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All foreign vessels entering Canadian Arctic waters should register with authorities says report by Senate Fisheries and Oceans Committee

Controlling Canadian Arctic Waters:
Role of the Canadian Coast Guard


Executive Summary
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Background on the Canadian Coast Guard
Voyage of the Beserk II
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William Rompkey, P.C.

Ethel M. Cochrane

James Cowan

Roméo Dallaire

Elizabeth Hubley

Michael L. MacDonald

Fabian Manning

Dennis Glen Patterson

Vivienne Poy

Nancy Greene Raine

Fernand Robichaud, P.C.

Charlie Watt

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Ceri Au
Communications Officer
Toll-free: 1-800-267-7362

Danielle Labonté
Committee Clerk
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The preface to this report tells how a foreign vessel, previously banished from Canada and with criminals among the crew, sailed undisturbed into the heart of Canada’s Northwest Passage. Authorities noticed her only after she landed in Inuit communities. The Berserk II was a small vessel, but it raises a large question: how well does Canada control its Arctic waters?

No one contests our sovereignty over the Arctic lands, and an orderly scientific process under the Law of the Sea will establish the extent of our continental shelf. But what about marine sovereignty and the control of shipping?

The Arctic is growing in strategic and economic importance. It holds vast, untapped natural resources. Economic development will bring more shipping. So will the gradual thawing create shorter northern routes between Asia, Europe, and North America.

Meanwhile, all other Arctic states have moved to improve their presence and military capabilities in the region. Russia has been particularly assertive. And a number of non-Arctic countries are showing increasing interest in the circumpolar region.

Canada’s position is that the Northwest Passage is internal waters and that sovereignty applies there as on land. We maintain that we can unilaterally pass laws and regulations to protect Canadian interests and benefit northern residents – the Inuit in particular. For countless generations, these first inhabitants have lived and worked on the land, the water, and the ice. Indeed, they are the primary proof that our Arctic waters are Canadian. Canada needs to retain full control over its Arctic waters to protect the exceptionally fragile coastal and marine environment for those who live from it.

Some nations contest our sovereignty over the Northwest Passage. We need to demonstrate our capability to monitor and our strength to enforce. We need a strong overall system of administration working with and for Arctic residents.
The government in recent years has paid increasing attention to the Arctic in thought and substance. Initiatives include a new polar icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), additional funds for important research, and increasing the presence of the Canadian Forces in the North. 

But major gaps remain, as this report – based on expert testimony and first-hand visits to the Arctic – will show. Canada’s presence in the Arctic needs to be enhanced in terms of ships, personnel, administration offices, surveillance, shipping regulations, search and rescue, and oil spill remediation.

Such enhancement requires strengthening the Canadian Coast Guard, our main marine presence in the North. As a special operating agency under the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the CCG provides marine safety and environmental protection services as well as essential at-sea support to other federal government departments and agencies. It should, in future, serve as a major component of our Arctic security system. 

The Coast Guard already gives Canada most of its northern “marine domain awareness” – that is, the big picture of what’s on the water. But, as the voyage of the Berserk II suggests, our big picture is far too small. We need to know what ships are in our waters, force them to report to Canadian authorities, and track their passage.

Air surveillance of the marine domain remains severely limited. Besides CCG shipboard helicopters during the navigation season, bits of information come from the National Aerial Surveillance Program using Dash 7s from the south during the shipping season. There are also Twin Otters in Yellowknife, Aurora over-flights from time to time, and sporadic Transport flights. RADARSAT-2 may be useful in future, but at the moment satellites are dedicated to ice reconnaissance rather than shipping. Looking at Arctic waters from the satellite was described to the Committee as looking through the end of a straw.

Overall, the marine picture is poor. The East Coast and West Coasts of Canada have dedicated fisheries surveillance aircraft, provided through a contract with a private company. The Arctic coast has no such dedicated surveillance aircraft. Who’s there? We don’t really know. Who is transiting the Northwest Passage? We’re not sure. We need better marine monitoring, with the Coast Guard in the lead.

Of course, if there were adequate surveillance capabilities in the Arctic, there still would not be control. On the East Coast of Canada we know what ships are in our waters and we track them. On the West Coast of Canada we know what ships are in our waters and we track them. At present, vessel reporting on Canada’s Arctic Coast, however, is voluntary and not mandatory. Government officials have also confirmed that foreign vessels can transit the Northwest Passage – so long as they don’t land – with no obligation to report to any Canadian authority.

Canada does have a voluntary vessel-traffic system in the Arctic, known as NORDREG and run by the Canadian Coast Guard, which takes reports from foreign vessels and gives them information on ice routes and other matters. As recommended in our previous report, the government intends to make NORDREG compulsory in 2010. 

As well, Canada passed legislation earlier this year to extend the geographic application of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act from 100 to 200 nautical miles. This will help combat the danger of marine pollution as commercial shipping expands.

But there are gaps in NORDREG’s current reporting requirements, which the new regulations for 2010 will not address. Only large vessels will be required to report. Smaller ones (like the Berserk II) transiting without landing will not be required to do so. They will still be able to cross the Northwest Passage without requesting permission from or reporting to any Canadian authority, unless Canada changes the rules.

And what of enforcement? Arctic Offshore Patrol Vessels have been promised for the Navy, but the project has yet to be lifted off the drawing board. The earliest ships will appear only six years from now. Even then, these ships will only be ice-strengthened, not icebreakers. To work in heavy ice, they would need Coast Guard ships breaking a path for them. The patrol vessels will be unable to work a full Arctic season, and will lack adequate military combat capability.

For the next several years, and probably even after that, the Coast Guard should be the sharp end of our control of Arctic waters. They have the experience and the knowledge to add enforcement to their icebreaking, aids to navigation, hydrographic, and other duties that already require them to be in the Arctic. Clearly they would need to partner with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Customs and Border Services, and above all the Canadian Forces; these are all organizations that they have worked with successfully in the past. But the main platform for Canadian operations in the Arctic should be CCG ships armed as necessary.

Security in the Arctic comes not only from strength but from services. The Coast Guard’s many roles include leadership against marine pollution. While the agency maintains caches of remediation equipment scattered throughout the Arctic, there are too few trained personnel to use it. Current measures are oriented to smaller spills; the Coast Guard’s capacity to deal with major oil spills in the region is thus far untested.

Increased resource development, shipping, and tourism will also increase the risk of search and rescue (SAR) incidents. The Coast Guard leads marine SAR, and in this activity as in others, needs additional resources.

Although our Committee’s report deals chiefly with the Coast Guard, I will take the liberty of mentioning the Department of National Defence (DND) from whom we had briefings in Yellowknife, Esquimalt and Ottawa. DND provides overall co-ordination of SAR, and plays a vital role in marine safety. Who responds to a sinking ship in the Arctic if there is no Coast Guard vessel or helicopter nearby? At present, helicopter support would have to come from private aircraft or from helicopters stationed in Trenton, Ontario, or Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador. The East Coast of Canada has dedicated helicopters and SAR technicians (SARTECHS). The West Coast has dedicated helicopters and SARTECHS. The Arctic Coast, Canada’s third and longest coast, should have dedicated Canadian Forces helicopters and SARTECHS and an administrative centre. For surely, as traffic increases, there will be more incidents in the Arctic.

Search and rescue is a task the Inuit are well equipped by experience to handle. They know the sea, the ice and the land intimately. If the Rangers were provided with marine capabilities, as recommended in our previous report, and if they were given the proper gear and equipment and trained in its use, SAR could be enhanced immeasurably. 

Our report views the Canadian Coast Guard as key to Arctic marine security. CCG ships that break ice, escort shipping, re-supply communities, provide aids to navigation, chart the channels, survey the continental shelf, carry fisheries and environmental researchers, and fight oil spills, are also the most visible and effective element of Canada’s projection of sovereignty in the North. As challenges increase, Canada needs to provide the Coast Guard with adequate funding to do the job, whether in sovereignty or in services. 

The evidence heard by the Committee suggests that the icebreaking fleet will be inadequate once shipping increases. Meanwhile, the vessels are rusting out. Only one replacement, the John G. Diefenbaker, has been promised; in reality, virtually all large CCG vessels will soon be past their best – before date. We need to start now.

Moreover, there should be dedicated administration offices in the Arctic. The CCG stations in Iqaluit and Inuvik report to Sarnia, Ontario. There are senior CCG administration offices on the west coast of Canada and on the East coast but none in the Arctic. Surely the administration of Arctic affairs for the Coast Guard should shift to the North.

Our Committee looked at US Coast Guard operations in Alaska, and were frequently reminded of the excellent co-operation between that agency and the Canadian Coast Guard. It is true that the two countries have different positions on the Alaska/Yukon maritime boundary and on the legal status of the Northwest Passage, which is Canada’s internal waters. Yet the hallmark of our relationship, as in the economy, as in NORAD, as in NATO, as in various fishery-management commissions, is co-operation. The two countries know that working together on and off the continent we share is not an option but a necessity. And that understanding lies behind the Committee’s recommendation that we pursue bilateral discussions on the Northwest Passage.

But for productive discussions, Canada will need to show that it has a presence, a robust presence, in the Arctic. We will need to show that we have taken action in a revitalized Coast Guard with adequate ships enforcing tight regulations, that we have taken action to provide adequate search and rescue, that we have taken action on hydrography and oil spill remediation and the whole array of marine services.

And we need to craft our Arctic policy with the Aboriginal peoples of the Arctic as full partners. Too often, good intentions from the rest of Canada have fallen short. As in Nunavut last year, our Committee heard this year in the western Arctic that programs and policies needed to get down to the level of the people – and for that, the people need to help shape the programs and policies in the first place. For the Coast Guard and for the government in general, we urge a renewed commitment to that goal – not just through official structures like the Cabinet committee recommended in this report, but through determination and attitudes of the heart.

Bill Rompkey, P.C., Chair


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