In its 50th year, the Coast Guard proved its worth
After an unusual summer that featured fog, rain, heavy ice and unpredictable winds throughout much of the Eastern Arctic, many Nunavut residents likely came to appreciate the valuable and sometimes life-essential work of the Canadian Coast Guard, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
Here’s a list of some of the services that crew members aboard Coast Guard vessels performed this year in eastern Nunavut:
• July 11: the CCGS Henry Larsen escorted the MV Nanny, a tanker operated by the Woodward Group, through the heavy sea-ice of Frobisher Bay to Iqaluit, where it was able to offload a vital supply of fuel;
• July 27: the coast guard icebreakers Terry Fox and Des Groseilliers escort two sealift vessels, the MV Qamutik and the MV Anna Desgagnés into Iqaluit;
• Aug. 3: the crew of CCGS Des Groseilliers ferry 76 students and 40 educators from the Iqaluit breakwater to the research vessel MV Akademik Ioffe;
• Aug. 10: the crew of CCGS Des Groseilliers helped rescue a critically-ill crew member of the MV Zélada Desgagnés in Davis Strait so the man could be flown to hospital in Iqaluit;
• Sept. 5: the CCGS Terry Fox picked up five stranded narwhal hunters and returned them to Arctic Bay;
• Sept. 9: the CCGS Pierre Radisson assisted nine hunters from Cape Dorset stranded on Coats Island and gave them the supplies they needed to make it to Coral Harbour.
That’s not meant to serve as a complete list. But it helps to illustrate why Nunavut residents ought to be worried about the aging icebreaking vessels that make these services possible, because even the federal government admits its Arctic Coast Guard fleet is close to breaking down.
“In recent years it has become apparent that the inadequate recapitalization of our assets would eventually result in the inability of CCG to sustain its required levels of service,” the Coast Guard’s 2011-2014 business plan states.
In plain language, this means that in past years, the federal government did not replace the Coast Guard’s vessels when they should have. And it means that if this neglect were to continue, the Coast Guard will not serve the public in the future as well as it serves the public now.
The Coast Guard isn’t cheap to operate. In 2011-12, the service expects to have spent $392 million in operating costs, including $60.4 million on icebreaking services, much of that in the North.
From late June to about mid-November each year, the Coast Guard uses six icebreakers to serve the Arctic. The oldest of these are starting to wear out and break down.
In October 2011, the 42-year-old Louis St-Laurent, the largest and heaviest icebreaker in the Coast Guard’s fleet, was marooned for weeks off Cambridge Bay after suffering damage to one of its propellers. The 33-year-old Amundsen, which now serves as a research vessel, sits in dry dock at Trois-Rivières, Que. this year, receiving extensive repairs to four of its six engines.
Replacing this fleet won’t be cheap either. The Coast Guard’s total assets are worth about $14 billion, $12.5 billion of which represent the estimated replacement value of its vessels, including its fleet of Arctic icebreakers. This means the federal government must soon make some hefty expenditures.
The Conservative government’s response to this has been less than impressive. In the 2005 federal election campaign, Stephen Harper promised a Conservative government, if elected, would build three new icebreakers.
But once in government, the Tories morphed that commitment into a $3.1-billion scheme to build six to eight Arctic patrol ships for the Royal Canadian Navy. Known derisively as “slush-breakers,” these vessels won’t be able to operate in the heavy ice that chokes Arctic waters well into July each year.
In 2008, at an Operation Nanook exercise in Inuvik, Harper announced a plan to build an actual icebreaker. This vessel, the John G. Diefenbaker, intended to replace the Louis St-Laurent in 2017, will cost at least $720 million.
But this ship still hasn’t made it past the design stage. And the project is already behind schedule. The contract to design the John G. Diefenbaker wasn’t awarded until February, well past the original deadline of November 2011. An actual construction contract has yet to be awarded.
In the meantime, Ottawa has forged ahead with the Arctic patrol ship scheme, having awarded the construction contract to a shipyard in Halifax owned by Irving Shipbuilding Inc.
Once built, will these vessels be capable of leading tankers and cargo vessels to Arctic destinations through heavy ice? No. they won’t be built to provide icebreaking services for others. Will they be of any use in search and rescue work? Who knows? The federal government doesn’t mention this in a list of “proposed capabilities.”
To be fair, the federal government, in Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s budget this past March, announced $5.2 billion in spending for the Coast Guard over 11 years, to upgrade ships and helicopters.
However, there are few details on how Ottawa will spend this money. On the year of its 50th anniversary, Canada’s Coast Guard fleet still faces an uncertain future.JB