Inuit should be trained for the Coast Guard

Inuit should be trained for the Coast Guard



The Prime Minister has said of Canada's Arctic "use it or lose it." And he's right. But who is to use it? And how can we lose it?

Clearly, the Inuit have used it for thousands of years. They even call it "our land" – Nunavut. They live on the land and on the sea. It is their home, the home of Canadians, and therefore the best proof that the Arctic land and sea are part of Canada.

But how can they sustain life there if they do not have sufficient access to marine resources such as turbot, or facilities to land and process their catch?

Those of us from the Atlantic take for granted wharves and breakwaters in all our communities. In Nunavut there is not one. Not one. Of the seven recommended by a recent report only one, for Pangnirtung, has been announced.

So if the Inuit are to continue to "use it," they must have the resources and the infrastructure. And, we should understand that new policies and practices in the Arctic must be done with the aboriginal inhabitants as full partners.

With their knowledge of the Arctic land and sea why are there not more Inuit in the Coast Guard? At a time when attrition in this front-line organization is at a critical point, surely more people with superior knowledge of the environment should be recruited.

In any case, there is a crisis in recruiting for the Coast Guard that must be addressed. For this should be Canada's front-line organization in the Arctic. They have the experience. They know the job. All they need are the mandate and the tools.

But the Coast Guard, categorized by witnesses before the Senate as an orphan in government, is dangerously short of tools. Ships are well past their best before date. True, the Diefenbaker will replace the St. Laurent. But when? Moreover, another 16 new Coast Guard vessels promised are now stalled in bureaucratic slush.

How much will the ice cover recede over the next 10 years? And how many ships both large and small will sail or steam through Canadian waters during that time? How many of them will spill oil? How many will destroy valuable wildlife habitat? Can we do anything about it?

The present ships are valuable as platforms for research which we are carrying out with great resourcefulness and diligence. This research will be invaluable not only for the waters of the Arctic Archipelago, but also for ownership and control of those stretching beyond our 200-mile limit where valuable supplies of untouched minerals, oil, and gas are located.

But are our ships modern enough and plentiful enough for the Canadian control that is needed over the next decade? We have announced that we intend to extend the zone of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, but how will we police it?

Because if we don't, someone else will. Or there will be anarchy in the Arctic. We either use it or lose it.

We could start by making NORDREG compulsory – without further delay. On our Atlantic and Pacific coasts vessels over 100 tons must register with Canadian authorities who track them to their destination. Ninety-six hours before a foreign ship enters our 12-mile coastal zone, we know her flag, what she is carrying and where she is going.

But in the Arctic, registration is voluntary. We are told most ships register. But how do we know?

And if we don't know what ships are there, their course, and where they are going, there will indeed be anarchy. For clearly, over the next 10 years, as the ice cover recedes, more and more ships will be using the Northwest Passage and our other Arctic waters.

This is what the Americans fear most. They dispute our ownership, but they would likely keep quiet about it if they were assured that we were there and in control.

As Arctic expert Rob Huebert put it: "the Americans would probably say ‘go ahead, Canada; set up all these rules and regulations, just as the Russians are doing, and we will not contest them if you actually show you have ability to do so.'"

We must make NORDREG compulsory, a simple move that will cost nothing and achieve much. And then, we must give the Coast Guard the tools to do the job, give them platforms that are properly ice-strengthened, platforms that can carry the armed forces or the RCMP or Canada Customs, whatever is required, in addition to regular command and control. In other words, use it or lose it.

Some of these ships that will traverse the Northwest Passage will spill oil. It is inevitable. Canada has caches spread throughout the Arctic for just such an emergency.

But who is on the spot to deal with such occurrences? And if no one is there, how do we get them there?

I say again, the Inuit know the environment and how important it is to protect it. After all, it is primarily theirs.

Why not give them the training they might need to deal with marine emergencies? They already know better than anyone the location of the habitats of marine life.

Similarly with search and rescue. The SAR Techs (Search and Rescue Technicians) of the Canadian Forces are second to none in skill and courage and among the finest of the Canadian Forces.

But if they are not on the spot with the proper equipment, all their skill and courage will be for naught. John Amagoalik, the "father" of Nunavut, told our Senate Committee that, after a plane crash, he once spent two days in sub-zero weather in the High Arctic before a helicopter from Trenton, Ont. could get to him. It had to come from Trenton. With the increased usage we are expecting in the Arctic, would it not make sense to position search and rescue equipment closer to the source of trouble?

There is a search and rescue unit normally stationed at Goose Bay, but part of it was recently tasked to Afghanistan. At least Goose Bay, Labrador, is closer than Trenton, and it stands to reason that the base in Goose Bay should have capacity for search and rescue in the Arctic and sub-Arctic.

There is rescue from the air and there is rescue from the sea. Again, the Inuit are naturals on the sea and the ice. Why not expand the Canadian Rangers to include an enhanced marine capacity, give the Inuit the boats and gear and insurance that are required and let them help with search and rescue in their homeland? They know it better than anybody.

Arctic waters and Arctic land are Canadian. We know that and we can prove it. But if they are to be ours not only in theory but in practice, we must show we are in command and control. We must either use it or lose it.

Senator Bill Rompkey, a Liberal, is chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans.

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