The CB Post Loves That Northside Shipyard

The Cape Breton Post sure does love a shipyard. And I mean that literally, it loves a shipyard —  the one run by Canadian Maritime Engineering (CME) in North Sydney. The one partially located on a former waterfront green space. Our paper of record never tires of visiting that shipyard and coming back to report breathlessly on the wonders it has seen. Just consider the number of times it has done so in the past two years:

Canadian Maritime Engineering Ltd. sign, North Sydney

Canadian Maritime Engineering Ltd., North Sydney


Dog Eat Dog

The first visit was in January 2014, shortly after Dartmouth-based CME had taken over the facility:

New ship repair business opens in North Sydney

This initial story was far more restrained about the outlook for the new operation than later versions would be.  The Post said CME was bidding on contracts that “could last anywhere from a few weeks to several months, which could mean jobs for local workers.”

Note the ring of truth in that — the jobs would be contract jobs, some could last as little as “a few weeks,” and they “could” mean jobs for local workers. Said CME project manager Jamey Nicholson:

Right now we have six (employees), but we plan on making a go out of this and bringing higher end people locally to do work for us.

Of those six employees, two had been “brought in from Dartmouth.”

It’s also worth noting that there was no talk of expansion in this story. In fact, Nicholson praised the size of the North Sydney shipyard:

It’s such a big yard, with a big-sized cradle and there’s not really another facility at this end. We’ve had tenders that were put out for different vessels already to try to bring here, but its dog eat dog but we can cover from Newfoundland all around this way.


Great Partnership

Flash forward seven months, to July 2014, and the Post is back at the shipyard. This time, however, what it finds is decidedly more exciting:

North Sydney shipyard shaping up

The reporter watched a newly repaired Atlantic Pilot Authority vessel heading happily back to sea and was told the shipyard had an oil tanker and a “full-sized fishing dragger” scheduled to come in for repairs that month.

CME had eight employees but the Post didn’t say how many were locals or, of those locals, how many (if any) were full-time.

Project manager Dean Mitchell claimed CME had invested $6 million in the shipyard (the Post didn’t press for details) and announced that one sign of the progress they were making was that they had “real estate people looking at housing for employees.” It was an interesting boast, given that local employees would hardly be in need of housing, but the Post let it slide.

And then, out of nowhere, came the municipal councilors: Eldon MacDonald, Clarence Prince and the late Charlie Keagan. All praised CME and talked about jobs. Keagan said there was the potential for a “great partnership” between CME and the CBRM. Prince noted that municipal staff were “working with the shipyard,” which had already been granted access to the Ballast Grounds by council. This was five months before the sale of Archibald’s Wharf came before council and reading it now, it really looks like readers were being primed to accept the need for this bustling business to expand.

We also know, thanks to Tom Ayers of LocalXpress, that CBRM Council held 31 in camera meetings between February 2014 and November 2015. And we know from District 6 Councilor Ray Paruch that the port was discussed during these meetings. So it’s not a big leap to assume that the sale of Archibald’s Wharf was in the works and the councilors were busy laying the groundwork.


Newfoundland Seiners

In August 2015, after the Archibald’s Wharf sale had been completed and four months into the year CME had been given to live up to the terms of the sales agreement, the Post went back to the shipyard and, predictably, found it hopping:

North Sydney shipyard busy place

Archibald's Wharf, North Sydney

Archibald’s Wharf, North Sydney

At that point, CME was working on two tugs and two herring seiners and was expecting a third tug. There were 14 workers on site and the firm had “plans to hire another four or five next week.” Again, whether any of the workers were full-time wasn’t specified, nor was it specified how many were locals.

The two herring seiners were based out of Newfoundland and CME got the jobs, according to Mitchell, because “The couple of yards in Newfoundland” big enough to handle the seiners were “so busy with the offshore they didn’t have time.”

I am guessing, given the state of the offshore, that those Newfoundland shipyards probably now have time for herring seiners.


‘Meaningful Jobs’

In May 2016, the Post didn’t even bother visiting the shipyard to report on its progress, it simply spoke to CME President Tony Kennedy at Port Days:

Canadian Maritime Engineering Ltd. committed to growing in North Sydney

The timing of this article was important because the Archibald’s Wharf sale had been given final approval in May 2015, on the understanding that, as the Post had reported at the time:

[T]he shipyard will spend $5 million in capital and payroll on the expansion over a one-year period that began May 1. The agreement states if the investment isn’t made, ‘CBRM has the right to repurchase the property for the amount of Five Hundred Thousand ($500,000.00).’

A year later, that expansion had yet to happen — the “news” in this story was that “engineering work on the new fabrication shop had been completed and construction could begin soon.” Kennedy claimed they had spent “millions” on equipment for the fabrication shop and that the investment would be “well over $5 million” once the fabrication hall was completed. (Nobody spoiled the party by pointing out that the $5 million investment was supposed to have been made by then.)

As for jobs, the shipyard then employed “about 15 people.” (How can there be room for ambiguity in these things? How can a company that is only employing “about 15 people” not be able to give a more exact figure than “about 15 people?”) But they had “peaked” recently at 23 people during a recent refit job. How many of those people were locals? Were any of them in full-time positions? The Post didn’t ask.


Flurry of Activity

Coast Guard Vessel under repair at CME shipyard, North Sydney.

Coast Guard Vessel under repair at CME shipyard, North Sydney.

Which brings us to the Post‘s latest shipyard story,  printed on Page A3, on October 7, under an oddly familiar headline:

Northside shipyard taking shape

Yes, eight days before the municipal election, the Post just happened to drop by the CME shipyard and, wouldn’t you know it, found a “flurry of activity” employing “a growing number of local workers.”

On the old Archibald[‘s] Wharf site, adjacent to Marine Atlantic’s sprawling ferry operation, construction crews are this week pouring concrete for Canadian Marine Engineering Ltd’s new fabrication hall, while less than 100 metres away Canadian Marine Engineering Ltd. workers are performing maintenance on a Canadian Coast Guard vessel that sits on a cradle.

My heart actually goes out to the reporter tasked with creating a scene of frantic activity out of very thin material.  Concrete being poured. A single ship being serviced.  Marine Atlantic doing what it’s been doing since 1986. Progress!

The “news” in this story was that CME had actually begun the expansion project for which CBRM Council approved the sale of Archibald’s Wharf 17 months earlier. The Post reported that “about two dozen” people were working at the shipyard. (Seriously? You couldn’t give an exact figure?) Moreover, that number included both those “hydroblasting” the Coast Guard Vessel and those pouring the concrete.

The Post spoke to three “locals,” but didn’t say how many of the “about two dozen” workers were local. It also didn’t say how many, if any, were full time, although project manager Chris Lawless presumably is, which explains why he feels he “hit the jackpot.”


Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

The point here is that The Cape Breton Post has been doing its best for two years now to convince us CME’s operation in North Sydney is a going concern but all we ever get are snapshots of what is happening at the moment the reporter sets foot in the shipyard ( “There’s a herring seiner!” “Here’s a tugboat!” “Look, a pilot vessel!”) combined with airy descriptions of things the owners plan to do in future (“extend an existing finger pier out an additional 100 feet into the harbour and, at some point…offer clients the use of a floating dry dock,” “build a side-transfer onto the present cradle,” employ “more than 100 once the facility is fully functional and operating at capacity.”)

But here’s the thing: the shipyard bids on jobs and, if it gets them, it hires workers. If we’re lucky, it hires local workers. Whether it will ever work at “full capacity” or employ “more than 100” people is debatable. And it’s certainly hard to imagine it working at “full capacity” 100% of the time.

Giving the public a true picture of what has been happening in North Sydney for the past two years is the job of the local daily newspaper. Where are the interviews with local suppliers who were supposed to benefit from CME’s expansion? Where are the actual employment figures for the past two years — number of people employed (total), number of locals employed, average length of employment contract? Why are we always told about contracts the shipyard is bidding on rather than how many contracts it has won? And if you’re thinking that information is “confidential” because of “bidness,” I can only say that the moment the CBRM entered into a “partnership” with CME (not my words, Councilor Keagan’s words), that information became our “bidness.”

Besides which, it would make a hell of a Page A3 story.