Only a few Canadians understand that Canada is a maritime nation and that the world’s maritime commons are as critical to today’s Canada as the supply convoys were to Second World War Britain. The world’s oceans cover 70 per cent of the earth’s surface and are our oldest, most economical and most utilized avenue of transportation of food, goods and materials. Euphemistically called the “steel highway,” on any given day, some 42,000 cargo ships carry between five and six million sea containers – 80 per cent of global commerce. Two-thirds of the world’s oil travels by sea on 11,000 bulk carriers.

Ninety per cent of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of the sea, and 95 per cent of intercontinental communication runs along cables on the sea floor.

Maritime commerce has been the basis of enterprise since the second millennium BCE and has been growing since. University of Nantes Professor Patrick Chaumette told a Paris audience at the Making the Sea More Human in May 2018, the expansion of human activities at sea has mandated “rebuilding the concepts of maritime and ocean law…the sea is one of our new frontiers. The development of human activities at sea has led to a transformation of the Law of the Sea and Maritime Law,” the main purpose of which “is to civilize the new activities opened up by technological innovations.”

Ships carry almost half of Canada’s trade, making seaborne trade critical to our prosperity as a nation.

Efthimios Mitropoulos wrote in his 2005 article “Putting the Seafarer First” in Transport International Magazine that without commercial ships and the seafarers who sail them, half the world would freeze, and the other half would starve.

Canada is a maritime nation with a maritime geostrategic position that is unique, challenging, diverse, and complex:

  • It has significant coastlines fronting on three oceans: the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Arctic. The Canadian Arctic is a total of 1.4 million square kilometers. Its saltwater coastline is 243,797 kilometers long – the world’s longest – and includes the Canadian Archipelago’s 36,563 islands.
  • The exclusive economic zone is the world’s fifth largest: 5,543,913 square kilometers.
  • Canada’s ocean estate covers 7 million square kilometres – equal to 70 per cent of our landmass
  • Only two provinces, Saskatchewan and Alberta, do not have saltwater coastlines.
  • We share a border with four other nations: The United States along the southern border, and the 3378 kilometer Alaska-Canada border; a maritime border with Denmark (at Greenland); Russia, where the western hemisphere’s north meets the eastern hemisphere’s north; and France, with the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, 25 kilometers off Newfoundland’s Burin peninsula.

However, many Canadians are oblivious to how materials and resources arrive at their stores, shops and supermarket shelves. And unless or until the flow is slowed or halted, they are likely to remain unaware of the importance of and Canada’s dependence upon the maritime commons – a collective state of unconsciousness called “maritime blindness.”

Adding to maritime blindness, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN)’s blue-water operational jurisdiction keeps our Navy away from the public eye and distant from the public consciousness, earning the moniker “Silent Service.” The Center for International Maritime Security, a Washington D.C.-based Center for International Maritime Security, notes that the U.S. Navy addresses this “blindspot” in the public knowledge by conducting a series of Fleet Weeks across the country to educate Americans, by “bringing exposure to the sea services, even in those corners of the country far from a sea.”

The RCN has adopted a unique approach. Its Canadian Leaders at Sea (CLaS) Program is “aimed at proactively engaging with Canadian stakeholders to tell the RCN story, invigorate the RCN brand, and showcase the RCN to Canadians.”

As the name suggests, the direct targets of this program are Canadian leaders in public life, business, academia and media. RCN senior staff hopes these opinion leaders will convey their perceptions and experiences to their respective networks of family, friends, colleagues, employees, constituents and associates “to increase overall public awareness and understanding of the RCN’s role in their defence, security and prosperity as a recognized Canadian institution.”

To become “CLaS-mates,” participants must embark a Canadian warship or submarine at sea for one to three days, in either a Halifax Class Canadian Patrol Frigate (CPF), Victoria Class Hunter-killer Submarine (SSK) or a Kingston Class Maritime Coastal Defence Vessel (MCDV).

The Harry DeWolf Class Arctic & Offshore Patrol Vessels (AOPV) will be included in the program when they join the fleet.

This gives participants an opportunity to live among and interact with the RCN’s sailors to gain a deeper understanding of their mission in service to Canada, to learn about their life at sea, to understand the training that each sailor receives in addition to their actual job, see first-hand the complexity of each evolution, and to understand how each team and sub-team interacts with others and how the whole ship’s company sails and operates a Canadian warship.

“It is difficult to express the depth of my gratitude for the hospitality, professionalism and care that our hosts and the [HMCS] Ottawa crew demonstrated towards us,”  wrote Joan Wiggins –  Vice President & Investment Counsellor,RBC Phillips, Hager & North Investment Counsel Inc., Victoria, BC – to RCN Commander Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd following her September 2018 sail in HMCS Ottawa. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and one that would make any Canadian proud of our country and those in Canadian military service. The trip was a wonderful balance of adrenaline, introspection, learning and camaraderie.”

Most recently, the RCN held CLaS alumni meetings in both Halifax and Esquimalt during Battle of the Atlantic weekend from May 3-5. Some 35 participants came from across Canada to continue their involvement with their Navy. The group included a diverse mix of Canadians and included business and community leaders, academics and journalists. Participants covered costs associated with their travel and accommodations. During at-sea CLaS events, in-transit travel and accommodations before boarding the vessel and the return to their homes are the responsibility of participants, in accordance with Treasury Board regulations. As Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd noted, their participation used no public funds.

CLaS-mate opportunities are normally led by an RCN flag officer. The Atlantic and Pacific Commanders of Maritime Forces accompany their respective groups and, circumstances permitting, the Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy will escort one of these groups, indicating the significance of this initiative. They provide strategic context for the work that RCN sailors do, and the operations conducted by the Navy on, below and above the ocean, showcasing the skills and technology the RCN employs in defence of Canada and in operations around the world.

While at-sea, CLaS participants have opportunities to see many of the ship’s resources in action, including the operations room, bridge team, weapons, engineering, high-speed maneuvering and damage control, and they participate in many of the routine activities of life in a Canadian warship or submarine.

Participants also have the opportunity to see the Navy’s shore-based resources as well, including Regional Joint Operations Centre, ship repair and maintenance and training facilities.

“Canadian Leaders at Sea (CLaS) is about engaging with Canadians and encouraging their interest in, and support of, the Canadian Armed Forces and Royal Canadian Navy (RCN),” incoming Commander RCN Vice-Admiral Art McDonald explained to Vanguard. “Our goal is to foster a better understanding of the role of the RCN and how we contribute to and support Government of Canada objectives at home and around the world. Through this experience, we (the RCN) also benefit from the input of the participants, leaders in their own fields, which helps us to identify ways to improve how we conduct our business and remain relevant.” 

Tim Dunne is a retired CAF military public affairs officer with 37 years of service. He has served in Canada, the U.S., Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He has been awarded for his work by the Canadian Public Relations Society and the International Association of Business Communicators. He was accorded the Order of Loyal Service by the Republic of Bulgaria in 2001.