By K. Joseph Spears

Since Canada is an Arctic nation, there is a strong requirement for icebreaker capability in our Arctic waters. The Canadian Coast Guard, operating within Fisheries and Oceans Canada, is tasked with providing the necessary icebreakers in support of its own mandate and other government operations (search and rescue, hydrographic work and resupply, to name just a few). These are hard-working ships, with experienced crews who often work in hostile environments. Interestingly, former CBC  National news anchor Peter Mansbridge, a former Churchill, Manitoba resident, described his time aboard Canadian Coast Guard heavy icebreaker’s CCGS Louis St. Laurent in the Northwest Passage as among his most cherished moments in broadcasting. Yet, Canada’s icebreakers are old, with the average age of Canadian icebreakers being just shy of 40 years, which adversely impacts their operational readiness and reliability.

Our icebreaker fleet sees double duty icebreaking along the St. Lawrence River and Atlantic Coast in the wintertime and operating in the Canadian Arctic during the summer months. Various reports and studies have indicated there is a strong need for more and more reliable icebreaking capability. What intentions does our Canadian Coast Guard have to supplement and enhance Canada’s icebreaking fleet?

The need for a strategic plan became obvious following a recent incident where Canada dodged a bullet. On the morning August 24, 2018, the Russian-flagged and owned ice-strengthened oceanographic vessel Akademik Ioffe grounded on an uncharted rock in the west coast of the Gulf of Boothia in Canada’s Arctic waters. With 106 passengers and 24 crew, it remained grounded for over 11 hours according to a witness statement, held in place by its thrusters under good weather conditions and no ice. The vessel subsequently floated free and proceeded to an anchored position south of Pearson Island in the central Arctic, where she has remained until the passengers were successfully removed from the vessel by a nearby cruise ship on the morning of August 25, before Coast Guard vessels arrived on the scene, and were taken to the closest community, Kugaaruk, and flown by chartered aircraft to southern Canada. Canada’s  JRCC Trenton, responsible for search and rescue in the central Arctic, tasked two RCAF C-130 aircraft from Trenton, Ontario and Winnipeg and as well as two RCAF Cormorant helicopters from the east coast to the incident. It took over nine hours for the first C-130 to arrive on scene. JRCC Trenton also tasked two Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers to assist in this SAR incident, CCGS Amundsen and CCGS Pierre Radisson. Canada had dodged a bullet with respect to a major marine incident in the Arctic and luckily all of the passengers escaped harm.

Given heavy ice conditions, the icebreakers were not able to stand by the casualty and essentially the Russian-owned vessel was on its own. Had there been more damage and/or downflooding this would a created a serious marine response problem. It was pure luck that the sister vessel to the Russian oceanographic ship was close by. Given that vessels can freely transit throughout the Arctic, we are going to see more and more incidents of this type as vessels enter into waters that have been uncharted. It’s important to realize that only ten per cent of the Arctic is chartered to modern standards.

United States Coast Guard has recognized this issue and the challenges with an aging fleet and limited resources. The U.S. has only one heavy icebreaker, USCGS Polar Star, that is 43 years old, but still performs service in the Arctic and Antarctic. In April 2019, the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Karl Schwartz, released an Arctic Strategic Outlook on to guide United States Coast Guard into the future. It is worth examining this useful document that takes into account the increasing international interests in the Arctic. The challenges faced by Canada are the same.

The preamble to the USCG Arctic Strategic Outlook states:

“As the Nation’s primary maritime presence in the polar regions, the Coast Guard advances our national interests through a unique blend of polar operational capability, regulatory authority, and international leadership across the full spectrum of maritime governance. The Coast Guard will continue to work with our allies and partners on the mutual goal of ensuring a safe, secure, and cooperative Arctic, even as our aspiring near-peer competitors maneuver for strategic advantage in the area. However, competition need not lead to conflict. The Coast Guard thrives in situations that require nuanced responses to complex issues. Our persistent presence–on the water, in communities, or in international forums–absolutely equals influence.

This Arctic Strategic Outlook reaffirms our commitment to American leadership in the region through partnership, unity of effort, and continuous innovation. This document establishes three lines of effort crucial to achieving long-term success: (1) Enhance capability to operate effectively in a dynamic Arctic domain, (2) Strengthen the rules-based order, and (3) Innovate and adapt to promote resilience and prosperity.

We understand the significant investment required to secure the Arctic, and we appreciate and embrace the trust the American people have placed in the U.S. Coast Guard. We will remain vigilant in protecting our national interests in the polar regions to forestall the unchecked influence of competitors.”

Canada has recently bought three anchor handling tug supply vessels for conversion by Chantier Davie of Lévis, Quebec, to medium-duty interim icebreakers at a cost of 600 million dollars. The heavy icebreaker CCGS John Diefenbaker being built by Seaspan Shipyards under the National Shipbuilding Strategy is likely not going to be available before 2030. There are many different ways to address the coming period when Canada will not have sufficient icebreaking capability. Rather than purchasing ships on an ad hoc political basis, we need to develop a strategy to deal with the various operational requirements that the Arctic imposes on Canada. It is important to understand that the United States Coast Guard is both a law enforcement agency and vessel operator, while in Canada these duties are split between a number of federal agencies that do not normally work together, such as the Canadian Coast Guard, Transport Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, National Defence, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Canada Border Security Agency, to name just a few. We cannot afford another grounding with a vessel left on its own. The United States Coast Guard’s Arctic Strategic Outlook provides guidance for Canada to develop its own policy. Canada needs to identify the long-term Arctic issues and challenges before being forced to make snap decisions to improve operational readiness resulting from lack of planning and foresight.

Joe Spears is the Vice President of Viking International Reponse and has a long background in marine response on all of Canada’s coasts. He helped prepare the Arctic shipping assessment for Canada submission to the Arctic Council. He can be reached at