By K. Joseph Spears

Canada is both an Ocean and Arctic Nation. Canada has operated government-owned icebreakers for well over a hundred years. For example, the museum ship CHS Acadia moored in Halifax was built to chart Hudson Bay as part of the development of the port of Churchill in the early 1900s. A number of sources have raised concerns about Canada’s impeding “icebreaker gap”, which was first addressed three years ago in a Canadian Sailings article entitled Canada’s Icebreaker Gap. Little, if anything, has been done to alleviate this problem during the past years, which has now assumed critical proportions.

Prime Minister Trudeau announced on January 19, 2018 that he was ordering his officials to commence negotiations with Chantier Davie of Lévis, Quebec which, via a subsidiary, Federal Fleet Services Inc., had proposed Project Resolute which is a P3 proposal to provide Canada with four existing foreign flag icebreakers that were to be modified in Davie’s facilities for service in Canada. Federal Fleet had been successful with Project Resolve which delivered an AOR (resupply) vessel to the Royal Canadian Navy.

In 2016 Canada had issued a Request for Proposals (RFI) that cast a global net for vessel owners and operators to provide information and costing to provide icebreakers on a chartered basis. The Finnish icebreaker company Arctia was prompt in responding to the PM’s announcement and issued a press release the next day. Since the initial flurry of press coverage, the subject has gone quiet and there have been no further announcements by Canada on this subject.

Canada’s Icebreakers

Canada’s icebreakers are an integral part of Canada’s marine infrastructure and any gaps in capability have the potential to impact the Canadian economy negatively. Although Canada’s icebreakers do seasonal work in the Arctic, Canada’s Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) icebreakers were designed for breaking ice in southern waters – on the Great Lakes and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence – to keep Great Lakes and Seaway commerce to the Port of Montreal open as long as possible. Our largest and oldest, CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, commissioned in 1969 is now 49 years of age, and has been worked hard in Southern and Arctic waters.

Canada presently has 15 icebreakers in operation along with two air cushion vehicles that are utilized for icebreaking and flood control along the Saint Lawrence River. These are set out in the chart on the following page. CCG currently has two (2) Heavy Ice Breakers (HI), four (4) Medium Icebreakers (MI), and nine (9) Multi-Task Light Icebreakers in its inventory. CCG deploys these vessels in Canada’s Arctic waters during the late-June to mid-November period (the Arctic season), and South of 60° latitude from the December to May period (the Southern season). The vessels are based in Quebec City, Quebec; Dartmouth, Nova Scotia; Victoria, British Columbia and Argentia and St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.

It is important to note as set out in the RFI, that these icebreakers are multi-mission and not tasked solely for icebreaking. They are an integral part of the CCG fleet. While operating in the Arctic, the vessel’s primary functions include: conducting ice escort, supporting northern resupply, providing a platform for scientific research and delivering CCG programs such as Aids to Navigation and Search and Rescue. Once these vessels return to port after Arctic operations, they undergo maintenance and deploy for Southern icebreaking operations throughout Eastern Canada, the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes from December until early May. During this period, the icebreakers provide vessel escort, route assistance, harbour breakouts, flood control and ice reconnaissance services for a variety of commercial shipping, fishing and public transportation activities. Again, the icebreakers also support other CCG programs such as Aids to Navigation, Environmental Response, Fisheries Enforcement, Maritime Security and Search and Rescue.

Upon completion of the Southern icebreaking season, these vessels undergo additional maintenance prior to deployment back to the Arctic. They have a high operational tempo, with vessels constantly in for repair and refit in commercial shipyards. As the vessels age, operational efficiency is impacted. Icebreaking-capable vessels that are approaching the limit of their notional operational life are undergoing Vessel Life Extensions (VLEs) to keep them in service until replacement vessels can be built and delivered. VLEs are scheduled to take place until 2023, with up to three vessels undergoing repairs each year. While efforts are being made to minimize work that would occur during an icebreaking season, VLE work will remove some vessels from service for a significant period of time.

Replacement of the 15 vessels falls outside National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS), and none is presently scheduled to be replaced under NSS, except CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, which is a proposed Polar class icebreaker to be built by Seaspan as part of NSS. CCGS Ann Harvey was the last icebreaker built in Canada in 1987. The average vessel age is over 30 years.

Canada’s icebreaker problems are both age and capability-related. While construction of CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, a new Polar Class icebreaker, was announced with great fanfare by Prime Minister Harper, it is unlikely that this vessel will be operational before 2028, and even that date is optimistic. That vessel to be built is solely for Arctic operation for fall, spring and summer months.

Request for Information (RFI)

The government’s Request for Information and Industry Consultation for Interim Icebreaking and Towing Capability for the Canadian Coast Guard was issued in 2017. The RFP stated:

Request for Information and Industry Consultation

1. Objective

a. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) with the assistance of Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) intends to consult industry to determine commercially available options to:

i. Deliver an interim icebreaking capability1 in order to address potential icebreaking capacity gaps for the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) on the East Coast (wintertime operations in southern Canada) and in the Arctic (summertime operations in the Arctic navigable season).

b. The Government of Canada is seeking information regarding the potential pricing and availability of interim measures to provide icebreaking and towing services. It also seeks to understand how the proposed solutions by Industry might provide economic benefits and support to the shipbuilding and broader marine industry in Canada. Consistent with the Buy-in-Canada Shipbuilding Policy, it is the Government of Canada’s intent that the repair, maintenance and refit of vessels will be conducted in Canada.

Due to age and reduced availability of the icebreaking fleet, CCG anticipates that it may require additional icebreaking capacity provided by one to five icebreakers (Heavy, Medium, or Light) at various times over the next number of years. Accordingly, CCG must investigate potential bridging strategies to address potential gaps in service.

It is clear that the CCG wishes to explore cooperative solutions to help Canada avoid the so-called icebreaker gap, within the formal purchasing process consisting of an RFI followed by an RFP under federal procurement guidelines.

Canada’s Heavy Icebreakers — CCGS Terry Fox

CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent and CCGS Terry Fox transited to the North Pole in 2014 and 2015 to perform work in support of Canada’s claim to the North Pole seabed as part of her continental shelf which has continued in recent years on scientific and oceanographic missions. CCGS Terry Fox was built in B.C. for Gulf Canada as an ice-strengthened offshore supply vessel for use in the Beaufort Sea and was world leading technology when she was designed and built. During the days of Beaufort Sea exploration (1970-80’s), Canada led the way in the development and design of icebreaker technology. Much of that technical expertise went to Finland which has subsequently become a world leader in icebreaker design and development. CCGS Terry Fox was bought by the Canadian government after the collapse of the Beaufort Sea oil exploration in the early 1980s, and has proven to be a highly successful acquisition that has served Canadian interests well. With new propulsion, and a mid-life refit, if cost- effective, this vessel may well have many good sailing years ahead. Officially, CCGS Terry Fox is slated to be decommissioned in 2020.

Icebreaker Gap Identification

The Shipping Federation of Canada has been vocal on Canada’s icebreaker gap. It called on the government to ensure that there is sufficient icebreaking capability within the Great Lakes System to allow for commerce to take place. This is a shipping infrastructure problem that affects Canada’s economy, but also impacts Arctic operations and capability. The Federation stated in 2015 that “The past two years have demonstrated the limits of CCG’s icebreaking fleet as it dealt with icebreaking in the Arctic, the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River and Eastern Canada. Already operating with a limited and aging number of assets over a very large geographical area, the conditions demonstrated the breaking point for the system and the need for more icebreakers as soon as possible to meet adequate levels of service and safety.”

A similar approach was raised by the Emerson report entitled Pathways Connecting Canada’s Transportation System to the World. The report tabled in February 2016 pulled no punches and painted Canada’s Coast Guard fleet as the oldest in the world. The report stated: “At that rate, the median age of the fleet will not decrease. Other strategies, such as outsourcing or leasing, are not part of the strategy and thus cannot be deployed to meet short-term requirements.”

The report warned that coast guard icebreaking capability in Arctic is decreasing, while vessel traffic in the region is increasing. It blames the number of breakdowns on underfunding of maintenance by the Conservatives and a general neglect by politicians in Ottawa. “Indeed, for such a critical piece of transportation infrastructure, the Canadian Coast Guard is not receiving the political attention, or the administrative and financial resources it requires,” the report said.

The Shipping Federation proposes to consider alternative service delivery either through chartering and/or purchasing vessels from other nations, and to modify NSS to build smaller, but more numerous vessels that can be used in icebreaking capabilities and final waters.

Working with the United States

The United States has just issued an RFP to five shipbuilders for a new heavy icebreaker. It proposes three heavy and three medium icebreakers, with the first to be delivered in 2023. Canada shares common waters with the United States. Our strategic interests are very much aligned in the Arctic with those of our best friend and ally, the United States. There is therefore an opportunity for Canada and the United States to work together to build a class of polar icebreakers based on the design of CCGS John G. Diefenbaker to be built under NSS while a date for commencement of vessel construction has not yet been committed to. Collaboration with the U.S. on the design and construction of polar icebreakers would help alleviate the icebreaker gap and give both Canada and the United States much-needed capability in the Arctic and standardization for Arctic operations.

We can work with the United States with which we have historically had a long-standing shared interest in the region. This is an opportunity for our two countries to work together towards a common good and protect the Arctic environment, which has various spinoffs on a number of fronts. This will take leadership on the part of Canada.

Moving Forward to Close the Icebreaker Gap

It’s time for a rethink of Canada icebreaker capability in light of rapid changes in the Arctic. While there has been no formal RFP issued, the Prime Minister’s comments concerning opening discussions with Project Resolute is a good start. The chartering of icebreakers provides short to medium-term capability in a cost-effective manner, while providing a chance for Canada to examine new technologies and options including hull designs, to maximize operational effectiveness in southern waters and in the Arctic, when it decides to secure icebreakers to meet its long-term requirements. CCGS Terry Fox, a commercial icebreaker, has proved to be a highly successful multi-mission CCG icebreaker and allows midlife refit with residual icebreaking capacity for Canada. Closing the icebreaker gap is a necessary investment in Canada’s future as an Ocean and Arctic Nation.

K. Joseph Spears, principal of Horseshoe Bay Marine Group, has a long-standing interest in Canada’s Arctic and marine capabilities. He has participated in many policy dialogues in the development of marine practices for the government of Canada. He assisted in the strategic environmental assessment of Canada’s polar icebreaker under contract to the Canadian Coast Guard via Norstrat Consulting. He can be reached at