As workers in the Quebec Port stripped "Montreal" off the Canada Steamship Lines cargo ship Birchglen, the vessel was losing more than just a Canadian port of registry. It was losing its Canadian crew and the Maple Leaf flag that attached it to its country of ownership.
Canadian workers were being replaced with a cheaper Ukrainian crew and captain. The flag of Barbados -- a flag of convenience as it is known in the shipping industry -- will soon be flying on the ship's masthead. And a freshly painted "Bridgetown" will mark the ship's new port of registration in Barbados, a country used by shipping companies to lower taxes.
The practice is commonplace in the industry. And it would have gone largely unnoticed if it weren't for the fact that the vessel belongs to the shipping empire run by Prime Minister Paul Martin's family.
Mr. Martin transferred control of his Canada Steamship Lines Inc. empire to his sons last March, after he faced a storm of criticism that his business interests would place him in conflict with his official duties.
A total of 20 Canadian commercial sailors on the Birchglen were laid off and have been replaced with 22 Ukrainian crew members who will be paid lower wages and receive fewer benefits.
For Canada Steamship Lines parent company CSL Group Inc., the practice makes good business sense. The company argues that higher Canadian wages make it impossible to compete internationally. And because Canadian law requires a vessel registered in Canada to maintain an all-Canadian crew, the company says it had no choice but to register the ship in Barbados.
"If we don't have a foreign crew we will not achieve a certain level of competitiveness," CSL spokeswoman Martine Malk said yesterday.
"If we want to compete we need those lower wages."
Ms. Malk added that the Birchglen would remain a Canadian-owned ship. That will require the company to pay taxes in Canada on the ship's revenue overseas rather than the lower tax on profits -- 2.5 per cent or as low as 1 per cent -- paid to Barbados from the company's foreign ships registered abroad.
For the Prime Minister, being associated with a company that is hiring foreign workers to replace laid-off Canadians is giving the opposition ammunition to attack the Liberals for ignoring the needs of Canadians.
"The government has to put an end to a practice that creates unemployment for our workers here while allowing Canadian vessels to use cheap labour from foreign countries," said Roger Clavet, the Bloc Québécois candidate in the Quebec City riding of Louis-Hébert. "CSL can now stand for 'Canada's Shameless Leader.' "
The Bloc said it has built a case to demonstrate that as finance minister, Mr. Martin was in conflict of interest when his government adopted tax laws that allowed CSL to avoid paying $103-million in taxes to the Canadian government.
The Bloc was also poised to reignite the debate over the $161-million in business dealings that CSL had with the federal government over the past 11 years.
Mr. Martin has attempted to focus public attention on his ability to meet higher ethical standards, defending himself from renewed Bloc attacks on his personal integrity. But Bloc candidates remain convinced that Mr. Martin's former ties to the shipping empire he sold to his sons last year is an issue that has only begun to simmer in the minds of voters in Quebec, where Liberal support has slipped considerably in the past two months.