Procurement minister cuts first steel for third Arctic patrol vessel

Minister of Procurement Canada, Carla Qualtrough, performs the ceremonial cutting of the first steel for HMCS Max Bernays at Irving Shipyard in Halifax on Dec. 19, 2017. Dave Squires/Global News

Canada’s federal procurement minister isn’t ruling out the possibility of asking Irving Shipbuilding to build more Arctic patrol vessels to address a looming gap in the construction of two new fleets of naval vessels in Halifax.

Following a steel cutting ceremony Tuesday to mark the beginning of construction on the third patrol vessel, Carla Qualtrough was asked whether a gap could see a request for additional patrol vessels.

“It very much could,” said Qualtrough. “We are in the process of revisiting the timelines and making sure that everything is on track. It most definitely could, but we will have to see how long the gap will be and the cost implications.”

READ MORE: Main sections of first Arctic patrol ship assembled at Halifax Shipyard

The admission by Qualtrough appeared to signal a slight opening in the federal government’s attitude on the matter. Irving has previously lobbied for additional work between the two naval fleets, but those appeals appeared to have gone nowhere.

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“We are working closely together to see what we can do to keep everybody going,” Qualtrough said.

Irving is to build five to six Arctic patrol vessels at a cost of $3.5-billion under Ottawa’s national shipbuilding strategy and 15 ships to replace the navy’s 12 frigates and three recently retired destroyers at an estimated cost of $60 billion.

Company president Kevin McCoy said Irving intends to deliver six Arctic patrol vessels by 2022 as originally planned.

“Naturally on the first ship we’ve got startup issues that we are working through and as we deliver the first ship we will be in a better position,” he said.

WATCH: HMCS Athabaskan, retiring navy ship, takes last sail around Halifax harbour

Click to play video: 'HMCS Athabaskan, retiring navy ship, takes last sail around Halifax harbour' HMCS Athabaskan, retiring navy ship, takes last sail around Halifax harbour
HMCS Athabaskan, retiring navy ship, takes last sail around Halifax harbour – Mar 8, 2017

McCoy said the first patrol vessel, HMCS Harry DeWolf, is structurally assembled and is due to be launched in 2018. The connecting of the bow section with the vessel’s centre and stern sections was announced earlier this month.

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McCoy was asked whether there have been any revisions to the delivery timelines for the vessels.

“There’s a million metres of electrical cable on that ship (HMCS DeWolf) and we are pulling that cable now. This spring we’ll start to light off the electrical systems and get into testing, so as we get through that on the first ship we will step back and reassess.”

McCoy said construction on the second vessel is underway with 28 of the ship’s 64 units in production.

READ MORE: Trudeau government scrambling to fill Irving’s scheduling gap between patrol ships, warships

Looming over the production are labour issues at the Halifax Shipyard.

About 800 unionized employees represented by Unifor, including metal fabricators and electricians, recently voted in favour of strike action when their current contract expires at the end of this month.

Contract talks began in early November and Irving requested a conciliator soon after they started.

McCoy downplayed any potential trouble for the project.

“The company and the union have posted officially this week that we are very hopeful after these weeks of discussions,” he said. “We are very hopeful that when we come back after the new year that we’ll reach an agreement that’s fair for both parties.”

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Qualtrough said the federal government is watching the labour situation.

“We are confident that they will be able to find a solution that works for everyone,” she said.

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