By Alex Binkley

Although ship traffic will likely double in the Canadian Arctic during the next six years, the federal government can’t ensure the vessels will be able to safely navigate largely unchartered waters or be rescued if they run into trouble, says a report released by Environmental Commissioner Julie Gelfand. Despite years of promises, the government lacks “a strategy to support safe marine transportation in the Arctic,” says the audit conducted by her office for Parliamentarians. “Overall, we found that there is no long-term national vision or coordinated departmental strategies to support safe marine transportation in the Arctic.”

While the government has a Northern Strategy, it “does not provide a vision for marine transportation,” the audit adds. The government needs to consult with northerners and industry to ensure the strategy can “meet the challenges and opportunities in the changing Arctic. … A vision for the Arctic would provide the coherent direction needed to address emerging risks as maritime traffic increases in the region.” The government’s inability to guarantee safe navigation in the north “is inconsistent with its priority as current Chair of the Arctic Council,” the audit continues. “In our view, this is a significant gap, given the importance of marine transportation to economic development and to communities in the North.” The audit found shortcomings in icebreaking, physical aids to navigation, marine charts and ice reporting that, when combined, create concerns about the prospects for safe navigation as shipping increases. The report predicts about 300 commercial voyages a year by 72020. Observers think the figure could be higher.

The Transport, Environment and Fisheries and Oceans departments concurred with Gelfand’s criticisms and recommendations. However, their remedial actions were vague actions scheduled for the future. The departments “are currently developing a Northern Transportation Action Plan, which is intended to serve as an umbrella for all of the government’s activities related to transportation in the Arctic.”

Michael Byers, Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC and an Arctic expert, said in an interview the report’s “bleak assessment of the situation is accurate. It’s also noteworthy that no construction contracts for Arctic ships — Coast Guard or Navy — have yet been signed, after eight years of promises by the federal government.” As well, “there has been no action on building basic Arctic infrastructure including a deep water port promised in 2007. Our most northerly port is Churchill in Manitoba. The lack of basic infrastructure in the Arctic is appalling.”

In September, Fednav’s new Polar Class bulk carrier successfully sailed from Deception Bay through the Northwest Passage with a cargo of nickel concentrate destined for China. “It’s an incredible ship,” Byers noted. “Our concern has to be that not all ships sailing there will have its level of capability. Not all shipping lines have Fednav’s level of capability.”

The environmental audit notes the government released its Northern Strategy in 2009 and a Canadian Arctic Foreign Policy in 2010, which “focuses on Canada’s contributions to international initiatives, rather than on the government’s domestic activities or plans.” For its turn as Chair of the Arctic Council for 2013-15, the government said it would make safe Arctic shipping a priority. Other than a tanker safety plan that applies to all coasts, there has been no action on those policies, Byers points out.

Back in 2009, the Senate transport committee produced a detailed report on the steps needed to ensure safe navigation in the North. The Commons defence committee proposed measures last year to assert Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. The environmental audit notes that those reports “recognized that limited infrastructure and support services represent challenges to safe marine navigation. The committees recommended that a long-term strategic vision is required to guide future departmental activities and to focus infrastructure and services on the most critical needs.” In contrast to the government’s lack of policy, other Arctic nations, including the United States, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, have ambitious policies for improving marine transportation in the north, the audit adds. In 2011, the Canadian Coast Guard and Fisheries and Oceans Canada “drafted a vision for the Arctic, which included key elements related to safe marine transportation, but this was never published or finalized,” it added.

The Coast Guard has cut back the time its icebreakers are in the Arctic while the demand from users has grown, the audit points out. “In each year since at least 2007, commercial vessels have entered the Arctic earlier and left later than Coast Guard icebreakers. In the future, user needs are likely to continue to increase as sea ice further recedes and there is greater marine access and longer seasons of navigation across the Arctic. The Coast Guard has noted that while it has resources to address current traffic levels, it does not have sufficient resources to respond to an increasing demand for services.” Its seven Arctic-capable icebreakers “are on average over 30 years old and approaching the end of their operational lives.” While five ships will undergo refits to keep them at sea, the two most capable ones are scheduled for decommissioning in 2020 and 2022. One new icebreaker, originally planned for 2017, could be in service in 2022. The reduced icebreaker presence in the Arctic “means that icebreakers may have to cover more territory and may take longer to respond to user requests for icebreaking services,” the audit observed.

The Canadian Coast Guard doesn’t measure how well its services work, the audit adds. “In the absence of a robust performance measurement system, it is difficult for the Coast Guard to know the extent to which it is meeting user needs.” Meanwhile, large areas in the north are inadequately charted, the audit said. Canadian Hydrographic Service “estimates that about one per cent of Canadian Arctic waters are surveyed to modern standards.” “While demands for charting in the Arctic are growing, CHS’ resources to do hydrographic work in the Arctic have recently declined. This is an additional challenge on top of a lack of dedicated vessels for conducting surveys, the size and remoteness of the Arctic waters, and the short season in which to carry out the work,” the audit stated.

“Overall, we found that the Canadian Coast Guard has not reviewed systems of aids to navigation in the Arctic according to its program directives, and it has made little progress in reviewing requests by the shipping industry for new or modified aids to navigation. As a result, the Canadian Coast Guard cannot provide assurance to mariners that aids to navigation meet their needs for safe and efficient navigation in the higher-risk areas of the Arctic.”