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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

John Ibbitson

Waves will be made with these shipbuilding contracts Add to ...

Most people have never heard of François Guimont, Robert Fonberg, Richard Dicerni or Claire Dansereau. Yet, they hold Canada’s shipbuilding future in their hands.

Some time this autumn, these four – they are the deputy ministers of Public Works, Defence, Industry and Fisheries and Oceans – will decide which Canadian shipyards will share a contract valued at a staggering $35-billion to provide the Canadian navy and Coast Guard with new fleets. Their decision is supposed to be apolitical. But there will be plenty of political fallout, regardless.

Three shipyards are in the running: in Vancouver, the Quebec City area and Halifax. Two will win, guaranteeing contracts, jobs and growth.

Those contracts “are key to the preservation of the industry in Canada,” believes Peter Cairns, president of the Shipbuilding Association of Canada. But the prospects for the loser will be grim.

One shipyard will be given $25-billion over the course of 20 to 30 years to construct a new fleet of warships for the rusting-out navy. The other will receive $8-billion to build icebreakers and a naval supply ship. Another $2-billion will be spent on smaller vessels that the loser and other yards can still bid for.

Military procurement is a mug’s game that can win or cost a government votes and seats. Brian Mulroney’s decision in the 1980s to award the CF-18 maintenance contract to a Montreal firm rather than a Winnipeg one helped propel the rise of the Reform Party and the eventual extinction of the Progressive Conservatives.

To minimize political favouritism – and damage – this time, the Conservatives have created this committee of deputy ministers to pick the winning yards, with their decision not subject to cabinet review.

The Nova Scotia government is pulling out all the stops in support of the Irving Shipbuilding bid, offering a $20-million loan to help modernize the Halifax dry dock. Winning the biggest contract would create an estimated 8,400 jobs annually in a region that desperately needs them.

But Seaspan Shipyards in Vancouver is also lobbying hard, and B.C. Premier Christy Clark recently promised $40-million for worker training if Vancouver comes out a winner. One report predicts that the warship contract would have as big an impact on the regional economy as the 2010 Olympics.

Then there’s the bid from Davie Yards in Lévis, across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City. Davie only got a bid in on time because the deadline was extended. The insolvent company was purchased last month by Upper Lakes Group, acting in co-operation with Daewoo Shipbuilding of South Korea and Quebec’s SNC Lavalin, with the help of a $19-million loan from the Quebec government.

Some might ask whether a last-minute bid from a company with a long history of financial trouble can be taken as seriously as the carefully planned and heavily promoted Vancouver and Halifax proposals.

We can assume, of course, that the deputy ministers will ignore the fact that the Conservatives lost seats in the Quebec City region in the last election because the Conservatives refused to help fund a sports arena. They will surely pay no attention to the fact that shutting out the Davie bid would further estrange the federal government – not to mention the Conservative Party – from the province.

If the Davie bid wins, voters in either British Columbia or Nova Scotia are bound to accuse the Harper government of kowtowing to Quebec, however arm’s-length the decision really is.

Some skeptics question whether the ships will ever get built. Government procurement promises are one thing; firm deals are something else. Rubber will be introduced to road when and if the first contracts are signed next year.

Yet, there seems to be none of the public resistance to this enormously expensive program that has greeted the decision to purchase the F-35 fighter jets. Perhaps that’s because the ships will be built entirely in Canada. Or perhaps some of the romance of the country’s maritime heritage still flows through our veins.

Either way, two cities will soon be very happy, and one deeply upset.

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