Canadian Polar Icebreakers get green light

May 7, 2021

When the federal government announced plans in August 2008 for a new Polar-class icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper said it was expected to cost $720 million as the country pushed to assert its presence in the Arctic.

On 6 May 2021, the Trudeau government announced that it has resurrected plans for two vessels – to be built by Seaspan Yard in Vancouver and Davie Shipbuilding of Lévis, Quebec – but project costs were not part of the equation. That evidently is subject to further negotiations.

A 2013 federal budget estimate by the Harper administration put the costs of two ships at $1.3 billion, but inflation – coupled with increases in labour and material costs in the intervening years – likely will push the ultimate bill closer to $2 billion.

Early estimates are that construction of the two icebreakers will generate some 300 jobs at each yard as well as 2,500 across the marine supply chain. Whatever the cost, it will be atop $17.49 billion in contracts already awarded to shipyards for a range of smaller vessels, which the government says has already revitalized the industry.

An initial contract for one icebreaker was awarded to Seaspan in 2011 as a key element of the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS). The goal was to have the vessel, to be named the CCGS John D. Diefenbaker, in service by 2017. It would replace the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, which was built by Canadian Vickers in Montreal, commissioned in 1969 and extensively refitted with a view to keeping it in service through this decade, the largest in a fleet of 18 icebreakers which service mainly the Great Lakes and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

However, sundry delays resulted in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s withdrawal of the Seaspan contract in mid-2019 and a new request for industry proposals in the hope of having a ship in service by late 2029. That left the politically-contentious project in limbo yet again as concerns continued to mount about Canada’s Arctic capabilities.

In announcing the project’s revival, the government said in its official statement that increasing commercial traffic and other activity, much of it due to a longer navigation season made possible by global warming “all highlighted Canada’s need for a renewed Coast Guard fleet.”

At 150 metres length overall with a beam of 28m, the icebreakers are expected to top 18 knots and have a cruising speed range of 30,000 nautical miles with 100 crew and scientific personnel. The new icebreakers will be designed to operate farther north, in more difficult ice conditions and for longer periods than earlier Canadian icebreakers.

The government’s announcement was a geographically-select group effort in that it involved Nova Scotia MP Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries & Oceans and the CCG; Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez in his capacity as the government’s Quebec Lieutenant; and B.C. MP Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Environment & Climate Change.

They said the new approach, with concurrent construction by each yard, would ensure at least one icebreaker is delivered by 2030. “With their enhanced capabilities, these larger, more powerful Polar icebreakers will enable the Coast Guard to conduct year-round operations in Canada’s Arctic,” the ministers said. “Their greater endurance will ensure they can operate at higher latitudes for longer periods, and will allow the fleet to better support […] northerners, strengthen Arctic sovereignty, advance high Arctic science, and better respond to maritime emergencies.”

Under the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS), Seaspan delivered its first state-of-the-art Offshore Fisheries Science Vessel (OFSV) to the Canadian Coast Guard in 2019 and completed the first full class of these vessels in 2020.

CCGS John Cabot
On 9 October 2020, the Honourable Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, along with Mario Pelletier, Commissioner of the Canadian Coast Guard, welcomed the newly-built Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CGGS) John Cabot, to the Coast Guard fleet. Delivery of this third and final Offshore Fisheries Science Vessel (OFSV), along with the acceptance of the CCGS Sir John Franklin and  CCGS Capt Jacques Cartier in 2019, completed the first class of large ships built under the National Shipbuilding Strategy.

Under the NSS, Seaspan has become a major economic and job creation engine. As of December 2019, the shipyard had contributed more than $1.5 billion dollars to Canada’s GDP and directed nearly $1B in contracts to more than 670 suppliers from coast to coast. (Source: Deloitte Socioeconomic Impact Study

Seaspan recently cut steel and started construction of Canada’s most modern ocean research ship, the Offshore Oceanographic Science Vessel. The company continues to award contracts to Canadian businesses across the country, recently surpassing $1B in contracts on the Joint Support Ship program alone.


As part of the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS), the Government of Canada has announced that Seaspan Shipyards (Seaspan) will design and build a Polar Icebreaker, the flagship of the Canadian Coast Guard’s icebreaking fleet. The new ship construction program, which will sustain approximately 1,400 jobs at Seaspan’s Vancouver shipyard and 1,400 additional jobs in the marine industry across the country, is welcome and timely news for Seaspan employees and its cross-Canada supply chain. Work on the program is set to begin immediately upon the award of a contract.

With Canada’s current largest icebreaker, CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, due to retire at the end of the decade after 60 years of service, there is an urgent need to begin work on the multi-year replacement program. The new icebreaker will be the largest ship in the Coast Guard fleet and will play a critical role in enabling the Canadian Coast Guard to patrol and protect 243,000 km of coastline – the longest national coastline in the world. Nearly 70% of that coastline is in the Arctic, a region of increasing interest from other countries and a growing national priority for Canada. The multi-mission ship will also provide vital resupply to Arctic communities, support Arctic science, help ensure the free flow of trade and safe commercial shipping, and conduct search and rescue and environmental response.

Seaspan is set to work with Canada’s marine industry leaders, including Genoa Design International in Newfoundland and Labrador and Heddle Shipyards in Ontario, along with hundreds of small and medium Canadian companies. Bringing to bear a cross-Canada approach, the Polar Icebreaker program is expected to grow Canadian businesses, tap into talent and capability across the country, and create and sustain good jobs.

In line with the economic and industrial development objectives of the NSS to build and strengthen Canada’s marine sector, a recent study has indicated that for every dollar spent on the NSS at Seaspan, a dollar is added to Canada’s GDP.

The icebreaker, Seaspan’s fourth class of NSS vessel, will be constructed at the company’s Vancouver shipyard, a high-capacity multi-program yard that is one of the most modern and efficient in North America and was purpose-built to deliver Canada’s largest and most complex ships. The Polar Icebreaker will be built concurrently with the second Joint Support Ship for the Royal Canadian Navy, the largest naval vessel by length ever to be built in Canada, and the largest and most advanced ocean science research ship for the Canadian Coast Guard.