The Quebec government that came to power in April 2014 plans to outline by June a sweeping maritime strategy blueprint seeking to transform the St. Lawrence River into a competitive gateway of choice for continental logistics and for trans-Atlantic trade in the coming years. Billions of dollars of public and private investments in infrastructure would be involved if the ambitious scheme meets expectations.
Certainly, it is motivated in part by the prospect of increased commercial exchanges expected to be generated by a Canada-European Union free trade agreement that could be ratified by 2016. In addition, the expansion of the Panama Canal promises to boost the flow of goods between Asia and the East Coast of North America.
Jean D’Amour, Quebec Minister for Transport and the Implementation of Maritime Strategy, has been picked by Premier Couillard to lead the charge for articulating what would historically represent the first such comprehensive blueprint in this crucial sector of the Quebec economy.
Moreover, it is being qualified as a cornerstone of overall economic policy – an element that has not failed to make a favourable impression on Quebec marine industry circles and such associations as the St. Lawrence Economic Development Council (SODES), despite underlying skepticism on the plan’s achievability.
Illustrating his continued strong interest in the maritime strategy file, Premier Couillard paid a visit to the Port of Antwerp (Europe’s leading maritime trading partner with Canada) in January on his way to the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Some 30 ports are situated on the St. Lawrence River, including Montreal, a container port on the Eastern Seaboard and Sept-Iles, the continent’s largest iron ore port. The 10,000 ship calls through the 1,200-km corridor generate 110 million tonnes of cargo annually.
Addressing an industry conference in Montreal in February, D’Amour reiterated the provincial Liberal government’s plans to create 30,000 new jobs between now and 2030 by investing $3 billion in infrastructure, intermodal improvements and other undertakings encompassing ports, shipyards and shortsea coastal activities. The government scenario also assumes that private investors will be prepared to invest up to an additional $4 billion over the next 15 years,
What he called “the Quebec of tomorrow” must be ready to meet severe competitive challenges for ensuring a smooth and efficient flow of goods.
Thanks to a strong geographic position, D’Amour said Quebec was well placed to capitalize on increased trade with Europe. To encourage more enterprises to set up operations in Quebec, he said planned regulatory changes would provide for simpler and more rapid procedures for industries than is presently the case, compared with other Canadian provinces.
Already in motion, the minister said, were various projects at the ports of Montreal, Sept-Iles, and Contrecoeur as well as the first ferry that will be powered by natural gas.
He disclosed plans to create initially eight “industrialo-port zones” – with a first wave to be launched in the coming months. In this regard, he pointed to Valleyfield, a growing logistics centre near Montreal.
To encourage Quebec shipowners, including cruise and cargo carriers, the 2014-2015 budget accords an additional capital cost allowance of 50% for the construction and renovation of vessels.
Financial funding challenges
But observers consider that, in the present tense climate of contract negotiations with Quebec’s civil service and key departments, serious questions persist on the capacity of the government to financially maintain the lofty goals of maritime strategy. Some hints should be offered in the 2015-2016 budget slated for this spring.
Meanwhile, Claude Comtois, a geography and logistics professor at the Université de Montreal, suggests that a heavy assignment lies ahead for bringing Quebec infrastructure up to world standards as seen in China and Europe. “This is not negotiable – it will have to be visually in place over the next 10 years.”
According to Comtois, at least $250 million in new government funding should be allocated annually for expanding and improving certain infrastructures and adding such features as multi-task berths. “Otherwise, it will not be credible.”
At the same industry conference, Eric Tétrault, President of Manufacturers Exporters Quebec, was similarly candid.
“We need to create,” he said, “a supply chain and a logistics chain so we can export in greater quantities at lower cost. Basically, It’s as simple and as complicated as that. As one says in English, we will have to walk the talk.”