Civil agencies should build port, new icebreakers


It’s no surprise the Conservative government’s multi-billion dollar Arctic defence package is now sinking faster than the Titanic – because much of that scheme involves essential pieces of civilian infrastructure that civilian agencies ought to be paying for in the first place.

Readers will recall the election promise, announced by Conservative party leader Stephen Harper in December of 2005: $5.3 billion in extra defence department spending, much of it to pay for three armed icebreakers and a seaport in the Arctic for the Navy, along with a winter warfare training centre, now likely slated for Resolute Bay.

Since the summer of last year, the author of this plan, Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor, has been beating a steady retreat from these extravagant plans – most likely because of resistance from within his own department.

This past July, he told reporters in Iqaluit that the Navy is backing away from the armed icebreaker scheme and is looking at “other possibilities,” such as smaller double-hulled vessels. Likely translation: “the Navy doesn’t want the expensive job of building and operating three big icebreakers and this my face-saving alternative.”

At the same time, O’Connor said the Navy would pick a location for an Arctic seaport by the end of 2006. But it’s now mid-February 2007 and O’Connor is still silent: his latest pronouncement is that he’ll announce a northern package later this year.

We hope, however, that the federal government reconsiders the whole scheme. The Tory government should broaden its laudable Arctic sovereignty policy beyond the defence department to include civilian agencies such as the Coast Guard and Transport Canada, which until now have treated their Arctic responsibilities with malignant neglect.

In principle, there’s nothing wrong with the armed forces getting three naval icebreakers. But Canada already owns an icebreaker service, run by the Coast Guard.

And as the Auditor General of Canada reported last week, the Coast Guard’s aging icebreaker fleet is rapidly steaming well beyond its best-before date. As well, the Coast Guard’s northern region is still figuring out how to implement $13 million worth of budget cuts over two years, even as Stephen Harper brags about his commitments to Arctic sovereignty.

It’s clear that if Canada is to buy any new icebreakers, they should be financed out of a beefed-up Coast Guard budget. The defence department, having endured many years of underfunding, has many other needs that ought to get priority over three armed icebreakers. And if the federal government wants to give the Coast Guard service more teeth, then they can give Coast Guard crews the training and equipment they need to exercise constabulary powers at sea. That’s what the Senate defence committee recommended in a report last fall.

As for an Iqaluit seaport, this is an essential piece of infrastructure that Transport Canada should have built 30 years ago. You can’t blame Iqaluit municipal officials for trying to capitalize on an opportunity, but they shouldn’t be forced to piggyback an essential civilian infrastructure proposal on top of a chimeric election promise made by a party that had yet to assume the burdens of power.

The Iqaluit seaport proposal is valid on its own merits. It shouldn’t matter whether it meets the needs of the Navy. The people of Iqaluit and Nunavut need it for a long list of reasons, related to economic development, environmental protection, and public safety.

For those reasons, it’s a disgrace that the federal departments of Transport and Public Works, which build and run ports in Canada, are not now working on a plan to build one in Iqaluit. If the federal government were paying attention to the Arctic’s real needs, we would have long ago seen a seaport at Iqaluit, along with small wharves and docks in numerous other coastal communities in Nunavut.
As for the Navy, if they need a seaport in the Arctic, then they should get one, but in a location that best suits their needs, such as Lancaster Sound, which forms the entrance to the Northwest Passage, the sea lane that everyone says they want to protect. JB

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