Editorial: B.C. shipbuilding’s voyage of recovery

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Word that BC Ferries can’t afford to have new vessels for its fleet built in B.C. provides another reality check for anyone betting on a return to shipbuilding glory in this province.

As reported in the Times Colonist, Mark Collins told the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce in a recent address that BC Ferries will likely order $1 billion worth of new ships over the next six years and the company would love to have them built locally.

But the BC Ferries CEO noted that the 30% to 50% premium to have those additions to the company’s fleet built locally would drive ferry fares up by at least 25%.

That would not sell well down on the tarmac at Tsawwassen, Horseshoe Bay or any other B.C. ferry terminal.

A $1 billion commitment to local shipbuilding, however, would be another step in helping to re-establish what was once a core industry in this province that began to lose its way in the middle of the 20th century and all but disappeared after the federal government cancelled the $500 million Polar 8 icebreaker contract in 1990.

Highly specialized marine engineering and shipbuilding expertise was subsequently lost to other regions and competing countries.

Meanwhile, shipbuilding efficiencies and huge government subsidies in countries like South Korea have made it almost impossible for a weakened Canadian shipbuilding sector to compete for contracts at home or abroad.

The federal government’s $38 billion national shipbuilding procurement strategy, launched in 2010, is aimed at revitalizing major shipyards on Canada’s east and west coasts.

North Vancouver-based Seaspan Shipyards’ $8 billion portion of the plan’s contracts is a good start out west.

But the marketplace realities outlined by BC Ferries’ CEO underscore how much further the industry in B.C. and elsewhere in Canada still has to go in realizing any ambitions it might have of becoming internationally competitive in what is a high-stakes, heavily politicized, capital-intensive industry.