Rompkey wants more Inuit hired for Coast Guard

Senator urges more spending for Arctic security


Canada needs to boost its ability to enforce Canadian law in the Arctic, and requires new ships, infrastructure and a push to recruit Inuit to work in the Coast Guard, says Bill Rompkey, a Liberal senator from Labrador.

Rompkey is the chair of the Senate's standing committee on fisheries and oceans, which visited Iqaluit and Pangnirtung in June.

Earlier this month, the federal government introduced legislation that would have extended the reach of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act from 100 nautical miles to 200. That bill died on the order paper when Parliament was prorogued.

But Rompkey said that's a limited step. Ottawa could also make it mandatory for foreign vessels that travel in the North to register before arriving in Canadian waters.

"It's easy to do. It doesn't cost anything," Rompkey said in a telephone interview from St. John's.

The current system, called Nordreg, is voluntary, while equivalent programs on the east and west coasts are mandatory.

Rompkey also said replacements for the Coast Guard's aging fleet of icebreakers have been held up by bureaucratic delays. The government plans to spend nearly $1.5 billion on new icebreakers, including $700 million on a replacement for the flagship heavy icebreaker Louis St. Laurent.

In 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper also announced $3.1 billion for new Arctic patrol ships that can break through ice up to one metre thick.

But Rompkey said it will be years before any of these new ships enter service.

"There are lots of ships all over the world that you could buy. If you wait for 10 or 15 years for a ship to be built what's going to happen to the ice cap in that period of time?"

Melting Arctic sea ice has sparked concerns that marine traffic through the Canadian Arctic could boom, and bring with it the risk of accidents, spills, and rogue ships hauling illicit cargo.

"It seems to me we need [new ships] up there now," he said.

Rompkey also argues that the Coast Guard needs to recruit Inuit. The Coast Guard is facing a looming staffing shortage as a wave of baby-boomer mariners retires, and has also looked in recent years to boost the number of aboriginal people working in its ranks.

"The Inuit know the ice, they know the water, they know the land and they understand what it's like to operate up there," Rompkey said. "If they had the proper tools, equipment and mandate, it seems to me that they could… play an important role in the whole question of search and rescue and pollution cleanup."

Rompkey also called for the government to build small craft harbours in Nunavut and increase search and rescue capability based in the North.

Last week the Canadian Press reported Ottawa is mulling a $3 billion plan to replace Canada's aging fleet of CC-115 Buffalo search and rescue planes.

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