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The Canadian Coast Guard fisheries patrol vessel Tanu is seen in the distance on the harbour as coast guard members listen to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak in Vancouver May 22, 2019.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The federal government is commissioning the construction of 18 new ships for the Canadian Coast Guard as part of a $15.7-billion program that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says will renew the coast guard’s fleet.

To execute the plan, Mr. Trudeau said Wednesday that 16 multipurpose vessels will be built at Seaspan’s Vancouver Shipyards and two Arctic and offshore patrol ships will be built at Irving Shipbuilding of Halifax.

However, he suggested the workload involved in projects for the navy and coast guard may necessitate the involvement of a third Canadian shipyard, possibly Davie Shipbuilding of Quebec.

“We recognize that it’s an opportunity for Davie to apply to become that third shipbuilding facility because there will be a tremendous amount of work in the coming years for workers in the shipbuilding industry right across the country," Mr. Trudeau told a news conference in Stanley Park.

Mr. Trudeau said coast guard members have been making do with outdated vessels.

“Canadians deserve better than having this fleet rust out, and dealing with this problem is long overdue," he said.

The new vessels’ tasks will include light ice-breaking, offshore patrol and search and rescue. While the new ships are built, the government will also finance extensions, refits and maintenance work on existing vessels.

A spokesman for Davie thanked the government for its decision to add another shipyard to its shipbuilding strategy. However, the Quebec-based company wants to start working as quickly as possible on new ships, even if it means taking over work that has already been awarded to Irving or Seaspan shipyards.

“We want to contribute to the renewal of the federal fleet,” said Davie vice-president of public affairs Frédérik Boisvert. “We can’t be brought into the strategy at a point where there is nothing left.”

In a statement, Timothy Page, government relations vice-president for Seaspan Shipyards, said Wednesday’s news was a “vote of confidence” in the company and a relief to staff who had previously had no clarity on their medium-term future.

He said Seaspan disagrees with the idea of opening the national shipbuilding strategy to a third shipyard, and will look to understand the impact of that measure on the company’s interests.

Michael Byers, a procurement and military expert at the University of British Columbia, said the announcement will likely prove popular in the three provinces that are receiving the work, but raised doubts about the two new vessels that will be built by Irving.

“They can’t do the icebreaking that the Coast Guard needs in the Arctic, and they are not well suited for offshore patrol in the open ocean, especially in storm conditions,” said Dr. Byers, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC. “They’re not the optimal type of vessel for the Coast Guard.”

Dr. Byers, a former NDP candidate in Vancouver Centre, said that governments of all stripes play politics with shipbuilding, adding that Wednesday’s announcement was no exception as the Liberals tried to put their stamp on the shipbuilding strategy launched in 2011 under the previous, Conservative government.

The plan has been criticized for moving too slowly and for facing rising costs, in addition to the continuing frustration in Quebec over the exclusion to this point of the Davie shipyard from the bulk of the work.

“They made a good news announcement that will satisfy people in three politically important regions and I would guess they are hoping that it will distract from what happened to Vice-Admiral [Mark] Norman,” Dr. Byers said.

Vice-Adm. Norman, a former commander of the navy, was charged last year with a single count of breach of trust over alleged leaks in relation to a supply vessel that was to built by Davie. The charge was stayed this month after his defence team presented the prosecution with new evidence, leaving the government facing a series of accusations of political interference in the matter.

The Conservative Party said it supports the acquisition of vessels, but blamed the government for continuing delays in the procurement process.

“We are concerned that the Liberals have waited until the last minute to make this announcement and have no plan to actually deliver,” Conservative MP Todd Doherty said.

“No Canadian shipyard should be sitting idle. The Canadian Coast Guard needs new ships, especially heavy icebreakers, as soon as possible,” he added.

Editor’s note: (May 23, 2019) An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Timothy Page of Seaspan Shipyards said his company agrees with the idea of opening the national shipbuilding strategy to a third shipyard. In fact, Mr. Page said Seaspan disagrees with the idea of opening the strategy to a third shipyard.

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