By Kelly Bent
No longer a remote and uninhabited frontier, close to 120,000 people (est.) now live and work in Canada’s Arctic, It is no surprise therefore that the demand for national Coast Guard services has trended to increase exponentially trying keep pace with the rapid growth of communities and the ever-expanding scale of human and economic activity in the North. The reality is that most Arctic communities border on some sort of inland or coastal body of water. With the health and safety of northern residents so closely tied to these vital waterways and offshore seas, this just brings home the crucial role Canada’s Coast Guard plays in protecting Arctic residents and the country as a whole.
On January 26, 2012, the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) marked a significant milestone — 50 years as a highly valued, marine operations agency within the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). The golden anniversary celebrations (commemorated nationwide) focused not only on the Coast Guard’s distinguished service history over five decades, but also shone an additional light upon the significant changes and shifting mission challenges the Coast Guard already deals with today and will most certainly be tasked with in the future.
These are not small tasks. The service is responsible for safe-guarding the longest coastline of any nation in the world — running in total, some 243,000 kilometres (km) in length to our east, west, along the breadth of our northern reaches and encompassing an intricate Arctic archipelago that includes the famed Northwest Passage plus the balance of all of Canada’s territorial and provincial coastal boundaries. Our Arctic coastlines alone, run more than 162,000 km in length in total, and include the world’s largest (and operationally complex) archipelagic region. Essentially that means that our Coast Guard is responsible for an estimated 25 per cent of the offshore seas that make up the globe’s polar waters in the northern hemisphere.
From June to November each year the Canadian Coast Guard’s Arctic Fleet is deployed for service in the North. The ships embark on their route North from our east and west coasts and Quebec. In the main, the multi-faceted mission role of the fleet of seven icebreakers is to provide safe escort for commercial vessels, often through treacherous often uncharted waters and to deliver food, cargo and fuel to remote sites where commercial shipping services are not readily available.
The CCG also lends invaluable and essential support services in the North as a primary partner in maritime search and rescue operations and by maintaining necessary aids to navigation and safeguarding the sovereignty and safety of our waterways through regular patrols. Even ashore, our Coast Guard serves as the eyes and ears of the waterways, through its Marine Communications and Traffic Services program. The Coast Guard also has Environmental Response equipment always at the ready, in strategic locations.
Today’s Arctic Fleet includes seven helicopters, remotely operated underwater vehicles, and, most importantly, highly trained professional mariners working an Arctic coastline that is more than double the size of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts combined. This vast area encompasses unique ecosystems and wildlife as well as severe weather patterns and variant conditions along the same coastline and stretches of sea.
Coast Guard personnel work tirelessly to maintain the Arctic way of life while preserving and protecting our northern coasts by providing key support to other government agencies and organizations for important scientific research and hydrographic charting of Arctic waterways. The role of the CCG is evolving as northerners must adapt to environment and weather changes, so too does the Coast Guard.
Built in 1979 and first commissioned as the CCGS Sir John Franklin, then renamed, the recently commemorated CCGS Amundsen for example represents a unique part of the Coast Guard’s Arctic fleet. In 2003, with the assistance of the International Joint Ventures Fund of Canada Foundation, the Amundsen was retrofitted to give it the capability to serve as a state of the art research icebreaker with new scientific equipment and technology.
Reflective of the research component of her duties, she is equipped with a moon pool, (an opening that gives access to water below) located on the hull of the ship, allowing researchers to lower tools and instruments well below the waterline when the seas are high or covered by ice. The moon pool gives divers much easier access in and out of the water and has proven itself to be an invaluable aid to the efficacy and overall success of the Amundsen’s research missions.
Between May to mid-October, her primary mandate in the North is to save life at sea. In 2010, when the Clipper Adventurer cruise ship ran aground off the Nunavut coast, the Amundsen was the nearest vessel at the time and immediately went to the aid of the ship and passengers. With the ever-changing conditions of Canada’s Arctic, she also plays a pivotal role in research and education and has given Canadians as well as international students and researchers unprecedented access to the many mysteries of the Arctic Ocean.
The Amundsen and her crew are dedicated to providing a highly functional platform to gaining better understanding of the ongoing transformations in Canada’s Arctic and how we as a country should be responding to the many key issues surrounding the impacts of climate change. With the important research done aboard her, our country’s governmental institutions, organizations, policy-makers, northern stakeholders, and our international partners are all much better positioned to strategize and formulate sound, reasoned solutions to social and economic development geared to our North.
Reflecting upon the Canadian Coast Guard’s 50 years of proud service to date, the man in charge of its northern contingent, Regional Director of Fleet for the Canadian Coast Guard’s Central and Arctic Region, Brian LeBlanc, attributes a major part of the organization’s success to the crews of dedicated men and women who choose to serve on the team and the strategic partners equally eager to adapt to the changing operational environment.
“In an ever changing world we are constantly adapting the way we provide services. Our goal has always been to best suit the needs of our Arctic communities and coastline,” explains LeBlanc. “The federal government has just injected 1 billion into the CCG for the procurement of 15 large vessels. In late 2017, The John G. Diefenbaker will become our new flagship, replacing the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent. The Diefenbaker will have the capabilities to stay at sea for nine months.”
Fisheries and Oceans Canada and its Coast Guard division are today working on a more robust identification and tracking system, one that will better assist commercial shipping in those Arctic areas not currently covered by satellite. “This venture is very important in maintaining critical shipping routes that affect our global communities but with a focus on environmental awareness and national safety.”
Noteworthy here is that the Canadian Coast Guard also plays a significant sovereignty and national security role, one vital to the protection of northern communities, coastlines and, indeed, our entire country. Each year the Coast Guard contributes manpower, expertise and equipment to military sovereignty and security exercises conducted in the North in conjunction with the Royal Canadian Navy and other key strategic security partners and stakeholders, military and non.
LeBlanc speaks with genuine devotion, not only regarding his own 28 years of service in the Coast Guard, but also while looking back over the last five decades of CCG service to the country. “We’ve had an amazing and exciting 50 years,” he points out with obvious pride, “and I look forward to 50 more.”