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CCGS Polar Class 8

Polar 8, Canada's projected 38,000 ton Arctic Class 8 icebreaker, would have been the largest non-nuclear icebreaker in the world. The Polar 8 Project was a Canadian shipbuilding project based upon a class of 167-meter, 101,000-horsepower, diesel-electric powered high endurance icebreakers (polar class PC 1) intended for the Canadian Coast Guard. The project was developed as a means to assert Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic Ocean. It commenced in 1985 but was cancelled in 1990 while still in the final design stage.

Since the early 1970s, following the voyages of the tanker Manhattan through the Northwest Passage, the Canadian Coast Guard designed several large polar icebreakers capable of operating year-round in most areas of the Canadian north. The initial Polar 7 icebreaker design (capable of continuously breaking 7 feet of level ice) evolved into a nuclear-powered Polar 10 design, which was finally downgraded to the present non-nuclear Polar 8 design. If this ship was built it will be the world's largest and most powerful icebreaker (100,000 horsepower versus 75,000 for the Soviet Arktika class). Such a ship with a crew of 116, would allow Canada to exercise year-round sovereignty and jurisdiction in most areas of the Canadian archipelago. It would also support commercial shipping in the Canadian Arctic during the winter season between November and June.

By 1983, a "funded bid" phase for the Polar 8 had been approved. Initially authorized for study in the days of Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, the Polar 8 became a top priority of Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government in 1985, following widespread criticism of its handling of the August 1985 Polar Sea incident. After the American icebreaker Polar Sea transited the Northwest Passage without permission from Ottawa, in 1985 Secretary of State for External Affairs Joe Clark, provided a comprehensive declaration of Canadian Arctic sovereignty to the House of Commons: "Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic is indivisible. It embraces land, sea and ice. It extends without interruption to the seaward-facing coasts of the Arctic Islands. These islands are joined, and not divided, by the waters between them. They are bridged for most of the year by ice. From time immemorial Canada's Inuit people have used and occupied the ice as they have used and occupied the land. The policy of the Government is to maintain the natural unity of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and to preserve Canada's sovereignty over land, sea and ice undiminished and undivided."

On 10 September 1985 Secretary of State for External Affairs Joe Clark announced in the House of Commons the government's commitment to build a major icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard. The Polar 8 was touted as symbolizing the government's intent "to maintain the natural unity of the Canadian Arctic archipelago and to preserve Canada's sovereignty over land, sea and ice - undiminished and undivided." The Polar 8 Project was proposed by the new Progressive Conservative administration of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. It was Canada's direct response to the unauthorized transit through the Northwest Passage in summer 1985 by the USCGC Polar Sea, a United States Coast Guard icebreaker.

The Polar 8 Project was originally designed to be nuclear-powered, however this was subsequently down-graded to a conventional diesel-electric power plant. The ship would be equipped with two transport helicopters, 2 LST (auxiliary landing vessels), 4 life rafts, and possibly 2 hovercraft.

The Polar 8 was a vessel that we had hoped to have on board a federal court, the territorial court, soon to be a provincial court - that is how much time has gone by - an RCMP detachment, a detachment of Rangers, a good library, good diagnostic services for the people living in the area and its presence in the Arctic for three, four, five years at a time, bringing it south when it had to be hauled [the bottom cleaned up]. One of the earlier observations when the Polar 8 was being discussed was that it is probably an ideal forum for a coordination center that would deal with the Arctic operations, as well as delivering both air and land search and rescue throughout that archipelago.

By late 1987 the Canadian government had completed negotiations for the construction of the world's largest icebreaker. The C$320-million Polar 8 was expected to be ready for service in 1992, and although conventionally-powered, was to be able to winter in the region. The unarmed ship was expected to be able to break eight solid feet (2.5 meters) of ice without reversing engines, at a constant speed of three knots. By 1987 federal transport minister John Crosbie and international trade minister Pat Carney were still declaring the government's resolve to build the ship as they announced the start of negotiations for a construction contract with Vancouver-based Versatile Pacific Shipyards, promising hundreds of jobs to the province and a shining new symbol of Canadian know-how and globe-girdling ambition.

Versatile Pacific Shipyards was low bidder at 417 million dollars. Swan Wooster and the Canadian Icebreaker Design Group were chosen as Versatile's partners and contractors. The Canadian Icebreaker Design Group managed the process. The Burrard Dry Dock Company was important for its role in the economic development of North Vancouver and the West Coast. It was established as the Wallace Shipyards in 1906, and during the First World War the shipyard expanded and built vessels for both the Imperial Munitions Board and the Canadian Government. The Second World War brought another shipbuilding boom and the yard became the largest employer of shipyard labor in British Columbia. As the 1980s wore on, the long shipbuilding boom came to an end and the yards faced a bleak future. By the 1980s the west end of the yard, where the company had been born, was adjacent to a lucrative section of waterfront where upscale development was by then taking place.

The effort to sell the firm was aided by a promised federal carrot: the largest shipbuilding contract ever for the Polar-8 icebreaker. Consequently, a buyer was found in 1989. The new owners of the yard turned out to be Toronto-based venture capitalists attracted more by the value of the North Vancouver lands than any other single factor.

By March 1989, after a rocky political ride, two proposals were prepared, one with a diesel electric propulsion system, and one with a geared diesel drive and controllable pitch propellers. The latter was cheaper by some 30 million dollars, cheaper to operate, and provided more capacity in the same space, but there were worries it would not provide the power for year round Arctic operation. The diesel electric was more technically elegant and flexible in operation, but carried with it a far greater risk to build and operate, and took up more space.

As the project progressed and the costs rose, the government's commitment to the project weakened. On 20 February 1990 the Minister of Finance Michael Wilson announced its cancellation. The Canadian government's cancellation of the Polar 8 icebreaker project was a severe blow to British Columbia's shipbuilding industry. "The cancellation of Polar 8 means B.C. probably suffers a $450 million economic development program loss," said Finance Minister Mel Couvelier. The project to build the world's biggest icebreaker was canceled despite three years of government promises that it would be built in British Columbia. Cancellation meant the loss of 1,000 promised shipyard jobs in North Vancouver and Victoria over a four-year construction period - and millions of dollars worth of contracts to marine-related industries. Versatile Pacific Shipyards Inc. spokesmen said Canadian content in the half-billion dollar ship would have been 75 percent, mostly from British Columbia contractors. It has already cost $7.5 million to design.

Work had begun on the "Polar 8" ice breaker, but when the contract was cancelled in February 1990 it delivered the final blow to the company. Once a major shipyard, the site is now being converted to other uses. This former shipyard has been honoured as the location where west coast shipbuilding will be commemorated as an event of National Historic Significance, as bestowed by the Government of Canada in 2004. During its century of existence, over four hundred new ships were built and many thousands more repaired or converted.

In 1988, Professor Pharand wrote, "I do believe that a Class 8 icebreaker, which would permit us to exercise surveillance over those waters year-round, except for the McClure Strait where you would need a class 10, is the minimum we need" to exercise effective control [since then, the effects of climate change and increased Arctic marine and air traffic, suggests that a single polar Class 8 icebreaker is probably insufficient, however, this would depend on the actual state of the ice pack].

The massive 1989 federal budget cuts saw funding for the Polar 8 Project reduced and eventually it was cancelled in 1990, only two months before construction was scheduled to begin. The ship was to have been built at Versatile Pacific Shipyards in British Columbia at a cost of $700 million CAD. Versatile's delays in construction start up were cited as a contributing factor, while political shifts in Eastern Europe to detente and Canada to continentalism diminished the needs for the defense and sovereignty protection an icebreaker would provide. A perceived problem of overcapacity in Canadian shipyards also diminished the government's interest in providing support. The loss of the contract was the last rivet in the coffin for Versatile Pacific Shipyard, which closed in 1992.

In scrapping the icebreaker, the government seemed to be resigning itself to the loss of Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic, as exemplified by External Affairs Minister Joe Clark's statement, when the government first announced plans for the ship, that "sovereignty claims you can't defend gradually disappear."

The CCG had delayed critical modernization upgrades that had been planned for its Gulf-class icebreaker, the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent during the late 1980s while the Polar 8 Project was underway. In February 1990, Mulroney's finance minister, Michael Wilson, announced the death of Canada's polar ship of state, declaring it strategically obsolete and economically unjustified.

Following the Polar 8 Project cancellation, CCG funded the modernization overhaul and hull extension of the Louis S. St-Laurent in order to maintain a strategic presence in the Arctic Ocean. CCG also purchased a former commercial icebreaker, the CCGS Terry Fox, during the late 1980s as a stop-gap measure. Since the demise of the Polar 8 project, which was killed in 1990, there appear to be no plans in Canada to upgrade our ice-breaker fleet, or even to replace the aging fleet.

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Page last modified: 31-07-2018 08:46:20 ZULU