Is Canada Really The 'True North Strong and Free' When It Ignores Arctic Sovereignty?

Jeff Gilmour · National board member of the Naval Association of Canada and a Research Associate with the Arctic Institute of North America (AINA) · Posted: August 7, 2020

Icebreaking ships are key tools for projecting power in the Arctic, by breaking sea ice for shipping in northern waters, such as Canada’s NorthWest Passage (NWP) and Russia’s Northern Sea Route (NSR).  Receding ice levels and potential for economic development in these regions suggest the transit of international ships will likely be increasing on a year-round basis.  Some countries, such as China are already looking at potential cost-savings by utilizing these new shipping lanes.  Russia has been one of the most active Arctic nations, spending billions over the past decade on military installations, natural gas and oil infrastructures, deep-water ports and new icebreakers able to operate year-round in the Arctic Ocean. 

Canada’s icebreaker fleet falls within the purview of the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) that, in turn, is an agency within Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The CCG’s mandate is to “support government priorities and economic prosperity and contribute to the safety, accessibility and security of Canadian waters." While much of the day-to-day operations of the CCG take place in both coastal and inland waterways, the CCG undertakes its mandate in Arctic waterways through its icebreaker fleet.  

The Coast Guard is a civilian agency that operates in support of both its own mandate and the programs of other federal agencies. Unlike the US Coast Guard, the CCG is not considered a part of Canada’s national-security apparatus as it has no mandated authority linked to either law enforcement or defence. The CCG, however, makes a very significant contribution to Canada’s sovereignty merely through its presence in the Arctic. It serves as a visible and effective expression of Canadian sovereignty in Arctic waters through four key sovereignty-related functions: providing and supporting access of vessels and goods to isolated communities, protection of the Arctic marine environment, monitoring shipping in Canadian territorial waters, and support for oceanographic mapping of the sea floor and continental shelf in support of Canada’s territorial claims. At present, the Coast Guard has two “heavy” icebreakers and six other icebreaker platforms that are deployed to the Arctic in June. However, none of the current fleet is capable of operating there in winter (i.e year-round operations), and are withdrawn from Arctic patrol duties by early November. Surprisingly, Canada currently has no year-round patrol capacity for its Arctic waters.  

Despite the geographic importance of the Arctic relative to Canada’s overall territorial holdings, and the role that icebreakers play in supporting both the inherent security and economic interests of that region, the acquisition of new icebreaker ships to maintain the necessary CCG capacities in the Arctic has been plagued by government indecision and delayed by repeated “reviews”.  This despite the fact that a number of reports have identified that Canada’s existing icebreaking fleet is becoming outdated, and that plans to replace many vessels are to be implemented well after they have passed their scheduled date for decommissioning.  All of the CCG’s icebreaker fleet are now of a vintage that exceeds the generally recognized 30-year life cycle for such vessels.  

The best known example is the history surrounding the CCG’s largest vessel, the Louis St. Laurent. It was commissioned in 1968, and was scheduled to be decommissioned in 2000. While funding for a replacement vessel was provided in 2008 ($720 million), construction scheduling conflicts and the Trudeau government’s call in 2019 to review the design and budget for the replacement vessel (to be commissioned as the CCG John G Diefenbaker) means that no replacement for the ‘Louis’ will be ready to take up station until some twenty-five years- at the earliest- after it was originally scheduled for decommissioning.  It is only a matter of time before the “Louis” will have to be finally retired, leaving this country with reduced “heavy” ice-breaking capacity to assist seasonal shipping in our Arctic waters, let alone the ability to conduct year-round operations. The current government has not said when it will award a contract while the cost of the replacement ship is under review, and of course the need to fund Covid-related programs will likely put any large, planned capital program under the microscope.  

While the Royal Canadian Navy’s new Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) ships (the first vessel HMCS Harry DeWolf was officially received by the RCN late last month) will provide for enhanced enforcement capabilities in Arctic waters for the first time in seventy years (in support of countering illegal fishing, illegal immigration, environmental protection, disaster response, criminal activities and drug smuggling, and search and rescue), they will, again, only be on station in Arctic waters during summer months, and will not provide icebreaking services for other vessels.

In comparison to Canada’s inability to get even a single new ice-breaking vessel into the water, Russia is substantially increasing its current icebreaker fleet of 40 vessels most of which have year-round operational capacity. In May 2019, Russia announced the launching of its new nuclear-powered icebreaker, the “Ural”, as part of the three “Artika” (Arctic) class icebreakers. The “Artika” class icebreakers, with two reactors aboard, reached the final stage of sea trials in late June 2020. In July 2020, Russia announced that it also had started construction on the “Leader Project”, the world’s most powerful nuclear-powered icebreaker, at the Zvezda shipyard in the Far East Region.  The vessel can break up to 4.3 meters of ice and operate year-round.  Moscow intends to have the three “Leader” class vessels operational by 2033. 

President Putin stated recently he was stepping up construction of icebreakers with the aim of significantly boosting freight traffic along the NSR year-round.  By 2035 he said Russia’s arctic fleet would consist of at least 13 operational heavy-duty icebreakers – nine of which will be nuclear powered.

A lack of political will to enhance Arctic patrol capacities through the CCG’s icebreaker fleet is part of consecutive government’s record of broken promises to provide the necessary infrastructure to both reinforce and enforce Canada’s territorial claims in the Arctic, (DND facilities and capacities, harbours, roads, etc.). And now, even the most visible and traditional means of doing so via CCG patrols is at risk due to the long-overdue yet unrealized need for replacement vessels. This is in stark contrast to other Arctic countries, particularly Russia, that are clearly ramping up to serve national interests as the climatology in the region changes over time.  

As noted, the CCG has operated according to a seasonal schedule under which icebreakers that work in the St. Lawrence during the winter and spring would head north to provide icebreaking services in the Arctic from June to October. However, a gradual reduction in the Arctic ice cover has meant the shipping season has begun to extend earlier into the spring and later into the fall. This will result in a paradigm shift in the traditional seasonal pattern of northern deployment of ships and their crews by the Coast Guard, requiring the need for more vessels. Eventually, it will call for a sustained, year-round presence in Arctic waters. Current trends suggest that, sooner rather than later, demand for icebreaking and patrol services will outstrip the ability of the Government of Canada and the CCG to deliver their traditional mandate responsibilities in Arctic waters. This, at a time when environmental factors, competition for, and access to, Arctic -based resources, and geopolitical developments, point to the need for a year-round presence on the part of the CCG, even if only to fly the flag as a means of protecting national interests and sovereignty.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Professional Development Institute of the University of Ottawa.



Jeff Gilmour is a former MARS officer in the RCN.  He is currently a national board member of the Naval Association of Canada and a Research Associate with the Arctic Institute of North America (AINA) which is affiliated with the University of Calgary. 

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