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Time to control our Arctic waters

Once upon a time there was a vessel called Berserk. Yes, that was her name and she lived up to it. Sent packing from Halifax because she had former criminals on board, she reentered Canadian Arctic waters with those same men armed and dangerous. Refusing to report to Canadian authorities, she avoided them in Gjoa Haven and while the ship was seized in Cambridge Bay, it was days before two armed former criminals were apprehended. Were the people of Cambridge Bay in danger? The mayor and council thought so.

The story is revealing – revealing of so little Canadian control of our Arctic waters. In fact, the Berserk did not have to report to Canadian authorities; no foreign ship does, big or small. Yes, we have Canadian made satellites. But they tell us the composition of ice rather than the location of vessels. Yes, we have half a dozen Coast Guard ships that ply the Arctic waters for part of the year. But if they wanted to stop the Berserk by force they could not do it in the absence of policy or armament. Yes, we have Mounted Police in many northern communities who, in addition to their other duties, substitute for the Canada Border Services Agency and Canada Customs. But how much can one Mountie do?

The sad fact is that we have no rule that forces foreign ships to report in our Arctic waters, which are more and more open due to global warming. And even if we did, we don’t have the presence there to apprehend them. And they know it.

Suppose the Berserk was an oil tanker. Suppose some of her oil spilled in sensitive Arctic waters where aquatic species spawned. Could we deal with that? In some cases we have caches of oil-spill remediation materials; but many northern communities don’t know about them nor are they trained to use them. And yet, the Inuit, whose homeland the Arctic is and who know more about it than anyone, have not been made partners in policy or participation.

How morally wrong, and what a waste of superior knowledge. Increase the numbers of the Canadian Rangers; give them a marine mandate as well. Provide them with Zodiacs, booms and clean up equipment. For there will be oil spills as more and more tourist ships and more and more iron ore ships sail through the North West Passage.

Suppose the Berserk was a tourist ship and one of her passengers went astray either on the ice or on the land. Incredibly, search and rescue for the Arctic is commanded out of Trenton, Ontario and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Fixed-wing aircraft fly over the Arctic from time to time. But even if they spotted a lost person, only a helicopter can affect an Arctic rescue. How long does it take for a helicopter to fly from Nova Scotia to Iqaluit? About seven hours in the air. It would probably have to refuel at Goose Bay, where we could station fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters that could be used not only for SAR, but also for fisheries patrol, marine spotting and mapping. First-rate infrastructure is lying unused in that community, not that far from Iqaluit.

The fact is that, although we have proper command and equipment for SAR on the east coast and the west coast, we have no dedicated fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters in the Arctic apart from four Twin Otters in Yellowknife. Four Twin Otters to cover how many square miles?

If the Arctic is the soul of Canada, and if it is the homeland of our first citizens, why are we treating it like some second-class hinterland? Surely, in the 21st century in the midst of global warming when we have settled land claims and put in place duly elected governments, Canada needs to acknowledge all this by stationing appropriate equipment in the Arctic, commanded from the Arctic with Aboriginal people as partners.

The Coast Guard, too, reports to Ontario at Sarnia. Running the Arctic from Sarnia in 2010? Amundsen and Stefansson must be turning over in their graves. So little we have learned in such a long time.

What should be done? Make the Coast Guard the sharp end of Canadian control in the Arctic waters. Give them new ships. Don’t just promise one more. Provide deck weapons and armed personnel from appropriate agencies and enlist Inuit to join their crews. Base both fixed-wing planes and helicopters there and command them from there. Build the necessary infrastructure.

And because there is no one federal department that coordinates activity there, create a cabinet committee chaired by the Prime Minister.

Let’s get serious about control of our Arctic waters before it’s too late.

Bill Rompkey is chair of the Senate Fisheries and Oceans Committee. A lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy (Reserve), he was elected to the House of Commons in 1972 and appointed to the Senate in 1995. In December, the committee released a report, “Controlling Canada’s Arctic Waters: Role of the Canadian Coast Guard” (www.parl.gc.ca).


Author: Senator Bill Rompkey from the Jan/Feb 2010 issue published

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