THE federal government announced Friday it has signed ship design contracts worth $15.7 million with Vancouver Shipyards.
The announcement, made by Minister of Public Works Rona Ambrose at the North Vancouver shipyard, marks another step forward in Ottawa's National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy.
Under that plan, Seaspan - the parent company of the local shipyard - is to build at least seven non-combat vessels for the federal government over the next 20 to 30 years. The value of those contracts has been estimated at $8 billion.
The design contracts will allow more detailed design work to start on several ships, including an offshore fisheries science vessel for the Coast Guard, joint support ships for the Navy and a polar icebreaker.
Jonathan Whitworth, chief executive officer of Seaspan, said that design process will take the next nine or 10 months.
Whitworth said he expects to sign the first ship construction contract by the end of 2013 and start cutting steel on the federal ships by the first quarter of 2014.
That timeline was echoed by Ambrose, who told the gathered shipyard workers and guests Friday, "We plan to place our first order for the first ship by the end of this year."
Ambrose said Ottawa is negotiating contracts for each part of the design and construction of the ships "milestone by milestone" to ensure the government is getting "the best value for taxpayers."
In October 2011, Seaspan was chosen as the shipyard the federal government will contract with to build the non-combat vessels as part of a program meant to give stability to the shipbuilding industry, providing work for the next 20 to 30 years.
Since then, some concerns have been raised that federal budget cuts could see the shipbuilding strategy delayed or reduced - especially since no actual contracts to build ships have been signed yet. But Whitworth has said repeatedly he isn't worried about that. "The national shipbuilding procurement strategy is alive and well," he said Friday.
Four months ago, the shipyard began work on a $150million to $200-million upgrade and modernization process to prepare for future shipbuilding work. The announcement Friday took place in what will become the electrical substation for four new buildings at the shipyard. Upgrades to four other buildings putting about $25 million worth of new equipment in place will likely continue for the next 18 months, said Whitworth.
Whitworth said by the time the first construction contract is underway next year, he expects the workforce at the North Vancouver shipyard to double from 200 to about 400 trades people. By the time the shipyard starts work on the bigger ships, in 2015 or 2016, he said the workforce should reach about 1,000.
North Vancouver MP Andrew Saxton described Friday's announcement as "great news for Canada's shipbuilding industry" and "great news for North Vancouver."