OTTAWA — The federal government has quietly taken construction of the coast guard's next heavy icebreaker away from Vancouver shipyard Seaspan, the latest in a string of upheavals in Canada's multibillion-dollar shipbuilding strategy.
The government says no decision has been made on where the vessel will be built, but the move has nonetheless left Seaspan Shipbuilding's bitter rival in Quebec salivating after years of intense lobbying for the project.
Seaspan was tapped in 2011 to build the icebreaker, called the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, as part of a larger order that also included four science vessels for the coast guard and two navy supply ships.
But Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson's office says the icebreaker has been removed from the Vancouver shipyard's order book and replaced with 16 smaller vessels the government announced it was buying last month.
The government "made the decision to substitute the one polar icebreaker with a long run of 16 multipurpose vessels," Wilkinson's spokeswoman Jocelyn Lubczuk said in an email.
"Given the importance of icebreaking capacity, the government is exploring other options to ensure the (icebreaker) is built in the most efficient manner, but no decisions have been taken."
Specifically, said Lubczuk, the government is still weighing where the vessel will be built, though she insisted Ottawa is committed to the ship. Its $1.3-billion budget is currently under review as well.
Seaspan officials did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokesman for Davie Shipbuilding, Seaspan's competitor in Quebec, was practically crowing with excitement on Wednesday, suggesting it was a forgone conclusion where the icebreaker will be built.
"We are the only shipyard that can deliver it," said Davie spokesman Frederik Boisvert. "I'm just stating the obvious. We've got the capacity, we've got a very robust supply chain that can deliver it on time and on budget."
Getting the deal would be a huge win for the Quebec shipyard.
Davie first started lobbying Ottawa for the icebreaker contract in 2013 and has kept up the pressure even as Seaspan and the federal government have struggled to deliver ships through the shipbuilding plan.
The Diefenbaker was originally supposed to be delivered in 2017, but that was before various scheduling conflicts, technical problems and other issues scuttled that timeline.
The current schedule is now in limbo even though the icebreaker it is expected to replace, the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, is already more than 50 years old.
The Louis S. St-Laurent is in drydock at Davie, where it is undergoing a life extension, which Boisvert pointed to as proof of the company's expertise and ability to build the Diefenbaker.
The shipyard in Levis, Que., just outside Quebec City, is also in the midst of converting three secondhand icebreakers for the coast guard.
A decision on where the Diefenbaker will be built is not expected until the government picks a third shipyard for its national shipbuilding plan, which it has said is necessary to meet the needs of the navy and coast guard in time.
The government has said it plans to hold a "competitive process" to select that yard, but many observers believe the deck is stacked in Davie's favour.
University of Calgary professor Rob Huebert, an expert on the Arctic and coast guard, said Canada "needed medium and large icebreakers yesterday," and moving the Diefenbaker project and adding a new yard could help.
But he also expressed concerns about the amount of uncertainty now surrounding the icebreaker and national shipbuilding plan, and he questioned whether it would actually deliver icebreakers faster.