A Commentary by Doug Draper
Posted August 30th, 2011 on Niagara At Large
Normally I love stories about boats. So I turned to one that appeared recently on the front page of the St. Catharines Standard – a God-awful excuse for a newspaper that gets stuffed in my door for free every Friday whether I want it or not – and my love for boat stories started to capsize.
It was a story that began on a very upbeat note about the christening in Port Colborne, Ontario this past August 25 of a brand new ship called the Algoma Mariner, owned by the St. Catharines-based shipping corporation Algoma Central. To the extent that this time-honoured company is still willing to invest tens-of-millions of dollars in new ships to ply our Great Lakes and waters beyond is a good thing. No doubt.
Then I turned to page five of the newspaper where the story about the christening of the Algoma Mariner continued and the subheading at the top read: ‘Ship built in China’, and I hope I’m not the only one who read that heading and reacted with something like – ‘What?!! Made in China again? Can’t we build anything here in our own country anymore? Does everything have to be imported? Even ships? Canada was once a proud shipbuilding country, for God’s sake!’
So I put in a call to Greg Wight, the president and CEO of Algoma, and when he called me back a few days later, I began by congratulating him on the new ship then proceeded to ask why it was built in China instead of somewhere here in Canada. His answer was that there are simply no shipyards in the country with the technological abilities and facilities for building a ship as high-tech and large as this one, spanning more than two football fields from bow to stern.
Then I called Charles Payne, director of operations for Seaway Marine & Industrial (formerly Port Weller Dry Docks at the northern end of the Welland Canal in St. Catharines) and he said that is wrong.
“We were disappointed,” he said of the news that this ship was built in China. He said his company and at least one other, Davie Shipbuilding in Quebec, could have tackled the Algoma Mariner project and succeeded.
In the case of his St. Catharines, Ontario ship yard, it would have meant tens-of-millions of dollars of work for a company that would normally keep at least 140 Niagara residents employed in good-paying jobs, but has been down to a skeleton staff of about five since this past June because there has been no work.
It turns out that a ship that may cost about $70 million to build in Canada might be built for about $40 million in China due mostly to lower wages. To make things worse for Canadians struggling to keep a job in manufacturing here, the federal Conservative government of Stephen Harper killed a 25 per cent import duty a year or so ago on Chinese products that would have made bids by Canadian manufacturers wanting to compete for jobs, like building this Algoma ship, more competitive. Instead the reduced import tax favours those who would rather have their products built in China for a price so cheap they still come ahead with the cost of transporting the products half way across the world to buyers here.
Some argue that Canadian manufacturers should therefore reduce their costs, but what does that mean? Cutting the wages of their workers to $10 an hour and gutting their benefits? I wonder how many teachers or police or other public sector workers out there would enjoy the possibility of that happening to them?
Just something to thing about around the christening of this ship. Why isn’t the sub-Standard exploring that story on behalf of the people who are struggling to make a life here?
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