Thursday, February 15, 2007

What to do with the Canadian Coast Guard?

A letter of mine in The Globe and Mail today (dealing with CCG here in light of the debate over armed Navy icebreakers and whether only the military can assert Arctic sovereignty, plus the CCGs small marine security role):
Neil Reynolds (Bring Back The Mighty Ship Labrador -- Report on Business, Feb. 14) says "Canada could very quickly deploy heavy Arctic icebreakers that function simultaneously as armed naval patrol vessels." But there is no national or military need for navy icebreakers. As Mr. Reynolds notes, the Canadian navy has not operated an icebreaker since the 1950s. Since then, the Coast Guard has had our icebreaking fleet. But the current icebreakers are getting very long in the tooth, as the Auditor-General notes.

The sensible thing to do would be to acquire truly Arctic-capable vessels for the Coast Guard, whose presence in Arctic waters would be perfectly adequate to assert Canadian legal claims. Moreover, assigning the icebreakers to the Coast Guard would avoid the inevitable delays, complications and extra costs involved in the navy's relearning very specialized operational skills. Besides which, the Coast Guard can use such vessels for the missions its icebreakers already perform in the North, off the east and west coasts, and in the St. Lawrence River.
What the Auditor General said:
Sheila Fraser told reporters that the problems rest with the agency's biggest and oldest ships, and she called on the Coast Guard to "decide on a few of the most urgent priorities and then get the job done."..

Icebreakers are designed to last 30 years, but they will be 40- to 48-year-old by the time the Coast Guard replaces its own vessels in the next decade [emphasis added]. The Auditor-General said there are already delays in obtaining replacement vessels out of $276-million in funding awarded by the previous government in 2005.

"The current replacement schedule is already becoming outdated and unrealistic," the report said. "The existing schedule indicates most vessels will be replaced long after they have exceeded their estimated useful lives."
What the Globe editorializes today:
Nothing will change until the Conservative government pays more attention to this continuing problem. The Coast Guard was shuffled to the transport department in 1936, then switched back to Fisheries in the mid-1990s when a fishing war erupted with Spain [the merger actually took place in April, 1995 and was completely unrelated to the dispute with Spain]. Although it is now a special operating agency, and although its unarmed vessels are on security patrols, it still reports to Fisheries. There is a caveat: If there is a marine security threat, it will come under the direction of the Department of National Defence through marine security operations centres.

This is no way to safeguard our shores. The Coast Guard is so poorly managed that it once set up project teams to address all of the Auditor-General's issues -- even though the main recommendation was to set only a handful of priorities. The U.S. Coast Guard is under the direction of Homeland Security. In recognition of the need for more security on Canada's waterways and for better management of the agency, the Conservatives should similarly transfer the Coast Guard to the public safety department before it runs aground.
No doubt there are management problems. But the underlying problem has been lack of funding since the CCG was transferred to Fisheries and Oceans and two organizations' fleets were (with great difficulty) merged. Liberal governments were in power almost all that time.

The CCG has these core missions: search and rescue, environmental protection (e.g. oil spills), navigation safety and marine communications, and icebreaking; and, on behalf of Fisheries and Oceans, fisheries enforcement (with vessels carrying armed Fishery Officers) and providing vessels for hydrographic surveying and fisheries research,.

The CCG is a completely civilian organization and has no criminal law enforcement or military role (a fact many people do not realize--it is not a replica of the US Coast Guard which does have these roles). CCG vessels however do from time to time act as platforms for law enforcement personnel, and the CCG is taking on a joint role with the RCMP on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence.

The CCG's role in sea water security operations is very minor, despite what the Globe may think.

The problem for the CCG is the disparate nature of its functions, which normally excite almost no political interest, especially at the ministerial level. The organization did quite well when under Tranport because it did not then have any fisheries roles and Transport was directly concerned with what it did. But since the switch to Fisheries only the fish-related activities have generate much, if sporadic, interest. Transport has been transformed into a department with very few operational functions (now mainly just policy making and regulation enforcing), so it is hard to see a shift back.

Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness is the ministerial umbrella for the RCMP, CSIS, Corrections Canada and the Canadian Border Services Agency. These days all those agencies are of great political interest and their functions are related in one way or another. Were the CCG to be placed under the same umbrella it is hard to see its mainly hum-drum missions getting much ministerial attention. And almost none of those missions have any real link with those of the other agencies.

It really is difficult to see a better minister than Fisheries and Oceans, where at least there is an inherent interest in things related to water. But it is the responsibility of the government as a whole to pay attention to the CCG and give it the resources it needs. A small step is being taken with some new vessels being procured. And, as with rebuilding the CF, rebuilding the CCG will be a long and expensive process given the past decade of neglect. It remains to be seen if the Conservatives--or their Liberal successors--will be up to the job. I'm not confident.

In any case, the CCG does not deserve the drive-by journalism of Greg Weston.

Disclosure: I worked for the CCG, for a time, as a bureaucrat.

Arctic update: US view:
Calling Canada's claim of sovereignty over the Northwest Passage "excessive" and "tenuous," a top Pentagon adviser says Canada should work through the United Nations to protect its security and environmental concerns in the Arctic.

"The Law of the Sea does not support some of these excessive claims to the passage," says James Kraska, the oceans policy adviser to the United States joint chiefs of staff, in an article that has the full backing of the Bush administration and was to be released today in Ottawa...

The European Union, he points out, also shares the U.S. view [emphasis added] that Canada does not have sovereignty over the Northwest Passage [I believe Japan and Russia are of the same opinion; we're rather out-numbered - MC]...


Blogger WE Speak said...

"I worked for the CCG, for a time, as a bureaucrat."

That certainly helps explain the long post! :)

I think you're right, Public Safety would be the best place for The CG. Today's CG is where the Navy was 10 to 15 years ago before the arrival of the Halifax class frigates. What the Navy had to do to keep the old steamers going was ridiculous. I can remember many times cannibalizing parts from one ship that wasn't due to sail so that we could. Need a Turbo Alternator - get it from Assiniboine, she's not going anywhere for 2 months. Hell, we didn't even get our first electric typewriter on the ship until 1986 and that was only because we were going on a six month NATO. We had to give it back after the six months for the next NATO ship!

5:07 a.m., February 16, 2007  

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