NAVY: Canada’s Navy & Arctic Sovereignty
© 2006 FrontLine Defence (Vol 3, No 5)

The pristine beauty of Canada’s North as seen from the water reaffirms both the majesty and the fragility of the country’s Arctic land and sea territory. So few Canadians have seen this vast part of their country, and yet this was the second time many of HMCS Montréal’s crew visited the eastern Arctic, as the frigate once again sailed Canada’s northern waters.

(Photo: Sgt Dennis Power)

Two years earlier, the ship was part of Exercise Narwhal, a military-led training exercise that brought together sea, land and air elements as well as other government departments at the federal, territorial and municipal levels. From a military perspective, the ship acted as a supporting unit for land forces.

This time, as part of Operation Lancaster, Montréal went further north into Lancaster Sound, the eastern extremity of the Northwest Passage, undertaking maritime insertion and extraction of military and civilian ­personnel as part of a larger maritime surveillance operation, under the command of Joint Task Force North (JTFN). This was a real operation, as opposed to a training exercise, with the intent of proving the operational capability of JTFN, a new entity under Canada Command, standing up in February 2006 and replacing Canadian Forces Northern Area (CFNA). The JTFN Commander embarked in Montréal for the duration of the operation.

Montréal’s 2006 Northern Deployment must be viewed within the context of greater renewed interest in Arctic sovereignty by the new Conservative government. In an era of climate change and globalization, continued neglect of Arctic sovereignty as a policy priority may have significant negative consequences for Canada. Thus, the unresolved jurisdictional disputes in Canada’s North have arguably become more pressing for recent governments.

Montréal’s month-long deployment to Canada’s North (from July 31 to August 31, 2006), provides a prime example of the operational and political usefulness of a Canadian warship conducting Arctic patrols under a joint command. At the same time, the ship’s deployment illustrates some of the specific challenges of operating a Canadian warship in northern waters. There are, however, arguments to be made that versatility and flexibility, rather than specialization, should drive the Navy’s future – even in the context of the current government’s focus on Arctic sovereignty.

The unresolved Arctic jurisdictional ­disputes involve Canada and three of its circumpolar neighbours: the United States, Denmark/Greenland and Russia.

Although former Liberal Defence Minister Bill Graham made headlines in July 2005 with a visit to Hans Island, a small barren island off the coast of Ellesmere Island also claimed by Denmark, historical assertions of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic can best be understood within the Canadian-American context.

From the voyages of the SS Manhattan in 1969 and the USCG Polar Sea in 1985, American incursions into what Canada ­considers sovereign territory have led to the sort of public outcry, periodic as it may be, that fuels political responses.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper inspects sailors from HMCS Montréal, and Canadian Rangers on parade in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Following the parade, the Prime Minister traveled to the launch of Operation Lancaster.

Wrapped up in this public outcry is a fundamental notion of Canadian identity grounded in the need to differentiate the “true North” from its southern neighbour, thus leading to the threat being identified as the United States.

The contemporary context can be seen quite differently. Two compelling arguments are being presented: first, that global climate change is causing the average amount of Arctic sea ice to decrease dramatically, thus expanding the ice-free season of the route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Canada’s Arctic archipelago; and second, that a viable shipping route through the Arctic would result in saving thousands of miles for ships transiting the Panama or Suez Canals, or Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope.

Scientific evidence and economic motivations are being marshalled to explain why unresolved jurisdictional disputes, specifically over the Northwest Passage, can no longer be ignored by the Canadian government. However, the problem, or threat, is not the United States, but rather its position – shared by European and Asian countries – regarding the status of Arctic waters through the Canadian archipelago. Canada’s demonstration of control over this area is seen as a necessary step to international recognition of its jurisdictional rights to legislate, enforce and ­adjudicate measures as the government sees fit. In that way, the Conservative ­government’s position regarding Arctic sovereignty arguably ­presupposes a strategic framework predicated on globalized environmental and economic changes where the focus is on those who might not abide by Canadian law (shippers, for example) as opposed to those who might destroy the Canadian state (enemies).

Global actors, like international shipping companies, challenge a state’s purview over its territory, and of course Canada wants to have the authority to inspect, regulate and generally ensure that ships proceeding through the Northwest Passage meet Canadian safety standards.

In the future, given the potential of regular international shipping through the Northwest Passage with the health of Canada’s Arctic at stake, the government may elect to pass safety standards that may be the strictest for any stretch of water that ships may transit in their sea­going life. That is why Canadian ­presence in the North is deemed crucial.

The month-long Arctic sovereignty deployment of Montréal exemplified, in many ways, the versatility of Canada’s Navy and the multiplicity of tasks that could be successfully executed by a warship, oftentimes concurrently.

Op Lancaster formally took place from August 12 to 22, 2006, and with the decision by the JTFN Commander, Colonel Christine Whitecross, to remain onboard Montréal, the ship became the command and control headquarters for the entire joint sovereignty operation. The Commanding Officer of Montréal acted not only as the Maritime Component Commander (directing the two maritime coastal defence vessels HMCS Goose Bay and HMCS Moncton, sailing with Montréal as part of the operation), but also ensured that his ship’s staff and resources were deployed to aid Col Whitecross in her planning and execution of the entire operation. The three ships patrolled Canadian waters as part of the sovereignty mission, and were central to the joint operation which involved the insertion and extraction of soldiers from the Royal 22e Régiment plus Canadian Rangers at three observation posts, one on both sides of the northern entrance to the Navy Board Inlet and the third on the north side of Lancaster Sound near Cape Home, west of Dundas Harbour.

However, the operation was not strictly a military endeavour. As part of Operation Lancaster, the ship’s mission included facilitating interdepartmental cooperation, exposing the media to the military, and interacting with local communities. Montréal accommodated a number of civilians from other government departments and the media onboard while participating in different Operation Connection activities ashore.

Operation Connection was launched by Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier in February 2006 as part of a general recruiting strategy for the Canadian Forces by encouraging individual military members to reach out and connect with communities throughout Canada. In the process, the strategy also facilitates the military’s understanding and appreciation of local communities – the very people and places that the Canadian Forces protect.

It is not enough to simply ensure cooperation between government departments because Arctic sovereignty protection requires buy-in from local communities – nowhere is this truer than in Canada’s North. And, in that way, Montréal’s presence was not merely directed toward foreign entities but also toward Canada’s own Arctic communities. In short, Montréal’s Northern Deployment accomplished both military and non-military objectives.

That is not to say that Montréal did not face some real challenges while operating in the Arctic. With limited ice strengthening, its hull could not withstand a collision with even a moderately sized iceberg, and even the much smaller “bergie bits” could have done serious damage to the finely machined propeller blades. While these specific challenges are unique to the Arctic, they are not uniquely challenging to a warship. That is to say that, although navigating near ice in the Arctic required special attention and care, it is similar to safely navigating around fishing fleets with extended nets in the shallow waters around St. Margaret’s Bay.

Fuel management was another concern. With traditional fueling stops far to the south, Montréal had to take extraordinary action to add fuel capacity in the pre-deployment phase, to pay extra attention to fuel conservation while conducting operations, and indeed to rely on a non-traditional method of extending her range by taking fuel while alongside the anchored CCG Terry Fox in Lancaster Sound. Although an issue in the Arctic, so too is fuel consumption and availability an issue while transiting the Pacific Ocean en route to operations in Asia.

Landing the infantry at one of the observation posts on a rocky beach on Baffin Island with small breaking waves proved to be a particular challenge for the RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat) crew, requiring exceptional boatmanship and ingenuity to complete the mission safely. It must be noted, however, that similar risks are encountered by Navy RHIBs during Search and Rescue evolutions in rough seas.

The Navy mitigates these multiple challenges by adapting watch rotations for lookouts and radar operators, by pre-planning fuelling opportunities or sailing with a replenishment ship, and by training RHIB crews to a high skill level and encouraging and rewarding initiative and ingenuity.

Indeed, the challenges faced by Montréal demonstrated the inherent capability and flexibility of the current fleet, even for operations in Canada’s Arctic.

What is important for the Canadian government is to clearly understand and articulate national interests in the Northwest Passage region. Arguably, the government does not want to use limited resources to claim sovereignty for reasons of national pride nor does it want to arbitrarily restrict access to international shippers who might profit from the use of the strait in the future. Rather, the government wants to ensure that the fragile ecology of the region is maintained in ­harmony with globalized commerce over time.

Practically speaking, this means that Canada’s national interests aim to have the international community recognize that Canada’s right to regulate, not restrict, the passage of vessels through the Northwest Passage is in keeping with international interests.
HMCS Montréal moors off the coast of Iqaluit during Operation Lancaster. (DND photo)
Setting navigation system and hull construction safety standards, controlling the discharge of liquid and solid waste, and perhaps requiring the embarkation of pilots or the accompaniment of ice breakers for a portion of the transit are all measures that further both Canadian and international interests and goals.

To the extent that the Government of Canada wants replacement ships to be able to operate in Arctic waters, it might need to consider the numerous categories of strengthening above Montréal’s Type E hull. In that way, the government would meet its objective of Arctic sovereignty protection while ensuring that the Canadian Navy retains its composition of capable, versatile, flexible ships designed to operate in defence of Canadian national interests at home and worldwide.
Cdr Paul Dempsey is the Commanding Officer of HMCS Montréal.

Dr Edna Keeble is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Saint Mary’s University.
A longer version of this article appeared in the Canadian Naval Review (Winter 2007) issue. This paper is a scholastic document, and thus contains facts and opinions which the authors alone considered appropriate and correct for the subject. It does not necessarily reflect the policy or the opinion of any agency, including the Government of Canada and the Department of National Defence.
©  Frontline Defence 2006