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Water Today Title November 25, 2017

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Canada and the Arctic

STX Marine wins Diefenbaker icebreaker design contract
A step in the right direction but is it enough?
Jose Dechene

On February 3, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced that STX Canada Marine was awarded the contract to design the new CCGS John G. Diefenbaker icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard. According to the government news release, the official Request for Proposals attracted bids from four companies and STX was chosen under a fair, open and transparent selection process.

There is no arguing that STX has the right credentials. According to its website 'Together with STX Offshore & Shipbuilding, STXM has been involved in the design and construction of almost 90% of the world's icebreakers'.

"I would say we won the contract because our proposal was the best, " says STX Canada Vice-President, Andrew Kendrick. " The Diefenbaker is the largest icebreaker to be constructed in North America; it is a challenging project and we are delighted to be involved."

Work on the $9.5 million contract will be carried out at STX Canada Marine's Vancouver office, and is expected to be completed by the end of 2013. Once finished, the design package will be handed over to Seaspan/Vancouver Shipyards Co. Ltd., the company selected to build non-combat vessels under the government's National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy.

Touted by the Canadian government as 'an important step forward for Canada's Northern Strategy, the contract announcement was made with little fanfare and made few ripples in the media; perhaps intentionally so.

With two heavy icebreakers - only one of which is equipped with research facilities - Canada's polar icebreaker fleet, pales in comparison with other major countries. Russia has a fleet of 25 polar icebreakers, including six heavy icebreakers rated at more than 45,000 break horsepower, all of which are nuclear-powered. China, not one of the eight Arctic coastal states, currently has only one operational icebreaker, the Xuelong, but a new 8,000 tonne vessel is due to enter the fleet in 2014. The country plans to launch three Arctic expeditions and five Antarctic research expeditions by 2015.

Barring unforeseen set-backs, the Diefenbaker should be ready for action in 2017, which coincides with the scheduled decommissioning of Canada's current polar icebreaker, the CCGS Louis St. Laurent. It will be the only Canadian heavy icebreaker with research facilities.

"At least we are going forward, says Rob Huebert, of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. "The Diefenbaker's design is outstanding. I just hope we can get it built fast enough. With the unexpected dry-docking of the Amundsen due to engine trouble in January, and the increasing complexity of the political environment in the Arctic with India and China both making overtures about their Arctic goals, Canada should be looking to building a second one in the very near future."

This view is shared by STX's Andrew Kendrick "One of anything is less than ideal, he says. "No matter how well built an icebreaker is, it can't be there 100 per cent of the time. "

Considering the Conservatives' ambitious Northern Strategy, Canada extensive Arctic shoreline , the increased military presence and conflicting territorial claims by the Arctic five coastal states, and Asian countries such as China and India asking for membership in the Arctic Council, it is hard to see how one polar icebreaker can manage the strategy of exercising Canada's Arctic sovereignty while protecting its environmental heritage.

"Ideally we should build three of these, that way there can always be one in refitting, one preparing to be refitted and one in commission", says Huebert.

If it's any consolation, Canada is not alone in this predicament.

In the U.S., the Coast Guard has been lobbying Congress for funds to build new icebreakers - or at least refurbish the old ones - to strengthen the American presence in the Arctic. The Coast Guard now has just three heavy (non-nuclear) icebreakers. The Healy is a modern vessel devoted mainly to Arctic research, while the other two, the Polar Star and Polar Sea, have outlived the 30 years they were designed to survive.

All in all, this leaves North America pretty weak in the midst of a worldwide quest for the Arctic and it's precious resources.

We emailed both Liberal and NDP Fisheries and Oceans critics for their comments, they have yet to reply.

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