The history of the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) is complex and convoluted. While their spiritual origins stem from the ancient concern of all mariners for the safety of life at sea, their organizational lineage can be traced back to the Department of Marine and Fisheries (DMF). The DMF was created in 1868 and was, at that time, the largest department of government. Both the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and the CCG developed from this common root, with the navy established directly from it in 1910 and the coast guard from a variety of derivative organizations in 1962.

The navy’s place within the Department of National Defence (DND) means that its military mandate and role is clear. The same cannot be said for the coast guard. Originally part of the Department of Transport (DOT), the CCG was transferred to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in 1995. The fisheries fleet, personnel and functions were absorbed into the coast guard in the name of “increased efficiency.” In 2005, the CCG was declared a “special operating agency” of the DOT. The end result has been numerous changes in an institutional history that has just passed the 50-year milestone. There are many critics of the CCG’s mandate, role and capabilities. Given its developmental history, this is hardly surprising.

Senator Colin Kenny is the most vocal commentator on the CCG. He argues that the CCG should become an armed service with a marine law enforcement mandate. In fact, the fisheries portion of the coast guard does have the authority to use arms and their officers do have a law enforcement mandate, but only in specific circumstances. Understanding the origins and limitations of this function is central to deciding how CCG should be changed.

In Canada, our coast guard is a civil organization; one that has unions and collective bargaining agreements that govern the nature of employment and the risks to be accepted by their people in the course of duty. In this regard, the Canadian version stands practically alone. Mathew Gillis conducted a global survey for a research project entitled The Global Navy/Coast Guard Relationship: A Mandate-based Typology (Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, 2010). He found that of the 150 countries in the world with a coastline, 72 possess a coast guard of some type. Only those of Canada and Great Britain are civilian. The remainder either fell into a paramilitary (58) or military (12) category. Nine countries rely solely on their coast guard for maritime security, while 28 trust this duty only to their navy. This leaves 63 countries that have both services. Several among that number have additional marine police forces, customs agencies, environmental protection and fisheries services. No country relies only on a civilian coast guard for its maritime security.

So, there are many options when it comes to organizing for maritime security. A key question when contemplating change is whether it is easier to start up a new organization or to change one or more existing ones. A central factor in this assessment is the culture of the organizations that may be asked to change.

Because the CCG was established after the Second World War, there has been no major conflict to shape its organizational culture. We do not know what the government of Canada would have ordered an analogous organization to do in time of war, although several ships of the federal civil fleets were taken into military service as auxiliary naval vessels of the RCN. The organizational culture of the coast guard, although hierarchical in a military sense and uniformed, has not been shaped by the same major events that have forged the navy into the organization that it is today.

Law enforcement is the function most commonly associated with paramilitary coast guards. While there are many examples of military coast guards and navies having law enforcement roles, for civil coast guards there is only the Canadian example of limited law enforcement responsibility for fisheries protection. This came via amalgamation with the Fisheries and Oceans fleet and was not part of the original plan for the CCG.

The government of Canada has a paramilitary police force at its disposal in the RCMP, which already has a marine division. For clarity of purpose and simple lines of operation, the Canadian organizational system is best suited to having marine law enforcement focused on the one national agency that has a long history and clear cultural identity shaped by its activities in law enforcement: the RCMP. The civilian CCG is not the best-suited federal organization for marine law enforcement.

Search and rescue overlap
The original design of the CCG is described in Charles Maginley’s book The Canadian Coast Guard, 1962-2002. The current version originated during the Second World War when Canadian and foreign mariners were routinely rescued off our shores by the United States Coast Guard. Maginley notes that the terms “coast guard” and “search and rescue” (SAR) were regarded as “practically synonymous” terms at that time. Provincial governments, communities and interest groups all called for the creation of a new organization that would be solely responsible for safety of life at sea and the conduct of SAR operations. It never happened.

Federal departments and agencies argued endlessly about why their resources should be withheld from the new coast guard organization. Determined in-fighting persisted from the end of the war until the very day that the CCG was created in 1962. The result was a pale imitation of the original plan to create a national life-saving service.

Although the CCG is the principal marine operational arm of the government and is responsible for a large number of SAR tasks, the Minister of National Defence (MND) is the lead minister. There is an Interdepartmental Committee on SAR as well as a National Secretariat on SAR that both provide advice primarily to the MND, rather than the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. While the CCG is the provider of the primary marine SAR response element, all SAR operations are coordinated from Joint Rescue Coordination Centres on military bases: one in Halifax, another in Victoria, and the third in Trenton.

The CCG Search and Research Program Mission Statement says their objective is to “save 100 percent of the lives at risk.” But Canada is an enormous country with a vast offshore territory. It is quite impossible for the CCG to fulfil its mandate, as it is currently established, without help. The military has a network of bases and capabilities that are used to augment those of the coast guard.

Military readiness and preparedness lend themselves well to short-notice and urgent missions when mariners are in danger. Long-range aircraft for national defence and surveillance missions can be used to good effect to improve the SAR services available to Canadians and foreigners off our coasts. Naval vessels, although few in number, are fast, robust and most carry large multi-purpose helicopters. The problem in managing this relationship is the cultural gulf between the civilian coast guard and the military armed forces that has resulted in a confused departmental authority arrangement and a shared operational responsibility to generate and maintain forces for SAR tasks. While both coast guard and military units can undertake the tactical duties associated with the tasks, the higher command and coordination functions are unclear, leading to numerous problems.

A major and ongoing national embarrassment has been the difficulty of procuring aircraft for the SAR function. With the navy and air force bringing military cultural perspectives and the coast guard bringing a civil one, is it any wonder that questions about what types of fixed wing aircraft should be selected for SAR are problematic? The RCAF crews, operates and maintains the aircraft while the RCN is the principal maritime employer. The coast guard sees SAR as a primary mission while it is clearly secondary for the military, even though the MND is nominally in charge of the capability. This kind of dissonance happens when two groups look at a problem from fundamentally difference perspectives.

Both the Canadian military and coast guard train their personnel for SAR specialist duties. This is expensive and unnecessary duplication. The same is also true for rescue divers. Because the CCG and Canadian Armed Forces are separated by a wide gulf of organizational culture, they are able to cooperate reasonably well on important but functionally limited things like SAR tasks, but have great difficulty in quickly reaching agreement on high-level issues like division of functional responsibility and capital procurement programs.

It is highly unlikely that the civilian organizational culture of the CCG can be changed simply by the government assigning new roles, functions and missions. Experts in the field of institutional structure and organizational learning recognize that the culture of an organization can only be changed very slowly and that a wide variety of measures must be put into to play to accomplish it. Because of the established cultures of the federal departments involved in maritime security, it would be more effective and efficient to see the coast guard, police and navy realigned and resourced properly to carry out their primary functions.

Reform of the CCG should be focused on the civil functions associated with the role of marine safety. This will clarify the departmental lines of responsibility and the operational support relationships between the departments. It will also make clear the primary purpose of major equipments and simplify the selection criteria for capital procurement programs.

It is also likely that even a departmental realignment plan will create tensions between the departments over the transfer of resources and budgets. However, a clear institutional mandate is the simplest means to resolve these battles. Whether the CCG should remain within the DFO is probably the most fundamental question to be answered when considering realignment. If fisheries protection and law enforcement are the primary reasons that it is there, then I suggest the answer is “No.”
Ken Hansen is a Resident Research Fellow with the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University and a member of the Science Advisory Committee for the Halifax Marine Research Institute.