Sunday, December 11, 2022

TERESA WRIGHT: I’m sorry, who just got the $100M contract to build a new Marine Atlantic ferry?


TERESA WRIGHT: I’m sorry, who just got the $100M contract to build a new Marine Atlantic ferry?

In this file photo, Marine Atlantic vessels are shown docked at the company’s terminal in North Sydney. SaltWire File
Marine Atlantic vessels are shown docked at the company’s terminal in North Sydney.

One thousand days of arbitrary detention in a Chinese prison.

That’s the milestone Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig are about to reach next week in their prison cells.

Imagine Spavor was your spouse, your brother or a close friend. Imagine how terrified you would be for his safety, especially after he was found guilty of espionage earlier this month by a Chinese court and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Picture yourself as one of Kovrig’s bandmates, who are trying to create for awareness of their friend’s ongoing imprisonment with a new song called “The Plane to Toronto” as Kovrig awaits his own sentence after a closed-door trial in China in March.

Now, imagine how you would feel as one of those friends or bandmates when you learned this week that a giant state-owned shipyard in China – the same state that has imprisoned and regularly withheld consular access to your friends — will benefit from a $100-million contract awarded by Marine Atlantic for a new passenger ferry to run the North Sydney and Newfoundland crossings.


Atlantic Canadians understand and deeply appreciate the importance of our ferry services and usually welcome with celebration any news of a new ship to replace the aging fleet that has caused service interruptions in areas across the region in recent many years.

But I can’t think of one Atlantic Canadian would have signed off on this contract had they known the ferry’s construction would be sub-contracted to China, even with the promise of a shiny new vessel, complete with environmentally-friendly technology, pet-friendly cabins and cheaper overnight pods.

That's because, like the rest of Canada and much of the democratic world, people in this region view the Michaels’ arrests as an act of retaliation following the arrest of the Chinese business executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in December, 2018.

Spavor and Kovrig are political prisoners — Ottawa calls it “hostage diplomacy” — in an increasingly tense showdown between Canada and China. So why does China get to benefit from hundreds of millions of dollars of our hard-earned tax dollars and build a ship for Marine Atlantic?

One expert in Canadian shipbuilding and procurement explains that part of the problem is that Canada may not have the capacity to build large vessels like this one in excess of what is already being built for the Canadian navy and the Coast Guard.

Ships for the military and Coast Guard fall within the national shipbuilding strategy, which requires the work on these ships to be done in Canada.

Since the strategy was created in 2010, capacity for major shipbuilding has only recently started to ramp up within the last 10 years, says Timothy Choi, a fellow with the Canadian Global Institute.

“So those yards are already basically maxed out in terms of capacity for at least the next 10 to 15 years for work orders, so there wouldn’t really be any opportunities for them to build a large ferry here in Canada, even if the government were to say, ‘Hey, you have to build it here in Canada,'” Choi said.

More strategic look at procurements needed

The issue came to the forefront of the federal election campaign this week, with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau blaming Stephen Harper’s former Conservative government for not including Crown corporations like Marine Atlantic in the national shipbuilding strategy.

Choi told me up until now, he has not heard any major calls to institute a policy to bring Crown corporations that build ships or contract out this work under the national procurement strategy.

But it’s clear this should be a wake-up call to whoever leads the next government. Canada should take a more strategic look at procurement contracts in general in the wake of tense political relations with countries like China and Russia.

As it stands now, if there is not an expectation of Canadian jobs in a particular procurement contract — as was the case for this ferry when the contract was awarded to Sweden’s Stena North Sea Ltd. — there is no concern about where the work will be done or who gets subcontracted to do work.

Foreign policy implications, inconsistent messaging or the optics of building something for Canada in a country that may not share Canadian values were not considered as part of the awarding of this contract because they didn’t have to be.

No one at Marine Atlantic considered if China might try to use this ship as a leverage tool against Canada sometime in the future —something not at all outside the range of plausibility, given that Chinese authorities have arbitrarily imprisoned two Canadian citizens for political purposes.

Perhaps it’s time these issues were made part of the equation, or at least put up for discussion.

Choi says he believes there should be more serious thought within government and within industry in Canada to look at these kinds of foreign policy implications and long-range impacts when it comes to sourcing big ticket items like ferryboats – rather than simply looking at who can build things for the best price.

Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives have called the Marine Atlantic contract “unacceptable” and say they will cancel it. Trudeau has been non-committal on exactly what he would do, but did call it “concerning.”

I can’t help but wonder – what do the friends and family members of the Michaels think? For me, when it comes to China, that’s the litmus test. Is what we’re doing helping to expedite their release? Or are we talking out of both sides of our mouths, decrying China’s human rights record and political hostage-taking of Canadian citizens, while also awarding Chinese state-owned companies contracts with Canadian money?

In this case, sadly, what we have done will not help Michael Spavor or Michael Kovrig, nor will it help Robert Schellenberg, another Canadian convicted in China on charges of drug smuggling and recently sentenced to death.

If the next prime minister of Canada can’t be persuaded into looking more thoroughly at this contract and at the potential for future ones like it, perhaps we could keep the issue front of mind this way: let’s call the new ferry The Two Michaels.

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