OTTAWA – The federal government will launch negotiations Friday for the lease of four icebreakers from Davie, the Quebec shipyard at the centre of the RCMP’s investigation against suspended Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.
The surprise move follows growing concerns about the coast guard’s aging icebreaker fleet, which were highlighted earlier this month when mechanical problems kept the service from helping a ferry trapped in the St. Lawrence River.
It also comes after strong pressure from the Quebec government for Ottawa to give Davie more federal work. The company recently laid off 800 workers after converting a civilian ship into a new interim resupply vessel for the navy.
That interim resupply vessel lies at the heart of the RCMP’s investigation against Norman, who was suspended from his position as the military’s second-in-command last year amid allegations he leaked cabinet secrets to Davie.
The Mounties allege Norman was upset in November 2015 that the new Trudeau government was reconsidering the interim supply ship contract, and that he worked with Davie to pressure the Liberals into staying the course.
Norman remains suspended but has not been charged with any crime. The allegations are contained in documents that have not been tested in court, and Norman’s lawyer has denied her client did anything wrong.
The Liberal government ultimately decided to proceed with the interim resupply vessel, which is currently undergoing several weeks of final testing before becoming operational.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed the plan to enter into talks with Davie for the four new icebreakers in a Radio-Canada interview Thursday in Quebec City.
“Tomorrow morning at 9, Davie and the coast guard will begin negotiations on the purchase of icebreakers,” Trudeau said in French. “Yes, it’s good news. We’re heading into negotiations, but we believe we’ll be able to find a solution.”
Speaking at a town hall event in Quebec City Thursday evening, the prime minister said the decision was made in the last few weeks.
“The quality of labourers, of expertise, the ability to deliver on time and on budget is extremely important and is recognized at Davie,” Trudeau said in French.
“We know the workers are there to do it and we hope to work together to create magnificent icebreakers for the Canadian Coast Guard here at Davie.”
Davie initially proposed leasing icebreakers to the coast guard in April 2016, after acquiring the rights to four vessels that were previously destined for use in Alaska’s offshore oil and gas industry until a downturn in the market.
The proposal was a direct response to the fact the federal government doesn’t have a plan for replacing the brunt of Canada’s icebreaker fleet over the next decade, even though the vessels are on average already 35 years old.
Still, Davie officials acknowledged surprise at Trudeau’s announcement, particularly after his government had spent the past several months resisting calls for a second interim resupply ship to complement the one already finished.
Many observers also believed Davie was in the Trudeau government’s bad books because of the Norman affairs.
One company source said the icebreaker project could create up to 400 new jobs over the next 18 months, though that could very depending on how the negotiations proceed, and how fast the vessels are needed.
“Our objective is to try to keep some jobs,” the source said. “This will allow us to keep the lights on.”
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard was quick to welcome Trudeau’s comments on Thursday.
“So much the better if there is some movement on the icebreaker file,” Couillard said. “I hail Mr. Trudeau’s remarks because our workers need to be on the job.”
But Couillard also reiterated his desire to see the shipyard land what he described as its share of naval contracts, saying: “As Quebec premier, I can’t agree to Davie being excluded from all that.”
Davie has been largely passed over by the federal government’s multi-billion-dollar nation shipbuilding strategy, with the brunt of the work going instead to Halifax-based Irving Shipyards and Vancouver-based Seaspan Marine.
— With files from Mylene Crete