Podium

We’re not shipshape

John D. Harbron June 9 1980
Podium

We’re not shipshape

John D. Harbron June 9 1980

We’re not shipshape

Podium

John D. Harbron

I watch the modern cargo ships of Brazil coming up the St. Lawrence Seaway and into our Great Lakes and wonder why this vast Latin American nation, with a long Atlantic coast like our own, can have a deepsea merchant fleet, where we cannot. I choose Brazil from the approximately 30 countries whose ships carry almost all imports to our shores because it has created a merchant navy in less than 20 years under circumstances that are identical for developing one here.

In many ways, especially economically, Brazil is a Canada of the south.

We are geographically the two largest countries in the Western Hemisphere.

We both need masses of foreign capital to build resource-based and manufacturing industries and have relied almost entirely on foreign shipping to move our growing export volume and to meet our high demands for imported goods. Last year, Canada’s shipping charges on imports reached about $3 billion. But the Brazilians, unlike us, have decided to end their reliance on foreign ships and on the so-called shipping conferences of their owners who increase cargo-carrying rates without informing involved governments.

In 1969, Brazil accordingly introduced a scheme (which could work as well in Canada) to finance both a national fleet and an active shipbuilding industry by using a so-called “additional freight tax” of 20 per cent on all cargoes imported by sea into Brazil, half of which goes to a merchant marine renovation fund and half for financing new shipyards. These funds are managed by a government shipping agency and are available to domestic shipbuilders at low rates of interest repayable over a sevento 10-year period. The plan has worked so well that today Brazil is the second-largest shipowning nation in the Western Hemisphere after the United States. Brazilian-built cargo vessels are now sold even to West Germany, one of the traditionally great European shipbuilding nations. In shipping, the Brazilians remind us what a sense of national will and national priority can accomplish, a lesson we shouldn’t have to relearn from anyone.

Transportation needs and Canadian identity have been synonymous since our founding. No Canadian would argue against the case that a transcontinental railway had to be built in the 1880s to hold the young Canada together as a nation. If we haven’t forgotten this, we have all but forgotten our immense role in the Second World War as a supplier of cargo vessels and warships for ourselves and our allies.

During the Second World War we built a Royal Canadian Navy which, in terms of number of ships (most of them small corvettes and minesweepers), was the fourth largest in the world by mid-1944. We built hundreds of merchant ships too, based on the simple prefabricated

We will need new ships different from those in the past *

design of the utilitarian “Liberty”-type cargo vessel, maintaining a few of them for ourselves after the war until they were scrapped or sold off. In the mid-1950s, we designed and built one of the world’s outstanding antisubmarine warfare (ASW) ships. The HMCS St. Laurent class, which went into service in the Royal Canadian Navy in 1955, was applauded by the world’s navies as unique for its time. How much have we read or heard about the St. Laurents since those years compared, for instance, to the articles, films and tear-jerking letters-to-the-editor about the demise of the Avro Arrow? We sulked and moaned over the Arrow w disaster but forgot our major accom£ plishment at sea—the St. Laurents. * But last October, HMCS St. Laurent £ was towed across Halifax harbor to the shipbreakers in Dartmouth, not because she had failed, but because her quarter-century of useful service was proudly done.

Now we stand on the verge of another era of great maritime transportation need, based primarily on the future requirements of Arctic transport. We will need new ships different from those we have designed and built successfully in the past. They will have to include bigger and much more powerful icebreakers than we now operate, the so-called Type 10 giants. These will have to plow the long route through Arctic ice across the top of our country. New types of heavy-duty barges and tugs will have to be designed to move out high Arctic oil and liquefied natural gas. We will also want our present Great Lakes shipping industry to expand into North Atlantic trade by substantially altering the design and some of the cargocarrying uses of ships operated by the member firms of the Dominion Marine Association. Indeed, the existence of the DMA means we will not begin from scratch, since the ships of its various members are familiar to us as the long, cigar-shaped Great Lakes grain and ore carriers which currently represent about 2.8 million deadweight tons under the Canadian flag. Very few of them can operate in the North Atlantic.

The big argument against all this, of course, will be the cost. And yes, it’s going to cost a lot of money to open up the nation’s third and last sea frontier. Canada, like any shipping nation, will need the resources of both government and private industry to make a shipping policy work. There are also overseas benefits from expanding our shipping industries again. Like the Brazilians, we will find that other countries want to buy more of our ships, offering an additional new export possibility for the 1980s.

Last year Argentina, with similar Antarctic polar sea interests to our own in the Arctic, bought one of the world’s most modern icebreakers from Finland. I asked the Finnish architect who designed her why Canadians didn’t get the contract. “Because,” he said, “you weren’t there.”

John D. Harbron is the foreign affairs analyst for Thomson Newspapers Ltd.