Render courtesy Seaspan
Vancouver, B.C., Local 213 members helped build the CCGS Sir John Franklin, the first large vessel built under the Canadian National Shipbuilding Strategy.  

The first ship built by Vancouver, B.C., Local 213 members under the Canadian government's National Shipbuilding Strategy launched late last year from Seaspan's Vancouver shipyards.

Seaspan began work on the second and third Offshore Fisheries Science Vessels during construction of the Sir John Franklin.

The first ship built by Vancouver, B.C., Local 213 members under the Canadian government’s National Shipbuilding Strategy launched late last year from Seaspan’s Vancouver shipyards.

The CCGS Sir John Franklin was then brought to Seaspan’s Victoria, B.C., shipyard where 60 members of Victoria Local 230 will do the final fit out through August.

The ship is part of a 30-year, $40 billion program to modernize the Canadian Coast Guard and Royal Navy and to give new life to a Canadian shipbuilding industry that nearly disappeared in the 1990s.

Seaspan won the contract to build at least seven noncombatant vessels, worth a minimum of $8 billion, in 2011. The contract included the possibility that up to 10 patrol ships will be procured. The company signed an additional $2.3 billion contract for two naval support vessels.

The 206-foot Sir John Franklin will be used by the Canadian Coast Guard as a combination ocean chemistry lab, research fishing trawler and, when necessary, a search-and-rescue ship.

At peak, nearly 150 Local 213 members worked on the ship. Thirty are already working on the second offshore fisheries vessel with most expected to be called back in phases beginning in March. Construction is also underway on the third OSFV.

“The intent was to upskill workers and take away the peaks and layoffs to provide a steady flow of work,” said Local 213 Assistant Business Manager John Pesa. “I expect we will launch a ship a year for at least the next seven to 10 years.”

When the NSS began more than a decade ago, the goal was to rebuild the workforce of skilled shipbuilding trades workers along with a network of industrial companies that could provide the raw materials to the shipyards.

Getting the program off the ground has been less smooth than originally hoped, but the goal of bringing life to a moribund shipbuilding industry has been a success. 

“Before the NSS, there were 200-300 workers in Vancouver and we had 20 to 30. That has tripled,” Pesa said.

Until the mid-1980s, shipbuilding was big business in British Columbia said Local 230 Business Manager Phil Venoit. Then Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain stopped subsidizing the steel industry.

“It literally capsized the shipbuilding industry in North America. It was the beginning of the end,” Venoit said.

When finished, the 209-foot vessels will assess the health of Pacific and Atlantic fisheries and study the impact of climate change on their ocean habitat.

The bottom came in 2004, when B.C. Ferries hired a German company to build three new ferries. The half-dozen or so private and public shipyards on Vancouver Island maintained a steady workforce of 200 to 400 IBEW members through maintenance work on Canada’s submarines, naval vessels, coast guard training vessels, search and rescue vessels, transport freighters and cruise ships, but Seaspan almost shut down its Vancouver shipyards.

“The buildings were run down, and the equipment was antiquated,” Pesa said. “There was some maintenance on existing ships, but not a lot of work.”

There were fewer than 300 workers total and only about 30 Local 213 members. But with the NSS orders, the Vancouver shipyards have been transformed. The company spent more than $200 million on the shipyard modernization project, installing a 300-ton crane, robotic welding machines and new facilities for workers. The electrical portions of the shipyard modernization were performed exclusively by Local 213 members working for signatory contractors.

Pesa said he expects Local 213 to have between 80 and 120 workers on site year-round. Venoit said he thinks the number of Local 230 workers at Seaspan’s Victoria shipyard will reach nearly 250 this year, or about half of Local 230’s marine membership.

The biggest contract – at least $25 billion for more than 20 warships – went to Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax, Nova Scotia, whose workforce is represented by another union. But members of Halifax Local 625 have worked on the property for decades and were responsible for approximately 100 substantial parts of the 2-year, $400 million build out in preparation for the warship order.

“We have done a lot of work upgrading facilities,” said First District International Representative Cordell Cole. “They built two or three huge new buildings, and we did all of that.”

Pesa said the change at the dock has been remarkable since he came on staff at the local in 2004.

“It was a business that looked like it was going to be mothballed,” he said. “Now it feels good when you work there, like there is a future, and a good one.” 

Seaspan posted a time lapse video of the CCGS Sir John Franklin and coverage of the launch celebration .