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BC Shipyards - A Proud History, An Uncertain Future

A Proud History

The story of British Columbia's economic and cultural history cannot be told without also telling the story of shipbuilding on Canada's West Coast.

Hull of Kootenay Park, view from bow, February 20, 1942

The province's shipbuilding industry played a key role in the B.C. and Alaska gold rushes, the fishing industry, forestry and Canada's war time efforts in both world wars. Its contribution to modern economic development in the province continues to this day.

From the construction in Vancouver of the famous RCMP ship the St. Roch in 1929, which became the first vessel to navigate to northwest passage through the Arctic in both directions to the building of "liberty ships" during World War 2 to the creation of the BC Ferries fleet, shipbuilding has been a vital part of BC's economy and history.

With one of the world's best known and most resource-rich coastlines, the development of shipbuilding in British Columbia goes back to the days of early European settlement.

Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, wooden vessels were produced to meet a wide variety of needs. During WW1, steel shipbuilding began a period of extraordinary expansion.

Although the Great Depression years saw a period of decline and sometimes despair for B.C. shipyard workers, the enormous effort marshaled for Canada's participation in WWII (1939-45) set the high water mark in terms of shipyard production in the province.

At the height of the WWII shipbuilding boom:

  • 25,000 men and women were employed in B.C. shipyards;
  • 5,000 men and women worked assembling manufactured components;
  • 250 10,000 ton freighters were produced along with 15 frigates, 3 landing ships, 10 corvettes and 10 Bangor class minesweepers.
Launching the Kootenay Park, June 11, 1944

At the close of the Second World War, British Columbia's intensive war time production efforts had created a modern shipbuilding infrastructure that would serve the industry for decades to come.

In the 1950s, shipbuilding activity subsided from the feverish pace set during the War but steady growth and production continued for the balance of the '50s without either boom or bust. Significant expansion in the pulp and paper industry, in large part, replaced the naval and naval supply demands of WWII as many new kinds of watercraft were required to keep pace with the rapid growth of this sector.

Canada's shipbuilding industry got a significant shot in the arm in 1960 when the federal government introduced a subsidy program for the construction of large commercial vessels.
While the program was perceived to be targeted to Quebec and the Maritimes, it was a national program and, as a result, gave a boost to shipyards in B.C. It was this federal initiative more than any other industrial development that helped to sustain a period of healthy growth and activity in the shipbuilding industry until the 1970s.

Again in the 1970s it was a government effort that helped maintain a strong B.C. industry. But unlike the federal program of the 1960s, this time it was the provincial government and construction to float a modern B.C. ferry fleet that created economic opportunities for British Columbia's shipyards.

Combined with continued strong demand for new vessel construction and repair work from the forestry and fishing industries, the ferry fleet played an important part in the ongoing strength of the B.C. shipbuilding industry.

It wasn't until the mid-1980s that the decades-long run of sustained prosperity ran into major challenges and changes in the industry. By then, polar oil exploration in Canada's north had virtually ground to a halt (primarily as a result of falling oil prices) and, with it, the need for sturdy icebreakers disappeared almost overnight.

The contraction of the 1980s became more pronounced in the early 1990s. Throughout this period, many shipyards shut down and industry commentators suggested that there were simply too many shipyards chasing too few jobs.

One of the two Spirit Class superferries, the largest ships ever built in B.C. at 18,000 gross tons each, capable of carrying 470 cars

At the same time, a worldwide downturn in commodity prices sent ripples throughout the economy - affecting the shipbuilding industry and many other sectors. And new competition from foreign shipyards in countries, many with low wages, unsafe working conditions and lack of legitimate union representation for shipyard workers, meant increasing challenges for the industry.

The only real bright spot for B.C. shipyards throughout this long period of uncertainty came in 1994 when the provincial government embarked on a program of high-speed aluminum ferry construction.

Though the uncertainty of the 1980s and '90s continues, B.C.'s shipbuilding industry and tradition remain amongst of the strongest and best in the world.

For more than a hundred years, the province's shipbuilders have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to respond to opportunities in the private sector and in the public sector both here at home and around the world.

We can only hope that the next hundred years will bring a great many more opportunities and that British Columbia's shipbuilding industry will continue to make a strong contribution to our economy - and our history.

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An Uncertain Future

It just makes sense — BC taxpayers' dollars should go to support BC workers and BC companies.

So why would provincially-owned BC Ferries contract work on its vessels to foreign shipyards, taking away jobs and investment from our own province?

Until 2002, BC Ferries — now called BC Ferry Services Inc. — had a policy of ensuring that all refitting, repair and new construction of BC Ferries' vessels was done in British Columbia by BC workers.

But the BC Liberal government changed that policy and has began encouraging foreign shipyards to bid on BC Ferries' work.

The icebreaker Arctic Nutsukpok at work

It leaves the BC shipyard industry and its workers facing an uncertain future.
Under the new policy, foreign shipyards in China, Korea, the United States, Singapore, Poland, Japan and the Netherlands have all been asked to submit bids for refit and new vessel construction work for BC Ferries.

And while the government claims foreign bids will lead to lower costs through more competition, in the first major refit contract to go international tendering a BC company was the lowest bidder.

In the next international tender, for a new ship to replace the current Bowen Island ferry, despite encouraging foreign participation, only a BC company submitted a qualified bid.

And British Columbians do not agree with the foreign shipyard policy.

A poll conducted by Pollara Research in 2002 found that British Columbians strongly believe BC Ferries' work should be done by workers and companies right here in BC.

The poll found that 90% of British Columbians say it is either very important [58%] or important [32%] for the provincial government to buy local BC goods and services, while 65% said the government should only purchase locally.

So why is the BC Liberal government continuing to pursue a policy that is neither sensible for BC's economy or BC workers and is not supported by taxpayers?

That's a question for Premier Gordon Campbell, Transportation Minister Judith Reid and your local MLA.

Please go to the Email Your MLA section by clicking here and send them an email expressing your opposition to this policy.

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