Senate report says coast guard should recruit Inuktitut speakers

There are currently two options for people who are trying to speak with the coast guard: French and English.

Committee suggests disconnect between policies and daily lives of northerners can hamper safety

The Canadian Coast guard's medium icebreaker Henry Larsen is seen in Allen Bay on August 25, 2010. The Senate report recommends that the coast recruit Inuktitut speakers. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

When people in Nunavut are trying to speak with the Canadian Coast Guard communications office in Iqaluit, they have two choices: French or English.

Inuktitut is the mother tongue of most people in Nunavut, but it's not an option when speaking to the coast guard. 

For Sen. Marc Gold, deputy chair of the Senate's Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, that's a problem. "There's real communication challenges to make sure that when a boat or a hunter or trapper finds themselves in distress they can communicate effectively in their language and get the help that they need," he told CBC.

He was speaking on Thursday about a new report released by the committee, which included a slew of recommendations for how search and rescue can be improved in Canadian seas. Many of the recommendations focused on the North.

This is a question of life and death.- Jim Munson, Senator

Committee members called on the Canadian Coast Guard to recruit Inuktitut speaking employees; to have more search and rescue training for Indigenous communities in the North; to better fund volunteer auxiliaries;  and to increase the number of search and rescue stations in the Arctic.

The coast guard has one inshore rescue boat station in the Arctic, which is in Rankin Inlet.

Sen. Marc Gold, pictured in Kuujjuaq, says there are communication challenges because many people in Nunavut speak Inuktitut, but that's not an option when calling the coast guard. (Senate of Canada)

Disconnect between Ottawa and the North

At a press conference Thursday, committee members suggested that a disconnect between existing policies and the daily lives of Indigenous northerners can hamper safety.

For example, the report says that in Kuujjuaq, Que. members of the auxiliary aren't allowed to carry firearms in rescue boats. 

In the North, where wildlife poses a unique threat, the rule means volunteers must risk their lives to try to save others.

"We heard from witnesses that rescuers trying to save someone in distress in the northern part of [Quebec] have encountered a polar bear," said Sen. Jim Munson. "This is a question of life and death."

The coast guard did not immediately comment on its firearms policies for the auxiliary.

Inuvik auxiliary member Paul MacDonald told CBC in a Facebook message that other auxiliary units also face this issue, but that efforts to allow Arctic volunteers shotguns for "bear protection" were already underway.

"This is in the works only, as there will be many factors and protocols to consider," he said.

More infrastructure needed, senators say

The report also called on the Canadian government to boost radio coverage in the Arctic, so ships could better communicate, and allow civilian helicopter operators to provide search and rescue coverage in the North.

Paul MacDonald trains to operate a coast guard inflatable boat in rough weather. (Submitted by Paul MacDonald)

And it said the government should reinstate the National Arctic Search and Rescue Roundtable, which once met twice yearly and brought together volunteers, military, the coast guard, and others.

"For some reason we never fully could understand... it got disbanded," said Gold. "Search and rescue is a team sport." 

The coast guard did not immediately answer questions from CBC, but a spokesperson did send a statement, which said, "we look forward to the upcoming deliberations on the report's recommendations."