The first SAILING SHIPS built in what is now Canada were 2 small craft launched at PORT-ROYAL, Acadia, by François Gravé du Pont in 1606. The first recorded seagoing vessel, Galiote, was built in NEW FRANCE in 1663. Some building continued under Jean TALON and others at Québec City and a brisk industry was recorded in 1715 despite the mercantilist system which discouraged industry in the colony. As a result of encouragement by French Minister of Marine de Maurepas, Intendant Hocquart gave the industry a real impetus with the establishment of a shipyard in 1732 on the River St-Charles.
The 10 merchant vessels built there that year may be termed the true start of the industry as a commercial enterprise in Canada. These merchant ships impressed French authorities and warships were also ordered for the French navy, including a ship-of-the-line mounting 70 guns built in 1750.
In 1677-78 Cavelier de LA SALLE presaged the development of a transportation system on the Great Lakes with the building on Lake Ontario of a single-decked barque of 10 tons, Frontenac, and 3 other vessels. This achievement was eclipsed by the construction in 1679 at Cayuga Creek on the Niagara River of the ill-fated GRIFFON, 20 m overall, perhaps 60 tons burden, to further fur-trade interests on the Upper Great Lakes. Between 1732 and 1745 a number of vessels were built, 6 for Lake Ontario and one for Lake Superior. In the Seven Years' War, the French war fleet on Lake Ontario consisted of 4 vessels, 2 rated as corsairs, Marquise de Vaudreuil of 14 guns and La Hurault of 12 guns, launched in 1756 and 1755, respectively.
The ready supply of timber for shipbuilding attracted artisans and shipwrights to the colonies after the Conquest. George HERIOT in his travels (1807) stated that vessels "from fifty to a thousand tons burthen" were constructed at Québec City and commercial vessels at Kingston. The WAR OF 1812 generated a flurry of shipbuilding. The St Lawrence, built in Kingston in 1814, was a 3-decker mounting 102 guns, and was larger than Nelson's Victory.
The early years of the 19th century saw the rapid growth of ship construction in the British colonies. Vessels were built on creeks, rivers and coves in every colony of British North America - at Alma on the Bay of FUNDY; at the Ellis-Yeo property in PEI, now a historical restoration; and at shipyards extending for 20 km on both sides of the Miramichi River in New Brunswick.
The expansion of the timber trade in the early 19th century stimulated a rapid expansion of shipbuilding. The Columbus and Baron of Renfrew built in 1824 and 1825, respectively, were built of heavy timbers near Québec, sailed to England to be broken up and sold as timber in order to evade a British tax. Though freak vessels at over 90 m length, they could claim to be the largest sailing ships in the world at the time and for 30 years after. Many conventional vessels were also built, and Lévis to Lauzon in Québec became a vast timber yard and shipyard.
The construction of fishing vessels was more of a cottage industry than a commercial enterprise. A natural response to demand throughout the colonies, these vessels were built of a size and type suited to the fishery, whether inshore or offshore. Among them was Jenny, built in Newfoundland in 1783, the first recorded tern (3-masted) schooner in the world.
The most colourful and profitable days of Canadian shipbuilding were from 1849 to 1895, when many famous full-rigged ships and barques were built. In 1853 some 80 ships of between 1000 and 2000 tons each were launched in the Canadas and the Maritimes. In 1858, of the 100 sailing ships of 1200 tons or more that cleared Liverpool, Eng, for Australia, 64 were Canadian built. The Shipping Register of Liverpool showed that more than 85% of the ships over 500 tons were built in British North America. In 1875, the peak year, nearly 500 ships were built in Canadian shipyards. A prominent vessel of that glorious period was MARCO POLO, built at Saint John in 1851. She was big, 1625 tons, strong, and for a time "the fastest ship in the world." Another was W.D. LAWRENCE, 2458 tons, built in 1874 at Maitland, NS, the largest Canadian-built full-rigged ship afloat.
The Canadian merchant fleet in 1878 numbered 7196 vessels, of 1 333 015 aggregate tonnage, making Canada the fourth-largest shipowning nation in the world, a position that has been regained on 2 occasions since, in 1918 and in 1944. The industry gave employment to craftsmen and lumbermen, provided bottoms for transport of goods and immigrants and, perhaps the greatest commercial advantage, had favourable influence on the balance of payments; at times ships were the most valuable exports of the colonies.
Between 1786 and 1920, over 4000 wooden sailing ships exceeding 500 tons were built in eastern Canada. The fast passages made by Canadian-built ships, their great size and innovative design made them popular among British owners and contributed to Britain's commercial conquest of the seas. As iron- and steel-hulled sailing ships and steamships built in Britain, Germany and Denmark replaced wooden square-riggers, Canada found it harder and harder to compete. By 1895 the Canadian builders were out of the big-ship business, although construction of fishing schooners and coasters continued for many years. Tens of thousands of men skilled in marine ironworking, sail making, wood shaping, etc, were put out of work.
In 1809 the first Canadian STEAMBOAT, ACCOMMODATION, was built and launched in Montréal by John MOLSON adjacent to his brewery. The vessel was 26 m in length and carried passengers between Montréal and Québec City. Steam engines of greater strength were rapidly developed. The 100-hp engine of the Montréal tug Hercules (1823) was at the time the largest in the world. The paddle steamer ROYAL WILLIAM was built at Anse au Foulon, Qué, in 1831, with a 200-hp engine made in Montréal. In 1833 she was the first merchant vessel to make a transatlantic voyage (from Pictou to Gravesend) largely under steam. One of her owners was Samuel CUNARD of Halifax, founder of the CUNARD COMPANY. As well as pioneering the building of marine steam engines, Canada produced the first compound steam engine. The St John River steamboat Reindeer had a 43-hp compound engine built in Fredericton, NB, and installed in 1845.
Collingwood Shipyards (1902) now at Collingwood, Ont, was the first Canadian steel shipbuilding yard on the upper lakes. It and Canadian Vickers Ltd at Montréal, after building icebreakers and submarine sections, now concentrate on repair work. The shipyard at Port Arthur [Thunder Bay] was built in 1912, and next year produced the passenger steamer NORONIC. By then, 1980 steamers aggregating 415 089 grt were registered in Québec and Ontario ports compared with only 598 steamers totalling 89,079 grt registered in the Maritime ports.
The Canadian shipyards of this period exhibited a versatility that remains their strength to this day, in the construction of vessels of many diverse types and special purposes, including bulk grain, coal and ore LAKE CARRIERS, passenger ships, coasters, FERRIES, ICEBREAKERS and government patrol vessels. Tugs, dredges and hopper barges, many still in service, were also built in the prewar years. The dimensions of the vessels for the St Lawrence canal system and the upper lakes were controlled by the size of the locks. As such, they were long, slender vessels efficient for that trade but unsuitable for open sea, although many of these ships did ply the North Atlantic during WWI and WWII. The need for bottoms to transport supplies overseas during WWI led the IMPERIAL MUNITIONS BOARD to place many orders for ships in Canadian yards.
In 1917-18 approximately 60 steel cargo steamers of 1700-5800 grt were built, as well as submarine chasers, tugs, drifters and minesweeping trawlers. Because of urgency of demand, wooden shipbuilding was revived as well. In British Columbia alone, 134 vessels comprising 20 wooden schooners, 69 wooden steamers and 45 steel steamers were built by West Coast shipyards. Wooden steamers were also built in Montréal, Trois-Rivières, Québec and Saint John. Some steel vessels built on the lakes were constructed in halves, in order to pass through the St Lawrence canals, and then joined together at Montréal.
At the end of WWI the Canadian Government Merchant Marine Ltd was incorporated in an effort to maintain shipyard employment and to continue Canada's position in ocean shipping. As the vessels became obsolete they were not replaced, and they were sold off during the GREAT DEPRESSION. By 1936 the fleet ceased to exist. From 1930 to 1939 the Canadian shipyards built only 14 steamers exceeding 46 m in length, but in the same period many vessels for the lakes and canal trade were imported from Britain.
Canada's response to the Allies' need for ships at the outbreak of WWII was immediate, effective, and on a much larger scale than that of WWI. This quick expansion under the direction of the Department of Munitions and Supply was managed by a cadre of resident Canadian shipbuilders and naval architects, a delegation of shipbuilders sent by the British Admiralty, and experienced managers from other Canadian industries recruited for the duration. War production peaked in 1943 and, though for a time building barely kept pace with sinkings, a stage was reached where construction had to be phased down because of a surplus of ships.
At peak there were 7 shipyards building 10 000 tonners, 3 producing 4700 tonners, 10 engaged in naval work, and 62 producing tugs, lighters and landing craft. In total, 398 merchant ships and 393 naval vessels were built. The naval vessels were primarily corvettes, minesweepers, frigates, and eventually destroyers. The cargo vessels were operated by the Park Steamship Company, a crown corporation. They were sold off after the war, many to Canadian shipowners in an attempt to maintain a Canadian merchant fleet; if resold the proceeds went into escrow for the construction of new Canadian registered vessels. Most went to foreign owners (see SHIPPING INDUSTRY).
Since 1945 the Canadian shipbuilding industry has been much reduced in scale. Various subsidy programs, accelerated depreciation allowances, export development grants, and import duties helped the industry, but not sufficiently to meet the competition from abroad assisted by more generous subsidies, foreign-exchange rates, and lower wage scales.
Canadian shipyards of necessity cannot concentrate on multiple production of vessels of standard design or on a limited range of special service vessels, but must be capable of adapting to a very wide range of vessel types, many of them prototypes. They specialize in high-quality construction for inland and coastal trade and in government service and naval vessels. They are pre-eminent in ice-capable vessels, from the icebreaking car ferry Abegweit, built in 1947 for the Northumberland Strait, which established design standards for welded steel icebreakers with diesel-electric propulsion and multiple propellers, to the 23 200-hp icebreaking supply vessel Terry Fox, built in 1983 to support oil exploration in the Beaufort Sea.
Other examples of Canadian innovation are the thorough design effort devoted to the Arctic Pilot Project; the proposed 395 m, 140 000 m3 Arctic class 10, LNG carrier; vessels for oceanographic, hydrographic and fisheries research which are of world class; the development of tug-and-barge operations on the West Coast and, in particular, self-dumping log barges.
The development of hydrofoil craft, begun in Canada with the early experiments of Alexander Graham BELL in Cape Breton, was brought to success with Bras d'Or in 1964, a prototype of advanced design despite metallurgical faults in the foils material. Canadian shipyards have also been active in the construction of offshore oil exploration platforms, from semisubmersible rigs built by Victoria Machinery Depot Ltd in the late 1960s to jack-up rigs built at Davie Shipbuilding Company Ltd. In the 1970s Halifax Shipyards Ltd and in the early 1980s Saint John Drydock and Shipbuilding were active in semisubmersible vessel construction.
Naval construction since the war has been maintained to a degree. Canada's NATO role of submarine hunting and escort tasks has been met by a series of destroyer construction programs. From the "Tribal" class of the end of the war to the Canadian-designed "St Laurent" class of the 1950s was a quantum leap in design and production to provide an escort vessel that was the envy of other navies. "Mackenzie" class of the 1960s followed, then the new "Tribal" class and the CPF (Canadian Patrol Frigate) "City" class - of which there are 12 - currently being built. A variety of service vessels ranging from wood-and-aluminum minesweepers to replenishment vessels such as Provider have also been built.
Ship repairing is a necessary service wherever ships ply and, as an exporting nation, Canada must provide such facilities. Naval strategic requirements have a bearing on the location of drydocks and repair shops on Canada's coasts; repair installations also provide employment for essential shipbuilding technical staff, managers and tradesmen during slack times between new building contracts.
On the Great Lakes are large drydocks at Port Arthur, Collingwood and Port Weller, all associated with shipyards and capable of docking large lake carriers. Docks at Kingston, and the St Lawrence Dry Dock and Cantin Dry Dock at Montréal for the 245-ft canalers are now gone. The major drydocks on the West Coast are at Esquimalt adjacent to Yarrows Ltd and the Burrard Dry Dock in Vancouver harbour. On the East Coast is a floating dock of 36 000-ton capacity at Halifax, and the Saint John Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co Ltd, which when built in 1914, and for 40 years after, was the largest in the world. Lauzon has a large dock, and Montréal a floating dock similar to that at Halifax.
The Newfoundland Dockyard, located virtually in the middle of the North Atlantic shipping lanes, was built of wood in 1884, and later replaced by a stone graving dock. A new ship-lift system at the same location, for the repair of deep-sea factory trawlers and offshore supply vessels, is capable of lifting 4000-ton vessels into 3 berths. Many other Canadian harbours have marine railways, ship lifts and small drydocks for repair of floating equipment and vessels. A few of these are a legacy of the wartime installations for the maintenance of frigates and corvettes and the repair of war-damaged merchant ships, but many have been built or improved since then for commercial or fishery vessel repair.
The Canadian Shipbuilding and Ship Repair Association was formed in 1944 to ensure the continuance of a viable industry after the war and to prevent repetition of the gradual dissolution of the dearly won industry in the early 1920s. It also serves to encourage technical-information exchange within an industry where technology transfer is vital to survival. The CSSRA member shipyards currently account for over 95% of all ship construction in Canada of vessels in excess of 30 m length. Although total shipyard employment in recent "good" years is down from the peak years of 1952 and 1953 to 7500 workers in mid-1986, current manufacturing capacity is higher than at any time since WWII. An estimated 400 000 dwt tons of standard shipping could be built annually.
Author W.J. MILNE
Canadian Shipbuilding and Ship Repairing Association Annual Reports; K. Matthews and G. Panting, eds, Ships and Shipbuilding in the North Atlantic Region (1977); F.W. Wallace, The Story of Shipbuilding in Canada (1944) and Wooden Ships and Iron Men (1924, repr 1973).
Links to Other Sites
West Coast Shipbuilding
This site is devoted to shipbuilding on the West Coast. Par Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.
Voices, Vessels and Vellum
The history of the port at St John, NB is examined through historical texts from the Saint John Free Public Library Primary Source Documents Collection.
Marine Museum of the Great Lakes
The museum's extensive exhibits provide a look at 19th and 20th century shipbuilding and life on the Great Lakes.
The Memory Project: The Corvette Life
Listen to interviews with Canadian veterans about their wartime military service. Also check out related digitized artefacts and memorabilia. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
Explore this very extensive collection of photographs about Canada’s maritime industries, including shipbuilding, shipping, naval mishaps, and fishing. Part of the CN Images of Canada Gallery at the Canada Science and Technology Museum website.
Maritime History Archive
A searchable database and and online virtual exhibits about the maritime history of Canada's north Atlantic region. The "Shipwrecks" section features historical photos of prominent shipwrecks. From Memorial University.
Boishébert National Historic Site of Canada
The website for the Boishébert National Historic Site of Canada and Beaubears Island Shipbuilding National Historic Site of Canada, J. Leonard O'Brien Memorial. From Parks Canada.
The Archives of Ontario Remembers the Home Front
In honour of the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the Archives of Ontario presents this stirring retrospective of Ontario’s extraordinary Home Front contribution to the war effort. Check out the personal stories, photographs, posters, video clips and other multimedia.
Tall Ships of Atlantic Canada
A superb site about the colourful history of the tall ships of Atlantic Canada. Features beautiful paintings, historical accounts, a glossary, and educational resources. From the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Bluenose: A Canadian Icon
This virtual exhibit about the famous Grand Banks fishing schooner features vintage videos and photographs. From Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management.
Canadian Society of Marine Artists
The website for the Canadian Society of Marine Artists features a superb online collection of marine art.
Musée maritime de Charlevoix
Dedicated to the maritime heritage of the St Lawrence River, the Musée maritime de Charlevoix retraces the history of schooners and how they were built.
James Harding Master Ship Builder
View images of some of the impressive vessels built by Shelburne master shipwright James Harding. From the website for the Shelburne County Archives and Genealogical Society.
British Columbia Shipwreck Recording Guide
A glossary of terms related to parts and sections of vessels that may be found in shipwrecks. A Government of British Columbia website.
Search the Reuters website for the latest news and reports about specific Canadian companies and business sectors.
The Memory Project: Merchant Ships
Listen to an interview with a Canadian seaman who served on a merchant ship that had to evade Nazi Germany's U-boat attacks during perilous Atlantic crossings in the Second World War. Also check out related digitized artefacts and memorabilia. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...