighting systems, an upgraded runway and a new combined services building that will house the fire-fighting vehicles, support equipment and the heavy equipment that maintain the runways.

NEAS serves over 40 communities, mine sites, radar sites and cleanup sites in the north, using Ice Class I vessels of between 9,000 and 12,000 tonnes. The vessels are equipped with either 50 tonne or 60 tonne cranes. When the season ends, the vessels go into the pool of Spliethoff Group of the Netherlands, then returned to NEAS in the spring.

“There are a lot of opportunities in the north and we’re in a position to serve the growing demand with a re-fleeting strategy in place,” said NEAS President Suzanne Paquin. She sees future growth coming from new housing and mining projects and the multi-year construction of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

A big priority for NEAS is the security and safety of its northern operations. As part of that commitment, the company has opened a beach office in Iqaluit, the capital and largest city in Nunavut to serve customers in a more secure environment. And in addition to safety pamphlets issued by the local government, NEAS has launched an initiative to get security officers proper safety training to keep customers well away from unloading operations.

All stakeholders in heavy sealift operations continue to lobby the government for basic marine infrastructure to improve the efficiency of Arctic operations, says Ms. Paquin. “The lack of infrastructure is a hidden tax on Nunavut and we have to make the government more aware of this situation.”

Desgagnés Transarctik works in partnership with Arctic Co-operatives Limited through Nunavut Sealink and Supply, providing sealift services out of Montreal and Churchill, Manitoba, to over 45 communities in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, according to General Manager Waguih Rayes. Most of its core Arctic fleet of six vessels are heavy lift carriers, equipped with cranes of either 120 tonne or 180 tonne capacity, to unload the tugs and barges required to discharge at places where there are no port facilities. When the Arctic shipping season ends, the fleet is deployed on international routes through subsidiary Desgagnés Marine.

“We’re using bigger barges than in the old days to compensate for the lack of marine infrastructure in the region. We’re also the largest shipping firm in the north, transporting about 450,000 cubic metres (2.5 cubic metres equal one revenue tonne) per season.” Business is up and down, depending on the needs of the mining industry and infrastructure for communities. The backhaul and lateral movement of cargo and equipment from one community or job site to another is improving, offering another growth opportunity for shippers, said Mr. Rayes. Overall backhaul revenue is two-thirds the rate of northbound cargo. The retrieval of equipment to haul south is directly linked to the mining sector, he added. And while the price of base metals has weakened, China and India are still growth markets for those commodities. And a new mine can increase sealift activities by between 10-15 per cent, he added.

Port of Valleyfield bills itself as Canada’s largest “small port” because it punches above its weight, according to Mr. Dunn. He cites the difference between Valleyfield and Sept-îles, which touts itself as Canada’s third-largest port, but is primarily an iron ore and aluminum exporter. “There is simply no one out there generating the kind of activity that we do. You add up all the economic activity going on here just in six months (when the Seaway is open), we blow every other port out of the water. You add our steel business which is growing, you add our bulk business which is growing and our Arctic business which is growing, it all adds up to steady growth.

“The Arctic has a new territory called Nunavut. Although infrastructure improvements there are minor in absolute terms, they represent a disproportionately large share of economic activity in the area. When you’re building a new rink or a hotel in the north, most of the materials get there via this port.”

Valport has introduced a barcoding system to facilitate the delivery of products to the north, particularly for construction projects. “If you’re in the construction phase of a facility and you’ve got a shipload full of product and you’ve got this one little grommet stuck in the middle of a shipload of cargo that you need fairly quickly, how do you track it? That’s why we went into the barcode system with Baffinland. We put a sticker on every piece of cargo and each sticker has a number and a barcode and that’s how we track it.”

Valport continues to provide the infrastructure that carriers can turn to their advantage. A recent example is the installation of a reefer hookup station that caught the eye of NEAS Vice-President of Operations, Georges Tousignant, who was so impressed, said Mr. Dunn, that his client, Canadian Royalties, had three containers hooked up to it the very next day. “We’re giving them an extra opportunity to do more business and now other people in the Arctic know it’s available, so if somebody wants to ship frozen products or chilled products to the Arctic, we’ve now got the infrastructure for them to get going. And this is what we do time after time after time.”