Does Paul Martin have a pathological aversion to telling the truth? When it comes to his shipping company it seems Martin believes he can simply deny the facts and continually get away with it. And so long as reporters asking the questions haven’t done their homework, he is probably right.

In an interview with the new Prime Minister on December 18, Mary Lou Finlay, host of CBC Radio’s As It Happens, asked Martin about his image problem with Canada Steamship Lines — specifically CSL’s foreign flagged ships. Called flag-of-convenience ships (FOCs) they allowed Martin (and now allow his sons) to pay a quarter of the Canadian wage rate, avoid paying taxes altogether, and to ignore Canadian labour standards, health and safety laws and environmental regulations. Experts in the field estimate that each ocean-going ship saves on average $700,000 a year from this unethical practice.

Martin’s response was the same as it has been repeatedly over the years when challenged on his part in this rogue industry. He told As It Happens, “Five hundred of [CSL’s] over 600 employees are Canadian. The vast majority — the overwhelming majority — of its ships fly the Canadian flag.” Yet this flies in the face of numerous investigative pieces done on CSL — including a meticulously researched documentary by the CBC television program Disclosure. In a one hour documentary on CSL last spring, Disclosure revealed, “Today, Paul Martin’s family business has expanded into a global empire. In Canada, CSL owns eighteen ships which fly our flag. It employs 500 Canadians, and pays Canadian taxes. CSL also owns, in whole or in part, 18 foreign flagged ships, sailing around the world, from Montreal to Melbourne.”

In other words, half of CSL’s ships are FOC ships and half are Canadian-flagged. How does 50 per cent become an “overwhelming majority?” Easy. Martin simply refers to CSL Inc — based in Montreal — and tosses in the ships owned by CSL Asia. He neglects to add in the ships owned by CSL International — based in the United States — and conveniently leaves out all those ships that CSL co-owns with other international shipping companies and those that it leases and reflags as FOCs.

It’s not the first time Martin has cynically misled the public about the sleazy side of CSL. In 1996 he was asked by Montreal’s The Gazette reporter Jules Richer about his foreign flagged ships and how many he had. Martin’s reply? “The last I looked it was about 90 per cent of CSL ships that are registered in Canada.” But CSL’s vice-president Pierre Prefontaine told the same reporter that only 12 of the company’s 17 ships were registered in Canada — that is, 70 per cent. When Martin answered the question, he also knew, from his regular “Blind Management Agreement” briefings about major decisions made by CSL, that it was building two more ships for delivery in 1998 and 1999. Both of these would be registered in the Bahamas. In other words, rather than 90 per cent of Martinâe(TM)s ships being registered in Canada, the figure was 63 per cent — and getting steadily smaller.

Like it or not, we are all Paul Martin watchers now. We should all keep an eye on the length of his nose.


Murray Dobbin

Murray Dobbin was's Senior Contributing Editor. He was a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over 40 years. A board member and researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy...