An Arctic Voyage with the RCN
BY COLIN COOKE
© 2019 FrontLine Defence and Security (Vol 16, No 3)

Picture this: It’s after midnight but still light out; you’re approaching 77°N latitude off Ellesmere Island and still heading north; the Arctic waters are dead calm with small bergy bits and growlers scattered about; and you’re on the bridge of Canadian frigate HMCS Ville de Quebec – it’s magical. Few people ever have the chance to travel to such awe-inspiring parts of our planet, and to do so as a guest of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) was nothing less than an opportunity of a lifetime.


Bergy bits in Norwegian Bay. (Photo: Colin Cooke)

Along with a group of fellow Canadians from non-military walks of life, I was participating in a program the RCN calls Canadian Leaders at Sea (CLaS). Simply put, it’s an effort to bring together community leaders from across the country to provide the Navy with a chance to showcase what it does, how it does it, and who makes it all happen. Typically, these are short 2- or 3-day voyages out of Halifax or Esquimalt, but occasionally there are other exciting opportunities such as this summer’s Arctic patrol, which provides a rare opportunity to really be immersed in life onboard a Canadian warship.

The Canadian Navy is one of those elements of our society that everyone knows of, but few know very much about. Our ships and crews operate off our coasts and in our major waterways as well as around the world on missions with our allies and at the behest of the United Nations. The RCN has a history and tradition of punching far above its weight in almost everything it does and the CLaS program is an effort to make sure that more Canadian citizens become aware of their navy.


Colin Cooke off Devon Island.

Despite all the positives, the Navy has always faced challenges recruiting and retaining good women and men. The jobs themselves are both challenging and exciting; the travel is often global; and the kitchen always has lots of great food to keep you going. However, the very nature of the job involves being onboard ship for extensive periods of time and frankly, that’s not for everyone. It can be difficult being away from family and friends and for some, it’s too much. But for those who can find the right balance, it is an incredible career path. The education, the training and the responsibilities that are given to our sailors are truly hard to beat.


In this photo, Ville de Quebec crew members conduct a “man overboard” drill after departing Halifax Harbour during Exercise Cutlass Fury. (Photo: Cpl David Veldman)

Watching the crew perform their various jobs throughout my time on Ville de Quebec, demonstrated their professionalism time after time. The frigate really is a small city, and all the roles we see day-to-day in our regular lives are in some way present onboard ship. This is one of the reasons the CLaS program exists. It seeks to get the word out – through these community leaders from across the country – that the Navy is a viable professional option for Canadians.

Our National Shipbuilding Strategy has new ships being built here in Canada for both the Navy and the Coast Guard, and they will be entering service very soon. The RCN finds itself below the number of full-time sailors it requires today to do all that it needs to do, and the personnel challenge will only increase as we add new ships – hence the need to find creative ways to get the word out.


HMCS Ville de Quebec off Iqaluit.

The CLaS program is a comprehensive introduction to life on a warship. This past August, participants donned damage control gear and were shown how to fight fires in smoke-filled rooms. We experienced “man overboard” drills and high-speed manœuvring exercises. We saw how the engineering systems work and explored the engine rooms and electrical spaces. We were introduced to “the best cook in the Navy” and his team. In Sick Bay, we saw how injuries are cared for far from shore. On the bridge, we watched the operations teams in action. In effect, we saw a little bit of almost everything, and can now state with great certainty that the Navy has some impressive opportunities especially for Canadian youth looking for an exciting career.

My selection of an Arctic voyage meant that I joined the ship by small boat from a community far from the ship’s home port. The participants who embark from the major ports get to see the ashore facilities as well, and explore how the Navy base supports the fleet at sea – it’s a comprehensive tour. For me, however, being in the Arctic was truly special. It’s a part of Canada that few of us get to see or even begin to understand.

The snow had only recently left the ground in Pond Inlet which is where I joined the ship. Seemingly perpetual snow cover aside, the Arctic is changing rapidly. Few glaciers make it all the way to the waters edge these days – the majority are like a receding hair line, creeping back higher and higher into the hills above, far from shore. The waters we traveled had ice and icebergs but nowhere near as many as I had anticipated. Those onboard who had been in the Arctic before told me that the differences – even over the last 5 or 10 years – are stark and unnerving.

This too is Canada. We need to be cognisant of the effects of the changing climate on our fellow Canadians as well as the wildlife that makes the Arctic their home. The changing ice situation means there are more tourist boats, cruise ships, cargo ships as well as foreign survey and military vessels entering our waters every year. Our Navy and our Coast Guard are going to be busier and busier as the conditions continue to change and we need to be ready for it.

My take-aways from my time with the ship in the Arctic were many but my message here is simple: the Navy is a great place to learn, work and grow. Canada is a global trading nation with vast coastlines and huge climate challenges. We need an effective Navy and the same goes for its cousin, our Canadian Coast Guard. We need to make sure that our youth know of the opportunities and possibilities that await onboard our Canadian ships.

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Colin Cooke is the President and CEO of the Canadian Marine Industries and Shipbuilding Association. He participated in the RCN CLaS program this past August.

For more information on the CLaS program send an email to: [email protected]

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